A Christmas Harlequinade

You may have been to a pantomime over the festive season and had your nerves shattered by the children’s shouting (Oh yes it isoh no it isn’t…etc.). Then again, perhaps you got into the spirit of the occasion and shouted louder than the infants yourself. But such noisy audience participation is nothing compared to what was common at a Nineteenth-Century pantomime, which would have featured the now long-defunct “Harlequinade”.


“Warne Pantomime, 1890” (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

The diarist William Hardman had his literary friend George Meredith, and Meredith’s son Arthur, to stay with him over the Christmas of 1862. They were to attend a Harlequinade at Drury Lane Theatre, and the little boy Arthur was “ardent for jolly Clown; a Pantaloon of the most aged, the most hapless [kind]; a brilliant Columbine; and a Harlequin with a wand on everyone’s bottom.” (Don’t ask me what the wand was all about!).

These were the four stock characters of the Harlequinade, often joined in chase scenes by an extra player in the form of a Policeman. Such plot-line as existed consisted of Harlequin romantically pursuing the fair Columbine, while her miserable old Dad, Pantaloon, tries to sabotage his efforts with the help of the unscrupulous Clown. The performance Hardman and his friends attended was on “Boxing Night”, 1862, when Drury Lane re-opened after a break under the new management of Edmund Falconer, who had reputedly spent a fortune on renovations to the theatre.

The boy Arthur was “in raptures” over the show, but Hardman was not. He writes, “…such a pandemonium I have rarely witnessed.” “The fights in pit and gallery were frequent. The shower of orange peel from the gods into the pit was quite astounding. The occupants of the latter place made feeble efforts to throw it back again, but, of course, never got it any further than the first tier of boxes. I was glad to see the thing once, but you won’t catch me there again.”

Victorian times were not as polite and decorous as some imagine, in fact public occasions could be coarse, violent and disorderly in ways that would be quite unacceptable today. I wish everyone a calm and peaceful New Year, without dispiriting showers of orange peel descending upon their heads.

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The Groundsel Man

Keeping singing and fancy-birds was very popular in mid-Victorian London. People of all classes shared their front-parlours with caged live birds, such as canaries or linnets or bullfinches. They may also have kept stuffed specimens, perched on idealised undergrowth beneath glass domes. The better-off might have invested in a colourful cockatoo or parrot, or some more exotic breed, to decorate their living quarters and enliven their lives with its song. Fabulous paintings of rare birds, in their natural environments, were also much prized. But, as is the case with much respectable Victorian social phenomena, the matter was not without a darker underside.


 “Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds”, by M.J. Heade, 1871, (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

Live birds could be seen, and bought from what were described as the prettiest young girl shop-assistants, at places like the Portland Bazaar on Langham Place, or the Pantheon Bazaar, a rather grand former theatre on Oxford Street (on the site now occupied by Marks & Spencer). The latter sold a variety of fancy goods of an ornamental character, and its aviary adjoined fountains and floral displays. The prosperous West-End dweller could venture further afield in search of desirable avian acquisitions, perhaps to the Sunday morning bird-market off Brick Lane in the East End. And there were many street-sellers of birds, bird-seed, and turf for lining the cages.

Henry Mayhew, the Victorian journalist and social campaigner, was a great observer of the street-traders of mid-Victorian London. In his classic social survey, London Labour and the London Poor, he interviewed and described a multitude of pitifully poor people who tried to grub a marginal living from hawking diverse wares in the open. There were those established costermongers who, sometimes profitably enough, sold the conventional fare of fruit, vegetables, and fish, usually from a barrow pulled by a donkey. But hordes of others took their chance by offering such goods as needles, spoons, matches, fly-papers, walking-sticks, wash-leathers, laces, nutmeg-graters, combs, dog-collars, umbrellas, and many more esoteric items.

Whilst some of these supposed trades were simple covers for beggary, Mayhew stresses that most participants were genuinely striving to make an honest living in this manner. One striking example is “The Groundsel Man”.

Groundsel Man 

This near-destitute individual was one of the many who went door-to-door with groundsel (which he calls “grunsell”), a yellow weed containing bird-seed found on waste ground. He also sold bird-feed in the form of chickweed, turf for dressing the cages, and nettles for ladies’ tea. Mayhew interviewed him in the wretched courtyard room off Saffron Hill (near where Dickens sited Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist) that he shared with his wife and their son and daughter. Appropriately enough, they had a stuffed linnet on the mantelpiece.

Although paralysed down his right side the man estimates that he shuffles a full fifteen miles daily (except Sunday), out from seven in the morning to five p.m. in all weathers, without pausing to eat. First he goes to fields outside London to harvest his stock-in-trade, and then he returns to town to offer it around well-to-do streets in the West End. Charging a half-penny a bunch, he makes at most a few shillings a week. Even still, “the ladies are very hard with a body. They tries to beat me down…”.

After rent, the family have about three shillings a week to live on. They seldom have meat, can afford only a pittance in fuel to keep the room warm, and those articles of apparel they are not wearing are in pawn, as is all their bedding. Mayhew quotes the man’s wife as saying, “We strive and do the best we can, and may as well be contented over it. I think it’s God’s will we should be as we are. Providence is kind to me, even badly off as we are. I know it’s for the best.”

Such extreme poverty is virtually unknown these days, and probably so is the degree of stoicism the groundsel man’s wife displays. If people still kept house-birds in large numbers, groundsel cultivated in special beds would no doubt be touted as the latest word in avian-food technology. No doubt organic varieties would be on the market, available in sealed packages for delivery by little vans from special shops. Perplexing days for a time-travelling groundsel man.

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Bartleby the Apparition

Certain figures from nineteenth century gothic horror fiction are still very much part of mainstream culture. One thinks of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula the vampire, and Doctor Jekyll’s murderous alter-ego Mr Hyde. Less well-known, but more unsettling in my opinion, is the figure of “Bartleby the Scrivener” from a short story of that name by Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) first published in 1853. Bartleby is ostensibly a bland, passive character, who could not be further removed from the nightmarish creations I have mentioned. But, to me, he is scarier than any of them.

Melville’s story is narrated by a successful, elderly lawyer who has his business chambers on the second floor of a Wall Street office building in New York City. In the days before photocopying and digital technology, lawyers had to employ droves of law-copyists, known as “scriveners”, to laboriously transcribe duplicates of legal documents by hand. It is hard to imagine a more monotonous and soul-destroying occupation. At the beginning of his story the narrator already has two scriveners in his service, but needs a third to cope with an expected influx of new work:

“In answer to my advertisement,” the narrator relates, “a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold…I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.” If Bartleby has a first name we never learn what it is, and, despite knowing nothing whatever of him beyond his having the appropriate qualifications, the narrator engages him straightway.

Book Seller2

Everything is fine at first, since Bartleby works quickly and efficiently by daylight and candlelight (“he seemed to gorge himself on my documents”), the only cause for unease being that he does so “silently, palely, mechanically”. But when the narrator asks him to help in examining copies against each other, a routine exercise for a scrivener, Bartleby simply says “I would prefer not to.” He does not refuse in any insolent or confrontational manner but “in a singularly mild, firm voice…”. “His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him.” Although disconcerted by this, Bartleby’s blank passivity somehow disarms the narrator.

The scrivener will not be shifted from his refusal and the narrator gradually notices that he never leaves the office, indeed when asked to go out on an errand he replies “I would prefer not to.” Needing to call in there one Sunday morning, the narrator finds that he cannot get his key into the lock because there is a one already lodged there from the inside. The door is at last opened from within “and thrusting his lean visage at me, and holding the door ajar, the apparition of Bartleby appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille, saying quietly that he was sorry, but that he was deeply engaged just then, and – preferred not admitting me at present.”

Bartleby is plainly living at the office, and the narrator finds himself deeply affected by his employee’s apparent loneliness and desolation: “For the first time in my life a feeling of over-powering stinging melancholy seized me.” “What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”

An attempt by his employer to elicit some basic facts from Bartleby concerning his previous life and present circumstances receives the inevitable reply, “I would prefer not to”. Soon he stops copying (“I would prefer not to”) and declines to do any work at all. Increasingly, he does no more than stand looking out of a window which is faced by the blank wall of another building only ten feet distant, in a pose the narrator refers to as his “dead-wall revery”. The narrator tries to dismiss him but he will not go, even when offered monetary incentives. All efforts to persuade and reason with him, and tempt him, are met with his standard anodyne rebuff: “I would prefer not to”.

At length the narrator, his other employees, and his clients and business associates grow so unnerved by the baleful and inert presence that the situation becomes intolerable. But still the narrator cannot bring himself to have Bartleby coerced in any way. Instead, he actually moves office and leaves the scrivener in sole occupation of his now empty former premises.

Eventually Bartleby declines to go on living altogether, so he stops eating and passes away. But in a coda to the story, the narrator hears a rumour that the scrivener had previously been employed at the “dead letter” office in Washington. This was where letters that could not be delivered due to their being hopelessly addressed ended up. There, they were opened, and then burned if no return address could be located inside. Anything valuable within would be auctioned off. “Dead letters!” the narrator observes, “does it not sound like dead men?”


Having reread the story recently, I turned to the editor’s (Harold Beaver) introduction to my volume of Melville’s work to find out what it’s supposed to mean. Apparently it comes out of Melville’s own experience as a writer: “…it becomes a parable of all writers in a financial society who refuse to write on demand or to compromise…”. Alternatively, the editor says, it’s a religious parable, with the narrator eventually betraying the Christ-like purity of Bartleby by forsaking him.

But, echoing Bartleby, I prefer not to accept such convoluted abstractions. To me, it’s about a haunting. I read somewhere that all ghost stories are grief stories, and I fancy that Bartleby represents some elemental human grief being visited upon the complacent narrator. As the story ends: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

The illustrations are “The Book Auctioneer” from Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor” (which looks like my idea of Bartleby) and “The dead letter office at Washington”. I read “Bartleby” in “Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, And Other Stories” ed. Harold Beaver

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The Tattered Chandelier

Some years ago, before its restoration, I visited the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras on one of those Heritage Open Days that offer the public special access to buildings normally closed to them. At the time of my visit the roof and exterior of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian gothic masterpiece had been restored and made weatherproof, after decades of abandonment, but the interior was still in a pretty rough state. Remembering this visit leads me to acknowledge a vice of mine which is perhaps shared by other historians, that is to say a fascination with decay and dereliction.


Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras. My photo taken, I think, from the Ladies’ Smoking Room window.

From the open day tour, I particularly remember seeing the sealed-up doors of the long-disused lifts (or “hydraulic ascending chambers”), which represented the latest technology when the hotel was built in the 1870s. And I took this photo of the Grand Coffee Room, which follows the curvature of the building, empty of all furniture and sporting gaping holes in its ceiling:


Compare this with the picture below of the coffee room in its heyday:


The main staircase is the hotel’s most magnificent feature, cantilevered to spiral up to left and right between each floor and meet again at the next one, as appears from my photo below:


Near the top of the stairwell tower hung the tattered remains of a chandelier:


Here is an clearer view of it, which I took with the light from the window behind me:


The above photo also highlights the wonderfully whimsical medieval-inspired original decoration. When it was erected, St Pancras station and its hotel represented the very height of railway age self-confidence. On the day of my visit our guide told us that, despite innovative features such as the lifts and ladies’ smoking room, the hotel’s lack of modern plumbing had already rendered it potentially obsolete at the time of its opening. Many of the accommodations were large suites, rather than individual rooms, and these lacked their own bathrooms. I read that it was closed in the 1930s and used as railway offices for some time until its eventual abandonment. It is well-known (though still beyond belief) that it was only just saved from demolition in a bygone age of architectural barbarity.

Scrolling through internet photos of the now fully restored, and renamed, “St Pancras Renaissance Hotel”, it looks to have been sumptuously refurbished with a splendour befitting its earlier incarnation. The unavoidable modernity of the furnishings appears well-matched to the original décor, and to retained original features such as the fireplaces and pillars and arched window-cases.

I would not turn someone away if they offered to pay the (no-doubt astronomical) tariff for me to spend a night (or two) there. I don’t think, however, that I’d find staying there, as it is now, as interesting as I found visiting it before the building was restored. This is because I could get a better sense of how it had first been from its dilapidated state, and a better evocation of that vanished grandeur.

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We Come From Where?

Researching family history through the written record can only get you so far, and the results may contain hidden defects. In my family, we have long puzzled over the presence, on my father’s side, of persons with an unusually brown skin for a lineage rooted as far back as we can trace it in South-West Lancashire and Liverpool. Since I have this brown gene myself, I recently took a genetic test in the hope of pinpointing its origin.

I investigated the several genetic testing packages available, and settled upon one called “Ancestral Origins” which seemed the most scientific-sounding (don’t ask me to explain their methodology!) . I ordered their testing kit, followed its instructions for rolling swabs around in my mouth to collect cell samples, and duly returned the resultant material. A few weeks later I received their promised colour-coded map of the world showing my ancestral background, which they determined by comparing my genetic profile with databases of numerous populations throughout the world.

A yellow swathe across the British Isles, Scandinavia and Northern Europe generally showed my genes to be a “good match” for this region, as one would expect. But it was Mediterranean Southern Europe that was coloured green for the “best match”, with the strongest links being to South Italy, Greece and the Adriatic coast in the eastern Mediterranean. All the other continents were coloured red for “no match”, except for North America and Australia where Europeans took their genes by emigration.

So there, it seemed, we had our answer. My sister, whose colouring is similar to mine, said she always thought she was Southern European since she is so fond of an afternoon siesta. Perhaps some of our ancestors looked like this:


 Vraka Corfu Greek Costume

That seemed to be that, until my mother decided to take the Ancestral Origins test on her own account. Her immediate family background is in Liverpool and on the Wirral, though preceding generations hail from several different parts of England. She is not even slightly brown, and we assumed that the Southern European side of things could not apply to her. We were, therefore, much surprised when her ancestral background map arrived with the best matches again being concentrated in Mediterranean South-Eastern Europe.

It is hard to know what to make of this. Perhaps these genes go back much further, possibly introduced by legionnaires from the Mediterranean, garrisoned here at the time of the Roman Empire? In any event, the exercise maybe serves to underline the folly of racial stereotyping: our deep genetic heritages are obviously much more mixed than we suspect.

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A Sentimental Journey

I was passing through Liverpool lately and thought I would take a sentimental journey (after the title of one of his solo albums) into the city’s South End to look at the two houses Ringo Starr lived in before the Beatles made it big. Beyond knowing that neither had been converted into a museum I had done no research, but when I got there I found the actual state of the properties far more affecting than I had expected.

The area in question is perhaps a mile-and-a-half’s amble southward from the city centre, in the region of Princes Park. It is an area of great contrasts, where mass-produced nineteenth-century terraced housing is just minutes’ walk from the grand Victorian and Edwardian mansions surrounding Princes Park and lining its approach roads. I have read that the terraced streets hereabouts were notoriously rough and deprived in Ringo’s 1940s and 50s childhood and that, of the four Beatles, his was the humblest upbringing.  10 Admiral Grove, where Ringo lived for many years with his mother and step-father after his parents separated, is reached along a short, narrow, paved passage, running behind the Empress pub (off High Park Street).


“10 Admiral Grove” by Stundra

As you can see, the house is painted in a decidedly un-rock-and-roll wedding-cake colour scheme and is a very modest one. It is of the type where the front door opens directly into the lounge and where there would have been only two rooms on each floor, upstairs and down. I gather that the houses Ringo now revolves between are somewhat larger and are  sited in sunnier and more exotic international locations.

There is some black and white footage (apparently staged, unfortunately) of Ringo being mobbed by teenagers here in 1963, as he exits the house and tries to join George Harrison who is awaiting him in an open-topped sports car. Standing outside, I talked to some (admirably tolerant) neighbours who said that the house had belonged until recently to a now deceased old lady. I peeked through the window to see that the interior has been stripped of all its furnishings including carpets, indeed the very walls have been scraped back to the bare plaster and the fire-place has been filled (presumably to deter souvenir hunters).

The house where Ringo was born, and lived for his first few years, is over the other side of High Park Street and a little way down Madryn Street, which leads off it. Number 9 is still standing, but the whole street is empty of residents and all the windows and doors are steel-shuttered.

Madryn Street, Toxteth

Madryn Street, Toxteth, looking North-west

North-west end of Madryn Street

North-west end of Madryn Street

Ringo’s former house is the first on the right, with its shutters covered in graffiti. It has been re-pointed relatively recently, perhaps as a prelude to a projected restoration.

The security door and graffiti at 9 Madryn Street, Toxteth

The security door and graffiti at 9 Madryn Street, Toxteth

One learns from the dates on some of the graffiti that the shutters are at least five years old. Apparently there is an ongoing tussle over whether this piece of Beatles memorabilia merits being saved from demolition, but the whole street has also been standing empty alongside it for that time. In fact, as I soon learnt from exploring further, it is part of a much larger section of housing on this side of the main road that is in exactly the same condition. Six parallel streets (Wynnstay St, Voelas St, Rhiwlas St, Powis St, Madryn St itself, and Kinmel St) known collectively from their names as “the Welsh Streets”, are empty and closed-up in the same fashion.

Powis Street, Toxteth

Powis Street, Toxteth

 Wynnstay Street, Toxteth  

Wynnstay Street, Toxteth. The tower of the Anglican Cathedral can be seen in the distance. There is evidence of bomb damage to the right-hand terrace, where a gap has been filled with post-war housing.

It is easy to imagine these streets being thronged with people, and strange to think that so large an area would be left in this sort of limbo for so long. Though obviously dilapidated the buildings do not seem positively derelict, and most of their roofs and basic structures seem intact. There is none of the blackened fire-damage and randomly strewn rubbish that normally marks an area’s slide into terminal dereliction. Nor is there the sense of unease and threat to the idle visitor usually present in such places, since no other human beings are to be seen. The thoroughfares and pavements are remarkably neat, with trees still pleasantly punctuating several of them, and one small area cleared of its houses many years ago seems to have served the locals as a little park:

Voelas Street, Toxteth

Voelas Street, Toxteth 

The overall effect is quite eerie in its complete depopulation, like a sort of Marie Celeste of South Liverpool. A passer-by unaware of its famous former resident might wonder why taxis periodically park outside one undistinguished boarded-up house on Madryn Street, and disgorge visitors who gaze at it gape-mouthed and who are lectured knowledgably about its part in popular culture by their driver, who apparently knew all the main players in the Beatles’ rise to fame personally.

Obviously, there is a contest going on between those who want refurbishment and those who want to knock it all down and start again. At one point out on High Park Street an official sign, which has apparently been there for some time, trumpets the region as “Princess Park Regeneration Zone” and talks of “Creating neighbourhoods of the future.” There is a picture of happy future residents swanning about. But the pubs and shops, that would have faced along the main road and provided the community with its focus, are long since demolished. It seems that the “zone” has been embalmed indefinitely against some future moment when conditions will somehow be propitious for it to be occupied again.

The ghostly desolation made me think about the thousands upon thousands of people who lived (and maybe died) here and pursued their day-to-day lives down the generations, from the 1880s when these streets were first constructed. Maybe the relevant authorities are waiting for Ringo to return to Liverpool and summon the people back, like a pied-piper (or pied-drummer) in reverse, so that the homes can be reopened and refitted and returned to productive life.

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Sambourne House

My cultured friend and I recently visited Sambourne House, a West London terraced home preserved pretty much as it was in the 1890s, complete with its original contents and furnishings. We have all trailed around aristocratic country mansions, but what is so rare (perhaps unique) about the preservation of Sambourne House is that it was the comparatively modest home of a middle class family, albeit a prosperous one. This gives the visitor a real sense of how it might have been to live there in past times, which is often hard to capture amid the overwhelming scale and grandeur of a stately home.

18 Stafford Terrace exterior. Creditline - 18 Stafford Terrace; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.-1

 The exterior of Sambourne House – Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Glazed fern cases, like the one attached to the ground floor bay window, used to be standard fittings, as did the large gas lamp above the front door with the house number on it. From pavement level little details stand out, such as the separate bell-pulls for trade and social callers, or the sign on the door that can be alternated to show that the master of the house is “in” or “out”.

The house’s occupants were Linley and Marion Sambourne (with the later addition of their children Maud, born 1875, and Roy, born 1878) who moved in upon their marriage in 1874. Linley was a cartoonist, illustrator, and photographer, whilst Marion was the eldest daughter of a stockbroker. From 1882 both kept diaries, so that the pleasure of exploring their house can be enhanced by reading about their daily lives there.

Marion and Linley Sambourne on Honeymoon in Rome 1874 (RefNo.ST.

 Linley (1844-1910) and Marion (1851-1914) Sambourne – Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

On entering the hallway, one is immediately struck by how richly the house is fitted out. The back of the terrace is south-facing, and bright sunshine can be seen washing into the landing at the head of the first flight of stairs (see below). My cultured friend said that she would like to sit by the fish-tank on the landing and read in the afternoons if the house was hers (some hope!). Parts of the interior are unavoidably gloomy, due to the browning of old fabrics and old wallpaper (some by William Morris!) but this just adds to the authenticity. Little details are again to the fore, such as the case containing umpteen walking sticks.


The Hallway – Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

The first door from the hall on the right (above) leads into the dining room, and the second into the morning room (which was Marion’s own preserve). Up the stairs the drawing room takes up almost the whole of the first floor, from the bay to the back windows. Stepping inside this room, it is clear that the notion of the cluttered Victorian interior is no myth. Little of the floor space, shelf space or wall space is exempted from supporting some class of object. Linley Sambourne worked at home, initially at the south end of the drawing room. In later years the attic was modified to create a purpose-built, and better-lit studio for him to use.

StudioDrawing Room Creditline - 18 Stafford Terrace; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.-1Drawing Room Creditline - 18 Stafford Terrace; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.-1 

The Studio – Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Like Henry Mayhew, Arthur Munby and Hugh Shimmin, of whom I’ve written elsewhere in these pages, Linley Sambourne was an observer of his times. He differed from them in being an artist rather than a writer, but also in not sharing their preoccupation with the lower elements of society. For the bulk of his professional life, Sambourne drew cartoons for the humorous weekly magazine Punch. This has been out of publication for a few years now, and it is hard to imagine just how widely circulated and influential such a periodical was amongst the middle and upper classes in its heyday. Sambourne’s intricate and detailed weekly cartoons were keenly awaited, and his was a household name. In 1901, he succeeded Sir John Tenniel (author of the brilliant “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” illustrations) as “First Cartoon” at Punch.

After he discovered photography, Sambourne dragooned anyone and everyone who appeared at the house (including himself, his groom and the local beat-policeman) into costumes and funny poses to be snapped as models for his drawings. Later, as the technology of photography became more mobile, he amassed an archive of studies taken out and about in the streets, mostly of young women in everyday clothing (it seems that there was also an archive, taken indoors, picturing young women in less, or no clothing.)

As his subjects were mainly the politics, personalities and current affairs of his day, the thrust of Sambourne’s cartoons can be obscure to the modern reader. He was a satiric commentator, not a campaigner, observing the privileged echelons of society (of which he was a member). This is perhaps encapsulated by an early cartoon of his, often referred to as “The Peacock Dress” (see below). The pictured gent is probably leaning against the rail of Rotten Row, in Hyde Park, where society’s glitterati paraded on horseback in the summertime London social “season”.

Miss Swellington Takes A Walk (Drawing), 1867,(RefNo.18ST.2013.0524.52)

Miss Swellington Takes a Walk, 1867 – Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Sambourne was an incorrigible bon viveur, and he died in 1910 from the cumulative effects of excess food, drink and tobacco. Their daughter Maud was a joy to her parents in many respects, marrying well, producing a brood of children, and being careful of her parents’ well-being. However, the verdict on their son Roy is not so rosy. It seems he suffered from profound mood swings and an unstable temperament. He found it hard to settle into anything. As a young man Roy was much in company with pretty actresses, to his parents’ disapproval, admiring them rather like the gent was doing in the cartoon above, looking at the girl in her peacock dress. Roy did not marry and lived on alone in the house until 1946, dying thirty-two years and two world wars after his mother had passed on in 1914. He made no alterations to the house over that period, and the walls of his bedroom remained adorned with portraits of the actresses he had known in his youth, each affectionately signed to his dedication (one is signed by “the babe”). This must have been rather poignant for a solitary individual, as he aged.

Roy's Room

Roy’s Room– Courtesy of: 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

So, in a way we have Roy’s loneliness and inertia to thank for the survival of the house in its original form. It passed to his sister Maud on his death, and she in turn wanted it to stay as it had been in her parents’ time. Her daughter Anne, Countess of Rosse, used it as a London pied-à-terre, and in 1958 founded “The Victorian Society” in the drawing room there. The house is now administered by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, whose diligence in maintaining this priceless relic, and facilitating access to it, is to be thoroughly applauded. It is very well worth a visit.

I am grateful to “A Victorian Household” (1988) by Shirley Nicholson for much of the factual information about the Sambourne family and house included above. Also to the guide in period costume who showed us around, and to the RBKC website on the subject.

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A Prey’s-eye Viewpoint

I don’t think I am an especially fussy reader, but I am sometimes mystified by the runaway success of certain books. This is the case with the much-garlanded “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, which has recently topped the Sunday Times bestseller list for general paperbacks. I doubt whether I would have read it all had I not been doing so for my book group, which would have been a pity since I did warm to it in its latter stages. The author rather swoops on the reader from the off and pecks mercilessly at them, so I shall assess her book from a prey’s-eye (i.e. this reader’s) viewpoint.


The book is an account of how the author reacted to the overwhelming grief she felt upon her father’s death by immersing herself in training and then hunting with a goshawk. Since childhood she has been obsessed with falconry, has read everything she can find on the subject, and has worked with other kinds of predatory birds. Training a goshawk, however, is apparently a much harder task owing to the particularly complex characteristics of the animal. The book deals with the vicissitudes of their time together, and with the author’s cathartic quest to heal her grief.

Birds of prey are indeed enigmatic and fascinating creatures, and I must say that the book contains a good deal of interesting and absorbing material about them and their place in human history. There is also some excellent and evocative writing about landscape and the natural world. The author is an affiliate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, so it is no surprise that her work includes a large body of appropriately learned references. The summaries of classic accounts of falconry, that she scatters around the text and sets against her own experiences, are highly informative and are used to good effect. Her device of running the goshawk-training ordeal of the writer T.H. White (as described in his book “The Goshawk” from 1951), parallel to her own, adds an extra dimension (although the distinctly crackers-sounding White is a curious choice of role model for someone in acute emotional distress).

But having read a dozen pages or so, I made the following note of my impressions to date: “Frantic, breathless, gushing, relentless emotional churning – it’s all me, me, me!” These early impressions, I’m afraid, persisted for much of the book. I felt as you do when someone sits next to you in the pub and talks endlessly at you, rather than with you, about themselves. There is also a constant striving for everything to be deep and meaningful, which becomes grating. For me, she makes the cardinal error of taking the reader’s interest in her life, and her every internal preoccupation, for granted, without actually earning it. We have all suffered bereavement, but she does not make me empathise with her condition in particular. This is because she does not establish herself as a sympathetic person, nor establish her deceased father and their former relationship as a reality I can genuinely care about.

There is an abiding self-absorption in the work, and an inability to filter out her internal chatter, that I found tough going and tiresome. Other characters who appear are only incidental to what is happening inside her. When she wants you to pay especial attention to something she is saying, she shouts it in your ear by putting it in italics! And then there is the whole matter, in itself, of “training” these quintessentially wild animals. She describes how she sets about imprisoning her goshawk Mabel, hooding her, and systematically manipulating every aspect of her existence. I sometimes wanted to shout: Why don’t you leave the poor bird alone? The bird (and the struggle to master her) is only ever there as an avatar in the author’s own psychodrama.

To be fair, the author does exhibit some self-knowledge as matters progress. At one point she recognises that, “the narcissism of the bereaved is very great” (p 152). And at another, after a bout of self-pity, she mentally shouts “Get over yourself, Helen,” at herself (p 208). She does come to question the morality of subordinating a wild animal to her own purposes, and does become uncomfortable with her complicity in the animal’s savage bloodthirstiness when they are out hunting together, which they do regularly after the training has been successful.

In time, the author decides that attempting to exorcise her grief by exposing herself to nature red-in-tooth-and-claw is a bit silly really, and she only starts to recover properly after a sensible doctor puts her on anti-depressants. She becomes more likable to me as her obsession with the goshawk shrinks, but then again what do I know of wild animals? My cat offers me simple companionship, and does me the kindness of committing any acts of savage predation he has in mind out of my sight.

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At the Landing Stage

I have written previously about the journalist Hugh Shimmin, who was such a vivid observer of Liverpool’s mid-Victorian low-life, and such a committed activist for improved social conditions in the town. Having been granted permission to reproduce the following portrait of Shimmin, I shall say a little more about his life and attitudes, as illustrated by a piece he wrote in 1860 concerning dodgy-doings at the George’s Landing Stage:


Hugh Shimmin (1819-1879) by Richard Norbury. Image by Public Catalogue Foundation. Courtesy National Museums Liverpool.

As appears from the portrait Shimmin had a roughness about him that advertised his humble origins, and a set of whiskers that were exuberant even by mid-Victorian standards. He could be combative, outspoken and intimidating, and he spared no one, high or low, in his denunciations of perceived moral and social failings.

The very Victorian emphasis on abstinence and self-improvement, that is often evident in his journalism, came from real personal experience rather than patrician sanctimony. He was born on the Isle of Man and was apparently brought up in poor circumstances, his father being a stonemason with a drink problem. The family moved first to mainland Whitehaven and then to Liverpool, where Shimmin was apprenticed to a bookbinder at only eight years old.  His father died a few years later, thrusting the boy into the role of provider for his mother and younger siblings. Eventually he became manager of the bookbinding workshop, and later bought it out, which put him on the road to ascending the social ladder as a self-made man in the world of books and publishing.

Just how morally disapproving he could be emerges from a short piece Shimmin published in his own periodical, Porcupine, on 15th December 1860. In it he observes the scene on a Sunday evening at the George’s Landing Stage, which in those days fringed the river in front of the George’s Dock (filled in during Edwardian times to be replaced by the monumental Three Graces). He describes the landing stage as being very crowded, owing to the busy ferry traffic transporting folk to the Cheshire shore for their Sunday recreation, and then back home again. He has no gripe with the honest citizens engaging in this pastime, but he has every difficulty with many other persons assembled on the landing stage:

“Young lads and girls who began by going there for a walk,” he writes, “soon made it a meeting-place. Older heads, with more vicious intentions, then began to frequent the stage, and it has gone on from bad to worse, until now it is almost impossible for a female to pass to or from the Ferries without being subjected to the rudeness, vulgarity, obscenity, or profanity of the shameless hordes, of both sexes, who congregate on, and pollute the stage by their presence.”

“The girls who frequent the stage,” he goes on, “and by their gaudy dress, rude speeches, and unseemly conduct, excite the disgust of all well disposed people, are not such as have given themselves up wholly to a dissolute life.” While he might not bracket them as out-and-out prostitutes, he does think that the manner of these girls’ mingling with young men there constitutes a “great public nuisance.” In short, he thinks it an indecent pick-up spot, which can incite the “ruin” of some young girls by “fast young men” who scent “the game of the Landing Stage.” One can imagine Shimmin pacing up and down the boards, growling with disapproval at the goings-on, and one can hardly imagine him going unobserved himself, given his striking personal appearance.

But it is an admirable characteristic of Shimmin’s that he is far from making the “lower orders” his only target in railing at the abuses he sees. “The evil would not have reached such a magnitude,” he maintains, “had it not received more substantial support. On a Sunday evening recently, we noticed men of good position, (one of whom had filled public offices in this town, and had a wife and family at home) leering and chatting with girls, whom they would in daylight, or in the public streets, be ashamed to acknowledge.”

Shimmin singles out (but does not name) “one of our great public men” who has just landed from the Rock Ferry boat: “He appeared to have been wooing the rosy god, or in plainer terms, he was partially intoxicated. He stood a little time by the south refreshment room, gnawing the head of his cane and reeling about now and then, noticing the while the girls that passed, and occasionally tapping some of them on the shoulder or hat. Having completed his resolve, he joined a group, and in a few minutes after was seen talking to a very young girl – a child, or little more – and by the eight o’clock boat this couple crossed to Seacombe.”

Shimmin remarks that “the number of aged men, of decent exterior [his italics] who promenaded and seemed to enjoy the scene was the most suggestive sight. To think of men who will walk to Church with their daughters in the morning, spend the afternoon with their amiable families, and yet devote the evening of the sacred day to the encouragement of such abominable profanity.”

The irony is that Hugh Shimmin himself was just such a man of “decent exterior” as he describes, spending his own Sunday evening away from his suburban villa to take in the “abominable” scene. I don’t seek to impugn his motives or denigrate his sincere efforts toward the betterment of society. But all of us are capable, on occasion, of being unable to define the line that divides our genuine abhorrence from our prurient curiosity.

I am indebted to “Low Life and Moral Improvement in Mid-Victorian England” edited by John K. Walton & Alastair Wilcox (1991) for the biographical information, and also to that publication for its reproduction of Shimmin’s article “Sunday Night on the Landing Stage” (“Porcupine”, 15 December 1860).

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Sweet Auburn

I visited the United States a lot in the nineties and early noughties, and in those days tended to let my curiosity run away with me so that I might suddenly find myself in the wrong part of town. This was, on occasion, an uncomfortable experience. But one day when I was in Atlanta, Georgia, I gave free-rein to my exploring instincts, to the most magnificent effect.

It was Tuesday 21st November 2000, and the disputed Bush/Gore presidential election had just taken place with its outcome still hanging in the balance. I was staying with a friend in suburban Atlanta and, as he and his partner were at work on the day in question, I took a train downtown to have a look around. As I was walking about the city centre, I became aware that large numbers of African-Americans were gathering and heading in a particular direction. The atmosphere was peaceful and celebratory. I went into a shop and asked what was going on, to be told that the funeral of a prominent civil rights activist, Hosea Williams, was taking place in a nearby inner-city area known as “Sweet Auburn”. I did not think twice before joining the crowds as they surged eastward along Auburn Avenue.

Though I had long been an admirer of the civil rights struggle of the nineteen-sixties, I must admit to not then having heard of Hosea Williams. I know now that he was a close associate of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and that he had led the attempted march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in 1965, on a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”. This demonstration in favour of African-American voting rights (generally denied to them throughout the south), was trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma when it was attacked by armed police. The peaceful marchers, including Williams himself, were gassed and beaten. And this wasn’t the first racist violence that Williams had endured. On returning from the Second World War in Europe, Williams, a decorated soldier still in uniform, was beaten so badly that he was left for dead by a gang of whites. His offence had been to drink water from a “whites only” fountain at a Southern bus station.

I was swept along by the crowds to eventually reach a building called the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Again, I did not know this at the time, but this was where Dr King and his father pastored in earlier years. I remember that mine was one of the very few white faces to be seen thereabouts, apart from some belonging to officers of the Atlanta police, as appears from this photograph I took outside the church:


The funeral itself was underway, and was being held in the new Ebenezer church building across the road. This was full to overflowing, as appears from my snapshot:


But, when I summoned up the courage to step through its doors into the old Ebenezer church, I found out that live coverage from across the road was being shown there on a screen. The hall was pretty crowded, though a welcoming usher showed me to a vacant space along a bench towards the back. It was thus my good luck to see and hear several of the impassioned speakers live, who included Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young. Dr King’s widow Coretta was there, along with a roll-call of civil rights campaigners. Reaction to the speakers pulsed around the church, and those around me frequently voiced responses, and frequently stood up and sat down again. Far from feeling like an outsider I found myself thoroughly buoyed upon the cresting waves of emotion, sometimes fighting back tears. Someone gripped my shoulder and someone else squeezed my arm. Everyone beamed at me, and soon I was responding vocally to the speakers myself, and getting up and down at climactic moments alongside everyone else.

I particularly remember one speaker, apparently Williams’ old friend James “Alley Pat” Patrick, puncturing the solemnity of his predecessors by stating that he intended to talk about “the real man” that he had hung out with “after midnight.” This was received with whops and hoots of knowing laughter. Apparently it’s well-established that, like Dr King himself, Williams was no stranger to secular indulgences of various sorts. “Alley Pat” treated us to a catalogue of delightful stories that lit his deceased companion in a less-than-sanctified light, all of which were greeted with great enthusiasm.

When the service was ended we all cleared the hall to observe the procession, which was then mustering around a simple mule-drawn waggon bearing the flag-draped coffin back into town. Williams was said to have often dressed in simple dungarees, and many of the mourners turned out in likewise fashion:


I climbed a wall to take this shot of the procession, showing Jesse Jackson walking behind the waggon with his hands on the coffin:


I was also much taken with these cowboy-hatted procession outriders:


On returning to my friend’s home in suburban Atlanta I excitedly recounted the events I had observed, and revelled in the extraordinary happenstance that had landed me in downtown Atlanta on that particular day. My friend’s partner regarded me with an expression of mock-concern and said, “We’ll have to put you under close supervision next time you’re allowed out and about.” She meant this humorously, but it did say something to me, nonetheless, about the continuing ruptures in American society. It’s sad that a white suburban American would regard attending such an event as something slightly alien, dangerous even, for someone like her to do. For myself I loved every minute of it, and felt blessed to have been there.

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