The great tea race

Ariel and Taeping at sea during the great Tea Race of 1866. Oil painting by Jack Spurling, 1926.

Captain John Keay, master of the new British clipper ship Ariel, had good reason to feel pleased with himself. He had secured the first cargo of tea to come to market at the great Chinese port of Foochow (modern Fuzhou) in 1866—560 tons of first and second pickings, freighted at the high price of £7 a ton: the very finest leaves available. The cargo had been floated out to him in lighters, packed in more than 12,000 hand-made tea chests, and stowed below decks in the record time of just four days.

Now Ariel was weighing anchor. It was 5 p.m. on the evening of May 28, which made her the first tea clipper to sail for London that season. She was a brand new ship: “A perfect beauty,” Keay recalled, “to every nautical man who saw her; in symmetrical grace and proportion of hull, spars, sails, rigging and finish she satisfied the eye and put all in love with her without exception. Very light airs gave her headway, and I could trust her like a thing alive in all evolutions.”

Ariel was indeed the fleetest vessel of her time; flying the astounding total of more than 26,000 square feet of canvas, she could reach speeds of 16 knots, far faster than contemporary steamers. But the advantage that Keay held over the other clippers crowded in the port was minimal, and Ariel was unlucky with her tugs. The paddle steamer Island Queen, hired to take the clipper in tow, lacked the power to carry her across the bar of the Min River against a falling tide. Stranded for the night, Keay and his crack crew were forced to lie at anchor and watch as their rivals completed their own hurried loading and started in pursuit. That evening the rival Fiery Cross came down the river towed by a more powerful tug, edged her way into clear water, and set a course east across the China Sea. Keay was still negotiating the bar next morning when two other clippers, Serica and Taeping, appeared beside him. The Tea Race of 1866—the most exciting in the history of the China trade—was on. Continue reading

The mystery of the five wounds

St Francis receives the stigmata. From a foil plaque on a 13th- century reliquary.

On September 14, 1224, a Saturday, Francis of Assisi—noted ascetic and holy man, future saint—was preparing to enter the second month of a retreat with a few close companions on Monte La Verna, overlooking the River Arno in Tuscany. Francis had spent the previous few weeks in prolonged contemplation of the suffering Jesus Christ on the cross, and he may well have been weak from protracted fasting. As he knelt to pray in the first light of dawn (notes the Fioretti—the ‘Little flowers of St Francis of Assisi,’ a collection of legends and stories about the saint),

he began to contemplate the Passion of Christ… and his fervor grew so strong within him that he became wholly transformed into Jesus through love and compassion…. While he was thus inflamed, he saw a seraph with six shining, fiery wings descend from heaven. This seraph drew near to St Francis in swift flight, so that he could see him clearly and recognize that he had the form of a man crucified… After a long period of secret converse, this mysterious vision faded, leaving… in his body a wonderful image and imprint of the Passion of Christ. For in the hands and feet of Saint Francis forthwith began to appear the marks of the nails in the same manner as he had seen them in the body of Jesus crucified.

In all, Francis found that he bore five marks: two on his palms and two on his feet, where the nails that fixed Christ to the cross were traditionally believed to have been hammered home, and the fifth on his side, where the Bible says Jesus had received a spear thrust from a Roman centurion.

Thus was the first case of stigmata—the appearance of marks or actual wounds paralleling those Christ received during Crucifixion—described. Later stigmatics (and there have been several hundred of them) have exhibited similar marks, though some bear only one or two wounds, while others also display scratches on their foreheads, where Christ would have been injured by his crown of thorns. Through the centuries, stigmata has become one of the best-documented, and most controversial, of mystical phenomena. The extensive record makes it possible to compare cases that occurred centuries apart.
Continue reading

William Shakespeare: gangster

The “Chandos Portrait” of Shakespeare–dating to c.1600 and one of only two that may have been painted from life–is thought to be the work of the playwright’s “intimate friend” John Taylor of the Painter-Stainers’ Company (though it may not show Shakespeare at all). Its be-earringed playwright, pictured without the usual ruff, seems to show an altogether tougher character than the figure that appears in more familiar likenesses.

You wouldn’t think it by looking at the long line of Shakespeare biographies on the library shelves, but everything we know for sure about the life of the world’s most revered playwright would fit comfortably onto a few pages.

Yes, we know that a man named Will Shakespeare was born in the Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. We know that someone of pretty much the same name married and had children there (the baptismal register says Shaxpere, the marriage bond Shagspere), that he went to London, was an actor. We know that some of the most wonderful plays ever written were published under this man’s name–though we also know so little about his education, experiences and influences that an entire literary industry exists to prove that Shaxpere-Shagspere did not write, could not have written, them. We know that our Shakespeare gave evidence in a single obscure court case, signed a couple of documents, went home to Stratford, made a will and died in 1616.

And that’s just about it.

In one sense, this is not especially surprising. We know as much about Shakespeare as we know about most of his contemporaries–Ben Jonson, for instance, remains such a cipher that we can’t be sure where he was born, to whom, or even exactly when. “The documentation for William Shakespeare is exactly what you would expect of a person of his position at that time,” says David Thomas of Britain’s National Archives. “It seems like a dearth only because we are so intensely interested in him.” Continue reading

“Above the Senior Wrangler”

Philippa Fawcett. When she placed first in the Cambridge mathematical tripos in 1890, she forced a reassessment of nineteenth-century belief in the inferiority of the “weaker sex.”

To be a woman in the Victorian age was to be weak: the connection was that definite. To be female was also to be fragile, dependent, prone to nerves and—not least—possessed of a mind that was several degrees inferior to a man’s. For much of the 19th century, women were not expected to shine either academically or athletically, and those who attempted to do so were cautioned that they were taking an appalling risk. Mainstream medicine was clear on this point: to dream of studying at the university level was to chance madness or sterility, if not both.

It took generations to transform this received opinion; that, a long series of scientific studies, and the determination and hard work of many thousands of women. For all that, though, it is still possible to point to one single achievement, and one single day, and say: this is when everything began to change. That day was June 7, 1890, when—for the first and only time—a woman ranked first in the mathematical examinations held at the University of Cambridge. It was the day that Philippa Fawcett placed “above the Senior Wrangler.”

To understand why one woman’s achievement so shook the prejudices of the Victorian age—and why newspapers from the New York Times to the Times of India thought it worthwhile to devote thousands of words to an exam that today means little to anybody but the students themselves—it is necessary to understand why Cambridge mathematics mattered in the 19th century. Continue reading

In search of Queen Victoria’s voice

“Greetings, Britons and everybody.” Queen Victoria in 1887, at about the time she made her Graphophone recording.

It is a woman’s voice, but it sounds as though it comes drifting toward us across some vast and unbridgeable distance. It is all but drowned out by the snaps and the crackles and pops of what is by any standard a primitive recording. And yet—listened to over and over again—the voice does begin to sound refined. Perhaps even a little bit imperious.

The words that the woman speaks are muffled, but it is possible to make at least a few of them out. Some people have sworn that they can hear “tomatoes,” for example, blurted out toward the end of the track. But what about the very first syllables preserved on the recording—a 20-second audio segment believed to have been made more than 130 years ago, late in 1888, in the earliest days of the recording industry? Is that really the voice of Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria? And, if it is, can she really be welcoming her listeners with the words: “Greetings, Britons and everybody”?

There is no real doubt that Britain’s longest-reigning monarch allowed her voice to be recorded in that long-ago fall. The man who made the recording freely discussed it and it is recalled in a letter in the Royal Archives, dated 1907; the incident also rates a passing mention (without a source attribution) in Elizabeth Longford’s exhaustive biography of the Queen, Victoria R.I. The question is what happened to the recording after it was made—and, in a broader sense, why it matters whether it still exists. The search for the recording takes us from the New Jersey laboratories of Thomas Edison to the Highlands of Scotland, and from the archives of the Rolls-Royce motor company to the vaults beneath London’s Science Museum. Before we set of on that trail, though, we first need to understand why anyone should be interested in a few utterly unimportant phrases spoken by a long-dead queen. Continue reading

Pablo Fanque’s fair

Pablo Fanque: expert equestrian, tightrope walker, acrobat, showman–and Britain’s first black circus owner.

Anyone who has ever listened to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–and that’s a few hundred million people at the last estimate–will know the swirling melody and appealingly nonsensical lyrics of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” one of the most unusual tracks on that most eclectic of albums.

For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair—what a scene
Over men and horses, hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!
In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world!

But who are these people, these horsemen and acrobats and “somerset turners” of a bygone age? Those who know a bit about the history of the circus in its mid-Victorian heyday–before the coming of the music halls and the cinema stole its audience, at a time when a traveling show could set up in a mid-size town and play for two or three months without exhausting demand–will recognize that John Lennon got his vocabulary right when he wrote those lyrics. “Garters” are banners stretched between poles aloft held by two men; the “trampoline,” in those days, was simply a springboard, and the “somersets” Mr. Henderson undertakes to “throw on solid ground” were somersaults.

While true Beatlemaniacs will know that Mr. Kite and his companions were real performers in a real troupe, however, few will realize that they were associates of what was probably the most successful, and almost certainly the most beloved, “fair” to tour Britain in the mid-Victorian period. And almost none will know that Pablo Fanque–the man who owned the circus—was more than simply an exceptional showman and perhaps the finest horsemen of his day. He was also a black man making his way in an almost uniformly white society, and doing it so successfully that he played to mostly capacity houses for the best part of 30 years. Continue reading

The last of the Cornish packmen

Elis the pedlar, a Welsh packman working the villages around Llanfair in about 1885. John Thomas Collection, National Library of Wales

Before the coming of the railways, and the buses, and the motor car, when it was not uncommon for isolated farms to be a day’s walk from the nearest shops, the closest many people got to a department store was when a wandering peddler came to call.

Wheeled transport was still expensive then, and most rural roads remained unmade, so the great majority of these traveling salesmen carried their goods on their backs. Their packs usually weighed about a hundredweight (100 pounds, or about 50 kilos—not much less than their owners), and they concealed a treasure trove of bits and pieces, everything from household goods to horsehair wigs, all neatly arranged in drawers.  Since the customers were practically all female, the best-sellers were almost always beauty products; readers of Anne of Green Gables may recall that she procured the dye that colored her hair green from just such a peddler.

Over the years, these fixtures of the rural scene went by many names; they were buffers, or duffers, or packmen, or dustyfoots. Some were crooks, but a surprisingly high proportion of them were honest tradesmen, more or less, for it was not possible to built a profitable round without providing customers with a reasonable service. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it has been estimated, an honest packman on the roads of England might earn more than a pound a week, a pretty decent income at that time. More

Three 1950s youths in a medieval plague village

Kersey in 1957. Although Jack Merriott's watercolor presents an idealized image of the village – it was commissioned for use in a railway advertising campaign – it does give an idea of just how 'old' Kersey must have looked to strangers in the year it became central to a 'timeslip' case.

Kersey in 1957. Although Jack Merriott’s watercolor presents an idealized image of the village – it was commissioned for use in a railway advertising campaign – it does give an idea of just how ‘old’ Kersey must have looked to strangers in the year it became central to a ‘timeslip’ case.

Looking back, the really strange thing was the silence. The way the church bells stopped ringing as the little group of naval cadets neared the village. The way even the ducks stood quiet and motionless by the shallow stream that ran across the road where the main street began.

And, when the boys thought about it afterward, they recalled that even the autumn birdsong faded as they neared the first houses. The wind had dropped to nothing, too.

Not a leaf stirred on the trees they passed. And the trees appeared to cast no shadows.

The street itself was quite deserted—not so odd, perhaps, for a Sunday morning in 1957, especially in the rural heart of England. But even the remotest British hamlets displayed some signs of modernity by then—cars parked by the roadside, phone wires strung along the roads, aerials on roofs—and there was nothing of that sort in this village. In fact, the houses on the high street all looked ancient; they were ragged, hand-built, timber-framed: “almost medieval in appearance,” one boy thought.

The three, all Royal Navy cadets, walked up to the nearest building and pressed their faces to its grimy windows. They could see that it was some sort of butcher’s shop, but what they glimpsed in the interior was even more unsettling. As one of them recalled for the author Andrew MacKenzie:

There were no tables or counters, just two or three whole oxen carcasses which had been skinned and in places were quite green with age. There was a green-painted door and windows with smallish glass panes, one at the front and one at the side, rather dirty-looking. I remember that as we three looked through that window in disbelief at the green and mouldy green carcasses… the general feeling certainly was one of disbelief and unreality… Who would believe that in 1957 that the health authorities would allow such conditions?

They peered into another house. More

The strange tale of the Warsaw basilisk

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

Few creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk: a crested snake, hatched from a cock’s egg, that was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example to the right comes from a German bestiary, but the earliest description that we have was given by Pliny the Elder, who described the basilisk in his pioneering Natural History (79AD) – the 37 volumes of which he completed shortly before being suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly nonetheless. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny wrote, “but advances loftily and upright” – a description that accords with the popular notion that the basilisk is the king of serpents – and “kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits rocks, such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was native to Libya, it was said, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.

The Roman poet Lucan was one of the first authors to describe the basilisk. His work stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

The Roman poet Lucan stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

Pliny is not the only ancient author to mention the basilisk. The Roman poet Lucan, writing only a few years later, described another characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster – the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to its venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair.

The basilisk was popular in medieval bestiaries, and it was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. More

“They don’t like it up ’em…” Revisiting the sordid deaths of Edmund Ironside, Edward II, Kenneth II and James I of Scotland

Edward II – still the only English monarch to be subject of his own ‘anal rape narrative’

To be a king and to be murdered – one might say – is no more than a hazard of the job. To be a king and to be murdered in one’s privy, however, is to suffer a considerable indignity. Yet precisely this fate was visited on at least two British royals, if certain sources are believed – and to that number we might add the awful fate of a third king, Edward II, popularly thought to have been done in by means of a red-hot poker forced into his rectum, not to mention the fortunate if malodorous escape of a royal consort, Gerald of Windsor, whose ravishing Welsh wife, Princess Nest, lived an adventurous life early in the twelfth century. More