Horse racing in Georgian England

Writing stories set more than a hundred and fifty years ago, especially stories with characters who have a penny or two, means writing about horses — if only to mention them in passing. Many of my books include journeys, so ‘in passing’ has meant researching carriage and riding horses, including how they were bred and stabled. Along the way, I somehow managed to end up with at least two heroes who were horse breeders: almost the only ‘trade’ a gentleman could engage in without attracting social censure.

This week, I went a step further, when a subscriber-only story for my newsletter turned out to be about the heiress to a racing stud, whose marital fate will be decided by a horse race.

But what kind of horse race in the years just after Waterloo? What were the rules? How long was the course likely to be? Even, as it turned out, what might a villain slip to a horse to prevent it from running, and what symptoms of poisoning would the horse show? (Probably night shade, my vet and author friend Lizzi Tremayne and I decided.)

Here are some of the sources I consulted when writing The Fifth Race, which will be available in the newsletter I send tomorrow.

18th Century foundation of the Jockey Club, and silk colours by owner

Going to the races

Horse racing on the Georgian index

Regina Jeffers on Thoroughbred Horse Racing

Training the 18th century racehorse


The smart widow’s country carriage

When I was writing the first, and even the second, draft of The Realm of Silence, I called the carriage my heroine is driving up and down the Great North Road, to and from Edinburgh, a phaeton.

A high-perch phaeton for the sporting man around town — far too dashing for my widow, and built for show, not for comfort.

I knew a phaeton was a round-town vehicle, and that I’d be smacked by those who know better, so last week I went hunting for a four-wheel two horse carriage that a dashing, fashionable, but not scandalous widow might use when travelling. (The children and servants are in a travelling coach, but Susan prefers to drive herself as much as possible. As who wouldn’t.)

The story required that the carriage had room enough for two people in comfort and three at a squeeze, with one of them driving. I allowed for space behind for a servant, and a fold up top against the weather. And I found the carriage I needed, allowing for the fact that each carriage would have been custom-made, so Susan’s did not have to fit some factory production process, but could be made to her preferences (and my story).

A cabriolet — later, many of them became taxis, giving us the term ‘cab’

I’ve found some neat resources, which I share at the bottom of this post, and some interesting information.

I knew that phaetons came in high-perch and low, and that ladies might drive the later without risk to their reputation, but probably not the former. Cabriolets were an Italian invention that reached England late in the 18th century — another sporty vehicle, but this one entirely suitable for a lady, low slung between the single wheels, and pulled by a single horse. But, again, not what I was looking for.

A phaeton from later in the century, after the name began to be applied to a vehicle with four wheels.

But the field was vast. Carriages, even more than custom-made cars today, varied according to the needs and tastes of the owner around certain defined features. Number of wheels. Number of passengers. Seat for a driver-groom or not. Type of axle, wheel, and spring. Height from the ground. Open or closed. Rain cover or no cover. One horse, two, or up to six. And lots more.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, one enterprising coach builder created a four-wheel vehicle with some of the features of a cabriolet, and some of a phaeton. This hybrid cabriolet-phaeton was not a great success, but a few years of refinement, and it gave birth to the four-wheel cabriolet, the victorian, and several other comfortable but elegant carriages for town and country driving.

I’m postulating that in 1812, my Susan had one of the early successful models, and that she might well have chosen to bring it with her from London to Edinburgh and back again, driving it herself on fine days, perhaps with one or two of the children to keep her company.

A Glossary of Carriages:

The Slower Road:

The victorian was a popular carriage in the mid-19th century.




Twelfth Night, the end of Christmastide

The twelve days of Christmastide, celebrated with extravagant gifts in the Christmas carol, begin with Christmas day and end with the Feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany was the day on which the Christian church remembered the ‘manifestation’ (which is what the word Epiphany means) of the Christ child to the Gentiles, in the form of the wise men, or Magi. Since at least medieval times, the Feast has been celebrated with gift giving in emulation of the Magi. And other party stuff. Those medieval types knew how to party.

Like all the great traditional Church feasts, the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany begins the night before. AS did the Jews before them, the church counted (and counts) the new day as beginning at sundown, and  Twelfth Night Eve is part of Twelfth Day, just as Christmas Eve is part of Christmas Day, and All Hallows Eve (now called Halloween) is part of All Saints Day.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the English Catholic tradition had long been buried under a mix of Puritan reforms and pagan accretions, but many of the medieval traditions survived. The king still offered gold, myrrh, and frankincense at the Chapel Royal at St James. Mummers paraded, masked balls abounded, wassailers saluted the apple trees and one another with hot spiced cider, and at parties, a king and queen for the day were chosen to rule the festivities, usually by the randomising method of who found a bean (king) or a pea (pea) in their slice of Twelfth Night Cake. In this blog post written for a Christmas blog hop three years ago, I show Avery Hall, Candle’s home, during a Twelfth Night Eve party.

Like most of the West, my household follows the Victorian tradition of presents on Christmas Day rather than spreading them through Christmastide or giving them on the Feast of the Epiphany, but one tradition we stick to is taking down all the Christmas decorations before sunset on 6th January. Not that we believe goblins will invade if we ignore the tradition. But still. That’s my job for tomorrow.


The year without a summer

The volcanic gases and particulates in the atmosphere led to spectacular sunsets, such as those later painted by Turner.

In 1816, after an unusually severe winter, the United Kingdom experienced ‘a summer more unseasonable than any former one in my remembrance’ (from correspondence between Susan Farington and Antony Hamond). Nurseryman Samuel Curtis called it ‘the most unpropitious season ever remembered’, and diariest Pegge Burnell called August ‘a most unseasonable month’, describing it elsewhere as ‘dismal, wet, and cold’.

Various studies in the United States, England, and Europe have concluded that this was more than regular climate fluctuation, although winters in the last decade of the eighteenth and early part of the century had been exceptionally cold. Sunspot numbers were down; volcanic activity was up. And then, in 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in the largest volcanic eruption in, perhaps, thousands of years. For hundreds of miles, the sea was covered in pumice. Ash darkened the sky so that candles were needed throughout the day, and even with candles, people could see only a few metres. Tens, and perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people died. And high in the atmosphere, tonnes of sulfur dioxide thrown out of the volcano turned in sulfuric acid, making an aerosol that would block incoming solar radiation for years to come.

It took time for the effects to reach the other side of the world, but the record shows that the spring, summer, and autumn of 1816 were exceptionally wet and cold, with frequent storms and floods. Harvest failed in the United States, Britain, and across Europe and Asia, leading to famine on a wide scale and starvation among the poor. In China, peasants turned to growing opium in order to make money, and the boom in production led in time to the Opium Wars and the opium trade that still exists today.

In England, people were already suffering severe hardship and food shortages because of the long years of war, harsh economic policies that favoured the wealthy, and the vast mass of unemployed swollen by more than 400,000 men from dismissed from the army and navy after the war. Adding a volcanically enhanced winter to the mix was devastating.

…despite the long run of generally cold wet conditions experienced in the 1810s, extreme weather recorded in the spring, summer and autumn months of 1816 may have been ‘truly exceptional’ and ‘of a degree for which it is reasonable to invoke an external forcing mechanism’ (Sadler and Grattan 1999, 187).

Our sources also add further evidence in support of 1816 being a difficult year for many people across the UK. In Upper Annandale (Dumfries and Galloway), the correspondent to the Farmer’s Magazine (17, 483) described a year ‘having neither spring, nor summer, nor harvest’ and our sources too emphasise the need to recognise a sequence of unusual weather, most of it unfavourable for agriculture, within 1816. The weather hampered agricultural (and other outdoor) work, and harvests of grass, grain and vegetables were of poor quality and quantity. There was a shortage of fodder and livestock was lost in floods or heavy snowfall in some places. Storms and floods uprooted trees, and damaged homes and other buildings. Normal routines were disrupted and travel difficult. An impact on physical and emotional wellbeing is also inferred. [Veale, Endfield. Situating 1816, the ‘year without a summer’, in the UK.]

(I am researching conditions in summer 1816, because my next book, House of Thorns, take place at that time.)


The Christmas card custom

The first Christmas card was designed and sold in 1843. It was the brainchild of Sir Henry Cole, who had helped set up the government department that was later called the Post Office. Sir Henry had helped to introduce the Penny Post in 1840, taking advantage of the railways to move post quickly and cheaply.

And people did. The story goes that Sir Henry had lots of friends who wrote to him at Christmas. It was only polite to reply, but Sir Henry was a busy man. He came up with the idea of a card with Christmas greetings, and a space at the top to write people’s names.

John Horsley, a friend of Sir Henry’s designed the card with three panels: the outer two showing charitable works and the inner one a family Christmas dinner.

Over time, Sir Henry’s idea caught on, helped as printing methods and mass production brought printing prices down. When the cost of sending dropped to half a penny in the 1870s, Christmas cards took off, and spread around the world.

Annie Oakley sent the first known personalised card. She was in Scotland in 1891, and sent a Christmas card back to family and friends in the United States with her own photo on it.

Do you send Christmas cards? Or a Christmas newsletter? By post or electronically? Or do you wish to do so, and just not have enough time?


The history of mistletoe at Christmas

It’s the season for mistletoe, or at least so it would have been back in England during the 18th and 19th century. The little plant with its golden boughs, yellow-green oval leaves and sticky white berries had an important role to play in Christmas celebrations, forming the crucial part of the Kissing Bough or being hung in bunches in strategic places around the household.

Any woman standing under the tree could be asked for a kiss, and courted bad luck if she refused. In one version of the tradition, every kiss was paid for by plucking a berry from the hanging stems, and when the berries were gone, so were the kisses.

So how did a little parasite come to be a magical harbinger of romance?

There are a few stories; some from Norse tradition, some Greek, some from the druids of ancient Britain, and some with strong Christian traditions.

The plant that killed the favourite

In Norse mythology, one god was the favourite of all the others. Everyone loved Baldur. Everyone, that is, but Loki, the god of mischief. Frigga, Baldur’s mother, protected her beloved boy by travelling all the world, and asking everything that grew on land and under it to promise never to hurt Baldur.

As a result, Baldur became invulnerable to anything thrown or thrust at him, provided it was plant-based. Of course, poking Baldur with plant-based weapons became a favourite game, because boys are like that. But Frigga had forgotten one important fact.

Mistletoe doesn’t grow on land or under it. It grows on the branches of another plant — including, willow, oak, and apple trees. Loki made a dart from mistletoe wood and gave it to the blind god, Hoder, so he could join in the game. And Baldur died.

Everything in heaven and earth wept, and Frigga tried for three days to restore her son. In the end, her tears became the mistletoe berries, and Baldur woke from death. In her joy, Frigga made the mistletoe her sacred plant, and decreed that anyone standing under it would never come to harm, but would only be kissed.

Power over hell

In Greek myth, mistletoe had power even over hell. Two doves bought a golden bough of mistletoe to Aenas to light his way through the forest that blocked the way into Hades. When he showed the bough to the ferryman at the River Styx, he and the bough were instantly transported alive across the river.

The sign of peace

To the druids, mistletoe was very special. They believed it could heal just about anything. They cut it from oak trees with sickles of gold, and gathered it without letting it touch the ground. And they hung it in bunches in houses to keep away sickness and war, protect the household from sickness and ghosts, and bring happiness and fertility.

Anyone passing under mistletoe had to lay down their arms and desist from fighting until the next day, even in a forest. Even more so in a house, where guests would stand under the mistletoe to greet their hosts with a kiss of friendship.

Love conquers death

No wonder, with this history, the mistletoe was adopted by the new Christians of Northern Europe, who easily made the transition to seeing this plant of healing and peace as a symbol of Christ, who lay down his life to bring peace to the world, and who came alive out of death. Mistletoe became particularly associated with the birth of Christ, which was now being celebrated in midwinter, when mistletoe had been a traditional part of pre-Christian ceremonies.

Friendship kisses under the mistletoe translated nicely into the new Christian celebrations.

Kissing for luck

Exactly how kisses of peace became the romantic kisses we think of today, we can only guess. But the idea that mistletoe will bring prosperity and fertility might have something to do with it. Prosperity for a woman meant marriage, and by the sixteenth century, kissing under the mistletoe was wildly popular among the working classes.

By the nineteenth century, the custom had often been adopted above stairs as well as below, though not by all. Some regarded it as licentious and improper. But only the most rigid of moralists would refuse a kissing bough to the servants’ hall, even if his or her own daughters could safely pass through the family’s parlours safe in the knowledge that no errant white berry posed a risk to the sanctity of their fair lips. Poor girls.

A week today, I’m publishing the ebook version of If Mistletoe Could Tell Tales, a collection of my Christmas novellas and novelettes. The print version is already available. At 92,000 words, or 320 print pages, of stories about the magic of romance during the magic of Christmas. At $2.99 for the ebook, it represents a 40% discount over the cost of the individual books. And the print cost of $12.50 makes it a great stocking stuffer. Follow the link in the name above for blurb and buy links.


And let there be light

Waking up to a town-wide power cut this morning set me thinking about how recently in history we lit up the night. As a person writing mostly stories set at the very beginning of the revolution in lighting, it’s something I need to keep very much in mind.

Fire, fire burning bright

Fire came first, of course. Humans had brought fire into their campsites (for protection, warmth, and light) long before recorded history. The first portable light would have been a piece of firewood, with experimentation leading to better and better torches for lighting the winter evenings or winter marches. In essence, a torch is a pole (of wood or metal) with something at the end that burns easily: perhaps moss or fibre soaked in fuel plants (oil pressed from nuts or seeds) or from animal fats.

A lamp to drive away darkness

The first lamps comprised moss or something similar soaked in animal fat, and held in a hollow rock or shell. Oil lamps start popping up in dig sites of around 6,500 years. Made from metal, stone or clay, they have a fuel chamber that contains the oil, one or more pouring holes through which to fill the fuel chamber, and a wick hole or nozzle for the wick, which was a twist of some flammable material.

Because only the wick and the oil it it soaks up is aflame, oil lamps give light for longer for the same amount of oil.

Light a penny candle

Candles came along around 3,000 BC. They didn’t spill, like oil lamps, and there was no need to advance the wick by hand. On the other hand, they were tedious to make. Beeswax candles were the best, but very expensive. Smelly tallow candles were the most common until the sperm whale industry of the 18th century introduced candles made of spermaceti. Even after advances in lamp making in the 19th century, candles continued to be improved, with paraffin wax arriving in the 1850s, along with plaited wicks that self-consumed and didn’t need trimming.

Recently in history…

The explosion of technological innovation that began in the late 18th century had, by the end of the 19th century, brought us the central draught fixed oil lamp, the kerosene lamp,  gas lighting, and electric lighting with incandescent bulbs.

The first house was lit by electricity in Northumberland in 1878 (or, at least, the picture gallery was), with the first street (in Newcastle) following a year later.

And 142 years later, the electricity has returned in time for me to write this post.


Secret codes during the Napoleonic wars

Armies used codes to keep messages secret if the messenger was captured

One of the plot devices in The Realm of Silence turns out to involve a secret code. It’s a bit of a McGuffin, but I had fun with it, and particularly enjoyed finding out about cryptography, and the part it played during the Napoleonic wars.

Short form. Napoleon and his armies weren’t very good at codes and the British were.

Secret codes for military information have been used for a long time; at least since Julius Caesar encoded messages to his generals. Over the centuries, they’ve become more and more elaborate, until today, when they’ve spread into everyday use on computer systems, with elaborate encryption methods to prevent eavesdropping and theft of private information.

Types of code

Today, with computers, codes have become much more complex. But there are some common types, most of which have been around a long time. They fit into two main categories: versus codes and ciphers.

The Babbington plot against Queen Elizabeth I unravelled when their code was broken

Versus codes are substitutions of a symbol for a meaning: a word or a phrase.

Ciphers work at a lower level. The symbol replaces an individual letter or small group of letters.

  • Substitution ciphers replace a unit (one or more letters or numbers) with another. So March North might become 2oeqv 3aefv.
  • With transposition ciphers, the order of the units are changed, but not the units themselves. So March North might become Tharn Morch.
  • Polyalphabetic ciphers use a mixed alphabet to encrypt a message, switching alphabets during the message. The World War II enigma machine produced a polyalphabetic cipher.

The man who broke Napoleon’s code

After coming unstuck with sending messages in plain text, Napoleon tasked his army with creating a code. It used 150 numbers, each of which represented a letter or word, and a man called Major General Scovell broke the code within two days.

The Great Paris Cipher

The Great Paris Cipher was the French answer. It was both a code and a cipher, with different numbers standing for either letters or words.  It comprised 1400 numbers in a table, some of which stood for nothing to further confuse those attempting to decipher the messages. And it had no noticeable underlying patterns.

But a year later, Scovell had done it again, helped along by the carelessness of the French army. So complex a cipher took ages to use, both for those sending message and those using them. The French took the easy route, and only encoded part of their messages, which allowed Scovell to make educated guesses about what the encrypted words might mean.

The book cipher

My characters discover a book cipher, where words or letters of the message are replaced by words or letters of the chosen book. Both the sender of the message and its receiver need the same edition of the same book, and the code can be hard to break without the book.


The forts of the English coast

I love George Clarke’s Restoration Man television show, and was fascinated by a recent episode that showed here in New Zealand following two separate projects to restore a Martello tower. I’d heard of them, but had no idea of their history, and once I looked it up, I knew I’d found the exact object to fill a plot hole in The Realm of Silence.

Martello towers are small round forts built along the southern and eastern of England, with a few in Ireland and Scotland. They were based on towers built in Corsica to repel the Barbary Pirates. The British navy was very impressed when they were unable to overcome one at a place called Mortello Point, though it fell to a land assault.

The war with France

So in the late 18th and early 19th century, when invasion from France was a real threat, the government embarked on a plan to build the towers, each around 40 feet tall. They were garrisoned by 15 to 24 soldiers and an officer, with food and water, sleeping quarters, and a gun on a swivel to repel sea or land invaders.

They could be accessed only through a door some 16 feet above the ground, accessed by a ladder, and were designed to withstand heavy attack.

140 were built, but the invasion plans receded with the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar and had faded by 1812 [edited after JSMF2’s comment, below], and they never had to be put to their intended use.



Edinburgh underground

This week’s Footnotes on Friday is a cry for help.

I’ve dropped one of my characters into trouble, and I need atmospheric detail and historic fact on the way to getting her out. Are any of you experts in Edinburgh’s underground?

Amy Cunningham, daughter of Susan Cunningham and granddaughter of Lord Henry Redepenning, has been kidnapped and is being held in the cellar of a house somewhere in Edinburgh. She finds that a pile of rubbish hides either a hole or a trapdoor that lets her into Edinburgh’s underground ways, where she has various adventures and experiences before being taken up by an amiable crowd of university students/apprentices/seamstresses or whatever I decide, and escorted to her family townhouse.

But which underground ways?

I’ve narrowed it down to the South Bridge Vaults or Mary King’s Close, both of which were available to me in 1812.

The Vaults are chambers formed in the arches of South Bridge, which was built in 1788. South Bridge was a shopping arcade that bridged a gully, and the 19 arches beneath it contained 120 rooms that quickly filled up with taverns, tradesmen’s workshops, and slum housing. All in the dark, and increasingly illicit and nasty.

Robert Louis Stevenson described the places in his 1878 book Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes:

“…under dark arches and down dark stairs and alleys…the way is so narrow that you can lay a hand on either wall. (There are) skulking jail-birds; unkempt, barefoot children; (an) old man, when I saw him last, wore the coat in which he had played the gentleman three years before; and that was just what gave him so preeminent an air of wretchedness.”

Mary King’s Close is a relict of a much earlier time. In a city enclosed by walls, it’s common for new buildings to be erected on top of old ones, the weight of centuries sinking the past with cellars containing what was once the street or even upper floors of a building. Legend has it that Mary King’s Close, which is under the City Chambers, was sealed up in the 1640’s to prevent still living plague victims from infecting the rest of the city. Another source I found says, more pragmatically, that the City Fathers of the time were worried about losing trade to the New Town so they:

decided to build a grand new Royal Exchange. And they found the perfect spot opposite St Giles Cathedral, with just one small problem – the streets of houses already there. But rather than knocking them down, they took the top floors off and used the lower floors as foundations. Mary King’s Close was covered over and swallowed up into the building’s basement. The sloping ground meant the houses fronting the Royal Mile were destroyed but further down the close whole houses were buried intact. []

People being people, many of the denizens refused to leave, and you could drop into the underground right up until the start of the twentieth century to have a wig made or to buy tobacco.

So which one? And what would it have seemed like to a gently-born if feisty 15-year-old Regency maiden? Can anyone help? Drop me a message on my contact page. I’d love to hear from you.