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mazpuke3.GIF (425 bytes) British book about Latvia (1931)


Not so much information on Latvia in English could be found before the WW2. I own only a book that quite possibly was one of the most available. I think this book is interesting, because it shows what its author from Britain found in Latvia worth to tell the readers.

So some fragments of the book The Baltic States by Hebe Spaull are copied here. The book was published in 1931 by the publishing house A&C. Black, Ltd. in London in the series Peeps at many Lands. I have chosen 3 chapters concerning Latvia. There was another chapter that described history of Latvia that I did not include here. I thought it should be followed by too many comments. As for chapters published here, they also contain information I could comment on, but I thought it was not needed to. I just corrected an obvious misprint, and I can add that the Zoo exists now; but the buildings of the old gasworks of Riga, that the author valued so much, do not. The House of Blackheads was destroyed during the WW2 and was rebuild recently.

I have no information about the author of the book - Hebe Spaull. I even had to consult my dictionary of English person names in order to discover that the name Hebe should be a female first name. If you have any information about her, please, contact me.
This appeal for information was heard, and Richard Miller, a grandson of her brother, informed me about the author of this text - H.Spaull. This information is made available on this Site. Thank you, Robert!


CHAPTER III Riga and other Latvian towns
CHAPTER IV Latvian peasant life
CHAPTER V Latvians at play

This is the text written in 1930 by Hebe Spaull:


I am afraid there are some young people to whom Riga is but a name, and who know little more about the capital of Latvia than that conveyed in the old limerick:

" There was a young lady of Riga
Who went for a ride on a tiger.
They came back from that ride
With the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger."

Unfortunately the name of the town does not rhyme with "tiger," nor are there any tigers on which to take rides, for Riga no longer boasts a zoo. Before the war there was a very nice zoo in the forest around Riga, but the tigers and other wild animals have been sold, and in the summer the old zoo is turned into a holiday camp for children. The small boys who inhabit the old monkey house must, I fear, come in for a good deal of teasing from their friends. All the same, they appear to have a thoroughly good time.

Someone has described Riga as the "window of the Baltic."   It is certainly a very pleasant window and much may be seen from it.

We have already seen that Riga was founded at the beginning of the thirteenth century. In the later Middle Ages the port flourished as a member of the old Hanseatic League, that curious but powerful association of merchants in Northern Europe. Today, in Riga, you may wander along by the side of the River Daugava — or Dvina, as it was called in Russian — and find many quaint, narrow winding streets leading down to the water's edge. The old gabled buildings where the merchants lived and had their warehouses are still standing to remind us of the old Hanseatic days.

But the centre of the city is for the most part modern. The Russians have left little mark upon the architecture of the city except for a big Russian cathedral. Most of the other buildings are German in style and character.

Through the centre of the city runs a canal, and on either side is a small but very charming park. Strange to say, one of the most beautiful objects to be seen from the park is a disused gas-works. But so far from looking like gas-works the building looks like the tower of a medieval castle. The gas-works are now no longer used, for, owing to the great amount of water available as a source of power, electricity has taken the place of gas in the city.

Riga has a number of interesting old churches. One of these, St. Peter's, has the largest wooden spire in Europe. Another, now the Lutheran Cathedral, has beautiful stained glass windows and many fine old monuments.

One of the finest old buildings in Riga, and indeed in the whole of the Baltic States, is known as the House of Blackheads. The Blackheads are a society or club, formed in the fifteenth century, who took as their symbol a negro's head, the emblem of their patron saint, St. Mauritius.

There is a University at Riga, in which too, as it is the capital, are to be found the Parliament buildings and Government offices. Latvia, as we have seen, is a Republic. Everyone, whether man or woman, has the right to vote by secret ballot. The Parliament elects a President for three years. As in many other continental countries, there are a great many more political parties in Latvia than in Great Britain.

Although Riga is a river port, it is nearer to the sea than London. It was perhaps because ships can and do ply between London and Riga without necessarily calling at any other port en route that Napoleon called Riga a "suburb of London."

The way to the sea from Riga, if you choose to go by motor-bus, lies through beautiful forests. These forests lead right down to the sea. The forests extend over what are known as the "moving dunes." These "moving dunes" are sand hills which actually do move. Because they move, the forests are not allowed to be cut down, as the trees keep the dunes steady. This means that towns cannot be built along the seashore as they are in England. Instead, houses are built actually in the forest, with one or two small roads, with a few shops and houses, running through the forest. With the sea and forest so close together, the Baltic coast makes an ideal holiday centre for boys and girls.

The road from Riga to the coast, immediately out-side the city, passes what is probably one of the finest war memorials in the world. This takes the form of a beautiful cemetery in which all the Latvian soldiers who distinguished themselves by their bravery are buried. The cemetery is entered through an arch, finely sculptured by one of the chief Latvian sculptors, and at the far end, reached by a wide flight of steps, is an impressive monument to the fallen. The monument depicts the nation in the form of a woman, mourning the loss of her children. Near this war cemetery is another cemetery in the forest where Latvian statesmen are buried.

There are several other ports in Latvia besides Riga. The largest of these after Riga, and the second largest town in the country, is Liepaja, or Libau as it used to be called. This harbour is the base of the Latvian fleet. Unlike Riga, this port, which is on the western coast and not on the Gulf of Riga, is open all the year round, and even the largest liner can enter it. Before the war Liepaja had many prosperous industries, including iron and steel works, flour mills, and factories for the manufacture of colours and varnishes. Much of this prosperity has, unfortunately, been lost, though gradually some of the industries are being revived.

The third largest port is Ventspils, an old town on the mouth of the River Venta, with a medieval castle of the thirteenth century. The town is not only a port, but a favourite seaside holiday resort as well. There are several other ports in Latvia, but they are all quite small.

Of the other towns the largest after Liepaja is Daugavpils, formerly known as Dvinsk. This town, formerly a great Russian fortress, stands on the banks of the River Daugava, close to the Polish frontier. The town is surrounded by great ramparts, and inside the principal fort are lines and lines of barracks. Today Daugavpils is the chief training centre of the Latvian army.

Jelgava is another important Latvian town. In olden days it was the capital of the duchy of Courland, the province against the Baltic Sea. Although there are altogether fifty-seven towns in Latvia, they are, apart from those we have mentioned, quite small. This is not surprising when we remember that the country itself, although larger than Holland and Belgium put together, has only two million inhabitants. This is largely because it is primarily an agricultural and timber-producing state.


Villages such as we have in England are almost unknown in Latvia. Those that exist are for the most part to be found along the sea-coast and in the province of Latgale, which borders Russia. Elsewhere the Latvian chooses to live on isolated farms. For not only does he dislike change of any kind, but he is an " individualist." In other words, he does not care particularly for the society of his neighbours outside his own home and his own circle of friends.

Today there are two types of farms to be found in Latvia. There are the old farms which before the war the farmers leased from the big land-owners, who, as we have seen, were for the most part Baltic Barons. These have now passed into the ownership of the farmers, who have lived on them sometimes for many generations. The other type of farms are quite new and have been created out of the division of the great estates which, as we have seen, was carried out soon after the war in order to provide the poorer peasants with land. The farmers who own these new farms are usually much poorer than those on the old farms.

Most of the farm houses are built of timber and many of them are thatched with straw, which gives them a picturesque appearance. Some of the old farms, which may date back for as much as several centuries, are built of round logs, no saw having been used to fashion them. Here and there one may even find very old houses built in the form of tents. These are constructed of poles and covered with bark. Today such huts, where they exist, are generally used as wash-houses.

The farm house is usually surrounded by a number of outhouses. One of these is the barn or "Klets," as the Latvians call it. This is not only used to store the corn and salt meat for the winter, but it contains numerous heavy chests, usually brightly painted, filled with the Sunday clothes and other valuables of the family.

But the "Klets" is not only a place in which to store things. It serves as a bedroom for occasional guests, and when a wedding takes place at the farm the bridal pair spend the night there before leaving for their new home. It is in the Klets, too, that the farmer—or any member of his household — when he dies, is placed, under a roof of straw, before being laid to rest in the churchyard.

Another building of interest on a Latvian farm is the "Pirte." This is the bathroom, but it is quite different from our bathrooms. The "Pirte" is dug for the greater part into the earth. Inside is a huge stove made of rough boulders. When the family wishes to take a bath, the boulders are heated until they are a glowing red. Water is then poured on them and the bathers lie down on the benches to enjoy the steam bath. While lying down they beat themselves lightly with small brooms of fresh birch branches to encourage the circulation. In the winter-time after such a bath they will often rub themselves with frozen snow.

There is certain to be a small orchard attached to the farm, and almost certainly a small flower garden. The flower beds are usually tended by the young girls of the household. At the far end of the garden, in a quiet and sunny place, are the bee-hives. These are always the special care of grandfather, and for many hours he will sit, pipe in mouth, listening to the humming of the bees.

In the old days, rather more than a hundred years ago, there were many "honey trees," as the peasants called them, to be found in the forests. These trees were pines on which wild bees made their hives. Even today, in remote parts of the forests, such honey trees are still to be found. In olden times the peasants were allowed, on payment of a tax, to gather the products of these wild-bee hives.

One of the special features of many Latvian farms is fields of blue flax flowers. When the flax is ripe for plucking, everybody on the farm is needed to help gather in the harvest. Indeed, it is usual on such occasions for friends and neighbours to offer to help. When the day's work is over, the farmer's wife provides a grand meal for these friends, and all make merry. A dance usually follows the meal, the music being provided by a fiddle and an accordion. Such an occasion is described by the Latvians as a "Talka." The preparation of the flax for use provides plenty of work during the winter months for the menfolk. Moreover, much wood is needed for the fires as well as for building purposes, and groups of them must go into the forest to collect it.

In the meantime the women too are not idle. They spin wool and flax, and weave it into very durable material. Some of the ancient patterns are still woven into the material. These patterns are chiefly geometrical, the swastika often being seen. Unfortunately the picturesque national costumes are not much worn today in Latvia, but in some parts of the province of Kurzeme the women still wear them. The costume consists of bright red or black full skirts with white blouses richly embroidered, over which an embroidered shawl is thrown. The head-dress is curious and is usually highly decorated with coloured beads or bright metal ornaments. The chief food of the poorer peasants consists of potatoes and milk and black bread. On the larger farms such as we have been describing, the food will be much richer and more varied.

Although the peasants live on isolated farms, schools are provided for the children, and there is, in fact, practically no illiteracy in the country except amongst the Polish and Lithuanian minorities. Besides Poles and Lithuanians there are large German and Russian minorities, and special schools are provided wherever necessary for such people, so that their children may be taught in the language which they are accustomed to speak at home.


"Hard weeks, merry holidays," is a Latvian saying which suggests that if the people know how to work hard they also know how to enjoy themselves.

The chief Latvian holiday is St. John's Eve, June 23, or Lihgo's Day, as it is also called. Lihgo was a pagan goddess whose festival was celebrated at midsummer, when she was worshipped by the Latvians before they became Christians. When Christianity was introduced, the name of St. John was substituted for that of Lihgo, but although no one knows anything about Lihgo or how she was worshipped, songs are still sung in her honour as they were sung, probably, thousands of years ago.

St. John's Day is a day of flowers and songs. On that day work ends earlier than usual. Wreaths are fashioned, for everyone must wear wreaths on this day. Not only so, but all the rooms in the house are decorated with fresh leaves. The farm hands, clad in their Sunday best, with wreaths on their heads and bundles of flowers in their hands, will present themselves before the house of their master, singing an ancient song which begins with the words :

"Jahnit beat the drums of copper
Lihgo . . . Lihgo !"

There are innumerable verses to this song, but even so more will be improvised to make it last longer. When at last the farmer and his wife appear at the door of their house songs are sung in their praise, extolling the generosity and the good food they expect from them. Wreaths are then piled on their heads, and the more popular the master, the greater will be the number of wreaths. The wreaths are afterwards dried and kept for the winter as food for the cows. For it is an old Latvian superstition that flowers and herbs picked on St. John's Eve possess miraculous powers.

Drink and bread and cheese and fat pork will then be handed round to the singers by the farmer and his wife.

But the chief fun of the evening is yet to come. When all have eaten their fill they proceed to some high ground in the neighbourhood of the farm and there set light to large barrels of tar. If anyone possesses an old pistol he is certain to discharge it at intervals in order to add to the general din and uproar. The young people will try to jump over the fire, the idea being that they are jumping from the first half to the second half of the year. All round the countryside these fires are to be seen, and indeed in the towns and cities as well. In Riga, for instance, it is the custom to tie the barrels to the lamp-posts, while the ships in the harbour will be gaily decorated with flowers.

With fresh wreaths and flowers and singing as they go, the revellers will then proceed to neighbouring farms, where the same ceremonies are repeated. Sometimes five or six farms will be visited ere the party returns home. But by this time night will have turned into day and the early morning sun will be brightly shining.

Another Latvian festival is St. Andrew's Day, on November 29. On this day it is the custom for the young people to wear masks, very often in imitation of animals' heads. Disguised in this way they will visit their friends, who have great fun in trying to guess who has come to see them. Many amusing superstitions are connected with this festival. For instance, the young girls will go to the garden gate and throw a shoe behind their heads over the gate, and then look to see which way the toe has fallen. This is supposed to indicate the direction from which their future husbands will come. Another custom on St. Andrew's Day is for the girls to go up to a strange man and ask him his name. The name he gives is supposed to be the name of the future husband.

Latvia has two All Fools' Days. For not only is April 1 observed in this way, but April 30 as well. In the same way every child has two "birthdays." Or rather, not only is the birthday celebrated, but each child has a "Name Day" as well. Thus, every boy whose name is John celebrates his Name Day on June 24, and every girl whose name is Mary celebrates her Name Day on July 22. Thus everybody knows when your Name Day is, as they have only to look on a special calendar which gives the Name Days. All one's friends call to offer congratulations, and perhaps to give small presents, so that one generally has a big party on this day. On both the Name Day and the birthday the chair of the one whose festival it is will be gaily decorated with flowers, and so also will be the doorway of the house. A special cake, made somewhat in the form of two circles joined together, is prepared. As with us, there are candles to represent the age of the person whose birthday is being celebrated, but in addition there is an extra big candle which is supposed to represent all the birthdays which are to come in the future.

There are special songs which are sung in honour of both Name Days and birthdays. Early in the morning the person to be honoured is awakened by such a song being sung by his or her friends. Sometimes the friends will come soon after midnight, so as to be certain that they are the first to greet their friend.

As all the world over, weddings are the occasions of special festivities. There are certain interesting customs connected with Latvian weddings. When the wedding party drives to the church, for instance, the bride's sisters have to present the young men who are acting as "marshals " during the ceremony with brightly coloured gloves. It is the duty of the "marshals" to escort on horseback the long row of carriages, and to fire pistol shots into the air as they go. This custom of using fire-arms is believed to be a survival of the days when the bride had to be carried off more or less by force, and when the bridegroom and his friends warned off the pursuers by using their arms.

Another custom that is also a survival of the past is that of bringing the wedding party to a standstill by drawing a rope across the road. The party is only allowed to proceed on its way after it has paid "toll," by giving the neighbours a drink. The ceremony at the church is followed by a feast and a dance in the house of the bride's parents. 


Comments © Bruno Martuzâns. 1995