Somebody call the hair police

What did you do if you’re a young (ish) woman in the French region of Brittany in the 1860s and you needed a new dress or a pair of shoes? Why, you had a haircut, that’s what you did.

Here’s Bentley’s Miscellany on the subject in 1863:-

From 15 to 40 years of age the hair is saleable about seven times, but the price diminishes on each occasion, because of the greater coarseness of the product. Now, as the total female population of the three hair-growing departments stands at 893,000, of whom at least one-half are above 15, follows that, if three-quarters of them pursue the trade, some 260,000 heads contribute, in that district alone, the supply of wigs and fausses queues to the richer classes. The thing is such a habit in Brittany, and is regarded as so natural (though there are symptoms that it is diminishing) that if a young girl wants pair of sabots her mother will simply send her to market to exchange her hair against them. The women who have contracted the habit of dealing regularly, as long as they can get crop, cannot bear to have their hair long afterwards, so when it turns grey, and is no longer sale: able, they hack it down themselves, and keep in such a bristly state that when they take off their coiffes jumps up into a thorny aureole, like a firework in explosion. There is a grizzly old peasant woman near St. Brieuc who has smouldered into rheumatisms and neuralgia, and who always swears indignantly at her hair as the cause of them; when a twinge comes on she tells her grandchildren ” to cut off a little square there, just there, that is where the pain is, it will go away with the confounded hair.”

All this hair was ending up in the UK and America where wigs and hair extensions had become resurgent in women’s fashion. This followed a lull earlier in the century when the trendsetters tried desperately to avoid the overblown hair fashions of Georgian and Regency England.

Where there is money changing hands there is always the option for dishonesty. In New York professional teams would circulate crowded places visited by those rich enough to have already made purchases of hair and they would be deprived of their own hair or even the very expensive imported extensions they wore.

Nowhere was sacred from ‘hair depredation’ as it was known. Though the story may be apocryphal, the New York Sun in 1869 told of a rich young teenage girl with magnificent hair ‘of the richest chestnut color and flowed in shining ripples even beyond her waist’. When she suddenly died, she was laid out in a bedroom and the room cleared. While the parents grieved in another part of the mansion, yes, you’ve guessed, someone came in and “robbed the fair corpse of all her tresses”. The report claims this was not an isolated incident either, and so one hopes New York’s finest closely questioned workers in funeral homes nearby.

But there was an even darker side when, let’s be honest, fetishists, took to wandering the streets with scissor or razor in hand ready to clandestinely deprive girls and women of their own curl or plait.

In 1912, Paris police were hunting an upper crust Englishman who was hanging around the “night establishments of Montmartre”.  His pitch was first to ask, saying (as if this wasn’t weird enough) that he was collecting hair to make a mattress. When, unsurprisingly, he was turned down, he resorted to inviting the woman whose hair he fancied to dine, then drugging her and snipping what he desired. If only he’d known about Brittany (and we don’t mean Britney — she had hair issues of her own a while back, but that’s another yarn).

The practice is probably going on even today, to satisfy the kinky, though hopefully relatively harmless, deviants out there.

In 1926 Maurice Knight, a 29 year old commercial traveller from the poor Eastern side of London was arrested after loitering suspiciously in the ritzy district of Maida Vale for some hours. When searched, he had on him two locks of hair. The Sherlock Holmes on the case, one police sergeant Pike, told the court “It is quite possible the hair found on his person has been cut from women.”

You don’t say…





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Three paragraphs

a 3 para

Not as bad as the 1868 earthquake and tsunamis where 25,000 died, but still pretty serious. This is an example of how the God-fearing 19th century took on board a natural disaster without the handwringing cliché-ridden sentimentalism with which 24 hour news has sensitised the world.

This June 30 1877 report is from a provincial paper in the west of the UK, a paper likely to have been read by relatives of some of those un-named Cornish miners. But the death of the 200 makes it to paragraph two of a three paragraph story. How different it would be nowadays.

“As I stand beside this pile of rubble that 24 hours ago was a building at the top of the mineshaft… every few minutes there is a call for silence as rescuers listen for survivors… and then a cheer goes up as a miner is rescued alive from the devastation. But mostly it is simply another sad, blanket covered body that is pulled from the scene of this tragedy and taken through the crowd of anxious family members gathered in small groups, some sobbing and inconsolable while others wait in silence amid the dust and devastation of this once quiet hamlet… This is Betty Reporter, CNN, at the aftermath of the earthquake in Tocopilla, Peru”

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Tommy this and Tommy that


We are lucky to have a photograph of Troop Sergeant Major Edwin Mole

Here’s a tale about one of the soldiers of the Queen, one Edwin Kempson Mole (1847-1937). For a few months in 1897 this soldier became famous in a Kiplingesque Tommy Atkins sort of way, after his reminiscences of army service were published. But it is worth looking at what parts of the story the book did not relate.

Troop sergeant major Mole told his readers how he first took the Queen’s shilling for a cavalry regiment aged just 16, following  an argument with his foreman while he was working to build the Charing Cross Hotel in London. He served 25 years in the 14th (King’s) Hussars, serving most of that long time overseas, in India — Kalapoosh as the squaddies (or ‘swaddies’, to use the original old northern/Norse word) called the country.

Before he sailed for India he married a girl he met while serving in Dublin. She went to India with him, had a daughter and died there. The daughter he sent home to live with the late wife’s sister. Mole remarried while in India. Tellingly, as we shall see, his biography leaves out what may have happened to wife number two.

At the end of his enlistment, with a pension of £40 a year and quite a bit of his life ahead of him, ex-sergeant major Mole felt himself very fortunate when he left Colchester garrison depot for the last time on July 27 1888.

After that things went down hill, judging from his police blotter and medical records. Maybe he wasn’t such a hero after all, perhaps more a controlling deceiving slimebag — a possible bigamist, probable incestuous child abuser and certainly prone to violence against at least two women – of the three who at different (or almost certainly in the case of the last two, the same) time called him husband. His fall from exemplary grace is so hard to explain. Either he was devious and bad, or sick and helpless. You decide. Either way it shows how much disappears from biography and how little of us is really left to history.

With his honourable discharge in his pocket he moved in with his dead wife’s sister who had minded his daughter when she was sent home. They lived in a tiny village near to his last barrack in Colchester.

It was only just over a year later that he was in court for allegedly raping his only child.  He was charged with “unlawfully and carnally knowing his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Mole, aged 12 years, at Cornard”. The newspapers danced around relating sordid details of the case, so we know not much more than that. However, we do know his defence tried the time honoured tactic of accusing the victim. The paper said that Mole’s lawyer “…severely cross-examined complainant [a 12-year old] at great length to test her credibility.

“He elicited the fact that she had been a great source of trouble to her parents on account of her lying and thieving propensities.”

But there was worse yet… “She denied reading sensational novels, and said she read only what her father allowed her to read. She admitted having left home for a night when living at Ipswich.”

Now if that does make her an absolute harlot, I don’t know what else a court would need.

On the balance of probabilities it appears that something like what she claimed may well have gone on. Her evidence included the fact that she had given some of her clothing to the nextdoor neighbour — and the neighbour had examined them. Not quite a forensic rape test kit, but a married woman’s report of what she found should have carried some weight. Not so. While the paper admitted that she “expressed her opinion” to the court, it does not say what that opinion was. However you can be sure it would have been mentioned if her evidence had disproved little Mary Elizabeth’s claim. The three man panel of magistrates decided there was not enough to take the case to a higher court and so Mole escaped.

By 1893 he had moved 20 miles and was to be found running a pub on the outskirts of Cambridge. We know this because he was fined for allowing gambling on the premises. That’s a minor occupational hazard of all pub landlords, but worth noting in that Mole was closely associated with alcohol..

This leads me to mention that later in his life, in the early years of the 20th century, Mole had a number of short spells in what nowadays we are told to hold our noses when we call them lunatic asylums. As his inpatient stays lasted just months and between times he was well enough to hold down a job – club steward, cold storage warehouse caretaker and house decorator – they are likely to have been alcohol related rather than the other common though more permanent and terminal cause of mental illness – tertiary syphilis.

And that brings us to his wives. Without doubt his first love died in India giving birth to his second child, who also died. His second wife was 20 year-old Agnes Manley Morton, born in the Nagpur cantonment of Kamptee. She parted with him before he left India saying she had to leave him ‘on account of his violence’. They communicated by letter. That is to say he wrote them and she sent them back unopened.

But in 1891 the 44 year old Mole married a 18 year old, Fanny Luxton Dean in Battersea, South London. He claimed he was a widower. They lived together as husband and wife more than a decade and probably much longer, but the spells in the asylum must have been too much for Fanny. Eventually she moved back into London while Sergeant Major Dean had pursued yet another career change – as a chicken farmer in what is now the commuter belt in leafy Surrey.

We next encounter Mole just after Christmas in 1916, 26 years into this probably bigamous marriage to Fanny. He gets discovered through his own folly and violent behaviour. He is now going on 70 years of age, but it does not stop Farmer Mole twice visiting his seemingly estranged wife in London where she is then living, breaking up the chest of drawers and the door lock and on the second occasion threatening to assault her. In January 1917 he appeared in court. Somehow during the hearing the prosecution tells the magistrate that charges have been changed by the police to the much more serious one of bigamy. There is no answer  where they got this information. It’s unlikely the police found this out unaided. Let’s face it, record keeping between Imperial India and a local magistrate just could not have been infallible. Before digitisation, even if the marriage were recorded and accessible back in London someone would have had to know to take down the right ledger for the right year and read the details. Mole could have had his marriage recorded locally in India by his regiment, but would the details have followed him back to England?

Did Fanny know and tell the court? The scanty court reporting makes intriguing if ambiguous reading. The prosecution said that Mole’s wife in India found out about the new model some time soon after the marriage.  That means she was alive and therefore he had committed the crime. For his part Mole said that that wife was now dead from cholera. It’s a nicety in law that bigamy ceases when the first wife dies. Once again Mole escaped.

The final act of this unmasking of the hero came when he finally died in 1937 aged 90. Extraordinarily perhaps he left his money, what there was of it, to his only daughter — the one who rightly or wrongly claimed he’d raped her nearly 50 years before. Families, eh?


To read about military life in India in the middle years of Victoria’s reign told by Edwin Mole to Herbert Compton, go here to download the book, A King’s Hussar

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The Albion Disaster

Thanks to First Night History who reblogged this…

Cemetery Club

by Sheldon

Now that I’m working amongst the glass towers of Canary Wharf, the history of Docklands is of particular interest to me at the moment. I regularly find myself stalking the exhibits of the Museum of London during my lunch hour andlast week I paid a visit toTunnel, the Archaeology of Crossrailwhere I learnt more about a Victorian disaster most of us have never heard about. Remarkably, bits of it were filmed.

On June 21st 1898, close to where Royal Victoria Dock DLR station is now, the firstof sixCanopus class battleships named the HMS Albion was preparing to leave her dock and enter open water. It would be the sixth ship to bear that name for the British Navy since 1763 and what better way to christen this battleship than with an almighty party?

Grandstands were prepared, local children were given the day off from school…

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We walked on the moon. You be polite…

Moving the entire Crystal Palace from Hyde Park nine hilly miles to that vale in Sydenham after the Great Exhibition closed in 1851 was an audacious piece of Victorian chutzpah, but it was by no means unique in that age of civil engineering audaciousness now long passed from the Western psyche.

Think first about how you would do it, to dismantle it — by hand. They took down an entire building some 1500 feet long and three or four storeys high. Men had to work far above the ground without any of today’s safety equipment, in order to unbolt each and every wrought and cast iron girder arch. That was after they stripped off all the acres of glazing. The girders then had to be lowered to the ground by steam powered cranes or the muscle of the labouring men. Then they had to be labelled, put onto wagons and taken through the streets — and these were big pieces of ironwork that probably needed a six horse team to pull them.  They must have stopped traffic as they negotiated their way through narrow streets.

But that was by no means an achievement in the top ten of what the Victorians did. As early as in 1843 English engineers had tunnelled under the Thames. In 1881 they started digging a tunnel under the English Channel, that only security fears and private money problems kept the from finishing. The Suez Canal was completed in 1869 and the Panama Canal was proposed before that, though not begun until 1881. In the late 1850s – and that was 30 years before half of the bridges across the Thames were built, people believed in their own invincible abilities enough that they sank a telegraph wire to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to connect the 3,000 miles between the continents. When it failed — and then its successor cable broke and sank in mid ocean in 1865 — what did the Victorians do? They simply sent out a ship and, with a grappling hook, fished for the cable until they found it. That was the indomitable spirit of the age. Where did it go?


Yeah, just dangle a hook over the side. We’re bound to find it


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Kill Whitey, or at least stop labelling him

I have just finished re-watching Ken Burns’ austere yet elegiac panorama in time and space entitled simply The Civil War, first broadcast 27 years ago. It occurred to me how quickly have curse words changed. I don’t mean since 1861-5, you understand, but from when the series was made. Nowadays in certain respects our sensibilities have become dulled; in other ways words not used to denigrate now burn like a grit-embedded knee graze on a hot, hot day. Back in 1990 in The Civil War actors read testimony from South and the North where speakers were conversant with and used the N word – yassah, dat N word.

Other epithets (and usually those connected with sex or genitalia), once damned; words that start with letters like F and C, are commonplace on TV and cable networks, but that ‘ole N is almost never heard, even if it is to be used in proper historical context, as it was in the Burns documentary. Producers self censor today — and in doing so have canonised a new taboo.

In polite company that N got replaced long ago with a litany of terms that change like hemlines. In no particular order, N got supplanted by “colored”,”negro”,  then “black” and later still“…of color” Nowadays “African American” or in Britain “Afro-Caribbean” are in vogue. The same thing has happened with other groups’ identity, when ‘Injun’ became its own swear word and “Jap’ would make all but WW2 veterans blush. Next year, who knows? (But you can surely guess).

It will be interesting to see how brave or indeed ‘sensitive’ that same Ken Burns has been with the self same N word when his undoubtedly supreme examination of the Vietnam War airs on PBS come September. It was a word that many, dare I say it, ‘black’ servicemen used of themselves as a badge of pride, but will it figure in the series?

In regard to that lame phrase ‘African-American’… So much for Teddy Roosevelt who said:

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all … The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic … There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”

By the way, I am getting more than a little ticked off by the majority of people in the world calling me “white”. It’s a racial slur — and it has to stop. I’ll get back to you when I’ve decided what you can and cannot call me.

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Three murders; three verdicts

For those incensed over the waywardness of justice these days, where ‘human rights’ trump human wrongs, it’s worth thinking about the way things were. On one evening in April a visiting judge arrived with a fanfare and civic reception to work his way through the prisoners gathered before him at the Spring Assize.  The town was Taunton, Somerset; the year was 1855. By Saturday morning (yes, judges worked Saturdays in those days) in quick succession he had sentenced two men and one woman for three murders they attempted. (separated only by hearings on a mad sailor who set fire to himself, a forger and an oak thief). His honour gave one laddish murderer just four days’ jail time, the next very troubled woman who tried and failed to drown her infant son in a cess pit, transportation for life and another jack the lad with a blade who stabbed his mate to death, 15 months.

Unfair? Read the cases and you decide whether justice was blind – or whether it was a case of, as my old mum used to say: “there’s none so blind as those who will not see.”


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Your seed catalogue for 1797 has arrived


For the gardener historian

Fresh off the ship from England, five, yes count them, five, different varieties of asparagus seed and 23 different melon varieties. Things weren’t so bad in Philadelphia after the war as long as you could feast on 13 different kinds of radish,  or 26 different cabbages.

For the previous year’s catalogue in full go to

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Operation Restore Arugula

What better than a salad lunch on a warm Spring day? As I prepared mine just now I was gratified to learn that the packet that contained the rocket salad proudly carried the logo telling me that the contents had been “honestly grown”. In this modern day, with the FBI, Interpol, European arrest warrants and the like, it is shocking to note that there are still those outlaw salad growers un-jailed who openly flout rules, live outside the law and contemplate growing their rocket salad by dishonest means. Build a wall, I say…

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A Moat Defensive

It’s a truth self-evident that history is about questions. Some of them have answers, such as when did so and so live or die. Some are Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns; we know that someone was Jack the Ripper but not who, or that the Princes in the Tower disappeared but not why. And some questions await further evidence, like who actually among the parade claiming the title of first Europeans actually did disturb the equilibrium of North America.

All good so far, you may say. But then there’s ‘interpretation’ masquerading as a question answered. It came up again last night. The talk was on a piece of real estate where once was found a Coptic bowl. The significance of such a piece of religious paraphernalia found thousands of miles from its origin is that the only other site nearby where one was discovered was the Anglo-Saxon treasury at Sutton Hoo. So the question of the evening left hanging was just that; was there another burial site waiting to be discovered?

But in passing almost, we were shown the archaeological report drawings showing that there was previous habitation on the site. They found an extensive ring ditch system of Bronze/Iron Age construction. “For defensive purposes” was the answer to the question.

But hang on a minute. Imagine you, your neighbours, but not aunty Betty because of her leg, were asked to defend your home… I say asked, but probably told was more like it. Just think about how long it would take just to take off the topsoil. The ditch, like so many prehistoric ditches was wide and deep – nearer six feet across and the same to the bottom. And there it was, on the map, trailing on for hundreds of yards, representing years of work.

Those people who dug that ditch had lives. Crops had to be grown or they would die. Animals had to be managed or they would die – and if they died the people would not be far behind.

It’s a common sense question. Thousands of man hours (yes I know, but it’s an expression. If you don’t like it, complain to the chair) were expended digging a hole in the ground. For why?

Picture the scene… It’s a dark day in the bronze age and tribe A notices that a large number of its deadly enemy, tribe B have gathered across the flat field doing things that tribes do before attacking. But, says the chief, we’ve got that ditch you kind folks spent the past 15 years digging. That will save us.

Come on. Anyone that has been in the scouts or played paint ball would laugh that a ditch would provide anything other than temporary shelter against stones, arrows and spears, and a base from whence to mount the final attack. Moreover, internecine warfare likely had honour and religious overtones (all unknowable) so it’s my guess that tribe met tribe on the field outside the village rather than waiting inside the village simply to defend an attack.

Look around the world. Did other primitive subsistence agrarian economies routinely dig ditches to keep out the enemy? Walls yes, ditches no. Ok, so I bet you’re thinking there may have been a palisade as well, but while there were the marks of the post holes for dwellings, there were none for a wall.

I just wish that the know-it-all interpreters would just stop digging when it comes to locating an easy answer to deceptively difficult questions.


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