Oct 202017

a2203 years ago today, the death occurred in Paris of one of the greatest showmen of his Age – indeed of any Age. His name: Philip Astley.

Forget Barnum, forget Bailey – a hundred years earlier than these giants of the circus came Philip Astley, generally acknowledged as “the Father of the Circus.” Most circus stars were (and still are) born into a particular branch of the entertainment world – there are generations of the same family who juggle, or walk the tightrope, or whatever. But Astley had no theatrical or street-entertainment background – his father was a cabinet maker from Newcastle under Lyme. Yet he became a giant of popular entertainment. How? Because of horsemanship.

©Trustees of the British Museum.

©Trustees of the British Museum.

Equestrian skills were at the heart of his acts  – he could get his horse to dance the minuet, or the hornpipe. He could do handstands while riding a horse, firing a pistol. He could ride three or four horses at the same time, and jump from the back of a horse over a ribbon held twelve feet above ground level. He could gallop at full speed, slide off the saddle and pick up a sword from the  ground without  pausing. These were skills honed when he served in the British Army during the Seven Years War. Here was a man who thought nothing of charging through the enemy lines to rescue the Duke of Brunswick, who had fallen injured and been overtaken by the swirl of battle. He also captured an enemy standard and presented it to the elderly George II. Later, he rubbed shoulders with George III, blew the socks off fanatical crowds, and went on to open no fewer than 19 circus premises throughout England and Europe.a5

My ancestor Richard Hall’s handbill from when he went to see Astley in the 1770’s.

 He diversified from horse riding skills to introduce clowning; he did juggling and magic tricks involving an early form of a mind-reading act; he brought a spectacle involving fireworks, an orchestra, juggling, acrobatics, rope walking,  and so on and gave the public what they wanted – skills and thrills a-plenty. He created the role of ringmaster, standing in the centre of a circus ring, controlling the horses and performers, with his bellowing voice and “statuesque” physique (he was over six feet tall, and had a girth like a tree trunk).

a6His business empire was frequently hit by fire, but each time his premises burned to the ground, he re-built them. Curiously he always re-built in wood, never stone, despite the obvious risks of using candles – literally thousands of them – with sawdust on the floor, wooden seats, and with a wooden roof and walls.

He trained and inspired a legion of skilled entertainers and impresarios, who spread the circus throughout Europe, to America, Asia and Australia. Forget the sad parade of wild animals being dragged from town to town – they were not HIS circus. His was based  on equestrian skills – although admittedly he also used  a monkey called General Jackoo who performed acrobatic tricks, and a “Scientific Pig” able to count cards and do mind-reading tricks! Astley  was the horse whisperer of his Age – and a brilliant showman.

He enjoyed royal patronage  both in England and in France – he was a particular favourite of Marie Antoinette.

He  led a remarkable life, but died of “gout in the stomach” in 1814 in Paris, aged 72. He was succeeded by his son John, another brilliant horseman, but he only outlived his father by seven years,  before  liver failure killed him. He died in the same house – and indeed the same room, in the same bed – as his father and both were buried in the same cemetery.

Astley's Circus cover 001

Next year marks the 250th anniversary of the very first circus performance by Philip Astley and to mark the occasion I will be giving various talks about the great man, linked to the book I brought out a couple of years ago entitled “Philip Astley – the English Hussar”.   Meanwhile: I salute the old boy – he was a rough diamond if ever there was one. A man with virtually no formal education, he was a Georgian entrepreneur who should be up there with  all the other greats of the Age, from Boulton to Wedgwood to  Chippendale –  and yet his success is nowadays totally overlooked. I suppose it’s too late to try and get the Royal Mail to honour him with a commemorative stamp? It’s the least we could do to remember him!


P.S. The book on Astley is available on Amazon in both a full colour and a monochrome version. See Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk


Apr 262017

Bellamy 1I rather hope that the good citizens of the Devon village of  Hittisleigh will be out celebrating today – their most famous son,  Samuel Bellamy, went to meet his maker exactly three centuries ago, in a storm thousands of miles away.

One of six children, he was born to Stephen and Elizabeth Bellamy in 1689. His mother died a few weeks later, and at a young age he was sent away to sea to earn a living. And what a living it turned out to be. After a stint in the Royal Navy he “went freelance” and found that a spot of piracy was just the thing to cure a broken heart. There are various stories about a doomed love affair – variously with a young girl, or with an old maid, but either way, it was a love which was not meant to be.

In 1716 he left Cape Cod to go in search of the wrecks of a Spanish treasure fleet which had gone down in a storm off Florida the year before – but  he had no luck finding the wrecks. By now Bellamy was  on a ship called the Marianne, under the captaincy of the famous pirate Benjamin Hornigold – and there he met the first mate, none other than a man called Edward Teach, later to become known as the notorious pirate Blackbeard.

When Hornigold failed to capture any ships, largely on account of the fact that he refused to plunder British vessels, his crew rebelled. On a popular vote they deposed Hornigold as Captain, and in his place elected Samuel Bellamy.

He was known as ‘Black Sam’ on account of his thick black head of hair, tied back and left un-powdered. Not for our hero an ageing grey wig. Here was a man who loved fine clothing, especially a black coat. He was tidy, meticulous, and proud of his appearance. His preference was to carry four duelling pistols tucked in at the front of his outfit, and ‘mean moody and magnificent’ he must indeed have seemed to all who saw him.

Model of the Whydah Gally

Model of the Whydah Gally

His fortune was made one day in the Spring of 1717 while he was sailing his ship  in the channel between Cuba and Hispaniola. Bellamy caught sight of an exceptional ship known as the  Whydah Gally. She was on her maiden voyage and had just completed the first two of the three legs of the slavers triangle. In other words she had taken goods down to Africa, exchanged them for slaves (and ivory) crossed over to the Caribbean, sold the 300-odd slaves, and was bringing back a cargo of rich merchandise including a large quantity of gold and silver. A later manifest shows that there were actually 180 sacks of bullion, each weighing 23 kilos. Now that is an awful lot of bling…

Bellamy chased the Whydah Gally for three days – not an easy task because the new ship was a racing-fast, state-of-the-art vessel built in London in 1715, and owned by Sir Humphry Morice. She got her name from the African slaving port of Ouidah. But eventually Bellamy got close enough to send a shot across the bows of the Whydah Gally, whereupon the Captain lowered his flag in surrender.

The haul was quite amazing and, faced with having to transfer everything to his own ship, Bellamy chose a far easier option: he simply handed the keys of his own ship over to the good captain, swapped over a few cannon, and off he went in the sleek and rather impressive new boat, which was of course totally unscathed. It was typical of the man that he treated the captured captain and crew so well – Bellamy was always polite, well-mannered and averse to unnecessary violence.

Bellamy 4Operating the Whydah Gally and one other ship, in tandem, the pirates proved an unstoppable force as they hunted down merchant shipping throughout the Caribbean, and, in particular, up the coast of the Carolinas. Bellamy was extremely popular with his crew – they referred to him as the Pirate Robin Hood, and regarded themselves as Robin Hood’s Men. And then, two months after seizing the vessel, disaster struck. She must have been low in the water on account of all the looted merchandise on board – and was clearly not in a position to outrun the storm which suddenly hit them as they were off the coast of Cape Cod. It was midnight  when the storm struck, and in the early hours of the morning of 26 April 1717 the ship’s main mast broke and the ship was dragged down onto the sandbank. She went down in 10 – 30 feet of water just a short distance from the shore. All on board drowned, including ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy. He was 28.

103 bodies were washed ashore, leaving around 40 crewmen unaccounted for. And there the wrecked ship remained, with its 5-ton haul of treasure still intact and on board, until 1982  when it was located by a diving crew led and funded by underwater explorer Barry Clifford. Over the years some 200,000 artefacts have been brought to the surface. Of course the gold treasure is what makes the headlines but interestingly the ship’s bell has also been recovered – establishing beyond doubt that this was indeed the Whydah Gally. The ship’s name, and the date of launch, are engraved on the bell. Copyright in the images of the silver treasure and the bell presumably belong either to the National Geographic or to Barry Clifford – and I am indebted to both of them.Bellamy 3

Had he lived, Black Sam would have been one of the richest pirates of all time. His wealth was achieved in an incredibly short time – he was only an active pirate for a single year. Nowadays the treasure would be measured not just in  millions, but at over a billion pounds.

Bellamy 5There are of course no portraits of Black Sam, but I rather like the “imagined likeness” prepared by artist Gregory Manchess on behalf of the National Geographic Magazine. My thanks to both of them for the use of the image.

A good looking hunk if ever there was one! I particularly like the artist’s website in which he shows the portrait emerge from the canvas in a series of photographs – you can find it here.

So spare a thought for a violent storm exactly three centuries ago, and a brave, handsome and extremely wealthy young man  who drowned this day 1717.


Apr 082017

B MuseumEncountering anyone with autism, whether or not combined with savant syndrome, can be an extremely perplexing and fascinating experience. I always found a resonance with the Dustin Hoffman portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in Rainman – my own uncle had a similar pre-occupation with numbers, constantly counting and calculating totals.

So the focus today is about an enigmatic character by the splendid name of Jedediah Buxton, He was born in Derbyshire, near Chesterfield, in around 1702. Father was a clergyman, but Jed “emerged unscathed” from his rudimentary education at the local school, and spent his entire life unable to read or write. Not an auspicious start for a man who somehow or other contrived to make a reasonable living as a farm labourer. So how come that we know about him, and how come there are numerous versions of his portrait? More to the point, how did he manage to run his life so that he had a constant source of free beer? By his own calculations, he blagged his way to 5116 free pints, including 2,130 from the Duke of Kingston. The answer: mental arithmetic.

Engraving from The Gentleman's Magazine, 1754

Engraving from The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1754

From the age of twelve Jedediah was pre-occupied with numbers – adding, subtracting, and multiplying. At its most basic level there was a purpose – he could walk a field, calculate its square footage and then divide the total to establish how many broccoli plants would be needed to fill the field if planted seven feet apart, in rows four feet from each other. Except that having worked out the number of plants, he then complicated matters by recalculating the square footage by reference to the number of barley corns (at three barley corns per inch) and then how many human hairs (at 48 hairsbreadth to the inch). If that wasn’t bad enough, he would then decide to multiply the resulting figure by itself – to give a massive figure which would take hours to calculate. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, Jed could down tools and have a drink, and then carry on with these calculations in his head at a significantly later date – sometimes days and even weeks later.

In working out these figures, Jedediah invented several new numbers, to enable him to cope with the concept of “millions of millions of millions”. He referred to “tribes” (a figure of ten to the power of eighteen) and “cramps” (ten to the power of thirty nine ). He was known to be set a challenge, go back to digging ditches in the fields, cogitating and calculating, then sit down in the local pub at the end of the working day and, armed with his free drinks, would finish the number crunching. His skill reached the ears of the editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine, who sent a Mr Halliday to interview Jedediah. He remarked that he found Jedediah to be “a very illiterate man,” though he had “a good notion of the square, oblong, triangle, and circle.” Commenting on his powers of concentration he said “He never regarded our talking, but sat as one heedless of everything about him, except his pot of beer, which he took notice of.”

Jed3There seemed no end of people who would challenge Old Jed to work out obscure and utterly useless calculations – the number of hairs one inch long in a cubic mile (“586 thousand, 40 millions of millions, 972 thousand, 673 millions, and 24 thousand”).” But, if a hair be no longer than it is broad [i.e. 48 hairs to the cubic inch], he then came up with the answer that there would be 28 tribes,129 thousand, 966 millions of millions, 688 thousand, 305 millions, and 152 thousand hairs, to fill the space of a cubical mile.” Giss another pint!

Another favourite question dealt with the story of the famer who objected to the farrier charging him twopence a nail for the one hundred and forty nails needed to re-shoe all of his horses. “Well”, says the farrier, “what if I charge you a farthing on the first nail, double on the second, and so on?” “Right” said the farmer, only to discover that he had been well and truly had – Jedediah calculated that the farmer would end up paying the staggering sum of 725,958,238,096,074,907,868,531,656,993,638,851,106 pounds, 2 shillings, and 8 pence for his 140th nail – two to the power of 139, divided by 960 (being the number of farthings in the pound). In fact I gather from an interesting article by Steven Smith   giving full details of the calculation that the answer was wrong – various figures were transposed, although many of the figures are correct. As Eric Morecambe  might have said to Andre Previn “They are the correct numbers, just not necessarily all in the right order”.

Jedediah had married Alice Eastwood at Ault Hucknall Church and they had three children − John, Susannah and Sara. But in 1753 Alice died. The following year some sort of wanderlust got into Jedediah and he walked down to London (200-odd miles) to see the sights, take in a show, whatever. He also thought that he would call in and see the King, but George II was not at home. So he went to see a play – the performance was Richard III at the Drury Lane Theatre and it was a chance to listen to David Garrick declaim – but Jedediah preferred to spend the entire performance counting the individual words spoken by the great thespian, and, in the case of the dancers, calculating how many steps they took. (And no, I wasn’t aware that Richard III was that strong on dancers, but there you go). He also called in to say “hello” to the great and the good at the Royal Society, impressed them with his mathematical talents, and received a small stipend in recognition of his remarkable skills. He left the capital distinctly unimpressed by London, and headed back to the fields of his beloved Derbyshire, and carried on digging ditches and counting barleycorn for another eighteen years.

One story goes that in 1772 the Duke of Portland dropped in to make his acquaintance, and volunteered to come back and see Jedediah the following Thursday. Imagine the surprize felt by the Duke when Jedediah announced that he would not be seeing the Duke again, since he expected to die that very Thursday – and die he did at exactly the time specified by him. A neat calculation, and one which he got exactly right….

Blue plaque shown courtesy of Wikipedia

Blue plaque shown courtesy of Wikipedia

Jedediah was buried in the church in Elmton, the village where he was born and spent his entire life. A blue plaque commemorates his genius.

Mar 312017

It seems to me that if you were going to the theatre in the Eighteenth Century, you probably wouldn’t want to take your wife with you! This view is reinforced by an interesting Rowlandson print, shown courtesy of the British Museum, entitled “The Lobby Loungers” showing people gathered in the foyer at Covent Garden theatre. The year: 1786.

AN00949544_001In the centre, the notorious lecher George Hanger is busy negotiating terms with a pair of prostitutes.

AN00949544_001 - Copy

AN00949544_001 - CopyThe girl next to him has a sexy, laced-up bodice and a daring amount of cleavage. She wears a polonaise gown and a fine feathered hat, and the point of her fan is directed towards the “lunch box” of Naughty Georgie, who was no doubt hoping to “Buy One – Get one Free.”

AN00949544_001 - CopyOn the right, there is a scene of misunderstanding and consternation, with a man, quizzing glass in hand, seeking to importune a “respectable lady” – well, she may or may not have been respectable, but she was already spoken for and has a much younger companion to her side.

AN00949544_001 - CopyOn the left is another chatting-up scene, with a bawd, basket in hand, hoping to negotiate a price for the young girl, sitting down.

Who then was George Hanger? A bit of a lad really, often featured by Gillray in his caricatures. Hanger was the third of seven children born to an M.P. in Gloucester. Never likely to inherit his father’s estates, he followed the well-worn route for third sons i.e. into the Army. Indeed he bought a commission and served with Tarleton in the American Revolutionary War. When Tarleton was indisposed due to illness, he led the British troops in an attack on Charlotte (North Carolina) but was ambushed, and his men took something of a  a mauling. Hanger was injured, but not seriously.George Hanger 4th_Baron_Coleraine

When he returned to England he became a close friend of the Prince of Wales, being made Equerry in 1791. He was great company, a great gambler and womaniser, and eventually succeeded to his father’s title having outlived both his elder brothers to become 4th Baron Coleraine. Women seemed to slip through his fingers – he reputedly married once, to a gypsy girl, but she ran off with a passing tinker….some you win, some you lose!

Gillray, in one of twenty etchings featuring Hanger held by the National Portrait Gallery, showed him riding a horse down Grosvenor Street, in “Georgey a’ Cockhorse”:

NPG D12584; George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine ('Georgey a' cock-horse') by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey
















He also features in one of the best-known Gillray prints, “The Royal Joke – or Black Jack’s Delight” shown courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. The scene is at the home of the Prince of Wales (Carlton House). In the foreground The Prince of Wales holds the rather stout Mrs. Sawbridge across his knees and prepares to spank her; she holds out her arms imploringly. Her husband is shown enthusiastically playing a fiddle and dancing. On the left Lady Archer, dressed in her usual red riding habit, holds a driving-whip, and points angrily at Mrs Sawbridge. Next to her a little girl, the daughter of Mrs Sawbridge, looks on in horror at the way her mother is being treated. Various onlookers are in the background, including Mrs Fitzherbert who seems to have  the politician Fox draped amorously around her. Next to Fox, George Hanger stands in profile, looking to the left and wearing his military uniform.

NPG D12996; 'The royal joke, - or - black jacks delight' by James Gillray, published by Samuel William Fores

One of the more curious aspects of his life was that when he got into serious financial difficulties – on account of his gambling – he showed that he was far from afraid to get his hands dirty. He became a coal merchant! Gillray shows him lugging a sack of coal in this caricature from 1800, entitled “Georgey in the coal-hole” and shown courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

NPG D12741; George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine ('Georgey in the coal-hole') by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey

Hanger died in 1824 at the age of 73 – the title died out with him. Speaking of his experiences in life, he apparently stated “I was early introduced into life, and often kept both good and bad company; associated with men both good and bad, and with lewd women, and women not lewd, wicked and not wicked; — in short, with men and women of every description, and of every rank, from the highest to the lowest, from St. James’s to St. Giles’s; in palaces and night cellars; from the drawing-room to the dust cart….Human nature is in general frail, and mine I confess has been wonderfully so.”


That’s all very well, but I still don’t think I will allow him to accompany my wife to the theatre….! He does however get a mention in my book “In bed with the Georgians: Sex, Scandal & Satire” as being one of those rakish, lovable, rogues who drifted in and out of the story of the Prince Regent. Farewell General George, the randiest coal merchant I have ever encountered!

Mar 282017

In mentioning 1787 Richard Hall notes in his diary “The first Committee formed in London for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”

Richard was of course writing this in the absence of any knowledge as to how the abolition movement would end – Parliament was not to approve abolition until six years after Richard’s death. Richard would have heard at first-hand about the plight of slaves because his first wife’s uncle (William Seward) raised money and went to America with George Whitfield (one of the founders of the Methodist movement) in order to buy land so that freed and escaped slaves could establish farms and be self-sufficient.

Throughout the last half of the eighteenth century there had been a growing ground-swell of opinion – Parliament did not lead the change, but reacted to the continual pressure from people like Thomas Clarkson, who was the real power-house for abolition. Thomas, along with two other Anglicans were founder members of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (´SEAST´). All the nine remaining founder members were Quakers, reflecting their driving force behind abolition. But Quakers were banned from entering Parliament and they therefore sought the support of William Wilberforce, MP for Kingston upon Hull. But if Wilberforce was the mouthpiece of the movement Clarkson was the engine, devoting years of his life to travelling tens of thousands of miles around the country obtaining evidence, canvassing, educating, and basically giving Wilberforce the bullets to fire in Parliament.

It had started for Clarkson when he was at Cambridge University. The 25 year old had entered an essay-writing competition (in Latin) on the question “Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?” The research for the essay was to change his life. It dawned on him that someone had to do something about the appalling degrading trade, and that the ´someone´ was going to be him.

The next year he translated his essay into English and it became widely circulated and acclaimed. He helped found SEAST and tirelessly toured the country on horseback organizing petitions and rallies. He pestered and cajoled William Wilberforce into promoting the abolitionist cause in Parliament. He even managed to get 11,000 signatures opposing slavery from Manchester – roughly a fifth of the entire population and this in a city built on commerce. How? By pointing out that the business of shipping slaves was not just morally repugnant but, in business terms, hopelessly wasteful. It is estimated than 20% of all slaves died in transit – of highly contagious diseases like dysentery. But the same statistic applied to the crews who manned the slave ships, since disease affected everyone, and that sort of loss was clearly “bad business practice”.

Clarkson collected and distributed stories of the hideous squalor on board the slave ships. He showed people his gruesome collection of torture implements (leg irons, thumb screws etc.) used to control the slaves. Above all he demonstrated that the slaves were human beings, and in Josiah Wedgwood´s pottery medallion bearing the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother?” he struck a chord which resonated throughout the kingdom. The medallion became a fashion item and as Clarkson himself wrote “ladies wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.”


Picture courtesy of the V & A




Undeterred by an earlier failure, Wilberforce tried to push his anti-slavery Bill through Parliament in 1791 – but was crushingly defeated. Soon, all attention was devoted to the war with France. The anti-slavery movement was obliged to ´hibernate´ until war was nearly over before re-doubling its efforts. In 1804 Clarkson again hit the road, criss-crossing the countryside whipping up support. Finally, the Slave Trade Act became law in 1807. The Act made it illegal to engage in the slave trade throughout the British colonies, but trafficking between the Caribbean islands continued, regardless, until 1811.

Two centuries on from this anniversary Wilberforce continues to be remembered and gets all the credit. His is a household name; Clarkson the forgotten hero. Clarkson died on 26th September 1846. Wilberforce is buried in Westminster Abbey near his political chum William Pitt; Clarkson is interred St Mary’s Church in the small Suffolk village of Playford.

Happy birthday, Thomas; you were one of the great social reformers of the Age – any Age. And for that reason Clarkson will have his own chapter in the book I am writing at present, about the Georgian Greats who lived in the shadow of Fame. Others – Wilberforce – basked in the full force of Fame’s spot-light, and Clarkson languished un-noticed by his side. Hopefully the book will be published by Pen & Sword next year. There’s a small matter of writing it first….


Mar 112017


Today’s blog first appeared five years ago – long before I started writing “Petticoat Pioneers – the Story of Women in the 18th Century who succeeded in a Man’s World” * but in practice I never used her story because she was French and had no real connection with Georgian England. Nevertheless she is a most remarkable woman, so here is a repeat of the earlier blog:


Writing a post on Emilie du Châtelet (who was born in 1706,  and who died in 1749) is a real joy: here was a woman who not only believed in ‘carpe diem’ (seize the day) but seized the night as well! She certainly lived life to the full, and in doing also exhibited one of the sharpest brains of her century.

She was born into a wealthy family who lived near the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, in a house with 30 rooms and 17 servants. There was nothing remarkable about her siblings, but Emilie was special. Perhaps over-indulged by her father, most unusually she was coached in Latin, Greek, German and English as well as being taught fencing, riding and gymnastics. She was a good dancer, sang opera and could play the spinet. And she had a particular aptitude for mathematics and the sciences. As a youngster she would spend hours at her studies, often debating physics with the leading scientists of the age over the dinner table. Her incredible aptitude for figures enabled her to gamble at cards with considerable success (she could apparently add up a staggering number of permutations in her head). She then used her winnings to buy more books. Because, as a woman, she was unable to attend university she instead used family money to buy-in the best tutors, in particular the country’s most renowned mathematician Pierre de Maupertuis.

It was his custom to habituate Gradot’s coffee house in Paris, but women were banned from coffee houses. Emilie simply turned up at Gradot’s wearing a man’s suit. The proprietors pretended not to notice they were serving a woman — they didn’t want to lose their scholarly clientele. Emilie became a “regular” at Gradot’s and always arrived fashionably dressed — as a man.

Miniature of Emilie du Châtelet by Marianne Loir

Small wonder that her mother appears to have objected to Emilie’s education – and even her own father remarked “My youngest flaunts her mind, and frightens away the suitors.” Not for long it didn’t…

At the age of 16 she was introduced to the Court at Versailles and became the immediate focus of male attention. The story goes that she was pursued by a man whose advances were unwelcome, so she challenged him to a duel – and won. When she was 19 she agreed to marry a soldier by the name of the Marquis du Chastellet, who had the advantage of being away frequently on military campaigns, or on garrison duty. He was stationed in Semur-en-Auxois in Burgundy; while she spent most of her time in Paris. She did her duty by him, bearing him three children, and then felt free to pursue her other interests of an amorous nature. She had at least two lovers before she started an eighteen month affair with the Duc de Richelieu (when she was 23 years old).

Voltaire and du Châtelet

At 27, possibly at the occasion of the Duc de Richelieu’s marriage, she linked up with the writer Voltaire, who was over ten years her senior. It was Voltaire who changed her surname from ‘du Chastellet’ to ‘du Châtelet’ and it is by that name that she is now known. It was a mutual and instant attraction and they had a passionate affair which was to last fifteen years. Above all it was an incredible meeting of minds, with the pair of them sparking ideas off each other. Voltaire had just spent some time in England and was unpopular with the French authorities because of his pro-English stance. To begin with, they flaunted their affair, scandalizing society by attending the opera and being seen in public places, quite oblivious to the outrage being caused. Then a rumour was started that Voltaire was likely to be arrested because of his English sympathies and at Emilie’s suggestion he decided to keep a low profile by staying with the du Châtelet family at their country home at Cirey-sur-Blaise in North Eastern France. Apparently Monsieur du Châtelet was not unhappy with the arrangement, and it worked well for many years.


Voltaire was to write “I found in 1733 a young lady who felt more or less as I did, and who resolved to spend several years in the country to cultivate her mind, far from the tumult of the world. It was the Marquise du Châtelet, the woman who in all France had the greatest disposition for all the sciences. … Seldom has so fine a mind and so much taste been united with so much ardour for learning; but she also loved the world and all the amusements of her age and sex. Nevertheless she left all this to go and bury herself in a dilapidated house on the frontiers of Champagne and Lorraine, where the land was very fertile and very ugly. She beautified the house, to which she added pleasant gardens. I built a gallery, in which I created a very fine collection of scientific instruments. We had a large library.”

Large indeed – the library actually ran to some 21,000 volumes – a bigger collection than was boasted by many universities – and the laboratory which they established in one of the wings of Cirey was equipped with the finest scientific instruments money could buy, so that the establishment rivalled the Academy of Science in Paris. The two of them collaborated on a succession of experiments. Remember, this was a time when it was quite impossible for a woman to publish a scientific paper in her own name, so it was Voltaire who did the writing, while Emilie was the one who explained to him the underlying theories in physics.

By 1736 Voltaire and du Châtelet were jointly working on the book, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton. The book was published in 1738 under Voltaire’s name, but in the preface he makes it clear that the book was a collaborative process with Emilie. The engraving shows Newton, sitting on High, with Emilie holding a mirror to reflect the truth of his Wisdom, so that Voltaire, the scribe, could render the wisdom into words.

Emilie was no mere assistant to the older Voltaire – she was by far the better physicist and mathematician. In time she embarked on her own translation of Newton´s Principia Mathematica. But it was no mere literal translation: where Newton was obscure she was clear; where Newton glossed over things she explained in detail; and where Newton omitted mathematical evidence to support his theories, she did the calculations and came up with the proof. Her detailed commentaries and explanations brought the masterpiece before a far wider (French) audience than was previously possible – and indeed her translation is still in use today. The book was published by Voltaire after Emilie’s death, but in her own name.

One of the contentious issues of the day was: what is energy? Conventional wisdom (and even Newton subscribed to this) was that energy was the force achieved by multiplying mass by velocity. In mathematical terms, e = mv. But du Châtelet was not happy with this: she was aware of the theories of the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Liebniz – but they were just that, theories. Emilie heard of the experiments by a Dutch researcher called William Gravesande, who dropped brass cylinders of a known weight into soft clay, and then measured the depth to which the object sank. On Newton’s principle, doubling the weight should double the depth – but it didn’t, it trebled. Emilie realized that energy was equal to an object’s mass times its velocity squared (E = mv2). 150 years later a young scientist, named Albert Einstein would use this discovery as one of the keys that would unlock his theory of relativity, E = mc2.

Some of the anecdotes about Emilie are lovely: she moved her bath into the parlour so that she could bathe while holding forth on weighty and learned matters, surrounded by men sitting around the bath while she wallowed in luxury. Drinks and canapes were served while the learned conversations ebbed and flowed around her! Even the male servants commented that it was her practice to appear naked in front of them when preparing for her ablutions. Here was a woman who was indeed comfortable in her own skin!

Age did not dampen her penchant for younger men. At the age of 40 she took a new lover, a man variously described as a poet and a soldier (or perhaps he was both). When she got pregnant she wrote to Voltaire (April 1749) confiding in him her fears at carrying a child at her age – fears which were to prove to be well founded. She wrote “I am pregnant and you can imagine … how much I fear for my health, even for my life … giving birth at the age of forty.” She added that she was sad at the idea of leaving before she was ready.

Apparently, throughout their fifteen years together Emilie and Voltaire had been regular letter writers – even on days when they were working together. Emilie had bound up Voltaire’s letters in eight red-bound volumes, but tantalisingly these have never been found.

In practice she survived the birth itself, but infection set in, and within a week she died. Voltaire was beside himself: “I have lost the half of myself—a soul for which mine was made.” Her young child, a girl, was to die eighteen months later.

Emilie was a remarkable woman, a scientist of towering intellect, a beacon of her times. She wrote treatises on the Meaning of Happiness and also a critical analysis of The Bible. She proved that women were the intellectual equals of men, and did so not by being a harpy but by being herself, a woman. But to my mind for her eulogy you cannot do better than quote her own words:

“Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. It may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.”

* “Petticoat Pioneers – the Story of Women in the 18th Century who succeeded in a Man’s World” is due to be published at the end of this year, by Pen & Sword Books.


Jan 112017


Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Departed this world on 11th January 1753 at the ripe old age of 92: Sir Hans Sloane, one of County Down’s finest sons. In fact he was one of seven sons born to parents who had originally come from Scotland. Enough has already been said elsewhere about his good fortune in buying most of Chelsea, and of giving his name to places like Sloane Square and Hans Crescent, let alone for lending his name to the ubiquitous Sloane Ranger.

He was an avid collector of natural history curiosities, of coins, medals, stuffed animals and historical objects. He had thousands of trays full of exhibits from around the world and bought entire collections from others, to the extent that he could virtually single-handedly fill the British Museum, which opened shortly after he died, as well as the Natural History Museum when it ‘spun off’ in the following century. Prodigious isn’t the half of it. But I remember his passing for another reason, one dear to my heart.

I love surfing down at Polzeath. There is nothing like emerging from the water after several hours, ecstatically happy and barely able to stand from exhaustion, and heading off for an über-calorie-fest of a giant pasty, a thick slice of treacle tart, and a large mug of steaming hot chocolate. If time is tight and I wish to head back to the waves in a hurry, I may dispense with the pasty. I may even go without the treacle tart, but the hot chocolate is not to be missed… which is where Sir Hans comes in, because he introduced to this country the idea of hot chocolate as a drink made from milk.

It all dates back to the Aztecs and the Mayans. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in South America in the sixteenth century they found the native Indians mixing things like maize, chili peppers and aniseed to the frothy cacao drink, which they drank cold, and made with water. The Spanish experimented with a variety of other spices to make it taste more palatable – including cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and black pepper! They hit upon the idea of adding sugar around 1522, and tried making it hot…. the result was swiftly adopted back in Spain as the drink of the Spanish court – indeed no-one apart from the nobility and royal family were allowed to try it, by royal decree. The Spanish introduced cacao plantations in countries like Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Jamaica, and Hispaniola (now Haiti & the Dominican Republic). By 1580 the first processing plant for the beans was opened in mainland Spain and inevitably the secrets of this magic potion (it was recognized for its medicinal properties and as a restorative and aphrodisiac) started to leach out into the rest of Europe.

hans_sloaneHans Sloane had qualified as a physician and gone out to Jamaica, where he was the first person to examine the native plants in detail. Sloane tried chocolate with water and pronounced it nauseous, so he added milk instead…a sublime moment of inspiration. The year was 1689.



Years later the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus visited Sloane and named the cacao plant Theobroma cacao.

Chocolate houses had already sprung up in London by the time Sloane made his happy discovery, the first appearing in 1657. The most famous chocolate house was White’s Chocolate House which was founded in 1693. Eventually it became more of a ‘gentlemen’s club’ and from 1783  it was the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party. (The Whigs preferred ‘Brooks’ which was founded in 1764).

In 1698 ‘The Cocoa Tree’ opened at No. 64, St. James’s Street, London. Its clientele were hard-line Tories – as Daniel Defoe says in his Journey through England, “a Whig will no more go to the ‘Cocoa Tree’ … than a Tory will be seen at the coffee-house of St. James’s.” Like the other chocolate houses eventually ‘The Cocoa Tree’ developed into a gaming-house and a club.

It was against this background that Sloane brought back his milky ideas and introduced them to Londoners. Hot chocolate was not easy to produce from the beans, and various attempts were made to crush them mechanically until Walter Churchman came up with a hydraulic grinding press, which he patented in 1720. He was a Quaker pharmacist living in Bristol, and I have blogged about him previously because Richard Hall mentions him by name. When Churchman died, his business was bought by his executor, who had married a local girl called Anna Fry. She outlived her husband and inherited the patent rights, which she later transferred to her sons. Fry’s chocolate was on its way…

All which leads me to say: Bless you Sir Hans, for a life lived long and full. Let some remember you for your trays of dead insects, old shells, and odds and ends; but I remember you for your dedication in bringing chocolate into everyday use. Thanks!

Dec 072016

Regardless of whether or not you like boxing, the fact remains that in the eighteenth century boxing  was hugely popular, and was regarded as fairer than duelling with sword or pistol. Huge crowds were attracted to bouts, which could last from dawn until dusk, and widespread gambling underpinned the contests.

7th December marks the anniversary of the death in 1734 of one James Figg, hailed at the time as the Father of Modern Boxing (or, as he would call it, the ‘manly art of self-defence’).

figg-4-plaqueHe had been born around 1695 to a poor farming family in Thame, Oxfordshire, the youngest of seven childen. Later he was to develop into a 6-foot tall, 185-pound athlete, who early-on exhibited a prodigious talent for fencing. He also mastered the short sword, cudgel, and quarterstaff. Later he took up the study of “boxing” as the unarmed combat, which had become popular in the late 1600’s, was commonly called.

The “boxing”practiced by Figg was in a different league to what we know today: it was a no-holds-barred contest which would usually take place over 3 bouts, one of swordplay with a choice of live swords, daggers & shields; one of bare-knuckle boxing; and one of quarterstaff or cudgels. Bare knuckle fighting permitted eye gouging, hair pulling, spitting, head-butting, purring (shin-kicking), stomping and kicking downed opponents, as well as wrestling throws, and grappling whilst on the ground. The men who took part in these gladiatorial contests were called prize fighters – because they fought for a prize of a purse, or cups or free drinks etc. Of all these prize fighters, James Figg was the outstanding champion of his time.

He developed his own unique style  (known as ‘Figg’s fighting’) – rather than wading in and risking injury to himself he would sum up his opponent first and alter his style accordingly. He brought to boxing the thrust-and-parry skills he had perfected while fencing. If his opponent was a wrestler he would batter him with fierce blows; if the rival was a better boxer then he would grapple him to the ground to gain a submission. Figg prospered as he travelled the length and breadth of the country attending fairs and shows, challenging all-comers. He gained the patronage of the Earl of Peterborough and set up a fighting academy to train other pugilists, as well as a fighting stage known as Figg’s Amphitheatre’. Similar amphitheatres were set up in Hyde Park and in Oxford Street.

Figg went on to claim the title of Champion of  England in 1719.

The pub in Thame named after local hero James Figg

The pub in Thame named after local hero James Figg

He defended his title on many occasions and is believed to have won 269 out of his 270 fights. The only blemish on his record was when he lost to Ned Sutton, a man he had previously beaten.


The Sutton v Figg match

The decider was to take place on 6th of June 1727, in front of an audience of 3,000 spectators, including the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. The first round was with swords and a cut to Sutton’s shoulder resulted in Figg winning that round. A thirty minute break was permitted before the start of the second round. This was bare knuckle fighting which Figg won by a submission. The third round was with cudgels during which Figg shattered Sutton’s knee to win the match and reclaim the title. Not the sort of man to run into on a dark night!

After 1730 Figg largely gave up fighting, concentrating on training and promoting others, in particular George Taylor (who succeeded him as Champion of England and who was to take over the business when Figg died) and the legendary Jack Broughton (possibly Figg’s own grandson, and a man who will get a post of his own in due course). It was Broughton who was the first to introduce rules for boxing (laying down regulations about the size of the ring, who holds the purse, not kicking a man when he is down, and the length of count). Under ‘Broughton’s Rules’ a fallen boxer would be given a count of thirty seconds to come up to his mark – a line scratched on the floor of the ring, If he failed to ‘come up to scratch’ he lost the bout. Prior to Broughton there was the chaotic situation where there were no weight divisions or round limits, and no referee. Broughton also brought in an early form of boxing glove or muffler, but these were used only for exhibition matches and for practice bouts in order to avoid the risk of injury to his trainees, many of whom were young aristocrats.

James Figg's trade card

James Figg’s trade card

Nov 152016

15th November marks the 278th anniversary of the birth of Sir Frederick William Herschel, or, to give him his original Germanic name, Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel.

He is one of my favourite characters of the century because he showed what ‘the ordinary guy’ could do simply by being observant. He did what no-one had done for thousands of years before him – he discovered a planet (later called Uranus) and in so doing set the whole science of astronomy on its head. The discovery doubled the size of the known solar system. He discovered that Saturn has two moons. He was the first to notice infra-red radiation. Not content with that he personally designed, made, and put up the world’s biggest telescope in his back garden – you don’t do that in our era because you would need a budget larger than Greece’s national debt to do so! Oh and he catalogued around 2400 new stars (which he called nebulae), and if that didn’t fill his nights sufficiently, he also composed a couple of dozen symphonies, a number of oboe concertos and a harpsichord sonata …

He had originally come to Britain as a 19 year old, following in the footsteps of the royal family and their entourages who had drifted across the Channel from Hanover to set up camp here in the mid 1700’s. He was an oboist in the Hanover Military Band and took a job in Bath teaching music and as resident organist at the Octagon Chapel. He was made Bath’s Director of Public Concerts and in 1780 was made Director of the Bath orchestra. Somehow that didn’t fill enough hours and he was apparently spending up to 16 hours a day on his hobby, polishing his reflective mirrors and looking at the stars…

In this work he was aided by his sister, the diminutive Caroline Herschel about whom I blogged some time ago. In March 1781 he identified the new planet which he called ‘Georgium Sidum’ (literally, George’s Star) even though he knew it to be a planet rather than a star, but it shows the lengths he was prepared to go to in order to flatter his monarch. It worked, in the sense that George III made Herschel his personal astronomer (as opposed to the Astronomer Royal) and awarded him a pension of £200 for life, which enabled him to give up teaching and concentrate all his efforts on observing the universe.

In 1782 he and his sister moved to Datchet, moving on to Slough three years later. He was busy selling his polished mirrors to other astronomers throughout Europe, and building his own telescopes (he made some 400 during his life-time) The largest of all these ‘scopes was a forty foot monster which he constructed in his garden (no planning controls in those days!)…

Herschel's 20-foot telescope

Herschel’s garden  telescope

Herschel was the first person to work out that the solar system was moving through space, that the Milky Way was disc-shaped, and comparatively recent re-reading of his note books suggest that he actually noticed the rings around Uranus (many years before it was otherwise established).

He coined the word ‘asteroid’ to describe moons and minor planets. He also observed sunspots on the surface of the sun, speculating that this was evidence of life there (indeed he took it for granted that all the phenomena he observed featured their own life forms).

He was knighted in 1816.

He helped found the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820 and lived long enough to hand over the baton of astronomical discoveries to his son John.I am including a picture of John because quite simply, apart from Sir Patrick Moore I cannot think of anyone who looks more like a brilliant astronomer!

Who needs a comb to search the universe?

John was also the first person to photograph onto glass – this being a picture of his father’s  telescope at Slough, taken in 1836 (original in Science Museum).

File:Herschel first picture on glass 1839.jpg
[RAS Postage Stamp]  Postage stamp from 1970 (Herschel’s telescope in background).

William died in 1822 and is buried at St Laurence’s Church, Upton near where he lived in Slough. His home in Bath, where he first discovered Uranus is now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy (19 New King Street). This tiny but fascinating museum is looked after by the Bath Preservation Trust. It is also home to the William Herschel Society http://www.williamherschel.org.uk/

The William Herschel Museum   The William Herschel Museum

Oct 262016


Hearn's Hotel

Hearn’s Hotel

For a change, travel back to Ireland and visit  Hearn’s Hotel, at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. It is the sixth of July 1815, and a small jaunting carriage pulls away exactly on time, heading for Cahir some ten miles or so away. The jaunting carriage was a slightly odd two-wheeled conveyance, unprotected from the elements, where the seats were in a row facing sideways onto the road. This day there were no passengers – the six seats were all unoccupied, and the single horse has no difficulty plodding its lonely journey. The same thing happened the next day, but then the 31-year-old Italian printer whose idea it was to set up a coaching service decided that it was a case of ‘double or quit’. So he arranged  for two jaunting carriages to be ready and waiting at the appointed hour on the following day, both ready to make the journey as advertised to the good burghers of Clonmel. To observers it looked as though there was a competition. That certainly attracted public attention, and before long there were dozens of people queuing to make the two-hour  journey, at a rate of a penny-farthing a mile. It was certainly a darned sight quicker than the five- to eight-hour journey offered for the same trip by boat.

Jaunting cart

Jaunting cart


bianconi-photoJourneys in Ireland were incredibly slow at the time – the roads were poor, travel was in its infancy, and there was no integrated transport service. It would be another thirty years before rail travel opened up the countryside, and in those thirty years the coach service mushroomed in a most remarkable way. And the man behind it? Charles Bianconi.

Carlos Bianconi, born on 26 September  1785 at Tregolo in what is now Lombardy in Italy, had escaped from his mother country just before it was over-run by the forces of Napoleon. He was relatively poorly educated – the priest at the local school he attended described him as a ‘troublesome dunce’ who left school ‘almost as ignorant as when he entered it and a great deal more wilful.’ As a 16 year old he had travelled to England but then moved across to Ireland, and was apprenticed  to the owner of a print-shop. Selling the prints took him around  Dublin and its neighbouring towns and villages, usually on foot. He would  peddle the prints which he carried in his satchel as he walked from town to town. Eventually he set up his own print and engraving shop in Clonmel, and as the business started to expand he travelled around on the appalling roads to deliver his wares, often stopping to give a lift to pedestrian travellers. No doubt it was this which gave him the idea of providing a public transport service, given that the only alternatives were the prohibitively expensive Mail Coaches.




Shortly after he launched a separate coaching business he was fortunate to be able to buy a number of ex-Army horses (no longer needed following the Battle of Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic Wars). These magnificent animals, well-trained and strong, could be picked up ‘for a song’ – well, for between ten and twenty pounds – and the coach business expanded quickly, with new routes being added until  they criss-crossed the country. Bianconi started to build his own coaches, eventually moving up to a twenty-passenger long-coach. They were known as ‘Bians’ or Bianconi Coaches, and soon became a familiar sight everywhere. Coaches meant coaching Inns, and a network of Bianconi Inns were developed, some of them still remaining to this day.

Bianconi Bar, Main Street, Kildysart

Bianconi Bar, Main Street, Kildysart

The business was at times seriously under-capitalised but an interesting account in the Irish Story – an online history blog, comes up with this information:

“In 1826, came the famous Waterford by-election when the Beresfords – landlord family who had dominated that county’s politics for 70 years – were ousted by the Catholic Association party of Daniel O’Connell – campaigning for Catholic Emancipation.  Bianconi had actually been retained by the Beresfords (who were staunchly opposed to Emancipation) to transport their voters to the election, but feelings were running so high that he felt his drivers to be endangered and asked to be released from his contract. The Beresfords reluctantly agreed, and Bianconi was promptly retained by the O’Connell supporting team. He may well have been partly responsible for their resounding success, but from his point of view the important thing was that he was paid £1,000 (perhaps as much as €1,000,000 in today’s values) for his services. This was the capital he needed.”

The scale of operations was remarkable. Here are just some of the statistics:

*  By 1845, Bianconi was one of the largest proprietors of horses and vehicles in the whole of Europe, with a fleet of one hundred cars,  and 1,400 horses.

*  He employed a hundred drivers as well as  130 ostlers to look after the animals.

*  Each day, the Bians covered over 4,200 miles of Irish road, serving 120 towns and villages.

*  The horses consumed around 3,500 tons of hay a year, plus 35,000 barrels of oats.

*  In its heyday the business was paying Bianconi £35,000 a year.

*  He was  twice made mayor of Clonmel.

* He was renowned for looking after his staff, knowing all of the drivers by name, and when they were too old or infirm to work he provided them with food and lodging in his cellars at his house at Longfield House, Boherlahan, County Tipperary, referring to them as his “fireside fellows”.

*  When the Great Famine came, he famously employed his men to carry out maintenance work at his beloved Longfield House with its 1000 acres of prime farmland, rather than see them starve.

And when the railways eventually arrived, Bianconi wisely arranged his coach itineraries to include the railway stations which his passengers would then use for their onward journey. Oh, and he invested his money in the railways themselves, thereby securing his future when the coaching side of the business declined. He died, a multi-millionaire in today’s terms, in September 1875, at the age of 89. The story goes that as he died the sound of a phantom coach was heard clattering up the long driveway to the house….

Irish commemorative stamps

Irish commemorative stamps

I am indebted to the historian Turtle Bunbury for some of the facts used in this article, based on his blog here. Thanks too to Stephen Lombard for first regaling me with the story of Mr Bianconi and his coaches – and for showing me the prints made in the 1850s showing the Biancs in use. It is a remarkable story, especially for  a man dismissed as a dunce. Nowadays, immigrants tend to get a bad press. Here was an immigrant who had the imagination and courage to transform the world around him…