Monday, November 15, 2004

Nevermore!

The Guardian has reported that the story that the monarchy would fall if the ravens left the Tower of London is, in fact, tosh and baloney. It was invented by the Victorians.

But this is only the beginning of the sort of blood-curdling saga of skullduggery that regular readers will now be familiar with.

In the early 19th century, East London had a healthy population of ravens, although they were not particularly associated with the Tower. They were much loved by the people of the East End for their ability to be taught simple tricks such as riding small penny farthings and juggling, and they were also useful for scaring away rats.

This changed in 1845 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven. This charming and lighthearted story for children catapulted the large, black birds into the American popular imagination, and they swiftly became prized pets thanks to the easygoing and kind behaviour towards small children. The dark flipside of this was that the United States' population of ravens was swiftly depleted, and a trade in raven smuggling sprang up, aided by the East End's gangs of rogue ninjas.

Within months, the streets of East London were almost completely denuded of ravens. A mass petition was raised for the government to intervene and save the cherished birds, touching the heart of the young Queen Victoria. She ordered that no expense be spared in rounding up the birds and transporting them to the safety of the Tower.

This operation was a success, but hugely expensive. With the rest of the country questioning why so much money and time had been devoted to the wildlife of East London, a scandal was threatened.

Resourcefully, Victoria secured the services of a pamphleteer named Jerome Oundle. Oundle published a weekly title called The Illuminated London News. The ILN first appeared in 1830, when it was published on a shoestring. However, Oundle realised this made it very difficult to read and switched over to paper to publish his round-up of invented facts about the capital. By 1845 it was a modest success.

Oundle was asked to come up with a convincing story as to why it was in the national interest to herd the ravens into the Tower. His first attempt, claiming that ink produced from the raven black feathers was critical to the production of railway timetables, was widely derided. The scandal was turning from a minor row into a catastrophic farce, with the good name of the young Queen in peril and with it, the future of the monarchy. The public demanded that the Crown release the ravens from the Tower so that the remarkable inky properties of their feathers could be tested. Oundle said that this could never be allowed, and that to release the ravens now would cause the fall of the monarchy. The ploy worked.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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