The Danger of a Frost Fair Thaw

Frost FairChristmas History 37.  In the last Christmas History article we looked at the final ever frost fair on the River Thames, in February 1814.  But what happened when a frost fair came to an end because the river was starting the thaw?  Were the residents of London sensible enough to get off the ice in time?  The following article is from the Morning Chronicle, 4th February 1814.

Notwithstanding the heavy thaw of Tuesday night, an immense multitude continue to assemble between London and Blackfriars Bridges. Booths, hoisting the flags of all nations, and painted with Cherokee taste, every where gladdened the sight, while bands of Pandean minstrels, relieved by the dulcet strain of the tin trumpet from all sides, delighted the ear. In the centre of the river a narrow stream defied the power of the frozen region, and marked the path “where once the current ran.” This interruption, however, so far from impeding the gambols of the day, increased the sport, and added to the profit of the stewards of the scene. A few small planks in some cases, and an old boat or two in others, with the simple addition of Charon’s fare, kept the communication entire, and enlivened the pastime. In some parts of the stream, where the width of un-frozen water admitted it, boats completely bent for sail with their full equipment, attracted the heedless throng. In these were placed food for the hungry, and for the thirsty relief; gin and gingerbread, with other cordials, were here on sale at a moderate price- “Ubi mel, ibi apes.” The crowd poured towards this magnetic point with extraordinary avidity. Men, women, and children were often seen in one promiscuous heap. Although it is impossibie not to feel anxious to afford every opportunity of cheering, by playful pastime, the nipping severity of the season, yet we cannot disengage our mind from the hazardous consequences of such an exhibition as we are now noticing. Between the bridges the river is entirely covered not with a regular even frozen surface, but with an incongruous accumulation of icy fragments and congealed piled snow, which, during the partial thaw, was disengaged up the river and wafted downwards; this having been intercepted by the intervention of the bridges, and partially united by the frost of the last two or three days, has completely covered the surface of the water. It is yet extremely dangerous, and was in many places last night set in motion by the influx of the tide, and carried with extreme velocity against the piers of the bridges. Some watermen, more foolhardy than others, ventured to cross opposite Temple gardens, and one of them nearly lost his life by the experiment. The public ought carefully to prevent the young and thoughtless part of the community from indulging in experiments of this description, which may terminate in the most fatal manner.

“Ubi mel, ibi apes” is a Latin phrase meaning “where there is honey, there are bees”.

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The Last Frost Fair

Frost FairChristmas History 36.  Between the 15th and 19th Centuries the River Thames in London froze over more than 20 times, often leading to celebrations on the ice known as “frost fairs”.  The last time this ever happened was the year 1814.  Strictly speaking this is of course nothing to do with Christmas.  The frost fair of 1814 started on 1st February and continued for a few days.  But I think it is a subject that will be enjoyed at this time of year, so let’s look at some newspaper articles from the time.  The first is from Saunders News-Letter, from 1st February 1814:

It was last week publicly proclaimed by the bell-man of Hammersmith that there would be held fair on the Thames, between that place and Kew Bridge, the whole being deeply frozen across. There is to be dancing and various other amusements, and a sheep will be roasted whole upon the ice, which it to be cut up and distributed among the poor of the neighbourhood. Numerous gangs of labourers have been employed on all the great roads, to remove the depths of snow, so that a general communication with the capital may be hourly looked for, if there be no farther fall of snow.

The next day, the following article appeared in the Morning Post:

The river Thames was completely frozen over yesterday. Opposite to Queenhithe, booths of various descriptions were erected, for the vending of spirits, porter, ale, &c. No less than 2,000 persons were on the ice at one time. Many persons, by imprudently venturing too far, were immersed in the water, by the ice giving way. We learn, however, that no person was actually drowned, although, it is said, two coopers were all but.

A similar news report appeared in the Worcester Journal, on 3rd February:

The river Thames has presented today more novel sight than it has done for many years before. The whole of the river opposite to Queenhithe was completely frozen over, and in some parts the ice was several feet thick, and in others so thin that it was extremely dangerous to venture to stand on it. Notwithstanding, crowds of foot passengers crossed backward and forward throughout the whole of the day. Several booths were erected on the ice, for the carrying on of trade, but the publicans and spirit dealers were more in receipt of custom. We have not heard of any lives having been lost, but many of the adventurers near Blackfriars Bridge were immersed the water by the ice giving way. Two coopers were with difficulty saved.

There were obviously dangers associated with a frost fair, but what happened when the thaw began?  Were people sensible enough to get off the ice in time?  We will find out next week.

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How to Celebrate Christmas, 1818

cardChristmas History 35. How was Christmas celebrated, 200 years ago?  1818 was a simpler time, but in many ways the spirit of Christmas was much the same: the importance of good company, good cheer, and thinking of others.  The following article is from the Dublin Evening Post, 26th December 1818:

The following may be briefly recapitulated as the materials for the keeping of Christmas.

1. An absence of false religion, that is to say, of cruel opinions of God, and uncharitable opinions of each other.

2. A spirit that does not shrink at earning its enjoyments indoors by exercise in the cold without.

3. Holly or other evergreens to stick about our rooms, and remind of the never-dying beauties of nature.

4. Plenty for all the house; and if possible, for some poor neighbours.

5. A good blazing fire.

6. Chestnuts to crack in it, mince pies, plum padding, snap dragon, etc.

7. The Wassail Bowl, (the indispensable Christmas cup), a composition of spiced wine or ale, occasionally mixed with eggs, and always swimming with roasted apples, which were called Lamb’s Wool. This, with cake or bread, will alone constitute a Christmas repast.

8. Instrumental or vocal music, or dancing, or both, or all.

9. A short game of cards out of charity, if some of the company cannot do without it: lf possible, a round one, to keep up the glee of the younger sort; if not, a sharp pointed one to produce the requisite pungency of the older. Only, during the season, your regular whist-players really must not frown annihilation at any unhappy merry-soul, who takes a King for a Knave.

10. A raising the servants to as great a level of enjoyment with their masters and mistresses as possible, agreably, not only to the first known origin of this festival, which was the Saturnilia. but to reason humanity, and true delicacy, at all times.

11. A kiss (Good God! what will Tomkins say!) – a kiss under the misseltoe, by any one who has taken a walk to get it, provided be worthy, to whomsoever offers it, provided she does not refuse from a consciousness of being otherwise.

12. Such other pastimes as the oldest remember, the sprightliest approve, and the dullest do not think absolutely degrading.

“What would Tomkins say!” is a bit of a mystery, but my best guess is that it refers to the book Memoirs of the Life of Mr. Josiah Tomkins.  Here’s a relevant snippet:

One day, when there was no body in the house but her and me, I took occasion to extol her beauty and voice, expressed my regard for her in an affectionate moving manner; and hinted, I could not be happy, unless I met with a return of affection.  I then took her in my arms, and kissed her…

“Sure, though I were to comply with your lewd desires, (nay, kiss me not), could a little transitory pleasure atone for the loss of honour, the ruin of my soul, and the disgrace and misery which such an adventure would entail on me? No; Sir, I hope I shall be enabled to preserve myself for some worthy man, whom Providence shall be plased to appoint for my husband…

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Christmas in the Workhouse

Christmas_Day_in_the_WorkhouseChristmas History 34.  The plan for this year’s Christmas History series of articles was to look exclusively at the Christmas of 150 years ago, the year 1868.  Unfortunately it turns out that 1868 was a year for unseasonable weather, so most of the newspaper articles are devoted to complaining about that.  Next time we will try our luck with a different year instead, but first let’s see how the poor were treated at Christmas, a century and a half ago.  The following article is from the Birmingham Journal, 26th December 1868.

Christmas Day at the Workhouse.—The inmates of the Workhouse of our town were regaled yesterday with the usual Christmas fare of roast beef, plum pudding, and ale. The corridors and different apartments throughout the Workhouse, which were tastefully decorated with evergreens and artificial flowers, had a very pleasing appearance. The inmates seemed thoroughly to enjoy their fare and the amusements provided for them. In addition to the drum and fife band belonging to the house, a quadrille band was in attendance, and did good service during the afternoon and evening. Messrs. Baker, Biddle, Taylor, Thompson, Davis, Thomason, Wood, Boraston, Eagle, Lord, Bloor, Cox, Patching, Mitton, Jackson, Woodman, Benton, Price, Carter, Hemming, Hull, Pollock, Bridge, Southall, all members of the Board of Guardians, with their families, visited the Workhouse, as did Mr.Corder, Clerk to the Guardians, Mrs. Corder, and friends, and a large number of the general public. Mr. Southall distributed aquantity of grapes to the patients the infirmaries, and Mr. Woodmen gave oranges to the bedridden women. A large number of toys were given to the children the infant school by Messrs. Benton and Carter; the latter gentleman also gave large india-rubber balls to the girls’ and boys’ schools. On Christmas Eve, all the children of the Workhouse and Cape were delighted with a magic-lantern entertainment given by Mr. Shorthouse, who was introduced by Mr. Wilson Sturge. The Messrs. Baker also very generously gave to each child-over two years of age two bright new penny pieces direct from the Mint. The children to whom this present was made numbered about 700. It may interest some of our readers to know that close upon a ton weight beef was cooked for dinner.


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I’m Dreaming of a Muddy Christmas

christmashatChristmas History 33.  This year I thought it might be interesting to find articles about Christmas from newspapers 150 years ago.  That takes us back to the year 1868.  Victoria was on the throne and, as of 3rd December William Gladstone was Prime Minister.  It was the year that The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins was published.  On 10th December the world’s first traffic lights were installed in London.  Earlier in the year, that great city had witnessed the last public hanging in Britain.  1868 was also the year that helium was first discovered, making future balloon sellers everywhere very happy.

So that was the idea: Christmas 150 years ago.  Unfortunately it turns out that 1868 was a year for unseasonable weather:

London, Christmas-day. In place of bright, bracing Christmas weather, we have mild, muggy days and nights, with rain that raineth everyday, and mud galore. It is anything but the traditional Christmas, which makes clear, blazing fires and warm rooms acceptable and gives an additional edge to every appetite. No doubt geese and turkeys will disappear readily enough on countless dinner tables to-day; but the frost and snow, which made the holly glisten and made a comfortable fireside twice as comfortable, are not with us. Setting aside this sentimental feeling in favour of an old fashioned Christmas, perhaps it is very good thing that we are not “snowed up,” and that King Frost has never had a chance of reigning this winter. “Blessed is he that considereth the poor;” and if we consider the poor, we shall certainly not in their interest wish them a cold Christmas.

That quote is taken from Sheffield Daily Telegraph, on Saturday 26th December 1868.  On the same day the Western Times ran with the following article, recognising the silver lining to a mild Christmas:

Christmas Eve, Good Constant Reader, is a hallowed time, and we greet thee with the compliments that attend it in the sincerity of a spirit that hath ever enjoyed its festivities. To thee and thine A MERRY CHRISTMAS! If we have Christmas compliments flying about us we have not Christmas weather abroad. The air is mild, the sun shining with the fitfulness and the temperature of an April day, and we pass the morning at work without the necessity of a fire fact which we put on record as evidence to support the new doctrine of the change of climate in Merry England. Instead of frost and snow, the sharp bracing weather that used to send the youngsters to the ice for exercise, and the old to the chimney corner for warmth—we have now mild, open, Spring-like weather. The husbandman can pursue his labour in the field and the builder his work in the open air. Bating heavy showers of occasional rain there is nothing in the temperature to stop out-door work, and there are no “frozen out gardeners” to make the welkin ring with their wailings—no labourers parading the town with their wail for work to do. Our Soup Kitchen hath not been appealed to for the aid which it is established to render to the suffering poor— nor is there a word of season as to the “wants” with which we are accustomed to associate the advent of Christmas. There is no pressure of customary “want” to stimulate the charitable, and for the nonce we are likely to have the Christmas season open, genial, and kindly to the poor. But if there be no call for “charity” so much the better for the exercise of neighbourly kindnesses. The poor are always poor and Christmas bounty is always acceptable. Better is it to have it dispensed at a time when it is all bounty than to feel that what is given is but mere fender against pressing necessity and pinching want. Whatever thou now doest in the way of “seasonable benevolence,” Good Constant, is a real addition to the usual means of the industrious poor —and so much the better is it for both parties—the receiver hath the more joy in the greater enjoyment, and the giver the double blessing in feeling that he is aided in his spirit in the milder seasons vouchsafed to us all by a Beneficent Providence. It will take the poets some years before they realise the fact that “Christmas weather” is not now to be expected at Christmas time.

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Acid Drops, Lemon Drops, Don’t Drops

patentSnippets 175.  In a previous snippet we looked at a quote from the November 1903 issue of The Talking Machine News, a monthly magazine for “users and makers of talking machines”; in other words, phonographs, or what we would now term “record players”.  The following quote is from the December 1903 issue.

The fragility of the ordinary lead-soap record would, one would think, form a serious drawback to its exportation. Even warning notices on the packages are sometimes thrown away, as a passage in a consular report shows. Noticing a case marked “Don’t Drop” being roughly handled on the quay, the consul pointed out that the contents were fragile. “Don’t Drop,” said one of the men; “Ah, yes, we frequently get acid or lemon drops, but I don’t know what kind of drops ‘don’t drops’ would be.” If this story came from any other source it might be suspected, but a consul, like Caesar’s wife, is above suspicion. And really, if you come to think of the illiteracy at home, let alone abroad, there is nothing improbable about it. There can be no question that a good plan in packing fragile goods for exportation, is to stencil “a counterfeit presentment” of the thing exported outside the case. But though that serves very well where champagne or wine glasses are concerned, would it be equally effectual in the case of records? Possibly not. A Kanaka dock labourer would probably not know a record “at sight.” In that case, the safest way out is probably to cultivate the trade in indestructible records, at any rate for export.

Since its invention in 1877 by Thomas Edison, the phonograph had become popular amongst those who could afford the machines, and sales were increasing all the time.  But when a new technology becomes popular, an older technology can be the casualty of that success.  There has been much talk in recent years of tablet and computer use harming book sales, downloads harming DVD sales, etc.  So was there a casualty of the increasing sales of phonographs at the beginning of the 20th Century?  You won’t guess it. Read on.

A contemporary suggests that the talking machine has injured the sale of the miniature billiard table. It may be so; but we always regarded these lilliputian tables as a plaything rather than as a pastime for grownup folk. At any rate, there can be no comparison between billiards “as she is played” in miniature, and billiards proper. Nor, we would add, do we think that any comparison can be instituted between toy billiards —as we prefer to call it—and the entertainment afforded by even a tolerably decent type of talking machine. Those irritating little balls, so out of proportion to the size of the cues, and that irritatingly low cushion over which the balls will persist in jumping! However, every one to his or her taste—as the old woman said when she kissed the cow.

By the way, such alleged interferences are common enough. We remember when the bicycle came in it was said that it had seriously injured the sale of walking sticks—and tobacco. We do not know whether there are any statistics available as to the sale of walking sticks, but at least we never heard, and do not believe, that the imports of tobacco leaf for the purpose of manufacture fell off when the bicycle was introduced. As a matter of fact, we believe the imports have steadily increased year by year any time these last twenty years. Now, neither walking sticks, bicycles, nor tobacco are “in our way.”

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Travels on the Continent and in England (Part 4)

Westminster Abbey, by Thomas H Shepherd.

Journals 14.4.  This is the conclusion of my article about Travels on the Continent and in England, by August Hermann Niemeyer, which details the German writer’s 1819 visit to the country he had always wanted to experience: England. One aspect I have found that is common to all such journals is a description of what we would now call the tourist sites, and they tend to be fairly repetitive from one writer to another, so I will just pick out a couple of examples. The first is Westminster Abbey:

I have however not been able to suppress the wish, which has been expressed by so many travellers, that, in a country of the greatest cleanliness and elegance, a place which is so much visited, might be kept cleaner, and secured from dust and cobwebs; and I have just as little been able to withhold my opinion that the dressed wax figures of the Queens Elizabeth, Mary, Ann, as well as of William Pitt, Chatham, and Nelson, which stand here in niches in some of the chapels, would be far more appropriately placed in any collection of curiosities, or in the British Museum.

The wax figures Niemeyer refers to were funeral effigies, a practice that goes back to the Fourteenth Century. Originally for a royal funeral, the king or queen’s embalmed body was carried in procession on an open bier, but from the time of Edward II onwards the body was laid in a coffin and an effigy was used instead. The earliest examples were wooden, but later wax was used to achieve a realistic likeness of the royal visage. Queen Elizabeth’s which Niemeyer mentions, is a resoration made in 1760. The original disintegrated in the years following her death.

The next quote concerns Carlton House, where Niemeyer found treasures taken from the British Empire:

Above all, as might easily be expected, what has been brought from the East Indies, that is to say, much of the incalculable treasures which became a booty of the English, in the year 1792 after the taking of Scringapatam where Tippoo Saib lost both his life and empire, hold a distinguished place. The Chair of the Golden Throne of the last King of Candy, Rajah Sindah, forms a large sun with innumerable rays broken by jewels of a very rare size. His throne is shewn as the most modern monument of British conquests in India.

When I see myself surrounded here by all these trophies, which a spiritual, far more than a physical superiority, but still more an unbounded lust of possession and control, than any just pretension, has here collected, how is it possible not to be induced to ask what gave Europeans, or, to speak more accurately, what gave a trading company the right of overturning kingdoms in a foreign part of the world; and subjecting nations to their sway, who certainly would never have thought of disturbing the tranquillity of a distant insular empire?

Niemeyer visited a wide variety of notable buildings, including schools, religious institutions and universities. At those moments he was generally among the privileged classes, particularly when visiting the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, but he did not shut his eyes to the other side of English society at the time.

Indeed, when we walk around the principal environs of London; when, on Sundays particularly, we see ourselves surrounded with such a number of people, in whose countenances and deportment, health, ease, spiritual cultivation, honesty, security in feeling of liberty, nobility of mind and contentment, are so visibly imprinted, scarcely can we be induced to believe that, in the circumference of the very same town, a countless number of the most despicable human beings, a depraved class of people, are to be met with, in whom even the last traces of all sense of morality are extinguished. But at the same time we cannot suppress a deep feeling of compassion, in observing how many of them, without it being their own fault, appear to have been devoted to crime from their birth, ere they could sink so deeply.

Niemeyer was able to enjoy several theatrical performances during his time in England, mainly of Shakespeare plays. “Enjoy” might not be quite the right word though.

Still, however, I could not participate in that unconditional admiration of the English theatre, with which I found many a German, who was not unacquainted with the merits of our performers, penetrated. The plain dialogue or monologue often approached a lesson learnt by heart, and appeared recited in measured time. In expression of passion, they at least far exceeded the limits which we consider the extreme points to which an actor can go; and the conclusion was frequently made with those favourite shrieks or piercing cries, which were always rewarded with a clamorous applause. Even the prejudicial sarcasms of Richard III. often excited, particularly upon Kean’s withdrawing himself, after the fashionable manner, rather laughter than disgust.

Niemeyer spent a total of two months in England, packing in a wealth of experiences during that time. An experience that he did not particularly welcome was the return journey, as the sea crossing took a full week. His book ends with a selection of quotes from his journal, detailing his return journey, some of which I include here as examples of his wistful, melancholy, and at times nauseous final days of travel:

Harwich, 27th July, 1819.— The tumult of the metropolis is silenced. We have been borne, as it were, upon wings, fifteen German miles in a rather dark night. I am now once more upon the coast of that country which, a short time ago, lay before me enveloped in a mist, and which now floats before my eyes like a magnificent and brilliant picture. For a long time to come, I shall have no occasion to sigh for fresh impressions, and may the more tranquilly reflect upon all that I have seen and heard. If we should be enabled, upon our landing upon the shores of another world, after our last journey in this, to carry with us as lively recollections of all that the earth has afforded us, we shall there too scarce stand in need of new matter to occupy our minds; and when our curiosity has been satisfied, gratitude and admiration will continue to warm our hearts, and to strengthen our memory…

Before I took leave of my room, I cast another glance upon the noble Thames, and the incessant bustle which prevails upon it. My amiable hostess appeared unwilling to let me leave her. Her daughter entreated me to play another German air upon her piano, the execution of which appeared to afford her great pleasure…

July 30. Almost every body is sea-sick. No one feels a desire of entering into conversation. The hours, which lately passed as minutes, we wish we could accelerate with wings. They creep on so slowly, that we are frightened when we look at the watch, and hold it to our ears, in doubt whether it may not have stopped. Sleep appears to be the only friend of those that are well; it deserts the sick like a false friend.

After a storm at sea, Niemeyer finally arrived back on land on 3rd August. He was 64 years old at the time of his visit to England. He died 9 years later, in 1828, after a long and distinguished academic career.

Westminster Abbey, by Thomas H Shepherd.

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