Madeleine’s ambrotype

Continuing on the theme of what we can learn about life in 1850’s Scotland from the trial of Madeleine Smith, one interesting detail is that she exchanged ambrotypes (an early type of glass plate photography) with her lover, at around the same time that Rochlitz was running his photographic studio in Beechworth, half a world away.

What this reinforces is that portrait photography was already widely adopted by the mid 1850’s and was reasonably affordable.

The exchange of photographs between lovers as a habit is particularly interesting given that only a few years before photography was still nothing more than a gentleman’s plaything …

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Travel in 1850’s Scotland

I’ve recently been reading an account of the trial of Madeleine Smith, which took place in Glasgow in 1857 – in essence Madeleine Smith was accused of poisoning her lower class lover because of her upcoming more respectable marriage to a well known business person. Madeleine was tried for murder on the basis of fairly compelling circumstantial evidence, but the jury held the case to be not proven, a Scottish verdict meaning that the prosecution’s case was not compelling enough.

As in all such Victorian murder cases, there is the suspicion that if Madeleine was not daughter of one of the great and the good of Glasgow society she would have hung for it – to slightly misquote Weir of Hermiston ‘she would hae had a fair trial and then be hanggit’.

The Madeleine Smith case was major newspaper event of the time and inspired  Not Proven, a long out of print three volume mid Victorian novel by Christina Broun Cameron. The way that the events and correspondence between Smith and her lover were reported in the newspapers may have also partially inspired Wilkie Collins’ adoption of an epistolatory style for his early crime novels.

But  I digress. When the railway service between Edinburgh and Glasgow began, trains were infrequent and expensive, but roughly fifteen years later, at the time of the trial,  L’Angelier, the victim, who was a warehouseman in a seedsman’s business was able to  travel by train between Glasgow and Bridge of Allan and from Glasgow to Helensburgh to meet Madeleine when she was staying at her parents house outside of Rhu.

I have no idea what a warehouseman in mid Victorian times earned, but a Google search for Victorian wage rates suggests that L’Angelier would be doing well if he had an income of sixty pounds a year.

A third class railway ticket between Glasgow and Helensburgh would possibly have cost a shilling (GBP 0.05). I’m saying possibly, as I don’t know, but other railway fares advertised on different lines suggest that this isn’t a wildly stupid estimate.

So, affordable if not cheap.

Bridge of Allan is a little further than Helensburgh from the centre of Glasgow, but not remarkably so, again making the journey affordable for L’Angelier.

At the same time the Clyde paddle steamer network was already well developed offering travellers the alternative of getting the train to Greenock and then crossing to Helensburgh, or getting a ferry all the way from the Broomielaw quay in central Glasgow.

The fact that these competing routes all managed to stay in business suggests that all were well enough patronised to be profitable.

So, just as the railways invented punctuality, cheaper and more frequent trains allowed poorer people to travel, if not on a regular basis, frequently enough, just as Ryanair and EasyJet opened up cheaper air travel in Europe.

And this had all sorts of social effects. Poorer people could now get out of the city. Wealthier people could afford to summer on the Clyde estuary yet could still travel up to town for business for a few days every week or so. and of course lovers could meet for lochside assignations …

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I’m late, I’m late !

Last night I was idly watching Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway journeys (SBS has bought a load of these years old and shows them after the news as an antidote to the lunacy of the world), and in the episode Michael visited Croft on Tees on the edge of North Yorkshire where Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, spent most of his formative years before boarding school and Oxford.

Crucially Dodgson moved to Croft in 1843 at the age of eleven or thereabouts and was apparently fascinated by the then new and shiny railway between York and Newcastle.

One thing that apparently fascinated him was people rushing about and constantly looking at their pocket watches to ensure that they did not miss their train – for the simple reason that punctuality was a new thing in the early 1840’s.

Before then neither mail coaches or steamships were punctual to the minute – the vagaries of the weather and, in the case of mail coaches, poor roads, ensured that being on time was more a matter of quarter hours than minutes.

To be sure, people had meetings and appointments, but before the railways  being punctual to the minute rarely mattered, or was necessary. Trains were of course different and changed our world in many ways, just as the internet has today

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Finding George

Well, today happens to be the 25th of April or ANZAC day, the anniversary of the Galipolli landings and a solemn day in the Australian calendar, perhaps too solemn, but that’s a different discussion.

Anyway, after my success with open source genealogy, we thought we’d take advantage of the fact that have a free day on first world war veterans’ records to go searching for Judi’s grandfather, who everybody thought had been at Galipolli but no one was sure.

While the actual records are at either the National Archives in Canberra or the Australian War memorial, the searchable online ones are annoyingly only available via Ancestry.

Annoying, but digitisation costs money and the servers need heating, cooling and power to keep the disks spinning, and that all costs.

Finding Judi’s grandfather was easy – we needed a little more work to find that he had been in the landings and had been injured a few days later, and sent to a hospital in Malta before being redeployed to Egypt, from whence he was transferred to the AIF facility in Wiltshire for additional training before being sent to France.

In the course of all of this he met and married Judi’s grandmother, was put in detention and had his pay docked for going AWOL around the time J’s mother was born, and somehow managed to survive the whole bloody business and be discharged in September 1919, having signed up five years earlier at the start of the war.

We managed to piece this together with the aid of google and wikipedia to find the locations of army camps or the terms we didn’t understand, including even a suburb in Melbourne that was split into two in the 1950’s (but the train station kept the old name), plus a bit of playing with the scanned images – people’s handwriting then was just as bad as now, and harried record and pay clerks seem to have been worse than anyone.What it taught us is that you can find out a lot, and I mean a lot quickly with a bit of work. (Oh and we saved pdf copies of everything for work after the paywall reappears …)

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Mary Queen of Scots and Darnley’s death

I’ve been reading John Bossy’s Under the Molehill, about the identification of a mole in Mary Queen of Scots household who leaked information about  various plots to Walsingham’s office during her detention in England.

In the book, Bossy repeats a titillating story about Mary’s behaviour after she knew Darnley was dead.

When Mary knew her husband was dead she sent for a number of ‘light ladies and women’ to come to Holyrood House and participate, stark naked, in a a ball, and in the course of which they cut off their pubic hair, which was subsequently served in puddings to the gentlemen present who were sick.

This story is supposed to have come via Robert Beale, a diplomat who led negotiations between Walsingham’s office and Mary Queen of Scots. Beale claimed that he had had the story from Archibald Douglas, one of the conspirators for Darnley’s assassination at Kirk o’Field.

And it’s certainly a titillating story. But possibly not true, or possibly not exactly what happened.

The second part of the story, about the women’s pubic hair does not ring true. It just sounds unlikely and more like something made up.

The first part of the story about the nude ball, again sounds unlikely. For a start Edinburgh in the middle of February is no place for nude shenanigans. However, we know from the work of William Dunbar and others that court entertainments during the reign of James IV sixty years earlier were part burlesque, part something not unlike Commedia dell’Arte.

Unlike English theatre of the time Commedia dell’Arte featured female actresses who were often scantily dressed, and were often characterised as courtesans or prostitute. Notably Ben Jonson referred to a Commedia actress as a ‘tumbling whore’.

Now I know of no work on court entertainments during either Mary or James V, but Commedia dell’Arte was as popular in France as in northern Italy, and crucially Mary had spent a large part of her life at the French court, and there’s evidence to suggest that Commedia performances took place in the French court, perhaps due in part to the influence of Catherine de’Medici.

So it wouldn’t be surprising if there were Commedia style court entertainments featuring scantily clad actresses at HolyRood.

The story of the ‘nude ball’ could be a twisting of the actual event to further blacken Mary as a loose and frivolous woman given her alleged affairs with both David Rizzio and Bothwell.

And strangely this blackening still goes on. Forty or so years ago, when I was a student at St Andrews, I heard it claimed that Mary had an abnormally large clitoris, and was. by implication, oversexed.

This is almost certainly not true. The person who told me this may have believed it to be true but there is no evidence that this was the case. And certainly a Google search (incognito mode, doors locked, blinds drawn, definitely NSFW) does not turn up any evidence, or a possible source for the story. I tend to think that this myth is a reflection of the need of the justify Mary’s deposition by characterising her as an oversexed sexually loose incompetent, rather than the fact that she was a young woman who loved life and was seriously out of her depth in the febrile atmosphere of Reformation politics in sixteenth century Scotland …

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The stories we tell ourselves

One aspect of life in Australia is the domination of overseas anglophone media. Our bookshops are full of books by overseas authors, our tv of overseas shows, all reviewed in our newspapers, which also recycle work by by overseas reviewers.

Now if we really were just a ‘Hot Britain’ or a ‘Hot Canada’ this probably wouldn’t matter. But of course we’re not. We’re 24 million people on a hot dry continent on the dark side of the world, and a quarter of us came from somewhere else, and most of us live in one of the five or six big cities.

And this makes us unique. We live on the most different, the most alien of the continents other than Antarctica, with strange vegetation and stranger animals, seasons that are six months out of sync with the northern hemisphere.

We are, in effect, a suburban version of Mars. And you would expect that this would give rise to some pretty unique writing, and at 24 million, we’d have a strong enough voice to be heard.

Not a bit of it. Our literary giants have mostly escaped to the north to pursue their careers there, and our standard run of the mill working writers find their voices drowned by the northern hemisphere publishing machine.

I’d have thought we’d have had a healthy range of crime fiction telling ourselves grim stories about bushrangers and colonial life, or about the various suburban mafias that flourish among migrant communities in the outer suburbs of our cities.

Not a bit of it. If it exists, I should have found it by now.

Which is kind of curious. Crime fiction are the stories we tell ourselves about what’s bad in our society, stories about corruption, stories about the dark places we’d rather not go.

And then, in a strange random intersection I cam across our new science fiction writing. Now science fiction is something I’m over. From the age of about twelve to the age of about forty I read science fiction obsessively, though not exclusively.

The golden age greats, cyberpunk and the rest, I read them all. Dystopias and utopias all. Growing up in the cold war spending afternoons lazily watching airforce jets practise for armageddon, the grim dystopian stories seemed to make sense and describe a possible future.

If crime fiction describes who we are, including the unpleasant bits, science fiction describes who we seek, or fear, we will become. And strangely even fantasy writing can fill that role. After all Dracula can be read as story of scientific progress and advancement defeating an old and alien evil.

And then I happened across two collections of Australian science fiction/science fantasy stories by two different writers, one bought a light relief to read on the interminable country train to Melbourne, the other bought because it had the word ‘Roman’ in the title and I’ve always had a soft spot for stories of classical times.

And they were different, original and reflected that we are a suburban version of Mars, or a disparate group of city states pretending to be a single polity or whatever.

Science fiction, which allows us to invent the future, lets us tell stories about who we are and who, or what we might become …

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Mark Antony’s Lost Legion

I’ve been rereading Charles Miller’s The Lunatic Express, which is ostensibly a history of the building of what is now the Mombasa Nairobi railway, but is much more than that – essentially a history of the early days of British involvement, and latterly, colonialism in East Africa.

In the book, Miller mentions the off the wall hypothesis that the Masai are the descendants of a lost Roman legion, the basis of which seems to be

  • warriors wear red cloaks
  • warriors carry short swords
  • warriors use a battle formation akin to the testudo

and of course three coincidences do not a hypothesis make. In fact the idea seems to be on the level of Howard Dubs’ hypothesis that the population of Liqian in descended from prisoners taken after Crassus’s disastrous foray into Parthia.

As it is the Masai/lost legion hypothesis probably owes more to nineteenth century racial prejudice and a misplaced belief in European exceptionalism than solid facts.

In fact the most interesting thing about the hypothesis is that a google search produces few if any references to the hypothesis, and what it does turn up seem (to me) to be references or quotes from Miller’s book, which has an infuriating footnoteless index.

Miller was clearly well read and well versed in East African history – I doubt he invented the existence of the hypothesis, but where did it come from ?


I’m still no closer to finding where the idea came from – I suspect some nineteenth century traveller with a classical education and a set of imperialist prejudices, but I can think we can confidently say that the hypothesis is a pile of the proverbial.

Masai oral histories place their origin to somewhere in the Turkana valley around the year 1500 when they coalesced out of other tribal groups. DNA studies show that the Masai, unlike other closely related groups such as the Samburu have had repeated admixtures with Cushitic speaking peoples from what is now Somalia and Ethiopia, but with no serious evidence of mixing with ethnic groups from elsewhere.

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