Friday, 22 October 2010

Bags of confidence is what you need

Stately Homes always seem to have a crumbling facade in need of restoration. The Guides are often very little better, even those who have already been partially restored. When you enter those stately dimly-lit rooms there's always an effigy in the corner, which might just be the family ghost, but is more likely a Guide, who's been there for 5 hours already and is bored to tears because there's nothing to do but stare at a bombe commode and a couple of dismal portraits of the 6th and 10th Earls and their dreary wives.

I always try to chirp them up by egging them on to divulge scurrilous confidences about the present Earl and an actress or a choir-boy. "I did hear from a chum of mine who goes to the same London club as his Lordship..." I say, and then pause to judge their reaction before completing the sentence. Often the blue-rinsed response is decidedly frosty,which can be quite amusing in itself, if you adopt the naive but knowing, nudge-nudge Sacha Baron-Cohen ('Borat') approach, but its surprising what juicy details some little old ladies seem to know. I suspect some of them make it up, so in the end we don't know who is pulling who's leg. More fun than staring at Chippendale chairs though.

I went to Tyntesfield House recently, a Victorian Gothic extravaganza in North Somerset now owned by the National Trust. I'm not going to tell you what the Guide told me about the previous Earl of Wraxall, but the story of how the family made its fortune was very interesting.

Antony Gibbs, who started the business empire on which the splendour of Tyntesfield House was built, was the son of an Exeter surgeon, but he decided against following his father into medicine. Instead, he became a shipping trader, and eventually was attracted into the exciting world of guano, the droppings of sea-birds. Mountains of guano many feet deep could be found along the coast of South America. When the first shipment was made in 1842, it was a huge gamble, but the guano was an instant success and it rapidly became Britain's most popular fertiliser. The enormous edifice of Tyntesfield is thus in effect built on a sound financial foundation of guano.

The Guide told me that these shipments of manure had to be kept dry during the voyage, otherwise fermentation would occur and methane gas was formed. Then strike a match down there in the hold and BOOM! a sinking ship. So the bags of dry guano always had to be stamped with the instruction 'Stow High In Transit' so that the sailors would not stow it in the depths of the ship where the bilge-water could reach them.

And thus was evolved the acronym "S.H.I.T.".

I'd always thought it was a golfing term.

1 comment:

  1. A friend of mine has just written to point out that the above is a load of shite, as it is a myth that was debunked some time ago (see

    My informant also points out that the past participle of the well-known Anglo-Saxon word is shitten, which is nothing whatever to do with angry kittens trapped in clothing drawers.

    Obscure etymology but I see what she means, probably derived from the Early Readers books, "The cat shat on the mat".