Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Mysterious White Insects on Madagascar Dragon Tree: Mealybug Infestation or Scale Insect Outbreak?

We further interrupt this already un-routine blog for another digression into a mysterious plant insect investigation. But, this story actually begins with a consideration of air quality in space station and how I acquired these specific houseplants in the first place. If you're interested in the problem of volatile solvents in household air sprays, and the afflictions suffered by tropical houseplants, read on...

We live in a top floor flat which has its windows on its roof. Air doesn't really "blow" through the house so much as it kinda randomly pours in, and this flat definitely has got some humidity and ventilation issues. I used to combat this with air sprays, but then I became curious about how air sprays work, and ended up finding out that a lot of air perfumes including my sprays of dubious provenance (thanks TK Maxx) actually may contradictorily deprove air quality in enclosed household spaces. Furthermore, many household cleaners and pre-made wipes were likely to release more volatile organic compounds into the trapped air.

So I got George to carry home three pots of Dracaena Marginatas (Red edged Dracaena), which were one of the plants studied in the NASA clean air study. The study was trying to determine which household plants would be potentially effective in cleaning the air in space stations, but obviously it also has very useful applications in indoor earth habitats.

This particular type of Dragon Tree was found to reduce the levels of benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene in the air by just living in the room. They are very low maintenance and rather importantly, they were also on SALE at the Homebase closest to us...

I also tried to switch to more basic methods of doing the household cleaning and descaling with combinations of citric acid, sodium carbonate, and Dr Bronner's castile soap. Say what you will about the crazy text all over the Dr Bronner soap bottles (bringing new meaning to soapbox - its certainly Dr Bronner's soapbox for his unusual moral philosophy), but the soaps work excellently and definitely do the job of keeping 'Spaceship Earth' clean.

Dr Bronner
Gaze upon this amazing picture of Dr Bronner from the 2015 ALL ONE REPORT, which begins with these words:
"In all we do, let us be generous, fair & loving to Spaceship Earth and all its inhabitants."

This morning whilst cleaning the bathroom in anticipation of first ever visit of my parents to London (and visit to our flat here) - I discovered that the Madagascar Dragon Tree living in the bathroom was covered in tiny white ovals! It was so horrifying I didn't take a picture of it. It wasn't mould, I could see that this was a bug problem, but these tiny stationary bugs were too tiny for me to perceive any detail with the naked eye (under 1mm big, but terrifyingly numerous). The infestation looked quite severe, and it seemed to have come on overnight. Some parts which were covered by dots had even turned a bit more yellow. I initially thought it must be mealybugs, but weird ones considering that they didn't have the usual furry fingery parts of the mealybug showing - but I supposed that perhaps there were weird strains of mealybugs in Britain - I mean, I'm not a mealybug expert! Who knows what the british mealybugs might be up to!

Most normal humans might consider throwing out their shockingly diseased-looking potted plant at this stage, but I decided that I was not going to do the normal thing. NO! I decided that I couldn't allow this plant to be eaten by mysterious white dots without trying to understand what was going on, so I googled for the instructions on how to eradicate mealybugs from a plant.

Techniques recommended included controlling the infestation using the mealybug's natural predators such as ladybirds or green lacewing. I considered going to the park and picking up as many ladybirds as I could, but I don't think George would want our bathroom to become a flying ladybird habitat (furthermore, we don't have the pleasure of having the time to breed flightless ladybirds which need to be bred by selective breeding like the Japanese have done).

Ladybird Transportation

To be fair, I'm quite sure if I needed to, I could actually find a handful of ladybirds and bring them home. Some are flighty, but some are quite tame and patient and will allow you to carry them for unreasonably long periods of time. This was a ladybird which I recently carried from a hot, uninteresting concrete pavement near Forest Hill - all the way to the very top of Crystal Palace Park...


If I could give everyone a strangely philosophical warning on the sheer tedium of houseplant treatment, it would be this:


After I spent ages cleaning each side of each leaf of the Dragon Tree, it looked much better. I was convinced it would survive this infestation of mysterious white dots.

Crucially, I also took a leaf from the bin and examined it with my USB microscope.


For comparison:



Looks like it is actually a kind of scale insect, a limpet-like creature which sits on plants and sucks the sap out of your poor juicy houseplants. How on earth did it get into our bathroom? The bathroom with its window mostly closed? I don't even know...

On an aside, I also wonder how many other people were induced to purchase plants on the NASA Clean Air Study list like me. Did the release of the list increase the sales of those specific plants, or are people not logical like that when it comes to their choice of houseplants?...

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Creatures of London: South London Parakeets, Hairy Hungry Caterpillars, and Medicinal Leech Barometers

I've been labouring over my remaining documentation of archives and libraries in London, but right now we interrupt my series of posts on Serious Things with a rather frivolous digression about various creatures of London, including the show-stopping Parakeets! Miraculously fluffy Caterpillars! And Giant Medicinal Leeches!

South London's Parakeet Invasion


A few weeks ago we made a merry afternoon's excursion to walk around Richmond (meandering somewhere around the rather posh residential neighbourhoods of Sheen or Mortlake), and we reached the Thames and were sitting by a tree when a rather insistent squawking began issuing forth. There weren't any birds visibly sitting in plain sight, but all of a sudden I spotted a small green face popping in and out of a small hole in the tree! It seemed both excited but also scared of us, and George took the very excellent picture you see above.

Yesterday in Lewisham (around Ladywell) whilst visiting a friend, I saw a family of about 5 green parrots flying past, squawking merrily overhead as they passed a beatific garden scene replete with summer's blooms at their peak, gentle wind chimes, and an inexplicably affectionate black cat which decided to make my lap its bed for half an hour.

After some googling it appears that wild parakeets in South London are A Thing, and no less there are several juicy theories as to why they are so plentiful in South London!

BBC2 - The Great Parakeet Invasion

The Bogart Theory is that parrots imported from Africa to be used in scenes in the Humphrey Bogart & Katharine Hepburn movie "The African Queen" (shot at Isleworth Studios in 1951) somehow escaped and began breeding in the area. The Hendrix Theory is that Jimi Hendrix released two parakeets in the 60s on Carnaby Street, but its unlikely that two birds did this all. Finally the Escape Theory is that the noisy parakeets perhaps escaped from the homes of pet owners fed up with their voiciferous nature, or maybe that they escaped from some cargo at Heathrow Customs...

In any case, apparently these birds do not go very far from where they were born so whatever the case it was humans who were responsible for letting them loose in this part of South London.

Hairy Caterpillar Season

It seems to be the peak of caterpillar and moth season around here lately. I have learnt the hard way that one must keep the shutters down at night or else the moths will roost - or should I say, roast - in your high power halogen lamps!

Here are two very hairy caterpillars I found in the neighbourhood. Both were probably soon to become moths and seeking a location suitable for its merry business of pupating, as they were found rather inadvisably crossing the pavement - so I picked them up and put them in the bushes. I also used this visual chart to identify these caterpillars...

Sycamore moth caterpillar

Buff Ermine caterpillar

I was so amused by this little fellow that I took it home whilst I googled about what type of caterpillar it was. But George said I could not have a caterpillar as a pet and I couldn't determine instantly what kind of host plant this type of caterpillar would eat, so I returned it to the bush nearest to the part of pavement I found it.

Also, if you look for information about "caterpillars in north london", you end up with various terrifying stories about poisonous caterpillars in Enfield and KILLER CATERPILLARS. And if you google for "caterpillars and snails", you'll get stories about how a small percentage of caterpillars have evolved to eat insects as well as snails.

"Meat only, please" - apparently this caterpillar won't eat its vegetables even when its starving...

Oh, the very very hungry caterpillar... they seem so misunderstood. Yet, just to be sure, lets not tempt fate by picking up hairy caterpillars with my bare hands and putting them in my snail tanks...

Merryweather's Tempest Prognosticator / Leech Barometer

Whilst strictly speaking I haven't had the pleasure of personally making the acquaintance of any delightful medicinal leeches recently, I encountered the story of the rather curious Tempest Prognosticator / Leech Barometer (aka AWARD-WINNING CUTTING EDGE VICTORIAN WEATHER PREDICTING TECHNOLOGY!) whilst looking through the Great Exhibition catalogue. Furthermore it has also occurred to me that the motion of leeches resembled that of caterpillars and snails, and I am somehow drawn towards these creatures...

So what is the leech barometer, you might ask? It consists of 12 leeches were placed individually in 12 bottles, arranged in a circle "in order that the leeches might see one another and not endure the affliction of solitary confinement". (Aw bless...) (FOR ALL YOUR BAROMETER RESTORATION NEEDS!) has an excellent doc on CARING FOR YOUR LEECHES which extols the virtues of the medicinal leech as the ideal pet. I urge you to read it if you have ever wondered to yourself "Should I acquire some medicinal leeches to be my next housepet?", or want to read of the 9 rules for reading the behaviours of leeches in bottles:

1 If the leech take up a position in the bottle’s neck, rain is at hand.
2 If he form a half-moon, when he is out of the water and sticking to the glass, sure sign of a tempest.
3 If he is continual movement, thunder and lightning soon.
4 If he seem as if trying to raise himself from the surface of the water, a change in the weather.
5 If he move slowly close to one spot, cold weather.
6 If he move rapidly about, expect strong wind when he stops.
7 If he lie coiled up on the bottom, fine, clear weather.
8 If forming a hook, clear and cold weather.
9 If in a fixed position, very cold weather is certain to follow.

I wish my snails were useful for weather prediction, for I often wonder and observe them, hoping they might be useful in divining something other than the presence of sliced cucumber in the vicinity.

Anyway, I soon became convinced that a leech might be a more suitable pet than a caterpillar, as it is apparently "low" in maintenance and reports are that a leech reportedly survived being in a cupboard for TWO YEARS. Not that I am advocating putting leeches in a jar in a dark cupboard for two years without food, but just acknowledging the extreme hardiness of the creature. I began to look for leech videos online, and promptly came across this excellent channel in which a Japanese youtuber seems to have bred some impressively gigantic medicinal leeches...

Source: spider huntsman: ペットの巨大ヒル2/My pet giant leech2

However, it soon became clear the level of total madness or sheer masochism involved in GIANT LEECH REARING. The youtuber who made these videos also notes that these gorgeous leeches got so big because they've been fed on his blood only - a touching or even charming prospect, until you read this knowledgeable commenter who bravely attempts to quantify the blood required in this procedure of keeping your bloodsucking pet alive on your blood alone:

A very good point, as shit is about to get real in the other videos...

Source: spider huntsman: ペットのヒル達/My pet leechs

Source: spider huntsman: ペットの巨大ヒル/My pet giant leech

Noooooooooooooooo I don't want to be eaten by my pet...

You will be glad to know that for the time being I have decided against having a pet leech...

Also I was worried about spider huntsman so I went to his twitter to check that he is still alive. He is still active on twitter and feeding more leeches with his arm which has healed and is not scarred or bloodied or ravaged by his army of pet leeches. He also seems to be selling a whole range of colourful and extremely beautiful horse leeches... which eat SNAILS... Noooooooooooooooo I don't want a pet which will eat my other pets...

A Visit to the Bishopsgate Institute Library

Located in a prime spot opposite Liverpool Street and on the A10, I have walked past this place countless times, with its beautiful entrance sign. Paradoxically repelled by its grand entrance (designed by late Victorian architect Charles Harrison Townsend who also famously designed the Horniman Museum and Whitechapel Gallery), I never once stepped in, having previously simply assumed it must be one of those private workingmen's clubs to which I had no business barging into.

No doubt today I only have my own ignorance to blame for my failure to investigate further into the Bishopsgate Institute earlier, but in a document about the history of the institute released on its centenary, it seems that I am not the only confused person - "It appears that the Institute had something of an identity problem in its early years; when the caretaker was interviewed in 1899, he noted that "One ingenious person entered with a pair of roller-skates in one hand and asked to be directed to the rink. On Saturday a gentleman, carrying a Gladstone bag, and with a travelling rug thrown over his arm, rushed up and asked when the train left. But the most disconcerting experience was when a young woman entered and demurely asked 'Is this a matrimonial agency?" Her disappointment was quite saddening when informed that marriages were not performed there..."

(I was so excited about being inside this place that I forgot to take interior pictures of the main reading room. It is oddly almost exactly the stereotype of the grand old public library I had in my head when I say "I'm going to the library". And in the past, so many a time have I languished around the Brick Lane area, eventually sitting in the Old Spitalfields Market wishing there was somewhere to sit and read or do something other than jostle with rushing business people in suits and angsty travellers speeding past with their angrily overweight luggages. If only someone had told me about this back then!)

Unlike many other libraries in London, no registration or proof of identity is required to come to peruse the library's books (or make use of its fine reading tables). Besides the reference library, on request it has an amazing collection of books, maps and other materials on London, the East End, labour, and activism/protests. A very enthusiastic archivist/librarian whose name I sadly didn't manage to catch showed us around and told us briefly about the history of the collection. First established as a workingmen's library for the working class in London's East End, many of the books in the collection today were the result of one librarian - Charles Goss. His unbridled collecting was not so much celebrated during his time, but he was responsible for building up the significant collections on London history, labour history, freethought and humanism whilst going on his extremely long lunch breaks and buying insane amounts of books by the wheelbarrow. (While he was with the library, he also campaigned to raise the status and pay of library staff. Also the man had a magnificent moustache...)

In the main reading room, there's a magnificent skylight which has survived the Blitz (and people throwing small rocks at it), and the original bookshelves have also survived till today - they have got little handles on the side which people could use to climb up and access books on the higher shelves by themselves. However, this useful design addition proved to be divisive for the sexes - victorian notions of women's ankles being "indecent" resulted in women asking for a separate reading room so that men would not glimpse their ankles as they climbed up using the handles and reached up for the books in a flash of prudish ankle absurdity. (I'm curious how the books were separated then between the rooms...)

The Minute Book of the First International Working Men's Association, 1866-69

Apparently the library had been consciously painted in a neutral calm colour as in the past there were concerns that the books alone being read in an excitable environment might spark some sort of mad revolt. In fact, the single most famous manuscript in the collection is the Minute Book of the First International Working Men's Association, 1866-69. The book was allegedly hailed by some as the moment of the birth of socialism, although disputably being just an ordinary meeting which just happened to be followed by an argument between George Howell and Karl Marx. (It's also got squiggles on the back, speculated to have been made by a bored notetaker). Due to the book's popularity status (even Stalin wrote to the Institute to ask to see the book!), the book was eventually deposited at the bank across the road for safe-keeping for over 20 years...

More about its archives/collections
120 Years of Events, including various lectures such Shackleton on his return from the South Pole
Horse Urine and Oysters

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Tally Sticks, Parliamentary Scrolls, and Vellum: A Visit to the Parliamentary Archives

I was very fortunate to have had the chance to visit the Parliamentary Archives, which holds the official records of the UK Parliament including acts, acts, journals, appeals, peerage claims, architectural plans, sessional papers, hansard (debates), various personal papers, etc.

The earliest document they hold is from 1497 for the House of Lords, and as for House of Commons the earliest they have is from 1547, but it would have been much earlier if not for the 'tally sticks' fire of 1834 and the small, unassuming "Jewel tower" standing across the road...

Apparently in 1834 the Exchequer/National Treasury had to dispose of a bunch of tally sticks, which were a physical form of accounting system that was becoming obsolete at the time. A primitive form of accounting which could be used even if you were totally illiterate, they were basically sticks marked with notches that were split lengthwise. These sticks were used to keep track of taxes that had been paid and an example of them can be seen here at the National Archives. Unfortunately the obsoleted sticks had their revenge just as they were being disposed of by being burnt in the basement of the House of Lords, resulting in a fire that consumed many records, except the ones in the Jewel Tower and ones that were furiously pushed to safety out of the window by a clerk...

We entered the grounds via Black Rod's Garden Entrance, and having never come explicitly to see Big Ben and the other the "touristic" sights of London before, I was shocked at the extreme numbers of people walking all around in all directions. People of every size, colour, and age, milling about on the greens and all over the roads, in every direction! "Is there a protest? Is something special going on today?" "Are these people coming to a festival? Is this place like this because Theresa May was just appointed as PM? Or is it because of Brexit??" No. Just another day at Westminster, inundated with an endless stream of flashing cameras and transient sightseers who have come to see the spectacle of parliament...

The persistence of the monarchy in the UK is a curious anachronism. From the perspective of a visitor coming from a foreign republic, the notion of it doesn't really bother me, but up close it is truly a very strange vestigial limb, wrapped up in a bizarre spectacle and ritual that I half-expect to be parody or a satire of itself.

We went up on an old lift and found ourselves in a maze of tiny passageways. The funny thing about very old and important buildings is that sometimes they seem to have been built for people who were much smaller, perhaps harking back to a time when the world's population was also smaller. You couldn't really expect to bring a big group through these tiny corridors, there just wouldn't be any space!

For those uninitiated with televised broadcasts of the State opening of the UK Parliament at the start of each new parliamentary session, Black Rod (whose Garden Entrance we used) has a very visible role in the ceremony of the opening of Parliament and the Queen's speech, where Black Rod (as representative of the Queen) summons the Commons to come to the Queen's speech. As he approaches the door of the House of Commons the door is slammed in his face, symbolising the independence that the Commons have from the queen. He then uses his black rod to knock on the door 3 times and then is admitted in to summon the Commons to attend the Queen's speech. (The short explanation of why this ritual exists is that in 1642 Charles I attempted to arrest 5 MPs which constituted a breach of the constitution, so the monarch's representative has to ask to be let into the Chamber of the house of commons, symbolising the right of the commons to question the right of the monarch's representative to enter the Chamber...)

We were shown the spot from which some strategic camera angles of the Queen are had... as the opening of this former ventilation chimney lies directly above the Sovereign’s Entrance.

"Hmm... did you say this entrance is only for the Queen? But the inside of this chamber is covered in pencils and small bits of stationery carelessly dropped in by other butterfingered visitors and researchers passing through! What will happen during the next opening?..."

Here is the famous room where all of the UK's parliamentary acts are stored - a controlled climate room to keep over 60 thousand vellum scrolls in the best condition possible.

These are actually the first scrolls I've ever seen in my life in person (I'm definitely no medievalist!). All written in iron gall ink apparently. I've never had occasion to request for a document in scroll form from any archive or library in the past. In fact I've never had to think about real scrolls in this way before, or to have to use the word Codex to distinguish it from the Scroll. [Codex being individual sheets of vellum which are then bound along one side.

I think of the Page/Codex as the "older" format from which tyrannous Infinite Scroll has emerged out of. But historically, the scroll came first. To see the scrolls as retired format for the archive is vindication that the infinite scroll is indeed a regression in terms of design - an abomination of both readability and function. I hate the infinite scroll with no end in sight, which overwhelms with too much information and takes control away from the reader who may have wished to index, bookmark or access the text with more precision. Often it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the location of the data that one wishes to find back later, especially if you have pressed the back button on an Ajax loaded infinite scroll. As for a page/codex format, even though one can only read one page at any one time, it is also easier to make a decision on whether any material of interest will be present in a document by reading one highly specific page, as opposed to skimming through a potentially infinite chunk.

Strangely when I look at these very old scrolls, I think of them almost as a painted landscape, of them painting an infinite, continuous history. (Also: I suppose that if the scrolls consisted of only visual material and formed a continuous narrative, perhaps I'd be less prejudiced against the infinite scroll itself...)

Another significant change has recently happened, or rather, NOT HAPPENED. Although legislation has been printed and paginated for quite some time, this year there was a big decision on the material to be used. Vellum which is made out of calfskin (actually sheep and goat too) has been the traditional material used to inscribe or print upon because of its longevity - it survives thousands of years and has enabled the persistence of documents in the parliamentary archives for a thousand years! (except for humidity and fire! it can't do fire!) But earlier this year, the House of Lords debated that legislation should be printed on archival paper in order to save tens of thousands of pounds a year. The use of vellum was argued as being "vanity printing" and "frivolous flummery" in an age where efficient digital alternatives seem exist)... But of course this begs the question, how much trust can we put in digital alternatives? Can there really be any digital media storage solution which isn't inherently unreliable or under the physical threat of becoming obsolete as a format further down the line, when we are talking about 500, 1000, 5000 year time scales?

Paper lasts around 200-500 years (probably more in the range of 200), but vellum purportedly can last 5000 years. The Domesday Book was written on vellum in 1086. The Magna Carta was put on vellum in 1215. Unbelievably we can still see those very documents today. Vellum from 600 can be found in excellent condition today. There is no telling how paper will survive beyond 200 years. So, although the material change would result in some savings for parliament, it might mean jeopardise the accessibility of historical documents in the long term future - assuming that we also believe that time will go on and switching to paper might even result in costly preservation issues in 200 years time!

At the time, Paul Wright, William Cowley's general manager and Britain's remaining maker of vellum was quoted in The Telegraph as saying: "What they have decided is that future generations will be denied the privilege of touching history and no man has the right to make that decision."

Fortunately, after protests from MPs and many other supporters, it was decided that they would continue using vellum. The ability of people in over 500 years time to touch legislation made today may seem rather inconsequential in the short term, and obviously a vellum maker also has vested interests in the matter, but it touches on something quite important: indeed one may argue that we can let go of things, and sometimes we may even be forced to let go of things, but I think the desire to touch and hold these historic things in our own hands will continue to persist. A primal desire to prove its existence by squeezing it in our own hands, to have that personal tactile connection with something that we believe is real and authentic...

Here is the original FOI act printed on Vellum.

Thank you to archivist Mari Takayanagi for showing our group around the archives.

Update: On more recent attempts to gather galls to make Iron Gall Ink!

So all the acts were written in Iron Gall ink on Vellum. We know where the Vellum came from, but where does the iron gall ink come from? Where did it come from in the past? Was this ink imported, and where from?

At first, I began by doing the obvious - trying to find oak marble galls myself. Whenever I read online that galls are "widespread" around the world, I weep because for some reason, I must be living in an area of London that is somehow devoid of the specific wasps which are responsible for causing those characteristic oak marble galls.

After hours in my nearest park, Finsbury Park, I determined that there are probably only just 3 large English oak trees of note. You'd have thought there'd be more Kings of the Forest in there, but noooo, it is mainly populated with London Plane trees and a smattering of other trees including cedar, horse chestnut, holly, willow, lombardy poplar, beech, and a fair number of hornbeam trees. (NOTE: not an exhaustive list!)

English Oak

Baby Acorn (English Oak aka pedunculate oak has acorns with stalks, sessile oaks which are also known sometimes as irish oaks have stalkless acorns. These have got stalks)

Spangle Galls

Knopper Galls

Every acorn, a knopper gall!

Out of these three English Oak trees in Finsbury Park, two have a lot of galls on them, but only spangle galls and knopper galls. Funny enough, as I was searching for galls under the oak trees, I found myself being bizarrely hit on the head by a constant rain of knopper galls (the very things I came for!) as it turns out that there was a small squirrel very very high up in the tree trying to eat the baby acorns but it was discarding all the excrescences and throwing the gnarly bits down on to the ground!

Half eaten acorn, only excrescence is left!

The miscreant who is pelting me with galls

Anyway with my handful of knopper galls, I went home to read up more about galls, and on closer reading I realised that the Andricus kollari wasp itself responsible for galls was not introduced to the UK until the 1800s!!! In any case it is reported that galls on English Oak trees are ascertained to contain little tannic acid, and are of little value. I haven't verified this properly but it seems Aleppo galls from Syria and Asia Minor are said to have been shipped over in boatloads to Europe for the production of iron gall ink???


Saturday, 23 July 2016

A Chinese Gatecrasher at the Great Exhibition: A Visit to the National Art Library (Victoria & Albert Museum)

During my student days I felt too intimidated to try to access the National Art Library, despite my countless visits to the V&A on the way home via South Kensington. How foolish of me! There were no barrier to entry, but then again, there were also no clear signs on how I should have come to access and browse this library, and even with renewed purpose and confidence after the IHR course, I still felt some trepidation on going to register for a reader's ticket.

Firstly, a logistical note for the first time visitor: leave your bag at the cloakroom by the entrance. There are plastic bags available. If you haven't already registered for the NAL card, its £1 for an average sized bag. If you have the NAL card, its free to use the cloakroom, but it's that Catch-22 where if you're a first time visitor who hasn't got the card up but are going to the library to obtain one, then you'll simply have to shell out the £1. If you go to the Library doors carrying your bag, they will tell you to go back to the cloakroom. There aren't any lockers nearby, so you'll just have to go down the stairs and back through the gift shop to the cloakroom at the front entrance again.

After registering with my ID and explaining the research I wanted to do in brief, I was granted a very generous 5 year reader's ticket, and that was it. Dated 2021, an implicit assumption and reminder that the library would be here in 2021 granting me access to all of its volumes for the next 5 years when I didn't even know what I'd be doing in the next 5 years! The librarian asked me to sign my new card, and then, there it was, my ticket. I looked at him. He looked at me. I looked at him, expecting some explanation, some formal introduction, or reminders to not take in my pens and clipboards. With many other libraries and archives often giving a perfunctory explanation to first time users of their resources, I was surprised that they assumed that I knew what I was doing, or perhaps my performance of the foreign artist-designer-researcher had been too convincing. The librarian gestured to me go along, so I awkwardly slunk off to a corner of the room like a small terrified spider trying to hide itself in the corner, clinging to the open shelves at the edge of the room and going around in a few circles, keenly aware of the creaky floor amplified by the volume of the space in the library - the librarians wheeling their comically squeaky trolley across the room, the raspy breathing of researchers and their intense and very serious flipping of huge dusty books on cushioned pads. Finally, having crawled all around the edge of the library back to the front entrance in one great circle, I seized upon a map affixed to the front of the library which showed there was an open shelf for the "GREAT EXHIBITION".

No doubt much has been written on the subject of "The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations" in 1851, and I have since found that many extremely pertinent volumes (such as Tallis' inimitable account of the Great Exhibition) can actually be found online in digital form. But here, gathered together into a collection, the considerable size and unexpected heft of the volumes emphatically declare the existence of these records; it is so much easier to browse through it manually, to sift through and determine what material within it is truly of note.

Robert Ellis' preface to the catalogue acknowledges the 'extreme challenge' involved in contending with the vastness of the collection and the element of disorder - in trying to put together a catalogue with over 15000 contributors, manuscripts, drawings, etc, all of which required to be put into some order of composition in time for the catalogue's publication. The introduction to the section on the colonies also expresses the importance of the visit to the exhibition to handle objects in person:

There appear only two available methods by which a manufacturer can be made acquainted with the existence of foreign products likely to be useful in his business; one is, by the collection of such information as is obtainable respecting them, and arranging it according to the most prominent properties of such substances. When these are so arranged, it is comparatively easy for any one to ascertain whether India, or any other foreign country, contains any useful or ornamental product which might be employed instead of, and be cheaper than, that already in use.

But with the most simple arrangement and clearly-conveyed information, the manufacturer generally would feel little interest about unknown natural products and their strange names, unless he had an opportunity of seeing and of personally examining them. Then, a glance of his practised eye, or the slightest handling of a new substance, informs him whether it is likely to be of use for his purposes.

This wasn't some special trade fair just for the rich, or traders and manufacturers and people working in industry. This was a spectacular extravaganza for the masses. The exhibition ran for 141 days (1 May 1851 to 11 October 1851, closed on Sundays) and had been attended by very large numbers of people from all over - imagine, that 6,039,195 people visited it, of which over 4,439,419 had come in the last 80 days when the ticket prices had been very sensibly lowered over the duration of the exhibition (just a shilling). It was also abetted by railway developments - in the pre-railway age stagecoach fares were about 6d (6 pence / half a shilling) for each mile, an average labourer in London might earn 20-30 shillings a week and outside of London it was likely to be less than that, but with the railways there were "shilling days" where one could get a return ticket for a train down to London for around 4-6 shillings (3rd class). (Thomas Cook had started his company ten years prior in 1841 with similar shilling day rail excursions for all and sundry and there were many such packages to ferry anyone and everyone to London for an excursion to the Great Exhibition. King's Cross had opened in 1850, connecting London to much of the north and midlands...)

A fantastic satirical etching by George Cruikshank: originally from Henry Mayhew's 1851: or, The adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to "enjoy themselves", and to see the Great Exhibition. On the way to the library I had been complaining to George about the painfully slow traffic in Knightsbridge and difficulty in getting in and out of buses and trains due to the sheer number of students on excursion and tour groups becoming stuck inside stations... I guess some things haven't changed since then...

Other absolutely useless but depressing figures found in the tally books: During the exhibition, a rather frightful 1,092,337 bottles of soft drinks (supplied by a Messir Schweppe!) were consumed, 943,691 Bath buns were eaten (which forever altered people's understanding of Bath buns and ended up being known as "London Bath Buns" as these buns were more irregularly shaped, very fruited, highly sugary and generally heavier than their counterparts from Bath), and also another 870,027 plain buns were consumed.

I could go on and on about the criteria for the selection of exhibits as well as the dubious selection and Prizes given out, which resulted in some many absurdities and 'innovations' and 'offenses against good taste' (in some opinions) being put on display, but perhaps that should be for another post.

Today what I'm excited about is the story of a mysterious chinese man who basically gatecrashed the opening in grand style, captured here in Selous's official portrait for the opening.

The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851
Henry Courtney Selous. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From the V&A Website: "The identity of the man in Chinese dress who stands in the group on the right of the painting with foreign commissioners and chairmen of juries has been subject to debate, as no official Chinese delegation attended the opening of the Great Exhibition. In a printed key to Selous's painting, published in a newspaper in 1852 (V&A museum number 329:1-1889), his name is given as Hee Sing, and a note records that he 'happened to be present on the occasion', implying that he had no official position in the opening ceremony. However, it has recently been suggested that this man can be identified as Mr Xisheng (alternative spelling Hesing), who arrived in England in 1848 onboard the first Chinese ship to have entered British waters, the Keying. A medal in the collection of the Shanghai History Museum, bearing a portrait of Xisheng, records this event with the following inscription:


Googling for the name HEE SING brings me to a book which notes that it was recounted by Lyon Playfair in his memoirs that "a Chinaman dressed in magnifient robes, suddenly emerged from the crowd and prostrated himself before the throne. Who he was nobody knew. He might possibly be the Emperor of China himself who had come secretly to the ceremony."

Organisers were completely fooled and taken in by his immaculate dressing and 'dignified' behaviour (executing an elaborate kowtow to the Queen) and thus they regarded him as someone significant and placed him between the archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Wellington where he was immortalised in many portraits of the opening ceremony. He is mentioned as the "bogus Chinese mandarin" in some sources...

More on the "Keying" from the Illustrated London News of 29 July 1848:

The ROYAL CHINESE JUNK "KEYING" manned by a Chinese Crew. Visitors received by a Mandarin of rank and Chinese Artist of celebrity. Grand Saloon, gorgeously furnished in the most approved style of the Celestial Empire. Collection of Chinese Curiosities, &c. The "Keying" is now open for Exhibition, from Ten to six, in the East India Docks, adjoining the Railway and Steam-boat Pier, Blackwall.—Admission, One Shilling.

ADMISSION, ONE SHILLING.—During the limited period which the ROYAL CHINESE JUNK will remain in London, the charge for admission will be reduced to One Shilling. This most interesting Exhibition, which has been justly called "the greatest novelty in Europe," has been visited by her Majesty the Queen, all the Royal Family, and an immense number of persons, including nearly all the nobility and foreigners of distinction in London. Junk Tickets, including fare and admission, are issued by the Blackwall and Eastern Counties Railways. Omnibuses direct, and conveyance also by Steam-boat from all the Piers between Westminster and Woolwich; fare 4d. Catalogues obtainable only on board, price 6d.

In short, Hesing (who acts as "Mandarin of rank" on the Keying, and is also captain of the ship) gatecrashes the opening of the Great Exhibition and convinces everyone there as well that he must be VERY IMPORTANT since he dresses like he must be important and behaves like he must be important, and strangely no one thought to ask him who he was (why???). It is not clear to me - and it seems it is also not clear to everyone else looking back on the event - on whether Hesing was an authentic mandarin official or simply performed as "Mandarin of rank". But it does sound like the Keying had been a popular and quite affordable NOVELTY (red flag) exhibition on an epic Chinese Junk brought over by some "enterprising english businessmen" (another red flag). I wonder what Hesing's account of the whole affair would have been like. Was he just acting as his 'character', as the "Mandarin of rank"? Or was he trying to assert his role as an "true Mandarin of rank" in the face of other people's doubts of his authenticity? And what happened to Hesing and the Keying after all this? So many questions and more to search for...

Sunday, 17 July 2016

"What do you mean we're in Middlesex?" and "Is it Harringay, Haringey, Haeringshege, Haurnsy, Hornsey or HRNNGGGHHH??": A Visit to the London Metropolitan Archives

The first time I've ever seen an 18th century feoffment document!
E/MW/C/0218 / A transaction in 1707 for Tower Place and the Warren in Woolwich

The London Metropolitan Archive is hidden away in a large nondescript building down in Clerkenwell. As an archive of local records for the London area, it combines the collections of the London County Council (LCC), Middlesex County Council (MCC), Greater London Council (GLC), pan-London charities, organisations, businesses, and records from the Diocese of London (all of the parishes that donated their records – most have, and these are quite useful for those researching family history within the area).

Useful and sometimes curiously specific research guides


Index files for Parish Records at LMA

Parish Registers: useful for historical records of births, names of parents, baptisms, marriages, and burials, etc.

Mind you, I've noticed that archivists and government administrators seem to love acronyms, so the terms do take getting used to, but the most exciting thing I've been induced to think about is the concept of the place called MIDDLESEX. Perhaps this is something all you people brought up in the UK already know in great detail or learnt in school, but my understanding of Middlesex has always been fuzzy. To be honest I simply thought that was where Enfield is (aka Quite Far Away Place), because I saw a Public Office noticeboard in Enfield in 2014 that wrote MIDDLESEX on it. Back when we were living in Stamford Hill, I could hop on the National Rail service directly to Enfield Town in about 20 minutes, so it’s clearly a very reasonable commutable distance to the city.

In Enfield (February 7, 2014)

It might sound like a useless distinction to talk of, but people, you don't understand: I'm still easily excited by the frisson of crossing invisible county lines! We haven’t got other historical counties or towns to travel to in Singapore, everything is just paddling about in the same pond there. Here I can go to a DIFFERENT county or city in under half an hour? OMG I'll do it, it's cheap thrills for me!

But non-londoners may not be aware of the boundaries of the historic county of Middlesex prior to the 18th and 19th urbanisation which rendered areas such as Tottenham and Enfield more as residential suburbs for the city of London.

Map by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, 1997

In simple terms, historically Middlesex had its own thing going on (and it even appears in the Domesday Book) - Middlesex, Middleseaxon, Land of the Middle Saxons! But then as the city of London expanded, more and more of what would be considered Middlesex in the past was effectively changing into the “suburbs of London”...

Starting with the Local Government Act of 1888, administrative counties were formally established. So in 1888, a small part of what was considered part of Middlesex County was then transferred to the new County of London, and the rest then came under Middlesex County Council. Over the years, a series of local government acts established, merged, or dissolved various counties. The MCC (Middlesex county council) was dissolved in 1965 as the area had become urbanised together as the Greater London area, and then became under the GLC (Greater London council) from 1965 onwards [London Government Act 1963] – until the GLC itself was dissolved in 1986 and its powers distributed to the various London Boroughs [Local Government Act 1985].

So the question is, does Middlesex still exist or does it cease to exist if the administrative region of Middlesex no longer exists? (I suppose I'd say that Middlesex ceases to exist once people no longer actively refer to it as Middlesex).

This reminds me of the equally confusing question of “Is it Harringay or Haringey?” A victim of multiple spelling variations, when you walk around the neighbourhood around my house, you’ll see this:

A walk around on 17 July 2016

A h2g2 article notes that the spelling Haringey was recorded in 1387, whereas Harringay was recorded in 1569. A large Tudor house built in 1792 was named by its owner Edward Gray as “Harringay House” and it formerly stood at the top of the hill (on what is the present-day Ladder, at the top end closest to present-day Wightman Road between Allison Road and Hewitt Road and over the tunnel through which the New River runs underground) - thus the usage of Harringay took common precedence in the neighbourhood. OS Maps in 1894 record the area where our flat is as Harringay Park Estate (Note: this means that our house was originally built somewhere between 1880-1894).

The name “Harringay” was preferred by the people who lived there and attempts by the Municipal Borough of Hornsey to standardize the spelling as “Haringey” were stymied by locals who insisted on using “Harringay”. Today, the administrative name for the borough is Haringey, but the place is known as Harringay. In any case the names Harringay/Haringey and also Hornsey are both actually derived from the mangling of the name of Harenhg or Heringes or Haering’s Hege. Haringey Borough website says that a local historian established that there are a staggering “162 variants of the spelling of the name in surviving historical documents from the medieval period onwards”, so at that rate, people may as well have been muttering HRHRHRHGHRGGG to each other... "Oh righto, see you tonight in Herrggnhgghhhhh...."