7 Surprising Animal Burials

Animals have always been hugely important to humans – as food, as beasts of burden and as companions. The archaeological record has offered up some fascinating animal burials from all over the world which reflect the importance of our animal friends but have frequently posed more questions than they answered. Below are seven fascinating animal burials which have puzzled archaeologists:

Hybrid animal burials:

In 2015 a series of graves were discovered in Winterborne Kingston in Dorset, England in which Iron Age peoples had seemingly buried together the remains of separate species. Archaeologists suggested this could have been an attempt to create mythical hybrid beasts. The graves revealed a cow which had been sacrificed but its legs had been replaced with four horse’s legs; a sheep with two heads – its own and a bull’s head; and a horse with a cow’s horn placed at its forehead.

The archaeologists from Bournemouth University also uncovered two jawless cow’s skulls which had the lower jaw replaced with the jawbone of a horse. The most intriguing burial was of a young woman, who it was suspected was sacrificed due to evidence her throat had been cut. She was laid on a bed of animal bones, with her head resting on a mixture of skull bones from sheep, cows, horses and dogs plus animal leg bones were placed underneath her legs as if mirroring her own body.

It is not clear why these hybrid burials occurred but the archaeologists have suggested it could be as an offering to increase the productivity of the animals – for example the horse buried with the head of a cow may have signified a wish to increase the fertility of the herd. You can read more about this fascinating dig known as the Durotriges Project here.


Illustration of a porpoise

The carefully buried remains of a porpoise were discovered at a 14th century site on an island called Chapelle Dom Hue off the coast of Guernsey. Archaeologists have puzzled over the strange remains, as although porpoise may have been eaten at that time it is unclear why the solitary monks on the island would chose to give the animal a careful burial rather than disposing of its remains in the nearby sea.

One theory put forwards by the archaeologist leading the dig Dr Philip de Jersey was that rather than being given a religious burial the porpoise was carefully placed in a pit full of brine in order to preserve it for food but it was somehow forgotten.

Egyptian crocodile mummy with four heads:

It is well known that the ancient Egyptians buried mummified animals as offerings to the gods, but researchers were recently surprised by a CT scan of a crocodile mummy from the 1st century BC. The scan revealed that the package in the shape of a mummified crocodile actually contained the skulls of four crocodiles arranged to give the shape of one single crocodile.

The mummy belonged to the Museum of Manchester and underwent a CT scan as part of the research project Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank. This research scanned and examined numerous mummified animals held in museum collections all over the world and uncovered the fact that only one third of all the animal mummies scanned contained the remains of just one animal. Some mummies contained no animal matter at all and although on the outside resembled an animal, they were in fact constructed from mud, sand and plant materials.

Photo of Egyptian cat mummies

Mummified dogs:

Archaeologists uncovered the mummified remains of over 40 dogs buried with blankets and food in Peru. This is thought to be the only case of dogs being afforded such status in burial outside Egypt. The remains date from 900–1350 CE and were so well-preserved because of the desert conditions in which they were buried. Researchers think that these dogs were especially important because they herded the llamas on which the Chiribaya people depended for food. Analysis of the remains, which resemble small golden retrievers, led the researchers to name the breed Chiribaya Shepherds. Work continues to try and establish if this was a breed native to South America.

Pet cemetery:

In Berenike on the Red Sea coast of southern Egypt a site has offered up the remains of over 100 carefully buried animals in what is thought to be one of the earliest known pet cemeteries. The site dates from 75–150 CE and unlike other animal burials from Egypt these animals were not mummified. The majority of the burials are cats, which is no great surprise as Egypt was one of the first countries to domesticate the kitty. Other animals found in the cemetery include monkeys and dogs. Researchers concluded that these animals were pets because there was no evidence of sacrifice and little evidence of disease, implying they were well looked after.

Beheaded dog:

During the excavation of part of the Roman town at Towcester near Northampton in England a strange dog burial was uncovered. The small lap dog had been carefully buried in a grave but its head had been removed and placed by its back feet. To modern eyes it would seem cruel to mutilate the body of a beloved pet thus, however evidence from contemporary Roman burials suggests this was not an uncommon practice among human burials. A site at Great Whelnetham, Suffolk revealed 40% of the burials in the Roman cemetery had been decapitated and the head laid by their legs. The significance of head removal is not yet understood but that a pet dog was treated in the same fashion as humans suggests it was an important companion.

Horse burial:

A mass grave containing 145 horses was uncovered in 1964 in Shandong Province, China. The beasts were buried in a pit 215 metres long and had been sacrificed. A further dig years later uncovered further horse skeletons, bring the total found to 251. The horses were killed and buried alongside the grave of Duke Jing the ruler of the State of Qi (547 to 490 BC). Researchers think the animals were mostly young horses, aged between 5 and 7 years old. They were drugged with alcohol before being clubbed over the head.

Illustration of a horse skeleton

Archaeologists estimate that there were in fact about 600 horses buried in a square arch around Duke King’s tomb making it by far the largest horse burial uncovered in China. Excavations continue but so far some 40 dogs and 2 pigs have also been unearthed. Sources suggest that Duke Jing loved horses so it is assumed that the sacrifice of so many animals was a great honour.

Image sources:

Porpoise: The Half Hour Library of Travel, Nature and Science for young readers, 1896 via The British Library

Cat mummies: A guide to the third and fourth Egyptian rooms : predynastic antiquites, mummied birds and animals, portrait statues, figures of gods, tools, implements and weapons, scarabs, amulets, jewellery, and other objects connected with the funeral rites of the ancient Egyptians, 1904 via The Internet Archive

Horse: On the Domesticated Animals of the British Islands by David Low, 1845 via The British Library

Yew trees and graveyards

A graveyard

There are numerous reasons given as to why yew trees have become ubiquitous in our graveyards. Some trace it back to ancient times when druids considered the tree sacred. In pagan tradition the evergreen yew trees were symbolic of the regeneration of the natural world and the spirit. Yew trees were therefore planted near temples or sacred spaces and over time as these pagan temples were replaced by Christian churches the trees remained. Yew trees were therefore assimilated as sacred trees from pagan to Christian tradition.

Poisonous yew berries

Yew trees can live for an inordinately long time and it has been suggested that some yew trees are many thousands of years old. One such tree is found in the churchyard at Coldwaltham, West Sussex. It was dated a number of years ago to about 1,000 BC and so it has been suggested that it was originally planted by pagan druids. One of the reasons that yew trees live so long in graveyards is because here, unlike in woodlands, they have no competition from other trees, crowding out the light.

A further theory as to why yew trees are planted in graveyards stems from the symbolism of the trees themselves. The evergreen nature of the tree is seen by some as a nod to the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul. It is thought that this symbolism made them an appropriate tree to give hope in a graveyard.

There have also been practical suggestions for the planting of yew trees in graveyards. Roy Vickery in A Dictionary of Plant-Lore suggests that graveyards were one of the few places in a village that free-roaming cattle and other livestock could not trample through. Yew berries are poisonous to animals and so these trees were planted in graveyards so stop the animals getting at them and falling ill. Yew wood was excellent for making bows and the theory has been proposed that during the Middle Ages villages needed to have a crop of yew trees to provide archers with good long bows. As a result the trees would be planted in graveyards where they could not be damaged by animals.

Yew trees looming over a graveyard

This theory however does not stand up to scrutiny as the huge amount of yew trees needed to make sufficient longbows for an entire army could not be covered by the few yew trees in graveyards. Evidence from the decrees of Edward IV, Richard III and Elizabeth I suggests that in fact most of the wood from which long bows were fashioned was imported from Italy, the Netherlands or Germany. This implies that there was either not sufficient native crop to cover the needs of archers or perhaps that English yew was not of as good quality for bow-making as imported yew.

Another more prosaic reason to plant yews near churches was because their bushy branches, which stayed green year round, were thought to provide wind breaks for the church, protecting it from bad weather. This would have been a very far-sighted bit of planning by our ancestors as yews are relatively slow growing and would have taken hundreds of years to be big enough to afford a church any form of protection from the weather, but it’s a nice idea!

One folk belief has that yew trees especially thrived in ground enriched with rotting corpses, and another states that the trees themselves helped to absorb the putrefaction of the rotting bodies, keeping the air in the graveyard nice and clean. Certainly some superstition has grown up around the yew tree due to its association with cemeteries – some believe that yew trees are good to plant in cemeteries as their roots entwine through the eye sockets of the dead, preventing them from rising again. Perhaps because it was familiar in graveyards the yew was inevitably associated with death and some held that yew branches should never be brought into the house or death would follow. Enid Porter recalls that in the Fens yew trees were regarded with suspicion as witches were said to gather underneath them.

One final, perhaps fanciful, theory was put forwards by the correspondent to The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1779. He proposed that yew trees were planted near churches so that their evergreen branches could be harvested and used during the parades for Palm Sunday on which it was tradition to wave palm fronds, a plant of the warmer climes which could not be sourced in Britain. His theory is not a bad one as I imagine the yew branches might also have been used to decorate the interior of the church in winter. I certainly remember at my primary school in Oxford we would take part in a Palm Sunday parade each year and in place of palm fronds we would fashion leaves from green sugar paper.

So it seems there are numerous theories as to why yew trees are associated with graveyards and perhaps the truth is that each of these theories holds some merit and has added to the rich tapestry of tales and folklore which surround this tree. What is clear is that some of the yew trees found in the churchyards of Britain are very ancient indeed and this seems to confirm that the yew tree has been sacred for many thousands of years.

Books referenced: Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Edith Porter, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969

A Dictionary of Plant-Lore by Roy Vickery, OUP, 1995

Image sources: The flowering plants, grasses, sedges, & ferns of Great Britain, London, F. Warne, 1905

Photo of yew berries by Hanna May on Unsplash

Photo of graveyard by eddie howell on Unsplash

Fantastic Miscellany Special Offer!

For a short time only you can buy all three of my miscellanies — The Book Lovers’ Miscellany, A Library Miscellany and A Museum Miscellany direct from the Bodleian Library shop for the bargain price of £25 (they are usually £9.99 each). What’s more they come tied in a fancy ribbon! This book bundle would make the perfect gift for book, library and museum lovers everywhere.

Click here to take advantage of this extra special offer.

The ‘Invention’ of Folklore in the Nineteenth Century

Image from 'Rush-bearing: an account of the old custom of strewing rushes; carrying rushes to church; the rush-cart; garlands in churches; morris-dancers; the wakes; the rush' by Alfred Burton (1891) via Internet Archive

The word ‘folklore’, was coined in 1846 by the British writer and editor of Notes and Queries, W. J. Thoms. Prior to this local traditions and rituals, then known as ‘popular antiquities’, that had passed down through many generations had been an accepted part of rural life, but by giving these practices a name, Thoms was transforming them from background rituals, largely taken for granted, to an area of culture and history that could be studied. From the 1860s there was a boom in the collection and discussion of folklore – the rise of social Darwinism, a growing population and increased urbanisation generated an upsurge in the idea of survivalism and a fear that these rural traditions might be lost.[1]

Folklorist and first female president of the Folklore Society Charlotte Sophia Burne (1850–1923) defined folklore as:

‘the generic term under which the traditional Beliefs, Customs, Stories, Songs and Sayings current among backward peoples, or retained by the uncultured classes of more advanced peoples, are comprehended and included.’[2]

As this quotation attests, folklore was perceived as the relics of behaviour from the distant past that had been passed down through generations; the traditional rituals giving an indication of how our ancestors thought. The tone of the quotation and its reference to ‘uncultured classes’ reveals something of the Victorian folklorists’ attitudes to the people they were studying – these were largely middle and upper class people studying the customs of the rural working classes – and it is key to bear in mind the filter through which we are reading the folklore record.

Encroaching modernity caused the Victorians to worry that old traditions were under threat and in need of preservation. A rising panic at the changes wrought by technology, industrialisation, and burgeoning capitalism collided with fears about the booming population and the move to city life, creating a nostalgia for the rural idyll. It was against this backdrop that an interest in recording folklore grew, alongside an anxiety that it was a way of life quickly passing.

As an interest in folklore grew in the mid to late Victorian period there were two main schools of thought on the correct way to study folk beliefs. The Folklore Society followed the Victorian tradition of armchair scholarship, in which antiquarians analysed existing references to folklore from books and periodicals. This extract from the introduction of Folklore Society member Edwin Sidney Hartland’s book on Gloucestershire folklore, neatly sums up the survivalist thinking of the society:

Nobody now disputes that the superstitions, the customs, the tales, the songs, and even the proverbial sayings of a people may throw unexpected light upon its history; and from the investigation and comparison of such things as these, once deemed unworthy of notice, scientific men have begun to reconstruct the unrecorded past of humanity.[3]

This was represented as a systematic, scientific study of behaviour – the folklore collected dispassionately for future analysis.

Outside the Folklore Society there existed a number of regional historians, often experts in local dialect, who worked in the field collecting oral history in order to preserve and record local customs and traditions.[4] The majority of these were collected in the north of England by regional experts who diligently recorded the oral history of their local communities. A number of these collectors were vicars, their job necessitating close relationships with their parishioners. This, at times, created a tension in their recording of the folklore, as by its very definition it is based around superstition, something the Anglican Church was at pains to distance itself from. The Reverend Morris justified his interest in folklore thus: ‘False and absurd as many of their notions were, there were others that were tinged with a picturesque interest, and betokened a deep-rooted faith in the unseen world.’[5] This is a fairly typical interjection of the folklore collector, a lofty view of a local tradition, painting a picture of quaint, old fashioned and ill-educated people still mindlessly carrying out the traditions of their ancestors. It should also be noted that most folklorists were middle or upper-class and this coloured what they chose to perceive as folk customs. As historian Helen Frisby points out, they were looking for ‘otherness’ and therefore middle-class traditions, such as the mute posted at the door during funerals, were not defined as folklore.[6]

Image from 'Rush-bearing: an account of the old custom of strewing rushes; carrying rushes to church; the rush-cart; garlands in churches; morris-dancers; the wakes; the rush' by Alfred Burton (1891) via Internet Archive
Image from ‘Rush-bearing: an account of the old custom of strewing rushes; carrying rushes to church; the rush-cart; garlands in churches; morris-dancers; the wakes; the rush’ by Alfred Burton (1891) via Internet Archive

In the introduction to their collections many of the folklorists were mindful of the need to record the folklore in a neutral fashion, in order to ensure it could be analysed without bias in years to come. This has meant that although we get a description of the rituals performed, there is no emotional insight into the purpose nor a glimpse of the people behind the ritual, leaving a silence to be read.

A further challenge presented by the sources is a consideration of how honest and open the local people were when revealing their traditional practices to someone who was setting themselves apart as an observer. Folklorist Fletcher Moss was keenly aware of the skill required to gain trust and ensure people were comfortable enough to share their beliefs, writing in his introduction:

‘To learn a tale it is often necessary to tell a tale. People will tell things to those who have their confidence, which they will flatly deny to any one who seems to them to be inquisitive, or to be a superior person trying to get something from them.’[7]

When studying folklore collected in the nineteenth century, greater insight can be gained by thinking about who the collectors were and what motivated them to collect. It is interesting to consider how the emphasis on rational thought in the nineteenth century created a sort of urgency to collect and preserve what seemed like irrational traditional beliefs. By recognising the motivation of the folklorists, and better understanding their methods, we can gain greater insight into how modern attitudes to folklore have developed.

[1] Helen Frisby, ‘Drawing the pillow, laying out and port wine: the moral economy of death, dying and bereavement in England, c.1840–1930’, Mortality, Vol. 20. No. 2, 2015, p.107.

[2] Charlotte Sophia Burne, The Handbook of Folklore, Folklore Society, 1914, p.1.

[3] Edwin Sidney Hartland, County Folk-Lore: Printed Extracts No. 1. Gloucestershire, edited by The Folklore Society, London, 1892, p.3.

[4] John Ashton, ‘Beyond Survivalism: Regional Folkloritics in Late-Victorian England’, Folklore, Vol. 108, 1996, p.19.

[5] Rev M. C. F. Morris, Yorkshire Folk-Talk, Henry Frowde, London, 1892, p.237.

[6] Frisby, p.108.

[7] Fletcher Moss, Folk-Lore: Old Customs and Tales of my Neighbours, Manchester, 1898, p.ix.

My Next Book: A Museum Miscellany

The cover of A Museum Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

It is with great excitement that I introduce my next book A Museum Miscellany — the final instalment of my miscellany trilogy (see here for more details on sister books The Book Lovers’ Miscellany and A Library Miscellany). I am especially excited about the gorgeous cover designed in-house by my wonderful publishers, Bodleian Library Publishing and I cannot wait to finally see all three miscellanies lined up side-by-side, looking fancy.

The cover of A Museum Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

To whet the appetite here is what to expect from A Museum Miscellany:

Which are the oldest museums in the world? What is a cabinet of curiosities? Who haunts Hampton Court? What is on the FBI’s list of stolen art?

A Museum Miscellany celebrates the intriguing world of galleries and museums, from national institutions such as the Musee du Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to niche collections such as the Lawnmower Museum and the Museum of Barbed Wire. Here you will find a cornucopia of museum-related facts, statistics and lists, covering everything from museum ghosts, dangerous museum objects and conservation beetles to treasure troves, museum heists and the Museum of London’s fatberg. Bursting with quirky facts, intriguing statistics and legendary curators, this is the perfect gift for all those who love to visit museums and galleries.

Not only will A Museum Miscellany be fit to bursting with all the lists, arcane facts and potted histories you will have come to expect from me, but in a departure from previous books this one will contain … [drum roll]…ILLUSTRATIONS! It’s going to be a beauty and I look forward to sharing more details here and on Twitter (@nonfictioness) when I get my grubby mitts on an advance copy.

A Museum Miscellany is out in the UK on 4 October 2019 and you can pre-order your copy here.

The ‘Woman Question’ Solved? Female Middle Class Emigration in the Nineteenth Century

Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland ... Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library

In 1851 the census exposed the bald truth that there was an excess of 500,000 women in Britain. Not only this, but the statistics also showed that two-thirds of women aged 20 to 24 years old and one third of women aged 24 to 35 were unmarried. This fact was seized upon by many prominent journalists, including W. R. Greg, who wrote his infamous article ‘Why are Women Redundant?’ in the National Review in 1862. Articles such as this served to cast unwed middle-class women as ‘redundant’ or ‘surplus’ and framing unmarried women as an economic drain on society and a problem to be solved.

In the mid to late nineteenth century it was only socially acceptable for working-class women to work. The role of middle- and upper-class women was as homemakers; supporting their husbands’ endeavours and bringing up children. However, many unmarried middle-class women not only wanted to, but needed to work to support themselves and gain some independence. Many single or widowed middle-class women ended up existing in genteel poverty as their families struggled to support them and their role in society came under question. Unfortunately very little work was acceptable for a middle-class woman, as any sort of manual labour was seen as degrading to their class status. One of the very few options open to middle-class women who wanted to work was as a governess, a position that did not gain glowing reviews from contemporary novels such as Jane Eyre (1847) and Agnes Grey (1847). Not only were governess positions poorly paid and lowly in status but also (conversely) much sought-after, making finding a position difficult.

Painting of The Governess by Rebecca Solomon, 1851
The Governess by Rebecca Solomon (1851) – note the modestly dressed, unprepossessing governess educates the child while the gaily-dressed elder daughter of the family flirts with a gentleman.

With the ongoing debate over suitable work for women rumbling along in the background various solutions to the ‘women problem’ were mooted. From 1857 the Langham Place group, led by Barbara Leigh Smith, was active in trying to improve education and open up new working options for women. The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW) followed in 1859, set up by Jessie Boucherett, its aim was to aid women’s economic independence by providing training (in areas such as book keeping and printing) and setting up law-copying and printing businesses in order to offer respectable work to educated women. However these campaigns had long-term goals in sight, working to improve education and opportunities was never going to be an overnight solution to an entrenched problem. As a result Langham Place members Maria Rye and Jane Lewin set up the Female Middle Class Emigration Society (FMCES) in 1862 with the aim of helping middle-class women emigrate to the colonies where they might find work and independence. It was hoped by helping middle-class women to emigrate it would save the excess women from poverty and improve the job market at home.

Emigration had traditionally been reserved for criminals and paupers, the undesirables rounded up and sent off to the colonies to populate our overseas territories and remove their ilk from the motherland. As a consequence emigration had a very bad reputation. Furthermore by the 1830s the need for workers in the colonies had meant a large number of working-class men and women had been recruited, with their passage paid, to go and take on domestic work in the colonies. This had been a hugely successful scheme and domestic workers were in great need, a factor which encouraged Maria Rye to suppose that the colonies must also be in need of well-educated governesses.

The Emigrants by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). October 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 57, "The Emigrants," in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. Image scan by Philip V. Allingham
The Emigrants by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). October 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 57, “The Emigrants,” in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. Image scan by Philip V. Allingham

The press was initially sceptical of the scheme, accusing any women who volunteered for emigration of lowering themselves — not only was emigration seen as the preserve of the lower classes, it was also seen as unseemly for single middle-class women to travel alone without a male chaperone. Maria Rye took to regularly writing the the Times to publicise the scheme and attract funding. Right from the outset she was clear that although she wanted to attract educated middle-class women for emigration, they would need to roll their sleeves up and get involved in colonial life, where the average middle-class person kept chickens and churned their own butter. Rye wrote in to the Times in April 1862: ‘People are wanted here but not any sort. The people who come should be intelligent; idle people will not do in Australia.’

By December 1879 just 215 women had successfully been placed in the colonies by FMCES, a very small number which perhaps reflects not only the difficulty in persuading middle-class women that it was a viable option but also the extremely stringent parameters they had to fit into in order to qualify for assistance. They needed to be educated to a good level (therefore able to work as governesses) plus be able to cook, wash, do needlework and housework. In a sense these requirements were mutually exclusive as most middle-class women who were sufficiently educated would see it as below themselves to stoop to any sort of domestic work, and working-class women had the domestic experience but not the required level of education.

Those who applied needed to supply evidence of their educational experience and provide references to attest to their good character. If selected the FMCES would loan the women the money to pay the passage to the colonies and then assist them in finding work on arrival. The letterbook and reports of the FMCES held at the Women’s Library at LSE allows us to hear the voices of the emigrants themselves reflecting on their experience (it is worth noting that generally only the more successful emigrants wrote back to the society repaying their loan and reporting on their outcome). Miss S. E. A. Hall was one of the most successful of FMCES’s emigrants, ultimately setting up a school in the Cape Colony and employing many other female emigrants as teachers there. Despite her success, Miss Hall seemed to maintain a dislike for the colonial life and a yearning for her homeland, writing in 1877: ‘The character of the people I have more knowledge of than admiration for: as a rule it lacks those traits which we are proud to call English.’ Likewise, Lina Hastleton who took on a governess position in Cape Colony for £80 a year (a comparatively decent salary), wrote: ‘There is certainly plenty of work for any capable teacher of sound religion, and not apt to be either elated or depressed by the conduct of those around.’

Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland ... Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library
Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland … Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library

Some of the emigrants clearly felt that they had been misled about the availability of work and how hard it might be to secure a good position: J. Caldwell wrote from Melbourne in July 1880 ‘I am sorry to say that everything here is so dear and bad for governesses that several have said to me that you and Miss Lewin ought to be told not to send any more ladies at any rate for a year or so, for there is some difficulty finding engagements.’ Elizabeth Long wrote from New Zealand in May 1880: ‘[New Zealand is] undoubtedly the paradise of servants; I am afraid the paradise for governesses has yet to be found.’ These then were girls who had emigrated seemingly unprepared for life to be equally hard in the colonies, they were surprised to find the promised jobs unforthcoming and unwilling to surrender their gentility to take on lower grade work. Miss Fanny Grofs wrote from Dunedin in July 1880 that she had struggled to find a proper position and did temporary work as a dressmaker and in houses: ‘The people are very rough and actually governesses are going out as nurses in Dunedin. There are a great number out of employ and it is pitiful to hear of the number of young women who degenerate so on account of the scarcity of situations and no home influences to keep them… I do not think I am better off here than at home.’

Others, however, were more able, or more prepared, to adapt and took to their new life and position more readily. Mary Long wrote from New Zealand in 1880: ‘I have two little girl pupils, in a clergyman’s family. I get very small pay only £30. I do a great deal of needlework and housekeeping as well as teach … But in spite of it all I would rather be a governess here than in England.’ Eleanor Blackith, also in New Zealand (and also only earning £30) wrote in 1881: ‘I am very happy out here and like N. Z, life in the summer… since I came here I have become quite clever in the art of cooking.’ Miss Barlow wrote from Melbourne: ‘I am getting quite a Colonial women, and I fear I should not easily fit into English ideas again, can scrub a floor with anyone, and bake my own bread and many other things an English Governess and School mistress especially would be horrified at.’ These letters appear to show that women who were ready to take on more traditionally working-class duties and adopt the role of a ‘colonial woman’ were more likely to find happiness and even contentment. For someone who had been made to feel redundant and unwanted in England and perhaps struggled to find any work, the opportunity to work and make a living, even if it meant surrendering ideas of English gentility, could be worth it.

The official reports of the FMCES reveal short vignettes on the fate of some of their emigrants. The 1868 report reflects on the first seven years of work, revealing a list of emigrants, ranging up to 158. The list reveals the destination, date of sailing, salary obtained in the colonies and remarks. The vast majority went to Australia c.86, with 32 to New Zealand, 20 to Africa, 9 to America, 8 to Canada and 1 to India. The reports indicate that women who were perhaps not quite up to scratch to make it as a governess in England were successful in the colonies. One emigrant to Australia in 1861 gained a £60 salary there but ‘Had failed entirely to obtain employment in England, from inability to teach music.’ – this implies the colonies were more accepting and prepared to take less qualified women. A further note reported on another emigrant who got a post in Australia for £60 a year but ‘Had experienced great difficulty in obtaining employment in England, on account of slight deafness.’

As further letters and reports on the success, or otherwise, of the emigrants reached the FMCES back in England the emphasis on recruiting the right type of candidates increased. The 1880 report stated that it was useless sending half-trained women out to the colonies as the competition there was now as fierce for governess positions as it was back home in England. They stressed that the society should be ‘strongly impressing on possible emigrants the facts proving that the distress occasioned by the keen competition among half-educated women-teachers is as extreme and despairing in the large and old-settled towns of the Colonies as in England … if teachers want work they must go “up country,” must accept the life of the family without other society, and must share the household work with the mother and family.’ The FMCES although keen to stress the importance of adaptability was also clearly unhappy that their vision for opportunities for educated middle-class women in the colonies was not playing out as they hoped, there was obviously some difference in their minds between being versatile and being reduced to unsuitable work as evidenced by this slightly shrill extract: ‘Complaints have been received also from Auckland this year of the hopelessness of obtaining  situations, reporting an excess of teachers of music in that town alone, and telling of one governess having gone into a factory, another as a servant in a shop, a third as housekeeper and only servant in a widower’s family.’ Despite this, the report goes on to a more upbeat tone: ‘It must be stated that the greater number of those who have been sent out write grateful acknowledgements to the Secretary for “the fresh start in life,” and when once they accommodate themselves to the customs and needs of the country and follow the heads of the family in readiness to give a hand in every sort of work, they soon share in the interest and happiness of life.’

The FMCES Letterbook at the Women's Library, LSE. Photo by author.
The FMCES Letterbook at the Women’s Library, LSE. Photo by author.

Ultimately between 1861 and 1886 the FMCES helped 302 middle-class women to emigrate to the colonies – a relatively minor amount compared to the thousands of working-class women who made the same trip. Maria Rye herself became disillusioned with middle-class emigration and by 1868 left the work of the FMCES to her colleague, Jane Lewin while she focused on assisting working-class children to emigrate to Canada, for a better life. By the 1890s the FMCES had ceased to exist, in part due to the improved prospects for women to find work in Britain. Although emigration did not prove a viable large-scale solution to the problem of ‘surplus’ women, the efforts of the FMCES did shine a light on the lack of opportunities for women at home and the greater need for women’s education. By giving young women agency to emigrate and seek a better life elsewhere the FMCES acted as a sort of test-bed, allowing women greater opportunity to work in the more class-flexible colonies, and opening up the conversation on improving women’s rights and access to education back home.

Traditional Methods of Divination

Humans have always looked for certainty in life, after all it’s reassuring to know what the future might bring. As a result throughout history people have used a wide-variety of methods, often rooted in the natural world, in an attempt to predict the future. There is something especially fascinating about the varying methods of divination used across the globe, revealing  our human need to see signs in the natural world or to seek messages from the gods. Below are a selection of traditional methods of divination:


Urimancy was the ancient practice of telling the future by inspecting urine and was, somewhat inexplicably, based around the number and size of the bubbles in wee (I would have thought inspecting the colour would have been a lot more useful in terms of medical predictions but then what do I know, I am no soothsayer). Practitioners in ancient Rome would peer into the toilet bowl and make their prognostications. Lots of large, well-spaced bubbles meant that you would soon come into a large sum of money. A smattering of small bubbles was a bad omen and signified the death or illness of a loved one.


Haruspication is telling the future from animal innards. In Ancient Rome animals sacrificed to the gods would be cut open in order for the seer, known as a haruspex, to consult the liver, entrails, spleen and stomach. The haruspex would look at colour, shape, size and texture in order to make their predictions.

In the Near East this practice was limited to inspecting the liver of sacrificed sheep, which was thought to reveal messages from the gods. The British Museum has a clay model of a sheep’s liver from Babylonia from between 2050 and 1750 BC which has been divided into sections and each section is thought to relate to a different medical diagnosis.


Tasseography is the reading of tea leaves, a phenomena which became popular in Europe in the nineteenth century but which has its roots in ancient Chinese soothsaying. To read the leaves, make yourself a cup of tea with a generous pinch of loose leaf tea. 5585307590_e30838673f_mLeave to steep for 3 minutes before drinking it, leaving a tiny amount of water along with the leaves in the bottom of the cup. Turn the cup three times in a clockwise direction and then invert it onto a saucer so the liquid drains away. The tea leaves are now ready to be interpreted.

Naturally as with any of these methods the variables are numerous and a potted explanation can do no justice to the complexities of tasseography, however if you’d like to know more about interpreting the results take a look at this great post from the Tea Association of USA.


Geomancy (or in Arabic ‘ilm al-raml‘, meaning ‘the science of sand’) is divination by the earth and was first developed on the Arabian Peninsula. Seers would draw lines in the sand and interpret the formation to predict the future or answer a specific question.

In Medieval times it migrated into Europe and was simplified so it could be practised by simply drawing points. The seer should hold the question they wish to answer in the minds while unthinkingly drawing a series of lines of points. This pattern can then be interpreted, to reveal the answer to the question posed. This brilliant Princeton Blog explains the rather complicated method.


Probably the most well-known image of divination is scrying– the act of gazing into a reflective surface such as a pool of water, mirror or crystal ball in order to foretell the future. The reflective object itself does not foretell the future but rather it is a conduit through which the seer may enter into a trance and receive messages from the mysterious shapes reflected back at them.

A magician gazes into a crystal ball
Image from The Black Highwayman by Edward Viles, 1868, via The British Library

The Ancient Egyptians practised scrying during initiations, using mirrors, water and highly-polished obsidian. Nostradamus was thought to have used a small bowl of water when making his predictions and the magician John Dee had a small crystal ball which is held by the British Museum.


Osteomancy is divination using animal bones. This is a method that has been used across cultures right back to the ancient past, revealing the long human–animal association. One method is to throw a selection of small animal bones and make predictions from their relative positions.

Another method, known as pyro-osteomancy, is to burn the bones, most often the scapula or shoulder blade of an animal, and divine the future from the fissures and cracks that appear. In China seers would carve their question into the scapula of a large oxen and then throw it onto the fire. The answer to their question would be revealed by the marks left on the bone once it had been removed from the fire.

A Chinese oracle bone
16th-10th century B.C Chinese oracle bone via the British Library

In Elizabethan England geese were traditionally eaten at Michaelmas. The breast bone of the Michaelmas goose would be removed and afterwards used to predict the coming weather. By holding the bone up to the light, its density could be judged. If the bone appeared dark then a hard winter was ahead, if the bone is mottled then the weather will be variable and if the bone is thin or near transparent then the winter will be a mild one.


The ancient Roman practice of augury tells the future by observing the flight patterns of birds. Augury was said to have played a part in the foundation of Rome. When Romulus and Remus first came to the area which is now Rome they disagreed over the placing of the city. Romulus wanted to build on the Palatine Hill, whereas Remus felt the Aventine Hill would be more strategically advantageous. They agreed to decide using augury, believing that the will of the gods would be revealed to them through the birds. The brothers sat at different spots on the hill for a set period of time and counted the number of birds they saw. Remus spied six vultures, but Romulus saw twelve and as a result Rome was built on the Palatine Hill.


The birds could be read either by their song or by their flight and the augurs would use their knowledge to reveal if the birds thought any action was either auspicious (good) or inauspicious (bad). This sort of fortune-telling was seen as message sent from the gods and was in widespread use across the Roman Empire.

English folklore also set store in reading flocks of birds and it was said that watching crows heading homewards in flight could reveal the future. Those watching the birds might interpret the birds forming letters and spelling out a message, revealing anything from their true love’s name to the weather for the week ahead.


This visually impressive method of foretelling the future uses molten tin or lead. The practice is thought to have developed from alchemy, whereby alchemists attempted to make gold from lead. Throughout the Middle Ages across northern Europe seers would pour molten lead or tin into a basin of water, the metal would then harden in strange shapes which would be interpreted. This method of divination was mostly used in a medical context, predicting a patients’ recovery or demise.

Today molybdomancy is still practised in Germany and Scandinavia. In Finland it is traditional on New Year to melt tin or lead and pour it into cold water. The lump of hardened metal is then rotated in the candlelight and the shapes of the shadows are interpreted to give predictions for the year ahead.

6 Writers and Artists who Quit

The creative urge is seen as something that can’t be ignored, and yet over the years a number of hugely talented writers and artists have walked away from writing, poetry or the art world. Some cited disillusionment, others fatigue, while a few never explained their reasoning at all. Below are a number of writers and artists who quit:

Arthur Rimbaud

Bad boy French poet Arthur Rimbaud had a difficult relationship with his mother and railed against convention, three times running away from home as a child and travelling to Paris. Aged 17 he left home and moved into the Paris residence of poet Paul Verlaine, embarking on a tumultuous affair with the older man (much to Verlaine’s wife’s dismay).

Rimbaud’s poetry was ground-breaking. His modernist take on life and his play with language and orthodox verse had a huge impact on the literary scene, making him something of a poster boy for the Surrealist and Symbolist movements.

Photograph of Rimbaud, aged 17, by Étienne Carjat, probably taken in December 1871
Photograph of Rimbaud, aged 17, by Étienne Carjat, probably taken in December 1871

Rimbaud wrote his two hugely influential collections of poetry A Season in Hell and Illuminations by the age of 21 and thereafter wrote no more. The reasons for this are somewhat of a mystery. He set off travelling, working and enlisting in the army before moving to Ethiopia (then known as Aden) where he was one of the first European traders in the area. He lived and worked there, trading coffee and firearms until his death from cancer aged 37 in 1891.

Scholars have pored through Rimbaud’s later letters for any glimpse or references to poetry, but they are nearly all solely concerned with business, as if his previous incarnation as the enfant terrible of the French literary scene had never happened at all.

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp shocked the art world with his surrealist work, most famously with his urinal-based work Fountain (1917) which presented and reframed a manufactured urinal as a piece of art. Duchamp however expressed disregard for painting and the avant-garde scene (which he famously derided as ‘a basket of crabs’) and from 1918 began retreating from the art world and devoting his energies to chess. For twenty-five years Duchamp played chess professionally, even competing for the French national team, seemingly content to leave his previous life as an artist and provocateur in the past.

However Duchamp’s retreat from the art world was not quite as complete as would seem, despite no longer publicly participating in art he continued to work in secret on a single work, Étant donnés, which took him 20 years to complete. This unusual assemblage has been on show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969 and invites visitors to approach a ramshackle wooden door with peep holes cut into it. On peering through visitors can glimpse a tableau featuring a nude woman holding a gas lamp.

Lee Lozano

Lee Lozano gained fame in the 1960s for her subversive art featuring machinery, genitalia and cartoonish facial features but she soon became disillusioned with, and increasingly critical of, the New York art scene. In protest she began documenting her retreat from the art world as a work in itself.

In General Strike (1969) she listed a countdown of her final art-related appearances and in her final work Dropout Piece (1972) she wrapped up her studio and withdrew forever. Unfortunately her grand gesture was ahead of its time and led her to be largely forgotten. Only recently, in part in thanks to the attentions of critic Lucy Lippard, has interest in her subversive work been revived.

J D Salinger

J D Salinger published a number of short stories and novellas before hitting the big time with Catcher in the Rye (1951). His writing had been much admired in literary circles but his insistence that editors not change a single word of his compositions made him difficult to work with – his first contract for Catcher in the Rye with Harcourt Brace was broken off by Sallinger after the publisher ordered some rewrites and it was finally published by Little, Brown who agreed to leave the text alone.

J D Salinger on the cover of Time magazine (September 15, 1961)
J D Salinger on the cover of Time magazine (September 15, 1961), illustration by Robert Vickrey

Salinger abhorred the limelight and the greater the book’s success the more he shrank from publicity. He refused requests to use an author photograph on the book’s cover and eschewed all interview requests, save one with a local high school newspaper The Claremont Daily Eagle. Salinger effectively became a recluse, saying ‘It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.’ He subsequently published a smattering of short stories and novellas but never again wrote another novel before his death in 2010.

Charlotte Posenenske

Charlotte Posenenske was a German Jewish artist who grew up during the Second World War. Family friends hid her from the Nazis after her father committed suicide. Posenenske developed into an influential modernist artist, moving from painting to sculpture, for which she is today best known.

Her sculptural works of corrugated cardboard and steel are almost industrial in shape and ultimately, she felt, could be assembled by anyone – her presence at exhibitions or even ownership of the pieces becoming increasingly irrelevant to her. Posenenske felt art had become futile and did little to actively address social injustice, as a result in 1968 she stopped working as an artist entirely and devoted the rest of her career to working as a sociologist.

Posenenske’s work was not shown again until after her death in 1985 as she had refused to take part in any exhibitions, but today her art is back on display showing her important place in the history of Modernism.

Margaret Mitchell

The success of Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell’s only novel was a phenomenon – it sold over 50,000 copies in one day and ultimately went on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide. The book had been a long time in writing for Mitchell, she wrote it in bits and pieces over 9 years while working as a journalist. Once picked up for publication it began a roller coaster that Mitchell was not prepared for.

The massive success that Gone with the Wind enjoyed took Mitchell by surprise, turning her life upside down. She refused to do promotional activities and rarely signed copies of the book, finding the limelight too much to bear. The attention was further increased by the scramble to buy the film rights and the subsequent success of the film. Mitchell had had enough and vowed never to write another book, her time now taken up with replying to the thousands of fan letters she received.

By the late 1940s the initial whirl of attention had begun to wane and Mitchell began to think about writing again. Unfortunately on 11 August 1949 she was hit by a car and later died of her injuries, robbing the world of a great writer and any potential that she might take up her pen again.

If you enjoyed this article check out my other book-related posts such as 10 Best-selling Books Written in less Than Two Months, Literary Orphans of Note or What Happened when Charlotte Bronte met Thackeray


On Definitions of Short Stories

I just finished reading Henry James’ Daisy Miller (1878) and once I’d finished the story itself I flicked on to read the appended essay that was included in my Penguin English Library edition. The first thing that caught my eye was the description, or should I say classification, of the story as a ‘nouvelle’.

This was a new term to me and had I been asked to described the short story myself I probably would have named it a novella. My interest was immediately piqued by this new word and I thought I should research it further and share what I found out about the many and various classifications of short stories with the readers of my blog, so here goes:


In English this is a variety of short story which rather than concerning the supernatural or fantastic involves a realistic narrative or anecdote. It is, in effect, like news (hence the naming of it nouvelle). In the French tradition of short stories there has been no direct translation for ‘short story’ as an all-encompassing term, instead they use nouvelle to mean realistic short stories, and conte to mean a fantastical short story (although there is some debate about the exact classifications, see here for more).


This word comes from the French tradition of oral story-telling (deriving from the French verb conter, meaning ‘to recount’). Most commonly it relates to fairy-tales and adventure stories which are shorter in length than a novel. Examples include Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’oye or Tales of Mother Goose.

Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is a relatively modern phenomena and now numerous competitions in the genre abound. The idea is to write a very short story in less than 1,000 words, keeping it short and punchy.



A short story which is shorter than a novella (therefore less than 17,500 words) and is generally of a romantic or sentimental subject matter. Naturally due to the inherent snobbery of the literary world this unfortunately means it is often used in a patronising or derogatory fashion.


This can rather unhelpfully be characterised as longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. The word novella derives from the Italian word for new. Novellas are generally thought to be more realistic in style and might concern just one incident or be confined to just a couple of main characters. In general novellas do not include chapters nor complicated side-plots. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction define the novella as having a word count of 17,500 to 40,000 words. Examples of novella include The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

As with any discussion on the definition or classification of something as nebulous as writing disagreements abound. This is just my take on what I have read on the subject but I’d love to hear your thoughts on these classifications and if you have any to add please do leave a comment.

If you enjoyed this post do check out my books for more on books, libraries, words and arcane history.