Truth behind lucky charms.
It was a mistake, for it might well have produced ideas for this column. This week, only 15 or so years late, I'm making up for it with news of an exhibition called Charmed Life.
Folklorist Edward Lovett, though dismissive of the idea amulets and good luck charms could work as magical objects, did make his younger son carry an amulet against the dangers at the Front during World War I. I confess to being less so. Among my collection is a flint pebble with a hole through it and a black pebble shot through with quartz in bizarre figure of eight shape. Then there's the pool table eight ball cut in half with my initials engraved on the white spot. Eight's my lucky number - I once had a holiday job making snooker and pool balls.
Cockney Edward Lovett (1852-1933), who was born within the sound of the Bow Bells, amassed a huge collection of objects mostly relating to his passion for folklore, charms, amulets and superstitions. He worked for much of his life at the Bank of Scotland in London, rising to the rank of Chief Cashier, but his hobby was making collecting trips to working-class areas where he acquired material from sites such as herbalist shops, the barrows of costermongers and dockyards.
He gave lectures on the subject and wrote numerous articles, which brought him into contact with museum curators and fellow collectors. Among them was Henry Wellcome and his curatorial staff. The fruits of this relationship were the exhibition The Folklore of London, curated by Lovett, and held in the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1916.
His exhibitions elsewhere in England and Wales were reviewed in the national press, some becoming permanent exhibits, and he donated many objects to Oxford University's Pitt Rivers Museum between 1896 and 1911. During the late 1880s, he was President of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society and after joining the Folklore Society in 1900, he presented it with talks and published papers in its Journal.
Lovett did not venture into theorising on folklore, confining his research to the collection of talismans and other objects with superstitious claims, many of which are currently on show in Euston Road. His book Magic in Modern London, published in 1925, is a fascinating accompaniment to the exhibition.
Take the "left-handed whelk shell", more correctly termed the reverse univalve shell, for example. Lovett relates how such shells are exceedingly rare with more than one whelk stall owner telling him they had never seen one in their lives. Until he was introduced to Old Charlie, who kept a whelk store in Shoreditch.
He writes: "One day during the war he told me that three of his chums went out to the Front together. To use Charlie's own words: 'I had two of them lucky left-handed whelks, which I gave to my two best chums, but I hadn't any to give to the other man. Well, guv'nor, p'raps you won't believe it but them two I gave shells to come home without a scratch! As for that other poor chap, nobody ever saw him again. He was blowed up in a Dump, he was! I wish I'd had another o' them whelks for him'."
Or there's the fishy tale of "buying wind". On a visit to Billingsgate in about 1912, Lovett noticed a penny nailed to the mast of a small boat. One of the crew explained that it had been found in the stomach of a cod. "When sailing boats are becalmed, one of the crew will climb the mast and throw a penny into the sea 'to buy wind'. Them pennies never reach the bottom. As they sink, they wobble about and some fish - usually a cod - sees 'em and goes for 'em." Thus the penny found inside a fish brings good luck and a fair wind.
This next one was echoed by an "object" on last Sunday's Antiques Roadshow: the dried and preserved amniotic sac or filmy membrane taken from a new-born baby. Lovett refers to it as a child's "caul", a portion of the sac covering the baby's head. Anyone carrying the "charm" beneath their clothing would be protected from drowning.
An advertisement in 1779 offered a caul for sale for 20 guineas. Levett recounts how, prior to the outbreak of the Great War, he purchased two specimens for 18 pence each (that's 1/6 in old money or 7' new pence). Some time after the outbreak of the Great War, he was offered another in the London Docks for pounds 2 because "the submarine has made life at sea so terribly risky and caused such fear that all the old superstitions have revived".
The "unknown mascot" is also worth recording. During the Great War, a mother's only son is called up and, upset, she pleads with him to take a lucky mascot with him. He declines but unknown to her son, she sews a small carnelian stone pendant inside the lining of his tunic. He returns without a scratch.
Similarly, the "soldier's farthing" sewn into the tunic, shirt collar of pair of braces, on the left side so it is nearest the wearer's heart brought protection from the Almighty. Since the coin bears a likeness of the monarch who is also the recognised representative of God, the soldier therefore is likely to enjoy the benefits of Divine intervention.
A collection of amulets and lucky charms would make a fascinating diversion, whether you believe in them or not.
Neolithic find inspired lifelong interest in collecting HENRY Wellcome (1853-1936), later Sir Henry, was born in a log cabin in Wisconsin and as a boy, apparently found a Neolithic stone arrowhead among some Indian burial grounds. It sparked a lifelong interest in collecting.
Cutting a long story short, he left school at 13 to work in his uncle's drug store. After lessons in chemistry and physics, and evening classes at the prestigious Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, he and business partner Silas Burroughs set off to launch a drug company in London, arriving off the boat in Liverpool in 1879.
Both were destined to become millionaires, allowing Wellcome to fund his voracious appetite for collecting. In 1898, he founded the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, employing buying agents and dealers all over Europe to acquire books and objects on an almost industrial scale.
Among those who beat a path to his door was Edward Lovett, whose exhibition The Folklore of London was held in the museum in 1916.
Wellcome acquired the Euston Road site in 1930. Building work took two years and the Bureau of Tropical Scientific Research, the Museum of Medical Science, the Historical Medical Museum and the Chemical Research Laboratories were moved in.
It is fitting that 1,400 items from Levett's collection should go back on public exhibition. It runs until February 26 and admission is free.
RIGHT: 'The acorn real and copied would suggest a safeguard against the dangers of lightning. Hence we find the knobs if window blinds made as models of acorns for it is a popular idea that lightning comes in at the window when it strikes a house' BELOW: 'The front feet of a mole are permanently curved for digging, and this curved appearance is so suggestive of cramp that these feet are carried as a cure for cramp.' RIGHT: An ammonite carved with a snake's head. 'I remember seeing ammonites and other fossils placed on the outside window ledges of cottages. The mischievous village boy never interfered with these, although so invitingly placed. I found the reason was that they were thunderbolts! That was quite enough' ABOVE: 'I found that the wives of fishermen, nursing babies, [in Venice] kept a dried sea horse on their breasts to facilitate the flow of milk...' RIGHT: On September 9 in 1872 in Southampton, George Yeofound aged 88 years wrote with a steady hand in ink on both sides of a small disc of paper, the size of a small coin. The writing so small it is really only legible when magnified. The edges of the paper are cut into points in order for it to wrap around the edge of the coin. Worn as an amulet by a soldier during World War I. RIGHT: 'The horse shoe, as everyone knows, is great magic, but opinions vary as to the conditions under which it becomes lucky' LEFT: 'The exceedingly simple but very beautiful symbolism of the shoe is that it typifies the path of life. They were used as boxes for dominoes, flower vases, ink bottles, pin holders, tape measures, scent bottles, match boxes, snuff boxes, and the modern satin shoes for throwing at weddings' RIGHT: 'A small stone with a natural hole through it is thought to be lucky if found unexpectedly! or given to one. It must not be looked for, asked for, or bought.'