Feb 102019

One of the interesting characters I came across doing the research for my forthcoming talk to the Early Dance Centre was one particular Master of Ceremonies at the Upper Rooms in Bath. Captain William Wade had stepped into the breach after a contested election between the Master of the Lower Rooms (William Brereton) and the Master of the assembly rooms in nearby Bristol by the name of Mr Plomer. The original election descended into fisticuffs and the reading of the Riot Act – and at the end of the unseemly squabble Captain Wade was chosen as a consensus candidate acceptable to both sides. He took up his office in 1769.


And what a pretty boy he was! Here he is, looking magnificent in all his finery, in a painting by Thomas Gainsborough dating from 1771. I mean, THAT is what I call a waistcoat! Captain Wade quickly earned the nick-name of “the Bath Adonis” – but he was eventually forced to retire from his position after rather publicly misbehaving. It must have been all rather humiliating for Mrs Katherine Wade, who had given birth to five of his children and who was very much still alive when her husband’s eyes started to wander….

John Hooke Campbell (1733-1795); by Francis Cotes, courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.

He was named in the divorce proceedings of Elizabeth Eustacia, wife of John Hooke Campbell.  Mr Campbell  was a dour Scotsman and when he had married Devon girl Elizabeth in 1762 I don’t think he knew what he was taking on. They had three daughters – Eustacia, Charlotte and Louisa. I suspect that his wife’s world fell apart when both her parents died in the same year – 1764, and although there is an early reference to a boy called Matthew I suspect that he died in infancy and there is nothing to suggest that John Hooke Campbell was ever going to get a male heir. He seemed preoccupied with changing his name – from  John Hooke Campbell to John Campbell-Hooke, no doubt conscious of his  dynastic importance. A double-barrelled name always looks good!

To give him his full title he was The Right Honourable the Lord Lyon King of Arms. As such he was the head of Lyon Court,  the most junior of the Great Officers of State in Scotland. He was the official with responsibility for regulating heraldry in Scotland – issuing new grants of arms, and serving as the judge of the Court of the Lord Lyon, the oldest heraldic court in the world. Dare one assume that perhaps he was too busy with his heraldic work to spend much time  and attention on his wife, who was four years younger than him and who clearly liked to party, party?

The Tea Room at the Assembly Rooms, Bath: per Wikimedia

The couple were leading separate existences – and in time Elizabeth fell for the charms of Captain Wade. She would rent premises in Bath – or near Brighton where the good Captain  also held the position of MC – and this gave the Captain plenty of opportunity to pop round for a quick bit of nookie whenever he got the chance. And all of this was to come out into the public arena when  husband John finally woke up and smelled the roses. He sued the Captain for damages in criminal conversation – a sort of precursor to divorce, and this entailed a full trial. This involved just about every servant  in the household being called upon to give evidence. What is clear is that the below-stairs staff were preoccupied with  looking through keyholes and pressing ears against the walls, listening in to amorous conversations and ‘noises off’. Each servant was called in turn, and made depositions about  hearing inter-connecting doors opening and closing, of the young children being moved up to the garret out of the way, of shadowy figures holding candles being observed in corridors and of midnight moaning and squeaking bed-frames. The evidence ran to an impressive seventy pages, starting off with the assertion that Elizabeth ‘was and is a very loose woman of a lustful and wicked disposition’, who had committed ‘the foul crime of adultery’.

And all of this was reported in trial accounts which became best sellers, as prurient readers could  learn about every aspect  of the affair.

The reports of this and numerous other adultery trails were then consolidated and published in seven volumes. A quick look on the web suggests that a set of six of the seven are available for the discerning reader, at a not unreasonable price of $2500.

John won his case in 1777 and subsequently petitioned Parliament for a divorce, leaving his ex-wife free to marry Captain Wade once the original Mrs Wade had died in 1787. Before the year was out,  the ‘Bath Adonis’ had married Elizabeth, on 30 June 1787 at St Marylebone in London. Sure, he was sacked as MC in Bath for bringing his office into disrepute; however he  continued as MC in Brighton, thereby proving that somewhat different standards of propriety existed in the South coast resort compared with what was acceptable in the ever-so-respectable city of Bath. I make no comment about whether there has been much change there then !

For the next twenty years Captain Wade was responsible for arranging  entertainments  at assemblies in Brighton at both the Castle Inn and the Old Ship. He died in Brighton on 16 March 1809

All this scurrilous talk of scandalous behaviour is far too detailed to get more than a passing mention in my forthcoming talk to the Early Dance Circle on 1st March 2019  – but it was great fun doing the research, since I may well be able to use it in my next-book-but-one, on Sex and Sexuality in the Georgian Era. Meanwhile if you are free and in London on the evening of 1st March – do come along. The talk is at Swedenborg Hall, Swedenborg House, 20 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2TH and starts at 7.15 Details can be obtained from the  EDC Secretary: secretary@earlydancecircle.co.uk or by ‘phoning on 020 8699 8519

Going up Camborne Hill,coming down: the remarkable and generally under-rated Richard Trevithick.

 Comments Off on Going up Camborne Hill,coming down: the remarkable and generally under-rated Richard Trevithick.  Tagged with: ,
Dec 242018

Richard Trevithick by John Linnell, Science Museum, London 

It was Christmas Eve, 1801 and a large crowd had gathered in the Cornish town of Camborne. The stretch of road running up from Tehidy Road and along Fore Street was known as Camborne Hill, and the crowds watched in amazement as a noisy, steam-belching leviathan called ‘Puffing Devil’ moved slowly up the ascent, turned round, and then came back down again. The excitement of the occasion was described by a local cooper, Stephen Williams, who was to write later:
‘Twas a stiffish hill going from the Weith up to Camborne Beacon, but she went off like a little bird. When she had gone about a quarter of a mile, there was a roughish piece of road covered with loose stones; she didn’t go quite so fast, and as it was flood of rain and we were very squeezed together, I jumped off. She was going faster than I could walk, and went on up the hill about a quarter or half a mile farther, when they turned her and came back again to the shop.’

The event was commemorated in the song ‘Camborne Hill’:
Goin’ up Camborne Hill, coming down
Goin’ up Camborne Hill, coming down
The horses stood still;
The wheels went around;
Going up Camborne Hill coming down

It is a song still associated with Cornish prowess – especially on the Rugby field – and is one of the most lasting tributes to a man who died a pauper, and yet was a real pioneer of the Industrial Revolution. His name – Richard Trevithick – is little known nowadays, and as any schoolboy will tell you, the inventor of steam locomotion was not Trevithick but father-and-son George and Robert Stephenson.

Actually, that is not correct. The Stephenson ’Rocket’ may be renowned the world over, whereas Trevithick’s ‘Catch me who can’ engine is hardly remembered. And yet it was the first in the world to carry fee-paying passengers, in 1808. The ‘Rocket’ is rightly famous for having won the Rainhill Trials held to decide the best design for an engine to run along the Liverpool-Manchester line. Yet that was in 1829, a quarter of a century after Trevithick had pioneered the use of a high-pressure steam engine to provide locomotive power. Trevithick’s invention came first, and he deserves far more credit for his inventiveness and his dogged determination. Indeed, he can be seen as one of the first of that breed of heroic failures which litter the story of modern progress.

I am featuring him as one of my ‘forgotten heroes’ in a book to be published by Pen & Sword, probably under the title of “Georgian Greats – Unsung Heroes of the (Industrial) Revolution” – or some such. I intend to showcase a couple of dozen individuals who, but for a quirk of fate, would have been household names in the vein of Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt et al. The spotlight often dazzles us, but in doing so hides the achievements of men on the side-lines – men like Trevithick. Nowadays we may talk about ‘first mover advantage’ whereas history tells us that it is not the man who is first with his ideas who wins – it is the man who can market them.

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!

Thomas Boulsover – a silver plated, coppper-bottomed Hero of the Revolution!

 Comments Off on Thomas Boulsover – a silver plated, coppper-bottomed Hero of the Revolution!  Tagged with: ,
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.]


Apr 302018

As it is just a day or two after the passage of 248 years since the death  of the notorious forger David Hartley I thought I would repeat an earlier post about him:

He appears to have been born in 1729 and died at the end of a hangman’s noose, on 28th April 1770. His body was buried in the old graveyard at Heptonstall above Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. The burial site is unusual in that two churches are built alongside each other, served by the same graveyard. It is also where the poet Sylvia Plath is buried but that is another story…David Hartley was nick-named “King David” while his brother Isaac was called the “Duke of York”, and another brother William was known as the “Duke of Edinburgh”. Why? Because of their fame in the tiny and isolated community of Cragg Vale, up in the Pennines. “King” David led a gang of perhaps 200 people who supplemented their meagre earnings from the land with a spot of illegal coin clipping. Even today our higher value coins have a milled edge (or an inscription, as with ‘Decus et Tutanem’ – literally, ‘an ornament and a safeguard’ – on our one pound coins) intended to prevent clipping .The clipping of coins in the Middle Ages had always been a problem, because coins were hammered (by hand) rather than being milled (by machine). Indeed prior to the reign of Edward I there were no coins smaller than one penny and traders were free to cut pennies in half to make a ‘halfpenny’, or into four to make a ‘fourth thing’ i.e. farthing. The coins were designed with a cross on one side, marking the quarter points, so that the unscrupulous traders could not easily cut five quarters out of the one coin! Clipping and counterfeiting were both criminal offences which invariably carried the death penalty.

Hammered coins disappeared when Charles II came to the throne, with the introduction of superior quality machined coins. To prevent clipping, higher value coins had an inscription raised around the circumference of the coin (on its edge) with the regnal year (that is to say, showing in which year of the King’s reign it was minted). In the Georgian era the Restoration practice of marking coins with the regnal year had died out. With higher value e.g. gold coins, this had been replaced with milling marks – a series of decorative marks around the edge. What Hartley did was cut off the milled edge, then hand-file the edge of the smaller coin, marking it to make it look as though it was milled. The clippings were then melted down and recast as coins.

To do this the coiners needed a ready source of gold coins to work with. Local publicans were happy to oblige in return for a piece of the action. They would hand over the coins to the gang and then later feed the coins back into circulation.Not just English coins were dealt with in this way. Because coins from other countries circulated freely in this country, the gang also had access to coins from Spain and Portugal, and these were particularly susceptible to clipping. And if this all sounds like small beer, reflect on the fact that by the 1770s it was estimated that 9% of all gold coins had been tampered with in this way, and that fake guineas with a face value of three and a half million pounds had been paid into the Banks.

What lent itself to the clipping and coining was the remoteness of Cragg Vale: any stranger entering the valley would be spotted a mile off so the gang of ‘cottage workers’ were never likely to get caught red-handed. And so, for five years, they prospered…

Quite separate from the clipping (‘diminishing the coin of the realm’ in legal parlance) was the actual counterfeiting i.e. melting down the gold shavings and hammering them with an impression to give the appearance of a genuine gold coin from the continent. These forgeries were not particularly well done, but they did not have to be, since the quality of coins in circulation had become extremely poor. Pure gold is soft, and any parts of the design which were raised were quickly worn, so the public had become used to poor quality coins. The actual counterfeiting was done by outsiders. Three of them were named in the later court proceedings as Thomas Sunderland of Halifax, Joseph Shaw of Bradford and a man called Lightoulers. who made the dies for David Hartley. The picture shows a set of dies used in the counterfeiting process.

Coin dies courtesy of Heptonstall Museum.

After a while the prevalence of light coins in the area, and the poor fakes, came to the notice of the authorities and in particular one William Dighton, Excise Officer. He was astute enough to know that he was never going to catch the gang without inside information, so he offered a bribe of one hundred guineas to one of the coiners called James Broadbent. He was happy to betray his accomplices for a mere promise (the reward was never actually paid) and he swore before the magistrates that he had seen David Hartley and his colleague James Jagger clipping four gold guineas at the family home at Bell House.

This was enough for Dighton, and David Hartley was arrested on 14th October 1769 at the Old Cock Inn in Halifax. At this point family loyalty intervened; so incensed was Isaac Hartley (brother to David) at the idea of his sibling being in York prison that he put up a reward of £100 to anyone who would kill Dighton. No sooner said than done! Poor Mr Dighton, who was only doing his job, was ambushed in the darkness on 10th November 1769 while walking in Bull Close Lane in Halifax. He was shot in the head and fatally wounded, his assailants being Matthew Normanton and Robert Thomas. You don´t mess with the Hartleys…

The authorities were outraged. No lesser a personage than the Marquis of Rockingham, Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding, was tasked with hunting down the killers. Extensive bribes were offered for information, and pardons offered to those willing to turn King’s Evidence. By the end of that year (1769) a list of some 80 coiners had been prepared, of which 30 came from Cragg Vale. Arrests followed soon afterwards.

The gravestone marking where members of the Hartley family are buried.

None of this helped “King” David. He was tried in the Spring Assizes, found guilty of ‘impairing diminishing and lightening guineas’ and sent to be hanged at Tyburn, near York, on 28th April 1770. The records show that he and his fellow coiner James Oldfield ‘died penitent and acknowledging the justice of the sentence passed upon them’

The entry in the register of deaths at St Thomas à Becket Church at Heptonstall states in Latin: “1770 May I. David Heartley de Bellhouse in Villa Erringdinensis suspensus in collo prope Eboracum ob nummos publicos illicite cudendos et accidentos” which as everyone knows (!) translates roughly as “David Hartley of Bell House in the town of Erringden was hanged near York for unlawfully stamping and clipping public coin.”

It took a while for the other ringleaders to be rounded up. Of the two who murdered Dighton, Normanton got wind of his impending arrest and went into hiding. He was finally captured and hanged on 15th April 1775. A year earlier his co-conspirator Robert Thomas had been caught, tried and acquitted for lack of evidence, but justice caught up with him shortly after that when he was charged with Highway Robbery. He too went to the gallows, and his body was displayed on Beacon Hill Halifax as a warning to others.

Other members of the Hartley family were also called in for questioning. Brother William, a.k.a. The Duke of Edinburgh was, according to the Leeds Mercury, fortunate to escape through a window, wearing only his shirt, when the local constables surrounded his house in December 1769. Poor blighter, shivering half to death in a night shirt out on the bleak Yorkshire moors! In fact it is unlikely that William played a significant part in the family’s coining activities.

Isaac Hartley, the man who organised the murder plot, was one of the ones wanted for questioning but was never brought to trial due to lack of evidence. He died at the age of of 78 at Mytholmroyd in 1815. The ‘Wanted’ poster back in 1769 had described him as “Isaac HARTLEY, late of Erringden, in the Parish of Halifax [commonly called the Duke of York, being younger Brother of David Hartley, usually called King David, now a Prisoner in York Castle] about 35 years old. 5 ft 7 ins high, a dark down-looking man, wears his own hair, which is black, a little pock-broke, and generally wears light-coloured cloaths”

The importance of the various cases involving the Cragg Vale coiners is shown by the fact that Parliament debated the whole question of the state of the coinage and what should be done to protect it: trust in coinage was central to trade, and anything diminishing public confidence had to be dealt with. The King’s Speech at the opening of the 1773 session contained the words “nothing can better deserve the attention of Parliament than the state of the Gold Coin”.

The debates in the Commons and Lords culminated in 1773 with ‘An Act for the better preventing the counterfeiting, clipping, and other diminishing the Gold Coin in this Kingdom’ (13 Geo. III c. 71). One of the changes was to define the weight of each gold coin more accurately, and to give anyone paid with an underweight coin an entitlement to compensation from the person tendering it. All of which would have put more pressure on shopkeepers like my ancestor Richard Hall, where light or forged guineas handed over in the gloom of the counting house at the rear of the shop could easily be accepted in payment for goods, only to leave the shopkeeper out of pocket when he reached the Bank. Small wonder weighing scales were the 18th Century equivalent of a light scanner to check forged banknotes today….

(The two paper cut outs used in this post were made in the 1780’s by my ancestor Richard Hall. More information about these fascinating illustrations appears in The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman.)

Feb 252018

aa1As obituaries go, this one from the 1821 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine is perhaps the least revealing: the Countess of Jersey, mother of ten children, died on 25th July. “She was very unpopular at the period of the unhappy marriage of our present Sovereign.” The “why” is not explained, but actually there is an awful lot more to the story of Frances, Dowager Countess of Jersey, than appears in this death notice.

For a start, look at the circumstances of her birth. Her father the Right Reverend Philip Twysden was well-connected and had been made Bishop – O.K., an Irish bishopric, but a Bishop nonetheless. But as rough diamonds go, he was quite something. Unfortunately, successful and solvent he was not – he became bankrupt. Unlike other bishops, he decided to do something about his parlous financial straits – not for him hand-wringing and whingeing. He took his destiny into his own hands – and turned to …. highway robbery!


Apparently he was staying the night of 1st November 1752 at Royden Hall in Kent, where he met a doctor. The good medic was apparently engrossed in treating a sick man, while the Bishop surreptitiously contrived to remove the charge from the doctor’s pistol. Unfortunately for his Right Reverence, the manoeuvre was noticed by the patient. Later, the patient alerted the doctor – who therefore re-loaded his pistol and on the next day set forth for Wrotham Heath. There, in some remote spot, the Bishop suddenly appeared from the undergrowth and demanded that the medicine man should hand over his valuables, while advancing towards him with all the menace that comes from knowing that the victim was unarmed. Bad mistake! The doctor shot the Bishop dead, which, as ways to go and meet your Maker, is an unusual ending for a man of the cloth. Not good news for his unfortunate widow, who was already pregnant and who later gave birth to a girl destined to make her mark in the gossip columns of the nation.

Frances, Countess of Jersey, by Thomas Watson after Daniel Gardner, mezzotint published in 1774

Fast forward from 1752 to 1780 and  an attractive young lady is about to make her mark on the world…

It seems strange that with her infamous father she ever made it down the aisle with anyone respectable, let alone on the arm of the 34 year-old  (4th) Earl of Jersey, George Villiers. She was just seventeen years old.

George Villiers, 4th Earl of Jersey by Ozias Humphry RA. © National Trust, Osterley Park


There then followed the baby-farming years – ten sprogs in the period between 1771 and 1788. To outward appearances, all seemed respectable, but having hit her fortieth year and become a grandmother she cut the traces and began an affair with the Prince of Wales. Well, in fairness she had already been “romantically linked” to one or two (well, four or five) other members of the aristocracy, but clearly the son of the reigning monarch was a better catch, even if he was “married” to his long-term mistress Maria Fitzherbert. Within a year this rocking granny had prised the Prince away from Maria. She helped push the Prince into a marriage with his cousin Caroline of Brunswick (1794). As the Queen Consort hated her new husband, and had very little to do with him once she had produced an heir, it left the way clear for Lady Jersey to tighten her grip on the Prince, and she became “the paramount paramour” for at least five years.

'A lady putting on her cap, - June 1795' by James Gillray © National Portrait Gallery, London

‘A lady putting on her cap, – June 1795’  by James Gillray, showing the Countess of Jersey putting on her head-dress/ setting her cap at the Prince.      © National Portrait Gallery, London

What of her husband? Well, in 1795 he was no doubt consoled by the fact that he was rewarded with being made up to Master of the Horse to the Prince of Wales. “Cuckold-in-Chief, more like.

This Gillray from 1796 shows Caroline bursting in onto the  embedded Prince and  the Countess, in a print called “The Jersey smuggler detected; – or – good causes for discontent [separation]”

© British Museum

© British Museum

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes her as “a scintillating society woman, a heady mix of charm, beauty, and sarcasm”. That barely does justice to a woman renowned for her scheming. In the Journal of Mary Frampton she is described as being “a clever, unprincipled, but beautiful and fascinating woman, though with scarcely any retrieving really good quality.” To Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, she was “la Peste” – in other words “the Plague.”

Her ability to spend money – buckets and buckets of it – was legendary and she made no effort to reduce her extravagance even when the Prince ended their affair in 1799. She was a constant thorn in his side, continuing to meddle and manipulate, causing mischief at every turn. The Prince responded by referring to her as “that infernal jezebel.”

Throughout this time her husband continued to put up with her shenanigans even though her extravagance led to him being threatened with imprisonment on account of his debts.

On 22 August 1805, the Earl of Jersey died. The impoverished Frances had the bare-faced cheek to apply to the Prince for a pension. Reluctantly he eventually agreed. Still her debts mounted, but from time to time her son the 5th Earl would wipe the slate clean, as well as allowing her a jointure of £3,500 a year. So, she struggled by into her 69th year, when she died at Cheltenham on 23 July 1821. Her obituary really doesn’t do justice to her, so instead  I will finish with another caricature from Gillray…

NPG D13025; 'Fashionable-jockeyship' by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey

The Prince is shown holding up two fingers while being carried  by the Earl towards  the figure of the Countess of Jersey, who is attempting to hide under the bedclothes. “Buck, Buck, how many Horns do I hold up?” enquires our fashionable jockey, to which the cuckolded Earl replies “E’en as many as you please!”  On the wall a picture shows a fat old sow dancing to an angelic tune…

A fascinating forthcoming auction of Nelson Memorabilia at Sotheby’s – “Of Royal and Noble Descent”.

 Comments Off on A fascinating forthcoming auction of Nelson Memorabilia at Sotheby’s – “Of Royal and Noble Descent”.  Tagged with: ,
Jan 112018

I see that there is an auction next week under the umbrella of the Sotheby’s series “Of Royal and Nobel Descent” – and with a whole host of Nelson memorabilia on offer it is bound to be of interest. The highlight, picked up in the national press, is a piece of the Union flag flown from the Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar. This  is expected to reach £100,000. *

The catalogue calls it an “evocative and impressive relic of Nelson and Trafalgar” and  gives the following explanation:

“Nelson’s ships sailed into battle at Trafalgar flying the national flag rather than just their squadron colours, as a result of an order issued by Nelson in the days before the battle: “When in the presence of an Enemy, all the Ships under my command are to bear white Colours [i.e. St George’s Ensign], and a Union Jack is to be suspended from the fore top-gallant stay” (10 October 1805). HMS Victory consequently flew two Union flags and a St George’s Ensign, which were returned to England with the ship and the body of Nelson.”

The catalogue continues “… battle ensigns, unique patriotic mementoes of Nelson’s final and greatest victory, were later woven into the solemn and dignified series of ceremonials that marked his state funeral in January 1806. The body lay in state at the Painted Hall at Greenwich for four days before processing upriver in a funeral barge with a flotilla of naval escorts, disembarking at Whitehall Stairs and resting overnight in the Admiralty. The following day, 9 January, a vast procession followed Nelson’s remains to St Paul’s Cathedral, the site of the funeral. Incorporated into the funeral cortege was a group of 48 seamen and Marines from HMS Victory, who bore with them the ship’s three battle ensigns and were, according to one eyewitness, “repeatedly and almost continually cheered as they passed along”.

They did rather more than cheer – they then shredded the various flags and kept them as souvenirs, and over the years several have come up for sale.

Also in the auction are some impressive paintings of the Battle of Trafalgar and a plethora of Nelson memorabilia – everything from medals commemorating Trafalgar and the Battle of the Nile, to dinner plates and pill boxes….






There are also printed ephemera and pieces of jewellery…


and enough statues, sculptures and portraits to satisfy any enthusiast.


I will be interested to see what some of the Lots reach on 17th January – you can see the Sotheby’s catalogue online here or you can buy the catalogue itself  from Sotheby’s for just under £30 here. All images shown here  are provided courtesy of the auctioneers.


*Post script: the piece of flag actually sold for an unbelievable £297,000 – nearly three times the estimate placed on it by the auctioneers! Given that the piece measured 36 inches by 34 inches, that is one very expensive piece of material…

Blackbeard, the famous pirate, killed 22 November 1718.

 Comments Off on Blackbeard, the famous pirate, killed 22 November 1718.  Tagged with: ,
Nov 222017

Of all the pirates in the so-called ‘Golden Age’ none typified the image of the swash-buckling buccaneer better than Edward Teach – the man known to history as ‘Blackbeard’.  Much of what we know about his exploits comes from Johnson’s History of the Pyrates, and the ten pages in that book which are devoted to Blackbeard help paint the picture of a man of ‘uncommon Boldness and personal Courage.’

Johnson states that Edward Teach was born in Bristol and was in the Royal Navy during the War of Spanish Succession, and did not hold a command until ‘he went a pyrating’ towards the end of 1716. Johnson helps show him as a man of appalling depravity, mentioning his fourteen common-law wives, the last of whom he married when she was sixteen. After he had lain with his wife all night, it was, says Johnson, Blackbeard’s custom ‘to invite five or six of his brutal Companions to come ashore, and he would force her to prostitute herself to them all, one after another, before his Face.’ No wonder genteel English readers were fascinated, but horrified, by his wanton behaviour.

Johnson also pays much attention to Blackbeard’s image – and in particular his beard – saying that it was ‘like a frightful meteor, which covered his whole face’ and that it frightened America more than any Comet that had appeared there for a long time. ‘The Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length’ and apparently he twisted the ends and tucked them in behind his ears. At times of battle, he was stated to have threaded slow burning fuses into his knotted beard. ‘… his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, making him altogether such a Figure, that imagination cannot form an Idea of a Fury, from Hell, to look more frightful.’ This perhaps was Blackbeard’s secret: he looked the part. He did not have to behave with extreme cruelty, he just had to look ferocious, sword in hand, three brace of pistols ‘hanging in Holsters like Bandoliers’ and with oily smoke swirling around his dark face. No wonder that on many occasions his victims gave up without a fight.

His surname was variously given as Thatch, Thack, Theach and Titche; the wide range of monikers may have been an attempt to ‘protect the good name of his family’ or may simply reflect the fact that in an age of widespread illiteracy, spelling accurately was not especially important and even legal documents often used different spelling in the same official deed. He may well have been living in Jamaica when he started off as an apprentice to  the pirate Hornigold. He moved his operations to the Bahamas and while working with Hornigold captured a French merchant ship called La Concord. At the time the vessel was just a hundred miles off Martinique, on a mission to deliver slaves to that island. She was able to offer little resistance when Teach appeared on the scene, because the French crew had already suffered a number of casualties (including 36 suffering from scurvy and dysentery). Teach, in command of two sloops, one with 120 men and a dozen cannon, the other with thirty men and eight cannon, quickly captured La Concord with the minimum of damage caused. The cabin boy on La Concord informed Teach where the captain had hidden a cache of gold dust – and was rewarded by being allowed to join Teach’s crew. Three other crew volunteered to join Teach, and a further ten were forced to join – pilots, cooks, carpenters and surgeons. Teach was happy to allow the remaining captives, including the captain, to continue their journey on one of his own sloops – Teach had his eyes on converting La Concorde into a fighting machine the likes of which had not been seen in the Caribbean.

She was refurbished as a battleship, armed with forty cannon, and re-named the Queen Anne’s Revenge.  On his new flagship Teach caused mayhem as he sailed northward up the Lower Antilles, from Bequia to St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Nevis, and Antigua, seizing shipping along the way. By early December 1717 he had reached Puerto Rico. Four months later he was in the Bay of Honduras, and while there captured the sloop Adventure, under the captaincy of David Herriot. The reluctant captain was forced to join the pirates as they sailed in a small but powerful flotilla up past the Caymen Islands towards Cuba. Teach then settled on a really audacious plan – to sail up to the major South Carolina port of Charles Town and to blockade it, holding it to ransom. In particular he was in urgent need of medical supplies. The blockade lasted a week, during which time a number of vessels, including the Crowley were captured. Teach then threatened to kill all the prisoners taken on board the Crowley unless a medicine chest was delivered to him. The ‘ransom’ was brought to him, and the prisoners were released unharmed, leaving Teach to sail northwards towards Old Topsail Inlet (now known as Beaufort Inlet) in North Carolina.

What happened next is clear enough – both the Queen Anne’s Revenge and the sloop Adventure ran aground. ‘Why’ is not so clear – the captured Captain David Herriot later stated that he thought that the grounding, on a sand bar across the front of the inlet, was deliberate. By then, Teach’s followers numbered more than 300 men, and he may have been keen to retain the plunder himself, casting many of the crew  ashore. Whatever the reason, Teach was able to sail away from the inlet with all of the spoils and a very much smaller, hand-picked, crew.

A few months later (June 1718) Teach and perhaps twenty of his crew reached Ocracoke Inlet, in North Carolina. Sailing up-river some fifty miles to the small town of Bath, Teach appears to have decided to settle down and to abandon his piratical ways.  It was at Bath that he bought a house, and according to Johnson in A General History, took a young girl as his common-law wife (as mentioned earlier). He also applied for the King’s Pardon and this was granted by the Governor, Charles Eden. It is far from clear how far the Governor was in cahoots with Teach, and certainly some have suggested that the two were close friends at this time. What is known is that Teach quickly became bored with shore-based life, and decided to resume his old career. When he re-appeared in the colony with a French merchant ship in tow he apparently told the governor that she had been found ‘abandoned’ – albeit with a cargo of sugar. The Vice Admiralty Court which was promptly called by Governor Eden came to the conclusion that the ship was derelict and hastened to award the cargo jointly to Eden (sixty hogsheads of sugar) the President of the Court (twenty hogsheads) and to Teach and his crew (whatever else remained of the cargo). This certainly suggests an element of corruption and collusion may have been present.

After a brief but boozy reunion off Ocracoke Island with his old colleagues ‘Calico Jack’ Rackam and  Charles Vane, Teach was beginning to alarm the authorities – not just in North Carolina but in Pennsylvania, and Virginia, where law-abiding folk took a dim view of large numbers of former pirates apparently wanting to settle in their midst. People had serious doubts about whether the men were complying with the terms of their Pardon, and were not convinced that Governor Eden and his cronies were willing to take appropriate enforcement action. In the end it was Governor Spottswood of Virginia who financed what was technically a raid on North Carolina territories. After a ferocious struggle Teach was killed on board his ship 22 November 1718; his head was then cut off and hung from the bowsprit of the ship commanded by the victorious Captain Maynard, Royal Navy pirate-hunter, and taken back as a trophy and as a warning to others.

In the aftermath, mass hangings of the captured pirates took place, and the news that Blackbeard, the most infamous pirate of all, had met such a grisly fate at the hands of the authorities (twenty sword lacerations to his body as well as five musket-shot wounds) sent shock waves which rippled throughout the Caribbean territories. Teach is thought to have captured more than forty ships in a career which lasted just over two years, but the manner of his appearance, and his apparent unwillingness to use violence (as opposed to threatening it) ensured his reputation as a heroic and gallant figure. After 22 November 1718 piracy was never going to be the same again, and myth took over from reality….


Edward Teach will feature prominently in a book I have just completed, to be called ‘Plunder – Pirates and Privateers in the 18th Century”. Well, that is its working title but no doubt Pen & Sword will come up with something more catchy (or, do I mean, ‘less obvious’?!). I hope to hand in the manuscript next month, so that I can then get on with my next project, which is a book about lesser-known Georgian inventors, explorers, scientists and game-changers. I have been commissioned to write it  – again, by Pen & Sword – and I need to get into writing mode immediately after Christmas. Watch this space!