18 January 2018


Edward Welch. Captain Cuttle's Mailbag: History, Folklore & Victorian Pedantry From the Pages of 'Notes and Queries'. Laboratory Books, 2017.

Notes and Queries was a weekly journal first published on Saturday 3 November 1849 in London by William J. Thoms (1803-1885), a British writer and antiquary. In 1845 he was appointed Clerk, and subsequently Deputy Librarian, to the House of Lords. He is credited with originating the term 'folklore' in 1846, when he wrote a column under that title in the Athenaeum magazine.
He was then encouraged to establish his own publication reflecting his many varied interests. The primary intention was to provide a forum for readers to ask or answer any questions of interest. No subject was too odd or obscure. Its title has survived to this day as a quarterly journal published by the Oxford University Press, nowadays with a narrower focus mainly for serious scholars of English Language and Literature, lexicography, history and antiquarianism.

The title of this compilation comes from the motto that appeared on the masthead of the magazine from its inception: "When found, make a note of" - a saying of Captain Cuttle, a lovable hook-handed character in Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son. Cuttle invited his hearers to verify the accuracy of his half-remembered quotations, and then make a note so as not to forget.

Thoms intended the magazine to serve as "everybody's common-place book" in which "those who meet with facts worthy of preservation may record them". Those were the 'Notes', and the 'Queries' could be about almost anything that aroused the curiosity of the reader. In many ways it was a forerunner of the present day online forums, noticeboards, chatrooms, Twitter and Wikipedia, where information and experiences could be shared and expanded.

"When found, make a note of" - a saying of Captain Cuttle, a lovable hook-handed character in Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son.

In the Prospectus for his forthcoming publication in 1849, Thoms gave good reasons why there was a need for it, epitomised by this sentence: "How often is even the best informed writer stopped by an inability to solve some doubt or understand some obscure allusion which suddenly starts up before him!" This syndrome is well-known to Magonian book reviewers, such as myself, who find endless queries arising from the material under review, leading to prolonged diversions of research and tangents of enquiry that never seem to be fully satisfied. No wonder our reviews are often delayed, for there always may be something to add. This is, of course, the very nature of the human mind at any time. 

The Victorian era of the 1840s was a time of hunger for knowledge and progress, such as in the development of science, industry, and railways. The Uniform Penny Post had in fact been implemented in 1840, so that from and to anywhere in Great Britain or Ireland one might post a letter for only one penny, using a prepaid stamp, with a very speedy and reliable delivery. This is what facilitated the success of Notes and Queries. It must have seemed excitingly modern and advanced in 1849, the opening of a new frontier in communication. Although the magazine initially was comprised of sixteen pages of small type with no illustrations, and the first queries were supplied by members of Thoms' own inner circle, it caught the public mood. Soon it achieved a wide readership and letters with notes, queries and replies were flooding into the editorial offices in Fleet Street.

Welch's selections are all taken from the First Series of Notes and Queries (1849-55) and comprise a rich variety of topics. The general headings are: Anecdotes of History, Relics of Folklore, Language and Literature, and Scientific Investigations, presented in a format that lends itself to browsing. It is an ideal book for the bedside table, or perhaps the smallest room of the house for those who like to linger there. I found it to be a delightful book to take on public transport journeys and read in short instalments. There is a wealth of amusement to be had, and no shortage of obscure facts and anecdotes that impinge on the mind for future use in conversation. Things you would never have thought of are here, such as the use of mice as medicine, or the staggering voracity of a hedgehog's appetite.

I learned about some old English customs that would be utterly unthinkable in this present age. In ancient times when a sale of land was contracted there would be twelve adult witnesses to the deed, and twelve boys who would be beaten and have their ears pulled "so that the pain thus inflicted upon them should make an impression upon their memory and that they might if necessary be called on as witnesses." At the moment of a public execution boys might be similarly chastised for no other reason than to impress the spectacle in their memory as a deterrent against any tendency to criminal behaviour.

There are bizarre but true tales such as the case of a man known to be a glutton who died as a result of eating a poisoned sandwich left in his path by a neighbour who hated him. Or you can learn how to roast eggs in the ashes of a fire, or how country people and Gypsies loved to cook and eat common snails. Then there are amusing anecdotes, such as the one about the common belief of poor people in Sussex that you could not die while lying in a bed stuffed with feathers. One country yokel was berated by an urban sophisticate about the absurdity of such a belief. He countered with the case of a neighbour he knew who had suffered unbearably on his death bed without the relief of death - until a local wise man realised his bed was stuffed with feathers. So they took him out of the bed and put him on the floor, where he soon died.

Under the sub-heading of 'Old Titles of Books in Former Times' are some of the most hilarious yet ever so earnest: A Most Delectable Sweet Perfumed Nosegay for God's Saints to Smell At; Hooks and Eyes for Believers' Breeches; High-heeled Shoes for Dwarfs in Holiness; Crumbs of Comfort for the Chickens of the Covenant; A Sigh of Sorrow for the Sinners of Zion, breathed out of a Hole in the Wall of an Earthly Vessel, known among Men by the Name of Samuel Fish; The Spiritual Mustard-Pot, to make the Soul sneeze with Devotion; and A Shot aimed at the Devil's Headquarters through the Tube of the Cannon of the Covenant.

My favourite section was the final subheading, 'Advertisements'. The first entry is a bold claim to teach the art of drawing and copying, portraits, wood engravings, etc. in one lesson. For such a set of skills that otherwise might take years to acquire, you simply had to send twelve postage stamps. The text of the ad is followed by a much longer sarcastic complaint to the Editor from a disgruntled customer. All he had received was a filthy piece of tracing paper with the instruction to place it before the image to be reproduced. Quite reasonably, he questioned how he was supposed to place it before a landscape for tracing, or lay it over his wife's face to make a portrait without her nose making a hole in the middle of it. The editor's response is not recorded.

You can read genuine advertisements, written with the utmost deference and politeness, that promise you the physical remedy to deafness, baldness, grey hair (with any permanent colour dye you might wish and a section of your hair dyed for no charge with no obligation), pamphlets that would provide the remedy to depression, nervousness and anxiety (often giving the name and address of a Rev. to allay any further anxiety of trusting a stranger).... and so on.

Captain Cuttle's Mailbag is a very mixed bag indeed. And I loved going through it. I think you would too. -- Kevin Murphy

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