Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Singer, the inventor, his wives and our treadles

St Vincent treadles
We like a tenuous link here at St Vincent Guest House!

Bangkok treadles
If you have stayed with us and been lucky enough to have some good weather and have breakfast al fresco, you may have sat at one of our two “upcycled” singer sewing machine tables made from treadles we found at the side of the house. It was when we were on a recent holiday to Thailand that we saw a café in Bangkok had done the same thing with their old treadles.

Interested in all of the things we have found at St Vincent’s, and remembering the pain of learning how to sew as teenagers at school (for those of us unlucky enough to be born female and not allowed to undertake metalwork) we thought it would be interesting to look at the history of the sewing machine and found that there were closer links to the company and inventor and Devon than we thought.

Isaac Singer
The BBC furnished us with an article in their “50 things that made a modern economy” series. It appears that the creation and design of the new-fangled sewing machine, designed to improve the lot of pretty much every female in the world who had to undertake such a task (it took around fourteen hours to make a shirt) was made by a failed actor turned inventor called Isaac Singer. He had rented space in a workshop showroom, hoping to sell his machine for carving wooden type, but wooden type was falling out of fashion. The device was ingenious, but nobody wanted to buy one. The workshop owner invited the demoralised inventor to take a look at another product which was also struggling: the sewing machine. So, in the 1850s, in that Boston workshop, the inventor sized up the machine he had been asked to admire, and quipped: "You want to do away with the only thing that keeps women quiet."

Isaac singer was considered to be a bit of a rogue, a womaniser, who fathered at least 22 children. For years he managed to run three families, not all of whom were aware the others existed, and all while technically still married to someone else entirely. It appeared he was not a natural supporter of women's rights – and ironically, his biographer, Ruth Brandon, dryly remarks that he was "the kind of man who adds a certain backbone of solidity to the feminist movement". Despite various copyright wrangles with several inventors suing each other for patent infringement and breaches, the so-called Sewing-Machine Wars of the 1850s were ended with the main players agreeing to work together, sharing ideas, and creating a near-perfect remedy to long hours taken to sew garments.

And now the link to Devon

Oldway House
So, there was now a sellable sewing machine and they were being bought by the thousands. Back to our erstwhile hero Isaac Singer. Following three marriages, one of them bigamous, and many affairs producing many offspring, Singer fled the US following a bigamy court case and moved to London in 1862. In 1871, Singer bought the Fernham Estate in Paignton, Devon. The old buildings on the site were demolished and he commissioned a local architect, George Soudon Bridgman, to build a new mansion as his home. As part of the designs, Singer instructed Bridgman to build a theatre within the house. Singer lived there until his death in 1875 and his son Paris took it on, making several architectural changes to the building. Singer junior left England in 1917 and during the First World War, the building became the American Women's War Relief Hospital, becoming the Torbay Country Club in 1929, with many different subsequent incarnations. Sadly, the building is now struggling and there is a group called the Friends of Oldway who are dedicated to restoring the building and heritage to its former glory.

Singer died in 1875, a millionaire dividing his $14 million fortune unequally among 20 of his children by his wives and various mistresses; one son, who supported his mother in her divorce case, received $500.

Despite all that, we like our tables.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

St Vincent’s very own Codd Neck bottles and how we lost our marbles

After our “excavations” were finished at the side of St Vincent’s Guest House, we had a good old rummage around our finds to see what goodies we had unearthed. Perhaps the most exciting things Lynton’s very own Tony Robinson found were these two bottles. And a marble.

Both still in excellent condition (apart from the necks being broken off – more on that in a minute), the first one we recovered was embossed with “Hodges and Son – Lynton” and the second “Crocombe and Son – the Brewery – Paracombe”.

The bottle shapes were really interesting and after asking around, we found that this type of bottle is called Codd Neck. They were designed by Hiram Codd of Camberwell and were patented in 1872 specifically for carbonated drinks. And now for the clever design bit and possibly why our bottles were broken at the same place, at the neck…

“The Codd-neck bottle was designed and manufactured with thick glass to withstand internal pressure, and a chamber to enclose a marble and a rubber washer in the neck. The bottles are filled upside down, and pressure of the gas in the bottle forced the marble against the washer, sealing in the carbonation. The bottle is pinched into a special shape to provide a chamber into which the marble is pushed to open the bottle. This prevents the marble from blocking the neck as the drink is poured.”

The keyword there is… marbles. Victorian children smashed the bottles to retrieve the marbles, leaving very few bottles intact. Actually, we like the thought of some children, possibly those living at St Vincent’s in Victorian times, smashing bottles just for the marbles. Shows great industry and imagination.

So what of our bottles? The only info we could find on Hodges and Son is that the company were not brewers, but retailers and that Crocombe and Son were originally maltsters with the brewery built c.1870 at the rear of Fox & Goose in Paracombe. Brewing ceased 1940 due to the death of Mr Crocombe senior.

If anyone has any further info on these bottles, it would be gratefully received.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Oysters. Really? How much?

Treasure from St Vincent's
The most recent leg of the South West Coast Path led us to Padstow (from Port Isaac) – a beautiful fishing village in north Cornwall where a certain celebrity chef has a couple of eateries and a cookery school. The village is also nicknamed Padstein, to help with guessing the name of the chef. We walked past one of the venues, took a peak at the menu and spotted the price of an oyster (to be sold in pairs, fours or sixes). Really? How much???? (For the answer, please go to the end.)

Wind back two days earlier in Lynton when we were excavating under a wall in our garden at St Vincent Guest House. We discovered all sorts of treasures (bottles, jars, toothbrushes, broken pieces of china and pottery), and the deeper we dug, we were amazed to find lots and lots of oyster shells. This made us look into oysters and why there were so many shells up here away from the little harbour in Lynmouth and especially as they are so expensive these days. Well… Here goes.

The history of the oyster. Oysters have been enjoyed in Britain since Roman times (regarded by them as delicacies) and their shells have been found at many archaeological sites (including our own little one here in Lynton, probably not Roman, but Victorian). However, before the Romans came, the Britons regarded shellfish as something to eat when there was no fish or meat to be had. When the Romans withdrew and the Saxons invaded in the 5th century, oyster farming seemed to disappear and it took centuries for the oyster to become popular again when throughout the Medieval period the church imposed a number of days where you could only eat fish rather than meat.

Guinness and Stout
By the end of the 18th century the industry had become highly regulated and although oysters had been the delight of the rich for a very long time, industrialisation cheapened them, making oysters one of the staples of the diet of the poor. Oysters were to be typically found in in public houses, where they were most commonly served with a pint of stout. The claims of stout being a nutritious drink made the pairing with oysters the perfect cheap meal for the working class on their way home with their wages. Demand for oysters was high, with as many as 80 million oysters a year being transported from Whitstable’s nutrient-rich waters to London’s Billingsgate Market alone.

So looking at the position of the shells in St Vincent’s garden, quite a way down the debris strata, we think they may have been enjoyed by our Victorian servants when they were cheap and plentiful. But by the middle of the 19th century the natural oyster beds became exhausted in England and as the oyster beds further declined, what had previously been the food of the poor became a delicacy for the upper classes once again. There you go.

Answer £2.95 each.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Rhenish Tower, Lynmouth.

The tower today taken by Graham Young
One of the most iconic (and most photographed/painted/tapestried – we tried to get as many images in as possible here!) buildings in Lynmouth is the Rhenish Tower on the Esplanade. A curious shape, it certainly got our attention when we first moved here to St Vincent’s.

The tower pre-flood

Research told us that the Rhenish Tower was built by General Rawdon to store salt water to be pumped to the Bath Hotel / his own house, the reasons vary, for indoor salt baths. It was later fitted with an electric light for use as a beacon for mariners and fisherman.

With build dates varying between 1831 and 1860, it apparently imitates the look-out towers on the Rhine in Germany, although there is also some discussion that General Rawdon was supposed to have taken the design from a picture of a tower on the coast of modern Lebanon. Take your pick.

The tower swept away in 1952

Listed in 1950 as a grade II building, the tower stood untouched until the flood of 1952 when it was completely destroyed. It was rebuilt two years later along with the infrastructure of the rest of Lynmouth.

Another local B&B has made a lovely short film on the history of the tower and you can see it here.

By Graham Young
The tower pre-flood

A certain Mr Tugwell said in 1863 that the Rhenish is '... on the whole, of no great use...', Maybe, but it is a beautiful and original landmark!


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

What3words – really worth knowing! tortoises.sprouts.reinforce

While sitting in our local the Crown a couple of days ago and chatting to a coastguard rescue friend, we discovered what3words. One of us being a complete luddite technophobe (won’t tell you which one) nearly fell off his stool with the witchcraftery that is this new app. If you find yourself lost somewhere and don’t have co-ordinates info – you can use your 3 words to locate yourself and so you can be found, for example.

So, what it is it? Well, here goes – in their own words:

"Map pins aren’t accurate. Searching for the right entrance wastes time. Duplicate street names are confusing – there are 271 First Streets in California. Many places don’t have addresses – the start of a hiking trail, pop-ups and even homes. 3 word addresses are unique, more precise than postcodes and available in over 35 languages. To prevent mistakes, similar 3 word addresses are placed as far apart as possible. what3words is a really simple way to talk about location. We have assigned each 3m square in the world a unique 3 word address that will never change. For example ///filled.count.soap marks the exact entrance to what3words’ London headquarters. 3 word addresses are easy to say and share, and are as accurate as GPS coordinates. 51.520847, -0.19552100 ←→ /// filled.count.soap Our vision is to become a global standard for communicating location. People use what3words to find their tents at festivals, navigate to B&Bs, and to direct emergency services to the right place."

Needless to say, we have had hours of fun. Our guest lounge is twinkled.scrub.polices, the front door is elevated.entrusted.earlobes and the kitchen is kitchen tortoises.sprouts.reinforce. These all link to the google maps page too.

Get the app here!

The things you learn in a pub.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Blake Family in 1881 at St Vincent Villa and the Rise of Victorian Photography

The Victorian Family at St Vincent's

Since coming here and beginning research into our home, we have been delighted that three families
Sara Madeline Blake's birth certificate 1881
who have links with St Vincent’s have been in touch. One such relation, Mary, has got in contact with us from America. It was her maternal grandmother, Madeline Lynton Blake who was born here on 1 August 1881 and Mary kindly sent us some more information about Madeline Blake’s family and this rather beautiful photo of her siblings (below) before she was born in 1881.

At the time of the 1881 census, Madeline’s mother Elizabeth Blake was living in St Vincent Villa with her three children: Michal Adams Blake, William Reuben Blake (born in the Globe at the back of St Vincent’s where they lived before they moved here), and Elizabeth Mary Blake (who died in 1883). William Reuben is recorded in the 1881 census with his paternal grandparents, William Blake and Elizabeth Bulled in Morebath. Also living at St Vincent Villa was Elizabeth’s brother, William Hill. Elizabeth, Michal Adams, William Reuben and Madeline left England for the US in 1884 to join husband/father, William Bulled Blake, who arrived in New York in April 1881.

The Rise of Victorian Photography

Elizabeth with William Reuben 
and Elizabeth Mary
Seeing these beautiful photographs, especially the one of the three children by local photographer J D Vickery (above) in his studio in Barnstaple (and you can see many more of his images here) made us think about the rise of photography in the Victorian era. The invention of photography can be credited to Louis Daguerre, who first introduced the concept to the French Academy of Sciences in 1839. That same year, Robert Cornelius produced what is considered the first photographic self-portrait (who new selfies were such an old fashioned concept!). Portrait studios then started springing up the next year but at that time cameras were expensive and ordinary people couldn't afford to buy them. The relatively low cost of the Daguerreotype developed a few years later and the reduced sitting time for the subject, though still much longer than now, led to a general rise in the popularity of portrait photography over painted portraiture.

Taken from life: The Unsettling Art of Death Photography

It is the youngest child here who was no longer alive
As well as taking images of live people, the Victorians also took photos of loved ones after they had died. We came across this BBC article which explains “Photographs of loved ones taken after they died may seem morbid to modern sensibilities. But in Victorian England, they became a way of commemorating the dead and blunting the sharpness of grief”. You can read the full, slightly macabre, article here.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Devon Flag

Cream first, Lynton and Lynmouth (of course) Ambrosia rice pudding, beautiful countryside and the Devon flag – all symbols of this wonderful county. Curious to know about the flag’s background, we thought it was an archaic and historic design. Well, on reflection, if you are lucky enough to be a millennial, it is. 2003 is the birth year of the Devon flag.

The subject of a Devonian flag was raised by the county's contingent of scouts to the 20th World Scout Jamboree in an interview on BBC Radio Devon in 2002. The scouts were unaware of a Devon flag and wondered if any of the listeners knew of a flag for the county. BBC Radio Devon took up the mantle and the search for a flag for Devon began with the public asked to send in designs. Here are the whittled down candidates:

And the first round of voting...

14%, 21%, 4.8%

21.3%, 1.5%,4.1%

2.3%, 0.3%, 11.9%

4.6%, 11.9%, 1.5%

After a couple of rounds of voting (not too sure about the bottom right flag as being symbolic of Devon however, except for the fact that St Petroc may have been born in Wales), the winning flag designed by student Ryan Sealey was chosen. Not without controversy, the creation of the flag drew criticism from Cornish nationalists, who accused it of being an attempt to "hijack" their culture. The decision to dedicate the flag to St Petroc was also not without controversy as the saint is equally popular in neighbouring Cornwall. But it was decided that as Devon's 27 church dedications to Saint Petroc far outweighs the 6 dedications in Cornwall, also the Devon villages named after him such as Petrockstowe and Newton St Petroc, that the county had a strong claim to the saint and Cornwall had already selected Saint Piran as their patron saint many years previously.

Anyway, off to buy our bumper sticker.

The winning flag design by Ryan Sealey