Portrait of Victoria, 1875
By Heinrich Von Angeli 
Copyright HM QEII, 2017/Bridgeman Images

A Greedy Queen is my first book, but in some ways has been simmering away in my mind for a very long time. One of the various elements of my version of being a food historian (there’s no job description, and we all do different things), is that I work in costume. At one stage, I ran a highly successful team at Audley End House in Essex (English Heritage), cooking in front of the public, and using the dishes and techniques to explore the past and, before I managed to make everything all about the food, I also played Victoria herself, as well as various of her servants, at Osborne House and Kensington Palace.

Researching a character for public interpretation is a funny business. You have to inhabit the persona of someone enough for people to have conversations with you connected to the past, and sparked by your characterisation, but not so much that it’s scary (or that you seem like a weirdo).

Windsor Castle Kitchen, 1886.
By Frank Watkins
Copyright Gavin Graham Gallery, 2017/Bridgeman Images

Inevitably, you draw on elements of people’s lives that appeal to you, and with Victoria it was always the food. I kept coming back to the fact that before her marriage in 1840 she’d dieted herself down to 7 stone 2 (she was 5 ft 1), but by 1895 she had a 45 inch waist and was frankly enormous. Kensington Palace has gowns from various stages of her life on display, with mirrors behind them, so you can stand in front and compare yourself very directly to the shape of the person for whom they were made, and I’ve spent hours in quiet contemplation there.

Evening at Balmoral, 1854.
Painted by Carl Haag
Royal Collection Trust/copyright HM QEII 2017 RL22033

Inevitably, Victoria’s relationship with food was complicated and changed over time. I loved researching and writing the book, and there were genuine moments of absolute surprise – like the times when peahen featured in her supply ledgers, when I thought it’d gone out with the Tudors, or the sheer volume of food going into the palaces.

Illustration from a contemporary cookbook aimed at the upper and upper middle classes

I watched William IV die through the pages of his dining ledgers, and I saw Victoria recover after the birth of her children (chocolate sauce was involved). I also came to love Victorian food even more that I had done up to that point. So, for a taste of the Victorian high life, here’re a few of my favourites...

Brussels Biscuits or Rusks

Charles Francatelli, The Cook’s Guide (1861)

Ingredients required – One pound of flour, ten ounces of butter, half an ounce of German-yeast, four ounces of sugar, four whole eggs, and four yolks, a teaspoonful of salt, and a gill of cream. Mix the paste [in the manner described for Compiegne cake, excepting that this must be beaten] with the hand upon the slab until it presents an appearance of elasticity: the sponge should then be added, and after the whole has been well worked once more, the paste must be placed in long narrow tins [about 2 inches deep, and of about the same width, preparatory to placing the paste in the moulds: these should first be well uttered and floured inside (to prevent the paste from sticking), then the paste rolled out to their own lengths, and about one inch and a half thick, dropped into them] and set in a warm place to rise…when the paste has sufficiently risen, it must be gently turned out [on a baking sheet, previously spread with butter. Then] egged [all over with a soft paste brush,] and baked [of a bright, deep yellow colour. When done,] cut it up into slices [about a quarter of an inch thick] place them flat on a baking-sheet, and put them again in the oven to acquire a light-yellow colour on both sides.

These biscuits were beloved of Victoria as a teenager recovering from a serious illness in 1835. This recipe is from a book by Charles Elmé Francatelli, who was chief cook to her in 1840. He wrote several books, and this recipe appears in one aimed solidly at the middle classes. Interestingly it is not included in his high-end cookery book, which is in general more reflective of the kind of dishes which he would have been cooking at Windsor and Buckingham Palace.

I have halved the ingredients – it still makes quite a lot of biscuits, so by all means halve them again. You can buy ‘fresh’ yeast in blocks from the bakery counter at many supermarkets: it is the equivalent of the processed German-yeast mentioned here.

8oz (200g) plain flour
5oz (125g) unsalted butter
½ oz fresh yeast or ½ tsp of dried yeast
2oz (50g) caster sugar
1 whole large egg
1 large egg yolk
½ tsp salt
5fl oz (125 ml) single cream.

Crumble the yeast into about 2tbsp of tepid water, and mix to dissolve. Put 2oz of the flour into a bowl. Make a well in the centre, and add the yeast mixture. Sprinkle with a little flour from round the edges. Leave for about 10mn, at which point the yeast should be bubbling through the flour. Mix, adding a little more water if necessary, and form it into a loose and rather sticky ball. Cover with a damp teatowl or clingfilm, and leave in a warm place to double or triple in size. This is your sponge.

Meanwhile, mix the other ingredients well. Knead them, and, when the sponge has risen, add this in and mix everything thoroughly. Knead again. Francatelli now uses long, thin moulds as a way of shaping the dough which will be rather sticky and hard to handle. If you don’t have any, you can use plastic food containers, mini loaf tins, or half a kitchen roll inner tube, lined with greaseproof paper or clingfilm – whatever comes to hand is fine – just be aware that this will dictate the size of your final biscuits. Butter and flour whatever you are using, and put the dough in, to about 2/3 the height of your mould. Leave, covered with clingfilm of a damp cloth, for a couple of hours until it has risen and quite probably overflowed. Heat the oven to 180°c (170°c fan). Turn the dough out fast onto a greased baking sheet and bake for about 15-20mn. You can egg wash the whole thing for extra authenticity if you have a soft enough brush not to tear the rather delicate dough. (You can also just cook them in loaf tins which is easier, but it depends what you have in your kitchen).

Leave to cool slightly, and cut your cakes into thin slices. Egg wash them if you can be bothered, and spread on a greased baking sheet. Rebake for 10-15mn until they are golden brown. Store in an airtight container and eat with everything you can think of (especially orange jelly and beef tea).

Pancake with marmalade

Alexis Soyer, The Modern Housewife (1849)

Put a quarter of a pound of sifted flour into a basin, with four eggs, mix them together very smoothly, then add half a pint of milk or cream, and a little grated nutmeg, put a piece of butter in your pan, (it requires but a very little), and when quite hot put in two tablespoonfuls of the mixture, let spread all over the pan, place it upon the fire, and when coloured upon the one side toss it over, then turn it upon your cloth; proceed thus til they are all done, then spread apricot or other marmalade all over, and roll them up neatly, lay them upon a baking sheet, sift sugar all over, glaze nicely with the salamander, and serve upon a napkin; the above may be served without the marmalade, being then the common pancake.’

Alexis Soyer was the leading chef of his day, and was one of London’s most flamboyant culinary figures. Like Francatelli, he published cookery books aimed at the upper, middle and lower classes, and he also put his ideas into action, going out to the Crimea to work out whether the food had anything to do with the appalling death rate in the Scutari field hospital (it did). He subsequently invented a military stove which remained in use well into the latter half of the twentieth century, and was lauded as a hero by The Times. This recipe is from his middle class Cook’s Guide, which is written as letters from an experienced hostess to her protégé. It’s refreshingly odd, but the recipes are brilliant. Victoria’s children recalled making pancakes at the Swiss Cottage when they were learning to cook there in the 1850s.

4oz (100g) flour
2 large eggs
10 fl oz (250ml) single cream or whole milk
Jam or marmalade
Icing sugar (to finish) 

Mix the eggs and flour until there are no lumps, then whisk in the cream or milk, adding a little grated nutmeg. Melt the butter in a pan, and pour in two ladles-full of batter, spreading it out across the pan. Flip or toss the pancake when it is just cooked on the top, and cook the bottom until it is brown. To be properly Victorian, spread each pancake with a thin layer of jam or marmalade, roll it up, and put it on a baking sheet. When the sheet is full of pancakes, sprinkle with icing sugar and put them under a grill to brown the sugar. Serve on a doily, stacked neatly in a pyramid.

Windsor Sandwiches

Avis Crocombe, Unpublished ms. Cookbook, (c.1860-1910)

1/4lb tongue-1/4lb parmesan, 1 oz of butter and a little cayenne, pound all together and pass it through a sieve. Cut the bread to fancy and then put the preparation between. Dip them in butter and parmesan and fry them a light brown. 

One from my days at Audley End, this recipe is in a book kept by the cook there in 1881, Avis Crocombe. Avis was a trailblazer in her own way, one of a very small number of women cooking for the aristocracy. At the rank of earl of above, a woman cook was almost unheard of (Avis’s employer was a Baron, so rather lower down), and the preference of the titled was for men, preferably French men. That gender bias was also at work in the royal kitchens, where only around 15 of the 45 or so cooks were women. One of them, Jane Elgar, assistant to the confectionery, saw off five heads of department, all on £300 a year, while she remained on £40. However, she did manage to stay in post until her retirement, unlike Mary Timms, who died while still in service. Life in the kitchen was hard.

4oz (100g) tongue, chopped
4oz (100g) parmesan, grated
1oz (25g) butter
Generous pinch cayenne pepper
More butter, for frying
More grated parmesan, ditto
Good quality bread, thinly sliced

Cut the bread with a pastry cutter into fun shapes. Pound the tongue, parmesan, butter and cayenne in a mortar until it is pulverised (or use a blender, but the amounts are a bit small). Spread half the bread shapes with the paste, and press the other halves firmly on top. Melt the frying butter and dip the sandwiches in that, and then finely grated parmesan. Fry in yet more butter until crisp.

To drink, have a crack at either of the Queen’s favourite alcoholic tipples: claret mixed with whisky (I use Lochnagar and do 125ml wine and 25ml whisky), or whisky and soda. Seltzer water was widely regarded as a health drink, and whisky and soda, or whisky, soda and lemon squash, was therefore clearly an ideal way to start the day. One of Victoria’s granddaughters implored her mother, Victoria’s eldest daughter, to try it when she was thirsty…at 11am.

In the kitchen at Swiss Cottage at Osborne House 
Photograph by Andre Disderi
Royal Collection Trust copyright, HM QEII 2017: RCIN 2102589


The National Maritime Museum Cornwall has a major new exhibition entitled: Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed. 

Running from now until January 2018, the exhibition illustrates how tattoos have been used to express individual and group identity across every social class. 

The exhibition includes work by the Victorian, Sutherland Macdonald, who is thought to have been exposed to the art while in the British Army. He was said to be a 'natural' who was adept in the use of Japanese hand tools ~ and Japanese tattoo styles definitely influenced his work. However, in 1894, he received a patent for his own electric tattooing machine, and he has also been credited with extending the popular shades of blues and greens, which are classics of the palates of almost all tattooists today.

Examples of his work are shown below. I only wish the photographs were in colour.

For another VV post on Victorian tattoos, see:  Tattooed ~ by Royal Appointment



When I was researching and writing my novel, Elijah’s Mermaid, I planned a scene with an automaton, and vaguely recalled having seen one in an article about a clockwork swan on display at the Bowes Museum.

To describe the swan in words ~ though you really need to watch the film embedded above into this post to appreciate its beauty ~ it appears to float upon a stream made of rows of twisted glass rods. When the mechanism is wound up, music plays and the rods begin to rotate as little sparkling silver fish swim through the ‘water’. The swan lowers its head to the left and right while seeming to preen its feathers, before it picks up and swallows one fish, at which point the music stops, and the swan returns to its upright position again.

It truly is a wonder, and although I eventually wrote about a sinister clockwork mermaid, the silver swan has continued to hold a fascination for me. So, when I recently came to read Peter Carey’s novel, The Chemistry of Tears, in which the swan plays a central part, I decided to look more closely at the reality behind the fiction - and in doing so discovered the intriguing human story at its heart.

The swan was originally created by John Joseph Merlin, and is first recorded as being displayed back in 1774, in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, a London showman and dealer.

Almost a century later, in 1872, the wealthy collectors, John and Josephine Bowes, paid £200 (around £80,000 in today’s money) to purchase the swan from a Parisian jeweller, having both been enchanted after seeing the object on display at the Paris International Exhibition in 1867. 

At the same exhibition it was viewed by the American writer, Mark Twain, who wrote -

‘I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes - watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop - watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...' 

Today, you can go and see the swan at the Bowes Museum - where John and Josephine amassed their marvellous collection of furniture, art, and automata. 

But who were this discerning couple? Well, their story is as alluring as the silver swan itself.

Josephine Benoite Coffin-Chevalie was the daughter of a French clockmaker who grew up to be an actress. In 1847, she met John Bowes, the illegitimate son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore. 

John was a racy aristocrat, active in the Parisian Demi-monde, where he first came to meet his future wife when she performed at the Theatre des Varietes; the theatre that he’d purchased as a gift for another mistress.

Chateau du Barry - painted by Josephine Bowes.
Josephine had a wonderful eye for art.  She and John bought several works for the collection at Bowes, including work by El Greco, Goya, Canaletto, and Fantin-Latour

He was clearly a very generous man when it came to the women who he loved. For Josephine, who he nicknamed Puss, he bought the Chateau du Barry near Paris which had once been home to a mistress of Louis XV. However the pair also visited John’s English home in County Durham, hoping to improve the lives of the farmers and miners who worked around by creating a permanent display of art and culture for their use. 

Sadly, Josephine died at 48, before she’d really had the time to enjoy their home and its treasures. She was childless, and it was said that she had suffered from lung disease. But it is also likely that she and John had syphilis, both having enjoyed an adventurous youth.

Tragically, John’s second wife, who was very jealous of the first, set about expunging her memory, and that included destroying almost all of the letters she’d written to John - of which there was many hundreds, as they wrote to each other every day. It is thought that if she could have done the second wife would have prevented the museum from ever opening. But open it did in 1885, seven years after John had also died.

An exhibition about Josephine’s life, A Woman of Taste and Influence, is currently on show at the Bowes Museum, and continues until July 16, 2017.




The opening of the Great Exhibition by Henry Courtney Selous 1851-2

The Victorians very often commissioned paintings of major historical events, which were then produced as commemorative prints and sold in enormous numbers. One such example is the painting  above which illustrates the opening of the Great Exhibition on May 1st 1851.

Hee Sing

What the VV really likes about this depiction of an event steeped in royal pomp and ceremony is the ‘other story’ it contains. A story about just one of the 25,000 invited guests, and yet he was not a guest at all, despite being shown in the painting dressed in his ceremonial Chinese robes.

Hee Sing follows the Queen

His name, so it later transpired, was Hee Sing, and his presence that day was not questioned at all, even though there had been no official invitation to Chinese delegates. However, so the story goes, this noble-looking gentleman simply ‘happened’ upon the occasion, having recently arrived in a Chinese junk that had docked in London; a ship which was moored on the River Thames and could be visited by anyone who had a shilling to spare. During this time, when Hee Singh heard the news of the Exhibition, he decied to go and take a look while decked out in his very finest clothes - which then led other dignitaries there to assume him a man of importance. 

Hee Sing mingles with the guests

Lyon Playfair, a Scottish scientist and Liberal politician wrote –‘a Chinaman dressed in magnificent robes, suddenly emerged from the crowd and prostrated himself before the throne. Who he was nobody knew. He might possibly be the Emperor of China himself who had come secretly to the ceremony.’

Later Playfair observed Hee Sing standing between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Wellington and – ‘In this dignified position he marched through the building, to the delight and amazement of all beholders.’

That delight was also noted by the Illustrated London News. One of its reporters wrote –‘We must also remember the droll Chinese Mandarin amongst the Foreign Ambassadors and Ministers, who swayed along from side to side, those before and those behind him leaving a pretty full berth for his comical progress.’

However comical he looked, the VV would like to imagine that Hee Sing had the last laugh himself, not only visiting The Great Exhibition, but revered as one of the great and the good. What you might call gate-crashing a party in style.



The VV has recently been helping to sort through the home of an elderly relative who has sadly had to move into a residential nursing home. 

The house was full of books, some of which are very old indeed, including this children's story book ~ The Butterfly's At home.

Published by F. W. Warne, written by Mabel, and illustrated by George Lambert (some images appear to be varnished) the book has now lost its outer spine, and inside it lacks the literary charm or beauty of Beatrix Potter's work - which was also published by F. W. Warne. But it is very prettily reproduced as the following photographs will show ...

There is no year of publication printed in the book, but the dedication 'Violet, from Mim' is dated as Christmas 1881.

More Victorian treasures will follow ...



For many centuries Valentine's Day was celebrated as a time when tokens of love could be exchanged. But, the tradition became truly popular during the Victorian era when, due to improvements in printing techniques, and the introduction of a postal service, commercially printed cards were sent instead of hand-written sheets of verse. Some of these cards were very elaborate with paper embossed and cut like lace ~ with decorative items like mirrors and feathers ~ and sometimes even strands of the hair plucked from the head of the sender.

As well as being romantic, many cards had a humorous bent as well. Some could even be cruelly malicious, so much so that in the 1850's the New York Times was to publish the following editorial -

Our beaux and belles are satisfied with a few miserable lines, neatly written upon fine paper, or else they purchase a printed Valentine with verses ready made, some of which are costly, and many of which are cheap and indecent. In any case, whether decent or indecent, they only please the silly and give the vicious an opportunity to develop their propensities, and place them, anonymously, before the comparatively virtuous. The custom with us has no useful feature, and the sooner it is abolished the better.

Such words of advice were all in vain, as depicted by this 1900 film that the British Film Institute digitised: The Old Maid's Valentine ...

But, back in the 1850's, one particularly attractive young lady by the name of Catherine Worsley (the daughter of Sir William Worsley of Hovingham in England), was more than happy to receive billet doux from hopeful lovers.  

Catherine saved a great many tokens of love of which 22 illustrated letters, some poems, sonnets and stories, and sketches with scenes of marital bliss, are all still preserved to view today at the North Yorkshire County Records office.

One of her ardent admirers wrote: 'I'll gratify your slightest wish, whether t'were small or great, say the word at once you're heard, my pretty, pretty Kate.' 

Another said: 'I'm ugly I know, but I'll presently show, that I really am not to be sneezed at.' 

But the one who received Catherine's heart in return was her cousin, George Allanson Cayley, who married his love in 1859 after urging that she should, 'keep your kisses all for me.'

Catherine Worsley's valentines were unearthed by Katie Robinson, a Record Assistant at the North Yorkshire County Office who'd been carrying out some research for the BBC TV programme, Who Do You Think You Are?



This letter is held by the American Library of Congress - from 'An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera'.

Dating from the 1850's - whether the original was genuine or contrived - it is a most delightful find. Do read the explanation at the bottom of the transcription to fully understand the message that was being conveyed.


The great love and tenderness I have hitherto expressed for you 
is false, and I now feel that my indifference towards you 
increases proportionably every day, and the more I see you 
the more I appear ridiculous, and an object of contempt, and
the more I feel disposed, inclined, and finally determined, to 
hate you. Believe me I never had the least inclination to 
offer you my hand and heart. Our last conversation has 
I assure you, left a wretched insipidity, which has be no means
possessed me with the most exalted opinion of your character. 
Yes, madam, and you will much oblige me by avoiding me. 
And if ever we are united, I shall experience nothing but the 
fearful hatred of my parents, added to an everlasting dis
pleasure of living with you. Yes, madam, I think sincerely. 
You need not put yourself to the smallest trouble or send or 
write me an answer ------ Adieu. And believe that I am 
so averse to you that it is really impossible I should ever be,
                                 Your affectionate lover till death.
                                                                               W. GOFF


There are two ways of reading it; the father compelled his daughter to show him all letters sent to her - the unsuspecting father reads straight forward, but the daughter having the clue, reads the first, third and fifth lines, and so on. Then the contrast will be discovered. 


Portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning 
by Thomas Read

The VV's early childhood was often spent in front of a television set watching old black-and-white classic films. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (MGM, 1934) told the romantic story of the invalid Elizabeth Barrett who was wooed by Robert Browning when he fell in love with her poetry.

Fredric March was Robert Browning. Norma Shearer played Elizabeth

Or could the VV's memories be confused with the English version made in 1957, when the glamorous young Jennifer Jones played the part of our fragile heroine ~ but with little concession to the fact that Elizabeth was forty years old at the time of her marriage to Mr Browning.

Nevertheless, much of the film was based on real facts ~ facts which provided a story full of Victorian melodrama, with Elizabeth's possessive father being utterly opposed to the thought of her ever leaving home. 

Eventually, she ran away and married Browning in secrecy. They lived in Italy for 15 years, and there Elizabeth had a son. However, her health was in decline and in 1861 - the same year as Queen Victoria was to lose her beloved Albert - she died while held in her husband's arms.

But, their passion lives on through their writing, for during a courtship of 20 months the couple wrote nearly 600 letters, in which Browning's passion was clear from the start ~ as you'll see in the fan letter below. Nothing short of a declaration of love ...

January 10th, 1845
New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey

I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,--and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write,--whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me--for in the first flush of delight I thought I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration--perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of herafter!--but nothing comes of it all--so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew... oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat and prized highly and put in a book with a proper account at bottom, and shut up and put away... and the book called a 'Flora', besides! After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought--but in this addressing myself to you, your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart-- and I love you too: do you know I was once seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning "would you like to see Miss Barrett?"--then he went to announce me,--then he returned... you were too unwell -- and now it is years ago--and I feel as at some untoward passage in my travels--as if I had been close, so close, to some world's-wonder in chapel on crypt,... only a screen to push and I might have entered -- but there was some slight... so it now seems... slight and just-sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be!

Well, these Poems were to be--and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel myself. Yours ever faithfully Robert Browning

Elizabeth wasted little time in expressing her own affection for him. Below is her 43rd Sonnet, which was later published in a book entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese ...

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.




James Brooke ~ Portrait by Sir Francis Grant, The National Portrait Gallery.

James Brooke was a child of British colonialism. Born in Benares, India in 1803, his father was the chief of the East India Company’s provincial court. He spent his first 12 years in India, a pampered child in a country where an Englishman could live like a lord. When his parents, apparently finally noticing his lack of education, send him to school in England, it was a rude surprise. He ended up in boarding school at Norwich but ran away after two or three years and moved in with the family of Charles Keegan, a retired Indian civilian and friend of his family, who was living in Bath.

Eventually his father retired from India and he, too, returned to Bath. Reunited with his family, James eventually settled with them, but as soon as he was 16, he returned to India and commissioned into the East India Company's army. He was posted to the 6th Native Infantry and became a Sub-Assistant, Commissary-General. He was not, though, by nature a logistician. In fact he had always wanted to be a cavalry officer and when war broke out with Burma he overheard the general in command complaining they had no light cavalry to act as scouts. Lieutenant Brooke immediately offered to raise a troop and he was allowed to call for volunteers from among the infantry. He formed them into a reasonably efficient irregular cavalry, which operated ahead of the advancing column. It was typical of his character – and, indeed, normal for young officers in those days – that he led from the front and the result was that, early in the campaign, he was wounded and invalided back to Britain. His recovery was slow and it was not until 3½ years after the injury that he was able to leave England to rejoin his regiment. However, his ship was wrecked off the Isle of Wight and, though he survived, his health was again affected. He was forced to apply for six months further leave. By the time he was ready to re-embark, it was winter and bad weather delayed his departure until March 1830. The weather continued stormy or – in the days of sail just as bad – excessively calm and his voyage on the Castle Huntley was very slow. It was not until 18 July that he reach Madras. The maximum amount of leave that he could take was five years and that was up on the 30th. This gave him 12 days to get from Madras to Calcutta which was impossible. Although he looked for temporary employment in Madras so as not to break his contract, this was refused and he resigned from the Company's service.

It seems likely that Brooke was quite happy to leave the Army. Although he had proved an able soldier in action, his was not a personality well-suited to the tedium of administration when there was no actual fighting going on. It seems likely that he could have remained in the Company's service – his father was lobbying with every evidence of success for this to happen – but he probably didn't really want to. Instead, he chose to stay on with the Castle Huntly, exploring the waters of the Eastern Archipelago and calling at the British possessions of Penang, Malacca and Singapore before sailing on to Canton.

That mad-cap voyage, during which the still-young Brooke seems to have spent much of his time simply having fun and getting into scrapes with the local Chinese, proved to be a crucial influence on the way his life was to develop. Back in England he announced that it was his intention to buy a ship and to sail in search of adventure (and profit, of course) in the Far East.

Eventually he managed to persuade his father's put up money and let him buy the Findlay "a rakish slaver-brig, 290 tons burden". In May 1834, he set off to sail to the East and a new life as a merchant-adventurer.

It was a disaster. A brig needed a large crew to run and the venture could never be profitable. Eventually Brooke decided to give up the enterprise and return to England.

That should have been that. Brooke should have learned the lesson of his youthful escapades and settled down to responsible employment. But he seemed incapable of settling down to anything. His father's pension meant that there was no urgency in finding alternative employment and he remained in England doing nothing in particular. Not that long after his return, though, his father died, leaving him with enough money to relaunch his idea of voyaging in the Far East.

This time he bought a schooner, the Royalist, which was much better suited to the sort of business he had planned. After a proving voyage in the Mediterranean, he set off again in December 1838.

Brooke’s head was filled with romantic notions and trade was a secondary consideration for him. He had decided that the power of the Dutch was in decline and that now was the time to expand British influence in the area and that he was the man for the job. His goal was Borneo, which he considered ripe for improving trade with Britain. His initial plan was to start his adventures at Marudu Bay in the north of the island. When he arrived in Singapore, though, the political buzz was all about Muda Hassim, the Bendahara of Brunei. Essentially' a Bendahara runs the place, though he is nominally responsible to the Sultan. However, the legitimacy of the Sultan lies with the bendahara. If you think of Muda Hassim as the Sultan of Brunei, you will be hopelessly wrong in terms of the formalities of the Brunei court, but you’ll have a fair handle on the realities of the situation.

A few months before Brooke's arrival in Singapore a British brig called the Napoleon had been wrecked in Borneo. Muda Hassim had treated the crew with every courtesy, fed and clothed them at his own expense, and arranged for their safe return to Singapore.

Brooke was not a man to set out a plan and stick to it, but rather somebody always more than willing to take advantage of any change in his circumstances to strike out in a new direction. He decided to seize this opportunity to develop a relationship with Hassim. On 27 July 1839, the Royalist slipped quietly away from Singapore and headed to Borneo.

The politics of Borneo in the mid-19th century were Byzantine. Power was held by Malays. The indigenous people – the Dyaks – were relatively powerless. When Brooke arrived in Sarawak, Hassim was occupied in putting down a rising, of Dyaks, who were supported by a faction within the Malay community – the Siniawan Malays. In fact, they were almost certainly supported by elements within the Malay court who were trying to reduce Hassim’s power. By now the uprising had been going on for four years. Hassim had been in Sarawak for months and nothing seemed to have changed since he moved his court there.

Hassim saw Brooke’s arrival as providential. Although there were only 28 men on board the Royalist, Hassim looked at her six cannon and the White Ensign hanging at her mast and saw her as a symbol of British power. If he could get Brooke involved in the war, he thought he could finally bring things to a conclusion and return to the seat of power in Brunei.

For while, Brooke refused to be drawn in. In fact, he returned to Singapore and made various other short expeditions before coming back to Sarawak in August 1840. By now, the Dyaks had been defeated and mostly come over to Hassim. However, the Siniawan Malays were holding out. Hassim again asked Brooke for assistance. Here is Brooke’s own account of his attitude to intervening in what was, effectively, a civil war in Borneo.

I may here state my motives for being a spectator at all, or participator (as may turn out), in this scene. In the first place, I must confess that curiosity strongly prompted me; since to witness the Malays, Chinese [yes, there were Chinese too, immigrants who essentially monopolised trade], and Dayaks in warfare was so new, but the novelty alone might plead an excuse for this desire. But it was not the only motive; for my presence is a stimulus to our own party, and will probably depress the other in proportion. I look upon the cause of the Raja [Hassim] as most just and righteous; and the speedy close of the war will be rendering a service to humanity, especially if brought about by treaty.

Brooke was already clearly far from a mere spectator. He provided advice and encouragement to Hassim. He was there as Hassim’s forces pushed the rebels back to their main position at a town called Belidah. He encouraged Hassim to attack, but "my proposal to attack the adversary was immediately treated as an extreme of rashness amounting to insanity.” The Malays preferred an approach where a chain of fortified positions was constructed, moving closer and closer to Balidah without any open assault. Brooke's frustration grew he saw this "protracted" warfare as "extremely barbarous". Trade and agriculture were both disrupted and there seemed no prospect of peace. Finally, in October, he sent for two of his six-pounder guns and some of his men to be despatched from the Royalist to Balidah. By 31 October the guns were up and the rebel defences were breached. Still, though, the Malays refused to storm the place. On 3 November Brooke left them in despair. His diary tells what happened next:

I explained to [Hassim] how useless it was my remaining and intimated to him my intention of departing; but his deep regret was so visible, that even all the self-command of the native could not disguise it. He begged, he entreated me to stay, and offered me the country of Siniawan and Sarawak, and its government and trade, if I would only stop, and not desert him.

Brooke did not immediately accept this offer, but did continue to support Hassim’s efforts in the war, in which the men of the Royalist were soon to prove decisive.

With the end of the war, Brooke suggested that Hassim might like to follow through on his promise to give him the rule of Sarawak. The fighting over, though, Hassim was not so sure. On the one hand, he wanted to retain Brooke's support, possibly as offering some sort of protection against Dutch expansionism and certainly to bolster his own position in the intrigues between himself and other powerful Malay factions. On the other hand, he was concerned that he should not be seen as yielding territory that technically belonged to the Sultan, or as suggesting that traditional Malay laws could be set aside in favour of an Englishman. Negotiations extended for almost a year, during which factions in the Malay camp tried to poison Brooke. Eventually, though, Hassim agreed, drawing up and signing a document giving Brooke the government of Sarawak. On 24 November, 1841 he was ceremoniously declared Rajah.

Becoming the ruler of Sarawak turned out to be the easy part. To find out the challenges Brooke faced and how he overcame them, read the second part of this post HERE on Tom William's blog: The White Rajah.

Tom Williams has written several historical novels. The White Rajah is based on the exploits of James Brooke



The VV can only apologise for not posting as often as she should, but what with the publication of a new book at the end of 2016, and since then the excitement of Christmas ~ and the ensuing festive bout of flu ~ things have been a little busy.

One of her favourite Christmas gifts was a book that kept her occupied for many a wintery afternoon. It is called A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF THE SILENT SCREEN and was compiled and written by Daniel Blum, an American theatre director who was clearly in love with silent films, amassing a remarkable archive of photographic material.

We may think of  the silents as being screened in the 1920s, but moving films were being made from the late Victorian era on. At the forefront of this technology, at least in America (I have, and shall write more about the vibrant UK film business in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and for more on this at the present time please see the posts in my sister blog The Eclectic Edwardian), was the businessman, Thomas Edison.

Thomas Edison

Edison was actually of the mind that the moving pictures industry was a flash in the pan that wouldn't last, but he still invested heavily in the production of Kinetoscopes ~ which were cabinets with a peephole that contained long looping reels of film. When a customer put a coin in a slot and turned a handle on the side, they saw - through a shining beam of light ~ the flicker of moving images.

The first kinetoscope was built in East Orange, New Jersey. Unveiled on February 1 1893, it  was called the Black Maria, and the interest shown in it was such that, by 1894, the machines were in commercial use in Kinetoscope Parlors in New York; and soon all across America.

The first film recorded for these machines showed a performer called Fred Ott in the process of having a jolly good sneeze. It's astonishing to see this now ~ with the film so short and seemingly of very little interest. But it marked the start of the film industry, and what a world of visual delights was soon to follow on. Films that showed contortionists, boxers, dancers, and carnival acts ~ and later the charismatic stars who appeared in dramatic narratives, to shimmer across the silver screen.