Two Paupers in Victorian Edinburgh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few years ago, one of my Scottish cousins decided to delve into the murky waters of family history. For a time, I received regular emails from him, dispatches containing faded and torn photos of long-dead relatives; biographies pieced together from birth and death certificates, and short sad notes on the lives of the working poor in Edinburgh. Most of my Scottish forebearers—candlemakers, housepainters, laundresses—worked hard and struggled to make ends meet in Edinburgh’s tenements. I long suspected as much. But my through my cousin’s research, I learned something unexpected and disturbing: two of my relatives died as paupers in a Victorian workhouse.

I began thinking about this again this week, for the literary world is just now beginning to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, a novelist who knew all about the social injustices of Victorian England. As a boy, Dickens saw his insolvent father taken away to debtors’ prison: Dickens was then forced to leave school and work in a blacking factory. The experience opened the young novelist’s eyes to the plight of the poor, a world that later populated his novels.

In 1850, at the height of his fame, Dickens paid a visit to a London workhouse where as many as 2000 paupers resided. In a grim piece of non-fiction writing entitled “A Walk in a Workhouse,” he later described the experience.

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Absinthe and the Corpse Reviver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1930, the legendary bartender Harry Craddock prescribed a popular cure for revellers who stumbled into London’s Savoy Hotel for breakfast and complained of throbbing hangovers. Craddock had fled Prohibition in the States in 1920 and found work at the American Bar in the Savoy, and he knew a thing or two about the ailments of his customers. To ease their pain, he invented a classic cocktail with an unforgettable name—Corpse Reviver #2. Then he published the recipe in a book that bartenders still cherish today: The Savoy Cocktail Book.

This cocktail is a particular favorite of mine—with its pallid greenish hue, its ingenuous blending of slightly tart ingredients, and a name guaranteed to warm the heart of any archaeology writer. But how wise is it to down a drink whose ingredient list includes absinthe, a herbal concoction first blended by a French physician in 1789 as a tonic and later condemned and outlawed by legislators in Europe and the United States as a poisonous social evil? Absinthe, after all, contains oil of wormwood, Artemesia absinthium. Its active ingredient, thujone, is a known natural insecticide.

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