Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Quiet Fun

One of the pleasures of spending time in libraries is the discovery of the weird and wonderful lurking in the margins of the dry and dusty. Indeed, if you are so-minded, these incidental, accidental pleasures can easily become your main reason for browsing the shelves. One of my earliest posts (Wake Up and Smell the Ozone) described what may have been the onset of this condition in my own case. I am, I confess, no scholar, and someone who probably spent much far too much time at university that should have been spent reading Dickens and Milton reading instead the likes of Carlos Castaneda and Erich von Däniken. But, where entertaining wonderful-weirdness is concerned, Castaneda & Co. are the plump, low-hanging fruit; the true discoveries are always made in the more arid places where no-one else has bothered to look.

Some of these discoveries are so wonderful (and/or so weird) that you keep them to yourself for as long as possible. Just thinking about these little bizarreries can warm you up on a cold day, give you a little inner boost when you're feeling down, or start you off laughing in highly inappropriate circumstances. More to the point, sharing such stuff always seems to diminish its potency. For example, incredibly, it seems that no-one else cares that King Arthur had, in addition to that attention-hogging sword Excalibur, a modest but steadfast spear called Ron. I find that wonderful, and try not to let the discovery that others don't reduce the pleasure I am able to derive from it. Ah well, "Lean On Me" is the wisdom-song of Reliable Ron.

So, with a certain deep sigh of self-sacrifice, there is one such secret from the dusty archives that I have kept to myself for close to 50 years, and which I will share with you now. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

In the long-ago days before Google and Wikipedia, school homework used to involve a lot of looking things up in books. Yes, that's right, in actual books. Given the essentially book-free environment at home, this meant regular evening trips to the local public library. This was not a burden, however, as it turned out girls were set homework, too. As a consequence, the reference section of our local public library functioned as a sort of rather hushed youth club for the bookish minority of the town's population, cruelly sundered by attending single-sex grammar schools. Or perhaps it might best be seen as an analogue prototype of Facebook, where gossip could be whispered and assignations arranged in real, actual face-time. Those sweet, teenage faces! I still remember most of them as they were then, although I suppose, like me, they will by now have aged 50 years. I'm sure they all wear it well, though.

Anyway. Sometimes you had nothing more urgent to do that evening than hang around the shelves trying to look cool. Pulling the odd random tome off a shelf and thumbing through it was all part of the look, but did occasionally lead to some interesting discoveries. One enchanted evening, across a crowded room, my eye was caught by, of all things, Palmer's Index to the Times Newspaper. After a minute or two's scrutiny, all thoughts of girls and/or homework had vanished from my mind. Nothing is quite as cool as buried treasure.

Hmm... Even now, I'm hesitating to share this. Once, I had thought I might get a book of some sort of out of Palmer's Index. A PhD thesis, even [1]. And the chances are that most people will care no more for this wonderful secret of mine than they do for Arthur's Ron. But, it's time. If you don't enjoy this, it's your loss. I'll always have Palmer's.

So, Palmer's Index, as I encountered it, was a staid-looking set of battered, slim, brownish, leather-bound volumes, produced quarterly from 1790, indexing the contents of The Times newspaper. Take a volume off the shelf, and bits of leprous, perished leather would fall off the spine; open it, and there'd be a knuckle-crack of snapping Victorian glue. An index? Dull as ditchwater, you might say. But, to quote G.K. Chesterton, "Is ditchwater dull?  Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun". You need to look closer.

Most of Palmer's is indeed very dull.  The index is broken into broad sections of interest – some of which are super-tedious, like "Bankruptcies" and "Civil Actions" – and within each section there are alphabetically-ordered lists, some of which are merely names, and some of which are a terse précis of an article, followed by a code denoting the day, month, page and column of the article.  These summaries can nonetheless be intriguing.  For example, randomly in the volume for Winter Quarter 1869, under "Leading Articles", we read, inter alia:
Liverpool ----- Fight in a Menagerie at, between a Wolf and the Monkeys, 9f 5b
Loss of £100 by a Lady from the High Wind in Edinburgh, 2f 7f
Lunatic Killed by a Lunatic at Birmingham, 10m 5f 
Curious, but not compelling.  But then, right at the very front of every quarterly volume you will find a section called "Accidents", and this is a vein of pure gold.  Never mind Chapman's Homer, when I first looked into the Accidents section of Palmer's Index to the Times,
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien. 
Or, more appropriately, "laughing, in a library in Stevenage".

So what is so good about these "accidents", then? Bear in mind that I have an odd, slightly cruel sense of humour, which was probably odder and crueller back then. But, in the spirit of "show, don't tell", here is a small, not quite random selection from the year 1847 [2]:
the Emperor of Russia, from his Carriage in Passing over the Ice of a River Sinking and Barely Allowing the Emperor Time to Escape.
Smart and Smith, two Young Men, Suffocated by Burning Charcoal in their Bedroom, at Basenhall.
the Grand Duchess Olga, and her Husband, from the Horses of their Sledge taking Fright, at Stutgard.
Henry Fowler, Roasted to Death while Drunk on a Lime Kiln, at Uplyme.
Levi Watson, a Lad, who Fell from a Barrow on which he was being Rolled into a Flaming Blast and Burnt to a Cinder, at the Bowling Iron Blasts.
Mr. Wallop, near Winchester, who in Clearing a Steep Fence fell into a deep Chalk Pit, but Providentially Escaped Harm.

at Rugby Station, the Horses of a Carriage with Three Ladies in it, taking fright were Miraculously Saved by a Young Man to whom they Offered Sixpence.
a Priest, in the Madelaene Church, in Bruges from the Marble Head of an Infant Jesus Falling on him Killing him.
Mr. Gypson, from the Model of the Royal Exchange attached to his balloon being burnt and narrow Escape of the Balloon.
at Mr. Turner's, the Baker of New Cut, from the Flooring of his Shop giving way from the rush of Customers and their Falling into the Bakehouse below.

Jefferys, a Fisherman, from a Fish Darting into his Larynx and Suffocating him, at Bognor.

William Rawson, Worried to Death by a Bear, at Newtown, near Carlisle.
Henry Ford, Sawn Asunder by a Circular Saw at St. Pancras Steam Saw Mills.

the Captain of a Vessel in London who Awaking from Sleep threw himself from a Railway Carriage near Birmingham but Escaped Unhurt.
All of Victorian life is there, from the highest to the lowest. People of all stations die or suffer injury from freak accidents, acts of stupidity and bravado, or the perils of everyday life, many of which seem to involve carriages, furnaces, and dangerous animals. There must be something in that small selection that tickles you? Talking of which, how about this classic from 1848:
a Man, who Searched the Sewers for Money, &c. having Lost his way but Happily Saved by Mr. Tickle, of Berwick Street, Hearing his Cries for Help.
Who knew that the Mr. Men were out and about and doing good in the sewers of Victorian London? Or how about this, also from 1848:
a Coal Porter, Killed from Burns Caused in his Carrying a Red Hot Poker between his Teeth.
Wait, what... Why? Why would anyone – however stupid, drunk, or susceptible to dares – even consider carrying a red-hot poker between his teeth?  Much less the esteemed composer of "Kiss Me, Kate" and "I Get a Kick Out of You"? The index is full of these little vignettes of hazard, so many of them unnecessarily detailed, stylish, and even literary. I mean, "Sawn Asunder by a Circular Saw at St. Pancras Steam Saw Mills"? "Worried to Death by a Bear"? This is the poetry of peril.

As you read on, compulsively, certain themes emerge. Men are endlessly falling into lime-kilns, women setting their clothing on fire, children being flung from carriages and trains. But one theme in particular started to catch my eye. Travelling zoos were clearly highly accident-prone, and in particular a certain Wombwell's Menagerie was an itinerant death-trap. Here is a selection of Wombwell-related accidents (inevitably partial, as these are merely the ones thought worthy of report in the Times, our national newspaper of record):
John Johnson Severely Lacerated by a Lion, at Wombwell's Menagerie at Bristol.

Wombwell's Menagery at Hastings by the over-turning of Two of the Vans.

at Wombwell's Exhibition in Woolwich from a Lion Tearing a Boy's arm and Hand.
at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Midlent Fair from a Mr. Martin in Stroking a Tiger's paw was Caught by him.

at Wombwell's Managerie, while at Stamford, from the Lion Biting the Face and Back of the "Lion Queen".

at Wombwell's Managerie, at March, to a Little Boy from the Bear Seizing his Hand.

Ellen Bright, Killed by a Tiger while Performing as "Lion Queen," at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Chatham.
a Youth, at Durham from touching the Paw of an African Lion, in Wombwell's Menagerie and Fearfully Lacerated by the Lion.


at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Chatham from the Lion Seriously Injuring its Keeper.

Samuel Harrison, Keeper of the Elephants of Wombwell's Menagerie, who Sleeping in their Den was severely Crushed by One of the Animals Lying down on him.

at Holywell, North Wales, from Three of the Vans of Wombwell's Menagerie Falling over from the Wind, Killing the Keeper and Three Boys.

Sophia Moorshed, Seized by a Lioness at Wombwell's Menagerie when at Kingsland.

to the Keeper of the Leopards at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Hertford.

Mary Jane Butterfield, by having her Scalp Torn away by a Lion during a Panic in Wombwell's Menagerie, at Bolton.
at Wombwell's Menagerie at Wrexham from the Lion Tearing off the Arm of an Attendant.


James Smith, Employed at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Edinburgh, Bitten by one of the Tigers.
If ever there was a case for an urgent Health & Safety inspection, Wombwell's Menagerie was surely it. And, ladies, should you ever see the job of "Lion Queen" advertised, do not even consider applying for it, however tempting. In fairness, I should point out that other travelling menageries were available, and also not entirely accident free.  A quick list:
at Redruth, at Hylton's Travelling Menagerie, from a Report that the Lion had Broken Loose whereby over 200 People where Injured more or less.

at Batty's Menagerie, Exhibiting at Huddersfield from one of the Tigers Seizing a Young Woman by the Hair of her Head.

to Mendee's Menagerie, from the Elephant Caravan Capsizing on a Horse and Crushing it to Death.

in the Reittenbash Menagerie, by a Panther Seizing the Manager's Daughter.

at Pearson's Menagerie, at Bradford Fair, from the Lioness attacking the Lady Lion Tamer.
It's a jungle out there!

As a source of amusement and bemusement the "Accidents" section of Palmer's Index is probably bottomless. No doubt you might find a different focus for your interest in those 100 years and more of mishaps and misadventures: flaming petticoats or acts of astounding stupidity may be more your thing. Curiously, no other section of the Index is anywhere near as fulsome in its descriptions, or as superfluously generous in its details as the accidents. There really is something there for everyone. One of these days I suppose I might actually get around to reading some of the articles referenced so tantalisingly, but what would be the point? Every one of the best index entries is a complete and perfect work of art in and of itself. To read that in 1847 Henry Ford was sawn asunder by a circular saw at St. Pancras Steam Saw Mills is to share a moment of pure alliterative Schadenfreude with an anonymous 19th-century clerk. To learn that at least one man in the history of the human race has attempted to carry a red-hot poker between his teeth, or that a priest was once felled by a marble head of the infant Jesus is ... well, I'm not sure what. Magnificent? Ironic? Tragical-comical-historical-pastoral? Certainly (I find it) hilarious. And if you don't, then my secret has been shared in vain, and I can't imagine what you're doing reading this blog.

1. In the 1990s I did once submit a book proposal to a publisher specialising in "artists' books", but never heard back. Perhaps they thought I was making it all up? I wish I were that inventive... Or perhaps they thought I was, you know, a little too far ahead of the curve...
2. I've omitted the date/page codes, which are baffling unless you know in which quarterly volume they are contained ("m" = March in "Winter", but May in "Spring", for example).


amolitor said...

"at Rugby Station, the Horses of a Carriage with Three Ladies in it, taking fright were Miraculously Saved by a Young Man to whom they Offered Sixpence."

This is positively Dickensian. The 'to whom they offered sixpence' especially. It is, as the ignorant might say, the punctum!

Nathan deGargoyle said...

Could one assume that the three ladies saved by a young man each offered their tuppence?

Mike C. said...

I expect Dickens was an avid reader of the Index. It wouldn't surprise me if half of his best bits are to be found in there.

And talking of bits, Nathan deGargoyle, that's very funny, if unlikely, and I'm glad someone remembers their old money.


DM said...

Splendid! You're on top form, Mr. C. It's all about the boys, though isn't it? Just a few misguided ponies and some wayward embers for the women. So, what's the revelation about the bottom of the Index ? Maybe it suffered the same fate as my own careful coiffure between the teeth of a vicious llama on a day out at a zoo in Brighton, circa 1964? Verifiable in Palmer's as well, I wonder? Yes, the poetry of peril beside the prose of threat. Stevenage is/was clearly a much richer and more stimulating milieu than Basingstoke. Thank you for another cracking post.

Mike C. said...


Thanks, though I'm not sure what you mean by "all about the boys", or "the bottom of the index"? It's late, however, and I'm feeling remarkably unsubtle. Maybe I'll get it tomorrow...


DM said...

Sorry, late and clumsy writing on my part. 'All about the boys' - entries related to women seem relatively dull and lacking in the more 'exotic' forms of peril compared to the boys' jeopardy. No doubt the restrictions of the domestic for most women at the time explains a lot. 'The bottom of the index' - feeble attempt at humour - you say that the Index was bottomless. This obviously begs the question: What on earth happened to the bottom of the list? Then I recalled the alarming experience I had on the day out to the zoo in brighton when a rascal llama ripped a mouthful of hair from my head (not my entire scalp, though).
Incidentally, until I read the post, Wombwell, as far as I was concerned, was a bleak railway station on the line commuting from Sheffield to Leeds. The village name was comforting, the outlook from the 7:43 on a February morning in 1985 (miners' strike and all)was different.

Mike C. said...


Ah right, got it! I shall call it Bottom's Index, for it hath no bottom...

Wot, Lion Queen not exotic enough for you?? As I say, the accidents has something for everyone: have a browse yourself (Chadwyck Healey have put it online) and I'm sure a theme will emerge.

Someone did actually publish a brief history of Wombwell's Menagerie ("A Zoo on Wheels") which (typically) I bought but have never read. It was named after the original proprietor, George Wombwell, and a pretty unpleasant affair, by modern standards. Curious, though, surnames that are place names. I was always amused by the existence of a member of staff at Soton Uni called Sarah Stevenage, one of the most unlikely names I've come across. Maybe there's a Belinda Basingstoke, too...


DM said...

Yes, Lion Queen exotic enough. In fact all of the unfortunate events to befall our heroines seem to be the work of lions. A swifter end than any wrought by a donkey, I suppose. I'll have a browse, as you suggest. Yes, the Basingstokes....I knew Belinda a little but not as well as her older sister, Brenda.

Kent Wiley said...

Not going to bother to investigate, but from the record you present it appears Menageries were a popular form of entertainment in mid 19th century England. And big cats being what they are, didn't take well to confinement and being prodded by humans.

Mike C. said...


I'm surprised you'd not come across the idea, though it does seem they died out in the US around the Civil War. See here: