Categories
English history The Victorians

A Victorian education

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Schooldays….the best days of your life?

Why and when was school invented?

Throughout the 1800’s there was a push towards literacy and education for everyone, leading to the Elementary Education Act of 1870. Times were changing, with industrialisation and scientific innovation leading the way. People were leaving the old, rural lifestyle behind them, flocking to the cities in droves, in search of better lives. This upheaval also meant that people needed more education or training in order to find better paid jobs.

Prior to the 1870’s, education had always been at best, patchy and certainly not widely available to all and sundry. There were some independent voluntary schools, usually managed by the Church or a charity, with the emphasis on religious education. The first of these was set up in 597 and known as the King’s School, Canterbury, and still exists today. Part of the impressive modern school campus is shown below.

Sdnegel, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Public schools – not open to the public

The official educational establishments that existed were known as public schools, as opposed to private tuition, both systems only available to the wealthy. In time these schools would evolve into institutions that were and still are exclusive to the public at large – for example, today, public schools for the very wealthy include Eton, Westminster or Rugby. So confusingly, a public school in England is not for the public at all, in fact it is a highly expensive private school.

Of course, it should be noted that before the mid 1800’s education at school was for boys only. If girls received any type of academic education at all, it would be at home via a nanny or a governess. Today, of course, the vast majority of British boys and girls go to state schools, that is, those funded by the government.

Ragged Schools

The type of education a child would receive (or not) depended, of course, on their family’s place in society.

In the 1840’s voluntary schools which came to be known as Ragged Schools began to appear in the poorest areas of the country, and provided food, shelter and the rudiments of an education. These were for children at the opposite extreme from the public school students, minors who were extremely poor or destitute and often excluded from Sunday or voluntary schools because of their behaviour and/or appearance.

A drawing of a ragged school in London, courtesy of https://www.victorianlondon.org

These schools were maintained by philanthropists, notably Charles Dickens amongst others, and staffed by volunteers, and newspapers spread the word about their existence. Not everyone liked the idea – common opinions were the schools were a waste of time, the children were too stupid or lazy to learn, or they would just learn how to become better criminals. Take your pick.

But there was a genuine feeling in Victorian society that the poor should be helped and the ragged schools established themselves, proving that the not only the well-heeled had a desire for education. In poor inner city ragged schools there could be between 50 to 70 children in a class. It is estimated there were about 350 schools of this type by the time the Elementary Education Act was passed in 1870.

The beginnings of education for all

Even so, many of the working class were unable to read and write. Child labour was also normal, with kids of school age working in factories for a pittance.

With the implementation of the Education Act in 1870 school boards were created and could use ratepayers’ funds to improve or set up schools, universal education finally becoming a government concern. The boards also laid down the priorities of education. By 1876 it became mandatory for all children between 5 and 10 years of age to attend school, considerably lower than the leaving age nowadays.

Yet again there was opposition; some of the upper classes opposed the idea of educating the working classes for fear it would cause a revolution, while a section of the lower classes feared their children would be indoctrinated by propaganda. The Church, who still provided voluntary schooling and Sunday schools, also did not want to lose its influence on young people. Sometimes the parents needed the small amount of money that their children earned at work and therefore prevented them from going to school.

However, it was also clear that an educated workforce would enhance Britain’s competitive status at large. By 1902, school boards were abolished in favour of local education authorities, which were responsible for education within their designated area, and the basis for our modern education system was created.

Let’s look at the mainstream schools during this time.

Miss Bowls’s class in an unidentified girls’ school Date: circa 1905 Source: postcard

What was taught?

Lessons were fairly basic and monotonous, with a huge focus on reading, writing and arithmetic. The pupils would copy what the teacher had written on the blackboard and a lot of attention was given to copperplate handwriting and learning by heart. Numeracy was also essential and usually involved the children chanting times tables until they all did it perfectly. There was no creativity and teaching through fun activities and games were an alien concept far off in the future.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

However, depending on the school and the teacher, other things were taught. Religion was almost always included and sometimes history and geography. There were object lessons where a picture, model or artefact would be observed by the pupils.

If it was a mixed gender school, sometimes pupils were separated by gender into different classes – the boys might do woodwork or gardening, and the girls cooking or embroidery.

The classrooms

The classroom was generally called the schoolroom. The windows were situated high up to avoid distractions and as a result, it was often airless and stuffy. If there were more than one classroom, they were divided only by a curtain. As you can see in the photo below, the desks were bolted to the floor and the classroom often had tiers so all the children could see the blackboard, and the teacher, in turn, could see them.

The children wrote on slates which were rubbed out and re-used. The older students might have used ink pens that dipped into ink wells to produce their written work.

A Victorian classroom with high windows and tiered desks.
Photo courtesy of edufirst.ng

The teachers

There were far more female teachers than males – the pay was low and therefore the profession did not attract many men. Schoolmistresses tended to be unmarried females, who gave up the job when they gained a husband.

The better establishments had teachers who had received certification in various subjects. The poorer schools could not afford to be so choosy. These teachers probably learnt their profession from day one at school.

Boy in dunce cap sitting on dunce stool. Origin unknown (but probably not Victorian.)

The teachers were generally very strict and expected all the children, even the youngest, to pay attention at all times. Poor work, speaking out of turn, answering back or any misdeeds from the pupils meant they could receive blows from either the teacher or a cane.

There was practically no understanding of slow learners, and pupils who did not keep up with the class could be made to sit or stand on a dunce’s stool wearing a dunce’s hat for up to an hour, Conformity was the name of the game, and the left-handed were forced to use their right hand for writing tasks.

With time, society has gained more knowledge about the learning process and our schools today have moved on in several aspects. New technology and not least, the recent coronavirus pandemic have introduced different ways of teaching – online, or encouraging more self-study for example. Nevertheless, the Victorians were responsible for the foundation of our modern educational system.

Some questions for you:

Do you think schooling helped children in Victorian times?

Do you think our contemporary schools help students to face the working world today ?

Are/Were schooldays the best days of your life?

Categories
English life

Our daily bread

Bread HD wallpaper – courtesy of HD Wallpapers

A quick history of bread

Bread is one of the oldest human-made foods in our world and remains one of our most highly consumed foodstuffs today. There is evidence that bread has been around for a staggering 30,000 years.

The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians ate leavened bread, which is generally what we tend to eat in England today. Leavened bread means that yeast has been added to the dough mixture, making the bread airy with a lighter texture.

Bread. is, of course, a basic food product in the U.K. Nowadays we consume bread as toast, in sandwiches, or to accompany a meal, but in the Middle Ages, the bread itself was the plate for the meal, and known as a “trencher”.

The word “trencher” is derived from Old French “tranchier”, meaning to cut. The heavy coarse bread was cut into slices and became edible tableware. As time passed, the trencher was no longer made of bread but evolved into a circular wooden plate, similar to, say, a cheeseboard.

Cheeseboard courtesy of Freepix.com

After the meal was over, the usually stale and hard bread was generally used as livestock feed although it was sometimes eaten as well, or sadly, donated to the poor. No waste, unlike today. And obviously we are not talking sliced white bread with fluffy air pockets here. This no doubt, would have significantly decreased the enjoyment of your food as well as the state of your attire…..

Sliced bread was still far away in the future at this point. Everyday bread for the peasants was rough, grainy, hard and not always easily digested. It was, however, considered to be a step above the wholegrain “trencher” bread used as plates, which was commonly given to animals after the meal was finished.

The financially better off consumed bread which was made from milled wheat, or oats, or both. The ingredients were either processed at home or a local miller would grind them in return for a small portion of the goods. Breadmakers and millers prospered as few people had ovens and it was difficult to conserve flour. By the 16th century, the terminology of bread reflected not only the ingredients, but was linked to social class. The whiter the bread, the finer it was considered, reflecting on your place in the social hierarchy.

Brown bread was handed out to the Irish during the Great Famine of the 18th century. Fibrous, rough brown bread was strictly for the lower classes and the poor.

When England became more industrialised in the 18th century, more factories started to manufacture white bread and the working classes, after being denied this item for so long, were more than willing customers. It made sense – people could afford it, it was easier to chew and digest than its wholegrain counterpart, particularly important at a time where teeth were often sadly neglected.

White bread was filling and therefore value for money. It was often suspected that brown bread had been adulterated but it was thought that as white bread was …well, white … additives would be easily detected. Not actually so, as bread manufacturers in the 1930’s actually used chlorine and peroxide to make their bread even whiter. Don’t worry, these additives are banned today in the U.K………at least for the moment….

The Aerated Bread Company (also known as A.B.C.) was established in London in 1862 by John Dauglish, who used his medical studies to replace yeast with carbon dioxide, removing the requirement to knead the bread. This, together with mechanical processes, made the procedure more hygenic and quicker as there was no longer a yeast fermentation period.

The kneading process was no longer necessary at the A.B.C.
Bread Company
Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

In 1967 the Chorleywood bread process, developed in, yes, you guessed it, Chorleywood in Buckinghamshire, reduced breadmaking time even further, and according to Wikipedia, “As of 2009, 80% of bread made in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and India, used the process.”

And in 1928, across the Atlantic, the Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri sold the very first sliced loaf. In England, the delights of the sliced loaf arrived in 1937, courtesy of the Wonderloaf Bakery in Tottenham, London. By the 1950’s, the majority of bread sales were both pre-sliced and pre-packaged.

Sliced white bread in Chilliclothe
https://purepng.com/public/uploads/large/purepng.com-sliced-white-breadfood-bread-941524637306lfujv.png

The tide had certainly turned for the working classes with widely available and affordable sliced white bread in all its sandwichy glory and convenience.

But even as white bread began its journey into everyone’s homes, slowly but surely a section of educated people in England were beginning to turn their backs on white bread and recognise the nutritional value of brown bread.

As early as 1800, George III ate brown bread in an attempt to convert people to its value, but the crowds responded to his iniative by simply nicknaming him ” Brown George”.

But in 1865 the discovery of the advantages of bran on health meant that brown bread had commenced its comeback. From its lowly beginnings, brown bread slowly shrugged off its negative image and rose again in popularity as the public gained more knowledge and information on food and nutrition. Food could be questioned once people did not have to worry where it was coming from and had options, unlike previous eras.

We all have our preferences for types of bread but today it is generally held that brown bread is indeed of a higher nutritional value than white, and certainly more so than pre-packaged sliced white bread. The wheel has come full circle.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com
Categories
Wordpower

“English” words

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

The English Language

Many different languages have influenced modern English, due to overseas trade and a number of invasions in the British Isles prior to and including the Norman invasion of 1066. The Angles, the Jutes and the Saxons were Germanic tribes who settled in Britain alongside Celtic language speakers and laid the basis for the Anglo-Saxon language. However, the great majority of English speakers would struggle to understand Anglo-Saxon today.

There are also innumerable words we use in the English language which have arrived via a different language. Unlike nations such as France, for example, which does not encourage the borrowing of Anglicisms, (even though this certainly happens and will no doubt continue to do so) the English language seems to have happily stolen or accomodated any word or grammar pattern that took its fancy at the time.

Latin

The Roman conquest of Britain meant that Latin was now fair game for absortion into the English language. Whilst the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon poulation at large still retained their native languages, little by little words used in Roman administration worked their way into our language and some are still used today.

A few examples : agenda, etcetera, interim, item, memorandum, P.S.,(postscript) a.m. p.m., (ante and post meridian)and the symbol &.

In the 1600’s, there was a tendency to reflect the Latin origin of words by introducing silent letters to the common spelling – for instance, anchor, debt, doubt, island, scissors, receipt. Students of the English language take note! (more about silent letters here if you are interested):

Silent letters in English

Danish and other Scandinavian languages

https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/pictures/210000/velka/wikinger

Norsemen and Vikings raided England several times during the early Middle Ages. In 866 they captured the city of York and during this period various areas in the the east and the north capitulated to Viking rule. Danelaw overrode Anglo-Saxon administration in these areas and a language now known as Anglo-Norse began to be spoken. Modern English inherited a lot of vocabulary from the Vikings, not only words of war such as ransack, slaughter, berserk, but also a great deal of everyday vocabulary, such as bag, ball, call, cake, crawl, egg, get, give, happy, husband, kid, lad, leg, loan, take, seem, skill, ugly, want, weak ….

Apart from vocabulary, the Vikings also influenced English grammar. The way we construct sentences grammatically in modern English is much more similar to Scandinavian languages than old English. Some experts say that English has more in common with Swedish, Danish and Norwegian than German, even though we have long considered English to have Germanic roots.

German

The Germanic tribes known as the Angles, Jutes and Saxons invaded British shores around the 5th century and their dialects forged the Anglo-Saxon language. But German has also left us left us with these lovely words in modern English : delicatessen, hamster, iceberg, lager, poodle, rucksack and spiel. And let’s not forget hamburger.

https://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/bayeux-tapestry-detail-depicting-norman-invasion-england-th-century-36480116.jpg

French

Here’s a tiny selection of words we have inherited from French : café, paté, cliché, fiancé(e), bouquet, ballet, brusque, chef, garage, gourmet, souvenir, vintage… there are many, many more. Interestingly, words borrowed from French pre- 17th century have modified pronunciation. Ch- words such as chimney and change begin with a harder -tch sound. But later borrowings conserve the same ch-sound as in French…champagne and chivalrous, for example.

Numerous words which came specifically from the Normans – justice, jury, felon, traitor, damage, sovereign, parliament, government give us an insight of William the Conqueror’s iron fist and the stringent Norman administration of England.

Various countries

Here are ten random examples, in no particular order.

Chocolate – Originally xocolatl, this word was translated from Spanish via Nahuatl, the language spoken in central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. A welcome addition for most people, I would say.

Sofa – from Turkish via Arabic. The Arabic word suffah signified bench.

Glitch – although the jury is still out on this one, some experts believe that this word comes from the Yiddish word glitsh , a slippery place.

Yacht – derived from the Dutch word jacht, which originally signified a hunting ship.

Shampoo – originates from Hindi and Urdu. The word cā̃po means to massage, precisely what we do with shampoo in our hair.

Ketchup – from the Hokkien Chinese word kê-tsiap, a word for a sauce made from fermented fish. Hmm, not what we bargain for with today’s ketchup.

-ology – Anything ending in -ology comes from Greek, where -ology means the branch of study. Physiology, physcology, biology, pharmacology, zoology…. the list goes on.

Sabbatical – from the Hebrew word shabbat , meaning day of rest.

Robot – the word robot as we know it, to describe a humanoid machine, was first used in 1920 in a Czech play called R.U.R ((Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti – Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek.

Vendetta – concluding the list is vendetta , the Italian word for revenge.

The second image in this blog jokingly depicts the English language as some type of criminal, stealing words from here and there. I prefer to think of the English language as a welcoming home for any words which care to stick around. These not-so-foreign words should be received with joy for enchriching our language.

This is a very brief summary of words we use in English with their roots in foreign languages. You probably know others and can easily find hundreds more. If you know any more, feel free to write them in the comments below.

Happy word searching!

Categories
The Victorians

A Victorian Christmas dinner

Victorian Christmas Dinner. Photo by https://365project.org/yorkshirekiwi/365/2020-11-27#:~

Christmas origins

Christmas as an event has been around for a long long time, admittedly in various guises. There is a consensus that the pagan midwinter festivals such as Yule, or the Winter Solstice, were amalgamated with Christmas as the Church imposed liturgical days in the calendar. The word Christmas comes directly from Christ’s mass, and actually existed as Christenmass in Middle English, until the “en” syllable was lost.

Victorian era

There is little doubt that Christmas as we know it today is largely down to the Victorians, who began to treat Christmas as a family celebration feast with time off work. Increased prosperity allowed the middle classes to include special cuisine, present giving and decorations in their homes during the holiday period. You can find more info on how the Victorians influenced our modern day Christmas festivities here.

Christmas dinner

Christmas is synoymous with food. Abundant food, and the possibility of indigestion, to say the least. The pagan celebrations were indulgent feasts to brighten the darkest days of winter. Renamed Christmas, it became an amalgamation of the old customs and a religious event – although days off work and Christmas cards and trees were still to become a part of the holiday.

Rowdy behaviour has always been a part of Christmas too. In the 1600’s, Oliver Cromwell, as head of the Puritan government, banned the celebration of Christmas in England as a frivolous event which produced frowned-upon excesses. Although the ban was policed, it was not entirely successful and Christmas not only survived, but was reinstated in 1660 at the end of the Puritan reign. If we fast forward to the end of the Victorian period, Christmas had become a family and culinary event which has highly influenced the way we celebrate it today.

Menu card from Queen Victoria, Christmas Day 1899. Courtesy of The Royal Archives.

Royal influence

As you would expect, Queen Victoria and her family had a sumptuous Christmas menu, seen above in the example from 1899, with a wide variety of culinary offerings.

Starters and Appetisers

Consommé, sole fillets á la Vassant (answers on a postcard if anyone knows what à la Vassant means) fried whitebait, chicken cutlets

Main Dishes

Turkey with chipolatas, roast beef, spare pork ribs

Desserts

Asparagus, Hollandaise sauce (interestingly, the Victorians sometimes ate salad ingredients after the main course ) mince pies, plum pudding, orange jelly

Buffet

Beef joint, boar’s head, game pie, Woodcock pie, roast fowl, brawn and tongue. The Victorians were of course, much less squeamish than we are nowadays about animal heads and offal.

So the rich lacked for nothing, no surprise there.

The Middle Classes

The middle class grew enormously in the Victorian era due to an array of new industries, improved transport and better wages. The domestic goddess of the age was Mrs Beeton, who with her Book of Household Management guided middle class housewives towards success in culinary delights and entertaininment of visitors at home.

Roast turkey was first documented in 1541 in Britain (as a meal for the clergy, no less) but it was not until Queen Victoria’s reign that turkey became the meat of choice at Christmas dinner. Traditionally, before this point, roast meat for those who could afford it at Christmas would have been roast goose, beef or pheasant. But Mrs Beeton famously commented:

A noble dish is a turkey, roast or boiled. A Christmas dinner with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey “

Poultry: Roast Fowls, Roast Goose, Roast Turkey with Savoury Balls, Roast Duck, and Boiled Chicken from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Digitally enhanced from our own 1923 edition. Image by rawpixel.com

Turkey also had the advantage of being a large bird, meaning more people could be invited to the Christmas dinner. In the illustration above we can see other poultry dishes which may have been offered in place of, or as well as turkey or beef in line with household income.

The less well-off

Of course, there were many families who were struggling financially, just like today. The poor may have celebrated Christmas but in a much more frugal fashion. They might have been able to save something from their meagre wages for a festive treat, such as rabbit, but for those on the lowest pay scale, for example, agricultural workers, it generally would have been impossible to save anything.

With this in mind, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol , published in 1843. It told the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who reformed his miserly behaviour and became a kind, generous soul, giving presents and treating other people well at Christmas. Dickens’ tale was popular and did in fact encourage the richer Victorians to donate money and gifts to servants, workers and the needy at Christmas.

This tradition of helping those less well off had always existed at Christmas, but was popularised and cemented during this time. These gifts were usually money and were given in boxes on, yes, you guessed it, Boxing Day, which was a day on which people were not required to work. The newly invented railways also offered cheap fares during Christmas, which allowed workers to see their families more easily during this family- oriented season.

Those in the workhouse, who were desperately poor, were generally given some type of Christmas dinner, despite the fact that the Poor Laws had ruled against this. It would seem that the guardians of the workhouse were more humane than the government (parallels with today anyone ?)

These Christmas dinners contained contain some type of meat, which was a treat in itself for the inmates, and some of the workhouses even managed to provide Christmas pudding, (known then as plum pudding) as a dessert.

Vintage Christmas Plum Pudding, courtesy of thegraphicsfairy.com

So many of the elements of our modern day Christmas celebrations have been handed down to us from the Victorian generation – the idea that is a family gathering, the turkey, the lavish food on offer, Boxing Day….

Sadly, there are also plenty of reminders that others are not so fortunate.

Categories
The Victorians

Victorian pets and animals

From work to home

https://i.pinimg.com/564x/1e/59/1e/1e591e02d4d58dff188565eb3d92e940.jpg Courtesy of the Library of Virginia

It was in the Victorian era that the idea of domestic animals as pets, purely for companionship and/or entertainment, began to take root. In the past, animals such as horses and dogs were considered as working animals, with their skills used as a contribution to the family household. The animals were destined, amongst other things, as hunting dogs, sheepdogs, and guard dogs, cats caught mice and other vermin, and horses were a means of transport. In the 1880’s dogs were also used to collect money for charitable organisations, and were licensed to move around trains and railway stations.

This does not mean that people did not love or look after their animals, but these creatures were expected to earn their keep.

Photo by David Jakab on Pexels.com
Horses are still used today in ceremonial parades, and for crowd control by the police.

Queen Victoria’s pets

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, relationships between animals and humans began to change. A great example of this was Queen Victoria and her family, who were closely monitored and copied by the British public who could afford to do so.

Victoria appears to have been a great animal lover with various species of dogs, a donkey, goats and a number of pet parrots forming part of the royal household throughout her reign. It would seem that the queen was not enamoured of cats, although she was gifted a kitten shortly before her coronation.Not only did she accept the feline, but also sent two five pound notes to its previous owner as a way of thanks. Victoria’s love for these creatures and their status as family members to be cossetted and petted undoubtedly influenced the fate of many other animals owned by well-heeled families.

Her Majesty’s Favourite Pets, painted by Landseer in 1838, shows the spaniel Dash, Lory the parrot, the greyhound Nero and deerhound Hector.[1]

Cats and dogs

During Victoria’s reign, dogs were by far the most popular animals, and Victoria herself had several canine pets during her monarchy.

Both the aristocracy and the newly wealthy middle class were eager to emulate the Royal Household and dogs were placed into the heart of a family with no strings attached, as opposed to having a function within the house. In addition, dogs were seen as a status symbol and there were were many sentimental stories and anecdotes about canine feats.

Every dog has its day

Dogs also became a fashion item.

Young lady with a King Charles spaniel Image: Library of Congress #LC-DIG-ggbain-06537

Any Victorian lady who aspired to be fashionable and show off their status would have their lapdog in tow and these dogs would accompany their mistresses everywhere. Lapdogs, as the name indicates, were small enough to sit in a lady’s lap and were the only type of dogs to be allowed in a parlour at visiting time. The poor dogs were often deprived of exercise, and sometimes even dressed in miniature gowns and bonnets to be caressed and tickled. Many veterinarians of the era were concerned that this was no way to treat a dog.

Photographs were costly at the time. However, many dog owners were photographed with their furry friends, confirmimg the high importance of their dogs in their lives.

The first modern dog show was held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1859. It was a low key event which focused on working country dogs. But the world of dog shows was to grow rapidly, focusing on all types of breeds and competitions began to be held throughout the country. Although Mr Cruft had always been involved in the dog trading business, it was in 1891 that the Cruft`s Dog Show as we know it today was born.

Dogs were now being bred purely for aesthetic reasons and these shows developed a public preference for pedigree dogs over mongrels although all types of dogs were included ; a reflection of Victorian hierarchy in society. . There were still dogs for every taste and budget, and these exhibitions contributed to dog ownership becoming widespread as people’s lot improved economically and the expense of a dog became more affordable.

Two small Maltese dogs and trophy cups. Image: Library of Congress #LC-USZ62-55845

Care for dogs

The RSPCA (Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals) was founded in 1824, the first animal welfare organisation in the world, and still active today. The NSPCC ( National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children ) was established in 1895. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that.

But back to the matter in hand, it was recognised that animals should be treated with care and kindness.

Dash with Princess Victoria, by Sir George Hayter, 1833

When Queen Victoria’s beloved dog Dash died in 1840, she had a marble image of the dog placed over his grave.

The first pet cemetary in Western Europe appeared in Hyde Park in 1881, where about 1,000 animas were buried. It was closed in the 1910’s and is no longer open to the public. The epitaphs on the gravestones reflected fidelity and obedience – both highly valued traits by the Victorians. The pet cemetary was controversial – at the time society was not too comfortable with the religious connotations of giving animals a Christian burial, also bearing in mind that a lot of people were still destined for a pauper’s grave.

Wild animals

The Victorian age was a time of travel, discovery and exploration. This meant there were opportunities in Victorian Britain to see exotic animals too. Regent’s Park Zoo opened in 1828 and there was another short-lived zoo, the Surrey Zoological Gardens, in today’s Southwark, which opened in 1832 to around 1856, housing the menagerie of Edward Cross.

This collection of animals included lions, tigers, a rhinoceros, giraffes, monkeys, elephants, camels, zebras, llamas and an aviary with exotic birds such as ostriches and pelicans. Queen Victoria and her family were also frequent visitors to the St. Regent’s Park Zoo which has survived until the present day – now known as London Zoo.

Group of Animals lately received at the Gardens of the Zoological Society, Regent’s Park. Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 6 July 1861. (Public Domain)

The Victorians may not have shared contemporary thinking on zoos and over-cosseted lapdogs, but they did set us firmly on the road to keeping house pets and enjoying their companionship for its own sake. Dogs and cats and whatever other pets you may have) were, are and will continue to be man’s best friend.

Categories
Wordpower

Where did the word okay come from?

Okay word font typography vector from Rawpixels

The word okay, or O.K. or ok or simply just ‘k is used in several languages apart from English and is said to be one of the most used words in the world.

Where did the word okay come from? There are several theories on when and where this word became part of our vocabulary. Get yourself comfortable and read on…..

Choctaw

The Choctaw language was used by Native Americans and is still in use today, although it is an endangered language with approx only 9,500 speakers in 2015, according to Wikipedia. It is mainly spoken in an American Indian territory in Oklahoma, known as the Choctaw Nation. Their language comes from the Muskogean family of languages (more about this in the next section).”It is so” is expressed in Choctaw as oke or okeh.

Greek

Would it surprise you to learn that Greek is also a Muskogean language? Muskogean is a type of proto language from which other languages are descended. And όλα καλά (óla kalá) is translated as “it is good“.

Scots

There were great numbers of Scottish and Scots-Irish immigrants into North America. There is a theory that the words och aye, meaning oh yes and pronounced oc eye, could have been the origin of our okay.

French

Another idea is that the word okay has its roots in the French speaking cotton growers of Louisiana calling “au quai” when the cotton was ready to be transported from the docks. In this context, au quai could be translated as everything is fine or good to go.

Or….

There are even more possibilities. Some people have claimed okay was descended from one Obadiah Kelly, who stamped his initials on documents for railway cargo. Or it came from Orrin Kendall biscuits in the Civil War. Talking of the Civil War, did the word okay come from an abbreviation that meant nobody was killed, in other words, 0 k ?

It has also been said is that it was invented by Martin Van Buren, whose nickname was Old Kinderhook, and who used the word ok in the presidential election of 1840, with the slogan “Vote for OK“. Sadly it wasn’t okay for Old Kinderhook as he failed to secure the presidency.

Or is okay a phrase from the past used by West Africans in slavery, to signify “everything’s okay“? Although if you were a human slave, then it’s highly probable everything was very much not okay.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Boston

Theories abound and you can pretty much well choose whichever one you like. But nowadays most experts tend to believe that the word okay was born in Boston, in the nineteenth century.

Up to the early 1960’s, there was quite a strong preference for the Choctaw origin of okay. However in 1963 and 64, a guy called Allen Walker Read investigated the source of the word.

What he found was there was a trend in the U.S. in the mid nineteenth century for acronyms along with deliberate, jokey misspellings – such as NG for no go, SP for small potatoes, OW for orl wright and you guessed it, all correct being spelt as orl korrekt…. otherwise OK.

This type of language was probably used in verbal language about ten years or so before it hit the press and written documents. It is now generally agreed that the first recorded instance of okay in writing was in 1839, when Charles Gordon Greene wrote in the Boston Morning Post:

The “Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,” is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have his “contribution box,” et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.

And Allen Read Walker discovered that there were further occurences of the word okay or o.k., sometimes without a definition, which implies that the population at large knew perfectly well what it meant.

The A-OK sign
Photo by cottonbro CGI on Pexels.com

A-Okay

In the 1960’s the expression A-Okay came into circulation. It was heard in the 50’s but became popular as it was used by NASA in astronaut missions and the moon landing in the 60’s. Apparently it came about as the sound of A was easier to understand through the static than an O sound.

So there you have it, the various stories behind a highly popular word. Do you know any more? If you do, post them in the comments, okay ?

Categories
English history

Big Ben !

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

British icon

Did you know that the name Big Ben, strictly speaking, only designates the bell that strikes the hour from inside the tower? The tower itself was named the Clock Tower, and then renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee. That said, most of us refer to the whole structure as Big Ben, probably because it trips off the tongue much more easily.

How old is Big Ben ?

The Palace of Westminster (a.k.a The Houses of Parliament) was badly damaged by a fire in 1834. The following year a Royal Commission was established to find an architect who could design a new palace in line with the surviving buildings of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall. Yes, you may remember that a time existed when projects were not just given to government cronies……

Anyway, the committee appointed a guy called Charles Barry and his collaborator, Augustus Pugin. Barry had included a clock tower in his plans, but it did not yet resemble the Big Ben we know and love today. Augustus Pugin was a Gothic revivalist and already had plans to redesign Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire, including a 100 foot tower.

Scarisbrick Hall. Remodelled by A.W. N. Pugin. c. 1837-45; altered by Edward Pugin, 1860 onwards. Near Southport, Lancashire. Photo by Rob Scarisbrick.

Pugin’s influence

Although Charles Barry was the chief architect, it was Augustin Pugin who was mainly responsible for the design of the clock tower in London. Wikipedia quotes Pugin as saying “”I never worked so hard in my life [as] for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful & I am the whole machinery of the clock.”[ 

Mr Barry, however, did not deign to give any credit to Augustus for his undoubted contribution to both Big Ben and the interior design of The Houses of Parliament. Pugin’s son, Edward, (who incidentally would carry out his father’s project for Scarisbrick Hall) issued a statement in 1867 after both men had died , affirming that the “true” architect had in fact been his father, and not Charles Barry.

Augustus had re-designed the clock tower to be taller and more imposing, dominating the Parliamentary skyline. He added the symbols of the four nations of the British Isles – the rose, the leek, the thistle and the shamrock, as well as the portcullis which is the symbol of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. seen below.

Sadly, Augustus died at the age of 40, and never saw the clock tower completed.

https://www.parliament.uk/contentassets/beacbf5d8ec14cdfa75c28d28cd8f463/dsc_4938_jt-min.jpg Public domain Wikipedia Commons

Did you know…?

Big Ben is known to be an extremely accurate clock and its mechanisms have been copied in many high tower clocks. It is reliable to within a few seconds a week.

Since 1859, the pendulum was controlled by a pile of pre-decimal penny coins which were added or removed as necessary to keep time-keeping punctual. In 2009 some of the pennies were replaced by 5 pound coins, specially produced for the London Olympics in 2012, and depicting, you guessed it, Big Ben.

Big Ben has stopped at various times due to heavy snow, including at New Year of 1962/3 when the New Year was chimed in nine minutes late.

The clock faces were not illuminated during some periods of World War I and the whole of World War II in order not to guide German bomber pilots. A German bomber did actually damage two of the clock dials in 1941.

Big Ben leans around 0.26 degrees to the north-west, but experts say this will not be a problem for thousands of years. ( 0.26 degrees is around one sixteenth of the tilt of the Tower of Pisa. )

A flock of starlings decided to sit on a clock hand in 1949, making it slow down by four and a half minutes. I would make a joke about a bird on the hand, but then again, maybe not…

In 2005 one of Big Ben’s clock faces stopped for a short period of time, possibly due to the high temperatures of 31.5 degrees C ( 90 degrees F). Global warming is real, people.

The London Olympics in 2012 were celebrated Big Ben chiming 30 times – it was the 30th Olympìc event.

Big Ben is currently undergoing a long period of maintenance which began in 2017 and is scheduled to finish in March 2022, athough this date currently appears to be in question. The original designs for the clock face have been sourced and the details on the clock face will be repainted to their orginal Prussian blue, replacing the black that we have always seen before, which was actually used to disguise pollution. The heraldic shields of each nation will be restored to their original colours, along with the roof and stonework.

A vindication of Augustus Pugin? I like to think so.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a6/Big_Ben_Clock_Face.jpg/1024px-Big_Ben_Clock_Face.jpg

Categories
English life

A ploughman’s lunch

Photo by Glammmur, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The ploughman’s lunch, shown above, has been around for hundreds of years in England. It typically consists of crusty bread and a couple of hunks of cheese and a variety of items may or may not be added : pickles, chutneys, pies, salad, sliced meat, hard-boiled eggs or even an apple or grapes. It is often presented on a wooden platter, as in the photo above.

Probably no two ploughman’s lunches are ever quite exactly the same. And of course, it needs to be washed down with an ice-cold beer or cider.

Origins

Bread, cheese and beer have existed in England since its beginning, and the phrase “a ploughman’s lunch” was first recorded around the end of the 14th century in a medieval poem called Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede. It is not difficult to imagine that these three items would be easy to pack for a farm labourer who needed an economical but hearty packed lunch after a morning working in the fields. Cheese was a good source of protein in this midday sustenance.

This type of cold, easily prepared meal has also been on offer in inns or other establishments for centuries. At times it may have been all they had to offer, especially throughout rationing at the time of the second world war, and afterwards. But it remained a popular combination.

Bread and cheese
Photo by NastyaSensei on Pexels.com

Ploughman’s lunch hits the big time

There is some argument over whether “a ploughman’s lunch” always referred to the bread and cheese combo, or if it meant whatever the ploughman had in his lunch box for his midday meal that particular day.

But by the 1950’s it definitely had the meaning of the meal pictured above. The Cheese Board began promoting the sale of cheese when rationing ended and in the 60’s and 70’s the Milk Marketing Board began a campaign to promote the ploughman’s lunch itself. It was also a dream for caterers as the ingredients were flexible and the meal was so easy and quick to prepare. So understandably, it was always on the menu for the pubgrub of this period, and maybe brought with it the nostalgia of a less complicated, rural England.

New versions

A modern take on ploughman’s lunch
With thanks to https://communitykitchenatl.com/recipe/ploughmans-platter/

Nowadays chefs and gastropubs have added their own twists to the ploughman – and it has become a lunch that can stand up to most occasions. Scotch eggs, olives, paté, fancy meats and even fish can all adorn a contemporary ploughman’s lunch – but the cheese, unlike the substantial slices of bread, remains a staple ingredient, whatever variety it may be.

A relatively simple, timeless dish. Arrange the foodstuffs of your choice on a plate or platter or in a tray or a bowl. And off you go. Bon appetit!

Categories
The Victorians

How safe were Victorian homes?

Victorian style room, early 1900’s – source wikipedia/commons (family member of JGKlein)

The Victorian era

The Victorian period ushered in a period of great change and upheaval. The Industrial Revolution meant there was a great population shift to cities, and it was a time of great innovation and prosperity for those who had opportunities.

Nonetheless, it hardly needs to be said that the poor were never far from danger – malnutriton, filthy surroundings, and dangerous jobs just for a start. But it is also fair to say that some level of danger hovered in several areas of life, not just for the poor (who undoubtedly suffered the most), but for all members of society. These dangers also contributed to the high level of infant mortality during this period.

Dangerous additives

It’s difficult to imagine a kitchen without all our contemporary domestic appliances – but that’s exactly what a Victorian kitchen was like. Fridges would not be in common use for the wealthy until the following Edwardian era, and despite the Victorian claim of prizing cleanliness, there were no health and safety regulations or standards. As you might imagine, food poisoning was quite common, and was usually referred to as a bilious attack.

A substance known as boracic acid, which today is a component of insectides, was used by Victorian milk sellers to “purify” milk that had gone off, removing the sour taste and smell. As you may well imagine, consuming boracic acid is not the best of ideas. Not only can it cause vomiting and diarrhoea, but even worse, it masked the presence of bovine tuberculosis, an infectious disease that thrived in unpasteurised milk – remember mass produced pasteurised milk was still in the future – and this caused deformity and death. The estimation of deaths of Victorian children from this disease stands at approximately half a million.

Health and safety standards were sadly lacking in Victorian times.
Photo by Los Muertos Crew on Pexels.com

Another food staple, bread, was also adulterated with alum, an aluminium based compund, used today in detergent. It’s already not sounding like a great idea, is it ? Alum was a bulking agent used to make bread whiter and heavier, and therefore more appealing. However, it led to health deficiencies and more importantly, caused bowel issues such as constipation or diarrhoea, the latter frequently fatal for children.

Feeding bottles

A boy with a Victorian feeding bottle.
Source http://www.babybottle-museum.co.uk/murder-bottles/

Feeding bottles for young children have been around for thousands of years, made from animal horns or pewter or even leather. The Victorian version was made of glass or earthenware, with a rubber tube inside fitted with a teat. The bottles were cleverly marketed with names such as “Little Cherub” or “Princess” and were a great hit with mothers.

Nevertheless, the bottle was highly dangerous. The tubing was difficult to clean and the general thinking was that it only needed cleaning once in a while. The tube, in conjunction with warm milk, created a very effective place to breed bacteria. Doctors condemned the feeding bottles, which began to be known as killers or murder bottles in medical circles, but sadly, many women were unaware of this and still bought them. Little wonder that infant mortality was so high.

Wallpaper

A modern reproduction of Victorian wallpaper https://cdn.wallpapersafari.com/51/56/dQ87cG.jpg

Much as it may surprise us today, the Victorians were happy for arsenic to be used in small doses in their medicine, their clothing, their face powder, their wallpaper and even their food…..and poisonous stuffs such as caustic soda or carbolic acid were often sold in the same packaging as other harmless foodstuffs, paving the way for fatal errors.

But back to wallpaper. Home design having recently become a thing for the Victorian middle classes, one of the most popular colours to be used in the home was Scheele’s Green (named after Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who invented green arsenic pigment in 1775.) You can guess where this is heading, can’t you?

And indeed, people were affected by the arsenic in the green dye that flaked off the wallpaper. Heat and/or moisture could provoke a toxic atmosphere making the whole family ill, or worse. Around the 1860’s doctors began to realise that these so-called mystery illnesses were due to the toxic fumes from the arsenic in wallpaper, although health experts were ridiculed for suggesting such a thing, not least by the companies who actually manufactured wallpaper. Eventually the use of arsenic began to be regulated by the government around the 1880’s.

The use of lead

Victorian toy blocks
https://cdn.imgbin.com/11/22/6/imgbin-victorian-era-wood-block-toy-block-wood-E2EeRdp8HzQzBs9dX4AWqF1ir.jpg

Lead piping was used to transport water so drinking water could be tainted by lead it had picked up from the piping. As if that wasn’t enough, lead was used in paint to stop it from flaking. Furniture, cots and children’s toys would all be painted using this deadly substance. We all know young children tend to put their toys in their mouths, and in this way, they could poison themselves simply by playing.

Gas lights

Abstract smoke background – image by Brigitte, free Pixabay photos

If you had only ever known light sourced from fire and candles, the introduction of gas lights during the Victorian era must have been unbelievable. Being able to control the number of hours of light in a day was a whole new ball game. The Victorian passion for ornate decoration meant that a huge range of stunning lamps were manufactured, and many of these have survived to date.

But the drawbacks existed. There were two types of gas available – gas from coal which was highly flammable and which ran the risk of intoxication from carbon monoxide fumes. Natural gas could give off large flames, which was extremely hazardous next to the flowing drapes and curtains in favour at the time. Furthermore, due to the lack of regulations, workmanship could be shoddy with pipes fracturing, flames. fires and explosions. The impure gas could give off sulphuric acid, not only causing foul smells but also causing suffocation.

Most of these dangers within the home were present for all the members of the family, but it was children who suffered the most. Infant mortality was extremely high in Victorian England, reaching as much as 33% in some areas of London in 1849. Not only was this due to the toxic quality of the air in industrialised areas. lack of medical knowledge and health and safety regulations, but also the hidden dangers within the home itself.

The pandemic may have taught us that we can’t take life for granted- still, how lucky we are today to live in an age with both safety regulations and greater medical knowledge.

Categories
Wordpower

It’s a dog’s life

Photo by Bruno Cervera on Pexels.com

In my last post, we looked at expressions that refer to our feline friends – see https://english-stuff.com/2021/07/18/cats/ But today it’s time to focus on our other four-legged friends, in other words, dogs.

The dog-human connection has been around for a long time. Initially dogs hunted food for humans, and in return they received food and shelter. When people began to move into cities in the Victorian age, there was less of a demand for working dogs. However, dogs have remained in our households with the status of family members, due to the intense emotional connection between dog owners and their pets. Man’s best friend, indeed.

Dogs in idiomatic expressions

“All bark and no bite “

You know those dogs that wouldn’t harm a flea but they bark excitedly when they see something is going on? That’s exactly the type of dog that inspired this expression.

When we use this phrase to refer to humans, we mean they may sound threatening, but in fact they are pretty harmless. Their so-called aggression is only an act, as they are not actually going to do you any harm at all.

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

“Puppy love”

Adorable little pups aren’t they ? But as they get older, they will grow into independent adult dogs and their relationship will not be quite as close as the intense bond they feel for each other now.

We use this idiom to refer to adolescent couples who are infatuated with each other, and whose feelings will generally cool after a while.

” You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”

This is considered to be one of the oldest idioms in the English language, first documented in 1523 in John Fitzherbert’s Book of Husbandry, where it used literally to describe the behaviour of an aged dog.

Nowadays this is used to describe a situation where an older person is unwilling or unable to learn new skills, or to change their longstanding habits.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

“Every dog has its day “

This is another idiom that has been around for thousands of years, albeit with slightly different wordings. Queen Elizabeth I wrote it in a letter, Shakespeare used it in Hamlet, and Erasmus traced the idea back to a Macedonian proverb in 406B.C. when Euripedes was attacked and killed by dogs.

It means that everyone will get their chance, no matter how lowly their status in life.

“Gone to the dogs”

If something has gone to the dogs, then it is in a very bad way. One theory is that any food that had rotted or gone off was given to the dogs, as it was no longer fit for human consumption, giving rise to our idiom.

Another variation on this is “gone to pot“, also still used today, and with the same meaning, not in the best of situations. The Phrase Finder suggests that this expression came about because anything that was placed in a pot to be cooked was never going to come back.

Photo by Christian Domingues on Pexels.com

“Let sleeping dogs lie”

This one comes from the idea that watchdogs can behave aggressively and unpredictably if they are suddenly woken from a deep sleep (and a lot of humans too, I dare say). This idea has been with us since at least medieval times – in 1380 Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “”It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake.

The idea has morphed into ” Don’t mess around with something if it isn’t necessary” or ” If it ain’t broken, then don’t fix it .”

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

“The tail is wagging the dog”

Let’s finish with an expression that orginated in the States, but is used and understood on both sides of the Atlantic. Let’s not bark up the wrong tree here – a dog communicates by wagging its tail, not the tail controlling the dog, right ?

Seen in print since the late 1800’s, this idiom means that a more powerful person or organisation is being controlled by someone or something less important.

As dogs are part of our lives, they are inevitably part of our language.

Bye all. I’m off to see a man about a dog.