Inspired by the Google doodle – Jane’s other language.

Today’s ‘Google Doodle’ celebrates British Sign Language and its development. This gives me the opportunity to re-blog something I wrote a little while ago in the series, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.


Like most educated women of her time Jane Austen knew some French and Italian. But she knew another language, a far more unusual one. What was it?

She tells us in her own words, in 1808 she was living in Southampton and on December 27 she wrote to her sister, who was staying with their brother in Kent. In her long letter she mentions a visit they had made.

‘We spent Friday evening with our friends at the boarding-house, and our curiosity was gratified by the sight of their fellow-inmates, Mrs. Drew and Miss Hook, Mr. Wynne and Mr. Fitzhugh; the latter is brother to Mrs. Lance, and very much the gentleman. He has lived in that house more than twenty years, and, poor man! is so totally deaf that they say he could not hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough. I recommended him to read “Corinna”.’

So there it is, Jane Austen could sign, she knew what was probably an early version of British Sign Language which had been developed in the late eighteenth century, and was already being taught to deaf people of all classes through several schools. The question then arises, how did she come to know sign language?

V0016541 The Dumb Alphabet. Coloured aquatint, W.T. Annis 1819.

One possibility is that she learnt, as do many hearing people do today, to communicate with a relative. In her case her brother George, little is known about him. He was born in 1766, ten years before Jane, and like her and her other siblings, was placed with a wet-nurse in the village of Steventon immediately after birth. However he never returned to live with his family and the majority of references to him are concerned with his care. He was clearly mentally or physically disabled and the fact that Jane Austen could sign suggests that he was either deaf or couldn’t speak.

What is perhaps less surprising than Jane Austen holding a conversation in sign language, is that she takes the opportunity to suggest something to read!


Finally, if anyone doubts that sign language is a real language, British Sign Language was officially recognised as a minority language in 2003.



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Filed under Georgian, Jane Austen, Regency

The Artist Escapes

“Señor we must leave.”

The Artist nodded, reluctantly he shut his sketch book, the last detail of the inlay pattern unfinished. Portfolio handing over his shoulder he followed his guide though the empty, ruinous palace.

It had been different when he had arrived, the palace had been full of people, living in the abandoned rooms. They had welcomed him as he had drawn the wonders of the lost palace – then the plague came.

Most were dead now, he had to escape, had he done enough? Could he convince the world of the need to protect, to save the Alhambra?

Detail from Alhambra Owen Jones

When the artist and architect Owen Jones visited the Alhambra in the early nineteenth century the palace was ruinous. It was his wonderful drawings that convinced people across Europe that it had to be saved. Whilst he was there cholera broke out, it killed his companions and many of the local people, he was lucky to escape with his life. He went on to become one of the finest designers of the nineteenth century.


This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, in 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an escape artist, so I have described an escaping artist, I hope you enjoy it.



Filed under Historical tales, Victorian

The Last Fairy

My brother sometimes includes humorous versions of fairy tales in his blog, for example.
So I thought I would write something similar, what if fairies had once existed? And came up with this…..


The Biologist drove over the Mendip Hills on a lovely late summer day, he wondered what the Librarian at Wells Cathedral had to show him. He had known her when they had been at university years ago, and had met a few times since, but she had seemed so excited, so secretive, at what she had found in the library.

What could it be, the Biologist thought it must be some ancient scientific book, but if it was that he wouldn’t be the person to call in, he was an entomologist, not a scientific historian. But the Librarian had been so insistent, he had to come, to see what had been found.

In the village of Podmore he stopped to fill up with petrol, as he paid he picked up the leaflet advertising the local festival.

Podmore Fairy Festival
Podmore, the last home of the Fairies
Make a fairy scarecrow
Best fairy picture
Write a story – What happened to the last fairy

As he drove through the village he smiled to see the fairy scarecrows, big and little, mostly with slightly mad smiles, dressed in a variety of clothing but all with wire mounted wings.

In the cathedral they climbed to the long, elegant library. At the end there was a gap in the bookcases that lined one side of the room. The Librarian explained.

“Last month cracks were noticed in the plaster above the shelves. To see if the cracks ran further down the wall we removed the shelf here. That’s when we found them.” She pointed at a table, on it lay several leather bound books.

“I think they were placed there because the librarian in about 1820, when these shelves were made, had no interest in them but felt they shouldn’t be disposed of. There are several sets of seventeenth and eighteenth century sermons, which are about as exciting as they sound. Then we found this.”

From a shelf, where it had been carefully placed, she lifted a large volume. On the cover was the name ‘E. Glanville’, the Biologist was suddenly very interested.

“We only looked at one or two pages as we could see the contents were very fragile.”

She opened the book, the Biologist gasped in amazement. There was a large pressed plant, he thought a scabious, but stuck around it were several butterflies, their wings were loose and several moved as the page opened. One slid off the page, the Biologist, hands shaking, eased it onto a slip of paper and transferred it back to the book.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” She asked, “We haven’t and cannot find out anything about books like this or E. Glanville. I wonder who he was?”

“I have only ever seen photographs of books like this, it was the way in which insects were preserved in the seventeenth century. But the books are very fragile, even opening the pages can damage them. As for E. Glanville she’s not a he but a she, Eleanor Glanville, one of the first great entomologists. Only a few of her notes and specimens survive, but it looks as if you have discovered more of them.”

He opened a second page,

“Wonderful,” he said, “She noted where she caught the insect. This one was caught at Priddy.”

The librarian bent forward and saw, in thin brown handwriting ‘Pr’dy’.

As he shut the book he looked up at his friend and said.

“You can guess what I am going to ask you?”

“Yes, I have asked the Chapter and they agree that the books can be lent to the University for study. There will be various conditions but no real difficulties.” She paused, then added, “But there is something else, I don’t quite know what to make of it. It’s in the second volume.”

“Second volume?” Replied the Biologist in dazed delight.

She took down another large book and laid it on the table, then she carefully opened it at a marked page. The Biologist looked down in amazement. The specimen was larger than the others, about ten centimetres long. It was probably an arthropod, with a dark exoskeleton that looked almost like human armour. The hind legs were large, and he wondered if it could have just stood on them alone. The forelimbs were shorter with grasping claws. The head had been distorted by the pressing but it looked very like an armoured human head. And then there were the wings, four wings, wide and translucent, they almost covered the page.

“Do you know what it is?” She asked.

“No, and I don’t think anybody has ever seen anything like this for centuries. The only name I could give it would be mad.”

“I don’t think so.” Replied the librarian, she pointed to the name written at the bottom of the page, ‘P’dmor’.

“I think we know what happened to the last fairy.”


Eleanor Glanville was real, and gave her name to a beautiful little butterfly, the Glanville Fritillary. The way of preserving insects in books was also real, a few, very fragile, very precious examples survive.

But as for the rest ……

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Filed under Alternative History

Monday’s child

Another poem illustrated by Regency pictures (and later genre pictures). A classic nursery rhyme.


Charles Amable Lenoir - The Pink Rose

Monday’s child is fair of face,

Eugene von Blaas — Feeding the Pigeons

Tuesday’s child is full of grace;

Frédéric Soulacroix Dissapointment

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Emil Brack - Planning the Grand Tour Emil Brack

Thursday’s child has far to go;

Leslie, George Dunlop, 1835-1921; The Gardener's Daughter
Friday’s child is loving and giving,

Marie-Denise Villers Self-portrait Young Woman Drawing
Saturday’s child works hard for its living;

Charles Haigh Wood - The Time of Roses

But the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.



Filed under Georgian, Poems, Regency, Victorian

1774 The Summer that Changed the World

Summer 1774
Matthew Boulton mopped his brow, it was hot. He looked across the lake and shook his head, where there should be a wide expanse of water there was a long, thin, channel marking where the stream had once ran before the dam had been built. He turned to his millwright,
“I’m sorry sir, but there is only water for one wheel, and if there is no rain even that will stop in two weeks.”

Boulton nodded, he knew the problem well enough. If there was no water, the water wheels wouldn’t turn, and without the power generated by the wheels the factory would stop. He needed more water, but how?

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773
The two men walked back towards the mill, in the office they poured over a map of the district. The millwright pointed.

“Here sir, there is water enough in the river here, if we could get it into the pond. But it must be thirty or forty feet below the level of the leat.”

Boulton looked at the map, his man was right. A tributary entered the river below the point the leat ran off the river towards his pond. This tributary was still full of water and, he knew, usually was. There was just the problem of raising thousands of gallons of water up thirty feet.

“You are right, and there is a way. A pumping engine.”

“A pumping engine, aren’t they just used in mines?”

“Most are, but I have seen some used to raise water into canals, and one is even used to pump drinking water into London.” He paused and pointed “If we were to place one about here it could take water from the river and up to the leat, and there would be no trouble from any landowners as it would all be on my land.”

“Do you know where you could get an engine?”

“No, but there is a meeting next week, I am sure someone there will know.”

The millwright smiled, he knew about the ‘society’, they called it the Lunar Society as they met on the nights of the full moon so they could find their way home afterwards. People called the men who met there ‘Lunatics’, but Matthew Boulton knew different, he knew that in the room were some of the most brilliant men on earth, at the meeting he posed his question and got the answer he wanted.

“Young Watt, he’s the man for you. James Watt, he has improved the pumping engines in the Scottish mines so they use half and much coal as they did. I heard that he wants to leave Scotland for a while, family matters. If you like I will write to him.”

Matthew Boulton did like and a few weeks later the Scots engineer was standing by the dry mill pond as he explained the problem.

“Aye, I could build you a pumping engine to keep your pond filled. But I have an idea that would solve your problem in a much better way.”


And with that ‘But’ the world changed, children born after that ‘but’ grew up into a completely different world, no one, no place on earth was unaffected by the decision made that day.


Matthew Boulton was fascinated.

“Is it possible?” he asked, “and if so why haven’t you tried before?”

“Because I couldn’t get the materials, or the men skilled enough to build it. But I think there is a possibility now.”

Matthew Boulton looked at the plans, at the list of materials – and nodded.

“Yes, there is wrought iron strong enough, Henry Cort has made it down in Hampshire the Ironmaster can do the boring.” He grinned, and added “And as for the craftsmen, this is Birmingham – here we make anything and everything, the best craftsmen in the world are here.”


Over the following autumn and winter, the canals began to bring material to the workshop beside the Soho works. Wrought Iron from distant Hampshire, massive cylinders cast and bored by John Wilkinson the Ironmaster, coal from the mines of Yorkshire and timber from Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, though even his wondrous imagination couldn’t have dreamed of what was being built on the outskirts of Birmingham. In secrecy the craftsmen laboured and slowly a machine grew, a machine unlike anything else on earth.


James Watt steam engine

By the spring it was ready, the men of the Lunar Society gathered to watch, the mill pond was full now but the millwright shut the sluices. The waterwheels stopped, the factory stopped, all of Matthew Boulton’s machines stood idle – then James Watt pulled on the leaver, steam hissed, the massive pivoted beam rose, and fell, as it did so the wheel turned. The engineer tightened the belts and power flowed into the factory, the machines started again powered by steam for the first time.

Everyone congratulated James Watt, but he was having none of it.

“No, it is good, but not perfect. If I were to build it again there are several improvements I would make.”

Erasmus Darwin, the mad grandfather of the brilliant Charles, asked.
“Are you going to build another?”

“Of course,” replied Matthew Boulton, “Another, and another, and another. We will give the world what it wants, even if it doesn’t know it yet”

“What is that?”

“Power, wherever and whenever it wants it. We will give the world power.”


Boulton and Watt’s steam engines changed the world. Developed first for Matthew Boulton’s factory at Soho near Birmingham, they were soon being built and exported around the world. No longer was power only to be obtained from wind or river, factories could be built anywhere, not just in places with a reliable water supply. The industrial revolution had properly begun.


I had been planning to retell this story for some time when my brother posted on his blog about a trip he had made to Arkwright’s mill in Derbyshire, and pondered on why it had been built in seemingly remote location. A location chosen only because of its proximity to a constant supply of moving water for power.

My tale tells of how the link between location and power was finally broken – and the world changed as a result of a hot summer in 1774!

Pictures from the internet


Filed under Georgian, Historical tales

First Steps into the Air

Charli Mills latest prompt is here

July 13, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an unexpected landing. It can be acrobatic, an unplanned move or created into a metaphor. Go where the prompt, or chickens, lead.

As people who read my blog will realise that, amongst many other things, I am fascinated with the early history of flight. By definition flight involves landings, often the most dangerous part of the whole affair.



The men looked at the strange contraption and smiled, they didn’t laugh as that would upset Sir George.

“Climb in there Thomas.” He said, pointing at the small boat with wheels. Thomas grinned at his companions as he sat down and held the tiller.

The men took the ropes and pulled, the machine trundled across the grass, getting faster and faster, then –

The men stopped, open mouthed, the machine was flying.

As the world’s first glider landed Thomas staggered out white faced, he wasn’t laughing now.

“Please sir, I want to give notice, I don’t want to fly again.”


Thomas Appleby was the coachman employed by Sir George Caley, and was the test pilot of his pioneering glider. On landing he is said to have given notice saying ‘he was employed to drive coaches not fly through the air.’


And seventy years later



“I saw light under the wheels, it left the ground.”

Geoffrey grinned, “Then let’s see if it will fly properly.”

He turned back to the aeroplane, a complicated construction of wood wire and fabric. Buttoning up his tweed jacket he climbed up and nodded at his assistant.

The propeller swung and the engine started. He opened the throttle and the aeroplane bounced across the field, suddenly the bouncing stopped, he looked down, he was flying.

He rose to about fifty feet, then turned slightly.

Suddenly he had a thought – I got up here, but how do I get down?


In 1910 the great aircraft designer Geoffrey De Havilland built his first flying machine at Highclere castle. He told the story of managing to get it in the air, then working out how to land after he had taken off for the first time!




Filed under Uncategorized

Mrs Bennet – The First Female Diver

Part 7 The Diving Belle


Sunlight poured in through the portholes, then the Bell broke the surface and cool, fresh air poured in. Charlotte took a deep, thankful breath as they were swung across and settled on the raft, Captain Braithwaite climbed down first then helped her descend, two men climbed in and helped carry the unconscious man out.

As Charlotte stepped upright in the sunlight she heard the noise, the cheering. Susan came running over to wrap a shawl round her shoulders and hug her. Looking around she could see several crowded boats nearby, the men were waving their hats, the women their parasols and handkerchiefs and everyone was cheering.

“Oh dear, it that for me.” Said Charlotte weakly.

“Yes madam, you are famous.” Replied Susan happily.

“Help me to the cabin, I think I am going to faint.”

Susan helped her mistress up the ladder and swiftly across the deck, Charlotte had no idea where she was going until Susan lowered her onto a bench where she fainted.


Half an hour later she woke up, Susan was folding her wet bathing dress, she realised she was not only dry but dressed.

“Good madam, you are recovered, I will get the Captain.”

Before she could protest Susan had left the cabin and returned with him a few minutes later.

“Madam, I must apologise for the dangers you were subjected to.” He paused then continued, “And to thank you for what you did. I don’t know of anybody who could have done what you did.”

“I don’t know how I did what I did.” She replied weakly.

An hour later the boat rowed them away from the Endeavour, the Diving Bell still looked terrifying but she felt no fear of it now.

As they rowed alongside the quay there was a crowd waiting, as she stepped onto dry land she heard a shout then the crowd started cheering. Susan helped her into the chaise and they were swiftly driven back to the Circus. As they did so she turned to her maid.

“Susan, did you hear what they shouted, it sounded as if they were cheering the Diving Bell.”

“No madam, it is you they were cheering. They are calling you the Diving Belle now.”

“Oh dear, well it can hardly get worse.”

A few days later she discovered it could. Captain Braithwaite called to both tell her that the sailor was recovering well and to present her with a silver tray, it had been part of the cargo recovered from the Abergavenny but he had had it engraved as a memento of her descent to the wreck. As he left he said with a smile.

“If you should ever want to go down again I would be happy to take you. Everything should be perfectly safe now, anyway my crew are sure you can do anything in the water, they think you are a mermaid.”

“Not a mermaid as well.” She said to Susan, “I wasn’t frightened swimming around at the bottom of the sea, but I don’t think I can bear all this. At the end of the week we leave for Lyme to see my brother in law and give my nephew his telescope.”


So Mrs Charlotte Bennet left Weymouth, whether she returned or not I don’t know. Someone, perhaps one of the Endeavour’s crew retired from the sea and settled down as a publican on Portland, naming his public house The Mermaid. As for young Lieutenant Bennet, he rose to become Captain Bennet and one of the heroes of Lyme, but that is another story.


This tale was suggested by a press cutting of 1806;

DIVING BELL.—By means of this ingenious contrivance, a Mr Braithwaite has been so successful as to recover, in the months of June and July last, the whole specie from the Abergavenny Indiaman, which was lost off Portland in Feb. 1805. He was down frequently at the rate of six hours a-day. The specie was contained in 60 boxes of dollars, and amounted to £34,000. A great number of valuable articles have also been recovered. A Mrs Bennet of Colchester had the courage to descend in the machine on one occasion, and remained forty minutes. She was greeted on her ascent by the cheering plaudits of a very numerous concourse of people. Mrs Bennet is now generally known as the Diving Belle.


Other accounts say that Mrs Bennet came from Cornwall, so I have blended these accounts in the (completely fictitious) backstory I gave her. She was also described as a strong swimmer, an unusual talent for anybody, especially a woman at this time.

The Abergavenny Store where goods were kept was real, and it wasn’t far from Weymouth’s Assembly Rooms.

The Nothe peninsula is still a favourite place to go for a walk and look out to the sea, it was as I described in 1806.

Commander John Wordsworth’s Patriotic Fund sword was raised from the wreck and returned to his brother William the poet, it is now in the museum at Dove Cottage.

Captain Darcy was an engineer who repaired the Cobb, the ancient harbour at Lyme Regis.

There were no swimming costumes at the time, ladies wore Bathing Dresses but couldn’t swim in them.

The accident didn’t happen to Mrs Bennet, but similar things did happen to other early divers. John Braithwaite made a small fortune from diving on the shipwreck, which his son made into a larger one by becoming one of the first builders of marine steam engines.

As for Captain Bennet of Lyme Regis, he probably wasn’t related to our Mrs Bennet but I couldn’t help making the connection because of his name. Nearly twenty years after the date of this story, in 1825, he became one of the great heroes of Lyme – perhaps one day I will retell his story.



Filed under Historical tales, Regency