Standing on a fringed stool, the girl wears a check skirt, dark blue blouse and a red sash. On her head, a tilted cockade hat. She has button eyes. She holds out food to a parrot that is perched on a clock face surrounded by grapes and vine leaves. A slightly deranged-looking Staffordshire dog rolls its eyes in the foreground. The time is forever 11:17.



Figure of girl with clock face, parrot and Staffordshire dog

I pounced on this “flatback” figure in a Devon charity shop. It is not a thing of outstanding beauty. The under-glaze painting is crude, the girl’s nose is slightly damaged, and the whole thing might be what one antique shop I noticed calls “faux-Staffordshire.”


The figure, however, speaks to me of several relevancies to my research, in which I explore the meanings of both parrots and Staffordshire dogs . The grapes tell of a wish for the exotic. The non-clock speaks of poverty, the desire for a real timepiece assuaged by the purchase of a cheap ornament that possesses the idea of a clock. The whole object also reminds me of how colourful nineteenth-century mantelpieces would have been.



In the late summer of 2015 I spent a pleasurable couple of hours in Ghent’s MIAT museum of industry and technology. On my way back into the city centre I passed an antiques centre, doing desultory business on a warm and sleepy Sunday afternoon. In a display of vintage railway rolling stock I noticed a single wagon that I could afford to buy – an O gauge (1:45) tipper wagon manufactured by Marklin in Germany before 1946. I handed over €15 and carried on, triumphant.

The wagon is a relatively crude representation of its original. It is made from tinplate, held together by tabs fitted through slots and bent over. The body of the wagon is held upright by a simple U-shaped double-ended rod that if moved from its upright position allows the body to tip sideways, dumping its load (presumably into some form of hopper). The wagon’s scarred paintwork shows evidence of a fair degree of use. Beneath the truck’s body is a label in several languages indicating where it should be oiled.

The wagon is firstly a personal souvenir of Ghent, something that will trigger memories of my visit. It also has a number of other meanings for me, as its collector. It will join a small number of other railway artefacts on display in my study, including a much smaller tipper wagon in HO9 scale (1:87). This collection is evidence of a continuing interest in miniature railways and of a so far frustrated dream of constructing a model railway of my own. As a tinplate railway artefact it also reminds me of the long-lost Hornby O gauge clockwork railway my brothers and I would construct around the floor of our bedroom, the track winding amongst the legs of our beds.

The wagon, despite being of a reasonable size, is hugely simplified. This reflects the limits of affordable technologies at the time of its design and manufacture. A present-day example would use plastic  or metal casting techniques allowing much more accurate detailing. These are, in their turn, being replaced and refined by 3D printing technologies that will eventually no doubt become so commonplace that they will allow low-cost replication of almost any original. Yet the relatively crude Marklin wagon still has its attractions.

Despite its simplicity, when it was created the wagon would have satisfied the demands of its target purchaser. It was robust enough to be handled roughly and used on track that was usually located on the floor. It had a semi-automated action (a trackside trigger would strike the lever to operate the tipping action). Clockwork trains had limited controls, so derailments, both accidental and deliberate, were frequent, so rolling stock had to be robust. And perhaps for reasons, some of which might be similar to my own, these inaccurate, battered objects are still loved, and enthusiastically and sometimes obsessively collected.

In 2011, not long after I gained my MA, I received an email from one of my ex-lecturers. He was putting together a book on nineteenth century material culture in  Britain and one of his authors had dropped out because of a family tragedy. Could I write something in six weeks? I bashed out something resembling a chapter, and by the fifth draft had met his deadline. One reviewer was a bit sniffy, which was a somewhat depressing experience for a novice like me, but after adding a little more evidential stuff my contribution passed muster. I sorted illustrations and permissions, and sat back to await publication. And waited. And waited.

Yesterday a copy thumped through my letter box.

Of course, since writing that chapter I’ve gone on to continue my research, and my thinking has expanded and evolved over the four years. So it is slightly uncomfortable to read what I wrote in 2011. I wasn’t wrong, but now I could add many new discoveries, new nuances, new experiences and new questions. Perhaps this feeling is familiar to established researchers and academics, and I guess what I publish next year (at least in hard-copy print) will also be almost immediately out of date. And perhaps I am over-accustomed to this digital sharing of thoughts, in which I can suggest something one day and change my mind the next. Hmm. And it makes me think of all the articles, papers and chapters I’ve cited and wonder if some of those authors have changed their thinking over subsequent years and, in some cases, decades. Interesting…


In 1853, Queen Victoria bought three objects from an “Italian Boy”. I wonder if they arrested in the Royal Collection, probably in some dusty store room?

Morning Post 21-07-1853 p3

Research is usually great fun. I am simply an ultra-curious detective, poking about all sorts of messy evidence until I stumble across something that I can add to my store of narratives, rather like a jackdaw pouncing on something shiny to weave into its nest. But occasionally i come across something that I desperately want to identify but can’t, and here’s an example.

In 1939, C Gardel wrote an article in the French journal Folklore, in which he described the cries of street traders of Bize during the nineteenth century. Here’s what he wrote about the “sellers of  beautiful saints”:

Le marchand de statuettes de Saints de plâtre, vêtu d’une longue blouse blanche, étalait ses modèles sur un éventaire à rebords bien équilibré sur sa tête. Le petit Saint-Jean, la Vierge, la Sainte-Famile, etc., s’alignaient à côté des tirelires «dinhèirolos» à couleurs vives : tomates, pommes, des jouets naïfs:canaris, petits lapins blancs à collier pointillé de rouge, dans lequel balançait la tête.

“Santi belli, belli !” annonçait sa voix trainante, et, en un clin d’oeil, un essaim de jeunes mamans, bébé sur le bras, s’empressait autour du modeleur italien. Et ce n’étaient que cris de joie et petits bras tendus vers ces fragiles merveilles, jouets d’un jour, dont les mamans, aïeules aujourd’hui, n’ont pas perdu le souvenir.

I’ve managed to apply my schoolboy French combined with Google Translate and have made sense of all of this except for the word dinhèirolos, which has so far defeated the entire Internet! That doesn’t happen very often these days. Was it cod-Italian? Bad Portuguese? I’m horribly frustrated, not knowing what these brightly-coloured objects were! Some sort of piggy-bank? Grrr!

Carrying out research is hard work, but occasionally I stumble across something that makes me laugh. In my searching through newspapers for stories concerning figurine (“image”) sellers I found this wonderful 1832 story:


At the Mansion-house, on Saturday, M. Pierre De Bois, a French gentleman, who resides in Chambers in Leadenhall-street, was summoned before the Lord Mayor for beating Rafoel Spaglietti, an image-seller, and breaking a very fine bust of Napoleon Buonaparte. It appeared that the Italian went up stairs to the defendant’s room door, at the top of which there was glass; he raised up the head of the image, which was made of pale clay, to the glass, and said softly, “buy my ghost of Napoleon.” M. De Bois, who had known the Emperor, thought he saw his ghost, and exclaiming, “Oh, Christ, save us!” fell on the floor in a fit. The Italian, seeing no chance of a sale that day, went away, and returned the next. M. De Bois, in the meantime, having recovered from his fit, and hearing how his terror had been excited, felt so indignant, the the moment he saw Spaglietti at his door the next day he flew at him, and tumbled him and the Emperor down stairs together. It happened that a confectioner’s man was at that moment coming up stairs with a giblet pie, to a Mr. Wilson, who resided in the Chambers, and the Emperor and Italian, in their descent, alighted on his tray, which broke their fall, and saved the Italian’s head, but could not save Napoleon’s, which was totally destroyed: the giblet pie also suffered so much from the collision, that Mr. Wilson refused to have anything to do with it. After a good deal of explanation amongst the parties, and a good deal of laughter amongst the auditors, M. De Bois agreed to pay for the pie, and Mr. Wilson generously paid for the loss of the Emperor.

[The Morning Chronicle, Monday January 16th 1832]

My next few entries are going to focus on a group of itinerant hawkers who originated in the Lucca commune in Italy. I’m going to begin with a taster, a poem written by someone identified only as “Upton” and published in The Universal Songster or Museum of Mirth Volume III, London, 1826:

O, YE who can feel for the offspring of grief,
Give ear to an alien, that sues for relief,
From the cravings of hunger and outcast defend,
Bereft of a parent, relation or friend:
Pity, pity a stranger, debarred of all joy,
A destitute, wandering Italian Boy.

Seduced from a land to the sciences dear,
A poor distressed foreigner crawls about here;
His hope and dependence for lodging and bread,
The image, “fine image,” he bears on his head:
Pity, pity a stranger, debarred of all joy,
A destitute, wandering Italian Boy.

“What matters,” he cries, “all the grandeur I see?
The world is a desart and winter to me;
To scorn and reproach, I am doomed to appear,
No shield, no protector to succour me here.
Pity, pity a stranger, debarred of all joy,
A destitute, wandering Italian Boy.”

Ye Britons, with freedom for ages renowned,
With beauty and unrivalled, and valour-deeds crowned,
Give ear to a foreigner’s sorrowful strain,
And snatch him from misery, insult, and pain.
Pity, pity a stranger, debarred of all joy,
A destitute, wandering Italian Boy.

The Italian Boys sold “fine images”, figurines, miniatures, which they carried on planks of wood, balanced on their heads, hence my excitement!

So far I’ve not found anything about the writer, Upton, but the Italian Boys were apparently familiar enough not to need much explanation.

More follows…