Saturday, 24 September 2016

Chapter 8: “What luxury to have such a beautiful woman attend to me in such an intimate manner!”

A glass harp

Molloy is annoyed at Edith's making musical notes from her filled water glass and refers to the glass harmonica.  In fact, what he describes is really a glass harp, a predecessor of the glass harmonica invented by Richard Pockrich in the 1740s.  Using wet fingers on the rims of glasses filled with different quantities of water to make musical notes was a technique known since the Renaissance. 

A glass harmonica

Having seen one of these glass harps played in Cambridge (England) Benjamin Franklin invented, in 1761, a vertical arrangement of glass bowls rather than using the horizontally placed glasses and called it the glass armonica.  Incidentally, this use of the word harmonica predates the mouth organ by some sixty years. Mozart, Beethoven and Saint-Saens (the Carnival of the Animals contains a part for glass harmonica) all wrote music for the glass harmonica.  The instrument pretty much disappeared after the end of the eighteenth century, probably because it could not generate enough noise to be heard in large concert halls.  There were also (unfounded) rumours that playing it made people go mad because of the plaintive sound the instrument made or that (equally unfounded) that the lead in the glass poisoned the players.

The Royal Academy's Hanging Committee

Edith Challenor's idea of having a committee to assess which inhabitants of London may parade naked on the streets is likened to the Hanging Committee of the Royal Academy.  When it was established in 1768 one of its key objectives was to provide an annual exhibition and the first exhibition took place the following year.  Any artist may submit works to be judged by the committee and today about 10% of those paintings submitted are accepted for display in the exhibition at the Academy in Piccadilly.  Agent Triple P had a picture accepted some decades ago!  The idea of an attractiveness committee was also suggested by the fact that three towns on the Italian Riviera, in 1993, banned fat women from wearing bikinis and enforced an arbitrary vital statistics measurement to ensure unpleasant figures didn't spoil the beaches!

Molloy worries about the cost of his hotel bill at the Great Northern but relaxes when he is given £100.  A set menu lunch or dinner at a London hotel at the time would have been about three shillings (twenty shillings to the pound) a head.  A room at a really top hotel like the Ritz would have been about £3 a night. A lesser domestic servant or an office clerk would have earned around £250-£350 a year.  The five pound notes he is given had not changed in appearance very much since they were first issued in 1793 and continued in circulation until as late as 1961.  These were very large notes; 212 mm in length and 134 mm in width (about nine by five inches).

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Chapter 7 "I see that you have brought your drawing things!"

The Great Northern Hotel circa 1900

This chapter is almost entirely set within the Great Northern Hotel at King's Cross, London.  Opened in 1854 it was the first purpose built railway hotel in the world. It was designed by civil engineer Lewis Cubitt (1799-1883), the younger brother of Thomas Cubitt, London's principal contractor in the second half of the nineteenth century. His other brother was Sir William Cubitt, the chief engineer of the Crystal Palace.  Lewis also designed adjoining King's Cross station but spent much of his career building bridges in South America, Africa and Australia.

Lewis Cubitt

King's Cross (so called after a monument to George IV demolished in 1845) was built in 1851-52 and Cubitt's elegantly simple design was partly modelled on the Moscow Riding Academy.

King's Cross Station 1852

King's Cross today

For many years the original facade was obscured by a modern (1972) extension but this was removed in 2012, revealing Cubitt's original design once more.

The Great Northern Hotel (far left) and King's Cross Station (centre) in about 1910

The Great Northern Hotel today

The Great Northern Hotel recently was extensively renovated to top five star standards and looks, from the outside at least, very much as it did in 1912 when our story is set.

The first en suite bathrooms at a hotel appeared just two years before our period, in 1910, with the opening of the Goring Hotel in London. Flush toilets only started to appear in the 1860s and all toilets and bathrooms were shared.  Hotels had to employ an army of staff to provide hot water in jugs and empty chamber pots regularly until en suite bathrooms became the norm in the 1930s   Hotel rooms would have been equipped with washstands, usually with marble tops on which sat a ewer (a large jug of water) and a bowl for washing.  Triple P has stayed in French provincial hotels equipped like this as late as the early eighties.  

Underneath would be a cabinet which held a chamber pot for use when a visit to the toilet outside the room was not convenient.  After use pots would be put back in the washstand with the lid on (nearly all antique chamber pots for sale these days are missing their lids) to be collected by the maid the next morning.