Dec 302011

From La Belle Assemblée 1815

I am conscious of the fact that my blog earlier was remarkably light on actual fashion-plate examples from La Belle Assemblée. So here is my effort at a few of the plates which grabbed my attention.

By way of background the period between 1790 and 1820 is known as the Directoire and Empire Period (‘Directoire’ after the name of the 5-man executive council which ran the country after the Reign of Terror and ‘Empire’ covering the period after Napoleon Bonaparte seized power.)

Fashions typical of the period included the wearing of turbans (particularly after Napoleon invaded Egypt) and the wearing of gowns inspired by classic robes of ancient Greece and Rome. Generally short-sleeved, the fashion was for a high waist band (right up under the bust) with the fabric – often cotton, muslin, or fine silk – clinging to the body and therefore revealing its shape. Whites, pastels and elaborate embroidery were popular – the latter especially so towards the end of this period.

Starting with an interesting dress from 1816 termed as ‘a Parisian Evening Bridal Gown’ La Belle Assemblée has this description of the picture:

“Round dress of white watered gros-de-Naples, flounced in a festoon of very broad lace of a rich pattern, surmounted by full-blown blush roses and orange-flower blossoms. The hair is arranged in full curls, and bound round with pearls and ears of ripe corn. Bouquet of orange flowers on the left side of the bust. Necklace of pearls, fastened before with a cameo à-l’Antique. Earrings à-l’Etoile. Short sleeves, white kid gloves, white satin shoes, and carved cedar fan.

The  dress is the faithful representation of the bridal attire of a lady of rank, for returning her congratulatory visits on her late marriage”.

This is a reminder that the same wedding gown would be used afterwards for paying social calls on friends and relations.


This plate from the April 1809 edition shows a seated woman wearing a simple and elegant deep green evening dress with a low-cut neckline, high waist and short puffed sleeves. The dress is trimmed in gold and accessorized with arm and wrist bracelets, and she is wearing  a crucifix around her neck. She is wearing what I would call mules (the heel-less slippers popular at the time).  Her hair has been described as being in the a la victime or Titus style, which is a short style named after women whose hair was shorn before they were sent to the guillotine.



This woman is shown nonchalantly leaning against the garden railing in the March 1813 edition, wearing a pink tunic dress  intended for evening wear in a style typical of the decorative fashion of the late Empire Period. It consists of an under-dress with a decorative tunic on top. The  neckline is cut low and the bust is emphasized by the high waist. The sleeves are long and tied into puffs. She wears a turban but allows her ringlets to show through.



A few years earlier the lady of fashion might have been wearing this little number, described in October 1810 as being a Pelisse Dress of Autumn.  The description of the coat dress is as follows:

A pelisse dress of autumnal brown sarsnet, made low in the neck, trimmed down the front and round the bottom with a rich trimming of vandyked white satin, ornamented with silver frogs; the sleeves buttoned on the inside of the arm, to correspond with the front of the dress; over the bosom is tied a light white net mantle, scolloped, and ornamented with acorn tassels. White satin bonnet, with a bunch of wheat in front, and short lace veil. Brown sandals and gloves. Green parasol.

Wearing half of the hedgerow or harvest seems to have been popular at this time – see this fine collection of hats from 1816 – in particular top right!).

Other fashions shown in Bell’s magazine is this splendid cherry red ball gown from 1819:



        Father Christmas went that away…

Dec 302011

I have always had a soft spot for John Bell, printer, publisher and typeface designer – to the extent that when I bought a printing press as a teenager I opted for a Bell typeface instead of a more modern style. Nothing better evokes the elegance of the Georgian  era.

Bell was born in 1745 and lived until  1831. He deserves to be remembered for helping bring ‘literature to the masses’ by publishing a huge series entitled Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill   and which was published from 1777 to 1783. Each volume cost just six shillings, at a time when similar volumes usually cost many times this amount.He published the works of Shakespeare and books on the British theatre. Bell used many illustrations to go with the text and was one of the first publishers to abandon the long ‘s’  (and I am very grateful that he did, because the protruding tails of the long ‘s’ were always prone to break off during the printing process, as I found out to my cost with some of my early printing efforts).

Bell also ran Bell’s Circulating Library, which between 1778 and 1780 reportedly had some fifty thousand volumes (English, Italian, and French) covering topics such as history, antiquities, voyages of discovery etc. Invariably Bell is described a being ‘puckish’ – he clearly had a strong sense of humour allied to a flamboyant style  and a love of innovation.

Why mention Bell? Well, as a follow-up to yesterday’s post on the Ladies Monthly Museum.

It has, quite properly, been pointed out that I was wrong in stating that the Ladies Monthly Museum was the first publication to use coloured fashion plates – it wasn’t, since it has been shown that others had already done so both in England and in Europe. But it was unusual in that it was aimed at more of a mass market than some of its more high-fashion competitors. The response to  yesterday’s post led me to research Bell’s own version of a magazine for women, La Belle Assemblée or to give it its full name  “La Belle Assemblée or, Bell’s Court and Fashionable  Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies”. It first appeared in 1806 and ran until 1832. Bell was the publisher until 1821 when he retired. It was then published by G. & W. Whittaker & Co. from 1823–1829 ‘under the instructions of the proprietor’. The title was changed to The Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée in 1832 and from 1837 the ‘Belle Assemblée’ name was dropped and the magazine merged with the Lady’s Magazine and Museum in 1837 to become The Court Magazine and Monthly Critic.

Unlike many of its rivals the magazine appears to have been edited by women for women, with female authors such as Elizabeth Inchbald  and later on Laman Blanchard and Caroline Norton at the helm.

The format of the magazine was fascinating: it typically consisted of five plates – one depicting a member of the court or fashionable society, a couple depicting the latest fashions, and a further pair showing sheet music and a sewing pattern. Rather than appear to be dominated by the frivolities of ladies fashions Bell separated the portion of the work dealing with the fashions of the month from the remainder of the publication.

At least in the early days readers could purchase either of the two divisions of the work separately; the first consisting of the main articles, together with two of the plates; the second (‘La Belle Assemblée’) consisting of the fashion plates and sewing pattern, together, usually, with four pages describing the plates and discussing the latest London and Paris fashions.

It is interesting to see the range of topics covered by the magazine – this particular edition dated July 1807 shows on its opening page that it contained


2 FOUR WHOLE-LENGTH FIGURES OF LADIES in the London Fashions for the month

3 AN ORIGINAL SONG SET TO MUSIC for the harp and piano-forte expressly and exclusively for this work by Mr Massi.


There were then biographical sketches of ‘illustrious ladies’, essays on such uplifting themes as travel, politeness in manners, ‘a tale of former times’ and an article on ‘the Power of Music on animals’. There was a section on poetry, a review by a theatre critic and articles to go with the fashion plates explaining the ‘General Observations on the present style of Fashionable Decoration’ followed by ‘Supplementary Avertisements for the month’. The advertisements promoted the miracle qualities of different cosmetics and depilatories, and urged readers to try potions and lotions of all varieties as well as offering advice on where to find new types of corset.

The magazine was unashamedly aimed at the better-off lady. Not for her the cheap (well, one shilling) rivals – this cost more than double that amount. It was aimed at the lady of fashion, who wanted to know what was going on in London and in Paris, even if the educational and instructive elements seem somewhat self-conscious to today’s readers. It encouraged readers letters, and ran articles by writers such as Mary Shelley (her ‘Frankenstein‘ was reviewed, albeit as being by an anonymous writer, in 1818).

In other words during the thirty years leading up to Queen Victoria’s accession La Belle Assemblée was aimed at ‘discerning women’ and was hugely influential in terms of taste and fashion. It was certainly a periodical which you can imagine that Jane Austen would know about – as indeed would any well-educated young lady wishing to expand her interests and knowledge, and keen to keep up with changes in fashion. The web page of Regency Fashion at  has an interesting photograph of the annual volume from 1814 belonging to Fanny Austen Knight, one of Jane’s relations.

John Bell died in Fulham in 1831. He deserves to be remembered for helping to shine a light on women in the Regency Era – and for coming up with some really good typefaces. I just wish they were available on WordPress….

And if you would like to find out more about my ancestor Richard Hall, his life and times, do have a look at the Amazon site at

Meanwhile, a noteworthy New Year and a totally terrific 2012.

Dec 292011

Writing in 1798 my ancestor Richard Hall notes: “July 1st publish’d. Price one shilling.Ornamented with an Engraved head of Miss Hannah More and two Ladies dressed in the Sutton Wrap and Curricle Robe, beautifully coloured according to the fashion. No 1 – The Ladies Monthly Museum – a polite Repository. Sold by Vernon & Hood, London”

Presumably Richard wrote down the statement because he thought the magazine would be of interest to his wife, then aged in her early fifties, because the magazine was very much devoted to women, to fashions, and to the concerns of well-brought-up ladies.

The Ladies Monthly Museum or Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction was published in 1798 and ran until 1832 when it merged with other titles. It desribed itself as ‘an assemblage of whatever can please the fancy, interest the mind and exalt the character of the British Fair’. Why, it even had a form of Agony Aunt page, althought Betty (Richard’s wife) may not have found the advice particularly radical, with the resident ‘Old Woman’ on the magazine stating at the outset that  ‘If a Miss scarcely entered her teens asks my advice respecting a lover or inveighs against her mother; if a wife, forgetting the duty to her husband, attempts to engage me in her favour when she is disposed to bid defiance to his lawful commands, I surely cannot show myself more their friend than by conveying to oblivion the folly of the one, and the worthlessness of the other.’ When they  weren’t conveyed to oblivion, troubled readers’ enquiries were consistently answered with the Old Woman’s cure-all – ‘confine yourselves to your domestic duties, where alone you are calculated truly to shine’. It was indeed a magazine designed so that ‘the chastest matron may peruse’.

In its early years the magazine ran articles by Mary Pilkington (née Hopkins) who had been born in 1766 and who died in 1839. She was an English novelist and poet who at the age of fifteen had gone to live with her grandfather when her father had died. She went on to marry the man who took over her father’s medical practice – and when he went off to sea to become a medical surgeon she became a governess and wrote over 40 novels, mostly designed to be read by children.

The Monthly Museum was the first women’s periodical to feature coloured engravings, which appeared in their “Cabinet of Fashion” section (a name drawn from the term ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ which was the popular phrase for museum collections of the age). In addition to fashion, the magazine also published short stories and poems by female authors, and ran  profiles on  celebrated British women of the day.

Rowlandson´s The Breaking up of the Bluestocking Club, from around 1816

It also ran articles on such topics as the founding of the Bluestocking Society (of which Hannah More was a member)  and provided entertaining and educational oddments to turn avid readers into exceptional conversationalists. The Blue Stocking Society in England, led by Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Vesey, emerged in the middle of the eighteenth century, and was a loose organization of privileged women who had an interest in education, giving them an opportunity to gather together to discuss literature, the Arts and other similar matters. Politics were not on the agenda! Educated men were allowed to  participate by invitation.

It is the fashion plates which I suspect were of most interest to Betty Hall, living in Bourton on the Water and no doubt feeling cut off from prevailing fashions in London. Here was a chance for her to keep up with what was happening, the Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar of its era. I have not identified a ‘Sutton Wrap’ and apart from being designed to keep ladies warm while riding in their curricles I am not sure what distinguished a ‘curricle wrap’ from any other form of cape or shawl.


From the January 1806 edition of the Monthly Museum these plates give an idea of the fashions followed by Betty:

Left hand figure:

Full Dress. Head fashionably dressed, ornamented with a Silver Wreath and Heron’s Feathers. Walking Dress of clear Muslin; a deep Lace let in round the Bottom. A Robe of Crimson Satin, edged round with White Swansdown, full Sleeves, looped up with a Diamond Button. White Muff, Gloves and Shoes.

Right hand figure:

Walking Dress A Green Velvet Hat, turned up in Front, and edged with White Swansdown, ornamented with a Green Velvet Flower. A Pelisse of Green Velvet, with Bishop’s Sleeves, trimmed with Black Lace. Habit Shirt of clear Muslin; Swansdown Tippet. Buff Boots.


Figure on the left: Walking Dress. Bonnet of Blue Velvet, with White Ostrich Feather. Spencer of Blue Velvet, trimmed with Swansdown.Round Dress of Cambric Muslin, with a Lace Flounce. Boots Blue. Buff Gloves; and Swansdown Muff.

 Figure on the right:Full Dress. Fashionable Head Dress, ornamented with Oak Leaves. Circlet of Oak Leaves, over a train of Devonshire Brown Sarsenet, with White Sleeves. Buff Gloves and Swansdown Tippet.


Left hand figure:

Full Dress. Cap and Veil ornamented with a Band of Plum-coloured Figured Velvet. Dress of Pale Blue Muslin. White Muff, and Gloves. Pearl Armlets. White Shoes.

Right hand figure:

Walking Dress. A Bonnet of Plum-coloured Velvet. Spencer of the same; high Collar, and full Sleeves. A Mantle of Georgian embroidered Cloth over a Walking Dress of Cambric Muslin. Buff Gloves, and Boots.



Left hand figure:

Walking Dress. Straw Hat, trimmed with Swansdown.  Pelisse of Black Velvet, with a deep Lace round the Bottom.   Swansdown Tippet.  Half Habit Shirt.  Buff  Gloves.

Right hand figure:

Full Dress. Hair fashionably dressed;  ornamented with a Silver Wreath.  A Train of Pink Muslin; full Sleeves, looped up to the Shoulder, trimmed round the Bottom and Bosom with deep Lace; Pic-Nic Sleeves.  White Shoes, Fan, and Reticule.


On the left:

Walking Dress. Circlet of Lace, over a Round Dress of White Sarsnet. Spencer of Green Sarsnet. Straw Bonnet. Buff Gloves, and Shoes.


Beaver Hat. Lindian Long Shawl. Cambric Walking Dress, with a Lace Ruff.

On the right:

Full Dress. Head fashionably dressed, with a Band of Embroidered Lace. Dress of White Sarsnet, trimmed with Point. Robe of Pink Crape. White Shoes, and Gloves.

(I am grateful to for the interpretation of the  various plates).

Dec 272011

I confess: I have never been a particular fan of Toby Jugs, but the fact remains that they made an appearance in England in the Eighteenth Century and became hugely popular. Collectors will say that a true Toby Jug has to show the entire figure (if it is head-and-shoulders only, it is technically a ‘character mug’) and they emanated in the Staffordshire potteries of the 1780s.

             Image courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library



In all probability the inspiration came from a popular tavern song by Rev. Francis Fawkes called ‘Brown Jug’ about a Yorkshire sot called Toby Fillpot (otherwise Sir Toby Philpot, a legendary 18th century drinker). The song was first published in 1761 and was popularised in an etching by Robert Dighton ( 1752 – 1814) showing the corpulent seated  gentleman, foaming pint in hand, and with the words of the song below the picture. Toby was a popular word of the time to describe a thief (either ‘low Toby’ for a street thief, or ‘high Toby’ if it was used to describe a highwayman). The earliest Toby jugs appeared in the 1760s and there is some argument as to where the credit should go for the first one – likely candidates include Ralph Wood 1 (who made particularly well-modelled Earthenware figures with translucent coloured glazes) and Thomas Wheildon and John Astbury. Many of these early figures resemble the Dighton illustration. The jugs appear to have been used to carry the beer from the barrel to the table – they have stoppers in the form of a tricorn hat which are good for pouring, but difficult to drink from. The early jugs held about a quart (that is to say, two pints).

An ‘Ordinary Toby Jug’ dating from around 1800 

After the ‘Ordinary Tobies’ came the different varieties – based on often fictional characters. You get the Thin Man, Squire, Hearty Goodfellow, Lord Howe, Man on a Barrel and my favourite, Martha Gunn. Martha was a real person, who lived in Brighton and had a job as a ‘dipper’ i.e. assisting bathers emerge from the bathing machines into the briny, where they would be unceremoniously dunked. Martha became notorious when she extended her duties to dipping the Prince Regent – then in his twenties. Cue much ribaldry, since men generally bathed in the nude.

                                              The Thin Man, a style made popular in the 1770s







Martha Gunn, unusually with a beer mug rather than a gin bottle in her hand.





By the early 1800s dozens of potteries were churning out these jugs, tending to use enamel rather than a coloured glaze. Factories such as Wedgwood, Royal Worcester, and later Clarice Clift and of course Royal Doulton carried on the tradition. Royal Doulton are famous for their limited editions of different figures, and there is a museum at Evanston Illinois in the States devoted entirely to the genre (see )

Personally these Nineteenth and Twentieth Century tobies are not to my taste, but the original ones from the first 50 years of their appearance do have a certain charm. I am indebted to the excellent website run by Toby Jug Collecting at for the use of the illustrations of  the three jugs used in this post.

Dec 262011

 A post dedicated to Stephen:

26th December marks the feast of St Stephen, named in honour of the first Christian stoned to death. It is not to be confused with ‘Boxing Day’ which may, or may not, fall on this day but is correctly the name given to the public holiday occurring immediately after Christmas Day. For instance where Christmas falls on a Friday, Boxing Day (a day when traditionally a Christmas Box would be given, containing coins) will fall on Monday 28th December. St Stephen’s Day is therefore a non-movable religious festival whereas Boxing Day is a movable, secular, one.

Today’s post looks at three different traditions associated with this day, starting with the horse. St Stephen was the patron saint of horses and in some parts of Northern Europe it is traditional to take the horses, suitably bedecked, to church to be blessed. Traditionally the Christmas break meant a ‘holiday’ for all working animals (of which the horse was the most important) and in some areas the horse was therefore awarded a special meal to mark the start of its ‘time off’. In other areas the equine connection is preserved in horse racing, where The King George VI Chase is the second-most important race in the jump-racing calendar (after the Cheltenham Gold Cup) and is held at Kempton Park today.


It is also the most important day in the fox-hunting calendar, with meets taking place across the country, despite the ban on hunting live animals.

                        A set of English stamps (1973) based upon the story of Wenceslas.

Secondly the day is always associated with ‘Good King Wenceslas’, who, as we all know, went out on the Feast of Stephen. And yes, there was a Wenceslas, who was pretty good by tenth century standards, though in truth he was a duke in Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – not a king. He was born in 907 into a family wracked by religious and political in-fighting. His grandparents had converted to Christianity and when Grandpa (Duke Borivoy the First) died he was succeeded by Ratislav. Borivoy’s widow Ludmila was entrusted to bring up Ratislav’s son Wenceslas, much to the chagrin of the boy’s own mother Drahomira. who had never converted to Christianity. When Ratislav died he was succeeded by young Wenceslas, a mere 13 year old, and the wicked Drahomira seized her chance, taking power as Regent. She ordered the death by strangulation of dear old Ludmila (well, that is what you did to mothers-in-law in those days) and a period of religious persecution followed. But when he reached the age of 18 Wenceslas saw off his wicked mother and took power for himself (I do hope you are following this at the back, questions will be asked later). He was a good but fair leader, ended the persecution of priests, and was generally a thoroughly good egg. His popularity didn’t go down too well with his duplicitous brother Boleslav, who had his own circle of followers opposed to the spread of Christianity. Boleslav invited his brother Wenceslas round for a cup of tea (or maybe something stronger) and then attacked him as he was going in to Mass. The rest of the dissidents piled in, and the hapless Wenceslas was killed, aged just 28. He quickly became Bohemia’s patron saint and most famous martyr.



In 1853 the English hymn writer John Mason Neale composed the now-familiar carol, setting the words to a medieval tune known as “Tempus adest floridum” (‘the time is near for flowering’) first published in the year 1582. And if you feel the need to hear it, put this in your browser:                           

Thirdly let us look at the oddest tradition of all, linked to that tiny little bird the wren, since today is also known as Wren Day in many areas of Ireland, and where traditions linked to stoning this smallest of birds to death are still to be found across the country. Echoes of the tradition are to be found on the Isle of Man and, centuries ago, on the English mainland and in particular in Wales. The tradition is so ancient it may well be druidic (the gaelic word for wren is dreolín, which possibly derives from draoi ean, or ‘Druid bird’). Why kill the bird? Well, perhaps the tradition simply marked the end of the year with a mid-winter sacrifice, or commemorated the early Christian attempts to drive out paganism, who knows for certain?

The wren has a reputation which its tiny frame belies. One story has it that the wren is the king of the birds, by virtue of a contest in the bird kingdom to find who could fly the highest: the mighty eagle soared into the skies, leaving all beneath him, except the wren which had hitched a ride on the eagle’s back. When the eagle tired and could ascend no more the wren flew a few feet above it, and landed to the acclamation that he was indeed the king of birds. In Druid lore the birds were a link between heaven and earth – it is possible the druids worshipped the wren and for this reason the Christians opposed it and celebrated the killing of the bird at Christmas time as a symbol of their new order.

But the bird also has a name for treachery, for betraying your whereabouts to your enemies. Legend has that it was a wren which alerted the Jews to where St Stephen was hiding, leading to his capture and death by stoning. And was it not the case that when Cromwell’s soldiers were asleep and the Irish were about to attack, a flock of wrens rose into the air and wakened the enemy with the sounds of their wing beats? Had the same thing not happened when the Viking invaders arrived eight centuries before?

There are a number of such myths and superstitions about the wren and for centuries the Wrenboys would spend the weeks leading up to Christmas either stoning and killing the wrens, or collecting them and tying them alive to a holly (or other evergreen) bush. The Wrenboys would then parade through the town on St Stephen’s Day, knocking on doors. Householders would be asked to give a penny ‘to pay for the funeral of the wren’ – anyone refusing would run the risk of the Wrenboys burying the bird outside their home, a certain way of bringing bad fortune for the year ahead. Anyone making a gift of money would be rewarded with a feather from the bird. This way the Wrenboys collected enough money to finance an evening of liquid revelry at the local hostelry… with singing and dancing. The wren on its decorated pole had pride of place.

Daniel Maclise illustration for S.C. Hall’s Ireland: Its Scenery and Character (1841).

Traditions varied: in some the Wren Boys dressed as mummers in straw costumes; in others they blackened their faces with cork and dressed in old clothes (sometimes women’s clothes). Meanwhile in West Kerry tradition has it that the dancers paraded with a wooden horse’s head – harking back to the time of pre-Christian horse worship. The introduction of Christianity meant that the horse effigy also had to be burnt, and it is this that the dancers commemorate.

The wren was also known as a wran and a number of songs grew up around the tradition. The most popular one (this, based upon a variant used in Cork)  goes:

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
St Stephens’s Day was caught in the furze.                                                                                      
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

Give us a penny to bury the wran.

Nowadays of course there is no bird killing – either a stuffed bird is tied to the holly pole, or a model of one, and this is decorated with ribbons and holly and used for the parade. One particular group of mummers from South West Fermanagh known as the Aughakillymaude Mummers, keeps alive the tradition of such celebrations:


Dec 212011

An interesting man, was John Newton. He was born near Liverpool to a father who was a sailor and a mother who died when he was seven. He joined his father on sailing trips when he was a boy, and in 1743 was press-ganged into the Royal Navy. He disliked naval discipline and tried to desert, leading to a public flogging on board HMS Harwich. Later, on a voyage to India he managed to transfer ships (the Harwich was probably delighted to see the back of him) and he joined the Pegasus, a slaving ship. Off the African coast he fell out with the Captain, who abandoned him to the care of Amos Clowe, a local slave dealer. Newton was handed over to the African wife of Clowe, and she kept him as a prisoner on an island off the Sierra Leone coast where the captured slaves were being held pending shipment. It amused her that her white prisoner was reduced to begging for scraps of food off the black slaves. He stayed for some years – until a ship sent by his father to look for him arrived in 1748 and procured his release.

A cross section of a canoe used to transfer slaves from their holding base to the ships in deep water off Sierra Leone, taken from the Illustrated London News.

On the homeward journey the ship was hit by a mighty storm off Donegal. Fearing for his life he apparently had an epiphany, and for the first time in his life prayed for deliverance. The ship was holed but miraculously the cargo broke free and filled the hole, enabling the stricken ship to drift safely back to landfall in Ireland some two weeks later. The date of the storm was 10th March 1748, and for the rest of his life Newton never forgot this anniversary.

He vowed to give up gambling, drinking, and his profane lifestyle. The conversion was not acted on immediately – he returned to the slave trade for a few more years but then decided his true calling was as an evangelical minister. The problem was that no-one wanted him or considered him suitable! Rejected initially by the Anglican church, as well as by the Methodists and the Presbyterians, he finally secured a post as deacon at Olney in Buckinghamshire, in 1764. His style of evangelism was to be immensely popular, and he quickly developed a large following.





The Vicarage at Olney, where Amazing Grace was written.

Three years later the poet William Cowper moved to Olney and began to worship at the church. The two became friends and collaborated in publishing Olney Hymns in 1779. One of the hymns, written by Newton, was entitled “Faith’s Review and Expectation” but is better known today by the words in its opening line

“Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see”

It had received its first airing on New Year’s Day 1773 – almost certainly being recited as a prayer rather than being sung to a musical accompaniment.

The song Amazing Grace was not originally famous in England but it travelled to the United States and in 1835 was united with the tune with which it is now associated. It has since been played millions of times, coming round and round in popular culture in successive waves. It is of course highly autobiographical.

Back in 1779  Newton was asked to become Rector of the Nicholas Hawksmoor-designed Baroque masterpiece St Mary Wollnoth, in London’s Lombard Street. Here his popularity soared

In 1788 Newton had published a pamphlet on the horrors of slavery, and in particular detailing the barbaric conditions on board the slave ships as they plied the middle passage between Africa and the Caribbean. Entitled ‘Thoughts upon the Slave Trade’ he had presented it to every Member of Parliament. He was a close friend and supporter of William Wilberforce.

Although he was afflicted by blindness towards the end of his life Newton remained a prolific preacher, hymnist, abolitionist and letter writer until shortly before his death on 21st December 1807.

Break these chains…

Dec 202011

I find it fascinating to see how the writing box, otherwise called a Lap Desk, developed through the 18th and 19th Centuries. For this post I feel I can do no better than quote from the web page of Hampton Antiques, who stock many different styles of Writing Box. As the site points out, the Writing Box symbolises great milestones in social & economic history in a way which is unique.

From Hamptons: ”For many centuries, and in many cultures, portables boxes for writing materials had existed. But it was not until the late 18th century that a variation in social & economic circumstances in England made it essential to have the use of a portable desk in the form of a box which could be used on a lap or table. The Writing Box, or Lap Desk, was born!

The first writing boxes symbolised intelligence, commerce & a knowledge of the world, with style and fashion being a lesser priority at this time. For around 100 years from the late 1700s, the writing box featured prominently on military expeditions, travels, libraries and in drawing rooms. Famous literature, contracts, letters and postcards were written on it. The Writing Box was a personal possession, unlike the writing desk or table.

By the late 1700s the Writing Box became increasing popular due to the imminent Napoleonic wars and the popularity of travelling. They were hugely popular amongst Army Officers who used their boxes to write cherished letters to their loved ones, as well as for business. Mostly used by men, they were also a symbol of social status.

During these times Travel across countries and the continents was not simple. Travellers of all kinds, as well as Military staff needed compact & strong Writing Boxes, which could stand the test of long & arduous journeys. As a result, the Military, or Campaign box was created. The Captain’s, or Campaign, Writing Box is much more mechanically complex and therefore more intriguing!

It’s generally brass-bound, has secret drawers, candlesticks & a screw-down mechanism which comes out the bottom of the box and fixes it to a piece of furniture or ships deck, not only for security purposes but for possible rough voyages. Boxes we come across of this style are rarely the same in terms of arrangement of secret compartments & drawers, adding to their character. They also often contain candlesticks and a reading stand.

Campaign & Military style Boxes were made and used well into the 19th century. Charles Dickens and Lord Byron were famous users of this type of Box.

Until around the mid-1780s, the postal service was a shambles. Eventually armed guards had to be introduced on mail coaches to make them safe, fast and efficient. Postal deliveries were vastly improved and as a result letter writing became a hugely popular past-time, especially amongst women, in particular, society ladies. This can be demonstrated by the smaller, lighter & more decorative styles made during this period. These could be carried with ease between rooms and were a greater enhancement to the beautiful interiors of this period. Features of these boxes include: the front cover of the box opens back to reveal a sloping surface for writing. This consists of a flap, under which paper can be stored. At the back is a section for inkwells and pens. Some of the most exquisite boxes date from this period.

The use of Lap Desks remained until late Victorian times when their popularity started to decrease, as they became more mass-produced & of lower quality.”

I particularly like the mahogany Writing Box made in 1800by J J Taylor, featured on the Hampton´s website at



Dec 192011

It is a curious thing, fate. Most people comply with the adage of Master Shakespeare (‘some are born great; some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them’) but then occasionally you get a person who lives a squalid, mean little life, and yet who is immortalised and lionised as a hero while nothing could be further from the truth. An example of the latter person was Dick Turpin. That he lived is not in doubt. That he was ever the derring-do hero who lived a life of passion and swaggering nonchalance is unlikely. That he owned a horse called Black Bess, or rode it from London to York in a day is not only false but a straight lift from the exploits of a much earlier criminal. Why, Turpin was not even a highwayman for most of his life. He was a thief, a sadistic torturer, a murderer and a thoroughly unpleasant guy. So how come he is immortalised as some kind of folk hero?

One suspects that Turpin would be the most amazed of all at the transformation. He had been born in Essex in 1706 the son of a famer John Turpin, who at one time was proprietor of a public house called the Crown Inn. He was apprenticed as a butcher, in Whitechapel, but apparently “conducted himself in a loose and disorderly manner.”
When his apprenticeship finished he reputedly married a local girl called Miss Palmer. He subsequently opened a butcher’s shop in Essex, but gained a reputation  for dealing in beef and lamb stolen from local farms, and venison poached from the deer parks and forests of the neighbourhood.

Richard Hall’s version of a deer park.

He also tried his hand at smuggling, but failed miserably. He himself was not averse to a little cattle rustling, being caught in the act of stealing two oxen. He fled the scene and went into hiding and at some stage became a member of the notorious Essex Gang a.k.a. the Gregory Gang.

Their ‘speciality’ was raiding remote farmhouses, often late at night, terrorising the inhabitants before stealing their valuables. He was not averse to torturing his victims to help them remember where they kept their valuables – on one occasion holding his elderly female hostage over the open fire until she revealed the hiding place. On at least one occasion the gang raped a young servant. Hardly the stuff of legend…

According to the Newgate Chronicle ‘they fixed on a spot between the King’s-Oak and the Loughton Road, on Epping Forest, where they made a cave, which was large enough to receive them and their horses. This cave was inclosed within a sort of thicket of bushes and brambles, through which they could look and see passengers on the road, while themselves remained unobserved. From this station they used to issue, and robbed such a number of persons, that at length the very pedlars who travelled the road, carried fire-arms for their defence: and, while they were in this retreat, Turpin’s wife used to supply them with necessaries, and frequently remained in the cave during the night.’

The gang ventured further afield, becoming notorious throughout the Home Counties not least because of their ruthlessness and their willingness to resort to torture. Their offences were regularly reported in the Press and by 1735 the London Evening Post was reporting that the Crown had offered a reward of fifty pounds for the capture of the gang. Two of the gang were caught, but Turpin escaped through a window just as the constables arrived. For a while he lay low in the depths of Epping Forest. Here he met up with Tom King – a far more likely candidate for a person having a reputation as a swash-buckling ne’er-do-well.

The Newgate Calendar is a fascinating publication – albeit one not necessarily too worried about following strict truth. It was a sort of National Enquirer of its day. It started as a monthly bulletin of executions, kept by the Keeper at Newgate Prison, but the name was appropriated by others and became a byword for the sort of chapbook which delighted audiences in the Eighteenth Century, who could not get enough lurid prose listing the heinous exploits of rapists, thieves and murderers, particularly when they got their come-uppance. Who cared that the events described were not always accurate: they were thrilling tales of criminals, and by the middle 1770s it was described as being one of the three books most likely to be found in the average home (the other two being the Bible and Pilgrims Progress).
Meanwhile back in Epping Forest…The exploits of King and Turpin had led to the reward for their capture being increased by one hundred pounds – enough to tempt a gamekeeper in the forest called Thomas Morris to track Turpin down. Turpin was cornered, and shot Morris dead. The murder was reported to the Secretary of State and the Newgate Calendar takes up the story:
“It having been represented to the King, that Richard Turpin did, on Wednesday, the 4th of May last, barbarously murder Thomas Morris, servant to Henry Thompson, one of the keepers of Epping Forest, and commit other notorious felonies and robberies, near London, his Majesty is pleased to promise his most gracious pardon to any of his accomplices, and a reward of 200 pounds to any person or persons that shall discover him, so that he may be apprehended and convicted. Turpin was born at Thackstead, in Essex, is about thirty, by trade a butcher, about five feet nine inches high, very much marked with the small-pox, his cheek-bones broad, his face thinner towards the bottom; his visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the shoulders.”
Shortly after this, Turpin decided that he wanted to get rid of his own nag, and took a fancy to a fine horse belonging to a Mr Major. He stole the new horse at gunpoint (horse-stealing being a hanging offence, ranked as high as murder on the scale of felonies). Mr Major would not take the loss lying down: he had handbills printed and circulated around pubs in the London area; he described the horse and named Turpin as the perpetrator. In fact Turpin had stabled the horse at the Red Lion in Whitechapel, but it was Tom King who came to collect it and who was faced by two constables lying in wait. To follow the Newgate Calendar:
King … drew a pistol (and) attempted to fire it, but it flashed in the pan; he then endeavoured to draw out another pistol, but he could not, as it got entangled in his pocket. At this time Turpin was watching at a small distance and riding towards the spot, King cried out, “Shoot him, or we are taken;” on which Turpin fired, and shot his companion, who called out, “Dick, you have killed me;” which the other hearing, rode off at full speed.
King lived a week after this affair, and gave information that Turpin might be found at a house near Hackney-marsh; and, on inquiry, it was discovered that Turpin had been there on the night that he rode off, lamenting that he had killed King, who was his most faithful associate.”
Turpin fled North and settled near York under the identity of ‘John Palmer’. He continued to rustle cattle in neighbouring Lincolnshire and in 1738 became involved in an incident when he shot a rooster belonging to his landlord. When the landlord (named Mr Hall, but as far as I know no relation) remonstrated with Turpin, our hero replied that if he would give him long enough to reload his gun he would shoot him also. The constables were called, and people started asking questions about how Mr Palmer was able to finance his lifestyle. People had noticed that when he disappeared to Lincolnshire he invariably returned with a different horse and was flush with funds. The magistrates had him locked up on suspicion of horse stealing. And here the tale takes a curious turn. The Newgate Calendar reports:
After (Turpin) had been about four month in prison, he wrote the following letter to his brother in Essex:
“Dear Brother,
York, Feb. 6, 1739.
“I am sorry to acquaint you, that I am now under confinement in York Castle, for horse-stealing. If I could procure an evidence from London to give me a character, that would go a great way towards my being acquitted. I had not been long in this county before my being apprehended, so that it would pass off the readier. For Heaven’s sake dear brother, do not neglect me; you will know what I mean, when I say,
I am yours,
Apparently the brother declined to pay sixpence for the letter, since he knew nobody of the name Palmer in York, and the letter was returned unopened to the local Post Office in Essex. Here fate intervened: the letter was seen by a school-master by the name of Mr Smith. He had taught Turpin and amazingly claimed to reconize the handwriting, and he rushed off to tell the local magistrate. The letter was opened and the true identity of John Palmer was revealed. The Newgate Calendar continues:
“Hereupon the magistrates of Essex dispatched Mr. Smith to York, who immediately selected him from all the other prisoners in the castle. This Mr. Smith, and another gentle man, afterwards proved his identity on his trial.
On the rumour that the noted Turpin was a prisoner in York Castle, persons flocked from all parts of the country to take a view of him, and debates ran very high whether he was the real person or not. Among others who visited him, was a young fellow who pretended to know the famous Turpin, and having regarded him a considerable time with looks of great attention, he told the keeper he would bet him half a guinea that he was not Turpin; on which the prisoner, whispering the keeper, said, ‘Lay him the wager, and I’ll go your halves.’
When this notorious malefactor was brought to trial, he was convicted on two indictments, and received sentence of death.”
Only at this stage did Turpin begin to show the flamboyance and style for which he is now remembered. He reportedly bought himself a new fustian frock and a pair of pumps (so that he could look his best on the way to his execution) and paid ten shillings to each of five men to act as mourners. They accompanied him as he waved gaily to the crowds when he was placed in a cart and wheeled off to York racecourse on 7th April 1739. Or, as the Newgate Calendar put it:
“On the morning of his death he was put into a cart, and being followed by his mourners … he was drawn to the place of execution, in his way to which he bowed to the spectators with an air of the most astonishing indifference and intrepidity.When he came to the fatal tree, he ascended the ladder; when his right leg trembling, he stamped it down with an air of assumed courage, as if he was ashamed of discovering any signs of fear, Having conversed with the executioner about half an hour, he threw himself off the ladder, and expired in a few minutes.”
It wasn’t quite the end for Dick Turpin. He was buried six feet down but that first night body-snatchers exhumed the corpse and absconded with it. It was apparently found the next day in the garden of a local doctor, whereupon it was  coated with quick lime and re-interred.
And the fables? They started immediately after his death with the publication of a book entitled ‘Life of Richard Turpin’ but only really gained credence when Harrison Ainsworth published his novel ‘Rockwood’ in 1834. He was the one who introduced Black Bess, and who attributed to Turpin a ride to York which was actually made thirty years before Turpin’s birth, by one John (‘Swift Nick’) Nevison. The tale was told and re-told, becoming more and more embellished in the re-telling, and slowly a charmless, cruel and murderous young man who killed his own partner was turned into ‘dandy highwayman, folk hero of his day’. But whoever said that life was fair?
The papercuts are all made by my ancestor Richard Hall, mostly dating from the 1780s (lots more are to be found in The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman).
Dec 162011
I have always thought that this entry in Richard’s diary (“froze the water in the Chamber pot”)  is one of his most descriptive passages! It does of course raise the question: how cold does it have to be for human urine to freeze? Astonishingly, if you google the question you get a wide variety of answers, from an unbelievable “minus 120 degrees Centigrade” to a very specific “minus 21.1 Celsius, the same as salt water”.  A more considered answer appears to be that it depends on many factors including the person’s diet, age of sample, and effectiveness of the kidneys. But it is certainly an effective way of saying it was extremely cold! Remember,the chamber pot was indoors in an upstairs room, under a bed which would have had curtains round it. In other words, if there was any warmth in the room it should have been close to the ‘gazunder’ and for the contents to freeze and for Richard to note this in his diary it must have been a rare occurrence.
Anders Celsius
It is useful to remember that the measurement of temperature is named after Anders Celsius, a Swedish scientist who actually came up with the idea of a completely reverse scale. In other words he took zero degrees as being the boiling point of water at sea level, and 100 degrees as being the point at which water froze.. It was only after the death of Celsius (in 1744) that the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus suggested that the scale should be reversed since this made it easier for him when measuring hot-houses etc and establishing ideal temperatures for plant growth.
Celsius had been born in Uppsala in Sweden in 1701 and was a brilliant astronomer. He published a paper on  a new method of measuring the distance between the Sun and the Earth in 1730 and went on to study the aurora borealis.He was the first person to link the aurora with changes in the magnetic field of the Earth.
In the 1730’s he travelled widely throughout Europe visiting the main observatories, and took part in a study to measure the shape of the Earth. It confirmed Newton’s thesis that the Earth is an ellipsoid (ie similar to a sphere but flattened at the two poles).Celsius returned to his native Sweden and founded the Uppsala Astronomical Observatory in 1741.
The Observatory in Uppsala
(Celsius scale, topped with zero boiling point).
He subsequently published a paper on temperature scales, calling for an internationally accepted standard which he called ‘centigrade’ i.e. ‘one hundred steps’. In practice it was known simply as’ the Swedish scale’ for many years.Celsius died at the age of 42 and would no doubt be amazed to know that his name lives on more than 250 years later. Celsius is the main temperatue scale used in the world apart from in the United States, (oh, and apparently Belize!)  which still largely uses Fahrenheit in day to day (non-Scientific) matters. And me? Well, I was brought up before schools adopted Celsius in the 1970’s so, like Richard  two and a half centuries before me, I am an unreformed follower of the Gdansk-born scientist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, whose mercury thermometer was invented in 1714. And did you know that both of  Fahrenheit’s parents died on the same day in August 1701, as a result of eating poisonous mushrooms? As they say, not a lot of people know that….
Dec 142011


So writes my ancestor Richard Hall about his wedding to Betty Snooke, sister to his late brother-in-law. As I have explained in The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, she was an unlikely choice of bride – the entire family suspected that he had been courting Anna Snooke, his brother-in-law’s widow. Anna would have been a far wealthier catch – and possibly one which would have been more acceptable to Richard’s children. As it was, they were horrified  -Betty, the blushing bride, was nearer their age than that of Richard. Worse, they had been brought up with her during their long spells in the country, escaping from the fog and grime of London, and they looked on her as a big sister. Betty was altogether too likely to have children – and the existing family of Richard
could see their own inheritance getting watered down. So they boycotted the wedding and made it clear that as a couple Richard and Betty were never to spend a night with any of the three of them under the same roof. So, when Richard and his bride visited London shortly after their marriage and expected to stay at their home at Number  One London Bridge, the three children (all in their twenties) simply moved out and refused to return. They made it clear that on her own Betty was a welcome guest, as was their father, but that together as a couple they were unacceptable.

Such an ultimatum was unacceptable to Richard, whose first wife had died a mere eleven months earlier. He packed up his affairs in London, and moved into a house in Bourton on the Water. He barely spoke to his children for the next twenty one years, being reconciled only upon his death-bed in 1801. We can only imagine the pain and anguish caused to them all by such an unfortunate falling-out.


Paul Emile Boutigny’s Arrival for the Wedding (courtesy of






Whatever the scene outside the church in Bourton on the Water in 1780, it is unlikely to have been anything half as grand as this! On the other hand Richard did own a very fine silver-white waistcoat decorated with metallic thread, and I suspect he would have sported it proudly, with his much younger bride in her best gown. I imagine that the whole village turned out to watch – she was after all the sister of the lord of the manor, and Richard had been a family friend and regular visitor for nearly thirty years.

wedded bliss

A rather curious picture from a book of grammar (illustrating words which get joined together!) belonging to Richard Hall’s youngest son.

And don´t forget , there is far far more about life in the Eighteenth Century, and what Richard got up to, in The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman. Order it now and it will just be through in time for Christmas – it’s easy to wrap and is ideal as a gift for anyone with a kitchen table with one leg half an inch shorter than the others….