“Man of God, there is death in the pot!”

Ever wondered how an old timey cup of coffee tasted?

What was it really like to take that first sip, on a day some hundreds of years before intensive farming methods, fancy new coffee plant varieties, modern methods of drying, roasting, grinding and so on? Well, wonder no more. Was it wonderful, like nothing you’ve ever tasted? Yes and no, The ‘no’ was that it mostly wasn’t wonderful and the yes — it was like nothing else, but it must have tasted irredeemably foul.

It wasn’t the fault of the beans though. In the early nineteenth century it was consumerism. The new middle classes took to the rich taste of coffee favoured by richer folks the century before. They liked convenience and so bought ready ground coffee, not beans. As it was said at the time, those who sold ground coffee recognised that “no article presents greater facilitation for adulteration than coffee”. And adulterate they did. About 36,000 lbs of genuine coffee was imported into the UK each year but it was boosted by 18,000 lbs of something else.

Adding roasted chicory was the most common of harmless extenders in coffee. That started out as a tax avoidance scheme. The UK government had thought that taxing imports of coffee was a nice little earner.  But then the pesky Dutch and later the French took up the habit of adding roasted chicory to their coffee at the very start of the 19th century because, unaccountably, they liked the taste. Britain took up the fashion. His Majesty’s government plugged the potential revenue loophole and slapped a tax on imported chicory too.

Then came what economists nowadays call incentivised import substitution. Farmers in Yorkshire and East Anglia particularly found that they could grow chicory at home. And of course domestic chicory could not be taxed like imports. ‘Aha’ thought the legislators, to get around this we’ll make it an offence for anyone who has anything to do with coffee to have roasted chicory on the premises. So an Act of Parliament  in 1822 – An Act to regulate the Manufacture and Sale of Scorched or roasted Corn, Beans, Peas, Beans or Parsnips – included a £100 fine for anyone using any vegetable substance “prepared or manufactured in imitation of or in any respect to resemble coffee or cocoa”.

And many did get caught — and fined the huge amount of £100, which in those days was enough to bankrupt a substantial business. Those critical of food adulteration were named and shamed. Take Mr Chaloner for example, who put burnt pea flour and sand in his coffee when he bothered at all, though 17 lbs of what he was selling as coffee had no coffee in it whatsoever.

Dare I go into what else got sold as coffee? Yes I will. Dried used coffee grounds were often added and, distasteful as the practice might have been, it was not so utterly disgusting as the other common adulterant.

Horses were as common as cars and trucks — in fact they were cars and trucks, or at least their engine. So just as today there are breakers who recycle old vehicles there were obviously knackers and horsemeat traders mopping up the dead and decrepit horseflesh.

But what to do with all those horse livers they ended up with? Some bright spark had the brainwave that if you slowly baked them until they were dry and crumbly you could add the powder to… yes, you’re ahead of me… coffee.

coffee pic

How it was in France. Would you like some soap with your skinny Latté

Though Starbucks and the rest have re-educated our tastebuds for ‘real’ coffee’, those cocktails of coffee and roasted roots still exist. There is a coffee and chicory brand called Camp Coffee which has been on sale in Britain  since 1876. And there are other brands around Europe which use roasted barley, roasted dandelion root, roasted chickpeas as well. The Germans even have a word for these caffeine-free coffee substitutes, but someone should really tell them, as that word is ‘muckefuck’, which would make a practitioner in the art of caffeine-free coffee a muckefucker, I guess.

coffee pic 2

(The headline by the way is from 2 Kings v 38 — but you knew that already — and it’s one of those Old Testament recipe fails, only saved in the nick of time by part-time fine dining chef and full-time prophet, Elisha).

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“Died from excessive tobacco smoking”



Nearly 100 years before Sir Richard Doll’s proof that smoking and cancer were linked and way before the tobacco lobby cranked up its PR campaigns, a scientist in 1855 studying the adulterants and poisons that went into commonplace foods sold in England also looked at what went into tobacco. While he was describing the effects of the growing craze for smoking on the human body, he observed this… who knew? Well, they seemed to.tobacco

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Brits have always hit the Yuletide bottle

The British malaise, getting publicly legless over the holidays, seemed like a recent phenomenon until I saw this from the New Year, 1865…

christmas drunk

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Those weren’t the days my friend

For the last act in an operatic tragedy that was real life in the 19th century read this story from March 1888 of a husband, a wife and a business failure.

The welfare state was brought into being by stories such as this, in the same way that Factories Acts sought to stop workers dying from falls, unguarded machinery or poisons used in manufacture. Road, maritime and rail safety came about because, before the laws were introduced the situation was intolerably bad. Clean water and sewerage the same.

There is a case to be argued that  society nowadays does not properly know where the line between state guardianship and mollycoddling lies, hence social welfare, charity and ‘caring’  becoming industries in themselves,  mis-identification of any and every aspiration as a “human right” and acceptance that minorities must be more powerful than majorities, while the shrill cries of “political correctness gone made” are reviled.

Anyway, it isn’t going to bring back Mr and Mrs Joseph Profaze.


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Those were the days, my friend

Reviewing a bankruptcy of a Birmingham umbrella manufacturer in 1862 (as you do), I came across this eye-watering indicator of the relative economic strengths of John Bull and Uncle Sam back then .


Hand over $17,300 and they gave you £1,862. Oh yes and a shiny silver half crown, as 2s 6d (or two shillings and six pence) was known.

Now that’s an exchange rate…

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No safe space

There is a charming story to be found in the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, though it’s a tad un-pc, as it reminds millennial snowflakes that all countries have had a past. A kind descendant has donated memorabilia of one of the first holders of the Victoria Cross. He was young lieutenant who had the guts (ignore the politics, admire the courage and comradeship, he was aged just 21), to ride his horse into grave danger simply to rescue another lieutenant.  The story is here.  I can say nothing about the rights and wrongs of a battle that took place in 1857, but what the story does not deal with is the fate of an entire collection of paintings of that band of brothers that held that highest military medal painted from life (for those who survived to receive the medal from Queen Victoria) that was a lifelong labour of one artist.

Among the kit of Lt John Grant Malcolmson, donated to the Army Museum is a full length portrait of the man himself. It was painted by the un-English sounding Chevalier Louis Desanges.


Desanges (1822-1887)

In fact Desanges was born in Kent, though of exiled aristocratic French stock. After studying in France and Spain, he began work in London in 1842. Success and he were not to be close friends. He failed to win the prize to decorate the new Houses of Parliament and the Royal Academy rejected the chance to exhibit his history paintings – including a now-lost work that was snappily titled The Excommunication of Robert, King of France and his Queen Berthe.


Whether it was his politics which upset the RA we do not know, but Chevalier Desanges had joined an organisation known as the Association for the Free Exhibition of Modern Art. Nevertheless, Desanges was no anarchist. He knew where his bread was buttered. He discovered that painting portraits of society ladies was an earner. While this may have paid the bills, it did not give him recognition. So he came up with the VC idea to gain him the prestige that seemed to elude him. This seems to have struck at least half a chord with the establishment. The Prince of Wales encouraged Desanges in the idea of the VC series, though it is said that HRH never dug his hand in his own royal pocket.

When Desanges had enough to make a show, the pictures were exhibited, first of all in the Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly. Louis Desanges appears to have then worked exclusively on these pictures for the rest of his life. They were sentimentalised and sanitised battle scenes, where trusty British redcoats were seen bayoneting the swarthy natives or dying nobly, entreating on their comrades to further acts of colonial conquest.


By 1859, there were 20 canvasses, large and small, depicting Crimean War heroes. Later, after Desanges had painted a few more portraits of Indian Mutiny VCs, the collection was moved to the Crystal Palace, that was, by then, in 1862, under private ownership and had been three years at its site in Sydenham.desanges2

A sad footnote was the fate of those “mediocre” VC paintings that the artist Desanges painted to curry favour with the establishment. There was a half-hearted attempt to get together enough money to save them for the nation, and to put them into a purpose-built gallery. That failed.

A small ad appeared in the classified section of London newspapers. They could be purchased, together or separately. All one had to do was contact Charles Wentworth Wass at the Crystal Palace.

It was left to one of the VC’s himself to buy them. Robert James Loyd-Lindsay, Baron Wantage VC KCB, was one of those 62 VC’s in Hyde Park in 1857 at the very first investiture. Queen Victoria leant from the saddle of her horse to pin her medal on each of these undoubtedly brave men, officers from high caste families and humble working men, assembled shoulder to shoulder on that meadow. As plain Robert James Lindsay, then a captain in the Scots Fusilier Guards, Baron Wantage had accomplished that quintessentially Victorian act of bravery. He had persuaded his soldiery to defend the colours against numerically superior opposition at the battle of the Alma.

Wantage had married into a fortune. He now purchased the paintings for £1,000, including the rendering in oils of his own heroic action. In November 1900 he gave them to the people of the small Oxfordshire town of Wantage ( whose unintentionally ambiguous motto is A Place to Live, A Place to Love) where he set up home.  He gave them in perpetuity as a memorial gift, expending more money than the paintings cost on proper gas lighting and heating for the building selected to house them, next to the Bear Pub on the Market Square. The town of Wantage responded almost as gallantly, spending all of £3 to have the name Corn Exchange chiseled out of the frontage of the Corn Exchange, where corn was conspicuously no longer exchanged, and to re-work the words, The Victoria Cross Gallery in their stead. (It’s now a Greggs, a chain bakery store, by the way.)

For 40 years the paintings were on view to the people of the little town on payment of threepence (children, dogs and bicycles not admitted). The paintings seemed to have survived numerous tribulations during their time in Wantage. The local badminton club and officer cadets from various schools used the hall where they were hung. The paintings got through the First War, during which the room became a makeshift military hospital. But during the Second World War in 1941, just when the good folks of Wantage might have needed a little morale boost by visiting the scenes of previous brave men, the Ministry of Food thought that the VC room would make an ideal site for an emergency kitchen to supply meals to the children of Berkshire. The paintings were packed off to a leaky lean-to shed at a local engineering works.

When they finally came back in 1951 some paintings were damaged beyond repair. Despite an intervention by the wife of the poet and Victorianist John Betjeman on instruction from her husband to try to retain the paintings in the town and re-hang them as a group, the post-war councillors wanted nothing more to do with the Victorian anachronism of the nobility of war. They quietly disposed of their gift from their local hero and the town’s namesake, by now long dead and without children to pick up the baronetcy title.

Somewhat surreptitiously, the council wrote to each regiment that could lay claim to any of the VCs, enquiring whether they had room to display their long-dead imperial hero. During the 1970s the council gave away paintings to other than those military institutions which might have had at least a moral claim on them, it is said. “The circumstances in which this occurred have still to be investigated” says a local historian. At this time no-one knows quite where all the pictures are, whether the council had the right to even give them away, who is entitled to claim ownership or even how many survive. At least the borough kept the painting of Wantage’s favourite son and benefactor, and it now hangs in the Civic Hall.

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All cattywampous

Buses, eh. They’re like new words. You wait forever and then two come along at once.

Still reeling from the fact that the word colporteur was a thing (‘Ah, mais oui, but he eez ze American who eez making those songs for Fred Astaire n’est ce pas?’), I was introduced in passing to another newbie epithet that while it may be familiar to folksy Americans, it was news to me.

The word is “cattawumpous” or alternatively catawamptious; catawampous; cattywampus; cattywampous; caliwampus; caliwampous; cankywampus; kittywampus; gittywampus; skiwampus. You pays yer money.

So what does the word actually mean? Like all the best bits of English, which I swear is a language so fiendishly crafted using zen precepts simply to defy foreigners to ever learn it completely, it means two things, but each meaning has echoes in the other definition.

As an adjective it can mean fierce or destructive, and yet it can signify misalignment or confusion or the sense where all is not right with the world. So things can be out of order enough to make you angry, or you can be the victim of a malevolently mis-ordered universe where the Norse god Loki has had his way.

Oh and as a noun you can add a bit of menace; it can be a real or mythological wild feline — a sort of mountain lion.

These differences sprang from its two points of origin. Southern Illinois for bent out of shape and the South from Florida to Texas for fearsome.

If the word did appear in England’s newspapers — and it frequently did in the early 19th century — it was acknowledged to be an outlandish Americanism, unfit to grace the vocabulary of John Bull. Often the writer mentioned that it was something that Brother Jonathan would utter. And while we are wandering through this dictionary of the archaic, the aforementioned Brother Jonathan was the embodiment and personification all all things American until his older relative, Uncle Sam, stepped up to the plate.

As the other Cole Porter might say:-

Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.

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What are words worth?

As Talking Heads alumni band Tom Tom Club once sang: “What are words worth?”

Well quite a lot when you think you knew a few of them and in the space of a day you encounter two — make that three actually — brand spanking new ones.

The first is colporteur. No, not some some charmless Frenchman attempting to say the name of that chap who wrote Night and Day, Let’s Do It, You’re the Top, Begin the Beguine, I’ve got You Under My Skin and a dozen more jazz standards, but you knew that anyway.

But first, before the drum roll reveal, how did I luck upon this word? Glancing through a street directory for the tiny village of Monks Eleigh in Suffolk for 1844 I came the entry for one Edward Paine a Baptist missionary and colporteur. Intrigued I looked it up.

colporteur 1

Here’s some etymology… ‘Colportage is the distribution of publications, books, and religious tracts by carriers called “colporteurs” or “colporters”. The term does not necessarily refer to religious book peddling. From French colportage, where the term is an alteration of comporter, “to peddle”, as a portmanteau or pun with the word col (Latin collum, “neck”), with the resulting meaning “to carry on one’s neck”. Porter is from Latin portare, “to carry”.’colporteur 2

Wikipedia even has a page about them and it’s here

That’s the first dealt with — and the second? Actually second and third?

I’ve always been a sucker for the Theremin, that Futurist musical device from which you snatch unearthly tunes from the living air. But it has a cousin. And these are my two new words. There is a keyboard version invented in 1928 and known as the Ondes Martenot (Martenot Waves) after the inventor, Maurice Martenot.


Martenot was a cellist whose experiences as a radio operator in World War One led him to develop the Ondes. This wasn’t just a nutty professor idea though. Messaien composed for it and Stokowski used it in his orchestras.

You Tube has a bunch of demos of the instrument in video but the Messaien piece shows the instrument — actually six of them — at its best.

Words in papers, words in books
Words on TV, words for crooks
Words of comfort, words of peace
Words to make the fighting cease
Words to tell you what to do
Words are working hard for you
Eat your words but don’t go hungry
Words have always nearly hung me

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Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity review

Enough of this Tomfoolery!

On paper, the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was part of the art establishment – a Royal Academician, a knight of the realm and a member of the Order of Merit, with a lucrative career that brought him fame and substantial financial rewards. Scratch the surface however and you find a Dutchman (born Lourens Alma Tadema), whose artistic career took him from his home country the Netherlands through Belgium and finally to Britain where he spent the last 40 odd years of his life.

The exhibition Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is a comprehensive survey of his life and career and using the Leighton House Museum as a venue was an inspired choice as it gives one an idea and feel of the studio-residences that Alma-Tadema created in London with his family. The ground floor rooms display paintings from the beginning of Alma-Tadema’s career, where his early paintings were heavily…

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Lest We Forget

A brave and by his own words modest man died last month. His name was Mike Dauncey. He was 97, and so in the language of the battle for hearts and minds that the English call the game of cricket, Dauncey had a “good innings”.


It was so nearly not so. Below is his citation that accompanied his DSO medal for his actions at the Bridge Too Far of Arnhem. (He was recommended for the supreme accolade, the Victoria Cross) but better yet, read the story of his wounding, hospitalisation, capture, escape, the matter-of-fact bravery of his Dutch hosts told in his own words and note once again that characteristic shrug of the shoulders courage of a generation of men that should be celebrated now and forever.


The Citation…

During the action at Arnhem from 20th to 25th September 1944, Lt Dauncey was in command of a party of men defending the guns of the Airlanding Light Regiment RA at Oosterbeek. The position was continually attacked by superior forces of enemy tanks and infantry. On three occasions the enemy overran the sector necessitating a counter attack. Lt Dauncey, on his own initiative, organised and led each sortie with such determination that the positions were regained with heavy loss to the enemy. In the face of heavy small arms and mortar fire he personally attacked machine-gun posts, showing remarkable coolness and complete disregard for his own personal safety. During these attacks he was wounded on three occasions but refused to be evacuated from the area.

On 24th September a more determined attack was made by the enemy using tanks and S.P. guns. Lt Dauncey, whilst leading his men in a further counter attack, was wounded again – losing the sight of one eye. In spite of pain, and handicap of defective vision, he continued to lead his men in a fearless manner thus recapturing the lost ground and inflicting heavy loss to the enemy.

On 25th September the position was subjected to intense fire from an enemy S.P. gun. The houses were set on fire and the order was received to withdraw. By now no anti-tank weapons were available and there was imminent danger of the enemy S.P. gun penetrating the gun positions. Realising this fact, Lt Dauncey, who had remained alone, assaulted the enemy vehicle single-handed with gammon bombs. By his action the critical situation was averted but Lt Dauncey received further injuries which resulted in his capture by the enemy.

The high morale of the men, who had been drawn from many units, was undoubtedly due to the fine example of this officer. Had the enemy broken through this sector, the gun positions would have become untenable and thus unable to support the Airborne Division.

Lt Dauncey’s indomitable courage, initiative, coolness and selfless devotion to duty, in spite of his wounds, was in keeping with the highest traditions of the service.

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