A Ball of Wool

On my recent blog, The History of Postcards, published on 9th April 2021, I received a comment that said, “Hazel can make anything interesting, perhaps next week the history of a ball of wool!” Whilst this suggestion is undoubtedly a joke, it made me think. Is it possible to write an article about a ball of wool? Could it be an interesting topic to research? So after some thought and a few internet searches, my response to this comment is “Challenge Accepted!” 

From where does wool come? Most people will say sheep, which is true, but wool is also obtained from other animals, including goats, oxen, rabbits and camels. The history of wool begins around 6000 BC, where archaeological evidence in Iran suggests people kept sheep for their wool. Fragments of woollen garments dating to circa 3000 BC exist in the Middle East, but the animals arrived in Europe much later, where the oldest wool textile, found in a Danish bog, dates to c. 1500 BC.

To remove the woollen fleece from the sheep requires a pair of shears. These may resemble a large pair of scissors or, more recently, a power-driven toothed blade similar to human hair clippers. Yet, the first shears did not appear until the Iron Age (c. 1500-500 BC). Before then, people collected the wool by hand, either plucking it straight from the sheep or using sharp bronze combs.

Around the time of the Roman invasion in 55 BC, the British Isles had a thriving wool industry, which helped clothe the majority of people in the country. Soon, wool joined linen and leather as the most common clothing textiles in Europe. Other fabrics, such as cotton and silk, arrived later from India and China, and only the most wealthy could afford such luxuries.

By the 1st century AD, European people bred sheep specifically for wool production. As Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) explained in his encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History), some areas were already selectively breeding the animals to produce superior fleeces. Pliny claimed Apulian wool, collected from sheep in the heel of Italy, was the “most esteemed”, often used for making cloaks. He explained that although shearing sped up the wool collecting process, some countries still preferred to pluck it from the animal.

Pliny also described the various colours of wool found in different areas of the world. In Southern Italy, sheep tended to have white fleeces, but in the north, black sheep frequented the Alps, and Erythræan or red wool came from countries bordering the red sea. Wool gathered in Istria, a peninsula shared today by Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, was not as suitable for making garments, whereas sheep in Egypt produced the best wool for embroidery. In Gaul, they used fleece to make carpets and felt. They also dyed the wool to create beautiful patterns, although black wool did not take any colour.

A fair in Champagne in the 13th century

With so many varieties of wool, the fabric soon became a tradeable commodity. In the 12th century, traders flocked to “Champagne Fairs” in the French county of Champagne, where they sold many textiles and spices. Usually, they held six fairs a year, with the first held annually on the 2nd January. The second took place on the Tuesday before “mid-Lent” and the third on the Tuesday before Ascension Day. The fourth fair, known as the “fair of St. John”, occurred on the Tuesday after St John’s Day (24th June), which celebrates the birth of Saint John the Baptist. The fair of St. Ayoul always took place on 14th September to mark the Exaltation of the Cross, and the final fair took place on All Souls’ Day (2nd November).

The Champagne Fairs made different qualities of wool available to other areas of Europe, and the trade became a serious moneymaker for much of the Southern continent. Italy remained the forerunner of wool production until the 15th century when English exports outranked them. As mentioned above, wool arrived on the British Isles with the Romans, but it was not until the 12th century that wool became Britain’s greatest asset.

Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500)

Cistercian Abbeys around Europe were instrumental in the success of the wool trade. Known for their “enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit,” they “were catalysts for development of a market economy” for much of the 12th century. Cistercians owned a lot of farmland on which they grew crops and bred animals, including sheep. England, in particular, was indebted to the Order for starting a successful wool trade with other countries. The Cistercians sent raw wool to cities in Flanders, where it was dyed and refined into cloth. The income from this industry was significant for the English Crown, which imposed an export tax on wool known as the “Great Custom”.

Maltolt, meaning “bad tax” in Norman-French, is the name given to a series of wool taxes between 1294 and 1297. Taxes imposed in 1275 granted Edward I (1239-1307) a half-mark customs duty per exported sack of wool, but when the Anglo-French War began in 1294, the price increased. All wool gathered in England belonged to the king who charged traders 40 shillings per sack. Unhappy with the “Great Custom”, a group of noblemen wrote a series of complaints or Monstraunces to the king’s government. They claimed the Maltolt had driven the country to poverty amongst other grievances, forcing Edward to cease the taxes.

The Woolsack

By the 14th century, the wool trade was of great importance to the economy of England. Wishing to symbolise this, King Edward III (1327-77) suggested his Lord Chancellor should sit on a wool bale whilst in council. Now known as the Woolsack, the tradition has passed down the centuries and is still used today. The bale has been replaced many times, but in 1938 the House of Lords discovered the Woolsack stuffed with horsehair. Since reupholstered and filled with wool, the Woolsack is covered with red cloth and includes a backrest for more comfort. Since 2006, it is the Lord Speaker who sits on the Woolsack rather than the Lord Chancellor.

Although England was one of the largest wool exporters, they relied on other countries to turn the wool into garments and so forth. During the 14th century, Flemish weavers fled to England to escape taxes in Flanders, bringing with them their knowledge of weaving. Under their expertise, England could turn their wool into cloth, thus being able to trade both raw fleeces and textiles. By the time of the Black Death (1346-53), the most fatal pandemic to date, England accounted for approximately 10% of the wool trade.

The plague halted wool production, but by the 15th century, trade picked up once again. The English wool industry far surpassed the continent, and the government began to discourage exportation. When the Huguenots, French Protestants, fled to England in the early 16th century, they brought their weaving knowledge and expertise. With their help, the English industry became self-sufficient, no longer needing to send fleece abroad to transform into cloth.

Determined to be more successful than Flanders and Italy, England outlawed wool exportation. Nonetheless, this did not stop people from trying to ship the material to France. Known as Owlers because they worked predominantly at night, participants smuggled 480,000 pounds of wool a year across The Channel. They usually set off from Romney Marsh, sparsely inhabited wetlands in Kent and East Sussex, but the government soon found out, and those caught lost their hands as punishment.

In 1699, William III (1650-1702) issued An Act to prevent the Exportation of Wool out of the Kingdoms of Ireland and England into Forreigne parts and for the Incouragement of the Woollen Manufactures in the Kingdom of England. The act aimed to squash the growing woollen industry in Ireland and the American colonies. It also forbade the use of foreign wool, meaning shopkeepers in England could only sell clothing made from the fleeces of English sheep. The government wished to profit from the English wool trade without any other country benefiting from sales. Naturally, several people opposed this rule and wool was transported overseas by Owlers and sold on the black market.

Queen Bertha of Burgundy instructing girls to spin flax on spindles using distaffs

Until the 18th century, the wool industry relied on manual spinning wheels and looms to create cloth. Known as the “cottage industry”, many did this from the comfort of their own homes. The homemade garments, usually produced by women, were made from raw wool supplied by a subcontractor. The subcontractor often employed many women and families to produce cloth for a small amount of money.

Harris Tweed

Manual labour in the cottage industry was slow, but subcontractors usually had several workers, allowing them to make a steady profit. One notable brand, Harris Tweed, began its life as a cottage industry in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Islanders living on Lewis and Harris, the Uists, Benbecula, and Barra made a living as crofters, weaving cloth for personal and practical uses. The islands were often cold, so the inhabitants needed thick clothing, but they also sold fabric to the mainland for income. Using only pure wool from sheep on the islands, Harris Tweed is easily identifiable from flecks of colour made from natural dyes. Although the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century sped up cloth production, Harris Tweed is still produced by hand. The fabric is often sought after in the fashion industry and is used by many companies, including Hugo Boss, Topman, Nordstrom, Dr Martens, and Nike.

Handloom weaving in 1747, from William Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness

The Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) brought radical changes to wool production, almost putting cottage industries out of business. Many inventors built devices to help speed up the textile making process. Machines, such as handlooms, worked better for cotton, which is finer than wool. Soon the cotton industry surpassed the wool industry with over 900 factories in Britain by 1797. At that time, cotton made up 2.6% of Britain’s textile output, which increased to 17% in 1801. Wool, on the other hand, only rose from 10% to 14.1%.

Until the 18th century, textile workers used man-powered spinning wheels to turn wool into yarn (balls of wool). To lessen the manual labour, English inventor John Kay (1704-79) patented the flying shuttle in 1733, which halved the production time. Operated by one person, the frame used a series of mechanisms to spin the wool into long strands. In 1764, Lancashire weaver James Hargreaves (1720-78) developed the spinning jenny, which allowed a single worker to spin up to eight spools of wool at a time. As technology improved, this increased to 120.

The first machine that did not rely on human power to work was the water frame, patented by Richard Arkwright (1732-92) in 1767. Initially used for cotton rather than wool, the machine’s mechanisms were powered by a waterwheel. Usually made from wood and fitted with buckets or blades, the wheels were attached to the walls of the mills and factories above a running stream. As the water flowed against the buckets or blades, the wheel turned, thus powering the machines inside. The downside to this invention was its reliance on water flow. They required fast-moving streams that would not dry up in the summer months. This requirement limited the number of places suitable for such mills.

A Roberts self-acting spinning mule

For places without access to suitable water streams, Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule in 1779. Although this involved manual labour, each machine held 1,320 spindles, significantly increasing the output of the textile industry. By 1825, inventor Richard Roberts (1789-1864) improved production further by patenting the self-acting mule. After starting the mule by hand, each mechanism caused a chain reaction so that the machine continued moving for a length of time. The self-acting mule grew popular and gradually replaced the previous machines. Roberts invention was a vital piece of equipment until the mid-20th century when electric looms became favourable.

Engraving of Ned Ludd, Leader of the Luddites, 1812

Sadly, the introduction of machines cost many people their jobs. Factories needed fewer people to spin the wool, increasing unemployment. In 1812, a secret organisation called the Luddites protested against the Industrial Revolution, destroying textile machinery in the process. Led by Ned Ludd, a weaver from Leicester, the Luddites met at night on the outskirts of industrial towns to plan their attacks. After entering the town, they smashed machines and sent death threats to factory owners before escaping through secret getaway chambers.

“I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.” So said Lord Byron (1788-1824) in the House of Lords regarding the Luddite Riots. The British Army frequently clashed with the Luddites, arresting many participants who faced a mass trial in York in January 1813. Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act, which made machine sabotage a capital punishment. At least 60 men were found guilty and sentenced to either execution or penal transportation. Fearful of this new law, the Luddite organisation disbanded.

Despite their methods of protest, the Luddites made a valid point about the Industrial Revolution. Traditional textile industries, particularly those in East Anglia, suffered greatly. Instead, large cities, such as York, developed into industrial areas, taking work away from people in small towns and villages. Transporting criminals to the colonies also backfired on the British economy. Those sent to Australia found jobs raising sheep and producing wool. By 1845, the Australian wool industry surpassed Britain, even providing wool for British factories.

The history of balls of wool or yarn is less precise than wool in general. It is assumed manufacturers first wound the spun wool into balls or skeins to avoid knots and snags many centuries ago, but it is uncertain when wool became commercially available in this manner. Today, balls of wool come in all colours and sizes and are used by those who knit for a hobby as well as clothing factories. Yet, knitting was not always a hobby but a necessity. Before cheap clothing stores, women made garments from scratch to clothe their families. The oldest knitted artefacts are socks dating from 11th century Egypt, although evidence suggests the technique predates archaeological evidence.

Madonna Knitting, by Bertram of Minden 1400-1410

Archaeologists have discovered knitting needles and crochet hooks in the Middle East dating back to the 3rd century AD. In Europe, the earliest evidence of this skill comes from 13th-century Spanish tombs in the royal Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas. Records suggest Christians hired Muslim slaves to produce knitted garments, but in the 14th century, it became a respected skill amongst all women. Several paintings from the 14th and 15th century depict the Virgin Mary knitting clothes for her son, Jesus Christ.

Long before the Industrial Revolution, inventors found ways to speed up the knitting process. In 1589, English clergyman William Lee (1563-1614) devised the stocking frame, controlled by a series of pedals and levers. Unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) refused to grant him a patent because the woollen stockings were too rough for her royal ankles. This had no reflection on the machine but rather her preference for silk. Despite this rejection, Lee found success in France when King Henri IV (1553-1610) offered him financial support.

The Knitting Woman by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1869

Unlike the machinery invented during the Industrial Revolution, the stocking frame never found its way into factories. Instead, workers used them at home in their cottage industries, which only went out of fashion after the introduction of steam-powered knitting machines in the 19th century. Hand-knitting quickly declined in the clothing industry, but it increased in popularity as a hobby. Authors such as Jane Gaugain (d.1860) published books about this leisure activity, featuring many knitting patterns.

During the First World War, the government encourage women, men and children to knit clothing for allied soldiers. This included socks, hats, gloves and scarves because frostbite was as deadly as the enemy. The Red Cross published pamphlets to teach the unskilled how to knit. These were also sent to soldiers so they could repair damaged clothing.

After the war, knitting continued as a popular hobby, and knitted garments became fashionable. In the 1930s, families began knitting out of desperation during the Great Depression because it was far cheaper to make clothes than purchase them. Some knitters even sold their items to make money.

The Second World War sparked the Make Do and Mend campaign. As well as knitting for soldiers, the Ministry of Information published pamphlets encouraging households to limit waste at the height of rationing. The booklets provided instructions about darning socks, patching holes and making many items of clothing. Whilst this helped the country save on resources, it also boosted morale by making people on the “home front” feel they were doing their bit for the war effort.

During the 1950s and 60s, knitted clothing, particularly in bright colours, became haute couture. The government thought knitting was a useful skill and made it a part of the school curriculum, although only for girls. This changed after factories started using computerised knitting machines, allowing them to mass-produce knitted garments and sell them at low prices. By the 1990s, younger generations rejected the skill as an “old person’s thing”.

The 21st century is experiencing a resurgence in knitting, often inspired by celebrities and online craft blogs. The internet allows people to share their ideas and creations, which are far more inventive than the scarves and socks usually associated with the hobby. Magazines, websites, and videos provide everything beginners and advanced knitters need to know to create amazing outcomes, all of which start life as a simple ball of wool.

There ends the long and varied history of a mundane object. At first glance, a ball of wool may not seem an exciting topic, but after picking at the surface, a never-ending story unravels. So, dear reader, I hope I have lived up to your claim that I “can make anything interesting”.


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The History of Postcards

It has probably been a while since most of us have sent or received a postcard due to the Covid-19 restrictions across the world. Also, the increased use of smartphones has reduced the need to send “wish you were here” notes in the post when it is easier and cheaper to upload a photograph or message onto social media. Yet, as deltiologists (also known as postcard collectors) will tell you, postcards have an interesting history, which blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many cards purchased as souvenirs in the past are now collector’s items and have appeared in auctions since 1896.

Penny Penates postcard

The earliest known postcard was received in 1840 in Fulham by the composer and writer Theodore Hook (1788-1841). Known for his practical jokes, Hook likely sent the card to himself, either as an experiment or to poke fun at postal workers. The card, which bears a Penny Black stamp, features a hand-drawn caricature of postal clerks holding large pens. They are seated around an inkwell labelled “Official” with the words “Penny” and “Penates” on either side. Penates, or Di Penates, were household deities in Ancient Roman religion responsible for guarding the storeroom. Hook’s illustration suggests the post workers either looked after their pennies or the Penny Black stamps.

In 2001, a collector discovered the Penny Penates postcard and the British Philatelic Association confirmed it is the oldest documented postcard in the world. It is also the oldest card sent with a Penny Black stamp, which was only used between May 1840 and February 1841. In 2002, Penny Penates made history again, becoming the most ever paid-for postcard at auction, selling at £31,750 to a collector in Latvia.

Lipman’s Postal Card

The first commercially produced postcard appeared in 1861 in the United States of America, although manufacturers saw no need to decorate one side of the card with an image. Instead, the card, patented by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, was plain on both sides – one for the message and the other for the recipient’s address. After selling the rights to Hymen Lipman (1817-93), the man credited for making the first pencil with an attached eraser, they added a border to the message side.

In 1870, commercial postcards began selling in the United Kingdom. These were also blank on both sides but featured a printed stamp, which the Post Office included in the price of the card. Only the Post Office had permission to sell postcards, which they sold in two sizes. The larger of the two eventually fell out of use in favour of the smaller due to ease of handling. Eventually, the Post Office introduced a standard size of postcard at 5.5 by 3.5 inches.

Other European countries adopted postcards slightly earlier than the United Kingdom, although the Prussian government worried about privacy issues. In 1869, the Austria-Hungary post office issued blank postcards, of which approximately 3 million were used in the first three months. When the Franco-Prussian war began in July 1870, soldiers saw the benefits of this inexpensive method of writing to people back home. Soon, post offices throughout Europe and further abroad agreed to the sale of postcards.

The claimed first printed picture postcard

In 1870, postcards began featuring a picture on one side with a small space to write a message. The reverse remained blank for the recipient’s address. Historians continue to debate over the origins of this idea, with the majority agreeing the first picture postcard was created by a soldier at Camp Conlie. Léon Besnardeau (1829-1914), the alleged inventor, resided at the training camp during the Franco-Prussian war, where he developed a lithographed design to print on postcards. This particular illustration featured two piles of military equipment topped by a scroll and the arms of the Duchy of Brittany. In French, the inscription reads, “War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany.”

Meanwhile, others argue the first picture postcard appeared in Germany three days before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. August Schwartz, a bookseller from Oldenburg, is regarded as the illustrator of this card, which bears the postmark 16th July 1870. Yet, neither of these cards resemble the souvenir postcards of today, the earliest of which appeared in Vienna in 1871.

North Bay, Scarborough

In the United Kingdom, the first picture postcards appear in 1894 at the beginning of the “Golden Age of Postcards”, which lasted until 1914. The Post Office permitted other publishers to print the cards, which led to a rise in postcards of landscapes and scenic views. ETW Dennis and Sons of Scarborough were the first company to print postcards outside of the Post Office. Edward Thomas West Dennis (1847-1923), a Quaker, saw a commercial gap in the market and began producing postcards for seaside resorts, which consumers purchased as mementoes of their holidays or sent home to friends and family.

Despite permitting others to print postcards, the Post Office provided strict rules about the design. Regulations stated the back must only contain the address, and publishers could print up to five words on the front as well as an image, as long as they left space for the sender to write a message. Society thought it unseemly to write personal messages where anyone could see, so the limited space prevented people from divulging too much information. Nonetheless, some people tried to get around this by writing along the edges of the illustration as well as in the space provided.

When talking about postcards, the historian Steve Hillier likened them to “the text message of their time”. Due to the small message space, households often received several postcards from the same sender. This prompted the Post Office to reconsider its regulations. The outcome, released in 1902, was the Divided Back postcard, which allowed people to write a message on one half and the address on the other. On the front, the picture took up the entire space.

With the rate of sending a postcard at half a penny, many continued to favour postcards over letters. Whilst today postcards are generally received from people on holiday, early 20th-century publishers produced cards for villages and towns across the United Kingdom. For example, in 1910, an inhabitant of the village of Upminster in Essex sent a postcard to a friend in France, asking them if they had recovered from their recent cold. The postcard contains a photograph of The Bell Inn, which dominated the crossroads at the centre of Upminster for 200 years before its demolition in 1963.

During the First World War, postcards helped boost the morale of soldiers, but also remained an effective form of communication with friends and family in Britain. Some postcards contained lengthy updates, whereas others simply said, “meet me off the train at 2 pm tomorrow”, or something equally mysterious. Whilst today we cannot guarantee next-day delivery, even with a first-class stamp, postmen once delivered letters to houses twice a day, providing a near-instant method of communication.

Whilst the war halted the production of seaside and holiday postcards, the industry saw a rise in military postcards. Some of these contained photographs of regiments or individual soldiers, which are now collectors’ items. Publishers also printed humorous cards to keep people’s spirits up, particularly those on the front lines or the injured. These postcards usually featured a cartoon rather than a photograph and saw a revival during the Second World War.

After the end of the First World War, postcard production picked up once more, although it never achieved the popularity of the Golden Years. The price of postage increased to one penny in 1918, then one and a half pence in 1921. The latter caused public protest, so the price reverted to one penny the following year.

The 1930s saw a rise in cartoon-style postcards, many of which were labelled bawdy or saucy. These illustrations shocked those with strong British morals, but others thoroughly enjoyed the innuendos and double entendres. Cartoonists often poked fun at stereotypical characters, such as vicars, large women and unfortunate husbands. They also made inappropriate jokes about the private lives of the average person.

Synonymous with the saucy postcard genre is the English graphic artist Donald McGill (1875-1962), who eventually received a fine for breaking the Obscene Publications Act 1857. His career as a postcard designer began unintentionally in 1904 after drawing a humorous get-well card for a sick nephew. McGill’s family encouraged him to produce more illustrations, and within a year, he had a full-time occupation. He started taking risks with the content of his drawings, noting the more vulgar they became, the better they sold.

McGill earned the title “King of the Seaside Postcard”, but after the outbreak of the First World War, he produced anti-German propaganda postcards instead. His illustration style remained consistent, with bright colours and caricature figures, but the messages focused on bolstering British morale and insulting the enemy. As a child, McGill lost a foot after an accident playing rugby, so he could not physically fight. He saw his humorous postcards as his contribution to the war effort.

Throughout the war, McGill designed approximately 1,500 postcards. His early war illustrations focused on the soldiers but later turned to the Home Front, wives, families, female munitions workers and the Red Cross. McGill often included puns in his work, for example, a soldier hanging up his laundry with the caption, “A blow on the Hindenburg Line!” The Germans built the Hindenburg Line or Siegfriedstellung from concrete, steel and barbed wire as a form of defence, which after several attacks, broke in September 1918.

Whilst the majority of McGill’s wartime postcards involved humour, he also produced sentimental cards featuring poems, which soldiers sent home to their sweethearts. Yet, linking all his postcards together is British patriotism, which inspired other artists and printers to produce similar illustrations.

After the war, McGill began designing postcards for the International Art Company, formed by Robert and Louisa McCrum. For 17 years, McGill produced his usual standard of work, but as time went on, new rules and censorship issues put pressure on the artist. The company prevented McGill from drawing people with red noses or women with exaggerated cleavage, which he found ridiculous rules to follow. Eventually, McGill resigned and worked on a freelance basis for other companies. In retaliation to the censorship issues, McGill’s outcomes became more saucy and shocking.

The outbreak of World War Two in 1939 put a halt to postcard production. With paper in short supply, McGill took a temporary job as a clerk for the Ministry of Labour, but he could not refrain from drawing for long. In 1944, McGill started drawing for D. Constance Ltd, but the newly elected Conservative government of the early 1950s grew concerned about McGill’s immoral illustrations.

Although McGill was not the government’s only target, he was required to attend a trial in Lincoln on 15th July 1954. In his defence, McGill’s lawyers claimed he had no intention of creating innuendos in his postcard designs, of which he produced over 12,000 during his career. They also claimed the “double meanings” needed pointing out to the artist after the production. The court did not believe these arguments and fined McGill £50 for breaking the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Whilst this does not seem a large sum, McGill also lost his income source because no reputable company wished to print his postcard designs.

Postcards of a similar nature to those by McGill also suffered from the government’s intervention. They issued strict rules about taste and decency in art and literature and censored approximately 167,000 books. Many protested against this censorship and appealed for an amendment to the Obscene Publications Act. In 1957, McGill supplied evidence before the House Select Committee, saying he felt “a national system of censorship would be open to the vagaries of individual interpretation.” The appeal resulted in the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which allowed the printing of McGill’s postcards and the publication of controversial books, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930).

The revival of saucy postcards inspired bawdy films, such as the Carry On franchise, which ran from 1958 until 1978. McGill’s illustrations regained popularity, and by his death in 1962, surpassed 200 million sales. Printers continued producing McGill’s postcards until 1968 after phasing them out in favour of modern designs.

Postcards never regained their post-war popularity but continued to be a cultural aspect of the British seaside. Colour photography replaced illustrations, which allowed souvenir shops to sell depictions of resorts and towns, often in unrealistically sunny weather conditions. Photographers developed their careers in the postcard trade, for instance, John Hinde (1916-97), who found success in Ireland. In the 1960s and 70s, Hinde teamed up with Billy Butlin (1899-1980), the British entrepreneur, to produce postcards for the many Butlin Holiday Camps around Britain. Hinde employed three men, Elmar Ludwig, Edmund Nägele and David Noble, to help capture idealistic views of Butlin locations.

Hinde often enhanced some of the colours in his photographs to create the optimistic tone Butlin desired. He meticulously planned the snapshots to depict images of a fun-filled family vacation. Typical scenes included large swimming pools, amusement parks, recreational activities and indoor dining. Today, these overly bright postcards are considered kitsch by collectors and cost much more than the few pence Butlin’s charged.

Modern seaside postcards usually feature more than one high-quality photograph of the area. Developments in technology allowed photographers to capture realistic images of the resort without the need for enhancements. Postcards are available in most locations and countries, which thousands of tourists purchase to send home to their family and friends. Contemporary postcards have no value in collections, yet in the future, they may prove of some worth.

In the Smartphone Age, holiday postcards are fast becoming something of the past, but printing companies are fighting to keep them fresh and alive. Many online companies allow people to personalise postcards to send on a variety of occasions. People can chose generic images or upload digital photographs and include text in a variety of typefaces. Is this the beginning of a new chapter in the history of postcards?

Postcards from Donald McGill’s era may have no relevance in today’s world, but for deltiologists, they are worth hundreds of pounds. Some consider saucy postcards a form of art, and we can thank the artists for breaking censorship boundaries and allowing us to be more open and accepting of people’s lives. Whilst some people may dislike lewd comments and foul language used in television and literature, the amendment of the Obscene Publications Act has allowed people to discuss sexual health, mental health and other taboo subjects.

So ends the brief history of postcards in the United Kingdom. Who knows what the future holds for this method of communication?


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The History of Jeans

Jeans (noun) hard-wearing casual trousers made of denim or other cotton fabric.

Originally designed for miners, jeans have been items of fashion since the 1950s when actors, such as Marlon Brando (1924-2004) and James Dean (1931-55), wore them in popular films. Rebellious teenagers adopted jeans and other denim clothing as signs of rebellion, but from the 1960s onwards, jeans became the typical clothing of the younger generation. Today, jeans are the most popular style of trousers in Western culture, worn by people of all ages. Although this style of fashion is relatively new, jeans have a longer history than one might expect.

The word “jean” allegedly comes from the French name for the Italian city of Genoa: Gênes. During the 16th century, textile workers in Genoa developed a fustian (heavy woven) cloth of “medium quality and of reasonable cost” suitable for everyday work clothes. The Genoese Navy commissioned trousers of this material for their sailors because they were suitable for wearing in both dry and wet conditions. In France, they developed a similar but coarser textile. The term “Denim” is a contraction of de Nîmes, meaning “from Nîmes”, a place in France. Traders considered Nîmes’s “denim” higher quality, which they dyed blue using indigo from Indian bush plantations.

A Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie – The Master of the Blue Jeans, c.17th century

The first recorded quantity of “jean fustians” arriving in the British Isles is from 1576, and by the 17th century, the working-class in Northern Ireland relied on the jean fabric for their clothing. Being cheaper, they typically used the Genoese material, which an anonymous artist, nicknamed The Master of the Blue Jeans, depicted in his paintings.

Jean and denim developed over time to resemble the fabric we are familiar with today. A third fabric of a similar nature appeared in India during the 17th century. Even cheaper than Genoese jean, the off-coloured blue or white fabric was worn by the poor people of the village of Dongri, near Bombay. It is from this name that we get the word “dungaree”.

Until the 19th century, “jean” was the name of the fabric rather than the style of trousers. In 1795, the Swiss banker Jean-Gabriel Eynard (1775-1863) travelled to Genoa in search of commercial ways to make money. André Masséna, 1st Duke of Rivoli (1758-1817), entrusted Eynard with making purchases for his French troops, who fought in the French Revolutionary Wars. Eynard commissioned Genoese textile workers to produce uniforms for the soldiers, including trousers made from a blue fabric called bleu de Genes. This garment style grew in popularity and became known in English speaking countries as “blue jeans”.

Levi Strauss

The man credited as the first manufacturer of jeans as we know them today is not Eynard but rather Levi Strauss (1829-1902). Born in Germany, Strauss moved to the United States at the age of 18 to join his brothers Jonas and Louis, who ran a dry goods business in New York called J. Strauss Brother & Co. After working for a while with his brothers, Strauss decided to move to San Francisco to live with his sister Fanny and her husband, David Stern (1820-75).

In 1853, Strauss became an American citizen and set up a wholesale business with his brother-in-law. David Stern & Levi Strauss, later renamed Levi Strauss & Co., imported material from Europe, from which they made clothing, bedding, handkerchiefs, tents and so forth. Using a canvas material, Levi Strauss & Co. produced sturdy trousers for farmers, factory workers and miners. After experimenting, Strauss and Stern discovered denim cloth was more suitable.

US Patent No. 139,121

In 1872, one of Strauss’ regular customers, Latvian-born tailor Jacob Davis (1831-1908), approached him with a proposition. For some time, Davis had produced trousers for working men from duck cloth, which he purchased from Strauss. To make weak seams and pockets stronger, Davis added copper rivets, which proved a great success. His trousers sold quickly, and before long, he could not keep up with the sales. Noticing Levi Strauss & Co. were selling trousers made from the more practical denim fabric, Davis asked Strauss for financial backing to make denim trousers with rivets and apply for a patent. After agreeing to become partners, Strauss and Davis worked together to produce these new trousers, later known as jeans. On 20th May 1870, they received US patent No. 139,121 for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings”.

The first jeans, or “waist overalls” as they were known at the time, had two pockets at the front and one at the back, in which workers could place various items when needed. As the trousers grew in popularity, men of other professions began wearing them. After this, Strauss added a third smaller pocket at the front for pocket watches. Initially, jeans were designed with men in mind and fastened with a zip fly down the front. When women started wearing jeans, the company manufactured female versions with a fly on the left side. Later, the fly was moved to the front of the trousers.

Levi’s 501

“Few pieces of clothing genuinely deserve the title of “icon.” The Levi’s 501 sits right at the top of that very short list. “

Jonathan Evans, Esquire

In 1901, Strauss added another pocket on the back of the jeans, taking the total up to five. Known as their 501 model, the style quickly caught on and became the standard design in the fashion industry. One-hundred and twenty years later, the 501 model is still going strong, although with minor alterations.

Ladies Iridescent Ranch Pants

The first line of jeans specifically targeted at women appeared in 1934. For some years, women had worn men’s jeans or “waist overalls”, but Strauss noticed they were not suited to the female figure. Levi’s 701, with a zip on the left side, were instantly popular amongst women who lived or worked on farms and ranches. For others, they were considered inappropriate and unacceptable, at least until the 1950s. Levi Strauss & Co. produced female jeans long before trousers became an acceptable fashion for women. For this reason, the company is recognised as a champion of women’s equality with men.

Until the 1950s, jeans were only worn by those working outdoors. After the release of film dramas, such as Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean, youths adopted jeans as a sign of rebellion. Yet, the more people who jumped on this bandwagon, the more mainstream jeans became. By the 1960s and 70s, jeans were an accepted form of casual clothing. Many fashion companies manufactured and sold styles based on the original designs by Levi Strauss & Co.

As of the 2010s, jeans are both a casual and fashionable item of clothing for both men and women. Manufacturers sell jeans for all occasions in a range of styles. Whilst some brands are expensive, most people can afford cheaper pairs of jeans dyed with synthetic indigo rather than a natural dye. Although blue is the traditional colour of jeans, they are now available in a range of different colours.

A sketch of Levi Strauss jeans © Sophie Glover

As well as experimenting with the style of jeans, manufacturers have made alterations to make the fabric more durable. When Levi Strauss & Co. sold their first range of jeans, people washed their clothing less frequently than today. When the electric washing machine arrived in 1908, people noticed that frequent washing caused the denim material to shrink. In 1962, Levi Strauss & Co. introduced pre-shrunk jeans, which would not shrink further when washed. Known as 505 jeans, they were identical to the iconic 501, except the company guaranteed the jeans would remain the same shape.

The process of pre-shrinking allowed manufacturers to produce specific cut jeans of varying sizes. In 1969, Levi Strauss & Co. introduced boot-cut jeans (517), which suited a slim waist but fitted over a pair of boots. Later, they designed another version with a lower waistline (527). As fashions changed over the decades, clothing companies altered their jeans to suit, for example, slim, skinny, baggy and tapered jeans.

Stone-washed jeans

“In 1965, Limbo was the first retailer to wash a new pair of jeans to get a used, worn effect, and the idea became a hit.” 

Michael Belluomo, editor of Sportswear International Magazine, Oct/Nov 1987

Although the shrinking issue had been addressed, washing machines altered the appearance of jeans by fading the colour. In 1965, a New York boutique called Limbo used this to their advantage, selling jeans with a washed, worn look. This new idea caught on, and textile makers started experimenting with various ways to create this effect.

Many consumers bought regular jeans and purposely altered the colour by frequent washing. Surfers in California bleached their jeans with saltwater and hung them in direct sunlight to fade. This lived-in appearance grew popular in the 1960s, but the process took weeks to perfect. Today, manufacturers use a pumice stone and chlorine to create the same effect, which they sell under the label “acid-wash” or “stone-washed”.

Snow wash jeans

In the 1980s, punk rockers used bleach to create faded patterns on their jeans. Rather than altering the colour of the entire fabric, this technique left sections of the original dark blue dye around the seams. Once again, fashion companies, including Levi Strauss & Co., caught on and manufactured similar jeans, which they labelled “snow wash” or “pre-washed”. This style grew popular, taking the association away from punk rockers.

Subcultures continued to find ways to make their jeans unique, such as adding embroidery, metal studs and rhinestones. Each time, manufacturers caught on and replicated the style. Even jeans with deliberate rips and tears became popular, often costing more than a regular pair.

Today, many styles of jeans are available, regardless of current fashions. Trends quickly come and go, often influenced by celebrities. During the late 2000s, skinny jeans were popular in youth cultures, but after Canadian singer Justin Bieber (b.1994) endorsed low-rise jeans in 2017, they became the latest fashion. On the other hand, rappers inspired fans to wear baggy or sagging jeans, often worn several inches below the waist.

Buying jeans can be confusing because of all the various names and styles. Cigarette jeans, for example, are similar to skinny jeans but are the same width from the knee to the ankle. Skinny jeans hug the calves, and straight jeans are the same width from the top of the leg to the bottom. To add to the confusion, some brands give these jeans different names.

Wide-leg is another term for baggy jeans, which are currently popular in “gangsta rap” subcultures. For centuries, baggy trousers have come in and out of fashion. In the 1500s, loose-fitting breeches were the norm until aristocrats wished to differentiate themselves from the masses, after which they wore tight clothing. Yet, when the general public adopted this new fashion, the upper classes reclaimed baggy trousers. During the early 20th century, baggy trousers were a sign of rebellion because they went against the prim-and-proper fashion of the day. The 1950s and 1990s saw a rise in baggy jeans amongst the general public, inspiring subcultures to adopt skinny jeans to differentiate themselves from mainstream cultures. Today, rappers wear baggy jeans to set themselves apart from the skin-tight jeans worn by “metalheads”.

Bootcut jeans regained popularity in the 2000s by those who did not wish to identify with either rappers or “metalheads”. By 2006, women’s bootcut jeans became thinner across the thighs, emphasising their body shape. Gradually, the material around the ankles also reduced until skinny jeans became the new norm. To compensate for this change in fashion, “metalheads” and rock stars began wearing even thinner jeans, known as super-skinny or drainpipes.

Jeggings

For many people, skinny jeans were not a comfortable addition to their wardrobe, but to keep up with the latest trends, they felt obliged to replace their baggy jeans. Realising this, jean manufacturers designed an alternative to skinny jeans. Jeggings, a portmanteau of the words jeans and leggings, appeared on the market in 2010. Whilst they have the appearance of denim jeans, jeggings have the comfort and feel of cotton leggings, which stretch easily over the leg.

Today, the average person owns seven pairs of jeans or items of clothing made from denim. Skirts, shorts, shoes and jackets have appeared as alternatives or accompaniments to jeans. Approximately 7.5 billion feet of denim is produced every year to keep up with the demand. Despite their popularity, jeans are not an appropriate form of clothing in some establishments. In recent years, some places of work have relaxed their rules about clothing to allow workers to wear jeans, so long as they appear smart. Posh hotels, restaurants and parties for distinguished guests continue to turn away people who arrive wearing denim.

Admittedly, jeans are not for everyone, and some people may have never owned a pair of jeans, let alone seven. Yet, everyone is familiar with the blue trousers and denim fabric. Nearly every clothing store stocks jeans, and it is impossible to walk through a town without seeing someone wearing denim. The history of blue jeans is relatively short, yet they have influenced the fashions of the (western) world. We must wait and see what jeans have in store for us next.


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The Most Beautiful Girl in the Midwest

Hazel, Lady Lavery

“The most beautiful girl in the Midwest” is how the Irish historian Dr Sinéad McCoole (b.1968) describes Lady Lavery, an American woman who became the face of Ireland in the 20th century. Married to a painter, Lady Lavery sat for over 400 paintings, including one reproduced on banknotes for more than 50 years. How did an American woman become the most recognisable face in Ireland?

Lady Lavery was born Hazel Martyn in Chicago on 14th March 1880. Her father, Edward Jenner Martyn, was a descendent of a Galway tribe that dominated the Irish county between the 13th and 16th century. Hazel and her sister Dorothea Hope (1887-1911) grew up in relative comfort due to their father’s success as a businessman. Sadly, Edward passed away when his eldest daughter was only 17 years old, but his wealth allowed Hazel to attend finishing school in the city. She earned a reputation in Chicago high society circles for her beauty, which attracted many suitors, including Edward “Ned” Livingston Trudeau Jr, the son of the doctor who made progress with tuberculosis treatment.

Hazel and her sister enjoyed the arts and, whilst Dorothy aspired to be a playwright, Hazel set her sights on becoming a painter. She regularly visited Europe in pursuit of her dreams, while her fiancé Trudeau waited for her return. On one trip, Hazel attended an artists’ retreat in Brittany, France. Here, she met the Irish painter John Lavery (1856-1941), famed for his portraits and landscapes. Writing home to her mother, Hazel described Lavery with great fondness. Her mother disapproved of the relationship because of their 24 year age difference and urged Hazel to return home to her fiancé.

In 1903, Hazel and Trudeau married in New York. Sadly, five months later, Trudeau tragically died, leaving behind his widow and unborn child. On 10th October 1904, Hazel gave birth to Alice, but it was not an easy pregnancy, and she took several months to recover. In June 1905, Hazel and her mother travelled to the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, England, to aid her recovery. While there, she received several visits from Lavery, with whom she had regularly corresponded since her husband’s death.

On one visit, Lavery painted his first portrait of Hazel and made his affections clear. Hazel’s mother continued to oppose the match and rarely let the couple spend time alone. On a trip to Italy in 1906, Hazel accepted a marriage proposal from Leonard Thomas, a wealthy diplomat, but the relationship did not last. Meanwhile, Hazel remained in contact with Lavery and, after her mother passed away in 1909, they married and moved to London. For a brief time, Hazel divided her time between England and America. After her sister died in 1911 from anorexia nervosa, Hazel cut ties with her birth country.

John Lavery

Whilst born in Belfast, John Lavery grew up in Scotland where he associated with the Glasgow School of art. Lavery launched his career as a society painter after receiving the commission to paint Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition. After moving to London in 1889, Lavery befriended artists such as James Abbott Whistler (1834-1903) who greatly influenced his work.

In London, Lavery married Kathleen MacDermott with whom he had a daughter, Eileen (1890-1930). Sadly, Kathleen passed away from tuberculosis shortly after the birth of her daughter. By the time Lavery met and married Hazel Martyn, he was a well-established artist in the capital city.

Mrs Lavery sketching, 1910

During their early years of marriage, Hazel acted as a London society hostess, welcoming prestigious guests to dinners and soirees or her husband’s studio for a portrait sitting. Whilst Hazel sat for the majority of Lavery’s portraits he also took on commissions. Flirtatious in nature, Hazel enjoyed being the centre of attention, particularly around male guests. Lavery tolerated this vice, but others gossiped about rumoured affairs.

There is no evidence that Hazel did conduct an affair, although she did correspond with many men. Amongst those to whom she regularly wrote are the authors Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). She also knew many politicians due to her husband’s position as an official artist for the British government during the First World War. Future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) famously asked Hazel to teach him to paint during his portrait sittings.

The Artist’s Studio: Lady Lavery with her Daughter Alice and Step-Daughter Eileen

In 1918, John Lavery received a knighthood, making him and his wife Sir and Lady Lavery. The same year, Hazel and John took an active interest in their Irish roots, particularly after the Sinn Féin election victory. Churchill mentioned in his letters to Hazel about his concerns over the growing tensions between Britain and Ireland. The Lavery’s had many social and political contacts in both countries and wished to help bring peace between the nations.

The Laverys lent their house at 5 Cromwell Place in South Kensington as a neutral location for negotiations for the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945) led the British side with Churchill as Colonial Secretary. Michael Collins (1890-1922), an Irish politician, headed the Irish delegation. Both Churchill and Collins were regular visitors to the Lavery’s house and were grateful to Lady Lavery for her hospitality.

Collins grew fond of Hazel and rumours flew about a potential affair. Some biographers claim Hazel loved Collins, whereas others say there is no proof of a romantic relationship. Nonetheless, members of the delegation questioned their closeness, fearing Hazel to be a spy. She appeased them by calling herself a “simple Irish girl” and converting to Catholicism.

Due to their connections with both British and Irish politicians, the Lavery’s home became a safe place for discussions away from the hostile environment of the courts. Hazel’s presence often diffused bitterness, allowing peaceful talks to take place. Many letters written by Hazel reveal her organisation skills and a gift of persuasion, which helped the negotiations run smoothly. Although Hazel came from America and lived in England, her Irish roots bridged the gap between the warring nations.

Michael Collins: Love of Ireland by John Lavery

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 6th December 1921, thus ending the three-year Irish War of Independence. Ireland gained its freedom, although arguments regarding the status of Northern Ireland continued. Civil War broke out in Ireland and, despite attempts to talk peacefully, Michael Collins was assassinated on 22nd August 1922. Rumours of an affair between Collins and Lady Lavery flew once more when a letter addressed to “Dearest Hazel” was found on his body. Yet, the gossipers were silenced at his funeral when Collins’ fiancé Kitty Kiernan embraced Hazel as though a close friend. As the Irish biographer Anita Leslie (1914-85) put it, Hazel and Collins were “soul mates rather than bed mates”.

Until 1922, Ireland used the British pound; after gaining independence, they wished to create a new currency. Many discussions took place within the Irish government until September 1927, when they publicly introduced their idea of a “Saorstàt Pound”. (Saorstàt is the Irish word for “free state”.) The government planned to issue new coins and banknotes but needed to think carefully about their design. Joseph Brennan (1887-1976), the Chairman of the Currency Commission, set up an advisory committee to discuss design proposals.

Lavery’s portrait of Hazel for the Irish banknotes

The committee approached several artists and printers before commissioning John Lavery to paint an “emblematic female figure” to appear on the new notes. They chose Lavery due to his ongoing support during the war and peace talks as well as his artistic ability. Whereas British notes featured the reigning monarch, the Irish government wanted “an archetypical Irish Cailín or Colleen, symbolic of Irish womanhood.” (Cailín is the Irish word for “girl”.) As the committee expected, Lavery asked his wife to sit for the portrait.

“I really feel that you are too kind and generous when you suggest that my humble head should figure on the note, and you know I said from the first that I thought it wildly improbable, unlikely, impractical, unpopular, impossible that any committee would fall in with such a suggestion. Indeed apart from anything else I think a classic head, some Queen of Ireland, Maeve perhaps, would be best, someone robust and noble and fitted for coinage reproduction …”

Lady Lavery in a letter to Thomas Bodkin on the advisory committee

Having her portrait painted by her husband was not a new thing for Hazel, but knowing she would soon be on every banknote in Ireland was a little unnerving. Nonetheless, Lavery produced a faithful likeness of his wife with her arm resting upon an Irish harp. In the background, he included an Irish landscape. The shawl Hazel wore was also typical of the country. The government paid Lavery 250 guineas for the painting, and the first notes featuring Hazel’s face arrived in September 1928.

The public automatically assumed the portrait on the new notes was Hazel Lavery. Not only had John Lavery painted it, but the likeness was evident. The government attempted to protect Hazel’s identity by openly denying that she was the sitter. They worried people would not accept the notes because of Hazel’s reputation as a flirt and the rumours surrounding her relationship with the late Michael Collins. Fortunately, the public readily accepted the new notes, and the identity of the sitter remained anonymous.

Following the success of the new banknotes, John Lavery received the Freedom of Dublin. Despite this, the Laverys decided to remain living in London, although they frequently visited Ireland. Initially, Hazel remained involved with Irish politics, but changes within the political parties distanced her from those in charge. Lavery continued to paint portraits of his wife and produced other artworks for exhibitions. During this time, Hazel’s health, which had never been good, began to deteriorate.

After a routine operation to remove a wisdom tooth, Hazel passed away on 1st January 1935, aged 54. Her funeral took place at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Knightsbridge area of London, followed by a simple burial in Putney Vale Cemetery. In Ireland, her death received more attention, and the government arranged a memorial service.

Lady Lavery by John Lavery

Although many portraits survive of Lady Hazel Lavery, the paintings she produced during her lifetime are missing. As Churchill’s cousin Sir Shane Leslie (1885-1971), said, “Had it not been for Hazel’s portrait as the colleen of Irish banknotes, her features and even her name would now be forgotten in a land which has never accounted gratitude amongst its theological virtues”. Without the banknotes, which Ireland used until the introduction of the Euro in 2002, Hazel’s involvement with the Anglo-Irish Treaty would remain unknown.

In many cases, women are written out of history, not out of malicious intent, but because society did not consider them important at the time. It is with thanks to historians who wondered about the identity of the Irish Cailín on Ireland’s old banknotes that we know anything at all about Lady Lavery. As a result, we have an intriguing story about an American woman who became the face of Ireland. It is a great shame Hazel’s paintings are lost, and that we know little else about her personal life. Hazel’s story contains many unanswered questions but also opens our eyes to the possibilities of many more hidden histories.


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Unfinished Business: Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst received two mentions at the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library, but not for her role with the Suffragette movement, as one might expect. Whilst the curators referenced her involvement with the Votes for Women campaign, their focus revealed the scandal caused by her “illegitimate” child with an Italian man who she lived with but never married. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), despite being a campaigner for women’s rights, disowned her daughter. The exhibition also displayed a painting by Sylvia Pankhurst, inspired by the harsh conditions of women’s workplaces in the early 20th century.

Born in Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May 1882, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was the second of three daughters for Richard (1835-98) and Emmeline Pankhurst, future founders of the Independent Labour Party. Estelle, who preferred her middle name Sylvia, attended Manchester High School for Girls with her sisters Christabel (1880-1958) and Adela (1885-1961). The sisters shared a passion for fine art, and all three became suffragettes, along with their mother. Sylvia, who attended the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906 after winning a scholarship, noted the lack of opportunities for women in the art sector. Determined to do something about this, Sylvia and her friends established the East London Confederation of Suffragettes, which later amalgamated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Aiming to be a “painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment”, Sylvia produced many of the banners, leaflets and posters for the WSPU, who she began working for full time in 1906. One of her most famous designs for the union is the “angel of freedom” motif that appeared on badges, jewellery, chinaware and printed materials. The trumpeting angel usually appeared on a green, purple and white background. These were the identifying colours of the WSPU introduced by the Bristol-born suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) in 1908.

WSPU Membership Card

Another example of Sylvia’s work for the union is the WSPU Member’s Card. Sylvia drew an illustration of a group of women holding a banner that said “Votes, Votes, Votes!” The date of production is uncertain, but due to the lack of WSPU colours, Sylvia likely designed the card early on in her WSPU career. Below the drawing is written the union’s purpose: “Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty…” All women were issued a membership card on signing up with the WSPU. They were also required to sign another card to pledge not to support any political candidate until women could vote.

Cradley Heath Chainmaker, 1907

In 1907, Sylvia toured the industrial towns in England and Scotland. She discovered the female workers were underpaid and unfairly treated in comparison to their male colleagues. Chainmakers, for example, received a pittance and many worked from home because they also needed to look after their children. In some instance, the children worked alongside their mothers for long hours. Sylvia painted portraits of many of these women, including a chain maker at a shop in Cradley Heath. The artwork reveals the poor working conditions the women faced every day, emphasised by the bucket of boiling water precariously balanced on a pile of bricks.

After her tour, Sylvia settled in Leicester where she met Alice Hawkins (1863-1946), a suffragette whose statue now stands in Leicester Market Square. Soon, she befriended another suffragette, Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973), “a merry militant saint” with whom Sylvia established a WSPU presence in the city. Unlike her mother and sisters, Sylvia preferred to concentrate on local campaigns rather than national. For this reason, on her return to London, she set up the East London Federation of the WSPU, assisted by fellow campaigner Amy Bull (1877-1953).

Sylvia regularly wrote articles for the official WSPU newspaper Votes for Women. Founded in 1907 by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), the newspaper updated members and supporters of the WSPU on their latest successes and plans. Many suffragettes sold the monthly paper on the street to passers-by for 3d until it became a weekly paper, after which the price dropped to 1d. 

As well as writing for the newspaper, Sylvia documented the history of the WSPU from 1905 until 1910, which she published under the title The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement. The book, which is still in print, gives a just and accurate account of the WSPU’s progress, at least from Sylvia’s point of view, and lets the reader see behind the scenes to discover what animated the protestors. First published in 1911, the book does not contain the outcome of the suffragette’s campaign, yet Sylvia aimed to fuel the reader’s passion for their cause. 

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910

In 1913, Sylvia spoke at the Albert Hall about the working conditions for workers in Dublin. In so doing, she involved herself with the Labour Party, which went against the rules of the WSPU. The union identified as independent, and its members were forbidden from having political affiliations, at least publically. Worried that Sylvia’s alliance with the Labour Party would damage the WSPU’s reputation, Emmeline and Christabel removed Sylvia from its membership.

Undeterred by her family’s rejection, Sylvia continued to campaign for Votes for Women. At the age of 24, the police arrested Sylvia for her militant approaches. Over the next few years, Sylvia found herself in prison on fourteen more occasions. Between February 1913 and July 1914, Sylvia went on hunger strike during her imprisonments and described the painful force-feeding she endured in magazine articles. Despite not being a member of the WSPU, she received the union’s Hunger Strike Medal for “valour”.

During 1914, Sylvia grew concerned about the WSPU’s campaign, which focused solely on women’s rights. She wished to tackle wider issues than women’s suffrage and aligned with the Labour Party. Labour politician Keir Hardie (1856-1915) supported Sylvia’s passions for women’s rights, amongst other things, and the pair developed a close relationship.

Despite her disapproval of the WSPU, Sylvia continued to work with the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which later changed its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation when it broadened its politics. At the suggestion of the American suffragette Zelie Emerson (1883-1969), Sylvia founded the Women’s Dreadnought newspaper (later the Worker’s Dreadnought). The first copies appeared in March 1914 on the same day Sylvia spoke at a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square. As well as women and workers’ rights, the paper campaigned against the impending war.

When the war began, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst enthusiastically campaigned in favour of military conscription. This horrified Sylvia, a staunch pacifist, who expressed her views in articles for the WSPU newspaper, now named Britannia. Although the government encouraged women to take on the work left behind by the male soldiers, many women lost their previous jobs due to the war. Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes established a toy factory and offered work to these women. They also demanded allowances for women whose husbands were away at war. In 1915, Sylvia attended and spoke at the International Women’s Peace Congress, held at The Hague, but this lost her many followers who believed they should support the war effort.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sylvia moved in with an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio (1875-1954). They lived in Woodford Green in North East London, commemorated by a blue plaque opposite Woodford station. Sylvia and Corio shared left-wing political ideas; in 1920, Sylvia’s organisation, now named the Workers’ Socialist Federation, hosted the first meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). With women’s rights still in mind, Sylvia encouraged her followers to adopt Communism, saying “In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up.”

In 1927, Sylvia gave birth to a son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst (1927-2017). Her mother, Emmeline, held the opinion that children should not be born out of wedlock. Sylvia, on the other hand, objected to marriage and taking a husband’s surname. When Emmeline asked for the name of Richard’s father, Sylvia responded: “an old dear friend whom I have loved for years.” She declined to give her mother Silvio Corio’s name, and Emmeline refused to speak to her daughter for the rest of her life.

Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policies in India, 1932

By 1930, Sylvia lost interest in communist politics but continued to hold anti-fascist views. She also held anti-colonialism opinions, speaking against British policies in India at a protest in Trafalgar Square in 1932. The same year, she helped establish the Socialist Workers’ National Health Council. The organisation, which had connections with the Labour Party, campaigned for a National Health Service. Since the creation of the NHS, the organisation, now known as the Socialist Health Association, continues to support the health service in politics. As of 2020, the GP Brian Fisher is the chair.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37), Sylvia responded by publicly supporting Haile Selassie (1892-1975), the Emperor of Ethiopia. She wrote articles about the invasion in newspapers and raised funds for projects, such as the first Ethiopian teaching hospital. She took a great interest in Ethiopian life and collected information about their art and culture. Eventually, she published her findings in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History in 1955.

After the liberation in 1937, Sylvia continued supporting Ethiopia and encouraged their union with the former Italian Somalia. MI5 monitored Sylvia’s correspondence closely, fearing her leftist ideals would pose problems for the British government. In a letter written in 1948, the secret service discussed tactics for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”, particularly after learning Selassie considered her a friend and adviser. Nothing much came of MI5’s investigations, and in 1956, Selassie invited Sylvia and her son to move to the capital city Addis Ababa.

Sylvia set up the Ethiopia Observer, a monthly journal documenting the cultural developments in the country. Her son Richard began working at the University College of Addis Ababa and later founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. In 1957, Richard married Rita Eldon and had two children, Alula (1962) and Helen (1964). Sadly, Sylvia passed away before she could meet her grandchildren.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s grave

After she died in 1960 aged 78, Sylvia Pankhurst received a state funeral, becoming the only foreigner buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. In a speech, Selassie called her “an honorary Ethiopian”, and provided a burial plot in a section reserved for patriots.

Sylvia Pankhurst was not as famous as her mother and older sister but her name is listed on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Whilst Sylvia did help to improve lives for women, the British Library focused on the reaction caused by her decision not to marry the father of her child. At the time, people looked down on women in Sylvia’s position, yet she did not let this deter her. Sylvia continued to campaign and behave as she did before the birth of her son, albeit estranged from her family.

Richard continued his mother’s work by editing the Ethiopia Observer, and in 1962, founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. From 1976 to 1986, Richard lived in England, where he researched at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2004, he received an OBE for his services to Ethiopian studies and earned the honorary title “Dejazmach Benkirew” by the Union of Tigraians of North America. Sylvia’s grandson Alula is an Ethiopian scholar with a PhD in Social Anthropology from Manchester University. Her grand-daughter Helen is a women’s rights activist and earned a CBE in 2019 for services to gender equality. 

Sylvia Pankhurst lives on through her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who share her passion for an equal world. She also lives on through the musical Sylvia, written in honour of the centenary of Representation of the People Act 1918 and the end of the First World War.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft


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Looking Sharp

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany

In the National Gallery, is a painting called The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), a German neoclassical painter. Zoffany, who spent his early years in England under the patronage of George III (1738-1820) and Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), captured the Sharp Family making music aboard their pleasure boat, Apollo, with All Saints Church, Fulham in the background. The Sharp siblings regularly appeared on the River Thames with their instruments to entertain the public on the banks.

Produced between 1779-1781, Zoffany’s painting indicates the wealth of the family through the portrayal of the upper-class fashions of the 18th century. Their musical boating parties attracted many people, evidencing their popularity, particularly among local dignitaries and even royalty. Yet, the family came from a more humble background.

The siblings grew up in Durham with their parents, Thomas Sharp (1693–1759), Archdeacon of Northumberland, and Grace Higgons, the daughter of English clergyman and travel writer George Wheler (1651-1724). Although they had an honourable upbringing, they did not have the financial advantages of the upper classes. Through sheer determination, love of music and fondness for each other, the Sharps worked their way up the ranks, first giving recitals at one of the brother’s home, before performing fortnightly water-borne concerts on their large barge between 1775-1783.

Granville Sharp

Seated in the centre of the painting is the most well-known of the Sharp siblings. Granville Sharp, born in Durham in 1735, played a variety of instruments, including the clarinet, oboe, flageolet, kettle drums, harp and a double-flute. He also sang with an impressive bass voice, which George III described as “the best in Britain”. Respected for his musical skills, Granville often signed his name G#, but it was not only in music that he made his name.

At the time of Granville’s birth, he had eight older brothers, although only five survived infancy. Five sisters soon followed, bringing the total number of children to 14. Their parents put away money for the children’s education, but by the time Granville reached his teens, the money was exhausted. Although he began his schooling at the all-boys school in Durham, Granville and his siblings received most of their tuition at home.

At the age of 15, Granville travelled to London to work as an apprentice for a linen draper. He found the work tiresome and longed for opportunities to hold discussions, arguments and debates. To fuel his passion, Granville took an interest in his fellow apprentices, learning Greek in order to debate the orthodox Bible with a Socinian colleague (someone who believes in God and Christian ideals but not the divinity of Jesus). He also learnt Hebrew so as to have theological discussions with a Jewish friend.

Not all of the Sharp brothers entered apprenticeships. The eldest, John, followed his father’s footsteps and was ordained into the Church. Whilst their father had not found wealth in that position, John worked hard to establish a miniature welfare state in his home in Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland where he was the perpetual curate. During his career, John oversaw the establishment of a school, a library, a hospital, and the first lifeboat service.

William Sharp (1729-1810)

At the age of 14, William Sharp (1729-1810) moved to London to study surgery. His exceptional skill and demeanour attracted the patronage of George III, who hired William as his private surgeon. After attending to Princess Amelia (1783-1810), who was often in poor health, the king offered William a baronetcy, which he turned down. Although William was well-off, he never forgot his past and paid attention to the needs of the poor. He considered his high position in society to be a stroke of luck, so established a free surgery for those denied such good fortune.

Like Granville, his brother James came to London as an apprentice. After completing his apprenticeship in ironmongery, James rose through the ranks to become a pioneer of the industrial revolution. James enjoyed making music in his spare time, often meeting with Granville and William, as well as his sisters Elizabeth and Judith who had also moved to London. The siblings usually met at William’s house in Mincing Lane, where they also gave concerts. Unfortunately, James passed away before the family began performing on the Thames.

Granville’s apprenticeship came to an end in 1757, the same year both his parents passed away. He quickly secured himself the position of Clerk in the Ordnance Office at the Tower of London, a civil service position, that also provided enough free time to pursue his musical talents and intellectual hobbies. Being so close to his siblings, both familially and geographically, allowed his passion for music to flourish. He also discussed his work with his brothers, who informed him of the goings-on in their careers.

Granville Sharp the Abolitionist Rescuing a Slave from the Hands of His Master – James Hayllar

On a visit to William’s surgery in 1765, Granville met a young black slave with severe wounds to his head. The slave, Jonathan Strong, originally from Barbados, received the injuries from his master David Lisle, who bashed the young lad repeatedly over the head with a pistol. After almost blinding him, Lisle discarded Strong on the streets where he was discovered and taken to William’s free surgery. Granville assisted William to treat Strong, but his condition was so severe, they needed to transfer him to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Out of the kindness of their hearts, Granville and William paid for Strong’s four-month stay.

After Strong left hospital, the Sharp brothers continued to look after him. When he was strong enough, they found him employment with a Quaker apothecary, where he worked for a year and a half before being discovered by his previous master. David Lisle, a lawyer, believed he still owned Strong, despite discarding him in the street two years previously. Lisle wished to sell Strong to his friend James Kerr of Harley Street for £30. Kerr owned a plantation in Jamaica and wanted to ship Strong to the Caribbean to work there. Lisle and Kerr employed two men to kidnap Strong but did not anticipate the slave’s new contacts.

Following his capture, Strong managed to get word to Granville, who immediately went to the Lord Mayor of London to plead his case. The Lord Mayor, possibly Sir Thomas Davies, in turn, spoke to Lisle and Kerr about their claim on the slave. Kerr produced the bill of sale to prove he had purchased Strong from Lisle, but without more evidence, the Lord Mayor ordered Strong’s release from his imprisonment. The case, however, was far from over.

Almost immediately after his release, a second kidnap attempt took place, this time by West India Captain David Laird, who threatened to take Strong straight to James Kerr. Fortunately, Granville witnessed the attack and claimed he would charge Laird with assault if he did not let the young man go. Meanwhile, Lisle tried to sue Granville £200 for taking his property. When Granville approached his lawyers on the subject, they told him Lisle had every right to claim Strong as his possession. Unable to “believe the law of England was really so injurious to natural rights,” Granville spent the following two years studying English laws.

Lisle soon gave up the fight, but Kerr remained determined to win his case. After two years of persisting, the court dismissed the case and fined Kerr for time-wasting. For the first time in his life, twenty-year-old Jonathan Strong was a free man. Sadly, his freedom did not last long, and he passed away five years later.

Granville Sharp

Granville’s association with Jonathan Strong earned him the moniker “protector of the Negro”. A couple of slaves approached Granville for support, hoping for similar results, but the courts were reluctant to be involved in human possession disputes. At this time, British organisations were the largest slave traders in the world. Slave labour was vital for the British economy, therefore, owners were reluctant to free their slaves.

Determined to put an end to slavery, Granville published A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery: Or Admitting the Least Claim of Private Property in the Persons of Men in England in 1769. He expressed the view that “the laws of nature” make everyone equal and it is only laws imposed by society that state otherwise. He demonstrated that slavery was illegal because the freedom of a man was priceless. Granville received support from James Oglethorpe (1696-1785) of Cranham Hall, the founder of the American state of Georgia. Together, they unsuccessfully attempted to convince British leadership to give slaves the same rights as Englishmen. 

Slavery had never been authorised by law in England and Wales. Granville used this to his advantage when learning of the plight of another black slave in 1772. James Somerset, an enslaved African, travelled to England with his American owner Charles Stewart in 1769 but managed to escape a couple of years later. Unfortunately, slave hunters found Somerset and locked him in a ship bound for Jamaica. Before Somerset attempted to flee, Charles Stewart had him baptised as a Christian. On learning of his capture, three of Somerset’s Godparents complained to the courts. When Granville heard of the case, he supplied the lawyers supporting Somerset with his formidable knowledge of English laws.

Granville proved that slavery was illegal under English law, so Somerset became a free man the moment he stepped on English soil. Although the court case lasted five months, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, William Murray, Lord Mansfield (1705-93), announced James Somerset’s freedom and ended the proceedings. Somerset and his supporters celebrated the result, but this was not the end of slavery. Whilst it was illegal to own a slave in England, the law condoned using slaves in overseas territories.

The Slave Ship – J. M. W. Turner

Plantation owners in the Americas continued to exploit slaves, abducting them from their homes in Africa and forcing them to work in harsh conditions in a foreign land. In 1781, 60 slaves died from neglect and over-crowding aboard the British slave ship Zong, causing the crew to take drastic action, massacring over 130 slaves by throwing them overboard. To add to the morally corrupt event, the shipowner tried to claim compensation for the loss of his property at sea. 

Granville learnt of the massacre in 1783 from Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), a freed slave from the Kingdom of Benin. Horrified by the events aboard the Zong, Granville immediately involved himself with the court case against the Liverpool merchant claiming insurance. The merchant’s lawyer John Lee (1733-93) claimed: “the case was the same as if assets had been thrown overboard.” Granville argued that jettisoning slaves was murder and should be punished accordingly. Unfortunately, the judge dismissed Granville’s accusation but ruled the slave owner could not file for insurance due to lack of evidence. 

Medallion, 1787

The more Granville learnt about the lives of slaves, the greater his wish to abolish slavery entirely. He was not alone with this wish, but the largest groups of anti-slavery protesters were Quakers, a domination forbidden from participating in Parliament. In 1787, nine Quakers and three Anglicans established the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but to make an impact, they needed someone with parliamentary connections. A vote unanimously elected Granville, one of the Anglican founders of the society, to present their petitions.

Due to modesty, Granville refused to chair the meetings for the society but regularly attended for the following twenty years. Parliament rejected many of their petitions, but they continued to work tirelessly nonetheless. The society received support from other anti-slavery campaigners, including the founder of the Wedgwood company Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), who arranged the production of anti-slavery medallions, and the politician William Wilberforce (1759-1883), who presented the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, albeit unsuccessful. Through Granville’s connections, the society also received support from abolitionists in America.

Granville made attempts to return freed-slaves in Britain to their native countries. Many worried they would return to slavery, so Granville drew up plans for a new Christian society called “The Province of Freedom”. The first attempt struggled from the start, with fires on ships and many Africans returning home before the plans were fully operational. The first settlement, named Granville Town, lasted a few months before local tribes burnt it down. A second attempt to create “The Province of Freedom” proved more successful. With the help of a former American slave, Thomas Peters (1738-92) and British brothers, Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) and John Clarkson (1764-1828), Granville helped to found the port city Freetown in Sierra Leone.

In 1807, the society’s hard work paid off when the Houses of Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act/Act of Abolition. When Granville, now 71 years old, heard the news, he fell to his knees in prayer. Many of the original abolitionists did not live to see the result and Granville received the affectionate accolade of the “grand old man of the abolition struggle”.

A white glass medallion of Granville Sharp by Catherine Andras 1809

As well as anti-slavery campaigns, Granville supported American colonists, which meant resigning from his job due to its support for the British forces fighting in America. Away from politics, Granville enjoyed his music but also established the British and Foreign Bible Society (now known as the Bible Society) with Wilberforce and Methodist preacher Thomas Charles (1755-1814) to spread the use of the scriptures throughout the world. Initially, the society focused on printing bibles in Welsh but soon produced bibles in Scots Gaelic and Manx Gaelic. They sent Gospels abroad in the languages of the Iroquois and Romani people in Canada and America to make the Bible accessible for more people. By 1824, the British and Foreign Bible Society had “distributed 1,723,251 Bibles, and 2,529,114 Testaments—making a total of 4,252,365.” Today the society is global with 150 Bible Societies around the world.

Granville Sharp passed away on 6th July 1813 before he had the chance to see the full effects of the Slave Trade Act. His tomb lies beside the graves of his siblings William and Elizabeth in All Saints Church, Fulham, which is visible in the background of the painting of the Sharp family.

“Here by the Remains of the Brother and Sister whom he tenderly loved lie those of GRANVILLE SHARP Esqr. at the age of 79 this venerable Philanthropist terminated his Career of almost unparalleled activity and usefulness July 6th 1813 Leaving behind him a name That will be Cherished with Affection and Gratitude as long as any homage shall be paid to those principles of JUSTICE HUMANITY and RELIGION which for nearly half a Century He promoted by his Exertions and adorned by his Example

Inscription on Granville Sharp’s tomb

A memorial in Westminster Abbey remembers the life of Granville Sharp and, in 2007, he featured on the 50p Royal Mail stamp issued to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom. His is also memorialised in Granville Town in Sierra Leone and Granville in Jamaica, both named in his honour.

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany intrigues viewers, who wonder about the identity of the musical family and the reason behind their public concerts. At a glance, it is impossible to tell that one family member made such an impact in the 18th century, helping to bring about changes that continue to shape our societies today.

Granville’s legacy suggests that not everyone has forgotten him, but the majority of people have not heard his name. It goes to show how quickly good deeds of others are overshadowed by new events, which in turn get buried beneath the ever-growing pile of history. In an attempt to discover the Sharp Family in Zoffany’s painting, a lesser-known period of Georgian Britain has emerged. Next time you view a portrait of someone you have not heard of, “google” them. You may be surprised by what you learn.


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Unfinished Business: The Edinburgh Seven

At the British Library‘s exhibition Unfinished Business, the Edinburgh Seven featured as examples of women campaigning for the right to higher education. Whilst girls were welcome in schools during the 19th-century, universities did not permit women to enrol. The seven women, known as the Edinburgh Seven, began to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 against the ruling of the Court of Session, but they were not allowed to graduate. 

Taking their name from the Greek mythological story the Seven Against Thebes, the Edinburgh Seven or Septem contra Edinam involved many women over their four-year campaign. The seven leaders were: Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell. Jex-Blake instigated the campaign after applying to study medicine in March 1869. Whilst the Medical Faculty was in favour of welcoming Jex-Blake, the University Court rejected the application stating they could not change the rules “in the interest of one lady”. 

Jex-Blake’s application for matriculation

Determined to study at the university, Jex-Blake published letters in national newspapers asking women to join her. Two women, Thorne and Pechey, quickly joined her cause and by the summer, the number of women totalled five. Jex-Blake resubmitted her application along with the other women in the hopes that this time the university would grant her entry. While waiting for a response, two more women joined the cause, taking the total to seven. The University Court accepted the application so long as the women could pass the matriculation exam.

The matriculation exam involved English, Latin, mathematics and two subjects of the candidate’s choice: Greek, French, German, higher mathematics, natural philosophy, logic and moral philosophy. On 19th October 1869, 152 students took the exam, Jex-Blake and her friends being the only women. All of them passed with four women earning a place in the top seven. On 2nd November 1869, the University of Edinburgh opened its doors to women for the first time.

“It is a grand thing to enter the very first British University ever opened to women, isn’t it?”

Sophia Jex-Blake

Who were the Edinburgh Seven?

Sophia Jex-Blake by Samuel Laurence, 1865

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (1840-1912), the leader of the Edinburgh Seven grew up in Hastings where she received an education at home until the age of eight. After this, she attended many private schools including Queen’s College, London, which she started attending in 1858 without her parents’ permission. The following year, the college offered Jex-Blake a post as a mathematics tutor, which she accepted although did without pay.

In 1861, Jex-Blake travelled to the United States, where she met Dr Lucy Ellen Sewall, an American physician who inspired Jex-Blake to think about becoming a doctor. After working for some time as Sewall’s assistant, Jex-Blake wrote to the President and Fellows of Harvard University asking to attend the University’s Medical School. After waiting a month, she received a reply saying, “There is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university”.

Jex-Blake’s father passed away shortly after this rejection, so she returned to England to support her mother. Yet, she still aspired to attend university and set her sights on Scotland, a country that already had shifting attitudes towards education.

Isabel Jane Thorne (Mrs Thorne)

Isabel Jane Thorne (1834-1910), nee Pryer, also attended Queen’s College, London. In 1856, Isabel married Joseph Thorne (1823-85), a tea merchant in China, and they spent the first years of their married life in Shanghai. The couple had five children, one of whom died in infancy, which inspired Thorne to help other women and children in China. Thorn believed women needed female doctors, so when she returned to England in 1868, she enrolled on a midwifery course at the Ladies’ Medical College in Fitzroy Square, London.

Disappointed with the inadequate teaching at the Ladies’ Medical College, Thorne eagerly responded to Jex-Blake’s letter. She won first prize in an anatomy examination but gave up her ambition to become a doctor to help other women access medical education. Her daughter May, who supported her mother’s dreams, later became a surgeon.

Edith Pechey

(Mary) Edith Pechey (1845-1908) from Essex already had connections with the University of Edinburgh through her father William, a Baptist minister who earned his MA in theology in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, Pechey could not use this to her advantage because she was a woman. Pechey worked as a governess until she saw and responded to Jex-Blake’s advertisement. Although concerned she did not have enough knowledge of the subjects needed to pass the matriculation exam, Pechey achieved the top grade in the chemistry exam after only one year of study.

Matilda Chaplin (1846-83) moved to Kensington from France shortly after her birth. Her early education focused on art, but in 1867 she decided to study medicine instead. Two years at the Ladies’ Medical College only got her so far, until her gender blocked her ambitions to become a doctor. Chaplin jumped at the chance to join Jex-Blake’s campaign to study at the University of Edinburgh.

Matriculation Record

Helen de Lacey Evans (1833-1903), born Helen Carter, was an Irish woman who spent some time in India where she married cavalry officer Henry John Delacy Evans of the Bengal Horse Artillery Regiment in 1845. Their marriage was short and bittersweet, resulting in the death of their infant daughter Helen shortly followed by Henry’s death. After returning to Britain, Evans responded to Jex-Blake and joined the Edinburgh Seven.

Mary Adamson Anderson (1837-1910) from Boyndie, Scotland was the daughter of Reverend Alexander Govie Anderson and sister-in-law of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917). Little information exists about Anderson until she joined the Edinburgh Seven.

Signature of Emily Bovell

Emily Bovell (1841-85), like Jex-Blake, attended Queen’s College, London and stayed on to teach Mathematics. She too responded to Jex-Blake’s letter, eager to continue her education.

Enrolling at the University of Edinburgh was only the first hurdle. In hindsight, it was relatively easy in comparison to what they later faced. The Edinburgh University Calendar for 1870 introduced a new section called the Regulations for the Education of Women in Medicine in the University. This stated men and women were to receive equal tuition and examinations. Despite this, women received their lessons separately from men and had to pay higher fees.

Thomas Charles Hope

In March 1870, all seven women passed their first exams in physiology and chemistry, four of whom received honours in both subjects. Edith Pechey won first place amongst all the candidates, which entitled her to the Hope Scholarship. This award, initiated by Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) chemistry professor Thomas Charles Hope (1766-1844) forty years previously, was usually given to the top four students. The present Professor of Chemistry, Dr Crum-Brown, on the other hand, thought giving the scholarship to women would undermine the male students.

Denying women the Hope Scholarship sparked further hostilities in the university. Many professors continued to argue that women should not be allowed to study with the men and expressed concerns that they may have ulterior motives for seeking medical careers. Pechey wrote to the papers to express her anger at being called “the foulest epithets”, most notably “whore”. Newspapers sympathetic to the women questioned why the professors did not have the same concerns about their male students, yet the professors maintained the women should “Become Midwives, not doctors!”

The male students, perhaps encouraged by their professors’ views, went out of their way to make the women’s lives difficult. As well as name-calling, the women received threatening letters and faced attacks in the streets. Vandals damaged their property and, on one occasion, Jex-Blake had a lit Catherine Wheel attached to her door.

Surgeons’ Hall

Despite the ongoing antagonism, the women persevered with their education. On 18th November 1870, their anatomy exam was due to take place at Surgeons’ Hall, but on their arrival, they faced a hostile crowd. After fighting their way through the masses while being pelted with mud and rubbish, they found the entrance to the hall locked. After enduring the hostilities, now known as the Surgeons’ Hall Riots, for several minutes, a sympathetic male student unlocked the doors.

After the riots, many of the male students changed their attitudes towards the women. Shocked by the abuse they witnessed, some of the men volunteered to act as bodyguards. They walked the women to and from their exams and their classes. The police fined three of the riot instigators £1 for “breach of the peace”, but Jex-Blake believed it was a member of staff who encouraged their behaviour.

Inspired by the Edinburgh Seven, other women joined the university and others established a General Committee for Securing a Complete Medical Education for Women. Over 300 people joined the committee, both women and men, including the well-known naturalist Charles Darwin. Despite this support and the excellent exam results the women received, the university refused to let them graduate. Not only did the university deny the women degrees, but they also ruled that women should no longer be allowed to attend.

School of Medicine for Women

Despite complaints, the university refused to back down, yet the Edinburgh Seven were not ready to give up on their dreams. In 1874, Sophia Jex-Blake helped to establish the London School of Medicine for Women with two other pioneering women: Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Bristol-born Blackwell relocated to the United States as a child and experienced similar issues as the Edinburgh Seven when applying to American universities. She eventually found a place at Geneva Medical College in New York where, despite harsh treatment, she received a degree in 1849, the first American woman to do so.

Garrett Anderson, inspired by Blackwell, sought a medical education in Britain but received rejections from every establishment. After working for some time as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital, she travelled to France, where she successfully earned a medical degree. Returning to England, Garrett Anderson eagerly agreed to help Jex-Blake establish the School of Medicine for Women and served as Dean from 1883 until 1903.

Shortly after the establishment of the school, Conservative MP Robert Gurney (1804-78) proposed changes to the Medical Act, which would allow both genders to attend and graduate from medical schools. Despite Queen Victoria‘s (1819-1901) objections to women working, she passed the new Medical Act in 1876. The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland was the first establishment to implement these changes, but this was too late for Jex-Blake who by then was a student at the University of Bern in Switzerland. She successfully graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1877.

On returning to Scotland, Jex-Blake set up a clinic where she practised as Edinburgh’s first female doctor. In 1878, Jex-Blake established an outpatient clinic for poor women who could not afford the prices of most doctors. By 1885, it had expanded to include a small ward under the name the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women, Scotland’s first hospital for women staffed by women.

In 1886, Jex-Blake set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, but it did not prove as successful as the London school. Despite having the support of a handful of physicians, the school struggled to find funding. Unlike the London school, which had several teachers, Jex-Blake attempted to teach her students alone. Evidence suggests she was not as good at teaching as she was at being a doctor and the school closed in 1892. By this time, the University of Edinburgh allowed female applicants and Jex-Blake’s students continued their education at the university.

Jex-Blake continued to work as a doctor until 1899, when she retired to Windydene in Mark Cross, Rotherfield. Here she resided with Dr Margaret Todd (1859-1918), a doctor who coined the word “isotope” in 1913. Many assume Jex-Blake and Todd had a romantic relationship and, after Jex-Blake’s death in 1912 Todd wrote The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake

What happened to the other six women?

When the University of Edinburgh denied the women their degrees, Isabel Thorne gave up her ambition to become a doctor. Instead, she joined the London School of Medicine for Women as a teacher. When Jex-Blake travelled to Berne to pursue her medical education, Thorne took over as Honorary Secretary, which she held until 1908. Thorne committed herself to teaching and helping the school run smoothly, without which it would have floundered.

Thorne kept an account of her years at the school, which she published as Sketch of the Foundation and Development of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1905. Her daughter May followed in her footsteps, graduating from the school in 1895 and taking over as Honorary Secretary in 1908. Thorne passed away at home in October 1910, age 76.

Edith Pechey refused to give up on her ambition to become a doctor. After leaving Edinburgh, Pechey contacted the College of Physicians in Ireland who allowed her to take exams to earn a midwifery license. This led to a job at the Birmingham and Midland Hospital for Women, where she worked until 1877 when she, like Jex-Blake, travelled to Berne to earn her degree. In May 1877, Pechey became a fully licensed doctor.

For six years, Pechey worked as a doctor in Leeds, where she also advocated for women’s health education. When the London School of Medicine for Women opened, Jex-Blake invited Pechey to give the inaugural address. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson suggested Pechey may be interested in a new “medical women for India” fund and, in 1883, Pechey arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) to work at the Cama Hospital for Women and Children as Senior Medical Officer (SMO).

While in India, Pechey encouraged women to train as nurses and demanded they received equal pay. She gave lectures to student nurses and campaigned for social reform so that women could enter other male-oriented fields. Her reputation grew, and she received invites from several societies asking her to be their first female member. By 1888, she was on the Bombay Natural History Society committee.

H. M. Phipson

Pechey met the founding secretary of the society, Herbert Musgrave Phipson (1850-1936) and learnt he also had a hand in developing the “medical women for India” fund. With Phipson, who she married in March 1889, Pechey established the Pechey Phipson Sanitarium for Women and Children in Nasik, India. Unfortunately, five years later Pechey-Phipson suffered ill health, including diabetes, and resigned from hospital work. She continued to practice privately and proved invaluable during the bubonic plague and cholera outbreak.

Pechey-Phipson and her husband returned to England in 1905 and she quickly involved herself with the suffrage movement. She took part in the famous Mud March but soon after became critically ill. Diagnosed with breast cancer, Pechey-Phipson sought treatment. She underwent an operation led by the surgeon May Thorne, the daughter of Isabel Thorne, but passed away while in a diabetic coma on 14th April 1908. Her husband set up a scholarship at the London School of Medicine for Women in her memory.

William Edward Ayrton

When the University of Edinburgh closed to women, Matilda Chaplin travelled to France to complete her education at the University of Paris. After gaining a Bachelier ès-Sciences and Bachelier ès-Lettres, Chaplin married her cousin William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908), a physicist and electrical engineer who studied under Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Back in the United Kingdom, Mrs Ayrton qualified as a midwife then moved to Japan with her husband.

While her husband taught at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, Ayrton established a school for Japanese midwives. In 1875, she gave birth to her daughter Edith (1875-1945) who would go on to play a role in the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. Unfortunately, Ayrton developed tuberculosis, which prompted her return to Europe in 1877. After recovering, she moved to Paris to take the Doctor of Medicine exams, which she passed in 1879.

Child Life in Japan

Ayrton continued to study, taking exams at the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland, after which she moved to London to study diseases of the eye at the Royal Free Hospital. A recurrence of tuberculosis prompted her to seek warmer climates during the winter months. When not working in hospitals, Ayrton contributed to The Scotsman newspaper and wrote a book entitled Child Life in Japan, which she illustrated. Matilda Chaplin Ayrton passed away in London on 19th July 1883, age 37.

Helen de Lacey Evans decided not to pursue her medical career after leaving the University of Edinburgh, but she did remain in touch with Sophia Jex-Blake. In 1871, Evans remarried to Alexander Russel (1814-76), the editor of The Scotsman. Evans and Russel had three children, including Helen Archdale (1876-1949) who, inspired by her mother, went on to organise the Sheffield branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Although she did not become a doctor, Evans advocated female doctors and emphasised the importance of education for girls. Sadly, her husband died suddenly of angina pectoris in 1876, making her a widow for the second time. With three young children to bring up, Evans had limited time to spend on promoting women’s health education, yet she remained passionate for the cause. Later, in 1900, Evans became the vice-president of the committee of the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children. Unfortunately, she did not hold this position for long, passing away on 4th October 1903 after a surgical procedure.

Little is known about Mary Anderson‘s life after she left the University of Edinburgh. Records show she earned a medical doctorate from the Faculté de médecine de Paris in 1879. She married a man named Claud Marshall and worked as a senior physician at the New Hospital for Women in Marylebone, London. She died in 1910.

Emily Bovell also moved to Paris to continue her education, qualifying as a doctor in 1877. That year, she met the future personal physician for Queen Victoria, William Allen Sturge (1850-1919), who she married later that year in London. Together, they set up a practice in Wimpole Street, and Bovell returned to Queen’s College to lecture on physiology and hygiene. She also ran classes for female paramedics.

Her husband supported Bovell’s work and also campaigned for women’s medical education. Unfortunately, in 1881, Bovell began complaining of breathing problems, which made it difficult to focus on her medical career. The couple moved to Nice in the hopes the climate would help Bovell’s condition. Rallying a little, Bovell set up a practice in Nice as their first female doctor. Sadly, her lung problems worsened in 1884, and she passed away the following April. In her honour, her husband established the Bovell-Sturge laboratory at Queen’s College.

Edinburgh Seven Plaque

Despite the University of Edinburgh refusing to allow the women to graduate, each member of the Edinburgh Seven went on to achieve things despite their gender. Due to their determination, universities opened up for women, and today it is as common to see a female doctor as it is a male. Sadly, no one apologised to the women for the treatment they received during their education but, in 2015, Edinburgh University unveiled a plaque in their honour as part of the Historic Scotland Commemorative Plaques Scheme. In 2019, Edinburgh Medical School went one step further, posthumously awarding the Edinburgh Seven with an honorary Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB).

Usually, the Suffragists and Suffragettes receive the credit for changing lives for women, but this is not entirely true. The Edinburgh Seven were instrumental in changing the medical world for women and should be recognised accordingly. The Unfinished Business exhibition at the British Library only named Sophia Jex-Blake in a brief paragraph, but all seven women deserve far more attention. 

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau

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London Down Below

On the edge of Covent Garden is a museum devoted to telling the history of London transport from 1800 until the present day. The London Transport Museum contains examples of horse-drawn carriages, trams, steam trains, buses and taxis. The red double-decker buses and the black taxi cabs have become symbols of London, but nothing is more iconic than the London Underground.

Mainline railways constructed in the 1840s and 1850s caused the population of London to rise rapidly. As a result, road traffic increased, which caused congestion in the city. A journey of five miles could take up to an hour and a half on a horse-drawn omnibus – a precursor to motorised buses. By 1850, London had seven railway termini, and people often had to get an omnibus to catch their connecting train at another station. Something needed to change to reduce the time of these journeys.

Proposals for an underground railway link between London’s termini appeared as early as the 1830s. Charles Pearson (1793-1862), a solicitor to the City of London, backed this idea and created the City Terminus Company who proposed to build a line between Farringdon to King’s Cross. It took some persuading, but after establishing the Metropolitan Railway Company in August 1854, parliament consented to the plans.

Despite having permission, the company needed to raise £1 million to cover the costs. Unfortunately, money was scarce due to the ongoing Crimean War, and it took five years to raise sufficient funds. Eventually, construction began in March 1860 using “cut-and-cover” and tunnelling methods to create the 3.75-mile underground railway.

The Metropolitan Line opened on 10th January 1863, carrying 38,000 passengers on the first day in wooden carriages pulled by a steam engine. The underground railway linked the Great Western Railway terminus at Paddington to Farringdon via the Great Northern Railway terminus at King’s Cross. Steam from the engine posed ventilation problems, but this did not prevent the public from embracing the new form of travel. The Metropolitan Line, the first underground railway in the world, was an instant success.

Inspired by the result, Parliament received 250 different plans for other underground railways. The House of Lords agreed to an “inner circuit of railway that should abut, if not actually join, nearly all of the principal railway termini in the Metropolis”. This resulted in proposals for the Metropolitan District Railway (now known as the District Line). Civil engineer John Fowler (1817-98), who worked on the Metropolitan Line, was chosen to lead the construction of the District Line, which opened on Christmas Eve 1868 between South Kensington and Westminster. During the 1870s, the line extended to Hammersmith, Richmond and Ealing Broadway.

The original plan was for the Metropolitan District Railway and Metropolitan Line to join up, creating a circuit. Unfortunately, the companies owning the lines fell out over expenses, delaying the completion of the “inner circle”. Conflicts between the companies lasted over a decade until the government intervened. Eventually, the track was complete, and the first circular service began in 1884. This route is known as the Circle Line but did not receive this name until 1949.

The Metropolitan, District and Circle lines helped reduce some of the congestion on London’s streets and made it easier for people to travel between mainline termini. Over time, expansions reached London suburbs, providing thousands of people with easy access to the city. By 1902, the District Line had extended to Upminster in the east of London. In 1990, the Hammersmith & City Line took over parts of the Metropolitan and District lines, and since 2012 has extended to span between Hammersmith and Barking.

Whilst these new railways were a great success, they did not provide access to the heart of London. As a result, there was still a great deal of congestion in the city centre. Proposals for underground tracks in this area were aplenty, but the “cut and cover” method of constructing the tunnels was too disruptive and expensive.

In 1843, French engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), proved it was possible to tunnel underneath London. The Thames Tunnel was the first underwater tunnel in the world, although it was only suitable for pedestrians. Unfortunately, the method of construction was expensive and time-consuming, taking over 20 years to complete. They needed a more practical solution.

Peter William Barlow (1809-95), the designer of the first Lambeth Bridge, patented a method of tunnelling using a circular cast-iron shield, which he commissioned his pupil James Greathead (1844-96) to build. Work on a railway tunnel between Great Tower Hill and Pickle Herring Stairs near Vine Street began in February 1869, opening in August the following year.

Steam-powered lifts either side of the River Thames took passengers down to the newly built City and South London Railway (C&SL) to a single carriage that could carry up to 12 passengers. The train was pulled from one station to the other by a cable firstly powered by steam then by electricity. Unfortunately, the tunnel was a commercial failure and closed in December 1870, only four months after opening.

Rather than closing the tunnel completely, they converted it into a foot tunnel, which people could use for a ha’penny. Charles Dickens Jr (1837-96), the son of the famous author of the same name, commented, “there is not much head-room left, and it is not advisable for any but the very briefest of Her Majesty’s lieges to attempt the passage in high-heeled boots, or with a hat to which he attaches any particular value.” This description and stories that Jack the Ripper frequented the tunnel put people off using it. Even fewer pedestrians walked the Tower Subway after the toll-free Tower Bridge opened in 1894, causing it to close to the public in 1898.

Although the tunnel has been out of bounds since the end of the 19th century, it is still used today as a means of carrying water mains and telecommunication cables. A small round building near the Tower of London marks an entrance to the tunnel, constructed in 1926 by the London Hydraulic Power Company. 

Demands for more underground railways after the success of the Metropolitan and District lines prompted engineers to have a second attempt at constructing a deep-level electric railway. James Greathead improved his tunnelling shield to make wider tunnels, which he used to dig the second City & South London Railway (C&SLR), the first successful “tube” train.

On 4th November 1890, Edward, Prince of Wales (1841-1910; later Edward VII) opened the C&SLR to the public. Trains of three carriages carried up to thirty-two passengers from Stockwell to King William Street (now Monument), stopping at the Oval, Kennington, Elephant & Castle, and Borough along the way. Although the Tower Subway used electricity to pull the cable, the new railway was named the first electric railway in England. Rather than using cables, a live rail beneath the train provided power.

Unlike the Tower Subway, the new railway was an instant success. Nevertheless, as with all new ventures, it had its share of problems. Designers of the underground carriages saw no need for windows, only including a narrow band of windows for ventilation. Punch magazine dubbed it the “sardine box railway” and the public nicknamed the carriages “padded cells”. Nonetheless, the railway was well-received, but the company underestimated the amount of electricity needed to power the trains.

In 1896, the C&SLR extended the tunnel to Bank, but it was struggling to cope with the number of passengers. At the same time, it also failed to make much of a profit. Proposals for other underground lines began to dwindle due to the uncertainties this provoked, but two years later the London & North Western Railway backed the opening of a short track between two stations.

The Waterloo & City Line became London’s second deep-level underground line or “tube”. Known colloquially as “the drain”, it took passengers into the City of London from the mainline station at Waterloo. Despite being only 1.47 miles long, it continues to be the second most used of all London’s underground lines. Since Bank station is in the heart of the financial district, the line tends not to run on Sundays or Bank Holidays.

Plans were underway to build another tube line, meanwhile, the original C&SLR chose to extend the railway to the north and south of London. In February 1900, stations opened at London Bridge and Moorgate, and in March, Clapham Road and Clapham Common. Later that year, the track extended to include Old Street, Angel and City Road (closed 1922).

During the 1890s, Parliament approved several plans for underground railways, but the majority fell through due to lack of funds. Eventually, after ten years of planning, the Prince of Wales opened the Central London Railway on 27th June 1900. For the first time, passengers could travel directly under the centre of the city between Shepherd’s Bush and Bank. Popular stations on the line included Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street, Oxford Circus, British Museum (now closed) and Post Office (now St. Pauls). In 1909, Liverpool Street Station joined the line.

Nicknamed the Twopenny Tube after the cost of a ticket (approximately 91p today), the CLR was popular with shoppers and commuters alike. When Queen Victoria (1819-1901) passed away in 1901, crowds wanting to get a glimpse of her funeral procession filled the trains. The useful transport links encouraged people to move to the capital, and by the end of the year, London was the largest city in the world with a population of 6 million.

One of the lines proposed in the 1890s was the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (CCE&HR), but there were not sufficient funds. The situation changed in 1902 after American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes (1837-1905) purchased the company. With his money, the CCE&HR came into existence, and Yerkes also purchased the Metropolitan District Railway, replacing the steam-powered engines with electric trains.

Following the success of the new railway, Yerkes purchased the underfunded plans for the Brompton and Piccadilly Circus Railway (B&PCR) and Great Northern and Strand Railway (GN&SR). The two railways subsequently linked, forming the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (GNP&BR). The railway opened in 1906, running through 22 stations from Hammersmith in the west to Finsbury Park in the north of the city.

Yerkes’ final purchase was the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (BS&WR), running from Paddington to Elephant & Castle. By now, the majority of the underground railways belonged to Yerkes’ company Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL). In 1908, the UERL published the first map of the underground network, thus developing the “underground” brand.

The lines continued to extend until the First World War, which put a temporary halt to the proceedings. Work continued after the war under the direction of UERL until 1933, when the public corporation formed the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB). The LPTB purchased all the underground railways from UERL as well as tramway companies and bus operators.

Under London Transport, some of the railways joined up to form a single line. The Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, for instance, connected with the City and South London Railway to form the Northern Line. Others railways shortened their names, such as the Bakerloo Line and Picadilly Line. These changes made mapping the underground system more manageable, which Henry “Harry” Beck (1902-74) achieved in 1933.

Older maps of the underground, drawn geographically, became confusing to read as more stations joined the lines. Beck’s version used a non-geographic linear diagram, with equally spaced distances between stations. This also made the maps easy to edit when lines grew to include more stops. Beck colour coded each track to make reading the map as simple as possible: red for the Central Line, green for District Line, brown for the Bakerloo Line, purple for the Metropolitan Line, black for the Northern Line, dark blue for the Piccadilly Line and turquoise for the Waterloo & City Line. After several edits over the decades, the current underground map resembles Beck’s original idea.

Following the outbreak of World War Two, some of the underground lines were closed to the public. The Northern Line tunnels temporarily closed between the Strand (now Charing Cross) and Kennington for use as flood barriers. During the Blitz, many stations became makeshift air raid shelters. Approximately 175,000 Londoner’s slept in the stations each night during the summer of 1940.

The British Museum used the tunnels between Aldwych and Holborn as a safe space to store some of their most valuable items, including the Elgin Marbles. Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) used Down Street, a disused station on the Piccadilly Line, as a bunker until his Cabinet War Rooms were ready. He reportedly nicknamed the shelter “The Barn”.

After the war, the British Transport Commission, created by Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883-1967), focused on repairing the war damages to the transport system. In 1949, the Circle Line became an official line on the Tube Map, appearing in yellow. In the same year, constructors submitted proposals for a new track to alleviate congestion on other lines.

The Victoria Line (light blue), named after the last queen, was constructed during the 1960s, making it the first entirely new underground line to open in 50 years. The government approved the track to run from Walthamstow to Victoria station, although later amended the plans to include Brixton. Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) formally opened the line on 7th March 1969 by travelling from Green Park to Victoria, making her the first reigning monarch to use the Underground.

Tragedy struck the London Underground on 28th February 1975 when a train failed to stop at Moorgate Underground Station. Forty-three people died as a result of the train ploughing into the wall. Investigations proved there was nothing wrong with the train, so the crash was deemed to be caused by the actions of Leslie Newson, the 56-year-old driver. Unfortunately, Newson died in the crash, so it is impossible to ascertain the reason for the collision. A post-mortem revealed nothing was physically wrong with the driver at the time of the accident. Since the incident, all underground lines use a device that prevents trains crashing into walls at the end of the track if a driver fails to activate the brakes.

Before the Victoria Line opened, proposals were submitted for a new line to take over part of the Bakerloo Line between Baker Street and Stanmore. Further designs extended the track as far as Cannon Street, passing through Bond Street, Trafalgar Square, Strand, Fleet Street and Ludgate Circus. Due to be named the Fleet Line, construction began in 1971 and continued until 1979. During this time, the queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee, prompting London Transport to rename it the Jubilee Line.

In 1999, the Jubilee Line extended to Stratford as a way of marking the upcoming millennium. The stations within the new section of the track are unique because they are the only platforms with doors that open when trains arrive. The Jubilee Line is appropriately coloured silver on the underground map and runs between 27 stations.

Since its beginnings, the London Underground continuously expands and develops to keep up with the present day and the demands upon the service. Plans are in place to extend some of the underground lines to provide the suburbs with easy access to the city. Next year, the Northern Line is due to open a new stretch between Kennington and Battersea Power Station.

Between the opening of the Metropolitan Line in 1863 and the present day, London has changed dramatically. Without the London Underground, it is hard to imagine how the city would function. Many cities around the world have followed suit, creating an underground metro system, but London’s continues to be the most famous. This is helped, in part, by its iconic logo, the roundel.

The London Underground logo is over 100 years old, beginning as a humble bar and circle on platforms in 1908. Comprised of a red disc and a blue horizontal bar, the signs helped passengers distinguish the name of the station from the surrounding advertisements. Although the lines were owned by different companies at the time, they agreed to use the symbol and refer to the entire system as the Underground.

In 1914, the Metropolitan Line opted to use their own logo on publicity items, such as maps and pamphlets, rather than the generic roundel. They chose to keep to the same colour scheme but swapped the circle for a diamond.

Before other lines had the opportunity to propose individual logos, publicity manager, Frank Pick (1878-1941) commissioned calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872-1944) to design a company typeface. To suit the new lettering, Johnston tweaked the proportions of the bar and switched the solid disc for a hollow red circle. The new symbol was registered as a trademark and began to replace the old signs in the 1920s.

In 1924, Frank Pick commissioned the architect Charles Holden (1875-1960) to redesign the underground stations to incorporate Johnston’s logo. Roundels appeared on walls, windows and posters on the platforms and outside the station, a three-dimensional version appeared on Venetian masts or flag poles.

Holden also helped to design bus stops, using a version of Johnston’s logo on bus stop flags and shelters. For buses, the roundel was printed only in red to help people differentiate it from underground stations. In 2000, Transport for London (TfL) formed to manage all forms of transport in London. The roundel became the identification of TfL with alternative colours adopted for different services. The Overground service, for instance, is recognised by the colour orange, whereas trams are green, river services blue, Docklands Light Railway turquoise and the upcoming Elizabeth Line purple.

The London Underground serves over one billion passengers a year and continues to be one of the busiest cities in the world. The underground system has extended to include parts of Buckinghamshire, Essex and Hertfordshire as well as the City of London. Newer sections of the service tend to be above ground, ironically making the London Underground only 45% underground. The system covers 250 miles of track and 270 stations, only 29 of which are south of the River Thames.

Next time you travel on the London Underground or see or read anything about it, bring to mind its history. Marvel at the workmanship that went into building the extensive system. Thank Harry Beck for creating a readable map and Edward Johnston for his instantly recognisable logo. Be grateful to our forefathers for having the insight to create something so vital for the everyday workings of the capital city. Also, take note of these fun facts:

  • Upminster Bridge is the only station to have a red phone box
  • Mile End to Stratford is the longest underground section between stations – 1.8 miles
  • The longest overground section is between Chesham and Chalfont & Latimer – 3.9 miles
  • The distance between Covent Garden and Leicester Square stations is the shortest at 285 yards, taking 37 seconds to travel
  • The only place to hear the original “Mind the Gap” announcement is on the northbound platform of the Northern line at Embankment station
  • At St James’s Park, one of the roundels is spelt incorrectly
  • Victoria is the busiest station on the network
  • Roding Valley is the least used station
  • Turnham Green was used as a test station for the automated ticket barriers that were introduced in the 1960s
  • Kew Gardens is the only station that has a pub directly attached to it
  • A statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is located at Paddington station, as is a statue of Paddington Bear
  • Aldgate station is built on top of a plague pit where thousands of bodies were buried in 1665
  • King’s Cross and Waterloo tie for the station with the most escalators – 20
  • Angel station has the longest escalator
  • The Northern line at Waterloo is the deepest part of the Underground – 21 metres below sea level
  • There are only five stations that fall outside of the M25: Amersham, Chalfont & Latimer, Chesham, Chorleywood and Epping
  • Amersham is the highest station above sea level – 150 metres
  • Gants Hill station and Wanstead station were used as a munitions factory during WWII
  • There is no platform seven at Stratford station
  • The longest journey you can make without getting off the train is between Epping and West Ruislip on the Central line – 34.1 miles
  • Arsenal station was originally called Gillespie Road until it was renamed after the football club in 1932

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London’s Canals

museum-waterside

London is known for its tourist attractions, tall buildings and river; however, a short walk from King’s Cross Station in a former ice warehouse, is a museum that tells a little known history of the city. The London Canal Museum, established in 1992, displays information about the history of London’s canals. Today, these canals are a peaceful area away from the busy roads, but they were not always like that. Once vital for industrial London, these canals had a significant part to play, a role that is gradually disappearing from memory in an increasingly technological world.

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On entering the museum, the first thing visitors see is the remains of an unpowered narrowboat named (rather unfortunately) Coronis. Built in 1935 by Harland and Wolff, an offshore construction company, Coronis accompanied a motorboat known by the (even more unfortunate) name, Corona, on the Grand Union Canal. Carrying goods, such as wood, metal, fruit and grain, Coronis regularly travelled from London to Birmingham and back again.

Narrowboats are unique to the United Kindom and were built to fit the narrow canals and locks that had a much shorter width than the canals in Europe. The average narrowboat is 6 feet 10 inches (2.08 m) wide and no longer than 72 feet (21.95 m). Despite the lack of space, narrowboats were also used as floating homes for many people. The rear portion of the boat, known as the boatman’s cabin, was designed to make use of every bit of space. Although rather cramped, the cabin contained a stove, a folding table and a couple of folding beds. These would fold out of cupboards meaning the floor space could be kept clear during the day.

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What inhabited narrowboats lacked, however, were bathroom facilities. Instead, families had to use rather primitive methods, such as going to the toilet in a bucket and washing with rainwater collected in a “Bucky” can on the roof of the cabin. These cans were usually decorated, as was the rest of the narrowboat.

By the end of the 19th century, it was common practice to either decorate a narrowboat with painted flowers or with images of castles. The origin of these designs is unknown but may have been influenced by Romani communities.

Today, narrowboats are motorised, however, during the 19th and early 20th century, they were powered by horses. Running alongside the canals is a towpath, which the horses used to walk, pulling the narrowboats behind them by rope. Some people regarded this as cruel, however, bargemen maintained it was far easier than dragging a carriage through the street. The hardest part for the horse was to get the boat moving, but once this had been achieved, the narrowboat would move easily across the water. The horses were regularly changed, rested and fed throughout the day.

The main danger for the horses was losing their footing and falling into the canal. This was most likely to occur during thick fogs when it was impossible to see anything in front of you. Whilst this problem could not always be avoided, horse slips or ramps were built into the canal walls so they could easily climb back out. Passing trains often spooked the horses, which also caused many to fall into the canal. As a result, it was made certain there were horse ramps within 100 yards of train bridges.

By the 1950s, horses were replaced by tractors. Of course, many faced the same fate as the horses and found themselves in the canals. To prevent this from happening, railings were added in areas where the towpath was harder to navigate.

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Legging in Islington Canal Tunnel on the Regent’s Canal, c.1916

As roads and railways were developed, more bridges were built over the canal. This, however, caused problems for horses and tractors because, unless a towpath had been built into the construction, they could not go through the tunnel. Therefore, bargemen had to “leg” the boats through. This involved a couple of men lying on planks hooked at right angles to the front of the boat who would use their legs to “walk” along the tunnel wall, gradually inching the narrowboats through.

For some years, the main canal in London was the Grand Junction Canal, which was built between 1793 and 1805 to connect the River Thames to the Midlands. Since 1929, this canal has become a part of of the Grand Union Canal, which the narrowboat Coronis used to sail. Today, London’s most famous canal is Regent’s Canal, which joins the Grand Union Canal at Paddington and stretches across the north of London to Limehouse Basin and the River Thames, a total of 8.6 miles (13.8 km).

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Regent’s Canal was first proposed in 1802 by Thomas Homer, although it was not constructed until after 1812 when it was agreed by Parliament. Designs for the canal were drawn out by John Nash (1752-1853), who is better known for designing Buckingham Palace and Marble Arch. Most of Nash’s architectural work was financed by the Prince Regent, later George IV (1762-1830), which is why the canal was named Regent’s Canal.

Nash appointed his assistant James Morgan (1776-1856) as the chief engineer of the canal company and construction began on 14th October 1812. The first section, Paddington to Camden, was completed by 1816 and the rest was opened in 1820. There were, however, a couple of problems along the way.

The first problem was the hydropneumatic locking system invented by William Congreve (1772-1828), which did not work when first installed. A lock is a device used to raise or lower boats between different water levels in a canal. Usually consisting of two gates, the boats enter through one, which is then sealed shut while the other gate gradually lets water in or out until the water inside the two gates is level with the outside. Once this has been achieved, the other gate opens and the boat continues on its journey.

Operation of caisson lock

The most common type of lock is known as the mitre lock and is based on designs by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), which he produced to show how improvements could be made to the canal system in Milan. This type of lock was first used in England on the River Lee in 1577, however, Congreve wished to impress the Prince Regent with a more impressive design.

In 1813, Congreve patented a “hydro-pneumatic double balance lock”, which involved a boat entering a box or caisson submerged in a cistern. The cistern would then either descend or ascend and release the boat onto the new water level. Unfortunately, there was not enough water for this to work in Regent’s Canal, which was only discovered after its construction. Various alterations were made to the lock, however, it was soon replaced by a more conventional design.

Camden Lock

Today, there are nine locks on Regent’s Canal between Islington Tunnel and the Thames: City Road, Sturts, Acton’s, Old Ford, Mile End, Johnson’s, Salmon Lane, Commercial Road and Regent’s Canal Dock. These were initially manned by lock keepers who would open and close the gates for the passing boats for a small toll fee. Today, narrowboat owners each have their own Windlass Handle, which opens the majority of the locks around the UK, therefore, lock keepers are no longer needed.

The second problem faced during the construction of Regent’s Canal involved money. It cost a total of £772,000 to build the canal, which was twice the amount predicted. Getting an adequate water supply was a big issue, therefore, further digging needed to be done to create dams, make reservoirs and build basins. This, however, was not the main money problem.

Thomas Homer, the man who first proposed Regent’s Canal, became known as the Villain of the Regent’s Canal after embezzling funds in 1815. Homer was born on 27th March 1761 and was one of seventeen children born to the Rector Henry Sacheverell Homer, who was considered to be the finest classical scholar of his day. Out of the twelve sons, Thomas Homer was the only one not to go on to become a clergyman. Instead, he followed his father’s passion for canals.

After completing an apprenticeship in Coventry in 1782, Thomas Homer was qualified as a solicitor. By 1795, Homer had become the Auditor of the Grand Junction Canal Company and began making plans for what would become Regent’s Canal. All seemed to be going well until 1815 when the canal construction ran into some difficulties. The company was also facing financial problems caused by shareholders not paying up or, if they had paid, not paying directly to the treasurer but Thomas Homer.

Suspicions about Homer’s actions began to arise after he repeatedly failed to produce records when requested by the company’s chairman, Charles Monro. Homer soon fled the country and it came to light he had been declared bankrupt. It also became clear he had been syphoning off money from the company in an attempt to cover his debts. The company immediately reported Homer and offered an award for his arrest.

Thomas Homer was arrested and brought back to London where he was placed in debtors’ prison. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement and was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. It appears, however, that he never went and there are no records about how he spent the rest of his life. Despite his arrest and admission, the Grand Junction Canal Company was unable to claim any money back as there was no knowledge of how much money Homer had stolen.

Fortunately, funds were found to complete the construction of Regent’s Canal and it officially opened in 1820. Yet, within two decades of its completion, the canal was already under threat from the increase in railways. Several attempts were made to turn the canal into a railway and the idea to run a track alongside the water was also rejected. As a result, rail construction companies built bridges over the canal, however, these caused their fair share of problems, such as scaring the horses and making it difficult for narrowboats to pass under the bridge.

Bridges were also built over the canal for cars to pass over the water. One famous incident involving one of the bridges occurred in the early hours of 2nd October 1874 when a barge called The Tilbury exploded underneath Macclesfield Bridge. The barge was carrying a couple of barrels of petroleum and five tons of gunpowder when it caught light passing under the bridge at the north of Regent’s Park. The resulting explosion destroyed Macclesfield Bridge and killed all three men on board.

The explosion was heard up to 25 miles away and many people mistook it for an earthquake. Animals in the zoo were frightened and debris flew in all directions, damaging nearby buildings and shattering windows. Eyewitnesses claimed that dead fish from the canal “rained from the sky”.

Fortunately, the majority of the iron legs of Macclesfield Bridge were salvaged and the bridge was successfully reconstructed. The explosion caused the government to amend the laws about selling and buying explosive substances to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Although explosive substances had been limited on canals, barges became vital during the World Wars for transporting munitions and equipment across the city. On one occasion, Londoners were surprised to see a tank being sailed along the canal. After the Second World War, the usual trade resumed upon the canals, delivering goods and materials that could not easily be reached by ships and cars. Horses continued to be used to tow the crafts until 1956 when they were replaced by tractors. By the late 1960s, however, commercial traffic on the canals had almost disappeared and it was opened to the public. Today, Regent’s Canal has become a leisure facility, used by those who own narrowboats for fun rather than for work or domestic living. The towpaths are also opened to the public and have become a popular place for cyclists.

Before canal boats were motorised, the most difficult sections to pass through were the tunnels. In London, there are three tunnels, all of them on Regent’s Canal. Getting a barge or narrowboat under a bridge without a horse or tractor was difficult enough but a tunnel required far more strength.

Two of the tunnels were opened as early as 1816 before the full extent of Regent’s Canal was completed. One of these is the Maida Hill Tunnel, which lies to the west of Camden Locks. It was not a part of the original plan but, due to protests about the route of the canal, it was agreed a tunnel would be constructed.

It took a while to complete the Maida Hill Tunnel, not least due to damage caused by the water. Eventually, the 272 yards (249 m) long tunnel was completed, however, due to its narrow width, there was no towpath. The only way for narrowboats to get through was to manually “leg” it through. This required much more energy than walking a boat under a bridge and, in 1825, two people lost their lives in the process. Three men were legging a boat through Maida Hill Tunnel when the boards they were lying on slipped. One man was seriously injured and another was crushed to death. The body of the third man was never found.

The other tunnel constructed in 1816 was Eyre’s Tunnel, also known as Lisson Grove Tunnel, near St John’s Wood. It was originally called Eyre’s Tunnel because it went through land belonging to Richard Eyre. Today, more people refer to it as Lisson Grove after the name of the road that passes above. Often mistaken for a bridge, Eyre’s Tunnel is only 52 yards (48 metres) and has a towpath that was once used by horses and tractors.

The third tunnel on Regent’s Canal was Islington Tunnel, which was completed in 1818. At 960 yards (878 m), the tunnel, which travels under Angel, Islington, was built by the canal’s engineer, James Morgan. When Morgan began the project, he had little knowledge of locks and tunnels, so the Grand Junction Canal Company decided to hold a design competition.

Advertisements were placed in August 1812 for the competition with a 50-guinea (£52.50) prize for the winner. William Jessop (1745-1814), who had designed the Grand Canal of Ireland, was invited to judge the entries along with two engineers, Ralph Walker (1749-1824) and Nicholson. Unfortunately, the competition was not as successful as they had hoped and they only received a handful of entries. Although the prize was awarded, the designs were not considered suitable, therefore, the project fell to Morgan once again.

By 1816, the company were low on funds, so work had to temporarily cease on the tunnel. Before then, Morgan had also discovered the construction of the tunnel was not as easy as he had hoped. To begin with, there were protests from landowners to overcome before work could commence. To dig the tunnel, men had to be lowered down on shafts with their equipment, which added to the cost of the project. The tunnel also needed to be straight for boats to pass through easily, which was a difficult thing to achieve. Although slow, progress was going well until they neared the other side where the earth was a lot less stable than Morgan had anticipated. It was at this point the company’s money ran out.

The company needed at least a further £200,000 to complete the tunnel and canal but had no means of raising the money. Fortunately, a chance meeting with the Society for the Relieving of the Manufacturing Poor resulted in talks about government loans and providing opportunities for poor people to work on the canal’s construction. Following this discussion, the Poor Employment Act was passed in 1817 followed by the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission. On behalf of the commissioners, Thomas Telford (1757-1834), who had built canals in Shropshire, was sent to survey the canal’s construction progress. After reading his report, the commissioners agreed to provide the company with a loan of £200,000 if they could raise at least £100,000 in match funding.

Finally, work on the tunnel and canal was able to continue and was opened on 1st August 1820. Islington Tunnel alone had cost £40,000 to build, making it the most expensive section of Regent’s Canal.

Islington Tunnel has no towpath, so before motors were added to the boats, they had to be legged through. This was extremely hard work due to the length of the tunnel and people were grateful when the steam chain tug was invented in 1826 to pull the narrowboats along – although some complained of almost being gassed out in the tunnel!

Islington Tunnel Waymarker

Due to the length of the tunnel, it was not as simple for the horses, and later tractors, to meet the boat at the other end. To help people find their way, towpath link waymarkers were placed on the pavements for people to follow. By following the waymarkers, people are taken up Duncan Street, through Islington High Street, up Liverpool Road into Chapel Market, then through Penton Street, Maygood Street and Muriel Street where they finally rejoin the towpath.

Today, the canal is less busy than it was in its early years and is no longer used for commercial purposes, except for short boat trips near Camden. Whereas narrowboats tended to be owned and worked by the poorer people of London, it is the richer citizens that own them now for pleasure. Yet, the history of the canal will not be forgotten thanks to the London Canal Museum, which has collected personal records and memories of those who used to live by and work on the canal. There are plenty of happy memories but also stories about the dangers of the canal.

For a small fee, visitors can explore the London Canal Museum and learn about the background of England’s canals and the introduction of canals to London, including information about locks and horses. As well as this there are exhibits of painted items belonging to narrowboats and decorative pottery, a history of the life on the canal and examples of narrowboats and barges, including Coronis, which visitors are welcome to enter. Also, there is a history of Carlo Gatti’s icehouse that once stood on the site.

Of course, there is no better way to explore the canals than by walking along the towpath. If you do, look at the architecture of the bridges and tunnels, marvel at the engineering of the locks and enjoy seeing the narrowboats going past, all the while remembering the work that went into the canal’s construction.

The London Canal Museum is usually open Tuesdays to Sunday (Friday – Sunday at the moment due to Covid-19) from 10 am-4:30 pm. Tickets cost £5 for adults, £4 concessions and £2.50 for children between 5-15 years old.

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Dealing With Cards

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Everyone is familiar with the modern deck of playing cards. Most households own at least one pack and they have become a part of traditional cultures and customs. Yet, these decks of cards have been completely transformed since their origins several centuries ago. What we now take for granted has taken hundreds of years to reach its current format: four suits, red and black, court cards etc. Looking back through history, it is fascinating to see how our standard hearts, spades, clubs and diamond suits developed and why playing cards have remained a conventional pastime.

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Ming Dynasty Playing Card

The origins of playing cards are widely contested, however, it is generally accepted they were invented in China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The earliest evidence of playing cards in Europe dates to around the late 14th century, however, a 9th-century text, Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, describes the daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang (833-873) playing Yezi Gexi, a “leaf” game. These “leaves” are believed to be card-like pieces of paper featuring special designs or symbols. Rather than suits or numbers, the pictures revealed instructions or a forfeit to the players.

The rules of this “leaf” game are unknown, as are the visual appearance of the cards. It was not until 1294 that they were actually described in written documents. A legal document records that Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were caught playing cards that had been printed with woodblocks, and 36 taels (an old monetary unit), which suggests they may have been gambling illegally. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, a scholar called Lu Rong (1436-94) reports he was mocked at college for not knowing how to play cards.

British Sinologist and playing card enthusiast, William Henry Wilkinson (1858-1930), whose collection of Chinese cards can be found in the British Museum, undertook a comprehensive study of the history of playing cards in China. His results can be read in several books including Chinese Origin of Playing Cards (1895) and The Game of Khanhoo (1891). The latter explains the rules of a game developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

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Money-suited cards, 1905

Khanhoo, which roughly translates as “Watching the Tiger”, was a trick-taking game using “money-suited cards”. This set of cards was made up of three suits known as coins, strings and myriads. The aim of the game was for the players to get rid of all their cards by melding them into certain sequences. The common meldings were known as “gibbons” (a sequence of three cards from one suit) and “Leopards” (three cards of the same number). Alternatively, players could hold onto their cards to create a special melding, for instance, a “Pangolin” (7 coins, 3 strings, 3 myriads) or “Tiger” (9 coins, 1 string, 1 myriad). Each melding was worth a certain amount of points and the player with the highest score at the end of the game was the winner.

Money-suited cards were only one form of playing cards to develop from the “leaf” game in China. Another type was Mahjong cards with which similar games to the tiled version of Mahjong could be played. The cards contained Chinese characters or suits representing circles, bamboos, characters, dragons, winds, flowers and seasons. Often an illustration was included with the Chinese characters to emphasise their meaning, however, others featured characters from popular stories, such as The Story of the Water Margin. This is not dissimilar from the novelty packs of cards sold in the western world today. Another type of playing card was the Domino card with pips (dots) representing numbers. These cards could also be embellished with cultural illustrations.

When the Chinese travelled abroad, they often took playing cards with them, either as a form of entertainment or something with which to trade. As a result, playing cards were introduced to people from other countries who began to print their own versions. In Persia, for example, a 48-pack of cards was developed, containing four suits made up of ten pip (number) cards and two court cards (king and vizier).

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Mamluk playing cards

By the 12th century, playing cards had been introduced to most countries in Asia and had just worked their way into Africa, in particular Egypt. In fact, the oldest surviving playing cards were produced in Egypt. The majority of surviving cards from Africa, however, were made during the 15th century.

Initially, Egypt copied the Asian style of playing cards but, during the Mamluk Sultanate period (1250-1517), they began to develop their own designs and games. Known as Mamluk cards, they contained colourful abstract designs and calligraphy, however, unlike Chinese playing cards, they never visually represented people. This is because Sunni Islam, which was the prevalent religion in Egypt, advocated Aniconism: the avoidance of images of sentient beings.

There were typically 52 cards in a Mamluk pack, ten pip cards and three court cards. Although the court cards could not visually depict a person, they could bear the names of ranks: king, viceroy and seconder. It is not certain what games were played with these cards, however, they were probably based on Chinese and Asian rules.

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Knave of Coins from the oldest known European deck (c. 1390–1410).

Playing cards reached Europe around the 14th century and were first described in writing by Johannes of Rheinfelden, a German Dominican friar also known as John of Basle (b.1340). Playing cards had evidently been in Europe long before he wrote his treatise in 1377, which was a response to the decision in Florence to ban card games. Johannes began by describing the cards then went on to say he believed they could be used as a means of understanding the world, in particular how social standings worked in court and how this could be applied to social orders throughout the rest of humanity. Despite his writings, bans continued to be enforced across Europe and playing cards were denounced in churches as forms of gambling.

Nonetheless, playing cards continued to be designed and printed. The first European versions are believed to have been created in Italy, which were divided into four suits: swords, clubs, cups, and coins; these are still used in Italy and Spain today. In Italy, court cards within these “Latin suits” were a king, queen and knave/servant, although the latter may have been a prince. In Spain, on the other hand, the court cards became a king, knight and knave. Whereas the Italian version had ten pip cards, the Spanish only had nine and, in some games, they only used numbers one to seven.

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Italian Cards

When playing cards were first produced in Italy, they were only intended for the upper classes. Each card was hand-painted, making them an expensive, luxury item. As their popularity grew, however, card makers sought methods of producing them quickly and cheaply. As a result, playing cards began to spread across the rest of Europe.

Between 1418-1450, professional card makers set up woodcut factories in the Germany cities of Ulm, Nuremberg and Augsburg. Although the woodcut process printed the designs onto the cards, the colours were added later by hand, therefore, these 15th-century cards were mostly handpainted. To establish themselves as card manufacturers of Germany, the designers changed the Latin suits to reflect the rural lifestyle of the country. These new suits were acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells. The court cards were changed to a king and two knaves: Obermann and Untermann. The pip cards, however, only numbered two to nine as they did away with the ace.

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German Cards

Although the new suits became the norm in Germany, some factories produced novelty version to appeal to people of particular professions and interests, for instance, animals and kitchen appliances. In Switzerland, they adopted the Germanic suits but tended to use flowers rather than leaves and a shield rather than hearts.

Germany was one of the key countries involved with developing printing techniques, which helped them to produce larger quantities of playing cards. Soon, they became more famed for the playing card trade than Italy. Subsequently, German suits became more dominant throughout Europe than the Latin versions.

In France, the Germanic suits were altered to clovers, hearts, pikes and tiles, which led to the development of the modern suits – clovers being clubs, pikes being spades and tiles being diamonds. Not only this, but the French also simplified the designs to make them quicker to print and divided the four suits into two colours: black and red. They also simplified the images on the court cards, reintroducing the queen and the ace to the pack. This meant stencils could be produced and used multiple times in printing presses, such as the Guttenburg press that was developed in 1440.

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French Cards

French playing cards quickly surpassed Germany in popularity and spread across Europe, thus familiarising the continent with a design similar to the cards used today. In the 16th century, the French also drew attention to the court cards by naming them after people from the Bible and popular works of literature. The kings became known as King David (Spades), Alexander the Great (Clubs), Charlemagne (Hearts), and Julius Caesar (Diamonds), consequently representing the four major empires up to that date: Jews, Greeks, Franks, and Romans. The queens were designated Greek goddess Pallas Athena (Spades), Judith (Hearts), Jacob’s wife Rachel (Diamonds), and Argine (Clubs). It is not certain who the latter is but Argine may be the French name for Argea, wife of Polybus and mother of Argus.

The knaves were assigned the names of La Hire (Hearts), Charlemagne’s knight Ogier (Spades), Hector the hero of Troy (Diamonds), and King Arthur’s knight Lancelot (Clubs). Hector and Lancelot are the more famous of the set, whereas, La Hire and Ogier were only celebrated in France. La Hire was the nickname of Étienne de Vignolles (1390-1443), a French commander during the Hundred Years’ War. Ogier the Dane was a legendary knight of Charlemagne (748-814) who featured in many medieval French stories.

France was made up of nine regions and the appearance of the kings, queens and knaves differed slightly from place to place. It was not until playing cards became popular in Britain that a common design was developed.

It is not certain when playing cards arrived in Britain but it is likely they came via Belgium, where many French people had fled to avoid heavy taxes. Without having been influenced by Latin or Germanic playing cards, the English were happy to use the French designs, although they renamed the suits clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds.

The biggest difference between French and British cards was the Ace of Spaces. This card tends to have some form of design, signature or marking to make it appear more important than the other aces. There was, however, no difference in value. This tradition began sometime after 1588 when the English government placed a tax on playing cards. To indicate they had been taxed, the manufacturers were required to sign or stamp the Ace of Spades, which was usually the top card in a brand new pack.

To avoid paying tax, some people began to forge signatures, which led the government to enforce more drastic measures. From 1828, the Ace of Spades had to be purchased from the Commissioners for Stamp Duties. The card had to be stamped with the manufacturer’s name and the amount they had paid. Initially, manufacturers had no say in the appearance of the Ace of Spades, however, after 1862 they were allowed to design their own ace to complement their signature. Although this tax law no longer applies, playing card manufacturers have stuck to tradition, giving the Ace of Spaces more attention than the other cards.

The court cards, which feature detailed illustrations of bearded kings, flower-holding queens and clean-shaven knaves, began to become less elaborate as manufacturers sought to find a way to produce playing cards quickly and cheaply. Thomas de la Rue (1793-1866), a printer from Guernsey, was the first to drastically reduce the prices of playing cards and increase productivity.

Thomas de la Rue moved to London in 1818 to set up a shop, initially for straw hat-making, but soon expanded to include bookbinding and paper manufacturing. By 1828, De la Rue had become interested in playing cards and used all his skills, including letter-press printing, to modernise the designs. In 1831, De la Rue was granted a patent for his improvement and has since been regarded as the inventor of the modern English playing card.

The early version of De la Rue’s court cards, which were produced using the letterpress, were still highly detailed full-length figures, however, he had used a limited palette of red, yellow, blue and black. A second attempt at modernisation resulted in a flatter, two-dimensional design and, in the 1840s, he combined both styles together to produce an intricate design, opting to use blue ink for the outlines rather than black.

“The whole of Messrs De la Rue’s establishment is carried out in a manner perfectly unique. Steam power wherever practicable is applied to the various departments of the business.” (Bradshaw’s, 1842) De la Rue’s modern designs were made possible by developments in technology. Not only was hand-painting the cards time-consuming, but the ink also took a long time to dry. So, De la Rue found a quicker drying ink and glazed the cards to prevent them from losing their pigment. Wherever he could, he replaced jobs that were originally done by hand with steam-powered machines, which sped up the manufacturing process.

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Card Backs designed by Owen Jones

In 1844, De la Rue hired Owen Jones (1809-74), a Welsh graphic designer who had trained at the Royal Academy Schools. Jones’s task was to produce designs for the backs of playing cards and, in the two decades he spent with the company, it is estimated he made 173 different designs. Jones was influenced by foreign cultures and many of his designs were similar to Moorish, Chinese and other art styles from antiquity. Fruit and flowers were a typical feature in the designs.

Owen Jones’s playing cards were much sought by the upper classes, including the Royal Family. Unfortunately, they were also quite expensive. Nonetheless, sales continued to do well and Jones received a lot of praise for his work, including from the Victorian author, Charles Dickens (1812-70). It is also said the Arts and Crafts artist, William Morris (1834-96), was influenced by Jones’s work.

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De la Rue, 1860

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De la Rue, 1885

Around the 1860s, double-ended court cards were designed so that they would always be the right way up. Previously, serious card players could work out if their opponent had a court card by watching to see if they turned a card around when adding it to their hand. The court cards now had two heads and joined together in the middle where their legs once began.

Another alteration was the inclusion of indices (a number or letter indicating the value of the card), in the top corner of the card. This allowed players to easily see which cards they had by fanning them out in one hand. The corners of the cards, which were originally sharp, were rounded off to limit wear and tear. A ripped corner could make it harder for players to tell what cards they had in their hand or even reveal the value to their opponents. The design on the back of the cards was another way of preventing other players from seeing what cards their opponents had; wear and tear caused cards to thin, revealing the design through the paper.

Playing cards eventually reached the Americas through European exports and quickly became a commercial success. Lewis I. Cohen (1800-68), who had spent some time in England between 1814 and 1819, returned to America with fresh insight into technological developments. As a result, he became the first American to introduce lead pencils and steel pens, which replaced the out-dated quill pens. He also became a manufacturer of playing card printing, developing a colour-printing machine that was able to print more than one colour at a time, thus speeding up production.

When playing cards became popular in the USA, they were already in the final stages of the design that would become commonplace across the world. It was in the USA, however, that one final card was added to the pack: the Joker. Samuel Hart (1846-1871), a playing card manufacturer from Philadelphia, is credited with the invention of the Joker, which was initially called “Best Bower” or “Imperial Bower”. The name came from the German word Bauer, which is what they called the Jack in Germany. (Knaves had become known as Jacks to make it easier to differentiate them from the Kings.) Jacks were often used as the highest trump cards in many games, including a trick-taking game called Euchre. Hart’s idea was to make an even higher trump card.

Around the late 1860s, the Imperial Bower was renamed the Joker, which is believed to have come from Juckerspiel, the German name for the game of Euchre. In Britain, the USA was still one of its biggest exports, so card manufacturing company Chas Goodall and Son began adding jokers to the packs produced for the American market. Eventually, the idea caught on in Britain and the first Joker for the British market was sold in 1874. The Joker also spread to mainland Europe where, in Italy, it became known as the “Jolly”.

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Unlike the rest of the playing cards, a uniform design was never developed for the Joker, therefore, companies could be as creative as they wished. For some manufacturers, the Joker became their trademark, however, they are usually depicted as jesters. It is common nowadays to have two jokers in a pack, often one coloured and one black and white. This was so there could be a trump card for the red suits (hearts and diamonds) and the black suits (clubs and spades). Usually, the two Jokers are different in appearance as well as colour to differentiate between them. The United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), established in 1867, prints their guarantee on one of the joker cards as a way of telling them apart.

The Joker has been introduced to many card games as the trump card, although, in Britain, older rules tend to be followed and the Joker discarded. For instance, in Britain, it is more common to play Old Maid rather than Chase the Joker.

Over time, nicknames have been invented for certain cards. The court cards (King, Queen and Jack) are also known as face cards but some of these cards have earnt other names due to their visual appearance. The King of Hearts and King of Diamonds, for instance, are sometimes known as the Suicide Kings. This is because the King of Hearts holds a sword to the back of his head as though stabbing himself. The King of Diamonds does a similar action with an axe.

The Jack of Hearts, the Jack of Spades and the King of Diamonds have been referred to as the One-Eyed Royals because they are traditionally drawn in profile rather than face on. The rest of the court cards are drawn in such a way that both eyes can be seen. The Jack of Diamonds is sometimes known as the Laughing Boy but this may be due to previous illustrations rather than the traditional British design.

The Queen of Spades, often known as “the black lady” or “black Maria”, is the undesirable card in the game of Old Maid. She is shown holding a sceptre, which has led to the nickname “the bedpost Queen”. The Queen of Clubs was, at one point, the only Queen holding a flower, therefore, she became known as the “Flower Queen”. Today, however, all four Queens are usually depicted holding flowers.

The Ace of Spades, with its unique design, is often designated the trump card in certain games. As a result, it has earned the nickname “the death card”. Most of the pip cards are known by the numbers, however, on occasion, the twos have been referred to as “deuces” and the threes as “treys”. The Nine of Diamonds, on the other hand, has become known as “the Curse of Scotland” but no one agrees on the reason why. One suggestion was every ninth king of Scotland was “a tyrant and a curse to that country”, and another suggestion was nine diamonds were stolen from the crown jewels during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), which resulted in the whole country being taxed to recoup the costs.

New theories, names and meanings of playing cards have continued to be invented over the years. At one time, the four suits were said to represent the four major pillars of the economy in the Middle Ages: Church (Hearts), military (Spades), agriculture (Clubs), and merchants (Diamonds). Since then, the suits have also been assigned the four seasons, the four solstices and the four natural elements: water (Hearts), fire (Clubs), earth (Diamonds), and air (Spades).

There are 52 cards in a traditional pack of cards (discounting the jokers), which is the same number of weeks in a year. There are 13 cards in each suit and 13 weeks in each season and there are 12 Royals and 12 months of the year.

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The history of playing cards is long and varied and will likely endure forever. Over time, novelty versions of the cards have been produced, such as those featuring images from popular literature, to appeal to new generations. Playing cards have also been redesigned for coronations and special events and sold as limited editions.

Despite cultural differences, playing cards are something most countries have in common. Across Europe and America in particular, language barriers can be overcome through the playing of a well-known game. Even with the development of digital technology, playing cards are not at risk of being forgotten. Digital versions of solitaire are proving to be popular amongst all generations and casinos across the world continue to make lots of money from a simple pack of cards.

It is impossible to determine how many card games have been invented or how many styles of playing cards have been produced, but what we do know is they have all derived from games played in China during the 9th century. Who knew something so simple as a few strips of paper could grow to affect the whole world?


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