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The Early Nineteenth-century Garden


Tales of Courtships Past


Invasion of the Body Snatchers


The Hell-Fire Clubs


Dining in the Regency


Ghosts of Victoria


The Early Nineteenth-century Garden

Like everything else, gardening has a history. There’s a reason you won’t find a French medieval princess skipping through a field of dahlias, and a Regency wedding festooned in August roses would raise questions. Most of the plant varieties available now are, relatively speaking, recent additions to our yards.

Not that folks didn’t enjoy their gardens in the past. Those that could afford it sunk enormous sums of money into both the scientific and aesthetic aspects of horticulture. George II’s wife, Queen Caroline, incurred considerable debt upgrading Kew Gardens during a time when the formal styles of previous years was giving way to the new naturalistic taste.

Over time, Kew became the centre for research and development around economically important plants discovered during the age of exploration, such as coffee, rubber, quinine (a medicine derived from the cinchona tree), sugar, and chocolate. Some of these specimens were highly valued, and plant theft was a problem.

However, not everyone had the land to create huge “prospects” of scenery, nor did they care to invest in a rubber plantation. A new kind of gardener was evolving, created by the Industrial Revolution.

It is estimated that during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, 1,700,000 villas—basically nice houses with a few acres of ground—were built around the towns and cities of England. The upwardly-mobile middle class had arrived and was looking for home decorating advice. Fashionable landscapers like Humphrey Repton got rich.

The focus of these more modest gardens was on individual plant species rather than sweeping views. Previously, landscapers banished flower gardens from sight lest the sudden splash of colour disrupt the natural look of the scene. Now, the early nineteenth-century garden found new directions that suited a smaller format—and that meant blooms.

Some of the newfound flower power was driven by the welter of exotic plant species brought back by explorers. In 1804 Dahlia coccinea, Turk’s cap and the tiger lily were introduced. 1816 brought the bleeding heart and Wisteria sinensis. 1825 introduced the California poppy to Britain.  The list is endless and the result profound.  Early gardens enjoyed only a brief period of blooms in the late spring. Even most period roses do not produce much beyond mid-July. Now, with all these new species, it was possible to have flowers from early spring till fall in a dizzying succession of colours.

Large plantings of flowers were put into island beds. These were sometimes turned into “baskets” with the addition of giant handles and low ornamental fences. More exotic and valuable plants were often displayed in pots so that they could be whisked indoors at the first hint of frost. There are cases where collections of potted plants were included in wills and bequeathed with as much solemnity as the family silver.

With all this available, anyone with a decent plot of land could put on a display. The public became enthusiastic about “garden tours” of the great estates, picking up ideas for their own yards.  They also subscribed to an increasing selection of horticultural magazines.

John Loudon launched the trend-setting journal Gardener’s Magazine in 1826. Once the Napoleonic Wars ended and tourism on the continent resumed, Loudon was quick to bring back information on continental garden designs for his readers. These polished, formal landscape styles were a hit and soon replaced the naturalistic “English” gardens favored by the late 18th century. The trend stuck and high Victorian gardens show the neat regularity of Loudon’s designs.

On March 7, 1804, seven men met at Mr. Hatchard’s book and coffee shop in Picadilly.  This was the first unofficial meeting of the Horticultural Society. The time was ripe for a group of professionals and enthusiastic amateurs and, within twenty years, there were 1500 members. Peacetime, middle-class wealth, exploration, and a rising interest in natural sciences conspired to turn domestic gardening from a household necessity to a pursuit worthy of a gentleman.


There is a wealth of information available on this subject, and I am indebted to a number of sources for this article. In particular: 

Gardens Through Time, Jane Owen and Diarmuid Gavin.  London: BBC Books, 2004.

From a Victorian Garden: Creating the romance of a bygone age right in your own backyard, Michael Weishan and Cristina Roig.  New York: Viking Studio, 2004.


Tales of Courtships Past

Since February is the month for Valentine’s Day, it’s interesting to look back at old courting customs.  The path of true love may not always run smoothly, but it sure takes some interesting detours along the way.

St. Valentine’s Day was well-established in England from an early period, but it did not fare so well when it first came to the Puritan New World. Along with other “frivolous” celebrations, it was aggressively repressed.  When a sea captain returned to Boston on February 14, 1764, and kissed his wife in an enthusiastic greeting, he was promptly put in the stocks. So much for the Hallmark moment.

Other traditions survived transplantation to our shores more easily, especially in rural areas. The practice of “bundling” or bed-fellowship involved an unmarried couple sharing a bed as part of their courtship. The reasoning behind this includes the fact that rooms were cold, beds were in short supply, and farmhouses could be too far apart for a courting swain to trudge home after dark. It was also a good opportunity for a young couple to enjoy relative privacy in a crowded home. The practice was said to decline with the advent of improved housing, although instances are still recorded as late as the mid-nineteenth century in the New England area.

Nightclothes were designed to prevent bed-fellowship from progressing to something more. The “bundling stocking” was a single-legged pyjama worn by the female. Other measures included tightly-tied nightgowns and petticoats armoured with impenetrable knots.  Of course, in some agricultural communities, celibacy was not the goal. Proof of fertility could also be an asset.

Clothes were often used as love-tokens as well as barriers. In Scotland, if a man accepted the gift of a shirt (or “sark”) sewn by his sweetheart, it was a binding pledge of marriage. Elaborately-carved busks (a piece of bone or wood that stiffened the front of a corset) were also favorite gifts, perhaps because they sat between the breasts and over the heart of the beloved.

Other courtship gifts included spoons, pincushions, crockery, and even rolling-pins decorated with expressions of affection. Given the familiar cartoon image of a woman whacking her husband with a rolling pin, practical gifts have limited power to invoke domestic harmony. He should have given chocolates instead.

Not all wedding customs derive from romantic sentiment. Making a lot of noise, including bells, banging pots, and even the stag night itself, came from a desire to frighten off evil spirits who might wish the couple harm. The bridal party itself, with bridesmaids and groomsmen, was originally there for protection.  In an era when many brides were the prize of conquest, guards were necessary to prevent untimely rescue by the woman’s kin. Thankfully, these aren’t associations we need to make now, but they do remind us of a time when marriage had powerful political and economic implications.  When a man conquered a woman, he did so literally as well as euphemistically.

Much nicer to contemplate is the old rhyme, most appropriate for this time of year:

 Marry when the year is new,

Always loving, always true.



Sources for this information include Margaret Baker’s Wedding Customs and Folklore, Rowman and Littlefield, New Jersey, 1977 and Susan Waggoner’s I do! I do!, Rizzoli International Publications Inc, New York, 2002.


Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Supplying the Nineteenth-Century Anatomists


 When I was researching my February 08 book, Theft of Shadows, my to-do list included some digging (ha-ha) on the history of grave robbery. While body-snatching is only incidental in my story, I still wanted to get the details right. As so often happens, I stumbled on a fascinating subject worth far more exploration.

Throughout its early history, the surgical profession in Great Britain had no practical means to perfect its art before operating on a live patient. Prior to the passage of the Warburton Anatomy Act in 1832, the only legal source of human cadavers for dissection was the execution of criminals. To put this in perspective, there were about 77 executions annually.  These remains were to be shared amongst over 1,000 medical students in London and almost that many in Edinburgh. Grave robbers or “resurrectionists” sought to supply the resulting demand for corpses by exhuming and selling the newly dead.


This phenomenon was found mostly in the English-speaking world.  Resistance to the idea of human dissection extended to North America, as witnessed by the Anatomy Riots in New York in 1788. By contrast, Continental Europe had licensed anatomical schools and supplied them with ample bodies for dissection, usually the unclaimed dead from hospitals.


In England, the available legal human specimens went to a limited number of teaching hospitals. The many unlicensed private schools of anatomy had to fend for themselves. However, if a surgeon was caught buying stolen bodies, he was disgraced. This presented a difficult situation for the medical men, who would be equally ruined by a surgery botched through lack of practice.


It is not surprising that the resurrectionists, hardly a soft-hearted lot, threatened blackmail if they were not richly rewarded for their services. This could include support for the body-thief’s family if they were thrown in jail. James Moores Ball gives the example of a gang of six or seven men who sold 312 bodies during one winter, earning around 1328 guineas. The average price for an adult body was just over four pounds sterling, a lot of money in 1828.


Many crews had an inside man, a grave-digger or custodian who knew where fresh bodies were buried. Sometimes a female accomplice would linger in the graveyard, pretending to mourn at the tomb of a loved one while she spent the afternoon cutting the wires of spring-loaded guns set to protect the cemetery from depredation. Eventually a sort of iron cage was developed, called a mortsafe, that fastened over the graves.


The robbers worked fast.  A sheet was laid down to catch the dirt so that the grass would later appear undisturbed. The hole was dug with short, flat, dagger-shaped implements. Wooden tools were used to avoid the scrape of metal on stones. Only the head of the coffin was exposed. Two ropes with broad iron hooks were used to break away a portion of the lid, the noise muffled by layers of sacking. The body was dragged out through this opening. The grave was then restored to its original appearance and the body carried away in a sack (hence the term “sack-‘em-up men”).


The resurrected bodies were often shipped in unmarked crates, packing cases, or casks to their intended destination.  Needless to say, there were a few grim surprises when shipments got confused.


Bodies were also stolen for their fat, which was believed to have curative powers for some wounds and diseases. There was also a brisk market for teeth for making dentures—apparently battlefields were a prime source. Some enterprising souls even sold their own bodies in advance many times over.  The most hair-raising tales are those where body snatchers, including the infamous Burke and Hare, turned to murder to secure their inventory.


It took a few sensational criminal trials to put an end to the resurrection industry, but in 1832 new legislation grudgingly allowed surgeons to secure cadavers by legal means. Once the demand for the illegally-obtained bodies ceased, the resurrection men turned to other schemes and the trade became part of history.


Most of this information is drawn from these sources: The Body Snatchers:  Doctors, Grave Robbers and the Law, by James Moores Ball, M.D., LL.D.  (New York, Dorset Press, 1989) (This is a reprint of a monograph originally published in 1928.) and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach. (W. W. Norton & Company, May 2004).  Both books are fascinating if morbid reading.


The Hell-Fire Clubs


My second book, Draw Down the Darkness, introduces the Hellfire League, a group of magic users who have abandoned the principles of the Circle and set out to use their powers for darker ends. The League is very loosely based on the Hell-Fire Clubs that existed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 


The most famous of the Hell-Fire Clubs was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood (1708 – 1781). The Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe was decidedly one of the stranger phenomena of the period. Gentlemen’s clubs were common during the era and served both a recreational and networking function. Some centered around gambling, others—like the Beefsteak Club—around food. “Hell-Fire Francis” chose orgies and blasphemy as his theme. He was even said to drink brandy laced with sulphur, calling it “brimstone.”


He led the inner circle or twelve Superior Members of the club in Black Masses, himself taking the lead role in the proceedings. There were also forty to fifty Inferior Members who participated in elaborately staged parties famous for debauchery and drunkenness. The “friars” were joined in their revels by “nuns,” who seemed to be not only prostitutes but women from the members’ own families. The first permanent site of the club was the ruined Abbey at Medmenham, built in 1160. Later, Dashwood had a network of caves dug and outfitted for use near his estate at Wycombe, thirty-three miles northwest of London.


Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the club was its involvement in the politics of the day. The Friars of St. Francis were not only rakes, but men of intellectual and professional clout. One of the prominent members was the Earl of Bute, who was influential in the life of the young George III. On his ascension to the throne, George appointed Bute Prime Minister, Dashwood the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Earl of Sandwich (yes, the same one who invented the sandwich) as the First Lord of the Admiralty.  Along with John Wilkes, known for his support of popular causes, these men were influential in many important events, including the American Revolution. Others who were thought to be members of the club included the artist William Hogarth and perhaps even Benjamin Franklin, who visited Dashwood in 1772.


One of the most famous stories about the club relates a prank played by Wilkes on his fellow “friars”. One of the club members went to India as the Governor of Bengal and sent a baboon to the abbey as a gift. Wilkes was there alone when the creature arrived. Costuming the baboon in a devil’s suit, he hid it in a chest. Later, during a dramatic moment in the Black Mass, Wilkes released the animal. The baboon leapt to the altar, shrieking and frightening the wits out of the robed and half-drunk members, who thought they had indeed raised Satan in their midst.  Cries of short-lived repentance filled the air. As the saying goes, the Friars of St. Francis should have been careful what they wished for.


Sadly, the records of Dashwood’s infamous club were burned.  No doubt too many careers were at stake to let such papers survive.  As a result, historians have to sift through much hearsay and conjecture to compile an accurate account. Evidence about the club is re-interpreted by each new scholar.


In some ways, the details are less compelling than the fact such clubs existed at all. Perhaps they arose because the age was not only one of enlightenment but also extreme social tensions and philosophical re-evaluation. During the eighteenth century, the world changed. Democracy was battling tyranny, industry fuelled new wealth, and science called old creeds into question. This sense of insecurity led to both extreme conservatism and an outpouring of radical arts and letters. Among other developments, the School of Terror was born as writers like Horace Walpole and Monk Lewis developed that interesting new genre, the paranormal novel.


Two good sources of information on the Hell-Fire Clubs include Daniel P. Mannix, The Hellfire Club (New York:  ibooks inc, 2001) and Geoffrey Ashe, The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000).



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Dining in the Regency

Food fads are nothing new; what we eat and how we eat it is a constantly-evolving reflection of our society. During the Georgian and Regency periods, there was a growing demand for elegance and refinement, not only among the nobility but also among the bourgeoning middle class.

Around this time, factories making fine dinnerware were becoming established in Western Europe. Familiar names like Wedgwood and Limoges date from this era. Forks gained general popularity. Cookbooks and gastronomic essays found eager readers. By the time of the French Revolution, the occupation of “cook” had specialized into various culinary professions, such as the pastry chef.

Political storms indirectly contributed to the rise of French cuisine. Noble patrons became an endangered species during the Revolution, and the great chefs needed to find new jobs. Some opened their own restaurants and took the gastronomic arts to the people. The era of the trendy eatery and its super-chef was born.

The French masters also looked abroad for work. Foreign nobility was quick to offer employment and, as a result, the next wave of Gallic cuisine spread across Europe and beyond. Marie-Antoine Carême, arguably the greatest of these culinary ambassadors, worked for the Prince Regent. Though best remembered for his pièces montées, elaborate architectural recreations in dough and spun sugar, Carême’s genius ranged much farther.  He approached cuisine with an eye to blending taste, texture, and color with a new appreciation for harmony and compatibility. Dishes became more complex. Sauces assumed greater importance for adding flavor and texture to food. He left behind a vast written record of recipes, menus, diagrams, and advice.

One of the marked changes in formal dining was the manner in which food was presented. This is one place where the French style was replaced by something new.

Today, “French service” means the server prepares or carves food tableside. In the early nineteenth century, the term indicated that serving dishes were placed on the table. Servants assisted the diners but, generally speaking, bowls and platters were simply handed around and guests helped themselves. If you were at a large gathering and your favorite treat started at the far end of the table, the food might be cold or gone before it reached your place. Needless to say, this system challenged the evolution of manners.

Around 1810, a new style of service began at the czar’s court in St. Petersburg and was introduced to the rest of Europe by the 1850s.  “Russian service” required that individual plates be prepared for each course and presented to the guests, much like what we would find in a restaurant today.  Since this novel method guaranteed a fair share of food served at its intended temperature, it quickly caught on.


For further reading on this subject, see Alexandre Dumas, Dumas on Food:  Selections from Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, trans. Alan and Jane Davidson, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, and  Venetia Murray, High Society in the Regency Period (1788-1830), New York: Penguin, 1998.


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Ghosts of Victoria

Did you know . . .

Apples can be used to foretell the identity of one's future lover.  Squeeze a seed between your fingers until it shoots into the air. The direction it flies will tell you the direction from which your lover will come.  Peel an apple so that the skin comes away in a single, long curl.  Throw it over your left shoulder. The peel will form the first letter of your future lover's name. If you don't have an apple peel, apparently the peel of a turnip will do ...

Gregorian ghosts

Here's something for your ghost story collection.  Last Thursday (?) night I was practicing this Gregorian hymn to Mary from the choir and I was suddenly swamped by that electric cold feeling I associate with "ghostly" encounters. It kind of approached from behind and had a definite "Locale".  It felt to me like curiosity or recognition, not anything very scary outside of the surprise value.  It went away as soon as I stopped practicing that piece, which I had up to that point really been enjoying. As this is one of the more common chants, and this house used to be part of St. Anne's, I wondered if one of the previous inhabitants knew the piece. Anyway, it was kind of interesting in retrospect.

Hope those text books haven't swallowed you up....

I love this one . . .

Ghostbusters play golf

About three or four years ago, I went with a friend to the Oak Bay Beach Hotel on the night of a full moon and on or just before Hallowe'en. The pub in the hotel, The Snug, was one of our favorite places to go for beer and natchos (especially after a long day of working on the monthly newsletter we produced). We had been taking classes on energy work, visualization, etc. through a local metaphysical store.

 Before getting back into the car to drive home, we wandered out back behind the hotel and amused ourselves with trying to figure out why the energy in certain spots of the grounds felt different to us than the rest of the grounds. Eventually, we got into my car and I started to drive home. Almost immediately, I had the unmistakable impression that there was something else in the car with us, sitting in the back seat (and I don't mean just some person hiding there). I couldn't see anything but the feeling wouldn't go away. So there I am: I'm babbling to my friend, probably not making much sense but trying not to let her know that I think something has come into the car with us. This goes okay until, glancing towards my friend, I see this white hand-shaped blur waving in the air, just as though someone in the back seat had leaned forward and waved their hand up and down between us to get our attention.

 It works! There's this moment of shocked silence, and then my friend says, "Um, I think there's something in the car with us!" I admit that I'd been thinking that for a while but hadn't wanted to scare her, whereupon she admits that she thought so, too, but didn't want to scare me. Now, whatever this presence is, it feels mischievous but not at all malevolent. I got the impression simply that it had been tired of being ignored and wanted to catch our attention. Naturally, this makes no difference to us. We're both really freaked, but trying to react as our teacher had told us to do, calmly, firmly, and most importantly not from fear. We decide that maybe if we tell it where we're going, it will loose interest and go away. (I think we both secretly feared it was going to come home and stay with us!)

 So there we are, both talking to this still unseen presence in the back seat, telling it that we're driving to Fairfield, which is kind of a long way away, but if it wants to come too, that's cool... I wish I had a tape of the conversation, it must have been hilarious.

 As we're driving through the Oak Bay Golf Course, we suddenly feel the presence leave. Whew.

 Interestingly, neither of us had any sense of who it might have been, or even if it was male or female, only that it didn't seem in distress. (Another interesting note, while I distinctly saw a white, blurred hand - much as you see if you wave your own hand in front of your face quickly enough that the outline blurs, though this one was definitely white, not flesh coloured - my friend says she saw a black outline, kind of like the negative image of what I saw. I think she still saw it as hand shaped.) Anyway, we never did find out who it was, or why it followed us. Then, in 1998, I went on the "Ghost Bus Tour" organized each Hallowe'en by the Old Cemeteries Society. While telling the story of the Ghost of the Golf Course, the guide, Mr Adams, said that it's believed to be the ghost of a local woman who was last seen alive leaving the Oak Bay Beach Hotel with her ex-husband. They'd met to talk about reconciling, I think. Her body was found the next day shoved under some bushes on the seventh tee of the golf course. When I heard this, I just knew that it was her ghost who had hitched a lift with us – from the hotel to the golf course! The mischievousness matches other sightings of her, too.


 There's an addendum to it, as well. Years later (2002), I was driving home alone via the scenic route, which passes through the golf course. It was nighttime, sometime after xmas but before new years eve. I often drove through there, thinking about the ghost and whether or not I'd ever run into her again....

 That night, I was in a funny, creeped-out mood.  I remember thinking, as I reached the golf course, that I couldn't handle a ghost sighting just then. I was doing the mental equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and humming to myself, trying to block any ghostly messages or sights from reaching me. I felt something, but this time it was more like I was seeing a face rush  towards me (from the right) in my head – not with my physical eyes this time. It felt aggressive (possibly because I'd basically been going "lalalalalaa...I can't see you....lalalalala?), so I mentally pushed it away.

 The next second, just as I'm passing some bushes that crowd the road towards one end of the golf course, there's this almighty thump on the right side of the car, near the rear wheel-well. Then there's a flurry of thumps from the same rear side section of the car. It sounds just like I imagine it would if I'd run someone over and was dragging them, but they were still alive and thumping on the car for me to stop. Shudder. After about four or five blows, the noise stops, I'm past the golf course, and really not wanting to stop the car and take a look. There was no bump when it started, so I'm damn sure I didn't actually physically run something over.

 I drive on, not quite sure what to do. Eventually, I decide to go to Esquimalt to drop in on my family (it must not have been very late at night), and I realize that I have stop at a gas station to fill up the tank. Nice bright lights, people around – a perfect spot to check out the side of the car.

 I pull up to the Mowhawk station, get out of the car, and find that the entire rear section – just where the thumping was - is covered with goop. My first thought is, "that's funny, I've never believed in ectoplasm." The existence of it, that is. Ghosts are one thing, but ectoplasm just sounds too weird to be true. That's what it looks like, though. Goopy, whitish, cloudy-looking stuff, kind of like white, semi-transparent snot, is plastered over my car. Ick. I have the sudden fear that the ghost had somehow marked my car, and could find me again no matter where I was by seeking out this stuff, so I grab some paper towels and wipe the stuff off. Later,  I'll wish I'd saved a sample, though goddess knows who I'd send it to – Bill Murray?

 Maybe some day I'll find out that there was a new toy, released just that Christmas, which shot spit-ball like goop out of high-power water pistols, and there were kids hiding in the bushes.

Musical ghosts 

Some experts believe Victoria, BC, is one of the most haunted cities in North America!  I was recently told the Victoria Conservatory of Music has a special, music-loving visitor. The beautiful, century-old building was formerly occupied by the Metropolitan United Church. People in the building have recently seen a petite, shadowy form on the stairs, experienced cold spots, and once heard someone calling for "Norma." After the adding machine began working by itself, folks got curious. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but there was a bookkeeper named Norma who worked there years ago when the building still belonged to the church. This sighting has never been properly investigated, but with so much lovely music and gorgeous, historic surroundings, I can well imagine someone choosing to pay a visit to the old office ...

Loves to shop

One of the common features of hauntings is that they often centre on the daily patterns of the departed individual's life. Years ago, I lived on the prairies in a house that was built across the site of an old dirt road. Often, around dawn, one of us would wake up to see a dark, hunched shape moving down the hallway. Frightened?  Not really. Long before our suburb sprung out of the Alberta grasslands, an old woman used to use that roadway to walk to the store and, house or no house, she was just on her way to check out the bargains ...

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December 27, 2008