Nov 192017

Philip Thicknesse – a miniature by  Nathaniel Hone, 1757

In yesterday’s post I looked at the earlier part of the life of Philip Thicknesse – today I wanted to show how his notoriety as a quarrelsome bully was reflected in contemporary prints. The National Portrait Gallery has an almost inoffensive one by Gillray, of all people, used as the frontispiece to James M. Adair’s ‘Curious Facts and Anecdotes, not contained in the Memoirs of Philip Thicknesse, Esq.’

©  National Portrait Gallery. Thicknesse by Gillray, 1790,

O.K. -“No ties can hold him, no affection bind, And fear alone constrains his coward’s mind…” is hardly complimentary but it was nothing, but nothing, to what Gillray moved on to. As will be seen, Gillray was not going to let a good target go undamaged….First though, an offering from Isaac Cruikshank:

Thicknesse, complete with his ‘Foul Letter bag’, according to Cruikshank…

The reputation of Philip Thicknesse as a ball of bile led to various caricatures, including the one above, but my favourite is this one below showing Thicknesse with his codpiece marked Genius but also standing on Moral and Religious Duties, with legs of Deceit and Hypocrisy. In his right arm he holds a quill pen marked Assassination and he has a stomach for Cruelty, Cowardice Quackery and Buffoonery. On his left thigh the Devil is shown chasing a figure of Thicknesse,  kicking him away from the flames of Hell, saying, “I won’t be troubled with you – you are too bad for me; this is Hope”.

© The Trustees of the British Museum.   A man of many parts….

Beneath the title is etched: ‘Most heartily Addressed, (without permission) to Phil. Thicknesse, Esq. Formerly a Lieutenant Governor and lately Doer of the St. James’s Chronicle, but now Nobody at his Hut in Kent.’ (This, a reference to the fact that Thicknesse had been living for a time in a converted barn on the South coast, with views over towards France). The image, by W Dent, is entitled  ‘The cutter cut up, or, the monster at full length.’

Thomas Rowlandson also had a pop at Thicknesse – the British Museum site shows a pen and ink drawing by him entitled ‘Philip Quarrel the English hermit and beaufiddelle the mischievous she-monkey, famous for her skill on the viol de gamba’ with a picture of Thicknesse and his third wife, complete with references alluding to her affair with Lord Jersey, allegations of blackmail and extortion, and so on.

But an even more vicious personal attack was to come from James Gillray. You might think that Gillray would be nice to a fellow dyspeptic, always complaining about one thing or another. Wrong! Gillray managed in 1790 to produce a caricature in which just about every single misdemeanour associated with Thicknesse in his long history of grumbling, bullying and blackmail was exposed, in his ‘Lieut goverr Gall-stone, inspired by Alecto; or, the birth of Minerva.’ By way of explanation, Alecto was one of the Erinyes, or Furies, in Greek Mythology and Minerva was the goddess of strategic warfare.

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

It is a complicated caricature, described by the British Museum in its site as follows:

“Philip Thicknesse writes at a table; he listens to Alecto who whispers slyly in his ear, her right hand on his right shoulder; she is seated partly on his knee partly on a cloud behind him which rises from the jaws of Hell, the gaping mouth of a monster in the lower right corner of the design. Alecto  is a winged hag, with hair of writhing serpents, one of which coils round Thicknesse’s right arm, its poisoned fang touching the tip of his pen. He is seated on a close-stool inscribed ‘Reservoir for Gall Stones’.

An explosion issues from the crown of his head in the centre of which is Minerva who is shot into the air surrounded by books written by Thicknesse. She is a classical figure in back view; her head is the source of a billowing pillar of smoke which conceals it. In her right hand she supports a gun, which rests on her hip, and is inscribed ‘The Coward’s delight or, the Wooden Gun’.

On her left arm is an oval shield, cracked and bordered with serpents, inscribed: ‘Acts of Courage and Wisdom. Running away from my Command in Jamaica, for fear of the Black-a-moors, Refusing to fight Lord Orwell, after belying him; & afterwards begging pardon. Extorting 100 pr Annum from my eldest Son by a Pistol – Swindling my youngest son Phil: out of £500 by a forged Note of Hand – Debauching my own Niece, on a journey to Southampton – Horsewhipping my own Daughter to death for looking out at Window. Attempting to gull Lord Thurlow. Extorting £100 pr Annum from Lord Camden for suppressing his confidential Letters to myself. Gulling of Lord Bute: – Ditto Lord Bathurst: – Ditto Lord Coven: Causing my Footman to be pressed from Bath & cruelly Flogg’d for refusing to Father my own Child by the Cook Maid, Scandalizing Women of Virtue, to be reveng’d upon their Husbands: – Noble defence before the Court Martial for embezzling the Kings Stores; – Patient endurance of my Sentence in a Goal: – and heroic bearing of my discharge from the Service for Cowardice.’

The Museum description continues:

“Beside Minerva (right) is her owl, flying towards the spectator and holding three papers including ‘Character’ by Sam Foote. (Phill: is as stupid as an Owl; as senseless as a Goose; as vulgar as a Blackguard; & as cowardly as a Dunghill Cock). On the writing-table is a pile of books on which stands an ape-like creature dressed as a postillion and flourishing a whip above his head. In his left hand he holds up a bottle labelled ‘Laudanum, or the Preservative of Life – prepared by Lieut Genl Jackoo, Spanish Postillion to Dr Viper – O Death! where is thy Sting?’ A bottle protrudes from each coat-pocket, one inscribed ‘Extract of Hellebore’, the other ‘Extract of Hemlock’. One bare claw-like foot tramples down the broken end of a long spear, held by Death, a corpse-like body, almost a skeleton, who stands on the extreme left, frowning and raising a denunciatory hand. Between Death’s legs lies a dead dog on its back; a pamphlet beside it is inscribed ‘Elegy on the death of my favourite Dog. – Horsewhipped to Death for Barking while I was kissing my Wife’.. ..Over the front of the table hang two prints:

[1] a rat-trap inscribed ‘Landguard Fort’, “a Frontier Garrison of importance”.

[2] a boy wearing a cocked hat and holding a hammer and a hoop: ‘The Cooper’s Boy, turnd Soldier – an old Song’. Under the table are ‘Extortive Letters’ spiked on a file and a number of money-bags, three being labelled: £100 pr A’, ‘£100 pr Annum from Lord Comb. and £100 from Lord B.’ The background is covered by scenes and objects interspersed among the clouds produced by the fires of Hell and the explosion from Thicknesse’s head. Behind the table the apex of an obelisk partly obscures a framed picture of a building inscribed ‘St Ardres Nunnery or, a Grave to immure my Daughters alive; to keep their Fortunes myself’. “

It really was an extraordinary attack on Thicknesse and shows a very detailed knowledge of his misdemeanours – and a willingness on the part of Gillray to leave himself open to an action in defamation. But although Thicknesse printed a card by way of a response (see his printed announcement to ‘The Nobility and Friends’) no retaliation seems to have occurred.

In 1792 Mr and Mrs Thicknesse set off for Italy but it was a journey he never completed. He had a massive stroke in Boulogne and died there on 19 November. His poor wife Ann was promptly locked up for being a foreigner and had to spend eighteen months in a convent, until after Robespierre’s execution. She died in 1824.

And why am I interested in the curmudgeonly old fellow? Well one of the men he crossed swords with (wrong word: ‘crossed quill pens with’) was a chap called Edmund Rack.

Edmund Rack

Rack was an interesting guy: the founder, in 1770, of the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society – still going strong as the ‘Royal Bath and West’ with its annual show at Shepton Mallet. During his time in Bath, Rack was believed by Thicknesse to have been the author of a somewhat insulting ‘A Letter addressed to Philip Thickskull, esq.’ and Thicknesse called him out with his reply: ‘A Letter from Philip Thickskull, Esq., to Edmund Rack, Quaker’. Handbags at dawn boys, and may the best man win!

I have been asked to give a talk about the city of Bath in 1780, to coincide with the publication of a book based on Rack’s journals, by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute. The BRLSI are hosting a trio of talks on 24 March 2018 under the title ‘Science, Scandal and Society in Georgian Bath’, The event will be held at 16 Queen Square Bath BA1 2HN and although it is a while off, tickets can be obtained from Bath Box Office 01225 463362

Talk details:

24 March 2018 10.30 to 13.00

Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution

Science, Scandal and Society in Georgian Bath

Dr Andrew Swift, author and local historian

‘Inspir’d by Freedom’

Catharine Macaulay was one of the most remarkable women of her age – an eminent historian and avowed republican who inspired and influenced both the American and French Revolutions. She shocked Bath society by running off with ‘a stout brawny Scotsman of 21’.

Stuart Burroughs, Director at Museum of Bath at Work

Experimental Roots: Edmund Rack & the Origins of the Bath and West

Edmund Rack, a Quaker and the son of a Norfolk labouring weaver, moved to Bath in 1775. Dismayed by the poor farming practice in the West Country, he initiated the founding of an Agricultural Society to investigate ways of improving the agricultural resources of the country.

Mike Rendell, writer on 18th century social history

Bath in the 1780s: Quakers, Quacks & Quadrilles

A look at everyday life in the Georgian ˜City of Fun” its diversions and eccentricities.

Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution, 16 Queen Square, Bath BA1 2HN

Visitors £6 Members/students £4 – (plus £1 booking fee)

I hope to see some of you there!

Nov 182017

Philip Thicknesse painted by Thomas Gainsborough

I can think of two good reasons to blog about Philip Thicknesse: the first was that he was a seventh son and I haven’t blogged about one of them since doing a piece on Alexander Selkirk. So, it gives me a chance to link to one of my favourite Georgie Fame song ‘Seventh Son’ dating from 1969, with the lyrics

‘I’m the one, I’m the one The one they call the seventh son’

(You know you want to hear it again – you can, here.)

The second reason is that Thicknesse was a world-class act – a man so unbelievably objectionable and argumentative, so full of bile and vitriol that it is amazing that his own mother didn’t drown him at birth. He was born in Farthingoe in Northamptonshire in 1719. His father was a vicar, who died when Philip was six, and poor mother had two daughters to bring up, in addition to the seven sons. Never a keen scholar, Thicknesse spent most of his time honing his truancy skills before becoming apprenticed to an apothecary. There he learned (and tested) the various tinctures and cordials which were the staple of the apothecary – in other words, opiates – which must have stood him in good stead in later life when he became addicted to laudanum.

Aged 16 he decided it was time to visit Georgia, and he accompanied the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, as they set off for America in 1735.   Having reached Georgia he then decided to become a hermit, as one does, and constructed himself a nice little log cabin, on the side of a creek. I suspect that the rest of the world wished that he had stayed there longer, but after a two-year stint he returned to England and took a job working for the Georgia colonists – ostensibly drumming up followers who could be persuaded to part with their cash and head for a new life. The problem was that Philip painted such a dire picture of the place that no-one wanted to come, so he was fired. He then headed for Jamaica  – it is unclear what the islanders had done to deserve him, but he was made captain of a group of militia tasked with hunting down escaped slaves. This, he reckoned, gave him a useful insight into the plight of slaves. What he apparently learned was that slavery was perfectly OK, as long as the slaves were not treated too barbarously.

His fellow officers couldn’t stand him, and he came back to England, basing himself in Southampton where he became captain-lieutenant in a marine foot regiment. Brawling in a public tavern, and then getting involved in a duel with a fellow officer who accused him of running away from the slaves, Thicknesse then set his eyes on marrying into money. His selected victim was Maria Lanove, daughter of a prosperous Huguenot family with a £40,000 inheritance to her name. They eloped in 1742 after he managed to seize Maria from under the noses of armed guards. Having married his girl and got her pregnant he then went off to the Med for a year on board HMS Ipswich. Sadly he returned, whisked Maria off to Bath, and set about spending her money at the gaming tables.

Rowlandson’s “The Kick-up at the Hazard Room” from 1787.

He also sired two more children by her. And then disaster struck: Maria and two of the girls caught a form of diphtheria and all three died, leaving Thicknesse with a young daughter called Anna. His in-laws, with whom he had fallen out, both died suddenly – father in his sleep, mother when she jumped out of a window in Southampton High Street at the exact point where her daughter had been abducted, impaling herself on the railings below the window in the process.

This left Thicknesse with a problem: how to get his hands on mother’s money. It was a dilemma which occupied him for most of the rest of his life, and involved an application to the House of Lords. He lost. Meanwhile he moved to Queen Square in Bath, developed gallstones, and as a result became even more vitriolic and argumentative than before. Opium helped, and he regularly advised all gentlemen acquaintances to take ‘ten to twenty drops of strong laudanum daily’ – or so the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography helpfully tells us.

Within a year Thicknesse had re-married – this time to a well-connected Roman Catholic girl six years his junior. She was Lady Elizabeth Touchet, eldest daughter and heir of Lord Audley, and despite her father’s objections to the match she brought with her a dowry of £5000. That was enough to make Thicknesse king of one particular castle – he purchased the lieutenant-governorship of Landguard Fort in Suffolk, guarding the entrance to Harwich harbour.

© National Trust Images. Landguard Fort from around 1780

Once installed he began to fall out with everyone else in the pecking order above him – especially Colonel Vernon of the Suffolk militia. He was later to become Lord Orwell, but first had to put up with an awful lot of grief from Thicknesse. The latter even went to the expense of buying his own printing press so that his vituperative outpourings were unrestricted, and so that he could say all manner of nasty (and untrue) things about Vernon when he stood for Parliament. It culminated in ‘the case of the wooden gun’. Thicknesse found a floating log, shaped like a cannon, and sent it to his Lordship as an insult (presumably having first wrapped it in pretty paper and put the appropriate stamp on it). Vernon was not amused and sued Thicknesse for previous libels, and won. Exit the detestable Thicknesse for a 3-month stint in prison. He was also hit with a £100 fine and bound over to keep the peace for seven years with a surety of £1000.

Having tried to blackmail Lord Bute, Thicknesse then had to contend with the death of his second wife in 1762. She had never really recovered from giving birth to a son two years earlier, despite being looked after fastidiously by her close friend Ann Ford. Ann had previously been involved in an alleged affair with the ageing Lord Jersey, who had allegedly offered her an annuity of £800 to become his mistress. She declined, amidst rather a public spat with his lordship, and had been living with the Thicknesse family at Landguard Fort for some time. Within months of the death of Wife Number Two she had become Wife Number Three.

Ann Ford, later the third Mrs Thicknesse, holding her viola da gamba when painted by Thomas Gainsborough

Ann was an accomplished singer and a fine player of an instrument known as the viola da gamba. Thomas Gainsborough painted her with her viola da gamba sitting on her lap. Ironically, Thicknesse had helped ‘discover’ the talented Gainsborough, encouraging him to take up portraiture and to set up his studio in Bath. Years later, Thicknesse was to fall out with his artist friend – well, given time, he fell out with absolutely everyone (except his wife). The happy couple remained married for thirty years, and had six children, two of whom died very young. In addition, of course, he still had a daughter by his first marriage and two sons, George and Philip, by his second. George had a very public spat with his dad, and insisted on changing his surname to Touchet to distance himself from father, and in due course became Lord Audley, baron of Castlehaven. To Thicknesse it was intolerable to think that he had given pocket money to the young upstart, and that the ungrateful son was now declining to pick up all of Dad’s bills or to provide him with a comfortable life – I mean, what else are children for? No, don’t answer that!

    In 1776 Thicknesse went on a European tour, and while passing through Ardres dropped off one of his daughters in a convent, where she remained, willingly or otherwise, for the rest of her life. He wrote up his travel experiences in his ‘Observations on the Customs and Manners of the French Nation’ (1766) followed up two years later by his ‘Useful Hints to those who Make the Tour of Franc’e. On his return to England the family settled in Bath. A bitter dispute with the actor-playwright Samuel Foote led to the latter giving Thicknesse the moniker ‘Dr Viper’. Others knew him as ‘Philip Thickskull’.

By the mid-seventies Philip Thicknesse senior had given up all hope of getting his hands on the estate of his first mother-in-law. He took to writing helpful guides on how to live life to the full in a provincial town such as Bath. So we had the 1778 ‘The New Prose Bath Guide’ and the 1780 ‘The Valetudinarian’s Bath Guide, or, The Means of Obtaining Long Life and Health’. These contained the somewhat intriguing suggestion that wine and drink taken to excess were good for you, as was the frequent ‘inhalation of the breath of young women’. Nowadays you get locked up for that sort of thing!

From the 1760s onwards Thicknesse was a regular contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine using the pseudonym of ‘Polyxena’.  He also contributed regularly to other magazines and demonstrated a wide-ranging if not always accurate interest in matters as diverse as man-midwifery, deciphering, gout, and the exhibition in London of fraudulent automata (including chess-playing machines) by those mischievous foreign johnnies…

While in Bath he fell out with most of the movers and shakers of the city – not least with James Mattrick Adair who was a medical man accused by Thicknesse of being a quack and a charlatan. By now his enmity with his two sons was developing nicely – he resorted to trying to swindle and defame the boys in order to get his hands on their inheritance. He never hesitated to air his dirty linen in public, culminating in the publication of a three volume diatribe entitled ‘Memoirs and anecdotes of Philip Thicknesse, late governor of Landguard Fort, and unfortunately father to George Touchet, Baron Audley’. Things never did really back on an even keel after that – so much so that when he wrote his will Thicknesse directed that on his death his executors should cut off his right arm ‘and send it to his eldest son as a reminder of his filial duties’. Nice one! As a lawyer I can remember being asked to prepare a will in which the testatrix left her son nothing but a glass of brandy. I pointed out that she would have to specify which glass, which brandy, and in the end persuaded her to change it to a bequest of £5 with the expressed hope that he would spend the money on buying a double brandy to celebrate her departure. But a whole hand! That shows real determination and spite!

I leave my son my right hand….

The dedication to the Memoirs shows that Thicknesse believed that these personal attacks often led to him being paid money to shut up and go away. He writes”it be true, that I quarrel with three out of four of my friends, I find that turns up more profitable than living well with them.I know not what I should have done to make both ends meet, in my old age, if it had not been for the repeated kindnesses of my enemies. I can at any time muster ten or a dozen knaves and fools, who will put an hundred pounds or two into my pocket, merely by holding them up to public scorn.”

And there we will leave Philip Thicknesse, until Part Two which will follow tomorrow….


16th November – remember the salutary tale of Jack Sheppard.

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Nov 162017

Had you been around in London this day in 1724 there is a one in four chance that you would have been in the procession (some two hundred thousand strong) wending its way in a carnival atmosphere towards Tyburn Hill, where the empty gallows were being prepared for a hanging. One in four, because the crowd represented at least a quarter of the capital’s population at the time, and they were all there to ‘honour’ one man: the diminutive Jack Sheppard. Daniel Defoe is presumed to have been hard at work scribbling the final touches to a biography which was on sale ‘hot from the press’ by the time of the execution. And the 22-year-old Jack, his cart escorted by uniformed guards, paused long enough at the City of Oxford Tavern in Oxford Street to sink a pint of  sack (sherry), no doubt bemoaning the fact that one of his prison guards had discovered a pen-knife secreted about his person, and thereby scotched his chance of escape. And escaping was what Jack was good at, and why the crowds turned out in their thousands.

For there was no doubt that the baby-faced Jack Sheppard was a thief, and was getting his just rewards from a legal system designed to protect the wealthy. But over and over again he had escaped justice with his daring escapes, and no doubt the throng wanted to see if he could pull off the final escape, the big one, from Death itself. There was to be no such luck, and the  lad finally went to meet his Maker this day nearly three centuries ago.

File:Sheppard Cruikshank.jpg“The Last Scene”engraved by  George Cruikshank in 1839, over a hundred years after Sheppard died,  to illustrate  the serialised novel, Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth.

Sheppard had been born in 1702 into abject poverty in the deprived area of Spitalfields: his father died when he was young and his mother had little choice but to send him to the Workhouse when he was six years old. Jack was lucky –  eventually he was placed  with a  draper on The Strand called William Kneebone, as a shop-boy. Kneebone took the lad under his wing, taught him the rudiments of reading and writing and encouraged him to become apprenticed as a carpenter  (a seven year indenture, which was signed in 1717 when Jack was 15). His master was Owen Wood, whose premises were in Covent Garden.

All went well for five years – an exemplary pupil, who showed every aptitude for carpentry and hard work. Then, well, he went off the rails. Maybe it was too many visits to The Black Lion off Drury Lane; maybe it was the blandishments of the young whore Elizabeth Lyon (otherwise known as Edgeworth Bess) whom he met there; or maybe it was the company he fell into while frequenting the establishment, and in particular the notorious Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake or the duplicitous  Jonathan Wild (who styled himself the Thief-Taker General, though in reality he was a thief himself, but one who turned in his acquaintances whenever it was opportune to do so). Whatever the reason, the fact was – young master Jack turned himself to a life of petty crime, and soon there was no way back. For a while it was pilfering – helping himself to odds and ends from people’s houses while on carpentry errands. But by 1723 he had jacked in his apprenticeship, and set up home with Mistress Bess.  Naturally she wanted to be spoiled rotten; naturally she was not content with the proceeds of minor shop lifting; she wanted Jack to show her the good life. He turned to burglary ( an offence which carried the death penalty). Mistress Bess was arrested after they had moved to Piccadilly from Fulham: Jack broke in to the jail and rescued her!

Jack and his brother Tom, aided by Bess, embarked on a series of robberies until Tom got caught. The previous year he had also been apprehended (and suffered the painful penalty of being branded on the hand). This time he shopped his brother Jack to save his own skin, and a warrant for Jack’s arrest was issued. Knowing this, and anxious to get his hands on the forty pounds offered as a bounty, Jonathan Wild betrayed Jack to the constables and he was arrested and locked up in the very prison from which he had rescued Elizabeth. Within hours of his incarceration he had cut a hole in the ceiling (leg irons notwithstanding) climbed on to the roof and dropped down to join a crowd who had gathered when news of his escape became known. Diverting attention by announcing that he could ‘see someone on the roof over there’ he calmly shuffled off in the opposite direction…

In May 1724 Jack was arrested for a second time – caught while in the act of lifting a pocket-watch from a gentleman in what is now Leicester Square, and was taken off to Clerkenwell prison, where he was locked up with his mistress. A few days passed while Jack, active with a file, cut through the manacles which chained them both, and then removed one of the iron bars on the prison window. He lowered himself and his buxom Bess down to the street on a knotted bed-sheet (no mean feat given his lack of stature) and off they went into the darkness.

Things escalated – they tried their hand at highway robbery and burglary, stooping so low as to break into the home of his old employer and helper William Kneebone, but the greedy Jonathan Wild was closing the trap. He found Elizabeth Lyon, plied her with alcohol to loosen her tongue, and by this means established where Jack was staying. Again he was arrested, again he was sent to prison (this time to the notorious Newgate), and guess what, he escaped from there as well! On 30th August a warrant for his death was being brought to the prison from Windsor – but by the time it arrived it was discovered that Jack had escaped. Aided and abetted by Bess he had removed one of the window bars, dressed in female clothing brought into prison by his accomplice, and made good his escape via boat up the river to Westminster.

By now he was renowned for his escapades. He was every cockney’s hero, Jack the Lad whom no bars could hold. After all, he hadn’t killed anyone, he was the ultimate cheeky chappy who always got away from the law in the nick of time. Added to that he was good looking in a baby-faced sort of way, young, strong and very agile. This was the stuff of which legends would be made…

Jack lay low for a few days but was soon back to his old tricks, and on 9th September was captured and returned to the condemned cell at Newgate, His fame meant that he was visited by the great and the good – gawpers who wanted to say that they had met Jack Sheppard. All this time he was not just in leg-irons, but chained to iron bolts in the floor of the cell. Cheekily he had demonstrated to his guards his ability to pick the padlocks with a bent nail, and they in turn had increased the security by having him not just hand-cuffed but bound tightly as well. Having trussed him up like a turkey, they retired for the night….  and Jack set to work. He couldn’t get rid of the leg-irons but he could free himself from the other restraints. He managed to break into the chimney, where his pathway was blocked by an iron bar. This he dislodged, using it to break a hole in the ceiling and as a crow bar to open various doors barring his way.  At one point he went back to his cell to retrieve his bed clothes, as he needed these to drop down on to the roof of a building next to the prison. He waited until midnight, let himself into the building via the roof, and calmly walked out the front door (still in his leg-irons).

The lad must have had a fair amount of chutzpah, because after lying low for a couple of days he was able to persuade a passer-by that he had been imprisoned elsewhere for failing to maintain an illegitimate son – and would he mind fetching some smithy tools? The passer-by obliged and within a few hours Jack had broken his fetters, and was off to taste a freedom which was to last all of a fortnight. It was at this point that the journalist Daniel Defoe was brought in to pen Jack’s story,  which he did anonymously as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard.

On the night of 29th October Jack Sheppard broke in to a pawnbrokers shop in Drury Lane, helping himself to a smart black silk suit, a silver sword, rings, watches, a peruke wig, and other items. He then hit the town, dressed in style, and passed the next day and a half drinking and whoring. Finally, in a drunken torpor, he was  arrested on 1st November, dressed “in a handsome Suit of Black, with a Diamond Ring and a Cornelian ring on his Finger, and a fine Light Tye Peruke”.

Back he was taken to Newgate, imprisoned in an internal room and weighted down with iron chains. His celebrity status meant that he was visited by  the rich and famous, and had his portrait painted by James Thornhill, painter to his Majesty King George I.

 Jack Sheppard sits for his execution portrait, to be done in oils by Sir James Thornhill. Also shown  is one Figg, prizefighter (to Jack’s right); the playwright John Gay (to Jacks’s left); while William Hogarth sketches him on the right.

There was  a clamour for his release but the authorities were adamant: Jack must pay the price for his notoriety. And so it was that on 16th November a huge and happy crowd escorted Jack to the gallows, where he did what prisoners were supposed to do – hang. After a quarter of an hour he was cut down, rescued from any attempt by the vivisectionists to claim his body, and buried in the churchyard at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields.

That was the end of Jack Sheppard but not the end of his story. Pamphlets, books and plays were written, all singing the praises of this swash-buckling hero. His name quickly became an icon and his story inspired John Gay to write The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. It was hugely popular. Others piled into print and for the next one hundred years the tales based on Jack’s exploits were legion. It got so bad that at one stage the Lord Chancellor’s office banned the production of any plays containing Jack Sheppard’s name in the title – for over forty years – for fear that it would encourage lawless behaviour.

                                                    Courtesy of East London Theatre Authority.
Let us remember Jack Sheppard – a twenty-two year old who went to the gallows for offences which today would merit little more that an ASBO or a Community Service Order. The boy did wrong, but his memory lives on in our collective consciousness, kept alive by every episode of Minder and every tale of Jack the Lad.

A mezzotint engraving, after the Thornhill portrait mentioned above.FAP173.JPG


(This is a repeat of a blog first posted six years ago, but Jack remains one of my favourite rogues of the Georgian era.)

Nov 132017

John Peel, Cumberland farmer and keen huntsman.





Prudence suggests I preface my words with a confession: I am not here to express an opinion one way or another about hunting. I have never hunted, but have never sought to sabotage a hunt either. I simply comment on the life of a man who lived to hunt (pine marten and hares mostly, but foxes if the chance arose). He is immortalised in a song, written in his lifetime by a close friend, and I thought it was worth finding out about the man behind the song.

The words were written by John Peel’s hunting companion, a man called John Woodcock Graves, in Cumbrian dialect. Graves frequently refined and altered the song, and over time some of the lines have changed. It seems clear that the original version referred to ‘a coat so grey’ – nowadays it is usually ‘a coat so gay’ (referring presumably to the fashion for wearing ‘hunting pink’, allegedly after the tailor named Mr. Pink. Legend has it he was a London tailor who bought large quantities of red material after the American War of Independence in 1783, and became popular for hunting attire. Mr Pink may however have been apocryphal since no-one has located his place or date of business).

It is in any event more likely that John Peel, a rugged farmer in a desolate area of the moors, hunted in a coat woven from the local Herdwick sheep, which are about as grey as you can get.

Grey rather than Gay – and certainly not Pink!
                   Herdwick rams – Courtesy of Wikipedia.


John Peel was probably born in 1776 – the records show that he was baptized the following year. The family lived at Greenrigg in the parish of Caldbeck, a remote area on the Cumbrian Fells where farming was hard and the population sparse.




When he was twenty he fell head over heels with the eighteen year old Mary White, daughter of a local (more prosperous) farming family. Her family were aghast and forbade the marriage. Mary’s mother interrupted the banns as they were being read with the words ‘I forbid the banns. They’re far ower young!’ Undeterred the impetuous John Peel borrowed ‘Binsey’ (his father’s fleetest horse) and eloped with his lovely lady. She shimmied down from her bedroom window at midnight (ah, the stuff of romance!) and together they galloped up to Gretna Green (across the border in Scotland). They returned, married, a few days later.

And the circumstances in which the song was written? Leave that to Graves, the song’s writer: “Nearly forty years have now wasted away since John Peel and I sat in a snug parlour at Caldbeck, hunting over again many a good run, when a flaxen-haired daughter of mine came in saying “Father, what do they say to what Granny sings?” Granny was singing to sleep my eldest son with a very old rant called “Bonnie (or Cannie) Annie.” The pen and ink for hunting appointments being on the table the idea of writing a song to this old air forced itself on me, and thus was produced, impromptu “D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so gray.” Immediately after I sang it to poor Peel, and I well remember saying to him in a joking style, “By Jove, Peel, you’ll be sung when we’re both run to earth.”

                                         A paper cut-out of horse and hounds, made by my ancestor Richard Hall c. 1780.

For many years Peel kept his own pack of hounds – an expensive hobby, costing about £40 a year. He would start the day’s chase on horseback, mostly on his 14-hand dun gelding called Dunny, but would then abandon the horse to make the pursuit over the rough scree slopes on foot (a custom known locally as ‘chasing the ace’).

Typically he would set off at daybreak and hunt all day, covering as much as 50 miles of the roughest terrain before returning to sink a pint (or three) at the Sun Inn at Ireby. He must have made a striking figure – a tall man, who stood bolt upright, with chiselled features and bright blue eyes.

He died in 1854 aged 78 and is buried in St Kentigern’s Church at Caldbeck.





John Peel’s memorial, before it was desecrated and smashed by hunt saboteurs.




And Graves, the man who immortalised Peel? He went to live in Hobart, and died there in 1886. When I was in Tasmania a couple of years back I had the chance to look out his memorial in Hobart’s St David’s Park.

So, all together now:

D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so grey,

D’ye ken John Peel at the break of the day,

D’ye ken John Peel when he’s far, far away,

With his hounds and his horn in the morning?



For the sound of his horn brought me from my bed,

And the cry of his hounds which he oft-times led;

Peel’s view halloo would awaken the dead,

Or the fox from his lair in the morning.


Yes, I ken John Peel and Ruby too!

Ranter and Ringwood, Bellman and True,

From a find to a check, from a check to a view,

From a view to a death in the morning.


Then here’s to John Peel from my heart and soul,

Let’s drink to his health, let’s finish the bowl,

We’ll follow John Peel thro’ fair and thro’ foul,

If we want a good hunt in the morning.


D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so grey?

He lived at Troutbeck once on a day;

Now he has gone far, far, far away;

We shall ne’er hear his voice in the morning.


Oct 282017

Apart from a vague memory that he had ‘something to do with lighthouses’ I knew nothing about Smeaton, and yet he really was a remarkable engineer, with incredibly diverse interests and achievements. He cut his teeth on wind mills and water wheels, working out scientifically their power and effectiveness. He analyzed steam engines, making improvements to the early Newcomen engines and working out ways to measure their performance accurately. He designed bridges and canals; he advised on schemes for harbours and coastal protection walls. He studied the ‘physics’ of cement, not only coming up with a mixture which was quick drying and could be used under water, but also setting out the principles which would eventually lead to modern ‘Portland’ cement. He worked out a way to dovetail solid granite blocks, pegged with marble, to create a structure which could withstand a hundred years of being battered by the sea. He devised a scheme to raise those blocks eighteen metres in the air, from a moving (floating) base so that those stones could be put in place atop the Eddystone Lighthouse.

Smeaton’s drawings for the waterwheels for the Carron Company ironworks on the River Carron near Falkirk. (Drawing courtesy of Engineering Timelines

In carrying out this wide range of work he declared that it was different to that carried out by military engineers, and named his area of expertise ‘civil engineering’ to mark that difference. In many senses he can therefore be described as the father of civil engineering. He was both the product of the Industrial Revolution, and one of its architects. As such he deserves to be better remembered.

Born and brought up near Leeds, where his father was a lawyer, he initially trained for the Law before leaving to make scientific instruments. He had a wonderful way of inspiring others around him, always willing to see how things worked, whether they could be improved and so on. In 1753 he was admitted to the Royal Society and six years later was awarded the Copley Medal. It was the Royal Society which recommended Smeaton, then aged thirty, to be the engineer in charge of rebuilding the Eddystone lighthouse after the previous version burned down in a disastrous fire. In the 1760’s and 70’s he moved on to designing bridges, viaducts, jetties and harbour walls the length and breadth of the country.

In all he is associated with some three dozen major engineering works, some sixty mills and ten steam engines (designed to pump water out of deep mine shafts).He is particularly remembered for the Forth and Clyde Canal, crossing the entire breadth of Scotland from East to West; Ramsey Harbour and Perth Bridge.Perth Bridge

He had inherited Austhorpe Lodge near Leeds, built by his grandfather, and moth-balled by his father. He set about constructing a tall tower for use as his consultancy studio – with a forge downstairs in the basement, a lathe on the floor above, a floor for his models and then a floor used for his drawing room and study, topped off by an attic area used for storage – and Smeaton’s astronomical studies. Once he was immersed in his studies he was never to be disturbed. It was his practice to start each project with a sketch, which he would hand over to his two draughtsmen to have developed into detailed drawings.

He pioneered fixed fees for routine commissions – twenty five guineas for a water mill, thirty guineas for a windmill. Customers were charged one guinea for a consultation at Austhorpe, double that ‘if sent for’ and five guineas if he was required to spend the day in London.

In 1771 he became one of the founder members of the Society of Civil Engineers – a fortnightly dining club for engineers and scientists to meet and discuss current ideas. Upon his death it was renamed the Smeatonian Society – a name it has kept to this day.

On 16th September 1792 Smeaton suffered a stroke while walking in his garden at Austhorpe. He recovered his mental faculties and was aware of his physical incapacity, ruefully remarking “It could not be otherwise; the shadows must lengthen as the sun goes down”. He died on 28th October and is buried in the parish church of St Mary’s, Whitkirk, in West Yorkshire.

The Gentleman’s Magazine contained his obituary: “As a civil engineer, Mr. Smeaton was not equalled by any of the age he lived in: it may, perhaps be added, by none of any previous age”.

Never once did my ancestor Richard Hall mention John Smeaton, and yet there can have been few men who had more influence on the world in which Richard lived.

Smeaton, shown with the Eddystone Lighhouse behind his right shoulder


PS: This post first appeared five years ago (crikes, have I been blogging that long?!) and I will be including Smeaton in my next-book-but-one (on lesser-known Georgian inventors, who languish out of sight while better known, and often less talented, individuals hog the limelight. I appreciate that Smeaton is by no means ‘unknown but he is hardly a household name….).



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 and


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….