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.

The Victorians and Pet Monkeys

drawing of a monkey on a trapeze

‘Monkeys are not very agreeable domestic pets, as they are extremely fond of mischief, and are very frequently vicious and spiteful to children.’ So wrote Mrs Loudon in her 1851 pet-keeping manual Domestic Pets their Habits and Management. Despite views such as these, in the Victorian era monkeys proved to be popular pets.

Notes on Pet Monkeys and How to Manage Them by Arthur Patterson (London, 1888) advises that that the chief importers of monkeys to Britain were Cross, Carpenter, and Johnson of Liverpool or Jamrach and Abrahams of London. Monkeys were brought to Britain by sailors or dealers alongside traditional cargo from South America, India and south east Asia. Patterson’s book includes a price list for various breeds of monkeys, revealing that marmosets could be had for 15 shillings whereas an orangutan could be as much as £100.The cover of Notes on Pet Monkeys by Arthur Patterson (1888)

Patterson recounts an anecdote on how wild monkeys were said to be caught in Brazil:

Some fanciful yarns are told, how that the natives repair to the vicinity of the haunts of the monkeys with pots of water, and also some containing an equivalent to glue. They begin washing their faces, turning the water out, and leaving the other. Upon retreating, down come the imitating monkeys, and pitch in for a wash with the gum. Of course their eyelids become fastened together, and the wretched animals are taken an easy prey.

Numerous monkeys were trapped and shipped to England to be sold at the docks or via exotic pet shops, their expensive price tag ensuring they were the preserve of the rich. An exotic pet monkey was highly desirable to the Victorians and Patterson sums up their allure: ‘A more comical and entertaining pet cannot possibly be kept, if but under proper control; and you have a fertile source of never-ending drollery at your disposal.’

‘The right place for a monkey, in civilised society, is in a cage.’  So says Patterson, going on to point out that leaving a monkey to live loose in the house like a cat or dog is folly, stating that soon the whole house will be in ‘uproar’. Many people kept their pet monkeys on a barrel and pole – this involved a long wooden pole for the monkey to climb with a barrel with a hole in at the top for the monkey to sleep in. The monkey was chained to the pole with a belt around its waist. Patterson however advised against this set up, calling it ‘barbarous’ and warning that the monkey may ‘pelt you with refuse from his larder’ and ‘be objectionable’.drawing of a monkey on a pole and barrel

Patterson instead suggests a secure wooden cage with a wire front, but warns that extra wire should be added when housing a large monkey as they are apt to jump. Patterson advocates a trapeze to keep your monkey amused.

Recommending the best breed of monkey, Patterson says of the brown Capuchin: ‘As clean, well-coated, and least repulsive and objectionable pets, with very little of the dirty insinuations of the Catarrhines.’ He cautions against keeping baboons: ‘their large size, superior strength, subtle cunning, and often filthy practices, giving ample reason for exclusion from general favour.’

As for feeding, the author warns: ‘the monkey is a glutton’ and should not be let loose unfettered on the kitchen cupboards. Patterson instead endorses a diet of boiled rice and milk, bread and milk, and boiled potatoes ‘which are most highly prized by them’. He also highly recommends onions which he thinks are a good ‘cleansing food’, however he notes that ‘American monkeys detest the smell of an onion’. He goes on to recount that not all monkeys are satisfied with a vegetable diet and that on one occasion his pet capuchin got loose and killed a ‘fine macaw, and partly stripped it before it was recaptured; whilst an unfortunate canary was literally devoured alive.’

Patterson proposes the following names for your pet monkey: Bully, Peggy, Mike, Peter, Jacko, Jimmy, Demon, Barney, Tommy, Dulcimer, Uncle or Knips.

To tame your pet monkey and gain his trust the author recommends that you let a friend go up to the monkey’s cage violently brandishing a stick in order to frighten the animal. ‘In the midst of this nonsense, rush forward, and pretend to take the part of your pet, thrash your friend to within an inch of his life with the very stick he has been using, and put him out. Next take the monkey some savoury morsel, such as a date, or an apple, and sympathise with it. You are sworn friends from that time.’

drawing of a monkey on a trapeze

Patterson suggests that when your pet monkey dies, should their coat be in reasonable condition you might choose to stuff them and mount them for display. He goes on to describe, in quite some detail, the agonies of a monkey’s death:

The tail end of a monkey’s earthly career, as with all flesh, is its death. This is an exceedingly human-like affair, the little sufferer often holding its head in its last illness, and gasping pitifully for breath, turning its dulled eyes up towards its keeper with an expression that seems to say “What have I done?” or, “We all of us come, at last, to this!” I haven’t always had the heart to see the end of it all; for, when a monkey is past cure, the sooner its sufferings are ended the better. My method of giving the coup de grace may savour of the barbarous, but I know of no quicker or better way to finish off the poor wretch than by giving it a sharp, heavy blow, with an iron bar, on the back of the neck, just below its connection with the skull. But a bungling or nervous hand had better not attempt a job of this kind, for adding torture to its dying pangs is cruel in the extreme.

Although to modern readers keeping a wild monkey as a pet seems unnecessarily cruel, it is clear from Patterson’s closing thoughts that despite his misguided ideas he did have a genuine affection for monkeys:

 Lastly, I would urge upon the reader not to neglect his little friend: to give him all the room and exercise possible; to provide him with a plentiful supply of clean, sweet food; always keep his domicile in a clean condition – in fact, in every possible way to make the little prisoner, who is entirely at his mercy, as happy as possible.

The Exhumation of Elizabeth Siddal

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) was a leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which he co-founded with Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848. Rossetti was a talented painter, poet and writer but his work was not always appreciated in his lifetime. With his strong views, and tumultuous love life, Rossetti typified a romantic, idealised image of ‘the artist’.

Portrait of Rossetti aged 22 by Holman Hunt
Portrait of Rossetti aged 22 by Holman Hunt

Rossetti met budding artist and model Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) in c.1849 and entered into a long, and sometimes tortured, love affair. Their relationship was documented in many of Rossetti’s sketches, paintings and poems, immortalising her fragile, flame-haired beauty, and forever linking her image with the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Regina Cordium (1860) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti - painted on their marriage
Regina Cordium (1860) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti – painted on their marriage

Rossetti and Siddal’s relationship was punctuated by Siddal’s lengthy bouts of illness and eroded by Rossetti’s affairs with other women and Siddal’s addiction to laudanum. In February 1862, Siddal died from an overdose, having spiralled into a depression after the loss of her baby. Friend of the couple, Hall Caine, described Rossetti taking a book of his poems and placing them next to the cheek of his dead wife, entwining some of her celebrated red curls around them and requesting that they be buried with her[1]. Caine here created a tender and tragic image of the distraught artist, placing his precious poetry in his muse’s coffin. This type of artistic self-sacrifice appealed to Victorian ideals and the macabre act of burying his work with his wife was also tinged with the Gothic.

Rossetti felt enormous guilt over the death of Elizabeth and his mental health began to suffer but as time passed his guilt was surpassed by a yearning for his lost poetry. By 1869 his agent Charles Augustus Howell gently encouraged Rossetti to put an exhumation in motion so as to retrieve the poems from the grave. Howell was perhaps motivated by his own hopes of financial gain but also wished to alleviate Rossetti’s considerable mental anguish.[2]

Siddal as Ophelia in John Everett Millais' masterpiece
Siddal as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ masterpiece

Permission for the exhumation was swiftly granted as Rossetti knew the then Home Secretary Henry A. Bruce and was able to circumvent the usual rules which would have required his gaining the consent of his mother to desecrate the family plot. Rossetti clearly knew how badly the exhumation would reflect on him were it to come out and keeping it from his mother likely helped him to keep away from awkward questions regarding his motivations.

Rossetti, keen for the literary fame the publication of the lost poems could offer him, yet crushed by the desecration the retrieval required, was not present at the exhumation, and in fact kept himself at one remove by signing power of attorney over to Howell on this matter.

The exhumation went ahead on 5 October 1869, during the dead of night so as to avoid offending any mourners at the cemetery. A large bonfire was built at the graveside to light the way and provide warmth. A lawyer, Tebbs was present to ensure no foul play took place and Dr Llewelyn Williams was engaged to receive the ghastly book and disinfect it to prevent any germs from the dead spreading to the living.

A graveyard
A graveyard

Howell was also present and reported, in what can only be a figment of his imagination, that when the coffin lid was removed Siddal was found ‘quite perfect’ – a myth which later grew to include reports that her golden hair had continued to grow until it filled the coffin.

Howell’s retelling puts a Gothic, supernatural spin on the exhumation but the reality soon unravels his storified version when we consider that the manuscript was quite sodden and had to be taken away to be disinfected. When Rossetti was finally reunited with the book two weeks later, it reeked of disinfectant and decay and had a number of large worm-holes obscuring some of the text[3]. One can only imagine the very vivid illustration this offered of the reality of where the book had lain for the past seven years, and it is telling that once the poems were transcribed, Rossetti had the manuscript destroyed.

Photograph of Elizabeth Siddal c.1860
Photograph of Elizabeth Siddal c.1860

The truth of the exhumation did not come out to the public until after Rossetti’s death in 1882. Caine Hall recalled that Rossetti regretted the exhumation, citing rather damningly his ‘weakness of yielding to the importunity of friends, and the impulse of literary ambition’. Ultimately however, the vivid Gothic imagery of an uncorrupted Siddal over-shadowed the grim reality of the act and instead of damning Rossetti it fed into the myth surrounding this truly Victorian couple.


[1] Hall Caine, Recollections of Rossetti, (London: Cassell & Company, Ltd, 1928) p.42

[2] Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, (London: André Deutsch, 2004)

[3] Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999)

The Victorian Ostrich Feather Trade: Boom and Bust

At the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852, the enormous hearse was pulled by twelve black horses, each sporting a dramatic plume of prime black ostrich feathers. The feathers harked back to traditional medieval baronial funerals and their inclusion in the spectacular parade, which was witnessed by 1.5 million people, was hugely influential on Victorian funereal customs. The fashion for ostrich feathers ultimately dripping down through the classes, becoming an essential element of ‘respectable’ Victorian funerals.

An elaborate hearse pulled by 12 black horses
Funeral car at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral, 1852

The Hunt

Before the 1860s all of the ostrich feathers that reached Britain were taken from wild birds, slaughtered during a hunt. Across the Sahara and in South Africa where the birds were common, riders on horseback would hunt down the birds, kill them and pluck their feathers. These feathers would then be bundled up, transported by camel caravan to North Africa and then shipped into France or Italy and then on to London where they would be sold.

Man on horseback hunting a wild ostrich
An ostrich hunt

The demand for feathers was so high that concerns were raised that ostriches would be hunted to extinction, like the dodo before it. This scarcity only served to make ostrich feathers yet more desirable.


It was not only for funerals that ostrich feathers were required, a number of military regiments also used the feathers in their uniforms but by far the biggest market for ostrich feathers was the fashion trade.

A Victorian lady sporting an ostrich feather hat
A Victorian lady sporting an ostrich feather hat

In the 1860s the French Court began to wear ostrich feathers on hats, as trim on dresses, as jackets and boas. The feathers could be dyed any colour of the rainbow and added exoticism and luxury to any outfit. Naturally where Paris went, the world followed and soon the demand for ostrich feathers outstripped supply, lending them yet further cache.

A Game-Changer

Due to the value of ostrich feathers some canny colonial farmers at the Cape in South Africa saw an opportunity. If the ostrich could be domesticated and farmed they would have a ready supply of feathers which could be plucked from the bird without harming it and regrow anew. The first experiments began in the region of Oudtshoorn and by 1865 they had found some success with 80 domesticated birds.

The problem was the safe rearing of ostrich chicks — the ostriches tended to get spooked and destroy their own eggs, or simply fail to incubate them properly, leading to a difficulty in expanding the number of domesticated ostriches. This problem was solved in 1869 when Arthur Douglass, a pioneering ostrich farmer and the first to list ostrich farming as his sole occupation, invented the ostrich incubator.

An ostrich egg incubator
An ostrich egg incubator

This technological leap allowed farmers to safely hatch numerous chicks, greatly expanding their flocks and by 1875, there were 20,000 domesticated ostriches in the Oudtshoorn region alone.

Ostrich Farming

After the success of these early farmers many colonists at the Cape switched from sheep farming to ostrich farming, the returns at this point seemingly much better and the conditions in South Africa proving ideal. By the 1880s ostrich feathers had become South Africa’s fourth largest export after gold, diamonds and wool.

Each ostrich could provide two crops of a feathers a year, the feathers being plucked or cut from the birds would then regrow. Each bird gives 1 lb of feathers on plucking — 50 quill feathers (with about four fancy-coloured in each wing), plus 75 to 100 feathers in the tail and 6 ounces of drabs.

Port Elizabeth flourished with the new trade, as the money raised from taxes levied on the export of the feathers allowed new municipal buildings to be constructed. Many made their fortune from the trade and they built huge, luxurious houses, known as ‘feather palaces’ with the spoils.


London was the hub of the ostrich feather trade. Huge crates of sorted feathers would arrive each week from the Cape plus a smaller number still traded up the caravan routes from wild Saharan birds.

Warehouses at Cutler Street and Billiter Street in East London displayed the sorted feathers for merchants to inspect before they were sold at monthly auctions in commercial sale rooms in Mincing Lane.

Ostrich feathers on display at warehouse
Ostrich feathers on display at warehouse

The feathers were sorted and washed at the Cape before being transported and would be displayed at the warehouses divided into classes of feathers. Some of the feather classes included:

  • Prime Whites — the largest most valuable feathers from the wings of male birds
  • Feminas — wing feathers from female birds with soft flowing hairs extending from the central quill
  • Spadones — lower grade wing feathers, less full in look.
  • Blacks — body feathers from male ostriches
  • Drabs — shorter body feathers used for feather dusters and such like

Merchants would inspect the feathers before the sale and then bid for the lots of their choice. These merchants would then sell on their feathers to manufacturers where they were dyed, curled and layered up and sewn together to create plumes. The industry supported not just the farmers at the Cape but the merchants plus numerous artisanal trades people (often young women) who processed the feathers before they reached the retailers.

Page from manual on how to dye ostrich feathers
Page from manual on how to dye ostrich feathers

Boom and Bust

Initially prices remained high with a one sale in October 1882 seeing Prime Whites go for between £22 and £26 per lb, however before long as ostrich farming grew in popularity, the market began to get flooded with feathers and as a result profits fell.

The fashion for wearing feathers continued and between 1870 and c.1885 London was the very profitable hub of this burgeoning industry, selling feathers on to France, Germany and America.

However the glut in feathers began to tell after 1885 and prices began to drop as this once scarce and exotic commodity became plentiful. Many ostrich farmers went out of business and numerous speculators out in the Cape who had invested in the new craze went bust. Some farmers battled on but the industry heard its death knell in 1914.

The over-supply of feathers, the changing fashion, the introduction of the automobile which meant flamboyant headresses were no longer practical, and the outbreak of World War One all played their part. Farmers were suddenly faced with huge flocks of ostriches with no discernible value. Many were slaughtered for pet food and efforts were made to market the meat for human consumption and the leather as a fashionable alternative to traditional leathers, and this met some success.

Ultimately however the ostrich feather had fallen out of fashion and the days of the enormous ostrich farms of the Cape, the monthly auctions and the inflated prices were over. The majority of ostrich farms went back to sheep or goat farming, the provision of wool and mohair seemingly less subject to the fickle fancy of fashion.

Further reading:

Ostrich feather trade blog from London Metropolitan archives

Picture credits:

Duke of Wellington’s funeral car via King’s College, London

Ostrich: Nouvelles illustrations de zoologie (1776) via BHL

Ostrich hat via

Ostrich feather dye picture: The Practical Ostrich Feather Dyer by Dr M. Frank (Philadephia, 1888), photographed by me.

All other pictures from Ostrich Farming in South Africa by Arthur Douglass (London, 1881) photographed by me.


Bygone objects and terms from How to Skin a Lion


In my last blog I discussed some of the bygone ingredients referenced in How to Skin a Lion, this time I am going to look at some of the bygone objects or terms, most of which have now disappeared from common use.


(in how to pan for gold)

A wikiup is a simple Native American shelter. Usually oval in shape, the wikiup is fashioned from debris from the forest floor such as sticks, bark or rushes.

The beauty of the design is that it allows the making of a fire inside or right beside the shelter, this has ensured the wikiup’s enduring appeal to survivalists.


(in how to run a household in Anglo-India)

A tannycatch was a word used in the Madras area of India (in Bengal, mussalchee was used) for a scullery maid who would assist the cook with tasks such as boiling water or grinding rice. In Madras the tannycatch was always a woman but in Calcutta and Bombay a man would take on this role.

Punkah wallah

(in how to run a household in Anglo-India)

punkah-wallahA punkah is an elaborate ceiling fan used to keep rooms cool in India. It consists of large flat ‘sails’ or fans made of canvas or woven from palms, descending from the ceiling and joined together by pulleys and cord.

The punkahwallah was the unfortunate individual whose job it was to pull the cord to keep the fan moving.

In nineteenth century Anglo-India many staff were required to keep a household running smoothly. Edmund C. P. Hull in his 1874 book The European in India estimated that ‘the house of a married couple without children, in comfortable pecuniary circumstances’ would require ’18 men and 5 women’ servants.


(in how to get presented at court)

Lappets were two lengths of material attached to a headdress, such as a bishop’s mitre, that generally adorned ladies’ headgear in the early twentieth century.

It was stipulated by Victorian etiquette guides that ladies getting presented at Court must wear lappets on their head dress as well as a plume of feathers. It was generally accepted that the plume should be white in colour (coloured feather were apparently ‘regarded unfavourably in high quarters’) and should be worn on the left, with the lappets on the right.

For more on traditional Victorian clothing terms see this excellent blog.


(in how to quiet bees)bee-skep-image-full-size

A skep is a traditional domed woven bee hive. Very few people keep bees in skeps anymore as having a beehive with moveable frames for extracting the honey is much easier.

For more information, instructions on how to make a skep and some lovely pictures see here.


(in how to stalk a Lion),

A Paradox was a versatile gun developed by Holland & Holland in 1886 that could be used as a rifle or a shotgun.

This type of gun was especially useful for game hunters in India or Africa, who might encounter both large and small prey on the same hunt.

Brain scoop

(in how to skin a lion)

A fairly self-explanatory tool used by the taxidermist when preserving a specimen. In the picture of old taxidermy tools here, the brain scoop is numbered 7.brainscoop

It seems the brain scoop was perhaps used by the more careful taxidermy enthusiast, or perhaps by those who wished to preserve the brain intact, because in Charles McCann’s 1927 A Shikari’s Pocket-book he eschews using a brain scoop, preferring this rather more ‘rustic’ approach:

‘Take out the brain through the orifice at the back by pushing a stick into it and stirring them up, then shaking out the resultant porridge. Pouring hot water into the brain-case and shaking it out again will help greatly to bring away the contents.’


(in how to make stilton cheese)

Chessart is originally a Scottish word for a cheese vat or container into which the curd is placed during cheesemaking. Once in the vat the cheese is pressed so that excess whey can escape.

A chessart varies in size and shape according to the type of cheese being made, but a typical chessart might be a round, half barrel-shaped vat, made from elm staves, strongly bound with metal hoops to prevent it from bursting during the pressing. The bottom of the chessart would contain holes for the whey to escape. According to Henry Stephen’s The Book of the Farm (1844) some chessarts from Cheshire were made from tin.


Bygone ingredients in How to Skin a Lion


While writing and researching How to Skin a Lion I came across a number of bygone ingredients I had never heard of. I researched these obscure ingredients to find out what they were and where they came from so I could provide explanatory footnotes. Some of them are still in use but others have been replaced by synthetic alternatives.

Seeing as I have a bit more room here on my blog I thought it might be fun to take a little tour through some of these obscure ingredients and the stories behind them.

Essence of Tyre

(in How to look after your hair)

Essence of Tyre, otherwise known as nitrate of silver or Lunar caustic, was used (somewhat unwisely) in Victorian times to dye the hair black (but Styrax_benzoin_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-133unfortunately it also ‘dyed the skin as well as the hair; it blackened the fingers; it burnt the linen on which it fell; and what was worse than all, it destroyed the substance of the hair.’)

This inorganic compound has the chemical symbol AgNO3. It was often used as a medicine due to its antiseptic properties. It was used by dentists to cure ulcers and by doctors to treat nose bleeds.

In the 1830s silver nitrate was used to treat epilepsy but had the rather alarming side-effect of turning the skin a blue/black hue, so it fell from use and was replaced by potassium bromide. There is a nice blog post here from The Victorian Clinic which discusses Wilkie Collins’ use of this treatment as a plot device in Poor Miss Finch (1872).

Today silver nitrate is still used in drugs for the treatment of warts or verrucas due to its corrosive properties, despite the Victorian advice on the uses of the compound I would strongly advise against putting it anywhere near your hair!


(in How to smoke your own bacon)

Saltpetre or potassium nitrate is a compound with many uses from fertilisers to gunpowder. Since the medieval times it has been used as a food preservative, today it is still used in some charcuterie.

There are many traditional methods to harvest potassium nitrate and most of them use manure or urine. The cave method relied on harvesting crystalised bat guano from caves, the French method utilised huge piles of manure mixed with ashes and the Swiss method involved collecting urine in a sandpit under a stable.

Thankfully in more modern times potassium nitrate is derived from nitric acid on an industrial scale, negating the need for any manure-based methods.

It is not so commonly used in food these days as it is not as reliable as other nitrates, but where it is used in the EU it is listed as the ‘E number’ E252.

Sal Prunelle

(in How to smoke your own bacon)

Nitrate of potash (which is just another version of potassium nitrate, see above) which is fused together and cast into round moulds so as to look like little plums (or prunelle).

Malt coom

(in How to smoke your own bacon)

The withered rootlets of germinated barley created during the malting process. In this recipe the rootlets were used along with charcoal to cover the bacon in a chest to preserve it.

Today these rootlets (or malt-culm) are used in animal feed due to their high protein content (25%).


(or Benzoin) (in How to make lip balm)

The resin from an evergreen tree (Styrax benzoin) used as an astringent or antiseptic. It has a sweet scent, similar to that of vanilla and so was frequently used to make incense.

The resin derives from South East Asia and has long been traded into Europe for use in cosmetics, candles, incense (especially for use in Orthodox churches) and as an inhalant to clear the passageways.

Today tincture of benzoin is sometimes used by weight-lifters as an alternative for chalk, as a small amount applied to the hands can help create grip. It is still used by the cosmetic industry in some perfumes.


(or Styrax) (in How to make lip balm)

A balsam taken from the bark of the Liquidambar orientalis tree native to Asia Minor, generally used as a perfume or expectorant. Storax is mixed with benzoin to create tincture of benzoin.

It was used to treat skin conditions such as scabies.


(in How to make lip balm)

A wax found in the head of a sperm or bottlenose whale. It was commonly used in cosmetics and as an industrial Mother_and_baby_sperm_whalelubricant.

When extracted the oil forms into hard white wax which is oily to the touch and virtually odourless, this property makes it very useful in the manufacture of cosmetics and candles.

Whalers would extract the oil buy chopping off the head of a sperm whale and scooping out the oil and storing it in casks for transport back to land where it would be processed. A large whale could produce up to four tons of oil.

Once ashore the spermaceti would be filtered and boiled to remove impurities and stop it becoming rancid. The spermaceti was then stored in a cold place over winter which meant the oil congealed into a more viscous substance. This was then placed into wool sacks and squeezed in a press to remove the precious liquid oil. The remaining wax was then sold on as spermaceti wax.

More information on the process can be found in this great blog post, Dispatches from Pangaea.

At the height of the whaling era (roughly 1830-1870) up to twenty-two whales a day were killed for their blubber and oil. Nowadays modern alternatives such as kerosene are used, so no more whales need be slaughtered.

Gum dragon

(in How to make British anchovies)

Gum dragon or tragacanth is the sap of a middle eastern plant it is used in food as a thickener and stabiliser and in medicine it is used for treating diarrhea and constipation (not quite sure how it can work for two such diametrically opposed conditions!).

Iran is the largest exporter of Tragacanth. It is made from the dried sap of the root of the plant. Alongside its medicinal uses the sap can be mixed with water to make a paste which is used in the tanning of leather, in traditional artists’ pastels and can be mixed with sugar icing to make sugarcraft cake decorations.

Margosa oil

(in How to keep ants at bay)

Derived from the seeds of the Azadirachta indica tree, which is more commonly known as the neem tree in its native India and Sri Lanka. The oil has traditionally been used as an insecticide and as a remedy for asthma and arthritis. Margosa oil has an acrid smell and bitter taste and can be dangerous if ingested by young children.

Water glass

(in How to preserve eggs)

Water glass or sodium silicate is a white powder that is soluble in water, creating an alkaline, first observed in the seventeenth century.

These days it is most commonly used as a glue to hold cardboard together and in various industrial uses such as reducing the porosity of concrete.

It was frequently used throughout the twentieth century for preserving eggs for up to five months. My mother remembers her mother using it in the 1950s as a way to keep fresh eggs.


Picture credits: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, “Mother and baby sperm whale” by Gabriel Barathieu

How to use the English method of fortune-telling by cards:

It was with some trepidation that I decided to dabble in a bit of fortune-telling for my next task. Not because I am wary of the occult, nor because I have anything to hide, but more because the instructions were so complicated!

‘In many cases, the position of the cards entirely changes their signification, their individual and relative meaning being often widely different. Thus, for example, the King of Hearts, the Nine of Hearts, and the Nine of Clubs respectively signify a liberal man, joy, and success in love; but change their position by placing the King between the two nines, and you would read that a man, then rich and happy, would ere long be consigned to prison.’playingcards1x600

The advice comes from A Handbook of Cartomancy: Fortune-telling and Occult Divination by the fabulously named Grand Orient (1889).

I decided to add my own sprinkling of mysticism by choosing a pack of cards that I had owned since childhood (note: they are French so the King is (R)oi, the Queen is (D)ame and the Jack is (V)alet). This set of Asterix playing cards had travelled the world with my then boyfriend, now husband and I, and have given many hours of card-playing enjoyment. These cards, I felt, must have absorbed some of our very essence.

The technique

The first instructions were:

After having well shuffled, cut them three times, and lay them out in rows of nine cards each.’

This was easily done and I filled the table with neat rows of nine cards, all face up. I then asked my victim husband (who I shall from now on refer to as Andy, for that is his name) to select which King he thought should represent him, as advised by the Grand Orient himself:

layoutcardsx600Select any King or Queen you please to represent yourself, and wherever you find that card placed, count nine cards every way, reckoning it as one; and every ninth card will prove the prophetic one.’

Andy chose the King of Clubs, which I quickly looked up and found this uncanny description:

King of Clubs – A dark man, upright, faithful, and affectionate in disposition.’

From here we counted every ninth card and noted down what we found in order to make our predictions. These are the cards and their meanings:

‘Three of Hearts – Sorrow caused by a person’s own imprudence.

Four of Diamonds – Trouble arising from unfaithful friends; also a betrayed secret.

Five of Hearts – Troubles caused by unfounded jealousy.

Eight of Hearts – Pleasure, company.

Five of Spades – Shews that a bad temper requires correcting.’

This sounds to me like a party going wrong. We have quite a few social engagements coming up so I will be on my guard for any unfounded jealousy or imprudence.Andycards

The next step was to identify the Knave of Clubs and count every nine cards from thence as described here:

As the Knaves of the various suits represent the thoughts of the person represented by the picture cards of a corresponding colour, they should also be counted from.’

This should reveal Andy’s inner thoughts. This is what we found:

Knave of Clubs – A sincere but hasty friend. Also a dark man’s thoughts.

Two of Clubs – A disappointment.

Ace of Hearts – The house. If attended by clubs, feasting and merry-making.

Seven of Diamonds – Satire, evil speaking.

King of Hearts – A fair man, of good-natured disposition, but hasty and rash.

Nine of Clubs – Disobedience to friends’ wishes.’

This seems to fit in fairly well with my interpretation of a future social gathering marred by gossip or disagreement with friends. I really hope this doesn’t come true but I shall be vigilant and report back if our next party goes horribly awry.

Andy was fairly nonplussed by the predictions, nothing jumped out as especially insightful, but as this is fortune-telling who knows what may yet occur.

Then it was my turn. After this faintly depressing reading for Andy I was hoping for some wonderful cards full of good fortune, success and great wealth. How wrong could I be?

The second attempt

We reshuffled, cut and laid out the cards in rows of nine as before. Because Andy had chosen the King of Clubs to represent himself, I followed Grand Orient’s advice and made myself the Queen of Clubs, who is described thus:

Queen of Clubs – A dark woman, gentle and pleasing.’

Anyone who really knows me would not describe me thus (I am ginger for a start!) but I shall glide past that small issue and plough on. The ‘significant’ cards (every ninth counted each way from the Queen of Clubs) were:

‘King of Diamonds – A fair man, hot tempered, obstinate and revengeful.

Six of Diamonds – Early marriage and widowhood.

Five of Hearts – Troubles caused by unfounded jealousy.

Four of Hearts – A person not easily won.

Ace of Spades – Great misfortune, spite.’

Oh. Pretty bleak. My dreams of fame and fortune dashed. That song ‘The Ace of Spades’ is now whirling round in my head. Not helped by the fact that Andy guffawed loudly when this, the most grim of all cards, came up for my future.

Not sure how to interpret this really as I have no idea who this revengeful fair-headed man is (not Andy, he is dark) and the reference to early marriage is puzzling as I didn’t wed until 27 so by modern standards not especially early.

It is interesting that both Andy and I got the five of hearts, however neither of us are the jealous type so maybe this refers to someone close to us? Whatever way you look at these cards they are not giving me a message of joy. But wait, it gets worse …

On to my thoughts, counting every ninth card from the Knave of Clubs:

Ten of Spades – Grief, imprisonment

Two of Clubs – A disappointment.

King of Clubs – A dark man, upright, faithful, and affectionate in disposition.

Queen of Diamonds – A fair woman, fond of company and a coquette.

Five of Clubs – A prudent marriage.’

The first two don’t sound great but the last three could represent Andy and I. Let’s hope the first two are not what awaits me, I don’t think I am made for prison life.

The conclusion

This dabble in the waters of mysticism didn’t quite turn up the glowing future I had hoped, however it was quite a diverting way to spend an evening and I imagine it could be a quite useful starting points for some self-analysis, were you that way inclined.

At this point I am hoping my inexpert reading does not come true and that somehow the actual alignment of the cards inverts their meaning. But if my next blog post is about ‘my life in the slammer’ you’ll know otherwise.

Can you interpret these cards any better than I? Have you tried fortune-telling? If so please leave a comment.

How to make mushroom ketchup

When compiling How to Skin a Lion I was so fascinated by the many lost and outmoded skills I resolved to try some of the more achievable instructions.

I would have loved to have trained a hawk, panned for gold or got myself presented at court but unfortunately I did not have the time, resources or good breeding.mushroomsx600

Instead I focused on some of the skills I could easily recreate in the hope that it might inspire others to have a go too.

When reading through Georgian and Victorian texts for How to Skin a Lion, I came across a number of references to mushroom ketchup.

My interest was piqued as I had never heard of this forgotten condiment and wondered what it tasted like and how it was used.

I selected the recipe published in A Shilling’s Worth of Practical Receipts (1856) for the book because it contained ingredients that are readily available today and I vowed to have a go at making it myself.

The recipe begins

Gather the broad flapped and red gilded mushroom before the sun has discoloured them.

My gathering involved selecting a 250g box of chestnut mushrooms from Sainsbury’s online and awaiting delivery. They did, however, appear unharmed by the sun.

Wipe, and break them into an earthern pan. To every three handfuls throw in one handful of salt, stir them two or three times a day till the salt is dissolved, and the mushrooms are liquid.’

mushroomssaltx600First problem was a lack of earthern pan. In my version this delightfully rustic sounding receptacle was replaced by the more modern china bowl.

The second problem was that I misread the instructions. In a fit of gay abandon I confused the ratio of mushroom to salt and ended up adding a handful of salt for every handful of mushrooms.

Luckily I soon noted my error, cursed my inattention, chucked the resulting salty sludge, returned to my computer and re-ordered a box of mushrooms from Mr Sainsbury.

New mushrooms arrived I carefully broke them into pieces. From my 250g I ended up with six handfuls of mushrooms and this time I correctly added two handfuls of salt and gave them a good stir.

The recipe does not disclose exactly how long the mushrooms should be left for, so I covered them with a tea towel and parked them in a dark cupboard. Every day I gave them a little stir and soon they were indeed turning to liquid.

However after about five days they didn’t seem to be breaking down further (to be honest I think I should have broken the mushrooms into smaller pieces to start with). So I left them for a further two days for good measure before moving onto the next step.

Bruise what bits remain, set the whole over a gentle fire till the goodness is extracted; strain the hot liquor through a fine hair sieve, boil it gently with allspice, whole black pepper, ginger, horse-radish, and an onion or shallots, with two or three laurel leaves.onhobx600

I tried mushing the remaining mushrooms with a wooden spoon but they seemed resolutely spongy and resistant to breaking up further so I popped them in a saucepan and gently warmed them to see if this would break them down further.

At this point the mushrooms began to smell delicious, radiating a wonderful earthy smell throughout the kitchen. Encouraged by this development I dipped my spoon in the pot to taste. Big mistake! The saltiness was overpowering and I had to spit it out, but the aftertaste was promising.

I left the mushrooms to gently cook for about 20 minutes while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.


The recipe did not include any amounts so I estimated and compromised on a few of the stipulations. I used the following to flavour my ketchup:ingredientsx600

½ onion, thinly sliced.

2 bay leaves (I assumed this was what they meant when they said laurel leaves)

16 black peppercorns

A thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, grated

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp allspice powder

1 tsp horseradish sauce (no fresh unfortunately)

After 20 minutes I strained the mushrooms through a sieve. There were still some large chunks of mushroom so I used a wooden spoon to pass them through the sieve and despite putting in some serious effort I was still left with about two handfuls of mushrooms that refused to relent, so I gave up on these unruly fungi and chucked them on the compost heap.

The resulting dark brown liquid looked pretty decent so I added the other ingredients, brought it to the boil then left it to simmer.

After about 45 minutes of simmering it had gone really dry and congealed so I added some more water to get it back to the correct consistency.

I simmered it for an hour in total before sieving it once again to remove the whole spices. Again I pushed it through the sieve to make sure I got all the goodness out, I say goodness but by this time it smelt pretty bad and looked even worse.finishedketchupx600

I ended up with about 200ml of very dark brown ketchup which I put it in my lovely Orla Kiely pot to try and make it look more appealing.

Fortunately I was spared trying it straight away as the advice is to leave it to settle for 24 hours before using.

The result

The days ticked by and I kidded myself I was putting off trying it due to a lack of decent accompaniment (mushroom ketchup is apparently traditionally eaten with poultry or steak) but really I was just scared it was going to be grim.

steak&ketchupx600I grasped the nettle and cooked up some lovely steak, roast potatoes and green beans. I spooned a reasonable amount of ketchup onto each plate and served the resulting meal up to my delighted husband. Let’s just say he didn’t stay delighted for long …

Unfortunately the ketchup was just way too salty to be edible. The background flavour of the earthy mushroom and spices was good but the overwhelming flavour was bitter salt.

On looking up some modern recipes I think the key missing ingredient here is some vinegar and possibly some sugar. Were I to attempt this again I would certainly cut right back on the salt as it seems my modern tastes are not quite in line with my Victorian forebears.

I think I will attempt a non-food related task for my next How to …