My mock orange bush blooms profusely in June, it’s appointed time. So what would possess the bush to suddenly produce a couple of blooms again in late October just in time to flirt with frost? Is the bush a misquided optimist, utterly confused or is it bravely defying the dying of the light. Too bad it can’t talk.
Did you know the hula hoop is back? It was news to me but I have discovered there are hooping groups, hooping classes and free-for-all hooping jams in the parks. For those of you who haven’t hooped since grade four, the key is an adult hoop of the proper weight and taped so as not to slip. Oh, and they come with lights so you can really throw a surprise at passersby in the dark.
That’s how many offences carried the death penalty in the British penal code. That the number had risen from the mere 50 death penalty charges in the brutal “Bloody Code” of 1660 showed how much fear of crime had also increased in the intervening years.
And there did appear to be an ever increasing crime wave. With the vast movement of people from countryside to town for uncertain work in factories, desperate poverty shot up – and so did crime, from 5000 offenses a year in 1800 to 20,000 a year by 1840. Victorians obsessed about this rising criminal threat and tried to stamp it out with a sledge hammer. So, besides arson, treason, piracy and murder, you could be done in for sheep stealing, consorting with gypsies, writing a threatening letter, stealing a letter, cutting down a tree, damaging Westminster Bridge, nicking a rabbit for dinner, begging without a license, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner or being a particularly malicious child aged 7-14.. Oh, and if you were caught skulking about with a blackened face, that meant you were up to no good and best hang you for that too.
Slowly, a more enlightened attitude crept in and, by the end of the 19th century, this vast number of hanging offences was enormously reduced. Hanging dead criminals in chains for months as a ghrisly warning was abolished in 1834, public executions in 1868, beheading and quartering executed traitors was stopped in 1870. Beheading as an execution method was finally abandoned in 1971.
Today, in Britain, there is no death penalty. The last working gallows, tested faithfully ever six months until 1992, has been consigned to a museum of crime and punishment. To the applause, no doubt, of thousands of ghosts with stretched necks or heads tucked underneath their arms.
Challenge: To create female crime boss who could hold her own in Victorian London’s seething underworld.
Enter Red Nell. She sprang up, fully formed. A rough, wildly eccentric character so scary she could frighten the scales off a cobra. She had to be potent, so I made her fireplug sturdy with a blunt face, and a presence that made innards congeal with the force of her green stare.
She needed to be colourful, so she wears a soldier’s battered scarlet tunic over layers of striped and tartan skirts. Her hair, which gives her her name, is hennaed to shocking red in honour of the flaming tresses of her youth. On her head, always perches one of the fantastic hats brought as tribute those daring to seek her favour.
She needed a crucible to forge her ferocity, so I made Red Nell a merry Irish tinker until her fierce drives for survival reared to life in the desperate Irish potato famines. Driven, with her family, like hordes of other famished skeletons, up on the London docks, she had to win or die. Her empire began with a fence’s body buried in a cellar. Illiterate though she was, she kept track of every penny skimmed from street vendors, every inch of territory wrenched from her bitter arch rival, Teapot, who had the face and instincts of a moray eel.
And, like any ambitious Victorian, Nell, eventually peeps over the limits of her slum domain at larger world, glimpsing unimaginably vaster opportunities for profit by doing things with ships and land and mines. Her own illiteracy and ignorance may keep her down but the next generation, blood of her blood, must be taught.
So Red Nell embarks upon a madly unorthodox enterprise via Mrs. Gresham’s seedy Ladies’ Academy and unsuspecting Amelia Radmore’s charity dedicated to rescuing starving urchins from the streets….
You can meet Red Nell, if you dare, in The Tomorrow Country, my historical novel found at: www.gailhamiltonwriter.com (Or Amazon.ca)
In September, 2010, Canada Post issued a stamp honouring the contribution of the British Home Children to Canada. This is what they said :
“Starting in 1869, and continuing into the years following the Second World War, more than 100,000 orphaned, abandoned and pauper children were sent to Canada by British churches and philanthropic organizations. They were welcomed by Canadian families as a source of farm labour, domestic help, and, in some cases, as children of their own. While some children some benefited from their new life, others were abused, neglected and overworked. The Government of Canada has recognized the experiences of Canada’s Home Children by proclaiming 2010 the Year of the British Home Child.”
A new wellness problem has emerged – nature deficit disorder. Kids, no longer put out the door to go play in the woods, have lost their contact with bugs, tree forts and robin’s nests and now are thought to suffer from this freshly noticed condition. Obesity, ADD, anxiety, low grades and a horde of other ills are blamed on this disconnect from the beezy, sunny, life-crammed world where we evolved. Turns out that catching tadpoles and climbing trees gives you a brain. (Hey, we could have guessed!) Put the youngsters out there to get some green.
I get a big kick out of this one every time.
Bash a hole in a beaver dam and they fix it before you walk out of sight My attempts to breach the dam before their pond drowns the entire oak woods, have only met with beaver mirth. In their distant lodge, the first trickle triggers the emergency repair squad to stop up the gap. So, on learning how they are alerted by the sound of running water, I hit upon the very clever plan of burying a long piece of drainage piping UNDER the dam with both ends far enough away that the beavers would not connect them with the water gushing into the field. Snickering to myself about perplexed rodents, I installed the pipe and restored the dam to it’s solid condition, confident the ditches would soon move the pond water on its way.
Two days later. Not much water in the ditch, none of it moving. Back at the dam, the beavers had not only figured out my strategy, they had found the end of the pipe deep in their pond and actually dragged the end up out of the water so it could flow no more. The bite holes all along it, were the beavers telling me they are way smarter than I think and I should just give it up. They will always win.
Tramping through the snow, I encountered a strange new phenomenon – frozen balls of mud heaped in piles three or four feet high in pyramids or against the trunks of trees. What on earth could they could be? Ammunition dumps for a mud ball war? Savings banks for a colony of giant moles? Who had stacked them so laboriously? And why?
Naturally, Google has the answers. Turns out that these heaps of mud balls are raised by beavers to mark the edge of their territory, warning other house-hunting beavers that this real estate is taken. They are a giant “Keep Out!” sign. I will have to make a trip around all the beaver ball towers to find out how much territory I do not own.
Book research turns up of a lot of odd knowledge. If you’ve ever wondered how Victorian women achieved those bizarre hourglass figures, you have to learn about the corset. In Queen Victoria’s time, the corset was a torso-moulding undergarment gripping the body from bosom to hips. Expected to actually hold a woman up, it had 24 whalebone or steel stays, closed with metal fasteners at the front and laced up at the back as tightly as two maids or husband a could pull. It was then covered with a corset cover to protect clothing should the steel stays rust or stain.
The goal was a “wasp waist” that a man’s hands could span. Remember Scarlett O’Hara so proud of her 17 inch waist? A girl’s waist was supposed to be smaller than her age when she married. And if she wasn’t married at 21, she was on the shelf.
Corsets made women faint, especially at events like balls where the corset would be at its tightest, compressing 3 to 7 inches away from the lungs and diaphragm. Breath could only be got at the top of the lungs. Any exertion, like dancing, ramped up the oxygen deprivation. Next thing the dancer knew, she was draped over the fainting couch, waiting for the world to come back. Engineers have calculated the pressure applied by the corset was 20 to 80 pounds per square inch!
The corset not only squeezed the lungs and displaced internal organs, it distorted the upper skeleton. The corset was considered a medical necessity since females were thought too delicate to hold themselves upright for long without help. Girls, at age five, were put into corsets and kept there for the rest of their lives. Ribs were pushed inward and the spine malformed, usually due to the presence of Rickets, a vitamin deficiency disease common at the time, that made bones soft and fragile.
Since respectable women could not be seen in public while pregnant, the corset was used to suppress evidence of their condition so they could evade their “confinement” as long as possible. It is no wonder that miscarriages, fetal deformities and still births were the result, not to mention the myriad other “hysterical” ailments brought on by this iron-gripped garment. Doctors forgot what a normal woman looked like because their female patients had been shaped, or deformed, by their corsets.
Reforming rants against tight lacing had little effect on women who, as today, were trying to emulate the impossibly shaped ideal beauties they saw in illustrations and catalogues. And the tighter the lacing, the higher your status. After all, if you couldn’t bend over, you couldn’t work, signaling to all your membership in the leisure class. Women who rebelled by undoing their corset laces became, quite literally, “loose women” and lost their reputations pronto.
It wasn’t until the flapper era, with it’s waist-less tubular figure, that the corset finally expired and women could truly join the work force of the 20th century. Today, it’s pale descendant is the elastic girdle. Women resort to diet and exercise to attain the slender grace their great grandmothers forced with corset laces. I hope we can say we won.