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  • Queen Victoria and The Romanovs by Coryne Hall

    Sixty Years of Mutual Distrust

    Much to my surprise, no previous author has ever looked in depth at Queen Victoria’s ambivalent relationship with Russia and its ruling family. Armed with permission from the Royal Archives at Windsor to quote from the Queen’s Journals, I decided to put this to rights.

    Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg (Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia) as a young woman. Stories about her treatment in Russia greatly influenced her niece Queen Victoria. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The reasons for her dislike and distrust were both political and personal. The political centred on the historic British distrust of Russian aims since the expansion of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great. The personal reasons centred on the bad treatment of Queen Victoria’s maternal aunt Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld by her Romanov husband Grand Duke Constantine, Catherine the Great’s grandson.

    As I worked through the Queen’s Journals, I found that there were a lot more communications between Victoria and the Romanovs than I had thought. So many of them visited the Queen at Windsor, Osborne or Balmoral.

    The first to arrive was the future Tsar Alexander II in 1839. Alexander and Victoria were almost the same age. Victoria described him as tall with a fine figure, a pleasing open countenance without being handsome, fine blue eyes, a short nose, and a pretty mouth with a sweet smile.’ His impression of her was less complimentary: ‘[She] is very small, her figure is bad, her face plain, but she’s very agreeable to talk to.’ Nevertheless, when he whirled her giddily around the ballroom she was soon completely bowled over. The feeling (at the time) was mutual. Years later Victoria’s granddaughter described Alexander as ‘Grandmama’s first beau.’

    Tsarevich Alexander (later Alexander II) who completely bowled over the young Queen Victoria when he visited England in 1839. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    Nicholas I came to Buckingham Palace and Windsor in 1844. He refused a comfortable bed in favour of his own camp bed from St Petersburg and asked for straw to stuff the mattress. He was an autocrat to his fingertips but Victoria found that ‘his sternness is less remarkable, when one gets to know him better.’  Ten years later the Crimean War broke out and they were enemies.

    On his death in 1855 Victoria’s former ‘beau’ Alexander II came to the throne. Nevertheless, at least once during his reign Britain and Russia were brought to the brink of war.

    What Victoria did not foresee was the Romanovs marrying into her own family. Her son Alfred married Alexander II’s daughter Marie in 1874 after long and tortuous negotiations, when both the Tsar and the Queen proved reluctant to give way on any issue. When Marie arrived in England after the wedding she insisted on being treated as a Russian Grand Duchess. Not only was she autocratic but her jewels dazzled the court and made the Queen and her daughters rather jealous. Marie was soon complaining about the Queen and life in England in letters home.

    Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor. To the annoyance of the tsar, Victoria married her Coburg cousin in 1840. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The only Tsar who did not visit during his reign was Alexander III. His wife, Marie Feodorovna, was a sister to Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales. Tsarevich Alexander and his wife came on a visit to her sister in 1873, when the Queen also invited them to Windsor and Osborne but, when he became Tsar after Alexander II’s assassination by terrorists in 1881, he and Victoria did not get on at all. ‘A sovereign whom she does not look upon as a gentleman’ was her comment about Alexander III.  In return, he described her as a ‘pampered, sentimental, selfish old woman.’

    The differences in language and culture, as well as the unstable political situation in Russia, explained the Queen’s horror when two of her favourite Hesse granddaughters, Ella and Alix, married into the Russian Imperial family – Ella to Alexander III’s brother Grand Duke Sergei, and Alix to Tsar Nicholas II. The Queen did her best to discourage both young women from going to what she called ‘horrid Russia’ but to no avail.

    Victoria gave an especially warm welcome to Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna when they stayed at Balmoral in 1896, but although the Queen liked Nicholas as a person, she didn’t like or trust his country. Her Empire always came before family connections.

    ‘Russia,’ the Queen Victoria once wrote, ‘is not to be trusted.’ It is fortunate that she didn’t live long enough to know that she would be proved right. Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, their children and Ella were all killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

    Coryne Hall's book Queen Victoria and The Romanovs 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.

    9781445658858

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

  • The Victorian Parson by Barry Turner

    On the south side of Waterloo Bridge, not far from the National Theatre, stands the church of St. John. Built early in the reign of Queen Victoria, when this part of London was slum territory, the barn like interior was designed to accommodate up to two thousand worshippers. Though hard to imagine now, the church was often full to over flowing.

    Victorian parson 3 The village choir, in a painting by Robert Webster. (Courtesy of Robert Cutts)

    It may come as another surprise to know that St. John’s was built with taxpayer’s money. It was one of 214 government sponsored churches that went up in areas of burgeoning population and extreme poverty.

    The more cynically minded will immediately spot a class inspired attempt to stifle social unrest in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. And, of course, there is some truth in this. But the religious revival that started with the new churches and a new generation of active and dedicated clergy had more to it than political calculation.

    Traditionally at the heart of the nation’s affairs, the Church was galvanized by Victorian idealism to embark on a mission to civilize a people caught up in the throes of unprecedented technological and social change. It was the Church that led the way in promoting education, decent housing, proper sanitation, personal hygiene and what came to be known as family values.

    I anticipate the howls from those who protest against hypocrisy and double standards by readily conceding that, like all great reforming movements, the Victorian Church had its share of humbugs and villains who hid their nefarious activities under a shawl of piety. I could outstay my welcome by retailing stories of dirty doings at the vicarage. Suffice to say that the worst offenders, like the rector who took lead from the church roof to sell as scrap and the curate who was found guilty of visiting a brothel and being drunk in the pulpit, gained notoriety but were by no means typical.

    Victorian parson 1 Church of St Mary the Virgin, Buty. This church was completely rebuilt during the Victorian era, though a church has existed on the site since AD 971.

    More mainstream was the Rev. William Leigh who opened his home to cholera victims, and William Butler, who renovated slum properties to make them fit to live in.

    And so we come back to family values. The family was central to Church teaching. However imperfect, the family gave life its structure and meaning. Central to this concept was the role of wives and mothers as the conscience of the nation. Seen today, it is all so excruciatingly patronising, but it made sense at the time.

    Prudish and often myopic they may have been, but the clergy had few illusions as to the male capacity for piggish behaviour. They were well aware of commercial sharp practice, of the casualties of industrial expansion and the evils of alcoholism and prostitution which thrived on mass poverty. Limited in the material remedies they could offer, they promoted standards to which all classes might aspire. Feminine virtues were fundamental to their aims.

    I need hardly add that the Victorian ideal is no match for today’s standards. But if it had not been for the Victorian ideal, there might not be any modern standards to live up to.

    9781445655390

    Barry Turner's new paperback edition of his book The Victorian Parson is available for purchase now.

  • Dining with the Victorians by Emma Kay

    Microsoft Word - Document1Dining with the Victorians explores the narrative of the history of cooking, eating, wining and dining in this fact packed follow-up to Dining with the Georgians, my first book that defined Britain’s contemporary culinary history as being largely established in the eighteenth century. Whereas the Georgians gave us celebrity chef culture, a recipe writing mass media and a culinary consumerist society, the Victorians evolved the way Britain’s ate, largely as a consequence of increased leisure and holiday time, invention and experimentation.

    Alongside a confusing back-drop of austerity; aspiration, inherent belief in old superstitions, piety, morals, principles, social awareness, innovation and tradition, Victorian society is the closest to our own recognisable heritage, as well as representing one of the most visibly transcended periods in history. Despite philanthropy and great social change, the nineteenth century divide between rich and poor was hugely conspicuous. This is the era that saw the shift in the great French cooks of the century before moving from the estate kitchens of the wealthy, into the new Hotel and early public dining venues opening across cities and towns across the country. Tea rooms, lunching spots and dining halls catered to the rising and diligent middle classes who now often commuted long distances for work. The role for women in society was also shifting and for those middle class wives and daughters not engaged in the modern industrious workforce, they spent their new found freedom from the constraints of the home out shopping, visiting galleries and museums, parks and gardens stopping for tea and light refreshment in the abundance of new establishments catering for them. The labouring and poor capitalised on street and market trades or sought food from the sewers, mud flats and animal swill bins of the neighbouring prosperity.

    Microsoft Word - Document1 ©Museum of Kitchenalia

    Dining with the Victorians investigates the altruistic nature of nineteenth century culture, something that was evident in Georgian society, but became a burgeoning force by the late eighteen hundreds. A recognition of the cyclical nature of poverty and the need to implement real change in order to create stronger, more prosperous communities led to revolutionary widespread changes in the teaching and training of cooking and domestic health and hygiene for all. Newly established schools, colleges and centres of learning adopted the art of cookery as an essential tool for life which was rolled out for the benefit of all, particularly targeting the poor. Charitable pioneers like William Booth who invested in the soup kitchen philosophy of the century before, by providing farthing breakfasts for children on their way to school and Alexis Soyer; who spans both Georgian and Victorian eras researching and conversing with the poor, developing recipes and manufacturing affordable practical kitchen equipment, are just two names associated with this break from the past. This was also the age of advancements in science, germ theory and an awareness of wider health implications leading to new legislation concerning the adulteration of food. By the mid nineteenth century it was not uncommon to find alum in your bread, lead to colour cheese and arrowroot to thicken cream amongst many other deadly component ingredients to keep the cost of production down and the appearance of food attractive to the consumer.

    The one theme in the book that I was very keen to impart and have to a much larger extent done so when writing about the Georgians, is to emphasise Britain’s many different cultural culinary influences. As a nation with a legacy of exploration, migration, immigration, trade and Empire, this inevitably impacted on the type of food the British were eating during the Victorian age. The dominant French and Italian influences of the century before yielded German bakeries, Jewish fried fish sellers, Indian and Chinese food emporiums, American imports and a wealth of new cuisines available to a wide demographic by the late nineteenth century; not just to the wealthy classes, but for the aspiring middle and some sectors of working class society. Perhaps the greatest Victorian enthusiast of all for Indian cuisine was Queen Victoria herself, who towards the end of her life insisted on eating curry every day and had a controversial relationship with her personal Indian chef Abdul Karim, far less documented than that of the one she had with John Brown.

    Microsoft Word - Document1Given the fact that we live in a somewhat food obsessed culture where programmes like the Great British Bake Off and come Dine With Me dominate the television ratings while the likes of Mary Berry, Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (to name a few) are often hotter news than the news itself - food and the British food cultural legacy, including the extraordinary story of the evolution of the British kitchen, is a somewhat neglected and unconventional category of academic historical research. It remains a vast area of largely unchartered discovery, with just a handful of writers dedicated to its research and interpretation. My first book Dining with the Georgians and the now paperback Georgian Kitchen, explores the even less chronicled area of kitchen utensils and the early revolution in kitchen technology, labour-saving devices and methods of food preparation and production. Dining with the Victorians takes this narrative forward by charting the correlation between a changing and modernising society, alongside the astounding growth in consumer demand for the accessibility of food in public. By the eighteen eighties Britain’s Aerated Bread Company (ABC’s) were mass producing baked products off site to sell in bakeries that had chain shop stores on most high streets, food could also be bought from vending machines at train stations and consumers could sample the tastes of various different cultures; not only on the streets of port cities but by travelling on package excursions courtesy of Thomas Cook tour operators, who made copious notes on all the early group package tours regarding the nature of food served from country to country.

    I hope my continued research in this area will go some way to contributing towards the largely untold history of what has shaped Britain’s rich culinary inheritance.

    9781445646541

    Emma Kay's Dining with the Victorians is available for purchase now.

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