North London has quite a gothic pedigree. From Bram Stoker’s Lucy Westenra stalking Hampstead Heath to Stephen King’s terrifying Crouch End ‘Towen’, an otherworldly atmosphere lingers here. The region has captured the imagination of writers through the ages, casting the area as both friend and foe.
William Blake felt uneasy in North London. Shortly before his death, in a letter to painter and friend John Linnell, Blake said: “When I was young, Hampstead, Highgate, Hornsey, Muswell Hill, and even Islington, and all places North of London, always laid me up the day after and sometimes two or three days.” It is rather strange that he kept going back, if these persistent physical ailments always followed the journey. Perhaps there was something about the otherworldliness of North London that drew Blake almost as a siren call.
Everyone knows: tattoos are for convicts, prostitutes, and drunken sailors. Any woman who dares get one is destined to live fast and die young. Harlots of the saucest degree. Her only job prospects are the circus sideshow or a biker’s Old Lady.
Or so we think…
Tattooed women have meant many things over the past several hundred years that have nothing to do these stereotypes: an emblem of the aristocracy, an unlikely international impulse towards sisterhood, and a mark of feminism.
But before I dive into what the tattoo is, let’s explore what it is not. Debunking myths is, to me, one of the most thrilling aspects of historical research. So here we go…
Whether it was considered an intellectual pursuit, a genuine religious order, a feminist flag, or just a grand excuse for a gin-soaked party, Spiritualism was a crucible where many of the conflicting and newly forming ideas of the late Victorian era brewed and clashed. At one point it was the domain of the intellectual elite, who held literary salons discussing Swedenborg and Blake. At the other extreme it was reverse colonialism gone mad, with female liberation, drunkenness—and worst of all Americanness—running rampant through England.
The Victorians had long been fascinated by a wide range of phenomena that might loosely be termed the ‘occult’; and earlier manifestations of interest in spirituality had made their mark during the first half of the 19th century. Tracing Spiritualism’s lines of origin, we’re driven through these occult pathways into the heart of Bloomsbury. Button your greatcoat and steel your nerves as your tour guide Dr Romany Reagan leads you on an audio journey through the Bloomsbury backstreets into a landscape of gothic intrigues and Victorian ghost stories.
I made this video with The Dickens Project out of University of California, Santa Cruz for their Dickens-to-Go project.
Just in time for Halloween, Dr. Romany Reagan explains how the Victorian revival of Mesmerism of the 1830s allowed Dickens to explore “ideas about the workings of the mind [that] come through in his work when you start to see his characters and their hauntings through the lens of his mesmeric philosophy.”
We humans would rather have something a bit flawed but true than gloss-plastic perfection. On the surface, that doesn’t seem to be so—with ‘reality’ TV shows illustrating a life that’s nothing like reality and Instagram influencers filtered into poreless automatonica—but there is an undercurrent backlash to this that I see all around us. Our collective psyche is seeking to balance itself: enter Victoriana.
In May 2020 Dr. Romany Reagan shared a Facebook status posing a scenario: the events experienced by a hypothetical person born in 1900. Aged 14, World War One begins. When you’re 29: The Great Depression hits. Aged 62, you have the Cuban Missile Crisis. This led Cemetery Club founder Sheldon K.Goodman to question: how sheltered are we from death nowadays? How has Coronavirus changed our attitude towards it? How are cemeteries adapting to changing ways of memorialisation and remembrance? Are they even needed any more? Join cemetery historians and guides Romany and Sheldon in a friendly death-positive conversation that we’d love you to get involved with.
Written accounts of witchcraft, witch trials, cunning folk, and folk magic were largely recorded by the Church, with all the prejudices associated with a one-sided narrative. Given these practices were handed down generation to generation through oral histories as a form of intangible heritage, only the Church’s ‘official’ version of these practices has traditionally survived as our record. Luckily for researchers, instructions for creating witch bottles were written down and tangible items such a old shoes and written curses were tucked into walls kept safe from destruction in their hidden places. Stepping away from the ‘official’ texts to these scraps and personal finds can help us learn from another perspective about these practices, offering a fascinating look at the fears—and sometimes wrathful vengeances—secreted away in hearths and walls by our ancestors.
The following is an excerpt from a talk I gave at the Museum of the Home (formerly the Geffrye Museum) in November 2019, ‘Witch Bottles & Worn Shoes: Home Protection Folklore Practices’.
The 13 rivers and brooks of London still flow. Once they passed through fields and valleys, and now they run along pipes and sewers. But they have survived through the human world. They are buried, but they are not forgotten. (Ackroyd, 2011, 38)
The vision of London’s rivers flowing in the open air is of a time long past. These rivers today flow in darkness. They are as hidden from our view as the past from which they came. It’s this ability that they hold to be of the past—yet also, undeniably, here and now—that positions the river as a conceptual access point to conceive of the temporal shifts within hidden layers of place.
Pirates, smugglers, treason, and a fake king—Lundy Island has seen it all. Something about this enticingly close, yet seductively remote, little island has attracted ne’er-do-wells for over 1,000 years…