Never on Sunday

or at least not until the 1890s at the National Gallery.

I had just completed the first draft of Murder at an Exhibition, the second book of what should eventually become the Tommy Jones Mystery trilogy. I’m working now on the editing.

Deeply embedded in the plot is the idea that the National Gallery in London was closed on Sundays. The murder victim has special permission to be there on Sundays, and is murdered there on the quiet. The action takes place in 1863.

As a fiction writer, I admit to keeping much rougher notes than I do as a historian. I had looked through a couple of guidebooks of the era, and had confirmed, to my satisfaction, that the gallery was open six days a week, with four for the public and two for students only (which two days differed by guidebook, strangely). No source mentioned Sundays, so I kept writing.

Then a wrench appeared in the works.

I love how many free lectures there have been during the pandemic, and I recently attended one about the Victorian art world. The speaker noted that in 1845, the National Gallery opened on Sundays to encourage working people, who worked six days a week. The speaker also said that the grubbiness of the working people caused problems, leading to a Select Committee meeting in 1850.

The speaker used this image:

This shows working men viewing pictures at the gallery in 1870. I know that the National Gallery offered many free days, so there’s no reason this had to be on a Sunday. But it made me uncomfortable. Her talk led me to believe that perhaps the National Gallery had been open on Sundays in 1863, ruining my story.

Members of the Facebook group for the Historical Novel Society helped me out, not just with their own information but their encouragement to contact the National Gallery, where a wonderful assistant actually sent me their record of opening hours for their whole history as they knew it. No Sundays in 1863.

But the speaker had been so sure. Could there have been a trial run? I researched through Hansard, which has the debates of the House of Commons, and found much arguing about opening both the National Gallery and the British Museum on Sundays, but no conclusion. So I posted at the Victoria listserv, a place where every Victorianist who’s anybody meets up. Several members helpfully responded with books and records. I’m now 99.9% sure the Gallery was closed.

Yes, I know, if it’s this much trouble for me to confirm, I should be comfortable just showing it was closed on Sundays. It’s a fictional work, not a research project. Except that all my fictional works are research projects. Whether it’s important to the reader or not, it is ridiculously important to me that the facts be accurate, and if they’re not accurate then I’d better have a damned good reason why, and an Author’s Note. That’s just how I roll.

H.G. Wells, Sir Edward Sassoon, and telegraphy

Shortly after attending Alban O’Brien’s excellent talk on the Great War poet Siegfried Sasson, I was reading H.G. Wells’s The Sea Lady (as one does) from 1901 and came upon this dialogue:

“And in the next there’s the Sea Lady.”
“I thought she——”

“She’s a mermaid.”
“It’s no objection. So far as I can see, she’d make an excellent wife for him. And, as a matter of fact, down here she’d be able to help him in just the right way. The member here—he’ll be fighting—this Sassoon man—makes a lot of capital out of deep-sea cables. Couldn’t be better. Harry could dish him easily. That’s all right. Why shouldn’t he have her?”

I had to do some research. The “Sassoon man” must have been Sir Edward, Member of Parliament for Hythe and a promoter of cable telegraphy. Here’s a speech to Parliament in May 1900 demonstrating his enthusiasm.

Sassoon was a supporter of the All Red Line, an informal name for the high-tech communications network connecting the British Empire. A map from a 1903 book about the topic gives an idea of the system:

In his humorous novel, Wells was enjoying the idea that his character could defeat Sassoon for the Hythe seat, not as the better candidate, but as a champion of mermaids against deep-sea telegraphy cables. Surely Sasson’s deep-sea cables would threaten the mermaid habitat, and to have a real mermaid for his wife could garner sympathy and score votes against the opposition!

But there are some who would say that Edward Sassoon was a visionary, even if mermaids would not have liked him. He was rich, certainly. The Sassoons were already a wealthy family, and he had married a Rothschild. But he also seems to have had some concern for the public good. In 1910, he would try to get wireless telegraphy made compulsory on passenger ships. He failed, so it was a good thing the Titanic had a Marconi on board. After the Titanic sunk, Sassoon’s idea was made into law.

But his significance goes beyond using technology to make things happen. In the Journal of the Society of Arts (1900), Sassoon laid out his argument about why the government’s involvement was necessary when it came to the telegraph. Sassoon was able to see the place of telegraph in the history of communications. He argued that in the case of the railways, and then electricity and gas, private enterprise began the venture but then public interest had to be asserted against excessive rates, so why not the telegraph? Private companies had expanded and bought up smaller companies, creating monopolies. The public interest was manifest in the expansion of the technology, so government must step in.

This should sound familiar as today’s internet communications apps, ISPs, and companies effectively create monopolies on today’s communications. Sassoon’s public interest, however, had nothing to do with today’s focus on individual freedom. He saw the government’s involvement in the telegraph as necessary for cementing the British Empire together:

The moral connection of these outlying portions of the empire with the Mother Country has been sealed by and consecrated with blood, the way has been paved for confirming the strong sentiment thus evoked by establishing still firmer the bonds of material and common interests, which, as in this work-a-day world, form the only stable foundations, on which to secure the permanence and solidity of this vast Imperial confederation.

Sassoon would not be a popular figure today because he believed in the Empire, but there is no discounting his understanding of the significance of technology to national and commercial goals.

Edward’s son Philip would succeed him as MP upon his death. Philip served in the Great War as military secretary to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who led the British Expeditionary Force from 1915. Siegfried was, I think, their cousin (the Sassoon family tree is rather complicated). So it all wraps up nicely!

Suspicion: technology and murder on the North London Railway

In 1864, a 69-year-old bank official named Thomas Briggs was murdered on a moving train. In those days, the compartment doors opened only on to the platform, so each compartment had complete privacy.

The deed was discovered when two clerks entered the compartment and found blood, a walking stick, and a hat which had been cut down to half-height. A ways along the line the wounded Briggs was found and carried to a pub where he died of head injuries.

Rewards for information were posted, and a cabman named John Matthews came forward claiming that a man he knew should be suspected.  Franz Müller, a frequent visitor at Matthews’ house, had given Matthews’ 10-year-old daughter a box from a jeweler named Death (a common name, apparently pronounced Deeth), and Matthews remembered this when he saw on a handbill that Death had exchanged a gold chain that might have belonged to Briggs.

Not many of the sources mention that the cabman’s other daughter had been at one time engaged to Müller, but the engagement had been broken off. Matthews claimed this was due to Müller’s temper. Reading through the sources, I found it strange that this reason for enmity was rarely discussed.

By the time police went looking for Müller he had already left, on a sailing ship to America to make his fortune. It had been a planned journey — he had told Matthews goodbye. Police, and Matthews, followed him, taking a steamship. They would thus arrive before Müller and make the arrest, extraditing him back to the UK, and that’s what happened. I could find no explanation for why so much money would be spent on such a journey, when the suspect was only a suspect.

What with the transatlantic chase, the newspapers had plenty of time to speculate and gather information (and rumors and innuendo) about the suspect. By the time he was returned to England, everyone knew who he was and most had already decided he was guilty. A fair trial was pretty much impossible.

One can read the transcript of the trial online, and the story of it in books like Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder, in the broadsheets of the time (below), and in the Notable British Trials volume of 1911. The evidence, although all circumstantial, invites examination. Was the hat left on the train really Müller’s? Why were Müller and Matthews always owing each other money? Was the evidence of the brothel keeper, who said Müller was at her place at the time of the murder, dismissed because of her profession? Could the entire attack really have happened between two stations only minutes apart?

The jury in the Müller case took only 15 minutes to convict, and the judge sentenced him to death. Although a Lutheran minister spent much time with the condemned man, Müller did not confess his crime. Then at literally the last minute he supposedly said he had done it, right before the drop was put on him in one of England’s last public hangings. There was back-patting all round.

Despite the high-powered barristers on both sides, the transcript makes it clear that Müller’s team was by no means as prepared as the prosecution. And as one reads, one begins to suspect a few things. Why did Matthews not come forward before he heard about the reward?  He knew Müller well, and had reason to dislike him — he was hardly a disinterested witness. Was the watch found on Müller the property of Briggs, as testified by experts, or a watch he’d owned for two years, as Müller claimed? Why wasn’t the alibi provided by the brothel keepers believed, with doubt being cast on the accuracy of their clock? Did Müller even have a reason to kill Briggs? None was found, but robbery was said to be the cause. However, although Briggs’ watch and chain were taken, some money was left in the man’s pocket.

And consider the social context. Müller was a foreigner, with an accent, and he was not well-liked. He apparently had a temper, although other witnesses said he was a nice, quiet man. He was a tailor, a lowly profession, and he frequented a brothel, considering one of the girls his sweetheart.

But also consider the technological context. Trains were fairly new as a mode of transport in 1864. They were louder than horse and carriage, traveled on fixed routes, and followed strict timetables. Their advent tore up the traditional landscape, necessitated stations that could be as grand as cathedrals, and hurtled people along at astonishing speeds that some thought would adversely influence physical health. Train carriages were divided by class, and this crime had taken place (as Flanders notes The Times was at pains to point out) in the First Class Carriage. If one could not be safe in a First Class Carriage on a London train, what was the world coming to? People put their daughters on trains to visit relatives. What if trains weren’t safe?

After the trial, the train companies drilled peepholes (colloquially referred to as “Müller lights”) between the compartments so that people could report suspicious activities. Not long afterward, they had to fill them in again, partly because young couples complained they had no privacy (which lets you know what else was going on in the compartments). Eventually compartments would open onto a common corridor, with glass so people could see each other.

History, I believe, is not just the facts and suppositions of the past, but rather the context of everything. The context here is deep and complex. What seems like a straightforward trial and execution brings up issues now that weren’t in the public conscience then, but may have affected how the trial was run. And yet the case is known today mostly for having been the first murder on a moving train, and one of the last executions to take place in public. Knowing how people thought about trains and foreigners may not make the verdict any more conclusive, but it does make it more understandable.


Also published on Medium

24 hours in Clerkenwell Gaol

Yesterday, lazily wondering what the premise might be for the last mystery in my trilogy, I decided I wanted a character held in prison awaiting trial while my protagonist runs around London trying to clear him of the charge of . . . well, I don’t know yet. Having already set the first mystery in Southwark, and the second around Holborn, I was cruising around Clerkenwell because I wanted to get a little more East End-ish but not go all out Dickensonian. I’m thinking 1870. Maybe my guy should be accused of stealing this clock (Clerkenwell was known for clock-making):

I knew the infamous Coldbath Fields prison was in the area, because I have a previous character in prison there for debt, but I was seeking not a prison but a gaol, a place where they hold people until they go to trial.( I’ve seen too many Father Brown episodes to want my character rescued after he’s been convicted — it’s way too complicated.) And there seemed to be one in the area, but it took a lot of searching to get it all separated from Coldbath Fields and the other prison buildings that had been on the same property before. As one website tried to explain it:

Clerkenwell (old) Prison, also known as the Clerkenwell House of Detention or Middlesex House of Detention was a prison in Clerkenwell, London, opened in 1847. It held prisoners awaiting trial. It stood on Bowling Green Lane conveniently close to the Middlesex Sessions House, where prisoners would be tried, on Clerkenwell Green to the south.

Well that helped with location, anyway. Then it goes on:

The House of Detention was built on the site of two earlier prisons, the Clerkenwell Bridewell for convicted prisoners and the New Prison for those awaiting trial. The Bridewell closed in 1794 and its functions were taken over by the Coldbath Fields Prison at Mount Pleasant. The New Prison was rebuilt in 1818 and in 1847, at which time its name changed to the House of Detention.

Confused? Me too. Was it the Middlesex House of Corrections? No, I think that’s Coldbath Fields. House of Detention? Why isn’t anyone calling it a gaol? So Dickens Junior, ever the tour guide, decided to help out, via this page:

House of Detention —affectionately termed by the “profession” the House of Distinction, or more familiarly “the Tench “—is designed primarily for untried prisoners, the discipline being less severe than elsewhere. Prisoners under short sentence of imprisonment without hard labour—technically first-class misdemeanants — are also confined here; being not required to wear any distinctive dress or to have their hair cropped. It stands between Woodbridge-street and Rosoman-street, Clerkenwell. NEAREST Railway Station, Farringdon-street; Omnibus Routes, Exmouth-street and Goswell-road; Cab Rank,Clerkenwell-green.

– Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1879

I also started coming across the floor plan, which made it easier to identify.

One ghost tour also calls it the House of Detention. By this point, I’m pretty sure I have the right place. And look! It’s still kind of there, though it’s called Clerkenwell Prison.

The Old Sessions House was the Middlesex Sessions House, where the cases were taken for trial, so that helps too.

I even found some engineering information. (And this, children, is why I abandoned studying medieval technology for Victorian England, where there are a fabulous number of sources, all in English and none of them copyrighted.)

This picture kept coming up as I worked, claiming to be visiting hours at Clerkenwell prison, but I was unable to verify if this was the place I wanted.

It looks so nice, all the visitors talking to their friends and loved ones in the door holes. But is this the place? I start looking, as one does, at the Illustrated London News, but no. After doing image search and finding the image on Wikipedia, which does occasionally cite sources, it appears it’s not from the Illustrated London News (or the “Chronicle” as noted on another page), but from Henry Mayhew’s The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life (1862). Stupidly, I go looking at and other vendors to buy it ($65!) only to find the whole book, downloadable for free, at Google Books. (Every time I start to yell at Google for being a monstrosity, they do something nice.)

And in that book was everything: not just the image but what kind of prisoner went in what sort of cell, what furniture was in each cell, where the windows were, what sorts of crimes people were in for, and even a menu:

I don’t think it’s right that if he’s there for three months he doesn’t get a pint of cocoa, but no one asked me. Or Mr Mayhew.

After 24 hours, I have a place! And then something serendipitous happened. I was having trouble finding something to watch on the Roku during my exercises when BritBox conked out, so I started watching the film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (I have been waiting till it was long enough after reading it to see the movie). There’s a scene in a jazz club, and I’m thinking, that looks like Clerkenwell Prison. But of course I’ve got Clerkenwell Prison on the brain, and so I look it up and what do you know: that’s where it was filmed, in the cellar. You can go there and visit the cellar, which didn’t get destroyed in the Blitz, or even hire it for events.

Mobs at the Capitol

The press has been looking through the past for previous examples of what happened in the Capitol last week, partly to see if they can justify using the word “unprecedented.”

It depends on the sort of precedent one is looking for. Are we looking for times when a violent group forced their way into the building? If so, it may be technically correct that a mob has not stormed the Capitol since the War of 1812, but even then, it was in a time of war, and the mob was the enemy.

Are we looking at violence in the Capitol building? There are many examples of that, including the stick fight that almost killed Senator Charles Sumner in 1856. Are we looking for times where groups of unthinking people have tried to “tear down democracy”? We can find quite a few of those too.

To understand an event deemed “historic,” it is helpful to place it into a context of similar events. Too many events and the analysis is useless — it’s just something that happens a lot. Too few, and there is no context to examine.

For example, is there a precedent for a large group of unhappy Americans letting their displeasure at Congress be known through massive, disruptive action at the Capitol that led to violence?

One possibility is June-July 1932, when the “Bonus Army” came, and stayed, in Washington, DC.

They came in desperation. In 1924, a few years after the Great War, Congress passed a measure granting veterans a special service bonus, to be paid in 1945. June 1932 was at the height of the Great Depression when many were jobless and could not feed their families. It was the time of the Dust Bowl (14 dust storms would happen that year), and astonishing want in the wake of the Stock Market Crash.

Marchers on Pennsylvania Avenue, June 1932 (Library of Congress

The Bonus marchers came to persuade Congress to give the service bonus early, now, when they needed it, rather than wait until 1945. Some had begun the trip to Washington in late May. Quite a few brought their families and set up houses of cardboard or lived in their cars once in the city. Ultimately, many camped out in Anacostia flats, across the river from the city. At its height, to Bonus Army was over 40,000 people. Over 15,000 were veterans from World War I.

The Bonus Army did not invade the Capitol building itself, nor did they try. They did ask to meet with Congress, and a Congressional delegation was sent out to meet with them. A Bonus Bill had been presented.

July 2, 1932 — marchers at the Capitol, unaware that Congress had adjourned for the holiday (Library of Congress)

During the deliberations in Congress, the President authorized police to distribute leftover food from restaurants and medical aid to the veterans. They were even allowed to occupy abandoned warehouses in the city. The DC police superintendent asked Congress for money to feed them but was rejected.

On June 15, the House passed a Bonus Bill, allowing them the money. One representative, Representative Edward Eslick of Tennessee, had died of a heart attack on the House floor the day before, giving a speech in favor of the bill. There were parties in the streets.

Then the Senate voted it down. The country’s representatives were so afraid of their reception by the veterans that they snuck out of the Capitol using the underground tunnels. The police urged the veterans to leave the city, now that they had nothing to gain since Congress had adjourned for the year after the Bonus Bill’s defeat. Besides, President Hoover had said he would veto it anyway.

But the veterans stayed, deflated and unsure what to do. They continued to surround the Capitol and continued living in their camps. What had been cardboard boxes were now houses made of tin or wood, some with fences and little vegetable gardens.

Bonus Army camp in Anacostia, 1932 (Library of Congress)

General Douglas MacArthur was called on to run them out. First, he used mounted troops to remove the veterans from the city itself. His orders were to push the crowd away from the Capitol and let the veterans retreat to their camps at Anacostia. He later claimed he had the authorization to clear the camps.

MacArthur directing the evacuation (Library of Congress)

MacArthur crossed the bridge into Anacostia and burned the camps. Some of the marchers were killed, and many wounded. Several civilians were tear-gassed.

It would be fair to conclude that in 1932, the nation’s leaders could not handle a group of citizens who were peacefully demanding assistance. They met these demands with military violence. Later views considered that the government overestimated the mob’s threat, but others claimed there were communists and rabble-rousers in the crowd, fomenting revolution. The entire incident left questions about the government’s responsibility when its most worthy citizens are in trouble.

With armed members and forcing its way into the Capitol, a group trying to stop certification of a presidential election is unprecedented. It is also very specific. Are there lessons to be learned from 1932?

Also published in Medium: Frame of Reference

Was the first female doctor in England a man?

Whenever historians discuss the “first” of anything, they use qualifiers. In the case of the first female doctor in the UK, there might be several candidates, depending on how one qualifies the word “doctor.” The innumerable wise women and healers who made diagnoses and prescribed treatment for centuries may be unknown to history. So we define “doctor” in terms of official qualification and credentials.

The honor of being the first female doctor in the UK thus goes to an extraordinary person, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Although she had been refused admissions to the College of Surgeons and Physicians because of her sex, she was admitted to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries because their rules stated nothing forbidding women (an oversight they remedied shortly afterward). The University of Paris then admitted her to the examination necessary to certify her as a medical doctor in the 1860s.

Before her, one might argue, was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman on the UK Medical Register as a practicing physician. She would not have been able to obtain a medical degree but was grandfathered into the Medical Act of 1858.

But there is an even more startling possibility. Dr. James Barry was a famous figure in nineteenth-century military circles. He obtained his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh and might have been prevented from sitting his exams due to his youthful appearance but for the intervention of the Earl of Buchan, who was friends with his tutor.

 Portrait of James Barry, Wellcome Collection

Dr. Barry was a good physician, known for an excellent bedside manner, and he became a talented surgeon in the army. He served in South Africa and the Caribbean and performed the first successful European caesarean section in Africa. He became Inspector General in 1857 and traveled the British Empire enforcing sanitation in hospitals.

There is much evidence of Dr. Barry’s personality. He was known for his squeaky voice and violent temper. Florence Nightingale, whom he met in the Crimea, hated him, even though his emphasis on hygiene was as energetic as her own. Others reported that he was quarrelsome in the extreme.

He also never undressed in front of other people. This, and his clean-shaven face, curly hair, and short stature do not appear to have caused much comment among most of his colleagues. Later, however, there were rumors of duels caused by insults about his appearance and the expected posthumous claims that “I always suspected” or “I always knew.”

When he died in 1865 of dysentery, a charwoman named Sophia Bishop laid out his body. This action was against Barry’s known wishes that under no circumstances should his body be disrobed in death. The woman claimed that his body had full female genitalia and stretch marks, indicating a possible pregnancy. Barry’s own doctor, Major D.R. McKinnon, simply refused to care about his patient’s sex, having been called upon to identify the body and sign the death certificate. He had written the sex as male on the certificate. When Bishop told him her observations and tried to get him to pay for her silence, McKinnon famously reported to George Graham of the General Register Office:

The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.

The army sealed the records, supposedly for a hundred years. Isobel Rae’s 1958 book The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry, based on access to those papers, broke the story in the subtitle: Army Surgeon, Inspector General of Hospitals, discovered on death to be a woman. The only evidence, despite the new batch of papers, was the word of the woman preparing the body.

James Barry qualified as a doctor in 1812, so if one says he was female, then he would be the first woman doctor by several decades. The story has fascinated many, and more documents have since been uncovered demonstrating that Barry was Margaret Ann Bulkley in his earlier life. (This includes items like a letter from young Barry to a family solicitor where the recipient wrote “Miss Bulkley” on the outside of the envelope.*) The current wisdom that James Barry was, in fact, a woman, is happily disseminated in more recent books, both for adults and children.

It is natural that current discussions of gender would play into how we interpret James Barry today. Did he simply dress as a man to have a career not open to women? Is it right to call him the “first female medical doctor” if we believe he identified as male? Should we call him a transgender man? Or is it best to respect his own view of himself?

Even if we accept the report of the avaricious charwoman and the handwriting analysis of Margaret Bulkley, we have no way of knowing whether Dr. Barry actually identified as male or would simply be labeled a cross-dresser hiding his female identity. His last wish that he not be undressed for burial seems to speak to something deeper. But here, we are certainly engaging in supposition unsupported by the sources. Instead, it might be best to celebrate an extraordinary career, acknowledge the good he did with his medical skills, and enjoy critiques of his explosive personality from a safe distance.

*see Pain, Stephanie. “The Extraordinary Dr. James Barry.” New Scientist, vol. 197, no. 2646, Mar. 2008, pp. 46–47.

Also published in Medium: Frame of Reference

The strange feminism of Colonel March

I confess, I watch a lot of British television. In fact, I almost exclusively watch British television these days, given the choice: Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, Poirot, Scott and Bailey, Hinterland, Jonathan Creek, etc etc etc.

I usually don’t find older programs, but I came upon Colonel March of Scotland Yard with Boris Karloff, made in 1955-6, and have been watching its one season of 26 episodes.

It was made in the early days of ITV, when the new station was trying to promote itself, and has been roundly criticized for having very little intellectual content. It is based on the John Dickson Carr book The Department of Queer Complaints, which I would love to read but which costs a ridiculous amount of money when one searches for a copy.

I’m terrible at figuring out whodunnit. I always have been, which makes mysteries wonderful for me. I also forget whodunnit immediately afterwards, making it possible for me to see The Mousetrap in London four times before I could remember. I have solved only one Midsomer Murder out of 21 seasons of the show, though I have done two of Death in Paradise.

Which means that Colonel March is excellent entertainment for me. I don’t need to follow it closely, and March always wraps things up quickly at the end. But I’ve noticed something odd, something I didn’t expect.

Frances Rowe in At Night All Cats are Grey (yes, that’s Christopher Lee)

The women. Despite an occasional “because she’s female” line, the female characters seem pretty equal to the male in terms of agency, career, ambition, intelligence, and cunning. They are business owners, scientists, research assistants, intrepid explorers. They don’t usually commit the crime, and sometimes there is jealousy between men over a woman, but they aren’t in the background either. Their motives and actions are as complex as the male characters.

It’s a decade after the war, so I would assume that women in public roles was fairly common, but if one watches The Bletchley Circle, one would get the impression that the problem with the “Back to Home” women was the same in Britain as in America. Perhaps it was, but even “mindless” television may have been comfortable with the idea that not all women belonged at home, cooking and having babies.

         Elspet Gray in Murder is Permanent

In “Murder is Permanent”, Elspet Gray plays the daughter-in-law of the woman who owns a beauty salon, and is into shady dealings. In “The Abominable Snowman” a somewhat ridiculous premise is saved by Doris Nolan as Mary Grey, a mountain climber who isn’t allowed to be in the Himalayan Mountaineers’ club because she’s female (which Colonel March finds absurd). She led a major climb and it’s the film she made on that adventure that helps solve the mystery. Of course at the end she’s in the club, and will clearly be leading it.

So one has to be careful. Any number of 1950s films and television, on both sides of the pond, have surprised me by either confronting the very issues that supposedly restricted them, or by portraying certain types of people with a different sensibility than I was led to expect. I’ve seen so many now that I’m wondering whether the exceptions to the rule are so numerous that the rule is the exception. . . .

Victorian high tech: the pneumatic railway

I was tracing one of my character’s walks through Holborn, using Google street view and walking my little man along, when I noticed the street name changed to “Holborn Viaduct” and then I came upon structures that looked Victorian and bridge-like. Turned out I was on top of this:

Photo by Matt Brown, Wikipedia

So I looked it up. There wasn’t much at the Wikipedia page, but I found much more at this engineering site. According to this:

Holborn Viaduct is 427m long and 24.4m wide, and is a complex structure mainly of masonry. It incorporated subways for a sewer, a gas main, telegraph wires, the pneumatic despatch railway used by Royal Mail and an Edison electric power station.

What the heck is a “pneumatic despatch railway”? So I went down that rabbit hole for an afternoon.

Way back in 2013 the New Statesman published an article about what they call the “Victorian hyperloop”, a pneumatic railway for the mail in London.

It was a fascinating technology, essentially an underground tube with cars that carried the mail across town. It was tested above ground at Battersea.

The first one was inaugurated at Holborn (did it go through the viaduct? no, it went under it, but not till 1865, two years too late for my character).

People could fit in it.

And they experienced “no ill effect”.

Illustrated London News, 7 February 1863 p. 135.

It was so exciting that it appeared on a cigarette card:

A human-sized line was run from Crystal Palace in Sydenham so people could try it and see how it worked.

It worked very well. You put your mail (or busybody investor) into the car, and sealed up the end, forming a vacuum. One direction pushed, the other sucked. The first section was supposed to be a straight shot from the Euston Station packages depot to Holborn, but the Duke of Bedford didn’t want the digging, so it had to have a turn. They ran another from the General Post Office. Telegraph wires ran alongside for signalling. Some reports said it got up to 60 miles per hour; other estimates were more modest. Either way it got the mail there in minutes, and avoided the streets above, which were overcrowded with unregulated traffic, including carts, horses, pedestrians, cabs, etc.

Illustrated London News, 28 February 1863

There were approvals for more branches, but not enough money. A few technical problems, yes, and it didn’t save as much time as hoped, but the main problem was cash.

The New Statesman was using the pneumatic railway (also known as an “atmospheric railway”) to tease Elon Musk, and rightly so. This thing was planned to run all over London, underground. Infrastructure was part of the plan. Even though it ran out of money, and was left derelict, pneumatic tubes for papers would become part of businesses and banks (the bank up the street has one, and I remember the thrill of using one at the drive-through bank when I was a child).

I think it’s a shame that the reporting of new hyperloops is so ahistorical. Even this criticism of Virgin Hyperloop only cites the TGV and a similar Chinese line from seventeen years ago. I would have loved to know about this Victorian model before.

Midhurst Mystery Solved!

For those who have been following my two “Midhurst Mysteries” about H. G. Wells — Which house was Horace Byatt’s? (2017 and 2018) and Did Mrs Allin help Wells? — I am excited to report that the latter was actually solved in August 2019, although I didn’t know it. (Bad researcher — no book orders for you!)

I only discovered this because of my Midhurst “connection”, Simon Wheeler of Wheeler’s Bookshop. He wrote to tell me that the Midhurst Society had a new website, with a page about South Street that could possibly help solve the mystery of Horace Byatt’s house. This page, part of a wonderful series of pages by the Society, surmised that the house was likely South Pond House, while I believe it was the house next door. But no matter! I was able to reach the Society through the new and beautifully designed website.

And that’s how I found about about Midhurst Magazine #30, published a year ago August. It contains an article by Mrs Allin’s great-granddaughter, Jennifer Chevis.

For those who don’t keep track of this stuff, the mystery was that Vic and Barbara Mitchell’s book, Midhurst Town: Then & Now, mentioned that Mrs Allin, the ironmonger’s wife, helped get Wells his job at Midhurst Grammar School as an assistant teacher. Mr Mitchell was wonderfully kind in responding to my query, but couldn’t recall where he obtained that information.

Who cares? Why is that even important? Because it’s one of the major turning points in Wells’s life. It would be his studies with Byatt, undertaken as independent study, that would enable his scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London. And that would lead to many, many other things.

In the meantime, I had surmised in my novel (fiction, but based on what I know) that Mrs Allin, being a motherly woman, would have taken Wells under her wing and convinced Horace Byatt to hire him with pay and let him return to Midhurst after having been a pupil-teacher at the school. Wells had attended briefly before his mother indentured him to a draper’s in Southsea, where he was miserable.

And now I find that I was absolutely right. Ms Chevis reports that Mrs Allin did indeed do this, taking an active interest in the young man’s life and persuading Byatt to pay him.

I’m delighted with all of this: the Midhurst Society’s accessible content and amiable people, and the generosity of Mrs Allin, and the potential for greater connection to a wonderful local history society. They have even graciously added a link to my Wells studies on their publications page.

Now, about Byatt’s house. . .

Before the Time Machine: Young H. G. Wells

For those who want to hear me rattle on about my research, here’s the recording from the talk I gave yesterday to the wonderful Victorian Britain group.

Before the Time Machine: Young H. G. Wells from Lisa M Lane on Vimeo.