Foxgloves: Beauty and Danger!

Foxgloves are the epitome of not only the cottage garden but also our coastal walks, woodland edges and many more spots in between. It is almost August as I write and the time for this year’s foxgloves is edging towards the moment when the last seeds have been shed and the plants wilt. June is the month when these elegant plants are at their best wherever you are in Norfolk or indeed, anywhere else in most parts of the UK. Beautiful to the eye, but poisonous to the unwary – yet life-saving when used for good. Foxgloves have a long-held and fascinating place in our natural history.

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“This has been a good year for the foxgloves, which started their bloom early in June and are still brightening the woods and hills”…… Quote and Photo by Terri Windling.

Origins:
There have been many suggestions for the derivation of the name “foxglove” for Folklorists have long been divided on where the common name for Digitalis Purpurea comes from. It is, in fact, an ancient name that goes back to at least the time of Edward III (1327-1377). Probably, the prefix ‘fox‘ derived from the “folks”, who to our 14th century ancestors were the fairies; to explicitly speak of them as such was believed to get their attention and cause them to be mischievous! To others, the plant is known as “fox fingers,” its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. There again, the word “glove” may have come from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, or ‘gliew’, being a ring of bells or the name for a musical instrument consisting of many small bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; their sound being a spell of protection against hunters and hounds. Putting the two words together gives us “Fairy Bells”.

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Illustration is from ‘The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’ by Edith Holden (1871-1920),
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The “Foxglove Fairy” by Cicely Mary Barker (1875-1973),

Whilst the name ‘Foxglove’ is the English common name we all recognise and love the plant by, there have been, and are, a whole host of alternative common names used throughout the UK which reflect the association with fairies; names such as: Fairy Caps, Fairy Gloves, Fairy Thimbles, Fairy Herb, Fairy Bells, Fairy-fingers, Goblin Gloves, Fairy Petticoats, Fairy Weed. Another name, ‘Dead Man’s Bells’ serves to warn of the plant’s poisonous disposition. On the other hand, the names Flopdock, Floppydock, Flop-a-Dock, Flapdock, Popdock, Flop-poppy, Flop-top, Cowflop, Gooseflops, Rabbit’s Flowers or Bunny Rabbits all allude to the foxglove’s large soft downy leaves, on a plant that thrives in acidic soils in a wide range of habitats. In the first-year of the Foxglove’s cycle, large downy basal leaves are produced, followed in the second year by impressive flowery spikes that extend to any height between about 3 to 6 feet tall. The plants die once they have seeded, but if the flowers are picked before they go to seed, the basal leaves will last another year and they will attempt to seed again. Foxglove flowers open first at the base of the stem and then graduates upwards followed by the appearance and development of the seed-heads below. Three basic colours self-seed – white, pink and purple. Colours generally come true to the parent plant where plants are isolated, but they cross-pollinate freely and many large groups of foxgloves include all three shades.

 

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“Girl With Foxgloves” by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904),

Medicinal Uses:
Foxglove is the source of digitalis, a plant that is beautiful on the outside but toxic at its heart with all parts of the plant poisonous. It derives from several cardiac glycosides produced by the plant, and widely used as a heart medication. Basically, and without being too technical, it regulates the heartbeat. However, The biochemistry website “Molecule of the Month” puts it this way:

“Digitalis is an example of a cardio-active or cardiotonic drug, in other words a steroid which has the ability to exert a specific and powerful action on the cardiac muscle in animals, and has been used in the treatment of heart conditions ever since its discovery in 1775.”

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“Foxglove” by botanical artist Christie Newman

The use of Digitalis purpurea extract containing cardiac glycosides for the treatment of heart conditions was first described in English language medical literature by William Withering, in 1785. It is said that this ‘proper’ English doctor only made this discovery after he was forced to prowl the forgotten byways of Shropshire and bargain with a gypsy sorceress to find out which compound had healed a patient with a fatal heart problem.

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“Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence”……… Quote and Photo by Terri Windling.

It has also been said that with careful usage and expert pharmaceutical guidance, doctors have successfully used digitalis and saved thousands of lives, but it is at the same time a dangerously toxic plant which, if used wrongly, can cause heart palpitations, delirium, hallucinations, vomiting and possibly death. This powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times and botanist and writer, Bobby J. Ward, has written of early foxglove use in his excellent book ‘A Contemplation Upon Flowers’:

“An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to the meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful

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A page from Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist William Curtis (1746-1799),

maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.

“After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon’s wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejewelled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians.”

Traditional Folk Medicine:
According the Theresa Green: Modern-day herbalists have largely abandoned the use of digitalis because of its narrow therapeutic index and the difficulty of determining the amount of active drug in herbal preparations. Once the usefulness of digitalis in regulating the human pulse was understood, it was employed for a variety of purposes, including the treatment of epilepsy and other seizure disorders, which are now considered to be inappropriate treatments.

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Foxgloves” by Kelly Louise Judd,

The Doctrine of Signatures, dating from the time of Dioscorides and Galen, states that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts. Foxglove flowers, for instance, were supposed to look like an animal’s open mouth; within the doctrine of signatures this meant it must have some medicinal value in treatment of injuries of the mouth and throat. The speckles in the mouth of the flower were, according to the Doctrine symbolic of inflammation of the throat. Another array of folk-names reflects foxglove’s association with the mouth: Throatwort, Rabbit’s Mouth, Bunny Mouths, Tiger’s Mouth, Duck’s Mouth, Gap-Mouth, & Dragon’s Mouth. Another, less charming name of Scabbit Dock came about as in Culpepper’s day Foxglove was used in an ointment or shampoo for treating impetigo or “scabby head”.

Mythology and legends:
One story has it that fairies would hide themselves inside the flowers. Mischievous children, wanting to hear fairy thunder, would hold one of the flower bell then strike the other end on their hand. The poor fairy, rightly upset and probably rather cross, would make a snapping sound, a clap of fairy thunder, while she escaped from her retreat.

Another legend, believed to be Welsh – but certainly from the West Country, explains why foxgloves bend and sway so gracefully, even when there is no wind. We are told that this has nothing to do with the elements but that, as the flower is sacred to the fairies, it has the power of recognising them, and indeed all spiritual beings, and that it bows in deference to them as they pass by. Should you therefore find yourself amongst swaying Foxgloves, it is quite possible that you have Fairies for company – and this is not the end of the possibilities! In the opinion of Terri Windling: fairies can also be attracted into your domestic garden – by planting foxgloves there. Terri also believes that dew collected from the foxglove blossom can used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic.

They say that in the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies’ cradles for protection from Foxglove bewitchment, while in Shropshire they were put in children’s shoes for the same reason; not forgetting that the leaves were considered as a cure for Scarlet Fever. There again, picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and pixies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance! In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars.

The plant has been particularly associated with midwifery and women’s magic ever since. This association with midwifery probably also gave rise to the names Granny’s Gloves or Granny’s Bonnets, and Witch’s or Witches’ Gloves. So called Witches and Grannies, or at least Midwives and other herbal practitioners, had many uses for the foxglove plant. Association does not stop there; there is a connection with “white witches” (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks.  In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary, and. in the earliest recordings of the ‘Language of Flowers’, foxgloves symbolised riddles, conundrums, and secrets. However, we are told that by the time the Victorian era came along, they had been devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.

Foxgloves in English Literature:
Theresa Green states that at least two great poets, Wordsworth and Tennyson, were moved to immortalise the foxglove in words; the former clearly aware of the deadly qualities of the plant. In ‘The Borderers’, a tragedy, a woman describes a dream she had:

“My poor Babe
Was crying, as I thought, crying for bread
When I had none to give him; whereupon,
I put a slip of foxglove in his hand,
Which pleased him so, that he was hushed at once:

When, into one of those same spotted bells
A bee came darting, which the Child with joy
Imprisoned there, & held it to his ear,
And suddenly grew black, as he would die.”

Also by William Wordsworth (from ‘The Prelude’)

Through quaint obliquities I might pursue
These cravings; when the foxglove, one by one
Upwards through every stage of the tall stem
Had shed beside the public way its bells…..

Tennyson named the flower in the poem ‘In Memoriam’ –

” ………Bring orchis, bring the foxglove spire…”

and also, in ‘The Two Voices’ –

”  ….The foxglove cluster dappled bells …”

THE END

Sources:
https://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2015/07/foxgloves.html
https://theresagreen.me/2012/06/20/foxglove-fairytales-myths-medicine/
https://ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/foxgloves/

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An Alphabet of Flowers!

It was Saturday, the 6th July 2019; a day which turned wet. It should have been a day when we walked beside the river Bure near Wroxham; instead, we paid a visit to St Mary’s Church. We did so because It was holding its ‘Alphabet of Flowers Festival’, and a degree of extra support, particularly from ones who do not attend such places regularly, would not go amiss. It was well worth it.

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St Mary’s Church, Wroxham, Norfolk, UK. Photo: David Ross.

For those who do not know St Mary’s Church, it stands on the southern bank of the River Bure, and has been there for at least 900 years – possibly more! Present-day visitors, those with water flowing beneath the keel, would hardly see it as they proceed up river; but should they tie up at Caen Meadow and exit through the meadow’s gates, turning left and walking east for two, or maybe three, hundred yards along Church Lane, they would discover this little gem of a church. So too would those approaching from the opposite direction; those who managed to find their way over the stone railway bridge and away from the sometimes-impossible traffic grid-locked A1151 which cuts Wroxham in two. But any time other than this weekend would mean that they would miss the event that we so much enjoyed!

This is all rather unfortunate, so too is the fact that St Mary’s really does stand in a secluded spot, away from the hustle and bustle that surrounds the River Bure, the boatyards that line the riverside and the small housing estate that faces the church gates. Maybe, for these reasons, or even a lack of real effort on the part of visitors, most never seem to make their way there – this weekend or, indeed any other time. All this is a real shame, for the St Mary’s Church is a wonderful historic building, full of interest despite being set in a quiet and almost a secluded spot.

The present church made its appearance in the 12th century, though much of the building is in the 15th century Perpendicular style; however, you can still see 12th-century stonework in the nave. The south aisle was apparently rebuilt in brick in the 19th century, but the striking west tower is 15th century, with beautifully tracery sound holes and flushwork panels on the parapets. Most of the windows are also 15th century, though most were restored in the Victorian period.

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The Norman South Doorway. Photo: David Ross.

The most interesting historic feature is the magnificent south doorway, a gem of Norman architecture and carving. It dates from the 11th Century and is carved in what Simon Knott described as “a style more typical of Herefordshire”. There are monsters carved into the columns along with what are known as a ‘Sheila na Gigs’ – representations of a lady in an immodest pose. It was, again, Simon Knott who once asked the question: “What’s that doing in a church porch?…….. to which his best guess was that it was a reminder that “man born of woman has but a short time to live!  [for] All of us are mortal and by coming into church and becoming one of the baptized one may escape both the foul fiends and death!”. The doorway holds a 15th-century oak door with an even earlier 13th-century iron latch plate. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner once called the doorway ‘barbaric and glorious’. He was right.

Within the body of the church are 16th-century arcades and the remains of the medieval rood loft stair. The Victorians were also enlightened enough to employ the great William Wailes, England’s most accomplished and visionary stained-glass manufacturer of the time, to refurbish the church windows; but the parish destroyed one of them in the 1960s. The large east window dates from the Victorian restoration of 1851. Inside, the church boasts some wonderful monuments, mainly from the Victorian period, but included are some 18th century memorials. Among these are those relating to John Wace (d.1795) and Daniel Collyer (d. 1774). It is said that the church also has one great treasure, that of a medieval alabaster relief of the Holy Family. This must have been acquired from somewhere else, maybe by an enthusiastic 19th century Rector who took a fancy to it. Unfortunately, it is one treasure that is locked away in the vestry, so no one sees it.

The most impressive monument, however, is the Trafford Mausoleum outside in the churchyard which stands to the north-west of the tower and is almost large enough to be a church in its own right. It was designed by Anthony Salvin in 1827 for the Trafford family of Wroxham Hall (now vanished). Salvin designed the mausoleum on Early English style, beloved of Victorian Gothic architects, and he exhibited the mausoleum plans at the Royal Academy in London in 1830. The plans were enthusiastically reviewed in Gentleman’s Magazine, which called the mausoleum a ‘pleasing and exquisite miniature chapel’. Salvin’s design was widely copied and inspired the design of many later mausolea throughout the 19th century. He made a serious attempt to emulate 13th-century Gothic design, with ornately carved pinnacles, buttresses, plate tracery, and blind arcading along the building exterior.

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The Trafford Mausoleum. Photo: David Ross.

The mausoleum was built by Margaret Trafford as a memorial to her husband Sigismund Trafford Southwell, High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1818 who died in 1827. Sigismund Trafford fought at the Battle of Waterloo, and his letters home are an invaluable historical resource. It was Margaret Trafford who was granted permission to build a Roman Catholic burial vault and mausoleum in St Mary’s churchyard and commissioned Anthony Salvin, then an aspiring young architect, to design the building. The mausoleum, which also houses later generations of the family, is usually closed to the public, but has been known to open for annual Heritage Open Days events in September.

As a complete aside to any history of St Mary’s and, of course, the current flower festival – the Trafford family once owned Trafford Park in Manchester, the home of Manchester United’s Old Trafford Football Stadium and the Old Trafford cricket ground, used by the Lancashire County Cricket Club and venue for international test matches.

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Entrance to the flower festival. Photo: Haydn Brown.

As for the St Mary’s Alphabet of Flowers, we only have memories and the photographs for, hopefully, others to enjoy. Each followed in order through the alphabet from ‘Arch’ through to the last exhibit titled ‘Zen’.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.wroxhambenefice.org/index.html
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/wroxham/wroxham.htm
https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/norfolk/churches/wroxham-st-mary.htm
Photos: David Ross, Peter Stephens, Haydn Brown, St Mary’s Church.

The Delights of Domestic Lighting!

The history of domestic lighting has been governed by economics, but also by snobbery and tradition, and occasionally by a dangerous desire for novelty. So wrote Lucy Worsley.

If, for one moment, you think the subject of domestic lighting is dull then just think about life without artificial light; and remember, somewhere in all that was a basic need, which has remained ever since artificial light was first discovered – snobbery and novelty came later. Before then, changes and improvements to the differing forms of lighting were necessary, but this was a gradual process, evolving over many centuries. It was not until the late 19th century when one of the biggest changes in domestic life emerged – the development of, and from, electricity; a ‘miracle’ that happened from the moment its power was switched on.

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Photo: Night in the early 18th century, as painted by William Hogarth. Photograph: Bridgeman Art Library.

Rushlights/Rush-Candles:
For starters – take rushlights. For centuries past, they were the poor person’s light-source of choice. They were made by soaking the dried pith of the rush plant in fat or grease, building up the layers so as to create a rather scrawny candle. For several centuries rushlights were a common source of artificial light for poor people throughout the British Isles. They were extremely inexpensive to make, as pointed out by English essayist William Cobbett who once wrote:

“This rushlight cost almost nothing to produce and was believed to give a better light than some poorly dipped candles.”

These long, gently-curving lights were balanced in special holders, and to double the illumination, both top and bottom would be ignited – ‘burning the candle at both ends’ as we still say! One of the earliest printed descriptions of rushlights was written by English antiquary John Aubrey in 1673; then in 1789, Rev. Gilbert White gave a detailed description of rushlight making in ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne’.

*The boat-shaped vessel (above), used to hold the fat etc. for coating rushlights, was sometimes called a ‘grissit’.

It was, in fact, well into the third or fourth decade of the 19th century that many labouring families could afford nothing better than rushlights; made at home and, apart from fire-light, had been the one means of lighting for all the preceding generations. In the summer, the common rushes were collected by women and children and peeled to leave all but a narrow strip, which was left to strengthen the pith; these were hung up in bunches to dry. Fat of any kind was collected, though fat from salted meat was avoided if at all possible. It was melted in boat-shaped grease-pans that stood on their three short legs in the hot ashes in front of the fire. They were of cast-iron made for the purpose. The bunches, each of about a dozen peeled rushes, were drawn through the grease and then put aside to dry:

“You peels away the rind from the peth, leaving only a little strip of rind. And when the rushes is dry you dips ’em through the grease, keeping ’em well under. And my mother, she always laid hers to dry in a bit of hollow bark. Mutton fat’s the best; it dries hardest.”

*These two delightful images of making rush candles at home, showing the rushes being peeled and soaked in salt-free melted lard. Photos: By Geoff Charles 1909-2002. Copyright: National Library of Wales.

Rushlight holders were mostly of the same pattern, particularly as to the way the jaws held the rush; the chief variation being in the case of the later spring holders – in these, the jaws were horizontal; although, the usual and older patterns had the jaws upright, their only difference being in the shape and treatment of the free end of the movable jaw and the shape of the wooden block. The counter-balance weight was formed either into a ‘knob’ or a ‘curl’. Occasionally, it had the shape of a candle-socket and later, when tallow dipped candles came into use, the counterbalance was made into an actual candle-socket. There were several kinds of tall rushlight holders to stand on the floor, both of wood and iron. The iron ones nearly always had a candle socket in addition, indicating a later date, and the same kind of spring arrangement to ‘allow of the light being adjusted to the right height. Unless all of iron they nearly always had the cross-shaped block for a foot.

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These holders were sometimes called ‘a sconce’. It was three and a half, or four foot high and stood on the floor. When the rushlight was burning, it had to be ‘snuffed’ now and again with an iron scissors to make it burn brighter. Photo: Public Domain.
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Table Holders

Apart from the effort of actually making rushlights, which was a greasy job, many would say that the work of servicing the lighting, thereafter, was not suited to the fingers of the mother at her needlework. ‘Mend the light,’ or ‘mend the rush‘ was the signal for one of the children to put up a new length. A rushlight, fifteen inches long, would burn for about half-an-hour. Then, two crossed pins would extinguish a rushlight and often, when cottagers were going to bed, they would lay a lighted rushlight on the edge of an oak chest or chest of drawers, leaving an inch over the edge. It would burn up to the oak and then go out. The edges of old furniture were often found to be burnt into shallow grooves from this practice.

Rush-candles, on the other hand, should not be confused with rushlight. A rush-candle is an ordinary candle (a block or cylinder of tallow or wax) that uses a piece of rush as a wick. Rushlights, by contrast, are simply wicks which were not separate from the fuel. As for the expression ‘the game’s not worth the candle’; this implies that lighting a candle felt like burning money itself. Then there was the twenty minutes, a familiar unit of time, for which one rushlight lasted; this often needed to be exploited, like the housewife who might have invited village neighbours over to share a rushlight for an interval of gossip, or hurried knitting.

Candles:
Although candles are one of the oldest light sources, they have not changed fundamentally throughout history. Every candle is basically a mass of wax or some other fuel through which is embedded a wick which, when lit, produces light – Simple! They are still used for illumination, although sometimes in the past were used as a means of getting a degree of heating. Early nomadic tribes were first to make candles in Europe and these were made from tallow or animal fat because olive oil became almost non-existent when the Roman Empire fell. Thus, candles made from tallow were to spread across Europe and into Britain.

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Beeswax Candle.
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George II Candlesticks.

It was like this until the 18th century when whaling began. It was found that spermaceti, crystallized oil of sperm whale, could replace tallow. It produced brighter light and was available in great quantities and did not produce a bad smell – unlike tallow. After that, some other materials were found that did not involve the hunting of whales – like colza oil which was derived from turnip and oil made from rapeseed that also gave smokeless light. In the 1850s, James Young refined paraffin wax by distilling coal. Paraffin wax is white wax that burns clearly, did not have bad odour and was cheap so it could be produced in great quantities. Because of that, it became common commodity in households.

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The Midnight Hour. Night street scene in which a man steals the candle from the lantern of the sleeping night watchman in his sentry box. Two lovers embrace from a window, which the man reaches with a ladder. And two men break into a silversmith’s shop. Photo: Museum of London.

However, it was only the rich who could afford the profusion of beeswax candles. In large households, a daily ration of candles was often included in employment conditions, and the fate of candle-ends was hotly disputed: they were the preserve of senior servants, who would sell them to supplement their wages. Yet there was another, cheaper alternative.  The tallow candle was made from animal fat, ideally sheep or cow, because ‘that of hogs …… gives an ill smell, and a thick black smoke’.  The art of creating the longest-lasting blend was very valuable, and in 1390 tallow chandlery was listed among the foremost crafts of London.  Tallow candles had a horrible brown colour and made a dreadful meaty stink.  Despite this, desperate people would eat them in times of famine for the calories they contained.

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Tallow Chandlers’ Hall, Dowgate Hill, London.

Apart from the unpleasant smell, the great drawback to tallow candles was the need to snuff.  Their wicks had to be trimmed every few minutes or they smoked.  And, in an age of candles, fire-light and timber-framed houses, accidents were common.  Once in seventeenth-century London a servant named Obadiah illicitly took a candle up to his bedchamber.  There it fell over and burnt ‘half a yard of the sheet’.  But the quick-thinking Obadiah woke a fellow servant, and together they ‘pissed out the fire as well as they could’.

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The Hall of Mirrors at Versaille. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Interiors of the rich, lit by candle-light, were designed to magnify the limited light available.  The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was the first room in history to be illuminated to something approaching the light-levels we’d find safe and pleasant today.  Its ubiquitous glass reflected candle-light so effectively that the French court began for the first time to hold regular evening parties. In prosperous Georgian drawing rooms, there was likewise silver or sparkle everywhere.  The gold rims of plates, the silver of keyholes, even the metallic embroidery on waistcoats: all were intended to aid the eye and maximise candlelight.  In fact, a lady’s silver dress had the effect of making its wearer gleam.

Oil Lamps:
Early Light (Oil Lamp)2The light, bright colours of candle-lit Georgian interiors would be replaced by rich, dark hues in the Victorian age. These Deeper tones helped hide the soot produced by oil lamps, which began to replace candles in the later eighteenth century.  ‘I have seen houses almost filled with the smoke from lamps, and the stench of the oil’, one footman recollected.  In grand houses, lamps required a new room for the cleaning of their glass shades.  The Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle had a trifling 400 for his hard-working servants to polish.

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An Argand oil lamp illustrated in the 1822 portrait of James Peale by his brother Charles Wilson Peale. In this design the reservoir for the thick colza oil supplies one light only and is urn-shaped. The shade is probably silk (Detroit Institute of Arts, USA/Bridgeman Art Library

Gas:
Yet the oil lamp would soon be superseded by gas, and if we are looking for someone to blame for the substance, it may as well be William Murdoch. We know that the flammability of coal gas had long been established and in 1735, Dr John Clayton of Wigan had entertained the members of the Royal Society in London by telling them of how he had burned a few pieces coal, released its “spirit”, and captured it in animal bladders; then, to the great amusement of his friends, set it alight. However, it was Murdoch who, in Britain at least, pioneered the practical use of this party trick for the purposes of lighting. As an early steam buff, he worked out how to produce and store coal gas so that, by 1792, he was able to light his house in Redruth, Cornwall. Darkness – our primordial dread – had lost its dominion with the emergence of gas lighting.

Gas made its debut in London when an entrepreneur, named Frederick Windsor, organised a public demonstration of the new lighting for George III’s birthday in 1807.  People both marvelled at and feared the properties of this ‘illuminated air’.  Windsor reassured potential clients that gas is even ‘more congenial to our lungs than vital air’. By the 1840s, gas began to make a tentative appearance in the urban home.  Gradually it became a middle-class must-have.  A contributor to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine even recommended that parties ‘must always be given by gas light ….… if it be daylight outside, you must close the shutters and draw the curtains, the better to show off your ‘gasoliers’. But that was not all, gas must have provided a quite stunning improvement to people’s ability to read, write or sew in the evenings with minimal effort.

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Victorian Drawing Room. Photo: Public Domain.

Nevertheless, gas had many drawbacks, despite its greater illumination qualities. There were frequent explosions, and it replaced the oxygen in the air with black and noxious deposits.  The aspidistra, became a hugely popular plant in the home because it survived well in oxygen-starved conditions.  Victorian ladies frequently fainted partly because of tight-lacing, but also because of a lack of oxygen in their gas-lit drawing rooms.

As an aside: – Many middle-class houses traditionally had a pendant light by the bay window of a bedroom. It was not there to principally illuminate a dressing table, but to prevent a person’s shadow from being cast on to the closed curtains when undressing, and thus being seen from the street. Instead, the shadow would be cast only on to the interior walls and away from ‘prying eyes’. away from the outside. This innovation was not confined to the gas era, but carried on with the emergence of electricity and well into the 20th century.

Electricity:

Early Light (Electrity)1
Victorian Electric Lamp

The arrival of electricity in the 1880s caused quite a stir with those who could afford the installation, for it was immensely expensive – and therefore terribly chic!  A light bulb would cost the same as the average week’s wages, and you needed your own home generator.  Several Fifth Avenue millionaires installed generators in their houses in New York of the 1880’s, and Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt even went to a costume ball as an Electric Light.  But these early enthusiasts always ran the risk of accidents; like the very same Mrs Vanderbilt who, after her electrical system caught fire, not only panicked, but had it taken out.

Cost was not the only reason that the widespread adoption of electricity was delayed for many years; another significant factor was that there was no such thing as a standard generators – different brands had different outputs. This meant that many towns had differing currents, and manufacturers were reluctant to develop light fittings because there was no uniform national market for their products. It was not until the National Grid was created in the 1930s that electricity achieved ubiquity. Of course, this bright white light, which saw off the night and was enormously convenient, ensured that we lost something significant: the art of entertaining ourselves in low light levels, conversation, singing and storytelling. All these, and probably much more, were all the casualties of this modern technology.

THE END

Sources:
www.lucyworsley.com/a-quick-history-of-domestic-lighting/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rushlight
www.victorianweb.org/technology/domestic/1.html
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/oct/31/life-before-artificial-light
Jekyll, Gertrude ‘Old West Surrey: Some Notes and Memories’. London: Longmans, Green, & Co, 1904.
Banner Heading Photo: https://www.oldhouseonline.com/interiors-and-decor/guide-to-victorian-lighting

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