Category: history

It’s one of the world’s most famous diamonds. Millions of visitors gawp at a replica of it at the Tower of London each year. But the Koh-i-noor isn’t just a sparkly old rock. According to the legend whomever owns the diamond rules the world. And there is, of course, also a curse.

The Koh-i-noor is said to cause men to “know all the world’s misfortunes”. Supposedly only “God or women” can wear it safely and, according to the internet, it’s only ever been worn by female members of the British royal family.

But the diamond hasn’t always been British. There are many different tales about where and when it was found. According to Indian legends it was mined 5000 years ago near the Krishna River. And during its long history it has travelled from ruler to ruler.

In the 16th century it was said to have been in the possession of Babur, the founder of the Muslim Mughal Empire and a descendant of Genghis Khan. In the 18th century it was taken to Persia where the diamond got its current name. The Shah of Persia, is alleged to have exclaimed “Koh-i-noor”, Persian for “mountain of light”, when he saw the diamond.

nadir shah

The Koh-i-noor brought the Shah great wealth. It was part of the loot the Persian army brought back after a brutal attack on Delhi in 1739. The spoils of war were so impressive the Shah made everyone in the Empire tax exempt for three years. Eight years later the Shah was assassinated and his empire collapsed.

The diamond changed hands a couple of times after that, often accompanied by treachery and betrayal.

During the second Anglo-Sikh war, the British annexed the Punjab and took the diamond as part of the peace treaty. It became the property of Queen Victoria in 1849.

queen victoria

At first the Brits and their Queen weren’t that happy with the diamond. They thought it had a “rough” appearance (it didn’t sparkle). The Prince Consort, Albert, had it recut, getting rid of 42 percent of its weight in the process. When the re-cut diamond was shown to it’s previous owner, the Maharaja Duleep Singh, he was supposedly unable to speak for several minutes.

the koh-i-noor

Since becoming independent in 1947 India has been trying to get the diamond back and the British government has rejected several requests. Perhaps it fears that it would be the start of a deluge. On a visit to India in 2010 the then prime minister David Cameron said “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum will be empty”.

The Koh-i-noor isn’t the only thing the British took during their time of ruling over 13 millions square miles of the world. The Elgin Marbles from Greece and the Rosetta Stone are other examples of things in British museums other countries want back.

Diamonds. ... Extracted from Macmillan's Magazine. ... With a note on the Imperial State Crown and its Jewels, by J. Tennant

The Koh-i-noor will stay where it is for now and perhaps it isn’t worth reflecting too hard on what it has seen during the last centuries. Empires never collapse, after all, and strong leaders are never defeated.

history

It’s been called the first media circus. The country is at war and a huge storm hits London, overturning boats on the Thames and smashing windows, but what really mattered in the spring of 1762 was the ghost craze on Cock Lane.

You can visit the narrow alley today, a clean and sanitised short-cut between office blocks in Farringdon. Back in the 18th century it was a very different street near the infamous Smithfield market. The stench of cattle and blood must have hung in the air. Hundreds of animals were brought to Smithfield every week, some were sold and some were slaughtered. Before the cattle market the square had been the site of brutal executions. Over the centuries death burrowed its way into cobbled stones and the bricks around Smithfield.

In 1759 a young couple, William Kent and Fanny Lynes, moved in with the Parsons family on Cock Lane*. But all was not quite what it seemed with the youngsters. They weren’t married. Kent had in fact previously been married to Lynes’s sister, who had died in childbirth. The pair seems to have fallen in love after her death, but the laws at the time prevented them from marrying.

The Parsons were struggling to make ends meet, but offering the couple a room wasn’t the only way Richard Parsons, a church clerk with a drink habit, was able to buy rounds for his friends at the Wheat Sheaf. William Kent was a loan shark and lent Parsons twelve guineas.

A teenage girl and a ghost

The Parsons had two young daughters and Fanny Lynes struck up a friendship with twelve-year-old Betty. When Kent was away on one of his many business trips Fanny and Betty shared a bedroom on the first floor. And that’s when the hauntings started.

Knocks and scratches could be heard in the room, but no logical explanation could be found for the mysterious sounds. Fanny Lynes became convinced it was her dead sister come back to punish her for running away with Kent.

The noises and scratches became louder and more pervasive. Eventually Kent and Lynes were evicted from the house. It was a decisions that was set to have tragic consequences.

The heavily pregnant Fanny Lynes caught smallpox and died a few weeks before giving birth. The hauntings then intensified. Betty Parsons started suffering from convulsive fits. The Parsons decided to accuse William Kent of poisoning Fanny Lynes. It was now her ghost that haunted the house.

“Scratching Fanny”

Things escalated. The Parsons started charging for access to séances in the house. The ghost became known as “scratching Fanny”. Celebrities came. Rowdy, drunk séances were held night after night around Betty Parsons bed. William Kent tried to clear his name. Fanny Lyne’s coffin was disinterred and opened. The popular press took sides, some accused Kent of murder. Hundreds of people gathered on Cock Lane every night to get a glimpse of the ghost.

After much excitement it turned out Betty Parsons had been creating the sounds by beating her chest and knocking on a piece of wood under her bedclothes. She was taken away from her family to be examined by older male “experts”. Several people were jailed, among them Richard Parsons and his wife.

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“The most haunted country in the world”

I’ve been reading books about British ghosts. I’d stumbled across the saying “the English see more ghosts than any other people” and I wanted to find out more. Was there anything to the suggestion that England is the most haunted country in the world?

One of the best books that fell through my letterbox was “A Natural History of Ghosts” by journalist Roger Clarke. He’s had a life long fascination with all things spooky and became the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research. The Cock Lane ghost story is one of many in his book.

Clarke writes with both excitement and detachment about hauntings, séances and spooky legends of the British isles. He explores how both seeing and hunting ghosts has become important to the tourism industry in the UK. This is a country where the mention of a ghost might bring more visitors to a pub, a hotel or a castle. Perhaps that’s why the English see so many of them.

Nostalgia and boredom

Ghost sightings become more common in times of crisis. During the First World War some Brits had something called a time slip experience. People claimed to have seen an imprint of a more comfortable past, a manor that had burned down appeared to people who walked by the site at the right time of the night, the sounds of old parties echoed through time.

This hints at what is perhaps Clarke’s most interesting explanation of why the English see so many ghosts. Nostalgia and class.

“For most of the last few hundred years, only the upper and lower classes tended to believe in them. The middle classes have always deplored the idea of ghosts … Your middle-class sceptic would say that toffs like ghosts because it is a symptom of their decadence, the plebeians because they are ill-educated.

The twin polarities of the haunted British landscape make it clear: the haunted pub and the haunted stately home … If you were poor, it was because you hoped for the future; and if you were aristocratic and rich, it was because you trusted in the past.”

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*Yes readers with a dirty mind, I know this whole thing sounds like a ghost story from the Viz.

history London

In preparation for this summer’s great heatwave I’ve been reading about the the great stink, which occurred during two hot summer months in 1858. The stink happened because untreated human excrement and industrial waste was dumped into the Thames and then it just sat there. The stink was so bad parliament had to be evacuated and then, finally, it was decided that something had to be done about the sewers in the city.

Caricature;_Faraday_giving_his_card_to_Father_Thames._Wellcome_M0012507

London was a very different city back then. Here is one description:

In the century preceding 1856, over a hundred sewers were constructed in London, and at that date the city had around 200,000 cesspits and 360 sewers. Some cesspits leaked methane and other gases, which often caught fire and exploded, leading to loss of life, while many of the sewers were in a poor state of repair.

And here is another one:

Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface, even in water of this kind. … The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water; it was the same as that which now comes up from the gully-holes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer.

Eventually some genuinely lovely-looking sewage processing plants were built and the city was saved.

68e037baafed4c6be6f3cd603263c6b6 Image via That kind of woman.

I’m using the great stink as a coping strategy. Tomorrow it’s going to be thirty degrees, the day after will be even hotter. But at least that won’t happen again. I’m Nordic, my body hasn’t been conditioned to cope with anything hotter than 25 degrees. During scorching summer days I feel a strong urge to shut myself in a damp and cold earth cellar and wait for rain. But sometimes the heat is worth it for the thunderstorms that follow. I’ll be waiting for the day lightning flashes across the sky, the gutter outside our house floods and I can breathe again, thanks to those clever people who built the city sewers.

Everyday life history London