Friday, June 30, 2017

Before the Rain Comes

As I sit writing this with a jumper on and a rather dull day outside, it's difficult to believe that only a week or so ago we were basking in ridiculously warm temperatures by UK standards. Okay, it's the summer and so we expect (or hope) for some sunshine and warmth. Blazing heat, however, is a different matter. Clearly I am showing my age as I kept coming out with lines such as "it was never as hot as this in my day." But actually it was, of course. I vividly remember the hottest summer on record, 1976, when water was rationed and we were sent home early from school but it was too hot to play.

England has a reputation for being a cold, wet country. There are plenty of references in literature to
the prevalence of rain in the English weather. The Canterbury Tales opens with a line referring to April’s sweet showers – but it also refers to the “drought of March.” It is a surprising feature of the UK climate that drought is actually a recurring theme through history. Where I live on the chalk downs the springs are recorded as running dry in the drought years and the river, which is a “winter bourn” that relies on chalk streams to feed it, can sometimes dry up for several years.

As early as 682 AD there is a record of a terrible drought in Southern England and the crops dying in the fields and the population starving. In the medieval period the lack of rainfall could threaten the livelihood and then the lives of a significant part of the population. If wells and rivers ran dry and harvests failed the people died. Even the richer folk, the clergy and nobility suffered a loss of income from tithes although that is comparative when you can’t feed your family. 1730 was a drought summer and there have been at least ten major droughts since 1800.

One feature of the 19th century was that there were several instances of years when the winters were dry in a row leading to a shortage of water and a widespread failure of local water supplies. By this stage the industrialisation of society meant that supplies could be brought in by train but it also meant that there was a greater demand for water for industrial purposes in mills and works, some of which were forced to close as a result. It was not unusual for the use of water to be limited to four hours per day for months on end.

One consequence of drought was the spread of diseases such as typhoid and cholera. The “Great Stink” of London in 1858 was caused in no small part by the hot summer and the lack of rain. The Thames and many of its tributaries were overflowing with sewage and the warm weather encouraged bacteria to thrive causing both illness and terrible smells (smells so bad that there were plans for Parliament to move upriver to Hampton Court and for the law courts to relocate to Oxford.) This ghastly picture from the time, called The Silent Highwayman, illustrates all too vividly how disastrous a time it was. The situation was eased when the weather broke with heavy rain, as it always seems to do.

One of the rather curious things that occurs when there is a drought is that parch marks in the fields
reveal the outlines of ancient building and field systems. Another is that those valleys flooded to make reservoirs such as Mardale in the Lake District and Ladybower in Derbyshire reveal the ruins of the villages lost when the area was “drowned.”

King's tower and Queen's bower,
And weed and reed in the gloom;
And a lost city in Semmerwater,
Deep asleep till Doom.

- 'The Ballad of Semmerwater' by Sir William Watson

A lake called Semer or Simmer Water near Askrigg in Wensleydale (picture above from is said to cover the site of the lost village of Simmerdale (sometimes referred to as Old Bainbridge), submerged as a judgement on the wickedness of the inhabitants, according to old Yorkshire folklore. Whether there is any truth in this or not, it’s a story that I long to research and write about – perfect for a timeslip romance!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Pipes, Snuff and Poison

Looking at images of Georgian life, one gets the impression that the use of tobacco was neither general nor widespread. Caricatures tend to depict an exaggerated truth, and only in a few does one find a pipe smoker, and in none a man taking snuff.

Rowlandson shows one soldier smoking in a group of five, and similarly one working man among seven in a pub. A few men are depicted taking a pipe at their own hearth. Ackermann’s Fleet Prison yard, with groups enough to form a crowd, has one lone fellow with smoke issuing from his long clay pipe. Only Hogarth has half the males smoking pipes in a single group, and that is in a scene of drunken debauch!

It seems fair to assume, then, that although smoking was prevalent not everyone indulged in the habit; those who did confined their pipes to the pub, the coffee house or home. One can also be confident that far fewer women than men took tobacco at all, although an image of an elderly working class dame with a pipe pops up occasionally.

Clearly many did use snuff, because it was a high production trade and is mentioned in contemporary accounts. But although tobacco had a place, it seems unlikely that its use was anything like as widespread as it was during the earlier years of the twentieth century. Yet those Georgians who disapproved of the use of tobacco appear convinced that it was highly prevalent in their own time.

I have not yet killed off a character with tobacco, but I well might. The dangers were known. Tobacco is listed in a late 18th Century treatise on poisons. According to the writer, there was evidence to suggest it was an active poison, “yet everyone knows that under the influence of habit it is used in immense quantities over the whole world as an article of luxury, without any bad effect having ever been clearly traced to it.”

Much was made of the effects of snuff on workmen who manufactured it, some sources claiming it gave them bronchitis and dysentery among other ailments, but others managed to prove that workmen became used to it and didn’t suffer any ill effects. As ever, those with a vested interest will find a way to prove their point!

Such symptoms as were noted are known to us now: speeded up heart rate, giddiness, shortness of breath, spasms, fainting, sickness, weak pulse and sleepiness. One doctor suspected apoplexy (heart attack) “is one of the evils in train of that disgusting practice”, referring to taking snuff. Two young men actually died from tobacco poisoning, having smoked about “seventeen pipes at a sitting”. One wonders how that compares with 20 or 40 a day now?

We are indebted to a French chemist of the era, Vauquelin, for naming the killer substance in tobacco as nicotine. Later chemists argued about which precise part of tobacco caused the problems, but it was generally agreed that tobacco contained an “acrid, alkaline principle and an essential oil to which the alkaloid adheres with great obstinacy”, which was bad news.

As early as King James, who wrote “The Counter-Blaste to Tobacco” within a few years of its introduction into Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh, it was believed that the smoking habit would result in “evil consequences” because of its poisonous qualities. Some governments tried to stop its introduction, although their methods were harsher than our current bans on smoking in public places. Popes excommunicated those who smoked in St Peters; in Russia it was punished with amputation of the nose; and in the Canton of Bern it ranked next to adultery.

Did that make any difference? Not according to the treatise writer: “Like every other persecuted novelty, however, smoking and snuff-taking passed from place to place with rapidity; and now there appear to be only two luxuries which yield to it in prevalence, spirituous liquors and tea.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chôse!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Nightingale Chronicles - Better Bend Than Break

Today my post is unashamedly promotion. The third book  in The Nightingale Chronicles is now on pre order on Amazon and for sale everywhere else. The link to the other venues crashes this page so not going to include it. 
I have enjoyed writing these books and the final one, All Well That Ends Well will be out next year sometime. The first three have been set in East End of London and Colchester, my home town. Made research so much easier. The final book will be in East End again and in Chelmsford.
Here is the blurb and the first couple of pages. Hope you enjoy it enough to download.  
Her name was Sarah Cooper – she could hardly believe she was no longer a Nightingale like her brother Alfie. She twisted the thin gold band around her finger and smiled shyly at her husband.
'Well, Sarah love, you've made me the happiest of men.' He didn't kiss her but pulled her hand through his arm and led her back down the aisle.
'I can't remember ever being so happy, Dan, and to think that only two years ago…'
'No, lovey, put the past behind you. You're my wife now, ma to our three boys, and it's my job to look after you all.'
She emerged from the church just as the heavens opened. Was this a bad omen? Then the children threw themselves at her and she forgot her silly fears.
'Are we going to get wet, Ma?' Joe, the eight-year-old, asked as he danced around clinging onto her hand.
'Fraid so, son, but it's not far from the church to our house. If we all run it won't be too bad,' Dan said as he ruffled the boy's hair.
The youngest, John, held out his arms to be picked up. 'You're a bit too big to be carried, young man, and we can run faster holding hands.'
'Yes, Ma, I'm the bestest runner.'
Davie, almost as tall as his brother although he was a year younger, grabbed John's other hand. 'We're blocking up the doorway, Ma, we'd better set off.'
Dan took the lead with Joe close beside him; she raced along behind holding her skirts up with her left hand and clutching Davie's with the other.
The weather had been clement when they had set out to St Leonard's Church but the clouds had rolled in whilst they were inside exchanging their vows.
Dan already had the door open and they tumbled in laughing and shaking the rain from their clothes and hair.
'Joe, stay by the door so you can open and close it when anyone arrives. Would you look at that – blooming rain's stopped now – we could have waited and saved ourselves a deal of bother.'
'Never mind, at least our guests won't get wet. It's a good thing we didn't put out any of the food before we left or it would have been quite spoiled.'
'You get the kettle on, love, and I'll get the boys to start taking out the sandwiches and cakes. I still think we should have had some beer to celebrate the occasion.'
The front door opened and shut and her brother Alfie, and her best friend Betty Thomas, burst in laughing. They seemed a bit too cosy to her, Alfie was only sixteen and in her opinion far too young to be courting.
It was different for her, she had married an older man, someone with a good job who could take care of her and the boys. Alfie had done well for himself in London, come back with his pockets full, but he wasn't properly established in Colchester as yet and must be living on his savings.
'You should have waited a bit, Sarah, the rain stopped and the rest of us have walked here without getting wet.' Alfie was a head taller than her and looked older than his years.
'Don't just stand there, you and Betty have got jobs to do. I'm the bride – I shouldn't have to be waiting on you and everyone else today.'
Betty hugged her and dashed into the kitchen and Sarah heard her put the kettle on the range. The mugs, milk jug, teapots and sugar were all waiting. All that had to be done was boil the water and tip it in.
Dan joined her in the front parlour where they had decided to greet the guests as they came in before directing them outside. 'Is the backyard very mucky after that rain? Do you think we should stay in here?'
'Don't fret, sweetheart, no one will mind getting a bit of dirt on their boots. The boys are wiping down the benches and chairs so they won't be wet to sit on.'
'I can hear others arriving. I wish my ma could have been here to see me wed.'
He squeezed her shoulder and she wiped away the unwanted tears. Nothing was right about this marriage – although she loved the children, and was very fond of Dan, theirs wasn't going to be a proper marriage – at least not for the moment.
All his mates, and their families, from the timber yard crowded into the small house as well as Mr and Mrs Davies, and a dozen or so other friends of Dan's. She and Betty had made plenty of food so no one would go hungry. In pride of place, on the trestle that served as a table, was the cake. She had made this herself and was proud of her efforts – she hoped it tasted as good as it looked.
Halfway through the afternoon Mrs Davies drew her to one side. 'Sarah, lovey, I reckon one of the menfolk went to a beerhouse and brought back a few jugs.'
'I thought the noise was getting louder. There's nothing I can do about it, I just thought with so many children attending my wedding breakfast that alcohol wasn't a good idea.'
The front door had been left open to allow a welcome breeze to drift through the house. There was no danger that uninvited visitors would come in as Alfie's huge dog, Buster, was guarding the opening. It would be a brave person who tried to step past him.
The dog barked and she stepped back into the passageway to see what had disturbed him. 'Good heavens, Ada, I'm so glad you have come after all.'
Ada Billings had taken her in when she had been all but destitute and Sarah had kept in touch with her. 'Come out of the way, Buster, let my guests come in.' The dog heaved himself to his feet and stood there, waist-high, his long grey tail wagging.
'I hope you don't mind, I brought my oldest son, Robert, with me. He's a pal of your Alfie and has just got back from Harwich after his last voyage.'
'Have you not brought any of the children? There are more than a dozen playing in the yard with my three boys.'
'No, bless you, you wouldn't want my brood racketing about at your wedding breakfast. The neighbour's keeping an eye out for them so I can't stay long.'
Her son was tall, had broad shoulders, a pleasant face and startlingly bright red hair. He held out his hand and she shook it. 'I'm delighted to meet you, Mrs Cooper, Alfie has told me so much about you I feel we're friends already.'
'Please call me Sarah, everyone else does. Come in, the tea and ginger beer are in the kitchen and I'm pretty sure there's beer available in the yard.'
Robert smiled and wandered off – she wasn't surprised he ignored the tea and ginger beer. 'Ada, you look so much better. I can't believe the difference in you since I saw you a few months ago.'
'I told Billings there would be no more babies in my house and if he wanted a bit of how's your father he'd have to find it somewhere else. He's moved in with his fancy woman in Barrack Street and good riddance to him. My Robert is taking care of us now.' She beamed proudly. 'He's going up in the world you know, is taking exams and everything. I reckon he'll be a captain of a ship before he's finished.'
'He's a cut above his brother and pa, then? I didn't know the sons of ordinary folk like us ever got to be a captain of a ship. I'm pleased for you – your life will be so much easier from now on.'
A sudden burst of laughter outside interrupted their conversation. Sarah led the way into the yard to see what was causing all the commotion.
'Good heavens, they're playing the Reverend Crawley's game. I'm going to join in,' Sarah said, and ran across to take her place in the circle. The object of this game was to join hands with the people in the ring, but you couldn't hold the hand of anyone standing beside you.
She found herself attached to Robert Billings with her right hand and an unknown child with her left. It took a considerable time for everyone who wanted to play to get themselves in position. Now the fun started as the object was to untangle themselves without letting go.
She couldn't remember laughing so much in her whole life and when eventually the knot was undone to her astonishment she discovered there were two separate circles of players, one inside the other.
Dan put his arms around her and she leant back into his embrace. He rested his chin on top of her head and sighed.
'Is something wrong?'
'No, my love, I couldn't be happier. When everyone's gone, I need to show you something. Alfie and Betty are going to take care of the boys whilst we're out for a bit.'

Fenella J Miller

Better Bend Than Break is the third book in The Nightingale Chronicles, a series of four, Victorian family sagas. Sarah Nightingale marries Dan Cooper and becomes mother to his three boys. They move to a fine house of their own and Sarah has never been happier. Alfie Nightingale is obliged to do the right thing by Sarah's friend Betty, so now there will be two babies in the family. Then one disaster follows another and Sarah and Alfie have dreadful choices to make if they and their families are to survive.

Colchester 1843

Saturday, June 10, 2017

First Names: a second look

I really enjoyed Elizabeth Bailey’s post on May 30th. I, too, have always been fascinated by first names, especially what names were in fashion when, and what they indicate about their owners’ status. I have, over the years, done several blogs about this, but, today, I’d like to share with you some of the name books I have in my collection and how useful I’ve found them.


Oxford Dictionary of First Names by Hanks and Hodges

First up is the Oxford Dictionary of First Names by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges. My copy dates from 2003. It covers a much wider range of names than E.G. Withycombe’s Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names. For a start, the names included are not necessarily either English or Christian. It covers British (including Celtic) and European names; those of Canada, Australia and New Zealand; American names, Black names, and has special sections on Arab names and those from the Indian sub-continent.

‘Daisy’: A popular Victorian name brooch

For example, take the name Stephen. It gives the name’s history: ‘the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7)’, the date, and what the name means: it comes from the Greek stephanos, which means a garland or crown. It then gives you the name in eleven foreign languages from French: Etienne or Stéphane; to Italian: Stephano; to Spanish: Esteban; and Hungarian: István. Really useful, if you want to introduce a sexy French nobleman escaping from Revolutionary Paris, or a Portuguese guerrilla harrying Napoleon’s retreating army in the Peninsular War.


Everyman’s Dictionary of First Names by Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling
My next book is Everyman’s Dictionary of First Names by Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling, published by Book Club associates in 1983. Leslie Dunkling founded The Names Society in 1969 and published a number of books about the origins of first names in the English-speaking world. He has plainly done some serious research and corrected some of E G. Withycombe’s conclusions, for example: ‘Miss Withycombe makes the rather extraordinary statement that Maxine is ‘a favourite modern French girl’s name’. In fact, the name will not be found in any French name dictionary, and French people consider it to be an English name.’   


The Guinness Book of Names by Leslie Dunkling
Leslie Dunkling also wrote First Names First and The Guinness Book of Names, both of which are well worth snapping up. The latter has tables of the top 50 first names of both sexes from 1838 (when the legal registration of births came in), 1850, 1875, 1900, 1925,1950 and 1971.)

Maxi Prénoms by Florence le Bras
Lastly, a French book of names called Maxi Prénoms by Florence le Bras published by Marabout in 2000 which I bought in Canada. It’s a fun book to browse through but I have to say that its etymological accuracy can be dubious. Take Cordélia. Le Bras says it’s from ‘de Delya’, that is the Greek island of Delos, which seems fanciful, to say the least. Withycombe and Dunkling agree that it’s probably a variation of Cordula, one of the companions of St Ursula.
I take the names I use in my books very seriously - as I know you all do. I try and make sure that they are not anachronistic. All the same, I still hanker after heroes with exotic names!

Elizabeth Hawksley

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Legend of Corryvreckan

Whirlpools, Viking Princes ,George Orwell & Austen.

Hi Melinda here.
This post is a little different, but I hope you will bear with me, because  although it does not relate directly to the Regency, it does involve myths, legends and a few literary links, which I hope you will appreciate!

 I have just returned from an Island-hopping holiday in Scotland and the highlight of the trip was chasing whirlpools in the Gulf of Corryvreckan.  You may think there is no link with Regency romance here, but I am sure that anyone who writes historical adventures would find their imagination running riot,  as mine was, and I have no doubt that many sailing ships of the time tried to sail through the Gulf, and possibly some of them foundered. There are many stories surrounding this area and the whole experience was truly inspiring. I could easily imagine the fears of those early sailors who suddenly found themselves in what appears to be a giant boiling cauldron.

The Gulf of Corryvreckan is a narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba off the west coast of Scotland. The seabed at this point is very deep (around 100m) with numerous humps and holes, including one huge hole going down 219 metres and an equally huge pinnacle which rises to just 29 metres from the surface. The effect of these two features forces water upwards into the tidal flow, where is forms whirlpools, even when conditions are otherwise calm.

At full strength the currents can reach over 10 knots, and in stormy conditions standing waves can be up to 5 metres high.  Imagine you are a sailing ship wanting to sail against such a current.  Apparently, it is not too bad at slack water, but ships under sail, and even modern boats without powerful engines, can find themselves going backwards.

Many sailors have drowned trying to navigate through the gulf of Corryvreckan, and – to give you a literary link – George Orwell, who was living on Jura at the time, was nearly drowned there. He had taken his nephew out in a dinghy which lost its motor and was in danger of being sucked into one of the whirlpools. The story goes that he tried rowing but lost the oars, but he still managed to get himself and his nephew to the shore, where they were rescued by a lobster boat.  That was in 1947: if he had perished, then he would not have finished his most famous work, 1984.

We visited the Corryvreckan with SeaFari Adventures (, sailing from Easdale  in a powerful open RIB and had to dress appropriately in waterproofs and a life jacket.
Dressed for the Occasion!
We had three experienced crew members with us, who explained what caused the phenomena and told us some of the tales surrounding the Corryvreckan. They took us into the heart of some of the whirlpools, so that we were spinning around with the water. There was a spring tide but the weather conditions were very calm, so although the waters were choppy the waves were less than a metre. They still provided plenty of spray, though, so our waterproofs were necessary!
 We watched as large areas of the water surface became very flat and calm before swelling upwards and turning into a churning mass of water that would then form itself into a whirlpool. It was exhilarating to be so low in the water that one could reach out and touch the surface, which was calm one moment, boiling the next. It really was like being on top of a giant, bubbling cauldron.

One legend says that Corryvreckan means Breacan's Cauldron. The Viking Prince Breacan wanted to marry the Lord of the Isles' daughter, but to do so he had to prove his courage by anchoring his boat in the whirlpool for three days. He took advice from his father's wise men who told him it could only be done by using three ropes, one of hemp, one of wool and the third made from the hair of pure maidens.

Breacan followed their instructions and at first it seemed he would succeed, for although the hemp and wool ropes broke, the one made from virgins' hair held firm – until the third day, when it broke because one of the maidens was not as pure as she made out! The hapless Breacan drowned in the whirlpool.

And another literary claim (although tenuous), is that the whirlpool of Charybdis, described in Homer's Oddysey, is in fact the Corryvreckan!
As a writer I spend most of my days sitting at my desk making up adventures for my characters. Indeed, I would not describe myself as an adventurous person, but I thoroughly enjoyed "playing" in the whirlpools. It was exciting, exhilarating and maybe, as Austen says - "None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”  

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory