Sunday, September 29, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, September 29, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

On the EHFA round up this week, Lauren Gilbert tells us about three of her favorite diaries and sketchbooks that give us glimpses into the daily lives of the women who wrote them.

by Lauren Gilbert

Friday, September 27, 2019

Women’s Lives Recorded in Diaries and Sketchbooks

By Lauren Gilbert

Diaries and sketchbooks fascinate me, especially those of women. Many of my favourites happen to have been drawn or written by English women in earlier times. The ability to depict one’s daily life in a way that is clear and entertaining to a third party, whether in art or in writing, is a real talent. (My own efforts tend to read more like the essay read in Cheech and Chong’s “Sister Mary Elephant”.) One cannot always assume that a diary written by a woman, especially a young, unmarried woman living with her parents or guardian, expressed her true feeling or opinions as her diary may not have been private. However, the details of one’s daily activities and the people with whom time was spent can give the viewer an idea of how life was lived on an intimate level. I’d like to introduce three of my personal favourites.

MRS HURST DANCING & Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823 is a collection of sketches made by a young woman named Diana Sperling living with her family at Dynes Hall in Essex. She was the daughter of John Sperling and his wife Harriet Rochfort. The Sperling family was well-to-do, having made money in the fur trade, but were gentry by Diana’s time. She had two sisters, Isabella and Harriet, and two brothers, Henry John and Charles Robert, as well as a half-brother named John Thomas Kilpatrick (from Harriet Rochfort’s previous marriage). Born in 1791, during the period covered, Diana was between the ages of about 21 to 32. She filled multiple sketchbooks. (MRS HURST DANCING contains 70 of her paintings.)

Diana painted and drew informal and frequently humorous pictures of her family and friends, including her sister Isabella falling from a donkey, her mother swatting flies, and her brother Harry falling into a stream. A military review, country walks, dealing with a stubborn donkey are all captured, along with a spirited game of battledore and shuttlecock and the family at dinner. Fresh, lively and very personal, these paintings show the artist, her family and friends engaged in the normal activities about which one reads in the novels and letters of Jane Austen, providing a visual frame of reference. She had a third sketchbook for 1823-1833 which is not represented here. Diana married in 1834 at the age of 43 to Fred Luard Wollaston, and survived to the age of about 70. She died in 1862. Unfortunately, it appears that she stopped painting upon her marriage.

I recently received MAUD: The Illustrated Diary of a Victorian Woman, and find it fascinating. 

Caroline Maud Tomlinson was born in 1859 to William Tomlinson, a school master already 50 years old and his wife, possibly named Anne. She had several siblings who were much older, to whom she was not close, and a younger brother Hugh. Maud was 14 years old when Mr. Tomlinson retired, and 23 years old when they moved to the Isle of Wight. 

Flora Fraser adapted Maud’s diaries for the period 1888 (when Maud was 29 years old) to 1901. Her entries, which include sketches at water colours, address her family, friends, and her marriage in 1892 at age 33 to Colonel James Cavan Berkeley, an older widower with three daughters not much younger than his new bride. Interestingly, Maud had her first child after her husband’s daughters had left their home for their own lives. Maud’s diary entries continue into 1901, at which point she had had her third child, and announced that her diary keeping days were over as she would commence compiling albums for each of her children. It is no coincidence, I think, that this last entry cited includes a photograph of her children. Maud died in 1949, aged almost ninety. She lived through an era of great change, and her diary records her activities with her friends, her marriage, her stepdaughters, and all of the normal life events with great detail, including drawings of fashion, household duties, and her pets. She had an eye for detail and a great deal of humour which shows through her writing as well as her illustrations.

Another favourite of mine is THE COUNTRY DIARY OF AN EDWARDIAN LADY. This is different to the other two volumes, as it is more than a work of art, yet not primarily a diary of activities. Edith Blackwell Holden focused the 1906 journal on nature, not her daily routine (although there are hints here and there).

Thanks to the publication of this book in 1977, followed by a biography of Edith, we know a great deal more about Edith than we do about Diana or Maud. Edith was born September 26, 1871 in Kings Norton, Birmingham, England. Her mother was the former Emma Wearing, who had been a governess, and was the author of two religious books. Her father, Arthur Holden was a successful business man (Arthur Holden & Sons Paint Factory), a town councillor and philanthropist. They were Unitarians and spiritualists. A cousin was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician; Edith’s middle name was selected to honour Dr. Blackwell. One of seven children (she had four sisters and two brothers), Edith and her sisters were taught at home by their mother. At age 13, Edith was sent to the Birmingham School of Art, where she did extremely well. Two younger sisters followed her there. At age 19, one of Edith’s paintings was accepted by the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists for the Artists’ Exhibition. At the age of 20, in August of 1891, at the suggestion of her tutors at school, Edith became a residential student with Denovan Adam, an established artist, for a year, an unusual step for a young woman. Her work was exhibited several times between 1890-1907 at the Birmingham Society of Artists. She also had a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1907.

Edith taught art at the Solihull School for Girls from1906-1909. She created NATURE NOTES FOR 1906 as an example to assist her students. Organised by month, each month’s section contained beautiful and detailed illustrations of some combination of flowers, plants, birds, animals, reptiles and insects, which were identified, poems and mottos, and diary entries. She went on to work as a professional illustrator from 1907 on. Her illustrations were found in 4 volumes of the magazine “The Animal’s Friend” and children’s books, including BIRDS, BEASTS AND FISHES, THE THREE GOATS GRUFF and MRS. STRANG’S ANNUAL FOR CHILDREN.

In 1909, she gave up teaching and moved to London. Edith married Ernest Smith, a talented sculptor in 1911 (she was 40 and he was 30 years old). They lived in Chelsea, and she continued her work as an illustrator. Another of her paintings was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1917.

Edith drowned in the River Thames near the Kew Gardens Walk on March 16, 1920, at the age of 48. Her death was determined to be an accident. She had no children. NATURE NOTES FOR 1906 stayed in her husband’s family, finally inherited by a great-niece Rowena Stott, who arranged for publication in 1977. It became a best seller. Edith’s biography THE EDWARDIAN LADY: The Story of Edith Holden compiled by Ina Taylor was published in 1980. Much to everyone’s surprised, an unknown document, NATURE NOTES OF 1905 was found in Hampshire, in the possession of people unrelated to the family. The authorship was confirmed, and this was published in 1989 as THE NATURE NOTES OF AN EDWARDIAN LADY. It was also a best seller.

These three women, in their own individual ways, illustrated their lives. Through their art and, in the cases of Maud and Edith, their words, we can see something of what they experienced. Their works are not only delightful to study; they give us valuable insight on the lives of women in their respective times. I highly recommend all of these works, as they give glimpses of normal lives and different perspectives to time periods we may only know from history.


Fraser, Flora. MAUD: The Illustrated Diary of a Victorian Woman. 1987: Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

Holden, Edith. THE COUNTRY DIARY OF AN EDWARDIAN LADY. 1977: Webb & Bower Ltd, Exeter, England.

Sperling, Diana (watercolours) and Mingay, Gordon (text). Pictures (c) Neville Ollerenshaw. MRS. HURST DANCING & Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823. 1981: Photoset by Rowland Phototypesetting Ltd, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England. Green, T. George, H. INDEX TO THE MARRIAGE BONDS OF THE DIOCESE OF CLOYNE, IRELAND For the Years for the Years from 1630 to 1800, p. 88. 1899-1900: Guy & Co. Ltd, Cork. HERE “Diana Sperling, Artist.” (No author or post date shown.) HERE “Edith’s Biography.” (No author or post date shown.) HERE “Holden, Edith B. (1871-1920)” From WOMEN IN HISTORY: A Biographical Encyclopedia, (c) 2002: Gale Research Inc. HERE “Berkley, James Cavan 1839-1926” Catalogue Description. HERE


An avid reader, Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life. Lauren has a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. A long time member of JASNA, she has presented various programs at meetings of the South Florida region, and presented a breakout session at the Annual General Meeting in 2011. She lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is available. A second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is finally due out later this year. A long-time contributor to this blog, some of her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also researching material for a biography. For more information, visit her website here.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, September 22, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Contributors to English Historical Fiction Authors bring us posts that delve into various aspects of British history. Enjoy these fascinating stories, and never miss a post on EFHA when you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or via email.

by Annie Whitehead

by Dean Hamilton

by Judith M Taylor

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Hooker Family of Kew

By Judith M Taylor

We take it for granted that the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew are a permanent institution, part of the fabric of Britain at its best, a place of pilgrimage. Had you been an observant Londoner in 1830 that was not what you would have thought. The brilliant and forceful Joseph Banks , born in 1743, died in 1820 at the age of 77, having built the place into a treasure house.

Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society,
Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew

After his death the gardens floundered for lack of leadership. Banks’ energy and drive kept everything going but once he had died no one was sufficiently interested to prevent it all from falling apart.

Everything Banks had done was for the greater glory of king and country. He sent plant collectors all over the world to bring back rare and exotic plants, both ornamental and edible, often paying their expenses out of his own pocket.  As a young man he had sailed to the Antipodes with Captain Cook on HMS Endeavour and brought back some of the first Australian plants himself. Why do you think Australia’s seaboard has a Botany Bay? Ever heard of a Banksia rose, named for his wife?

Without him the royal botanic garden deteriorated into a series of allotments to grow vegetables for the royal table. The government had taken it over and the staff of the Department of Works resented the annual expense for a few potatoes and cabbages. They considered the place to be a nuisance and slated it for closure. Its last minute rescue from the knacker’s yard as it were and its development into a scientific institution of the first order is the reason to celebrate the Hookers’ contributions. If an organization is merely the shadow of its leader, Banks’s shadow was long enough but then came two more, even longer.

Sir William Jackson Hooker

Sir William Hooker and his son Sir Joseph Hooker ran the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for a total of forty four years between them, starting in 1841 and continuing until 1885, a strict but benign dynasty. Then as if to top it off, Sir Joseph’s son in law, William Thistleton-Dyer, took over after he died. Thistleton-Dyer was the first person to allow women to work as gardeners at Kew, even if only very grudgingly. They had to wear long dark brown woolen skirts and must have been extremely uncomfortable in the warm weather.

Great, or even merely able and competent men, seem to have two different types of effect on their sons. In one case the son calmly emulates the father’s accomplishments and may even possibly outdo him.  In the other the son suffers atrociously from the realization that there is no way he can ever please his father yet alone match what he has done.

This phenomenon was clearly on view in the same circumscribed horticultural world inhabited both by the Hooker family on one hand and the Paxton family on the other. Sir Joseph’s son George Paxton was a very sad figure. As men have been in charge for most of history there are fewer examples of women being matched by their daughters. Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst come to mind. An odd note on this theme is that of a daughter outdoing her father, such as Elizabeth 1 and Henry VIII.

William Hooker realized how significant the gardens at Kew could be with even the pathetic remnants of Banks’ collections. Once he took office he expanded the gardens from ten acres to over seventy five acres. His son Joseph later added even more space. Both men recognized Kew’s role in finding and cultivating new economic crops as well as beautiful ornamental flowers. Quinine and tea are just two of the commodities involved. William set up two way interaction with the British Empire’s botanical gardens, supplying scholarly and technical skill to support the remote centres in return for exciting specimens.

The modest palace at Kew in Richmond had originally been renovated for Frederick,  Prince of Wales, and his wife, Princess Augusta of Saxe- Coburg-Gotha early in the 18th century. Frederick died before he could become king.  Augusta spoke no English but she was very interested in gardening. After being widowed she remained at Kew with her nine children, employing James Stuart, the Earl of Bute, as her manager.  Bute was noted for his skill and competence. The gardens at Kew were a model. In 1987 Diana, Princess of Wales. opened the Princess of Wales Conservatory partly to maintain Augusta’s collection of plants.

Princess Augusta, daughter in law of George I

In due course Frederick’s younger brother George became king and then in his turn, his son George III inherited the crown. The gardens remained a purely royal prerogative and thus safe. They had not yet become a political football.

Sir Joseph Banks advised George III informally about Kew for many years but in 1797 he was appointed to be the director. The appointment of Banks, a man of great intellect, drive, and patriotism, was a stroke of genius. After returning with Captain Cook in 1771 he rapidly showed he was a serious scientist. He was elected president of the Royal Society and remained in that office for forty one years.  He devoted his life to serving his king and the botanical garden was his chief way of showing it.

The day to day work of managing the gardens was done by the Aiton family, again a father and son team. The son, William Townsend Aiton, 1766 – 1849, prepared the first ever catalogue of all the plants in the gardens, an important contribution: Hortus Kewensis. He left Kew when William Hooker was appointed.

William Hooker, 1785 – 1865, was born in Norwich but is always associated with Glasgow in the public mind. His own father was a scholar of independent means and dabbled in botany. William rapidly became expert in botany after leaving Norwich School, having briefly tried entomology and ornithology. Through Sir Joseph Smith, a leading botanist of the time, he came to Banks’s attention and took his advice of visiting Iceland to collect as yet unknown plants.

Coming back to live in Suffolk, Hooker devoted himself seriously to taxonomy and writing, building his reputation so that he was invited to become Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow in 1820. His skillful piloting of the department and construction of useful new buildings made him a clear leader for the post at Kew.

We have to skip over the political shenanigans surrounding Kew, with Paxton and Loudon being retained by the Department of Public works to examine the relic and presenting a carefully reasoned, unvarnished report about the condition of the royal gardens there and whether it was worth keeping them.

All the thoughtful scientists of the time believed that Britain needed a central botanical garden as a reference institution just as there were in other major European cities. More than one senior botanist believed he was the best candidate to take charge but Hooker emerged as the strongest. The only thing that concerned him was the pay. He had a growing family and had exhausted his patrimony by some injudicious decisions. Even having a banker as father in law was not quite enough.

Hooker’s second son, later Sir Joseph Hooker, 1817 - 1911, had a prodigious career. He too was a paterfamilias, leaving nine children, seven by his first wife and two by his second. Both women were extremely accomplished. Frances Henslow, daughter of Darwin’s mentor, John Henslow, translated books for him from the French. His second wife, the former Lady Hyacinth Jardine, was elected to the Royal Society, an honour reserved for great scientific achievement. The third generation did not reach the same levels. His connection through Henslow brought him close to Charles Darwin. The men were friends for the rest of their lives.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker

Joseph Hooker was graduated from Glasgow University in 1839 with a degree in medicine. That enabled him to join the Naval Medical Service and he sailed south with Captain John Clark Ross on a voyage to the magnetic South Pole. Hooker was instructed to collect zoological and geological specimens across the tip of the Southern Hemisphere but also carefully examined the flora. He published the definitive volumes, “Voyage to the Antarctic”, over the next several years.

This was just by way of warming up. In 1847 he left Britain for the Himalayas, eventually spending three years in Sikkim, Bhutan, Assam and northern India itself. The most outstanding parts of his collections were the rhododendrons, never seen in the West before.  He made several other important trips and in 1865 was sufficiently renowned to be selected to take over Kew from his father who had reached retirement age.

Every one of his expeditions was recorded in exquisite detail and some were illustrated by Walter Fitch, a botanical artist trained by Joseph’s father. Joseph received a knighthood for his own achievements, not just as the son of his father.

Palm house at Kew Gardens with parterres 

It was not all smooth sailing. In 1853 Sir Richard Owen, essentially the first scientific paleontologist, objected to the way the Hookers were building Kew up. Owen supervised the herbarium at the British Museum and felt his status distinctly threatened by the rise of the herbarium at Kew. For the uninitiated, the herbarium is the core of any botanical enterprise with every plant carefully dried, identified, named and annotated for future reference. It is the gold standard of all botanical work. Whenever someone brings back specimens from an expedition they can be compared with what is already known and thus unequivocally recognized as new or not.

Owen was very well connected politically and made a huge fuss. Even a man as stalwart and immune to minor irritants as Joseph Hooker was seriously disturbed. He finally prevailed but only after some dreadful periods of distress and anxiety.

The work of father and son catapulted the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to world wide prominence. They remain at that pinnacle to this day. Both men are buried in the village cemetery of Kew.


Allen, Mea  1967 The Hookers of Kew
London        Joseph

Blunt, Wilfrid Scawen  reissued 1978  In For A Penny: Kew Gardens
London  Hamilton

Desmond, Ray  1995    Kew: the history of the Royal Botanic Gardens
London    Havill for the Royal Botanic Gardens

Stearns, W.S ed.    1999  John Lindley
London     Antique Collectors’ Club in association with the Royal Horticultural Society


 Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989.
Dr Taylor’s web site is:

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A Bridge for the Ages: London Bridge in the Time of Tudors

by Dean Hamilton

The most prominent geographical feature of London has always been the River Thames, and consequently, one of the most important and storied places in London has been that singular point of river crossing – London Bridge. Part transportation route, part linchpin for the storied city’s economy, history and social development, London Bridge is an iconic location.

Extant in multiple forms since the Roman’s first threw a makeshift pontoon bridge over the river in 52 CE, the bridge has seen many variations and changes over the centuries. The Saxons recorded throwing a witch off the structure in 730 AD, in all probability not the first nor the last to meet their deaths in the cold waters below.

Torn down, burnt, repaired, destroyed, swept asunder by floodwaters and invaders, it lacked any real permanence until the late 12th C when it was finally re-built in Kentish rag-stone. Stretching almost 900 feet in length, a series of stone arches were built upon 19 starlings set into the river bed. The bridge was an estimated 30 feet in width and was home to a chapel (the Chapel of St Thomas on the Bridge, dedicated to Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury), a drawbridge, several defensive gatehouses, a public latrine, watermill and by 1338, more than 138 shops.

By the Tudor era, the number of shops had risen to more than 200, with buildings towering almost seven stories in places, including rooftop “penthouses” and river terraces in the more expensive abodes.  John Stow’s “Survey of London” (published in 1598) noted “large, fayre and beautifull buildings, inhabitants for the most part, rich Marchantes, and other wealthie Citizens, Mercers and Haberdashers.

London Bridge, Agas Map, 1561
Passage through the bridge itself was narrow, overhung and obscured by the structures to the point that you could walk a significant stretch of the passage without ever realizing you were on a bridge. Near the centre of the bridge was Nonsuch House, a fanciful pre-fabricated wooden palace built without nails, using peg construction. Originally built in the Netherlands, it was carefully broken down, transported to London and re-constructed on London Bridge, replacing the rotting drawbridge fortifications in 1579.

It should be noted that these various bridge premises were “rented” rather than owned, with the rents in question applied to help pay for repair and bridge maintenance, as were the tolls for passage (both over and under) for people and goods.  The bridge wardens kept scrupulous accounts of monies collected and payments essayed for all types of work and maintenance from 1381 to 1538, an impressive and almost unbroken set of accounts.

From Bridge House Rental, Account for 1537-8: “To Ambrose Wolloys for 1 barrel of tar for ropes and the cement boat, 4s. 8d.” and “To William Lynger of Surrey for 3,000 paving tiles, 42s.

1632 oil painting "View of London Bridge" by Claude de Jongh
Despite the creation of a more permanent stone structure, work on the bridge was almost continual. Stone arches on occasion collapsed, wooden structures burned or became dilapidated. In 1213, the wooden buildings surmounting the bridge caught fire and an estimated 3,000 people were burned or drowned, many of whom flooded onto the bridge initially as spectators to watch a blaze in Southwark, only to be surrounded when the flames spread to the northern end of the bridge and trapped them. Other accidents were somewhat more peculiar, including in 1481 when the public privy overhanging the river collapsed, plunging five men to their deaths.

Danger existed below the bridge as well. The 19 starlings upon which the stone arches were built collectively blocked an estimated 45% of the river flow at high tide, causing a surging, roaring tidal rush of water through the archways.  Running these inadvertent rapids at times by boat, “shooting the bridge” became a dangerous pastime and gave rise to the saying “wise men walked and only fools went under”. Over time, silting in the tidal river narrowed the passages further, coupled with the addition of watermills and gristmills in 1581 and 1588.

“The barge of the Duke of Norfolk, starting from St. Mary Overie’s, with many a gentleman, squire, and yeoman, about half-past four of the clock on a November afternoon, struck (through bad steering) on a starling of London Bridge, and sank. The duke and two or three other gentlemen fortunately leaped on the piles were saved by ropes cast down from the parapet above; the rest, however, perished.”

The most singular feature of the bridge was probably the Great Stone Gateway in Southwark, which was decorated with the heads of executed traitors and criminals. Originally it was the drawbridge tower that held this grim decoration, but after it fell into disrepair, the heads were re-located to the Southwark end to greet any travelers coming up the Surrey road. The heads that decorated the bridge included at points such luminaries as William Wallace, Jack Cade, Thomas Moore (Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor of England), and Guy Fawkes, among many others, both high and low. Paul Hentzner, a German lawyer who visited in 1598 noted,

"On the south is a bridge of stone eight hundred feet in length, of wonderful work; it is supported upon twenty piers of square stone, sixty feet high and thirty broad, joined by arches of about twenty feet diameter. The whole is covered on each side with houses so disposed as to have the appearance of a continued street, not at all of a bridge. Upon this is built a tower, on whose top the heads of such as have been executed for high treason are placed on iron spikes: we counted above thirty”.

Details of London Bridge, Panorama of London (1616) by Claes VanVisscher

The bridge was a transient place for many Londoners, representing an escape from the daily grind of work, family and responsibility.  Southwark was technically outside the purview of the often strict Puritan aldermen that ran the Corporation of London, and as such became home to many of the more lurid social and entertainment activities. Bear-baiting and bull-baiting rings were a staple, joined later in 1587 by the Rose Theatre, the first of the Southbank playhouses. In 1598 the famous Globe Theatre joined the Rose, to be followed by the Hope Theatre in 1614. The area abounded with inn-houses, taverns, bowling alleys, gaming dens and most infamously, brothels, many of which were located on lands owned by the Bishop of Winchester, who subsequently collected the rents and payments and lent the Southbank prostitutes their derisive nickname of “Winchester Geese”.

1616 Visscher Panorama of London, Southwark detail, showing the Globe Theatre and The Bear Garden (Note: Visscher apparently got them reversed).

Bridges have always represented a crossing point, a demarcation of sorts, a boundary that sorts a city into places that often reflect a changed ethos. The Left Bank of Paris is one example. Southbank itself was often regarded as a vice-ridden source of danger, both exotic and manifest. The bridge was a common target for any military designs on London, a direct route into the heart of the city that was used multiple times by invaders. Jack Cade, the famous rebel “Captain of Kent”, charged his makeshift army across London Bridge in 1450, cutting the drawbridge ropes to prevent the citizens of London from raising the bridge against him. Shakespeare noted in Henry VI Part II:

“Jack Cade hath gotten London bridge:
The citizens fly and forsake their houses;
The rascal people, thirsting after prey,
Join with the traitor, and they jointly swear
To spoil the city and your royal court.”

London Bridge has earned an iconic status over time, regularly echoing its way through fiction and popular culture. You can find it popping up in William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, with the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge covered with a sprawling shantytown reminiscent of the densely packed bridge of the Thames. It makes another appearance as the Long Bridge of Volantis in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series Game of Thrones. London Bridge seems to lurk in the popular imagination, a ghost of a bygone era that almost anyone can appreciate as a unique and evocative setting.

London Bridge, unlike many of London’s Tudor-era buildings, survived the Great Fire of 1666, losing only about 1/3 of it’s buildings before the fire hit a previously fire-damaged section it could not leap across. What fire failed to do, the relentless London traffic and commerce did however, with the last tenant departing in 1762 as the buildings were razed and the bridge rebuilt and widened. In 1831 a new bridge was constructed and the old medieval structure was at last demolished. The new bridge was eventually sold in 1967, dismantled and rebuilt in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

It famously lives on in rhyme, the earliest variation of which is believed to date back to the Danes. Old London Bridge is now a distant memory but one with stolid persistence.

London Bridge is broken down. —
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Shields resounding,
War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din!
Arrows singing,
Mail-coats ringing —
Odin makes our Olaf win!
-          1844 translation of the Norse saga the Heimskringla, verse by Óttarr svarti, celebrating the destruction of London Bridge by Olaf II of Norway in 1014.


Dean Hamilton was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He spent the first half of his childhood chasing around the prairies and western Canada before relocating to Toronto, Ontario. He has three degrees (BA, MA & MBA), reads an unhealthy amount of history, works as a marketing professional by day and prowls the imaginary alleyways of the Elizabethan era in his off-hours. Much of his winter is spent hanging around hockey arenas and shouting at referees. He is married, with a son, a dog, and a small herd of cats.

He is the author of the gripping Elizabethan era thriller series The Tyburn Folios.

His first book THE JESUIT LETTER was an Editor's Choice Selection of the Historical Novel Society (HNS) and was short-listed for the HNS Indie Award as well as a semi-finalist for the M.M Bennetts Award.

His new book THIEVES' CASTLE was released on August 27, 2019 and is currently available in print and e-formats on Amazon. 

Twitter: @Tyburn__Tree

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Historic Border Town of Shrewsbury

By Annie Whitehead

The market town of Shrewsbury in Shropshire is surrounded by a loop of the River Severn and has a Welsh Bridge and an English Bridge, which gives some clue as to its proximity to the Welsh/English border. But first things first: what about the name itself? Is it pronounced with an ooo in the middle, or an oh? Even its inhabitants are divided, with some saying it's 'Shroosbury' and some saying it should be 'Shrowsbury'.

Although nothing of the original Anglo-Saxon buildings have survived, the name itself was recorded as early as 1016, as Scrobbesbyrig (possibly meaning the fortified place of a district called The Scrub). The Normans found it hard to say ‘scr’ and changed it to ‘sr’ and then ‘sar’ which got confused with ‘Sal’ so that it became ‘Salopesberie' (the abbreviation of Shropshire is still ‘Salop’ to this day). An English form persisted, though, in 'Shrobesbury'. This had changed to 'Shrouesbury' by 1346. But towards the end of the century, ‘Shrew’ spellings appeared, such as 'Shrewesbury' in 1386, which alternated with 'Shrow' spellings thereafter. The two spellings appear to have been equally acceptable, and thus the argument over pronunciation began.*

The stone head of Roger de Montgomery
However you say the name, there is no disputing that the town is stunning, with much architectural merit. The original Norman castle and abbey were built by Roger de Montgomery after the Conquest in around 1080 but the castle which stands today is a rebuild from the twelfth century. (The abbey was the setting for the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters.)

Although nothing much survives of the building pre- and immediately post-Conquest, the medieval streets are much in evidence as in, for example, Grope Lane, where the building almost kiss each other above street level.

Grope Lane
And yes, much worse probably went on at ground level, hence the name! At the top of Grope Lane is the Bear Steps Gallery, in a building which was a  - possibly - fifteenth-century hall although dendrochronology has produced frustrating results, with not all the timbers being dateable. This is also a reminder that not all these ancient buildings have, or would have, survived. In the mid-twentieth century, the buildings collectively known as the Bear Steps had become a group of barely habitable, run down cottages, which were condemned. The buildings would have been demolished had the Civic Society not raised the money necessary for the renovation and restoration.

Only the Lady Chapel remains of St Chad’s, which was the largest of the town’s medieval churches. St Alkmund was a revered Mercian saint, and the church dedicated to him in Shrewsbury was founded during the ‘reign’ of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

St Alkmund's Spire
The tower and spire though date from 1475 and the chancel and nave were rebuilt in 1795. St Mary’s, nearby, is intact from the medieval era, with the earliest sections built from 1170 onwards with stone from the nearby Roman city of Wroxeter. St Mary’s is where I found some Anglo-Saxon grave markers. Phil, from the town’s museum, had sent me to look at what are the only Anglo-Saxon bits of Shrewsbury visible to the general public. ** St Mary’s is also famous for the fourteenth-century stained glass ‘Jesse’ window, which depicts Christ's family tree.

Anglo-Saxon Grave Markers

An interesting building is the ‘Hole in the Wall’. This building started life as a family home in the thirteenth century and has been a pub - the Gullet Inn -  and, in its time, also a slaughterhouse and a debtors’ prison. It is said that the original ‘hole’ was where the prisoners were kept, in a single cell. It is rumoured that these souls are still there, trying to get free… The family who owned the original building were the Schitte family.

The Schittes appeared first appeared in the town records in 1219. And yes, the name probably suggests that they were involved in the unpleasant but necessary business of removing night soil in the town. Still, it seems that they outgrew their lowly origins and later records show that they became high class cutlers, which, although the name suggests the manufacture of cutlery, may at this time have involved the making of swords. (The word cutler derives from French and means ‘maker of knives’.)

How the original 'Hole in the Wall' building might have looked

Medieval guilds were, of course, powerful institutions and one of the leading guilds in Shrewsbury was that of the Drapers. They were responsible for the construction of many of the timbered houses in the town which still stand today, including Rowley’s House, a sixteenth-century edifice that used to be home to the town’s museum and art gallery and which is also supposed to be haunted.

Rowley's House

The Henry VII pub promises free hugs (alas, not free beer!) and also boasts of fourteenth-century art. Sadly, it was shut when I arrived so I couldn’t investigate whether this art was in the form of murals, or something else. Note how much the building leans though!

Shrewsbury is famous for its medieval origins and its strategic importance - the bridges in/out of the town are relatively modern but crossings have existed since at least Norman times - and of course for the bloody battle of 1403 which will be the subject of my next post, but it has other, more modern, claims to fame.

The Methodist, John Wesley, preached in the town in 1761 and he was there to witness the opening of the first Methodist chapel in Shrewsbury. Perhaps the town’s most famous son was Charles Darwin, author of On the Origin of Species. He was born at Mount House and attended Shrewsbury School.

AE Houseman wrote about the town in A Shropshire Lad. As I've already mentioned, Ellis Peters set her Brother Cadfael books there. Another literary connection is that of Wilfred Owen, the WWI poet whose most famous work is probably Dulce et Decorum Est. I was informed that his mother received the news of his death while the local church bells were ringing to celebrate the end of the war. Such tragic timing.

If you find yourself in the area, a good starting point would be the museum and gallery, where you can learn about the history of the area from Roman times, through the Medieval Gallery and beyond to the Tudor and Stuart periods. I recommend a visit; you won’t be disappointed.

*See Margaret Gelling, Signposts to the Past, pp 28-9
** He told me that an Anglo-Saxon cellar has been excavated, but it is in a private house and not open to the public.
[all photographs by the author]

Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, including To Be A Queen, the story of the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Her history of Mercia, from Penda the pagan king to the last brave stand of the earl of Mercia against the Conqueror, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley. Her new book, about Anglo-Saxon Women, will be published by Pen & Sword in 2020.
Connect with Annie: Website  Blog  Facebook  Twitter 

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, September 15, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Maria Grace takes the spotlight on the round-up this week, with a post on the popularity of acting during the Georgian and Regency eras.

by Maria Grace

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Itch for Acting

by Maria Grace

Home Theatricals—The Itch for Acting

Britain has a long theater tradition, including both public and private, professional and amateur efforts. In the 10th century, dramas appeared in church services. By the 12th century British Crusaders brought back traditions from other cultures which led to religious drama being performed outside of the church. Secular groups and guilds gradually took control over these presentations. By the end of the medieval period, secular dramas became more prevalent than religious ones, with schools and universities adding studies of these plays to their curricula.

The Renaissance period saw the establishment of large outdoor (public) theaters like Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, which could hold a thousand or more patrons. Smaller, indoor (private) theaters like the New Blackfriar’s in 1596 also flourished, having the advantage of allowing performances to take place in the winter.

Not surprisingly, the Puritan Revolution of 1642 marked a brief period of decline for the theater—all those immoral non-Puritan values, you know. But, by the 1660’s the lighthearted theater productions of the Restoration theater reflected a society recovering from years of division and unrest. The famous Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters were officially licensed at this time.
By the early 18th century, other forms of theater developed including ballad opera, farce and pantomimes. Theaters might also host acrobatic displays, ballets, and musical performances. Huge crowds flocked to see the first ‘celebrity’ performers. (Hudson, 2015)

The rise of amateur theater

Private amateur theater also thrived during this period. One of the first recorded forerunners to the Georgian home theatrical occurred in 1623 in Sir Edward Dering’s country home, in Kent. Amateur players performed an original adaptation from a combination of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts one and two. The 1634 premier performance of Milton’s Comus, staged at Ludlow Castle in Wales, and given in honor of John Egerton, first Earl of Bridgewater, also helped lead the way for the private theatrical craze. Three of Egerton’s children performed in the piece—and who doesn’t love to see their little darlins on stage? (Haugen, 2014)

These performances helped set the stage, as it were, for the ‘itch for acting’ to sweep through British society—including the aristocracy, the provincial gentry and the middle class. The craze extended from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries, hitting its peak between 1770 and 1810 and led to a plethora of amateur theatrical performances.

Makeshift theatre mushroomed all over England from drawing room to domestic buildings. At the more extreme end of the theatrical craze, members of the gentrified classes and the aristocracy built their own scaled down imitations of London playhouses. The most famous was that erected in the late 1770s by the spendthrift Earl of Barrymore, at a reputed cost of £60,000. Barrymore’s elaborate private theatre was modeled on Vanburgh’s Kings Theatre in the Haymarket. It supposedly seated seven hundred. (Byrne, 2007) Similarly, theatricals at Richmond House, home to the Duke of Richmond, proved extremely expensive to stage.

(Just a note to give a frame of reference here: £250 was considered a livable middle-class salary for a family of four.)

Some aficionados of this art form would go so far as to import professional actors bolster the sometimes-meager skills of the local amateur participants. Actresses might also be brought in to preserve the reputations of young ladies who might otherwise be called upon to play parts unseemly in polite society.

Great houses could accommodate substantial audiences, 150 or more were not uncommon. (Imagine hosting an audience of 150 in your living room! The mind boggles!)

But theatrical endeavors did not require lavish structures. Town houses, country estates, assembly rooms, even military encampments and ships hosted performances. Even kitchens, barns and greenhouses could be pressed into service when nothing else would suit.

Preserving the distinction of Rank

Licensing Theaters

Despite the expenses incurred to stage amateur theatricals, these performances could not charge their audiences admission. Unlicensed paid public performances were illegal according to the Licensing Act of 1737.

Enacted by Robert Walpole’s government, the Licensing Act increase the government’s control over public theaters. As a result, spoken drama could only be performed legally at The Theater Royal in Covent Garden and The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the two theaters holding royal patents. (Moreover, “All new plays, additions to old plays, prologues, and epilogues performed by these theatres had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain fourteen days before the performance, and he had the power to refuse to allow the performance of any play. His decision was final and there was no possibility of an appeal.”(Haugen, 2014) But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.)

Those in violation of the act would face a fine of £50 to each person acting for hire, gain or reward in a theatrical performance not licensed by the Lord Chamberlain. (Just a note to give a frame of reference: £50 would have been considered the equivalent of a year’s wage at a minimum wage job today.) That might not have been a lot to the wealthy peers, but for a more modest family, like say Jane Austen’s, it was a hefty amount.

Paid admission might be the biggest detail that set these endeavors apart from professional theater. In most other ways, they emulated professional (paid) theater. Frequently a mainpiece and an afterpiece and entre-act entertainments were performed. Prologues and epilogue—sometimes written by the players might frame the play. Some amateur theatricals even publicized their performances with newspaper reports (and were reviewed by the same—one shudders to think on the sort of things that might have been said) and even printed playbills. Plays performed might range from classical and Shakespearean to popular contemporary works, to amateur works written locally.

Preserving the Distinction of Rank

Marc Baer (1992) suggests many of the upper class might have preferred the relative isolation of the home theatrical setting. Several factors could have contributed to that preference.  Audiences’ behavior in the era could range from noisy and rude to outright dangerous.

“Theatre patrons consumed large quantities of alcohol and food, and people arrived and left throughout the performance.  Audiences chatted among themselves, and sometimes pelting actors with rotten fruit and vegetables if dissatisfied with the performances.  At other times, audiences demanded that popular tunes or popular scenes be played repeatedly.  James Boswell, the 18th century diarist, described mooing like a cow during one particularly bad play, to the great amusement of his companions.  Rioting at theatres was also not uncommon…rioting destroyed the Drury Lane theatre in London on six occasions during the century.
In general, audiences were a mix of rich and poor: boxes placed along the stage seated ‘persons of quality,’ while ) working-class men and women squeezed into hot and dirty galleries.  Down below in front of the stage, young men would drink together, eat nuts, and mingle with prostitutes in the notorious pit. (Hudson, 2015)
Moreover, with the rise of the merchant class, the theater was becoming increasingly plebian. How better to preserve the distinction of rank than by attending a private, rather than a public, event?
“The rise of the private theatrical allowed aristocratic participants to choose plays that appealed to them, subverting this growing tendency toward commercialization by reclaiming the theatre from the marketplace and using sociability as the currency instead of money.” (Haugen, 2014) It also permitted them to be showcased themselves.

Changes in the nature of seating and lighting in theaters meant that high status persons would not be as visible as they once were: moving from on-stage seating to seats in expensive boxes; and foot lights and sidelights in the theater itself to better illuminate the stage and focus attention on the actor instead of the audience. A private theater offered the aristocracy a much better venue in which to see and, perhaps more importantly, be seen while preserving the distinction of rank by keeping out the lesser classes.


Baer, Marc. Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London. Clarendon Press. 1992
Byrne, Paula.  Jane Austen and the Theatre. Bloomsbury Academic. 2007
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen, the Parson's Daughter. London: Hambledon Press, 1998.
Fullerton, Susannah. Jane Austen and Crime. Sydney: Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2004.
Gisborne, Thomas. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. London: Cadell and Davies, 1797.
Haugen, Janine Marie, “The Mimic Stage: Private Theatricals in Georgian Britain.” (2014). English Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 68.
Hudson, Chuck. “Theater in Georgian England.” The Historic Interpreter. March, 16, 2015.   Accessed July, 2, 2019.
Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.
Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Leisure. London: Hambledon Press, 1999.
Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.
Wakefield, J. F., “Jane Austen: Fanny Price and Private Theatricals.” Austen Only. June 6, 2010.   Accessed June, 2, 2019.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, September 8, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Author Nancy Bilyeau has the spotlight on English Historical Fiction Authors this week, with a history of torture at the Tower of London.

by Nancy Bilyeau
an Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Little Ease and the Tower of London

by Nancy Bilyeau

In 1534, a man and woman hurried past a row of cottages on the outer grounds of the Tower of London. They had almost reached the gateway to Tower Hill and, not far beyond it, the city of London, when a group of yeomen warders on night watch appeared in their path.

In response the young couple turned toward each other, in what seemed a lover’s embrace. But something about the man caught the attention of a yeoman warder. He held his lantern higher and within seconds recognized the pair. The man was a fellow yeoman warder, John Bawd, and the woman was Alice Tankerville, a condemned thief and prisoner.

So ended the Tower’s first known escape attempt by a woman. But Alice’s accomplice and admirer, the guard John Bawd, was destined to enter the Tower record books too, and for the grimmest of reasons—he is the first known occupant of a peculiar torture cell used during the reigns of the Tudors and early Stuarts. The windowless cell measured 1.2m (4 square feet) and bore the faintly prim name of Little Ease. The prisoner within it could not stand nor sit nor lie down but crouched over, in increasing agony, until freed from the suffocating, dark space.

In 1215 England outlawed torture through the passage of Magna Carta, except by royal warrant. The first king to authorize it, reluctantly, was Edward II. He submitted to intense pressure from the Pope to follow the lead of the king of France and demolish the Order of the Knights Templar, part of a tradition begun during the Crusades. King Philip IV of France, jealous of the Templars’ wealth and power, charged them with heresy, obscene rituals, idolatry and other offenses. The French knights denied all, and were duly tortured. Some who broke down and “confessed” were released; all who denied wrongdoing were burned at the stake.

Once Edward II had ordered imprisonment of members of the English chapter, French monks arrived in London bearing their instruments of torture. In 1311 the Knights Templar “were questioned and examined in the presence of notaries while suffering under the torments of the rack” within the Tower of London as well as prisons of Aldgate, Ludgate, Newgate and Bishopgate, according to The History of the Knights Templar, the Temple Church, and the Temple, by Charles G. Addison. And so the Tower—principally a royal residence, military stronghold, armory, and menagerie up until that time—was baptized in torture.

Did the instruments remain after the Knights Templars were crushed, to be used on other prisoners? We cannot be certain, although there is no record of it. The next mention of a rack within the Tower is a startling one—an unsavory nobleman made Constable of the Tower pushed for one to be installed. John Holland, third duke of Exeter, arranged for a rack to be brought into the Tower. It is not known if men were stretched upon it or if it was merely used to frighten. In any case, this rack is known to history as the Duke of Exeter’s Daughter.

It was in the 16th century that prisoners were unquestionably tortured in the Tower of London. The royal family rarely used the fortress on the Thames as a residence; more and more, its stone buildings contained prisoners. And while the Tudor monarchs seem glittering successes to us now, in their own time they were beset by insecurities: rebellions, conspiracies and other threats both domestic and foreign. There was a willingness at the top of the government to override the law to obtain certain ends. This created a perfect storm for torture.

“It was during the time of the Tudors that the use of torture reached its height,” wrote historian L.A. Parry in his 1933 book The History of Torture in England. “Under Henry VIII it was frequently employed; it was only used in a small number of cases in the reigns of Edward VI and of Mary. It was whilst Elizabeth sat on the throne that it was made use of more than in any other period of history.”

Yeoman Warder John Bawd admitted he had planned the escape of Alice Tankerville “for the love and affection he bore her.” Unmoved, the Lieutenant of the Tower ordered Bawd into Little Ease, where he crouched, in growing agony. The lovers were condemned to horrible deaths for trying to escape. According to a letter in the State Papers of Lord Lisle, written on March 28, Alice Tankerville was “hanged in chains at low water mark upon the Thames on Tuesday. John Bawd is in Little Ease cell in the Tower and is to be racked and hanged.”

Today no one knows exactly where Little Ease was located. One theory: within the nooks and crannies of the White Tower. Another: in the basement of the old Flint Tower. No visitor sees it today; it was torn down or walled up long ago. Besides Little Ease, the most-used torture devices were the rack, manacles, and a horrific creation called the Scavenger’s Daughter. For many prisoners, solitary confinement, repeated interrogation, and the threat of physical pain were enough to make them tell their tormentors anything they wanted to know.

Often the victims ended up in the Tower for religious reasons. Anne Askew was tortured and killed for her Protestant beliefs; Edmund Campion for his Catholic ones. But the crimes varied. “The majority of the prisoners were charged with high treason, but murder, robbery, embezzling the Queen’s plate, and failure to carry out proclamations against state players were among the offenses,” wrote Parry. The monarch did not need to sign off on torture requests, although sometime he or she did. Elizabeth I personally directed that torture be used on the members of the Babington Conspiracy, a group that plotted to depose her and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. But usually these initiatives went through the Privy Council or tapped the powers of the Star Chamber. It is believed that in some cases, permission was never sought at all.

Over and over, names pop up in state papers of those confined to Little Ease:

“On 3 May 1555: Stephen Happes, for his lewd behavior and obstinacy, committed this day to the Tower to remain in Little Ease for two or three days till he may be further examined.”
“10 January 1591: Richard Topcliffe is to take part in an examination in the Tower of George Beesley, seminary priest, and Robert Humberson, his companion. And if you shall see good cause by their obstinate refusal to declare the truth of such things as shall be laid to their charge in Her Majesty’s behalf, then shall you by authority hereof commit them to the prison called Little Ease or to such other ordinary place of punishment as hath been accustomed to be used in those cases, and to certify proceedings from time to time.”

After the death of Elizabeth and succession of James I came the most famous prisoner of them all to be held in Little Ease, Guy Fawkes. Charged with plotting to blow up the king and Parliament, Fawkes was subjected to both manacles and rack to obtain his confession and the names of his fellow conspirators. After he had told his questioners everything they asked, Fawkes was still shackled hand and foot in Little Ease and left there for a number of days.

And after that final burst of savagery, Little Ease was no more. A House of Commons committee reported the same year as Fawkes’ execution that the room was “disused.” In 1640, during the reign of Charles I, torture was abolished forever; there would be no more forcing prisoners to crouch for days in dark airless rooms, no more rack or hanging from chains.

And so, mercifully, closed one of the darkest chapters in England’s history.

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally posted May 7, 2012. 


Nancy Bilyeau has written five novels of historical suspense. She is the author of the best-selling art and porcelain thriller “The Blue,” set in 18th century England, and the Tudor trilogy “The Crown,” “The Chalice,” and “The Tapestry,” on sale in nine countries. Nancy is a magazine editor who has lived in the United States and Canada and worked on the staffs of “InStyle,” “Good Housekeeping,” and “Rolling Stone.” She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the Research Foundation of CUNY and a regular contributing writer to “Town & Country" and "Mystery Scene Magazine."

Nancy’s mind is always in past centuries but she currently lives with her husband and two children in Forest Hills in the borough of Queens. "Dreamland," coming out in January 2020, is her first novel set in her adopted hometown of New York City. For more info on "Dreamland," go to