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More Merseyside Tales
By Ken Pye
The History PressCopyright © 2016 Ken Pye
All rights reserved.
The Naughty Nymphette of Neston
In 1765 on 26 April, Emily Lyon was born in Neston to the local blacksmith and his wife, and the family home still survives in the former fishing village. Emily's father died not long after his daughter's birth, leaving his widow and baby impoverished. So Mrs Lyon took her child to her hometown of Hawarden in North Wales, where she grew into a spirited, independent and astoundingly good-looking teenager with a very casual attitude towards sex and relationships. This meant that she was a challenge to bring up, but Emily was destined to have an interesting and unusual life.
When her daughter reached the age of 15 Emily's mother decided that she should go to London to seek her fortune. Here, she first took a position as a nursery maid, but soon met a failed medical student from Edinburgh by the name of James Graham (1745–94). He was impressed by her beauty and immediately offered Emily employment in his brand new 'Temple of Health', which he had opened in fashionable Pall Mall, in August 1779.
Here, and for a fee of 2 guineas, his patrons wandered through ornately furnished rooms festooned with glittering arrays of artificial flowers, and could also breathe in the heady, beeswax perfumed air. Throughout this curious establishment the sounds of delicate music could be heard, played on violins, harps, harpsichords, cymbals and tambourines. They could also listen to Graham delivering lectures on health and buy his patent medicines.
Patrons of the Temple of Health were also exposed to very scantily clad young men and women, including Emily (now known as 'Emma'), who were called 'Gods and Goddesses of Health' and wafted rhythmically in time to the music in and around the candlelit rooms and passageways. These creatures draped themselves provocatively against exotically coloured life-sized, nude, male and female Grecian and Romanesque statues. These young dancers were described by Graham as being 'examples of physical perfection' whose purpose was to encourage his clients to get into a more erotic mood!
By the end of 1780, the Temple of Health was so successful that Graham was turning away carriages from his door on a regular basis, and demand for his full range of services was in full swing. Customers were encouraged to experiment with strange contraptions and appliances described by Graham as 'medico-electrical apparatus'.
Amongst Graham's collection of pseudo medical equipment was the main attraction, his 'Electric Celestial Bed'.
Electricity had just been discovered and its use as a medical aid had become all the rage, especially amongst the 'idle rich' and those members of the rising middle classes who were particularly concerned about establishing a personal bloodline!
For a fee of £50 a night, couples seeking to produce children would undress and lie on the bed, then have various parts of their bodies wired up. They would be subjected to a series of 'stimulating electrical impulses and energising vibrations' that were said to be designed to 'encourage the libido and strengthen their amorous capacity'. Graham advertised that anyone who spent even one night in his 'medico, magnetic, musico, electrical bed' would be 'blessed with progeny', and 'sterility or impotence would be cured completely'.
A newspaper report of the day described the bed as:
A wonder-working edifice, 12 feet by 9 feet. Its mattress is filled with sweet, new-mown wheat and oat straw; mingled with balm, rose leaves, and lavender flowers; as well as with hair from the tails of fine English stallions.
Overhead is a domed canopy, covered in fresh flowers and animated, musical, mechanical figures.
Stimulating oriental fragrances and ethereal gases are released from a reservoir inside the dome, from which is suspended, above the passionate couples, a large mirror that allows lovers to observe themselves entwined in amorous abandon.
A tilting inner frame puts couples in the best position to conceive, and their movements set off music from organ pipes, which breathe out celestial sounds, whose intensity increases with the ardour of the bed's occupants.
So, the more you moved, the more the bed moved, and the more musical and perfumed it became. I don't know about you, but I would find all this a bit of a distraction really!
In the Temple of Health, Emma Lyon soon became renowned as the most special of Graham's beautiful bevvy of nubile young women, and was now titled the temple's 'Vestal Virgin'. Soon after taking up her position (if that is the most appropriate term!) at Graham's bizarre emporium, Emma became renowned about London and the Home Counties for her beauty, and she had no difficulty attracting suitors. These often titled gentlemen soon introduced her to a much more sophisticated lifestyle. In fact, before long she became the mistress of Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh (1754–1846) of Uppark. However, in 1781, and at the age of only 16, she became pregnant but Sir Harry refused to support her or the child; perhaps he doubted that the baby was actually his.
Fortunately for Emma, though, she was quickly taken as the mistress of Sir Charles Greville (1749–1809), the second son of the Earl of Warwick, but he insisted that her baby be sent back to the Wirral where it was then looked after by Emma's family. Sir Charles now improved his young lover's social skills, developed her education, and taught her how to sing, dance and act with some genuine talent. Emma now became the toast of London society and of the aristocracy, and she began to be invited to salons, levées, afternoon teas, weekend house parties, balls and the opera.
In 1784, and now aged 19, Emma was introduced to Charles Greville's uncle, Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803), who was the British ambassador to the Court of Naples. But, two years later and badly in debt, Greville reached an agreement with his wealthy and influential relative: in exchange for Hamilton settling all of Greville's debts, Emma was sent to Naples to become his uncle's mistress. This relationship was a surprising success and Emma began to make friends with the Neapolitan royal family. She also had quite some influence at court. In 1791, Emma and Sir William married, and the erstwhile exotic dancer from Neston became Lady Emma Hamilton. She was only 26 years old, whilst her husband was 60.
Then, in 1798, Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson (b. 1758) was visiting the King and Queen of Naples when Emma caught the sailor's eye (this was quite fortunate really as he only had one!). The popular and renowned naval officer and the still stunningly beautiful Emma were immediately drawn to each other. They fell deeply and passionately in love and began an affair. This very quickly became public knowledge as they were anything but discreet. However, the great naval hero was already married, and although this relationship had broken down Nelson's relationship with Lady Emma Hamilton, who was of course still very publicly married to Sir William, now grew into a great scandal. Even so, Sir William was amazingly compliant, knowing full well about his wife and Nelson.
In 1801, Emma Hamilton bore Nelson a daughter, whom they named Horatia. Even though their relationship outraged the public, because of Nelson's outstanding reputation and status in the country, British society pretended to find Emma and her affair with Nelson perfectly acceptable. But behind her back she was reviled and the subject of persistent and malicious gossip. Emma remained oblivious to this until Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar, on 21 October 1805. When the news was brought to her, Emma screamed and fell into a dead faint, and could not speak for almost a day. She later wrote, 'Life to me is not worth having. I lived for him. His glory I gloried in ... But I cannot go on. My heart and head are gone.'
In his will, Lord Nelson left Emma a small legacy of £800, and also as a 'bequest to the nation' asking that his friends, and British society, should continue to welcome and support her. However, society very quickly cast Emma aside and excluded her from the lifestyle that she had become so used to. The bereaved Emma soon found that she had many debts and the legacy was soon spent. In fact, by the spring of 1808, she owed more than £8,000.
In 1813, she was arrested for debt and spent time in the King's Bench Prison in Southwark, although because of young Horatia she was allowed to live in some very dismal rooms nearby. Emma was drinking heavily by now and was subject to long bouts of severe depression. In 1814, what friends she did have left had raised enough money to smuggle her and Horatia, now aged 13, to Calais in France. Here, they lived in cramped and poor lodgings where, according to Horatia, her mother spent the days lying on her bed drinking herself into a stupor – but not for long. In 1815 and at the age of only 50, Emma Lyon, the former exotic dancer from Neston and one-time Lady Hamilton, died an alcoholic in dire poverty, probably of cirrhosis of the liver. She was buried in the local church of St Pierre in Calais, which later became the Parc Richelieu. Here, in 1994, a memorial was erected to this tragic woman from the Wirral.CHAPTER 2
The Goddess Minerva
On the top of the dome of Liverpool's grand and glorious Town Hall, with its four clock faces flanked by lions and unicorns, sits the statue of the goddess Minerva – the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess, Athena. She sits in powerful and benevolent guardianship over the city and, as the goddess of wisdom, warfare, strength, science, magic, commerce, medicine, teaching, creativity, the arts and poetry, and as the inventor of spinning, weaving, numbers and music, she is a perfect symbol of Liverpool – 'the world in one city', a European Capital of Culture, and an internationally renowned World Heritage port.
The people of Merseyside, and of Liverpool in particular, certainly know how to celebrate life and community, and some of the most famous people in the world have visited our Town Hall over the centuries. They have come here for balls, presentations, official receptions and grand formal dinners. Most of these dignitaries, including royalty, seem to have succumbed to the power of the city to encourage self-expression and self-indulgence.
This is why, on the list of people who have had to be carried, or in some cases dragged, out of the Town Hall more than a little worse for wear, you will find Mark Twain (1835–1910), author of Tom Sawyer; King Edward VII (1841–1910); General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–85), US Army general and president; and a young William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898), who later became prime minister four times.
Prince William Frederick (1776–1834), Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, also celebrated rather too well at the Town Hall. This was at a civic function in 1803, after which the prince was quoted in the local press as saying, 'by the time of the 24th toast, the entire hall had lost count of the proceedings'. Even the Duke of Clarence (1765–1837) got 'falling down drunk' at a formal reception in the building on 18 October 1806. Some reports said that he was carried out singing to his carriage on Dale Street. Also known as 'Sailor Bill' and 'Silly Billy', on 26 June 1839 he ascended the throne as King William IV!
However, one visitor to Liverpool Town Hall had very little cause to celebrate. On 6 November 1865, Commander James Waddell (1824–86), the captain of the American Confederate warship, CSS Shenandoah, came into the main entrance of the imposing building. In his hand he carried a letter addressed to Liverpool's Lord Mayor, surrendering his vessel to the British government. Earlier that day he had lowered the Confederate flag aboard his ship and formally handed his vessel over to Captain Poynter of HMS Donegal, mid-river on the Mersey. This was the last official act of the American Civil War (1861–65), which therefore ended, not in America, but in Liverpool.
The goddess Minerva gazed down on all these proceedings in silent, perhaps amused benevolence.CHAPTER 3
Lifesaving and Currant Buns
As shipping on the River Mersey increased during the eighteenth century, it became necessary to build navigation aids and hazard warnings to guide vessels as they sailed in and out of the dangerous estuary. By 1763, there were two lighthouses on the Leasowe shore, but one of these was badly damaged in severe weather. This was replaced in 1771 by a new lighthouse re-sited on the top of Bidston Hill – not the present building on the hill, though.
The remaining lighthouse, which is the one still standing at Leasowe today, carries the date stone inscribed 'MWG 1763', which commemorates the then Mayor of Liverpool, William Gregson. Inside there is a well-preserved cast-iron staircase, which is believed to be contemporary with the building.
The lighthouse once also acted as the clubhouse for the Leasowe Golf Club, which was established in 1891, when a course was laid out on the common land around the building. The golf club moved to its present site, adjacent to Leasowe Castle, in 1893. In 1894, Mr and Mrs Williams, who had been keepers of the lighthouse on the Great Orme at Llandudno, transferred to Leasowe. Sadly, shortly after they moved, Mr Williams died and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, who had responsibility for the building, made Mrs Williams one of the first female lighthouse keepers in the country.
When the lamp was finally turned off and the lighthouse ceased to operate, on 15 July 1908, Mrs Williams moved into a cottage nearby. But the enterprising widow kept the lighthouse as a teahouse, serving 'teas, minerals and light refreshments' to summer visitors and, on Sunday afternoons, to golf club members. This service was extremely popular and her currant buns were said to be particularly scrumptious.
In 1929, Leasowe Lighthouse was put up for sale, but was not disposed of until 1930, when Wallasey Corporation bought it for £900. Mrs Williams died in 1935, and the lighthouse was closed to the public, boarded up and no longer used. It became a local curiosity and remained a popular landmark until the setting up of the North Wirral Coastal Park in 1989, when it once again began a new lease of life as the Ranger Station and Information Centre. Leasowe Lighthouse is now open to the public and is well worth a visit.CHAPTER 4
Hengler's Circus and the Hippodrome
On West Derby Road and facing the end of Everton Road, just east of Liverpool city centre, is a builder's yard on an area of semi-derelict land. Those who know nothing of what once stood here simply drive or walk past without giving it a second's thought. And yet, this was the site of two of Liverpool's most famous places of entertainment – Hengler's Grand Circus and 'the Hippy'.
Henry Hengler (1784–1861) was a famous circus performer throughout Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and his son, Frederick Charles Hengler (1820–87), known as Charles (and also as 'Handsome Hengler'), followed in his father's footsteps. Charles first became a 'rope dancer', which was another term for tightrope walker, and then gained a popular reputation as a skilled horseman, performing with a number of touring circus troupes. But Charles had always wanted to branch out on his own so, in 1848, he opened his own spectacular, touring, tented show, known as 'Hengler's Cirque'.
Soon, he realised that it would be far more efficient, and profitable, to have permanent shows in the larger cities around the country. So he began to acquire spacious buildings that could be redesigned and converted to accommodate his particular form of spectacle and entertainment. In 1863, Hengler bought the old Prince's Theatre in West Nile Street in Glasgow, followed by equally grand premises in Edinburgh, Dublin, Hull, London and, of course, Liverpool.
In the great port, with its rapidly increasing population of people craving diversion and distraction from their often hard way of life and work, Charles constructed his first circus building on Dale Street. This was a large, single-storey, circular theatre built entirely of wood and canvas. It stood on the site of the old Saracen's Head Inn, which had once been one of Liverpool's most important coaching inns. This had been demolished in 1855, and Hengler's Grand Cirque gave their first performance in their new building on 16 March 1857.
With acrobats of all types, horse riders, animal trainers and clowns, the people of Liverpool were thrilled and delighted by what they saw at the Cirque. A contemporary description of the theatre reads:
Hengler's Cirque Varieties has opened, in Dale Street ... a handsome, commodious, and spacious theatre, devoted to equestrian performances, which has been constructed by Messrs Holmes and Nicol of this town, on the model of Franconi's famous Cirque, in the Champs Elysees, Paris.
The building, though of a temporary character, is most admirably suited for the purpose for which it is designed; and while accommodating an immense number of spectators, who can all easily witness the performances, the ventilation is perfect, and with an entire absence of draughts. There is nothing to offend the senses of smell or sight.
Excerpted from More Merseyside Tales by Ken Pye. Copyright © 2016 Ken Pye. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
The Naughty Nymphette of Neston,
The Goddess Minerva,
Lifesaving and Currant Buns,
Hengler's Circus and the Hippodrome,
The Real Inventor of the 'Mighty Wurlitzer',
William Hutchinson – Liverpool's Remarkable Dock Master,
Wild Tigers in Tranmere,
Liverpool's Grim Gaols and the 'Long Drop',
The Smallest House in England,
Miller's Castle and the Nude Bathers of Bootle Strand,
'Stand and Deliver!',
A Casbah in West Derby,
Childwall Village and its Abbey,
The Body in the Derby Square Dungeon,
Nova Scotia, Mann Island and 'Dickey Sams',
Eastham Ferry Pleasure Gardens,
The Chinatown Paifong,
'Women and Children First!',
The Cathedral that Never Was,
The Earl and the Playhouse,
The Palace and the 'Creep Inn',
Abdullah Quilliam and Britain's First Mosque,
The Wallasey Hermit,
Salty Dungeon Point,
The Great Leprechaun Hunt,
A Taste of Scouse,
The Bird-Man of Speke,
Almost the Bunbury,
Revenge in the Commons,
West Kirby's Strange Burial Places,
Rolling Round the World,
Moby Dick and Liverpool,
HMS Thetis – A Floating Coffin,
Strawberry Teas and Towers,
Crypts, Catacombs and Corpses,
The Birthplace of 'Being Prepared',
Hartley's Village – A Sweet Community,
Older than Stonehenge – The Calder Stones,
Dingle – A Haven of Romance and Beauty,
The Wailing Widow of Liscard Castle,
Sea Shanties, Maggie May and 'Women of Easy Virtue',
The Star-Crossed Lovers of Wavertree Hall,
Everton Village Cross and 'Old Nick',
Scrimshaw, Scuttlebutt and 'Shiver My Timbers!',
Old Mother Riley, the Boxing Kangaroo and Wild Willie West,
The Dockers' Umbrella,
The Punch and Judy People of Merseyside,
New Brighton's Guinness Festival Clock,
King Kong of Mossley Hill,
About the Author,