30/11/2011

A VICTORIAN RAILWAY OPENING...

A Great Western Railway steam locomotive

From the criminal drama and international enquiry that ensued from the very first railway murder, as related in Kate Colquhoun's Mr Brigg’s Hat, the VV now ponders on somewhat more parochial matters such as the local excitement felt in many small country communities when the railway lines were opened up - a modern means of transport that transformed both lives and livelihoods,  despite fears from those more Luddite souls who feared that travelling at speed might result in a fatal brain injury: a nose bleed at the very least.

William, Lord Bateman - as illustrated in Vanity Fair in 1879

But, disregarding the doom mongers, one such local line was built when William, Lord Bateman, the Lord Lieutenant of Herefordshire founded a company which engaged Thomas Brassey and William Field to construct the tracks which would join the Welsh Marches market towns of Leominster and Kington at a cost of £70,000, and to work the said line from its opening until the June of 1862 during which time it would pay the investors an annual dividend of 4%, after which the line was leased to the Great Western Railway, becoming fully amalgamated in 1898.

To commemorate the commencement of construction work Lady Bateman wielded a silver spade to dig the first earth along the track that would be 13 miles and 25 chains long and which finally cost £80,000. There were stations at the villages of Titley, Marston Road, Pembridge and Kingsland which served the local farmers who could more easily transport their livestock, though timetables could be somewhat informal with trains sometimes stopping mid-way on the tracks to deliver local groceries or collect eggs to take to the markets. 

 A blurry image of Kingsland Station

The opening day on Tuesday July 28th 1857 was met with a great deal of excitement, having been well advertised in the press and with banners and bunting draped up at new stations and many folk dressed in their Sunday best; expectant small throngs whose eyes were dazzled by bright rays of sunlight that bounced off the newly laid metal tracks upon which they would soon be riding – picked up along the way to end their journey in Kington where Lord Bateman (who had his own private stop constructed at his home of Shobdon Court) was hosting a celebration meal  - although the festivities were somewhat delayed when news came that the new engine (named Lord Bateman) had broken down and but a short way outside Leominster. In the end it was over an hour late, reaching its destination at 2pm rather than 12.45pm but despite any tempers being frayed, and many best dresses damp and bedraggled when the clouds began to pour with rain, the VV imagines all was well when the guests were warmly greeted at Kington's Oxford Arms hotel by the Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Hastings CB who over presided over the three hundred guests who sat in the banqueting room beneath hanging banners which read ‘Times Past’ and which showed a coach and horses, and others emblazoned with ‘Times Present’ which depicted a gleaming passenger train.  And as to the splendour of the feast laid up on the tables that day – well, take a look at this menu and gasp -

1 boar’s head, 6 spiced beef, 4 roast beef, 6 galantines of veal, 10 forequarters of lamb, 20 couples of roast fowl, 6 couples b├ęchamel fowl, 8 hams,  10 tongues, 8 raised pies, 12 turkey poulets, 28 lobsters, 12 lobster salads, 4 Savoy cakes, 8 Danzig cakes, 8 rock cakes, 8 plain cakes, 8 charlotte russe, 8 Polish gateaux, 8 Viennese cakes, 8 raspberry creams, 8 pineapple creams, 12 dishes of tartlets, 12 dishes of cheesecakes, 12 fancy pastries, pines, grapes and fruit etc.


Clearly, Lord Bateman was a man of great generosity or else a prodigious appetite because when that 2pm lunch was done, he jumped on the train then returning to Leominster and attended another reception and dinner, this time held at the Royal Oak Hotel, the crowds sitting down to eat at 5pm.

For many years the line was a great success, even playing an important part during events of World War II when it became very busy indeed due to a hospital camp being set up at nearby Hergest. Men were first brought from the Battle of Dunkirk and by 1944 trains were ferrying up to 300 injured men at a time with the wards eventually admitting a total of 2,413 patients.

Even so, times past and present move on and although the line continued to carry freight and goods until 1964 it was closed to the public in 1955, being no longer able to compete financially with the more successful bus companies. The last train left Leominster at 8.25pm on February 15th and arrived at Kington station where a black flag had been hung to greet it, before the final return was made.

Thus, Lord Bateman's contribution to the county of Herefordshire was to end - condemned as his once splendid home had been when it was demolished in 1933 - for reasons of being 'surplus to requirements.'

Shobdon Court, where Lord Bateman's private railway station once existed before it was demolished.

18/11/2011

A BRIEF HISTORY OF DOLLS HOUSES...



Of late the VV has been thinking about the history of dolls houses – partly because there is the brief mention of one in the novel she is currently writing, and also because of certain books and films she has recently read or watched.

In The Devil Walks is a YA novel by the acclaimed author Anne Fine. It has a gothic Victorian plot that centres around a dolls house which happens to be the exact copy of the home of the novel's family, and the miniature people within that house soon prove to be more than inanimate toys but hold the clues to a dark event that happened in their history

There is a somewhat similar theme to the Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, and also in the plot of a film called The Awakening: a very eerie story indeed, and one that the VV recommends - and here is a clip from that film in which an ominous doll's house is discovered by a character played by the actor, Rebecca Hall...



But, what of the origins of doll's houses? Where does the interest come from - for our children to love to play with them, for so many adults to love to collect exquisite miniatures like this? 

Well, it seems to have begun as far back as the mid sixteenth century when Albert V,  Duke of Bavaria, commissioned a copy of his own home to be crafted and then displayed as a show of his wealth and eminence. In later centuries more and more scaled down copies of real homes were exhibited as display cases to be filled with objects of aspiration, with many of the finest examples costing as much to create as a full-sized residence. 

Only in the Victorian era were the houses used as playthings – albeit being limited to those children whose families were rich enough to afford to pay the craftsmen who possessed the necessary skills to craft such delicate objects.

However, the industrial revolution resulted in mass production which affected many aspects of life - and as far as doll's houses were concerned it rendered them more affordable, very soon becoming a mainstay of any respectable nursery. 

The German manufacturers – whose houses and furniture were the most prized – were Hacker, Moritz Gottschalk, Elastolin, and Moritz Reichel.  In America there was the Bliss Manufacturing Company. In England there was Silber and Fleming, Evans and Cartwright, and Lines Brothers – who later became known as Tri-ang.

Should you wish to see some fine historical examples today, the VV recommends a visit to the V&A's Museum of Childhood, situated in London’s Bethnal Green. There, the following examples of doll's houses are displayed -


The Tate House


The Tate House was created around 1760. Modelled on an eighteenth century Dorset house, it can be separated into different sections - originally so that the mistress of the house could more easily take the 'baby house' along on her travels. The furniture is not contemporary. It is thought to be have been updated in 1830. Even the windows have been ‘modernised’ to appear as Victorian sashes when before they would have had twelve panes.


The Killer Cabinet House



The Killer Cabinet House was commissioned by the Manchester doctor, John Egerton Killer around 1835. (The VV is trying not to smile at that unfortunate professional name.) The cabinet was made to indulge his wife and daughters in their hobby of making miniature domestic objects. It has four rooms – a drawing room, a morning room, a bedroom and a kitchen.



Amy Miles House



The Amy Miles House – circa 1890 – was made for the little girl of that name. It includes a billiard room and school room and, before it was damaged in the second world war, there was also an artist’s studio situated above a bathroom. 

If you have any interest in antique toys and the history of 'childhood' more generally, the Bethnal Green Museum is well worth a visit, and this page from their website will give you much more information when it comes to their collection.



Addendum: When I first wrote this post I received a copy of Voices from the Doll's House by Adele Geras, a beautiful collection of poems from which I would now like to add the following few poignant lines - 

My baby lies in the nursery
next to the attic reserved for mad aunties.
She has a hollow head
but I say nothing.
Hollow isn’t empty
and at night the space behind her eyes
thickens with little fluttering fears
that beat like moths: grey wings
against her eyelids.


For a related post on dolls houses please see: A BOOK FOR THE CHILD IN US ALL 

16/11/2011

A BOOK FOR THE CHILD IN US ALL...

For those of us not lucky enough to have owned an actual doll's house, this book really is the next best thing. The VV has had great fun looking through this beautifully produced cut out book from the children's publishers Tango. It is very cleverly engineered. There are even little people to place within the rooms with furniture and play accessories that unfold for their individual use.

What a lovely Christmas present this would make.


10/11/2011

'ANNO DRACULA' BY KIM NEWMAN...



The VV was recently standing on an underground platform at Paddington station when she noticed this stunning poster - in fact, it is the cover of a book originally published in 1992 and now re-issued all over again - and what a splendid  re-issue it is - and how had the VV not known of this vampire tale before?

Clearly, she had to make amends, buying the book immediately and entering an alternate Victorian world where the widowed Queen Victoria has married Vlad Tepes, Dracula, The Impaler, and society's ruling classes, from the new Prince Consort and Prime Minister down are made up of the usurping or new-born 'undead'. 

At the start of the novel there is a semblance of continuing order in the society parlours of Victorian London but is is soon clear that much is amiss. Riots are breaking out between those who choose to remain as 'warm' and the increasingly dominant vampires, with insurgents being locked away in isolated concentration camps, with spies from secret societies working alongside nobler vampire souls to try and overturn the rot taking place at the very centre of power - in short, on Victoria's throne.   

Kim Newman is a well known film critic and he clearly has a visual 'eye'. When reading Anno Dracula each scene is so vividly described that the reader almost feels as if he or she is watching on screen. There are many nuances from other works - whether literature or film - to enhance this adventure, come mystery, come downright 'bloody' horror. Oh yes, lots of horror and lots of sex (Mr Newman is not one for holding back) - with madams pandering children's blood, with prostitutes who have been 'turned' developing yet more virulent strains of diseases that may have lain dormant before, and with love scenes that have more recently been echoed in the televised series of the raunchy and wry modern-day vampire tale: True Blood such as in this example: 

Icy needles shocked him and, for a moment, he was in her body in her mind. The extent of her was asstonishing. Her memory receded into the dim distance like the course of a star in a far galaxy. He felt himself moving inside her, tasking his own blood on her tongue. Then he was himself again, shuddering.

'Stop me, Charles,' she said, red drops between her teeth. 'Stop me if it hurts.'

He shook his head.

For those aficionados of the vampire genre there are many prominent characters drawn from all the classics, from works by Bram Stoker, and Anne Rice, and R L Stevenson to name but a few who stride across Mr Newman's stage, beside actual historical characters - most notably Jack the Ripper, with allusions to Alan Moore's From Hell, and artists like Whistler and G F Watts, or poets such as Lord Tennyson - even John Merrick, the Elephant Man, who exhibits remarkable heroism in the book's explosive conclusion.  

If the VV has any reserves about this particular novel it might be that in Anno Dracula we have just about everything Victorian, including the kitchen sink, thrown in. But, Newman's style is knowing and arch, and it makes for a wonderful fusion of plot, and for many amusing 'asides' as well  - such as the scene where the smooth-faced, smooth-haired Dr Jeckyl is giving some evidence before a judge and the court illustrator who sketches his likeness finds his page covered with the image of a man whose face is more haggard, whose hair appears as a shaggy mess - in short the image of Mr Hyde.

Anno Dracula is just the beginning. Mr Newman's wonderful obsession goes on, more details of which can be read of here.

And for the most glorious taster, this trailer really encapsulates everything about the book. Bon appetite!