Sunday, 10 December 2017

What the Heck is a Pecamoid?

Language drifts over time, spellings alter, expressions change their meaning, but some words leave the vocabulary altogether and sometimes we come across words whose meaning is not at all clear.

I was recently researching for an historical – a straight adventure yarn set in Holmesian London, 1900, late in the Victorian age, full of peasoup fog, horse traction, pollution and gaslight, and was lucky enough to come across the holy grail of locational research tools, “georeferenced maps” in the collection of the National Library of Scotland. Researchers turned up a highly detailed survey of London produced in the middle years of the last decade of the 19th century, and the charts were digitally cleaned up and stitched together to form a continuous scrolling map of unprecedented detail.

This is the Limehouse region of the East End, as it looked when Holmes and Watson were at large.

This amazing resource offers London as it was, surveyed between 1893 and 1896, at the enormous scale of five feet to the mile – fine enough to chart individual trees and the stair cases of large buildings. The real value is that it is a glimpse of the London that no longer exists, because when this period map is overlaid on a modern map to the same scale (which the online tool provides, with a slider bar to move between then and now as degrees of transparency) the redevelopments of the last hundred years, including rebuilding after the Blitz, are all too apparent. Whole streets and section are relaid – ancient street names still exist and main thoroughfares remain, but side streets, whole blocks, are gone, and names reappear on streets moved significantly from their historic location. The appalling terrace houses where labourers lived are gone utterly, as are the industries in which they worked, where lead smelters and iron foundries, rubber and other chemical works lay, literally, across the street from schools and homes. There was no notion of the effects of pollution, or, if there was, it was dismissed as the lot of the poor compelled to endure it.

            I selected the locality for my story in Limehouse – there had to be a Far East connection – and walked the area by scrolling the map. Amazing to see every street, house, shop, factory, church and pub, barely a stone of which still exists! But there, fronting the Regent Canal, one factory among many, close to the “Salvation Army Barracks,” is marked on the map: “Pecamoid Works.” The term is baldly given, as if an every day term everyone should know.
            I have a pretty wide vocabulary, and at least one obscure term suggested itself to me, but I did it the usual way and Googled the word – no hits. The word seemed to be gone from the language, and it took a more detailed search to find even oblique reference in the texts of volumes. One reference was in fact back to the map, therefore of no use, but another was to an agricultural trade publication of 1921 – not the volume itself, but an online archiving of a crude and uncorrected optical character recognition pass of it. The word appeared in the context of “Naval pecamoid coats” in association with supplies for pig farmers, and that was the clue.
            “Pecarry” is an old word for some species of pig, and it would appear that “pecamoid” was a 19th century term for pigskin treated to become waterproof. Therefore that factory was a specialist tannery. I’m pretty sure of the deductive pathway, but the paucity of information leaves room for doubt, and as the merest passing mention in the narrative it warrants no further attention. Maybe one day I’ll confirm or refute this curious bit of fluff.
            It’s interesting what old documents turn up; it certainly underlines the difference 120 years can make, even in a modern metropolis whose great landmarks have been unchanging for centuries. The small details are in constant flux, and over time whole regions shift in character. All the filthy industry of the old East End is gone as if it never was, the docklands have become trendy marinas for up-market types who work in towers in The City, and the character of London has evolved as surely as the language.
            For those seeking the hard facts of the topography of London in the era of Conan Doyle, HG Wells and their contemporaries, this map is a go-to source. I used it for a number of details in the current project, and fully expect to use it in future to chart the course of action on streets that once were, but are long gone to the march of progress.

Here are some period photos of the Limehouse dock region as it was around the turn of the last century, the sort of world I'm trying to evoke in prose. The picture at top is an aerial view taken around 1928 of the Regent Docks, with the Regent Canal heading off obliquely at upper left – that's where the action happens.

Cheers, Mike Adamson

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