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Mar 112018

My latest book, on female pioneers in the Eighteenth Century, was published in March 2018 (to mark International Women’s Day) and is available from the publishers Pen & Sword here and in the UK on Amazon  (in the States at )

My previous book, from the same publisher, was “In Bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal & Satire” and it can be found (here) and of course at and Bed with the Georgians






To find earlier blogs please put the title (or part of it) in the search box in the sidebar and that will take you to the appropriate post. Thanks!

Dec 022018

Just got back from a splendid fortnight cruising in the Indian Ocean (Mauritius, the Seychelles, the Comoros Islands and Madagascar). Unfortunately, the riots on Reunion meant that we had to give that island a miss – but against that, the weather was great and there cannot be many better places to spend a November day than afloat in the Indian Ocean.

I gave four talks – the first on Piracy in that part of the world 250 years ago (Olivier Levasseur et al). As luck would have it my book  ‘Piracy and Privateering’ came out just as we sailed – and my ‘author’s copies’ were held up in the post. Never mind, they greeted me on the doorstep when I got back. I had forgotten that it was going to be available in hardback format!

The second talk was on Royal shenanigans – the randy Regent and his entire family, with tales of murder, rape, incest and imprisonment (making straight-forward adultery seem somewhat tame). The audience seemed to like that, so I did anther ‘mini-talk’ on courtesans and hookers of the 18th Century. I paired it up, slightly incongruously, with the remarkable story of survival in the face of adversity by seven women abandoned on an island close to Reunion in the 1770s. No running water, no trees, no vegetation – but those seven survived fifteen years before being rescued. Incredible story. I give more details of it in the book ‘Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks’ which comes out in April to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Finally, I gave a talk on my old favourite – everyday life in Georgian England, looking at ancestor Richard Hall and his experiences as a hosier at One London Bridge. It is good practice for the presentation I will be giving when I do a USA tour in February – with talks in New York and Colonial Williamsburg. Before then I fancy doing another lecture cruise – possibly involving Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Watch this space – but quite when I can find time to finish the two books I have contracted to give Pen & Sword is something of an unknown! An end-January deadline is looming large…


Nov 212018

21st November 1918 saw the Royal Assent being given to a Bill which  became known as the Parliament (Qualification of Women Act) 1918.

In a way it was an inevitable consequence of women (in certain circumstances) having been given the right to vote. The Act meant that they could also be voted for – in other words to stand for election as an M.P. Interestingly, the British Parliament was by no means the last to permit female voting – the Dutch did so in 1920, and the United States of America passed the 19th Amendment (allowing women to vote) on 26 August 1920.

On the other hand the Nordic countries were the early runners in Europe, with Finland leading the way in 1907. Norway gave women the vote in 1913 and Denmark followed in 1915. Portugal dipped a toe in the water in 1931 but with numerous restrictions, which were only removed so as to give full equality with the men in 1976. Spain allowed full suffrage in 1933, France in 1944, Italy in 1946,  and Greece in 1952. The Swiss got going a bit late in the day – with Federal voting by women being introduced in 1971

Good old New Zealand got there in 1895. Full suffrage, to include female aborigines, was not permitted in Australia until as recently as 1962.

Following the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women Act)  seventeen female candidates stood for election to the House of Commons including the well-known suffragette Christabel Pankhurst (representing the Women’s Party in Smethwick). She failed to get elected and indeed the only woman to top the vote was  Constance Markievicz, representing Sinn Fein. Her party always abstained and instead of taking her seat in the Commons preferred to sit in the Dáil in Dublin. So, it was left for Nancy Astor to be the first woman to take her seat in the Commons  (December 1, 1919).


The slow progress in the intervening century is  curious: here we are a hundred years later and women still represent less than a third of elected M.P.s. But in a way that is true of the whole story of the struggle for female equality – one door opens and it looks as though there will be a breakthrough – and guess what, things stall and nothing very much happens. You only have to look at Mary Wollstonecraft – who published   A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792.  When she died the public were for the first time made aware of her ‘scandalous’ lifestyle, her attempted suicide, her affair with Gilbert Imlay, her mothering of an illegitimate daughter. The public condemnation of her behaviour totally drowned out the message which Mary had been so forcefully trying to get across. Horace Walpole had branded her as  ” a hyena in a petticoat” and for nearly a century her ideas were almost totally disregarded.

Mary features in my book “Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era – The Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man’s World” which Pen & Sword published earlier this year. Like many of the other women featured in the book, she would be astonished to hear what little progress had been made through the Victorian period. It is amazing to think that even after 200 years equality is still a mirage in many areas of everyday life.

Nov 012018

A lot is happening at present. At the end of November Pen & Sword are publishing my latest book, Pirates and Privateers in the 18th Century – the final flourish’ and I will be telling some of the exploits when I do a lecture-cruise for Fred Olsen on board the Boudicca when she sails in two weeks time through the islands of the Indian Ocean. In particular I will feature the remarkable story of Olivier Levasseur – possibly the wealthiest pirate who ever lived – who operated out of the Seychelles, was captured off Reunion, and was hanged on Mauritius. All very apt, as our ship will be visiting … the Seychelles, Reunion and Mauritius. Ooh argh me hearties, there be tales of buried treasure….

Meanwhile I am checking the final proofs for a book due out next Spring to mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe. It will look at the whole question of castaways and shipwrecks in the Georgian era, and include some of the stories which are believed to have inspired Defoe to write his famous work. Nowadays Robinson Crusoe is almost always published as a single story, and it was only when I started the research  for my book that I realized that Defoe had written two sequels, and that in the Victorian era both  the original book and the first of the two sequels were usually published as a single item. The second sequel seems to have disappeared without trace – by then Defoe was somewhat running out of inspiration and was flogging a dead horse.

One of the castaway stories will be featured on the cruise – the astonishing tale of survival about a group of shipwrecked women (captured slaves) who survived fifteen years on a tiny island, without running water and with no useful vegetation, living off birds and turtle eggs. The French had deserted them on this barren island, near Reunion, promising to return. Well, they kept their promise, but only after a decade and a half. It really is a remarkable survival story.

To cap an interesting year I have been asked to go to Colonial Williamsburg in the States in February to deliver a lecture on life in Georgian London. I  have always wanted to do a lecture tour in America, and this is my chance! They are holding a five-day seminar in this (largely replica) Georgian  colonial town and it will be great to see all the buildings and the demonstrations of 18th Century skills. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is extremely generous and  have taken care of everything.

Meanwhile I am putting the final touches to my book on ‘unsung Georgian heroes’ – inventors etc who changed our world but who are largely overshadowed by the greats of the Georgian period such as Boulton, Watt, Wedgwood and ‘the rest of the boys in the band’. I have to submit it to Pen & Sword by the end of January. Time, then, to start on my final oeuvre, which will be on Sex and Sexuality in the Georgian era. Who ever would thought that retirement could be such good fun?

Oct 212018

Image shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library

A rather nice  engraving from one of the clan of Dightons who helped illuminate the Georgian era  – this one by Robert Dighton who lived between 1752 and 1814. The version shown is on the Lewis Walpole site  and is also in the British Museum collection where it is described in the following manner:

“The design is partly bisected by a vertical line. The same lady sits (l.) directed to the left, at her dressing-table, wearing only a long chemise or petticoat, and slippers. On the r. she sits, in the same attitude but directed to the right, fully dressed at the same dressing-table. In undress she is almost bald; a wig of naturally-dressed hair is on a stand on the table. She has an over-long neck and skinny arms. On the  table (l.) are her fan, a locket suspended on a ribbon, cosmetic-boxes, and a bottle labelled ‘Wrinkles’.

When dressed her neck is concealed by a lace ruffle on a chemisette, she has long rucked sleeves, in her gloved hand is her fan. She wears a high-waisted gown under which her legs are defined; she wears elaborately embroidered stockings with flat slippers. Her wig seems to be luxuriant natural hair; she wears an ear-ring. On the dressing-table are boxes, a bottle of ‘Lavender’, and tickets inscribed ‘Opera’ and ‘Cards’. She looks young and handsome, the dress (not exaggerated) effectively concealing her weakest points.”

Actually, the Lewis Walpole site attributes the engraving to Robert Dighton Jnr, who lived between 1786 and 1865 but at that time (ie 1800-1810) he was mostly doing illustrations with a military theme and I suspect the whole family made use of the plates, and this one probably emanated from Robert Dighton Senior. Dad led a somewhat chequered career, having been caught pilfering original artworks from the British Museum, but had a good reputation as a caricaturist. He was a fine artist, exhibiting at the Royal Academy, and sold prints and artwork from his shop in Spring Gardens, Charing Cross. Maybe he lacked the bile and viciousness of Gillray, but his gentle satire, as here, can still hit the mark. Above all, it reflects the prevalent view amongst men in the 18th century that women were in some way behaving unfairly by using wigs and make-up to disguise their imperfections – leaving men to find that they had hitched themselves to a balding old maid instead of a nubile young bit of stuff. The men of course had no such imperfections…

I am thinking of including Robert Dighton Snr in my next book which profiles Georgians who have had a raw deal from history – men (and it is generally just men) who played an important part in 18th century history but whose reputations have largely disappeared in the mists of time. We all know of Hogarth and Gillray – but there is a whole panoply of other artists who helped society let off steam by enabling the public to mock, ridicule and above all laugh at the foibles of others. One of those was Robert Dighton – and another was the young Richard Newton. Together they provided a great escape mechanism for public displeasure!

Oct 142018

One of the problems in writing about my ancestor Richard Hall is that I do not have his Faith – Richard was a devout Baptist. I am not, and understanding what being a Baptist meant to Richard is clearly important. By the age of 16 he was attending sermons given by Dr John Gill – although it was another twenty years before he ‘gave in his experience’ and was himself baptised. Meanwhile, he collected the printed versions of many of the good doctor’s sermons, and then had them bound up into his own book entitled ‘Miscellaneous Sermons’.

Dr Gill was a charismatic figure who was either loved or despised by his listeners. A man of huge intellect and learning he dominated the Baptist movement of his time in the same way as Wesley is associated with the Methodist movement.

John Gill was born on November 23rd 1697 and, like most children of Dissenting parents, attended his local grammar school. But this was to end when he was eleven years old – his parents were unable to continue with the grammar school education and young John was left to learn Greek and Latin and to master classical literature without formal assistance.

Just think what that meant: we are all used to youngsters closeting themselves away in their room, but generally we know that they are on their computers, accessing porn or playing mindless games. Either that or they are immersed in endless and inane chatter to friends, using the latest  i-phone. What they are not doing is pulling down a primer on Ancient Greek, starting at page 1 and working through to the very end, and then starting on the companion volume for Latin, Hebrew etc.! But that was what the young Master Gill did. He became a Hebrew scholar, studied logic and immersed himself in theological debates.

This brought him into contact with John Skepp, one of the foremost Hebrew scholars of his era, and in particular with his large collection of Hebrew and Rabbinical books. Far from discrediting Jews, John Gill recognized that, since the entire Old Testament was written by Jews, the only way to ‘get into their heads’ was to study Hebrew and read the leading Rabbincal books. When Skepp died Gill purchased much of his library. He took up his first ministry at Horsleydown Church at Southwark in London in 1721 – and stayed there until his death. He remained as Minister for 51 years. In 1723 he began a series of sermons – 122 in all, on the Song of Solomon. This was to establish a pattern which would last throughout his Ministry. His sermons did not make easy listening in the sense that he offered no easy options – he was a High Calvinist, vigorously orthodox on Christian basics, and he demanded the highest standard of commitment from his followers.

Dr Gill’s  church at Carter Lane in Southwark just a few doors down from where Richard and his family lived. Indeed when he was still a youngster Richard donated twenty pounds to the cost of keeping the premises in repair (a not inconsiderable sum in those days). Dr Gill wrote extensively and Richard was to purchase and keep many of his works. But Dr Gill made many enemies – with his attacks on Arminianism and Unitarianism and with his refusal to ‘take the easy option’. He staunchly defended the orthodox faith, in an age when people were increasingly ‘putting God on trial’ and devaluing God while elevating the importance of Man. I have a number of his sermons – they are indeed weighty, solemn, learned ….. and incredibly boring!*

A less biased opinion is given in one of today’s Baptist websites: “To say that Dr. Gill influenced evangelical Christians in general and Baptists in particular is like saying the sun influences the daytime. He was the first Baptist to write a complete systematic theology and the first to write a verse-by-verse commentary of the entire Bible. Gill wrote so much that he was known as Dr. Voluminous”.

Richard looked to Dr Gill for spiritual guidance and was utterly lost when the great man died. It probably wasn’t helped that his successor at Carter Lane in Southwark was a 23 year old Devonshire hot-head called John Rippon, or that Rippon took a shine to Richard’s teenage daughter Patty! Richard left the Baptist movement in high dudgeon and for a while became C. of E., being appointed Church Warden of the splendid Wren-designed church of  St Magnus the Martyr on the north side of the river Thames. He later resumed his Baptist ways when he moved to Bourton on the Water, and he always regarded Dr Gill as having been his mentor and guide throughout the first half of his life.

Gill died on 14th October 1771, or,  as one follower remarked: “Thus he gloriously terminated his mortal career, without a sigh or groan, on the 14th day of October 1771, at about eleven o’clock in the forenoon, at his house in Camberwell, Surrey, aged seventy-three years, ten months, and ten days.”

My ancestor was so moved by the loss of his mentor that he wrote a short book entitled “What I remember of Dr Gill” and had it published privately  so as to be able to give copies to friends. He also maintained a habit throughout his life of taking ‘shorthand’ notes of every sermon he ever went to, and then wrote them up as a fair copy every Sunday afternoon.

*As a footnote I have at last done something with all the Baptist material – I parcelled it all up and delivered it to the Baptist College at Oxford, safe in the knowledge that it may be of interest to theological scholars who may be intrigued at the comments of a man who had a ringside seat at some of the great sermons of the Eighteenth Century. The Baptist College is happy – and I have gained an extra 24 inches of shelf space!

Sep 262018

228 years ago my ancestor Richard Hall noted that following the passing of the Duke of Cumberland, there was a period of mourning at Court which was to last six weeks. The entry echoes the way that my ancestor always referred to the monarch as “good” King George. He clearly approved of the King, sympathised with him over his bouts of illnesses, and previously had remarked whenever there were signs of recovery.

DoC 001 I am not quite clear why the period of general mourning was delayed, since Prince  Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn, actually shuffled off this mortal coil on 18 September. Perhaps it took a week for anyone to notice…. the Prince was the son of Prince Frederick, and was 44 at the date of his death. I like the man because of his colourful affairs. When caught in flagrante with the wife of Lord Grosvenor he was sued for damages in crim. con. and ended up having to touch up his brother (the King) for ten thousand pounds, plus costs of three thousand pounds. Lawyers, even then, didn’t come cheap!

On the debit side, he helped popularise Brighton by introducing the Prince of Wales to the delights of sea bathing and general carousing, away from the court of George III. I don’t think I can forgive him for that, because Brighton has been a nightmare for motorists ever since…

What else was happening to ancestor Richard Hall on This Day in History? Well, in 1780 it was “a fine day, very warm”, but Richard omits saying what he did with his time so he may well have been sitting around with his feet up, catching the late autumn rays! The following year was positively hectic, as he caught the Oxford Stage and got there,  in safety, in time for a spot of Supper. It was a fine day mind you, but “very Cold”. In 1782 it was the night of the Harvest Supper (“pretty fine day, mild”). The following year was “a delightful fine day” spent taking tea with Mr Freeman, dining with Mrs Snooke,and attending a sermon taken from Jeremiah  2, part 31. Things hadn’t improved by the following year when it was ” very wet in the morning, after, part dull, fine-ish with some rain in the evening.” So, nothing exceptional  ever happened on 26 September, and then to cap it all, Richard would have had to close his shop just because the Duke had popped his clogs….

It is however interesting to compare and contrast what Richard had to say, with the comments made by his brother-in-law William Snooke. Richard always wrote about the weather, whereas William never once tells us if it raining or shining. Instead, he busied himself on 26 September 1775 saying that he”went afield and had a syllabub instead of Tea”. That day he also mended the stucco, and paid two shillings to Thomas Reynolds for half a hundred crayfish which he had “had some time ago” and forgotten to pay for! The year before that he had attended Burford Fair, while “Mrs Dunn and Mrs Roper went to Cirencester in a chaise a little after 8 o’clock”. He appears to have had a full house that night, because he notes that  “Mr Willis and Mr Whiting also supp’d, and slept in our house in one bed”. (Mind you, I can still remember  the family putting up people in a shared bed, usually end to end!).

Good old William: he always jotted down if he had a memorably fine  meal, and on this day 1768 he “din’d on a Gammon of Bacon, Apple Dumplings and Fillet of Veal”. It must have put him in a good mood, because he promptly gave his wife a present of five guineas, paid one shilling and sixpence for a hare, and “gave an old man at Mr Freeman’s one shilling.”

Somehow I get the impression that William always enjoyed 26 September (and every other day of the year come to that) rather more than Richard did!

Sep 102018

Mary was born in April 1759 and died on 10th September 1797. In her lifetime she become a published writer, philosopher, and advocate of  women’s rights. She really was a woman ahead of her times – something which she herself was aware of, famously saying “I am the first of a new genus”. She features in my book ‘Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era – The Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man’s World’. And if you are interested in the female struggle for equal rights, do remember that you can find it here. Enjoy!


Sep 022018

As part of my trawl through the backwaters of the 18th Century, looking for overlooked heroes to include in my forthcoming book** with Pen and Sword on ‘forgotten’ Georgian Greats, I came across the name of Thomas Boulsover. “Who he?” I hear people ask. Well, he played his part in bringing high quality domestic ornaments within reach of ordinary households – he discovered a way to plate silver.

On 1 September 1760 the inveterate gossip Horace Walpole wrote a letter to his friend Mr Montagu:

As I went to Lord Strafford’s I passed through Sheffield, which is one of the foulest towns in England, in the most charming situation, where there are 22,000 inhabitants making knives and scissors. … One man there has discovered the art of plating copper with silver. I bought a pair of candlesticks for two guineas that are quite pretty.

What Walpole was referring to was the discovery by Thomas Bouslover of a method of fusing copper and silver to produce a material now known as ‘Old Sheffield plate’. Even then, eighteen years after the initial discovery of plated silver, the items made from the new material (in this case a pair of candlesticks) were considered ‘quite pretty’ – a reflection of the fact that design, decoration and form were important even if the candlesticks were retailing at a fraction of the cost of solid silver items.

Boulsover was born in 1705, and was apprenticed as a cutler in the parish of Ecclesfield (four miles to the north of Sheffield city centre) to Joseph Fletcher. He qualified in 1726 and married Hannah Dodworth two years later. The pair went on to have ten children, of whom only two reached adulthood. For twenty years Thomas Boulsover was busy making and repairing knives. But if Sheffield’s reputation was built on cutlery it was to receive a huge boost due to a discovery which Boulsover made in 1742/3. There are a number of stories, some no doubt apocryphal, about the curious accident which led to his discovery. One suggests that he was repairing a knife handle, made of silver, holding it in a vice while he applied heat to the silver. Unknown to him, a copper penny was wedged in the vice and, as his concentration wandered, he overheated the silver, causing the silver to fuse with the copper in the penny. However, realistically, this cannot have been the first time that the two metals had been fused. What was new was that Boulsover recognized something very particular about the way the two metals had joined – they were fused in such a way that the ’sandwich’ remained in the same proportions, even when beaten or rolled into a lesser thickness.

It was the fact that the copper and silver expanded in unison which was hugely significant. Boulsover started to experiment, noting that the silver melted at a lower temperature than copper. By placing a flat copper sheet under the silver as it was heated and liquified, the silver ran evenly over the copper, then fused with it. It could then be fed through a succession of rollers to make a finer and finer gauge of plated metal. And because copper cost a fraction of the cost of silver it meant that the metal was ideal for making items which looked like silver, which could be made into products traditionally made of silver, and which satisfied the growing demand of the public for decorative items which ‘wouldn’t break the bank’.

To begin with Boulsover kept the discovery to himself and decided to concentrate on making straight-forward items such as buttons. He needed capital to expand the business and approached a friend of the family called Strelley Pegge, and asked for a loan. It was granted and twelve months later Mr Pegge was surprised to find that Thomas Boulsover wished to pay back not just the interest on the loan but the entire capital. He apparently explained his success to Mr Pegge by pointing out that whereas he could sell his buttons for a guinea a dozen (21 shillings) the silver in those buttons cost a mere three shillings – and the cost of the copper was almost insignificant.

Button-making turned out to be a most profitable exercise and there is a story that ‘when he had been in business some time he sent the sweepings from the workshop floor, which he had taken great care of, to Mr. Read, a silver refiner, in Green Lane, and in a little time they sent him back £100 worth of silver — so much for the value of shop sweepings’. Certainly Boulsover missed a trick – he never patented the process, and therefore missed out on royalties.

Other cutlers in Sheffield could see the opportunities of developing their skills in working with metal, be it in pure silver or by using a cheaper silvery substitute. They diversified away from simply making blades. Craftsmen worked in both metals, silver and plate, and in time Sheffield silversmiths were able to petition Parliament for their own Assay Office in 1773. No longer did they have to wait while their products were sent down to London for assaying and return – they could sell direct to the general public, further helping establish the reputation of the city. The fact that the craftsmen could also make buttons, snuff boxes, and decorative fish slices out of a far cheaper metal did nothing to harm this reputation – it just brought the wares to a wider market.

The next development was the introduction in 1770 of a ‘double sandwich’ i.e. copper plated on both sides with silver. This still left the problem of a copper edge being visible when the metal was cut, but this was overcome, initially by rolling the edge to make a silvered ridge, and subsequently by applying silver wire along the length of the visible copper edge.

It was left to a colleague of Boulsover to develop further commercial possibilities of plated silver. His name was Joseph Hancock, and before long he was manufacturing a wide range of goods, starting with saucepans, then coffee pots, hot water jugs and moving on to candlesticks. He prospered and emerged as a Master Cutler from 1763 and was one of the thirty ‘guardians’ appointed to oversee the Sheffield Assay Office. When Hancock died in 1791 a local newspaper described him, most unfairly, as ‘the founder of the plated business in Sheffield, as he was the first person who commenced a manufactory of the goods.’ This was to completely overlook Boulsover’s involvement in silver plating, which gave a huge boost to the region’s economy. In time, more Sheffield plate was made in Birmingham than it was in Sheffield, largely thanks to Matthew Boulton making use of the fused material in his new factory at Soho.

Boulsover seems to have been happy to diversify into other areas where his experience of rolling, rather than hammering, metal could be put to good use. Up until then, wood-cutting saws were hammered from a single piece of steel, and setting the teeth was a difficult and inefficient process. Boulsover developed a system whereby the steel could be fed through rollers and also found a simple way for setting the teeth at an angle. Man-power was soon superseded by horse-power and then by water-power. To this end, Boulsover opened a mill on the stream below his house at Whiteley Wood, which he had bought from his original benefactor Strelley Pegge in 1757. As a result of his diversification he was being described in trade directories  from 1774 onwards, not as a silver plater, but as  ‘a manufacturer of saws, fenders, edge tools, Casted and Emory, from Sycamore Street’. By the end of the century there were two water-wheels and a steam engine powering the forge’s drop hammers at the industrial premises which Boulsover had started in the Porter Valley. It is thought that the forge ceased as a commercial enterprise around 1887.

Boulsover died at his Whiteley Wood home in September 1788 and was buried in St Paul’s Church Sheffield on 12 September. He never made a fortune from his discovery – but others did. The process remained popular until the production of nickel silver, otherwise known as German Silver, in around 1820. This used 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc – and its nickel content gave it a harder, silvery, appearance which made it more resistant to the copper showing through the top layer due to daily wear and tear. In turn, German silver was largely overtaken by electroplating, which came in during the 1840s. In a way they all proved one thing: there was a commercial appetite for objects which looked like silver, shone and sparkled like silver, but which were in fact made largely from base metals.

Former Methodist Chapel, then a cowshed, now a derelict building, at Meadow Farm, Bents Green. (Picture courtesy of Mark Knapton).

There are small memorials to Boulsover in Tudor Square in central Sheffield, and at Wire Mill Dam in the nearby Porter Valley. There is also a small Methodist Chapel still standing (actually it then became a cowshed and is now completely disused), in the grounds of Meadow Farm, adjacent to the site of the old steel-rolling premises. It had been erected by his two surviving daughters and bears the inscription: ‘This chapel was built by Mary Mitchell and Sarah Hutton in 1789 in memory of their father Thomas Boulsover, the inventor of Sheffield Plate (1705 – 1788).’  Fame has certainly been transient for poor Thomas Boulsover.

**Due out some time towards the end of 2020 – first there will be books on Piracy (due out this year) and on the story behind Robinson Crusoe (due next April).

Aug 152018

(c) Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

I love the way that so many inventors in the Georgian era came up with what were basically fakes – and I will be featuring some of them in my next-book-but-two*. Imitation  stone (Eleanor Coade) imitation gold (Christopher Pinchbeck) and imitation silver (Thomas Boulsover) are just a few. But there was also the interesting story of  John Baskerville, a man who made his fortune imitating the lacquer work previously imported from the Far East. Japanned tea sets, trays, boxes, clock cases – you name it, he made and embellished them, especially with flowers and classical motifs.

In the case of John Baskerville he is remembered, if at all, for the exquisite typeface which he designed and which is named after him. But printing was a hobby which he came to later in life – after he had made his fortune manufacturing  ‘japanned wares.’ The problem was that the tree used to extract the lacquer in the Far East (Toxicodendron vernicifluum, better known as the Chinese Lacquer Tree) was not available in Europe. In the second half of the 1600’s a way had been found to take a base material, such as wood or paper and coat it with layer after layer of coloured resin, like shellac. The procedure was described in publications such as Stalker and Parker’s Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, which appeared in 1688, and which does little to hint at the dirty, odorous and often hot working conditions endured by the people doing the japanning. The resin was applied in layers to produce a lustrous finish, usually black, achieved by mixing lamp-black into the resin. Stalker and Parker’s Treatise explained how to get the lamp black:

To make lamp black: Being furnished with a lamp that has 3 or 4 spouts, for as many lights and cotton-week (wick) which you may have at the Tallow Chandlers, twisted up so big that it will but just go into the nose of your spouts; for the greater light they make, the greater quantity of black is afforded. Procure a quart of oyl, by the oyl shops rated at 6d., and so much will make black enough to use about a large cabinet. Get a thing to receive your black in, such in shape and substance as you may often see is planted over a candle to keep the flame and smoak from the roof or ceiling of a room. Having placed your weeks (wicks) in their proper apartment, and put in the oyl, fire or light ‘em and fix your receiver over them so close, that the flame may almost touch them. After it is continued so the space of half an hour, take off your receiver, and with a feather strike and sweep off all the black on it. Snuff your weecks, and put it on again, but forget not to supply your lamp with oyl, as often as occasion shall require, and when you imagine that more black is stuck to the receiver, do as before directed.

Different manufacturers used different varnishes. One, known as “tar varnish” or “Jewish pitch”, involved a mixture of black asphaltum, amber, linseed oil and rosin in turpentine. In order to achieve a higher gloss this would then be coated with a mixture of copal resin in linseed oil – or with a variety of spirit varnishes. But as each layer was built up the japanners had to resort to frequent stovings – which in turn had a tendency to warp and crack the underlying base material. In time many japanners turned to tinplate as an alternative to a wood or paper base, because this was more resistant to the damage caused by the stoving process. The high glossy black finish was often embellished with gold decorations – used in order to make an ideal display for the tea ceremonies which developed throughout the eighteenth century.

Very often japanning was done in small factory units and during the Georgian period these started to be clustered around towns in the West Midlands, such as Wolverhampton and Bilston. And then John Baskerville appeared on the scene to develop a way of japanning onto a papier-mâché base. It produced a strong but lightweight material which did not warp when the resins were being oven-dried, and Baskerville set up in business in 1740 at 22 Moor Street in central Birmingham. Five years later production was moved to workshop premises in the 8-acre grounds of the fine house he built at Easy Hill on the edge of Birmingham and before long he was supplying the market with a range of high quality products. He continued to make papier-mâché products from that address for the remainder of his life, taking on a succession of apprentices (seven in all) during the period between 1754 and 1765. Baskerville loved flaunting his success, and had a reputation for wearing clothes richly adorned with gold lace. And, to make sure that no-one could mistake him, he  bought a pair of cream-coloured horses to draw his carriage, which had its doors and side panels made from papier-mâché richly decorated by the Master’s hand. Here was a man who did not believe in hiding his light under a bushel…

John had been born near Kidderminster in 1707 and initially had made a living teaching calligraphy, and carving gravestones. As a twenty-year old he had moved to Birmingham and set up a school in the Bull Ring where he taught writing and book-keeping, while still maintaining his work as an engraver. A slate inscribed with the words ‘Grave Stones Cut in any of the Hands by John Baskervill, Writing Master’ is all that remains  of his business. He was in his late thirties when he stumbled across the use of papier-mâché as a substrate for lacquer-work – allegedly as a result of following another papier-mâché maker around the city’s apothecaries, noting exactly what products were being bought. He ended up producing products which had the appearance of being made of wood, but which were feather-light, durable and with a very even high-gloss finish.

Having amassed a fortune making lacquered papier-mâché with his innovative production methods he turned back to his first love – the printed word. During the 1750s he developed the use of wove paper (as opposed to laid paper). Wove paper, which was used for a smooth white finish, had been invented by James Whatman and Baskerville was the first person to see its commercial possibilities. He also experimented with using clearer, more lustrous, inks, and developed a system for drying the ink quickly and evenly – preventing it from being soaked into the paper and instead giving a consistent and clear finish. He also brought about changes to the way that the metal type was cast, making the printed word appear really crisp. He really was a pioneer in the field of print-making, design and book production, and his name quickly became a by-word for quality.

All these developments were reflected in the production of his first book in 1757, a superb edition of works by Virgil. The care taken by Baskerville was astonishing – the production of that one volume took three years but the result was so impressive that Baskerville was appointed printer to Cambridge University. Shortly afterwards he started work on the production of a remarkable folio edition of The Bible, which was finally published in 1763. The care taken was all the more surprising when you consider that Baskerville was an atheist – not a closet atheist but a highly prominent and vociferous atheist who was not afraid to demonstrate his rejection of Christian doctrines. This even extended to his refusal to marry the woman generally referred to as his wife, the long-suffering Sarah Eaves. Sarah was originally a servant girl and was still married to a Mr Eaves. She had two children by her husband but John Baskerville treated them as his own, and brazenly set up home with Sarah for some twenty years. It is thought that the couple eventually did marry, after the death of Mr Eaves, but to eighteenth century moralists ‘living in sin’ for two decades with an adulterous woman was not generally acceptable.

John Wilkes said that Baskerville shocked him with his openly atheistic stance and that he was ‘a terrible infidel’ – which makes it all the more amazing that during his life Baskerville printed three bibles, nine common prayers, two psalm-books, and two Greek testaments. When he started as a printer he announced: ‘It is not my desire to print many books; but such only as are books of consequence, of intrinsic merit, or established reputation.’ These books included the works by Milton, Addison, Congreve, Shaftesbury, Virgil, Juvenal, Horace, the Italian renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto and a number of other classical Italian authors.

As a printer he was able to direct John Handy, his punch-maker, to design and produce a new and exceptionally clear and simple typeface. It so impressed Benjamin Franklin (a fellow printer) that when he returned to the newly-created United States of America Franklin directed that federal government documents were to be printed using the Baskerville typeface. Baskerville was elected a member to the Royal Society of Arts, and became an associate of many of the members of the Lunar Society. As a result of this sort of networking he became an important influencer – a major player in Birmingham’s industrial scene. In effect he became mentor to the young Matthew Boulton, encouraging him in his early endeavours and at one stage lending him the not insignificant sum of £1470 in 1767. Boulton, of course, went on to fame and fortune as one of the great architects of the Industrial Revolution, but it is worth remembering that he only achieved that pinnacle because of the support and   encouragement given to him by others in his early years.

Baskerville’s typefaces mark a high point in the transition between Old Style and Modern type design – they are beautifully cut, and although they went out of fashion they were subsequently picked up in the twentieth century by type foundries such as Linotype and Monotype. Baskerville helped establish Birmingham as the leading city for print and publishing outside of London, with a reputation as a leader in design. He may have made his money by making cheap imitations of Far Eastern handicrafts but he spent his money in becoming one of the finest printers of the Age. And if we think of elegance as being the mark of the Georgian era it is worth remembering that elegance does not simply consist of a neo-classical tea-pot, or an Adam fireplace or a fine façade designed by William Chambers – it is also defined by the beauty of the printed page.
Baskerville died in January 1775 at his Easy Hill home, having left very specific instructions that his mortal remains were not to be buried in consecrated land, but in a vault which he had created in an old mill building. As he said: ‘Doubtless to many [this] may appear a Whim – perhaps It is so – but it is a whim for many years Resolve’d upon, as I have a Hearty Contempt for all Superstition [and] the Farce of a Consecrated Ground…’

In practice his coffin was to have a somewhat nomadic existence – Easy Hill was burnt down in the Birmingham Riots of 1791 and the mausoleum was knocked down when a canal was re-routed across the site. The lead-lined coffin was moved to a warehouse in 1821 where is was used as a workbench and later became something of a tourist attraction as people asked to see the corpse. Originally in a good state of preservation, this constant exposure to the air caused rapid deterioration to the body. Finally the oderous corpse was secreted in a family vault belonging to a local publisher. Years later even this building was demolished, and the coffin moved again before finally being re-buried in catacombs at Warstone Lane Cemetery.  So, even after two centuries, John Baskerville has still not got his final wish, although there are occasional attempts to get him buried yet again, this time on un-consecrated ground.

Baskerville left most of his fortune, some £12,000, to his widow Sarah as well as making various bequest to family members and to charity. Sarah carried on with John’s printing business for some months after his death, and also maintained the type foundry for another two years. She died in 1788.


*My next book to be published, by Pen & Sword, is due out in November and will be on the topic of Pirates and Privateers. After that comes one to mark the anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe next April – all about castaways and violent storms and disasters at sea. And after that comes one on lesser-known Georgian inventors, discoverers etc. I have also just been commissioned to write what will probably be my final book, on Sex and Sexuality in the Georgian era. Watch this space! And if you find my blogs getting fewer and fewer, it is probably because I am too busy trying to keep my publisher happy!

Jul 112018

Elizabeth Cane was born July 11, 1750. Few will recognize the name but she was to become one of the most fascinating and notorious women of the century. Little is known about her early years but it is likely that she came to London when about sixteen, and either became a hairdresser or a hairdresser´s model. The one thing which is clear is that her talents extended far beyond a spot of back-combing, and within a few short years she had transformed herself into Elizabeth Armistead, high class courtesan and confidante of the Prince of Wales. Was there ever a Mr Armistead? I have no idea, and it may just have been a name chosen to give her an air of respectability. She quickly became one of the richest and most celebrated beauties of the Age – with a string of lovers from the upper echelons of the aristocracy. Two Dukes, an Earl, a Viscount – and the Prince of Wales – all succumbed to her charms. Each in turn lavished her with jewels and expensive gifts.

Elizabeth Armistead by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

She knew her worth, and certainly was not going to waste what she had on one man alone. That is, until she was 33 and met the charming and enigmatic Charles James Fox. The Whig aristocrat was a couple of years her senior, and their love affair was to scandalize society and prove that love could overcome all obstacles.

Elizabeth and Charles did not fall for each other straight away, but their love developed into something quite special. From the start Charles treated her as his equal, often writing to her about politics while at the same time declaring his undying love for her. She had been used to being supported financially by her lovers – now the boot was on the other foot and within a year she had reportedly sold both of her town houses and her two handsome annuities (gifted to her by wealthy admirers) – allegedly in order to stave off Fox´s creditors. She retired from her chosen profession and took up residence at St Anne’s Hill which she purchased in 1785 in her own name, albeit with a mortgage of £2000 granted by the Duke of Marlborough. The house was near Chertsey in Surrey and had extensive gardens. Much of the lovers´ time together was spent gardening and enjoying the walks which the property offered. Fox was often called away to London for days and weeks on end and there can be few more poignant letters than the ones written by Fox at this time. On occasions Elizabeth accompanied Charles to London, but the doors of fashionable society were closed to her. They could be seen in public – in the parks or at the theatre, but never could she be entertained in any of the grand houses which would otherwise be open to Charles.

A Gillray-esque satirical etching showing Charles Fox and Elizabeth Armistead as ‘the odd couple’.

They had first met in 1783 by which time Fox had gambled away a vast fortune. He was no longer the youthful dandy but a political figure of reduced means, although for all that, a brilliant orator. Fox had been in Elizabeth´s circle for some time – he had just had an affair with her close friend the actress/courtesan ‘Perdita’ Robinson. Equally, she had granted her favours to a succession of Whig politicians in Fox´s circle including Lord George Cavendish (brother of the Duke of Devonshire), Lord ´Bob´ Spencer (third son of the Duke of Marlborough), Lord Cholmondley and of course the Prince of Wales (although the latter was not in the right league, financially, to be able to afford her services for any length of time).

But as time passed it became increasingly apparent that their union was both stable and permanent. Fox begged Elizabeth to marry him and at first she accepted but later broke off the engagement. It was obvious to everyone (well, everyone except Fox) that such a union would be an absolute scandal, and liable to be the ruin of his career. Finally they agreed to marry but to keep the union a secret. They wed in 1795 and it was only in 1802 that the news was officially confirmed. Meanwhile Elizabeth´s sheer charm and capacity for friendship slowly but surely captured the hearts of all around her – she became socially acceptable. This must have been a hugely significant achievement for the couple. Sadly Charles died in 1806 and his beloved Liz carried on living at St Anne´s Hill until 8th July 1842 when she died just days before her 92nd birthday. Her popularity is reflected in the fact that not only did she receive a pension  on the orders of her former lover the Prince of Wales (once he became King) but this was increased by his successor William IV – and even continued by Queen Victoria.  She remained discreet about all her previous lovers, never threatened to ‘kiss and tell’ and died  a well-respected and much-loved old lady.

Theirs was a remarkable love match, a true story of the Beauty and the Beast. Elizabeth’s  story appears in Kate Hickmann´s fascinating book “Courtesans” published by Harper-Collins, and  I certainly had no hesitation about including her story in my book “In bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal and Satire” because she really was a quite amazing woman. Many happy returns Lizzie – 268 and still as gorgeous as ever!

[This repeats a blog which I did six years ago, and dusted off/modified to mark the occasion.]