Jan 152019

  Today (15th January) is supposed to have been the date when, in 1797, a haberdasher called John Hetherington caused a sensation by wearing a top hat in the streets of London. Legend has it that he caused a riot. The story goes that when he “appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat (which was shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people) … several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected, and had his right arm broken.” It doesn’t sound really plausible, with the unfortunate hat-wearer allegedly being bound-over in the sum of £500 to keep the peace, particularly as the tale does not look as though it appeared in print until another one hundred years had elapsed, with doubtful provenance then being given as an authority.

More to the point, the top hat (a name which was not to appear until the nineteenth century) had been in existence for many years. The only thing ‘new’ was that by the 1790s they were being made of silk rather than beaver pelts – but the whole thing about this was that the silk was made to look like beaver using a fabric called silk shag (a form of hatters’ plush, which had a soft silk weave with a very long, defined nap). It is highly unlikely that the uninitiated would have noticed the difference. In any event a more likely candidate for the first use of a silken substitute for fur was George Dunnage, who advertised just such a hat in 1793 calling it ‘an imitation of beaver’. Why would anyone have been astonished at it – unless the whole story was a fabrication put about by Mr Hetherington as a sales puff?

In the time of Richard Hall any such item of headwear would have been known as a beaver hat (topper, stovepipe, high hat, cylinder hat or chimney pot hat were all later appellations). But tall, towering, absurd structures had been around for centuries. Have a look at this one:

(as worn by the French king Henry IV 1552-99 ).










But don’t think  such absurdities were confined to the French side of the Channel. Here, painted in 1595 is the man who was to become our own James I (at the time, just plain James VI of Scotland. Well, not exactly plain.) Now that hat would have frightened the pigeons…







The fashion disease spread to nobles as well – here is the first Earl of Exeter, Thomas Cecil, painted in 1605 .








And when a certain Guido Fawkes ventured to blow up the Houses of Parliament history recorded him wearing a singular structure on his head.  

O.K. it had a floppy brim, but it wasn’t exactly a close fitting skull cap was it?




Through into the Eighteenth Century William Hogarth shows the Lord Mayor wearing a fine beaver in 1749,  and by the end of the century tall hats were commonplace as in this 1796 water colour by the French artist Carl Veney. He made a specialty  of painting les incroyables (the French equivalent of the Regency dandies).

James Gillray was also showing the monarch and his family in straight-sided beaver hats. Whether the popularity of the new silk versions caused the collapse in the fur trade, or whether the collapse in the fur trade forced manufacturers to become more inventive with their alternatives, is not clear. The new methods were quite complicated and two different weights evolved, one for ‘Town’ and a heavier one, more suitable for riding, known as ‘country weight’.

Wikipedia gives the method of construction: ” A town-weight silk top hat is made by first blocking a piece of cheesecloth that has been coated with shellac on a wooden top hat block (which is made of several inter-connecting pieces like a puzzle so the block can be removed from the shell, as the opening is narrower than top of the crown) to form the shell. After the shell has more or less dried but is still a bit sticky, the block is removed and the silk plush, which comes in several different pieces, is cut to the correct pattern, then stuck onto the shell. The top flat part of the crown uses a single flat disc of silk plush that has a circular nap. The sides consist of one or two rectangular pieces with the ends cut at a diagonal. The edge of the crown where the side pieces and the flat disc meet are carefully hand stitched together. The side pieces where the seams meet at the sides are not stitched as the silk nap conceals the seams.

The upper brim is also covered with a piece of silk plush or with silk petersham (a ribbed silk). The under-brim is also covered with either cloth or silk. After the hat has fully dried, the brim is curled and bound with silk grosgrain ribbon, and a hat band (either silk grosgrain with or without a bow, or a black wool mourning band without a bow) is installed. Finally, the lining and the leather sweatband are carefully hand-stitched in.”  The country weight hat is heavier because it starts with extra layers of shellac and calico.

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel in a fine chimney-pot hat.

Other famous wearers were Abraham Lincoln,  with the good luck topper as worn to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865…

The Mad Hatter,          Dr Seuss,         Uncle Sam

Boy George      Fred Astaire       Madonna

Marelene Dietrich         Also the much lamented Screaming Lord Sutch

 (longest running British political party leader 1963 -1999, Monster Raving Loony Party).

Princess Diana with her take on the topper:

So, forget about John Hetherington: it seems fairly clear that the top hat has been with us for over four hundred years. It had its heyday in the Victorian era, and remains today with vestiges of its former glory – outside posh hotels, at Royal gatherings, and as a fashion statement.

 And so, in the immortal words of Leslie Nielsen as Lt Frank Drebin in Naked Gun:

 “Nice beaver”

Dec 182017

I am always amused, at this time of year, to see how sales of a small book I brought out a few years ago and entitled “Bristol Blue Glass – the Story of a remarkable cobalt-blue glassware” suddenly leap. It is a reminder that one of the things about writing is that the ‘rewards’ are often not immediate, but can be spread over many years. With Kindle, in particular, it is fascinating to see how sales can tie in with other articles, or blogs, or public lectures, often several years after the ‘hard work’ of writing the book have finished.

Clearly this book appeals to people who want to give a token to someone they know and who likes Bristol Blue – it isn’t a definitive book about every single maker of blue glass through the ages, more an overview of how the fashion for blue glassware swept the country, catapulting  the Jacobs family in Bristol to considerable fame and fortune. It also describes how the family were left stranded, bankrupt and shunned by the community, when the sales boom collapsed. Tastes moved on to other exotica such as cranberry glass and so on, and nobody wanted to be seen dead with oh-so-dated blue decanters, wine-glass coolers and condiment sets adorning their fashionable dining tables.

I must admit I love some of the 18th century examples, whether they were made in Bristol, or Newcastle, or in the West Midlands.

For anyone interested in the book, you can find it on Amazon.co.uk and at Amazon.com  – it is never too late to fill a stocking!

Aug 102017

I was interested to get the chance to visit Chatsworth again, in the beautiful Derbyshire Dales. The occasion was the exhibition currently being shown there (on until 22 October) entitled “House Style, Five centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth”.

The range of exhibits is impressive – bits and pieces from the early days of the house, shown here in an early ‘birds eye’ painting, as well as a number of portraits etc relating to Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire,  and various things belonging to the Mitford sisters.

There are large numbers of fancy dress costumes used at Cavendish family parties over the years and some of them are most impressive.

And of course you also get to see the magnificent garden setting, influenced by William Kent and by Capability Brown, as well as the staggering interiors of this fascinating house. Many believe that it was Jane Austen’s inspiration for Pemberley and of course it was used in the film version of ‘Pride and Prejudice; starring Keira Knightly. So, it was interesting to walk up the magnificent staircase and look at the painted ceilings, to check out the fantastic wood carvings and architectural mouldings, to see the marble statuary such as the veiled Vestal Virgin, and to admire the hand painted wall coverings in the bedrooms.











I was especially interested in some of the memorabilia relating to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – her various portraits, as well as letters and jottings which she sent to her children – and miniature portraits of her daughters ‘Little G’ and ‘Harryo’.

All in all a most interesting visit. Not cheap, at £19.90 a head (no discount for doddery OAP’s) but it is a reminder how being a member of the National Trust spoils you by making you forget what it costs to maintain these historic houses and how much a realistic entrance fee has to be if it is to cover the enormous repair costs. You could spend days looking at the rooms and the exhibits. As it is, a long afternoon is fairly exhausting, but leaves you with the feeling that this really is the best of the best.








Take your pick – above, a pensive Georgiana in an unfinished portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and below it a wondrously lovely hat, with Georgiana somewhere underneath it, by Thomas Gainsborough

Jul 222017

I am always intrigued by the ‘Marriages’ section in the Gentleman’s Magazine – at the amount of detail about the age of the participants, and the amount of the fortunes being brought into the marriage.

Sometimes it is difficult to know for whom to feel most sorry – the old bride or the young swain (or, conversely the old goat and the young bride). Consider the second of these two entries:

So we have the 21 year old Captain Peter Hale, of no Business nor Fortune, marrying a rich old biddy of 74, presumably to get his hands on her assets, in this case an income of £300 a year (come on, what other assets do you think he was after?). Having married her he would presumably automatically have become the owner of all her capital (under the law of coverture). I have no idea how many years Sarah Vincent stayed alive, or whether the young captain turned out to be a scoundrel and promptly went off with all her money but I fear the worst!

Sometimes of course the boot was on the other foot, where on 7th September, Mr Dethick, a 70 year old Senior Proctor in Doctors Commons, used his considerable charms to entice a young woman living at the Mitre Coffee House into marriage. She was 23, and I am sure that she would have made the old man very happy…. especially as he had no family and no-one else with a claim on his estate.

Below that entry are the details of two men who each secured a fortune on marriage of £10,000 – equivalent to nearer a million pounds nowadays. Intriguingly, the top entries refer to members of the aristocracy, and on those cases no mention is made of either age or fortune. I rather like the reference to the fact that the “these marriages have not till of late been publickly owned”. But I think my congratulations should be saved for John Sibbs. I have no idea of his age, or how ugly/vivacious was the blushing bride (Miss Mary Herne), but he copped £40,000 by marrying her. Fortunate indeed!

And to illustrate   these entries, how about a G M Woodward caricature from 1803, shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, entitled “An advertisement for a Husband”

The explanation given on the site gives us: “A footman leads a parson and six prospective suitors that have arrived in response to an advertisement for a husband posted by an ‘old maid’. The bachelors include a Welshman, a Scotsman, and a doctor that offer flatteries while waiting, “Splutter hur, how pretty she looks, she be a nice wench.” “Leave a Scotch laddie alone for carrying off the sillar” [silver] and “From my conscience, she looks like a Venus of medicine!” respectively. The footman leans forward to shout into the elderly woman’s ear trumpet, “Please your ladyship all these gentlemen be come about an advertisement  for a husband and to lose no time they have brought the Parson with them; please your Virginship what am I to say to ;em?” The elderly woman responds, “Say to them, why the men are mad, if I was so inclined do they think I would marry six husbands at once!!” A hissing cat followed by a litter of kittens stand beside the woman’s chair.

Or finally, because I am a terrible cynic, a caricature about marital bliss from around 1812, also on the Lewis Walpole site, entitled ‘Hither and thither’.

Jun 032017

I came across this scene depicting a wedding ceremony in the eighteenth century and it reminded me of the various times Richard Hall mentions weddings – both his own, his friends, and his family. Nowhere does he say anything helpful – like what the bride wore – but he rarely forgot to mention the weather….

I am aware that there was no set idea that the bride must wear white – and for servants there was never any question of having a dress that could only be worn on one occasion.

But it is interesting to see how many of the paintings of weddings of the time do show the bride in an ivory coloured satin concoction. Take the painting  by artist Joseph Highmore used to illustrate to Pamela’s Wedding – one of four scenes  from Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela’.

The picture appears courtesy of Tate Britain, and the explanation with it states “On Pamela’s left is her humble but dignified father, who gives her away. In the background, behind the groom, is the housekeeper Mrs Jewkes, now also a reformed character. She grasps a bottle of smelling salts in case she is overwhelmed with emotion.”

Next up, a rather splendid wedding dress from around 1775 and which appears on the V&A site- now that really is a statement dress! Talk about tassels and bows….Pippa Middleton eat your heart out

However popular ivory may have been, some of the single colour dresses were rather special, none more so than this American wedding dress from 1776 which appears on the Metropolitan Museum site.

The last picture I wanted to include is one I have used in various talks ,but for the life of me cannot remember where I first saw it. I like to think it is a fair representation of what Richard Hall would have looked like when he married a wealthy heiress in 1754:

 And to end with, a couple of caricatures from the Lewis Walpole site on the topic of weddings, both entitled “Three weeks after marriage”. The first appeared in 1786 and is by Inigo Barlow:

The second appeared in 1822 and is by J L Marks.  Cynics, the pair of them!

Good night, sleep tight, hope the buggs don’t bite….

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Feb 202017

A blog post I have been itching to do for some time…..

Perusing back numbers of the Gentleman’s Magazine (as one does) I came across this helpful tip – I think nowadays I have to call it a “household hack” – from 1735. It is a remedy for eradicating “bed buggs” and is a reminder of the doggerel verse quoted in the title to this piece.bugg Gent Mag Vol. 5 Nov 1735 Page 671Now, I am not too sure how good an idea it is to paint mercury (ie quicksilver) into all the joints and cracks in your four poster bed, even if you have first made a nice mixture  using the whites of half a dozen eggs, but it looks like a fairly labour-intensive spring clean, involving dismantling the entire bed frame. Mind you, if your servants were too busy to do this for you, you could always enlist the services of the wonderfully named *Benjamin Tiffin “Bug Destroyer to His Majesty”, as per his trade card, shown courtesy of the Wellcome Library in London:

Wellcome Library, London.

The 18th Century saw a  veritable explosion of bed-bugs, and by 1730 for the price of a shilling you could buy a treatise telling you all about it, and what to do or not do if you were affected.

treatiseBugg hunting gave rise to this rather nice print from Isaac Cruikshank , shown on the excellent Library of Congress site, and entitled “Summer Amusements – Bugg Hunting”:

summer amusementNow excuse me, but all of this makes me want to scratch…

Original Title: XB3J3674 copy.jpg

The image appears on a somewhat esoteric site entitled The Bed Bugs Handbook, which you can find here if you are really interested!

*Post script: I had not appreciated that the Tiffin family have been pursuing the little blighters for over three centuries and are still going strong, and are based in Hemel Hempstead! Good for them – their website assures me that “The company has remained a ‘family’ firm for over 320 years, and to this day there has always been a Tiffin at the helm.” Those pesky bugs just wont go away – but fortunately, neither do the Tiffins!

A Rowlandson take on Wash-day blues – entitled ‘The double disaster or new cure for love’

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Nov 022016

lwlA nice caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, first published in 1807 and entitled ‘The double disaster or new cure for love’. It is a reminder that whereas my ancestor Richard only did a “big” laundry four or five times a year (or, as he described in in his diaries, “Wash’d a great Wash”) the  process of laundry involved many of the household servants. Firewood needed to be collected, and lit under the copper cauldron using a candle. Water had to be pumped into the copper, and baskets would be used to collect the clean bed-linen and clothing to carry it outdoors – where as likely as not it would be spread out on the hedging to dry.

In this particular wash-day hiatus, a young lad has been hiding under the wooden lid of the copper. He emerges as the heat spreads into his hidey-hole, only for him to be deluged with water spouting from the pump. On the left the young woman is startled by his sudden appearance, and stops filling her jug with beer, which continues to flow from the barrel onto the floor. A cat pursues a mouse, and the washing is in a small pile in a tub, above a wicker basket and yoke.

The scene takes me back – I once bought an unrestored 18th century house without electricity or running water, and it still had the original copper, the working pump, and the flag-stone floor to the washroom. What it didn’t have was the  two Rowlandson strereotypes – the ugly old crone, shown here on her hands and knees, and the smiling fresh-faced young maids in their mob-caps. They certainly bring the scene to life.

Post-script: it is funny how often I find more than one caricature with a similar theme. Having prepared this post I came across an interesting caricature from 1816 entitled “How are you off for soap?” The print was by William Elmes, published by Thomas Tegg, and appears courtesy of the British Museum. Their commentary on the print is: “A young woman stands over a wash-tub raising her hands in astonishment to see a little man standing waist-deep in the soapsuds, saying with a smile: “here am I!! Betty!! how are you off for Soap.” She answers: “Lord!! Mr Vansittart!!—who could have thought of seeing You in the Washing Tub.” She wears a mob-cap and pattens. Two tubs stand on a bench, with a basket beside it on which lies a pair of breeches. Through a window (right) are seen clothes on a line, and trees. A fire burns under a large copper (left) from which rise clouds of steam. Against the wall are coal-box, shovel, and broom.”

How are you off for soap. © British Museum.

How are you off for soap?  © British Museum.

The print satirises the sly introduction of a tax on hard soap – sly because it was ostensibly made to protect the whale fishing industry, but in reality was a device to raise £150,000 in excise duty. The man responsible fro the tax was Nicolas Vansittart (1766-1851), 1st Baron Bexley, a long serving and effective, although unpopular Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I see that I have previously blogged on washdays, washing machines and other matters of a laundry nature, so if you want more suds, go here.


The joys of smoking a churchwarden pipe, courtesy of Bunbury and Rowlandson

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Aug 252016

1A rather nice gentle caricature, originally by Henry William Bunbury, but engraved by Thomas Rowlandson, showing a group of gentlemen gathered to enjoy a smoke. It was only actually published in 1835, whereas Bunbury had died in 1811, and Rowlandson in 1827. The official title is ‘The Smoking Club’ – and the pencil comment underneath refers to ‘The Commercial Party’.

The print appears on the Lewis Walpole Library site and is typical of Bunbury’s kindly observation. The four gentlemen, wreathed in smoke, are smoking clay ‘churchwarden’ pipes, typically with stems up to twenty inches long. The pipes apparently became very popular in the second half of the eighteenth century and had originated in the Ottoman Empire, and were often associated with the Hungarian Hussars – hence their alternative name of ‘Hussar pipe’. In Germany it was known as “Lesepfeife” or “reading pipe,”  – presumably because the long stem took the smoke away from the smoker, enabling the user to read a book without getting smoke in his eyes. The other advantage of the long stem is that it makes for a much cooler smoke.

Why churchwarden? Probably because the church-wardens were responsible for keeping an eye on their church at night, and smoking such a long stemmed pipe left their line of sight clear.

1The stems were incredibly fragile and kept breaking, as shown by the pile of snapped-off stems  at the feet of the smoker shown in this detail from a print by Hogarth. I see that the film The Hobbit has helped  re-popularise the pipe, and the web is full of ‘Gandalf pipes’ most of them made from wood, carved and polished, but some of them are hand-made from white clay. So if you really crave authenticity, have a look at  this site on e-Bay – and make sure that you have your £46 ready!

My ancestor enjoyed a good smoke, and recorded the occasion in his diary, as here:2 “Thursday 27th: Wife and Patty visited Mrs Cooper; Mr Rogers smoak’d a Pipe”


Hat-doffing 18th century style – how to leave the room.

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Dec 102015

In my last blog I included an extract from ‘The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour’ demonstrating how a lady should curtsey in the Proper Manner. I realize of course that many men should also receive instructions in the art of doffing the hat, and how to retire gracefully. As ‘The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour’ states: “It is an observation (which cannot escape Notice) that many Persons retiring, or taking leave of any Person or Company, either thro’ want of knowledge or Neglect in discovering a decent Carriage at their Departure, have appear’d very aukward Figures to Persons of Polite Behaviour.”

So especially for all those people now living in 1737 (and I am thinking re-enactors as well as the odd TV producer and any out-of-work film extras) here is the definitive guide:1 maleI was a little perturbed by the oddness of the left hand, tucked limply inside the jacket. It looks as though he is holding half the family silver, smuggled out from the dining room, under his waistcoat.

Here, a careful reading of the text may prevent embarrassing mis-understandings:

2 maleThe image is also a rather nice reminder of just how many buttons there were on men’s apparel – I think there are twenty-two on the outer jacket, not counting perhaps half a dozen  on each voluminous cuff, as well as thirteen on the waistcoat.

Ah well, time to practice rolling up a trouser leg to reveal the Georgian Gentleman’s well-defined  calf, turning the foot so that I am ‘shewing the leg to best advantage’ as Monsieur Nivelon would have said…


(The whole of the original book, complete with plates engraved by Boitard, has helpfully been digitised and can be found here.)

How to curtsey … instructions to a Georgian Lady.

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Dec 072015

I recently came across a book entitled ‘The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour’ which contains some lovely descriptions of how ladies should hold themselves while curtseying, walking, dancing the minuet and so on. It also instructs gentlemen how to doff their hat, how to take their leave and so on. Each instruction is illustrated with the appropriate image.

WWW courtsie image

The book was written by a Mr F Nivelon, a French dancing master from Stamford in Lincolnshire, in 1737. It describes itself as “An Introduction to the Method of attaining a graceful Attitude, an agreeable Motion, an easy Air and a genteel Behaviour” and makes a rather nice change from the endless conduct books which rambled on about modesty, affability and good manners – before embarking on 500 pages of recipes and other items which young ladies were expected to master.


It is a reminder that in the eighteenth century dance instructors did much more than teach people the latest dance steps: they taught deportment, how to move gracefully, how to enter and leave a room, and so on. I had rather forgotten just how much was involved in giving a proper “courtsie”. I will now go and practice in front of the cheval glass….