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Tag Archives: Jan Bondeson

  • Phillimore's Edinburgh by Jan Bondeson

    Reginald Phillimore’s house ‘Rockstowes’ at what is today No. 9 Melbourne Road, North Berwick. (Phillimore's Edinburgh, Amberley Publishing)

    Reginald Phillimore was born in 1855, one of five children of Dr William Phillimore, the superintendent of a lunatic asylum near Nottingham. He showed promise as an artist already as a schoolboy, winning a Government Art Prize for the painting of a still life group in watercolour, from nature. After a third-class Oxford B.A. in history, he worked as an assistant schoolmaster for many years. A shy, retiring man, he very much disliked the boisterous pupils and their unseemly shenanigans, and wished to be free of his humdrum day job to concentrate on his art, but he could not make a living with pen and brush. The turning point came when three capitalist aunts of his, who had taught school in North Berwick, East Lothian, all died in 1900 and 1901, leaving their house, school and money to Reginald. He decided to move into ‘Rockstowes’, the house formerly occupied by the aunts, with its splendid seaside views. The contrast from the impoverished assistant schoolmaster who hated his job, to the financially independent North Berwick property owner of great expectations, could not have been a greater one.

    Reginald Phillimore with his friend Dr Richardson. (Phillimore's Edinburgh, Amberley Publishing)

    Reginald Phillimore did not want to live in idleness, and anyway there was a need to accumulate money and provide for his old age. At an early stage after he had come to North Berwick, he began to produce picture postcards from his own drawings. All his early cards had local motives, from North Berwick and its immediate surroundings. The start of the picture postcard boom in Britain coincided with Phillimore’s move to North Berwick, and the quaint East Lothian surroundings must have inspired him to become a full-time postcard artist. From the bay window of his first-floor study at ‘Rockstowes’, he had a good view of the Bass Rock, a steep-sided volcanic rock that is home to many thousand gannets and other sea birds; it inspired several of his early cards. He employed a teenaged North Berwick schoolgirl, Mary Pearson, to do the delicate colouring; since she liked some variation, no two hand-coloured cards are the same. Most of his early picture postcards were conventional in that they depicted a standard view, like the Bass Rock or Tantallon Castle, with brief explanatory text; from the very beginning, they enjoyed good sales locally, since people appreciated that they were of superior aesthetic quality. As he grew more experienced, Reginald invented a style of his own for his picture postcards: there was still a main motive, but often several smaller vignettes as well, and brief explanatory text describing the history of the building, close or street depicted. This proved both a novel and felicitous manner to produce a postcard, and Reginald’s business flourished as a result. He sold his postcards for a halfpenny each to a network of dealers, initially mainly in the Lothians, but with time all over Britain. Between 1904 and 1914, he was one of Britain’s postcard kingpins, admired and collected by many, and easily able to make a living for himself.

    Edinburgh Castle. (Phillimore's Edinburgh, Amberley Publishing)

    Little is known about Reginald’s private life during his North Berwick Edwardian fame and fortune. He kept busy producing his cards, some from his own etchings, others from motives in the Lothians that he personally visited, yet others from old prints he procured in Edinburgh. He more than once went on tour looking for inspiration, and visited Gloucester, Malvern, Bath, Bristol, Exeter and the West Country, producing a series of felicitous cards with various local landmarks. He also visited Manchester, toured Northumberland and Yorkshire, and travelled to most parts of the Scottish lowlands. Since he did not approve of Glasgow, only one of his cards (Cathedral) is from the sprawling Scottish metropolis; nor did he like London particularly, and again just one card (St Paul’s) is from the English capital. The most felicitous of his cards were those from Edinburgh, a city he knew very well, and his many cards from East Lothian. Reginald remained a shy, introverted man during his North Berwick heyday, with a dislike for social pursuits and a fondness for a solitary life in his comfortable Rockstowes studio. The only woman he is known to have befriended was the aforementioned schoolgirl Mary Pearson, who became his housekeeper once she gained adulthood.

    Phillimore’s books about the Bass Rock and Tantallon. (Phillimore's Edinburgh, Amberley Publishing)

    The Great War came, with its depressing influence on commerce in general and the postcard industry in particular, although Reginald continued to produce postcards throughout the war years. When hostilities ended in 1918, he was 63 years old, but it was not yet time to retire. Since the market for his picture postcards had largely disappeared, he had to conduct an orderly retreat for his postcard company, which once had enjoyed such meteoric success. He sold the occasional painting and etching, but the influx of money was nothing like it had been in pre-war times. He had produced 122 cards from early 1914 until 1919; from the summer of 1919 until the end of his life, he would make only 37 more cards. The market for his postcards continued to decline: town after town on the English mainland was lost, and shop after shop stopped stocking his cards since they were no longer fashionable; yet he remained well represented in Scotland throughout the 1920, particularly in his Edinburgh and East Lothian strongholds.


    Reginald Phillimore in his old age. (Phillimore's Edinburgh, Amberley Publishing)

    Reginald Phillimore’s health, both mental and physical, had always been very good, but in 1936, he suffered a serious stroke, becoming paralysed in the right side of his body and experiencing an impairment of his speech. On sunny days, the loyal Mary Pearson wheeled him about in an invalid chair, and he liked to sit in the small garden to the rear of his house. He is said to have learnt to write, with difficulty, with his left hand, and even to have attempted to copy an old water-colour painting of his; still, this is scant consolation for an artist whose creative power had been broken, for good. As the Bass Rock gleamed in the bright North Berwick sunshine, the shadows grew longer in the Rockstowes geriatric gloom. The memories of a man in his old age are the dreams and hopes of a man in his prime, and as Reginald sat lopsidedly in his armchair in the downstairs parlour, he must have pondered his unhappy days as a schoolmaster, the great inheritance triumph in 1901, the heady Edwardian days as one of Britain’s postcard kingpins, and the slow but steady post-war decline. Reginald Phillimore died on Christmas Eve 1941 and was buried in the family vault at Bridgnorth.

    Jan Bondeson's new book Phillimore's Edinburgh is available for purchase now.

  • The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities by Jan Bondeson

    Lionel on show in Germany aged 17. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

    The Lion Boy was Stephan Bibrowski, born near Warsaw in 1891, with his entire body covered with fine, soft hair about an inch long. His parents and six sisters had no abnormity of the hair whatsoever. As a four-year-old child, Stephan entered the world of show business at a German amusement arcade, the Panoptikum in Berlin, under the artist’s name Lionel the Lion Boy. A certain Professor Minakow examined him in Moscow at the age of five. His face and body were covered with fine blond hair, up to 8 in long on his face and 2-3 in long all over the rest of his body. His dentition consisted of a solitary canine tooth in the lower jaw. It was clear to the professor that this was a genetic disease, namely hypertrichosis congenita lanuginosa [inherited excessive hairiness with lanugo hair]. In 1901, the 10-year-old Lionel was taken to the United States, to join Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. His mother had probably never even seen a lion, but the exhibition posters claimed that the boy’s father had been torn to pieces by an escaped circus lion before her very eyes; this horrid sight had of course ‘marked’ her unborn child in this sinister way. In 1904, Lionel toured large parts of the world with the circus, before returning to Berlin.

    The Fat Boy and his father in 1909. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1923, he returned to the United States, having received a good offer from the Coney Island amusement park: the authorities there had agreed to pay him $500 a week for taking up permanent residence at the park during the summer seasons. Lionel spoke five languages, was a well-read and intelligent man, and quite an entertainer. He was something of a body-builder, and sometimes gave demonstrations of his gymnastic and athletic skills during the shows. One ribald newspaper account tells us that he was also something of a ladies’ man: in spite, or perhaps rather because, of his extraordinary hairy face and body, he never had any difficulty getting admirers among the female visitors. After his successful stay in the United States, Lionel went back to Germany; he died from pneumonia at a hospital in Berlin in 1931, being spared the experience of Hitler’s rise to power with a narrow margin.

    The Fat Boy of Peckham flourished from 1902 until 1912, being exhibited for money all over Britain, and even touring Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His name was Johnny Trunley, and at the age of just five, he was 4 ft tall and weighed 10 stone; he could lift his father, who acted as his manager, off the ground. The London School Board decided that even this monstrous child should be provided with an education, and made sure that a king-sized desk and chair were constructed for him, but the hulking Fat Boy preferred his idle life as a sideshow freak. He also valued his night’s sleep, and more than once there were deplorable scenes as the howling Johnny was dragged out of his terraced Peckham home by a troop of school policemen, only half dressed.

    A French postcard showing Kobelkoff and his family. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)



    The Daily Mail suggested that the London County Council should construct a special tram line to carry the Fat Boy to school, since no motor omnibus would surely hold him. But Johnny’s father took him on tour to the West Country with a travelling sideshow; if the local bumpkins made fun of him, he asked them how much they earned per week. In each town he entered, he was measured for a suit by the local tailor; this was considered as funny the twentieth time as it had been the first. At the height of his career as an Edwardian mega-star of corpulence, Johnny Trunley appeared at Fred Karno’s music hall in London, where he met Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. He turned the scales at 33 stone and was officially proclaimed the heaviest living person in Britain. There was nothing particularly ‘wrong’ with him, just primary obesity that had spiralled out of control.

    In 1912, old Mr Trunley died unexpectedly, and Johnny was without his father and manager. During the Great War, his weight plummeted dramatically, since there was never enough food, and he was very fearful of the air raids and the sinister ‘Zeps’. Johnny Trunley, once the celebrated Fat Boy of Peckham, had become just an ordinary man. He started work as a clockmaker, married and had a son, and lived on until 1944; it is likely that he has descendants alive today.

    Violet and Daisy Hilton as young girls. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

    In this book of amazing oddities, the successor to my popular Cabinet of Medical Curiosities and The Two-Headed Boy, I explore various strange, surprising and bizarre aspects of the history of medicine: Does people’s hair go white after a sudden fright; can the image of the killer be seen in the eyes of a murdered person; does the severed head of a guillotined person maintain some degree of consciousness; did Thomas Parr, the Shropshire Methuselah, really attain the great age of 152 years? Giants, dwarfs and medical freaks are paraded in front of the reader, to say nothing of Nikolai Kobelkoff, the Russian armless and legless wonder, the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and Hans Langseth who boasted a 17½-ft beard. The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, combines a historian’s research skills with a physician’s diagnostic flair, as I explore our timeless fascination with the freakish and bizarre people and events in the colourful history of medicine.

    Jan Bondeson's new book The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities is available for purchase now.

  • Strange Victoriana 'Wonders of the Victorian era' by Jan Bondeson

    strange-victoriana-1 The 'White Gorilla', from the IPN, 6 February 1886 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

    In April 2011, after the publication of my book Queen Victoria’s Stalker, it was to be featured in Fortean Times magazine. When submitting the feature, I suggested to the Editor of this magazine that perhaps I should also contribute a series of short articles featuring sensational stories and startling Victorian images from the ‘worst newspaper in England’ – the Illustrated Police News. This idea was acted upon, and the readers of the Fortean Times were treated to a monthly dose of medical freaks, ghosts and hermits, curious dogs, weird animals, strange performers, and assorted historical mysteries and oddities. Dog-Faced Men are exhibited on stage, the doctors congregate around the bed of the Sleeping Frenchman of Soho, Miss Vint demonstrates her Reincarnated Cats, and scantily dressed Female Somnambulists tumble from the roofs. From the spectral world, we have the Haunted Murder House near Chard, the Ghost of Berkeley Square, the Jumping Spectre of Peckham and the Fighting Ghost of Tondu. The White Gorilla takes a swig from its tankard of beer, eagles come swooping from the sky to carry off little children, and heroic Newfoundland dogs plunge into the waves to rescue drowning mariners. In late 2015, I made arrangements to have this curious collection of weird Victoriana published in book form, and the present volume is the result of these exertions; I think it is a fine gallimaufry of Victorian eccentricity and freakishness, and wish it many readers.

    strange-victoriana-2 A retelling of the legend of the 'Lady with the Ring', from the IPN, 7 May 1904 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

    A favourite subject of the Illustrated Police News was the danger of apparent death and premature burial. Horrid stories of moving corpses, fingernails scraping against the coffin lid, and skeletons found in terribly contorted positions, abounded in its pages. In December 1901, Donna Maria Galvago made it to the first page of the Illustrated Police News, after she had revived inside her coffin just when it was to be buried. In 1904, there was a sensational story emanating from the Vienna correspondent of the Daily Express: Helena Fritsch, the young daughter of a wealthy farmer in Egerskeg, Hungary, was buried with great pomp, with a number of valuable rings on her fingers. The evening the same day, the graveyard sexton heard a knock at his window: he was horrified to find that it was the girl he had helped to bury. It turned out that two thieves had dug down to the coffin and cut three of her fingers off to steal her rings; the pain had roused her from her death-like cataleptic trance, and she had climbed out of her coffin and rejoined the rest of humanity.

    strange-victoriana-4 Ratting in the Haymarket, from the IPN, 24 December 1870 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

    In Victorian times, the ‘sport’ of ratting enjoyed considerable popularity. In this sleazy pastime, a number of rats were put into a rat-pit, and then an angry terrier dog was released. Bets were made how many rats the dog could kill within a certain amount of time, or how long it would take for the animal to kill twenty or a hundred rats. There was turmoil among the Manchester Ratting Fancy after an unprecedented match in 1880: Mr Benson’s fox-terrier ‘Turk’ was matched against Mr Lewis’s monkey for £5, in a twelve-rat match.

    strange-victoriana-5 The amazing Ratting Monkey, from the IPN, 7 September 1880 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

    Since the monkey was an unknown quantity, and the dog a formidable ratter, Turk was the favourite, although much betting took place on either side. After the dog had killed the twelve rats in very good time, the monkey was put into the rat-pit. Mr Lewis handed it a hammer, which the clever primate made good use of, bashing the rodents’ heads in with alacrity and winning the match with time to spare. As the Illustrated Police News expressed it, “One may talk about a dog being quick at rat-killing, but he is really not in it with the monkey and his hammer. Had the monkey been left in the ring for much longer one would not have told his victims had ever been rats at all – he was for leaving them in all shapes.” Several months later, it was still debated whether the rules of ratting should be amended to exclude monkeys wielding blunt instruments.

    strange-victoriana-6 A frenzied father pursues an enormous eagle that has taken his little son, from IPN, 7 August 1869 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

    In Victorian times, avian abductions were taken quite seriously. What worse fate would there be for a little child that to be carried off in the remorseless talons of an enormous eagle, and then to be torn to pieces and fed to the hungry eaglets in the eyrie? The earliest child-snatching eagle to make an appearance in the Illustrated Police News is from August 1869: several French newspapers could report that near Mount St Gotthard, a little boy between three and four years of age had been taken by an eagle. The boy’s father, a carpenter named Fonari, who had been repairing a house nearby when the eagle struck, pursued the bird up in the Alps, armed with a hatchet. He managed to strike the bird some heavy blows, inducing it to descend, and then seized hold of the child, which was not injured in any way, beyond the fright. In May 1904, the eighteen-month-old daughter of a Sutherlandshire crofter disappeared from the family cottage. At first, it was thought that she had been taken by gipsies, but a gamekeeper found the mangled remains of the child in a crevice in the mountains. Both eyes were missing, and the body showed signs of having been fed from by birds. It was immediately presumed that an eagle had swooped down and taken the child. The Illustrated Police News cleared the first page and published two thrilling illustrations of the eagle snatching the child away, and the terrible discovery on the crags. But after the coroner’s inquest pooh-poohed the idea of an eagle playing any part in the child’s abduction, the newspapers lost interest.

    Microsoft Word - Document2 Lois Schick, the Boy Moore and other players in the case, from the IPN, 30 October 1886 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

    In June 1886, a cheeky-looking young lad, who gave his name as Dick Schick and his age as fifteen, was employed as errand-boy by a respectable Burlington Arcade glover. Soon, items of clothing began to disappear from the shop, and Dick became a suspect. An anonymous letter accused another boy of the thefts, but after this individual had been dismissed from his job, the pilfering continued. When the anonymous note was compared with some of Dick’s handwriting, they were an excellent match. The police raided the Schick lodgings and found some of the missing garments, along with forty pawn tickets for other items of clothing. This was not the only noteworthy discovery of the day, however; when examined by a doctor, ‘Dick’ turned out to be not just a Schick, but a ‘chick’. The twenty-year-old Miss Lois Schick had successfully masqueraded as a fifteen-year-old London errand-boy for nearly a year. She was charged with theft and sentenced to eight months in prison, with hard labour. After serving her time, this daring Victorian cross-dresser disappeared without trace, perhaps to start a new life as ‘Dick Jones’ in some London suburb.


    Jan Bondeson's new book Strange Victoriana is available for purchase now.

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