Anyone for tennis?

We have catalogued a few tennis books recently, and have been struck by the changes in the game. 

The earliest item I can find in the Tower is Lawn Tennis : its laws and practice, dating from 1877, the year of the first Wimbledon championship. It descrbes tennis as a “manly game, which can hardly be said of croquet”, giving “the greatest amount of exercise in the shortest space of time of any game.  As you can see from the illustrations below, the laws of the game and the equipment were very different. 




Another early curiosity is this pamphlet by the Oxford mathematician Charles L. Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll). He felt it unfair that players could be knocked out of a tournament after just one defeat, and came up with what seems to me to be a fiendishly complicated replacement system. The Dictionary of National Biography states that his system  “while complex, is still considered more equitable to players than current practice” – maybe, but only if they were really good at difficult sums. 


The Wimbledon authorities got around the possibility of  defending champions losing in the first round by giving them a bye to the final. This curious arrangement was only abolished when the All-England club moved to its present home in 1922. 


As a fan of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, I was interested to find copies of the tennis equivalent  – Ayres’ Lawn Tennis Almanack, which ran from 1908-1938. They give a very comprehensive review of the previous season and there is much interesting editorial matter and biographies of players and officials. The edition illustrated here is the 3rd (1910), and contains some familiar themes.  The notes by the editor, A. Wallis Myers complain of the dearth of talent in the game, and the problems of playing surfaces around the world, including the “sand and gravel court on the Continent, the rubble court in Scotland, the asphalt court in Australia, the ant-heap court in South Africa, and the wood floor in Sweden.” I can’t find any details of rubble and ant-heap courts – can anyone provide any more information? 

The “bijou biographies” give details of seventy leading players and officials, including their home addresses! Many had interesting lives beyond tennis.  G.W. Hillyard, won an Olympic Gold Medal at in the Gentleman’s Doubles 1908 (at the age of 44), played first class cricket for Middlesex and the M.C.C., won prizes for golf, swimming and pigeon shooting, was adept at billiards, a good runner with beagles, and a keen motor cyclist – that’s what I call an all-rounder.


The other hardy annual is the weather. It’s hard to believe, but at one time Wimbledon fortnight had a reputation for good weather. This was not the case in 1909, when two blank days in the first week meant that play was extended to a third monday for the first time.  Apparently the public “became a little impatient with the delays, and one lady, possibly expressing the opinion of others, was heard to declare that she had never before been to Wimbledon in a mackintosh, and did not intend to break the rule.” Judging by the overcoat that the gentleman below is wearing it must have been pretty chilly.

Posted in Sport, Tennis | 2 Comments

Indoor Games for Awkward Moments

I don’t think anyone would disagree that summer has been a bit of a washout so far. If yourself and friends or family are feeling a bit bored during a rainy afternoon or damp weekend, I recently came across a book that would no doubt liven up any get together: “Indoor Games for Awkward Moments” could be just the ticket to pass the time until summer decides to show up (if it ever does).           

Tower Project staff have catalogued many books on indoor games and entertainment, with cosy titles such as Fireside Amusements and Parlour Pastimes, so when I saw the title  “Indoor Games for Awkward Moments”, although the subject was not unfamiliar, the title certainly caught my attention! Rather than just being a generic book of entertaining games, the author, Ruth Blakely, proves to be a keen observer of the tension and social awkwardness that can exist at social gatherings, and does not hesitate in describing them. In the preface, she writes “The object of this volume is to try and lessen the number of dreadful pauses which so many hostesses have experienced with their guests”. Straight away I had the feeling that I was in for something special with this book – I wasn’t disappointed: Blakely’s caustic remarks and scathing tone throughout the book had me laughing out loud, and made me wonder whether she really had the ideal temperament to write a book of party games, or even host a party at all. For example, before describing the rules of one game, she writes: “This is a very good game for making things “go” […] and getting guests to mix and so break the ice, which frequently does not thaw till it is nearly time for the party to break up.”           

One of Blakely's party guests trying his best to enjoy a game


The book contains rules and descriptions of many games which are still commonly played at parties today, such as Who Am I?, Musical Chairs, and Guessing the Weight, but alongside these were some rather peculiar games, some of which I’m not sure I’d care to take part in if I wanted to leave the party with my dignity intact. Here is a selection of the best…      

  • Obstacle Race: In this game a person is led into a room and witnesses various articles planted about on the floor. He is told that he will have to walk blindfolded over these objects without touching them. However, the trick of the game is that the obstacles are quietly removed whilst he is blindfolded, so the watching guests see him stepping very carefully, trying to avoid what is not there. Blakely remarks: “Note the look of disgust on his face when the bandage is removed and he realizes that he has been “done.””

This poor partygoer doesn't yet know that he's been "done".


  •  Balancing a Bottle on the Head: Get a large empty bottle and balance it on the back of the head. Then from standing, get down on hands and knees and with the mouth pick up a cork which has been placed on the floor. Then get up again to a standing position, and remove the bottle from the head and the cork from the mouth. This sounds near on impossible, not to mention a health and safety nightmare!    

I really wouldn’t want to attempt this after a couple of drinks (or even before, in fact).


  • Miew:  In this game a guest is blindfolded and led into the room where the other guests are sitting round. The blindfolded person, “The Cat”, must kneel at the feet of one of the guests and look up at them, saying “miew” in a pathetic voice. The one miewed has to say “poor pussy” three times with a straight face. If he smiles he must take the place of the cat, if not the cat goes onto the next guest. Apparently it is very difficult to keep a straight face during this one.
I honestly can’t believe grown adults would agree to play this game, but perhaps I am exactly the kind of party guest that Blakely is trying to loosen up!
  • Charades: This perennially popular game is described in the book, but it seems that our host and author’s patience is wearing thin at this point, as she writes at the end of the rules, “The more original the scene the better, as the everlasting schoolroom scene is getting a little tiring.”

These poor guests are trying their hardest to entertain, but will have their work cut out if they’re trying to impress the author!


I think the author would have done well to remember that a relaxed host makes for relaxed guests. Maybe then there would be fewer ‘awkward moments’ to fill!        

  • Indoor Games for Awkward Moments / collected by Ruth Blakely. Classmark 1916.7.371   



Posted in Entertainment, Friday feature, Games | 3 Comments

Royal celebrations


The Queen’s diamond jubilee is finally here, and if you want inspiration for a celebration over this weekend, I can assure you there’s no better place to start than this firework sales catalogue from James Pain & sons (pyrotechnists) published  in 1911. The fireworks in the catalogue are designed for a royal event, the coronation of King George the fifth, and can easily be adapted for a jubilee theme. The suggested finale of the firework display is shown in the picture above “A Colossal fire portrait of their Majesties, artistically portrayed in lines of brilliant fire, with a simultaneous discharge of 100 large rockets forming an immense aerial bouquet of unsurpassed splendour and a tremendous explosion audible for miles.”  

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? The Pain company was also selling flags, banners with a motto of your own choice, draperies with fringes and tassels and artificial flowers, all intended to decorate houses and gardens for Coronation day. You could hire ‘Crystal devices’, which look like diamante garden furniture: imagine a crystal studded garden arch with sparkly attachments and medallions. Well, it’s for a party, and parties don’t have to be tasteful. Or you could hire wooden display boards 10 feet high, on which were hung hundreds of little lights, spelling “God save the King” in prismatic colours.     

Many of the decorations for sale in ‘Pain’s Coronation fireworks’ would be great for any Jubilee party this weekend: flags, banners, and a range of draperies, fringes and tassels in red white and blue. Artificial floral wreathing, a kite decorated “with portraits of their Majesties the King and Queen” and an inflatable balloon 30 feet high in the shape of an elephant (no inflatable royal family figures, sadly). However you’re celebrating the jublee, have a very good weekend!

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Is there an app for that?

iphoneIt may be difficult to understand now, but there was a time when there was no such thing as an iphone and we didn’t have apps to help us get through the day. At the start of the twentieth century people had to use a pen and paper to keep track of their lives, which sounds like a nightmare when you think of all the things that technology helps us keep up with today. In order to get the equivalent of an iphone full of apps a person would have had to cart around a whole suitcase full of books! Luckily, there are some books in the Tower that are small enough to be carried around, even by those carrying too much already.

The Tower collection contains a number of tiny diaries. Some of these are normal yearly diaries but some are more specific to different types Mini books and iphoneof activity, such as the Sportsman’s Engagement Book. These could be slipped into the pocket and used to jot down notes and appointments at any time. Unfortunately, there was no alarm to tell you when you were supposed to be somewhere! Some of the miniature books were designed as pocket reference aids, such as the ready reckoner’s which were used to make simple calculations. There are also aids for doctors to consult on the go – handy when they were out making their rounds. There were also various birthday books to make sure that a special day was never forgotten again.

KindleIn the days before the Kindle, people still wanted to be able to read novels on the go. In the Tower collection there are a number of novels which were written specifically for the miniature format, as well as some pocket sized classics. Often though, a popular novel was simply too long to fit a pocket sized book and so publishers produced condensed versions or selections (a little bit like a ‘greatest hits’ album). This also tended to happen a lot with poetry, such as Shakespeare’s sonnets. These could then be whipped out by any budding romantic whenever they were in need a a few words to woo the opposite sex. We also have a number of tiny children’s books which were easier for small hands to hold and could be used to make sure that children were ‘seen and not heard’ when out in public.

Mini books

One of my favourite examples of the miniature books are the ones which give you handy tips for card games such as poker and bridge. Whilst these were no doubt useful for the novice player, I’m not sure the other people at the table Playing cardswould have been too understanding had one been brought out at a crucial moment in the game! I think there might have been more than a few funny looks and accusations of cheating. Let’s not forget there’s a reason that so many pubs have banned iphone use during their quizzes…


Picture credits:

iphone: Tony Buser

Kindle: alvaoprb

Poker: Images_of_Money

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A typical box

Today I’m going to tell you about a “typical box.”  Apart from the books we catalogue, we also have boxes filled with pamphlets or even just single sheets, which, I’m afraid, look as dull as dishwater, so there won’t be any pretty pictures in this blog post. The contents of a box will cover a bewildering range of topics, making a typical box distinctly atypical, if you follow me. To be honest, our hearts tend to sink when we go up the tower to fetch down a bay of books and discover the shelves groaning with boxes. I don’t think it would be untoward to admit that words such as dross, shredder, and bin are frequently heard being muttered in the same breath by grumpy Tower Project staff rifling through scraps of paper and flimsy pamphlets that look so tedious it’s enough to make grown cataloguers weep.  However, sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised. So, here’s a sample of what I found in my typical box this week:


The “A.L.” simple general knowledge cards. (classmark 1916.7.3125)


We used to get a lot of these when we were cataloguing the 19th century material, but there are still a few sets of educational cards turning up in the early 20th century. In this set there are 36 cards enclosed in a paper wrapper. The cards have questions on them to be used in the classroom, with an accompanying answer booklet. In this particular set each card has five questions on it, and on each card the fifth question is divided into two parts, prefaced with (Boys) and (Girls). For example on card no. 18 boys are asked  “What is a ream of paper; a rod of land; a ton of shipping; and a puncheon of wine?”  while girls are asked “What are the symptoms of measles and of scarlet fever?” Most of the questions specifically aimed at girls seem to be concerned with the sick room , first aid and cooking (I particularly like “Why do we take mustard with beef; butter with bread; and treacle or sugar with porridge?”) but to be fair they do get questions such as “What occupation would you like to follow when you leave school, and why?” Whatever happened to the word puncheon? According to the answer booklet it’s a cask holding either 84 or 120 gallons. A sad loss indeed.

The Victor rapid record selector. (classmark 1916.7.3124)

This is a handy little booklet aimed at owners of a Victrola, the most popular home phonograph on the market, first introduced to the public in the United States in 1906. These were the first phonographs to hide the amplifying horn and turntable inside a cabinet so that the phonograph could look less like a piece of machinery and more like a piece of furniture. The aim of the booklet is “to help you choose your records more expeditiously and with greater ultimate satisfaction” and the editor hopes to “fulfil its purpose in being of material assistance in the building up of a well-rounded record collection.” The guide attempts to steer the reader through the “bewildering variety” of Victor records available by classifying them into Instrumental, Vocal and Miscellaneous, and then further subdividing into Classical, Modern, Light, Concert Dance, Operatic and Sacred. I was quite surprised to see several German military marches listed in the Concert Dance section, including “Parade post with Kaiser Friedrich,” until I remembered that this booklet was published in New York in 1916 and the United States didn’t enter the war until 1917. In amongst the standards listed in the Talking Records category, such as speeches from Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth, Kipling’s Gunga Din, Poe’s The Raven , Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and  Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, we find A Dash for the South Pole, described thus: “A great English explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, has given a very interesting talk on this record of his final experiences in reaching the southernmost point of the globe.”  I like to imagine a family settling down to listen to Shackleton of an evening.

Great thoughts almanac for 1915. (classmark 1916.7.3121)

We get a lot of this sort of thing, almanacs, calendars and diaries packed full of aphorisms and apothegms (to use the Library of Congress subject heading), attributed to luminaries ranging from Seneca to Ruskin, Joan of Arc to Longfellow, Saint Augustine to Sir Isaac Pitman.  These “great thoughts” are supposed to provide uplifting enlightenment on a daily basis.  The almanac, or calendar, is illustrated with portraits and seasonal country scenes, and is composed of loose leaves stapled at the top edge and tied with thread for hanging on the wall.

Next up is “The scholar’s catechism on arithmetic and general knowledge.”  (classmark 1916.7.3119)

The word catechism means that this book will be a list of questions. The general knowledge questions come usefully supplied with their answers and include stock questions on history, geography, notable people etc., but my eye was caught by “What is a gamp?” to which the answer is “Another name for an umbrella, so called from Mrs Gamp  in ‘Martin Chuzzlewit.’”  What a pity that this Dickensian epithet has gone out of use, but so interesting that Dickens had permeated the popular imagination to such an extent that one of his characters was absorbed into the vernacular as an everyday object.

We are reminded of our manufacturing history on reading “What is the chief cotton town of England?” (Manchester), “What is the chief woollen town of England?” (Leeds)  and “Where are scissors made?” (Sheffield).  Not anymore, I fear.  Unfortunately the arithmetic questions do not come with answers, so I can’t tell you what fifty-nine sixths of £1 is (or should that be are?) – answers on a postcard, please …..

Where to go by car by J. Lingard (classmark 1916.7.3114)

This is not what it seems at first glance. The introduction decries the fact that “railway companies still prefer to spend large sums of money in advertising, instead of reducing the ordinary fare to a half-penny per mile, or less. Our present excursion system, restricting people to a few trains, causes overcrowding and delays; every railway maintains an amazing class system by which remunerative third class fares are made to cover the loss on first-class fares, railwaymen are badly paid and work long hours.” Then we get to the point – “This booklet is published expressly to show the different towns and places of interest that can be reached by electric car.” Ah, we’re talking about trams. This is the Lancashire edition, so you find you can travel from Manchester to Leeds, a journey of 48 ½ miles for 2s. 11 ½ d., taking 5 hours.  

I hadn’t given much thought to the social implications of taking the tram as opposed to the train, but “Where to go by car” argues a strong case for the democratising impact of the tram:

“Everybody on a tramcar is on an equality, there is no distinction of classes, the artisan who pays his penny is on a par with the rich man, and this rubbing of shoulders is destined to have a beneficial effect all round. It tends to eliminate the aloofness which is fostered by railway travelling, and leads to an exchange of ideas which to anyone of an observing turn of mind, is most interesting, especially the different shades of dialect spoken on a journey.”

Travelling by tram was a political statement, evidently.

Moving swiftly on, past the “Doses of the British Pharmacopeia, 1914,” “A calendar of hymns ancient & modern,”  some meditations in “Words out of the silence” and prayers  in “The best friend : a little book of thoughts and prayers for women” which includes “Prayer for husband at the war” and “An evening prayer for a child” with the touching petition “O God, bless mother and father (and take care of him, and bring him safe back)” we come to “The star pocket-book, or, How to find your way at night by the stars : a simple manual for the use of soldiers, travellers and other landsmen” by R. Weatherhead, (classmark 1916.7.3109). This little pamphlet, published in 1915, is principally aimed at servicemen, “dealing as simply and practically as possible with the subject, as it concerns present use (1915) in France, Flanders and Germany.”

“Mothers & sons in war time” (classmark 1916.7.3116) is a bringing together of articles written by Sir Ernest Barker, political theorist, originally published in the Times, in which he argues forcefully in defence of England’s participation in the First World War. Barker deplored what he saw as ”the worship of power”  in Germany and the tyranny of nationalism. Writing of the English mothers’ sons who have died in the war, he says “They live in the better fellowship of the nations, which the work of their hands has gone to establish; and a mother may say in her heart, in a new Europe which her son died to make: here and here I see my son; in this better thing and that nobler way of living I see him living on and on for ever.” You have to hope that these persuasive words offered some comfort to bereaved mothers, but with our hindsight, knowing that the Second World War loomed ahead, they resonate painfully. There is a memorial stone to Ernest Barker, political theorist and principal of King’s College, Cambridge, from 1920-1927, in St. Botolph’s Church here in Cambridge.

After a cursory perusal of “Prize-giving government and municipal bonds” (classmark 1916.7.3115) advocating that a similar system to that of France be adopted in Britain (which it was, but not until 1956, 40 years after the publication of this pamphlet), we move on to “Brown’s signal reminder” (classmark 1916.7.3106), a colourful little booklet in notebook format with illustrations throughout of international code flags, semaphore, Morse code, naval and military signalling, urgent and special signals (W.— means “Have encountered ice”), featuring a “Pilot Jack table for reporting vessels of war sighted” and nationality signals in Morse (the letter for British is F.)

So you see, it’s not all glamour and fizz on the Tower Project. You can see that the typical box contains some pretty dry stuff, some of which is dull beyond belief, quite frankly, but there’s always the possibility of sifting tiny nuggets of gold from the dross.  Now I can get back to a shelf of proper books with a sigh of relief and hopefully rattle through some attractive fiction and ponder over some solid books of sermons, technical books on shell-turning for munition workers, hygiene handbooks and childcare manuals, until I reach the next box with its typically unpredictable contents.

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On either side from the carriage window

I’ve recently been away on holiday and when I returned to my morning commute to the University Library, it struck me how much a part of modern life the rail commute is to many. From the familiarity of knowing exactly where best to stand on the platform to quickly grab your favourite seat, to seeing the same blank faces every morning. Of course the railway commute is not a new phenomenon at all. The Tower Collection contains a varied range of rail guides dating from before the First World War. These include guides to housing along the routes of popular commuter lines, to tourist booklets advertising popular attractions accessible by rail.

Image of steam express train.

A Great Eastern Railway express train, pulled by a 'Claud Hamilton' class locomotive.

The growth of urban living and commuting during the early 20th century went hand in hand with the railways. In the first decades of the 20th Century, Cambridge was located on the Great Eastern Railway network, which fanned out across East Anglia from London Liverpool Street station (todays ‘Greater Anglia’ services run on essentially the same network). One particularly interesting book in the Tower collection is By Forest and Countryside, a guide to “charming residential districts on the Great Eastern Railway”. This was published by the Great Eastern for prospective London commuters in order to find the best place to live within commuting distance of the city.

Image of book cover.

By forest and countryside : a guide to the residential localities on the Great Eastern Railway.

To take the modern commuter town of Bishops Stortford in Hertfordshire as an example, there were forty trains per day available to and from London in 1911. Season tickets cost twenty two pounds for first class or fifteen pounds and four shillings if travelling third class. Many of the locations are described as charming rural idylls before later urban development and much larger population growth. Harlow in Essex is described as an “old world town … and many delightfully old fashioned houses with beautiful gardens may be seen in the direction of Mulberry Green.” Today the original Harlow is located next to the much larger new town built after the Second World War, with its large shopping centre and many roundabouts. However in 1911 commuter development was already well under way,

“There are probably few other London suburbs that can boast a growth so rapid and vigorous as Ilford. A little more than ten years ago it was a comparatively small place; today equipped with all kinds of modern conveniences, owning its own electric light and tramways …”

Black and white image of Epping High Street.

Epping High Street in 1911.

Another book of interest is On either side from the carriage window, a detailed guide to the route of the East Coast mainline from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley. Aimed more at the casual traveller rather than the commuter, this interesting guide features a route map of the line along with details of places of interest along the route and of link lines and connections. As today, the East Coast main line was already one of the busiest rail routes in Britain with passengers from London able to travel to Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland within the space of a day. Speed was one of the primary concerns of the east coast railway companies who were in fierce competition with the rival West Coast main line from London Euston to Glasgow.

Image of route diagram with captions and photographs.

East Coast rail guide to Hertfordshire including now closed link lines and branches.

“The East Coast route between London and Edinburgh is the shortest and quickest. [It] has a well merited reputation for punctuality and no effort is spared to maintain this both as regards to the expresses from London (Kings Cross) and Edinburgh (Waverley) and vice versa.”

The Tower collection also contains literature about many other independent railways including the Great Western Railway, London and North Western and Great Northern along with a large collection of material produced by the North Eastern Railway. Not all authors were as pleased about the spread of the commuter belt as the major railway companies were. Gordon Home, author of a guide to the Great Western Railway bemoans the growing urban sprawl of London before the trains steam into the rural beauty of the Home Counties and Cotswolds.

Colour map.

Map of the Great Western Railway in 1913.

“Like all the other railways out of London, there is nothing worth commenting on for the first few miles, beyond regretting that English people have been and still are, foolish enough to allow their great capital to be surrounded by a vast waste of badly designed and poorly built houses, which have spread over the pleasant country traversed by the railway when it was first constructed.”

I wonder what Gordon Home would think of much of Britain if he saw it today?

Row, Prescott and Anderson, Henry, By forest and countryside: a guide to the residential localities on the Great Eastern Railway, Classmark 1913.7.3218

East Coast Railways, On either side, Classmark 1918.10.144(53)

Home, Gordon, The Great Western Railway, Classmark 1913.7.2421

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Let’s party – 1919


My desk is a mess at the moment, but I rather like it that way, because it’s covered with pictures of women in lovely clothes. I’m looking at the Bystander annual for 1919, and it’s strikingly different from the issues published during the war. Then, the adverts were for heavy-duty raincoats and war bonds. Now, there are adverts for pearls, perfume and permanent waves. For party dresses and for underwear pretty enough to be worn as party dresses. In the pictures, women peep out from under huge feather fans, pose on skis (presumably abroad?), and step out of sleek cars. And dance. And go to parties. 

The war was over, and it shows. I’ve clearly been immersed in the first world war era for far too long, because I was quite startled by these pictures. Only last week I was looking at pictures of the women in Woolwich Arsenal packing munitions in 1918, covered from head to foot in blue overalls. The dust-jackets of novels published in 1917 show women with skirts almost to their ankles, with their long hair swept up demurely under hats. Now by 1919, women’s hair is cut short, and even bright red. The make-up’s heavy, there’s a lot of skin on view, and every woman has a cigarette attached to her fingers. 

Obviously most women wouldn’t have been able to wear such clothes, held back by lack of money and the restrictions of traditional expectations. But there are signs of a new freedom even for girls who were less well off, for example in the home knitting patterns for those girls who couldn’t afford to buy new clothes. The Priscilla sweater book includes a “country club sweater”, for example. There are sweaters for golf, skating, and fishing, all for women. Some are quite luxurious and my favourite is a scarf in rose-coloured angora wool, complete with silk tassels. 

 True, the world wasn’t completely rose-coloured. One cartoon in the Bystander shows a group of French children beside the wreckage of their shell-damaged home, saying “Santa will bring our presents – the chimney is still left.” In another, people wonder who will be on strike this year. There was a great deal of uneasiness about the future, some of it probably caused by glimpses of girls like these, but I can’t help enjoying the sense of fun and confidence that sparks from these pictures.

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The hottest gadgets

Do you remember Mr Weasley in the Harry Potter books, who collected plugs and electrical gadgets? I was never tempted to do so until I saw pictures of the early twentieth century gadgets advertised in Winter’s pie magazine printed during the first world war.  How about the Pygmy electric heater, which plugs into ‘an ordinary lamp socket’? Or an unbreakable electric light bulb?

Then I found a set of the Electrical engineers diary. It doesn’t sound a promising source of information but in fact every year it included a summary of the state of progress of persuading people to use electricity at home.  Obviously the writers in the Diary are very much in favour of electricity but I was interested to see that the general public took some convincing. In 1919 the Diary pointed out the advantages of electricity over coal or gas for cooking and heating: it was clean and fume-free, and so saved wear and tear on household furnishings (and household servants) from constant cleaning. And unlike coal, there was no need to get electricity delivered and or to carry it upstairs in buckets to every fireplace in the house. The diary has all sorts of details which Mr Weasley would have found fascinating (how long did it take to boil a pint of water in 1918? 6 minutes on a 600 W electric boiling plate.) Electric irons were apparently the most popular item of electrical equipment to be purchased in the early 1910s. By 1918 the demand for electric fires and radiators was so high that suppliers were struggling to meet it. The fires were too expensive to run for long periods, but most people were quick to recognise the attractions of an appliance which could be moved from room to room as necessary, and which provided instant heat for a short time. The adverts stress their attractive design, but they must have looked odd in a room full of wooden furniture. Or perhaps no more odd than a television or computer does today?

The other enthusiasm of the time was the geyser system for hot water. Being used to having central heating, I couldn’t see why a geyser was so exciting, despite the huge number of adverts telling me that it would change my life. But someone explained that (of course) in the 1910s every drop of hot water had to be heated on the kitchen range and then carried to wherever someone wanted a bath. The geyser meant that you could heat hot water when it was needed, (almost instantly) and supply it to a bath tap in a particular place instead of the servants having to carry bucket loads of hot water. There was no end to heavy housework though – another magazine from 1920 includes an advert for the Daisy vacuum cleaner – in solid oak! It was not electric – it needed 2 people to operate it, one to work the bellows and the other to work the hose!

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Life after the Titanic

William T. Stead in life

William Thomas Stead.  A man well known in his day: an investigative journalist, a hard-hitting social campaigner and a forthright man.  He championed women’s rights and supported the suffragettes; promoted the Poor Law, backed the labouring classes and trade unionism; advocated compulsory education for all and demanded home rule for Ireland.   The newspapers he edited, which included the Pall Mall Gazette in London, became ones that politicians of the day were forced to take notice of. 

But he had another side to him; one which attracted a certain amount of derision and perhaps contributed to the reasons why he is not well-remembered these days: an unswerving belief in spiritualism.  This was not unusual, however, being a popular pastime in the late Victorian era and we have a number of books on the subject in the Tower Collection to prove it.

Stead himself wrote a few works on spiritualism, the most well-known of which was “Letters from Julia” [1898.5.75] later republished as “After death” [1906.5.604 and 1915.7.719].   These missives were produced (apparently) by automatic writing, taken down by Stead under the influence of a departed American journalist called Julia Amis.  Stead also set up a séance circle, calling it Julia’s Bureau after her.

Fact, fiction and fable start to get a bit mixed up at this point.  Stead apparently often stated that he would die either by being lynched or by drowning.  In 1886 he wrote and published a short story containing both these elements, called “How the mail steamer went down in mid-Atlantic,” which was by way of a dire warning of the consequences of a ship not having enough life boats for all its passengers.  Naturally, this has often been cited as foreshadowing the fate of the Titanic, although it actually features a sinking following a collision between ships, with no mention of any icebergs…

Stead apparently consulted a palmist in 1892 who told him he would die at the age of 63, which he duly did (defying a different prediction that he would make it past 75).  The palmist also told him that his life would be in peril “from water and from nothing else” and that it would be dangerous to travel in April 1912.

Despite Stead’s credulity in these matters, he boarded the Titanic….

Stead's spirit lurking in the background of a portrait

Having drowned, he wasted little time in coming back to tell everybody all about it, speaking through a certain Mrs Coates at a séance only 11 days later, followed by innumerable appearances to many others; manifesting himself through mediums, by the use of automatic writing, in photographs and on one occasion by shaking a whole room.  James Coates edited a book the following year, “Has W.T. Stead returned? A symposium” [1913.7.3500] which goes into minute detail about Stead’s visitations to various people, including members of Julia’s bureau.  Great efforts are made to point out the genuineness of the apparitions.

As reported, Stead seems to have delighted in being a spirit, pleased to have proof that people really were on the Other Side and making contact with the living.  He describes how he did not suffer in the water, but passed quickly into unconsciousness, due to a blow on the head – the “lynching” he always said he would suffer!  He passed over happily, being prepared for the future life by means of his involvement with spiritualism on earth, but tells of how he had to comfort and assist many others who were in great distress and did not know where they were.

One of the controversial details regarding the Titanic is whether or not “Nearer, thy God, to thee” was being played by the band as the ship went down.  Stead not only states that it was being played, but that it was at his own request.  So now we all know….

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Titanic in the Tower

Sunday sees the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster. For the last few months we’ve been finding lots of works about the Titanic in our collection. Even today there are very few people who don’t know the story of the sinking of the world famous ‘unsinkable’ ship, and here at the Tower Project we thought that we should mark the anniversary by showing the literary response to the disaster.

Several authors published reports into the accident, trying to determine what went wrong and how such a tragedy could be prevented in the future. There was also a strong outpouring of religious texts, linking the Titanic theme in with sermons and the like. There were also tracts comparing the need to be saved from the Titanic to the need to be saved by the church. Although this may seem slightly odd today, it was a way of getting the religious message across using what were at the time contemporary events. This is no different than the modern church using a contemporary comparison today.

After the initial shock of the sinking had passed and questions had been answered, many people turned to poetry to express their feelings.  Numerous examples of poetry on the Titanic survive in the library tower, some short and some very long. Parnell Field’s poem “The Loss of the Titanic” begins:

The waves still rise and fall,

And o’er their harvest gloat;

For wave and iceberg have conspired

And ‘whelmed earth’s giant boat

The poem makes references to the Titanic being the ‘queen of ships’ and talks about the rescue of the survivors by the Carpathia. John Brittain’s poem “The Wreck of the Titanic, 2.30am, Apr. 15, 1912” focuses more on the devastating loss of life:

In the ages to come they will speak of that night,

Of the brave men who went to their doom,

Of the men who remained at their post, Sir,

Below in the engine room.

As the evening of life closed in on their day,

Their voyage on earth being now ended,

A grave in the deep, where alone they must sleep,

Honoured by all, yet lamented

Brittain sold copies of the poem for a penny with all proceeds going to the Lord Mayor’s Fund for the widows and orphans of the disaster. These poems really make you think about the tremendous loss of life that took place that night and are quite eerie to read.

One slightly unsavoury document found in the collection is entitled “Don’t Risk It“. As a pamphlet trying to persuade people to buy insurance from The Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society, it’s full of the tales of woe of those who didn’t have insurance when they needed it most. Supplied with the pamphlet are two postcards, presumably to be used to advertise insurance services to family or friends. One of these postcards features headlines and news stories about the Titanic’s sinking, as illustrated below. Coming out just a few months after the disaster it  does seem to have been in rather poor taste.

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