Friday, August 28, 2009

The Shell Grotto or Why I Love Research

So, today’s post was going to continue my series on seaside resorts. I thought Weymouth or Bournemouth, but initial research pointed to Margate as a more interesting story. London visitors sailed down the Thames to Margate on the Kentish coast. The town was so popular that by 1816 they had more than 40 bathing machines working the surf. The artist JMW Turner spent many years there and very likely based his spectacular paintings on the scenery. Yes, I was all set to write about the beauty of Margate, when I stumbled across something even more interesting.

The Shell Grotto.

The Shell Grotto of Margate is shrouded in mystery, from its origin to its rediscovery in 1835. Some say that the Newlove children discovered it while playing and kept it a secret until their father figured it out. Others claim the father stumbled upon it while digging a new duck pond. Either way, the Newlove family was the first to recognize it for something magical.

The Shell Grotto lies deep in a chalk hill: more than 70 feet of winding, branching passages leading to an oblong chamber. The walls and roof are completely covered in strange symbols made of mosaics of more than 50 different types of sea shells, nearly 5 million of them at last estimate! Some of the pictures have been attributed to Indian, Egyptian, and Eastern influences.

And no one in Margate had any idea it was there.

No maps record its location. No legends detail its origins. No scientist has been able to discover what glues the shells to the walls. Because Mr. Newlove lit his treasure trove with Victorian lanterns, the soot embedding the shells prevents scientists from estimating the age using carbon dating.

Some claim it’s an ancient temple, but the symbols don’t match up with similar temples found in the British Isles. Others claim it was a rich man’s folly, but the land was never part of an estate and no one remembers it being built, so that’s unlikely. The most recent theory is that it was built by the Knights Templar in the 1200s and was first used in Masonic rituals. Seems to me that theory is cropping up a lot, though (National Treasure and DaVinci Code, anyone?).

Whoever built the Shell Grotto, for whatever purpose, Mr. Newlove knew a tourist attraction when he saw it. He opened the Grotto to the public in 1837, and it’s been fascinating people from all over the world ever since, even nineteenth century researchers like me. And now I have yet one more thing to add to my list of “Wonderful places I want to see in England someday.”

I also have a bit of a dilemma. Only two people commented on last Friday’s post on Bartholomew Fair (too much summer going on???), and both of them have already won fans! So, next Friday I will draw two lucky winners of a Nineteenteen fan. Comment, and you could be one of them. This is your last chance in our August giveaway!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Other Half

Before we start, a shout-out to Sarah, who won last week’s drawing! Sarah, contact me here so I can send you your Nineteenteen fan!

On Nineteenteen we’ve always concentrated on the culture and history around the lives of wealthy and/or aristocratic teens because (1) that’s whom we’ve written about in our books and (2) admit it, it’s fun to learn about in a "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" kind of way.

But then, as now, the percentage of the population who lived the glam life was small. The vast majority of Englishmen were what would come to be called "working class", either living in cities and working in factories and the trades, or in the country and providing the labor for the farms before machinery had been developed to harrow and plow and harvest crops.

The world is extraordinarily fortunate to have the quiet but strong voice of Flora Thompson to tell what life was like for the farm laborers of the 1880s and 1890s in her part of England, not far from Oxford. Flora was the eldest daughter of a stonemason in a small hamlet mostly consisting of farm workers. She was therefore close to their world, but not entirely of it, and could report from the position of both insider and outsider. Her book Lark Rise to Candleford, the story of her childhood and youth, is actually three separate books: Lark Rise, first published in 1939, Over to Candleford, published in 1941, and Candleford Green, published in 1943.

The first book examines life in the hamlet and the rhythm of the seasons that dictated the labor of the men and the lives of their families. Families were large, and children left school at twelve or thirteen to go to work—the boys to join their fathers in the fields, and the girls to service as scullery maids or under-housemaids in the homes of the gentry or wealthy. It’s the wealth of detail that makes this book so fascinating: what was eaten, what was worn, what games and songs the children played and sang, holidays, school, village "characters", and the poverty that everyone dealt with that is almost a character itself…and the author still preserves her insider/outsider status by recollecting what and how she lived, but commenting on it as an adult who has come very far from that world:

"But in spite of their poverty and the worry and anxiety attending it, they were not unhappy, and though poor, there was nothing sordid about their lives. ‘The nearer the bone the sweeter the meat’, they used to say, and they were getting very near the bone from which their country ancestors had fed. Their children and children’s children would have to depend wholly upon whatever was carved for them from the communal joint, and for their pleasures upon the mass enjoyments of a new era. But for that generation there was still a small picking left to supplement the weekly wage. They had their home-cured bacon, their ‘bit o’ leazings’ [gleanings from the wheat fields], their small wheat or barley patch on the allotment; their knowledge of herbs for their homely simples, and the wild fruits and berries of the countryside for jam, jellies, and wine, and round about them as part of their lives were the last relics of country customs and the last echoes of country songs, ballads, and game rhymes. This last picking, though meagre, was sweet."

Over to Candleford and Candleford Green examine life in the nearby town, where Flora’s aunts and uncles lived and worked as tradesmen (her portrait of her cobbler Uncle Tom is particularly appealing) and where Flora herself eventually came to work in the village post office. Again a wealth of detail is presented, in that same rich and quiet voice laced with humor and compassion:

"Sometimes, when the weekly income would not run to a sufficient quantity of fattening food [for the family pig], an arrangement would e made with the baker or miller that he should give credit now, and when the pig was killed receive a portion of the meat in payment. More often than not one-half of the pig meat would be mortgaged in this way, and it was no uncommon thing to hear a woman say, ‘Us be going to kill half a pig, please God, on Friday,’ leaving the uninitiated to conclude that the other half would still run about in the sty."

Highly recommended reading for fellow history geeks, or for those of you curious how "the other half" lived.

P.S. Talk about serendipity! I just found out that this has been turned into a BBC mini-series that is scheduled to be aired in the US in 2009. Anyone run across it yet? I don’t watch any TV (too busy writing!) but might watch this if it’s carried by PBS.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Are You A-Going to Bartholomew Fair?

Our county fair starts this week, with judging for produce, preserves, homemade products, arts and crafts, and animals of all shapes and sizes. It’s fun, family fare. But in early September for four days in the first half of the nineteenth century in London, young ladies and gentlemen might slip away to another kind of fair entirely.

For over 700 years, Bartholomew Fair held sway as one of London’s most important summer fairs. Originally held around August 24, the date was moved in 1753 to September 3. It ran for several days just outside Aldersgate in London. The fair started as a way to sell cloth and other goods, but it became a way to have a rollicking good time.

All classes could be found there at first. The Lord Mayor of London himself opened the fair on St. Bartholomew’s Eve. He would walking in procession with the Merchant Taylors Guild to the fair, which became the chief cloth sale in England and brought in international traders as well. Besides booths for selling cloth, the fair featured sideshows with “freaks,” prize fights, concerts, circus acts like wire walkers and acrobats, puppets shows, and even wild animal exhibits. As late as 1830, more than 200 booths for toys and gingerbread crowded the grounds and nearby streets. Young gentlemen whose parents would have been appalled at their behavior disguised themselves as servants just to get to play at the fair.

By 1844, however, the fair had outgrown its humble beginnings. A London visitor guide warns tourists “Bartholomew Fair presents a picture of . . . boisterous exuberance chiefly consisting of low apprentices, servant maids, the working classes of the lowest order, a very small sprinkling of decent people, few and far between, together with an innumerable herd of thieves, vagabonds, prostitutes, and pickpockets.”

In 1840, city authorities started making it difficult for the fair, first by jacking up the booth rental prices and then by limiting the fair to one day. The number of booths and activities continued to dwindle until the 1850s, when city authorities refused to allow it to happen because it “encouraged debauchery and public disorder.” Bartholomew Fair was proclaimed for the last time in 1855.

Me? I just go for the Elephant Ears.

And Sara from DBR visits Nineteen Teen for the history, and she won a fan! Sara, go to my website and send me a note on your address. I’ll get the fan out to you shortly! Remember to comment, all! There are two more posts in August and two more chances to win!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


In these days of Title IX when young women can participate in pretty much any sport they choose, it’s easy to forget that just a hundred years ago, anything much more strenuous than a decorous horseback ride in Rotten Row, a gentle game of tennis or maybe—maybe—a few holes of golf was frowned upon by the medical profession and society alike. Girls, move freely and break a sweat? How un-lady-like!

But there have always been a handful of sports to which young women have been given grudging access…and one of them was archery. Here was a sport at which it was unlikely you might become overheated or over-excited. It was a sport you could do while wearing a corset (in fact, wearing a corset might even help!) And it gave you a chance to order adorable new clothes, like the archery suit from 1829 worn by this young lady at the right.

Archery was a reasonably popular sport in 19th century England, due in no small part to the important role it played in English history. In the middle ages, English bowmen were famed (and feared!) in warfare. English longbows could launch an arrow capable of piercing plate armor, which of course did not make French knights very happy. Several kings passed laws requiring all able-bodied men over the age of 17 to own a bow and arrows and establishing mandatory weekly shooting practice. This fell by the wayside once firearms became widespread, but interest in archery never died…and indeed, recreational archery enjoyed a resurgence with the foundation of the Royal Toxophilite Society in 1781. Toxophilia (isn’t that a dreadful sounding word?) means “love of archery”, and several prominent members of the nobility became members of the society, most notably the Prince of Wales (who later became Prince Regent and King George IV). They established a permanent clubhouse and shooting range in 1833 in Regent’s Park in London where practices and in-club competitions were held weekly in season…and, unusually for this time, they held an annual Ladies’ Day invitational competition every July with prizes given by the society. Go girls!

And speaking of competitions, the commenter from last Tuesday who wins a Nineteenteen fan is Addie! Addie, please contact me here so we can arrange to get your fan out to you. And keep commenting, everybody!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Having a Ball at the Beach, Part 2: Fair Scarborough

First things first: the winner of one of our lovely Nineteenteen fans is Dara! Dara, please drop me a note via my website at and I’ll mail that off to you. Thanks so much for your comments, everyone! Keep them coming! Any comment on any post in August is eligible to win.

So, let’s say you didn’t dash off to Lyme Regis or Cowes for the summer. England had plenty of beach towns in the nineteenth century. Scarborough in Yorkshire claims to be the first seaside resort, with bathing machines (covered wagons that were pulled into the surf to allow you to bath in privacy) as early as 1735. But it was the discovery of mineral waters at Scarborough’s South Bay that really put the elegant town on the map.

Scarborough is bisected by a headland that boasts its own castle. Thanks to German bombs in WWII, the castle is now a ruin, but, in the nineteenth century, it was still habitable and even boasted barracks for soldiers. So, not only could you get your fill of the sea, you could ogle men in uniform as well!

The mineral water spa itself was particularly impressive, not only in grandeur but in the fact that it kept rising from the ashes! Damage from storms and sea surges in 1808 and 1836 required the main building to be completely rebuilt. In 1827, the Cliff Bridge was opened, making it easier to reach the spa from the town. Architect Henry Wyatt built a Gothic Saloon with gorgeous turrets in 1839 that included a concert hall seating 500, a garden, a lovely promenade overlooking the sea, and an outside amphitheatre for orchestra concerts. But even these amenities proved too small for the crowds flocking to Scarborough.

In 1858, entirely new buildings opened to the public. These were on a grand scale and designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, the landscape gardener and architect responsible for the grounds of major country estates and London pavilions. His assembly hall could seat 2,000. His promenade was double the size of Wyatt’s and included a carriage road, a colonnade for shops, and another amphitheatre. According to spa historians, Scarborough Spa was the second most popular concert hall outside London at the time. Unfortunately, those wonderful buildings were destroyed by fire in 1876!

That didn’t stop the intrepid people of Scarborough. They rebuilt again in 1879 and opened the current historic buildings in 1880. The town still welcomes visitors intent on playing on the beach and indulging in the waters of the spa.

And you don’t need parsley, sage, rosemary, or thyme to go to fair Scarborough, either.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hey, Where Did Everybody Go?

Some time around mid to late July every year, a very odd thing would happen in 19th century London: anyone who was anyone (if you know what I mean) vanished. The members of the Ton disappeared from Hyde Park, from the shops in Bond Street, and from the clubs in St. James. With the conclusion of the annual horse races at Goodwood, the Season was over...and one did not want to be seen in London once the Season was done if one wished to be thought in the least fashionable!

So where did everyone go?

In the middle and later parts of the century, the place to see and be seen in late July and the first days of August was Cowes, the main town on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the southern coast on England. The island had become fashionable after Queen Victoria bought Osborne House for a family getaway there in the 1840s, and became even more fashionable when Victoria’s son, Bertie the Prince of Wales, took up yacht racing in the 1860s. Suddenly everyone became sailing-mad…or if they weren’t, they pretended to be and rented a house on the island so as not to miss all the good parties.

Sailing at Cowes came to an end around now, because on August 12—the "glorious Twelfth"—the grouse-shooting season officially opened in Scotland. Fashionable ladies packed away their amusingly nautically-themed dresses in favor of tweeds and stout boots and headed north to join in the astonishing (and to modern sensibilities, appalling) annual slaughter of thousands of these large upland game birds. Not that many ladies participated in the actual shooting—grouse hunting was definitely a male activity. But if one wanted to avoid being stuck indoors all day with the other ladies gossiping or writing subtly gloating letters to those of your friends who hadn't managed to wangle an invitation to a shooting party, then one dressed in "rugged" clothing and went to join the hunters at a picnic lunch at mid-day. I am, of course, using the term "picnic" a little loosely here…generally lunch was served at trestle tables nicely set with linens and silver, with the butler and footmen on hand to pass out the game pies, hams, and hearty stews followed by apple dumplings and plum puddings washed down with beer, wine, cider, sloe gin and cherry brandy. Not summertime fare as we know it!

And speaking of summer fun...or should I say fanQNPoohBear is last Tuesday's winner. QNPoohBear, please contact me via the form on my website with your mailing address so I can send you your fan. And everyone else, keep commenting! There are more fans to go…

Friday, August 7, 2009

Having a Ball at the Beach, Part 1: Lyme Regis

You’ve probably noticed the theme: ice cream, air conditioning, bathing. We are definitely in summer mode on NineteenTeen! And what could be better for summer than your very own faux-nineteenth century fan? Remember, every post in August is a chance to win. Just put in a comment, and you’ll be entered into a drawing for that day. Marissa will draw for Tuesdays, and I get to draw for Fridays.

Each year, thousands of Americans pack up and head for the beach for a summer vacation. That isn’t anything new. Beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing into the nineteenth, many English families took an annual trip to the seashore too. At first it was only the wealthy who went, but as the century wore on, even the middle class families picked up stakes in July or August and hurried off to folic on the shore.

But going to the seashore didn’t necessarily mean swimming. We’ve talked about how bathing in seawater was an activity more meant to improve your health than to cool off or show off your swimming suit. Some people actually enjoyed looking out at the grandeur of the sea. But most of them flocked to the seashore to continue that grand pastime of seeing other people and being seen by other people.

A favorite haunt of Jane Austen's was Lyme Regis on the western coast of England. She wrote in Persuasion, “A very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.” Jane knew what she was talking about. She visited Lyme Regis many times with her family in the early part of the century.

One of the most picturesque features of Lyme Regis is The Cobb, a huge, curving breakwater supposedly built in the 13th century from massive oak beams and boulders. It was possible to walk on part of it, but it was the daring young lady who tried. Part way along The Cobb is a steep staircase called Granny’s Teeth. One of Jane’s characters capered down those steps and fell to her death.

Lyme Regis featured a grand hall where Assembly Balls were held; a lovely seaside promenade called The Walk where you could, well, walk and show off your outfits; and shops, tea rooms, and bookstores where you could enjoy a good gossip. As a dear friend likes to say, “Wherever you go, there you are!”

So, what do you think? Are you a girl after Jane’s heart who would dare walk The Cobb and gaze at the wild sea? Or would you be found promenading to your heart’s content and gazing at the other people doing the same on a sunny day along the shore?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Way Cool!

After a chilly and wet June and July (very British weather!), summer finally arrived where I live in New England...with a vengeance! Thank goodness for air conditioning...

Speaking of air conditioning, did you know that the first air conditioned building in London was Westminster Abbey...back in the year 1620? No? Well, it's a little out of our beloved 19th century, but it's such a fun story!

James I was King of England then. He was getting on in years and suffered from several health complaints, among them an extreme sensitivity to sunlight. He was also deeply paranoid after surviving several assassination attempts and always wore thickly padded doublets, even in summer. So I don't think he very much looked forward to the advent of warmer weather, even though England's summers tend to the more temperate. Evidently he had a discussion about this with his court magician, one Cornelis Drebbel, who offered to make a room as cold as winter in the midst of summer for his majesty. James jumped at the offer, and chose the room he wanted cooled--namely, the Great Hall of Westminster Abbey!

Drebbel was an interesting fellow, much closer to a Leonardo da Vinci than to a magician, though he often found it easier to get people to listen to him about his scientific studies if he pretended they were magic. He was a pioneer in the study of submarines (for all intents and purposes discovering oxygen in the process, 150 years before Joseph Priestley) and took King James for a ride in one in the Thames, making James the first British monarch to travel underwater.

Drebbel did not leave a detailed account of how he cooled Westmister on that July day in 1620, but cool it he did--in fact, James had to leave after becoming chilled. But according to accounts left by some of the courtiers who were there, it's possible to reconstruct what Drebbel did: he and his assistants brought several long, low metal troughs and set them around the edges of a narrower part of the Hall, filling them with salt and ice cut from the Thames in winter and stored in ice houses. They also added nitre, today called saltpetre or potassium nitrate, to the troughs, which in combination with the salt and icy water created a compound that was actually below the freezing point of water. Drebbel had doubtless observed that cold air sinks and displaces warm air upward, so by carefully selecting his location in that narrow part of the hall, was probably able to cool the lower part of the air (and force the warm air up toward the lofty ceiling) to a relatively chilly sixty five degrees or so...which would certainly feel like winter if you'd just stepped inside from 80 degree heat. Smart guy!

And speaking of keeping you want to be a real fan-girl (or boy) of Nineteenteen? Over the month of August we're running a little contest...all commenters on each post will be entered to win a Nineteenteen fan (see the pic above--aren't they pretty?) just for fun...that's two fan winners a week (Tuesday and Friday) throughout the month. So please, comment away!