Winter of 1813-1814: The Great London Fog and Frost

A Light Fog in London, Courtesy of Wikipedia
A Light Fog in London. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During the winter of 1813-1814, a thick fog rolled into London. It was followed by a terrible frost and one of the coldest periods on record occurred from January to March. One newspaper reported it was “the heaviest mist and thickest fog ever remembered … [which] produced the thickest and most beautiful hoar frost that ever decorated the branches and tendrils of Britain’s vegetation.”[1] Moreover, the thickness and density of the fog was made worse by the “smoke of the city; so much so that it produce a very sensible effect on the eyes, and the coal tar vapour [was] … distinctly perceived by the smell.”[2] Continue reading

“The Monsters” or the “Vere Street Gang” Homosexuals

Vere Street Sign in Westminster, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Vere Street Sign in Westminster, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Police received a tip about the “rendezvous of a society of miscreants of a detestable description.” These rendezvous involved homosexuals and had been occurring for six months at the White Swan. Based on tips, police raided a public house on Sunday, 8 July 1810. It was located on Vere-street and when officers proceeded to search it, police netted 26 people, “the whole of whom, together with the landlord of the house, they apprehended, and lodged for the night in the watch-house of St. Clement’s parish.” Continue reading

Victorian Event of the Season: 1897 Devonshire Costume Ball

Devonshire Costume Ball House
Devonshire House in 1896, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Devonshire Costume Ball was held 2 July 1897. Some people claimed the ball offered “unparalleled splendor” and others lauded it as one of the most elite events of the year. In fact, no expense was spared as it was considered one of the “great fancy-dress balls of the Victorian Era, competing in beauty, brilliancy, and … picturesqueness … [with] the fancy-dress balls the Queen and the Prince Consort used to give at Buckingham Palace.” One newspaper described the scene as “one of great animation, the variety of costume was dazzling, the richness in many cases … enormous, the colours were kaleidoscopic in their changes.” Continue reading

Historical Custom: The Flitch of Bacon Custom

Flitch of Bacon Custom
Flitch of Bacon, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Historical customs have long existed. For instance, in Scotland there has been a long tradition of wearing kilts, and the custom continued despite efforts to weaken Scottish support for the restoration of the James II of England by passing the Dress Act of 1746 that forbade “Highland Dress.” Another long-time custom is Lent—forty days of fasting, both from food and festivities. There is also the custom of primogeniture that allows a deceased person’s estate to go to the firstborn male child. However, one of the more unusual, and perhaps less known customs, is a tradition known as the Dunmow flitch of bacon custom.

The Dunmow flitch of bacon custom was “the custom of presenting a flitch of Bacon to any married couple who could swear that neither of them in a twelvemonth and day from their marriage had ever repented of his or her union.” Sometimes the custom was referred to as the “Dunmow Flitch Trials” partly because it was practiced at the Priory of Dunmow in Essex supposedly since the “days of yore,” although one British historian reports it was actually influenced by a Norse tradition. Continue reading

Burial Fraud Involving Higgins and Devereux

Glasnevin Cemetery 19th Century Gravestones, Burial Fraud, and
Glasnevin Cemetery 19th Century Gravestones, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Burial societies existed in England in the 1800s. They operated by voluntary subscriptions and were established to pay for burial expenses or to give money to a member when the member’s husband, wife, or child died. Unfortunately, sometimes burial fraud was committed in relation to these societies, which was the case in Ireland when Charles Higgins and Henry William Devereux, a clerk to an attorney, conspired together to obtain money under false pretenses.

Higgins at one point was considered a respectable person. He had also been “in possession of considerable property, which had slipped through his hands by improvidence.” This is likely what lead him to join with Devereux to commit fraud against a burial society. Continue reading

Cato Street Conspiracy

Cato Street Conspiracy to Murder Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Cato Street Conspiracy was a plot in 1820 to murder all of the British cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool. It involved a group of discontent conspirators who were unhappy about various circumstances. These circumstances included the economy, the Peterloo Massacre (an event where approximately 80,000 people gathered to demand reform of parliamentary representation and the cavalry charged into the crowd killing as many as 15 and injuring up to 700), and the passage of the Six Acts (acts enacted after the Peterloo Massacre stating that any meeting for radical reform was “treasonable conspiracy.”)

The conspirators were called the Spencean Philanthropists. They took their name from Thomas Spence, an English radical of the late eighteenth and early nineteen century who believed in common land ownership and was imprisoned for these beliefs. The Spencean Philanthropists had “a view … [of] effecting a revolution by means of sanguinary violence.” Continue reading

The Duel of Lord Camelford and Captain Best

Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, was considered a notorious character, “a desperate ‘bruiser’ and duelist.” He was also a scrapper and was known to fight with his friends, which is exactly what happened when he and his “bosom friend,” Captain Best, ended up in a duel in 1804. Both men were considered fashionable young men about town and both were officers in the Royal Navy. They were also wagering enthusiasts, who were said to be “very courageous…first rate pistol-shots…[and] less than thirty years old.”

Their difficulties centered around an abandoned woman named Eliza Symons. She had formerly lived under Camelford’s protection. However, after meeting Best at the Opera and being attracted to him, she made overtures to him. He rejected her, and she became angry and abusive. She also decided to get revenge by “[setting] Lord Camelford at him.” To accomplish this she lied. She told Camelford Best had spoken disparagingly of him. Continue reading

Vincenzo Lunardi – The Daredevil Aeronaut

Vincenzo Lunardi Ascending from the Artillery Ground
Lunardi Ascending from the Artillery Ground, Public Domain

Vincenzo (Vincent) Lunardi, known as the “daredevil aeronaut,” followed in the Montgolfier’s footsteps and gained fame as the first aerial traveler in England. He was also the person that initiated a ballooning frenzy because Lunardi, unlike the Montgolfier brothers, was not rich, and to offset the costs of his ballooning, it became a matter of necessity that the balloon pay for itself. His balloon was set to be released on 15 September 1784 at the Artillery Ground of the Honourable Artillery Company. Entrance to the event was one guinea for chairs close to the balcony, a half-guinea for seats behind the first row of chairs, and admission to view the construction of the balloon was four times the cost of the balcony chairs.

There were mixed feelings about Lunardi’s ascent. Horace Walpole the English art historian, antiquarian and Whig politician, thought the whole affair ludicrous. He wrote to the American educational reformer Horace Mann stating that “he would not stir one step or pay one guinea to see one Lunardi, an Italian, mount into the clouds.” Other people thought differently. The statesman and author Edmund Burke was excited about seeing the ascent, and he along with the British statesman William Windham, traveled to witness it. In fact, it seemed as if there was universal interest in the event because before “dawn … every available corner near the scene of the ascent had been taken possession of.” Continue reading

The Mermaid of 1822

Mermaid, Courtesy of British Museum
The Mermaid, Courtesy of British Museum

“I have to-day seen a Mermaid, now exhibiting in this town. I have always treated the existence of this creature as fabulous, but my scepticism [sic] is now removed.” Those were the words written by a Reverend Philip, a representative of the London Mission Society, in April 1822. The mermaid Philip referred to was found after a storm by a fisherman or fishermen who was sold it to a Bostonian sea captain. The captain, named Samuel Barret Eades, was transporting the mermaid to England for exhibition when his ship stopped for a fortnight at Cape Town, and it was there that Philip saw the mermaid for the first time.

Philip described the strange creature, stating:

“The head is almost the size of … a baboon. It is thickly covered with black hair, hanging down, and not inclined to frizzle. On the upper lip and on the chin there are a few fine hairs, resembling those upon the head. The … cheek bones are prominent. The forehead is low, but except in this particular the features are much better proportioned and bear a more decided resemblance to the human countenance than those of any of the baboon tribes.” 

Continue reading

Stockwell Ghost

Stockwell ghost
Stockwell from 1730 to 1800, Author’s Collection

A pious old lady named Mrs. Golding and her 20-year-old maid lived a short distance away from the Tower public house in Stockwell, Surrey. On the Twelfth Day — which was 6 January  1772, about ten o’clock in the morning — a great alarm was raised when out of nowhere and without any visible cause, Mrs. Golding’s crockery began to rattle, tumble, and whirl. It fell down the chimney and sailed through the windows. Pots and pans also began to tumble and then “hams, cheese, and loaves of bread disported themselves upon the floor just as if the devil were in them.” Even the furniture  began to misbehave and act strangely: “A clock tumbled down and the case broke; a lantern that hung on the staircase was thrown down and the glass broken … [and] an earthen pan of salted beef broke to pieces and the beef fell about.”

It seemed as if all the articles in the house were possessed by the devil. This caused a fearful Mrs. Golding to inquire of a local carpenter, a Mr. Rowlidge, as to the cause of such unusual commotion. He surmised “the foundation was giving way and that the house was tumbling down, occasioned by the too great weight of an additional room erected above.” With such news, Rowlidge and several other persons began to remove Mrs. Golding’s belongings from her house.  Continue reading