The Last Ravens in 19th Century London

A Raven by T. A. Coward, 1919. (Image from The Birds of the British Isles.)
A Raven by T. A. Coward, 1919.
(Image from The Birds of the British Isles.)

In medieval London, ravens were a common sight.  By the late eighteenth century, however, they had been almost entirely eradicated.  According to nineteenth century ornithologist William Henry Hudson, the last pair of wild ravens in London resided in a large elm tree in Hyde Park.  This pair bred annually up until 1826 when one of the park keepers pulled down their nest, which at that time contained two of their young offspring.  Deprived of their home and their young, the pair of old ravens quit the park and were never seen again.[…]Continue Reading

Literary Obituaries: Death Notices for Austen, Byron, Brontë, and Dickens

Austen, Byron, Bronte, and Dickens Black and White
Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens.

Today, Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens are generally recognized as four of the greatest authors in English literature.  But how did their contemporaries view them?  Were their works appreciated?  And how did the 19th century public feel when three of them, still in their prime, met an untimely end?  To discover the answers to these questions, one might delve into the legions of biographies written over the years or have a look at their letters, journals, or contemporary reviews of their poems and novels.  However, since it is less than a week until Halloween, I thought we might instead take a brief look at their obituaries.[…]Continue Reading

Black Tom, the Captain’s Imp: A 19th Century Seafaring Cat

A depiction of Mowler, a black cat, a pet and mascot of HMS Manica, standing on a flat surface amongst the rope attachments of the ship's balloon, 1915.(Image via The Imperial War Museum.)
A depiction of a black cat, pet and mascot of HMS Manica, 1915.
(Imperial War Museum.)

For a brief time at the end of the 19th century, Her Majesty’s gunboat “Tickler” was the home of a mysterious cat by the name of Black Tom.  According to the ship’s doctor, Gordon Stables, many on board suspected that Tom was a demon or an imp.  No one knew where he had come from, how he had managed to get on board, or who had brought him there.  He simply appeared one windy, treacherous evening when the sea was rough as the Tickler was crossing the Bay of Biscay.  At eleven at night, while smoking on the quarter-deck, Stables saw something as “black as Erebus” whisk past his legs.  When he inquired of the old sailor at the wheel what the dark shadow could possibly have been, the sailor replied with the utmost solemnity:

“That’s the devil, sir.”

[…]Continue Reading

A Victorian Halloween Party

Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise, 1833.

Despite their reputation for straight-laced sobriety, the Victorians celebrated Halloween with great enthusiasm—and often with outright abandon.  Victorian Halloween parties were filled with fun, games, and spooky rituals, some of which still feature at Halloween parties today.  Many of the games had origins in pagan religion or medieval superstition.  Others were merely a means of making merry with one’s friends.  Regardless, Halloween parties of the 19th century were an occasion for indulging in what author Hugh Miller describes in his 1876 book Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland as:

“….a multitude of wild mischievous games which were tolerated at no other season.”

[…]Continue Reading

Jane Eyre and the Legendary Gytrash

Snarling dog from Darwin's Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872.(Image Courtesy of The Wellcome Library, CC BY 4.0.)
Snarling dog from Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872.
(Image Courtesy of The Wellcome Library, CC BY 4.0.)

According to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, a Gytrash is a goblin or spirit which takes the form of a horse, mule, or large dog.  Typically found in the North of England, the Gytrash “haunted solitary ways” and often surprised unwary travelers as they journeyed alone in the dusk.  Jane Eyre herself encounters what she believes to be a Gytrash one bleak, January evening as she is walking from Thornfield Hall to post a letter in the nearby village of Hay.  Alerted to its arrival by a loud, clattering noise, Jane observes:[…]Continue Reading

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