Archive for the 'The Queen' Category

Queen Victoria on Horseback

Queen Victoria on Horseback

This is a fantastic picture of Queen Victoria on horseback- you can clearly see the type of habit she wore and that she’s riding side saddle. The man holding her horse is the famous Mr. Brown.

Long live the Queen!

If you get a chance to see the movie based on their friendship, I highly recommend it. It’s entertaining and has great Victorian Era visuals.


Beekeeping and the Steampunk Gardener!

Beekeeping and the Steampunk Gardener!

Head Gardeners have often kept hives to provide honey for the ‘Big House’ and bees to ensure pollination in their garden. Without pollination flowers don’t turn into fruit.  In many ways bees are the real Undergardeners in any productive garden. Coming into Spring it’s time for this Undergardener to tend her bees.

A smart bee sting or two in hot, sultry weather benefits gardeners by causing them to perspire more freely, and feel much lighter afterwards. Journal of Horticulture 1871

I have always been fascinated by bees and I have a hive of my own. I’m still a beginner and very much the apprentice to a few more experienced Beekeepers who live locally. Beekeeping is my first authentic experience of the apprentice – Master relationship which was the foundation of how men learnt their trade in gardens during the Victorian era. I’ve always been very comfortable learning from books. With bees it’s different. No matter how much I read my hands and my eyes need ‘to do’ and ‘watch’ to learn this skill. Like the ancient trades this has to be passed from Master to apprentice with time, care and many stings.

After a long winter hiatus it is time for this apprentice to begin actively managing the hive towards the reward of robbing honey.

I’m reading a lot about the history of beekeeping at the moment. I have learnt that how we tend bees today has changed very little since the Victorian Era. In fact the Victorian Era saw the innovations that created the modern box bee hives.

Straw Skep

Before the Victorian Era bees were kept in straw skeps. Skeps are essentially upturned straw baskets under which bees form their naturally curvy honey comb. In this system when the beekeeper collects honey the swarm of bees are killed or made homeless in the process. This means that each year the beekeeper needs to start again by collecting a new wild swarm.

The Victorian Era saw the rise of the amateur naturalist. Bees were cultivated by middle class gentlemen not for honey but science. The most famous of these amateur beekeepers was Charles Darwin who kept at hive in the garden at Down House. Darwin marshalled his children into an army of laboratory assistants in order to track the flight paths of Bumble Bees. It is postulated that keeping bees helped Darwin formulate his theories on evolution.

Nor ought we to marvel if all the contrivances in nature be not, as far as we can judge, absolutely perfect, as in the case even of the human eye; or if some of them be abhorrent to our ideas of fitness. We need not marvel at the sting of the bee, when used against an enemy, causing the bee’s own death; at drones being produced in such great numbers for one single act, and being then slaughtered by their sterile sisters; at the astonishing waste of pollen by our fir-trees; at the instinctive hatred of the queen-bee for her own fertile daughters. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species 1859.

In 1860 another amateur naturalist the American Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth patented his design for a box hive. With only slight regional adjustments the Langstroth hive is the standard box hive still used by 75% of the world’s beekeepers. The Rev Langstroth designed a hive that provides bees with frames in which to build their comb and store their honey.  The advantage of this design is that beekeepers can remove the frames to check for disease, control swarming by removing cells that will lead to the birth of Queen Bees and rob honey with out destroying the hive. This potentially allows beekeepers to increase the yield of honey they can rob each year as the hive builds its numbers.

An open hive box showing the frames.

The clever thing that the Rev had realised is that bees build their natural burr comb in sheets separated by a standard distance, the width of a bee, now called the ‘bee space’.  By designing frames a ‘bee space’ apart the bees don’t glue the frames together or to the hive box with comb. This is what makes the frames ‘removable’.

The second clever thing about the Langstroth hive is that by placing a grille (the Queen Excluder) between the box containing the Queen Bee and the boxes from which you wish to collect honey (called the Supers) you can stop the Queen from laying brood in the honey. The grille is also based on the ‘bee space’ – worker bees can fit through to stock honey, Queeny can’t get into to lay eggs – genius.

Hive frame with comb and bees.

Here in Australia there are more than 1500 species of native bees.  Most of these are solitary bees that don’t form large combs or colonies this makes them mostly unsuitable for hiving.  There is a native sting-less bee that can potentially be hived but not in the cool south were I live.  In order to ensure the pollination of the crops that European settlers brought to Australia eight hives of the European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) were first brought to Australia in 1822. Unfortunately they don’t record how they managed to bring hives of bees safely to Australia across rolling, boiling seas for six-months. I imagine that they feed the bees on honey or sugar-water and lashed the hives down tightly in the hold. Possibly the boxes were marked with a big ‘Don’t unpack mid-voyage’ sign.

I enjoy the fact that in keeping bees and learning from other more experienced keepers I am participating in an authentically Victorian gardening activity – this is the most steampunk gardening gets!

Mr. White, the naturalist, says, that both horse-beans and peas sprang up in his field-walks in the autumn; and he attributes the sowing of them to birds. Bees, he also observes, are much the best setters of cucumbers. If they do not happen to take kindly to the frames, the best way is to tempt them by a little honey put on the male and female bloom. When they are once induced to haunt the frames, they set all the fruit, and will hover with impatience round the lights in a morning till the glasses are opened.  Mrs Beeton HM

Oblique Floral Reference – cause she’s Gorgeous!

Oblique Floral Reference - cause she's Gorgeous!

I visited Ballarat last weekend and saw for the first time this beautiful statue of Queen Victoria. Ballarat was the site of the 1851 Victorian Gold Rush and the town, if you squint and look up slightly (so as to avoid the cars) looks much as it would have in the late 1880′s.

Her Majesty

The detail on Her Majesty’s dress could be Wattle Blossom – but the leaves aren’t right.  I wonder if anyone knows what plant this is?  I wonder if the plant is symbolic of something?

I’ve looked at images of the Orb that Victoria is holding in her left hand and they all have a cross on top rather than an angel.

The Victoria Memorial in London is surmounted by the angel Victory.  This statue was commissioned in 1900 the year before Victoria’s death so I wonder if this little bronze angel was added later as a reference to a bigger sister in London. Looking closely at this little angel I could see that she / he is holding a trumpet so perhaps it is Gabriel and his horn calling Victoria to the last judgement.

The Orb itself is meant to be a symbol of a world ruled by Christianity. The cross that usually sits on top of the Orb symbolises the office of the Queen as the Defender of the Faith. So Gabriel calling the world to judgement upon the sovereign’s  death might be the story that the artist is telling.

What does the angel on her Orb symbolise?

Ballarat is well worth a visit if you feel the need to immerse yourself in some genuinely gorgeous Victoriana.

Experiments in Victorian Floristry Continue…

Experiments in Victorian Floristry Continue...

in which I am both Under Gardener and Lady’s Maid.

Well time travellers I feel that I have a good handle on how to make floral buttonholes now. Emboldened I decided to tackle the task of creating a floral hair decoration and dress garland. “Why ?”, I hear you ask – well as I have learnt floristry in large Victorian estates was the responsibility of the Head Gardener.

Roses for 'The Duchess'.

Supplying flowers for an exacting Mistress must surely have been one of the Head Gardener’s most terrifying tasks – I can imagine many a stout and tweedy fellow quaking in his Wellingtons at the though of displeasing ‘Her Upstairs’. Luckily my dear friend ‘The Duchess’ has a beautiful head of hair and the patience to put up with a very inept Lady’s Maid.

The hair do.

Step 1: Make a Pony Tail.

Step 2: Pull the Pony Tail back through the hair.

Step 3: Split Pony Tail into 3 Plaits.

Step 4: Turn the plaits up and pin.

Step 5. Place pinned roses in hair.

Step 6: Poke small flowers around roses.

My own unruly head of hair is evidence that I don’t know very much about hair styling. In order to work out how Victorian ladies wore their hair I looked at more than a hundred images on-line – these were not very helpful for the uninitiated and frankly a little scary. Severe was definitely the ‘new black’ of the Victorian age.

It seems that early in the Victorian period hair styles were very controlled and neat and as the era unfolded hair styles became looser and less formal. Clearly my untidy hair marks me as a natural Edwardian. I watched the film ‘The Young Victoria‘ again for inspiration and found Queen Victoria’s hair do’s were just too complicated to try as a first go – all those tiny plaits, perfect neatness and twirly bits. I decided to pick an informal style which would allow for some margin of clumsiness. I found this clip with a demonstration which was a big help.

Well the Duchess and I had a very fun afternoon but I learnt that I would be a rubbish Lady’s Maid. It took me about an hour to put together a hair style that probably should only take ten minutes. Luckily as an Under Gardener all I would need to do is make sure that I grew the appropriate roses and picked them as instructed – whew!

Dress Garlands

Next step was to make a matching dress garland for the Duchess.

Rose Garland.

The DVDs that I ordered of the BBC’s Victorian Flower Garden, Kitchen Garden and Kitchen have finally arrived and I have loved watching these three fabulous series again. This clip shows the enormous amount of foliage that really grand Victorian women would wear on formal occasions. Attending a ball must have been like watching a swaying garden!

In the photo above you can see my attempt at a garland.  I used thin paper-covered milliner’s wire and tied the roses to the wire using green paraffin tape. The paraffin tape melts as you mould it with your hands and gives a very realistic effect of all the roses growing from a single stem. I’ve not been able to find out what Victorians would have used but a very knowledgeable gardener I work with suggested that Head Gardeners would have used thin gauze silk. I think the garland turned out OK but would be better if I had added more greenery and some smaller flowers amongst the roses.

Next floristry challenge will be to dress a full dining table but I plan to leave that to the spring – which for me here in Melbourne is next September.  In the mean time back to the garden as it is past time for getting the winter seeds in the ground.

Finally we have a photo of the Duchess’ beautiful companion modelling her own garland.

Beautiful B

Lavender and Great-Grandma’s Laundry

Lavender and Great-Grandma's Laundry

It’s a hot hot summer’s day here in Melbourne, Australia, and in a fashion entirely inappropriate to the position of Under Gardener, I’m in my back yard drinking Pimm’s and Lemonade while harvesting Lavender.

Lavender is widely quoted as one of Queen Victoria’s and hence the Victorian era’s favorite scents.

It is generally known that the Queen is a great believer in Lavender as a disinfectant, and that she is not at all singular in her faith in this plant… The royal residences are strongly impregnated with the refreshing odour of this old-fashioned flower, and there is no perfume that the Queen likes better than Lavender-water, which, together with the oil for disinfecting purposes, Her Majesty has direct from a lady who distills it herself.” Fragrant Flowers, 1895.

I love growing lavender.  It thrives in our Mediterranean climate and does very well in the free-draining sandy soil in my backyard.  To keep it flowering well I make sure it doesn’t get too dry on hot sunny days. I give each bush a light pruning after I have removed the flower spikes for drying. The pruning helps to keep the bush from getting leggy and in some years encourages a second flush of flowers. Bonus!

Lavender ready for harvest

Victorian Head Gardeners were responsible for harvesting the lavender spikes and tying them into paper cones for drying.  The drying, processing or distillation of the lavender then fell into the domain of the Housekeeper who managed the Still Room with her maids.

I dry my lavender in the same way by hanging the paper cones of flowers in a dry dark spot in my laundry.  It only takes a week to dry in warm weather.  Hanging the flower spikes upside-down also helps to keep the spikes straight which is useful if you are going to use them in dried flower arrangements.

The Victorian House Keeper would place bags of dried lavender flowers amongst stores of linen to perfume the cloth and help prevent attack by Clothes Moths.  My Mum’s Mum, my Nanna, told me that her mother Susan (a Victorian Country Woman ) keep a lavender bush by her clothes line on which she draped her favorite pocket handkerchiefs to dry and pick up the scent of lavender.

Dried lavender, Lavender Bag and Reckitts Blue Bag

I’ve often wondered how women in my family, during the Victorian Period, managed life in the newly settled State of Victoria in Australia.  It’s very easy to find information about the daily life of the ‘big English Victorian house’ but very difficult to find out about the lives of people such as my Great-Grandmother living in rural Australia.  What I know about her is from snatches of stories passed down from Nanna to me. The same is true for my father’s family who, by contrast, lived in an inner Melbourne working class suburb from the mid-Victorian era to the 1980′s.  Stories I do have about my Great-Grandmothers relate mostly to domestic chores and, surprisingly, to how they did their laundry!

The house built by my paternal Great-Grandfather still had its original corrugated-iron lean-to laundry when I was a small girl.  I remember my Grandma boiling sheets in a copper cauldron and then helping her to wring them out through an old winding mangle.  It seems amazing to me now, as I stuff another load of clothes into the front loader, that basically Victorian laundry techniques were still in place in Melbourne in the early 1970′s!

Grandma standing by laundry in mid 1960's

Mrs Beeton outlines the duties for a Laundry-Maid in paragraph 2372 of BOHM. There is another great description of Victorian laundry practice in the novel Lark Rise to Candleford written by Flora Thompson describing her life in late 19th century Oxfordshire.  She explains how the clothes were laundered every two weeks by a visiting Laundry Woman.  Flora explains that washing the clothes this infrequently showed that a family had enough money to afford enough clothes to wait that long between washes (when I don’t get to the laundry this week – this is how I plan to sell it).  Neither of my Great-Grandmas were affluent enough to send laundry out or hire help in.  I can’t imagine what a thankless task it was to boil clothes clean in a hot Melbourne summer – blah!

I am really interested in the idea of ‘blueing’ that both Beeton and Thompson described.  This is the practice of putting a light temporary blue dye in the rinse water for white linen to make it appear whiter. Today washing powder contains sophisticated optical whitening chemicals so the use of blue or Fig blue as Beeton calls it is rare.  So does it work?

When discussing this with my Mum she found that she still had some of Nanna’s Reckitt’s Blue bags in the laundry and was happy to give me a couple to experiment with.  Here are the results.

Using a Washboard to clean hankies - very tedious!

Dunking the 'Blue' tea-bag fashion in the rinse water.

Rinsed one in clean water and one in the blue rinse.

Hmmm - the one on the right was blued. Is it whiter?

I discovered that using a washboard is extremely tiresome. Washing an entire household’s laundry this way would give you the shoulders of an olympic swimmer. It did eventually get the dirt out.  I used an Australian washing detergent from the Victorian era that my Great-Grandmothers would have made from scratch using this recipe.  It is free of whitening agents and available ready made in Australia today.  I remember grating soap on a cheese grater for my Grandma when she was making a batch – it still smells like my childhood to me.

Then I dunked the bag of Blue into the rinse water until the water was a pale blue in colour.

It is difficult to see in the photos that I’ve taken but the Hanky dunked in the blue rinse looked blue at first rather than white.

Opinions in this household vary but I really couldn’t see a difference between the blued hanky and the other one.  It could be that the bluing works more effectively on older linen that tends to yellow as it ages.  I might try again if I find a piece of old fabric.

I guess this has strayed a long way out of the territory of the Under Gardener.

So bringing this discussion back to the garden.  My Grandmothers, as their Mothers did, loved the scent of lavender and kept bags of dried lavender with their hankerchiefs.  Grandma used lavender water to spray linen while ironing to help remove wrinkles and scent her sheets (ironing sheets seems unnecessary but I think this was one of her little luxuries). I like growing lavender as it is a plant that connects me to the women in my family and back to my Great-Grandma’s laundry rituals.

If you feel inspired to try Lavender Water here is a modern version of the Victorian Recipe for Lavender Water that I use at home.

Lavender Water

100ml (4 fl oz) Vodka

10 drops Lavender Oil

500ml (17 fl oz) Water

Add all ingredients to a Pint Spray Bottle and shake to mix.  It will keep indefinitely.  Spray it around the house to kill odours, on ironing for smoothing or keep some in the fridge to spray on you on hot days. It is also fairly good at killing the ‘wet dog smell’ on woollens that have got damp in winter.

Just be-careful not to use it as a cocktail mixer by mistake!