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played in londonA huge outpouring of London History books this year, as ever. Here is a shortlist of our favourites. Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynne by Nigel Pickford tells the story of an audacious drive-by assassination in the Haymarket in 1682. Scheming, intrigue, marriage- and power-broking in late-Stuart England. Men of Letters by Duncan Barrett tells of the exploits of the Post Office Rifles during World War One. Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson is all about squalor and filth among the living and even the dead in 19C London and how the Victorians attempted to combat a huge catalogue of blights, with only partial success. You will love all of these books, no question.

But our book of the year for 2014 is Played in London: charting the heritage of a city at play by Simon Inglis. Quite simply an exceptional work of social and architectural history. Deeply researched, superbly written, beautifully designed and printed with hundreds of photos, illustrations and maps. Our review.

Past winners
2011: Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun
2012: Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly
2013: Beastly London by Hannah Velten

All our reviews for 2014.
Book round-up for 2013.

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Here are some London history books I’ve read recently.

Diamond Street by Rachel Lichtenstein
Diamond Street Rachel LichtensteinThis book was published a few years ago and it’s been on my reading list for some time. Finally cracked it and so glad I did. Diamond Street refers to Hatton Garden and its surrounding area, just north of Holborn Circus, for over a century the centre of London’s diamond trade, along with associated industries. I don’t know why, but I expected this to be a straight timeline historical narrative of London’s diamond trade. While it is that to an extent, it’s a very much a personal account, introducing us as it does to many of the characters of the Hatton Garden trade, many elderly and indeed, since the book’s publication, now passed away. Of these, the author’s own husband, parents and extended family played their part.  Diamond Street describes a world of Jewish immigrants, often in desperate straits, who arrive in London and set to work in the business, usually from the very bottom  as runners, messengers and the like. They become become traders, jewellers, craftsmen, cutters, polishers. They work hard and do business by an unwritten code of honour and honesty. Break the code and you’re finished. Forever. We find out how through their efforts – the setting up of London’s diamond bourse and other institutions – London became the diamond capital of the world. But it’s about the street as much as the precious stones, so Lichtenstein casts her net somewhat wider to include other businesses in the locale – I particularly enjoyed reading about the legendary department store Gamages, closed in the 1960s; and the global leader in metallurgy, the venerable Johnson Matthey, until their smells, fumes and explosions caused them eventually to vacate the area, although they’re still going strong to this day.

Tales from the Hanging Court by Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker

tales from the hanging court hitchcock and shoemakerLike Diamond Street, above, this is not a new book, but I’m about half way through it and I must include it because it’s so good. Hitchcock and Shoemaker are professors at Sussex and Sheffield Universities respectively (honourable mention to University of Hertfordshire, where Hitchcock worked until recently). They collaborate closely on digitising historic records relating to (but not restricted to) criminality and the daily lives of London’s lower orders, resulting in the superb web sites Old Bailey Online and London Lives. This book features around thirty cases heard at the Old Bailey from the late 17th until the early 20th Centuries. They involve pick-pocketing, fraud, rioting, murder, highway robbery. Notorious cases are included, such as the Gordon Riots, Dr Dodd, the “Macaroni Parson”, the Newgate Monster. Big personalities of the age – Garrow, the Fieldings – put in appearances. Court dialogue is heavily quoted. The book is alive with drama, fizzing with tension. I must mention the authors’ introduction which sets the scene and puts everything in context: a quite superb 13 page essay which alone is worth the cover price. I anticipate regretting coming to the end of this excellent history book.

London’s Rubbish by Peter Hounsell

london's rubbish peter hounsellI love reading the history of things we take for granted. This is exactly that. This book examines how we disposed of waste from 1800 to the present. What is interesting  it that it is tempting to think of the privitisation of public utitilites as a political hot potato of modern times. Not so for the historian, of course. Here we see that, like with energy, water, health and so on, waste disposal changed hands between public and private constantly over the years. In the late Georgian period when our story starts, the responsibility for public waste disposal was the reponsibility of local vestries who would put the job out to tender. Because most waste was dust and ashes which was used to make bricks during a period of massive expansion in London, the business was so lucrative that contractors paid the vestries, not the other way around. In fact the business was so rewarding that rogue contractors would trespass on the routes of the incumbent providers much to their chagrin. But as supply eventually succeeded demand, this eventually changed to a situation that we’d recognise today. Over the years, waste has changed in quality and quantity and in the method of getting rid of it. Essentially we bury it, we burn it or we crush it. And all of it during the cycle of disposal has to be transported by road and by water. No surprise that so many depots were sited near canals and the Thames. Areas such as Paddington became the rubbish capitals of the capital so to speak. There is a generous section of illustrations in the centre of the book featuring all manner of dust carts, incinerators and destructors. Beautifully researched, an intriguing book.

London’s Markets: from Smithfield to Portobello Road by Stephen Halliday
london's markets, stephen hallidayPublished this year to mark 1,000 years of a market at Borough in one form or another, this book celebrates the hundreds of markets that have occupied London down the years. There are the obvious ones of the title, along with Covent Garden, Leadenhall, Billingsgate – cathedrals built by some of our most renown architects and selling the obvious daily requirements: meat, veg, fish, flowers, clothes and miscellaneous tat. Then the intangibles, commodities that make London an international capital of finance: insurance, exchange, currency, stock, bonds. Through the middle ages we very much relied on wool and associated fabrics for our international trade and allowed Italian bankers, the Hanseatic League and their ilk the run of the place in third party trades. That was until Thomas Gresham gave us our own bourse – the Royal Exchange – and Merchant Adventurers, the British East India Company and others rose from nowhere and we were on our way. Insurance, home-grown banks  and a plethora of stock companies followed. These churches of high finance are given the full treatment in this book, so the author has been thorough in range and depth without getting too bogged down – all too easy when covering City institutions. We return in the final chapters to street markets. Covent Garden is very well done, along with markets in specific areas: the East End, Camden, and so on. There’s a handy timeline chronology at the end (I love those) and a good index. Overall, this is a nice, pacy history that  you’ll knock out in three or four hours and get a good sense of the topic.
List price: £12.99 – available for less.

The Story of St Katharine’s by Christopher West
st katharine's docks, chris westImmediately east of the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, we find St Katharine Docks. This can take one by surprise (it did me) since it is successfully obscured by the Tower Hotel. It comprises two docks and a central basin, occupied by a variety of craft, among which we find luxury yachts, Thames barges, Winston Churchill’s funeral barge, and the gorgeous royal barge Gloriana. The dock is girded by the hotel as mentioned, luxury apartments, trendy shops, cafes and restaurants. If you can’t afford to live there, it’s a delightful place to hang out. The dock itself was designed by Thomas Telford and opened in 1829, relatively late in the story of London’s docks. To enable this to happen the ancient church of St Katharine by the Tower, the old hospital buildings and over 10,000 slum dwellings were swept away. The original Hospital of St Katharine by the Tower (after Katharine of Alexandria) was founded in 1148 by the formidable Queen Matilda and in the main has had a female patron and protector (usually the monarch’s wife) down the centuries, even to its current home in Limehouse. It has always managed to stay independent from its close neighbour, the City of London, a fact which definitely informs its character. This book, written by local resident and London Historians member Chris West, tells the extraordinary story of this historic location. It’s in three parts: the story of the medieval hospital and church; Telford’s docks, the Blitz and final closure in 1968; 21C regeneration. There are many heroes and heroines in this story, deftly told. An excellent introduction to a fascinating London district.

The Story Of St Katharine’s is on sale at various locations around St K Docks, particularly Nauticalia – Chris is pleased to send signed copies if you email him at thestoryofstk@outlook.com or you can order via his website www.charlesdickenslondon.net.

 

Temples of London by Roger Williams.
the temples of london roger williamsSubtitled “Inspired buildings”, the author takes us through London’s significant buildings of historic, social, commercial or architectural importance. Divided in to six sections such as Commerce, Industry etc and further diced into three to five chapters featuring about three buildings each, the book must cover around 70 – 100 buildings. Physically, it’s sort of diary format – back pocket size, if you like – and is the type of book one can read in any order, pick and mix style. In the most part, the buildings chosen are not mainstream and touristy although you would know most of them. Williams’s writing is solid, concise and a bit lyrical with humour skimming the surface and frequently a great turn of phrase. In short: great reading. Although you can tell that the author is an admire of all these buildings, he remains even-handed, non-judgemental. So, for example, on the chapter about Harrods, Selfridges and Westfield, he tells us about the Diana and Dodi shrine completely matter of factly. I particularly enjoyed reading about the stations of the Jubilee Line Extension. I have admired these all along, but having read this chapter about the architects and the design of them, I better understand why. The architect Ronald Paoletti is quoted being very sniffy indeed about Pick and Holden of old so the author doesn’t have to; even as an admirer of Holden, that made me smile.  Temples of London is a difficult book to pigeon-hole. But that doesn’t matter: it’s a super read and you’ll cut through it.
List price: £7.00

The Story of Mayfair from 1664 Onwards by Peter Wetherall and others. 
the story of mayfairAt around 75 pages, this book is an overtly commercial publication, published by Wetherall of Mayfair, an upmarket property company. But it is well-written and beautifully produced, giving you the basics of how Mayfair developed. It’s divided into seven chapters, each identified by the author or authors as a “Step Change”, so it goes Step Change 1: 1660s – 1720s. From Mud to Mansions; Step Change 2: 1721 – 1850. Heyday of the Aristocrats. And so on. This approach is further galvanised by a timeline ribbon which runs along the bottom of most pages, from 1664 – 1914. Our story progresses over time by explaining the nature of wealthy, from landed aristocracy through new money of trade and finance and all the while the styles of these huge town houses progress in appearance and opulence and fashion. But the strength of the print edition is the illustrations, photographs, engravings etc, beautifully reproduced in a beautifully designed layout on luxury paper, which may explain its price tag.

the story of mayfair
Print edition: £25. Kindle edition: 77p

Free ebook download.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes

A guest post by London Historians Member, Jane Young.

Eleanor Marx A Life Rachel HolmesThe first biography of Eleanor Marx (1855 – 1898) to be written in almost four decades, the 1972 -1976 two volume biography from Yvonne Knapp is a tough act to follow and Rachel Holmes has managed it with a flourish.

Significantly more intricate than a singular rendition of the life of one person, this substantial volume is an adeptly researched piece of social history. Covering poverty in the mid nineteenth century, the plight of European immigrants, infant mortality, working class politics, bohemian society

Charting the progress of Eleanor Marx from right back to before her parents Jenny and Karl had even met; you are invited into the various and numerous homes of the Marx household. There you meet a ramshackle extended family in all its minutiae detail becoming familiar with everything from the furniture they sat on; the clothes they wore; the frequent visitors and the meals they ate. Filled with a wealth of anecdotes taken from journals and letters, this book builds an enchanting picture of a dynasty whose consistently limited housekeeping budget prioritises books, paper and ink as essentials.

Within these pages the radical might of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels become softened as the character of their inextricably linked lifelong relationship, a bond which ultimately fashioned the destiny of Eleanor herself is explained.

Well known dignitaries within the circle of social reform: William Morris; Annie Besant; Clementina Black; Clara Collett; Israel Zangwill; George Bernard Shaw; Elizabeth Garrett Anderson; Beatrice Webb enter stage left.

All human life is here, in an immensely readable well referenced format though Rachel Holmes successfully steers a course away from sentimentality through tragedy compounded by dark family secret. The feisty little girl who at the age of ten lists ‘Champagne’ as her idea of happiness and grows up to make her mark on history is revealed in the most engaging but down to earth narrative: encompassing the commonplace everyday details of friendships; failed relationships; bereavement; domesticity and the eternal problem of finding affordable accommodation in London.

So much wider than a biography, moreover a graphic journey through Victorian London, Paris and Manchester. For all who have an interest in nineteenth century social reform, this account of a family that immediately endear themselves to the reader as ‘The Tussies’ is to be highly recommended.

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Eleanor Marx: A Life (525pp) by Rachel Holmes, 2014, is published by Bloomsbury with a cover price of £25, but is available for less.

 

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Review: Lady Bette and the Murder of Mister Thynn by N.A. Pickford.

lady bette and the murder of my thynnIn an age when women – no matter how high born – had few rights, wealthy heiresses found themselves sometimes to be both bargaining counters of their guardians and targets for kidnappers after rich pickings. Lady Bette was one such, but so much more than that: she was a Percy and the heiress to the Northumberland estates: the very top echelon of the English aristocracy. Think Syon House in Brentford and Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, both still with us. Add to this the magnificent Northumberland House near Charing Cross – lost to the railways and urban expansion of the late 19C; and Petworth House and it’s clear that in the late Seventeenth Century, the Percys of Northumberland were an ancient and noble family of the first rank. They still are today.

So when Bette’s father, the 11 Duke of Northumberland died in 1670 when she was just three, and her elder brother himself having died two years previously, little Bette became the heiress to vast estates. She instantly became a pawn in a marriage game played by two deadly rivals: her mother and her grandmother, the formidable Dowager Lady Howard.

Having already lost her childhood husband from her initial arranged marriage (they appeared to be a fondly devoted young couple), Bette – still in her early teens – was fixed up with Thomas Thynn, an unpleasant character who rubbed shoulders with the emerging Whig faction surrounding the Duke of Monmouth – desperate chancers as history would later prove.

These years of scheming and intrigue – skillfully woven by the author in the narrative – culminate in the event of the title: a drive-by assassination of Thynn in his coach at the cross-roads of Pall Mall and Haymarket. The killers were a group of down-at-heel desperadoes in the pay of the mysterious Count Konigsmark and his right hand man, Christopher Vratz, fortune hunters and mercenaries to a man.

London at this time was a haven for resting military types from the Continent, common soldiers now impoverished habitues of the capital’s less salubrious inns and ale houses. They were easy recruits for this mission.

Apart from Bette herself, no one comes out of this story with any credit. Honour there is none. Everybody, high and low alike, is on the make. My favourite – and likely yours will be too – is Ralph Montagu, sometime ambassador to Paris and step-father of Bette, whose strategic womanising and scheming are utterly shameless, leading ultimately to his disgrace at Court. A morality tale within a tale.

N.A. Pickford weaves complex threads together with great skill and tells this amazing story with panache and style. His research is clearly both deep and wide-ranging  and he manages his sources masterfully. Any history lover will enjoy this pacy true story, but if you’re particularly into the scheming, the intrigues, the power-broking of the Restoration elite, you will adore this book.

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The footnotes, references and index are excellent: all you would want.

Lady Bette and the Murder of Mister Thynn (309pp) is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson with a cover price of £20 although it is available for less.

 

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georgian london into the streetsA bit random this. Mostly London, mostly non-fiction, mostly by our talented Members, mostly 2013 (there’s some late 2012 stuff). But all History. And if it helps you to make informed choices on the Christmas pressie front, my work is done.

First, breaking news: Lucy Inglis’s excellent Georgian London, Into the Streets, published in September, has made it on the shortlist for  the Longman History Today book of the year. Lucy has many friends here at London Historians, and we’re all dead thrilled for her. The winner will be announced next month. Our review is here.

Fiction by LH Members.

novels

London Historians has numerous talented history novelists among its Members who had books out this year. In fact, Essie Fox’s latest – The Goddess and the Thief – was published only last week. Wendy Wallace’s second novel, The Sacred River, came out in August. More murder and mayhem from Lloyd Shepherd in The Poisoned Island, which hit the bookshops last February. His Last Mistress: The Duke of Monmouth and Lady Henrietta Wentworth by Andrea Zuvich concerns the man behind the hare-brained attempt to topple his uncle, James II. And just out in Kindle, attracting nice reviews: The Marrow Scoop and Other Ghost Stories by Suzie Grogan.

Non-fiction History by LH Members.

member books london historians

London’s Industrial Heritage by Geoff Marshall. A much-needed treatment of a neglected topic, excellent. Our review. Buy direct using the link, or LH Members can obtain a signed copy directly from Geoff for just £12 including shipping, see August Members’ newsletter or email me for details.
The Rainborowes by Adrian Tinniswood. Two generations of a puritan merchant family from Wapping and their adventures against Barbary pirates, their endeavours in early colonial New England, and – grippingly – their exploits in the Parliamentary interest in the English Civil War. Our Review.
Along similar lines to the wonderful Sugar Girls last year, Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi have brought out GI Brides, featuring the real life stories of English girls from the war years and what became of them. Our review.
Defying Providence. Art Boylston tells the story of immunisation before Jenner, starting with the wonderful Lady Mary Montagu, and tracing developments on both sides of the Atlantic by physicians doing pioneering variolisation work often in the face of fierce opposition from the established orthodoxy.  Our review.
Georgian London by Lucy Inglis, as mentioned above.
Some very recent releases which we haven’t had time to review yet, but have dipped into and found all to be engaging and delightful.
Bizarre London by prolific David Long. Londonist review here. He also wrote London’s Big Day, a book of previously unpublished colour photos of the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
The Quack Doctor by Caroline Rance. Hilarious “medical” advertising and cures in the Victorian era.
Tracing Your Ancestors Using the Census by Emma Jolly.
Move Along Please by Mark Mason. Not a history book as such, though plenty of  history snippets. The author’s voyage from Land’s End to John O’Groats by local bus.
Historic Streets and Squares by Melanie Backe-Hansen has been pulling very good reviews.

A 2012 book really, but the superb The Day Parliament Burned Down by Caroline Shenton has just been published in paperback so that counts. Plus it won the Political Book of the Year award 2013, oh yes. But get the hardback edition, hey. Our review.

Non-fiction History by non-LH Members (yet!).

non member booksInspector Minahan Makes a Stand by Bridget O’Donnell. Back end of 2012, this one. No matter. The true story of one policeman’s crusade against sex trafficking of teenaged girls in the 1880s. Tragic, sad, shocking. I regret that circumstances worked against my getting a review done of this outstanding book.
Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy?: The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer by Antony Lentin. The financier and philanthropist who was hounded out of Britain for being German-born and Jewish. Our review.
The Profligate Son, by Nicola Phillips. Jaw-dropping account of the misadventures of an absolute wastrel at the turn of the 19C. Hugely enjoyable, and a valuable social history of fun, fashion and the striving (or not) middle classes in late Georgian London.  Our Review.
The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London By Hannah Greig  Scholarly, thoughtful and in many ways revisionist examination of the wafer thin upper crust of Georgian society. Time conspired against my writing a review.
Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City by Hannah Velten. From fleas to elephants, this book has it covered. An academic, entertaining and deeply absorbing examination of the life of animals in our city. Farms, zoos, pets, circuses, fighting, gambling, slaughterhouses, agents, beasts of burden. No review yet, I still have a chapter or two to go. This is simply an outstanding book. At time of writing, Amazon showing “out of stock” and I’m not surprised. Buy it in a shop.
Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 by Antonia Fraser. Here’s one of those topics – along with the Corn Laws – that is potentially so dull during school history lessons, that it loses potential historians for life. So full marks to Lady Antonia for stepping up, laying out the issues and telling this very important story with, well, drama. Racy, pacy with excellent pen-portraits of the leading players, importantly drawing Earl Grey out of the shadows.

 

Tube 150

underground books

As the 150th anniversary year of the London Underground draws to a close, I’ll mention some titles. One of the best, overall, dip-in, dip-out treatments of the history of the Tube is Underground to Everywhere by Stephen Halliday (LH Member). Originally published in 2001, it’s been updated and re-issued for the anniversary. The official book of the anniversary is Underground: How the Tube Shaped London by David Bownes, Oliver Green, Sam Mullins, three big beasts past and present from the London Transport Museum. Oliver Green also wrote Frank Pick’s London: Art, Design and the Modern City, a much-needed and deserved treatment of the great and visionary rail administrator. Finally, and related, I really enjoyed A Logo for London, by David Lawrence – all about the unified corporate identity of London’s transport system from its earliest days and through the 20th Century. Beautifully illustrated.

The Laurels.
beastly londonMy shortlist of History books for 2013 are London’s Industrial Heritage by Geoff Marshall, The Rainborowes by Adrian Tinniswood, Georgian London by Lucy Inglis and Beastly London by Hannah Velten. If you can imagine a swanky black tie dinner populated by drunk historians, please picture me ripping open a gold envelope to announce Hannah Velten’s effort for the London Historians Book of the Year 2013.

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Books
In chronological order of publication, my top three:

London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing by Jerry White.
Having covered London in the 19th and 20th Centuries in earlier works, this is Professor White’s masterpiece. Over a decade in the making, published back in March and not yet reviewed by me, I’m ashamed to say. I probably wouldn’t know where to start: loved it.

The Day Parliament Burned Down by Caroline Shenton
Reviewed by me here.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly
Reviewed by me here.

Exhibitions
One finished, don’t miss the other two which are still running. My top three.

Royal River at the National Maritime Museum
Review

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men at the Museum of London
until 14 April 2013
Review

The Lost Prince at the National Portrait Gallery
until 13 January 2013, treat as urgent!
Review

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A Guest Review by Val Bott

FERN FEVER: The Story of Pteridomania by Sarah Whittingham

Mike Paterson handed me a weighty package, asking me to review the contents for London Historians. Knowing my interest in horticultural history and that I was unable to attend the launch of Sarah Whittingham’s handsome new book, he knew this would be a treat!

Fern Fever is a substantial hardback book with 256 just-bigger-than-A4 pages. The richly-illustrated layout makes this a tasty book to browse but it is the contents which are really impressive in their substance. The author describes herself as an architectural historian, but in her guise as ‘Miss Frond’ she has been amassing wonderful material on ferns since at least the 1990s. Her comprehensive study is sure to have lasting value, and is full of detailed information.

This delightful account is the product of a wealth of research with a full bibliography. A wide range of disciplines underpin the story it tells – botany, horticulture, social history, medicine, the fine and decorative arts and even mythology. The book explores a mania for ferns which quickly came to hold a fascination for all kinds of people and which lasted throughout the Victorian period.

By the late 18th century hardy native ferns were being noticed and named, and exotic ferns were arriving from the colonies. At first the prospect of trying to grow these flowerless, seedless plants was daunting but two discoveries made a real difference – first, that ferns could be propagated from spores and, secondly, that protecting them under glass bottles, then purpose-made glass cases, ensured success. But this alone does not account for the public enthusiasm for ferns, which could have remained the preserve of wealthy collectors with fine greenhouses and private ferneries.

Fern Fever records how public awareness was fuelled by publications, lectures and the creation of ferneries in commercial pleasure grounds and municipal botanic gardens. As ferns were identifiable and classifiable, this made their study a respectable form of enjoyable self-improvement for individuals or groups to pursue. Cheap colour printing, the growth of railway travel and the British enthusiasm for creating societies also played their part. And the mania took hold when it was possible to visit sites to dig up samples of ferns to grow in Wardian cases in suburban homes and in their gardens– there was profit as well as pleasure in this.

The elegant, delicate and recognisable form of ferns made them a perfect motif for glass engraving, lace making, transfer-printing on wooden souvenirs and applied sprigs on earthenware. The fact that women could collect and document ferns as easily as men probably made them a receptive market for the production of such genteel wares. But ferns in glass cases were also seen as therapeutic and were installed in the windows of hospitals and asylums.

I have now begun to think that I might be suffering from incipient pteridomania. There are ferns in our conservatory which I have had since the 1970s, when I bought my copy of British Ferns & Their Allies by T Moore (1881), a pale blue Dudson earthenware pot sprigged with white ferns stands on my window ledge and Victorian tiles with ferns are used as pot stands …

Val Bott

Val Bott is a museum consultant and distinguished West London historian, particularly but not least in the area of historical market and nursery gardens.
http://valbott.co.uk
http://nurserygardeners.com
http://williamhogarthtrust.org.uk

Dr Sarah Whittingham is an academic and author based in Bristol.
http://www.sarahwhittingham.co.uk 

Fern Fever is published today by Frances Lincoln, ISBN 978-0-7112-3070-5. It has a cover price of £35 but can be obtained for £22 – £24

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