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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Violets, Lace, Huguenots, Devon, and Bonaparte: Some Musings

I have been recalling family history recently. In doing so I was reminded of my Victorian born grandmother who in Spring always bought bunches of violets from the florist shop to place in a vase in the dining room. Because this was in Bristol, in The West Country, they were often described as 'Devon Violets'. I guess whether they came from Devon or elsewhere. Devon was to Bristolians of the 1950s where we went on holiday. To my grandmother it is where her family came from. It is true nonetheless that Devon was well known for growing violets commercially, as were other southern counties such as Kent, Sussex, and Cornwall, Originally wild violets grew profusely in these places; only later, with the coming of the railways, could growers make a profit from flowers being sold further afield.

Not only violets themselves became part of Victorian consumerism, but vases emblazoned with legends such as 'A Present from Devon', and more luxurious still was the manufacture of violet perfume water sold in attractive pottery or glass bottles bearing similar messages. You can still find them in Gift Shops today.

As a Bristolian myself, I was one of those that thought of the county of Devon as something other-worldly, an English Shangri-la. A place where not only the soil and the cliffs turned red but the buses too. Bristol buses were a rather drab green, Devon buses were a magnificent red. As a child I had a fascination with buses, which isn't entirely dead yet! Devon spoke of beaches, the sea, and delicious ice creams, but above all freedom.

The family history that links me with Devon is itself of interest. My grandmother's maiden name was Marles, and my father carried it as his middle name. Marles is not an English surname but a French one, taken from a village in Northern France. The family were Huguenots (French Protestants) and like many others sought sanctuary in England in the 17th century when France turned against them. My family, like many, settled in Devon. In our case in a small village, Uley, near to the town of Crediton. Others refugees settled on the coast in the fishing port of Beer, where they brought their lace making craft. I can just remember as a small child seeing lacemakers sitting outside their cottages in the High Street in order to maximise the natural light. Sadly lacemaking and lacemakers all gone today.

Well, I said this was musings and I am a long way from where I began and have yet to mention Napoleon. So let me turn again to violets.

The history and Folklore of violets raises some interesting questions, such as

When was the first florist shop to sell cut flowers opened? The answer is as late as 1875 - Victorian consumerism was then entering its heyday. Before this such shops, as existed, only sold flower arrangements. However, you could purchase cut flowers in city or town markets, as well as from door to door flower sellers, many of whom were Romanies, who took them from nature. Incidentally florists selling flower arrangements began in The Netherlands as growers sought to maximise profits. Interestingly, for my American readers, the first record of such a shop selling these arrangements comes from New Castle in Pennsylvania in 1852. The development in the late 19th century of a whole horticultural industry comes about because of greater urbanisation, an expanding middle class with money to spend, middle class wives with time to devote to all things horticultural (such as employment of gardeners, use of glass houses, flower arranging), and finally, as mentioned above, railways to take the flowers swiftly from countryside to town.

Today, one barely sees violets on sale. I suspect because with central heating they wilt very quickly. Moreover, we are anxious about the planet and certainly wouldn't wish to tajk the risk that such a flower had been illegally picked from the wild.

Now, finally, to Napoleon and English folkore. The violet is the flower of The House of Bonaparte (they were sold on the streets and in the markets of Paris as much as they were in London in the early 19th century). Supporters of Napoleon adopted the violet as a symbol of their loyalty in 1814, when their Emperor was first exiled to Elba. He would, they said, 'come again, like violets in The Spring'. Henry Mayhew, the English social commentator on the street and market traders of London, tells the story of one flower seller he spoke to who told him that the first purchaser of Spring violets every year always said the same thing, 'You've come like Bonaparte with your violets'. Mayhew explained to the seller that this was a reference to the Bonapartists' use of the violet as their emblem.

In English folklore boiled violets in water were meant to protect against cancer, heal wounds, and even cure headaches (much like lavender).

So don't smell the coffee, but smell the violets instead!

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