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By Stewart Emmens on

The 12 Days Of Christmas (well Sort Of)…Part 2

Here’s the second installment of our festive 4-parter – the 12 days of Christmas re-worked with items from our collections. Beware it gets a little dark in part 2…

Four Calling Birds

Canary cage
Canary cage carried by coal miners, c1951 (Science Museum)

‘Calling’ is actually a variation on ‘colly’ or ‘collie’, which are derived from colliery. These words are associated with soot or coal dust, so we’re really looking at four blackbirds. Not that they would be of much use in a colliery. The most valuable bird for miners was the canary. 

Ultra-sensitive to dangerous gases like methane, canaries were carried underground in small cages and watched closely for any signs of distress that might indicate danger. Cages were often simple wooden affairs, so this example represented the height of canary comfort. The use of these tiny yellow birds in British mines only ended in 1986

Five Gold Rings!

Memento mori ring
Gold memento mori ring, 1700s (Science Museum)

Wearing a gold ring has symbolised many things. A mark of social standing and wealth, an indicator of marital status, even absolute power over the free peoples of Middle Earth… 

It’s also been a symbol of death, grieving and remembrance – a form of memento mori. Worn to commemorate a loved one, but also to remind the wearer of their own mortality. Such rings were particularly popular in Europe from the mid-1600s to the early 1900s.  The example above is in memory of Augusta Bruce. Her story is lost to time, but the design on the ring (the inscription ‘Nipt in the bud’ against a white background) suggest that sadly her life was a short one.

Six Geese a Laying!

Artificial nose
Metal artificial nose, c.1600s (Science Museum)

Geese have long been a favourite choice for the traditional Christmas meal. But for several centuries a very different kind of ‘goose’ was popular in parts of south London. The so-called ‘Winchester Geese’ were prostitutes working in Southwark, an area once regulated through the Bishop of Winchester

It was a dangerous occupation. Being ‘bitten by a Winchester goose’ meant catching the deadly disease syphilis, with ‘goose bumps’ slang for the symptoms. In its latter stages, syphilis can lead to the disintegration and loss of the nose – a state that this metal replacement did its crude best to conceal.

Parts 3 and 4 to follow…

2 comments on “The 12 Days Of Christmas (well Sort Of)…Part 2

  1. I believe an area of riverside Southwark was called “The Bishop of Winchester’s Leisure”, and prostitution, bull baiting, bear baiting and dog fights earned the Bishop a tidy income

  2. It’s certainly true that the activities permitted in this once notorious area seem somewhat at odds with what you might have expected under a Bishop’s jurisdiction. And you could add gambling and cock-fighting to Marcus’s list. There seems a particular hypocrisy in the raking in of money via prostitution with the one hand, while denying those same prostitutes a burial in consecrated ground with the other. The remains of many of these women still lie buried nearby in the disused Cross Bones burial ground.

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