Popping Pills: Restoring an Apothecary’s Pill-Rolling Machine

This gorgeous artifact and fascinating piece of medical history is the latest addition to my collection of antique brassware, and is also the latest thing I won at the local auction-house…

“Ooooooh!” I hear you say.

“Wussit do?” I hear you say.

“Can I have one??” I hear you say.

Well…uh…no, you can’t have one! I’ve been chasing one of these for five years, and I finally got one!

“Awww…okay fine!…But…w-whassit do?”

Well, it’s a pill-rolling machine, from the Victorian era! Ain’t it neat?

No, seriously dude…what does it actually, like…really, do?

…I just told you. It’s a pill-rolling machine!

I know, I know, it looks like some sort of antique cheese-grater, but yes, this is actually a pill-making machine, and back in the mid-1800s, no self-respecting apothecary would’ve been without one of these proudly on display on his shop counter!

“So how does it work?” I hear you ask, “And I mean…why does it exist? I thought pills were made in factories and stuff?”

Uh, yes…they are…now. But 150 years ago, they weren’t. In this post I’ll be talking about what this device is, how it works and what it does, I’ll also be going into a few of the differences between pharmacies today, and how they were, a hundred and fifty-odd years ago, in the middle of the 19th century, when this pill-rolling machine was invented…

Your Friendly Village Apothecary

This machine dates back to the days when your local pharmacist or apothecary bought, sold, and manufactured all his own drugs, medicines and curatives to everybody who lived within the bounds of a given community, and when the dispensing, manufacturing and purchasing of medicine was very different to how it’s done today.

These days, we get sick, we go to the doctor, he’ll give us a script, we’ll take it to the pharmacist, he’ll read it off, get the medicine, give it to us and we’ll walk out of his shop with a bottle of pills, a tube of paste, a jar of ointment, and a bag of diabetic jellybeans.

Back in the 1850s and 1860s, when machines like this were invented, how you got your medicine was very different.

For one thing, you likely didn’t even go to the doctor! Back in Victorian times, physicians were usually far beyond the reach, financially, of most people. Your average, workaday schmoe likely never met a doctor professionally, unless it was a real emergency. On a day-to-day basis, most poor and middle-class people would visit the pharmacist or apothecary for the majority of their healthcare needs.

Even if you did go to the doctor, he’d write out a prescription, and the instructions he generally gave you were to take the script to the apothecary and have the chap behind the counter make up the medicine for you, which the apothecary would’ve done anyway, even if you hadn’t gone to the doctor. And that’s the key difference between a Victorian pharmacist, and one which trades and deals today: Victorian pharmacists and apothecaries MADE their drugs, whereas modern pharmacists just sell them.

Let’s make some drugs… 

Back in Victorian times, there was no such thing as off-the-shelf medicine. Every tablet, pill, suppository, ointment, potion, lotion, tincture and syrup to treat everything from a sore throat to fever, headaches to constipation, was made laboriously by hand, by the pharmacist. There was no such thing 150 years ago, of medicine-making factories like what we have today.

“So where’d they get their drugs from, then?” I hear you ask.

Well, what used to happen was that pharmacists would draw on the centuries of accumulated knowledge passed down from master to apprentice, over countless generations. This knowledge foretold of which plants, herbs, roots, leaves, barks, piths, saps, syrups, foodstuffs and various animal parts, had healing properties. It was knowing how to find these ingredients, how to identify them, how to use them and what they did, that was the biggest part of being a pharmacist or apothecary back in the Victorian era. Indeed, a lot of ancient and past medicine had far less to do with pills and potions, and more to do with herbs, roots, leaves and saps. A lot of the medicine was plant-based (it still is, we just don’t realise it, that’s all!), and because of this, a pharmacist 150 years ago did not have packets and jars and bottles of medicine – he would’ve had jars, and jars, and jars, and row after row after row of drawers, all filled with these plant extracts and component-parts.

Old apothecary shops were famous for having dozens, hundreds of jars, bottles and drawers, all filled with plant and animal components, all of which were used for treating illnesses. Stuff like willow-bark, opium, cannabis, cocaine, smelling-salts, essential oils, cold-creams, arsenic, cyanide, moisturizers, lip-balms and all other manner of countless ingredients!

What used to happen is that you’d go into your apothecary, and he would diagnose you, and then recommend a treatment based on that diagnosis, or based on the symptoms which you told him of. After making his diagnosis or recommended course of treatment, the apothecary would then make the medicine for you – on the spot, there and then. This might take a few minutes, it might take hours! You might be told to come back later to pick it up, or you might just take a seat in the corner and read the newspaper in the meantime.

Victorian-era Medicine

Medicine for most of the Victorian-era varied little from medicine in previous centuries. All medicinal plant-and-herb components were bought, sold, and used in their raw form. No aspirin – just willowbark. No sleeping-pills – just opium. No laxatives, just rhubarb!

So what happened when you had to take your medicine?

Well, to make it easier to digest, and to make the active components easier to absorb, the plant material had to be broken down. This was most often accomplished by grinding, crushing, pounding and muddling, using an apothecary’s mortar and pestle, like this one:

A lathe-spun Victorian apothecary’s mortar and pestle, made of brass to make it easier to clean, more resilient to constant daily use, and to prevent medicine or poison from absorbing into the body of the mortar (which might cause poisoning!) This one’s from my personal collection of antique brassware.

Once the medicine had been crushed, ground and pulverised into dust, it could then be either dispensed into a jar, wrapped up in sachets, sealed inside capsules, or mixed with syrup in order to form a paste, which could then be rolled, or pressed into pills or tablets. As tablets were tricky to make by hand, some medicines were simply sold as the powder they ended up as – put inside a folded piece of paper and put inside a box along with a whole heap of others. One folded piece of paper meant one dose. The medicine was unfolded, tipped into a glass of water or other convenient beverage, and then consumed. It’s the origin of the expression ‘to take a powder‘. My dad remembers having to do this when he was a child for things like painkillers when he had a fever or headache – he said it always tasted horrible!

The Victorian Pill-Roller – How Does it Work?

Hard tablets were tricky to make. The powder had to be poured into a mold, the mold was closed and then hammered to compress the powder. The mold was broken open and a single tablet would drop out. This was slow, fiddly, and imprecise. Making pills on the other hand, which didn’t require this fiddly process, was much easier. And that’s where my Victorian pill-roller comes in.

Once the necessary ingredients for the pills had been measured, crushed, ground and pulverised, a final ingredient was poured into the mortar – syrup. The syrup wasn’t there to sweeten the mixture, it was there to act as a binding-agent. You mixed the syrup into the powder until the entire thing coagulated into a paste or doughy mixture. Then you could scoop out the entire mass, and roll it into a snake or sausage – one long, continuous worm of medicine!

Obviously, nobody wants to take an entire worm of medicine, no matter how sick they are. So to make it easier, the whole mass had to be cut up and shaped into pills.

This used to be done by hand. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that no two pills were then ever exactly alike – which could be dangerous if the medicine was exceptionally potent!

To even the odds, and to make pills more uniform, the pill-roller was invented, around the 1850s.

So, how does it work?

Well it’s very simple. It has two parts (well three, but the third one is missing – I’ll get to that later on).

The largest piece is the board. This is set at an angle and is comprised of the rolling surface, the cutting grooves, and the collection-tray. The large flat surface is for rolling out the pill-paste into the sausage that I mentioned earlier. This is then rolled towards the brass cutting-grooves. The paddle (the second piece) is flipped over so that the grooves there line up with the grooves on the board.

Rollers on the ends of the paddle roll against the brass edges of the board, and they guide the paddle straight across the grooves, taking the pill-mass with it. The grooves on the paddle and the board slice up the pill-mass and, after rolling the thing back and forth a couple of times like a rolling-pin, the circular pills – each one exactly the same size now (wow!) – roll off the grooves and into the tray at the bottom. And there you have it – two dozen pills all done in less than a minute! Talk about mass production, huh? This process could be repeated countless times and the results would always be the same – perfectly shaped pills, which were all the right size, and the right dosage.

Now, remember I said that the board was on an angle? That’s to ensure that the pills only roll one way – across the grooves from one end, to the other, turning from lumps of clumpiness on one end, to emerge as recognisable pills on the other. Now this presents a problem: Pills are round. And if you studied university-grade physics like I didn’t, then you might or might not know that round things on a sloping surface…roll. A simple application of gravity overcoming friction.

To prevent your newly-formed pills from rolling off the board, onto the table, and then all over the floor, the pill-roller came with a third component, which on this one, is missing – a removable, wooden collection-drawer. At the end of a session of rolling, the pills would land inside the drawer and remain there while you made more. When the drawer was full, you could slide it out and empty its contents into a jar or bottle, easily, and cleanly.

That said, simply rolling the pills wasn’t always sufficient. To improve their look, or to change their shape, each pill was then placed inside a highly sophisticated pill-rounding device, which is different from a pill-rolling device, in that it doesn’t roll the pills, it rounds them.

What’s the difference? One device makes the pills, the other one pretties them up for the camera.

The pill-rounder is basically a flat wooden disc or cup. You stick it over the pill (one pill at a time) and slide it back and forth and all around. This rolls the pill inside all over the place, smoothing out any lumps and bumps, so that it’s a perfect sphere. Shaking the rounder back and forth flattens out the sides so that it looks more oval than circular – one trick to differentiate pills from each other if they’re the same size or colour, but have different functions – was to make different pills a different shape. You don’t want to confuse a laxative with a sleeping-tablet…

Restoring the Pill-Roller

Anyway, so much for the pill-roller and how it works. What about fixing it up?

Well, this is what it looked like when I bought it…

As you can see, worn out, and rather dry. The wood was supposed to be a beautiful dark mahogany colour and the brass is supposed to be a gleaming gold…instead both elements look rather dusty. In that photograph it’s almost impossible to tell them apart! It took a lot of polishing with Brasso and ultrafine steel-wool to restore the brass back to its previous luster…

The brass grooves and rails after my first concentrated polishing effort. It would take a lot more to finish it off.

Apart from polishing and cleaning the brass, I also had to tighten screws, fix dents in the brass rails (which fortunately were few and easily remedied), and clean out the grit and dust stuck inside the cracks.

The biggest repair I had to do was to rebuild the one missing piece from this device: The pill-collection drawer. This involved a lot of careful measuring, tracing, cutting, and research.

Rebuilding the Drawer!

I didn’t know that this thing was missing something when I bought it. I was so excited at the possibility of owning it that this had never crossed my mind! It was only after I’d started researching it, that I’d realised that something was missing. In researching the history of these things and trying to dig out photos of them online, I started to realise that mine was incomplete. Fortunately, rebuilding the drawer looked like a relative cakewalk, so I headed out, purchased the necessary materials, and started.

The first step was to measure and mark all the pieces that I’d need, after looking at loads of photos to determine the general style and shape of the thing. The next step was to cut them out and figure out how they’d all fit together. Due to the shape of the board and the grooves which the drawer had to slide in, each piece had to be carefully sanded, chiseled, cut, measured and oriented a specific way, otherwise it wouldn’t work.

Sanding and chiseling took up the most time. The first and easiest step was to measure, cut and sand the baseboard for the drawer. This had to fit perfectly, because everything else would be measured and cut in relation to how it moved inside the pill-roller. Once its size was perfected and it could slide in and out comfortably, I started on the side-pieces. These were harder because to fit inside the drawer-space, they actually needed quite a lot of wood taken off. I accomplished this with a ruler, pencil, hammer and chisel to carefully score, chip and split off as much wood as I needed, before sanding the chiseled area smooth.

The next step was to cut the curved, quarter-circle rails that would be at either end of the drawer. One end had to be lower than the other, so that the pills would roll into the drawer easily. The other end had to be higher, so that the pills wouldn’t then be encouraged to roll out the other side! The challenge here was to cut and sand these rails to the right length. Too short and they’d fall out and be the wrong size. Too long and if I forced them between the sides of the drawer, I risked splitting the pill-rolling board in half – which would be a disaster!

The next step was to fit all the pieces together, and ensure that they would slide in and out smoothly, without jamming…

All the pieces fitted together, before final assembly.

Once I was satisfied with how they fit together, I started gluing them together. This was the easiest bit. I started with the end-stop rail first, then the rail closest to the pill-grooves. And then I glued the side-panels onto the sides of the rails and the top of the baseboard. Then I slid the whole thing into the drawer-space to compress it a bit while the glue dried. This was the result:

Drawer goes in…

…drawer comes out!

I had to be very careful with these last few steps. The drawer had to be just the right size. If it was even a fraction too small, then it would just fall out. If it was a fraction too big, then it would jam, and quite possibly damage the board. But patience paid off and the results speak for themselves. The final step was to nail the pieces together here and there, just to provide some extra strength and peace of mind, and then to stain everything with oil to bring out the grain and colour, but the project was essentially finished at this point – all the other things that still had to be done were purely cosmetic. The main ‘reconstructive surgery’ as it were, was now completed.



And there you have it. The finished product. Next comes staining, and perhaps a demonstration of how this thing actually operates, but that’ll be for another posting! Stay tuned!


I’ll String Along With You – My Victorian-era Brass String-Caddy

Because why wouldn’t you have one??

One of my main areas of collecting has always been antique writing equipment, antique writing instruments, accessories, nicknacks and associated paraphernalia. And that also extends to pieces of desktop accessory. Inkstands, inkwells, desk-sets, candleholders, writing slopes…the list of things that mankind has invented purely to fill up his desk so that he had a suitable excuse as to why he couldn’t get any work done, is truly astounding.

And one of those pieces is this:

At first glance, you’d imagine that this is something wonderful, something amazing, something meant to hold…chocolates…peppermints…tobacco?…Face-powder…spices…it’s solid brass…it’s got beautiful, Art Nouveau decorations on it with flowers and loops and swirls, dragonflies and tulip-bulbs. And yet, its actual function is so much more banal than that!

Indeed, if it wasn’t for the small, but rather obvious hole right in the middle of the lid, you could imagine that this little brass jar held almost anything…coffee? Tea? Sugar? Powdered cinnamon? Quills of rarest saffron, perhaps?

But no…this adorably and excessively over-decorated brass tin is actually nothing more glamorous than…

…a string-caddy!

WHY does this thing Exist!?

No seriously…WHY? What the hell is wrong with just…I dunno…a ball of string!? I mean really, c’mon, right? Who the hell woke up one morning and said: “I know how we can improve on a large amount of intertwined threads coagulated into a spherical mass! What we need is something to put it in! Huzzah!

Why on earth is this even a thing?

Well, it’s a thing because of the age in which it was created.

By the 1870s and 1880s…which is approximately when an item such as this is likely to date from, the industrial revolution was in full swing. For the first time in history it was truly possible to mass-manufacture a whole wide crazy range of all kinds of products. Products that people wanted. Products that people didn’t want. Products that people needed. Products that people didn’t need. Products that people didn’t KNOW they needed!

…Like string-caddies!

By the last quarter of the 19th century, business and commerce are really taking off. For the first time, you have reliable postal systems, you have telephones, typewriters, electric telegraphs, telegrams, cheap steel dip-pens, the first reservoir fountain-pens, cheap, wood-cased pencils and…no email.

This meant that there were enormous amounts of paperwork flying all around the world. People did a lot of writing every single day. Business letters, social letters, essays, short stories, novels, business reports, newspaper columns, telegrams, postcards, love-letters…and since writing was such a preoccupation, people in Victorian times took the whole act and ritual of writing far more seriously than we do. The number of accessories that they came up with to improve, streamline and make more pleasurable, the act of writing, is truly staggering.

Inkstands, blotters, pen-wipers, wax-jacks…hell, you can even find Victorian-era stamp-moisteners, if you look hard enough! And no I didn’t make that up – stamp-moisteners really were a thing.

The Victorian era was also when people were accustomed to receiving packages done up in brown paper and string. It was ludicrously common to wrap up almost anything in brown paper. Books, food, gifts, purchases at a shop, clothing, shoes, everyday items…hell, even other types of paper! And in an age before sellotape became common, string was needed to tie all these parcels together.

Now if all you did was one or two parcels every now and then, how you stored your string probably didn’t matter. But if you were in the habit of wrapping and posting several parcels a day – perhaps you had a home-business, or maybe you worked in the giftwrapping area of a department-store, or perhaps in the mailroom of a mail-order business – then constantly hunting for your ball, or spool of string would become extremely annoying, extremely swiftly!

So, to prevent your ball of string rolling away off your desk, bouncing along the floor, hitting buttons and levers along the way, jamming up the machinery and forcing two brothers to work together to…oh wait, that’s the opening to the movie ‘Mouse Hunt‘…

…great movie, by the way – one of my favourites as a child.

…But I digress. You can probably see where this is going.

String caddies like these were invented to make it easier and neater to access string on a regular basis, which in an age when everything was done by hand, would been practically every working day of your life. And string caddies weren’t just reserved for working stiffs, either! Caddies were made of all kinds of materials. Wood or papier-mache were common for cheaper caddies, but for more refined desktops, or the counters of smartly-dressed shopfronts, or sleek hotels or office-buildings, something more refined was required.

Because of this, string caddies were commonly made of brass to blend in with the brassy tones commonly found in buildings in those days – brass lamps, brass candleholders, brass doorknobs, brass bells…or, they could even be made of solid sterling silver! Now exactly what the demand for a sterling silver string-caddy might’ve been in say, 1885, I’d have no idea, but apparently people were buying them, because they certainly did exist!

Why did you BUY this crazy thing!?

Alright, whatever, fine. We know what the hell it is!

So why on earth did you buy it?

…would you believe, I thought it was cute?

Actually, I bought this for a number of reasons. First, it was cheap. Only a few bucks. And that’s always a good thing.

Second, I like antique brassware. If it was made of anything else, I probably wouldn’t have bothered buying it!

Third, it’s an antique desk accessory, and like I said, that’s one of the areas I collect!

Fourthly, I thought it’d be something unusual. If nothing else, it was certainly very beautiful.

Fifthly…because I figured I’d get good use out of it. I sell antiques online, and whenever I post something, I always tie the package up with string (I don’t trust the postal system not to rip the parcel open, deliberately or accidentally, so it’s an extra safeguard!), so in that respect, I’m always hunting for balls of string. And this seemed as good a reason as any, to buy it!

And sixthly, and finally, and last-of-all-ly…(I swear to God, this is my last reason!), I was struck by the sheer fact that all this ridiculously over-decorated thing ever did, or was ever intended to do, was to hold, and dispense…string!

There was absolutely no reason for this thing to be as elaborate, or as highly decorated as it was, and yet, someone took the time to make it so. It’s this quality, quite above and apart from any other, which makes me love and want to collect antiques – the fact that something so simple could be so amazingly embellished – and the fact that this wasn’t a one-off thing – they did this with ALL of their string-caddies! They saw a need, or wanted to believe that they saw a need, or a desire, to create something far more beautiful than what it ever, ever needed to be!

You try buying something like this today, and see how far you get!

What’s with the Title?

For those of you who are wondering about the title for this posting, it’s taken from the 1934 song, “I’ll String Along With You”


Trains of Death: The London Necropolis Railway

In 1837, King William IV died. William was a popular monarch. friendly, personable, level-headed, and considerably more restrained than his notorious older brother, King George IV, who blew the royal bank account on lavish building projects, expensive coronation ceremonies, clothes, women, food and pleasure.

When William died, his young niece, Princess Victoria, ascended the throne as Queen Victoria. She would reign over the British Empire for the next sixty-three years.

During this ‘Victorian Era’, as this long stretch of history is called, the lives of ordinary people changed forever. By the end of the century, you had the first canned foods, the first preserved and processed foods, the first lightbulbs, the first mass-produced, off-the-rack clothes, you had the first generation of motor-vehicles that could go faster than a horse. You had revolutions in transport with ocean-liners, steamships and bicycles. You had revolutions in communications, with telegrams, the telephone, and the beginnings of modern radio. In every conceivable way, the lives of people were changing year by year, from science, technology, health, fashion, homemaking, consumer-goods, transport, medicine, communications, and mankind’s understanding of the world in which they lived.

But as much as the Victorian Era was about the changes to people’s lives, it was also just as much about the changes of people’s deaths.

The Deadly Victorians

Every age has its obsessions. In the Medieval world, it was religion. In the Georgian era, it was the thought of empire and the power of the Royal Navy. In the 1920s, it was to live rich, move fast, and die young.

In the Victorian era, probably more than anything else, their obsession was that of mankind’s mortality and that death was the inevitable end to everything that ever lived, is living, or which will live after us. In the Victorian era, death was big business.

While the Victorian era saw great advances in medicine and science, such as the first antiseptics, the first X-rays, the first really effective hospitals and the development of modern medical practices still followed today, it didn’t come without an incredible amount of death and suffering. And it was this which would remain a fixation to the Victorians for the entirety of Queen Victoria’s reign.

The Industrial Revolution hit high gear in the 1800s. Increases in mechanisation, machinery and manufactury meant that mankind was, for the first time, mingling on a daily basis with some extremely dangerous contraptions. For the first time, the chances of dying from boiler-explosions, fires, burns, scalding, falling from height, losing arms, legs, hands, fingers, feet and even eyes, to the dangers of fast-moving and unguarded machinery, became daily hazards of working life.

On top of that, death came from the home as well. Poisons, poor food, poor sanitation, exploding stoves, household fires and disease from overcrowding and poor housing and epidemics of powerful disease caused death on an unprecedented scale, in some circumstances, not seen since the Great Plagues of the Middle Ages, or the London Plague of 1665.

With this abundance of death everywhere, it’s unsurprising that the Victorians learnt quickly about the fragility of life and the swiftness of death. And it was this swiftness of death brought up some rather interesting business opportunities.

From pallbearers, coffin-makers, gravediggers, undertakers, stone-carvers, enbalmers, jewelers, tailors, and even funeral mutes.

If you don’t know what a ‘funeral mute’ is, take a look at one of the most famous books of the Victorian era: Oliver Twist. Early on, Oliver is apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker, who employs him as a ‘mute’, a sort of stand-in mourner to walk behind the casket at children’s funerals. Such was the Victorian obsession with death that they could think up jobs surrounding it, for almost anybody at any time at all.

And then, there were other surprising business opportunities which the Victorian obsession with mortality brought. And they were a lot more lucrative than dressing in black, looking sad, and walking behind a coffin every day of the week. This brings us to one of the most famous of the Victorian industries of death…

The Necropolis Railway

Officially, it was called the ‘London Necropolis Railway’. And it is exactly what it sounds like: A train for the dead.

The Necropolis Railway was established in 1854, in response to the growing number of deaths which were the direct result of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution: Disease, overcrowding, malnutrition, poor sanitation, workplace accidents, accidents in the home, the result of a rising crime-rate and so-on.

As was the case in most cities, the dead were buried in local churchyards, or dedicated graveyards within, or immediately without, the city boundaries. If the graveyards were full-up, then the older graves, where the long-dead were buried, would be exhumed, and the bodies disposed of, to create new ground for more burials. This had worked fine when London’s population was small. But the Industrial Revolution caused a huge boom in the population and now, the dead were fighting with the dead, for space to be buried within London!…And the space simply wasn’t there!

By the 1850s, the situation had gone from bad to worse. Continued population booms had caused incredible pollution of London’s main waterway, the River Thames. This led to fantastic outbreaks of cholera. This lethal, waterborne disease was not fully understood in mid-Victorian times, and did not have a cure. The medical infection theory of the Miasma (‘My-az-mah‘) did not connect polluted water with infection and the spread of disease, believing instead that diseases were all airborne (“Miasma” literally means “Bad Air”).

The result of this misdirected thinking and theorising was that during the 1850s, there were huge outbreaks of cholera in London. Between 1848-1854, two cholera epidemics killed 15,200 Londoners. The death toll was so high that the graveyards within the city were quite literally overflowing with dead bodies. There were so man corpses that the city officials had nowhere else to dump them. People were keeping rotting, stinking corpses of their loved ones inside their houses for days…even weeks at a time…before they could be buried, for want of space.

Enter the Necropolis Railway.

The Necropolis Railway was established to deal with this incredible spike in deaths. In a few words, what it did was load the dead bodies onto trains, then transport the bodies far outside of what were then the boundaries of Greater London, to newly-established cemeteries.

So, how did this work?

Well, if your loved one died after 1854, and you needed to bury them somewhere, but no space could be found within the city of London to do so, you had two options:

The first was to have the body cremated and have the ashes either scattered, or stored in an urn for safekeeping and remembrance.

The second was to take the new, Victorian, high-tech solution to death, and use the Necropolis Railway.

If you chose Option 2, then your loved one would be prepared, dressed, placed in a coffin, and then the coffin would be carried to the London Necropolis Railway Station, in central London. The coffin (along with others, of course!) would then be loaded onto a train. The funerary train would then transport your loved one out of the Metropolis as fast as steam could take it. The station was very near to the more famous Waterloo Station in London,

The London Necropolis Railway Station. Built in the 1850s, the station was badly damaged during the Blitz in the early 1940s. The First Class entrance to the station is all that remains today

The Necropolis Railway is the truest sense of a one-way trip. Once the passengers got on, they were literally never coming back.

The train loaded with bodies would take a journey southwest. It was heading for the new cemetery, far outside of London…really far…even by today’s standards!

For it’s time, Brookwoods Cemetery was the largest cemetery in Europe! And some rather notable people are buried there. Perhaps you’ve heard of Dr. Robert Knox? He was famously connected to the two bodysnatchers, Burke and Hare. He’s buried there.

No? Then what about Mrs. Eleanor Smith? She died in 1931. Still nothing? Her husband died nearly twenty years earlier on the 15th of April, 1912…who was he? Captain Edward J. Smith, the first, last, and only…captain of the R.M.S. Titanic. Or perhaps an actual Titanic survivor? How about Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon? He’s buried at Brookwoods (and very close to Mrs. Smith!). Duff-Gordon famously got into a lifeboat on the Titanic with only twelve people inside it. For the rest of his life, he and his wife had to fight off allegations that he bribed the crew on the lifeboat five pounds each (a not inconsiderable sum in the 1910s) not to go back to the ship and rescue people in the water.

Working on the Railway

The London Necropolis Railway was more than just a train that you dumped dead bodies on to get them out of town. It was a highly regulated business. Passengers, both living (the mourners) and dead (the deceased) were segregated and categorised before they even got on the train.

Upon arrival at the station, coffins and mourners boarded the train according to class (even in death, Victorians were divided by class) and religion. There were two categories for religion: Church of England, and Nonconformist. ‘Nonconformist’ basically meant anyone who didn’t follow the Church of England, or who didn’t want a Church of England burial.

Passengers and the deceased were also divided by class. There were three classes: First, Second and Third. The class you selected (or the class that you could afford) affected many things. The type of carriage the mourners could travel in. The type of coffin in which the deceased was housed. Where the coffin was loaded onto the train. How it was loaded onto the train. How it was UNloaded from the train. How much care would be given to it, and its contents…all based on class, and how much money you were willing, or able, to cough up for the funeral.

Once the train left the station in London, it would reach one of various branch-lines near the Brookwoods Cemetary, depending on their passengers’ class and religion, so that burial services in line with the person’s financial status and religion could be carried out accordingly.

The London Necropolis Company, which owned and operated the railway and cemetery, had hoped to provide efficient, high-speed funerals for up to 50,000 people a year. Even after nearly ninety years of operation, however, it only achieved 200,000 burials in all, an average of about 2,200 burials a year, far below even its lowest target (10,000 a year).

Despite this, the railway and its peculiar cargo eventually became accepted by the London population. It was popularly called “The Stiffs’ Express”.

The Necropolis Railway ran trains which were strictly for the deceased, religious leaders, and for mourners attending funerals. But there were people who used the railway for less somber reasons.

Located near to Brookwoods Cemetery is the West Hill Golf Club. Wealthy golfers wanting to travel there had to take a train from Waterloo Station to the nearby town of Woking. First class, return, this cost 8 shillings.

Now, compare that to a ticket on the Necropolis Railway, running the same route, which cost just 6 shillings, return, in first class.

To take advantage of the cheaper fares, golfers would dress in black, the traditional colour of mourning, buy cheaper tickets from the Necropolis Station, hop on the Necropolis Train, and head off down south for a day of golf…

The End of the Line

The Necropolis Railway was dreamt up in the late 1840s in response to the first cholera outbreak in 1848. It wasn’t until 1854 that the service got underway properly. It continued plying its grisly trade for nearly a hundred years. In 1941, the Necropolis Railway Station in London (see photo, above) was bombed in the Blitz. It was a nearly direct hit on the station. Much of the building was badly damaged and the rail-tracks were blown to pieces in the explosion. The damage was so bad that when the war was over, much of the station was pulled down and the tracks torn up. The owners of the Necropolis Company deemed it too expensive to continue running the service, despite its successes, and so the company was officially closed in May, 1941.

Today, very little evidence remains of the London Necropolis Railway, or of the events that inspired this rather unique approach to handling death in a truly Victorian manner: By using the latest technology to get a big job done in a hurry. The station building that remains doesn’t even have a plaque or a nameplate or an engraving on it anywhere. If you walked by it in the street, you’d hardly notice it. And yet, it, and the place it led to, and the events that caused it to be there, are one of the great stories of history.

Interested in finding out more? A lot of information can be found from this article:

“The Last Train Home: The Necropolis Railway”, and the links and books that lead off from there.


Behind Closed Doors – Upstairs and Downstairs

There’s always a lot of costume dramas and historical TV shows on the air. The new series of “Upstairs, Downstairs”, the immensely popular “Downton Abbey” and of course, older series such as the original “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “Jeeves and Wooster” and “Lord Peter Wimsey”. Add to this movies such as “Gosford Park” and so-forth, and it seems that film and television producers can never get enough of the “good old days” of servants, bells, starched collars and telegrams delivered on silver trays.

The natural habitat of such shows always alternates between the English country manor-house and the terraced London townhouse, both locales with plenty of space to accomodate the goings-on both above and below stairs. But given that a lot of these shows take place in a time-period almost out of living memory, what were all the rooms that were central to this way of life? Of masters and servants? What were their functions? And why did you have so many rooms?

Here are some of the more well-known rooms that you might come across when watching a period costume drama set in a large house or an aflluent townhouse in the Victorian era or in the first half of the 20th Century. This posting will cover some of the more obscure rooms that you might find mentioned in movies, TV shows or old books. They’re are not presented in any specific order, so don’t try to find any! The more common (and obvious) rooms aren’t included.

The Drawing Room

No costume drama would be without its drawing room. It’s unthinkable! But what is a drawing room?

Despite the name, it is not a chamber meant for painting, writing, drawing or any other kind of artistic pursuit.

The drawing room comes from the word ‘Withdrawing’. In large, formal households, the drawing room is where people would withdraw to, after dinner or other substantial meal, for quiet conversation or relaxation. In most houses, the drawing room did double-duty as the general living-room for entertaining or receiving guests and visitors. On formal occasions, parties might be held in the drawing room.

The Morning Room

The morning room is the chamber in a house with multiple rooms, which was typically used during the early hours of the day (hence the name ‘Morning Room’). It was any reception-room built with the windows facing east, so as to make the most use of the morning sun. The room most commonly shown in the TV series ‘Upstairs Downstairs‘, is the morning room.

The Library

What a library is, is rather obvious. It’s where books are stored. In times past, books were significantly more expensive than they are today. Don’t forget that it was only until after the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s that books could be mass-produced by steam-powered printing and binding-presses. Prior to this, books were laboriously printed, cut and bound by hand, making them significantly more expensive than they are today. Any house with a significant collection of books would store them in their own room, the library, where they could be read in comfort and returned once reading was finished, to prevent them being lost. In some libraries, books were locked in glass-fronted bookcases to prevent damage and theft. The library might do double-duty as the study or office of the house because of easy access to reference materials and information. Particularly large libraries might come equipped with a specially-made set of library stairs.

Library stairs ranged from simple folding stepladders (that might or might not also double as stools), to long ladders on casters, affixed at the top to a rail that ran along the top of the bookcases, or they might literally be a set of movable stairs on caster-wheels:

A set of antique library stairs, with casters for moving them around the library and accessing high shelves

The Long Gallery

The gallery was the long passageway inside many large houses that date back to the medieval era. It would be the main corridor that would connect one or more wings of the house and was often brightly illuminated by large windows on one side (and possibly, on either end). Because Long Galleries could be rather boring if all they were, were connecting passages, some rich folks tried to dress them up a bit by hanging pictures on the walls. This gave us the modern “Art Gallery”.

The Larder

Ah, the larder! It’s where Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Bridges put all their food. It’s the place where the kids in the Famous Five and the Secret Seven go to pinch all the choicest leftovers before going off on their adventures. It’s the magical room which kids (and if Jeeves and Wooster is to be believed, Tuppy Glossop) go to steal food from after midnight for a little nibble.

But what is a larder?

First off, a larder is not a pantry.

A pantry is a room or a large store-cupboard where bread and baked goods are stored. It’s cool and dry and free of vermin.

A larder takes this one step further. In essence, a larder is a cold-store. A specially-designed, specially-constructed room (or in some cases, building), which is made to be as cold as possible. Larders are built of stone to keep in the cold. Good circulation to keep out the heat. And with shelves and ceiling-beams with hooks to keep the food away from the vermin.

Before the days of effective, electrically-powered home-refrigerators, the larder was where you stored all your perishable foods such as dairy-products (milk, cream, cheese etc) and meat and poultry, such as sausages, meat, fish, steaks and any leftover food from dinner.

Although the residential icebox did exist at the same time, you have to consider that ice wasn’t accessible in every part of the world, all-year-round. Or even in every part of a particular country all year round. So homes without ice-based refrigeration (or for homes for which such refrigeration was impossible or too impractical and expensive), the larder was their fridge. Effective electric fridges of the kind we have today didn’t show up until the 1930s.

The Scullery

The Scullery is the domain of the scullery maid. Said maiden being the lowest-ranking of the female servants in a wealthy household. The scullery is the washroom. In larger houses, the scullery and laundry might be two different rooms (one for dishes, one for clothes and linen), but in smaller houses, the scullery did double-duty as the wash-up room for the silverware, glassware, China, kettles, pots and pans, and as the laundry for towels, bedsheets, clothes and undergarments.

The Butler’s Pantry

A ‘pantry’ is the room in which bread is stored. Originally, it was the domain of the ‘pantler’ or the servant in charge of bread (from the Latin ‘Pannus’; ‘Bread’). The butler’s pantry has nothing to do with bread. Or food.

The Butler’s Pantry was the domain of the butler. The head of the servants. In the pantry were stored such things as the family silverware and silver-cleaning implements and chemicals. Just understand, please, that the family ‘silver’ was a lot more than just knives and forks. Silverware could include ANYTHING made of silver. Candlesticks. Trays. Serving-trolleys. Tureens. Platters. Jugs. Cups. Saucers. Cake-servers. Cake-stands. Gravy-boats. ladles. Chocolate and coffee-pots. Milk-jugs. Cream jugs. A wealthy family might have a small fortune of silver stored away down in the servants’ quarters. And all of it had to be locked in the Butler’s Pantry, under the watchful eye of the Butler. Every single piece that went out had to be accounted for, and every single piece that went back had to be checked. If so much as a single teaspoon went missing, then the ENTIRE house would be searched for it. And the servants would be locked outside while the search happened!

So the pantry would house the silver-cupboard, the butler’s bedroom and private quarters, as well as important keys and important documents such as account-books, the silver-book and the wine-book, all of which had to be checked and updated regularly.

The Servants’ Hall

The servants’ hall is the main room for domestic servants in a wealthy household. You see it in ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, in ‘Downton Abbey’, ‘Gosford Park’, and it’s mentioned in other TV shows such as ‘Jeeves and Wooster’. It must be a pretty important room. But what is it?

The servants’ hall is the break-room. It’s the room where servants would eat their meals and spend leisure-time. It’s the room where most of the work was carried out as well. In some houses, the servants’ hall was a separate chamber. In smaller houses, the kitchen might double as the servants’ hall.

The servants’ hall was the domain of the unfortunate Hallboy. The hallboy was the lowest-ranking male servant. He had the unenviable task s of doing all the heavy labour. Carrying coal. Firewood. Cleaning the servants’ hall and doing just as much housework as any of the female staff. Because he was the lowest of the low in the male servantry, the hallboy might not even have a bedroom. If he didn’t, he’d sleep in the hall as well!

The main panel of servants’ bells (which connected through wires and cables to the bell-pulls in the rooms upstairs), might be located in the servants’ hall or in the kitchen, where there would always be at least one person to keep an eye on the bells.

The Ballroom

The ballroom was the chamber reserved (in the largest of houses) for formal dance and parties (balls). In smaller houses, the drawing-room might double as the ballroom. Specially-built ballrooms came with their own dancefloors and musician’s galleries, where orchestras or bands could perform to project the music around the room, but keep out of the way of the party-guests.

The Parlour

The parlour is a reception-room in a house with multiple reception-rooms. Often, it was near the front of the house and was the room in which visitors would be shown into when they arrived. It comes from the French word ‘Parler‘ (‘to speak’). So it was quite literally the ‘speaking room’, or the room where you could engage in friendly discussions and conversations.

The function of the parlour changed a lot over time. These days, the parlour is a bit like the sitting-room or living-room in a modern house. In older times, when doctors still did housecalls, the parlour was also the room where funerals were held if there was a death in the household. This gave rise to the term ‘funeral parlour’.

The Nursery

The Nursery was the domain of the Nurse and her assistant (if she had one), the nursery-maid. The nursery was the room where young children and babies were looked after. In wealthy households, the lady of the house would hire a professional child-rearing nurse to take care of her newborn children if the mother couldn’t do it herself. For the sake of safety, the nurse and/or the nursery-maid would sleep in the nursery (or in a room next door) at nights to attend to the babies if they cried or woke up at odd hours.

The Gun Room

It’s pretty obvious what’s stored in here.

Found in large country manors where the masters of the house enjoyed hunting and hosting shooting-parties, the gun-room was the chamber which contained all the household’s firearms. It was a large, secure, vault-like room which was kept locked for obvious safety reasons. Firearms like shotguns, rifles, and their ammunition, accessories and cleaning-materials were stored here. As firearms could be extremely expensive, the gun-room was kept under lock and key to prevent theft just as much as to prevent injuries and death.

The Billiard Room

Billiards, Pool, Snooker and 9-Ball were all very popular during the Victorian era. And in a number of great country houses, an essential chamber for the gentlemen to retire to after dinner was the billiard-room. These rooms were of necessity, large chambers with plenty of space to move around the billiard-table. Apart from the table, the room would have the snooker scoreboard, a list of rules, a rack for the cues and cabinets and cases for the balls, the racks, the blocks of cue-chalk and possibly, spaces and cabinets for storing and playing other games. Traditionally, billiard-balls were made of elephant-tusk ivory. This made billiards almost exclusively, a game for the wealthy. It wasn’t until the invention of the first plastics in the early 1900s that billiards and pool started being played by the middle and lower classes.

The Smokehouse

Depending on the people who lived there and location of the estate, a large manor house might have a smokehouse on the premises. In larger estates where the land might be used for farming and the rearing of cattle and sheep, the smokehouse was essential.

In the days before modern food preservation, the smokehouse was where joints of meat, poultry, fish and even cheese, would be smoked. The food to be smoked would be placed in a special container or rack (called a smoker) and a fire would be lit underneath it. The smoke rising from the fire would dry, flavour and preserve the food above it. Different woods are used to provide different tastes to the food.

Once smoked, dried and possibly, salted, food might be stored in the smokehouse for a couple of weeks or even up to a year or more, before it would have to be either eaten, or thrown out.


Victoria and the Kensington System

Alexandrina Victoria. Queen Victoria. She was the monarch of the United Kingdom for nearly a century, from 1837 until 1901. All around the world there are hundreds, probably thousands of statutes, memorials, buildings, cities, states and people named after her. In her lifetime, the world went from candles and letters to electrical lighting, telegraphs, telephones and radio. From the horse and cart to the world’s first automobiles. From muskets and blackpowder to revolvers and repeating rifles. She lived in an era that saw wars, invasions, new inventions, changes in communications, transport, manufacturing, food-preservation and hundreds of other aspects of daily life far too numerous to list.

And yet, despite being famous the world-over, despite being rich and coming from one of the most powerful families in the world, despite having the chane to have whatever she wanted and do whatever she liked, the then Princess Victoria had what is probably the worst childhood any girl her age could possibly have under the circumstances. Victoria’s childhood was not balls and dinners, parties, dances, meeting the hot young eligible princes of Europe and travelling abroad. It was not travelling around London viewing the sights or going on leisurely picnics with her parents and grandparents. It was the most boring, controlled, restricted childhood you could imagine. And it came about purely out of another person’s greed.

We all have our thoughts of what royal kids are like. Spoilt, arrogant brats with lots of money and plenty of time, status and authority in which to burn it. It wasn’t too long ago that Prince Harry was in the newspapers every other month. Drinking, doing drugs, getting chucked out of nightclubs, dressing up as a Nazi. You’d imagine that a lot of royal children probably grew up like this. And maybe they did. But surprisingly, one of the most famous monarchs ever to wear the English crown had probably the most boring, rigid and agonising childhood you could possibly imagine.

Think your parents are strict? After you read about Victoria’s childhood, you’ll never complain about a 10 o’clock curfew or household chores or doing the laundry ever again.

Who was Victoria?

The future queen was born Alexandrina Victoria on the 24th of May, 1819. She was a long way from the top of the tree and her chances of becoming Queen of England were as unlikely as man walking on the moon. Well, we already know where this is going.

Victoria’s parents were the Duke and Duchess of Kent. The title of Duke of Kent is a royal title, given to the son of a king. Which king? In this case, His Royal Insanity, King George III. Victoria’s father, Prince Edward, was George’s fourth son. Ahead of him were his brothers William, Frederick and George; in that order. If Victoria was ever to become queen, then she would have to wait for her father, her three uncles and her grandfather to die first. And that was never going to happen in just a few short years, was it? So with the long waiting-list, you can see why nobody expected Victoria to become queen.

But then in the 1780s, George III famously went mad and his son, the soon-to-be George IV, replaced him on the throne in 1811, formally becoming king in 1820. George IV was about as popular as another George…named Bush. He was overweight, grouchy, he spent massive amounts of money on food and parties, and he ate like a pig. Not surprisingly when he died in 1830…not many people took notice. After him came his brother William. William had waited so long for the chance to become king that he almost didn’t make it. When his no-good older brother died and left him England, William was already at the seasoned age of 64. However, William was a considerably more popular monarch than his brother. He was more thrifty with money and proved a likeable and pleasant person. But what does all this have to do with Victoria?


Once William died, the throne would go to his brother, Edward, Victoria’s father. Only there was a problem here because…Edward was already dead. Which meant that the throne would then go, not to his wife, Victoria’s mother, but rather to Victoria herself. And as is so often in royal circles, there are people who want the throne who can’t have it. In this case…Victoria’s mother.

Enter the Kensington System.

Victoria and the Kensington System

The Kensington System is named after the palace in which Victoria was raised…Kensington Palace.

…And it’s soooo purdy…

In essence, the Kensington System was a set of rules and regulations under which the young Princess Victoria was forced, by her mother and her mother’s lover, the unscrupulous Sir John Conroy, to live her life…if you could in all honesty have called it a ‘life’. More like an existence. Alright. Fine. She’s a royal child. She has to be a good girl and set an example for the unwashed peasanty. She must have decorum and tact and be ladylike and like Mary Poppins, must be practically perfect in every way. Right?

Perhaps. We’ll never know.

The Kensington System was designed to keep Victoria in line. It was designed to make her dependent and babyish and weak. It was designed to keep her tied to her mother’s apron-strings with a deadknot. This wasn’t an accident…this was what the Duchess of Kent and her loverboy Conroy actually intended to do. It was part of their plan to wear Victoria down and when her uncle, King William IV died, to force her to sign a paper that would declare a regency, meaning that (for a while at least), Victoria’s mother would become de-facto Queen of England. And not surprisingly, like any teenage girl, Victoria hated all this, and she despised her mother.

So, what did the Kensington System involve?

Well let’s have a look.

1. Princess Victoria is not allowed any privacy at all except when washing, changing or attending the call of nature. She must be accompanied EVERYWHERE (and I mean literally everywhere) by either her mother, her governess or her tutor.

2. She was NOT allowed to walk up or downstairs without holding her mother’s arm. EVER.

3. She was NOT allowed to sleep in her own room under any circumstances. She HAD to share a room with her mother.

4. She would ONLY meet the boys that her darling mother thought were suitable for a royal princess to meet. And absolutely no others.

5. All her activities and daily doings would be recorded in pen and ink.

6. Victoria would be a good girl and give the throne to her mama and her lover.

Wait what?

Yes you read that last one right. Victoria would give the throne to her mother and her lover Sir John Conroy. But more about that in a moment.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, Victoria’s childhood absolutely sucked. From the age when she could walk and talk and after her father died, to the age of 18, she was a virtual prisoner in Kensington Palace. She was badgered day and night by her relentless mother and her life was a living hell. She had no privacy at all. She was followed everywhere at all times. She had almost no friends (apart from servants), she spent countless days being taught by her tutor and her entire day was rigidly structured and timetabled. She had almost no free time and absolutely no time to herself. To top it all off, she was also under constant pressure to wave aside the throne and give it to her mother, the Duchess of Kent. Surely this couldn’t be legal. Right? Well, it was and it wasn’t. Let’s have a look below:

The Problems of Succession

The British Royal Family was not the healthiest of families. George III died blind and insane. George IV died as a fat, ugly, unloved slob and William IV, who inherited his brother’s throne at the ripe old age of 64, wasn’t expected to live very long. William was a popular king, and he must’ve been a prize catch back in the day because his wife adored him. He’d joined the Royal Navy in his youth, and was affectionately called the Sailor King. Despite his best efforts however, the Sailor King couldn’t get his mast up. Yep, you guessed it. He wasn’t able to have a kid with his princess. And not from lack of trying, either. His junk worked fine. It just didn’t work when it was actually imperative that it did. He had TEN children born out of wedlock (and four born within) so obviously something was going right. Just not at the right time. All his legitimate children were either stillborn, miscarried or died soon after birth. Eventually, Prince William and his bride, Princess Adelaide came to accept that they weren’t going to have any children together.

So when the king died, his throne would go to his brother…who was already dead…which meant it would go to Victoria. And this terrified Victoria’s mother.

The Duchess of Kent was a conniving woman, to say the least. Together with Conroy, she forced Victoria over and over and over again, to sign a document that would declare a regency. But Victoria, stubborn and determined, repeatedly refused to do it.

Giving consent to a regency meant that if Victoria’s Uncle William died before Victoria reached legal adulthood (the age of 18), then until she reached that age, her mother (and by extension, her lover, Sir John Conroy) would be the regent (de-facto ruler) of the United Kingdom. The Duchess of Kent was so determined for this to happen that she wanted to turn her daughter into a weak and dependent baby, unfit to be queen and who would willingly give over power to her mother…to which end, the Kensington System had been created.

Victoria’s Reaction

Unsurprisingly, Victoria hated the Kensington System with a vengeance. She loathed it. And as you might expect, the Kensington system completely destroyed any positive relationship that Victoria had with her mother. Victoria was incredibly moody and emotional…and not just because she was getting her period. She wanted out of the Kensington System, and she wanted out NOW.

But the Duchess and Conroy were determined to have their way. But then, something happened that probably none of them ever expected.

William IV lived.

Although he had been in failing health for some time, William was no fool. He was well aware of his sister-in-law’s intentions regarding his beloved niece, Victoria, and the throne. And he was extremely upset by it. However, he got his own back at the Duchess of Kent by purely existing. In August, 1836, William IV celebrated his 71st birthday, no mean feat for a man back then. Most likely infuriating the Duchess, the king invited his darling niece, Victoria, to his birthday party. Of course, the Duchess and Victoria couldn’t very well refuse a king’s invitation, and so attended the party. The Duchess’s reception at the party was frosty at best. William despised his sister-in-law. But he adored his niece and welcomed Victoria into his court with open arms. However, the king’s biggest gift from his niece wasn’t her presence at his birthday party, it was him living long enough to witness Victoria’s 18th birthday.

For you see, on the 24th of May, 1837, the king was still alive.

And the 24th of May, 1837 was Victoria’s 18th birthday.

If King William IV died on any time after this date, Victoria would legally ascend to the throne as a mature adult. And therefore, a regency couldn’t be declared and the Duchess’s plans would be destroyed.

In 1837, the king’s health was failing rapidly. He suffered from chest-pains, breathing-difficulties, asthma-attacks and shortness of breath. On occasions, his health was so bad that he would even pass out from time to time. On the 20th of June, 1837, the respected, loved and elderly William IV…died.

The End of the Kensington System

William’s death at the ripe old age of seventy-one destroyed the Duchess’s plans to be regent for her daughter, Victoria. By the time of the king’s death, Victoria was 18 for nearly a whole month. She was now Queen of England.

Almost immediately, Victoria started making things happen. To begin with, she ordered her bed to be removed from her mother’s bedroom and placed in a separate chamber. She was queen now and would sleep *gasp* ON HER OWN! She would not allow anyone to accompany her anywhere without her personal say-so, she would walk where-ever she wanted, upstairs or down. She demanded to have an hour a day, every single day of the year, to be on her own. This was a huge liberty to Victoria, who previously had always been accompanied by someone else. Now she could have privacy and could be left alone with her thoughts. She forbade Sir John Conroy from having any contact with her at all and banished him from the royal court and finally, she would see who she liked and married whoever she liked. Like that handsome dude named Albert. Unfortunately, Albert also proved to be Victoria’s cousin, but that didn’t stop her eventually having nine children with him.

After her ascension to the throne, Victoria moved out of Kensington Palace and moved to the recenty-completed Buckingham Palace, the current London residence of the British Royal Family. Victoria was the first monarch to live there, since her uncle, William IV, died before the palace was completed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Duchess of Kent tried to follow her daughter and she moved into the palace too…with disastrous results. Victoria kicked her mother out of the palace and banned her from visiting her or seeing her at all. Relations remained frosty until the early 1840s when Victoria reluctantly allowed her mother to visit her newly born grandchildren. It took a while, but their relationship finally repaired itself.

For all the other things that Queen Victoria was, from a grumpy mother to a passionate wife, a dedicated queen and a cow of a woman, she certainly didn’t have a pleasant childhood. Victoria never knew her father (he died when she was 8 months old) and had spent her entire youth being badgered by her mother. Whoever thinks that rich kids always get it good might want to think again…

If you’re looking for more info on British royalty, you might want to look here. Or if you want more info on Victoria specifically, look here.


Morbid Fancies: Victorian Mourning Jewellery

To say that the Victorians had an obsession with death is putting it mildly. They were addicted to death; fascinated by it; entranced by it! Everyone has some sort of morbid interest in death, but to the Victorians, death and the rituals surrounding it were as important to them as the rituals concerning life. This fascination with death followed the Victorians everywhere and they revelled in it as much as they were repulsed by it. It was during the Victorian era that big leaps in medical science were being made. People were now starting to live longer, happier, healthier lives. But everyone knew that death was just below the surface. And everyone from Queen Victoria downwards, was fascinated by the subject. When her husband died, Queen Victoria wore black mourning dress for the rest of her life and she would sleep with a cast of Prince Albert’s hand next to her pillow so that she could hold him as she slept! She insisted that every single day, her husband’s clothes should be laid out, that his breakfast be prepared and that hot water be brought to his room every morning so that he could shave…even though he was already dead!

The queen was also fascinated by seances, psychics, mystics and the paranormal and this craze soon caught on with her subjects. It even became popular starting in the 1850s, to have mourning portraits done! What is a mourning portrait? Have a look below…

Also called a memorial portrait or a mourning photograph, these were photographs of the deceased taken shortly after death so that living relatives would always have a pictorial reminder of their dead loved ones to keep with them all the time. If you haven’t figured it out yet…the girl in the middle of her two parents is a corpse, dressed as she was in life and photographed leaning against her father’s chest.

Mourning portraits hit their peak before the turn of the last century and gradually died out during the early 1900s. But one of the most famous examples of the Victorian obsession with death isn’t the mourning portraiture, it isn’t Queen Victoria sleeping with her husband’s hand and it isn’t laying out clothes and preparing shaving water for a ghost who never comes to use them…it’s mourning-jewellery.

What is Mourning Jewellery?

Mourning jewellery was jewellery worn by both men and women on the occasion of a friend or relative’s death. Going into mourning traditionally meant wearing black attire for a period during and after the funeral, but also meant wearing mourning-jewellery.

Of course, mourning jewellery does predate the Victorian era, it’s been around for centuries, but it was a style of jewellery that is most closely associated with the Victorians due to their constant awareness of the fragility of life and the strict protocol that they had to follow when in mourning for a loved one. Pictured below is a typical example of Victorian mourning-jewellery:

If you think this is an ordinary watch-chain…think again. This is a Victorian-era mourning chain which a man would wear with his pocketwatch on the event of a relation or a close friend dying. Want to up the creep-factor? Those braids in the watch-fob aren’t made of cotton. That’s actual human hair! It was common in Georgian and Victorian times to keep lengths of hair from loved ones and braid it into ropes, necklaces and fobs to act as remembrance-tokens of deceased relatives.

Why Did People Wear Mourning-Jewellery?

Upon a person’s death, it’s always been traditional in Western society to wear black during a funeral. It was also traditional for a period after the funeral, to continue wearing black to indicate that you were in mourning for a close friend or relative who had recently died. Victorian morals dictated that it was disrespectful to wear glitzy, flashy jewellery when you were in mourning. Stuff like diamond earrings and pearl necklaces, solid gold pockewatch-chains and sapphire rings were to be worn for celebratory purposes such as weddings and anniversaries! They were totally unacceptable accessories to wear when mourning for a dead loved one! It was to fill in this empty hole in the jewellery market that mourning-jewellery was created.

A Victorian-era mourning-ring, again incorporating a lock of the deceased’s hair

People purchased and wore mourning-jewellery so that they could continue to dress up, but in what they felt was a more sombre and respectful manner, to reflect their current status of mourning. A wide range of mourning-jewellery was manufactured for both men and women, but it was almost always black, or at least had life and death motifs in their designs, such as hearts, coffins and skulls.

Traditions of Victorian Mourning

If Victorian social etiquette was strict, then Victorian mourning etiquette or protocol was evern stricter! Upon the death of a loved one, both men and women were expected to follow strict rules on how society expected them to act, dress and conduct themselves around others. Upon the death of a husband, a widow was expected to go into a period of Full Mourning, also called First Mourning, for 366 days exactly. During this time she was only allowed to wear black and could not appear in public without it. Neither was she allowd out in public without a black mourning-veil over her face to show that she was now a widow. If the woman was poor or if she had children to support, she was allowed to look for a new husband after this period of full mourning. If, however, she had no dependents or serious need for money, she would then enter a period of Second Mourning, which lasted for nine months.

Second Mourning meant a relaxation of the rules. The veil could be removed or at least raised when out in public, but mourning etiquette dictated that black was still the only colour that was permissible for clothing. It was during this nine-month period of Second Mourning that mourning-jewellery was created, and it would be the only kind of jewellery that a widow was allowed to wear until the official ending of her mourning.

After Second Mourning came the final stage of traditional Victorian mourning: Third Mourning. Also called half-mourning, a widow’s Third Mourning lasted anywhere from three to six months. During this time she could gradually start wearing more colourful and sociable clothing again. She would put away her mourning jewellery and start wearing ordinary jewellery again. If she was an independent woman or a woman of means, now was the time that society considered it acceptable for her to start looking for a new husband. Some women never got over the deaths of their husbands, however, and they could wear mourning-dress and mourning-jewellery right up until their own deaths. Queen Victoria was an extreme example of this. Her husband died in 1861, but she remained in mourning-dress for the rest of her life, another forty years, until her own death in 1901!

Mourning traditions for men were similar to women in that they were expected to wear black and wear no jewellery, or mourning-jewellery only, but male mourning protocol was different from womens’ mourning protocol because of the man’s role in society. A widower who had lost his wife was expected to mourn for two years, however as with women with dependents, if a man had children to care for, society did allow for him to end mourning sooner and go back to conducting business or work. An unmarried man who had lost a close relation such as a mother, sister or cousin, might carry out the full three stages of mourning, same as widows did, lasting the full roughly two to two-and-a-half years. With people dying every single day, you can bet that the industry concerned with the manufacture and sale of mourning-jewellery was big business in the Victorian era.

What was Mourning Jewellery Made Of?

One of the most popular materials used for the manufacture of mourning-jewellery was a semiprecious gemstone called jet. From which we get the term “jet black”. Although it was tricky to cut and carve, jet became very popular for jewellery during the second half of the 1800s up into the 1920s. An example of jet mourning-jewellery is shown below:

This 19th century mourning-brooch is made of jet

Jet was used to make traditional mourning-jewellery such as watch-fobs, necklaces, rings, clasps and brooches, but as mentioned above, the other popular material for the manufacture of mourning-jewellery was human hair! Not always black, it was common for people to keep a lock of a loved one’s hair after their death and perserve it as a momento of their deceased relatives. Depending on the amount of hair taken from the corpse, the momento might be braided into a rope and used to make a watch-chain (such as the one above) or a necklace. Shorter snippets of hair might be placed inside mourning-lockets such as the one pictured below:

Mourning lockets such as this one (made of gold, black enamel and pearls) were another very popular piece of Victorian-era mourning-jewellery and they often had little compartments or windows in the back where a lock of the deceased’s hair could be stored as a momento. Lockets like this one would have had a chain or ribbon run through the ring at the top of the locket and then it would be tied and hung around the widow’s neck as a pendant and necklace.

The End of Mourning Jewellery

Rather fittingly, the Victorian protocol of mourning, along with Victorian mourning jewellery, ended…with Victoria. When the queen died in 1901, traditional Victorian mourning clothes, jewellery and protocol died with her. People no longer wanted to wear black and be reminded all the time, of the constant presence of death. Changing values meant that such things were taboo and shouldn’t be mentioned in polite society. Death was everywhere and there was no need to have to remind people of it all the time. As the 20th Century progressed, Victorian-era views on mourning, how one should conduct oneself when in mourning, how long mourning should last and what a person could or could not wear during mourning, rapidly began to die away. A hundred and ten years after Queen Victoria died, all that most people today would know about traditional mourning rituals and protocol is that it’s traditional to wear black. Other aspects, such as the once common fashion of wearing mourning-jewellery, has been consigned to the graveyard of history.


Plumbing the Depths: Joseph Bazalgette and the Great Stink of London

Have you ever wondered what happens when you press the ‘Flush’ button on your toilet and wondered where all the contents of your toilet-bowl vanish off to? Everyone’s wondered that at one point or another in their lives. Have you ever pondered what happened to mum’s wedding-ring after it got washed down the sink and didn’t show up in the U-bend at the bottom of the pipe? Back in Victorian London, people didn’t have to wonder about things like this. They knew where their sewerage went…and that’s exactly what this article is about.

Admittedly, writing an article about a 160-year-old sewer-system is not the biggest thing on the list of subjects to write about for any writer, but the story London’s Victorian sewer-system is about a lot more than huge pipes in the ground that haul away rainwater, bodily waste and general sewerage…It’s about an ambitious and dangerous civil engineering project, it’s about the vastly changing opinions on the causes of disease, it’s about ambition and determination and, as is more often the case than is not, it’s about how the hands of the mighty are only swayed by mighty events. This is the story of Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the sewers of London.

London, 1850

The Industrial Revolution was not called such for no reason at all. It revolutionised alright. It revolutionised bigtime. It revolutionised everything in the world. And unfortunately, it also revolutionised London. The city’s population skyrocketed during the Victorian era, with more and more people surging into the British capital looking for money, work and a better livelihood for themselves and their families. Slums sprang up, houses were built, new businesses were opened and all over town, people were settling into their new lives.

But as the city of London grew above ground, below the streets and buildings of the great metropolis, there was a horrible, unimaginable and unseen disaster waiting to explode.

For centuries, London had existed without sewers. What few public sewers and drains that there were existed as old trenches or tunnels which were covered over as the city grew, or were pipes, channels or streams that ejected their contents directly into the River Thames. The majority of households still relied on daily visits by the nightsoil-carrier or gong-scourer, who would come by each evening to empty their chamberpots and cesspits. What drains that did exist were by the 1850s, centuries old. They were frequently blocked by sewerage or overwhelmed by the frequent heavy rainfalls for which London is globally famous. Streets flooded, sewers backed up and overflowed and disease and stench were rife throughout London. By 1850, there had already been one outbreak of cholera in which over 14,000 Londoners died from drinking the incredibly contaminated water, which had been polluted by the overflow of sewerage within the confines of London. A solution to this increasingly unavoidable problem was needed…and it was needed yesterday!

In charge of the sanitation of London was a body of men called the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers based in Soho Square. Try as they might, they were unable to find a single reasonable method of removing sewerage from London. This all changed in 1849. In August of that year, a new assistant engineer was appointed to the Commission, a thirty-year-old engineer named Joseph Bazalgette.

Bazalgette didn’t have any idea of how to combat the growing problem of London’s sewerage either, but when he saw the products of those people who thought they did, he began to realise that something serious had to be done. Unable to find a way to remove sewerage from London, the Commission printed a letter in the Times newspaper, asking its readers to post suggestions to them on how to clean up London. It was up to young Bazalgette to sift through every single one of the 137 replies…none of which he deemed suitable for replacing the narrow, clogged and overflowing channels that served as ‘sewers’ up to that point in London’s history.

In 1855, the Commission of Sewers was replaced by a new body, the Metropolitan Board of Works. Another cholera epidemic (in 1853) had proved how ineffectual the Commission had been in finding a solution. The MBW as it was sometimes called, apart from being a new organisation, also had a new leader: Joseph Bazalgette.

Planning the Sewers

Now that he was in charge of his own organisation, Bazalgette set to work. He carried out surveys and measurements, he examined the tidal flow of the River Thames, he carried out explorations of the old sewers and checked their general condition and he drew up bold plans for a vast network of tunnels underneath London which would draw the sewerage away from the capital to pumping-stations where it could be pumped out into the Thames each day at the changing of the tides. The poweful river-currents would drag the sewerage right out to sea and London and the River would be clean and healthy forevermore.

Or at least, that was the plan. The reality was very different.

The government was not pleased. They complained endlessly that Bazalgette’s plans were…too dangerous…too big…would take too long to build…were far too expensive…involved tunnels that were not long enough as to draw the sewerage a satisfactory distance from London…and which the government, as a result, would not give him permission to build. The Metropolitan Board of Works…ground to a halt. For three years, all that Bazalgette could do was redraw his plans…over…and over…and over…and over…and over again. And every single time, the government said ‘No’. All the while, the threat of another catastrophic cholera outbreak was lingering just below the surface.

Cholera and Snow

While Bazalgette struggled with the government and its refusal of his bold new plans for London’s sanitation, nearby, physician Dr. John Snow was battling with the London medical establishment, a battle he would eventually win…posthumously.

Dr. Snow was a researcher and a theorist. As a physician, he was fascinated by the spread of disease and in the 1850s, the disease to study was cholera. Leading medical minds of the time were convinced that cholera was spread via “Miasma” (‘My-as-ma’), a term that literally means ‘Bad Air’. The Miasma theory came up in the early Georgian period to replace the previously widely-held theory of the Four Humours, a medical theory that dated back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks…and which had absolutely no scientific basis at all. The Miasma Theory purported that strong stenches, odours and smells spread disease through the air and that such foul contaminants came from places such as graveyards, rubbish-tips, chimneys, polluted waterways and the bad breath of ordinary people. It was the first, semi-scientific link between the containment of disease and the vital necessity for cleanliness. However, in mid-Victorian times, in an age where the Germ Theory that we know today, would not arrive for several more decades, everyone believed that all diseases were airborne miasmas and that the best way to handle such miasmas was to keep things clean and the air fresh.

This did not, unfortunately, extend to the vital necessity of keeping waterways clean. The idea that disease could be waterborne as well as airborne, simply hadn’t entered the minds of the medical community. But it had entered the mind of Dr. Snow. Through careful plotting, study, observation and record-keeping, he determined that water consumed from a particular pump in Broad Street, East London, caused an unnaturally high rate of cholera cases. By studying which people on Broad Street drank what, when and where, he was able to trace their illnesses back to contaminated water and therefore prove that cholera was a waterborne disease…something that many other medical minds of the day, cast off as ludicrous.

Building the Sewers

Ever since the late 1840s, London had been struggling with the monumental task of trying to find a way to remove vast amounts of sewerage from its streets and arterial river, the Thames. Theories, proposals, ideas and even plans had been put forward as possible solutions, but none of them were even so much as entertained by the government, all cast off as being…too expensive…too dangerous…too impossible…too outrageous. And so for ten years, nothing was done.

That all changed in 1858. By this time, London had become so incredibly polluted that the air had become almost unbreathable. In the summer of that year came the famous ‘Great Stink’. Extreme summer temperatures caused the water in the River Thames to heat up by several degrees and this caused the sewerage contained within it, to give off powerful odours and smells, which wafted all over London. So bad was the smell that Parliament had to relocate outside of London to get away from the unimaginable, nose-wrinkling, eye-watering stench! How could such a great, powerful, technologically advanced city at the heart of a great empire smell like something that had crawled under a bed and died? Finally forced to face the inconvenient truth that London required a serious and long-term solution to its sanitation problems, the government contacted Joseph Bazalgette, the head engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works and asked him how quickly he could start digging.

This cartoon from 1858 shows Father Thames (right) introducing his children (Diptheria, Scrofula and Cholera) to the fair city of London (left). This shows just how bad the pollution of the Thames had become by the time of the Great Stink

The project was never going to be easy. And it was never going to be cheap. London had existed for centuries and had grown for centuries, without any modern sewerage system of any kind at all…and now in a matter of years, they were going to try and undo the lack of foresight that had lasted ever since London had been established back in Roman times! Bazalgette was given three million pounds sterling (unadjusted for inflation) and told to start at once.

Finally given the green light, Bazalgette immediately began surveying the land, measuring distances and determining exactly where each and every tunnel, channel and watercourse would go. How big it would have to be, how high, how long and most importantly…what angle of gradient the tunnels would need to have. There was no space for large, steam-powered pumping-appratus in the middle of London, so every last cubic inch of the sewers had to be angled downwards, towards the East, where the force of gravity would draw the sewerage out of London and down the Thames Valley.

Where possible, the sewers were constructed just a few feet below street-level using the ‘Cut-and-Cover’ method which was also being used for some of London’s Underground subway-tunnels. It was simple…Dig a trench, build the tunnel and then put the earth back on top. In total, there were to be five huge main tunnels, three going underneath London north of the Thames and two going under the areas of London south of the Thames. These great sewers were to intercept smaller sewers that ran north-south (towards the river’s edge) and then take the sewerage far out of London to enormous holding-tanks. Here, vast, steam-powered pumps would pump the sewerage into the river each day at the changing of the tides. As the Thames is a tidal river, all that the people at the pumping-stations had to do was to wait for the tide was at its highest and then, when it began to change, discharge the sewerage. The strong currents would pull it right out to sea.

Although Bazalgette was as careful as possible with his tunnel-construction, insisting on all safety precautions, quality-control checks on the cement and the millions of bricks that would be used to construct the tunnels, a few men did die in their construction; mostly from cave-ins or other work-accidents.

Completing the Sewers

The main components of the sewers were completed in 1865. On the 4th of April, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) turned on the pumps at the Crossness pumping-station outside of London and for the first time in centuries, London’s water supply began to clean up its act. Cholera disappeared from London as pollution of London’s water-supply began to disappear. It was for this action of constructing London’s sewers, and of many other engineering successes of his throughout London, that in 1875, Joseph Bazalgette was knighted by Queen Victoria and became Sir Joseph Bazalgette.

The Sewers Today

London has grown enormously since Bazalgette’s time. Today, his original, Victorian-era sewer-system makes up only a small portion of the additions that have been made in the over 100 years since he died in 1891. But even without modern additions, Bazalgette was a man of foresight. He had made the sewerage-tunnels as big as possible so that they were able to take twice the amount of even the highest level of rainfall and sewerage that London could produce at the time, meaning that it wouldn’t be necessary for decades to expand and improve his original system until well into the 20th century.


A Medical Monster: The Story of the Elephant Man

Imagine if you will, that you were born normally. That life was normal and that everything in it was good. But then suppose you started developing a horrible, disfiguring condition that would cripple your whole body, that would contort it and twist it and bend it and affect the very bones of your skeleton. Imagine that this condition is untreatable and incurable and that you would have to live your entire life as a misshapen and horrific monster, shunned by society all over the world. Imagine that this is real…and that it happened a hundred years ago, when such people more likely than not, either died horribly alone, or became freakish attractions at travelling carnival shows that toured the country, exposing your horrific, twisted form for all to see, to be shocked by and to laugh at, to be repulsed by and to be terrified of.

Meet the Elephant Man.

Who was the Elephant Man?

His name was Joseph Carey Merrick, born on the 5th of August, 1862. For almost all of his rather short life, Merrick was known as a horribly deformed freak, so ugly that even his family would have nothing to do with him. He lived in workhouses, he joined a travelling circus and he became famous for all the wrong reasons, with people being drawn to see him purely to see if such a person as Merrick could really exist on Earth. His life is a mixture of loneliness, desperation, hope, compassion and understanding.

Joseph Merrick was born in the city of Leicester in England in August, 1862. He was the first of three children born to Joseph Rockley and Mary Jane Merrick. Up until the age of about five, Merrick was normal, but then he began to show the symptoms that would mark his place in history. His skin grew at a disproportionate rate to his body. It thickened up and toughened and his skeleton and joints began gradually to deform. Gradually, his spine and the majority of his body would become horribly twisted and his skin would become thick, rough and dry, which gave him the name the ‘Elephant Man’. So bad were Merrick’s deformities that he was unable to walk properly. A fall as a child badly damaged his left hip which left him with a permanent limp.

Suffering from constant abuse from his family, Merrick left home permanently at the age of seventeen. Throughout his teenage years, he struggled to find work. His increasing deformities and physical limits meant that he was unable to do even the most basic of menial jobs, such as cigar-rolling (which he had to stop when his right hand became too deformed), street-hawker and door-to-door salesman. His mother, the only person who showed him any affection, died on the 19th of May, 1873.

His father’s brother, and therefore, Joseph’s uncle, Charles Merrick, was a local barber and attempted to give Merrick a safe and comfortable home, but the strains of his deformities and the medical bills associated with them meant that Charles could only support his unfortunate nephew for a short period of time and before long, Joseph Merrick ended up back in the streets before ending up in the local workhouse, where he lived on and off, for four years. In 1882, Joseph underwent an operation to try and correct some of the most serious deformities around his mouth, to allow him to speak and eat better.

Joseph Merrick: The Freak Show

Increasingly unable to find work, Merrick turned to becoming a human freak to try and support himself. He became acquainted with two men, Samuel Torr and Thomas Norman, a pair of freakshow managers. Merrick first approached Torr who referred him to Norman. By now, Merrick was suffering increasingly from the symptoms of his mystery illness and was having a harder and harder time speaking and eating due to bronchitis. Norman managed to secure medical help and Merrick recovered to a level where he was able to ‘perform’ as a human freak.

Tom Norman, Merrick’s freakshow manager

For a while, Merrick did well. Norman made Merrick a moderately wealthy man and Merrick managed to earn about two hundred pounds, a decent sum of money for sideshow freaks. Merrick lived in a back room of Norman’s curiosity shop and for a small fee of 1d (a penny), folks could go into the shop’s back room and be amazed and horrified by the ‘Elephant Man’ as Norman called his new discovery.

By chance, Norman’s shop was directly across the road from Whitechapel’s main medical institution, the London Hospital, a charity hospital for the poor of the East End since Georgian times. One of the visitors to the Elephant Man freak-show was a surgeon named Mr. Frederick Treves. Treves was horrified by Merrick’s disfigurements and suggested to Norman that he submit Merrick to a medical examination, to which Merrick and Norman both agreed.

To aid in Merrick’s short journey from the shop to the hospital, a special set of clothing was developed for Merrick so that people would not be frightened by his horrific appearance. The most famous article of which was the famous masked cap, which was reproduced for the film ‘The Elephant Man’.

Joseph Merrick’s hooded cap, that covered his face from public scrutiny

Merrick visited the London Hospital three times. Treves the surgeon took measurements of Merrick’s head and body, examined his health and other bodily anomilies, such as his limp. Treves photographed Merrick and in one of their meetings, gave the ‘Elephant Man’ his calling-card in case he might ever require his assistance. Merrick had grown tired of being poked, prodded, exhibited, measured and photographed at the hospital and wasn’t keen to return.

By the late Victorian period, tastes in entertainment were changing. People didn’t want to see freak-shows anymore. They considered them inhumane, degrading and immoral. There were several police crackdowns and eventually, even the well-meaning Mr. Norman had to close his shop down. Merrick then went on a tour of Europe and headed to Belgium.

While in Europe, Merrick was again abused and tricked and he lost most of the small fortune that Norman had helped him to earn. Broken and ill, Merrick sailed back to England and caught a train to London.

Frederick Treves – Surgeon

Merrick returned to London on the 24th of June, 1886. When he arrived in London, he got off the train at Liverpool Street Station. He was incredibly sick, suffering from malnutrition and again from bronchitis. His deformities meant he was unable to speak clearly and when he asked for help at the station, people were unable to understand him, and even more unable to look at him. A passing policeman forced away the crowd that was now forming around Merrick and took him away to an empty waiting room where Merrick collapsed in the corner, exhausted and hungry. Unable to speak, Merrick took out the one thing that could make himself be understood by others…Frederick Treves’s calling-card.

Treves was sent for at once and he immediately had Merrick admitted to the London Hospital for examination and treatment. Treves discovered that not only was Merrick suffering from a lack of food, a bronchial condition and increased impediment from his deformities, but that he was also suffering from a heart-condition.

Treves deduced from Merrick’s general condition that he was already dying. Slowly and surely, but dying nonetheless and he suspected that the Elephant Man would only have a few years left to live. It was clear to Treves that Merrick needed somewhere safe to stay. He couldn’t go back to being a travelling freak, that was for sure, and no workhouse would accept him as an inmate. Treves appealed to the chairman of the London Hospital, Mr. Francis Carr Gomm. While Carr Gomm allowed Merrick to be admitted to the hospital as a patient requiring treatment and while he understood the necessity for long-term care and constant medical supervision for one Mr. Joseph Carey Merrick, he was unwilling to allow Merrick to stay at the hospital. The London was a charity hospital for the poor which relied on donations from the public to keep operating. It simply did not have the staff or the funds to keep Merrick at the hospital interminably, as an ‘incurable’. Indeed, the hospital had a longstanding policy of not housing incurables due to the strain on the hospital’s system.

Joseph Merrick photographed in 1888. Note the extreme difference in size between his right and left arms

Unwilling to throw Merrick out into the street, Mr. Carr Gomm wrote letters to hospitals and medical institutions that specialised in long-term care for the terminally ill, however, none of them were willing to take on such a difficult case as that of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and they all said ‘No’. In desperation, Carr Gomm wrote a letter to the Times newspaper, asking the public for suggestions about what to do with Merrick and how to handle his long-term security. To the hospital’s surprise, the public outpouring of compassion was significant. Although nobody who had read the letter in the newspaper could offer a single practical solution as to what should be done with Merrick, many readers of the Times did the next best thing that they could think of, and dug into their pockets, donating money to the London Hospital to keep Merrick in comfortable circumstances.

With such an influx of money, Carr-Gomm put it to the hospital committee that they could, with more public assistance, see to it that Merrick would live at the London Hospital as a permanent patient until the end of his life. This was an unprecedented step in the history of the London, but the committee eventually agreed. Merrick was moved into a small suite of rooms in a quiet part of the hospital where he could live, safe and comfortably for the rest of his life.

Life at The London

For probably the first time in his life, Merrick felt safe and welcome and comfortable. He passed the time in his rooms by reading, writing and constructing models out of cardboard. So as not to distress Merrick any further, Frederick Treves insisted that under no circumstances was a mirror ever to be present in Merrick’s chambers.

As time passed, Treves and Merrick developed a friendship. Although intelligble speech on Merrick’s part was almost impossible, the two men were able to converse and Merrick told the surgeon as much as he dared, about his early life, his family and his time as a travelling freak. Treves changed his views about Merrick very quickly after this; he had previously assumed that Merrick was mentally retarded as well as being hideously deformed.

Merrick photographed in 1889, showing the severe contortions of his body

Shunned by society, Merrick was not used to the attention that people now gave him. He asked Treves on several occasions, to tell him about the “real world”, a place he would most likely never see. He even asked the surgeon to show him a ‘real house’; to comply, Treves took Merrick to visit his wife and to see his own house and what it looked like. Merrick met more and more people and eventually became a small celebrity in his own way. Never able to have a relationship with a woman and to have a girlfriend or a fiance, at one point, Treves even thought of sending Merrick to an institute for the blind, where Merrick might meet a girl who would not see his deformities. But when he decided that such an institute would not be able to care for the Elephant Man, he discarded the idea.

Mr. Carr Gomm’s letter to the Times had been read by thousands of people by this time and soon, the rich, powerful and elite were fascinated by this strange and misshapen creature that others called the ‘Elephant Man’. They came to meet Merrick and even sent him presents. As Merrick grew more and more used to this, he would occasionally leave his rooms and wander around. He would take strolls in the hospital grounds at night when everyone else was asleep and occasionally he even wandered down into the other wards of the hospital, but the nurses would always send him back to his own rooms, worried that his appearance might shock the other patients.

In 1887, a pair of new buildings were opened at the London Hospital and the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) came to do the ribbon-cutting. The Princess expressed a desire to meet the Elephant Man and Treves agreed to an introduction at the end of the royal tour. The princess gave Merrick an autographed photo of herself which Merrick is said to have held as one of his most prized posessions ever since.

As was shown in the film, at least once in his life, Merrick was able to attend a night at the theatre, a lifelong wish of his that he was never previously able to do.

Merrick’s Last Years

Despite the care and constant medical treatment given to him by the London Hospital, Merrick’s deformities continued to worsen. It’s believed that Merrick began to suffer from depression and he wanted more and more to do things that other people could do. One of these was to sleep like other people. Due to the immense weight of his skull, Merrick could not sleep lying down like others do; the sheer weight of bone would crush his throat and neck and kill him. Instead, he always slept more or less in the fetal position, with his back against the wall, his knees drawn up and his head resting upon them.

On the 11th of April, a house surgeon at the London Hospital came to check on Merrick at three o’clock that afternoon. He discovered Merrick lying in bed with his head upon a pillow…dead. Everyone in the hospital knew that Merrick was unable to sleep in that position, but nobody could say what made Merrick do it. Was it suicide? Or merely a desire at last, to be like other people? Was it an accident that Merrick might have slipped in his sleep? Nobody was entirely sure, but on the death certificate, Merrick’s cause of death was put down as “Asphyxia” and “Accidental”. Although identity of the corpse was hardly necessary, Joseph Merrick’s uncle, the barber Charles Merrick (mentioned earlier in this article) came to London to formally identify the body.

Fittingly, it was Mr. Treves himself who performed the autopsy on Merrick’s body. His finding was that, just as Merrick had always told him…if he ever laid down to sleep, he would die quite literally of a broken neck, which proved to be the case. Treves took casts of Merrick’s deformities and even took skin-samples. Eventually, at the end of the post-mortem examinations, Treves had Merrick’s skeleton mounted on a frame. This skeleton, together with personal effects, forms part of a small Elephant Man museum at the London Hospital.

Joseph Carey Merrick, the Elephant Man…was twenty-seven years old.

Diagnosing the Elephant Man

Exactly what the ‘Elephant Man’ suffered from has been a matter of debate for over a hundred years. Victorian doctors, while able to treat some of Merrick’s symptoms, were unable to tell what caused his deformities and could not provide Merrick with a cure. It is believed that Merrick most likely suffered from Proteus Syndrome, a severe congential disorder that affects the skin and bone-structures of the body. The main symptoms include excessive skin-growth, the appearance of tumors on the body and abnormal bone-growth. It is an extremely rare disease with only a few hundred cases worldwide. The causes of Proteus Syndrome are as yet, still not fully understood and a cure is still being developed.

Sir Frederick Treves died in December of 1923 and was remembered as a celebrated and daring surgeon. Apart from treating the Elephant Man, with the aid of another medical bigshot, Sir Joseph Lister, the two men successfully carried out an operation on King Edward VII, curing him of appendicitis just days before his coronation in 1902. Appendicitis had previously been a life-threatening condition on which operations were unsuccessful. Both Lister and Treves were given baronetcies by the king for their services to himself and to the medical profession. Their success at treating the king meant that appendix surgery soon entered mainstream medical treatment. Sir Frederick’s great nephew, also named Frederick Treves, is an actor, who played a small part in the 1980 ‘Elephant Man’ film, in which his great-uncle the surgeon, was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins.


What the Victorians Did for Us: Necessity is the Mother of Invention

The Victorian era is famous for a lot of things and even though it was over a hundred years ago, we tend to forget that the Victorians gave us all our most important inventions that we have today…stuff like…the automobile…the telephone…wireless telecommunications…the elevator…the skyscraper…electric lighting…and the x-ray machine, an essential piece of kit in any modern hospital.

But the Victorians are famous for a lot more than just big fancy, world-changing, event-hogging inventions. The Victorian era was the dawn of the age of consumerism. With the Industrial Revolution, it had suddenly become much easier, than in previous times, to manufacture and sell consumer-goods. Prices were dropping and more people could buy more things with more money at their disposal. Not stuff that people needed like axes and chairs and shirts and cooking-pots, but also things that people wanted, to improve their lives and better their existences. Antiques shops, flea-markets, eBay and junk-shops are filled with the best examples of the small, everyday inventions and paraphernalia that the Victorian mind came up with to improve their lives and make themselves more comfortable, more presentable, more relaxed and more readily able to go out into their brave new world. While some of these inventions have stood the test of time, some have fallen by the wayside and end up as curiosities on television programs such as the “Antiques Roadshow”. The Victorians were fantastic inventors of all kinds of whimsical and interesting consumer-products, not all of which are as familiar to us today as they once were.

Here’s a list of some of the more interesting household devices and accessories that the Victorians came up with to better their lives and keep up appearances…


A block of solid butter, of the kind you buy at the supermarket that’s wrapped in paper and has a nice, rectangular shape to it, is called a pat, as in ‘a pat of butter’. Did you know that? They get that name because back in the Victorian era, if you lived in a rural location such as a village with nearby farms, or if you lived on a farm yourself and you made your own butter, you would form these neat little rectangular blocks of butter with a pair of specially-made wooden paddles, called ‘butter-pats’.


Not many people would recognise a collar-box for what it is, if you showed them one today. But a hundred years ago, the collar-box was an essential bit of dressing-kit for any respectable and well-groomed man about town. In the Victorian-era, the shirt was seen as an undergarment that was rarely removed and was seen much like a pair of underwear – just as a necessity, and just like underwear, one which you never exposed in public. But if you had to, then fashion dictated that you only showed the best bits – the collar and cuffs. Because collars and cuffs were easily soiled with sweat-stains, collars were replacable and you could take them off to be cleaned when required. Spare collars for your shirt were kept in the collar-box in your bedroom or dressing-room. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that the idea of shirts having permanent collars started making serious headway.

Tie Press

If there’s any women reading this who have husbands who have large collections of ties…or if there are any men reading this who have large collections of ties, you might want one of these things. They’re called tie-presses and they’re comprised of two flat pieces of wood held together with a series of wing-nuts (two pairs in the photograph above, although there are examples with only one pair). Tie-presses were used to keep a man’s ties nice and flat and smooth. They were clamped between the two pieces of wood to press out the wrinkles and creases that formed in neckties and bowties due to the crinkling of the fabric that came about from the tying of knots.

Sleeve Garters

Sleeve-garters are a uniquely Victorian invention. Today associated with ragtime pianists and barbershop quartets, sleeve-garters were used to adjust a man’s shirtsleeves in the days before fitted, off-the-rack shirts were available to the public at large. The man would put on his shirt, do up the cuffs and then slide on his sleeve-garters. Once he’d got the cuffs to the right length on his forearms and wrists, he’d let the elastic sleeve-garters snap into place to stop the sleeves from sliding down and letting the cuffs move out of their best positioning. Shirts today are better measured than the “one-size-fits-all” shirts of the Victorian-era though, so they’re a rather rare sight today…Unless you happen to like the music of Scott Joplin.

Hat brushes

My personal hat-brush

With hats (particularly the trilby and the fedora) coming back into fashion lately, I could hardly write this article without mentioning the traditional curved hat-brush. Back in the Victorian era, when men and women both wore hats on a regular, almost daily basis, owning a hat-brush was essential. They were used to brush the dust, soot, ash and general grit off of the rabbit or beaver-fur felt that made up traditional hats. Their distinctive curved shape helped the user to brush around the circular brim of his or her hat without creasing or bending the fabric and damaging the hat’s shape.

Men’s hairbrush-sets

My set of men’s hairbrushes, with ebony handles. Made by Kent Brushes of England (Est. 1777!)

Believe it or not, guys, there was a time when men used hairbrushes just as frequently as women. Although today most men use combs, blow-dryers or even just their fingers to smooth, dry, spike, tousle or otherwise arrange their scalpy shagpile, from the last quarter of the 1800s right up until the 1950s, most men used a matched set of hairbrushes such as the ones pictured above, to comb their hair. If you’ve ever seen those slicked-back men’s hairstyles such as those on 1930s film-stars or on the men in old family photographs and wondered how they did it – they used brushes like these (one in each hand) together with a dabbling of hair-oil or hair-cream, to vigorously brush back their hair and part it to give it that classic slicked-back hairstyle.


If you’ve ever been on a commercial airliner, chances are, you’ve seen these things on the backs of every single seat in the passenger cabin, these white, almost papery sheets that cover the tops of the seatbacks. What are they and what is their purpose?

Empty macassar oil bottles

These things have been around since Victorian times and they’re called…antimacassars. They’re named after macassar oil, a hair-product that was popular back in the day (and which would’ve been applied to your hair with the brushes seen further up). Although macassar oil gives your hair a nice, slick, suave sheen and shine to it, the unfortunate downside is that…it is oil! And oil goes everywhere. The antimacassar was invented deliberately to protect chairbacks from the runoff from this popular (it lasted for over fifty years!) but messy hair-product. Although macassar oil might not be as popular today as once it was, the antimacassar has lived on for over a hundred years.

Clothes Valet

Not nearly as common today as they were back in the Victorian-era, clothes valets were once seen in almost every well-dressed man’s bedroom, and they remained there until the 1960s when people started dressing more casually and suits, sports-jackets, trousers, leather shoes, ties and cufflinks gave way to T-shirts, jeans and sneakers.

The clothes valet was used to neatly hang and store clothes that you wore on a regular basis. The bars at the bottom of the valet were used to rest your shoes on. The hanger at the back was used for your waistcoats and jackets and the top bar was used to hang trousers. The storage compartment at the top was used to keep keys, wallets, cufflinks, watches and other essential daily accessories.


See that small, metal rectangular thing sticking out of the porch between the pillars? Back in the Victorian-era, those things were as common as dirt and they were found on almost every doorstep in the world. Common as dirt because that’s what they were designed to remove. They are boot-scrapers, also called door-scrapers or shoe-scrapers. In the 1800s, streets were often filthy, filled with straw, rain, dirt, dust, ashes, horse-dung and household rubbish. Before entering a respectable establishment, business or private home, a man or woman was obliged to scrape the soles of his or her shoes across the blunted top edge of the boot-scraper to remove crud from the soles of their patent-leathers, to avoid tracking dirt inside. Some places still have these things bolted, cemented or dug into the doorsteps, porches and front yards all over the world. If you’ve ever wondered what they’re there for and if the homeowner thought that he’d put it there merely to trip you up as a practical joke…use it for it’s intended purpose and scrape the crap off your shoes before you go inside…the guy who put it there will thank you.

Shaving Scuttles

Shaving-scuttles (the thing behind the razor), are a uniquely Victorian invention. The scuttle was invented in the mid-1800s as an answer to men needing hot water for shaving but without having the modern benefit of running hot water in their bathrooms. To get a good shave, the scuttle was filled with boiling water hot from the stove in the kitchen before the shaving-brush was shoved into the spout of the scuttle to soak it. The brush was then removed and used to lather up the soap in the soap-dish on top of the scuttle. There are drainage-holes in the bottom of the soap-dish to allow any excess water to run back down into the lower chamber. These things are great for giving you nice, hot scented lather for shaving.

Barber-Surgeon’s Bowl

This rather neat little brass bowl looks all innocent and retro and quaint and unassuming, doesn’t it? It’s just as well that all that old-world charm exists, to cover up its far more grisly purpose.

That is a barber-surgeon’s bowl. Back in the old days, the barber-surgeon was the man responsible for the dual occupations of both barbering and surgery. That’s right. He would shave you and then amputate your leg. And he would use the same bowl to catch the shaving-lather…as he would…to catch the blood which came off from the stump after the amputation, or which would be drained from your body if he thought it necessary to carry out the age-old (but completely useless) task of bloodletting, where he would slice open a vein with a lancet and bleed you, collecting a measured amount of blood in the same bowl that he might just as well use for removing freshly-shaved lather from a gentleman’s chin and cheeks.

By the Victorian-era, you’ll be glad to know, the barber-surgeon was a thing of history…but they both still kept their bowls…and they both still used them…the barber for shaving and the surgeon for the collection of blood. The inward curve on the lip would go around your neck, if you were being shaved, so that the lather wouldn’t fall on your clothes. Or it would go against your arm or leg if you were having a limb amputated by the surgeon and he needed to catch the blood.

The Glove Compartment

Every car in the world…unless it’s a Peel P50…has a glove-compartment. This strange little cubbyhole, which always seems to be too small to hold anything that you would really need in a car, and which is always full of junk like instruction-manuals, letters, boxes of tissues and spare batteries, is a holdover from the earliest days of motoring, in the closing years of the Victorian era and the brief stint of the Edwardians at the start of the 20th century.

Back then, driving was a filthy and dangerous exercise. Roads were unpaved for the most part, and incredibly dusty. And even when they were paved, the roads could still be filthy and covered in all manner of filth and detritus. Not to mention that most cars of the era were open-topped affairs, susceptable to wind and rain. Keeping warm and dirt-free was essential. To aid in this, drivers wore purpose-made ‘driving-gloves’ to keep their hands clean and warm. These gloves were stored in a small box or compartment in the car so that they would always be nearby when the driver needed them.

The days of motorists needing driving-gloves are long gone, but the glovebox or glove-compartment remains.


Cute little things, aren’t they? A sweet little bunny-wabbit and a cuddly little birdy-beak. Believe it or not, as adorable as these things are…they’re not toys. They’re called pen-wipers, and their rather unimaginative name directly reflects their purpose…they’re for wiping your pens on!

Until the very last decades of the Victorian-era, all writing was done with a dip-pen, a steel nib and an inkwell. Because ink was of the powdered, ‘two minute noodles’ variety, to which you just added water, it was common for dip-pens to accumulate a crusting of dried inky gunk on them after long periods of writing. This gunk would jam up the pen and impede the inkflow. To clear the nib of the dried ink and improve writing performance, men and women would keep little cloth ‘pen-wipers’ on their desks. These were simple little decorate mats with something in the middle (like the bunny or the bird’s head) to weigh it down and stop it sliding all over the desk. You wiped the pen-nib on the cloth, clearing the nib-channel before dipping it back in your inkwell and continuing with your correspondence or work.