Thursday, 11 April 2013

Literary Legacies and Longjohns

What I'm reading: Kate Atkinson, Life After Life; Anita Heiss, Am I Black Enough For You?; S.J. Watson, Before I Go To Sleep.

In a little less than three weeks I'll be on my way to Invercargill at the very bottom of the South Island. And, yes, I will be packing longjohns and a warm coat. I'm off down there to speak at the Book Lovers' Dinner, which is part of the Readers and Writers Alive! programme in association with the Southland Festival of the Arts. Readers and Writers Alive! has been running since 2008 and is organised and supported by the Dan Davin Literary Foundation and Invercargill City Libraries.

Postcard from Invercargill
Daniel Marcus Davin was an interesting man - the more I read about him the more intrigued I got. In fact, he's more or less hijacked this post. Born into a working-class Invercargill family in 1913 (his father was a labourer and a railwayman), he won scholarships to Sacred Heart College in Auckland, then to Otago University. There, he immersed himself in linguistic and literary studies and a distinctly bohemian lifestyle, met his future wife Winnie Gonley, and graduated with first-class MAs in English (1934) and Latin (1935). He then won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University and in 1936 entered Balliol College to read Greats (philosophy and classics). He also began his first novel, travelled around Europe with Winnie, and in June 1939 graduated, again with first-class honours. A month later he and Winnie married.

When war broke out he joined the British army, but attended an Officer Cadet Training Unit then transferred in July 1940 to the New Zealand Division as a 2nd lieutenant. He served in Greece, was wounded, and after recuperating was seconded as an intelligence officer to the Eighth Army HQ in cosmopolitan Cairo, where he found time to write short stories which became the basis of his collection The Gorse Blooms Pale (1947), and also begin a love affair with a woman by whom he had a daughter. The child was subsequently welcomed into Daniel and Winnie's family. In 1942 he took part in the campaigns at El Alamein, and, two years later, Monte Cassino.  For his service, he received an MBE (military division). Promoted to major, he served the last year of the war in London, where his first novel Cliffs of Fall (1945) was published, and became prominent in the literary, artistic and bohemian society of 'Fitzrovia', an area bounded by Soho, Marylebone, Regent's Park Estate and Bloomsbury.

Daniel Marcus Davin
At war's end he left the military and was invited to join  Oxford University Press where he remained until 1978, starting as an editor and rising to academic publisher. He continued to write novels and short stories, contributing prolifically to papers, magazines, journals and BBC radio programmes, as well as editing collections and reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement. Of his seven novels, For the Rest of Our Lives (1947) - a war story - and Roads From Home (1949) attracted the most favourable critical attention. His memoir Closing Times (1975) is perhaps considered his best book.

He also wrote the volume Crete (1953), which is part of the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War series, an invaluable resource for historians and writers of historical novels - like me. As the years passed he spent more and more time and energy supporting the careers of other writers, particularly New Zealanders, and gained a reputation for his generosity, friendship and, in the publishing arena, his intellectual rigour.     

His plans to focus on writing after retiring in 1978 were derailed by ill health, and by his preference for spending time with friends. He made a number of visits home to New Zealand during the 1980s, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Otago University in 1984, and a CBE in the New Zealand list in 1987. He died at Oxford in September 1990, survived by his wife Winnie and their three daughters. The Dan Davin Literary Foundation continues the Davin tradition of supporting and promoting New Zealand writers and writing.

More information about Dan Davin can be found at the New Zealand Book Council and at the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

My talk at the Book Lovers' Dinner won't be half as interesting as anything Dan Davin might have come up with, but we do have a few things in common - a love of history, writing and New Zealand perhaps being the most obvious. I'll be talking about how I started as a writer, how I research and actually write my novels, what it's really like being a professional author, and publishing options for writers today.

I'm also really looking forward to seeing a little of Invercargill - well, as much as my limited time there will allow. I haven't been down that way for literally decades. Not since - dearie me - the mid 1970s. I do remember the architecture being amazing, though it must have been in winter because it was quite nippy. I hope I get to meet Tim Shadbolt - 'I don't care where, as long as I'm mayor!' I bet he's sick of hearing that.      

The Book Lovers' Dinner is on the 1st of May, at 6 pm at the Kelvin Hotel, 6th Floor Function Room. Cost is $48, which includes a two course meal. For where to buy tickets, look here

Monday, 4 March 2013

Digging up George Street

What I'm reading: Stuart MacBride, Close to the Bone; Graham Hurley, Happy Days; Elizabeth George, Write Away: one novelists approach to fiction and the writing life.

I haven't blogged since January. I felt that posting every week was taking up a lot of my writing time, so I stopped to see if it was, and I was right. But as I quite like blogging, which for me is another excuse for doing a bit of historical research, in future I'll just post less often rather than not do it at all. And perhaps keep my posts a bit shorter. Problem solved.

The other day I saw an article on the internet about an archaeological excavation at 478 George Street in Sydney, opposite the Queen Victoria Building. The excavation was open to the public for five hours on 23 February, but, annoyingly, I saw the article on the 25th. The site is being investigated for occupation from the year 1815 onwards. Apparently it was first occupied by a public house - the Golden Fleece - then a grocer, then successive shops. So, as I missed out on going to see it, I decided to find out what I could without leaving the comfort of my office chair.

478 George Street. Photo by Mick Simmons.
In a list of public houses published by the Sydney Gazette on 19 April, 1817, the licensee of the Golden Fleece, George Street, is named as John Laurie. Interestingly, and as an aside, there is also a pub listed called the New Zealander, the licensee of which was Benjamin Morris. Neither John Laurie nor the Golden Fleece appear in the Gazette's list in 1818. There is no further mention of the Golden Fleece in the Gazette's admittedly irregularly published lists of licensed hotels until 1835, unless it was one of the two unnamed George Street pubs listed on 1 July 1830, both situated 'opposite the Cattle Market', which was very close to where the QVB is today. The licensees of those premises were James Cooper and Christopher Flynn.

An advertisment on page 1 of the Gazette, dated 18 July, 1835, refers to a Golden Fleece hotel in Brickfield Hill as a departure point for James Wood's coach service. Brickfield Hill was/is near Paddy's Markets, some distance from the QVB, though still close to George Street. A family history website states that in 1835, William Henry Wood held the licence for the Golden Fleece on George Street. This suggests that the pub, or at least the name, might have moved from the original site.

Three years later, on 28 June 1838, the Gazette states that John Hart was the licensee of the Golden Fleece, George Street, and remained so on 14 February 1839. But by 4 May 1841, the Golden Fleece seems to have moved again to Castlereagh Street, the licence now held by Emanuel Martin. He kept it for at least a year, but by 10 May 1851, the Golden Fleece had relocated to George and King Streets and the licensee was now Robert Rowland.

None of this tells me much about the site at 478 George Street, but I had a good time looking it up. What it does tell me is that for this sort of research you need to be on site and, probably much more relevantly for historians, digging around not in the dirt, but in the archives at the Mitchell Library.

Looking at the picture of the excavation reminds of an archaeological site I saw when I went on a 'ghost tour' of the Rocks a few years ago. I forget exactly where it was - well, it was dark - but the excavation was in the basement of an old building, either on George or Harrington Street. George, I think. It wasn't particular spooky, but it was definitely incredible to stand in the foundations of these tiny little houses and think that people lived and laughed and cried and dreamt there. I almost could feel what was left of them.

It was also vaguely embarrassing trailing in a group around the Rocks on a Thursday night with a rubber rat on a lanyard around my neck getting scoffed at by smartarses outside pubs telling me what a sucker I was. Excuse me? wasn't the one paying exorbitant tourist prices for a Stella that was only going to end up down the toilet or against the wall in two hours' time. Still, it was a good night.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

All Aboard: Sydney's funeral trains

What I'm reading: Legend Beyond the Stars, by SE Gilchrist; Bruce, by Peter Ames Carlin (bio of Bruce Springsteen), and Burial, by Graham Masterton. 

 Yes, another morbid topic. Other bloggers have posted on this subject, but it's so fascinating I had to investigate it myself. Why? A while ago I was wandering around Newcastle's Sandgate Cemetery, as you do, and I noticed an old railway track alongside the graves and thought, hmm, this is interesting, what was a train doing way out here? So naturally I googled it.

Also, on Regent Street, Redfern (or Chippendale - there seems to be some confusion), next to Central Station, is a beautiful, restored building (except that some plonkers have tagged all over it) - you see it whenever you come into Central above ground on the northern lines - and I've always wondered what it is. So I googled that as well, and looked up a few archives, and it turns out that and the railway line at Sandgate are connected.

Mortuary Station today, view from Regent Street side.
Photo by J. Bar.
 The building at Central is a railway platform, originally a station dedicated to the trains that carried the dead and their mourners out to Rookwood Necropolis at Haslam's Creek (now Lidcombe), about 17km from Sydney's centre. Over the years the station has been known as both Necropolis Receiving Station and Mortuary Station. Officially opened in June 1869, it was designed by colonial architect James Barnet (not Florence Taylor or James Blackett, as some internet sites and newspaper articles state), incorporating elements of Gothic style, and embellished by sculptors Thomas Ducket and Henry Apperly, who carved leaves, flowers, fruit, angels, cherubs and, my favourite, gargoyles.

Mortuary Station - platform.
Photo by Thortful at en.wikipedia.
Barnet, Ducket and Apperly were also responsible for the design and decoration of the train station built within the grounds of Rookwood Necropolis, and opened in April 1867. This station was originally known as Haslam's Creek Cemetery Station, then Haslam's Creek Receiving House, then the Mortuary Station Necropolis, followed by Mortuary Station No. 1, then Mortuary General Cemetery Station, and finally Cemetery Station No. 1. This must have been quite confusing for people getting on the train at the other end.

There was plenty of room at Rookwood for the rail network to expand, and it did. In May 1897 a second station was built, originally known as Mortuary Station, then Mortuary Teminus, and finally Cemetery Station No. 3. This was followed by a third station in December 1901, known at first as the Roman Catholic Platform, then as Cemetery Station No. 2. Finally, No. 4 Mortuary Station opened in June, 1908. Only Cemetery Station No. 1 was grandiose - the latter three stations were quite modest structures.

The funeral train ran twice a day from Mortuary Station at Central, the coffins placed on shelves in 'hearse' vans at the rear of the train. En route to Rookwood, the train stopped to pick up other coffins and mourners. At the cemetery, the train came to a halt inside Cemetery Station No. 1 and the coffins offloaded using wheeled litters. Presumably, after Cemetery Stations 2 and 3 and No. 4 Mortuary Station were built, coffins and mourners were trained straight to the station closest to where the deceased were to be buried. On the other hand, you shouldn't presume anything when it comes to history.

For those cultures who held wakes to farewell their dead, the train trip to and from Rookwood could apparently be quite eventful. According to one source, whose father attended many funerals between 1918 and 1938, some funeral parties would load cases of beer, cartons of spirits and quite substantial feasts onto the train at the Central end, and start the wake before even reaching Rookwood. At the cemetery the coffin would be transferred to wheeled litter, accompanied by the refreshments on any spare litters, and the funeral procession proceed to the grave. After the burial service, to demonstrate to the departed the high level of esteem in which he/she was held, material evidence of the wake - bottle tops, chicken bones, oyster shells, meat pie crusts, etc. - would be tossed onto the coffin. Occasionally the litters came in handy to transport tired and emotional mourners back to the cemetery stations. Less amusingly, now and then fights would break out on Cemetery Station No. 1's platform, between drunk and grieving funeral parties of different nationalities, as they waited for the train to depart.

Cemetery Station No.1 at Rookwood. Photo dated c1865,
but this is a couple of years too early.
The funeral train service was at its busiest around 1900 (be interesting to find out why then, though I haven't), but had tapered off by 1930 as travel by road improved, except for Sundays and Mothers' Days. The service was revived during WWII due to petrol rationing, but in 1948 was terminated. All four cemetery stations were closed and the majestic Cemetery Station No. 1 fell into complete disrepair. In 1957 Reverend T. Buckle of All Saints' Church of Ainslee tendered £100 to remove the stonework, shifted the lot to Canberra for £8,000 and resurrected the building as a church for £6,000.

After Central's Mortuary Station ceased to service funeral trains in 1948, it was  used as a platform for livestock (no pun intended) - dogs, horses and poultry. In 1950 it became a parcels station and the name subsequently changed to Regent Street Station. The State Rail Authority restored the station in 1981 at a cost of around $600,000, it was heritage registered by the National Trust and the Australian Heritage Commission, and reopened April 1985. Then, unbelievably, the following year it opened as a pancake restaurant called the Magic Mortuary, at which patrons bought tickets for their meals from the former ticket office. It failed and the restaurant cars were removed 1989. It has since been used to launch special train services and public displays of trains.

What's all this got to do with Newcastle's Sandgate Cemetery? General Cemetery Platform at Sandgate was opened in 1881, the same year as the cemetery, and was the terminus of the funeral train that ran north from Sydney's Mortuary Station. In 1890, General Cemetery Platform was renamed Sandgate Cemetery Platform, and operated until 1985. A funeral train also ran south from Sydney, to Woronora General Cemetery in Sutherland. So now I know what those railway lines are doing in the middle of Sandgate Cemetery.

Monday, 14 January 2013

This week's blog...

This week I guest blogged at

Well, I'm not really a guest, as I'm actually a member of Hunter Romance Writers. Have a look if you're interested.

Here's the cartoon that should have gone with that blog, except I couldn't get the layout to work on Wordpress:

'"So far all her dreams have not come true but she wants high romance and a baby while
 her husband wants to be, and is, a very successful broker, who takes graduate courses
at night and wants no baby and at the same time she has more or less recovered from
being in love with the well-digger who dug her well, which is good since he is married
with three children and is a drug addict and an alcoholic and he claims he's dying,
although there are no signs of this and she says once she finds an outlet for her unrequited
love she will lose eighty-five pounds."   I enjoyed that sentence.'

Cartoon from Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:
how to edit yourself into print
(illustrations by George Booth) 


Sunday, 6 January 2013

Creating interesting characters

What I'm reading: The Writer's Journey: mythic structure for writers by Christopher Vogler; The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott; Spirit House by Mark Dapin

While I'm certainly not the world's foremost expert on literary craft, these days I've got a reasonable handle on how to at least write my own books. I thought, therefore, from time to time, I might share some of the knowledge I've picked up - and mistakes I've learnt not to make quite so often.

I'll begin with character development, because as far as I'm concerned you can have the most original and exciting plot ever, but if your characters don't appeal to your readers, they won't care. And if your readers don't care, they won't finish the book.

There is a belief popular with some writers, which I admit I subscribed to myself for some time, that characters actually come to life when you're writing them, and sort of magically do things off their own bat that drive the story along, and all the writer has to do is type like mad to keep up. It was great fun, and easy, writing like that, until I started getting comments from editors about gaping holes in character arcs and flawed plots.

Why? Because I hadn't laid the foundations for my characters' motivations. My characters were doing things I hadn't set them up to do, and as a result their actions in the story didn't ring true. For example, if in Chapter 1 Mary Ann is a happy girl full of sweetness and light, and in Chapter 7 she suddenly wallops someone's head off with an axe, as the writer I needed to have built into her character a plausible reason - otherwise known as motivation - for her to do that. Note that 'the plot says she has to' is not an acceptable motivation.

And don't blame your characters and moan, 'But I can't control them. They just do it!', which is what I once said to an editor. I won't repeat in full here what she said back, but it included 'grow up'. So I did. Fictional characters are not real, no matter how much writers might feel they are. Every  dimension of a character comes out of a writer's head, therefore you, as that writer, have total control over what they do. So set them up properly right from the start. Give them all the motivation they need, and try to make it original while you're at it - which is a big ask as these days there isn't much  new under the literary sun - and if you can't make it original at least make it intriguing.

Fabulous character Fagin, from
Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist
In real life people do all sorts of things for a range of reasons. If it's something bad, it's often due to anger, resentment, jealousy, etc. If they do something good, it can be for love or altruism, or  sometimes for less noble reasons, such as self-aggrandizement. Your characters' behaviours should mirror reality, so your readers can recognise and connect with them, even your 'baddies'.

Understand, too, that real people often aren't driven by just one emotion - there will usually be a combination of feelings festering away under what the world sees. Just watch Dr Phil. If you're writing about a character's anger, be aware that people get angry because they're frightened, or lonely, or they've been betrayed or whatever. Focus on these 'invisible' or secondary emotions, not just the anger, to give your characters more depth. One dimensional characters are boring. The most interesting characters can be the ones who have a mix of both good and bad in them - just like normal, real people.

To keep track of my major characters, I set up one-page 'passports' for them. I'll include their name, date of birth, hair and eye colour, height, distinguishing physical characteristics like scars, tattoos, missing teeth, etc, habits such as whether they smoke (pipe or fags), personal quirks, eg, pushes hair back from face or taps foot when agitated, family members, and dates of major life events from their backstory. I'll also attach a picture, if I can find one that works perfectly for them. The better you know your characters, the better you can tell their story. It's a handy tool for reference to avoid silly mistakes, and when writing a series I can add to it as characters change.

Names are important. I always take care to choose the right one. Because I write historical fiction, obviously I use names that were popular in the era in which I'm writing. Modern names like 'Crystal' and 'Tiffany' just SO don't work for 19th century characters. This is a good site for 19th century names: or you can go to various 19th century birth, marriage and emigration records for authentic names. Be aware, though, that the Americans favoured slightly more religious-sounding names than the English, particularly for boys. Sometimes, for a particularly flamboyant character, I'll choose a suitably out-there name, such as Friday Woolfe, whom I named after St. Frideswide. But names, really, deserve a blog all to themselves.

Monday, 31 December 2012

Parramatta Girls Home: history on fire

What I'm reading: Facebook for Dummies by Carolyn Abram; Bedtime Stories: tales from my 21 years at RN's Late Night Live by Phillip Adams; and Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (possibly the best Stones biography I've read).

At around 5am on 22 December, on Fleet Street in Parramatta, something dismaying happened - part of the heritage-listed building, most recently known in its long and somewhat shadowed history as the Norma Parker Periodic Detention Centre for Women, was destroyed by fire.

Norma Parker Periodic Detention Centre minus roof
You might be thinking - so what? It's just another old pile of bricks. Well, not really. It's a repository - of ghosts, memories, failed social experiments and, in this case, immense misery and fear. A lot of history is distinctly uncomfortable to contemplate, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't. In my opinion, we need to preserve these monuments to past mistakes, to remind us of where we've come from and, hopefully, who we no longer are. And to stand by and watch them just fall down or be otherwise obliterated is to totally deny the experiences of all those who passed through their doors.

The building has had several incarnations during its 168 years. It was originally purpose-built as a government orphanage for Catholic children, and opened in 1844 with 113 charges under the age of 13. Nearby in the same precinct in the grounds of the present Cumberland Hospital are the remains of the Parramatta Female Factory, the mean, dirty and overcrowded facility in which an estimated two thirds of convict women transported to New South Wales spent time.

Over the years the Roman Catholic Orphan School was extended until it could accommodate 250 children, though overcrowding still occurred and sanitation suffered. Social policy changed with the State Children Relief Act (1881) which disfavoured barrack-style institutions, the school was closed and the orphans turfed out in August 1886. It reopened the following year as the Industrial School and Reformatory for Girls, housing neglected or destitute girls (classed as 'perishing'), and those with criminal convictions (classed as dangerous), placed there by the child welfare authorities. Girls at risk of 'moral danger' were also admitted, ie. ones who went with boys, ran wild, or wagged school (compulsory after 1880). Ages ranged from nine (after 1946 this was raised to 12) up to 18. 

Parramatta wasn't the first industrial school in NSW. One had opened in disused military barracks in the Government Domain off Watt Street in Newcastle in 1867 - the Newcastle Industrial School and Reformatory for Girls. But after inmates, apparently mostly Sydney girls, repeatedly rioted, used 'obscene language' and busted out, it closed in 1871 and the girls were transferred to a new facility - the Biloela Industrial and Reformatory School for Females - on Cockatoo Island in Sydney. In 1887, the Biloela girls were moved to the industrial school at Parramatta.

The Parramatta Industrial School for Girls is more commonly known as the Parramatta Girls Home, or the Parramatta Girls Training School. Life there, by most accounts, was hell. On arrival all girls were stripped and searched, and for a time intimately examined to assess whether they were sexually active - regardless of why they'd been admitted. How incredibly offensive, and irrelevant. They were issued with a number, a coverall as a uniform, and underpants but no bra - convict slops, basically. There were no lockers for personal belongings, no locks on showers or toilets and, judging by photos, a continuation of the earlier orphanage's barracks-style accommodation. Musters and body searches occurred daily, mail was censored, schooling absolutely minimal. Sexual, physical and psychological abuse were commonplace. Punishments were gruelling, and anti-psychotic and sedative medications used to restrain some girls.

Rooftop riot Parramatta Girls Home 1961
Photo courtesy
Riots were frequent, beginning in 1887, the last major event occurring in 1961. That year the Hay Girls Institution was established at Parramatta to administer to inmates 'additional discipline and training'. Prior to that, Parramatta girls over the age of 15 deemed troublemakers were routinely sent to Long Bay prison. During the 1960s the home became a focus for a ten year campaign by feminist activist Bessie Guthrie. In 1973, ABC aired a television program about the horrific conditions in the home and the Hay Girls Institute, resulting in the closure of both facilities the following year. However, there was already another facility waiting to receive the Parramatta girls - Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre, which had opened at Airds near Campbelltown in August 1973.

During its long history, Parramatta Girls Home accommodated around 30,000 girls, with an average of 160 in residence at any one time, peaking at 307 in 1970. Between 7 and 12% of those girls were of indigenous heritage.

In 1975 the old home was renamed Kamballa (Girls) and Taldree (Boys) Childrens Shelter. Taldree operated until 1980, and Kamballa until 1983. In 1980, the Department of Corrective Services took over the original Catholic orphanage buildings and established the Norma Parker Correctional Centre for Women, a small, low security prison. It closed in 1997, reopened as the Norma Parker Periodic Detention Centre for Women, but had ceased operating again by 2010.

Some of the women who had been through the Parramatta Girls Home reunited for the first time in 2003. Sydney playwright Alana Valentine has written a very successful play, Parramatta Girls, based on their experiences, which premiered in 2007. On 16 November 2009 the Prime Minister apologised nationally to the 'Forgotten Australians' - all those children placed in orphanages, children's homes, foster care, and other forms of 'out-of-home' care during the 20th century.

Further information:

Comprehensive and very informative website dedicated to promoting the preservation of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct

For information on creative contributions towards the PFF Memory Project, and the planned Public History Symposium later in 2013

Alana Valentine talks about 'Parramatta Girls'

Newcastle Industrial School (by Jane Ison)

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Arsenic and Old Lace

What I'm Reading: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier; Chasing the Light by Jesse Blackadder; and watching the first two seasons of Breaking Bad - for the plot structure.

While reading my copy of the latest Collectibles Trader magazine, which I buy religiously, I came across the most fascinating article. With kind permission of the editor, here is my abridged version of that article, originally researched and written by costume and textiles expert Eleanor Keene.

When Eleanor was recently cataloguing a collection of items destined for auction in Sydney, she discovered a dress dating from the 1860s coloured an unusual, vivid green. The ensemble consisted of a full skirt, a low-cut short-sleeved evening bodice trimmed with lace, a long-sleeved high-necked day bodice, and a waist sash with a bow that fastened at the front. The condition was excellent - few signs of wear, the silk showed minimal deterioration, and even the sweat pads sewn into the bodice lining appeared as new - all suggesting that the dress may never have been worn.

The Deadly Dress. Photograph by Eleanor Keene.
Due to its very vibrant colour, Eleanor initially assumed the dress was an early example of the synthetic chemical dying processes developed in the 1850s after Henry William Perkin, the inventor of the colour mauve, successfully commercialised aniline dye. But actually, she discovered to her surprise that the dress had been coloured using arsenic dye, still in use in the 1860s because the colour green was so popular and arsenic relatively cheap (a by-product of mining). The dye itself was produced by mixing a potent amount of arsenic with copper, creating colours such as 'Scheele's green', 'Paris green', and 'Emerald green'. 

Arsenic was used in a whole range of products during the 19th century, not just textile dye. It was frequently found in paint, wallpaper, cookware, on children's toys and sweet wrappers, in shampoo, soap and skin preparations, and on playing cards, a favoured Victorian pastime. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, skin irradiation, organ failure and eventual death. No wonder people fainted all the time. But it was also used as a medical preparation, doctors believing that the appropriate dose and application had considerable medical benefits, including as a sexual stimulant.

However, not all physicians were quite so enamoured of arsenic. One wrote in a medical journal of the era that after examining a ball gown owned by a London society hostess, he could report that it contained 60 grains of Scheele's green per square yard, apparently enough to kill 12 people, and that it was so poorly applied that even during a light waltz a poisonous cloud would follow its wearer around the dance floor. In 1862 Punch magazine also had a go at arsenic-dyed ball gowns, publishing a cartoon captioned 'The new dance of death. (Dedicated to the green wreath and dress-mongers.)'. 

Concerns were raised, but were evidently ignored by successive parliaments and almost everyone else, until the end of the 19th century when consumer warnings were finally issued and people at last began to avoid using products containing arsenic.      

But back to the four-piece dress Eleanor catalogued for auction. She wonders if the original owner realised how lethal it was and packed it away, hence its excellent condition, though couldn't bring herself to get rid of such a lovely ensemble. When Eleanor received the dress, it had come from an antique shop whose owners had passed away, so there was no one to ask about its origins. It sold at auction, and is now in a private collection. Still cherished, but from a distance, I suspect.

Eleanor Keene's original article, titled 'A Dress to Dye For', appeared in Collectibles Trader, edition 107, Dec 2012-Feb 2013, pp. 12-15.