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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Prince of Prints

This is the time of year when we buy 'annuals', but did you know this custom began (in England) in the early nineteenth century? My latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World is on Rudolph Ackermann (1764-1834). His Repository of Arts and many other beautifully illustrated works have left us with a peerless window into Regency life, fashion, science and literature. Ackermann also published 'annuals' or 'forget-me-nots', intended as stylish presents for loved ones. This genre was already well known on the Continent, particularly in France and Germany. Annuals were usually highly embellished, and contained poems and short stories. Ackermann’s Forget-Me-Not, or Annual Pocket Chronicle first appeared in the winter of 1822. The Times (19 November 1822) commented: ‘We think Mr Ackermann’s experiment, for taste and variety, quite equal to its foreign rivals.’

Image: Title page of the April 1809 issue of Ackermann’s Repository of Arts.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merry Xmas!

I’ve just returned from a mini-cruise to Bruges. Travelling was rather problematic owing to the atrocious conditions on the roads, but we made it there and back safely, and had a lovely time. The historic town looked very pretty in the snow. The winter light made everything seem monochrome and almost ‘flat’ – rather like a Lowry painting.

Happy Christmas and New Year!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Making history come alive

As usual, I watched this week's episode of Neil Oliver's History of Scotland with huge interest, especially as this programme's subject was spookily prescient of a topic I will be covering in a future issue of Discover My Past Scotland - Sir Walter Scott and his influence on our perception of Scotland's culture and people. His novels made Scotland's history come alive for readers all over the world. It was great to see Scott's Conundrum Castle, his affectionate name for his home in the Scottish Borders. A large section of the programme was dedicated to the tragedy of the Highland clearances and the rapacity of the Scottish lairds.
Scott was staunchly Conservative in his politics and view of Scottish history. He regarded Radical politics with horror. Sir Walter visited the silk towns of Cheshire during the trade depression of 1826. He wrote in his diary that unemployment and hunger had rendered the lower classes 'desperately outrageous.'
Image: Sir Walter Scott, 1822. Engraving by William Darton. Author's collection.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Another review of Regency Cheshire

Jane Austen's World has just posted a lovely review of Regency Cheshire . Vic's blog is a really entertaining read, and comes highly recommended if you are an Austen fan.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Salt and Sensibility

In Georgian and Victorian Cheshire, salt was one of the county’s most important exports. In the early 1790s, over 80 Mersey flats were kept busy transporting 58,000 tons of salt yearly to Liverpool. In fact Cheshire had more salt than it knew what to do with, and the manufacturers tried to strictly control output in order to keep prices up.
By 1850, 525,000 tons of white salt and 86,238 tons of rock salt were transported along the Weaver Navigation from the Cheshire salt towns.

Droitwich, home of John Corbett, the ‘Salt King,’ was another important salt producing area. When the Victorians began to take an interest in working conditions in salt works, they were horrified not only by the long working hours, but also because women regularly worked just wearing their petticoats because of the heat. When factory inspector Mr Fitton visited the Droitwich salt works in March 1873, he commented primly that this mode of working was : ‘is in every way bad for women, and it is especially injurious to nursing mothers and their infants, who are brought into the steaming sheds to be suckled.’

Conditions in the rock salt mines, however, were warm and dry. They were considered by contemporaries to be much better workplaces than coal mines.

You can find out more about the story of Cheshire salt and its workers in Regency Cheshire . My latest feature for Ancestors also has tips on researching your saltworker ancestors.

Image: The shaft; descent of the bucket in the Marston rock salt mine, Northwich. Illustrated London News, 28 August 1850. Author’s collection.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Cheshire in the news again!

Northwich’s historic Anderton Boat Lift was featured on BBC1’s Country Tracks yesterday (6 December) – presenter Ben Fogle enjoyed a boat trip through the lift. He also visited the Winsford Rock Salt Mine and witnessed the giant salt mining machine at work, and talked to the salt mine workers. Do catch the repeat or watch it on i-Player if you missed the programme.

The repeal of salt duties in 1825 boosted Winsford’s fortunes as a salt producer, and after 1840, the town began to overtake Northwich in terms of salt production. Another reason why Winsford grew at Northwich’s expense was the ever-growing problem with subsidence in the latter town. You can find out more about the story of Cheshire salt-making and the salt workers in Regency Cheshire.

Images: Anderton Boat Lift photo © Sue Wilkes.
Marston rock salt pit, engraving from Illustrated London News, 24 August 1850.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Cold Comfort

The winter months were desperate times for poor families in Regency Cheshire. The wealthiest families raised subscriptions to aid the poor during particularly harsh winters, such as the one of 1819-20; nearly 5000 families in the Chester area needed help with food, fuel and bedding. If people were starving and had no jobs, they would pawn their furniture and bedding to buy food, but once those were gone, they faced real hardship. The same was true during trade depressions such as the one following the banking crash of 1825-6. Charity balls were held and soup kitchens set up to help relieve silk workers’ families in Macclesfield and Congleton.

If you were in dire need, there was the prospect of the poorhouse or workhouse. The quality of these varied hugely, but the Chester House of Industry was said by Hemingway, the historian, to be run kindly and humanely. After the new Poor Law of !834, workhouse regimes across Britain were purposely designed to be as forbidding as possible to deter applicants. Workhouse children, whose only crime was to be poor, might suffer greatly if they were ‘farmed out’ to contractors for a flat fee. The cheaper they were fed and housed, the greater the profit.

Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist told the story of a pauper orphan. You can find out more about Dickens and conditions for workhouse children in ‘Mudlarks and guttersnipes,’ my latest feature for children's magazine Aquila.

Images: Northwich Workhouse, built 1837 (now the Salt Museum). Many children under the age of 12 lived here in 1851; some were only babies. Image © Sue Wilkes.

Charles Dickens. (unknown artist) from Beeton’s Dictionary of Universal Biography (1870.) (Author’s collection.)

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Bedtime Reading

Last week my bedtime reading was Jane Odiwe's ’s lovely new novel ‘Willoughby’s Return,’ which I can thoroughly recommend if you want to lose yourself in the world of Jane Austen.

This week I’ve been reading the Chevalier de Johnstone's’s ‘Memoir of the ‘45’, so I was very interested to see Neil Oliver’s History of Scotland programme on the Jacobite rebellions last night, especially as we have visited Culloden Moor, Ruthven Barracks and some of the other places mentioned while on holiday. If you read Johnstone’s eyewitness account, it is amazing how many chances Bonnie Prince Charlie threw away, and how close we came to living under the Stuarts today.

It must be really difficult choosing images to illustrate some events, and I nearly laughed out loud at one point. Oliver talked about Queen Anne’s death and showed her gasping out her last breath, and I was somehow irresistibly reminded of Pan’s People’s 0ver-literal interpretation of song lyrics! Not very appropriate for a monarch’s death.

Once again Neil Oliver treated us to sublime Highland scenery, and related the tragedy of the ’15 and ’45 rebellions and their aftermath with gusto. But it was the story of the Act of Union – in which Scotland sold its independence for English gold – which seemed to touch Oliver most deeply.
Image: Memorial at Culloden. © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.