Monday, 22 February 2010

Ghost Stories ...

As many of you know, I am currently in the process of writing my second book The Plaguemaker. This one is different from The Dresskeeper in that it is a ghost story. My main character is being haunted by the ghost of a young girl who died during the Plague of 1665, all because her father is unknowingly building on one of London’s many plague pits created at the time. So today, instead of looking at the history behind The Dresskeeper, I thought I would do a post on tales of ghostly happenings in London, all from the 17th century, of course.

This may not be for the faint hearted.

The Volunteer Pub on Baker Street was built over the remains of a 17th century mansion that was inhabited by the fearsome Neville family. Their mansion was burnt down in 1654, ending the “reign of terror” of this ‘mob’ family over the town. Rumour has it that the patriarch, Richard Neville, haunts the original 17th century cellars of this North London pub dressed “in surcoat, breeches and lavish stockings.” The ghost story is a claim to fame of this establishment, where even TV’s ‘Most Haunted’ paid a visit to try and remove this ghost.

The Old Queen’s Head on Essex Road in Islington dates back to the 17th century and is also home to a ghost story or two. One prominent tale involves a woman and a crying girl. Some have heard feet running around while others have witnessed the young girl running up the stairs and slamming doors. She is also often heard weeping. According to The Metro the two women met a very sticky end but I can’t establish what that end was. Feel free to fill me in!

The George pub on The Strand has been linked to a ghost that seems to be from the 17th century. A Cavalier (from the Royalist side of the 17th century civil war) has been wandering the cellar. A funny story dates from the 1970s when the pub was being refurbished. It involves an extremely frightened decorator who came running from the cellar after a man who looked “all ‘istorical like” was staring at him. The landlord gave him a brandy and told him not to worry, because “my wife sees him all the time.”

The Queen’s House in Greenwich was built in 1635. It was commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of James I. Apparently it was built for her as an apology after James I swore at her in public because she shot one of his dogs while hunting (as you do!). The Queen’s House ghost was first seen in a photograph taken in 1966 after a retired couple from Canada visited London on holiday. When they returned home and developed their pictures they saw the ghostly figure standing on the bottom of the staircase. Take a look at the picture on the Queen’s house website and you can see a ghostly left hand on the rails.

The Pond Square Ghost is an interesting story. This ghost is not human, but is in fact, a chicken. On morning in January 1626, Sir Francis Bacon (philosopher, author, scientist, lawyer, among other things) was trying to see if refrigeration was a good way of preserving meat. After buying the chicken from Highgate Hill, he killed and plucked the chicken and filled it up with ice. Bacon was the unlucky one as he caught pneumonia from this experiment and died not long later. Since then, Pond Square has been the sight of numerous visits from a ghostly plucked chicken frantically running about.

Well, that’s it for this week. As you may have noticed three of these ghostly sightings seem to take place in pubs, so it is up to you whether or not you believe these tales of the paranormal, given the amount of alcohol that may or may not have been consumed during the sightings! Either way, it provides a little respite from our serious modern lives, doesn’t it?

All the best,


Monday, 15 February 2010

‘I will never marry you, you nutjob,’ I spit, but it doesn’t have the desired effect.
‘Luckily, I don’t need your permission.’
‘Yes you do.’
He grins. All I need is my friend, a minister at Fleet, to do the honours. And we are on the way there now.’ He leans I again. Once it’s done it can never be undone. That’s the law.’

Oh dear, that sounds grim, doesn’t it. Yet in the 17th century, marriage cost a lot of money, and it was the girl, or her father, who paid. In effect, it was a deal or business transaction, organised by the father and the prospective groom. A young girl who’s father was able to provide a big enough dowry on her behalf would be married – though not necessarily to a man she loved. And worse still, if the groom thought that the payment was not enough then he could change his mind and conduct his ‘business’ elsewhere. The prospective wife, usually a girl of no more than fourteen or fifteen, had little or no say.

Still, the phrase “until death do us part” meant a lot more then. Divorces were difficult to obtain and besides, they were not really necessary. This was not because Londoners in 1685 were better at making marriages stick. Thanks to the high mortality rates, particularly in childbirth, and life expectancy hovering at around 35 to 40, married couples would not stay married for long. Nevertheless, the women at the time managed to encounter many problems during their short married lives.

The society was hierachical and men made the rules and subsequently enjoyed all the rights.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature
tells us that this power was claimed as it related to God and King (both being male) and their respective rule over their kingdoms. A husband’s position of power was obvious from the get-go, reflected in the vow “Love, honour and obey.” Nowadays, we have a choice whether or not to recite this vow, but for the 1685 woman, it was a legally binding agreement. Obey applied to all areas of marriage, including the bedroom, where a woman’s “I do” was an implied consent for the man to do whatever pleased him.

Even worse, women of the time had no right to property, money and or even to her own children. Everything that she owned prior to marriage became the property of her husband. The only way a woman could have some say in how she lived her life would be if she became a widow – as long as her husband’s heirs didn’t throw her onto the street.

As I’ve said, divorce was available, in the form of an annulment, but only the very rich were able to have their marriages annulled, because proving to the church and court that a marriage was not legal in the first place was both expensive and time-consuming. A man’s infidelity was not a reason to divorce, but not surprisingly, a woman’s was. According to The History of Women, a woman found guilty of adultery, or the deliciously named ‘criminal conversation’, would promptly be stripped of her status, money and children, without recourse.

And if that seems unfair, read on. Another way of getting a rid of a woman was to sell her. Click on this link to see an image of woman on a platform with a noose around her neck held by her husband. Although the image is from 200 years later than my story, the ritual began far earlier. The act of selling involved the man paying a toll to sell merchandise in the market, following which he would parade his spouse around and sell her off to the highest bidder. Check out this website
for news clippings, one dating back to 1692, of market sales of women. Supposedly these were carried out by a mutual consent, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that it became socially unacceptable to sell a woman at market.

Have a great week, thanks for tuning in.


Monday, 8 February 2010

‘You went to boarding school in the country, Amelia. Remember?’
‘Oh yes. The country. Hertfordshire?’
‘Are you deliberately trying my patience? You know full well it was in Chelsea.’
Chelsea is the country? God this places really is hundreds of years behind the times.

Yes, Chelsea was the countryside. London of the 1600s had tens of thousands of people living there, while Chelsea only had a few thousand. With this many people, Chelsea was classified as a village and during Amelia’s time, it was in just as much high demand by the who’s who of rich people as it is now.

According to the British History Online website, the village was inhabited by Earls, Lords, Sirs, Countesses and Dukes. Royalty have also lived in this small region just outside of London, as it provided homes for them that when they were unable to find suitable accommodation in the crowded capital. And it was close enough – by boat – to travel to and from Whitehall.

The famous Kings Road, now an Oxford Street for the rich and famous, was so exclusive that until 1829 no one could even walk down it unless you had a Royal Pass.

Chelsea was no stranger to problems, however. As we mentioned earlier when we were talking about the plague, those who could afford it left London for the countryside to escape the disease so that the common folk were left to fend for themselves. But those trying to escape the plague would potentially endanger the residents. The British History Online also said that inhabitants would be threatened with punishment if they were to “encourage disease by entertaining strangers.”

There are a number of buildings from the 16th and 17th century and beyond that still survive today.

The Chelsea Physic Garden, founded in 1673, was originally set up “with the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants”. In fact, this location was chosen because it was close to the riverside, meaning that “a warmer microclimate” allowed the survival of many plants that were not originally found in Britain. Funny that, considering a warm climate is a rare thing in the London I know and love.

The Royal Hospital at Chelsea is also an important building from this time. Before the hospital was built in the 17th Century by Sir Christopher Wren (remember him?), there was no real care for veteran soldiers and it was often up to religious institutions to take care of those who fought in the wars. Furthermore, when King Charles II wanted to build the hospital, Parliament showed no interest in providing funding for this project and money had to come from private sources.

Now known as the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, this area is still home to the rich and famous. But also is home to some of the best schools and universities, the most exclusive shopping areas and some great museums.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Everyone in Europe is flocking here apparently. I look for evidence of it – but everyone looks the same.’

Immigration. A hot topic in this country but it has been going on for so long it would not be surprising to find that every one of us has some trace of non-English blood within us. Even just a little bit from hundreds of years ago.

During this period, the largest wave of immigration into the U.K was from the French. Protestant French to be precise, also known as Huguenots.

In England there has always been a conflict between the Catholic and Protestant church and the ones who got the better treatment was dependent on the religion of the king or queen. During the Tudor times for example, the three children of Henry VIII were of different religions and that had a huge impact on domestic politics. Edward VI was Protestant so continued work of The Reformation. His eldest sister was Mary I, daughter of King Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, was a Catholic and did everything she could to undo all of her brother’s work as well as burning hundreds of Protestants. And finally, Elizabeth I was Protestant although she was interested in finding a middle ground.

Now, back to France. In 1598 the Edict of Nantes was passed by King Henry IV to restore peace in the country. There were conflicts, just like in England, between the two religions which culminated finally in 1572 with a massacre on St Bartholomew’s Day. According to a website titled Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, “nearly 3,000 Protestants were slain in Paris in five days, from the night of August 23-24 to August 29, 1572.”* It was during this time that the first wave of French migrants began to move to England.

The Edict of Nantes was created to give more civil rights to French Protestants, for example allowing them to worship in public, except of course in Paris. The King insisted that the country would remain Catholic, and Protestants must abide by Catholic laws. The Edict was not popular and there was a growing resentment between both sides. The King was assassinated by a fanatic Catholic in 1610.

The Edict was revoked in 1685 when King Louis XIV decided to take away all of the rights that were previously awarded to the Huguenots. Once again a wave of French Catholic immigrants entered England, bringing tailors, watchmakers, jewellers and silk weavers. According to the French Protestant Church of London, by the end of the seventeenth century around 50,000 Huguenots were seeking refuge.

* David El Kenz, Massacres during the Wars of Religion, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 3 November 2007, accessed 1 February 2010, URL :, ISSN 1961-9898