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and academics, and I guess what I publish next year (at least in hard-copy print) will also be almost immediately out of date.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…

I moved into a new (old) house in Crossgates (or Cross Gates – no-one can decide which is correct) three weeks ago. As an archaeologist, I regard a house as an archaeological project, and I have spent many a midnight hour researching where I’ve lived and even more time sifting the earth in various gardens. What I found in my last home can be seen on my Fires of Prometheus web pages.

But now I have a new archaeological site to explore. The house was built in 1900, so just scrapes into being Victorian, and was constructed on what had been open fields. The other day I began work in the garden, digging an area that had been covered with pebbles, gravel and a sheet of polythene and which is to become my vegetable patch.

At first all I found were earthworms, grumpy at being disturbed,  couch grass roots and a golf tee. Not very exciting. But (typically) when I had almost finished for the day, I found a bisque doll’s arm.

doll_arm_1aJust under four centimetres long, the arm would have been sewn, along with the head and other limbs, to a fabric, stuffed body. These ceramic artefacts are forming an important element of my PhD research, so I was quietly thrilled to have discovered one in my own back yard!

I’m going to blog about my experiences as I explore my home archaeologically. I’m going to call my blog, rather unimaginatively, Place, and I’ll put a link here as soon as it’s live.


On Saturday, at the 2013 Manchester Metropolitan University Postgraduate Conference, my poster hung alongside 18 others, which were divided pretty equally into posters that were better than mine (some a lot better), and others that made the same mistakes as me, but more of them!

My self-criticism of my poster, which was echoed by some of my fellow students, is that I tried to fit too much text into a medium that people are only going to browse for…what…about five minutes at most.  As someone who tends towards the verbose anyway, attempting to say too much in too little space or too short a time is a major fault. I am accustomed to watching people’s eyes glaze over as I burble enthusiastically on, leaving my “elevator pitch” far behind. Next time I’m going to be a lot more disciplined in cutting the copy to the minimum required to get my message across.

I think those who did stop and peruse at least some of my text enjoyed what they read and saw, and the overall design wasn’t bad, if a little bottom-heavy and again rather crowded. And the poster initiated some great conversations with fellow researchers, which I guess is the real purpose behind such an activity.

So my instruction to myself whenever I create a poster in future  is: “Cut the crap!”


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