Halloween is a tradition made popular in America, where pumpkin lanterns in front of doors invite children to 'Trick-or-Treat 'while dressed in spooky fancy dress, as skeletons, witches, or ghosts – and sometimes even Dracula.

The supernatural or ‘Undead’ have some historical relevance regarding Halloween. Once known as Samain or ‘Sow in’, this ancient Celtic festival signified the new year, when the harvest had been gathered and the winter lay ahead. On its eve, October 31st, the divisions between the living and dead were said to part, almost like an open curtain, allowing supernatural folk and the souls of all the dead to walk about the world again. Bonfires were often lit to drive the risen dead away. If not, they were placated with the bowls of food and drink left on the steps of locked house doors.

The advent of Christianity appropriated many customs, with ‘All-Hallowmas’ or ‘All Saint’s Day’ revering saints and martyrs instead of ghouls and witches. The gifts of food became ‘soul cakes’ left  for the homeless and the hungry, in return for which they prayed for the souls of all the dead. 

Many old superstitions have persisted through the years. American Irish émigrés replaced the smaller turnip heads with larger pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns – Jack being the folklore rogue who was known to have offended  God and the Devil equally, for which he was excluded both from Heaven and from Hell, walking the earth till Judgment Day. 


Other Celtic customs were described in Rabbie Burns’ famous poem, Halloween – where fairies dance one moonlit night while youths roam through the countryside, singing songs and telling tales, or joining fortune-telling games ~ such as eating apples while also looking into mirrors, that way creating magic spells to see a future lover's face.

Whether Queen Victoria ever peered in such a mirror, she certainly entered the spirit of the Halloween tradition when she joined the annual fire-lit procession that took place in the grounds of Balmoral. However, back in England, the rise of the Protestant Church made these rituals less popular – perhaps explaining why Charles Dickens’ had a shock when he had gone to tour around America. What really piqued his interest, rather than the games (such a Pin the Tail on the Donkey, or Blind Man’s Buff, or Bobbing for Apples) was the morbid fascination that most people had with ghosts.

It was no coincidence that, after coming back to England, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in which spirits and prophecies about the future are the basis of the story he created. 

Other established authors also peeled back age-old layers of tradition and myth to recreate ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ – the genre that was popular in literature and art; with tales of children being stolen away by fairy folk, or mirrors showing future fates, or women wailing next to graves – all rendered yet more sinister when read by flickering candlelight to give an eerie atmosphere.

The Victorians really revelled in such ghoulish scary tales. They whole-heartedly embraced the culture of death, visiting spirit mediums, or else photographers who duped many clients to believe that double negative exposures revealed true visions of the dead. The images shown here may be somewhat tongue in cheek, but many others were believed to be entirely genuine. 

This article was also published in The Independent newspaper.



Feeling very Undancy by Arthur Rackham

During the VV's teenage years, instead of pinning posters of pop stars on her walls she had some lovely printed cards, each one with softly rounded corners, and all depicting illustrations designed by Arthur Rackham.

Arthur Rackham 1867 - 1939.  A self portrait

How serious and respectable the artist looks in this self portrait. More like a stern accountant than the man whose stunning art reflected fairytales and myths. But then perhaps the image fits, for Rackham was employed to be an office clerk at the Westminster Fire Office before enrolling on a part-time course at the Lambeth School of Art.

Fairy on a Spider's Web

At the age of twenty-five, Arthur left his office job to work at illustrating books. He devised his own technique, sketching out a pencil outline and then blocking in some colour, before adding india ink to create the finer details. Sometimes this 'sepia' theme would be enhanced with watercolours, gradually building up the layers in almost transparent tints. 

He also worked with silhouettes, inspired by Japanese woodblocks.

A Japanese influence in this illustration from Das Rhiengold

The film director, Guillermo Del Toro, says that Rackham had inspired some of his finest visual work, most notably the faun in the film Pan's Labyrinth. There is also the tree seen growing through an altar in the film of Hellboy which Del Toro has referred to as being his 'Rackham Tree'.

The faun in Pan's Labryinth

The Rhinemaidens from The Ring

There is a wealth of Rackham's work for anyone to view online. His classic illustrations are reproduced in many books – such the fairy tale collections compiled by the Brother's Grimm - Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland - the Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table - the book of English Fairy Tales - or Peter Pan - and then The Ring - which is to touch on but a few. Do you have a favourite book?




William Jackson Crawford was a paranormal investigator who the author A. J. West has written about his novel, The Spirit Engineer.

In many ways William's life is a mystery, his story all but forgotten by even the most devoted of scholars into the world of spiritualist study ~ until A J West heard about him. 

He discovered that William, who had been born in New Zealand, first travelled to Glasgow as a young man and studied to be a science teacher before moving to Belfast.

William Jackson Crawford 1880-1920

William married Elizabeth Bullock Jolly, having found himself employment with the Belfast Municipal Technical Institute. The married couple and their family were comfortably off ~ certainly when compared to the spiritualist medium Kathleen Goligher, who came from a poor, working class background.

It is thought that William became involved with the wider Goligher family due to his wife's own fervent interest in the occult and afterlife. Although sceptical at first, between 1914 and 1920 he conducted investigations to prove the fact of 'other worlds'. His work appeared impressive and came to the attention of the magician Houdini, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, by the end of his own mortal life on earth, William had lost their faith. He was discredited and ridiculed for fraud regarding evidence provided to expose the truth of life beyond the grave.

There are rumours that William suffered from a mental breakdown resulting in his suicide. After disappearing, his body was found by the sea in the exact position where he had settled on some rocks. There was foam around his mouth, which indicates the likelihood of having ingested poison. (Working at the Technical Institute, he would have had easy access to potassium cyanide powder used for developing early photographic plates.)

William was also said to have been found with a parcel and letter addressed to his wife, which was disposed of by the policeman who first came upon the body. It is strongly assumed that it alluded to the fact that Kathleen Goligher had connived to trick him and was nothing but a fraud.

Whatever the truth of the matter; what William did or did not discover about the Goligher's psychic trade, The Spirit Engineer offers a fascinating glimpse into the supernatural world, with detailed accounts of seances that were performed. The novel, with its lovely artwork adding to the spooky theme, will be published in the UK in October 2021.

If you are already itching to learn more about this fascinating subject, I suggest you make a visit to A. J. West's own author website,  There you'll find more details of his research and Youtube films he has recorded in the process ~ including this book trailer. Watch on full screen. It's fabulous!

A. J. West ~ Author of The Spirit Engineer



 Alice Pleasance Liddell (1852-1934)

In 1864, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - a young clergyman and mathematics don at Oxford university - presented a little girl with the unique Christmas gift. A 15,000 word hand-written manuscript.

Lovingly adorned with his own illustrations, Alice's Adventures Underground had been conceived during the summer of1862, when Lewis Carroll (as he was soon to be known) had been out on a boating trip with Edith, Lorina, and Alice - the three daughters of Henry George Liddell, the dean of Christ Church college.

 The Liddell sisters, with Alice on the right. Photograph by Lewis Carroll

Alice was Dodgson's favourite. He first met her in the deanery gardens in the April of 1856. The day was later marked in his diary as one of great significance. Carroll was 24 years old - twenty years older than Alice.

In later years he was to claim that the character of the girl in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was not based on a real-life child. Even so, there are many references that allude to Alice Liddell. 

Alice's birthday was May 4th, and during the scene of the Mad Hatter's tea party we read the following words -

'The Hatter was the first to break the silence. “What day of the month is it?” he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket and was looking at it uneasily ... Alice considered a little, and then said, “The Fourth”.'

The epilogue for Through the Looking Glass is in the form of a poem, in which the first letter of every line combines to form the name of Alice Pleasance Liddell -

A boat beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July --

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear
Pleased a simple tale to hear --

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream --
Lingering in the golden gleam --
Life what is it but a dream?

'Still she haunts me' - the poem possesses a yearning and dreamlike quality. It is filled with poignant memories of that balmy summer's day when he rowed along the river with Alice and her sisters. 

It is a sensitive subject, but Dodgson's interest in young girls is also to be found in many photographs he took; some of which he went on to destroy before his death. Surviving images are held at the National Media Museum and can still be viewed today, though you may need to telephone to make a prior appointment.

Lorina and Alice Liddell, posing as Orientals

Dodgson also destroyed a page from his diary from 1863, soon after which his close relationship with the entire Liddell family came a sudden end. In later years, his own family explained that Alice's mother had been increasingly unhappy at the young clergyman's keen interest in courting a Miss Pricket, who was her children's governess. Indeed, it is thought by some that the character of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass was based upon Miss Pricket, who was described in the following way - 

"The Red Queen I pictured as a Fury, but of another type; her passion must be cold and calm; she must be formal and strict, yet not unkindly; pedantic to the tenth degree, the concentrated essence of all governesses!" 

So, she was firm and not unkindly, and perhaps he did find her attractive. But when it came to Alice Liddell, he wrote only of disappointment when they met again years later and he felt that she had "changed a great deal and hardly for the better."

Whatever Dodgson felt about his childhood heroine, Alice Liddell had grown up to be assured and beautiful - so much so that she was courted by Queen Victoria's youngest son when he was studying at Oxford.

The match was not to be. Queen Victoria insisted that Prince Leopold should marry a woman of royal blood. This he did, but it's significant that when he and his wife had a daughter, he called the child Alice. Similarly, when Alice married Richard Hargreaves, another Oxford student - her son was christened Leopold. The prince was his godfather.

Prince Leopold and his wife, doting on their daughter, Alice.

Despite the loss of her royal love, Alice still went on to become a happy society wife. Only after her husband's death, when she found herself in need, did she resort to selling her original copy of Alice's Adventures Underground

In 1928 the manuscript was auctioned at Sotheby's and sold for £15,400, which was four times the reserve price. 

In 1948 the book changed hands again, purchased by some American businessmen who donated the precious manuscript to the British Museum in Bloomsbury.

In 1932, to mark the centenary of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Mrs Hargreaves was invited to New York where she received an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. The trip proved to be exciting but also very tiring. She was deluged with letters from 'Alice' fans, and interest from the media.

Alice's death in 1934 was marked by an obituary in The Times. Her ashes were interred in the family tomb in Lyndhurst, in Hampshire, where the following words were inscribed: The grave of Mrs Reginald Hargreaves, the Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

The poignant last page of Alice's Adventures Underground

Dreamchild  (1985) is a film scripted by Dennis Potter with Carroll's imaginary characters realised by the puppeteer, Jim Henson. It tells the story of Alice's journey to a Depression era New York with flashbacks to her privileged Victorian youth when she spent time with Dodgson, who is played by Ian Holm. The part of the older Alice is taken by Coral Browne, who received a London Evening Standard Film Award for Best Actress. 

The film is available from the Cult Movie selection at Amazon UK, and it is currently available in a Youtube version. It is enchanting, dark, and heartbreaking. Well worth searching out, and fully deserving to be more widely available for streaming.

Amelia Shankley as the young Alice Liddell, and Coral Browne as the older Alice Hargreaves in Dennis Potter's scripted film, Dreamchild



On 19th August 2021 Thames and Hudson will be publishing Christopher Valkoinen's 
Railways ~ A History in Drawings.

Magnificent engineering drawings spanning two centuries give unique design and social perspectives on the development of railway transport. There are plans of locomotives, of carriages, and wagons, along with the stations, bridges and tunnels that were first built in the nineteenth century.  Around a million drawings have survived and are currently held in the National Railway Museum in York, which is where Christopher Valkoinen  ~ who is a qualified steam locomotive fireman ~ works in the library and archives.

The book also includes drawings from railways around the world, including the USA, Russia, Japan, India, Australia and Egypt, and therefore has international appeal. A treat for the railway enthusiasts, and indeed all who share an interest in the remarkable social and economic changes of the Victorian industrial era.

All images are copyright of Thames & Hudson, and Christopher Valkoinen



It may not be winter, but the VV has been thinking about the beautiful photographs of snowflakes made by Wilson Alwyn Bentley.

Born in 1865, 'Snowflake Bentley' (as he came to be called) was raised on his family farm in Jericho, in the American state of Vermont where the annual depth of snowfall could be as much as 120 inches.

From childhood he was said to be fascinated by the natural world around him; so much so that at the age of fifteen his mother decided to give him the present of a microscope. Using this magnifying tool, Bentley was captivated by close-up views of snow crystals, which he placed on a black velvet base so as to see them yet more clearly. But to preserve these wondrous sights, each of which was quite unique, and with the ice flakes often melting before he could try to sketch them, the young Bentley set his mind on finding a method of attaching a camera to the lens of the microscope. Using this technique of photomicrography he was able to compile a vast collection of remarkable images.

Describing his snowflakes as "ice flowers", he eventually produced over 5,000 photographs of these stunning ephemeral crystals. Little wonder they were sought out by the Harvard Mineralogical Museum and the University of Vermont. Indeed, examples of his work are held by academic institutions all over the world. This includes the Smithsonian, where Bentley sent 500 prints in 1903, expressing the hope that they would be preserved for future posterity. 

What an irony it is that Bentley died from a case of pneumonia, having been stranded and lost one day in a blizzard of ice and snow. However, before his death he did have the satisfaction of seeing his snowflake prints produced in a collection by McGraw Hill. That book has since been produced in various different editions and is still available today.

There are many sources online where more can be discovered about the man. For now, here is a short film uploaded to Youtube by Chuck Smith which is called The Snowflake Man ...



When writing her novel, The Somnambulist, the VV wanted to introduce a perfume that would have been in production during the mid nineteenth century; a fragrance that might have been suitable for men and women alike - and the heady and glamorous concoction of Penhaligan's Hammam Bouquet fitted that need to perfection.

First created by William Penhaligon in 1872, this lovely fragrance, still manufactured today, is described as being ‘...animalic and golden... warm and mature, redolent of old books, powdered resins and ancient rooms. At its heart is the dusky Turkish rose, with jasmine, woods, musk, and powdery orris.  

Hammam Bouquet soon became a great favourite with respectable Victorian gentlemen, even though  it owed its provenance to the odours that were found in the Jermyn Street BathsThe VV finds it amusing that, considering the era's sexual repression, this seductive and musky fragrance intoxicated the senses with fantasies built on exotic romance, of naked sultans in steamy baths in Turkish harems and boudoirs.
The Turkish bath became very popular in later nineteenth century England, with the concept introduced by a man called David Urquhart; a foreign diplomat and sometime Member of Parliament who had travelled extensively throughout Spain and Morocco.
In fact, a Turkish Bath had more in common with ancient Roman custom. It consisted of first sitting for some time inside  a ‘warm room’, heated by dry air to encourage perspiration. A spell in a second hotter room and the bather would be splashed and cooled in baths of colder water. After this he would enjoy an entire body wash, a massage, then relaxation. 

 An advertisement for the Southampton Turkish Bath

The Jermyn Street Baths also employed a resident tattooist who was known for his skill in producing artistic dragon designs, and ~ if the rumours can be believed ~ some of Queen Victoria’s sons were decorated in this manner after visiting the establishment.
What would their mother have thought of that? Perhaps she would have encouraged them to keep away from the Turkish baths and install a 'Quaker Cabinet' for their private use instead. 

With thanks to Malcolm Shifrin and information gleaned from his website: Victorian Turkish Baths: Their Origin, Development, And Gradual Decline.



The disturbing and immoral trade in human disability as a form of entertainment has been around for centuries, with physical 'curiosities' being displayed in circuses or travelling fairs. However, during the nineteenth century, such exhibits became so popular that permanent venues were established. London had the Egyptian Hall. In New York, P T Barnum set up his famed American Museum. 

Oh, how the Victorians loved a freak show - and although in the present day such an interest seems  sordid and exploitative there is no doubt that some performers were happy to be involved. Ironically, the 'protection' of the stage offered a degree of security and peace, whereas the reality of the outside world could be hostile and very cruel. The acts could also make good money. By the late 1890’s some of the most successful performers could earn as much as £20 a week – the equivalent of well over £1000 today.

Most productions depended on the skill of the manager or showman to draw in the paying crowds. Printed advertisements would stir up curiosity, although when witnessed in the flesh the wonders they boasted of could well lead to disappointment.

The mermaid in this poster above would actually be created by the arts of the taxidermist. Rather than seeing a lovely woman, the audience would be faced with the stuffed head and torso of a monkey attached to the body of a fish. 

There was quite a craze for displays of these Feejee Mermaids, more of which you can read about in a previous blog post. You'll also find this particular freak featured in the V V's Victorian gothic novel,  Elijah's Mermaid.

But there were also some performers who became so notorious they needed  little promotion; souch as Chang and Eng, the Siamese twin brothers linked at the chest by a thick band of skin.

Midgets were always a lure, sometimes appearing in groups or ‘troops’ in which they'd dance and sing, or perform as acrobats. One of the most famed of the little men was the American General Tom Thumb who travelled with P T Barnum’s show and proved to be so popular he was invited to meet Queen Victoria.

Barnum and Tom Thumb

Miss Rosina was another favourite. Appearing all over Europe, she was invited into aristocratic and royal homes. Despite having no hands or fingers she managed to crotchet by using her feet, and was said to produce fine paintings by holding a brush between her lips.

For more information the VV recommends John Woolf's marvellous book, The Wonders.

Below are some posters developed to advertise freak shows, and which form part of a collection now held at the British Library.