I am delighted to offer my first-ever guest blog to Michael Fowle, a descendant of Sir William Curtis – one of the more colourful characters of the Georgian Era (in a century packed full of colourful characters!). He was affectionately known as ‘Billy Biscuit’ for reasons which will become clear….Michael writes:
Two hundred and sixty years ago today, on 25 January 1752, the Great Leviathan of the City, Sir William Curtis – Billy Biscuit to the irreverent – was born. For fifty years, 1780 to 1829, Sir William was a king of London’s Commerce. 200 years on, nothing remains. He is remembered only by a few of his multitude of descendants (he had 41 grandchildren) and by caricature collectors. I am both. Thank you Mike, for allowing me to guest blog about Sir William. The images here are from my own collection ©Michael Fowle.
My grandmother, born Isabel Curtis, daughter of the great man’s grandson, gunpowder manufacturer Charles William Curtis, was a fearsome old lady who died when I was nine. My father was born in 1885 and as a child knew CWC, growing up around myriad Curtis aunts and uncles and cousins. Sir William was a very real figure to them all, and so to my father – but none called him Billy Biscuit!
This 1820 Dighton caricature was the only cartoon of Sir William that my father owned. As a child I thought he looked a very respectable gentleman, but Granny said it was ‘suggestive’. My Aunt’s family solicitor (inherited from the Curtis family) had a copy on his wall – last seen by me around 1970.
Father told me that there were other caricatures, especially one in a kilt. I started collecting years later, long after my father’s death. He would have enjoyed collecting them.
Who was Sir William? Why Billy Biscuit? Why is he the most lampooned Lord Mayor in 800 years?
In 1771, when he was 19, William and his brother inherited their father’s Wapping biscuit bakery. (‘It is the duty of all good parents to die young.’ Auberon Waugh). William revolutionised the technology of biscuit baking (yes, really!) and biscuit storage aboard ship – hence Billy Biscuit. Within ten years not only were the Curtis brothers the main suppliers of ships’ biscuits to the Royal Navy, but they were general contractors and suppliers, ship owners and whaling entrepreneurs. Billy Biscuit, which stuck, is at least better than Billy Blubber, which mercifully did not. At the age of 30, William Curtis, in Wapping, on the edge of the City, was ‘at the centre of one of one of the largest and most profitable trade networks in the known world’.
Richard Horwood’s 1792 Wapping Map, the bakery of Messrs Curtis & Clark.
‘A trader with a capital, carrying on an extensive business in a neighbourhood where he has scarcely any competitor, proceeds in the natural road to the acquisition of a large fortune. The house of Curtis, besides employing a great number of their poor neighbours in their business, which of course induced personal attachment, deported themselves with such integrity and affability, that in 1785 … a considerable number of the inhabitants of Tower Ward solicited Mr William Curtis to take upon him the office of Alderman of that district … which he retained with such eminent honour for the extraordinary period of forty-three years.’ (Sir William’s 1829 obituary).
In 1788 he was a Sheriff of the City of London and in 1795, age 43, he was Lord Mayor.
In 1787 Alderman Curtis was the owner of The Lady Penryn, a ship in The First Fleet from London to Botany Bay. In 1790 he was elected MP for the City of London, which he remained (with a short interval) until 1826, being re-elected six times. In 1791 he founded his City bank – he neither inherited nor bought it. He founded it.
He acquired, as his London home, a fine house in Southgate, Cullands Grove – and constructed the road still called Alderman’s Hill, to speed his way to the City. Then in 1804 he built his seaside home, in a town he knew well – Ramsgate. He loved the sea and kept two fine yachts at Ramsgate – a sleek racing vessel Emma (named for his elder daughter) and for comfort and real sea-going, a 450 ton converted dhow, Die Jong Vrow Rebecca Maria, named for his second daughter Rebecca Mary.
This 1809 Isaac Cruickshank portrait shows three of the four near invariable characteristics of a Curtis cartoon: first, the sailor suit and hat; second, the stomach – Curtis was famous both for enjoying his food and for the naturally consequential belly, his pictures often including edibles like a turtle or turtle soup, or sausages (‘alderman in chains’ was catering-speak for turkey garnished with sausages); and third, the red nose – today, as at least one of his descendants can attest, we know this as herpes simplex. The fourth characteristic he shared with John Prescott; he was no master of words. ‘He was not a polished orator, and he would have scorned the affectation of being one; plain, simple, and energetic in the delivery of his sentiments, he trusted to the substance of what he had to say …’ His mangled catch words and phrases were the delight of satirists – today we know he was dyslexic.
Listening to a debate on schooling, he was bored by those who talked about the importance of Latin and Greek; he had none of that. ‘What children need,’ Curtis said in the House, ‘is the three Rs, Readin’, Ritin’ and Rithmatic.’ Posterity’s laugh is on those who laughed at the MP for the City. No one knows if he spoke from wit or from ignorance and confusion – but The Three Rs remains the classic expression of basic education.
He was a celebrity. He was famous, immensely rich, jovial, popular, driven, effective, influential, spokesman for commerce in Parliament, loyal supporter of Pitt and of successor governments (made baronet in 1802 for ‘steady voting’), a committed public servant, an amateur musician, a patron of charities – and a faithful friend of the most disreputable of royalty, banker to the Prince of Wales. Today his phone would be hacked. 200 years ago he was lampooned, unmercifully.
1809 was a bad year in the French wars. Castlereagh disastrously sent an expeditionary force to capture the Dutch island of Walcheren and the port of Flushing. Against Castlereagh’s advice, the patriotic Sir William sailed too, carrying on Die Jong Vrow Rebecca Maria ‘delicate refreshments of all kinds to the military and naval commanders and the principal officers.’ This was too much for Isaac Cruickshank, who pictured the banker destroying the Emperor by setting a giant turtle on him.
Sir William remained a major force in commerce, in the City, and in the House, often controversial, always independent. But let us jump to 1821, George IV, now being King, needed to visit his other Kingdom, Hanover. But the King could never give his patronage to Dover, which had so traitorously welcomed his despised wife Caroline only the previous year.
Sir W could therefore persuade the King to sail from Ramsgate – and stay the night with his loyal subjects Sir William and Lady Curtis.
George Cruickshank found domestic Ramsgate too tempting.
There are over 100 Curtis-related satirical caricatures covering the entire period 1789 to 1830. Their apogee was in 1822 when Sir William accompanied his sovereign and old friend George IV on his Royal Visit to Scotland. Sir William and his family found these cartoons simply too wounding – in the 1940s his great grand-daughter still could not talk about them.
Here we see Sir William as he saw himself, and Bonnie Willie as others saw him – actually George Cruickshank again.
The King decided, for the great Levée at Holyrood, to ‘assume the garb of old Gael’ and appear in kilt and plaid, ‘but his satisfaction therein was cruelly disturbed when he discovered, towering and blazing among the genuine Glengarries and Macleods and MacGregors, a figure even more portly than his own.‘
On the theme of the Scottish visit, another, one of many:
This one (Cruickshank again) caused particular offence and there were attempts to suppress it.
The fat King and his fat subject (with turtle and sausages) have caught scabies, vulgarly called ‘the Scottish fiddle’, and are vigorously going through the traditional process of rubbing themselves against a post, while the King courteously blesses his grace the Duke of Argyle. An English acquaintance wisely refuses the Alderman’s proffered hand.
If the King really was angry about the Holyrood Levée, he soon forgave his old friend. In July 1823 John Constable writes to Archdeacon Fisher ‘I have been a day or two at Southgate … We dined at Sir William Curtis’s. He is a fine old fellow, and is now sitting for his portrait to Lawrence for the King, who desired the portrait in these words, ‘’Damn you, my old boy, I’ll have you in all your canonicals, when I can look at you every day’’; he is a great favourite — birds of a feather.’ George gave Sir William a Lawrence of himself and did indeed keep with him Lawrence’s portrait of Curtis. It is still in the Royal Collection.
1826 was a year of banking crisis (plus ça change), but there was no crisis at the banking house of Sir William Curtis, Robarts, and Curtis.
Cruickshank shows an ageing Sir William on the steps of his bank at 15 Lombard Street (now a Sainsburys Local, but within recent memory The Robarts Branch of Coutts), a turtle above the door. Pan says’ I’m come to terrify you all Sir Billy’. People run in panic up Abchurch Lane, but Curtis, with a bag of gold in one hand and a bowl of turtle soup in the other, replies ‘D’ye think I care a d–n about your Notes? While I have Wisdom, Sovereigns & Soup, to Pan or Frying Pan I’ll never stoop.’
The catch phrase Soup, Sovereigns and Security clearly refers back to the alliterative 3 Rs.
Billy Biscuit died at the full age of 77, at his much loved Ramsgate. ‘The great respect and regard which Sir William had acquired at Ramsgate was most conspicuously displayed on his decease. Every shop was closed during the whole week his remains lay in the town; and his funeral was followed half way to Canterbury.’
‘A more honourable, upright character than Sir William Curtis never existed. In private life the urbanity of his manners and generosity of his temper rendered him universally respected and beloved by a very numerous body of friends and admirers, as by his children and relatives …’
I am immensely grateful to John Curtis Dalby (my fourth cousin once removed, I think he is), and to Nick Brazil, authors of Billy Biscuit – The Colourful Life and Times of Sir William Curtis Bt MP 1752-1829.
This was published by Brazil Productions in 2010 and can be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org for £21.00 inc p&p.)
Two other important reference sources are: The British Museum Catalogue of Personal & Political Satires, vols 6-11 (publ 1938-1954); and Wapping 1600-1800 by Morris & Cozens, published in 2009 by The East London Historical Society.
My daughter Emma Curtis, who took her great grandmother’s family name because mine would not do, shares my interest in her great great great great grandfather. Emma has photographed all my prints and encouraged and supported me in every way. Thank you so much.
http://www.emmacurtis.com ; Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/thefrolick (@thefrolick )