Archive for August 5, 2013


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At 200ft high, 500ft long and 100ft wide, York Minster is difficult to miss. It remains the tallest structure in the city, dominating the skyline since 1472, but it is not the be all and end all of what the countys historical capital has to offer. York is crammed literally in the case of Shambles with fascinating ephemera and long lasting cultural gems. There are museums, attractions, shops, restaurants, pubs and magnificent architecture at every turn, but not all are as obvious at the minster.
Some, like the Micklegate Bar Museum and Richard III Museum, are tucked away up on the city walls away from the direct gaze of pavement-bound visitors.
The former is often described as one of Yorks best-kept secrets despite being located at one of the busiest entry points to the city and is a great jumping off point (not literally) for a walk along the city walls.
Micklegate Bar has stood guard over the main road from York to London for around 800 years and, to this day, whenever a royal party pays an official visit to the city they pass through this gate. Thankfully, they are no longer greeted by traitors heads adorning the battlements, but the whole gory story is still laid out in glorious technicolour most of it blood-red inside.
The Richard III Museum, lovingly created and run by history impresario Mike Bennett, is located further along the wall in the imposing gateway to Monk Bar, the only one of Yorks four gateways with a working portcullis.
Like many of the citys hidden gems, the museum doesnt rely on high-tech displays and interactive jiggery-pokery to attract visitors, leaning heavily instead on dramatic reconstructions and well-researched information to encourage guests to make up their own minds about this controversial king. Was he an evil, hunchbacked monster who brutally murdered the princes in the tower, or a loyal, courageous ruler, unfairly maligned by historians? You decide.
Richard didnt rule for long, but he packed a lot in, said Mike who, perhaps not surprisingly, has a distinct liking for Britains most notorious monarch. He was undoubtedly a controversial figure, but he died a heroic death. Ive always been quite pro-Richard, which probably explains why I do what I do.
Mike grabbed the crucial Monk Bar location when the lease came up without any real idea of what he was going to fill the space with. He eventually focused in on his passion for history and particular interest in Richard III, launching his ambitious project with more enthusiasm than funding.
I think were pretty well supported by the council and the people of York, he said. But I do get envious of larger concerns in the city. I run this place myself with no real resources and I dont get any funding from anyone. But Ive always liked working for myself to be honest, I dont think I could do anything else now.
York has more than its fair share of fascinating, although not always grand, houses that can be overlooked by visitors on a mission to tick off all the biggies on their to-see list. Margaret Clitherows house, for instance, is a tiny place in Shambles, transformed from a former butchers shop into a peaceful shrine to this selfless Roman Catholic who sheltered persecuted priests in the 16th century and was deliberately crushed to death for her trouble.
Other notable houses include Barley Hall, a meticulously restored medieval townhouse tucked away down an atmospheric ginnel; Mansion House, which has been home to the various lord mayors of York since 1725; Treasurers House, famous for its ghosts a company of Roman soldiers who appeared through the cellar wall in 1953 and its tearoom (maybe the legionnaires were just peckish); and Merchant Adventurers Hall, which has stood largely untouched for more than 600 years.

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Knocker-Up

Knocker-up

A Knocker-up was a profession in England and Ireland that started during and lasted well into the Industrial Revolution, before alarm clocks were affordable or reliable. A knocker-up’s job was to rouse sleeping people so they could get to work on time. The knocker-up often used a long and light stick (often bamboo) to reach windows on higher floors. In return, the knocker-up would be paid a few pence a week for this job. The knocker-up would not leave a client’s window until they were assured the client had been awoken. This all leads to the obvious question: who knocks up the knocker-up?

Toad Doctor

Toad Doctor

Toad doctors were practitioners of a specific tradition of medicinal folk magic, operating in western England until the end of the 19th century. Their main concern was healing scrofula (then called “the King’s Evil,” a skin disease), though they were also believed to cure other ailments including those resulting from witchcraft. They cured the sick by placing a live toad, or the leg of one, in a muslin bag and hanging it around the sick person’s neck. Needless to say this job would also require growing or gathering up a large collection of toads, and in the case of doctors who used just the leg, chopping their legs off to give to their patient.

Dog Whipper

dog whipper

A dog whipper was a church official charged with removing unruly dogs from a church or church grounds during services. In some areas of Europe during the 16th to 19th centuries it was not uncommon for household dogs to accompany – or at least follow – their owners to church services. If these animals became disruptive it was the job of the dog whipper to remove them from the church, allowing the service to continue in peace. Dog whippers were usually provided with a whip (hence the title) or a pair of large wooden tongs with which to remove the animals. They were generally paid for their services, and records of payments to the local dog whipper exist in old parish account books in many English churches.

Resurrectionist

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In Britain, the crime of snatching a body was only a misdemeanor and so was punishable by a small fine only. This led to a huge industry in body snatching in order to provide corpses to the blossoming medical schools of Europe. One method the body-snatchers used was to dig at the head end of a recent burial, digging with a wooden spade (quieter than metal). When they reached the coffin (in London the graves were quite shallow), they broke open the coffin, put a rope around the corpse and dragged it out. They were often careful not to steal anything such as jewelry or clothes as this would cause them to be liable to a felony charge. During 1827 and 1828, some Edinburgh resurrectionists including Burke and Hare changed their tactics from grave-robbing to murder, as they were paid more for very fresh corpses. Their activities, and those of the London Burkers who imitated them, resulted in the passage of the Anatomy Act 1832. This allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy. This effectively ended the body snatching business.

Fuller

fuller

Fulling is a step in woollen clothmaking which involves the cleansing of cloth (particularly wool) to eliminate oils, dirt, and other impurities, and making it thicker. In days gone by, the fullers were often slaves. In Roman times, fulling was conducted by slaves standing ankle deep in tubs of human urine and cloth. Urine was so important to the fulling business that urine was taxed. Urine, known as ‘wash’, was a source of ammonium salts and assisted in cleansing and whitening the cloth. By the medieval period, fuller’s earth had been introduced for use in the process which ameliorated the process and removed the need for urine.

Whipping Boy

whipping boy

A whipping boy, in the 1600s and 1700s, was a young boy who was assigned to a young prince and was punished when the prince misbehaved or fell behind in his schooling. Whipping boys were established in the English court during the monarchies of the 15th century and 16th century. They were created because the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, which stated that kings were appointed by God, and implied that no one but the king was worthy of punishing the king’s son. Since the king was rarely around to punish his son when necessary, tutors to the young prince found it extremely difficult to enforce rules or learning. Whipping boys were generally of high birth, and were educated with the prince since birth. Due to the fact that the prince and whipping boy grew up together since birth, they usually formed an emotional bond. The strong bond that developed between a prince and his whipping boy dramatically increased the effectiveness of using a whipping boy as a form of punishment for a prince. The idea of the whipping boys was that seeing a friend being whipped or beaten for something that he had done wrong would be likely to ensure that the prince would not make the same mistake again.

Groom of the Stool

groom of the stool

The Groom of the Stool was a male servant in the household of an English monarch who, among other duties, “preside[d] over the office of royal excretion,” that is, he had the task of cleaning the monarch’s anus after defecation. In the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, the title was awarded to minions of the King, court companions who spent time with him in the Privy chamber. These were the sons of noblemen or important members of the gentry. In time they came to act as virtual personal secretaries to the King, carrying out a variety of administrative tasks within his private rooms. The position was an especially prized one, as it allowed one unobstructed access to the King’s attention. Despite being the official bum-wiper of the king, the Groom of the Stool had a very high social standing.

Gong Farmer

gong farmer

A gong farmer or gongfermor was the term used in Tudor England for a person who removed human excrement from privies and cesspits, gong being another word for dung. Gong farmers were only allowed to work at night and the waste they collected, known as night soil, had to be taken outside the city or town boundaries. As flushing water closets became more widely used, the profession of gong farming disappeared. A latrine or privy was the toilet of the Middle Ages. A gong farmer dug out the cesspits and emptied the excrement. Gong farmers were only allowed to work between 9 pm and 5 am, and were permitted to live only in certain areas, for reasons that should not be too elusive. Due to the noxious fumes produced by human excrement, coroners’ reports exist of gong farmers dying of asphyxiation. This was obviously a shit job to have.