Newsletter 61

Welcome to the summer 2021 issue of our occasional news.


 Our new book is called When There Were Birds, which we started to write well before Covid 19 came on the scene. Throughout the pandemic, we have been totally immersed in the book, very thankful to have something so substantial and absorbing to focus on, a means of blocking out what was happening.


By chance, birds became a big topic of conversation, because the glorious peace and quiet caused by the first lockdown enabled us all to hear birdsong so clearly. It also led to a realisation that the modern world is incredibly detrimental to the natural world and our well-being. We certainly noticed an increase in bird numbers in our own large, unkempt garden, where we have spotted well over two dozen different species in the past year.



Peacock feathers – lovely to look at, but unlucky or lucky?Read our book!


The book is already featured on Amazon, and possibly elsewhere, with this brief description, which summarises it nicely:


Birds are a joy and solace in troubled times, as well as a reminder of past experiences and a symbol of hope for the future. For centuries, they were also seen as a source of food, feathers and even fuel, and being so numerous, many were persecuted as pests. When There Were Birds is a social history of Britain that charts the complex connections between people and birds, set against a background of changes in the landscape and evolving tastes, beliefs and behaviour. Birds were once key elements of the nation’s history, traditions and sports, and this gave rise to a rich legacy of literature, language and myths.

No other group of animals has had such a complex and lengthy relationship with humankind. Birds have been kept in cages as pets, taught to speak and displayed as trophies. More practically, they have been used to tell the time, predict the weather, foretell marriages, provide unlikely cures for ailments, convey messages and warn of poisonous gases.

Although very familiar, birds have often seemed strange, sinister and alarming. With their ability to fly, they bridged the gap between the earth and the heavens, and superstitions were rife because they were presumed to be linked to the supernatural. When There Were Birds draws together many disparate, forgotten strands to present a story that is an intriguing and unexpectedly significant part of our heritage.


The publication date is 11th November 2021, Armistice Day, which is fitting as birds played important roles in warfare, not least as a source of comfort for the soldiers on the Western Front during World War One.


The book jacket is currently being designed, and we have seen a draft version, which was wonderful. As for publication and availability, all we know at the moment is that the book will be available in Britain, published by Little, Brown as a hardback (ISBN 978-1408713570) and as an e-book. We will let you know when an audiobook is planned, as well as any foreign editions. You can check out our website for more information (we hope to find time to do a website page very soon).


Normally, we would be looking forward to doing talks and interviews at and beyond publication, but who knows what will happen? By now, everyone seems to be a little weary of online events, as we all yearn for real face-to-face contact.


Wild violets grow especially well in Devon (in south-west England), and they were farmed commercially around Dawlish, to be sent by steam train to London and sold as small posies and sprays. That inevitably changed in World War Two, and nowadays violets are no longer such a common sight in the wild, wiped out by modern agriculture. Violets were also used in perfumes, which were popular gifts purchased by tourists to Devon until about the 1960s.



One of many wild violets in our Devon garden


Early perfumes

In our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (pages 139–41), we described personal hygiene and how people did not wash themselves or their clothing very often. During a visit to the Houses of Parliament in London in 1806, Elizabeth Fremantle said that “the heat and smell were insufferable”. Because many workers were involved in sweaty, manual labour, pungent body odours were commonplace.



The first anti-perspirant deodorants were developed in the United States at the end of the 19th century, though they were only widely used from the 1940s. This advert from the Sunday Pictorial newspaper in 1950 shows how they were introduced to Britain, though they only really came into widespread use from the 1960s.


In the many centuries before anti-perspirants, the stink of bodies was masked with perfumes, with a wide variety of scents being developed. In his book Countrey Contentments or the English Huswife, published in 1623, Gervase Markham included a section headed “Skill in Perfumes”, giving recipes for general perfumes, scented waters and even perfumes for specific items of clothing. This is his recipe for gloves:


“To perfume gloves excellently, take the oyle of sweet almonds, oyle of almonds, oyle of nutmegs, oyle of benjamin, of each a dramme, of ambergreece one graine, fat muske two graines: mixe them altogether and grind them upon a painters stone, and then annoint the gloves therewith: yet before you annoint them let them be dampishly moistned with damask rose water.”

Perfumes were largely made at home until well into the 19th century, the most popular being rose water and lavender water. There were small variations in the recipe for lavender water, which was a simple and relatively cheap perfume to make. This is from a late 18th-century recipe book:

Lavender Water

Take half an ounce of oyl of lavender, & a quarter of an ounce of essence of ambergrise. Put it in a quart of the very best tartaris’d spirit of wine & let it infuse a week in the sun or before the fire.


Perfumes for the rich

Apart from a pleasant smell, the qualities most valued in a perfume were the strength of its scent and how long it lasted. Perfumes imported from abroad often consisted of a greater range of ingredients, blended for strength and designed to be long-lasting, which made them more desirable and more expensive. Only the rich could afford them, and even spilled perfume from broken bottles was a saleable commodity, as seen in this curious advert from The Times in January 1816:



Perfumes made in Britain did their best to compete by changing the recipes. The year before, in 1815, the same newspaper carried an advert for an improved treble-distilled lavender water, “the only one that retains its superior fragrance after many hours”:



Devon violets perfume

By the end of the 19th century, with fewer people having the time or the ingredients to make perfumes at home, cheaper versions were being sold, though still advertised as luxury items. In December 1898, the Torquay Times and South Devon Advertiser gave ideas for Christmas presents, including perfumes from a local supplier in Torquay:


Two of the most fashionable perfumes in Torquay are, undoubtedly, YOUNG’S “Real Devonshire Violets”, and “The Devon Roses.” The first possesses the sweet and delicate odour of the living flower, whilst Devon Roses is a most lasting perfume of exquisite fragrance. They are distilled only by Mr. Young, of 18 Fleet-street, and those who wish to give a bottle of perfume as a Christmas present, will have the satisfaction of knowing they are obtaining the very best quality if they buy either of the two we have named.


Wild violets in our garden in the spring


Other local suppliers followed, and the market expanded countrywide. This advert was placed in a December 1938 issue of the Yorkshire Post by the main producer of Devon Violets scent:


GIVE FRAGRANCE FOR XMAS.––Our Devon Violet Essence contains the genuine flower extract and is made on our farm where acres of the superbly scented “Princess of Wales” Violets are grown. A distinctive and True Violet Essence. 3/-, 5/-, 8/6. Trial size 1/6 p.f. Free Illus. Cat. of Pot Pourri Sachets, etc.––Lammas and son, Dept. 17. The Violet Farm, Dawlish, Devon.

The scent was also sold as a powder, and in its instructions for making a muff for protection from the cold weather, the Glasgow Evening Post in December 1889 said: “And don’t forget to sprinkle the lining thickly with fragrant violet-scented sachet powder.”


Yardley of London, established in 1770, became a prestigious manufacturer of toiletries and began selling Devon Violets perfume in the early 1920s, as competition to the local producers. In the post-war years of the 1950s and 1960s, the local market thrived when tourists flocked to Devon and purchased souvenir bottles of perfume to take home. The bottles themselves, in pottery and glass, were novelty items, in all shapes and sizes, tied with a blue or violet ribbon. Fond memories are still evoked by the sight of these novelty bottles and the smell of Devon Violets.

Many thanks to Pamela Smith for suggesting the subject of Devon violets.



We had an enthusiastic response to our piece on “Tools of the Trade” in the last newsletter, so are featuring here another example of documents used by historians  – autograph books. These were small gift books with blank pages which children tried to have filled with autographs penned by adult relatives, neighbours and any other likely candidates. It was customary to write a small verse or homily or even include a drawing. Some adults also kept an autograph book, often for collecting celebrity signatures.


With their many frivolous entries, autograph books are easily overlooked as sources of history, and yet they reflect the social attitudes of the era. The time-frame of entries is frequently short, but entries themselves are often dated, which is a huge asset.

Red Cross Hospital

The great upheaval caused by World War One led to an increased mixing of people in Britain and a fashion for collecting autographs. This was particularly true in hospitals, where nurses had plenty of people to ask and convalescing servicemen had spare time to devise entries. The following are pages from the autograph book of Florence Taylor, who lived at Maidenhead in Berkshire and seems to have worked as a nurse at the nearby Red Cross hospital in Taplow.


The hospital was then called The Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital and was on part of the Cliveden estate owned by Lord and Lady Astor. Turned down by the British army, the offer of the site by the Astors was accepted by the Canadian Red Cross (so was it a coincidence that Florence had once lived in Canada?). The hospital was named after the Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia, who became the Duchess of Connaught and Strathearn when she married the Duke, who was Governor General of Canada from 1911 to 1916.


Patients at the hospital were largely Canadian servicemen, and although the buildings were demolished and built over in 2006, the small cemetery belonging to the hospital (now called the War Memorial Garden) can still be seen, located within the National Trust estate of Cliveden.


Signs of the times

Many of the entries in this autograph book express a view of the wartime situation, such as this short verse:



Smile and the world smiles with you

Weep and you weep alone

For this sad old earth has need of your mirth

It has sorrows enough of its own


The autograph seems to be have been written on 11th January 1917 by Ella Whatla Willcock, am/3, and the sentiment remains relevant today. Stop press: many thanks to our newsletter subscribers for pointing out that this was part of a poem called “Solitude” by the American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who died in 1919. The autograph writer was AMB, who perhaps had copied this from another handwritten source, as Wheeler has turned out most strangely!


From the number of drawings, it is obvious that the autograph book was left for some time with individual patients, possibly several days. This sketch, probably a substitute for a Christmas card, is a fantasy portrayal of a Christmas toast between airmen on a balloon and an aeroplane, with a considerable amount of detail shown (including a dog and its kennel!).



The drawing is signed by A.G. Burnett of the RNAS, which was the Royal Naval Air Service. For most of World War One, two air forces existed – this one, operated by the Royal Navy, and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) under army control. The two were amalgamated into the Royal Air Force (RAF) in April 1918.


The RNAS frequently used balloons, because before radar and reliable radios, a balloon tethered to a ship and connected by telephone could provide rapid and reliable information about enemy ships that were too far away to be visible from the surface of the sea.


The BE2b aircraft

Many of the entries in the book were intended to be humorous, and being wartime much of the humour was dark, if not black. Psalm 23 from the Bible begins “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want”, which was parodied as “The Pilot’s Psalm”, probably by someone in the Royal Flying Corps. It was widely known in the conflict and was published in a collection of service songs and parodies called “Tommy’s Tunes” in October 1917. An autograph entry by S. Green, beautifully handwritten and dated 22nd December 1917, used this parody:


The Pilot’s Psalm

The BE2b is my bus,

therefore shall I want,

He maketh me to come down in green pastures

He leadeth me where I will not go,

He maketh me to be sick;

he leadeth me astray on all cross country flights.

Yea; though I fly o’er no-mans land

where mine enemies wouldst compass me about,

I fear much evil: for thou art with me;

thy joystick and thy prop discomfort me.

Thou preparest a crash before me in the prescence of mine enemies;

thy R.A.F. anointest my hair with oil,

thy tank leaketh badly.

Surely to goodness thou shalt not follow me all the days of my life:

else I shall dwell in the House at Colney Hatch forever.



The ‘BE2b’ was a particular type of aircraft in use at the beginning of the war, during 1914 and 1915. It was replaced by later, modified versions of the same basic design. It seems not have been greatly worse than the other types, which were all far from reliable, and the faults mentioned were in some measure common to all. The ‘R.A.F.’ was an engine made by the Royal Aircraft Factory, and since the pilot sat directly behind the engine, he was sprayed with oil from any engine leaks.


Like all aircraft of that war, it mostly consisted of a wooden frame covered with fabric and braced with wires, making it very light. This picture (taken by Hugh Llewelyn of Keynsham in 2015 and from Creative Commons) shows a BE2b in the RAF Museum at Hendon.



The main weight, apart from the pilot and observer, was the engine and fuel tank. It had a top speed of just over 70 miles per hour and could climb to 10,000 feet. It took a long time to reach this height, and if enemy balloons spotted aircraft, they could dump ballast and rise out of range.


The ‘House at Colney Hatch’ was Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in the London Borough of Barnet, though the name also became a slang term for any lunatic asylum or mental hospital, with the Pilot’s Psalm effectively saying ‘when will this madness end?’



Duvets and pillows are now the most common form of bedding and are more likely to contain an artificial fibre filling rather than traditional duck or goose down and feathers, but many of you will remember padded quilts filled with down and feathers, which were placed on top of sheets and blankets. It is easy to think of pillows and quilts today without making any connection to the birds that were needed for the feather and down filling, which is just one of those easily forgotten links that we explore in our latest book.


The best quilts were filled with down from eider ducks, which were farmed for their down on the Continent, particularly in Scandinavia and Russia. In a process that is unique to wildfowl, the females pluck their own down to line their nests and insulate and camouflage the eggs. On eider-duck farms the down was collected from nests and used to fill quilts, known as eiderdowns. In order to be more competitive in price, unscrupulous manufacturers mixed down from eider ducks with down from other species of ducks and swans. Cheaper quilts could also be filled with flock, strips of rag, pieces of old blanket and later on artificial fibres, and yet they still tended to be called eiderdowns.


An advert for down quilts in an 1883 issue of The Graphic


In this advertisement from 1883, Booth & Fox warn their customers: “Imitations made of impure Down become unwholesome and offensive in use”, which could indeed be the case. They also advertised cosy dressing gowns, vests and underskirts filled with down, which would have been very welcome in houses that were perishing cold. As they stated, “The vests and dressing gowns for ladies and gentlemen are a sure protection against east wind.”


We look at the feather industry in When There Were Birds, including the methods of collecting feathers and their various uses, along with the superstitions.



Hopefully, the next newsletter will be in October or November 2021.