I was trying to find out about early nineteenth century plant labels (I will tell you why another time), when I came across an interesting name, a name associated with ghosts in the garden.
Now I don’t mean ghosts like the young lady, wearing in a long white dress, who I saw one late summer evening, long years ago, walking across an old garden in Bristol. She stepped behind a clump of shrubs and vanished. I hope she walks there still. I can think of worse ways to spend your afterlife than walking though English gardens in the summer twilight.
No this ghost is very real.
At the beginning of the last century lived Ellen Willmott, she was a great gardener. One person dubbed her “the greatest of all living women gardeners”, though none would agree with that now, simply because the remark was made by Gertrude Jekyll, who was the greatest of all women gardeners.
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Ellen Willmott was a great gardener. She was also a notable garden writer, writing for magazines like ‘Country Life’. In the course of her journalism she visited many gardens, up and down the land, nervously welcomed as everyone wanted a good review from Miss Willmott, and all dreaded a bad one.
And then – after a few years gardeners everywhere began to notice a new flower appearing in their herbaceous borders, a straggly blue flower with spiky leaves. Then it was realised that the flowers began to make an appearance a year or so after a visit from Miss Willmott. She never admitted it, but people though that she had a secret pocket full of the seeds, which she discretely scattered in the flowerbeds as she bent to admire a particular flower.
It is for this reason that Eryngium giganteum is now known as;
Miss Willmott’s ghost
It has been some time since I described a discovery I had made in a charity shop, and the journey of discovery on which it could lead. My previous discoveries have included Playing Cards, a Kitchen Ladle and a collection of Regency Music.
It was in a glass case, it looked very tatty but old, the initial glimpse suggested a couple of hundred years or so old.
It was a small tray, the base of which was a picture, clearly of eighteenth century date. On initial examination it could be seen that the picture looked as if it was a print of a young couple. The rest of the tray was faded and discoloured, but immediately suggested something interesting, that it was not a professionally made object but something made by an amateur. I naturally bought it immediately and took it home for examination.
Cleaning it confirmed what I had expected, the base had been decorated with a section cut from a larger print and then coloured, probably in watercolour. It was in excellent condition, having been protected by a sheet of glass, now heavily scratched from long use. The same could not be said for the sides of the tray. Made from thin wood they had been covered with ribbon and the top protected by a length of metal braid.
Whilst I was now pretty certain, that the box was of eighteenth century date, there were some things I could do to help confirm this. The first was to identify the print. Here the British Museum website proved invaluable. It allows you to enter a series of criteria to search their huge collections. It was a print, it was probably eighteenth century, the style looked to me to be French, and the young woman seemed to be feeding the young man cherries. I therefore entered these terms and in the few moments discovered this;
The print dates from 1784 and shows a scene from a French comic opera ‘Les Sabots’, with the hero and heroine Colin and Babet. The opera was written by Jacques Cazotte, an unusual author who was claimed to be able to predict the future, and is supposed to have given detailed descriptions of what was to happen to his acquaintances during the revolution. This skill didn’t help him though, as he was guillotined in 1792.
The sides of the tray were decorated with what appears to be a ribbon with a woven pattern, probably a floral sprig and the top is covered with a metallic braid folded over the wood. This suggests that the tray was made at home of material readily available, and is typical of some of the craftwork done by the ‘accomplished ladies’ of the eighteenth century. Prints were used to decorate just about everything on which they could be stuck, from small items like this tray, to furniture and even entire rooms.
The tray was probably used on a dressing table, to hold small objects.
So I will add the tray to my collection, and keep exploring our local charity shops.
He struck the chisel with the wooden mallet, carefully. There was hardly any light as there was firedamp in the mine. Any flame or spark and the explosion would be devastating.
Then he saw it – a flame. It was approaching, he had nowhere to run, he shouted.
“Stop! there’s firedamp, stop!”
The flame approached, he continued to scream, the man was trying to shout something but the miner didn’t hear, as he fainted in terror.
He came too to see his vicar looking down, by the light of an impossible flame burning in – the world’s first safety lamp.
Firedamp, which mostly consisted of methane, was a terrible danger in early coal mines. It was highly inflammable, and as candles were the only way of lighting mines, the cause of many disasters.
After a terrible explosion which killed over ninety miners in 1812 the Rev. John Hodgson, vicar of Jarrow, campaigned for a safe way of lighting mines. The challenge was taken up by Sir Humphrey Davy and George Stephenson, in 1815 the two men had come up with similar solutions. It was whilst demonstrating Stephenson’s light that my tale took place.
This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a chisel. Use chisel as a noun or a verb. Hope you enjoy it.
He knew how it would be, it wasn’t that people were unkind but for someone profoundly deaf there was little he could enjoy in a party like this.
The guests were introduced, he smiled, was about to sit down and read, when the last woman smiled back and flicked her fingers.
“Good afternoon?” She signed, “what is the book?”
For the first time in years he sat and enjoyed a conversation. She certainly knew her books, and suggested many things he could read. As she rose to leave he asked.
“Have you ever written anything?”
“Perhaps.” Signed Jane Austen.
This tale is absolutely true, the meeting took place in Southampton on December 27th 1808. I have blogged about it before in ‘Jane’s Other Language.’
This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a sign. It can be a posted sign, a universal sign, a wonder. Go where the prompt leads. I have bent the meaning slightly.
The privateer came out of the mist, the sailors had no chance, their ship was moored by the waveswept rock where the engineers were working.
The French captain laughed at their ridiculous tale, no one could build a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of sea, it must be a trick of the damnable English.
King Louis heard the tale, but he believed it, they could do such a wonderful thing . He released and rewarded the men saying;
“I am at war with the English, not humanity”
A year later the light shone from the Eddystone rock.
Another true historical tale. In 1697 work was underway on the Eddystone light, the first lighthouse in the world built on an isolated sea rock. The workers were attacked by a French privateer exactly as described. The light first shone in 1698, this first lighthouse was destroyed by a storm, the next by fire, the third was removed as the rock below it was crumbling and the fourth shines today.
This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, in 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about sea mist. Hope you enjoy it.
All animals celebrate Christmas. Bees sing the ‘Old Hundredth’ on Christmas Eve as the animals in the stables and cattle sheds kneel, remembering, in their own way, how they knelt at Bethlehem so long ago. Only occasionally, however, do the human and animal Christmases interact, but when they do the results can be amazing.
December 22nd 1818
The older mice forced a way through the wet vegetation, the young mice and mothers and children followed as the floodwaters rose.
Up and up they climbed, across short cropped grass that gave no cover, they were thankful that the rain kept the hawks away. Then they saw it, a tall building, unlike the barns the humans built for them, but it felt safe.
They crept in, under the door and discovered a perfect mouse home, a perfect mouse sanctuary.
It was a miracle, just before Christmas they had their home. There were plenty of places to nest, mothers settled their babies, children played, running up and down the ropes that had been placed there specially for them to climb, whilst the older mice looked around for food.
And they found it, wonderful food, thick tasty tallow on top of chewy leather.
“Something you can really get your teeth into.” Said one old mouse, as they feasted well into the night.
December 23rd 1818
“What are you planning for tomorrow?” The priest asked.
“I have it here.” The young organist patted the folder of music under his arm.
“I want to run through a couple of pieces before the choir come in, can you pump?”
“Of course.” Replied the priest. He stepped behind the organ and raised the handle, as he brought it down there was a terrible whistling noise. He stopped and the two men bent and examined the organ’s bellows.
All around the church noses poked out of holes, black eyes watched from behind curtains.
“Can it be repaired?”
“Yes, but not by me, or anyone in the village, and not in time for Christmas Eve.” The organist paused.
“The choir can sing some hymns unaccompanied, but there will be no music. For the first time in more than two hundred years there will be no music in the church at Christmas!”
The mice looked at each other in horror, they had heard what the humans said, had they really ruined the humans Christmas?
The men looked at each other in silence, in silence they stood, then the priest said.
“Perhaps there is a way, you play the guitar.”
“But it can’t accompany any of these.”
“No, but there is that poem I wrote, the Christmas one, you said you could set it to music.”
“In less than a day!”
“You had better start straight away then.”
The mice were subdued, and watched as the humans left the church in a hurry.
Christmas Eve 1818
There was a sense of anticipation in the air, something was happening, the mice could feel it. From the oldest mice, who could remember three or even four Christmases, to the youngsters. That afternoon the old tale was told, of the first mouse Christmas, and never had mice listened in greater reverence and wonder. They told of the mice, who played on the rafters in the stable, and brought the gift of laughter to the child in the manger.
Later the humans came, few at first to light the candles, then more and more, filling the pews. There was expectation amongst them too, as if the humans also knew that something very special was about to happen.
And then, the choir gathered at the front of the church, the organist sat and took his guitar. The mice and humans watched as he plucked a few notes. Then all, animal and human, listened for the first time to;