Death in the Archives

Here’s another piece I wrote during my Arvon creative writing week for history writers. I’ve taken some old research and done something new with it. The aim of this piece was to be present in the text as a character, talking about myself and reflecting on my own experiences. The other aims were to fill the piece with changes of ‘texture’, as our tutor called it. It seems an odd word, but it makes sense: a piece of writing needs changes of pace, tone, point of view, etc., otherwise the reader feels it’s all too samey and they get bored. A third aim was to try to include dialogue or reported speech, though I only made a token gesture at that.

Death in the Archives Continue reading

Archives and history news: festive edition!

The Victorians invented most of our most cherished Christmas traditions, but what was Christmas like for those excluded from these family-centred rituals, banished to workhouses, asylums and prisons? You can find out in my piece on Victorian Christmasses behind locked doors in Discover Your Ancestors magazine.

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Happy Halloween: Should we bring back Victorian mourning rituals?

Funerals aren’t what they used to be. Twenty-first century funerals have sealed coffins, pop songs – Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ and Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ are two of the most popular – and a ‘celebration of life’. You might be instructed to wear colourful clothes instead of black. One of the strangest ‘celebrations of life’ I’ve ever been to was a fancy-dress wake in an incredibly classy beach house. Drunk Mexican wrestlers and Che Guevaras were clutching each other and crying on the cream leather sofas.

We certainly don’t do this anymore!

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Don’t forget I’ll be performing ‘The totally unorthpdox guide to museum archives’ at Museums Showoff in London tomorrow night (4th February). A robot, Indiana Jones and a magnificent beard will all be involved. I’m particularly looking forward to Nick Booth’s talk on ‘the corpse of everyone’s favourite moral philosopher: Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon’. Do come along –  it’s free, there are loads of great speakers, and it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun!

museum showoffIts History Podcasts has syndicated my posts on Mesmerism.  It’s a great site, with many interesting and varied podcasts and blogs about all sorts of historical topics, and you can buy their magazine History is Now! as well.

I pity you, you phrenological fool!

Phrenologists! Mr T feels sorry for you!

In the early nineteenth century many people genuinely believed that personality and aptitudes – from criminal tendencies to tendency towards religion – were mapped out on the contours of the skull.  Continue reading

Christmas in the Asylum

Imagine spending Christmas inside Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in the nineteenth century. What a horrible thought!  A long way from the cosy Dickensian Christmas of the roaring fire, Christmas tree, roast goose and plum pudding that the rest of Britain was enjoying.  But was Christmas in the asylum really so much worse than on the outside?

Broadmoor’s main entrance

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On the Bookshelf: Inconvenient People by Sarah Wise

Sarah Wise’s 2012 book Inconvenient People: Lunacy,Liberty and the Victorian Mad-Doctors explores the real-life stories that inspired the well-worn Victorian cliché of the sane woman carted off to a lunatic asylum by scheming relatives. Inconvenient People’s most startling revelation is that in almost all cases the wrongfully incarcerated asylum inmates were men. The idea of the woman in peril was just as titillating to the Victorians as it is to us, but in those days only men had money, and money was the main motivator for wrongfully declaring someone a lunatic. Continue reading

Mysteries of the Mind 2: Mesmerism Mania in Britain

When the British first encountered mesmerism, they were unimpressed

Mesmerism spread to Britain in the 1780s. The establishment were sceptical. They saw mesmerism as unscientific, and worse, un-English. The Frogs and the Krauts might go in for such effeminate mumbo-jumbo, but John Bull was not going to fall for such nonsense. Despite this, the political classes got quite hysterical about it during the revolutionary wars. They worried that the French were using ‘magnetic spies’ to pry into the minds of British.

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