Next time you’re in a medieval church, look up. Do you see angels? Are they gazing down upon you from the heavenly firmament, forever flying forward from the roof beams? If so, then the chances are that you’re gazing at an ‘angel roof’. Or else perhaps you are a close ally of the poet William Blake, who saw angels in many places on many occasions. Scorn not – he was a man of vision. See William Blake and the Moravians. Either way, ‘angel roofs’ are a fascinating but little investigated feature of British medieval architecture.
Angels at the Lying-in-State
When Queen Elizabeth II died in September this year, her body lay in state at Westminster Hall from Wednesday 14th to Monday 19th September. Thousands filed past her coffin, and the whole event was live-streamed on TV. Most of us have probably never viewed the interior of Westminster Hall before, and still fewer may realise that its construction back in the 14th century marked a special moment in English architecture: the creation of an ‘angel roof’. Take a look at the photo below, and you’ll see that there is a carved angel on the end of each roof beams.
Why was the positioning of carved angels in a roof be so significant? You might after all expect to find them in churches and state buildings, given the importance of angels in Christian theology. But this kind of representation of angels was not a part of our architecture until the time of King Richard II. For his coronation procession in 1377, he decided that angels should be on hand to confirm his new status, which included a mechanical moving angel who bowed down and offered him a golden crown. Many angels appeared subsequently in other royal pageants and state occasions of his reign, either human players dressed as angels or further inventive mechanical versions. And then the carved ones were brought into play, when the angel roof of Westminster Hall was built in about 1395, leaving a lasting testimony to Richard’s urge for angelic recognition. Angels in general stayed in fashion too, and their evocation spread to the provinces too; in parish churches, it became common for ‘angel’ characters to appear in the Mystery Plays and other ecclesiastical ceremonies. And as beams decorated with angels began to be built in some of these regional churches, certain styles of angel became common – both the carved angels and individuals acting as angels tended to wear the same kind of ‘feather suits’!
However, despite Richard II’s endorsement of angels, an angel roof in a parish church was something of a luxury, not do-able everywhere in the country. The chances of seeing an angel roof in East Anglia are relatively high – elsewhere in the UK, they are low to zero.
But there is one here in Exeter, where I live, and rather surprisingly, it’s not in a church. Exeter city was once filled with medieval buildings, many of them blown to smithereens by wartime bombing raids, and many more demolished as a consequence of ill-judged re-development plans by the Council. The building does however stand in close proximity to the Cathedral, in the Cathedral Close, and inside Number Eight is the remarkable feature of an angel roof. It is a hammerbeam roof, dated by dendrochronology to between 1417-1422, with carved wooden angels stretching out from the beams. It is also, seemingly a copy in miniature of the roof at Westminster Hall; this was built by Hugh Herland, master carpenter to Richard II , and constructed as mentioned between 1393-1398.
The Mystery of Number Eight
But how did this come about? It’s tucked away down a side alley, largely unknown to visitors and residents alike, unless they visit the ‘Helen of Troy’ boutique which presently occupies it. The building is also known as the former Law Library of the university, but this only dates from recent centuries, and tells us nothing about its origins. The mystery and provenance of this extraordinary roof has long been argued over by historians, but now some light has been shed on this by Cathedral archaeologist and historian, John Allan. I’ll reveal his conclusion a little later on!
The Angel Roofs of Britain
So what is an ‘angel roof’ when it’s at home (or in heaven)? To pursue this further, I consulted an excellent study The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages by Michael Rimmer. Many of the details given below are taken from this book, as I fully acknowledge.
Angel roofs date from the medieval period, a time when churches were shaped, decorated, carved and painted to represent the spiritual world. As you stood in a church service (no pews then!) you would be immersed in the Christian cosmos, and seeing representations of its stories through the statues, vivid wall paintings and ehtereal stained glass windows. Mystery Plays were also performed in the churches at appropriate times of year, bringing alive the Bible narratives, and acts of worship were felt to be within the presence of Christ and the Virgin Mary, plus at least some of the saints and – in this case – angels. There was drama, passion and beauty all around. Looking up to the roof and seeing angels there would be like getting a glimpse of heaven itself.
Angel roofs, therefore, were in keeping with the general religious experience. Once, there were probably several hundred ‘angel roofs’ in England and Wales, some on hammerbeam (short beam) roof supports, some as non-supportive elements of the roof. They were built in the years following on from that first one in Westminster Hall, until the Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century put a stop to such ‘idolatry’. One of the final angel roofs was built in about 1540,at Llanidloes church in Wales, according to Rimmer, and I would also include Cleeve Abbey in North Somerset, which dates from the same period.
Locations of angel roofs
Around 170 angel roofs survive in Britain today, and the vast majority of them are in East Anglia. (A map from Rimmer’s book can be accessed at https://www.angelroofs.net/map.) There is also a smaller pocket of them in the West Country, with just two in Devon, of which 8 The Close is one. (I’ve not yet been able to identify the second angel roof in Devon. Rimmer’s map seems to point to the Great Torrington area, where archaeologist John Allan singles out Orleigh Court and Weare Giffard Hall as the two most notable medieval roofs there, but, as he says, these seem to be more adorned with beasts than with angels!)
Why do these two areas of East Anglia and the West Country host the most? The answer, as with many things, lies with the resources available: primarily money, timber and skills. Building angel roofs required great expertise, plus a lot of good timber and generous amounts of money to pay for it all. There were renowned master carpenters in both these areas, the far East and far West of England, and both areas too became wealthy from the medieval wool trade. Additionally, the required timber for the roofs was best transported by water, if it wasn’t to be found in the immediate vicinity, so again these two coastal areas had the right conditions. It’s probably no coincidence that these regions also boast the best carved church bench ends in the country, a testimony therefore to the presence of master carvers, and the money to pay them.
What about the Reformation?
In the English Reformation of the 16th century, the new wave of Protestantism endeavoured to get rid of decoration which might be considered distracting and even idolatrous. Away with worshipping the Virgin Mary and the Saints, and all the statues and images which took attention away from purer forms of prayer! (Church music might have gone too, were it not that Elizabeth I was very fond of choral music, apparently.) But whereas it was easy enough to smash stained glass windows and break statues, it was actually very hard to take away angelic roof supports. Moreover, they were high up and thus almost inaccessible. So given that the Reformers generally wanted to keep the outward shell of a church, it would have been foolish to start knocking the roof about. On a recent trip to North Somerset, I was delighted to discover the angel roof in the refectory of Cleeve Abbey, (well worth a visit) which, as I mentioned earlier, was begun later than most, in the mid-1500s. This has been left intact, but there is a little stretch left unfinished, probably because the Reformation had just started to take hold, and the monasteries were dissolved on the orders of Henry VIII. But we need to remember that not everything happened fast in those days; in his book, Rimmer considers that the Llanidloes angel roof of 1540 may have been completed after the Reformation began simply because Wales was a long way behind in catching up with the news!
The actual creation of the angels, as opposed to the erection of roof timbers, was carried out by master carvers rather than carpenters. These specialists were highly skilled, highly paid, and tended to be peripatetic, and sometimes even brought in from abroad. Records show that the going rate was about 15 shillings an angel, equivalent to 30 days pay for a master carver of the period. There was scope for creativity, and angels often hold other objects and emblems, such as musical instruments, symbols of Christ’s passion,or the coats of arms of benefactors. Some angel figures may even be carved as ecclesiastical role-players – examples include a chalice bearer, a celebrant or a choir master in one church.
Keeping it pure and simple
But a surprising fact, in the face of such imaginative representations, is that nearly all of the roof angels were left unpainted. This is in contrast to the medieval habit of painting the interior of churches and their contents in bright colours. It may have been just too difficult to paint them, or to keep up their maintenance. Occasionally some angels, for instance those nearest the Chancel, might be painted, or coats of arms might be picked out in colour. But the natural look was the general rule.
Not a church!
But despite the predominance of angel roofs in churches, very few are found in other contexts, and one of these is the Exeter angel roof . Indeed, only a handful exist outside parish churches – Coventry Guildhall, as well as Westminster Halll, for instance. What was Number Eight, Cathedral Close, therefore? It is, after all within the Cathedral precincts. John Allan, Consultant Archaeologist to the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral, has come to a conclusion after many years of research, and wrote to me as follows: …. The purpose of the fine late medieval building containing the Law Library has been much discussed; it has been claimed as the chancellor’s house or as a building accommodating a notarial bureau. It was in fact simply a canonry. In other words, the house or complex of buildings inhabited by a canon, a cleric of the Cathedral.
On a tour around the Cathedral Close, John also told us something about the life of these medieval canons, which I’m paraphrasing here. Once again, quite a lot of it was to do with money! ‘In Exeter, canons had to be resident to benefit from the ‘Common Fund’(their source of a living), whereas in other areas canons without this obligation often stayed in their country residences. Although living humbly was in the basic ‘rule’ for canons, they were required to give generous hospitality, and so were expected to provide meals to all and sundry. Originally canons were required to live in humble abodes, but the argument they could muster to build something grander was, therefore, that while in residence they needed a big hall to do their duty of hospitality! Guests would regularly arrive at the door, and include choirboys, Vicars Choral, and so on.‘ So a canonry was also a kind of drop-in diner, and perhaps here the Canon concerned had a nice inheritance that he could spend on something lavish which would be admired, especially at times of feasts and gatherings. Bishops too were often judged favourably according to how much money they could spend on appropriate buildings, hospitality and city improvements.
We have a building, and an angel roof, to treasure, in no. 8 Cathedral Close, Exeter. And I will be craning my neck now every time I visit a medieval church – or indeed a medieval hall! – to see if there is another roof full of angels to marvel at.
The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages Michael Rimmer (The Churches Conservation Trust 2015)
Red Coat Guided Tours – I was introduced to No. 8 The Close as part of my training as a Red Coat Guide for Exeter, which whetted my curiosity to investigate further. The wide range of tours are offered free throughout the year, with themes such as ‘Medieval’, ‘Introducing Exeter’, and ‘Cathedral to Quay’. Please click on the link to see these.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, I made a number of trips to the Silk Road, travelling both along the ancient trade routes and to individual countries such as Syria, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkey. I felt instinctively that this period offered a golden opportunity to visit Central Asian and Silk Road countries, while borders were largely open, and political upheaval was minimal. I also had the time to do this, and travel was relatively inexpensive, so I decided to seize the chance while I could. And so it proved – sadly because of radicalism, civil war and political upheavals it would be very hard to do all of the same trips today.
However, it has ever been thus on the Silk Road. Only during the reign of Tamerlane (Timur) in the late 14th century was it possible to travel through his vast empire without impediment from beginning to end – and that was because he was a tyrant who imposed complete control on the routes! So I relished my journeys along at least part of the Silk Road, and studied its history and culture further to fill in the background. The talks and lectures I was able then to give were popular; everyone, it seems, wants to be an armchair Silk Road traveller, if they can’t get there in person! And who doesn’t love the colourful pictures of its remote mountains and lively markets?
In today’s post, I’m exploring the magic of Silk Road bazaars, and in a couple of months’ time I’ll publish a post on Travellers and Traders along the Silk Road. And more may follow – so watch this space!
Times of Change
There have certainly been changes in the last fifteen years, since I visited the Silk Road and its countries, like the Chinese policy of aggression in the Uighur province, which has affected the historic town of Kashgar, with its enormous Sunday market and charming houses with painted balconies. I am not sure that I could bear to go back there now – I’d rather remember it as it was. But nevertheless, most of what I write and the pictures I show still tell a tale of Silk Road countries in general, even if some specific locations have altered.
The Life of the Silk Road
The enchantment of the bazaar
Bazaars cast their magical spell over me, every time. In Silk Road countries, I have shopped in bazaars in Istanbul, Damascus, Kashgar, Samarkand, Tashkent, Marrakesh, Fez, Cairo, and Rawalpindi, to name but some of that I have visited. They are more than markets, glorying in flamboyant display, and creating a sense of opulence. Even humble sacks of spices are arranged in a palette of pleasing colours, metal teapots are set in towers to create a dazzling array of silver, and piles of slippers with striped silk and pompoms suggest the floors of a Sultan’s palace. I love nearly all markets but the Silk Road bazaars with their exuberant offerings, turning all their goods into exotic treasures, are irresistible.
The Story of the Silk Road
The Silk Road flourished between the 1st century AD, and the 15th century, after which time better trade routes and shipping routes opened up between East and West. However, despite its romantic sound, the term ‘Silk Road’ itself was only coined in the 19th century. The Silk Road was also not just one road, but a network of branching routes connecting countries from China and India in the Far East through Central Asia and into the Middle East, with final routes into Italy, Greece, and even Britain. Silk itself had been discovered in China by at least as early as 3,600BC – the legend has it that a Chinese Empress accidentally dropped a silkworm cocoon into her cup of tea, and as it unravelled in the hot liquid, she teased out the thread and was struck by its possibilities! Sericulture, the making of silk, became de rigeur for all Chinese ladies in the centuries that followed, and much time and effort was lavished on their silk road ‘houses’ to rear the worms which spin those cocoons. Soft, strong, lightweight silk became a precious commodity, its secret guarded for centuries by the Chinese until it was spotted by the Romans and export finally began. (One bargaining chip was that the Chinese were especially eager to acquire decent horses such as bred by their neighbours over the border in what is now the Kirghystan area.) But the trade routes were used for many, many other goods sent from East to West, and West to East, including ceramics, rhubarb, gunpowder and paper.
The old trade routes of Silk Road with their caravans of camels, yaks and horses still persisted to some extent in terms of travel, right though into the early 20th century. In their final years these were documented by a duo of Christian missionaries, Cable and French, who described them in their atmospheric book, The Gobi Desert (details below). But even today, the legacy of Silk Road bazaars is still thriving, as celebrated here.
The language barrier
‘I’m talking about camels -CAMELS!’ Many nationalities of travellers and merchants have travelled up and down the Silk Road for at least two thousand years. How did they manage to communicate with each other, given that they spoke dozens of different languages? They developed a simple, but cunning way of getting round this. For much of the Silk Road, either Chinese or Turkic languages were the main ones spoken, and these all have some similarities even though they are significantly different from each other. Only very rarely did traders travel from end to end of the Silk Road, so the chances were that the other travellers and traders that they were meeting came from just a few countries away. Thus to exchange information, the merchants would first of all state what the subject of the conversation was going to be: ‘My words are going to be about woven silk – camels – porcelain bowls – bandits up ahead…’ or whatever the vital topic was. You can imagine that this might have been protracted on occasion – ‘C-A-M-ELS – got it??’ and perhaps with some pantomime or gestures: ‘BANDITS – I’m dead!’ (enacting stabbing chest with knife) That way, each could pick up enough to give a sense of the potential deal or danger, and further conversation could now be exchanged within the framework of the subject.
Goods came from far away lands, so buyers at Silk Road bazaars could expect to see some items that were new and strange to them. Even today, some exotic-looking items in a bazaar can be mystifying – the pictures above are actually of sugar, as sold in the bazaar at Samarkand! And I’ve noticed that in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, it seems that every time a new exotic design comes onto the market, it’s presented in dazzling displays, alerting buyers to something new and glamorous. One year, for instance, it was coloured glass lanterns, and the year before that, embroidered wall hangings. You can see examples of these below.
Hats, Caps and Headgear
Another way to do a quick check on the home country or region of another merchant or dealer was – and still is to an extent – by checking their headgear. Even today, in Uzbekistan and in Kashgar market, a whole variety of caps and hats are on offer. (You can see some of them in the photo above of the men arguing over their donkeys.) Pointed felt caps for the Kirghiz can easily be distinguished, for instance, from the round flat hats for the Uzbeks.
‘Another frequent sight in the bazar is the Kirghiz, wearing a pointed cap of bright chintz bordered with lambskin, and a heavy fur coat even when the day is hot. His boots have high heels…he sometimes carries a hooded falcon on his wrist…’ (The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable and Francesca French, a fascinating account of life in Central Asia by missionaries who saw the last days of the old Silk Road trading routes in the early 20th century.) Indeed, I did manage to buy some Kirghiz riding boots of black leather. I showed them to a shoe mender back in the UK – he marvelled at them, as no nails at all were used, only tiny wooden pegs, in a style that he hadn’t seen since boots made before WWII.
Immersion in the life of the bazaar
My first experience of bazaars was as a student of 20 years old, when I elected to spend the summer vacation in Istanbul. I enrolled in a scheme to match up British students with Turkish families, a homestay in return for helping them to speak English. The journey was epic – 3 days packed into a hot train with a group of fellow students, no bunks, working toilets or refreshments. We ground to a halt somewhere in a barren plain in Yugoslavia. (This was not the Orient Express, but the unglamorous version via Munich and northern Greece.) The train arrived 24 hours late, and I was met by my Turkish family, waving frantically to me from the platform, having recognised me from the photo I’d sent. I hadn’t received the one they’d sent me, so was wondering who the ‘housewife’ was that I had been asked to tutor. It turned out that the agency had got it wrong, and fixed me up with a 33 year old bachelor who fancied marrying an English girl! I was too shy to admit to the mix-up, but luckily he lived with his aged mother and father, and spent most days working in the family pharmacy with his father. So by day I was free to roam the city streets, crossing over on the ferry to Old Istanbul and its fabulous bazaar. As a long-haired, mini-skirted wearing student, I was lucky not to get into trouble! In the bazaar, I learnt how to bargain, and was entranced by the huge building, with its arches and painted ceilings, and labyrinthine layout. I’ve been back many times since; the spell was cast in those early years, and has never been broken.
The Bazaar of Istanbul
The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is known as Kapali Carsi, and is probably the most famous bazaar in the world. It’s also often regarded as the most perfectly constructed and best organised one too. Like other major bazaars, it began as a complex of strong rooms where valuables could be stored and protected, offered as a commercial service, and shut up tightly at night. This turned into the first Bedesten, or covered market, in Constantinople, created around 1461 during the Ottoman period. Its jewellery section today still remains at the centre, a traditional placing in the best-protected area of the bazaar. (Though today more modern, securely-guarded gold jewellery stores can be found at the perimeter of the bazaar.) Like other bazaars built from late medieval period onwards, it was given a domed roof, in this case with fifteen large and eight small domes. Over the course of time, it expanded; the Sandal Bedesten was built around the first Bedestan, and other side streets grew up too, ringed round with 30 caravanserais, as lodging houses for merchants. Today’s bazaar still covers 100 acres, with some 18 gates and 4000 shops. It was badly damaged in an earthquake of 1894, and by the1950s was in serious decay and decline . It was a close call as to whether it would survive, but now it is restored, and buzzing with life once again.
Not all bazaars are as grand or splendid, of course. Sometimes a small town bazaar might offer, say, predominantly water melons, hunting knives and bread for sale, depending on their local specialities. And not all are picturesque. Visiting Morocco in the 1970s, I shrank from scenes of horror in the butchers’ quarter, where stalls were hung with blood-dripping meat, darkly encrusted with flies. I also spied fascinating but sinister ‘witchcraft’ stalls selling ingredients for potions and magical spells, who knows whether to cure or curse. But I remember too the enchantment of arriving by bus at a little Moroccan town one evening, and stepping out straight into a street market lit by lanterns in the dusk – no electricity in those parts. An enticing scent of grilling kebabs floated on the air, stallholders called their wares, citizens bustled about, looking for the final purchases of the day. I felt I had entered a magic realm.
On the question of security for traders, I was reminded of the effect of Timur/Tamerlane on the safety of goods and travllers when I visited Damascus in the early 2000s. Bashar al-Assad was already President, some would say dictator, with a tight control over the city. In the bazaar, I bought a gold chain from an Armenian jeweller. He told us that he had no fear of anyone robbing his shop; he could even leave it unlocked and walk away, and nothing would disappear. This is one of the ironical effects of a tyrannical regime.
Ceramics traditions and servicing
Below: Ceramics have been part of Silk Road trading for about a thousand years, with Chinese porcelain a valuable commodity sent with great care to the West. Something of that tradition is carried on today with the exuberant pattternings of Turkish ceramics, proudly displayed for visitors and locals. I have lost several impulse purchases in breakages over the years – they don’t travel well in luggage! In Silk Road days, the porcelain could be mended at Tashkent en route if it had got damaged in transit.
Bargaining and bazaars go together. And there’s a fascinating range of customs relating to bargaining across different Silk Road countries. In the Yemen, they have a practice of using hand gestures under a cloth held over the hands of buyer and seller, so that no one else can see the deal that is being done. Fingers symbolise numbers, and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses are signalled with the eyes. Perhaps this too relates to the need to overcome language barriers, the old challenge of the Silk Road. In the Levant, it’s common for the stallholder to state too high a price, then walk off in disgust when the buyer refuses. His son then magically appears, takes over the process and offers the customer a special discount to make up for the disappointment – the seller re-appears and berates his son for being too soft, and so the performance goes on. Somewhere along the line, a bargain may be struck.
If you enter a bazaar, be prepared to bargain. It’s expected of you. Aim at a price of about half what is initially stated, though I often feel in fact that about two thirds is fair. Bargaining is part of the game, and merchants have practised it over hundreds of years. The pantomime of expressing shock at the seller’s opening price, the gambit of walking away when an agreement seems out of reach, are all part of the ritual of the bazaar. (‘Come back, lady! Ok, for you special price…) I’ll just add a quick rider that of course there are variations, when bargaining hard is not the right etiquette, for instance for food, or in countries which may have their own accepted limits of discount (generally about 10-20% reduction in countries of the former Soviet Union).
Tips for the bazaar
Learn the basic numbers in the language of the country. I only have a little Dutch and much less Turkish, but by learning numbers to understand prices and make offers, I was able to bargain in the flea markets of Holland and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Be polite and friendly. It goes a long way. Don’t feel pressured into buying something if you’re offered a glass of tea or piece of Turkish delight. It’s part of the ritual, and the seller knows full well that not every interaction leads to a sale.
Be ready to walk away if you can’t strike an appropriate deal. If there’s more room for negotiation, the seller will call you back. Only start the bargainingprocess if you really do intend to buy something (at the right price). It’s offensive to make a game out of it. Beware of self-appointed ‘guides’, especially those who offer to take you to their uncle’s/cousin’s/brother’s shop…But you probably know that already!
All the contemporary photos of Silk Road scenes are copyright Cherry Gilchrist
My own book Stories from the Silk Road is a re-telling of traditional stories from the Silk Road area for children. Most of these stories were gleaned while I was on my travels, either by hearing them or finding them in books with local collections of stories. They are narrated here by the Spirit of the Silk Road, who also describes the its wonders as we travel down it. It is illustrated with stunning pictures by Nilesh Mistry, who carefully studied photos and historical pictures that I assembled for him, to ensure authenticity. (You’ll find different editions of this book, some with another cover; it is currently out of print, but copies are usually available on Amazon.)
There are plenty of books about the history of the Silk Road, but those most relevant to this particular post are:
The Gobi Desert – Cable, Mildred & French, Francesca, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1942) – Recording at first-hand the last traces of the ancient ways of travelling and trading on the central stretches of the Silk Road, as experienced in the first half of the 20th century. You can read about the authors’ extraordinary lives here, women who eventually received the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
The Bazaar – Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World – Weiss & Westermann (Thames & Hudson, reprinted 2000)
Below: Old markets in Samarkand, where the magnificent buildings have since been restored.
In the previous blog, I told the stories of three children born in the 19th century, based on what I could find out about their lives from their christening mugs. This post will cover the rest of the christening mugs which I have in my collection, but I’ll begin with the odd one out. I bought all but one of mugs as a job lot in an auction some years ago, but there was already one on my shelf, which had been handed down to me through the family. However, when I investigated its provenance, it wasn’t quite what I thought.
The Mystery Mug
I have a decorated mug sitting on the shelf which bears the name of my great grandfather. It’s inscribed Thomas William Picken 1862. But here’s the thing: he was born in 1834. And there’s no one else on the family tree who it could possibly be. So as he would have been 28 in that year, what could this mean? It’s a large mug, good enough for a strong cup of tea rather than the dainty little mugs for children to hold milk. Most of the others that I have are quite small, by comparison. But perhaps it was also a custom to give personalised mugs as birthday presents to adults?
But no – it seems that this is a shaving mug. I found the relevant information on an American website, since there seems to be much more interest in the history of barber shops in the USA than there is in the UK, and hence a study there of the mugs themselves: Mugs purchased and held at barbershops were customized with the client’s name and often displayed to encourage the customer to return to the barbershop regularly. Most barber shaving mugs were imported from France or Germany undecorated: it was customary to have the mug then hand decorated with the shaver’s occupation and name…. Barber shops sold mugs with the owners’ names on them partly because they thought that shaving rash came from sharing the same soap. In reality, the rash was not a result of soap but of un-sterilized razors.‘The Sharpologist’
So that’s something new to add to the story of decorated mugs! My great-grandfather Thomas Picken was himself a Chemist & Druggist, and so might have been especially keen to avoid infection. Perhaps it was given to him as a gift, or perhaps he could order a mug from the supplier who provided him with other apothecary jars, which likewise were often ceramic, with beautiful decoration and calligraphy. (Selections below include a Delft jar on the left and a Spanish one on the right)
The Unidentifed Babies
Before I come to the three christening mug stories for this post, I should also pay tribute to those owners who proved elusive to research.
Alas, I cannot trace William Pedley 1848, M. Lightfoot 1855, or Alice Barber born Mar 19 1866! There are multiple possible entries for each of them, and no clues as to the areas of their births. Many different locations for babies of these same names appear in the birth registers, including Yorkshire, Wiltshire and London. Although Alice’s mug has an exact date, the registers only state the quarter year of birth, so it would require applying for certificates for all the Alice Barbers born in the first quarter of 1866 to find the right one.
Below, you can see their very pretty mugs, some of the most charming in the collection
But the good news……is that for all the mugs I have traced, the children lived into adulthood. In the second half of the 19th century, at least one in ten babies died before their first birthday, and older children were vulnerable to infections and accidents. Perhaps this set of babies had a better start in life than some; although not in the top rungs of society, several of those I’ve traced were born into a well-off family, or one where there was solid employment for the father. Although no one in Victorian Britain was completely protected from infection or mishap, the dangers of early death must have been higher for the very poor.
Ronald Arthur Shipstone
Ronald Arthur Shipstone was born on Nov 29th 1880, in Basford, Derbyshire, and he was to become a pillar of society. His father James was a brewer, and the Shipstone brewery became a mighty enterprise, with Ronald Arthur eventually taking its helm as Managing Director. James had at least six children, and was able to call the brewery ‘James Shipstone and Sons’. It ran for almost a century and a half, from 1852 to 1991.
Ronald Shipstone supported many charities, was President of numerous associations, and became a benefactor to various Nottingham hospitals and medical institutions through his will. He married Patty Theodora Woodhouse in 1913, but as far as I can see, had only one child – another Ronald – who died in 1930. Perhaps this lack of heirs is why he distributed his fortune so widely among good causes when he died in 1944. His fortune at his death in 1944 was recorded as £334,065 – approximately £15 million pounds in today’s money. The turnout for his funeral was enormous, according to the newspapers:
‘Large Gathering At Funeral Of Mr. R. A. Shipstone’ A long column of uniformed special constables marched in the funeral cortege yesterday of Mr. Ronald Arthur Shipstone. Commander of the Nottingham Special Constabulary, of Lucknow House, Mapperley Park. Nottingham, who died last Friday, aged 64…There were so many wreaths that a special dray had to be used to carry them, and the concourse of the mourners at the church was tremendous…A guard of honour of special constables was in attendance upon the coffin, which was draped with the Union Jack. Nottingham Journal, 22nd Nov. 1944.
His story is a worthy one. He fulfilled his parents’ expectations, succeeded in business, and became a public benefactor. And that’s where I’m content to leave it, although for anyone interested in further details, a family history website gives more detailed information. At any rate, I have his christening mug, a reminder that this brewing magnate and philanthropist was once a tiny helpless infant.
In brief, this is the Quiet Life of Joe Singleton who was born on July 24th 1861, in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Details of his life are scanty, but I can report that he went to school (not all children did), became an iron moulder, then a foreman at his work. He married a woman called Sarah, and lived in Leeds with her and their two children at the time (1901), a boy and a girl. Joe, like Ronald Shipstone, seems to have died in 1944, aged 83. To his descendants, there may be much more to say about Joe, but this is as far as my investigations have led.
W. H. C. Gayner
And finally, in the christening mug collection, we come to W. H. C. Gayner, which opens up a different type of story, one where family history, geography, religion and economics all play a part. I’m pleased to have had this opportunity to delve into these areas, and see more of the background against which his life story unfolded.
Although it can be difficult to research a name with only initials, and especially if there is no date or place of birth, the combination of these three initials did prove enough to identify William Heydon Champneys Gayner, born 11 Nov 1888 in Gloucestershire, and buried in Birmingham in 1949.
As with Emily Cranfield, the questions that surfaced aroused my curiosity. In particular, why did William’s father, John Edward Gayner, move from rural Filton near Bristol to the city of Birmingham? And why or how did he change his occupation from that of farmer to being a manufacturer? This was a big leap, and unusual for the times.
Luckily, a local history website has filled in some of the gaps here, showing that the clash between the non-conformism and the established church played its part. The Gayners were an old Quaker family who had lived in this and the nearby Thornbury area for generations, and there were other Quakers in the area too, such as the Champneys, whose name William also bore.
Although Filton is now an outlying urban district of Bristol, it was at that time countryside. The Gayners worked the land that they owned there, but in common with other staunch Quakers and non-Conformists, they refused to pay tithes to the Church of England. This meant that they were hard hit by fines, which in this case gradually eroded their holdings. The website reveals that William H. C. Gayner’s grandfather, another William, stood by his beliefs:
William GAYNER, (1754-1830) took over both Church Farm and Meadowsweet Farm in 1787, Congyre in 1790 and Late Millett’s Farm in 1792, the first and latter of which were called Upper House and Lower House by his family. His farm products were gradually taken away by warrants for non-payment of tythes. On one occasion in 1783, John Owen II and Benjamin Pierce had to take ten sacks of wheat valued £16 3/6 from Gayner’s farms for the rector, Francis Ward. William Gayner was Filton’s principal employer and kept diaries of work done, mainly telling of the activities of his daymen, carters, oxen and horses and records of his sales and purchases in connection with the farm. (Bristol & Avon Family History Society – Filton area)
William junior, W.C. H. of the christening mug, seen above, spent part of his childhood at Meadowsweet farm, mentioned above. But in 1901, the census records that he was living instead at 81 Kingsdown Parade, Bristol, with three siblings, but no parents. This might seem very strange indeed, but I think this was due to poor census keeping. I actually lived in in Somerset Street, Bristol for 13 years, which is the next street in parallel to Kingsdown Parade. And while doing some house history research, I found that our house and the adjoining one were used in earlier times as a small boarding school. (Ours had been the girls’ house, and had a huge lock on the front door!) Apparently, in the 19th century, Gloucestershire farming families frequently sent their children to Bristol, to get a good education. Facilities were presumably limited in their own areas, and roads in Gloucestershire were notoriously bad, often choked with mud in the winter months. Boarding school was the obvious practical option.The big houses in these two roads, Kingsdown Parade and Somerset Street, were ideal for modest, small schools, serving the yeoman farmers who could afford to educate both their boys and girls there. So my supposition is that the census entry for William is poorly recorded, since it doesn’t indicate a head of the household, as it should, and has failed to mention that this is not a family home but a school boarding house. Probably too, further census research might clarify this, although such schools often came and went quite quickly.
Then, in 1911, William’s parents John and Charlotte have moved with their children to Edgbaston in Birmingham. The family is fully back together again. And I can confirm that a Edgbaston is a very pleasant leafy area, despite being almost central, since I myself went to school there! But there is no more farming for the Gayners, and suddenly John Edward (b Filton) 53 is Managing Director of a Woodturning Company, of which our William is the Company Secretary. Mother Charlotte is 48, sister Elsie Charlotte, 24, a ‘Musical Student and Teacher’, while Helen Lucy, 20, is a bookkeeper. They have 9 rooms in the house at 81 Ryland Road.
What has brought about this remarkable change? Perhaps it was partly the decline in their farming fortunes, but I think it was more likely that they started to sell off their farmland for building. Filton now began to grow: Between the wars, Filton expanded rapidly to become a suburb of Bristol. Terraced and semi-detached housing was built in small estates on both sides of the A38 trunk road. A housing estate was laid out in the 1920s covering much of GAYNER’s land and one of the first roads was named GAYNER Road in recognition of the family’s long association with the parish. (Bristol & Avon Family History Society – Filton area) Eventually, it became the local centre for the aerospace industry and retained a small airfield until 2012. (I had personal experience of this in 1999, when our flight from Bristol to Amsterdam, was transferred to Filton because of fog at Bristol airport. We were bussed from there to Filton and took off from what seemed to be an almost toy-sized airfield!) So the Gayners, deprived of some of their fortune by intolerant and greedy church authorities, must have been pleased to turn the tables and make good money from their remaining land.
Birmingham offered good manufacturing opportunities. There may be more to the reasons why John Edward and Charlotte Gayner chose to uproot to this spot, but cash in the bank and good prospects for enterprise must have driven their decision to a large extent. However, it’s also worth mentioning that other Quaker businesses did well in Birmingham, the most famous example being of course Cadbury’s chocolate empire at Bournville. (When the wind blew in the right direction, we could smell the liquid chocolate on the air as we walked in through the school gates!)
Son William (W.H.C.) served in World War One, in the British Red Cross Soc & Order of St John, and was awarded the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. In 1920, he married Emmeline Ewell at Eastry, near Sandwich, in Kent. And oddly enough, this is yet another place connected with my life, as Sandwich was where I spent a large part of my childhood.
In 1939, William appears in the National Register as a manufacturer, living at 9 Hintlesham Ave Edgbaston, B’ham. He died 17 April, 1949, leaving £52,507 to his wife Emmeline, to Margaret Ewell Gayner, spinster, and to John Veale Gayner, student. The family had made a huge shift since his childhood in the fields of rural Filton, in Gloucestershire.
And this rounds off my journey through the christening mugs and their stories. I hope they will have engaged you too. Next time you go to an antiques shop or auction, if you spot an object with a name, such as a sampler or a christening mug, give it a little nod of recognition. Here is someone’s personal history, a story that you might be able to tease out if you have the time and the inclination.
We are heading into Halloween and I have a couple of spooky posts coming up, on Haunted Dartmoor and Ghostly Topsham. Please join me for a frisson of fear on Oct 31st and Nov 14th.
At an auction about ten years ago, I bought a collection of Victorian christening mugs. I was drawn to their charm and to the idea that each name heralded a story, a story of a life that had unfolded in some way and which I might perhaps be able to trace. I was deeply into family history research at the time, and was also writing a book about life stories, Your Life, Your Story. I made a start on the research but got distracted by other avenues to explore, which included investigating the history of two samplers which had been passed down to me from my mother. Their story is already on my blog at ‘A Tale of Two Samplers’.
And so the mugs decorated the shelves of the houses we’ve lived in since, and look particularly pretty filled with summer flowers. Then, recently, my subscription to Ancestry was about to expire and I decided to have one last go at researching their origins. I dug out my original notes, sorted and typed them, and away I went on the trail.
Objects which have a personal story fascinate me, but if they’re not part of my own heritage or a strand of history that I’m following, there’s a limit to how far I’d be prepared to go in chasing every detail. But it was a pleasure to discover the outline of six of these lives. The other three, as I’ll explain, could not be traced. And then, finally, I also solved the mystery of a named mug passed down through our own family, which I couldn’t understand before.
So let’s imagine these 19th century babies, each one the apple of its parents’ eyes. Each one wide-eyed and curious about the world around, with a future life as yet unwritten. How did it all turn out?
I’ll give the essence of what I’ve found, since unless by some strange coincidence any of these is connected to your own family, you will not be enthralled by too many dates and details. These are stories-in-a-nutshell.
Silvester Rose was born on May 16th 1876. An unusual name is a good start for researching family history. In this case, it’s a rather suave name which we might associate with the leader of a swing band, or perhaps a louche artist. However, our Silvester was born into a solid tradesman’s family – his father Fred was a plumber and decorator, and Silvester followed in his footsteps, becoming a plumber’s apprentice when he was in his teens. The family lived in Towngate, Leyland, a few miles south of Preston in Lancashire. (If you’re interested in how the village looked at the time, there are many historical photos here ) In 1904, Silvester married Jane Ellen Bowling, but she died before 1911 when he remarried Sabina Booth, a dressmaker. By that time Silvester was 34, and described his occupation as ‘publican’. Perhaps he was tired of crawling under floorboards to deal with pipes. Perhaps he fancied a more sociable occupation.
Silvester died in 1933, and was buried on 28th January at St Andrew’s Church, Leyland. He was only 56, but had seemingly done well enough in his working life to leave £4002 14s 6d to his widow Amy.
There’s one more element in his life which might play a part in this: in 1909, aged 32, he had become a Freemason, and joined the Carnarvon Lodge of United Grand Lodge of England. He would thus have had solid connections in the area which may well have helped him in business. Did he have children? According to a family tree uploaded to Ancestry, he had at least one child – a daughter called Dorothy Mabel Ellen Rose, born in 1913, who died in 1983 at the age of 69 in the same area of Lancashire. She was given the same name as his mother, Dorothy, the woman who had gazed into her newborn baby’s face back over a hundred years earlier. Who chose his name, Silvester? Fred or Dorothy, or even another relative? That we shall probably never know.
Places and families
Often, in previous generations, people didn’t move too far from their birthplace. Although there are plenty of exceptions, especially the emigrants, who sailed away to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, many life stories ended more or less where they began. Marriages were often to partners known since childhood. Other relatives were on hand to help out with the children. There were economic, social and practical benefits to staying put in your area. Most of the stories I’ve researched here turned out to be about those who stayed local, with one interesting exception.
Frederick John Bartlett
Frederick John Bartlett was born in 1877. His is the only christening mug among my collection which tells us where he was born, in Eastbourne, and it seems he stayed there most of his life. His father William was a Bank Manager, and his mother Sara Elizabeth looked after her brood of children at 3, Prospect Cottages, Crown Lane. Frederick himself started his career – and indeed ended it – as a Bank Clerk. He married Emily Adeline Manning, and by 1939 was retired and living with her in Milton Road, Eastbourne. However, he did have one major interlude in his settled Sussex life, and that was serving in World War One. His army records show that he signed up in 1915, and plainly survived his service. According to a family tree on Ancestry, he died in 1954. Is this another quiet life, well-lived, with just a brief foray into the theatre of war?
Next we’ll move on to the only girl commemorated in my set of mugs. Were such mugs ordered more to celebrate the birth of boys, rather than girls? I haven’t yet found a definitive answer to this, but I discovered that Emily Bronte had her own mug, which is now preserved in the Museum at Haworth. Perhaps girls played more with their mugs as children, at pretend tea parties for instance, and they were more likely to get broken? But this is merely a guess.
Emily Cranfield came from the Bedford area, where she was born in Roxton in 1863, and died in 1952, at the good old age of 89 years. Her full name was Emily Wilkerson Cranfield, as she was given her mother’s maiden name for a middle name being, which was a common practice in the period. She had strong family connections in the area, yet in all the census entries from 1871 when she was 8, to 1911 when she was 48, and even again in the 1939 Register aged 76, she is never once found living with her own family. Even in her girlhood she was not at home according to the records, and although in adult life she remained a spinster, this usually meant a woman would be more likely to live with relatives, and not try to fend for herself. There is surely a story here, which I have only partially teased out.
Emily’s father, Thomas Cranfield, married Emily Wilkerson, and they had three children – Mary Jane, Emily Wilkerson of the christening mug, and Anne. But Emily the mother died in 1864, the year that Anne was born, and when baby Emily was only a year old. Thomas re-married a Maria Gibbins two years later, in 1866. This was not unusual – the majority of widowers married again as quickly as they could, often within three months, in order to have a new mother for their children and someone to run the house while the man worked to bring in a wage. For a widowed woman, this was equally advantageous in terms of economic survival. ‘Blended’ families were commonplace, despite the perception that it’s a modern invention. My own 2 x great grandmother, who came from a poor family of weavers and miners, ended up with at least twelve children under her roof, both her own, and as step-children from her two marriages to two widowers.
Thomas had already made a big financial commitment, since in 1864, the same year that Emily’s mother died, he had taken on the lease of a large country house and its farmland. As the documents tell us: In 1864 Rev. Robert Delap leased the house, with 749 acres and 37 poles of land to Thomas Cranfield of Roxton, yeoman, for £1,274/0/4 per annum. This lease was renewed in 1873 at a rent of £1,226/16/- per annum. You can also read a list of all the rooms in the well-appointed house at the records here. This was a sizeable holding, and Thomas went on to establish his position as a farmer, finishing his farming career with an impressive 1172 acres under his command in 1881. The gamble paid off.
But perhaps not for his family. Emily is never reported as living there. Was she, perhaps, rejected by her stepmother? Did they clash badly enough for Emily to want to move out when she could? Or was her father uncaring, and uninterested in providing for his daughter?
In 1871 she was named as a boarder at a school in St Peters Green, Bedford, with her sister Mary. A spell at boarding school wasn’t uncommon, and was often favoured by yeoman classes. who couldn’t get a good enough basic education for their children locally, as I’ve mentioned in A Tale of Two Samplers. The house we used to live in in Kingsdown, Bristol, was once a small school, filled with the sons and daughters of farmers from across the other side of the Avon river in Gloucestershire (boys in the house next door – girls in our house, which had a gigantic keyhole lock on the front door!) But the pattern for Emily seems here to be set for all the later years too. In 1881 she was a ‘visitor’ at the farm of Alfred Rogers in Bromham, Beds, and in 1891 she was living at her brother-in-law’s, Frank Hilton, another farmer. Then in 1901 she was working as a housekeeper at Mansion House, Bedford. By 1911, she was a ‘boarder’ with the family of William Barber. Finally, in 1939 (there are no accessible censuses between these dates) she was living on ‘private means’ at Manor Cottage, Kempston, with Mary J. Hilton. According to family trees posted on Ancestry, this was Emily’s sister Mary Jane (b. 1861) widow of Frank Hilton, the farmer referred to in 1891. It seems the two sisters were living out their latter years together as widow and spinster, so at least she was back with one of her own relatives.
Emily seems to have inherited a little money eventually, or perhaps was a very careful saver, as she has her own ‘means’ to live on, and a legacy to bestow at her death in 1952. She was able to leave the tidy sum of nearly £3000 to Marion Hilton, spinster, presumably another member of this Hilton family. But for several decades, she was just the boarder, the housekeeper, the maiden aunt. Was it a sad life? It’s probably unwise to jump to conclusions, based on intermittent records and no personal memoirs. But it certainly seems that she was excluded from the heart of the family, and its fortunes.
More Stories and a Mystery Mug
In the next post, I’ll lead you, via a Mystery Mug, through the stories of the three other christening mugs, whose owners I’ve managed to identify. I’ll also pay brief tribute to the three babies whose identity remains hidden from me. I hope you’ll join me for Part Two.
My first contact with Tarot cards was in California during the summer of 1968, at the age of nineteen. Well, that was certainly at an appropriate place and time! It turned out to be the start of a lifetime’s connection with Tarot, and aroused my latent interest in divination – a way of gaining insight into the world which surrounds us, and a perspective on what the future might hold. My long-term interest in Tarot has been centred mainly on the traditional ‘Marseilles’ pack, with its vigorous images that have been passed down through France, Spain and Italy for hundreds of years.
However, it was a different set of cards which was revealed to me that sunny day in California. This is what I recalled: ‘When I first set eyes on the Tarot cards, they blazed a trail like a comet in my imagination. They hinted at another world, beyond our normal senses, and I knew instinctively that the Tarot could lead me into this realm…. Jo spread out the pack for me. It was a revelation. He used the Rider-Waite pack, created by author A. E. Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably the most popular pack in use today…Every card, including the suits of the Minor Arcana, is represented as a pictorial image, and is rich in symbolism… It is a very vivid, very bright pack. I fell in love with it. I felt that each card was a portal through which I could enter a magical world.
‘Jo’s reading has gone deep into my memory – so deep that I can’t actually recall what he told me! But its impact changed my perceptions radically, and from now on, the Tarot was imprinted on my psyche.’
(Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration, 2016, pp17-18)
I first learnt to read Tarot with the Waite pack, and even when I later prioritised the Marseilles Tarot, the Rider-Waite pack was never far from my mind or indeed my grasp. I keep a set to hand.
But although I delved deep into the symbolism of the Rider-Waite cards, I didn’t think much further about the artist who had painted them – Pamela Colman Smith. In 1909, A. E. Waite, a renowned esoteric scholar and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, had commissioned her to create these, under his guidance. They were published by Rider later that year. As has been the case with many female co-creators, her name did not achieve the same prominence as his. Until recently, that is, when her part in the project has been acknowledged far more widely. The pack today is often referred to as the Rider-Waite-Smith pack – something of a mouthful, but fairer to someone who played an essential role in bringing these visionary cards to fruition. It has remained the best-selling, and best-loved Tarot pack in the world, becoming much more widely known after it was re-published in the 1970s.
My own connection with her Tarot cards has had a recent boost, when I found a Rider-Waite pack in a charity shop, of a different vintage to the one I already owned. This one has more beautiful, mellow colours than my existing pack, and looks older, although in fact the edition was published in 1993, later than my first pack from the early ‘70s. It also uses the original pattern for the backs of the cards, one of roses and lilies, as printed in 1909. Below, from the 1993 edition, are some of the cards which especially intrigued me when I first studied the pack – images, colours and landscapes which drew me into the story.
The Pixie of Bude
Robert and I live in Devon, and one of our favourite destinations is Bude, over the border in neighbouring Cornwall, on the north coast. During a recent stay, when the rain was pouring down, we decided to forsake the beach and head to the Castle Museum. I have to admit that our visit was propelled less by culture, and more by the thought of drinking hot coffee there in the warm café with a wonderful view of the waves. But walking through the exhibition area, where we’ve been on previous visits, I was astonished to see a panel now in place commemorating Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot artist and former resident of Bude. Few people now realise that she spent the last decade of her life there, and so local historians and Tarot fans have reclaimed her name for the town. I decided that the time had come for me too to explore Pamela’s life further, and learn about her connection with Bude.
A quiet arrival
When Pamela arrived in Bude in the early 1940s, with her companion Norah Lake, she was an elderly lady in poor health, who chose to live rather quietly. But although she kept a low profile in the town, she was still advertising her artwork; she had been a prolific artist with a varied output, as I’ll describe below. And now, being somewhat impoverished, she needed to make her art pay its way; as well as offering to paint commissions, she sometimes tried to persuade her errand boy to take a piece of art for his wages, rather than ready cash! (He was not enthusiastic.) Pamela had already been in Cornwall for over twenty years before she came to Bude, living on the remote Lizard Peninsula in a house known as Parc Garland since 1919. She now considered herself something of a native. But in her youth, her life had been far from reclusive or remote – she once mixed with a glittering crowd from the worlds of theatre and the arts. She was also a sophisticated international traveller, having lived in America and Jamaica.
In Bude, however, her remarkable life story was little known locally, and when she died in 1951, her effects were auctioned off to pay her debts. She now lies in an unmarked plot in the parish churchyard, thought to be a pauper’s grave. Much about her life in Cornwall and other biographical details has recently been published by local historian Dawn Robinson (see details below). As a minor point of interest, she was not the only person with esoteric interests to die in Bude, since the leading astrologer Alan Leo had also passed away there in 1917, although he was just there on holiday at the time.
Why did she choose to move to Bude? No one knows the exact answer – possibly to ease her financial circumstances after her previous home swallowed up all her resources. Or perhaps she wanted to be close to a Catholic church, a rare commodity in the non-conformist county of Cornwall but one which Bude could provide; she had run her own small Catholic chapel at Parc Garland. But I wonder if instead she was drawn primarily by the landscape of legend in which Bude lies? She was deeply influenced by an earlier visit to Tintagel, a short distance away, with its Arthurian associations.
Pamela Colman Smith was born in 1878 in Pimlico, London, to American parents, and she later moved back to New York with them. As a young woman, she also spent time with her father in Jamaica, where he had business interests, and took up story-telling after she eagerly absorbed many of the traditional tales there. There is some speculation that she may have had West Indian heritage, as she was quite dark in colour, and her appearance, it was often remarked, hinted at something ‘exotic’ in her ancestry. She studied at art college in Brooklyn, and began a prolific, industrious career as an artist, which shifted to England from 1900 onwards. Her work includes illustrations for children’s stories and magazine features, plus the production of Christmas cards and calendars, and original studies of actors and Shakespeare plays. Although these are not ‘visionary’ in the same way that her Tarot and music-related paintings are, they show that she could absorb herself into what might be called a ‘legendary’ style, drawing on myths and folk stories, and depicting enchanted worlds. Later, as we shall see, her mystical and magical images began to emerge more strongly into life.
She was remarkably versatile, and also worked as a bit part actress for the touring company run by the legendary stars Henry Irving and Ellen Terry; they became her friends and benefactors, and she lived with them for a while in Kent. Edy Craig, Ellen’s illegitimate daughter and future suffragette, became one of Pamela’s closest friends. Her alliance with the family also made it easy for her to mix in various bohemian, artistic and literary circles, where she became well-known as an eccentric but talented artist. She had a stellar array of friends and collaborators: Debussy, the Yeats brothers – artist Jack and poet William Butler Yeats, Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame), and children’s writer Arthur Ransome, who claimed that he learned his own rhythms of story-telling from listening to Pamela’s performances. Indeed, she held her own soirees and was famous for sitting cross-legged in gypsy robes while weaving a spell with her tales, reciting poems or singing at the piano. She served her guests with ‘opal hush’, her favourite cocktail of claret and lemonade (a drink also celebrated in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses). Her nickname swiftly became established as Pixie.
Pixie Pamela was celebrated for her unusual, ageless look and distinctive clothing: ‘a little round woman’ dressed in an orange coat adorned with black tassels, hanging loosely over a green skirt, according to Arthur Ransome on his first encounter with her. Her emotional life is still something of a mystery. No evidence of any amorous relationships has ever come to light, with men or women, although there is speculation that she may have been close to Edy Craig. And there is nothing indicative in her later companionship with spiritualist Norah Lake, as in those days it was normal practice for a couple of single women to team up and run a household together.
Some of Pamela’s art work, including the West Indian ‘Annancy’ stories, and prints from her own ‘Green Sheaf’ press.For a short while, she collaborated with Jack Yeats in producing a hand-coloured magazine, which proved too costly and time-consuming as a commercial venture.
Visions, Music and the Golden Dawn
In 1901, she joined the Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn, and remained a member for some seven or eight years. This was a magical order, studying symbolism and ritual in a structured fashion, with grades and initiation practices; men and women were admitted on equal status. W. B. Yeats was a member, as was Arthur E. Waite, though during Pamela’s time there a schism there drove each of these men into different branches of the order. Pamela remained in Waite’s camp. Sources of the Golden Dawn teaching included Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism and Hermetic traditions such as alchemy. The set-up and history of the Golden Dawn is complex, and many studies have been written about it, so I will not attempt to go into detail here.
Pamela did not strive to attain the highest ‘grades’ of the Order, the upper rungs of the hierarchy. Perhaps she preferred to stay in the lower ranks to preserve her artistic integrity, instinctively protecting her own creative channels from too much outside dictation of form. But Pamela’s innate magical way of seeing the world – to which the legends and folk tales which she loved were a stepping stone – was probably first given a useful framework there. And even at the lower levels, she would have learnt much about esoteric philosophy, and gained knowledge of a structured, hierarchical magical tradition. This was in contrast to the ‘spiritualist’ approach of the day, inviting trance and spontaneous mystical or psychic experiences to arise. When Waite commissioned her to paint his Tarot cards, he was careful to keep her on a well-defined track, and to avoid complete free flow, as we’ll see.
It’s notable that that she entered the ranks of the Golden Dawn shortly after she first discovered that listening to music could trigger vivid visionary scenes for her. Her sense of a psychic dimension was growing, and the organised frame of reference of Golden Dawn teaching would be a means to understand what was happening. Without that, perhaps her work would not have progressed beyond the personal art of her subjective imagination, into her now famous depictions of the Tarot cards, which speak of a more universal wisdom.
Pamela herself was musical, as mentioned, and her mother was a fine singer. She had illustrious musical friends, such as the composer Debussy and the early music revivalist, Arthur Dolmetsch, and performing and listening to music were key elements of her life. However, something completely new happened on Christmas Day in 1900, which she celebrated at actress Ellen Terry’s house. The family were listening to Ellen’s son Gordon Craig playing a piece by Bach. One moment, it was simply a pleasant musical experience, and then suddenly, as she described it: ‘A shutter clicked back and left a hole in the air about an inch square, and through it I saw a bank and broken ground, the smooth trunks of trees with dark leaves; across from left to right came dancing and frolicking little elfin people with the wind blowing through their hair and billowing their dresses. The picture was very vivid and clear, and a beautiful colour, with bluish mist behind the tree trunks. I drew an outline in pencil of what I saw on the edge of a newspaper, and as I finished – in perhaps a minute – the shutter clicked back again.’ (p 60: as recollected by Pamela in an article – ‘Music Made Visible’, by Mrs Forbes-Sempill, Illustrated London News, 1927; facsimile here.)
It seemed to be a one-off experience, but then a couple of years later, the visions returned when she listened to music. Each time one occurred, she drew it frantically, even when she was in the audience at public concerts. She discovered that if she didn’t do this straight away, she would lose the scene which appeared before her inner eyes. ‘If she ever alters her drawing in the least detail from what she sees, the picture breaks up and disappears. She feels quite detached from these drawings, and is immensely interested in them, viewing them as an outsider who has never seen them before,’ the magazine article continues. In one week in 1908, she completed 94 drawings, some of which she would later elaborate and colour.
Visions, creative imagination, or synesthesia?
Her visions have been described as a form of synesthesia, which is ‘a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses’. (Healthline.com) . But this generally implies a set of associations, not a full-blown image. For instance, I experience it in a mild way, so that the word Tuesday is blue, Wednesday is orange, the note G on the piano is green, D is brown, etc. But even more elaborate cases than mine do not, as far as I am aware, produce a complete, live scene such as Pamela experienced. Her visions seem more akin to the practice of using ‘active imagination’, or ‘pathworking’ in Kabbalah. The scenes have a completeness and a life of their own.
I asked artist and art teacher John Pearce, who is himself very familiar with the Tarot, if he would agree with this. He answered: ‘Synesthesia is missing the point, but the idea isn’t wholly irrelevant. In any case, one should distinguish between fleeting experiences and what Oliver Sacks defines as “true synesthesia” which is “a congenital and often familial condition where there are fixed sensory equivalences which last a lifetime”.
‘Pamela Coleman Smith might have had something comparable to synesthesia. The difference was that her unusual sensibility was expressed as a creative response to a stimulus rather than a predetermined one. The visionary event in the Bach concert may be related to synesthesia, but is much more individual, even though there is an impersonal quality as if she saw a parallel world.’
Pamela Colman Smith’s grandparents were Swedenborgians, a mystical Christian movement in which communication with angels and visions are an accepted part of human experience. William Blake, who also had some connection with this movement, saw clear visions of angels, and some of Pamela’s paintings do have a Blake-like style. So perhaps this expression of wafting figures and otherworldly scenes was already part of her imaginative and ancestral vocabulary, which was later shaped further by the training in symbolism which the Golden Dawn used. Visions may come from another dimension of experience, but they are shaped and interpreted by our own imagination, which in turn is fed by the culture we have absorbed. At any rate, I think it is missing the point to call her experiences synesthesia, and to attribute them solely as neurological events.
Some of Pamela Colman Smith’s ethereal figures above, and one of William Blake’s paintings below, titled ‘The Sea of Time and Space’
When Arthur Waite conceived the notion of creating a new Tarot deck, which would embody some of the wisdom of the Golden Dawn, his thoughts immediately turned to Pamela, and he wrote to an unknown contact: ‘I…have interested a very skilful and original artist in the proposal to design a set…(she) has some knowledge of the Tarot values; she has lent a sympathetic ear to my proposal to rectify the symbolism by reference to channels of knowledge which are not in the open day…The result…is a marriage of art and symbolism.’ Waite was an established scholar and esotericist, who was a leading figure in his branch of the Golden Dawn. He was 52 years old when the Tarot cards were published, whereas Pamela at 31 was very much his junior, and less experienced in esoteric lore. It was a natural consequence that Waite would take the lead.
So Pamela worked chiefly under Waite’s guidance, including in her designs what he considered to be the essential symbolism, but with scope to involve her own vision, and to draw on various historic and artistic influences to achieve the best visual and technical results. The result is a remarkable set of cards, each with an immediacy and presence, but which form part of a distinctive whole. Some of the styles she drew on were those of Japanese prints, medieval illuminations, Renaissance imagery and Arts and Crafts decoration. Her considerable experience of painting stage characters and theatrical scenes came in very useful, as they depend on delineating each figure, gesture and facial expression sharply.
The scenes above painted by Pamela, are both studies of the actor Sir Henry Irving, and in the scene on the left, he is playing Shylock to Ellen Terry’s Portia. Pamela acted with their troupe, and lived more or less as one of the family.
The scenes in her Tarot cards are certainly well-defined, yet there is something of a mysterious and magical quality about them. To throw in a somewhat odd analogy, I remember how I would gaze at the pictures in Rupert Bear strip stories when I was a child, and feel that I could be transported into that beautiful pinkish mauve sky, or climb those distant hills, or meet these strange characters on the path. While writing this post, I suddenly realised that it was much the same thing as my first experience of seeing Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot cards! There is a sense of another world within each image, not fantasy as such, but a kind of mythic dimension which we can grasp. Pamela, as I see it, had the gift to open that ‘shutter’.
The mysteries of Rupert Bear – as I experienced them as a child!
And Waite’s intention was to bring specific meanings into each of her paintings, embodying particular connections to what he called ‘the Secret Tradition.’ With his knowledge, and her imagination, the collaboration was a remarkable and successful project, as we can judge by the longevity of the card deck. In his autobiography Shadows of Life and Thought, 1938, there is a passage which gives a fascinating glimpse of the process:
Now, in those days there was a most imaginative and abnormally psychic artist, named Pamela Colman Smith, who had drifted into the Golden Dawn and loved the Ceremonies…. without pretending or indeed attempting to understand their subsurface consequence. It seemed to some of us in the circle that there was a draughtswoman among us who, under proper guidance, could produce a Tarot with an appeal in the world of art and a suggestion of significance behind the Symbols which would put on them another construction than had ever been dreamed by those who, through many generations, had produced and used them for mere divinatory purposes. My province was to see that the designs – especially those of the important Trumps Major – kept that in the hiddenness which belonged to certain Greater Mysteries, in the Paths of which I was travelling. I am not of course intimating that the Golden Dawn had at that time any deep understanding by inheritance of Tarot Cards; but, if I may so say, it was getting to know under my auspices that their Symbols…were gates which opened on realms of vision beyond occult dreams. I saw to it therefore that Pamela Colman Smith should not be picking up casually any floating images from my own or another mind. She had to be spoon-fed carefully over the Priestess Card, over that which is called the Fool an over the Hanged Man.
(Quoted in Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, p. 75)
NB – the syntax of this passage is – well – taxing! I’ve checked it for correctness, and suggest that the meaning is clear enough if read at a brisk pace; otherwise strange clauses and word order may trip us up. I’ve highlighted the sentence where Waite makes it clear that Pamela was deliberately kept on a track which avoided wandering off on associative or psychic impressions, and kept to the principles which he wished to convey.
His method could be seen as over-dominating, but in fact it was most probably helpful to Pamela to have Waite’s guidance in keeping tabs on the essential symbolism and significance of the cards. If she was still immersed in Golden Dawn rituals, it would have been easy for her to ‘pick up’ on other people’s images, which can often affect us when we’re working in psychic closeness with others. Even if the group is working with a chosen symbol, this can take many different shapes and be coloured by our own imaginative versions of it. Having a guide or instructor detached from this can be crucial; those who have worked with ‘guided visualisations’ in a group will know the truth of this. So although Pamela needed to keep her visionary faculties open, she also benefited from having a collaborator who could help her to see beyond ephemeral imagery.
Apparently Pamela wasn’t paid very much for her work, and neither she nor Waite regarded the creation of the pack as a major accomplishment. But, as already stated, it is the most popular deck of Tarot cards ever created, and has sold millions of copies worldwide. It’s where her real claim to fame lies, a claim which is becoming much more widely recognised today.
In some ways, I want to put Pamela’s personal history to the back of my mind now when I pick up the pack. Perhaps just for a few minutes at a time, so that I can walk into the world created by each those cards without too much conscious knowledge of their construction. But I also value this background knowledge, and both aspects are important in our connection with the cards. They can be studied, as they are full of symbols and telling detail, with the weight of a hermetic ‘secret tradition’ behind them, yet they are also admirably suited to just gazing on each image, and allowing an interpretation to come to mind.
In 1908, just before she painted the Tarot, Pamela Colman Smith wrote an article for the Arts & Crafts journal The Craftsman (p380), and what she says paves the way for how we can view her cards:
‘Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything!…Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.’
Since I posted this blog, writer and W.B. Yeats scholar Grevel Lindop has sent me a comment about Pamela Colman Smith’s musical visions, and the suggestion that they might have been triggered by a particular type of Golden Dawn practice:
I had a thought about her visions. Her statement that they began when ‘A shutter clicked back and left a hole in the air about an inch square’ strongly suggests that the visions involved (intentionally or otherwise) the Golden Dawn technique of ‘Tattwa vision’. Here’s my summary of the method, from my Yeats draft:
‘The method was simple: we can take the yellow earth tattwa as an example. You gazed at the [square shape on the] card for about twenty seconds, then moved your gaze to ‘any white surface, such as the ceiling, or a sheet of paper’. You would see ‘a complementary colour’, probably ‘lavender-blue, or pale translucent mauve’. Closing your eyes, you should try to see this lavender square getting bigger, making it large enough to pass through, like a door. Going through it, you would visualise whatever landscape lay beyond – including any inhabitants you might see, who could be deceptive.’
Despite the reference to making it like a door and going through, actually Golden Dawn members often described the rectangle as a ‘window’, and Yeats would experiment on friends by asking them to visualise a small yellow or golden window, and then tell him what they could see through it. PCS’s reference to a square hole in the air that opened like a shutter suggests that her visions were either initially triggered, or at least developed, by the GD tattwa method. I don’t think synaesthesia had much to do with it.
The dates as we have them slightly differ – first ‘vision’ in 1900, joined Golden Dawn 1901. However, she could have begun some informal training or perhaps Mr Yeats invited her to experiment with this method.
Full biographical details of her life and work are now available in two excellent studies:
Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, Stuart Kaplan et al, (U.S.Games Systems Inc, 2018) A beautifully illustrated compilation of Pamela’s art work, plus excellent essays on her life and times, focusing in depth on the Tarot she created.
Pamela Colman Smith: The Pious Pixie, Dawn G. Robinson, Fonthill Media, 2020.) A historian and writer from Bude takes on the task of composing a full biography for Pamela , with special reference to her life in Cornwall
The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A. E. Waite is the classic introduction to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, written by the man who initiated the project.
I am thankful to the Castle Heritage Centre at Bude for alerting me to the fact that Pamela lived in the town. I also acknowledge drawing on some of the illustrations in Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story to illustrate this account, and hope that it will lead to increased sales of this excellent book.
Thanks to John Pearce and Rod Thorn for scrutinising my text here, and making comments. There are also some excellent Tarot and Golden Dawn scholars out there who have helped me build up knowledge of the background over the years, including R. A. Gilbert, Stuart Kaplan and Mary Greer.
This is the fourth and final story of Tales from Tigerlily
The East End Rag Markets
Tigerlily came to life as a shop in 1974, as a vintage clothes store on Mill Road, Cambridge. But before that, I’d been getting into gear buying and selling through a friend’s stall on Cambridge market. The East End of London was where my serious buying began, in terms of sourcing ‘period clothing’ as we called it then. I drove down there almost every Sunday morning, leaving Cambridge in the dark, and often getting there before daybreak. Sometimes my business partner Helen would accompany me, or meet me there – it was she, in fact, who had introduced me to this extraordinary collection of stalls and sellers, with their treasures and junk, rubbish and bric-a-brac. This sprawling, colourful, ragamuffin of a second-hand market was held around Sclater Street and Cheshire Street, an area which runs across Brick Lane. The streets here were lined with stalls, which also edged into the dilapidated old warehouses, plus improvised sales pitches anywhere there was space. Piles of old clothes, shoes, bicycle parts and knick-knacks would be spread out along the walls and even the pavements. Some were only fit for the dustbin, and may even have come from there in the first place. Others could be treasures, retrieved from attics and forgotten places of storage. I had to be quick off the mark to decided which was which!
The pre-dawn raids
The first buyers would arrive before the day had fully dawned, flashing their torches onto the jumble of goods They were usually dealers, expertly picking out what was desirable stock for their own particular sales niche. It could be antiques, marketable second-hand modern clothes, vintage radios, old machinery, watches and clocks, collectable books, or anything else potentially specialist and desirable. And we weren’t the only ones looking for textiles and clothes. Some of the upmarket and expensive London vintage stores had buyers on the prowl; it was a relatively new type of business, but sellers in places like Portobello Road and the Kensington Antiques Market were already cashing in on the trend. And some had already beguiled the Brick Lane dealers into saving all the good stuff for them. I would regularly watch as a tall, red-haired young woman from Notting Hill and her trendy boyfriend would swan in to receive their piles of saved goods from the favoured stallholders, rather like a royal couple graciously accepting tribute from their subjects. Was I jealous? Of course! I had to get to a similar position – somehow, somewhere. And since these Tigerlily blogs aren’t chronological, you may have seen from the second in the series that I finally cracked this challenge in the rag mills up north, rather than on the streets of London.
Cheshire St and Sclater St- the best streets for bargains!
As mentioned, it was Helen who was already familiar with the Brick Lane whirl of buying and selling. Before Tigerlily opened, she ran her stall on Cambridge market one or two days a week, making a basic living from supplying crepe dresses, Victorian nighties, men’s jackets and grandad shirts from a bygone era. As I began giving her some of my finds from jumble sales and junk shops to sell on commission, we considered co-ordinating our efforts – I had the transport, she had the know-how. Before we dared to think about a shop, however, we needed to see if we could dovetail our efforts and build up enough of a supply.
Hitches and glitches – and advice on baby care!
So I made these trips to London for a year or two before we opened our shop Tigerlily, and we carried on with our joint expeditions for some time after we began trading. It wasn’t all straightforward – I remember when my hatchback Renault broke down at about 4am on a solo trip to London. No mobile phones back then, of course, and I had to try and hitch a lift home in the dark. I was picked up by a car full of male party goers on their way home. Luckily, they were plainly all shattered by then, the driver was sober, and they were courteously silent for the half an hour or so that it took to drop me off in Cambridge. Another more major issue was that I did a lot of trips while pregnant – my daughter was born just before the shop began trading – and the nausea I felt in early pregnancy was intensified by the ripe smells of the Brick Lane area. The origin of the smells came both from from rotting fruit left over from weekday trading, along with the smell of mould and decay from some of the ancient bundles of fabric piled up at the back of the derelict warehouses. So it wasn’t always a pleasant task, sorting through what was on offer.
After Jessica was born, I sometimes brought her with me on these buying trips, perfectly content in her carrycot-on-wheels, the only transport solution of the day for a small baby. Sometimes I met with East End disapproval – the fashion there was for enormous, shiny prams. And the new edict that babies should be put to sleep on their tummies hadn’t reached these parts, so our progress was greeted with shrieks of horror from Cockney mothers and grandmothers, who prophesied that she would suffocate this way. (Yes, I know, policy has reversed since then, probably several times over.)
Remnants of an even earlier time – these were probably still operational when I visited the area in the ’70s. Now the Bath House is smartly done up, its heritage preserved. Many old buildings had already been swept away then, some because of bomb damage, some because of ruthless redevelopment schemes.
Relics from a passing era
But we did find marvellous things in Cheshire Street and around. One day, I had finished my buying and was sitting waiting in the car for Helen to re-appear with her finds, so that we could start the drive back to Cambridge. She finally arrived, puffing under a load of blue velvet tailcoats.
‘I was on my way back, when I saw these. Some guy had just put them out.’ Apparently, she told me – though I haven’t been able to verify this –they had been worn by the Parliamentary Whips, in the style of 18th century men’s apparel, and were now being scrapped for something more modern. They went like hot cakes when she put one in Tigerlily’s window and I wish I’d kept one for my own collection.
I picked up a full-length hand-embroidered dress once, draped over some railings with a few pitiful items, and on sale for next to nothing. It was made of heavy hand-woven cream cotton, and I think it was probably Palestinian. That I did keep, and wear, for a while. Like Helen’s tailcoats, it appeared just at the last moment in the morning. Although most of the good things went very early, you never knew what you might spot later on. Hence it was difficult, sometimes, to drag ourselves away.
But needs must, and we’d turn for home by about 11.0 – Cambridge wasn’t a long drive away. I’d have emptied my flask of coffee while on the prowl, and on return I’d make myself a large fried brunch, and go back to bed for a few hours. The baby could share my nap, and I’d hope that my husband would look after both children and make our tea! The sorting, washing, and pricing could wait until the Monday.
Return to Brick Lane
The whole scene has remained vivid in my mind for over forty years, but I never went back again until very recently, just before lockdown in March 2020. I was thrilled beyond measure to revisit the area again. I had come to Spitalfields on a weekend blogging course run by ‘The Gentle Author’ of Spitalfields Life, and I eagerly took the first part of Sunday morning, before our session started, to walk down Brick Lane. I had been to London regularly since the 1970s, but somehow had never made it back to this part of town before.
I experienced sudden surges of memory – landmarks that I didn’t even know I remembered until they were there in front of me, like the railway bridge running over Brick Lane itself. But my most intense state of exaltation came from re-discovering Cheshire and Sclater Street, which had been the prime destinations for our buying trips. I couldn’t conjure up a mental map, but it was as though my feet and deep-buried memories just carried me there unerringly. And some of the stalls were reminiscent of those which had been there all those years ago. The old warehouses were still there, though some were now restored, and no longer full of stinking bales of old clothes.
It was a thrill to buy an old Cadbury’s hot chocolate jug from a bric-a-brac stall in a warehouse I’d once frequented, and mentioning the ‘good old days’ to stallholders brought smiles and recollections to share.
I chatted to a seller who described how, as a boy, he used to drive up with his Dad in their pick-up truck, and started unloading their goods before it got light, ready for the first buyers. I even began to think I might remember him and his father, but perhaps it was more of a generic memory of the fierce urgency for sellers to claim their pitches and get the items on display before the customers arrived. People would be trying to take the items off the truck themselves before they could unload, he told me.
I felt that in a tenuous way, I still belonged to the club! I bought a glass pendant too, as a token of my reunion with the markets of the Brick Lane area.
Now, as the morning progressed and my writing course beckoned me to return, I noticed that more people were coming out for a Sunday morning saunter, just as they had in the 1970s. I remembered how, from the shadowy figures running down the street flashing their torches to left and right, gradually the streets filled up with people in the morning light, until it was so packed that you could hardly get from one place to another. Then it was time to go home, and in those days, to drive back to Cambridge, in a car laden with my finds.
Those finds were never quite enough though, especially when it came to stocking a shop. So eventually, my forays led to the bigger rag mills, where I made links with the sorters and sellers. Planned, longer trips, took over from the frenzied excitement of Brick Lane in the early dawn of a Sunday morning. But Cheshire Street and Sclater Street remain as my essential memory of hunting for treasures in the debris of the past.
Before I left that Sunday in early March, 2020, I visited a superb bookstall where everything was just £1, and there were several excellent Folio editions available. I bought Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which turned out to be remarkably apt. Within a week, we were in lockdown.
The end of Tigerlily
We ran the shop for about five years, so all in all I had about seven years of buying and selling vintage clothing, antique textiles and linen, and related accessories. Towards the end, I began to weary somewhat of the sorting and washing of bundles of clothes. As a family, too, we started thinking about a move to the country, which we eventually managed, arriving near Dulverton on the southern side of Exmoor. And things had become awkward with Helen, my business partner, with issues from her personal life clouding our working arrangement. Eventually we found a solution: we both decided to let go of Tigerlily, and passed it on to a young woman, who had worked hard and loyally for us for several years. She was delighted to take over, and several years later, when I bumped into her unexpectedly in London, she was still in charge. So I’m glad that Tigerlily had a longer life, and that it has become something of a legend in Mill Road history!
I decided to embrace country living, and to put more time and effort into becoming established as a writer. I kept a few big boxes of old textiles and linen, and sold a little here and there – it was only in about 2010 that I finally put the last batch into auction, little pieces of embroidery, lace and costume which I had hung onto more for their sentimental value. But my trading genes resurfaced in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I founded Firebird Russian Arts, and they still bubble away. Researching my family history later, I discovered that I have generations of shop keepers on both sides of the family! However, as I tell my husband, ‘If I ever start talking about taking on a shop again, please hit me over the head and bring me to my senses!’ Twice was good, but three times would definitely be too many. And my great delight was always the sourcing of the treasures, rather than the day-to-day operations of selling.
This is the third in a series of stories from my vintage clothes shop, Tigerlily, which I ran from 1974 to1979 on Mill Road, Cambridge (at the town end, before the railway bridge, for those in the know about the two parts of Mill Road). We were a destination!
I’ve already described how I bought bin bags of stock from the rag mills, and the next post will be about the street markets I frequented too, but for this account, I’ll reveal how Tigerlily sourced stock in a far more upmarket manner – at the ‘posh end’ of the trade.
Finding Tigerlily treasures at ‘the posh’ end
At that time in the ‘70s, the term ‘vintage’ hadn’t been coined for clothes. Even using ‘period’ was a novelty, and most older clothes were considered only fit for throwing away. In the frugal decades earlier in the century, the majority of people had much smaller wardrobes and couldn’t afford new clothes on a whim, or because fashion dictated. However, at the other end of the scale ‘period costume’ meant couture items and their accessories which might prized as heirlooms, such as hand-made lace, exquisite embroidery, and silk or chiffon evening gowns. Such items rarely turned up in the kind of places where I was searching for stock – rag mills, street markets and jumble sales. But then I discovered that there were some collectable ‘antique’ clothes and textiles which could be within my reach. And the key places to find these happened to be at the high-class auctions in London.
So off I went to discover the delights and perils of buying at auctions run by Phillips and by Bonham’s, both household names in the world of fine art and antiques. It was an eye-opener. On the pre-sale viewing days, I marvelled at the wonders which were hung quite casually on clothes rails, or folded in old trunks and boxes. There were silk shawls, Edwardian blouses, and slinky silver lame evening dresses. I recall too pleated Fortuny dresses, original William Morris curtains, a set of antique Tibetan Temple hangings, and glorious panne velvet opera cloaks, trimmed with swansdown. Some of these sold for huge prices, others for very little if they were not in mint condition. ‘Good enough’ condition meant that they might be within my price range.
Another feature of these ‘costume’ auctions was fine lace, the prime examples ready to be snapped up by specialist collectors. However, there were also ‘lots’ of lace which had no particular place in a museum or collector’s display, and were thus were more towards my end of the market. So I was sometimes able to buy large cardboard boxes full of lace trims, panels and collars. With the help of a book I acquired, I took a beginner’s crash course in learning the difference between hand and machine made lace, and between some specific types, such as Honiton or Venetian. The lace pieces sold very nicely in Tigerlily, for modest prices.
These gorgeous dresses above were in the iconic style of Mariano Fortuny – which typically sold for a fortune, both in the early part of the 20th century when he was working as a designer, and when they came up for auction decades later. Sadly, they were never within our budget. This quote describes the design:
‘Registered in Fortuny’s name in 1909, his emblematic ‘Delphos’ dress—named after the Charioteer of Delphi—took its inspiration from the chiton, the long woollen Greek tunic, and reflects the craze for Greece whose interpreter at the time was Isadora Duncan. This one-size-fits-all dress, made of finely pleated silk and open to all sorts of subtle variants of neckline and sleeves, was an ongoing success for forty years. Its admirers among the modernist elite included Comtesse Greffulhe and her daughter Elaine, the Marchesa Luisa Casati, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse and, of course, Isadora Duncan.’
Antique lace, of which these are examples, used to come my way in the job lots at the costume auctions. I was able eventually to identify most of the more common varieties. Machine-made lace curtains were also back in favour again. They lasted well, provided that they hadn’t been starched, which tended to rot the material over time.
The perils of lace, chiffon and silk
I also found some dresses and job lots of garments at auction which might have represented, say, the back end of a 1920s wardrobe, or even of a theatrical costume collection. These too went well in Tigerlily, with one notable exception. I’d purchased a large suitcase full of chiffon and silk dresses and nighties from the 20s and 30s, which no one else seemed interested in. They weren’t exceptional, but they were fun, and wearable, with a touch of glamour to them. I priced them up, and started to put them out in the shop, a few at a time.
However, a couple of weeks later, I reached into the box to see what was left, and to my horror, the fabric of a dress literally fell apart in my hand! I pulled out others – they virtually crumbled as I touched them. I realised that whoever had kept the collection hadn’t opened it up for years, and now, as the air began to reach the textiles, they were disappearing like fairy gold in the daylight.
Later that day, a young woman came into the shop, looking anxious, clutching one of our brown paper bags.
‘I bought this dress last week,’ she said, ‘but look at it now!’
I knew what was coming, before she held up the garment, now in shreds. Once a chiffon 20s shift, it was now not even suitable to use as a duster.
‘I wouldn’t mind,’ she continued earnestly, ‘if I’d worn it a few times, but it was only the once!’
I hastened to put her out of her misery, and refunded her money with an apology and an explanation. After all, we didn’t want to get the reputation of a shop whose clothes fall apart after a first wearing.
A flirtation with ‘The Lady’ and Victorian underwear
Another strategy I used at the posh end was to put advertisements in magazines like Vogue and The Lady. They carried ads for ‘dress agencies’ at the time, where, I supposed, impoverished gentlefolk could sell off last year’s ball gown or suit they’d worn to a Royal Garden Party. So my ads were a little different, as I asked for antique or period clothing. Extraordinarily, it worked, and people started contacting me. We would exchange letters or phone calls first to try and establish if what they had to offer was potentially of interest, and if what I could offer financially would be acceptable. Then boxes would arrive by post, if the location was too far away for me to visit. Occasionally, I had to send back a box of unwearable items, but on the whole the surprises were pleasant ones. One in particular was a set of exquisitely stitched and embroidered white cotton lawn underwear and nightdresses, a never-worn trousseau for an Edwardian bride. What was the story there? I was bowled over, and sent the seller a price she was both astonished and pleased to receive. She was so pleased, in fact, that she sent me more!
There were the ones that got away, however – I arranged to meet one lady at a Cambridge bus stop in the rain to see her treasures. (Why? Perhaps she was just changing buses and couldn’t come any further? I can’t recall.) She opened a ancient cardboard dress box and revealed a perfect fully-beaded 1920s flapper dress in black-and-white geometric designs. It was accompanied by a matching Juliet cap (a skull-fitting cap rather like a bathing hat) in the same delicate fabric and beading. As soon as I saw it though, I realised that it was probably too good for me. It was really a museum or collectors piece, and we mainly sold pieces for wear by people with modest budgets. I couldn’t afford the price she wanted, and regretfully had to let it go. Could I, should I, have bought it? It would have been an investment, but I suppose there’s a chance that it too might have turned out like the box of vanishing fairy gold, and crumbled away. Many 1920s items of clothing were really very fragile, and didn’t stand the test of time. A Victorian cotton nightie can be good for 150 years, whereas a 20s flapper dress might not outlast the decade.
An old lady’s story
And sometimes, people brought items unbidden into the shop, to see if we wanted to buy them. That was fine, but they could cut up rough if politely refused. One woman brought in a dress she had bought new from a shop in London the day before, and decided she didn’t want. Not vintage – I’m talking about a ‘modern’ 1970s dress, expensive and rather ugly. She graciously offered me 10% off the price she’d paid, which would ensure there was ‘something in it’ for me. Thank you, but no thank you. She was indignant. She plainly didn’t realise that the average mark-up from buying a garment wholesale to selling it from the shop floor is 100%, so even if we had been interested, the discount was negligible. Even to this day, I think many people don’t realise that to cover overheads and make a modest living, many types of shop have to mark up their merchandise by doubling the wholesale price, then adding the VAT.
But there was also a wonderful surprise one day, when a very elderly lady came in, with something in a bag to show me. It was a Chinese silk shawl, heavily embroidered with coloured flowers on black silk, and a deep knotted fringe. I had long admired such shawls, but couldn’t afford the inflated prices they reached at the London auctions. When she saw I was interested, she told me she had other similar items at her home which was just around the corner from the shop. I made an appointment to visit with alacrity.
‘I was out in China, you see,’ she told me, when I went round. This had been between 1900 and 1920, when she was a glamorous young Englishwoman who attracted the eye of various handsome young men out there. ‘One of my suitors bought me some of these pieces. But I didn’t like him, so I never wore them.’
The items in question were not only the shawl, but a beautiful black silk trouser suit, embroidered with orange and white flowers, birds and fish. They were in pristine condition. She also had an unfinished square embroidery, lacking its fringe but perfect in every other respect, with immensely detailed scenes of Chinese life.
I bought everything, at a price we were both happy with. Some items I earmarked immediately for my own collection. Gradually, over the years, I disposed of my hoard, but these Chinese items are with me or my family for keeps! They are treasured, even if they can’t be out on permanent display. The fringed shawl tends to live in a drawer in case the cats claw it on the sofa. It’s also too awkward to wear, because the fringe can catch in your own and other people’s clothing – as I discovered to my embarrassment, striding grandly up the aisle of a cathedral to find my seat for a concert. The square embroidery, the shawl without a fringe, I’ve passed on to my daughter, and it’s now in safekeeping for my granddaughters.
The trouser suit I’ve worn on various occasions, not often, but enough for it to have gentle signs of wear. A few years ago, I wore the jacket to a Gala evening at our Exeter Northcott Theatre. In the social part of the evening, Robert and I got chatting to a couple who admired it. He was British, she Chinese. I was able to tell her, ‘Yes, it’s genuine Chinese embroidery, and it’s about a hundred years old.’
At that point, I felt like an antique myself. After all, the old lady, when she sold it to me, was vividly remembering the days of her youth, and now I’m remembering mine, and the time when I bought it. When does a life story turn into history?
Below: detail from theembroidered silk trouser suit
My Tigerlily dealings took me into some strange situations and up some curious pathways. It was an education, as well as a business. I still enjoy rubbing a piece of supposed vintage fabric through my fingers to detect whether it’s genuine 1930s satin, or a later revival piece, made of artificial fabric. The seams will tell me whether that so-called Victorian nightie is handsewn, or a later reproduction. The feel, as well as the eye, give the clues that you need to pick out a period pieces and appreciate its worth, not just in monetary terms but as a valuable link to costume history, and for the chance to continue its life story into the 21st century.
This is my second post about Tigerlily, the vintage clothing shop that I opened in Cambridge in 1974. As I mentioned in the first post, keeping the stock going was the biggest challenge. You cannot phone up a supplier and order six 1930s satin wedding dresses, or a genuine old Japanese kimono. You might find a dealer who would do you a job lot of collarless ‘grandad’ shirts – very popular with the guys in the ‘70s! – but probably the price would be prohibitive, as the items had already entered the retail chain, and been upgraded from ‘chuck-outs’ to desirable garments. Buying the ‘bread and butter’ items at the bottom end of the pricing pyramid, where it was up to me to recognise their potential, was the only practical option.
Collarless shirts were in fact our secret weapon. I adored the antique embroidered items that I sold, from Chinese shawls to Hungarian peasant blouses, and took my pick of silk nighties, but it was the less exotic items which made the money. I took a stall every year at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and for those few days, Tigerlily transferred its business to a tent. It was always those shirts which paid the rent and turned a good profit. We could literally sell hundreds over the weekend. Our security arrangements consisted of paying one of my helpers generously to bed down in their sleeping bag among the racks of clothes, given that the official night watch was minimal in those early optimistic years of festivals.
Where to source the clothes? Steptoe and Son come to the rescue!
On the question of resources, jumble sales were ‘entry level’ for hobby traders, as I had once been, but not a serious place to look long term if you have a permanent retail outlet. I’ll describe in a later post how we also trawled the London East End secondhand markets, but even they weren’t consistent as a source for a shop. So I asked myself the question: ‘Where do the unsold items from jumble sales go? And the clothes from house clearances?’ (You have to be a little bit ruthless in this business, realising that you’re mostly dealing with garments of dead people. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, especially when the deceased hasn’t long left this world.) Well, there were still traces of the old-fashioned rag and bone businesses, (think horse and cart, Steptoe and Son) who took on other people’s throw-outs – I found one or two yards in London, and used to have great chats with a lively South London individual, who’d reminisce happily about life as a street urchin, having fun with his mates. ‘Mum just used to turn us out after breakfast with some sandwiches, and tell us not to come back till tea-time.’ I once bought a fabulous set of Art Deco shop scales from him, which I wish I’d never sold – they went in a trice. Pickings were slim however, even though he kept things back for me.
I then discovered a larger-scale rag warehouse in Kettering, an easy car journey from Cambridge. Probably the Yellow Pages located it for me initially, as I had no contacts there. It was a depressing and smelly place, with not a great deal to offer, but at least I learnt the form there, when dealing with employees rather than sole traders. This was to make friends with one or more of the ‘rag pickers’, ie the clothes and textile sorters, who then save the good bits for you, and get rewarded with tips for their trouble. You pay the going rate to the boss at the warehouse, by piece or by weight, usually a very cheap amount, and a ‘finder’s fee’ to your new best friend. This was a normal practice, and there was nothing underhand about it; the management accepted this, unless they wanted certain items themselves to sell on in a particular way. Our 40s dresses and de-mob suits didn’t fall into that category.
Two things were essential to this method of acquiring stock: a hatchback or estate car to pile the black sacks in, and a sturdy washing machine at home to deal with industrial quantity loads of cotton shirts and nighties. Plus it helped to have a strong constitution to put up with smells, and at least some muscle power to heave around the black sacks stuffed full of potential booty. Oh, and a good supply of cash in hand.
The Secret Sources of Yorkshire
I was still on the lower rungs of the ladder. However, one day Mick, the ‘friend’ in question at Kettering, revealed that their bales of clothes eventually migrated up to Yorkshire, to the greater rag mills of Batley and Dewsbury. I was on it, like a terrier on the scent of a rabbit! Before long, I hit the A1 up north and discovered this old clothes Mecca of England. I soon rooted out a few of these warehouses, made friends with a bunch of ladies working there, proved myself a paying customer with the management, and become a regular. We got on, had a laugh, and I made sure I never let them down – I turned up once a month, and paid the ladies well for their trouble.
The rag warehouses I visited were usually filthy places, mostly housed in old textile mills, with broken windows, and ancient groaning conveyor belts which allowed the pickers to sort the old clothes. But they were also places of wonder. Long before the days of formal recycling, they were a masterclass in how to re-use and upcycle.
‘Where are those going to?’ I pointed at a small mountain of brightly-coloured headscarves.
‘Oh, those are for Nigeria – the women love to wear them.’
‘And those?’ A drabber pile of sober waistcoats, taken from men’s three-piece suits, lay on the floor.
I could see it in my mind’s eye – the Pakistani men in their long kurta shirts and loose trousers, with a tailored British waistcoat over the top. Smart!
I marvelled at the jewel-like heaps of woollen garments were dotted around, literally in all the colours of the rainbow. Wool could be re-spun into second-grade yarn, and by sorting the items into colours into blue, green, red, yellow, pink, purple and so on, they could be processed in batches.
Crimplene dresses (remember those?) were for ‘the market women’ who ran the second-hand stalls. The ‘hippy gear’ – the vintage clothing – was for people like me. The only thing which couldn’t be re-cycled or re-purposed, I was told, was the material that suits were made from.
‘It’s only good for cardboard.’
But even that gave it a place in the recycling chain. I was amazed at the time, and had ambitions to write an article about it. Sadly, I never did, and I have no photographs either of these extraordinary places. Those in this article are ones I’ve been kindly lent or discovered much later, but they do not show those rainbow piles of wool or cheerfully-patterned scarves.
These photos, from a rag warehouse in the area show the basic equipment used in the sorting process – baskets, nylon sacks and wooden troughs. I brought home some sturdy shallow baskets, plus a number of the bags, which came in handy for years as storage.
While I was visiting these warehouses, I kept an eye out for garments that I might wear, and I picked up some good-as-new cashmere jumpers. The Harris tweed women’s jackets were fabulous too, and just about ready for a fashion revival. This was the thing – you had to have an eye for what was desirable or funky – the image that people wanted to wear. But age and period weren’t everything; even some really old items weren’t funky or stylish enough – they could be too large, too short, or too worn to tempt customers. Our clothes were sold fairly cheaply and were not always perfect, but they still had to be the right fashion for the present moment. ‘50s clothes, believe it or not, were despised, apart from some of those strange old American baseball jackets. You might get away with selling a full cotton rock-and-roll skirt, if you were lucky. At that time, twenty years was all that divided the ‘70s from the ‘50s, and I believe that it’s at least a thirty year gap before styles begin to come back into favour again. Though does that mean that the 1980s are cool now?
A Tigerlily customer remembers:
‘Bought an American style Baseball jacket from here many years ago, early 80s I think, it was black but with red pvc style arms, people would stop me in town and ask where I purchased it, it started quiet a trend back then, rockabilly style with skintight jeans, basketball boots (hi tops) and my hair in a flat top, I felt the dogs Bo**ox in it’. Paul Blowes, via ‘Cambridge in the good old days’ Facebook page.
The other side of the coin
The warehouses could also be dangerous places – some that I visited were housed in former textile mills, with broken windows and rickety wooden stairs. Fires broke out on at least two occasions I was there, probably from people smoking carelessly around piles of textiles. Although I loved my trips to the mills, I couldn’t help but observe that in one or two of the mills that I frequented, there was an inherent male bullying culture which made for a volatile atmosphere. The women there told me about the hardships of their lives too, and many were on anti-depressants, which were handed out by their GPS like sweets in that era, with no warning of possible addiction. One day, I witnessed a very young woman, probably still a teenager, who was sobbing her heart out because someone had just drowned a litter of kittens born in the mill. I could really feel with her and for her, but at the same time recognised that she’d have to toughen up if she intended to keep working there. Having said this, other mills were cheerful places, better run by dedicated family firms.
However, whatever the state of the building or the problems of management in the rag mills I knew, I was greedy for the treasures that might be buried in such smelly and sometimes repellent piles of clothing. Just as the alchemical gold is said to be forged from a ‘primal substance’, something base and dirty that everyone overlooks, there was much here which could be redeemed and transformed into new use. And occasionally, there was real and recognisable treasure to be found – one or two pickers who I met had found gold coins and jewellery in the pockets of worn-out clothes in the bales!
I remember those mills with curious affection, and nostalgia. I’d like the chance to pick up a Harris Tweed jacket there today, and some top-of-the-range cashmere sweaters. And although I don’t miss the stink of old clothes and rooting through piles of dubious textiles, I miss that sense that any moment now, I might stumble upon something extraordinary and beautiful.
The fascinating life and history of these businesses has largely gone unrecorded, to my knowledge. I had no photos of my own, and internet pickings are very slim. So I am very grateful to Judith Ward for offering me photos of her family’s warehouse, taken just before it closed down in 2009. This was not one that I visited, but the shots remind me of what I’d typically see on a clothes-hunting expedition.
Please note that none of the comments about my own experiences relate to this particular business.
Does Tigerlily refer here to Rupert Bear’s chum, the charming daughter of a Chinese magician? No – it was the name of my vintage shop in Cambridge, purveyor of period clothing and other delights.
I opened Tigerlily with a friend in the autumn of 1974. I’d had my second baby only six weeks before, and although it seemed madness to go ahead at such a time, I’d been seized by a rush of energy after an exhausting pregnancy. It was the strangest and yet in a way the best time to do it. I was ready for some new adventures of my own, especially while the baby was portable and could come with me. Helen and I signed the lease of a Victorian two-storey shop on Mill Road, Cambridge, and hastened to open up as soon as possible.
For the previous year, on and off, I’d been nibbling around the edges of such a project, learning where to find vintage clothes, and how to sell them. Students and younger people were desperate to get their hands on Victorian nighties, collarless shirts, 1940s crepe flower-sprigged dresses, and ‘30s chiffon ball gowns. My friend already had a market stall selling these, and I’d load my small haul onto my bike and trundle it down to the city centre, for her to sell on commission.
We had the large upstairs of the shop for vintage clothes, along with bags, scarves and some period bric-a-brac. We also had the damp and dingy cellar for storage, but it wasn’t wise to keep things in there for too long! Helen took up residence in the flat at the back. Both the cellar and the flat were the source of future problems, but for now we went with it, while my friends Paul and Arunee Denison sold jewellery, largely from Arunee’s native Thailand, in the small ground floor shop.
The shop was spacious, cheap, dilapidated, but serviceable. From London rag trade wholesalers we bought cheap clothes rails; from an old-fashioned haberdasher’s shop which was closing down in Mill Road itself, we acquired tall cupboards with glass -fronted drawers, a counter, and a wooden till which pinged when opened or closed. We found a fabric covered screen to enclose a changing corner, a few mirrors, a heap of clothes hangers, and that was that. A sophisticated touch (we thought) was to bend wire coat hangers slightly, thus giving the dresses a more stylish look. Within two weeks of signing the lease we were up and running on an astonishingly small outlay. Yes, we were forever contacting the landlords about water running down the inside wall and fungus growing in the back corridor, but we made it work, and also made it look surprisingly attractive.
However it was getting harder to find the prize items – there were very few charity shops back then, and some had already wised up to the potential of vintage, or ‘period clothing’ as we called it. Jumble sales were unreliable, although could yield up a few items. And now we needed a steady stream of stock to keep a shop going – it soon became the ‘go-to’ place for students and a whole range of clientele. New grandmothers came looking for antique christening robes for the babies born across the road in the old Maternity Hospital. Antique costume hunters came up from London to – they hoped – snatch a treasure from under our noses. Young men attending May Balls got their vintage dinner jackets from Tigerlily. We kept prices on the low side, and turnover was therefore high.
I bought a 1950s peach coloured ball gown with a label in it from a shop in 5th Ave, New York that I wore to a May Ball in circa 1980. Plus plenty of other vintage clothes besides, which I wore as daily outfits. Happy days! – Helen Balkwill, via ‘Cambridge in the good old days’ Facebook page.
In this niche business, sources were everything. You didn’t tell your rivals where you found that 1920s flapper dress, or the velvet smoking jacket. You might even put them off the scent with vague chat about bric-a-brac shops and bequests from a late elderly aunt. London already had some prize vintage clothing stores, such as Cornucopia in Pimlico, where you could drool over extraordinary treasures, selling for sky high prices.
Below left are some examples of the elegant 1930s evening wear that came our way – the bias cut adopted in the period looked gorgeous when silk or satin was used, though must have been devilishly difficult to sew. Day dresses were cheerful, and still showing the influence of the Deco style.
So with a shop to fill, we obviously had to keep up the stock levels and find reliable sources for our supplies. Much of the fun of running such a business, of course, is discovering unexpected caches of clothes (you can see how my love of ‘the cache’ comes in here!). But nevertheless, you can’t keep a half empty shop going on promises of future surprises.
Helen and I were independent traders, in that we kept our own stock and did our own accounts. We used coded labels and sometimes – I wince to think of it now – stapled these onto garments. OK, it was before the days of the plastic threaded tag, but even so! But we did pool some resources, and she did me a great service even before we opened the shop by sharing her prized destination with me. This was the rag market around Cheshire Street and Brick Lane in the East End of London, where she showed me the ropes. I had the car, she had the expertise, so we would drive down from Cambridge in the middle of the night, getting there in time for dawn, whatever the season. I’ll be writing about this in a later post. But I needed something more than the Brick Lane market, and the story of how I filled the gap will be told too in future posts.
It wasn’t just a simple matter of filling the rails with our finds though. We had to sort, check, wash, mend, iron and price the items of clothing. Some might have to go to the dry cleaners. At that time, in what I call the ‘First Wave Vintage’ era, no one really bothered to re-make or re-shape clothes. Either they’d find a buyer, or not. The exception was turning patterned headscarves into ‘handkerchief skirts’. I wonder if that brief fashion will ever come back? And clothing could be smelly, fragile, or reveal unexpected holes, including moth damage. Once, in a second-hand clothes dealer’s attic in Inverness (not my usual geographical area!) I caught a human flea. Believe me, the usual fleas that might jump off our cat or dog and nip us are nothing compared to the insatiable, vicious attacks of the human flea, which I understand is now a rarity. I did suffer for my calling. And as someone who is allergic to dust, perhaps it wasn’t the perfect profession for me!
I should add here that I do think of my main profession to be that of a writer, but I have always enjoyed having another occupation too. I’ve inherited trading genes from generations of shopkeepers in various branches of the family, and have always found the best balance for me is to combine writing and research with a more outward-looking activity. Searching for treasures combines it all, since it’s what I do with my research in order to re-present them in my writing work, and it’s what I did in stocking both Tigerlily and my later Russian arts business.
We roped our friends in to help out in the shop, paying them a modest but fair wage to (wo)man the till, and I had my very own mending and ironing lady who coped beautifully with the jobs that I hated.
I was one of the friends Cherry roped in to help at Tigerlily! I had just moved to Cambridge and met Cherry through mutual friends – so working part-time in her buzzy and post-hippy shop suited me very well! The shop was a great meeting point of town and gown – students enjoying the wonderful clothes and bric a brac that Cherry seemed to have a real knack for finding. It was such fun going through the new stuff after one of Cherry’s shopping sprees: peasant blouses, chiffon dresses, lacy and embroidered delights, even fur coats (we were allowed in those days) some which I have happily passed on to my daughter. – Briji
And overall, Tigerlily was a great financial success, because it was run on a low budget and we could be flexible in how we ran it. I had never heard of a business plan, but it was in profit within the first month. Much later, in the 1990s, when I started Firebird Russian Arts, I knew that there would be no such easy rides this time. I found that I would have to work for three years without taking pay, run proper accounts and learn how to handle financial forecasts. (I leave you to guess how casual my Tigerlily book-keeping was). No more hippy-style set-ups! But it did give me a measure of freedom, at a time when I had small children, and it brought much fun as well as a healthy cash injection into our family life. My children have distant memories of running round the shop and climbing through the clothes rails. And if I felt like closing up early, why not? I smile today when I see the note ‘Back in 10 mins’ on the door of a small shop. I know what that means.
Why ‘Tigerlily’? Well, we played around with various names for the shop, which had to suit not just us but also Paul and Arunee’s jewellery shop below. I wish I could now remember some of the dreadful ones that were put forward! But then Tigerlily came into my mind, and everyone liked it. Later, in the 1990s, I called my Russian arts business ‘Firebird’. Perhaps there’s a pattern here, of two such juxtaposed images creating an identity – the tiger and the lily, the fire and the bird? The Firebird is a mythic Russian creature, and Tigerlily is a striking orange flower. Let’s just say, I wasn’t relying on Rupert Bear annuals for my choices!
Stories of Tigerlily still to come:
Tigerlily and the Rag Mills Tigerlily at the Posh End Tigerlily down Brick Lane
As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere progress through the darkest days of the year, we may perhaps find ourselves more affected by the power of poetry. Words resonate when we’re not so distracted by bright light and busy lives outside. And there’s long been a tradition for writers, scholars and mystics to seek inspiration in the middle of the night. The medieval mystical Kabbalistic texts compiled in the book known as the Zohar emphasise that at midnight, God enters the Garden of Eden, and at this point the trees sing, and the angels can be heard. Those seeking ‘a whisper from the school of knowledge’ should arise from their beds at midnight, to pray and study. (We have to assume that they went to bed a lot earlier than we tend to do nowadays!)
An ancient Irish poem is set in just this context, that of a monk writing and studying in the depths of night. It comes from the 9th century, and although the monk was Irish, he was at that time located in a monastery named Reichnau, in what is present-day Austria. At this period, the Irish, especially the monks and scholars, were great travellers, and also often had to move abroad to escape Viking raids in theire homeland.
As the fame of Irish scholarship grew, Irish teachers and thinkers were also invited to join centres of learning at schools established in royal and aristocratic courts and large monasteries, so that by the ninth century, the German monk and scholar, Walafrid Strabo remarked: ‘The Irish nation, with whom the custom of travelling into foreign parts has now become almost second nature’ Book of Kells ‘Future Learn’ course, Trinity College, Dublin
This monk’s notebook shows that he was working on a variety of classical and theological texts, but the poem itself is about his relationship with his cat, Pangur Ban. Both have particular tasks to perform at night; both find their ‘bliss’ in these, whether writing or catching mice. ‘Ban’ means ‘white, and ‘Pangur’ means ‘fuller’, in the sense of part of the process of making and cleaning cloth. So the best guess is that he had a cat with soft white fur. And indeed, a good number of the medieval illustrations of cats show ones which are white in colour.
There were also ginger cats, preferred by the Vikings, often taken on board ship; their descendants are still found around the Mediterranean, and DNA proves their Scandinavian origin. Spotted cats, tabbies, grey and black ones were also prevalent.
Pangur Ban is a touching, intimate poem that astonished me when I came across it a few years ago, and this small miracle still tugs at my heart strings. I’m guessing the anonymous monk would be astonished too, to see how much his verses are valued over a thousand years later. W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney have both produced striking translations from the Irish, and Samuel Barber has set it to music (see link below). But I prefer this simple, poignant version by Robin Flower.
The scholar and his cat, Pangur Bán
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
'Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
You can hear the first verse spoken in the ancient Irish in this recording.
And the Samuel Barber song, titled ‘The Monk and his Cat’, is performed beautifully here by Barbara Bonney.
Cats in ancient Ireland I first met Pangur Ban and became hooked on Old Irish Cats in a ‘Future Learn’ course on the Book of Kells, which is kept at Trinity College, Dublin. (You can read the relevant section and it’s free to join the rolling course.) . Here I learned that cats were valued in early medieval Ireland, not just as treasured companions, but as useful members of the household. They were accorded legal status: ‘Domestic cats were a high-status possession, owned principally by the elite. Such was their value, that there was an entire set of laws, the Catslechtae (‘cat-sections’) outlining the fines attached to the stealing, injuring or killing a person’s cat. Penalties differed according to the talents of the cat in question. For example, a cat was worth three cows if able to purr and keep its owner’s house, grain store and kiln free of mice, but only half that if was just good at purring.’
This is a description of some of the categories of cat enshrined in old Irish law: Ameone is ‘a mighty cat that mews’. Aicrúipnei is also a ‘mighty cat’. but ‘by virtue of its paw’. Ie, a good swiper of rodents. It is ‘a cat of barn and mill and drying-kiln, which is guarding all three’. Breonei is a female cat who purrs and protects – or may utter ‘an inarticulate cry’, and her value is greater if her purring is loud. Meone is ‘a pantry cat’, catching mice and rats which might steal the food. Her value seems high at two cows, if she’s good at her job. Otherwise, one cow. Abaircne is said to be ‘a cat for women’, ‘a strong one brought from the ship of Bresal Brecc in which are white-breasted black cats.’ Folum ‘is a cat who herds, who is kept with the cows in the enclosure.’ Last but not least, we have Rincne, ‘a children’s cat’, thus described because ‘it torments the small children, or the children torment it.’
Medieval Cats Cats were also appreciated in mainland Britain, and it’s known that a number of monks and ‘anchoresses’ (a type of female hermit) were sometimes permitted to have a cat as a companion. There were also stern warnings that they should not get too attached to the animal! (I am sure that this was ignored, even if an appearance of indifference was kept up.) Although there were some very cruel customs in earlier society involving cats, which I won’t go into here, it’s clear that in general, cats were not only useful members of the household in catching rats and mice, but provided companionship and solace to their human keepers.
Just occasionally, cats were paid a salary! In Exeter Cathedral today, one of the most popular features for visitors to spy is the medieval cat hole, as you can see below. This is in the door leading to the works of the famous astronomical clock; its ropes would have been greased, and the grease would have attracted vermin. Hence it was important that the Cathedral Cat should be able to hunt them down inside the clock chamber. Cathedral records show that from 1305 – 1467 the cat and its keeper received payment of around a penny a week, chiefly to provide good food for the cat.
Returning to the poem, and my theme of darkness in current posts, it’s definitely one for our midwinter nights. And it reveals that the writer and the hunter are not so far apart: In our arts we find our bliss, I have mine and he has his. So, Pangur Ban – and in my case Zaq and Cassie – we each have our tasks to perform, and I will try to accept the next live mouse that you deposit at my feet. As you can see, my cats take a lively interest in my work.
December 28th – A note to everyone:There’s been a marvellous response to this post – thank you all so much for reading this! Comments have been coming in, and are welcome, but please bear in mind that I have to read and ‘approve’ these first, if you are new to this site, so it can take a few hours.