Robbie Burns Day and Jane Austen


January 25 is a day of celebration for Scottish people around the world. Robbie Burns Day, as it's affectionately known, marks the birthday of 18th century poet and lyricist Robert Burns, born 263 years ago in Ayrshire, Scotland.  

An early pioneer of the Romantic movement, Burns is famous for writing poetry that inspired other Romantic poets after him, including Regency poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

Sympathetic to the American and French revolutions, Burns also wrote political commentary that inspired social reformers. 

The Scottish poet was a well-known and beloved figure during the Regency. In fact, his friends started gathering to commemorate his birthday a mere six years after his death in 1796.

So, you have to wonder what another prominent Regency figure, Jane Austen, thought about her fellow writer. We know she was aware of him and his work.

In one of her novels, she mentions him by name and indicates she appreciated his poetic skills. However, if we read further, it seems as though Austen's general opinion of Burns is based on her understanding of his moral character. 

But before getting into that, let's take a closer look at Burns' life and legacy.

Robert Burns

Burns was born in 1759 to a tenant farmer, the eldest of seven children. Burns spent his youth doing hard physical labor, which affected his health throughout his life. 

He himself became a tenant farmer in Ayrshire. But as a young teen he began to write romantic poetry, possibly inspired by a girl who was his first love. 

While working primarily as a farm laborer, Burns received a rather haphazard education, initially by his father who taught him the basic reading and writing at home, and later in schools under the tutelage of John Murdoch, who instructed him in Latin, French, grammar and mathematics. 

But in the 1786 Burns life began to change after he submitted some of his work for publication.  Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect was an immediate hit, and soon he was famous throughout his homeland. He'd originally intended to use the money from the publication to buy passage to Jamaica, but his success encouraged him to stay in Scotland and keep writing. At the time of his death ten years later in 1796, he was still writing and working as an excise officer at Dumfries. 

Burns was a romantic through and through, and is credited with being a pioneer of Romanticism, an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that blossomed during the 19th century. Burn's poetry is lush and sentimental (“My luve is like a red red rose/That's newly sprung in June”), spontaneous and sincere. And he was apparently just as romantic and ardent in his personal life. 

He married Jean Armour in 1788 after she had already become pregnant with his twins a few years earlier. As his wife, she went on to bear him seven more children. Burns also had several love affairs, bringing the total number of children he fathered to 12. Only five of these twelve survived to adulthood, but they have reportedly produced 900 descendants.

In addition, to his writing, Burns was interested in Scottish folklore, and he collected and preserved Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising them in the process. One example is the New Year's favorite, "Auld Lang Syne." In addition to romantic themes, Burn's poetry also expressed themes of egalitarianism and other republican ideals. His poem "A Man's a Man for A' That," was especially popular. 

Burns Legacy

Today Robert Burns is one of the most celebrated poets in the world. He's become a symbol of a national pride that unites Scots who've emigrated to countries far from their homeland.

The influence of Burns on art and literature is widespread, acknowledged by writers like J.D. Salinger and John Steinbeck (his book Of Mice and Men takes its title from a line written by Burns) and musicians like Bob Dylan, who said that Burn's composition "To A Red, Red Rose" was one of his greatest inspirations. 

There are Burns' clubs all over the world, and over 60 memorials and monuments to honor him have been built across the United Kingdom, including Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, the United States, and even in Estonia. 

A replica of the cottage he was born in was constructed in Atlanta, Georgia. A crater on the Mercury was named after Burns. 

Though the UK has issued several commemorative postage stamps honoring Burns over the years, the former USSR was the first country to do so. In 1959 the Soviet Union created a stamp to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet's birth. 

Burns was admired in Russia in the early 19th century for his writings supporting the working classes. Following the Russian revolution, Burns was even known as the people's poet of Russia, where he is still popular.

And as late as 2009, Robert Burns (aka the National Bard and the Ploughman Poet) was voted the “Greatest Scot of All Time” (he even got more votes than William Wallace!) in a poll taken by a Scottish television channel.

Jane Austen

Now let's take a brief look at Jane Austen, Burns' contemporary.

Though the two writers never met, the lives of Jane Austen and Robert Burns did overlap chronologically. When Jane Austen was born in December 1775 at the Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, England, Burns was already a robust lad of 16, working hard, falling in love and putting his feelings in eloquent verse.

And when Burns died prematurely at the age of only 37 on July 21 in 1796, Jane was 21 years old, working on what would become her best known novel, Pride and Prejudice. having recently enjoyed an exhilarating flirtation that would unfortunately go nowhere with Tom Lefroy.

Coincidentally, she would also die far too young at the age of 41 on a July day 19 years later in 1817.

Unlike Burns, who was married and had several love affairs both before and during his marriage, Jane remained resolutely single and close to her sister Cassandra until the end of her life.

Though Austen was never proclaimed a national hero, her legacy is solid. Not as successful as Burns during her lifetime, Austen nevertheless achieved great literary renown in the centuries that followed. 

Since her death Austen's six novels have rarely been out of print. She has fans and festivals worldwide. Her novels and other writings have been the subject of countless scholarly studies and inspired equally countless literary spin-offs, popular fiction and cinematic adaptations. And in 2017 she replaced Charles Darwin as the face on England's ten-pound note. 


Austen's opinion of Burns

In contrast to Burn's romanticism, Austen's literary work is known for its realism, sharp wit, and irony. Unlike him she never married (though she came close once) and the basis for the marriages in her stories were often more pragmatic than romantic. 

So, what did Jane, a contemporary of Burns, think of him? We get a clue from a comment by one of her fictional characters. 

In Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon,  Charlotte Heywood, a single woman in her early 20s, says this:

“I have read several of Burns’ Poems with great delight”, said Charlotte, as soon as she had time to speak, “but I am not poetic enough to separate a Man’s Poetry entirely from his Character; — & poor Burns’s known Irregularities greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his Lines. — I have difficulty in depending on the Truth of his Feelings as a Lover. I have not faith in the sincerity of the affections of a Man of his Description. He felt & he wrote & he forgot.”

 "He felt & he wrote & he forgot.” Ouch.  

Burns Night

But Jane Austen's criticism cannot dent the ardor of the admiration accorded to Robert Burns. Burns' birthday has become an unofficial holiday in Scotland. And for many, the best way to observe the occasion is by attending a Burns Night supper.

The first supper to commemorate Burns on his birthday was held on January 25, 1803. (Although a few of Burn's friends gathered the year before to honor him on January 29, thinking that was the date of his birth, they corrected their mistake the following year.)  

Burns Night suppers have been held on January 25 ever since. Traditionally, Scottish dishes such as cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps and tatties are served, often with a whiskey sauce. 

Slicing a haggis at a Burns Night supper

To those unfamiliar with Scottish cuisine, "cock-a-leekie" soup is made with chicken and leeks, "neeps" are mashed turnips, "tatties" are mashed potatoes, and haggis, a dish only a true Scot could love, is made out of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep, mixed with oatmeal and spices, and cooked in the sheep's stomach (although nowadays the stomach may be replaced by an artificial sausage casing).

Modern Burns Night suppers in Scotland are enlivened with events such as poetry readings (Burns poetry, of course) along with singing and dancing. Whiskey and the wearing of tartans are other popular features of Burns Night celebrations.  

Gung Haggis Fat Choy

But perhaps the most unusual and festive Burn’s night celebration takes place in Canada, where the traditional Burns night supper has become a rollicking event known as Gung Haggis Fat Choy. 

The origins of this event go back almost 30 years, when Todd Wong, a student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, saw that the 1993 Chinese Lunar New Year would be celebrated that year just a couple of days after Robert Burns’ birthday. Wong, who is Scottish and Chinese, decided to combine the two events to honor his own multicultural heritage. 

Dragon streetlight in Vancouver BC's Chinatown

Thus, his “Toddish McWong” persona was born. Wong hosted his first Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner in 1998 as a private party for 16 friends. The event is now a public event involving hundreds of people, drawn into a joyous celebration that combines Scottish and Chinese music, Burns’ poetry, singalongs. and live performances. 

The festivities culminate in a banquet featuring haggis and turnips, of course, along with Chinese dishes like Mongolian beef and spicy jelly fish. 

This year’s Gung Haggis Fat Choy celebration is on January 30 in Vancouver, B.C.’s Chinatown. Because of pandemic restrictions, instead of attending a banquet, participants can purchase a box dinner and watch a Livestream event at home.

Here’s a clip of a past celebration:



Bagpipes and dragons – a creative fusion I think an artist like Burns would appreciate And I'm pretty sure Jane Austen, who often wrote about the excitement of attending balls, would have appreciated the dancing at all types of Burns Nights.


So, on behalf of Robbie Burns, admirers of poetry, song, and Scotland, and Toddish McWong, Happy Burns Night, and Gung Haggis Fat Choy!

~~~~

 Sources for this post include:

"Robert Burns, 1759-1796," National Records of Scotland

"Robert Burns, Poet of the Russian People," Broughton Ales, July 31, 2020

"Burns Night 2022: Date of Burns Night 2022, what Burns Night is and how it is celebrated in Scotland" by Liv McMahon, The Scotsman, January 18, 2022.

"Bob Dylan: Robert Burns is my biggest inspiration," by Sean Michaels, October 6, 2008, The Guardian 

"Robert Burns is Crowned the Greatest Scot," by Tom Hamilton, December 1, 2009, The Daily Record.

"Burness Genealogy and Family History," compiled by John Burness and updated on January 6, 2022

 Toddish McWong's Adventures in Multiculturalism, Gung Haggis Fat Choy 2022 


Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Captain Cook and three fateful Januarys

 

 
The Resolution and Adventure in Tahiti, painted by William Hodges
in 1776 during Cook's second voyage of exploration

It’s raining steadily in the Pacific Northwest this month, following a late December snowstorm. During this kind of weather, I like to think about tropical islands. Hawaii and Tahiti are two that come to mind.

But the history of those Pacific gems is inextricably linked to one man: Captain James Cook, the 18-century British navy captain, cartographer, explorer and navigator par excellence whose scientific discoveries and explorations reshaped the world as he and his contemporaries knew it. 

It's appropriate to think of Cook during the dreary month of January, because it was on January 17, 1773, that the HMS Resolution under Cook’s command became the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle. It was January of 1778 that Cook first set foot on the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. And it was another fateful January, in 1779, that he made his second and final visit to Hawaii, a trip that would prove fatal.

Cook's voyages

Cook, as painted by William Hodges

Cook started his career in the Royal Navy as a surveyor. As a lieutenant in command of the HMS Endeavour, in 1768 he led his first voyage (1768-1771), taking a group of scientists to Tahiti to chart the course of the planet Venus. 

On this trip he charted New Zealand's coastline and explored the coast of Australia, making contact with indigenous Australian tribes including the Maori and Aborigines. 

A year later Cook was at the helm of the HMS Resolution, this time as a commander, as he made another voyage to the South Pacific region (1772-1775). His companion ship was the HMS Adventure, commanded by Tobias Furneaux.

It was during this expedition that Cook made history by crossing the Antarctic Circle in 1773 and circumnavigating the globe at its southernmost latitude.

Three years later Cook made his third and final voyage (1776-1779), once again in command of the Resolution. He was accompanied by another ship, the HMS Discovery, commanded by Captain Charles Clerke.

In January of 1778 Cook discovered the Hawaiian island group, naming them the Sandwich Islands to honor a patron of his, John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich. Cook and his companions were the first Europeans to initiate formal contact with the Hawaiian islanders.

Cook's death

On his first visit to Hawaii, Cook was welcomed by the Hawaiians, and he traded the ship's metal for supplies. Then his ships left the islands to search, in vain, for the western end of a northwest passage that would link the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 

Plaque on the shoreline of Kealakekua Bay,
near the spot Cook was killed

A year later, in January of 1779, Cook returned to Hawaii and found safe harbor in Kealakekua Bay. When Cook and his men arrived, the Hawaiians were having a religious festival. 

The Hawaiians again welcomed the sailors and treated them as gods, a circumstance Cook and his crew took advantage of for about a month. 

However, a crewman died, and the Hawaiians were disillusioned to see that the men were mortal after all. That's when things started to get ugly. The ships tried to leave the bay, but rough seas forced them to return. The Hawaiians threw rocks at the ships when they sailed back. 

Then some of the natives stole a small boat, a cutter vessel, from one of the ships. Cook and some of his men went ashore to negotiate with the ruling chief to get the boat back. Cook even attempted to kidnap and ransom the King of Hawaiʻi, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, as a negotiating tactic. 

As Cook was leading the king away, an angry mob formed at the shore. Cook was hit on the head and then stabbed to death in the surf. His body was taken away and buried on the island with great ceremony by the Hawaiians, according to their rituals.

In addition to Cook, four marines were killed, and two others were wounded. 

 A few days later the crews on the two ships out in the bay fired cannons and muskets at the shore, killing about 30 Hawaiians. Then the ships left and went back to England. 

Cook's accomplishments

The scientific legacy of Cook's three voyages is enormous. He and his men were among the first Europeans to survey the continents and islands of the South Pacific. They charted and recorded coastlines, islands and other geographical features, putting them on European maps for the first time. He also charted Australia's Great Barrier Reef and New Zealand, while disproving the imagined existence of a continent south of Australia - the mythical Terra Australis. 

Cook is also known for his pioneering care of his crew. He made sure their quarters were kept clean and well-ventilated, and that their diet was healthy, including foods rich in ascorbic acid (vitamin C), like orange extract, watercress and sauerkraut. As a result, none of his men died of scurvy, an all-too-common ailment among sailors, caused by vitamin C deficiency.

Cook took scientists with him on his voyages, including botanists who collected over 3,000 plant species, and their observations added significantly to the knowledge of places like Tahiti, Easter Island and Australia.  He also brought along artists, who were able to capture on canvas the beauty of the lands they visited.


Map of Cook's voyages - the red line is the first,
 the second is green and the final voyage is blue.

Cook's legacy

Despite his untimely death, Cook's scientific geographic discoveries were a major influence on those who came after him, and memorials have been erected to Cook around the world.  

However, there are those who claim that Cook's explorations led to European colonial expansion and the exploitation of the indigenous peoples they encountered. In his documents and charts, Cook renamed areas that already had names, ignoring the history and traditions of the tribes who lived there. 

Did Cook do more harm than good with his three expeditions? That's an ongoing debate and controversy that probably won't be resolved anytime soon. But, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, as a result of his skills in navigation and cartography, along with his many encounters both with native peoples, Cook "peacefully changed the map of the world more than any other single man in history."

Here is a short video, created by the British Library, describing Cook's voyages:



For more information, see: 

For a Hawaiian perspective, see: 

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens, the Man Behind our Modern Christmas Celebrations

Charles Dickens in 1842, a year before
the publication of A Christmas Carol


I'm always impressed by how one book can make a tremendous impact on the world, extending far beyond the writer’s lifetime. This certainly happened to Charles Dickens, born just a year after George, Prince of Wales was appointed Prince Regent. Dickens' book, A Christmas Carol, not only affected the way Victorians celebrated Christmas but is still a major influence on the Christmas values and traditions we cherish today. 

Christmas in Jane Austen’s time

If we could travel back in time a couple of hundred years, we'd see that Christmas prior to the Victorian era bore little resemblance to our modern Christmas celebrations. 

In medieval times Christmas celebrations were the highlight of the year, with feasting, pantomimes, dancing, singing, games, gifts, and other fun. But the Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries frowned on celebrations in general, and forbade any frivolity at Christmas. 

This Puritan influence lingered, and during the 18th century and the Regency era, Christmas was low-key. Games, gifts and raucous merry-making were out.  A toned-down observance of the holiday centering on a religious service was in. 

In Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen mentions Christmas exactly six times, and the references are brief. For example, Darcy says his sister will stay at Pemberley till Christmas, and Mrs. Bennet’s brother and sister-in-law are mentioned as having come as usual to spend “the Christmas at Longbourn.” 

That's not to say that Christmas wasn't observed at all. Regency homes were often decorated with greenery such as holly or laurel. People went to church on Christmas Day, and then home to a dinner that included plum pudding and mince pie. Lucky servants or tradesmen might get "Christmas Boxes" - small gifts of money - but it wasn't the custom to lavish gifts  on family and friends the way we often do today.

A traditional bag-boiled plum pudding -
the kind Jane Austen may have eaten 
And there's evidence of at least some festivities linked to Christmas season during the Regency. We know this because of a letter Caroline Bingley, sister of the eligible bachelor Mr. Bingley, sends Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice

Caroline, hoping to convince Jane that her brother was no longer interested in her, writes:

“I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings, and that your beaux will be so numerous as to prevent your feeling the loss of the three of whom we shall deprive you.” 

"Gaieties" sounds nice, even if the intent of Caroline's letter was mean.

Christmas observances in England started to change when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, and Albert introduced the German custom of having a decorated Christmas tree to his family in the late 1840s. This royal example inspired English families to get their own Christmas trees.

But Christmas really started to evolve into the merry holiday we're familiar with after A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and became a smash hit with the British public.

Enter Charles Dickens

Scrooge gets a visit from the
Ghost of Christmas Present

On February 7, 1812, while Jane Austen was writing her famous novels and living in Chawton House in Hampshire, Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England. 

His childhood was marred by his family's financial instability. When Dickens was only 12, his father was thrown into debtor's prison. Young Charles had to leave school and work in a factory for three years. He was able to return to school, and later began his literary career as a journalist, editing a weekly publication for 20 years while writing his stories. 

Throughout his life, Dickens authored 15 novels and five novellas, plus nonfiction articles and hundreds of short stories. He often wrote about the plight of the poor and the need to reform living and working conditions. 

His literary works include A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, all of which were popular during his lifetime and still are. But it's  A Christmas Carol, the little book Dickens had to pay Chapman and Hall to publish because they didn't think it would sell, that may be Dickens' greatest legacy.

Adaptations of A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol has been adapted too many times to count, in every medium imaginable (books, film, cartoons, stage, public readings, television, radio) with new versions appearing every year. 

Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit 
Scrooge himself has been immortalized and re-interpreted by actors in an array of movies, including the critically acclaimed 1951 film with Alastair Sim and the popular Muppet Christmas Carol starring Michael Caine in 1992. Even Bill Murray had a go in 1988 with Scrooged.

A sentimental favorite of mine is Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) that I watched with my children. Scrooge McDuck made a great Ebenezer Scrooge!

The very first film adaptation as far as anyone knows was a 1901 British silent film, titled Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost. The special effects are primitive compared to current cinema, but I'm sure the film was scary for its turn-of-the-century audience. 

If you're curious, you can watch a 3-minute clip of this black-and-white silent on YouTube:





The Man Who Invented Christmas

More recently,  The Man Who Invented Christmas, starring Dan Stevens and Christopher Plummer, hit the theaters in 2017. It’s in libraries today, and currently available to stream on Hulu or rent/buy from Amazon and Prime Video. The film is based on the book of the same name by Les Standiford. 

This adaptation is a new take on the classic story; here the focus is on Dickens himself. I found the film fascinating because it speculates on the people and events in Dickens' life that may have inspired him to write his timeless tale. I especially enjoyed the scenes where his characters come to life and help him write their story. 

Here is a trailer for the movie:


The lasting impact of A Christmas Carol 

It's undeniable that Dickens' story, written almost two centuries ago, inspired many of the Christmas traditions that are so dear to our hearts today. 

Scrooge's transformation from an unloved miser to a beloved philanthropist has helped Christmas evolve into much more than an important religious holiday. It's also become an occasion to show appreciation for friends and family through joyful celebrations and gifts. Dickens reminded his readers to use Christmas as a time to express gratitude for what they have and give generously to those in need. And, of course, to have fun, too!

So, this season, the Christmas parties you attend, charitable donations you make, carols you sing and feasts enjoy may be an indirect result of the tremendous influence this classic tale of redemption has had on our culture. And it's all thanks to the imagination of Charles Dickens.

This is my last post for 2021. To borrow Scrooge's words at the end of A Christmas Carol:  

"A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world."





Sources for this post include:
  • Inventing Scrooge, by Carlo DeVito, Cedar Mill Press Book Publishers, Kennebunkport, Maine, 2014
  • The Man Who Invented Christmas, by Les Standiford, Crown Publishing Group, Inc., New York, New York, 2008
  • Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England, by Roy and Lesley Adkins, Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, England, 2013
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, first published in December, 1843, in London, England, by Chapman and Hall.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Day to Give Thanks



November 25 is Thanksgiving Day in America this year, but the United States isn’t the only country that sets aside a day for thanks and blessings for the harvest. There are similar national Thanksgiving holidays and observances in countries around the globe, including Canada, Brazil, and Australia, to name only a few. 

In the U.S. our  Thanksgiving observation is linked to the experiences of the first English pilgrims who came to North America in 1619. Those settlers endured a rough winter and many hardships, and tradition has it they celebrated their first harvest by sharing a meal with the Native Americans who helped them survive. 


American colonists held Thanksgiving feasts throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, and in 1789 President George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration on November 26.

Thanksgiving in the U.S. continued as a fall harvest tradition, though the dates varied from state to state. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, to be held on the last Thursday in November. Because the Civil War was being fought at the time, the nationwide holiday wasn't actually celebrated till the 1870s, after Reconstruction ended.

The next president to weigh in on Thanksgiving was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who signed a proclamation fixing the date for the national holiday on the next to last Thursday in November.  

Then on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution, again signed by FDR, moving the national Thanksgiving holiday to the fourth Thursday in November, where it's been ever since.

History buffs might recall that only a few weeks before the resolution passed, the U.S. entered World War II, following Japan's December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. You'd think that Thanksgiving would be the last thing on congressional minds in late December that year.

But I think there's a lesson in that 1941 proclamation, with its focus on gratitude even in the midst of a terrible war. It's important to take time to reflect on what to be thankful for rather than what's wrong,  no matter how bad things seem.

In searching for quotes about Thanksgiving, I came across this one from the 13th century Persian poet Rumi: “Wear gratitude like a cloak, and it will feed every corner of your life.”

I think that sums up the spirit of the holiday nicely. 

Happy Thanksgiving!




Images courtesy of Pixabay

Corn Dollies: Reviving an Ancient Craft

 


An ancient tradition, closely tied to gathering the harvest in centuries past, is enjoying a revival in our modern era of mechanized farming. 

I’m talking about corn dollies, which usually aren't made of corn and don't necessarily resemble dolls.

I can explain!

Hereford Lantern

Corn dolly history

To begin with, in Britain "corn" was traditionally used to describe any type of grain. A straw figurine or "corn dolly" was constructed out of the remains of the last few sheaves of grain harvested. However, a corn dolly can be made of wheat, barley, oats, rye, or even reeds. In Ireland rush was used; in France, palm leaves.

Corn dollies were made in ancient Greece, and also found tucked into the tombs of ancient Egypt. They were seen throughout Europe, and even in Africa.

Corn dollies were also a staple in Pagan ceremonies, and still are. According to the Pagan blog Sabbat Box, the term "dolly" may be slang for "idol", and the figurines were believed to contain actual spirits, specifically the "spirit of the grain." 

 Corn dollies as a harvest tradition

Staffordshire Knot
Ancient peoples believed the corn dollies they made protected the harvest spirits throughout the winter. In the spring these figurines were returned to the fields, to ensure a bountiful growing season in the following year. 

According to the British organization Heritage Crafts, the making of straw figurines to represent an Earth goddess, spirits, or even a “sheaf maiden” goes back to the 16th century and probably even earlier.

However, these end-of-harvest straw figures only became more popularly known as “dollies” in the 20th century.  Before that they were known as harvest “tokens,” “trophies” or by some other name used by farmers in a particular region. 

Specific areas of Britain had their own signature styles of straw figures. For example, there's the Hereford Lantern, Cambridgeshire Handbell, Suffolk Horseshoe, Essex Terret, Stafford Knot, and Yorkshire Spiral. 

Essex Terret
Corn dollies during the Regency era

During the 17th and 18th centuries, however, these figures became more closely associated with completing the harvest. 

Jane Austen, who grew up in the Hampshire countryside, was no doubt familiar with these straw tokens. Perhaps she and her sisters even tried their hands at making them.

Agricultural methods became more industrialized during the 19th century, and the tradition of creating straw figures to celebrate the end of the harvest started to die. 

However, since the mid-20th century interest in reviving this ancient skill has grown.

Corn dollies in the 21st century

What was once an endangered heritage craft is now a popular decorative art form. 

Today corn dollies are considered good luck tokens and fertility symbols, and still used as harvest symbols. These straw creations come in a variety of shapes and may be decorated with bits of ribbons, lace, or other small ornaments. They've become sought-after gifts, house décor items, and tourist souvenirs.

Interested in trying to make a corn dolly of your own? This video by Sally Pointer makes the ancient craft look almost easy:





For some lovely examples of corn dollies and their uses check out the pieces created by Elaine Lindsay on her website, Something Corny. I also touched on the subject of corn dollies in this Regency Looking Glass post from several years ago.


Countryman's Favours

I think no matter what their significance, historical or otherwise, corn dollies are beautiful. If they also bring you good luck, that's a bonus!

 ***

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

Drowning in Beer: The Ghost of a Young Barmaid

Horse Shoe Brewery - site of the London Beer Flood in 1814



Last month I wrote two posts on England's haunted theaters - one post on the Grey Lady that haunts Bath's Theatre Royal and the other post on a few of  London's notorious theater ghosts

Recently I learned about another haunted theater in London. This haunting resulted from a tragedy that occurred during the Regency era, a fatal disaster known as the London Beer Flood. 

Dominion Theater
On October 17, 1814, an industrial accident occurred at Meux & Co. Horse Shoe Brewery in London's West End. An iron ring on a 22-ft tall wooden vat of porter snapped, which caused the vat to rupture about an hour later. 

The pressure caused by the fermenting ale as it burst damaged the valve of another vat, which also ruptured and in turn destroyed several large barrels.

This led to a catastrophic failure: 154,000 to 388,000 U.S. gallons of rushing hot liquid (or about 580,000 to 1,470,000 liters) created a wave that swept through the brewery. 

This wave broke through the building's back wall and crashed into the surrounding slum housing, in an area called the St. Giles rookery. 

At least eight people in the surrounding area died, women and children ranging in age from 3 to 65. No brewery workers were killed, though a few had to be plucked from the rubble. 

One victim was 14-year-old Eleanor Cooper, a barmaid at the Tavistock Arms public house next to the brewery. She got caught by the brewery's collapsing wall while working in the pub yard washing pots.

Two days after the incident a coroner's inquest was held. Jurors inspected the scene of the disaster. Evidence was collected, witnesses and survivors interviewed. A verdict was recorded: the official cause of the accident was "an act of God." 

For more details on the deadly disaster, read British beer historian Martyn Cornell's account of the London  "beer tsunami", and hear an audio clip of an interview he gave to CBC Radio on the subject.

Fast forward a hundred years. The old brewery is torn down, and in 1928 the Dominion Theater was constructed on its site. And ever since it opened, the theater has reportedly been haunted by the ghost of the teenage barmaid who was killed by the flood.

This You Tube clip talks about the Dominion Theatre ghost. It also delves into the stories of the ghosts at other London theaters. The video is a little cheesy, but it still gave me chills.



You may never feel the same way about beer again!


***


Britain's Haunted Theaters - Pt. 2

Image by creatifrankenstein from Pixabay 

My last post covered Bath’s infamous haunted theater, the Theatre Royal. Today, with Halloween just a few days away, I’m going to recount more stories about ghosts who like to haunt theaters, especially other Theatre Royals. So, grab a cup of hot apple cider, light a candle and settle in for some chilling tales of ghostly apparitions! 

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra in 1900
Theatre Royal, Brighton

This theater reportedly boasts not one but four ghosts, according to one newspaper account. There’s a Grey Lady, naturally, which is apparently a must-have apparition for old theaters in Britain.

This particular Grey Lady is assumed to be the ghost of Mrs. Nye Chart, who ran the theater for 22 years from 1876 to 1892. Actors, stage technicians and crew claim to have seen her. 

The ghosts of a man and two children are also apparently roaming around the halls. 

But the most famous ghost associated with the Theatre Royal, Brighton, is that of Sarah Bernhardt. 

The legendary French actress damaged her knee during a performance at the theater in 1894, an injury which may have led to the amputation of her leg in 1915.  

That sounds like a good reason for her to haunt the place!

York Theatre Royal

The York Theatre Royal has the distinction of being built on the site of a medieval hospital that was run by an order of nuns, so naturally one would it expect nuns to haunt the theater as well. 

And apparently that's the case. Actors and others have seen a ghostly apparition in a soft grey habit with a white veil in the auditorium. 

This Lady in Grey has a reputation as a benevolent spirit, however. Seeing her appear in the dress circle on the night of a performance is a good sign; it means the show will be a success.

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and Theatre Royal Haymarket

Now we come to a couple of London's haunted Theatre Royals, including one that has been described as the most haunted theater on Earth — the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. 

At over 350 years old, this theater has witnessed thousands of performances, which translates to lots of opportunities for ghost legends to develop. Since 1663, the theater has been rebuilt four times on the same site, with the “modern” building standing today erected in 1812.

Joseph Grimaldi
One ghost, known as the Man in Grey, wears the 18th century garb of a cloak (grey of course), a wig, and a tricorne hat. Witnesses say they’ve seen him walking around the theater’s upper circle before vanishing into a wall.  

No one knows for sure who the Man in Grey might have been, but some think he’s associated with the skeleton that was found in a secret room at the theater that was discovered by builders in the 1870s.

The ghost of Joseph Grimaldi, famous comedian and pantomime clown during the Regency period, also haunts the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, while over at the Haymarket the 19th century actor, theater manager and playwright John Baldwin Buckstone appears.

The shades of Grimaldi and Buckstone are joined by the many other restless spirits who have accumulated in the haunted theaters over the centuries.

Performers and crew who have worked at London's two Theatre Royals have many stories about witnessing ghost sightings and other paranormal events. For example, actors Patrick Stewart and Judi Dench, along with a long list of others, claim to have seen Buckstone’s ghost at the Haymarket. 

Other London theater ghosts

The murder of William Terriss
Of course, these two Theatre Royals aren't the only haunted theaters in London. 

There is the terrifying severed head that appears at the Lyceum Theatre. A story goes that in the 1880s some theater patrons watching a performance from the balcony looked down over the auditorium below and saw the head sitting on a woman's lap. 

I don't know if the woman whose lap was being haunted was aware of the grisly apparition. I imagine she would have put up quite a fuss if she had seen it.

Over at the Adelphi Theatre, 19th century actor William Terriss is blamed for all sorts of poltergeist activity. Terriss was stabbed to death by an extra at the theater's stage door in 1897, which would be enough to make anyone carry a grudge into the afterlife. 

Besides haunting the Adelphi, Terriss has also been seen at the London Underground's Covent Garden station, which was built after his death. Perhaps he just wants a bigger audience for his ghostly appearances.

Finally, there's Arthur Bourchier, an actor who died in 1927 and has reportedly stuck around ever since as a ghost. A popular actor especially noted for his Shakespeare roles, for many years he also managed the Garrick Theater. Now he haunts it.

Sudden door slamming, electrical faults, knocking, unexplained television channel changes, floral scents associated with long-dead performers wafting through the air – these are examples of the  paranormal events reported at the theaters.

Not too scary, perhaps, but enough to make most people reluctant to be in an old London theater alone at night. 

So maybe this Halloween it would be wise to avoid wandering by yourself through the dark passages and empty rows of seats at any Theatre Royal in England. Unless, of course, you’re looking for a good scare!


Image by Please Don't sell My Artwork AS IS from Pixabay 

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 Sources for this post include:

"Inside the world's most haunted theatre," by Andrew Dickson, The Guardian, October 29, 2015

"The chilling stories of the 5 most haunted theatres in London," by Andrew Walker, January 30, 2021, My London.

"La divine Sarah," by Suzanne Hinton, French Brighton blog, March 25, 2018

"Ghosts," The Argus, February 2007

"Grey Lady," The York Ghost Merchants

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Images provided by Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

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