Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A do-it-yourself wassailing kit - by Sue Purkiss

It's that time of year again, and people are wassailing right, left and centre down here in the west country. So if you want a reminder of how to do it, here's my post from last year. Never mind the wind and the rain - you owe it to your apple trees!

I wasn't particularly aware of the ancient custom of wassailing until recently. Okay, about this time of year you tend to see pictures in the local paper of people with green faces cavorting among apple trees - but hey, I live a mere stone's throw from Glastonbury, where the streets are paved with crystals and littered with spell books, and where every year they have a Goddess Conference at which the place is FILLED with people with green faces - not to mention magical wells, a conflux of ley lines and a 2000 year-old thorn tree. (Well, that was actually vandalised a few years ago, but I hear there are a few cuttings in the care of the fairy kingdom under Wearyall Hill - or possibly at Worthy Farm under the care of Michael Eavis.) So green faces don't raise an eyebrow in these parts.

Goddesses at Chalice Well in Glastonbury.

But, as I've mentioned before in this place, I fairly recently joined a choir. We sing a lot of folk songs, and at this time of year, when Christmas has come and gone, we sing a Wassail Song. I don't know the words off by heart - our leader, Issy, sings it first and we follow her - but they are very similar to these, which I found on the web.

'Old apple tree, we wassail thee and hope that thou shalt bear,
For the Lord doth know where we shall be come apples another year.
For to bloom well and to bear well, so merry let us be,
Let every man take off his hat and shout out to the old apple tree.
   Three cheers for the apple tree: hip hip...'

Well, it's a very jolly tune and we like singing it, so we make quite a racket, and I only hope it's loud enough for the apple trees of Cheddar to hear and be enthused. Because the purpose of wassailing is to encourage them, as the song says, 'to bloom well and to bear well'. It's entirely logical. I often talk to plants. I had quite a chat with a Christmas rose the other day, congratulating it on flowering so beautifully when all its predecessors have singularly failed to thrive; and I always apologise to shrubs before I give them a severe pruning, and explain to them that it's for their own good. I find these little courtesies make all the difference, and I'm sure they do to the apple trees as well.

There used to be lots of apple orchards in Cheddar when we first moved here thirty or so years ago. But over the years, most of them have been grubbed up in favour of more houses, and in Somerset generally, the orchards for many years seemed to be dwindling. But since the growth in popularity of cider over the last few years (Thatchers is just down the road), orchards are back in favour, and so is wassailing.

So I thought I'd look into the history of it.

Wassailing in the olden days.

Apparently 'wassail' comes from 'Waes hael!', the Anglo-Saxon greeting and toast which means 'Good Health!' Its purpose is to wake the trees up and scare away any evil spirits, thus ensuring a good harvest of fruit in the autumn. This happens on Twelfth Night - but usually, it being such an old and historical custom, it takes place not on the 6th January, but on the 17th, because this would have been Twelfth Night (or Old Twelvey, as we country folk apparently call it) before the introduction of the new-fangled and totally unnecessary Gregorian calendar in 1582.

The correct procedure is to choose a Wassail King and Queen, who lead a procession of interested parties round the local orchards. At each one, the Queen is lifted up into one of the trees, and she presents it with a piece of toast soaked in the wassail drink, which seems to be a kind of cider punch. This is a gift to the tree spirits. (Here's a recipe - I can't vouch for its authenticity, but it sounds rather nice.)

Then everybody sings the song, after which they shout and bang pots and pans and drums and generally make as much noise as they can to drive the evil spirits out. (Presumably the good spirits put their hands over their ears after eating up their toast.) Then I think they probably finish off the cider punch, and dance round the fire a bit.

Below is a video from YouTube of a wassail in Gloucestershire. I'd personally like to see a bit more attention to wearing appropriate clothing (see picture above, of a wassail at Brent Knoll, just down the A38 from here) and I'm really not happy about the plastic bags, but it's a good and lusty rendition of the song.

So there you are. I've given you a day's notice, and with a bit of practice you'll soon master the song - so if you have apple trees, prepare to wassail them. Unfortunately, they really don't grow well in our garden...

Monday, 15 January 2018


by Marie-Louise Jensen

One of the things that always struck me as especially unfamiliar in historical fiction, that is to say Georgian and Regency historical fiction, was reading of a gentleman's 'freshly ironed shoelaces'. It also struck me as rather odd. In modern days, I've never seen a shoelace that would benefit from ironing.
I've always assumed that the laces must have been wider than now, and must therefore have become creased. I still haven't found a definitive answer to this and have no mental image. But the topic occurred me again when I was watching episode two of The Crown a couple of days ago. (Yes, I realise that I am late to this - no doubt all you history buffs saw it ages ago!)  There is a scene where the young, newly-bereaved Queen Elizabeth is dressed in mourning on the plane and just for a moment, the camera pans down to her shoes, which are laced with black ribbons.

Well, ribbons make sense. They would probably need ironing to stay looking nice. And in fact, a quick google shows that ribbons are still occasionally used for lacing shoes today. Something I (as someone entirely lacking in fashion sense) had no idea of.

However the shoelaces were made, it would have been the valet's job, poor soul, to iron them, along with his master's neckcloths and shirts. I seem to remember it was the dandies who required their shoelaces to be ironed in Georgian times, but I may be wrong.

Another fascinating fact that came up when I started to search ironing shoelaces on the internet is that apparently Prince Charles still requires his shoelaces to be ironed every time he has worn them. Very strange indeed, as I doubt he wears ribbon-laces. As he is probably one of the last men in England to have a valet (he has three) he can still demand such customs are observed. For those of us who have to do our own laundry and ironing, this is probably not something anyone today choses to spend their own time on. Hands up, anyone?

One final fun fact on the topic of ironing shoelaces - apparently in the 1920s, it was a euphemism for going to the bathroom in American English. A bit like going to see a man about a dog in the UK.

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Sunday, 14 January 2018

Not the End of the World - by Lesley Downer

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings …’

In 1931 a young American botanist called Cyrus Longworth Lundell was trekking through the Mexican jungle in search of chicle gum for the Wrigley chewing gum company. He travelled sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, depending on the denseness of the trees, led by local guides and followed by a long procession of bearers carrying his luggage and equipment.
Calakmul: 'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and Despair!'

Deep in the jungle he arrived at his destination, a site which he had seen first from the air - monumental edifices of stone as high as and steeper than the pyramids of Giza, with stelae placed in front and high up on the walls covered in intricately carved images and symbols. He named it Calakmul which, according to Lundell, means ‘two adjacent mounds’ in the Mayan language..

He reported on it to the archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institute who set to work clearing and excavating. But from 1938, for unknown reasons, the site was abandoned. 

Stela at Calakmuk
The stelae that had been cleared of jungle were left exposed to the elements. Robbers scaled the crumbling monuments and sliced off whole carved facades, sometimes cutting them into pieces, and somehow manhandled the enormously heavy rocks down the precipitous steps to be sold. Other stelae that had been in excellent condition, protected by their covering of foliage, became weathered and worn down, the original sharp images virtually indecipherable. It was only in 1982 that preservation and restoration began again.

The monuments are a good hour and a half’s drive through dense jungle, followed by fifteen minutes’ walk through the trees. It must have taken days to get here in the 1930s.

Calakmul was one of the largest and most powerful of all the Mayan city states and there are almost 7000 ancient structures. There’s a grand central plaza around which successive rulers built these pyramid-like monuments, ever taller and taller, building around or on top of their predecessors’ monuments, taking them as a foundation. Unlike our castles, these are unfortified. The Mayan rulers built their monuments not to protect themselves but to display their power and splendour.

The tallest is a skyscraper, 45 metres high. Inside, archaeologists found an ornate frieze and the skeleton of a ruler, wearing a jade mask and jewellery, wrapped in textiles and partly preserved jaguar pelts and surrounded by treasures. In others they found beautifully painted murals depicting scenes of everyday life.
Jade mask found at Calakmul 

In the Mexican heat the jungle grows incredibly fast. In Calakmul it engulfs the ruins. Trees grow out of the stones, roots twine around the rocks and lianas dangle from the branches. Howler monkey crouch overhead, barking ferociously, and sometimes a jaguar emerges from the jungle. It’s all very Ozymandian. ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and Despair.’ 

The Mayan script which covers some of the stelae is made up of ‘glyphs’ - picture writing, more rounded than Egyptian hieroglyphs, almost like little cartoons. Some of the glyphs carry meaning, others sounds, or sometimes both, with one sound represented by different glyphs, a bit like Japanese. It has now nearly all been deciphered and the battles which city states fought with city states and the exploits and histories of the rulers can all be read. 

Mayan script

The magnificent civilisation of the Maya began around 2000 BC and was at its pinnacle between 250 and 900 AD. At the time of the Greeks and Romans and throughout our so-called Dark Ages, the Maya were living in city states, building vast monuments and temples, carving intricate friezes, playing ball games and anointing the earth with their own blood. The rulers embodied the gods. They flattened their heads from birth and wore the plumed feathers of the quetzal bird to represent ears of corn - maize, the all-important crop.

The Maya traded widely across Mexico and Central and South America. Christopher Columbus met Mayan merchants and used their excellent navigational maps. All this grew up without any influence from Europe, the Middle East or Asia until the Spanish arrived in 1492.

At Uxmal, 150 kilometres north of Calakmul and the capital of another city state, the buildings are covered in spectacularly beautiful carvings like geometrical patterns. When you look carefully they shape themselves into stylised eyes, noses and mouths. It’s the face of Chaac, the all-important rain god with his hook-like nose, repeated over and over again.

Face in stones at Uxmal.
The door is a mouth with teeth and two eyes above
At Uxmal the many different building complexes are clear to see. There’s a great pyramid glorifying the ruler with a door leading to an inner chamber. There are also temples and palaces and a vast administrative court walled by four temples covered in lavish decoration.

On a long low building now called the Governor’s Palace there’s a small platform with a stone throne with two jaguar heads which functioned as an astronomical observatory. From another pyramid 5 kilometres away, in precise alignment with it, Mayan astronomers could observe Venus setting over the north side of the Palace once every 8 years. 

Then there’s the ball court, a staple of all these complexes, where players tried to shoot a rubber ball through a hoop high on the wall using only their hip, shoulder or head - hands and feet were not allowed. Depending on the rules of a particular game, the leader of the winning side might have his heart ripped out while the losers became slaves.

These vast stone plazas and edifices were where the rich and powerful lived, played their games and performed their ceremonies. Ordinary folk lived in thatched-roof houses such as one sees all around Mexico to this day, which quickly disappeared.

The apogee was the great monument (‘El Castillo’) at Chichen Itsa. It has exactly 91 steps on each of the four sides, adding up to 364, with the topmost platform making 365. The whole building is one vast stone calendar. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadows form the image of a giant serpent undulating along the side of the north staircase with its head sculpted in stone at the foot.
Chichen Itsa at the equinox. (Image from Wiki Commons)

All these cities and complexes were laid out with mathematical precision, with the buildings aligned such that from certain viewpoints the morning star, for example, could be seen on a certain day of the year. The Maya had three calendars, based on the sun, the moon and the phases of Venus, which intersected like a complex set of cogs at varying intervals, providing very precise information about the movement of the heavens, eclipses, harvests and when to plant. The whole cycle repeated every 5200 years - which is why 2012 was not the end of the world by the Mayan calendar (as was widely touted), but simply the end of a 5200 year cycle and the start of another.

It was also not the end of the world for the Mayas when the Spanish came. Their civilisation had already peaked and faded and they’d already left all their grand monuments. They also didn’t have gold which was the only thing the Spanish were interested in. So they were left in peace for a while though eventually they were enslaved and their entire literature denounced as writings of the devil and - except for three priceless codices - burnt by the Jesuits.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see www.lesleydowner.com. All photographs apart from Chichen Itsa are by me.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Trade in the 17th Century - The Tallow Chandler

by Deborah Swift

Matthias Storm c.1640 Old Woman with a Candle
I was at a great loss for candles; so that as soon as ever it was dark, which was generally by seven o'clock, I was obliged to go to bed ……… The only remedy I had was, that when I had killed a goat, I saved the tallow, and with a little dish of clay, which I baked in the sun, to which I added a wick of some oakum, I made me a lamp; and this gave me light, though not a clear steady light like a candle."
The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1719

Light has always been a symbol for move out of ignorance and into the light of knowledge. As long as we can manufacture and control light, then we are no longer bound by the seasons, or forced to work from sunrise to sunset. Light gives us extra time for work and play, and the time to create during the hours free from chores or work.

The candle was one of the earliest forms of artificial light, and in the period in which I write, most candles were tallow. I need to continually think of this whenever I write a night-time scene, or a winter scene. We take the availability of good light so much for granted.

The Stink of Tallow 
Tallow was cheap animal fat, usually the waste material from meat - hence often sheep or bullock fat.
The tallow was prepared by first chopping the fat into small pieces and then boiling it up in a large copper to detach the muscle or membrane from the fat. The resultant mush was pressed to extract the 'juice', or tallow, and the remains or 'greaves' fed to the dogs or pigs, and even to the geese that were being fattened up for market.To produce a pure light, the chandler must wrestle with dead animal carcasses, and the associated smell and mess. For this reason, chandlery was perceived as a very low class trade, and the chandlers premises were often located near the tanneries and slaughterhouses, and close to a river with access to water. The process reminds me that for every 'light' there is the often invisible 'dark'.

'A woman reading by Candle-light' by Frans van Mieris the elder,
c.1665; black chalk on vellum.

Fir candles, made of a long thin splinter of fir, were commonly used in Scotland, and a fir candle holder was known as a "puirman"(poorman). But tallow candles were the common household candle in early England, and by the 13th century, candle-making had become a guild craft in England and France, controlled by ancient City Livery Companies. The Tallow Chandlers Company, one of the London Guilds, sill exists. It was formed in about 1300 to regulate and manage candle-making. Over the next 150 years they expanded in membership and influence, until King Edward IV granted them a coat of arms in 1456.

In rural areas, where no Livery Company existed, chandlers would sometimes go from house to house with their moulds, making candles from the kitchen fats saved for that purpose, or in smaller towns they made and sold their own candles from a shop. Candle-making was usually done in winter by a householder, as livestock was generally slaughtered around Martinmas (November 11th) to save the expense of over-wintering them. Tallow candles could be made for you in your own home with your own saved drippings by an itinerant tallow chandler (tallow chandlers and wax chandlers had separate guilds, and jealously guarded their products).

Candles, especially tallow ones, were kept in a wooden or metal box hung on the wall in order to protect them from vermin, as being animal fat, mice regarded them as food. Being away from the fire also prevented the candles wilting and bending in heat.

A candle box of 1680

Holy Beeswax
Unlike animal-based tallow, beeswax burned pure and cleanly, without producing a smoky flame. It also had a pleasant sweet smell rather than the foul, acrid odor of tallow. However,  it took an entire honeycomb's worth of beeswax to make one 4" candle, so it was very expensive. Beeswax candles were widely used for church ceremonies. The beeswax itself had a religious significance in 17th Century England. One story is that bees were absent from the Garden of Eden and so escaped Eve's sin. Another is that medieval monks thought that bees reproduced by immaculate conception, like the Virgin Mary, and so the beeswax of a church candle came to signify purity.

The Revolutionary Art of Plaiting a Wick
The absorbency and efficiency of a wick depended on the number of individual strands. Adding or subtracting a few extra strands of animal hair or hemp fibre made the difference between a candle that burned well, or one that guttered or dripped. The wicks were made from twisted threads of flax, cotton, or hemp, and trimming the wick to get rid of candle "snuffs" was essential to keeping your candle burning well, or it would flare and smoke. I often imagine my characters having to trim the wick in the middle of conversations, or tackling writing a letter.

The best wicks were invented later in the 19th century, and revolutionised the candle. They were plaited so they curled as they burned to ensure that the tip burnt off during use so they didn't have to be continually trimmed, thus ensuring you could carry out your task uninterrupted. To achieve this curl, the plait or braid of a wick was woven asymmetrically, with a few extra strands in one of the threads. After being cut to length, the wicks were dipped in molten wax so that one end was stiff enough to poke through the hole at the bottom of the mould, and then the moulds were filled.

Wooden & Pewter Candle Mould

The Fall of Tallow
The tallow chandler's fortunes declined at the end of the 17th century. New materials, such as spermacetti (from whale blubber) and paraffin wax, replaced tallow. Then in the late 19th Century gas lighting arrived, twelve times as bright as a candle, only to be replaced by electricity twenty years later. These eras are comparatively short, when you think that we had many hundreds of years where most of our light was by the dim smoky haze of tallow candles.

More about lighting? Lucy Worsley has a post about domestic lighting here.

Thank you for reading. Find my latest book, Pleasing Mr Pepys, here.

Images from Wikicommons
The Social History of Lighting - William O'Dea
Restoration London - Liza Pickard
At Day's Close: A History of Nighttime - Roger Ekirch

Friday, 12 January 2018

BLUE vs GREEN. Passion and politics in the Roman circus.....

What did Nero and Caligula have in common, besides being murderous megalomaniacs? Both were ardent Greens. In Constantinople some 500 years later, Justinian and his wife Theodora were passionate Blues.

The Blues and Greens were two of the factions in chariot racing, who were supported by the populace in huge numbers. Along with their less celebrated rivals, the Reds and Whites, they provoked violent passions and the occasional riot in a tradition stretching from the late republic until the Twelfth Century AD. This is an extraordinary tale of sporting rivalry.

I first became aware of the Blues and Greens when researching my first, dead-in-a-drawer novel set in 6th century Constantinople. In this era, the violence from the racing factions spilled onto the streets: there were riots and massacres that make our football hooligans seem like benevolent pixies.
Now I am back again, but five centuries earlier. How important were the Blues and Greens in the early Empire - how prevalent, and how destructive?

Chariot racing, according to Roman legend, was introduced by Romulus. According to archaeology, it was most likely borrowed Etruria - and the Etruscans borrowed from the Greeks. In the Greek tradition, wealthy men effectively sponsored chariots in the Games, accruing great honour. In Rome, it was fashionable int he early Republic for aristocrats to race their own teams. Historian Elizabeth Rawson argues that at some point after the fifth century BC, the state began to pay horse-breeders to raise horses for the races.

Rawson argues that is it possible that it was about this time that the four factions emerged; effectively four different stables which paid for the chariots, horses and charioteers, perhaps from the ever increasing prize-money.

Charior racing was hugely popular. Ovid, in his Weinstein-ish poetry about how to pick up women, makes it clear that men and women sat together - close packed in narrow rows. The Circus Maximus could hold - it is argued - a staggering 150,000 race fans. Imagine the noise as the Blues passed the meta (the turning post) in the final round, beating the Greens back to a sullen second.  I am reminded of attending a baseball game in America. The distances involved meant there were no rival fans. For someone used to British football and rugby grounds the atmosphere was weirdly leaden. Supporting any sport becomes more interesting when you are vested - somehow, anyhow - in the competitors.

Augustus - who cannily never let his preferences be known  - understood the power of the Circus. He renovated and expanded the Circus, and sat his family on a large collective bench so that they could be seen to be first among equal citizens. As Andrew Feldherr points out, he chose the cliffs overhanging the circus to build his palace; the architectural symbol of the new order.

There is some doubt as to whether all four factions had a long history before Augustus began to incorporate the myths and iconography of the Circus into the elaborate mythical buttressing of his

Tertullian, writing in the third century AD, says that there were originally only two factions - red and white. This is disputed by modern historians.

Alan Cameron, in his seminal book on this topic, Circus Factions, argues that Tertullian's version is just one tradition, and that all the later versions are ripe with mythology and wish-fulfillment. Cameron argues that the origins of the Blues and Greens go far back in to the Republic - exactly when, we do not know.

Blues and Green became the major colours quickly, dominating the sources. Cameron argues that the precise relationship between the Blues and Greens on the one hand, and Red and White on the other, remains a puzzle. One version of the significance of the colours holds that they represent the four seasons - but as Cameron points out, this notion is part of later mythologising by Roman antiquarians.

There have been various theories propounded as to whether the support for different factions was related to anything specific - class or religion, in particular. In late antiquity it has been surmised that one faction denoted one specific view of the nature of Christ.

Cameron argues that there is very little evidence of these distinctions. "The truth is that Blues hated Greens, not because they were lower class or heretics, but simply because they were Greens."

I can understand the temptation to ascribe social or religious leanings to one side or another; it seems absurd to hate for no more reason than the colour of a charioteer's tunic. But I have been to football derby matches - a number of them. I have seen little to match the vitriol and hatred between fans of Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United. Unlike the other great football rivalries there is little to divide the fans - Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester have their religious splits; Barcelona its political ones.

But in Sheffield, an owl hates a blade just because he's a blade. Just as a Blue hates a Green just because.
Circus Maximus

Even as Rome descended into its late Antiquity malaise, chariot racing remained central to the City. In Decline and Fall, Gibbon says of 5th Century Romans that they "still considered the circus as their home, their temple and the seat of the republic."

In Constantinople, meanwhile, the factions became central to the Empire's politics. Who you supported came to matter politically; and the violent uprisings of the factions became a live political issue. Cameron makes strong arguments for the reasons why the rivalry between factions spiralled through the centuries to erupt in riots and murders in the 6th century: He points to the factionalisation of other areas of public spectacle, like the theatre.

But with a novelist's head, and not a historian's, it strikes me that there is another factor at play - all that history! Imagine the weight of it, stretching over an unimaginable 1500 years or so. And this the type of history that clings so tightly to a myth that the two are indistinguishable. The generations of forefathers who were Blue or Green. Who took their Blueness or Greenness from Rome and into the provinces. From Rome to that spit of land at the edge of Asia. Being Blue or Green stops needing a meaning when the weight of history and myth and family presses its colour violently upon your soul.

Antonia Senior

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Murder on the dance floor (Or, how to get away with murder if you're young and pretty and have a cunning barrister)

The ballroom tragedy . . .
Audrey Jacob - wronged girl or cruel murderer?
A pretty art student

Cyril Gidley - cruel cad or cruelly murdered?
A vile seducer 

In 1925 Australia was gripped by a tragic story that had all of the elements of a sensational mystery thriller or a lurid Hollywood movie. 

Cyril Gidley was shot dead by his former fiancee, Audrey Jacob in front of hundreds of revellers at a charity ball in the early hours of Thursday 27 August 1925. When Audrey was arrested she was standing over the body and still held the smoking gun. 
It should have been (to use Australian gambling slang for a predicted easy victory) a "lay down misere" for the prosecution. 
But Audrey had had the good sense to engage Arthur Haynes, Perth's most cunning defence lawyer, and nothing went as the Crown Prosecutor had planned  . . .
Government House Ballroom, Perth - scene of the Gidley murder 1925
Government House ballroom

The Crime

The Government House ballroom in Perth, Western Australia, was brilliant with light and gaiety as a ball in aid of St. John of God Hospital was drawing to a close. A couple of hundred dancers gaily tripped the fox-trot to the cheery tune of "Follow Yvette," the thirteenth dance of the evening. 
Cyril Gidley - cruel cad or cruelly murdered?
Few noticed the tall, slim girl with shingled dark hair, dressed in a radium blue evening frock, who threaded her way through the dancers. She moved as if in a dream towards a pleasant-featured, dark-haired young Englishman in evening dress.

Twenty-five year old Cyril Gidley was  enjoying his third dance with Miss Maude Mitchell when he felt a touch on his shoulder. 

Turning, he saw Audrey Jacob, his former fiancee.  Gidley looked at her coolly and said, "Excuse me, but I am dancing." 
In reply, Audrey produced an automatic pistol and fired point blank into Gidley's chest. He placed his hand over his eyes as though suddenly feeling faint, then toppled to the floor. The bullet had severed his aorta and he died a couple of minutes later. 
Audrey’s hand still held the smoking pistol. It dropped to her side as she remained motionless, staring at Gidley with a faint smile on her face.  

At first, no one dared approach her, but after several minutes a constable removed the weapon and escorted her to an alcove where she remained, eerily composed, until taken to the police lock-up. 

Gentlemen of the Press 

From the beginning, the press interest in the "ballroom horror" was frenzied. The circumstances of the crime, the inquest and the trial were reported in enormous detail, locally and across Australia. There was also international excitement, as Reuters sent detailed cables to America and Europe throughout the proceedings.

Almost from the moment of the shooting, the press coverage was in Audrey's favour and the local girl was given sympathy rather than censure

Audrey was 20 years of age, the second child and eldest daughter in a family of eight children. Her father was the Clerk of Court at Fremantle (the port city near Perth) and her family circumstances were respectable but not affluent. 

Audrey Jacob - wronged girl or cold-blooded murderer?

Like all good heroines of romance, she was convent-educated (somewhat surprisingly, given her parents were Presbyterian). At the remote Roman Catholic Convent she had attended to age 16, Audrey had learned to paint. She kept up the practice afterwards and would sell her works privately. At the time of the murder she was living away from home and attending art classes in Perth. 

In the period up to the inquest and trial she was reported to be a model prisoner, who spent most of her time reading, especially "books of A DEEPER KIND" and she had "asked for a Bible to be given to her." 
Audrey Jacob - wronged girl or cold-blooded murderer?

Photographs of Audrey in the newspapers emphasised her youthful prettiness and public opinion appears to have been firmly on her side from the beginning. For instance, her barrister's professional fees were paid for in part by a collection taken up for Audrey at the local Tattersalls club.

Her murdered lover, 25 year old Cyril Gidley, was an altogether different proposition. There was little public or press sympathy for the suave Englishman who had arrived in Western Australia two years before and was, at the time of his death, the Fourth Engineer on the State motor ship Kangaroo. 
Cyril Gidley - cruel cad, or cruelly murdered?

According to the press,  Gidley had "compelling personality". He had led people to believe that his family were wealthy and rather high in the social scale. He was "a man who fascinated girls". 

As the Truth thundered: "Little wonder then that he fascinated Audrey Jacob, who was nothing if not ROMANTIC AND ARTISTIC in temperament."  

A common trope in Australia is that of the "remittance man", an Englishman sent out to the colonies by his family to avoid trouble at home. Australians didn't much like remittance men, who they saw as England's rejects. And so, it was another black mark against Gidley that he had made it widely known that he had been sent out to Australia by his family, and given five years to "make good'' before his parents would take him back home to share in the family fortune. 

Much worse, however, were the dark rumours that Gidley was the sort of man who deceived girls into thinking they were engaged to him and then dropped them. Gidley's engagement to Audrey had been formally announced in the newspapers in 1924, but some time before his death, the engagement had been called off. 

It was soon common knowledge that, just before he became engaged to Audrey, Gidley had tricked a girl in a country town in Western Australia into thinking she was engaged to him by giving her an engagement ring. After he met Audrey, he had recovered the ring through a ruse,  leaving the girl distraught. And when his mother was interviewed by Reuters in England, Mrs Gidley said that her son was engaged a girl residing at Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire, and the girl had expected to go out shortly to marry him. Such stories cemented Gidley's reputation as the sort of man who would deceive women when he could.

At the inquest and later at the trial, this negative picture of Gidley became fixed. He was generally accepted to have been a cad, a bully and "a bit of a swank".

 The Coronial Inquest
[Audrey's outfit: "a pretty navy blue silk dress with Oriental trimming, over which she kept a heavy henna-coloured overcoat with fur cuffs." Her cloche hat was of the same colour with floral decorations.]

The inquest before the Coroner, held on 15  and September 1925, should have been merely to establish the cause of death, but both Audrey's counsel, Mr Haynes, and the Crown Prosecutor saw it as a dress-rehearsal for the criminal trial.  The strict rules of evidence do not apply at a coronial inquest, and both lawyers tried to turn this to their advantage. 

And as soon as the inquest began, it was apparent that Mr Haynes, was going to  attempt to blacken Gidley's character in a way that would not be allowed at Audrey's criminal trial. 

(I suspect that he was hoping that the lavish press coverage of the inquest would mean that anyone chosen for the jury at trial would remember the evidence given at the inquest, and this would favourably dispose them towards Audrey.) 

The evidence of Audrey's mother at the inquest was sensational. She said that Gidley had made threats against Audrey's father (Mr Jacob). Gidley had tried to poison her mind against her husband, who was opposed to the marriage. As a result of Gidley's machinations, Mr Jacob had left the family home to live in  a boarding house. Not long afterwards Gidley arranged to stay at the same boarding house, using the false name of Cyril Douglas, in order to spy on Mr Jacob. 

In vain the Crown Prosecutor tried to adduce evidence to show that Mr Jacob  had left the family home in 1921, well before Gidley arrived on the scene, and the Jacobs' marriage was troubled for entirely different reasons. 

Another sensational allegation put by Mrs Jacob was that Gidley was heavily involved in smuggling. As soon as her husband had left the family home, Gidley offered to pay to add two rooms to the Jacobs' house, which could be used to store goods Gidley smuggled from Singapore.  Mrs Jacob said she was horrified at the suggestion and told her husband. Together they had gone to the police, who searched Gidley's rooms for contraband.

In vain the Crown Prosecutor tried to emphasise that nothing had ever been proved against Gidley in this respect, and that the search carried out on Gidley's rooms on information laid by the Jacobs had revealed nothing nefarious.

Mrs Jacob also said that Gidley was domineering, cruel and harsh to Audrey. She graphically described an occasion where he "put his hand on her throat and pushed her head back until her hair fell down, and said that was what would happen if she ever threw him over". Mrs Jacob wept to reveal her strong suspicion that Gidley had "seduced" Audrey (as one commentator put it, "anticipated the wedding night").

The Crown Prosecutor did his best to paint Gidley in a better light, but with little success. This evidence was from the owner of the boarding house where Gidley had stayed:

Crown Prosecutor: "There are three girls at the place and your wife says he (Gidley) never made any advances towards them." 
Witness - How does she know? 
Crown Prosecutor: "Did you ever see him do so?" 
Witness - No
Crown Prosecutor: "You have never heard your wife or daughter complain of his conduct?
Witness - He was a bit of a swank, if that is any trouble.

However, the Crown Prosecutor did manage to put into evidence a very damaging letter that was allegedly found among Gidley's possessions. It read:

M.S. Kangaroo, Fremantle, 16/8/25. I, Cyril Gidley, do hereby state that Audrey Jacob visited me on the above ship without my permission. While on board she tried to make herself a nuisance and rejecting her advances, threatened me with my life if I didn't make her my friend again. The reason I refused was she turned me down, using her own words, "I have got plenty of good friends on the other ships"; this was just seven months ago, so I let her go to her good friends. (Sgd.) CYRIL GIDLEY. 16/8/25. P.S.—This note is in case she does keep her vow. 

Haynes did his best to downplay the letter, insinuating that it was a forgery.

Although Haynes valiantly attempted to persuade the Coroner not to make a finding of guilt, but to leave that for the criminal trial, the Coroner concluded:
"I find that Cyril Gidley died at Perth on August 27th, 1925, from haemorrhage, following a gun shot wound in the chest, the result of a shot from an automatic pistol fired at him by Audrey Jacob, of Perth, and that the said Audrey Jacob willfully murdered Cyril Gidley."

The Trial 

[Audrey's outfit: "a cinnamon costume with white lace insertion and a broad silk sash of darker colour. Her hat was also cinnamon coloured, with floral trimmings.]

The trial of Audrey Jacob for the murder of Cyril Gidley took place in the Perth Supreme Court on 8 and 9 October 1926. 

Her defence was simple: accidental shooting

Audrey's story was that she had arrived at the Government Ballroom on the night in question dressed as Pierrot with her friend Annie, who was dressed as Pierette. To her dismay she saw Gidley, whom she had thought was away at sea. He danced past her and snubbed her several times during the evening. 

At midnight, agitated and distraught, she left the ball and returned to her flat where she lay down. After about a half an hour she rose, changed into her blue silk evening frock and took out the gun that had been given to her by a former boyfriend. This she wrapped in her handkerchief. 

Audrey said she left the flat determined to commit suicide and began walking to the river, but on an impulse, she turned and walked instead to the nearby Catholic Cathedral. Sinking to the ground by the wall of the cathedral, she recited the rosary. After a short period of contemplation and prayer, she felt more peaceful and decided not to kill herself after all. 

In trance-like state she walked back to her flat. The route took her past Government House where the ball was still in full swing, and she decided to go in to speak to Gidley. She asked her friend, Annie, to bring Gidley to meet her, but he refused to do so. 

After this new rejection, Audrey saw  Gidley on the dance floor. In a trance-like state, she moved through the dancers towards him, determined to speak to him. She tapped him on shoulder. He turned, saw  her, and coldly replied, "Pardon me, I’m dancing". 

Audrey felt dazed. She threw her hands up to her forehead, forgetting that she held the gun wrapped in her handkerchief. A shot rang out and Gidley fell to the ground. 

She knew nothing more until she came to her senses in the lockup.

The Verdict
The all-male jury accepted Audrey's story and the verdict was an unequivocal, "Not Guilty". 
Even today, apparently, students visiting the Supreme Court Building who are given a precis of the facts of the case for a re-enactment tend to find Audrey "Not Guilty". [“Somewhere between fiction and non-fiction: New approaches to writing crime histories, Anna Haebich, Curtin University. http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue28/Haebich.pdf]
Was Gidley's death an accidental shooting? Or did Audrey cold-bloodedly murder her lover,  as Gidley had reported that she had threatened to do a mere two weeks before?

In the February blog I will discuss the evidence adduced at Audrey's trial and you can decide for yourself whether Audrey Jacob really did get away with murder...
Audrey Jacob - wronged girl or cold-blooded murderer?
Audrey Jacob