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The Oddment Emporium

A Cornucopia of Eclectic Delights

Posts tagged victorian:

Postman’s Park’s Humble Heroes

George Frederic Watts’s Memorial to Self Sacrifice, situated in Postman’s Park, London, contains plaques outlining the details of the heroic deaths of those who died during an attempt to save the life of another. In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s jubilee, Watts wrote a letter to The Times in which he argues that “the history of Her Majesty’s reign would gain a lustre were the nation to erect a monument, say, here in London, to record the names of these likely to be forgotten heroes”. Watts, an artist and sculptor, was a believer that art could be used as a force for social change and that these heroic individuals provided models of exemplary behaviour and character. There are currently 54 tiles included in the memorial, the last of which was added in 2007. More information is available via The Everyday Heroes of Postman’s Park app. [More | Alice Ayres]

Pteridomania
Sometime in the midst of the Victorian era the prim, priggish society was gripped by a craze, or obsession even, for … ferns. Everything from ornaments to gravestones from the mid to late 19th century bear the decorative motif of the fern plant. Victorians just bloody loved ferns.
The term pteridomania, meaning fern craze or fern madness, was coined by a Charles Kingsley in 1855 to describe those whose ‘daughters, perhaps, ha[d] been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’…and wrangl[ed] over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy) … and yet [it cannot be denied] that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossip, crochet and Berlin-wool.’
As an activity in which people from all social backgrounds could partake, fern collecting is believed to have helped form many unlikely friendships across the class spectrum - everyone could take part, from the serious scientist to amateurs who enjoyed collecting merely as a hobby. Fern plants would be pressed into albums, kept alive in wardian cases, painted, sculptured, used as stencils, and affixed to objects as decorations. As interesting as the everyday fern plant evidently was to the Victorians, odd-looking monstrosities, as they were called, such as the curled up Polystichum setiferum, were always of particular interest.
The sport was also potentially dangerous as people risked life and limb to get their hands on rare breeds. The body of William Williams, a botanical guide, was found at the foot of a cliff in Wales in 1861 after he attempted to collect Alpine Woodsia. The zealousness of the Victorians has also left a number of species in danger of extinction.
[Sources: Image: "Gathering Ferns" by Helen Allingham, from The Illustrated London News, July 1871 | Pteridomania]

Pteridomania

Sometime in the midst of the Victorian era the prim, priggish society was gripped by a craze, or obsession even, for … ferns. Everything from ornaments to gravestones from the mid to late 19th century bear the decorative motif of the fern plant. Victorians just bloody loved ferns.

The term pteridomania, meaning fern craze or fern madness, was coined by a Charles Kingsley in 1855 to describe those whose ‘daughters, perhaps, ha[d] been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’…and wrangl[ed] over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy) … and yet [it cannot be denied] that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossipcrochet and Berlin-wool.’

As an activity in which people from all social backgrounds could partake, fern collecting is believed to have helped form many unlikely friendships across the class spectrum - everyone could take part, from the serious scientist to amateurs who enjoyed collecting merely as a hobby. Fern plants would be pressed into albums, kept alive in wardian cases, painted, sculptured, used as stencils, and affixed to objects as decorations. As interesting as the everyday fern plant evidently was to the Victorians, odd-looking monstrosities, as they were called, such as the curled up Polystichum setiferum, were always of particular interest.

The sport was also potentially dangerous as people risked life and limb to get their hands on rare breeds. The body of William Williams, a botanical guide, was found at the foot of a cliff in Wales in 1861 after he attempted to collect Alpine Woodsia. The zealousness of the Victorians has also left a number of species in danger of extinction.

[Sources: Image: "Gathering Ferns" by Helen Allingham, from The Illustrated London News, July 1871 | Pteridomania]

The Red Flag Locomotive Act
The increasing popularity of the ‘horseless carriage’ in the late 19th century meant that in highly populated metropolises such as London, where there was genuine concern that these new-fangled contraptions would cause fatal injuries, there was a definite need for new rules and regulations. Between 1861 and 1898 a number of Locomotive Acts were put into place, but that of 1865 was undoubtedly the most bizarre. 
'The Red Flag Act', as The Locomotive Act 1865 became known, required that self-propelled vehicles, or automobiles, travel at no more than 4mph in the countryside and no more than 2mph in cities. Furthermore, such vehicles must have a 'crew' of three people - one of which had to walk 60 yards in front waving a red flag (or carrying a lantern) to warn people that the automobile was coming. 
So, basically, one could travel in an automobile so long as one travelled the precise speed one would travel by foot…
[Sources: Image | Locomotive Acts | Red Flag Traffic Laws]

The Red Flag Locomotive Act

The increasing popularity of the ‘horseless carriage’ in the late 19th century meant that in highly populated metropolises such as London, where there was genuine concern that these new-fangled contraptions would cause fatal injuries, there was a definite need for new rules and regulations. Between 1861 and 1898 a number of Locomotive Acts were put into place, but that of 1865 was undoubtedly the most bizarre. 

'The Red Flag Act', as The Locomotive Act 1865 became known, required that self-propelled vehicles, or automobiles, travel at no more than 4mph in the countryside and no more than 2mph in cities. Furthermore, such vehicles must have a 'crew' of three people - one of which had to walk 60 yards in front waving a red flag (or carrying a lantern) to warn people that the automobile was coming. 

So, basically, one could travel in an automobile so long as one travelled the precise speed one would travel by foot…

[Sources: Image | Locomotive Acts | Red Flag Traffic Laws]

Prince Leopold and Alice Liddell

What follows is one of my favourite titbits of history. Prince Leopold is my second favourite prince and I am very fond of Alice in Wonderland: 

Prince Leopold was the sickly youngest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He positively repulsed his mother but she was overbearing and possessive of him. Alice Liddell was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. What’s marvellous is, the two were good friends!

Leopold, eventually managing to escape the clutches of his mother, and Alice, her father the Dean of Christ Church College, met at Oxford in 1872. Like princes before and after him, Leopold was drawn to the warm family life the Liddell’s shared and they quickly became a part of his inner circle.

Some have speculated that there was some level of romantic involvement between the pair; whilst others insist Leopold’s interests actually lay with Alice’s younger sister Edith. When Edith died in 1876, Leopold was a pallbearer at her funeral. Documents in the Royal Archives, such as the Queen’s correspondence regarding Leopold, mention no names, but there seems to be no doubt that Leopold was in love with someone, and a number of the pair’s Oxford acquaintances alluded to a link between the prince and one of the Liddell girls.

Some accused Alice’s ambitious mother of orchestrating the relationship. Lewis Carroll himself, whose own relationship with the Liddell’s had long since deteriorated, wrote a satirical piece called The Vision of Three T’s in which he characterised Mrs. Liddell as a ‘King-fisher’, suggesting that she was ‘angling for a royal son-in-law’. Whatever the truth, it is highly unlikely that Queen Victoria would have ever consented to her son marrying a commoner anyway. As Charlotte Zeepvat, Leopold’s biographer suggests, the ‘disappointed romance between Alice Liddell and Leopold has become a part of Alice [in Wonderland] mythology’, and indeed Leopold is often mentioned in Alice reboots, such as The Looking Glass Wars trilogy.

In the spring of 1873, any notions of marriage quashed, Leopold went to Balmoral with his mother and from then on saw the Liddells with increasing infrequency. Later Leopold married Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont and they named their daughter Alice, whilst Liddell, having married cricketer Reginald Hargreaves, called her second son Leopold. Leopold the prince was his godfather.

[Sources: Prince Leopold: Queen Victoria’s Youngest Son by Charlotte Zeepvat | Prince Leopold | Alice Liddell]

Thief Caught in the Jaws of Death
In his new book The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton, Jeremy Clay showcases a collections of the strangest stories from Victorian newspapers, including this gem:

A burglar in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was recently caught in a remarkable manner. Breaking into a closed and unoccupied office of a physician of that town, the burglar opened a closet (while his companion with a dark lantern was in another part of the room), and, feeling for clothing at about the height of closet hooks generally, got his hands between the jaws of a skeleton, which being adjusted with a coil spring and kept open with a thread, closed suddenly on the intruding hand by the breaking of the thread.

A sudden thought striking the burglar, of his being caught by a skeleton in the doctor’s closet, so terrified him that he uttered a faint shriek, and when his companion turned the lantern toward him and he beheld himself in the grim and ghastly jaws of Death himself, he became so overpowered by fear that he fainted, fell insensible to the floor, pulling the skeleton down upon him, and making so much noise that his companion fled immediately, and the doctor, alarmed at the noise and confusion, hastened into the office and secured the terror-stricken burglar still held by the skeleton.

Other stories can be read here.

Thief Caught in the Jaws of Death

In his new book The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton, Jeremy Clay showcases a collections of the strangest stories from Victorian newspapers, including this gem:

A burglar in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was recently caught in a remarkable manner. Breaking into a closed and unoccupied office of a physician of that town, the burglar opened a closet (while his companion with a dark lantern was in another part of the room), and, feeling for clothing at about the height of closet hooks generally, got his hands between the jaws of a skeleton, which being adjusted with a coil spring and kept open with a thread, closed suddenly on the intruding hand by the breaking of the thread.

A sudden thought striking the burglar, of his being caught by a skeleton in the doctor’s closet, so terrified him that he uttered a faint shriek, and when his companion turned the lantern toward him and he beheld himself in the grim and ghastly jaws of Death himself, he became so overpowered by fear that he fainted, fell insensible to the floor, pulling the skeleton down upon him, and making so much noise that his companion fled immediately, and the doctor, alarmed at the noise and confusion, hastened into the office and secured the terror-stricken burglar still held by the skeleton.

Other stories can be read here.

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke
The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke is an example of a Fairy Painting, that is, a fantastical painting depicting fairies and other fairy tale creatures in extreme detail, painted by Richard Dadd between 1854 and 1866. At the time Dadd was a suspected schizophrenic and resident of Bethlem psychiatric hospital.
In response to rapid industrialisation and more widespread scientific thinking, which was disconcerting for some, Fairy Paintings were popular forms of escapism in Victorian England. The head steward at Bethlem was impressed by Dadd’s artistic talents and commissioned the above piece.
Over the nine years it took to complete the painting Dadd payed microscopic attention to detail and used a special layering technique to create a 3D effect. In an attempt to show that the characters within the painting were not random, Dadd also composed a poem called Elimination of a Picture & its Subject—called The Fellers’ Master Stroke, throughout which each figure is given a name and purpose.
[Sources: Fairy Paintings | The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke]

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke is an example of a Fairy Painting, that is, a fantastical painting depicting fairies and other fairy tale creatures in extreme detail, painted by Richard Dadd between 1854 and 1866. At the time Dadd was a suspected schizophrenic and resident of Bethlem psychiatric hospital.

In response to rapid industrialisation and more widespread scientific thinking, which was disconcerting for some, Fairy Paintings were popular forms of escapism in Victorian England. The head steward at Bethlem was impressed by Dadd’s artistic talents and commissioned the above piece.

Over the nine years it took to complete the painting Dadd payed microscopic attention to detail and used a special layering technique to create a 3D effect. In an attempt to show that the characters within the painting were not random, Dadd also composed a poem called Elimination of a Picture & its Subject—called The Fellers’ Master Stroke, throughout which each figure is given a name and purpose.

[Sources: Fairy Paintings | The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke]

Curls of Winston Churchill’s hair cut from his head when he was five years old. The locks are currently on display in The Birth Room at Churchill’s birthplace Blenheim Palace. 1879. [Source]

Curls of Winston Churchill’s hair cut from his head when he was five years old. The locks are currently on display in The Birth Room at Churchill’s birthplace Blenheim Palace. 1879. [Source]

The Dead Zoo

The Natural History Museum of Ireland, sometimes called The Dead Zoo, is a branch of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin which houses around 10,000 taxidermy specimens from around the world, some of which have since gone extinct.

Remaining largely unaltered since it opened in 1857, leading some to call it a ‘museum of a museum’, many of the specimens are faded and display the bullet holes that originally killed the animal. 

Unfortunately the upper floors were closed during my visit, and I understand they will remain closed while urgent repair work is undertaken, but there’s still plenty to keep one occupied on the ground floor.

The London Necropolis Railway Line

The London Necropolis Railway Line was a railway line which functioned to transport cadavers and mourners from London to the newly opened Brookwood Cemetery 23 miles away in Surrey. The railway was opened in response to overflowing inner-city cemeteries. Throughout the early 19th century London had been subject to vast industrialisation leading to economic boom and, in turn, increased population with which the city could not cope. For example, the cholera epidemic of the late 1840s, which claimed the lives of 15,000 citizens, led to bodies piling up in the streets as cemeteries became saturated.

When it opening in November 1854, the Necropolis line was given its own platform at Waterloo Station (bodies would be kept in tunnels under the station as they awaited transportation) and a timetabled service saw coffins being transported by night, and mourners by day. The train made two stops; one at an Anglican cemetery and one at a Non-conformist cemetery. The carriages were also divided into classes so that posh dead people wouldn’t have to mingle with poor dead people. 

The service was never as popular as had been thought; in its heyday it transported a mere 2300 people a year, as opposed to the 50,000 envisioned for it. It did hang on for almost a century though, “Until the 1940s it remained a weird London institution, a ghoulish Victorian hangover that resisted time, social change and falling demand” [source]. Then, in 1941, bombing by Hitler’s Luftwaffe destroyed the Waterloo terminus and the LNR shipped its last cadaver.

[Sources: Dark Roasted Blend | Wikipedia | Image 2 | Image 3]

An 1880s poster for General Mite and Millie Edwards, a pair of little people who were exhibited around the world as “The Royal American Midgets”, likely due their popularity with European monarchs.
As I’ve said before, I don’t find so-called “freaks” odd in the slightest, I do, however, find it odd that people would pay money to go and stare at them, especially when “people” are royalty. As the poster shows, for example, Queen Victoria was especially fond of these demeaning spectacles, as demonstrated by her inviting General Mite, and other little people, Lucia Zarate and Commodore Nutt, over to Buckingham Palace for her family to have a good old gawp at. According to Her Majesty’s journal, on February 26th 1881, after having breakfast, she:

saw in the corridor some wonderful little dwarfs, called midgets Gen: Mite, the boy, is American, perfectly well proportioned, like a doll, said to be 16, & weighing 6 lbs. He has quite a nice little face, & was dressed like a young gentleman. The girl, Signora Zarate, is a Mexican, weighing little over 4 lbs, perfectly hideous & semi-idiotic, very dark, & with a face like Aztecs. She was smartly dressed, with a train! They walked up & down a long table, arm in arm. Commodore Nutt, an American (very ugly) came at the same time. He is an ordinary dwarf. - The pond in the garden is frozen over.

The poster seems to depict a subsequent visit with Mite accompanied by Edwards. Lucia Zarate, “appeared by special command three times before Queen Victoria and the Royal Family”, whilst perhaps the most famous little person of the era, General Tom Thumb, appeared twice before the Queen and met a three year old Edward VII during a 1844 tour.
[Thanks to Sir Cecil for providing the inspiration for this]

An 1880s poster for General Mite and Millie Edwards, a pair of little people who were exhibited around the world as “The Royal American Midgets”, likely due their popularity with European monarchs.

As I’ve said before, I don’t find so-called “freaks” odd in the slightest, I do, however, find it odd that people would pay money to go and stare at them, especially when “people” are royalty. As the poster shows, for example, Queen Victoria was especially fond of these demeaning spectacles, as demonstrated by her inviting General Mite, and other little people, Lucia Zarate and Commodore Nutt, over to Buckingham Palace for her family to have a good old gawp at. According to Her Majesty’s journal, on February 26th 1881, after having breakfast, she:

saw in the corridor some wonderful little dwarfs, called midgets Gen: Mite, the boy, is American, perfectly well proportioned, like a doll, said to be 16, & weighing 6 lbs. He has quite a nice little face, & was dressed like a young gentleman. The girl, Signora Zarate, is a Mexican, weighing little over 4 lbs, perfectly hideous & semi-idiotic, very dark, & with a face like Aztecs. She was smartly dressed, with a train! They walked up & down a long table, arm in arm. Commodore Nutt, an American (very ugly) came at the same time. He is an ordinary dwarf. - The pond in the garden is frozen over.

The poster seems to depict a subsequent visit with Mite accompanied by Edwards. Lucia Zarate, “appeared by special command three times before Queen Victoria and the Royal Family”, whilst perhaps the most famous little person of the era, General Tom Thumb, appeared twice before the Queen and met a three year old Edward VII during a 1844 tour.

[Thanks to Sir Cecil for providing the inspiration for this]

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