The King’s Library—A Story Within A Story

BM-1 Andrea/Cara, musing today on two of my favorite subjects: libraries and museums. And as it so happens, the British Museum in London—an amazingly wonderful institution that always makes my heart go pitty-pat—has a fascinating story in its history that combines the two!

BM-3It all begins with Sir Hans Sloane, who donated his vast collections of “interesting stuff” (a true cabinet of curiosities of 71,000 items—you can see one of the drawers below) to King George II and the country in return for £20,000, to be given to heirs. The items included books, coins, prints, drawing and ethnographic artifacts. By an act of parliament, the gift was accepted and established as the British Museum in 1753. It was the first national public museum in the world, and admission was free to “all studious and curious persons.”


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A Grand Pleasure Bath

JobigblueAs you know, I'm always exploring primary sources for my period. A while ago I came across a snippet from 1766. "We are informed that a grand Pleasure-Bath is intended to be made this Summer in Richmond-Gardens, for the Reception of the Royal Family." This would be at Richmond Lodge, which George III and family used as a summer retreat.

"Although in 1761 a guidebook stated that the Lodge was ‘unsuitable to the dignity of a King of England’, part of the royal couple’s honeymoon was spent there and for seven years from 1764 Richmond was the royal family’s chief country retreat, where they would stay from June to late October." (From the web site on the Royal Collection.)

Richmond Lodge was demolished in 1772. You can see an image here. The royal family then took their summer break at Kew House, which is now called the White House or the White Lodge.

Here's a reminder that even royalty in the 18th century couldn't do anything they wanted. "…it came to Queen Caroline's daughter, Princess Amelia, in 1751. The Princess, who also became the ranger of Richmond Park, closed the entire park to the public, except to distinguished friends and those with permits, sparking public outrage. In 1758, a court case made by a local brewer against a park gatekeeper eventually overturned the Princess's order, and the park was once again opened to the public."

Even now, every now and then some rich and famous foreigner — generally American, I have to say — buys an English estate and starts to make it private, closing down public footpaths and rights of way. After all, they can't have just anybody wandering through….

Sorry, that comes with the territory. Ancient rights are ancient rights.

Perhaps a desire to scare off invaders explains why Queen Charlotte, wife of George II, apparently kept tigers at Richmond!Merlin

Another oddity from Charlotte we have her  Hermit's Grotto and Merlin's Cave, the latter created about 1735 at Richmond. It was adorned with astrological symbols, and contained wax-work figures, of which the wizard Merlin was the chief. There's more about this structure here. Both were knocked down in 1770, so there's still time to find a use for them in a Malloren book. 

But What About the Pleasure Pool?

Despite digging and trawling I've found no more information about George III's pleasure pool at Richmond, so perhaps it was never constructed. There is a great deal about another pleasure pool of the period, perhaps the inspiration for the desire — the Peerless Pool in London.

I'd heard of it, but never taken a close look, so I was surprised to find that it wasn't simply a pool enhanced to make it more pleasant for swimming, but something we would recognize today as a "swimming pool." It was large, rectangular, and with a reasonably solid bottom of gravel. It had steps to go down on, and a depth that went from four feet at the edges to five feet in the middle, with one end only three feet for the very nervous — or short, I suppose! Not for diving, you'll note.

It was created in 1743 by a Mr. Kemp transforming a piece of water called the Perilous Pool, because people regularly drowned there. I get the impression this wasn't suicidal, but from a fondness among boys and men for swimming.(That, and the praise of trees to give shade, does rather suggest hot summers, doesn't it, she mutters with a sigh.) Boys swam in the Thames, and perhaps in other rivers, but they were polluted, tidal, and in the case of the Thames busy highways. A safe place to swim, and even to learn to swim, was a big hit.

It was 170 feet long and 100 feet wide. The length is a bit more than an olympic swimming pool, which is 164 feet. There were changing facilities.

I'm a bit puzzled by this bit of a contemporary description. "On the south side is a neat arcade, under which
is a looking glass over a marble slab, and a small collection of books for the entertainment of the subscribers."(Quotations are from A new and universal history: description and survey of the cities of London and Westminister, the borough of Southwark, and their adjacent parts (Google eBook)1776)

The books I can understand, but the looking glass over a marble slab? Hanging over and simply for looking at oneself? But then why is the marble slab mentioned? On the ceiling, reflecting the marble slab? Why?

Turn a stone in the past and we find mysteries.

Another one about the Peerless Pool is this. "Here is also a cold bath, generally allowed to be the largest in England, it being 40 feet long and 20 feet broad, with flights of steps and dressing rooms at each end."

All right, am I suppose to believe that the Peerless Pool was heated?

I can't, because I've read many descriptions and none mentions it, or temperature at all — apart from those annoying references to hot sun. Perhaps the cold pool was fed directly from a spring that ran cold, or perhaps it was particularly deep, so it held the cold….

In another account I found that was basically true. The cold bath was only four feet deep, but the floor was a grid beneath which was another five feet of water, fed by a particularly cold spring. Cold bathing was considered of medical benefit. In 1811 a doctor wrote: "We have in London several handsome cold baths for medical purposes, but they are at too low a temperature for amusement or for swimming in—Such are the baths in Harley-street, in Bagnio.court, at Peerless Pool, &c. The cold bath in Harley-street is about the temperature of 54 degrees. Thecold bath at Peerless Pool is something lower,about 52 degrees, and this I believe to be the coldest in London. The warm baths are for the most part mere marble troughs—in which the bather, imprisoned, sits, or reclines; and into which he can admit by turning a stop cock, either hot or cold water, at pleasure." (From Cursory remarks on contagious diseases and on baths.)

There was also a large fish pond, well stocked, and a tree-lined walk.

A gentleman could enjoy all of this for an annual subscription of one guinea. (21 shillings, or close to a modern pound.)

Here's a description of arrival. "You enter from a bowling-green on the south side, by a neat arcade thirty feet long, furnished with a small collection of modern books for the entertainment of those subscribers
who delight in reading. Contiguous are many dressing apartments; some of which are open, and others rendered private, all paved with purbeck stone ; and on each side of the bath is a bower divided into apartments for dressing. At the other end is placed a circular bench, capable of accommodating forty gentlemen at a sitting, under the shelter of a wall. One side is inclosed by a mount i50 feet long, planted with a great variety of shrubs, and on the top is an agreeable terrace walk planted with limes. "
(From London and its environs described: Containing an account of whatever is most remarkable for grandeur, elegance, curiosity or use, in the city and in the country twenty miles round it. Comprehending also whatever is most material in the history and anitquities of this great metropolis, Volume 5 1761)

Other people have blogged about the Peerless Pool. 

Jane Austen's World.

This interesting blog relates past items with present London.

Here's another interesting side-note. In 1761 models of ships were tested at the Peerless Pool to test what made a good ship good. There were four 32-gun frigates and two 74-gun ships.

Does the nature of the Peerless Pool surprise you as much as it did me? There are so many things about London in the 18th century to be discovered in order to have a well-rounded life for our characters. So much going on.





Ask A Word Wench: What We’re Reading

Cat 243 Dover

by Mary Jo

These is an older blog topic request, but timeless.  From Mary K. Kennedy: 

"Could the Wenches do a periodic joint blog about recent books that they really enjoyed?  The blog comments have given me some great recommendations for books I would've otherwise panned."

So—just in time to cheer us up at tax season, here are some recent reads by Word Wenches:

ARoyalAffair From Nicola Cornick: 

I'm currently reading A Royal Affair, which sounds like a racy novel but is actually a non-fiction book by Stella Tillyard, author of Aristocrats, about King George III and the complex and sometimes dark relationships he had with his siblings. It's fascinating stuff and thanks to a fast pace and Stella Tillyard's beautiful writing it grabbed me right from the first. The murky world of Mid-Georgian London is beautifully drawn and the family relationships are engrossing.

From Anne Gracie:

In the last few months I've glommed a couple of new-to-me authors, collecting as much of their backlist as has been available. Thanks to wench Nicola who put me onto Susanna Kearsley, I've devoured her books. They're basically contemporary romances with an element of mystery and a strong historical connection; there's often a kind of time-slip or reincarnation theme going. Lovely.

12 Days of Christmas My other big glom author is Trisha Ashley, and I started with Twelve Days of Christmas (also called Twelfth Night in some places) which is still my fave and a keeper I've already reread. Trisha Ashley's books are contemporary romances,  a little in the Katie Fforde vein, but laced with gorgeous pithy humor that often surprises a chuckle out of me.

Finally, because Susan Wiggs is coming to the RWAustralia conference in August, I started a "Wiggsathon" with some friends, where we've been reading  a pile of her books — in my case, her Lakeshore Chronicles series, which I'd never read any of. Thoroughly enjoyed them, too. Before that I think I'd only read her historicals, of which The Lightkeeper was my standout favorite.

Call me Irreisitible From Pat Rice:

As usual, I’m reading several books at a time and the chance of my finishing any soon may rest on how much reading time I have.  But I did just finish Susan Elizabeth Phillip’s Call Me Irresistible and loved it. I can’t think of another author who can create a conflict out of one character being perfect and the other totally imperfect. The clash is just too funny.

I’m also reading Pati Nagle’s The Immortal, an ebook contemporary fantasy available at and elsewhere. Think Legolas The Immortal visits your local library and persuades the librarian to help him fight one of his own who is vampirically diseased and threatening humans. Great New Mexico scenery thrown in.




From Cara Elliott/Andrea Penrose:

76377588 I've been reading historical mystery lately, and just discovered a very interesting new-to-me series by a writer named Imogen Robertson set in Georgian England. Instruments of Darkness features an intriguing cast of characters (a naval captain's wife who is managing a small estate, along with her two young children and teenage sister, and  a reclusive anatomist who turn into a sleuthing team) several puzzling murders, and a dark mystery involving the local lord of the manor, a wounded veteran of the British raid on Concord. The writing style is beautiful-very descriptive, with great characterization. I'm definitely going to be looking for the second book.

I've also belatedly started the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I don't why it took me so long. I love the era-WWI England for the first book (with flashback to Edwardian times) and 1920s for the next ones. Maisie is a very unusual heroine, and her sleuthing deals with complex issues, creating the texture and nuances which appeal to me. 

A-red-herring-without-mustardFrom Susan King:

Lately I've been reading lots of nonfiction and a few mysteries, and the book that currently tops the basket beside my reading chair (which is spilling over with research books and wanna-reads) is Alan Bradley's A Red Herring Without Mustard. This is the third in a series that begins with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Ever since discovering the detective expertise of Flavia De Luce, an 11-year-old amateur chemist and a determined and brilliant little sleuth, I have been hooked. The delightful Flavia – a mix between Marie Curie, Sherlock Holmes and Pippi Longstocking – along with the charming setting (the English countryside in 1950), and some very clever mystery goings-on are keeping me well occupied and more than a little addicted.

Victory of Eagles From Jo Beverley:

I recently read Naomi Novik's Victory of Eagles. This is the fourth book in the series about a dragon air force in the Napoleonic Wars, starring Temeraire, a mighty dragon. I did enjoy it, especially Temeraire, who is brilliantly portrayed, but I find the long suffering stoicism of  Lawrence, Temeraire's human partner, a bit of a downer.


I've also been revisiting Dr Johnson's London: Everyday Life in London in the Mid 18th Century, which is full of interesting details that might come in useful in A Scandalous Countess, my MIP.

A presumption of death  From Mary Jo Putney:

This gives me a chance to talk about several books!  Dorothy Sayers created the marvelous sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, and since her death three more books have written by Jill Paton Walsh.  I’ve read and enjoyed all the Lord Peter mysteries, but romance writer to the core, I particularly like the ones about his courtship and marriage to Harriet Vane, the accused murderess he lost his heart to. 

Hence, I’m really enjoying the continuation books because they take place after Lord Peter marries Harriet.  A Presumption of Death takes up their lives in 1940 while Lord Peter is missing and possibly dead on a secret mission in Nazi Europe while Harriet is home keeping things together with their two children as well as the three children of Peter’s sister.  Naturally, a murder occurs and Harriet is drawn into solving it.  I liked this so much that I’ve bought the earlier continuation, Thrones, Dominations (that one was started by Sayers and completed by Paton Walsh). and I want to read the third, The Attenbury Emeralds, entirely written by Jill Paton Walsh, as well.  Wonderful characters, writing, and stories. 

I also just finished Michael Caine’s second memoir, The Elephant to Hollywood.  As The Elephant to Hollywood he says cheerfully, he thought his career was about over when he wrote his first memoir 18 years ago, but that didn’t prove to be the case.  He’s great company—warm and good natured, with terrific self-deprecating stories, including how he found his adored wife, Shakira, in a Maxwell House coffee commercial.  There’s also the subtext of how a poor East End boy who had rickets as a child made the amazing journey to international stardom.

Last but hardly least is Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper.  Homer is the blind kitten Gwen adopted when no one else wanted him.  Instead of growing up to be a fearful invalid, he turned into an intrepid blind wonder cat, capable of leaping five feet straight into the air to catch flies, and gathering legions of adoring fans.  He also became a role model for Gwen making changes in her own life.  Excellent writing, and a wonderful tale for cat lovers and others.

Homer's Odyssey That’s it for now!  I hope you all saw books you’d like to try. 
Mary Kennedy, you’re the winner of The Bargain, my April book.  (Or another if you have that one.)

We Wenches are considering following Mary's suggestion of occasionally posting other "What We've Been Reading" blogs.  What do you think?  Would you like to see more such posts?

And what have

Mary Jo