Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Great Storm of 1703

The wills that first intrigued me

A few days ago, I was rummaging through a box of wills when I noticed something odd. Amongst the wills of those who died in 1703, and unusually high proportion had died aboard a ship. Closer inspection revealed that each of the thirteen Yorkshire men who died in December 1703 had died on one of five ships. Immediately my curiosity was piqued. I knew that in 1703 England had been embroiled in the War of Spanish Succession. Perhaps there been a disastrous naval battle? However, the answer turned out to be far more prosaic; not a naval battle, but bad weather.

On the afternoon of November 26th 1703[1], Daniel Defoe noticed that the mercury in his barometer had dropped unnaturally low; so low that he assumed that his children had been playing with the instrument and had damaged it. That night southern and central England was hit by an extra-tropical cyclone, unprecedented both in its ferocity and duration. Diarist John Evelyn wrote that the storm was “not to be paralleled with anything happening in our age or in any history.” In London, the damage was extensive. Lightning started fires in both Greenwich and Whitehall, while the wind was so strong that nearly 2000 chimneys were blown down and the lead roofing was blown off Westminster Abbey. Some, fearing that the roofs would collapse above their heads, tried to take shelter outside, only to find that roof tiles were whirling through the air. Those living near St. James’s Park also noticed that fish from the park’s lake had also been swept up by the wind and sent flying. So many roofs were damaged that there were genuinely not enough tiles in England to replace those that had been lost or broken. The damage was not restricted to London. According to Defoe, windmills across the country span so fast that the friction generated caused them to spontaneously combust. The winds in Kent were so fierce that they lifted a cow into a tree. There was also severe and prolonged flooding, especially around Bristol. The River Severn rose a full eight feet and spread mile from its bank, destroying farms and killing livestock on the way.

A contemporary print showing the rough seas
As is to be expected under such conditions, the seas became incredibly rough. Eddystone Lighthouse in Plymouth was completely destroyed and swept away. A boat in Kent was picked up by the wind and waves and washed 800 feet inland, while a ship on the Helford River in Cornwall was torn from its moorings and eventually washed up eight hours later in the Isle of Wight. Meanwhile, the HMS Association was blown all the way from Harwich in Suffolk to Gothenburg in Sweden. For the Royal Navy, the storm could not have come at a worse moment. They had been planning an assault on Cadiz, but strong winds in the days leading up to the storm had prevented ships from crossing the Channel. Instead, they were gathered, along with a collection of mercantile ships, at the mouth of the River Thames. Almost none of the ships sheltering here survived intact. Many were wrecked upon Goodwin Sands. As Goodwin Sands is largely uncovered at low tides, many sailors were able to climb onto the sands to await rescue. However, the ferocity of the storm meant that few rescue boats ever arrived. It’s estimated that nearly 1500 sailors were killed on Goodwin Sands alone, including the entire crews of both the HMS Northumberland and the HMS Restoration. In the Great Storm of 1703, the navy lost 13 ships and approximately one-fifth of their men.

The inventory of Christopher Abbott
This explains why so many of the testators in December 1703 had died aboard ship; they were all naval men who died upon Goodwin Sands. Looking at these wills more closely it becomes apparent that all thirteen were proved at the same time. Each bond is written in the same hand, with Lovell Lazenby acting as a witness to the majority of them, and each of the inventories of the deceased men’s goods has been written up by the same person. None of the men left very much. Edward Postgate and Christopher Abbott both left nothing more than one month’s back pay[2]. Both Christopher Abbott and Edward Moore’s inventories note that they did have more in “purse and apparail,” but that this too had been lost in the ship wreck. A few of the men were slightly better off. Both William Easingwold and Joseph Hunt were recorded as having owned “books and instruments,” while Robert Coats owned a chest and towels. Only three wives (Mary Thorpe, Isabell Wolfe and Ann Abbott) were named as executrixes. Both Edward Postgate and Henry Lund named their sisters as their executrixes. Six of the men left their goods in the care of their parents, while Samuel Bramman chose his “Loveing Friend Grace Baker, Widdow…or her son Lawrence if she be Dead.” As such, it seems safe to deduce that many men who joined the navy were fairly poor, unmarried, and young. They also seem to have been aware of the dangers they were facing. Samuel Bramman wrote that he made his will “considering the Dangers of the Seas and the Frailty and Uncertainty of this Transitory Life.”

The notes left by Lancelot Thorpe on the back of his will
Perhaps the most interesting of all of these wills is that of Lancelot Thorpe. His will, clearly written by a professional scribe, leaves just over £12 worth of goods to his wife. Yet, on the back of his will are two notes written in his own hand. The first epistle is to his wife, Mary. He starts by explaining that he “did aske <th>e ofesers [officer’s] advice” when writing his will, to make sure that everything would be made as easy as possible for Mary. He had noticed that a “great maney of our men dieth be for thay ken get thar willes wret,” and wanted to ensure that he was not in the same position. He wishes her “all <th>e Joy (and) Comefor that I have” and requests that she “doe not falle to write.” He then writes a longer note to his daughter. I’ve not been able to find her birth record, but as Mary and Lancelot had married in 1696, it’s unlikely that she was any older than six. He writes that he is “Rejoyesed boath in hart (and) seowle [soul] to heaeyer that you are seoe tendr and Dutifull to your der mother.” He reminds her of the love both he and Mary have for her, before entreating her to remain dutiful to her parents, keep good company and to look after the good of her soul. He writes: “if it plese god that you leive to be a mother of Cheildren you may find some of my words treu.” Personal messages are rare within probate files, so this hand-written note is a fortunate and very sweet survival.

Stories of the storm gathered by Daniel Defoe
The Great Storm of 1703 had a monumental impact upon the public consciousness. As with many great disasters of the day, it was believed the storm was a divine punishment, sent from God to punish England for their poor performance in the War of Spanish Succession against the Catholic Bourbons. January 19th 1704 was declared to be a national day of fasting to ask for forgiveness and mercy, and the Great Storm continued to be a common topic of sermons and homilies well into the nineteenth century. The physical effects of the storm were also felt for years after the event. The flooding round Bristol caused the land to become saturated with salt water. As a result, for years afterward the grass grown in this area had a salty taste to it, which in turn caused the animals that grazed upon it to be in poor health. One man in Somerset wrote to a local newspaper that the worst impact of the storm had been the loss of the local orchards. Thanks to their disappearance, there would be no cider the following year – a true tragedy! However, the reason this storm remained within public consciousness can also be partly put down to the fact that it coincided with the advent of English journalism. As such it was the first weather story to be reported as national news (a tradition we have continued ever since). Special broadsheet were produced and circulated across the country given details of the storm and the damage it had caused.  Similarly, in the days following the storm, Defoe put an advert out in many pamphlets and broadsheets requesting that people write to him with their own impressions and tales of the storm. These were put together into a book simply titled The Storm first published in July 1704. Surviving copies of this book is where the vast majority of current knowledge about the storm has stemmed from, and it remains a fascinating read.

As an interesting side note, the damage sustained by the navy during the Great Storm of 1703
meant that they never did attack Cadiz. Instead they changed the focus of their attack to the much smaller and less well-defended Gibraltar. The attack was successful, and Gibraltar was ceded to the British. So if you’ve ever wondered why Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, it turns out the weather is to blame.

[1] December 7th in the Gregorian calendar
[2] £1 3s.

Monday, 19 March 2018


A guest post by Dr George Redmonds, author of the Yorkshire Historic Dictionary.

If I were accused of eavesdropping I might be mildly embarrassed but I would certainly not expect to
be punished for it. The truth is that we use the word loosely these days, not stopping to consider that the eavesdropper was once the scourge of the local community – a person who lurked at night under the eaves of a neighbour’s house in the hope of gathering titbits of gossip that could then be turned to advantage. The serious nature of the misdemeanour is clear from definitions in Law dictionaries, one of which describes the eavesdropper as a person who ‘hearkens after discourse … to frame slanders and mischievous tales’.

Entry on Eaves-droppers from Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1768.
There is no record of just when eavesdropping started to be considered as an offence but in 1377, in Methley near Wakefield, Matilda Seamster was indicted at the manor court for listening under the walls of her neighbours’ houses at night and ‘narrating idle speeches’. That entry was in Latin, so the word ‘eavesdropper’ was not used but in Nottingham, in 1487, a jury found that Henry Rowley was a man who wandered around the village during the hours of darkness, and they indicted him as a common evys-dropper.

In Yorkshire it was more usual for the offender to be called an ‘eavesing dropper’ or an ‘easing dropper’ and a few early examples are found in the court rolls. In 1577, for example, Elizabeth Banke of Acomb, a village near York, was ordered to kepe hir house in the neight season and not be an esinge dropper; in Rastrick, in 1664, Elizabeth Dyson was presented for standeing under the ewse of the house of Joseph Goodheire as an ewseing dropper and was fined 10 shillings.

St Peter the Little, York today - now called Peter Lane
It is not difficult to see how the word had acquired its meaning. In Old English the noun ‘eavesdrop’ (yfesdrype) referred originally to the water that dripped, or dropped, from the eaves of a house, but from that it came to mean the edge of the roof itself. In 1338, the sale of a house in York, in the narrow lane called St Peter the Little, required the parties concerned to agree about the space they would need should repairs or rebuilding be necessary. Two English words that were included for greater clarity were gettes and efsdropes, that is to say the ‘jetties’ or overhanging upper storeys and the ‘eavesdrops’ or projecting parts of the roofs.

The Shambles, York
The Shambles, York
showing jetties and eavesdrops
Clearly, both of these affected the space available between the buildings at ground level and that could be a problem in narrow town streets – like the Shambles in York. As a consequence it became customary to restrict a person from building right up to the edge of his land, lest the water dripping from his eaves should cause a problem. That custom appears to be implicit in a Kent charter dated 868 where the word ‘yfæs drypæ’ is on record for the first time. It was in the space between the house wall and the ‘eavesdrip’ that our more inquisitive ancestors found shelter and were privy to a neighbour’s secrets. 

Etymologically, the Old English word ‘efes’ was actually singular but the final –s has been mistaken for a plural and that is how we interpret ‘eaves’ now. When John Tyndall wrote in 1872 that ‘water trickles to the eave and then drops down’ he was employing what is called a ‘back formation’ – as we do when we use the word ‘pea’ and not ‘pease’.

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Friday, 23 February 2018

Honesty Girls Club: Educating the Girls of York

Winifred Rowntree

In 1902, seventeen year-old Winifred Rowntree noted that there was nothing for teenage girls in York to do in the evenings . Inspired by the local evening school for adults, she decided to establish a club that would aim to entertain and educate girls from the area around Leeman Road. Not long after, Winifred and twenty-three other young women, most of whom had fathers who worked on the railway, agreed to meet every Monday evening, and thus the Honesty Girls Club was born.

By 1913, the club was flourishing, with 116 members. After years of meeting in the evening school’s building, had finally moved into the club’s own purpose-built facilities. The senior class (for those who had left school) continued to meet on a Monday night to practice needlework and dancing. In the summers, they meet in Clifton Gardens, where the dancing would be replaced by gentle strolls around the gardens observing the flora and fauna. The club’s junior class (those aged eleven to fourteen) met on a Monday night. They would practice their plain sewing, before having an hour of games and dancing. Both sets of meetings ended with hymns and a prayer. Entrance cost a penny a week, although siblings got a discounted rate of a half-penny. For younger girls who hoped to join the club (those aged nine to eleven), “Drill Sessions” were run for an hour before Monday’s meetings which allowed them to show their commitment to the group. On summer Saturday afternoons, girls were invited on countryside rambles, but only if they had attended at least three club nights in the last month. This was one of twenty-five rules that members had to comply with, including: “Members shall remove their hats as soon as they enter the Club,” and “No sweets or other eatable to be brought into the Club at any time.”

Embroidery done by a member of the Honesty Girls Club
The main aim of the Honesty Girls Club was to educate its members. The club had its own library, and senior members were automatically signed up to the Rowntree library. As the club expanded, they began to run evening classes for members. These covered a wide range of topic, including: singing, copper work, blouse-making, Morris dancing and folk songs, English literature, swimming, gardening, and “Dramatic Classes” that provided “Dramatic Entertainment” for the community. The club also held annual competitions, such as a wildflower competition in which prizes were offered to the girls who could collect the widest variety of species. In 1912, this was won by Rose Richardson, who successfully collected 169 specimens of wildflower. Spare a thought for poor Lily Bracewell, who came third in this contest for three years in a row, before having to drop out in the fourth year due to illness. In 1913, they set up the Snowdrop Band, a subsection of the club which invited “knowledgeable ladies” to come and share their expertise on topics, including: “Ideals of Womanhood,” “Physcial and Moral Health,” and “Thought Books,” a journal for pleasant thoughts that entered one’s head.

As its name suggests, the Honesty Girls Club organizers wished to instill kindness and honesty within its members. Their motto, an extract from My Love by James Russell Lowell, reads:

Lily Scott's membership certificate
“She doeth little kindnesses,
Which most leave undone, or despise:
Four naught that sets one heart at ease,
And giveth ha
ppiness of peace,

Is low-esteemed in her eyes.”

To this end, they regularly ran events for the local community, including an annual Christmas party for children from the local workhouse and a weekly ‘Play Club’ for local children. In the 1912 annual report, it was noted: “There can be no doubt that the children unconsciously grow in the habit of self-control through the house spent in organised play.” Shortly after this, the junior class established a ‘Guild of Help’ which made baby clothes from recycled materials and gave them away to ‘very needy homes.’ They also created cradles out of banana crates which could be lent out to mothers as necessary. During the First World War, it was decided that such charitable acts was the best way for the club to support the war effort, and the Guild of Help became a vital part of the club.

A copper box made by Lily Scott
It is thanks to Lily Scott that I was recently made aware of this little-remembered organisation. Lily Scott joined the Honesty Girls Club on February 20th 1903, when she would have been twelve years old. Starting in the junior group, she later progressed into the senior class, and was elected to the running committee in 1912. She probably left the club when she married in 1913, but continued to show an interest in its activities. A collection of items belonging to Lily but pertaining to the Honesty Girls Club were recently gifted to the Borthwick. As well as a substantial collection of the club’s annual reports, we also have a hand-embroidered cushion and a collection of copper items that Lily made while attending classes at the club. According to the annual reports, copperwork was one of the less popular classes, with only eleven girls attending in 1912, meaning Lily would have been in a minority. In one report, the teacher writes that the class have made excellent works, in spite of their small size, but that she does wish they would learn to clean up after themselves! Also in the collection is Lily’s certificate of membership. Girls had to prove their commitment, so were only given a certificate after they had regularly attended club meetings for three years. After five years of attendance, the club would have their certificate framed. While the frame no longer survives, the certificate has been mounted, and has survived in remarkably good condition.

Winifred Rowntree continued to oversee the Honesty Girls Club until her death in 1915, when her husband. Her funeral was attended by 110 club members, and they held their own memorial service for her. After her death, Winifred’s husband, A. D. Naish took over as President, while Winifred’s mother Emma Rowntree became Vice-President. They were assisted by a secretary and vice-secretary, both of whom were former members. However, the club was largely run by a committee of twelve girls annually elected from the senior group. These girls were responsible for running evening meetings, deciding which classes would run and finding teachers for them, and organizing any outreach programs. In later years, this committee was supported by former members of the club. The last annual report for the club was released in 1940. By this point numbers had dwindled; only four classes were still running. The Club probably closed shortly after.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

For Burn's Night, Scotland in Yorkshire

Interactions between Scotland and Yorkshire were clearly, from the surviving terms in the dictionary, many and common-place. Those words which explicitly reference Scotland seem mostly to do with trade between the two areas, as Scottish men brought wares down from their home country to be sold around the county.

Scotch cloth, for example, was a fabric said to resemble ‘lawn’ (a plain weave textile of linen or, latterly, cotton) but cheaper - it was sometimes said to have been made with the fibre of nettles.

And what better to wear with your scotch cloth shirt than a scotch cap? In his will of 1551, Thomas Greenwood of Wakefield stated:
Unto Edwarde Sundderland as it apperethe in my booke of parcels for a remnantte of calve skynes so that the said Edward do allowe to me xxs which I paid for hym to William Parkyns, besides a Scotche cappe that he had of me, and I owe unto hym for whitte carsaye
This was not a scotch bonnet or a tam o’shanter but something more like a Glengarry cap or Balmoral bonnet. The OED has examples from 1591 and describes it as ‘a man’s head-dress made of thick firm woolen cloth, without a brim, and decorated with two tails or streamers.’ Something similar is now worn by Scottish military regiments:
A Balmoral Bonnet, similar to a scotch cap
These items were probably brought down from Scotland by the scotchman: a sort of catch-all term for travelling drapers, hawkers and sellers of scotch cloth. They called regularly, in isolated rural hamlets, and offered a credit system which helped to make them successful. There are numerous references to scotchmen in the Quarter Sessions from the seventeenth century:
  • Alexander Miller… and another Scotchman taken up with a pack on his back (1705, Gisburn) 
  • Mary Hanson had bought the musling of one Robert Maxfield a Scotchman (1721) 
  • One piece of red and white printed linen which she saith she exchanged with a Scotch Man for her son’s hair in 1736 (1738, West Riding)
Depositions given during Quarter Session give some excellent detail about the life of a scotchman. John Smith was arrested in Kirkheaton in 1682:

Saith that he was borne in Scotland and Dumfrees and he came into England the fooreende of May last and sells hollan and scotchcloath, cambrick, muslins, callecoe and blew linne and that he came Almondbury to Kirkheaton and there was taken up by the watch and hath used this pedding traide for five yeares last paste in England and that he byes the comodityes, except the scotchcloath, of Mr Hardwick and Mr Hey both of Leeds

There are also burial records for peddlars who died on the road. Many were buried without names, their peripatetic lifestyle meaning they were unknown to the inhabitants of their last resting places:

'A Scotchman borne att Edenborough Cominge out of the South dyd as he was brought from Borrowbridge and was buryed att Kirby' Oct 25 1666 N/PR/KM/1/1 North Yorkshire County Record Office 
By 1881, Joe Whiteley of Lancaster Street in Barnsley was referring to himself as a ‘Scotch Traveller Drapery’. His West Riding surname, combined with his birthplace of Holmfirth, suggests that by this date, scotchman had become a more generalised term for a travelling salesman:
From the 1881 Census, showing Joe Whiteley, Scotch Traveller
Scotchmen generally dealt in cloth, so they probably weren’t carrying pounds of nails on their backs. In addition, the existence of the word scotsemnail in Yorkshire from the medieval period seems to predate the arrival of the scotchman by several hundred years. The word is found frequently in the county from the early fourteenth century and seems to derive itself from a Scots dialect term: a seam was a nail, especially one which fixed together the planks of a clinker-built boat. The suffix ‘-nail’ may have been added by clerks who were unfamiliar with the regional word - probably the Yorkshiremen who bought and used them just referred to them as scotsem.

References to scotsemnails occur in the York area from the fourteenth century:

1371 Et in 10.m de Scotsomnail emptis pro celura, dando pro c. 5d, 41s 8d
1434 In v. m Scotesemnailes, 5s 5d
1518 Item paid for ij M skotsym, ijs
1535 It’m twoo thowsand skott Semes (Stillingfleet)

1537 scotsem nayles otherwise called lathe nayles (Sheriff Hutton)

Scotch cloth: A textile fabric which resembled 'lawn' but was cheaper.
Scotch cap: A man's head-dress made of thick firm woollen cloth, without a brim, and decorated with two tails or streamers.
Scotsemnail: A 'scottish nail', one that could be clenched.

Alexandra Medcalf
Project Archivist, Yorkshire Historic Dictionary (@YorksDictionary)

Food in the Archives

‘Gett a fatt roasting pigg and cut off its head'
Walking through the strongrooms within the Borthwick, you never know quite what you will find. There is a Crown of Thorns, an ostrich egg, and a box simply labelled ‘Hair cuttings (family).’ So I was not surprised to learn that within the archive of the Wood family (later Earls of Halifax), intermingled with estate records, political journals and family correspondence, are a series of handwritten recipe books. We say ‘books,’ but in fact it is a box full of notebooks and loose sheets on which people have scribbled down recipes. While these are rarely dated, they appear to cover much of the 19th century. However, mixed in with the rest is a large, bound volume, written in by various hands, with a collection of loose sheets tucked inside, that give us a good idea of what the family ate.

As you would expect of 19th century aristocrats, the Wood family indulged in some sumptuous and
luxurious meals. One recipe provides the cook with instructions on how to boil a lobster, to be served with a fish sauce made from anchovies, onion, vinegar and horse radish. Pickled walnuts appear to have been a delicacy, as there are three separate recipes for how to prepare them. There is also a straightforward recipe for ‘Oyster Loaves.’ All the cook has to do is hollow out some French rolls, and push the oysters inside. Unfortunately for the cook, not all recipes were so effortless. The recipe for a pork dinner starts with the line: ‘Gett a fatt roasting pigg and cut off its head’!

A recipe with a drawing of a ‘little onion’ at the top
However not all of the recipes in this books are for such decadent meals. Served alongside various meats was a combination of boiled cabbage, mashed potato and onion. There are also recipes for macaroni, dumplings, and dried tongue. Those in the mood for a really humble meal would perhaps have chosen ‘Ham Toast.’ As the name suggests, this was ham on toast with a little scrambled egg on top. It may even have been served with their own home-made ‘Cetchup,’ the boiled innards of mushrooms.

Around the same time as the Wood family were eating ham toast and mashed potatoes, the girls of the Grey Coats School in York were enjoying a similar fare. Grey Coats was a charity boarding school for poor girls founded in 1705, and the kitchen account books today survive with the rest of their archive within the Borthwick. Looking through the account book for the period 1827 to 1848, it appears the girls were largely fed on meat and potatoes. Unlike the poor Wood’s cooks, these kitchen staff bought ready-made sausages and bacon, as well as tripe, pressed beef and pork pie. In the winter months, the school would consume around ninety pounds of potatoes a week; nearly two pounds per student! Oatmeal was consumed at a similar rate, and cabbage also frequently appeared on the menu.

In a later account book, plums and other fruit begin to appear.
In both sets of documents, fruit make a rare appearance. Fruit appears within a few dessert recipes
with the Wood’s documents, including ‘sweetened apricots’ (similar to stewed apples), and the particularly delicious sounding ‘French puffs’. These were made from grated apple mixed with sugar, cream, eggs, butter, flour, nutmeg and orange flower water, which was then fried.  Meanwhile, the girls of Grey Coats’ School gained their five a day from gooseberry, apple and rhubarb pies. A similar account book from the 1920s shows that the girls did later eat a wider selection of fruit, including: bananas, Seville oranges, and plums. It’s worth noting, though, that the account books feature regular payments to a gardener, as well as an annual supply of turf. It is entirely possible that the kitchen staff were growing much of the fruit served to the students, meaning it wouldn’t appear in the account book.

‘Yeast for bread’ and ‘yeast for cakes’
As may have been apparent, puddings featured heavily in the menus of both the Wood family and Grey Coats School. The school account books show weekly purchases of yeast, but ‘yeast for bread’ was costed separately to ‘yeast for cakes.’  The account book show purchases of treacle, trifle, custard powder, and a regular supply of butter and eggs specifically ‘for gingerbread’.  The Wood family also enjoyed gingerbread. Their recipes ‘Honeycomb gingerbread’ and the intriguingly named ‘Transparent gingerbread.’ Perhaps, like the fabled emperor’s coat, only those worthy of gingerbread can see it. Within the bound volume of recipes, there is not only a section dedicated to desserts and puddings, but another for cakes and yet another for creams. They flavoured cream with everything from lemon and Seville orange, to almonds and brandy. However, the most prevalent recipe within the book is rice pudding. Not only are there three different rice pudding recipes within bound volume, but multiple recipes tucked in, all written on scraps of paper in different hands, all using slightly different ingredients, and all claiming to be the ‘perfect’ rice pudding.

Recipes at the time were not solely concerned with food, and neither was the account book of Grey Coats School. Alcohol appears in both sets of records The Halifax book has a whole section dedicate to make special ‘flavours’ of wine (raspberry, gooseberry, spiced cider), while the staff at Grey Coats
A recipe for beef tea addressed to Sir F. L Wood
school were allowed to order alcohol through the kitchen. As such there are entries for ‘ale for Beswick,’ ‘port for Goot’ and ‘ale for the abbot’. Mixed in are also payments for stamps, window cleaning, ‘manure for Matron,’ and ‘cab fare to the hospital’. The very last entries in the later account book are for Morris dancing and a book on folk dancing. The Wood family, meanwhile, were quite concerned with medicine. Their recipes include formulas to cure toothache, rheumatic cramps, and ‘violent discharges,’ among others. At the end of the aforementioned creams section, there is a recipe for ‘Artificial Ape’s Milk’, an indigestion cure that would surely be necessary after all that dessert! Perhaps most touchingly, tucked into the back of the volume is a letter addressed to Sir F.L. Wood (Francis Lindley Wood (1771–1846)). It contains meticulous instructions on how to prepare beef tea, ending with the line “this is an excellent thing instead of broth for a sick person.”

These are by no means the only food-based records found at the Borthwick, but together they paint a picture of what people at both ends of society were eating in the latter half of the 19th century. On the whole, it seems to have been a diet of meat and root vegetables, but with plenty of pies, cakes and gingerbread to follow. Perhaps not the healthiest way to eat, but delicious nonetheless!

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Eyewitnesses to History in the Retreat Archive

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat archive as we publicise the availability of the digitised archive. As we have worked on this digitisation project there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this blog post, one of our digitisation assistants, Jane Rowling highlights some of the interesting items she has encountered.


One of the pleasures of digitising an archive like that of The Retreat, is the number of throwaway comments and random snippets which refer to bigger events in the history of Britain and the world. The correspondence files are particularly rich in this regard, and offer a fascinating insight into life during history’s “Big Events”, through the eyes of people who were there at the time. This blog will pick out a few of my favourite examples, although there are many more among the thousands of digitised documents from this archive which can be found online by browsing our catalogue.

The Tooley Street Fire

Writing in 1885, Mr Charles Cave Wilmott, a patient at The Retreat, recalled one of his experiences as a London resident earlier in his life:

“I got into a Bus and at the Elephant & Castle and we all saw a conflagration at London Bridge. We had a diffy to Cross the bridge. The fire It was opposite the other side of the Thames, and I to saw them squirting water over the Tower Walls, the scene was awfull [sic]. Braidwood the Head of the fire begrade [sic] a most brave man. I forget whether any of the firemen were killed several bu people were buried in the debris. The fire Brigade with Braidwood marched behind the funeral cortege down Shoreditch to Kensall Green Semetry [sic], The playing the dead march in Saul. It was a grand sight.”

This memory has many parallels with the Tooley Street Fire of 1861, which was often referred to as the greatest fire since the Great Fire of London. This took place in the warehouses which lined the Thames close to London Bridge and took two weeks to extinguish. As with other disasters in the Victorian city, the Tooley Street Fire drew crowds of over 30,000 people, standing on the bridge and the opposite side of the river, bringing traffic to a standstill, and accounting for the difficulty which Mr Wilmott’s bus experienced in crossing. James Braidwood, the Superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment, was in fact killed during the effort to extinguish this conflagration, buried under a wall which collapsed on him as he was attempting to assist one of his firemen. A funeral cortege like the one Mr Wilmott remembered , a mile and a half long, carried Braidwood to his final resting place. This event was a major spur for the creation of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1866.

The First World War

Day to day history is also captured in vivid detail in the Retreat Archive. The First World War had a greater impact on everyday life in Britain than any previous war. For the first time, war was on the doorstep, and it’s effects can be seen everywhere in correspondence dating from 1914 to 1918. This led to the issuing of new rules and regulations which would govern people’s lives, and a level of fear began to affect even the most mundane of interactions with strangers. 

Take, for example, the case of Harold Schluter, a patient at The Retreat in 1914. While shopping in York, he entered a branch of WHSmith to order a book on flight, and was promptly reported to the police by the shop assistant on suspicion of being a German spy. 

A letter from WHSmith justifying the action of the assistant stated that "as the name was distinctly German, the paper in question was 'Flight' and apparently the address of the customer unknown, he considered on the account of the warning issued within the last few days, that he had a public duty to perform"

As was drily noted in the Retreat’s response to the shop’s apology: “I hardly think a German Spy would be likely to order in advance a paper on flying and give his name openly to anyone.”


The First World War was a difficult issue for members of the Society of Friends, like Dr Bedford Pierce, the Superintendent of the Retreat. Correspondence from 1914-1918 is littered with references to the War, to conscription, and to the problems arising from being a committed pacifist, but also feeling a deep sense of loyalty towards Britain. 

In a letter to a friend, dated 27th February 1918, Dr Pierce wrote: "I am interested in hearing about your son going out. I fear it will be an anxious time for you. One cannot but feel that this year the promise of spring is hateful. It would be much more encouraging if there was a little prospect of an end to it, but if the settlement is by fighting it will be a long time before the conclusion is reached.” This links to the feelings of many members of the Society of Friends, who felt that Germany and her allies represented an evil which must be resisted, but that fighting was not the answer. 

Dr Pierce was often asked to allow patients to present themselves for medical inspection by the army doctors in order to see whether they could be judged fit to join up and fight. In some cases, this was allowed for the patient’s own peace of mind, despite the fact that they would almost certainly be judged unfit due to their mental or physical conditions; some patients suffered great distress at the thought that they had not volunteered to serve their country. As a result of this suffering, which could exacerbate existing mental illnesses like depression, or delusions of having committed a great sin by damaging self-esteem, Dr Pierce often arranged for patients to see army medical officers to be examined, producing a flurry of correspondence with family and friends.

Another document in this archive shows the calm before the storm of the First World War from a different perspective. 


This postcard, dated just two weeks before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event which is often described as the final spark to the tinderbox of conditions which existed before the First World War, was sent from Frankfurt. There is no sign in the sunny photograph of any dark clouds on the horizon. The postcard’s sender writes: 


“Thankyou very much for your kind note. I am staying for the present at Pension Metropole Frankfurt. The weather is lovely.”

Technology in the Home

The Retreat Archive also offers a view of a world of rapid technological advance, with recognisable innovations that we still use in some form today, as well as some which never quite caught on.


The competition between gas and electric lighting in the home is captured in this advertisement of 1906/7, which declares that gas was “now as convenient as Electric Light”. In the twenty-first century, with almost ubiquitous electric lighting, it seems odd to remember that this was by no means a foregone conclusion, and that the struggle between electricity and gas companies was fiercely competitive.


Another invention which we can recognise today is the dishwasher, but this one, advertised in 1921 seems very large and complex by today’s standards. The advert confidently declares that the “Channel Race” Patent Crockery Washer is “A machine you will eventually buy.” 

The early twentieth century produced a wealth of labour-saving devices for domestic use, as the era of the domestic servant came to a close. After the First World War, women who had taken on work which had previously been the preserve of men often wanted to continue working rather than return to domestic service. Although many women lost their wartime jobs in favour of men returning from the fighting, the world of work, and attitudes to female labour both inside and outside the home had changed forever. 

These are just a few of the topics, relating to wider themes in history, which can be accessed through the archives of The Retreat. 

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library and can also be found by following the links from the Retreat catalogue.