Monday, 26 November 2012

Behind the Sun: Sarah Morgan & late Georgian jewellery

What I'm Reading: Mr Chen's Emporium by Deborah O'Brien; Netherwood by Jane Sanderson; There's a Riot Going On: revolutionaries, rock stars and the rise and fall of '60s counter-culture by Peter Doggett; and Fair Game: Australia's first immigrant women by Elizabeth Rushden & Perry McIntyre.

Following on from my last post, the third main character in my latest book Behind the Sun is 16-year-old Sarah Morgan, who has no family, except a father she despises. Clever, stubborn, mistrustful and self-sufficient, Sarah is a trained jeweller but has lost her position with the business to which she was apprenticed. Unable to find another job in London, she's been surviving as a pickpocket in a crew overseen by flash man Tom Ratcliffe. She's also skilled at breaking into houses and cracking safes. When the law finally catches up with her, she meets Friday Woolfe and Harrie Clarke in Newgate gaol, though, due to her prickly nature, their initial encounter isn't entirely positive.

Five-colour gold ladies' watch, inscription is [18]87, so the
 white metal will presumably be silver, or grey gold.
As a jeweller, Sarah would have used silver, and yellow, pink, red and green gold in the jewellery she made, though not white gold, which didn't appear commercially until after WWI (after Karl Richter of Pforzheim was issued a patent in 1915, followed by David Belais in New York in 1917)). Platinum was seldom seen until the late 19th century, becoming increasingly popular during the 1920s and '30s. Prior to 1854 in Britain, the only carats of gold permitted were 18 and 22. Pure gold is 24 carat, and too soft to work with. After the 1854 Birmingham Assay Office Act, carats of 9, 12 and 15 were allowed. In 1932, the 15 carat measurement was lowered to 14.
So if you're considering purchasing those lovely, genuine, 14 carat gold Georgian  earrings off the internet, you might want to think again.

Most coloured gemstones were set in gold, while diamonds were often mounted in silver, as silver was believed to complement the sparkle. Settings could be closed or open, and sometimes backed with foil to enhance the colour of the gem. Many 18th and 19th century diamonds were 'rose' cut, or 'brilliant' cut, the most common example of the latter being the 'mine' cut. Paste, or 'strass', gems (made from lead glass) were also popular, and quality examples could command a high price.

Other materials used in jewellery at the time include steel (British centres of cut steel jewellery manufacture were Woodstock in Oxfordshire, and Birmingham), iron (frequently imported from Silesia in Prussia, when there was a Prussia, and from Berlin), bog oak, and human hair (which was not, as commonly believed now, exclusively used in mourning jewellery).

Cut steel earrings
In 1720, during his quest to turn base metal into gold, alchemist Christopher Pinchbeck discovered a very good imitation of gold, which he named pinchbeck, after himself obviously (unlike Lord Percy Percy in Blackadder, who only managed a nugget of purest Green).

Apart from the well-known diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, a wide range of other precious and semi-precious gems and materials were used. The list includes all the varying colours of aquamarine, beryl, chrysoberyl, topaz, spinel, garnet, tourmaline, peridot, jacinth (zircon), and the quartz group, which includes, amethyst, citrine, aventurine, chalcedony, onyx, jasper, opal, and agate. Add to that coral, pearl, turquoise, jade, jet, lapis lazuli, vauxhall glass, iron pyrite, malachite, shell, ivory and lava, and you can appreciate the allure of antique jewellery today.

Competently trained jewellers like Sarah used a very wide range of techniques. Enamelling was common, as were piqué, repoussé, granulation, filigree, engraving, cannetille, and, for some jewellers, mosaic work and cloisonné. All jewellers learnt to draw their own gold and silver wire, hammer and cast metal, use the oil lamp and blow pipe to solder, and handle a vast array of tools.

Pink topaz and cannetille brooch
Fashionable in Sarah's era were parures (a boxed suite of matching jewellery, occasionally up to a dozen pieces), drop earrings, rivières (necklaces of graduated stones, the largest in the middle), 'en tremblant' jewellery (usually brooches and hair jewels, on which gems were designed to wobble and becomingly reflect candle and firelight), and, of course, mourning jewellery, which I'll come back to in a later post.

An excellent book on jewellery, for researchers or anyone who just likes to look at pictures of beautiful bling, is Georgian Jewellery: 1714 - 1830 by Ginny Redington Dawes with Olivia Collings, photographs by Tom Dawes. 

Watch for an introduction to Rachel Winter.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Behind the Sun: Harriet Clarke - London's semptresses

What I'm Reading: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach; Here Comes Everybody: the story of the Pogues by James Fearnley; and The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton. I love Kate Morton's books.

Yes, I do read a lot. Last weekend I went to Rookwood Necropolis in Sydney. What an awesome place. It's huge - 283 hectares containing over a million resting places, and one of the largest cemeteries in the world, according to the website. The older monumental masonry in particular is stunning, and so are the grounds themselves. I was particularly fascinated by the family vaults, which you don't often see in New Zealand cemeteries. Really worth a visit. Easy to get lost, though. Download the map from the website (under Links). Below is the Maher Cross.

In my last blog I talked a little about prostitute Friday Woolfe, one of the main characters in my latest book Behind the Sun. Harrie Clarke, aged 16, is another main character. Harrie is an accomplished sempstress and designs embroidery patterns. Her father is dead, she has three much younger siblings and her ill mother is unable to work, so Harrie is the only breadwinner.

She's kind, trusting and generous, and knows how fortunate she is to work for deeply unpleasant Mrs Lynch, who has a private business making gowns for wealthy women. Some London seamstresses of the era found themselves working in crowded, poorly-lit rooms heated by gas fires that blasted out heat (hence the term 'sweatshop', which came into common use after around 1830), making only pieces of garments (skirt, bodice, sleeves), which were then assembled by the wholesaler and sold. Hours could be excessively long, especially during the 'season' and the pay extremely low. Long-term workers could develop serious eye-sight problems, and permanent back injuries.

Other women worked from home doing 'piece-' or 'slopwork', sewing shirts and handkerchiefs, and hemming skirts for very little money. But perhaps this suited women with small children to care for? There were very few state benefits then - essentially only 'outdoor relief' and the utterly dreaded workhouse.

Harrie, however, loses her relatively privileged job when, on the spur of the moment and completely uncharacteristically, she pinches a bolt of cloth from a draper's shop. While awaiting trial in Newgate gaol she meets Friday Woolfe.

Watch for an introduction to Sarah Morgan next time.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Behind the Sun: Prostitution in Friday Woolfe's London

What I'm Reading: The Twelve, by Justin Cronin; The Mystery of Mercy Close, by Marian Keyes; Toby's Room, by Pat Barker; Rush of Blood, by Mark Billingham; Nine Days, by Toni Jordan; the last five books in Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series; and Bad Characters; sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force, by Peter Stanley.

My new book, Behind the Sun, was released last week in New Zealand, and is due out here in Australia on December 1. Last night I did a live phone interview about it with a New Zealand radio station. Often, by the time I'm doing interviews for a book, I've forgotten half of what's in it because I will have written it up to a year earlier, but with Behind the Sun that isn't an issue because I've just finished the second book in the quartet, Girl of Shadows, which has the same characters and continues the story arc that spans the whole series.

There are four central characters: Friday Woolfe, Harrie(t) Clarke, Sarah Morgan and Rachel Winter, all aged 17 and under and all transported from London to New South Wales in 1829. In this blog I'll introduce you to Friday.

In 1828, when Behind the Sun begins, Friday is 17 years old, and at five feet six inches quite tall for a woman of that era (the average height was around five feet two). She has a strong build, wild copper hair and amateur tattoos on her arms - hearts and anchors, etc. She's tough, reasonably pleasant-natured, streetwise, foul-mouthed and drinks too much gin. She is also a prostitute - specifically a streetwalker.

Her 'beat' is the streets surrounding Covent Garden, an area notorious for prostitutes in the 18th and 19th centuries until around the 1830s and '40s when the 'trade' drifted towards Haymarket in the West End. Prostitutes abounded in London, however, particularly also in the East End and around the docks, and while prostitution was not illegal, operating an actual brothel was.


Covent Garden Market, circa 1820, by William Henry Prior (1812-1882).
Wood engraving on paper, 1870s, later hand-coloured. 

19th century London definitely had a heirarchy when it came to prostitutes. At the top were the courtesans who serviced a single wealthy benefactor. Often these benefactors provided accommodation, clothing and an allowance in exchange for exclusive access and the right to squire those women in public. Below them, the heirarchy split into those who either walked the streets or operated from brothels. 
In the 1820s, the better quality streetwalkers took their customers back to the smart and very expensive apartments they rented around Drury Lane and Bow Street, near Covent Garden. Beneath them were the women who serviced their cullies (customers) in far more basic rooms rented by the hour. Friday is one of these. At the bottom of the streetwalker ladder were the women who worked in alleyways for a shilling a turn, or, most wretched of all, in the open for little more than sixpence.
Some prostitutes worked in truly elegant brothels that charged an exclusive and well-heeled clientele the earth, while others slaved miserably in thoroughly undiscerning and unhygienic bawdyhouses. Some enterprising women banded together, sharing the costs of food, clothes and rent, to operate unofficial brothels around Covent Garden, until the watch (police) broke them up and moved them on, while a large number of individual and probably 'part-time' prostitutes worked out of their own homes.
Friday makes plenty of money working the street, and has her own reasons for not wanting to work in a brothel. She has no fancy man (pimp), and doesn't run with a crew. She has friends, but no family in London. When she's arrested late in 1828, it is not for prostitution. It's also her third arrest, and she knows that this time she's very likely 'for the boat'.
Watch for an introduction to Harrie Clarke next time.