Unicorns – a brief history

From ferocious beasts to friendly rainbow spouting mascots, it turns out that unicorns have been around in some form or other from the earliest of civilisations. As April 9th marks National Unicorn Day, we thought we’d take the chance to briefly trace some of their natural history…

Uncertain beginnings

The first dubious nod to unicorn mythology comes from the Indus Valley Civilisation, which, together with ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, formed one of the three powerhouse civilisations of the ancient Near East c. 3000 – 1300 BCE. Imagery on seals belonging to elite members of society depict a horse like animal (shown in profile) with a single horn protruding from its skull. Granted, this early link to unicorns IS a tenuous one, and it’s much more likely that these are instead representations of aurochs – a type of large wild cattle that formerly inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa.

A case of mistaken identity

Indus Civilisation seal of a possible unicorn at the Indian Museum Kolkata.

The first written evidence we have for unicorns appears in ancient Greece, not (as you might expect) in writings of mythology but in ‘natural history’ writings, once again on the ancient Near East. The earliest accounts come from the writer Ctesias in the 4th century BCE. In his book Indika (On India) he includes one of the first references of a unicorn, describing them as a type of wild ass: “fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half in length, and coloured white, red and black” – fancy! In the same writings, he also includes descriptions of the oryx (a type of antelope with similar colourings described above) so it’s likely that the two were one and the same.

In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder writes of a fierce animal he calls the ‘monokeros’ (or ‘single horn’, a word with etymological links to ‘unicorn’) which “has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length”. Not the usual imagery we’d associated with these majestic beasts, and no prizes for guessing the animal he was actually describing! Later, in the 13th century, Marco Polo would add to this unflattering description of a unicorn by adding that “they spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime” – hardly rainbows and sparkles!

Aurochs in a cave painting, Lascaux, France

Obviously, in each of the above cases we’re witnessing a great deal of mistaken identity, but, pieced together from all of these accounts, the myth of a single horned beast, known as the unicorn, was born.

Masters of evasion

Along with their physical description, Pliny is also amongst the first writers to describe the unicorns’ character traits, stating that they were amongst the fiercest animals in India and impossible to be captured alive – this would become a running theme to their mythology, particularly in the medieval period.

Writing in the 6th century CE, Cosmas Indicopleustes (a travelling merchant from Alexandria), gives a wonderful account of the unicorn’s notorious ability to avoid capture. He tells us that all the unicorn’s power resides in its horn, and when placed in danger, a unicorn would happily throw itself from a cliff to escape, landing expertly on the point of its horn unharmed… Disappointingly, he’s silent on how it then unplugged itself from the ground. Shame.

Unicorns in Christianity

Unicorn from a 13th century church floor, Ravenna, Italy

It’s said that a mistranslation of the bible’s old Hebrew text, even led to the unicorn being mentioned in some versions of the bible. A supposed error when translating the Hebrew term ‘Re’em’ (ox) as ‘monokeros’ effectively changed the word ‘ox’ to ‘unicorn’.

In the 2nd century CE, a Greek Christian text known as the Physiologus (widely seen to be the predecessor of the popular medieval ‘bestiaries’, or ‘books of beasts’) further made popular the allegory that unicorns were strong, fierce, animals, adding that their horn could purify poisoned waters. The book also strengthened another popular belief that had developed, which was that unicorns could only be subdued with the cooperation of a virgin maiden, as unicorns were said to become loving and docile in their presence. This, along with their purifying characteristics, subsequently led to Christ himself being associated with the unicorn, and medieval artwork often depicted a unicorn as a metaphor for Christ.

The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino. Image from Alinari Archives/CORBIS

Symbols of chivalry

In medieval Europe, the unicorn became a symbol closely associated with chivalry, with heroic lovers and their lady companions often compared to the doting relationship between the unicorn and a virgin. During the Renaissance, in a move away from the Christian allegory, the unicorn became a secular symbol of chastity and loyalty.

From the 15th century, unicorns also started to become popular in heraldry, frequently depicted as a horse with a goat’s hooves and beard, and a delicate spiral horn. They’re often also shown as collared with a broken chain, perhaps as a nod to their immense power and ultimately untameable nature. In Celtic mythology, the unicorn is a symbol of purity, innocence and power, and so became an obvious choice for Scotland’s royal coats of arms.

Healing qualities

Scotland’s Royal Coat of Arms

The purifying qualities associated with the unicorn’s horn was such a popular legend that cups reputedly made of unicorn horn were highly valued by medieval nobility as a protection against poisoning. In reality, these cups were most likely made from rhinoceros’ horn or narwhal tusk!

AND unicorn horn as a means for protection didn’t end there… In the 17th century, London newspapers often contained advertisements for miracle elixirs made of “true Unicorn Horn”. These were said to relieve a full-on list of diseases from ulcers and scurvy, to melancholy and fainting spells.

From reality to mythology

‘The Lady at the Unicorn’ tapestry, from a series made in France circa. 1500 – this one representing ‘sight’

Sadly, by the 18th century, belief in unicorns began to wane, as more of the world was explored and traces of these majestic animals were unfounded. It wasn’t until the Victorian era when the now famous ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries (made around 1500, and widely considered to be amongst the greatest pieces of medieval art) were rediscovered, and romanticised by Victorian artists. From this point onwards, the unicorn as a glamorised mythical beast grew in popularity, leading us right up to the present day where the unicorn trend is booming! From unicorn coffees and bagels, to emojis and a whole plethora of accessories, the unicorn ‘brand’ is now inescapable.

It’s certainly come a long way from its ferocious origins!

The origins of the Easter Bunny

Spring is finally here, which can only mean that Easter is just around the corner… One way in which we’ll likely all be celebrating is by buying and eating a chocolate Easter egg, delivered by the Easter Bunny no less! But why are we eating chocolate eggs, and just where did this benevolent bunny spring from? Read on to find out…

As with so many of our ancient customs, the origins of the festival reach far back into the pagan past when our ancestors, as rural farmers, needed to make winter food supplies last until the first crops and animals were ready to eat. Early people believed that the sun went to sleep during the winter, and held celebrations (including the lighting of fires and eating special foods) in spring to welcome the sun back from its rest.

The Easter Bunny

Easter Hare, c.1910

The Easter bunny began life as the Germanic and Saxon goddess of the dawn and the spring, Eostre, whose sacred animal was the hare. The origin of her name comes from the Old English Ēastre, a word referring to “the rising dawn” and the sun rising directly in the east at the spring equinox, marking the time when the natural world comes to life again after the winter. Hares are of course just one of the many animals that breed in the spring – the way that female hares ‘box’ away over-eager males led to the idea of ‘mad March hares’ – but it was their strong association with the goddess that sealed their link with Easter.

Some experts believe that it was ancient confusion over the simple nests (called ‘forms’) that hares make on open ground, with the nests certain types of ground-nesting birds make, which led to the belief that hares laid eggs! Even once this belief was disproved, the idea and imagery clearly stuck!

The hare becomes a bunny

Coneygeare, Eynesbury

The brown hare is native to England and experts believe that rabbits, native to Spain and France, were introduced into the wild in Britain by the Normans after 1066. These rabbits soon multiplied, vastly outnumbering the native hare. Their skill for reproducing, perhaps, made them a more suitable symbol for fertility and rebirth.

We suspect that rabbits were being farmed in Eynesbury during the medieval period because an area close to the River Ouse is still known today as the ‘coneygeare’. Coney was the old name for a rabbit and a ‘coneygeare’ was a rabbit warren. These warrens were large earth mounds in which the rabbits could easily make their burrows and then be farmed for food by the warren keepers.

A Medieval rabbit warren

Very recent research conducted on a rabbit bone from Fishbourne Roman palace has also raised the intriguing possibility that the Roman family who lived there were keeping rabbits as pets. As wild rabbits were not known in England until the Norman invasion, it seems that they did a good job of keeping those bunnies in captivity! 

And what about those eggs?

Along with their misguided association with the hare, eggs are also a very ancient symbol of fertility and new life. Decorating and giving eggs to symbolise the rebirth of the world, lighting bonfires, feasting, singing and dancing were all ancient ways of celebrating the arrival of spring. As Christianity began to spread through the Roman Empire, older pagan practices merged with newer Christian ones and the egg was adopted as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection from the tomb. In the Tudor period in England, ancient lore said that the sun danced with joy at the resurrection of Christ at Easter, linking the old and new beliefs together.

Cadburys Easter Egg, 1925. Image: Cadburys

In Germany, the Easter hare was said to bring a basket of painted eggs to good children, and these would then be hidden for the children to find. Queen Victoria, whose mother was German, organised egg hunts for her children at Kensington Palace and this helped to bring the tradition to Britain. The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in France at the court of Louis XIV (1643 – 1715) and it was not until 1873 that Fry & Sons made the first chocolate eggs in England, followed by Cadbury’s in 1875. These eggs were expensive and it was only after the Second World War that the price of chocolate eggs fell, making them a treat that everyone could afford.

Easter traditions around the world

Best bonnets at an Edwardian Wedding

Here’s a few more Easter traditions you might not have heard of… In St Neots it was considered proper, and also lucky, for women to wear new clothes when they went to church on Easter Sunday. From this popular custom (which is found across Europe) developed the idea of wearing a new hat or ‘Easter Bonnet’ on Easter Sunday, and in some parts of the world Easter parades developed.

In Sweden fireworks were set off at Easter to frighten away witches, and in Scandinavian countries people decorated branches and twigs with ribbons, as well as painting eggs and feathers.

In Germany there’s a tradition that an egg laid on Good Friday will last for 100 years! And back in Britain, an old Easter game involved rolling hard boiled eggs down a hill. This can still be seen at Preston in Lancashire, and in America where an egg rolling competition is held each Easter on the lawn in front of the White House in Washington. 

So whether you’re nibbling away at a choccie egg or decorating your own, we wish you a very happy Easter!


The Ides of March – a quick lesson on the Roman calendar

“Beware the Ides of March” – these prophetic words spoken by a soothsayer to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, are often brought to mind each time the 15th March rolls around. But what actually are the Ides? And is there actually any reason for US to “beware”? Read on to find out…

Julius Caesar was famously assassinated on this day in 44BC, stabbed to death at a meeting of the Senate by a group of conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius. Today, and largely thanks to Shakespeare, the Ides of March now sticks in our minds as an inauspicious date.

What are Ides?

The word ‘Ides’ derives from a Latin word to divide, and was originally used in the Roman calendar to mark the full moon. For the Romans, the Ides was a day that came about every month, not just in March, but the ‘Ides of March’ marked the first full moon of the Roman year (you may recall from our previous blog post on ‘time’ that the Roman calendar originally began with March, with January and February added later).

Reverse side of a coin issued by Caesar’s assassin Brutus in the autumn of 42 BC, with the abbreviation EID MAR (Eidibus Martiis – on the Ides of March)

The Roman calendar month was originally based on the first three phases of the moon cycle, with days marked by counting backward from each lunar phase. The Roman month began with the new moon, on the day known as ‘Kalends’, and the following days (usually 2-6) were simply known as “X number of days” before the ‘Nones’ – the moon’s first quarter. The ‘Nones’ fell between the 5th-7th of each month, with the following days (8–14) being counted as “before the Ides” (the full moon), which fell between the 13th-15th of each month (still with me?) Afterward, the days were then counted as “X number of days” before the ‘Kalends’ of the next month, and so on.

As the lunar months were different lengths, there was a fair amount of variation on when the ‘Kalends’, ‘Nones’ and ‘Ides’ fell each month, and things quickly got out of whack. So, the Romans decided to fix the length of their months, and in doing so fixed the dates of these calendar days. In the months of 31 days, like March, the ‘Ides’ then always fell was on the 15th, and on the 13th for the remaining months.

Significance of the Ides

The ‘Ides’ were sacred to Jupiter, chief god of the Roman pantheon. On this day the “Flamen Dialis” (Jupiter’s high priest) would lead the “Ides Sheep” along the Via Sacra to, you guessed it, sacrifice. The ‘Ides of March’ specifically, also marked the festival of Anna Perenna, a goddess of the year whose feast originally concluded the Roman new year celebrations (remembering again that March used to be the first month of the year before the calendar reshuffle!)

A panel thought to depict the Mamuralia, from a mosaic of the months, El Djem, Tunisia

According to John the Lydian (a 6th century Byzantine writer) in his work De Mensibus (a history of the different pagan festivals of the year), the Mamuralia also took place on the ‘Ides of March’. This less joyful calendar observance involved beating an old man dressed in animal skins and driving him from the city. It’s thought that the ritual may have represented the expulsion of the old year.

Any reasons to “beware”?..

Should we beware the Ides of March more so than any other day? Well, the short answer is no. As with ANY date in history, you can find a number of grisly events that have also taken place on this day – in 1360 the French attacked the English south coast and commenced a 48-hour spree of rape, pillage and murder; and in 1939 Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia – but the date in itself heralds no more portents of doom than any other day.

So, unless your name is Julius Caesar, or you’ve been specifically warned by a Roman soothsayer, you can be pretty confident to approach the 15th March just like any other day…

Surviving the odds – the story of the St Neots Quads

The Miles quadruplets, Ann, Ernest, Paul and Michael, soon to be known the world over as the ‘St Neots Quads’, were born on the 28th November 1935 at 13 Ferrars Avenue, Eynesbury. They were the first British multiple birth babies to survive for more than a few days, and instantly became local celebrities. This is their story…

At first, Walter and Doris Miles, and their two-year-old son Gordon, believed they were expecting the addition of twins to the family. However, with just a few months to go before their birth, three babies were identified in an x-ray, and, as we all know, a fourth surprise was fast on its way!

A medical miracle

With their father Walter Miles, at Ferrars Avenue, November 1935

The babies were delivered just over seven weeks early by local GP Dr. E. H. Harrisson, District Nurse Mailing, and Mrs Miles’ mother; Ann weighing 3lb 12½oz, Ernest 3lb 5oz, Paul 3lb 7oz and Michael at just 2lb 13oz. All were typical premature babies; small, thin and incredibly weak. Their finger and toe nails had not yet developed and they were unable to maintain their body temperatures without assistance. Directly after the birth, Michael, the last to be born, had trouble breathing and had to be given artificial respiration for over fifty minutes before he began to breathe unaided. As they were so tiny, the babies could only suckle weakly and were initially fed sterilized water from a teaspoon by Mrs Miles’ mother.

The press goes quads crazy

The Daily Mirror front page, 29th Nov. 1935

The birth of the quads was an absolute sensation in depression era Britain, and attracted world-wide interest. The four babies became instant celebrities, and their every action was reported in the national and local press. The similar birth and survival of the Dionne quintuplets in Canada in 1934 and the Johnson quadruplets in New Zealand in March 1935 had fascinated the general public, and the quads were no different. Though they were born in Eynesbury, the quads were almost immediately renamed the ‘St Neots Quads’ by the press.

Dedicated medical care

Medical knowledge about how to care for extremely premature babies had come on in leaps and bounds since the early 1900s. Almost at once it was realised that the quads could not be cared for in their parents’ home, as they would need long-term specialist care. Their GP, Dr. Harrisson, decided that the best course of action was to move the babies to his home, The Shrubbery, in Church Street St Neots, where they could have their own dedicated nursery away from the press and well-wishers.

The Quads with Dr Harrisson and Mrs Miles

On the 30th November, they were moved to The Shrubbery, and installed in large south facing bedroom, which acted as their nursery. Here they were able to be to be kept free from infection, and in a warm (constant 25oc / 78F) and humid atmosphere. To ensure the babies had the care they needed, a team of four specialist nurses were sent from Great Ormond Street Hospital, free of charge, to care for them. For the first few weeks, the babies were not bathed, but were rubbed all over with olive oil. They were fed with milk fetched twice daily from Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, London, that initially had to be skimmed and diluted by 50% to enable the babies to digest it!

Family life

At first the babies were identified by different coloured wool around their ankles

The high risk of infection, coupled with the need to keep the babies in a warm stable environment, meant that, in the early months, their parents were only able to see them occasionally. It sounds like an unbearable situation for Mr and Mrs Miles to be under, but it also meant that the pair were able to regain some balance and prepare themselves for life ahead. Understandably, Doris Miles needed some time to recover from the birth of her four babies, and Walter Miles was in full-time employment, which he needed to retain if he was to support his much bigger family! There was also Gordon to care for, who was still just a toddler and demanded all the attention that toddlers bring.

Christmas day with the quads

Time spent with the quads was cherished however, and the photo opposite shot by Gaumont British Films for a cinema reel, shows Doris and Walter visiting their babies at the Shrubbery on Christmas Day. Much like with the current pandemic era, face masks need to be worn to help prevent infection in the babies.

Supporting the family

Dr. Harrisson realised immediately that caring for the four tiny babies was going to be enormously expensive, and suggested that a fund should be started to help Walter and Doris Miles care for their children. He estimated that at least £5,000 would be needed, with the local paper noting that Mr Miles was earning just £3.00 a week.

Bounty of £4.00 from the Keeper of the Privy Purse

Existing support was available to the family in the form of a Royal Bounty, first established by Queen Victoria in 1849, for each child of a multiple birth “to enable the parents to meet sudden expenses thrown upon them”. Mrs Miles received a Bounty of £4.00 from the Keeper of the Privy Purse shortly after the birth of the babies.

From the 29th November the St Neots Advertiser opened a fund to help provide for the babies, and donations started to flood into the newspaper offices on St Neots Market Square, and at the homes of both Dr. Harrisson and Mr & Mrs Miles.  Many donations came from local people, but also from across the country, and were listed each week in the newspaper.

Brand ambassadors

The quads receive their first bath by nurses from Great Ormond Street

As the weeks went by, the quads continued to thrive, and on the 1st February the babies had their first actual bath with soap and water! Their lives continued to be carefully regulated and their diets were monitored daily. Gradually they were able to digest ordinary breast milk and then moved on to unsweetened condensed milk with added sugar.

Soon afterwards, the babies moved to Cow & Gate ‘Frailac’, followed by Cow & Gate Half-cream Milk, and this began a longstanding connection with Cow & Gate. The company supported the Miles Quads for many years including helping the family to build a nursery at their new home at 27 New Street, providing baby milk and weaning foods, giving them birthday presents, and finally a grand 21st birthday party in 1956 with other multiple birth babies raised on Cow & Gate Milk. The Quads appeared in many Cow & Gate advertising campaigns, with the income this provided helping Mr and Mrs Miles to bring up their miracle babies.

Image from a version of the card game ‘Snap’ by Cow & Gate


The quads benefited greatly from the external support of health-workers, media, and sponsors, but in the end, it was thanks to the care and love of their sensible and down-to-earth parents that they all grew up to lead normal successful lives. They remained local celebrities throughout their childhoods and were often asked to open fetes, attend special events and pose for photographs. In May 1944 they helped to launch ‘Salute the Soldier’ Week in Sandy, dressed to represent Britain, America, China and Russia.

And it wasn’t just the quads themselves that helped to benefit the community, as a newspaper article from September 1939 reveals. At the outbreak of the war in autumn 1939, Dr Harrisson was asked to help out at the new maternity hospital that was being set up at Paxton Park, Little Paxton. This grand Georgian mansion had been requisitioned as a safe place for expectant mothers to give birth, away from the feared air raids on London. Already by the date of the article, twenty babies had

The quads at the ‘Salute
the Soldier’ celebrations in May 1944

been born at the hospital and up to three hundred babies were expected to be delivered by Christmas day! The article reveals that Doris Miles had given the outgrown cots and baby baths used by the four Quads to the new maternity hospital, in order to help a new generation of babies. Today, St Neots museum has one of the cots (above) on display in the Home Life Gallery, and who knows how many babies may have used it over the years?

Wonderfully, all four of the St Neots Quads are still alive today, and we keep in regular touch with them at the museum. If you’d like to find out more about the quads, do stop in once we’re able to reopen! You can also take a look at these wonderful film reels of the quads growing up, available from British Pathé on YouTube.


Jeremy Bentham – Philosopher, utilitarian, eccentric

This 15th February marks Jeremy Bentham’s 273rd birthday. But, if you’re unfamiliar with the name, never fear! We’ve put together a quick summary of his professional life, along with a list of our top seven of his frankly brilliant eccentricities…

Born to a wealthy family on the 15th of February 1748, Jeremy was somewhat of a child prodigy! We’re told he studied Latin at the age of 3, and went on to attend Queens College Oxford at age 12 to study law. After completing both a bachelors and masters degree in the subject though, he grew to become disillusioned and frustrated with the intricacies of law and indeed of lawyers themselves! He later said of them that “lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished!”

Professional life

Bentham turned his hand to writing criticism of law, suggesting ways in which it could be reformed, and existing society institutions improved. He is most known for his association with the rise of ‘Utilitarianism’, the ethical theory that prescribes actions that ‘maximise the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’. He spent his life working on society reforms that upheld this fundamental principle, offering improvements to subjects as wide ranging as religion, poor relief, and prisons. He was also a strong advocate for animal welfare, the abolition of slavery, equal rights, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. He was particularly scathing of religion, criticising the influence it held over many societal foundations. He strongly opposed the idea of ‘Natural Law’ and ‘Natural Rights’ – both considered as ‘God-given’ rights – remarking that they were “nonsense upon stilts!” and later published an essay on the subject under the same name.

Plan of Bentham’s Panopticon Prison – Willey Reveley 1791

He also spent many years of his life designing a new prison system that enabled one guard to maintain control over multiple prisoners without the need for physical punishment. His ‘Panopticon’ (meaning “all-seeing”) was based on a circular design with the cells arranged on the outer wall and a central watch tower within. The prison inspector could look into the cells, unseen by the prisoners, at any time – sort of like 18th century CCTV! Bentham anticipated that the inmates would all ‘behave themselves’ under the ‘omnipotent eye’ of the prison inspector, in order to avoid physical punishment.

Bentham the Eccentric

Bentham died on the 6th June 1832 aged 84, but his fight against societal norms didn’t necessarily end there… Perhaps as a final rebuff against the church, Bentham chose a very different manor of funerary practice… Instead of opting for a burial, which would have forced him to pay money to the church, in his will Bentham wrote in detail what was to become of him:

“My body I give to my dear friend Doctor Southwood Smith to be disposed of in a manner hereinafter mentioned, and I direct … he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame…The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing… He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me.”

Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon, UCL

This ‘Auto-Icon’ (or self-image) made from his own skeleton was then directed be housed in a cabinet, and every now and then, was to be ‘wheeled out’ to attend meetings of his utilitarian friends and colleagues. Bentham’s wishes were followed to the letter, and you can still visit him today at University College London!

But not quite all of him…

Originally, Bentham’s own head was intended to sit atop his body (as you might expect!), however the desiccation process went a little wrong, robbing the head of its facial expression and making it look, well, rather creepy! A wax replica head was affixed to his body’s frame instead, and for a time, his actual head was kept and displayed, rather unceremoniously between his feet! Later, the head was placed in a wooden box to give it a little more protection, and displayed in the cloisters of UCL. However, his head proved too tempting a prize for neighbouring students, who stole it and held it to ransom in 1975! (Don’t worry, his head was later returned for the princely sum of £10) You may be relieved to hear that today Bentham’s head is now safely housed in UCL’s conservation safe.

Top 7 weird facts about Jeremy Bentham

And now to our favourite part; here’s a quick list of some of the more unusual facts about Jeremy Bentham:

  1.  He had a pet cat called the Reverend Sir John Langbourne, who ate macaroni noodles at the table, and who Bentham described as “a universal nuisance” (we all know cats like that).  Bentham was a strong opponent of animal cruelty, arguing that “the question is not ‘can they reason?’ nor ‘can they talk?’, but rather, ‘can they suffer?'”
  2. He had a pet teapot named Dickie that no one else was allowed to touch, and had two walking sticks named Dapple and Dobbin, one of which (whom?) is still displayed with his Auto-Icon.
  3. He may have invented jogging, or ‘circumgyrating’ as he called it, described by his friends of a sort of ‘trotting step’. We’re told that he would rise at 6am and circumgyrate for 2 hours a day before work.
  4. Bentham once wrote to London City Council asking if he could replace the shrubs in his front driveway with varnished, mummified corpses, which he said would be “more aesthetic than flowers” and would serve the purpose of de-mystifying death and conquering the human fear of mortality. It’s speculated that by requesting his own body to be preserved as an ‘Auto-Icon’ Bentham hoped to question the religious sensibilities of life and death.
  5. To complement his Panopticon Prison, he wrote a cookbook called ‘Jeremy Bentham’s Prison Cooking’, containing a series of recipes providing the inmates with cheap, nourishing food.
  6. He was the possible inventor of underpants – the conservation itinerary for the auto-icon lists a pair of underpants and two sets of socks (got to keep those feet warm!), and these are now thought to be the oldest examples of underwear recorded.
  7. He invented a game called ‘battledore’ – sounds epic, but basically a game of ‘keepie-uppie’ with a shuttlecock.

February festivals

If the cold, dark days are getting you down, then here’s a blog from our curator Liz to bring you a little cheer!

During the gloomiest days of the year, when spring and summer seem a long way into the future and Christmas and New Year celebrations a long way in the past, it is good to know that February is a short month with several celebrations to anticipate!


The month opens with Candlemas Day on 2nd February. This early Christian festival celebrates the day, when the Virgin Mary went to the temple to be cleansed after giving birth to Jesus, and to present her baby to God. In the medieval church a special mass service was held on the day, which was marked with a candle lit procession, hence the name ‘Candlemas’.

Badgers take centre stage

February Festivals - European Badger

European Badger

February 2nd also marks the midpoint of winter, between the shortest day on 21st December and the spring equinox on 20th March, and this perhaps suggests the ancient farming roots of festivities on the day. It was also a day when traditionally the weather for the rest of the winter could be predicted. Cold and bright weather on the day was said to foretell a cold end to the winter, while mild and wet weather was said to predict a gentler transition into spring.

An alternative name for the day was ‘Badgers’ Day’, as it was believed in some parts of Huntingdonshire (and more widely across Europe) that badgers would wake up on that day, go to the entrance of their sett (burrow) and their actions would predict the weather ahead. If it was sunny, and they could see the shadow of their tail on the ground, then they would go back to sleep as it was a sure sign more cold weather was coming.  When Europeans emigrated to America from the later 1600s they took this belief with them. Then, observing that the behaviour of the North American groundhog was similar to that of the European badger, there the 2nd February became known as Groundhog Day.

February Festivals - Pancake Day

Quads at Pancake Day, 1940

Pancakes and penitence

February is also the month in the Christian calendar when Lent begins. This is the period of denial and fasting which begins with Shrove Tuesday, marking the lead up to Easter. Of course Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day when everyone uses up their milk, eggs and flour ready for fasting in Lent.  In St Neots, the day was marked by the ringing of the pancake bell from the parish church, which continued until 1914. It is obviously no accident that Lent used to coincide with a period when food supplies from the previous year’s harvest might be running low, and so for many people there would be less to eat in February.

February Festivals - Rural traditions

Local haymaking, 1930s

Like Candlemas, Shrove Tuesday (when you were ‘shriven’ or absolved of your sins) has its roots in ancient farming and fertility rituals. In the Roman calendar the festival of Lupercalia was held in mid-February to drive off evil spirits and purify the land, bringing health and fertility in the coming year.

Love is in the air

Also celebrated during February is St Valentine’s Day. The day is said to commemorate the martyrdom of a Roman Christian called Valentine on the 14th February AD269, but how this event became a day celebrating true love is unclear! Perhaps this is another case of an ancient rural tradition – one that states that birds would choose their mate on this day – being given a new Christian meaning by the early Christian church.  Whatever the truth of its origins, Valentine’s Day (and the associated sweet treats to go with it) is now another festival to look forward to in February.

And as for the second half of the month? Well, you’ll just have to hold on to the thought that Spring is just around the corner…

A history of time – the story behind our days, weeks, and months

Who do we have to thank for our divisions of time? And how did the days and months get their names? Read on to find out in our brief history of time…

We’ve been thinking a lot about time recently. It’d be fair to say that the days, weeks, and months of the past year have lost a little of their definition, with current restrictions causing the passage of time and normal routine to become a little, shall we say, distorted. Time seems more fluid (though, on some days, the speed at which it seems to move feels A LOT slower), and it reminds us that our units of measuring its passing haven’t always been in place…

Dividing the days

As with many things, we have the ancient Babylonians to thank for our 24-hour days. They were the first to divide both the day and night into 12 equal hours, later separating each hour into 60 minutes and the minutes into 60 seconds. Though these divisions of time were based on the movements of the Sun and Earth, they also had their roots in the Babylonians’ numbering system – and here’s where it gets mathematical!

An early counting method using the digits on a single hand

Unlike our standard decimal system today based around grouping numbers in ‘10s’, the Babylonians used duodecimal (base 12) and sexagesimal (base 60) numeral systems – systems that were in fact started by the Sumerians, a culture that began 2,000 years before the Babylonians, in around 4000BCE. It’s believed the system likely originated from ancient peoples using their thumbs as a pointer, and counting by using the three jointed parts on the other four fingers (try it yourself!) It was pretty logical, then, for them to divide their time using this same mathematical system.

(If you want to fall down the rabbit-hole of information on this, here’s a pretty good starting point!) 

Days become weeks, weeks become months…

When it comes to the number of days in a week, and weeks in a month, it seems we have the Babylonians to thank again. For them, the number ‘7’ held a particular significance, observing as keen astronomers, that there were seven celestial bodies in sky – the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Through their lunar calendar, which tracked the transitional phases of the moon, they also calculated that it took approximately 28 or 29 days for the moon to complete its full lunar cycle. This period (give or take a few ‘transitional’ days) became a ‘month’, and, divided into four equal parts, produced seven-day ‘weeks’.

Fragment of a Babylonian celestial calendar

Though other great civilizations chose to divide their weeks slightly differently – the Egyptians’ week was 10 days long and the Romans’ originally lasted for eight – it was the Babylonians’ system, born from such an influential culture, that lasted, spreading quickly through the neighbouring large empires of Persia and Greece.

(N.B. How the modern year came to be divided into 12 months is a more complex story, and the subject of another blog entirely! Later we’ll see that originally, the Romans chose to divide their calendar into 10 months, before necessity caused them to swap to 12)

It’s all in the name

So that’s the maths out the way, now what about the origins of the names we now use for the days and months? Unsurprisingly, the names have their roots in astronomy and the deities that were once associated with the planets. It was our old friends the Babylonians once again who set the trend, naming each day after the celestial body they believed held sway over the first hour of that day. But it’s the Romans’ adaptation of the idea which led to the days and months being named as we know them today.

History of time - Sol gives his name to Sunday

Mosaic fragment of Sol Invictus

In the ‘romance languages’, like Italian and French, the days of the week have predominantly remained very close to their original Latin forebears. If we take the Italian, starting with our equivalent of ‘Monday’: Dies Lunae, the day of the moon, became Lunedi, combining lunae (moon) and di (day); Dies Martis, the day of Mars, became Martedi; Dies Mercurii, the day of Mercury, became Mercoledi; Dies Jovis, the day of Jupiter, became Giovedi; and Dies Veneris, the day of Venus, became Venerdi. Interestingly, Dies Saturni, day of Saturn, and Dies Solis, day of the Sun, are not the root for the modern Italian sabato (Saturday) and domenica (Sunday), though they clearly influence our English versions. Instead, the pagan names for these days were replaced and influenced by the Hebrew Sabbath, day of rest, and the Latin Dominus dies, day of the Lord.

Germanic adaptations

History of time - Tyr and Tuesday

Tyr equated with Mars in an 18thC Icelandic Manuscript (ÍB 299 4)

As for our English words for the days, we’ve seen they bear traces of the Roman, but it’s a connection that’s been heavily filtered through centuries of Norse and Anglo-Saxon influences. Like the Romans before them, Germanic people also adopted the system of identifying the days with deities, this time simply replacing the Roman gods with the names of their own. Monday derives from the Old English Mōnandæg and Norse Mandag, associated with Mani the Norse goddess of the Moon; Tuesday is associated with the Norse god Tyr, a warrior god like Mars, whose name in Old English gave us Tīwesdæg; Wednesday derives from Odin’s or Wōdensdæg, like the Roman god Mercury, Odin (Anglo-Saxon Wōden) played a part in guiding souls to the realms of the dead; Thor gave his name to Torsdæg or Thursday, sharing Jupiter’s association with the sky and thunder; Frigg, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of love, gives her name to Frīgedæg or Friday; strangely, Saturday retained its Roman deity, becoming Sæturnesdæg in Old English; and finally Sunday comes from the Old English Sunnandæg, deriving from the Norse sun goddess Sunna or Sól.

As for the months…

History of time - Januarius

January from the print series ‘The Months’ by Jacobus Harrewyn. Engraving, 1698. Held in the collection of The British Museum

The months are brought to us by the Romans again, who followed a similar naming method to the days to begin with, before, it seems, losing their creative flair as they approached the end of the year. Originally the Roman calendar began with March or Martius, named for one of their favourite deities Mars. Aprilis came next, named from the Latin word aperire, meaning ‘to open’, and sacred to goddess Venus. Maius (May) and Junius (June) were named for the goddesses Maia (a deity of springtime and growth) and Juno (the goddess of marriage and childbirth). When we reach July and August though, the calendar gets a reshuffle…

As we mentioned above, originally the Roman calendar (borrowed from the Greeks) had only 10 months, and as the fifth and sixth months of the year, July and August were once known as Quintilis and Sextilis. However, under the authority of Julius Caesar in 46BCE, two additional months were added to the year, in order to better synchronise the year with the seasons and tie in with the 12 lunar cycles of the moon. These were Januarius, named after the Roman god Janus (god of doors and beginnings) and Februarius, named after an ancient festival of purification known as Februa. At first, these two months formed the end of the year, but were later moved to the beginning (which explains the odd positioning of the leap year in the modern calendar). Quintilis and Sextilis, now out of order in the calendar, were renamed Julius (July) after Caesar himself, and Augustus (you guessed it, August) after his great-nephew and Rome’s first emperor Augustus.

History of time - Roman Maias

Maias from a Roman mosaic of the months (from El Djem, Tunisia, first half of 3rd century AD) Picture Credit: Ad Meskens

And as for the rest of the months? Well, here’s where the creativity runs out. September, October, November and December are also named after the Roman numbers 7 (septem), 8 (octo), 9 (novem) and 10 (decem). After January and February were moved to the beginning of the year, these too were placed out of order numerically. Though later emperors had a go at changing the names of the months (Caligula insisted that September be renamed Germanicus, after his father, and Nero had a go at renaming April Neronium), unsurprisingly, none of these stuck, and so the original names were kept.

So, if, like us, you’re struggling with the slow passage of time and uncertainties of the year ahead, take comfort in the knowledge that January, though it may be a bleak time of year, is named for the god of gateways and new beginnings. Time will pass, and whether you’re counting in days, weeks or months, lockdown too will pass.

The history of the rubber duck

It turns out there’s a national day for EVERYTHING, and the 13th January just so happens to be Rubber Duck Day! As we could all do with some light distraction, here’s a brief history of our beloved bath-time bud…

The earliest version of a ‘rubber duck’ first appeared in the late 1800s, when American chemist Charles Goodyear (later of tyre fame) invented vulcanised rubber – that’s rubber hardened via a process of heating with sulphur, making it pliable, mouldable and, most importantly, waterproof. Though, of course, the production of rubber toys wasn’t the original intended purpose of the process, they certainly turned out to be a happy bi-product!

The first ducks manufactured weren’t like the ducks we know today. For a start they were solid, weighty creatures which, unsurprisingly, didn’t float all that well (if at all!). In fact, the first rubber ducks were intended to be used a chew toys, for both babies and dogs alike, so you can imagine how unforgiving they might have been on tiny teeth!

E. Shannahan’s patent for a duck aquatic toy, filed 1931, from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that the rubber duck’s association with bath-time began to materialise as a way of luring reluctant children into the tub for a much-needed scrub! Around this time, two separate duck bath toy products were developed, the first born from the mind of an inventor from Maryland, and the other from an unlikely collaboration between the Walt Disney Company and a latex manufacturer.

The first, invented in 1931 by Eleanor Shannahan of Maryland USA, was designed as an aquatic toy that could sit either above or below the surface of the bath, and would emit jets of water from the mouth and other small holes. In her own words, the toys would “produce a fountain like effect, and enable the playing of pranks by one person on another by the squirting of a fine stream of spray upon the face or other parts of a person”.  You can even view the original patent for the toy here.

As for Disney, their collaboration with Seiberling Latex Products in 1938 enabled them to create ‘bath floater’ toys, of which the most popular pair were of course Donald and Donna Duck. (N.B. A bit of Disney trivia for you all, Donna Duck was later renamed Daisy Duck, first appearing as Daisy in the film Mr. Duck Steps Out in 1940).

Images from P. Ganine’s patent for a toy duck, 1947, from the United States Patent and Trademark Office

Rubber ducks really hit the big time when in 1947, a sculptor called Peter Ganine filed a patent for a duck toy that he had created out of vinyl. Painted bright yellow and including their famous ‘squeaker’, the ducks were reproduced in their thousands and sold across the world. Then, in 1970, their fame grew to new heights when the song ‘Rubber Duckie’ was featured on Sesame Street, sung by everyone’s favourite character Ernie. The song was such a hit that it even made it to number 11 in the Billboard Charts in 1971!

Since then, rubber ducks have been making bath-time play-time for children (and grown-ups) around the world. Along with the iconic yellow and orange design, variants now exist in their hundreds, from every colour imaginable, to ducks masquerading as Romans and Vikings. The list goes on and on…

So, which rubber duckie is YOUR favourite?

St Neots’ sporting heroes

If you’re thinking of taking up a new sport or joining an exercise class this January, then you’ll be in good company! St Neots has a proud sporting heritage, much of which is celebrated in the museum with displays on some of the town’s sporting heroes…

Until the industrial revolution of the early 1800s, everyday life was strenuous enough to keep most working people fit.  Many local men were farm workers, and women’s lives, before the invention of the modern washing machine and vacuum cleaner, involved daily heavy labour. It was during the early Victorian period, as the population increased dramatically and people began to move away from the land and into towns, that organised team games for men (sadly there were very few organised women’s sports at that period!) began to become popular.

St Neots Rowing Club Eight in 1947

When the Reverend William Maule became the Rector of Eynesbury in 1851, a talented and experienced sportsman arrived in the town. Maule excelled at cricket and rowing, and while at Trinity College, Cambridge he’d been President of the Trinity Boat Club. By 1865 he had established St Neots Rowing Club which produced many fine rowers, including Laurie Evans, who was a member of many winning crews in the 1920s and 1930s.

As the enthusiasm for organised sports grew, many new clubs were formed in the town. St Neots Cricket Club, dating back to the 1840s, has had a chequered career, but other sports thrived. Cycling also took off as a sport in the late Victorian period, after Dunlop patented the pneumatic tyre in 1888, and the St Neots Cycling Club formed as early as 1887. An early champion of the club was E. J. Bass of Eynesbury who was a rider of national importance. The photograph below is thought to show him in 1899 after he had won the mile race at the Spring meeting of the Surrey Cycling Club, held at the Kennington Oval (one of the most important meetings of the cycling calendar). The First Prize of a silver claret jug and silver beakers can be seen in the photograph.

E.J Bass, 1899

Another talented sportsman who threw himself into the sporting life of the town was C.G. Tebbutt, who moved to the town from Bluntisham in 1889. Not only was he a gifted skater and ice hockey (bandy) player, he was also an outstanding speed skater holding three world speed skating records in 1891. At different times in the 1890s, Tebbutt captained both the St Neots football club and the cricket club.

Champion jockey Otto Madden was also educated at the Eaton Socon Academy, Peppercorns Lane in the 1880s.  He was the most successful British jockey between 1888 and 1918, and Champion Jockey in 1898, 1901 and 1903.

Women were also keen sports players, but found it much harder to break into the world of organised sports. However, Eaton Socon Ladies’ Hockey Club formed in late 1898, and already by 1894, St Neots Golf Club (founded 1890) was holding a Ladies Monthly Prize competition, with a final in the April of the following year.

St Neots & District Football Club, 1925

Football became an increasingly important part of national life in the 1950s and 1960s, several local boys became professional players, including Chris Turner, Terry Oakley and Christopher Jones. The most well-known of our local footballing hero’s was John Gregory of Longsands school, who played for England in the 1983 – 84 season and later went on to a successful career as a team coach and manager.

As the opportunities for ice hockey declined with warmer winters, and with the development of the Little Barford Power Station upstream of St Neots Common, field hockey became a popular sport, with the St Neots club boasting teams of both men and women players. The town’s moment of glory in the hockey world came when local player, Anthony Ekins, was selected to play for both England and Great Britain between 1966 and 1972. He played for Great Britain in the 1968 Mexico Olympics and captained the British team at the Munich Olympics in 1972. More recently, the triumph of the GB women’s hockey team, who took Gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has made hockey the fastest growing participation sport in the UK.

Hockey match with Tony Ekins on far right, about1970

Many other sports flourished in the post war period. Philip Cole played table tennis at county level and was National Student Table Tennis Champion in 1982. The St Neots Outdoor Bowls Club was formed in 1920, and member Joyce Brittain, nėe Hodson, was a very talented outdoor and indoor bowls player. She reigned as the Cambridgeshire Ladies Singles Champion for most of the 1950s, and played outdoor bowls for England to International level in 1961 – 63. Her son, Roger Brittain, was also an excellent bowls player at both club and county level.

Finally, in the twenty-first century running has become an increasingly popular sport, with thousands of people taking to the pavements. The St Neots Riverside Runners were established in 1987 and remain a very successful club, organising many local runs including the Riverside 10K run and the St Neots Half Marathon.

It’s impossible to cover everything in this brief article, so if you have any information and / or photographs about local sports that you would like to pass on to St Neots Museum, please do contact me (the Curator) via email at curators@stneotsmuseum.org.uk. Photographs can be copied and returned.

Yule – Christmas’ Pagan ancestor

The 21st December 2020 is the Winter Solstice, which traditionally marks the beginning of Yule, a pre-Christian festival still in part celebrated in Scandinavian and Germanic societies. Whilst it’s easy to get wrapped up (pun intended) in the jollities and frivolities of Christmas, we thought we’d take a moment to look at its distinctly pagan roots…

Odin by Carl Emil Doepler (1824-1905)

Like with many pagan beliefs, Yule is centred around the sun. The modern word ‘Yule’ has a few possible etymological origins; in Old Norse Jól or Jul could refer to a feast to the sun, and formed part of one of the many names given to the chief god Odin who was often known as the Jólfadr or Yul-father due to his strong association with the sun. It could also be used as a general term attributed to the gods associated with the Yule festival – the Jólnar or ‘Yule-Ones’.

In Anglo-Saxon, the word hwéol is attributed to meaning ‘wheel’, and was associated with the ‘wheeling points’ that the sun travels through throughout the year (the summer and winter solstices being two such points). In addition, géol or geōla, was the name attributed to a month of the year which fell between modern December and January… So you can see, it’s hard to pin the etymology down for sure!

Yule and reverence to the sun

Though the possible origins of Yule may be varied, in Germanic, Celtic and Saxon societies, the significance of the Yule period and the celebrations attributed to the festival are all broadly the same. Rather than being observed on a single day, Yule begins on the Winter Solstice, and lasts from 12days to a month, depending on the belief system. Interestingly, though the Winter Solstice normally falls on the 21st/22nd December in our modern calendar, under the Julian Calendar (named after the emperor Julius Caesar), the solstice actually fell on the 25th December itself.

Die Gartenlaube (1880) Illustration of an ancient Nordic Yule Festival

For early societies, December was a bleak and uncertain time of the year, and the fear that the sun may not return unless appeased drove the practices associated with Yule. On the solstice and the 12 days following, Celts welcomed the ‘new’ sun, though its arrival was by no means guaranteed. This was a time to pray to the Yule deities to ensure the sun’s return, and that it would bring with it fertile and bountiful lands in the year to come. Feasts were thrown, and fires lit to symbolically ‘recall’ the sun.

The Yule Log

The most well-known tradition associated with Yule involves the ‘Yule Log’, though unsurprisingly, this hasn’t always been made of chocolate like the version that many enjoy today. During the 12day period of Yule, Celtic tribes believed that the sun stood still in the sky, and it was tradition to keep a Yule Log burning to coax it back into moving again, as well as to conquer the darkness and banish evil spirits. Anglo-Saxon tales of the Yule Log, or geolstocc, attest to whole tree trunks being used as the ‘log’, which were progressively fed into the fire as they burnt down. The end of each year’s log was kept in order to light the log in the following year. This, along with the ashes from the log, were kept in order to ward off a range of misfortunes from toothaches and chilblains to hail and even lightning!

Other practices that we’re familiar with today included bringing evergreens, such as holly, ivy and mistletoe, into the home as a reminder of the return spring and new life in the new year. Mistletoe in particular was hung above doorways as a symbol of hospitality and to ward off evil spirits.

Wodan’s Wilde Jagd (Wild Hunt) by F. W. Heine

The ‘Wild Hunt’

For both Norse and Anglo-Saxon societies, certain gods (like the Jólnar mentioned above) were associated with Yule. The chief god Odin (or Woden in Anglo-Saxon) was believed to lead a host of other deities on a ‘wild hunt’ across the night sky, which would carry away the souls of the dead, along with any unsuspecting members of the living if they strayed too far from the hearth at night! Sacrifices were therefore made to ensure the safety of the household, and a ‘Yule Boar’ centrepiece was often part of Yule feasts as a symbolic recognition of the hunt.

Introduction of Christianity

With many pagan traditions such as this, however, the introduction of Christianity ensured that Yule began to take more of a back seat in December celebrations, though references to Yule or ‘Yuletide’ are found peppered throughout history. In Robert Herrick’s book ‘Ceremonies for Christmas’ written in the late 16th century, he makes reference to the Yule Log, saying:

“Come, bring with a noise,
my merry, merry boys,
the Christmas log to the firing”

Yule Log from Robert Chamber Book of Days 1864

Victorians were also keen on the idea of the Yule Log, bringing albeit smaller versions into their homes to burn for 12hours, rather than the 12days as originally practiced. Christmas Trees also became popular in England in this period, the origins of the practice developing from the importance of evergreens in pagan Yule festivities. As for the cake form of the Yule Log, it’s recorded as early as the 19th century, first appearing in the bakeries of Paris.

You may not recognise Yule itself, or celebrate the birth of a new year at the solstice, but elements of the festival will certainly be present in your home. Whether you go for that chocolatey dessert, decorate a Christmas Tree, or have greenery (the real deal or representations) around your home, these elements can all be traced back to this pagan festival celebrated long before Christmas…


However you celebrate the festive season, we wish you a happier and healthier 2021!