Mysteries of the Mad Hatter’s tea party

TeapartyWhat happened at this week’s Book for Breakfast? We read the chapter of Alice in Wonderland in which Alice sits down to tea with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse.

‘No room! No room!’ cries the party, but Alice could see perfectly well that there was plenty of room, and joined them.

Much of the conversation turned out to be nonsense. However, by consulting the book The Annotated Alice, edited by Martin Gardner, we did find out that there were explanations behind many of the eccentric things mentioned – characters, situations or places that might have inspired Lewis Carrol.

The first of these was the Mad Hatter himself. You might know already that hat-makers in this period were often badly affected by the mercury they used in their work, sometimes behaving oddly. But the book revealed that there was an unusual gentleman called Theophilus Carter, known as the Mad Hatter, who lived in Oxford in this period. He always wore a top hat, and came up with inventions such as the alarm clock bed that would tip the sleeper out automatically at a set time.

There was also the mention of an incident at Lewis Carroll’s own rooms, where he stayed in Christ Church college, Oxford, that might explain the song Alice sings: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little bat, how I wonder what you’re at.Binsey

The story went that Carroll kept toys and games there to amuse children visitors, one of which was a flying toy bat. On a hot day, it flew out of the window and made someone drop a tea-tray.

Finally, there was the question of the treacle well. The girls who live in the well, according to the story, are Elsie, Lacie and Tillie. These are a play on the names of Alice and her sisters. L C is Alice’s older sister Lorina Charlotte. Lacie is an anagram of Alice. And Tillie is short for Matilda, Alice’s younger sister’s nickname.

But the treacle well? It’s a real spring, famed in Victorian times for its supposedly health-giving waters. You can see it today in the village of Binsey, near Oxford, as well as in the picture above.

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