Feb 052018

View over the sugar refining area towards the Atlantic coast

Ruined outbuildings


Arriving on Martinique I was expecting it to be French – very French – and indeed it carries all the hallmarks of its status as an overseas department of France. There are four arrondissements and the island has decent roads, many of them dual carriageways. It has blocks of flats. It has endless commercial parks filled with French supermarkets and building-supply stores. It has innumerable main dealerships for Renault and Citroen – and is quite distinct from any of the other islands where we have visited on our cruise. No shacks or shanty towns – but also, far less picturesque “typically Caribbean” simplicity.

Iron collecting bowl

The twelve pillars supporting the cane grinding area

To me, the bonus was discovering Chateau Dubuc, way out on the eastern peninsula known as  Presqu’ile de la Caravelle. It is in ruins, and never was a castle – more a manor house situated on a superb elevated site with magnificent sea-views.

Martinique, showing the peninsula on the eastern coast, where Chateau Dubuc is situated.

The Dubuc family apparently came over from Normandy in the late 17th Century and established tobacco, sugar and (unusually) coffee plantations. A scion of the family then moved to Caravelle and in 1721 decided to build himself a fine plantation house, using granite and blocks of coral limestone. What I admire is his vision – this wasn’t just a home, it was a complete economic unit in one place, where he and his family, with no doubt numerous slaves, could grow their own sugar cane, process it, make it into brown sugar (like muscavado) and distil it into rum. For good measure the mountain-growing coffee beans could be collected, processed on the same site, and all the produce would then be barrelled and trundled down a hauling way to the harbour where ships would be gathering to take the produce back to France for sale.

The family were obviously hit hard when earthquakes damaged the building in 1726, just as the main plantation house had been finished, and again in the 1750s when there were earthquakes and hurricanes in successive years. But the Dubuc family were no quitters and they carried on until 1794 when the British came along, sacked the place, and the Dubucs gave up and went home to France. It then deteriorated over the centuries, allegedly a haunt of pirates and smugglers, until the 2.5 hectare site was taken over by the French Department of Works, and sympathetically restored. Well, made safe at any rate. Because what is nice is that there has been very little attempt to restore – more, to repair, to explain the significance and use of buildings, and to preserve a fascinating piece of history. You can see where the sugar cane was fed under giant rollers. The 12 stone pillars supporting the roof to the mill are all that remains of the external structure – now looking rather like an industrial Stonehenge – but a scale replica of the grinding machine has been constructed in situ. You can see where the cane juice ran through channels to be collected in huge vats where it was boiled, refined, and made into molasses. A separate process  produced the refined sugar, and anther area converted it into rum after being distilled.

Coffee-bean washing tunnel





All in all a fascinating insight into 18th Century colonial life.


Jan 302018

Exterior of the coffee plantation building

Landing at Santiago de Cuba (on the southern side of the island of Cuba) I must admit that I was at a loss to decide what to see – memorials to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are not really my cup of tea. Somewhat unenthusiastically I signed up on a taxi trip to see the Gran Piedra – a large rock on top of a big hill, which necessitates climbing some 500-plus  steps. The tour was also to take in a coffee plantation. Now, that did not really fire the imagination – been there, bought the T shirt, tasted the coffee. …  But this was different – although not billed as such it was an evocative and effective explanation of the lives lived by slaves working on a coffee plantation on the island two centuries ago.

Coffee drying area

Until the slave revolution on Haiti, which overthrew French colonial rule in 1804, no-one realized the economic significance of growing coffee on Cuba. Coffee grows in the mountains – and the land was dirt cheap because it was considered unproductive. So, when the French fled Haiti they bought up large tracts of mountainous woodland, and dragged their slaves across from Haiti to provide the labour.

The plantation house we visited was at Cafetal la Isabelica, and it was especially poignant to see all the slaving memorabilia in the context of the actual house where they served. This was no dry exhibition behind glass cabinets, with lengthy written explanations. This was a slave plantation house recently restored and with UNESCO status   – and the slavery exhibits were not shut away but rather, left lying around.

The tools of the trade….

The guide rang the brass bell on the porch. The sound of the bell could apparently be heard for several miles – one chime to send the slaves out to the fields, another single chime to bring them back in, and a continuous chime to alert neighbours to fetch their dogs and join a man-hunt for any slave escaping into the hinterland. You could see where the beatings took place – even the shallow hollow where pregnant slaves could lie face down (to protect their unborn child) while being flogged across the back.




Slave quarters

Inside took visitors to a room where all the instruments of slavery were hanging on a wall – the manacles, the shackles, the neck irons. You could see the tiny cramped quarters where the slaves lived, see the kitchens where the slave cooks worked – and where they were required to eat the same supper as the Master, but one hour before he ate his meal, to ensure that the food was not poisoned. Another display was of iron objects found in the fields and forest  – adzes, hoes and so on. The drying bays, the areas for getting rid of the outer skin from the coffee beans, the area where the beans were washed, weighed, bagged and shipped out were all there to see. And upstairs you could walk round the Masters living quarters, and see the bed where the Master would enjoy the company of whichever female slave took his fancy. It was a fascinating display. Even if it was reached by possibly the most appalling piece of mud-track I have ever had the misfortune to be driven down – it really had to be seen to be believed! The place echoed its sad past – it was eerily quiet, rather damp, and with enough neglect to make it interesting – restoration had not taken away its power as a memorial to past horrors.

His Master’s bedroom…

Part of the machinery turned by slaves to wash and peel the outer skin of the coffee beans…









All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia (on account of the fact that the museum charges for cameras to be used, and I am too stingy to pay when I have already bought my entrance ticket….).

Jan 052018

The announcement in the national newspapers yesterday that Colman’s are closing its main mustard-production in Norwich made me think that I would dust off an earlier blog I had written about mustard.  Nowadays Colman’s Mustard is owned by Unilever, and they have decided to close the Norwich factory at the end of 2019, although apparently they wish to preserve something of the connection with the city by continuing to mill mustard seeds, and to package dried mustard, somewhere around Norwich. Anyway, here was the story:


Samuel Pepys, writing on Saturday 25th October 1662 entered the following in his diary:

“Up and to the office, and there with Mr. Coventry sat all the morning, only we two, the rest being absent or sick. Dined at home with my wife upon a good dish of neats’ feet* and mustard, of which I made a good meal.”

*as in Cow Heel Pie

There was of course nothing new about mustard – the Romans probably brought it here, but it was a weedy concoction obtained by grinding leaf and seed alike in a pestle and mortar. Nevertheless it had its admirers, because it helped disguise the smell of rotten meat… It probably got its name from the way the early versions consisted of seeds mixed with the must, the left-over product from fermenting grapes in the wine-making process.

The English  manufacture of mustard had long been centred in Tewkesbury. Then along came Mrs Clements, from Durham. Discarding the pestle-and-mortar approach of crushing everything, she instead treated the mustard to the full works i.e. the same as the way wheat was milled before being turned into flour. It was finely milled, separated from the stems etc and the resulting fine powder contained all the flavour you could possibly wish for.

The story goes that on 10th June 1720 she trotted off to see her neighbours and to flog them a jar or two of her ‘new improved’ mustard. Word spread and before long she headed for London and introduced the new King (George Ist) to the delights of her condiment. Royal admirers were quick to emulate the King’s good taste, and her success was assured. You can still buy a jar of mustard which carries her name from the East India Company (yes, there is still a business trading under that name).

George III mustard pot, c. 1792

Others followed – particularly  a Mr Keen, who was responsible for the slogan ‘Keen as mustard’ and who set up his business in London in 1742 supplying taverns and chop-houses. And then of course Mr Jeremiah Colman came along and cornered the market with his bright yellow square tins with the bull’s head. He took over the business of Keen and Sons and quickly established his base in Norwich as the centre of ‘all things mustard’. He started his mustard and flour business on the outskirts of the town in 1814, and his commitment to the area included building a school and housing for employees. I think we can take it that today old Jeremiah is turning in his grave at the idea that the business is moving elsewhere.


And to show how quickly ‘Durham Mustard’ became synonymous with ‘hot and fiery’ here is a Cruikshank cartoon from 1798 entitled ‘Durham MUSTARD too Powerful for Italian Capers’.

It shows the Bishop of Durham striding on to the stage to protest at the antics of the opera chorus girls. Crossing over the (candle) footlights  and wearing a mitre and holding his crozier as if to strike the pirouetting dancers he shouts:

“Avaunt the Satan, I fear thee not. Assume whatever shape or form thou wilt. I am determined to lay thee, thou black Fiend!”

Against the wall (left) are a carved satyr and a play-bill: ‘The Divil of a Lover – He’s much tlame’ [to blame] and ‘Peeping Tom’ (by O’Keefe, 1784). The first was a musical farce played once only on 17 March 1798, the second was first played on 13 February 1798, so this play-bill gives a good clue of the date of the episcopal outburst.

Nov 102017

A couple of years ago I found myself in Bergerac on Bastille Day (July 14th): Roads were cordoned off, crush barriers erected, stands became packed, and at the appointed hour there was a solemn march-past of be-medalled and be-ribboned members of the armed forces. Then there was silence and a lone man approached the microphone and sang an unaccompanied solo version of La Marseillaise. It was stunning and very moving.

I remember how strange it was to feel a lump in the throat listening to such a beautiful and stirring patriotic song, when it wasn’t my country which was being eulogized. It made me wonder at the origins of the song….

On 25 April 1792, the mayor of Strasbourg requested that his guest Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle compose a song “that will rally our soldiers from all over to defend their homeland that is under threat” At the time France was at risk from invasion by armies from Austria and Prussia. That evening, Rouget de Lisle wrote ‘Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin’ (‘The War Song of the Army of the Rhine’) and dedicated the song to Marshal Nicolas Luckner.

Here is a picture painted fifty years later, showing the composer singing his rendition of the song:

The melody soon became the rallying call of the French Revolution and was adopted as La Marseillaise after the melody was first sung on the streets by volunteers from Marseille at the end of May 1792. A young officer from Montpelier called Francois Mireur had sung it at a patriotic gathering in that city. Later, when volunteers entered the city of Paris on 30 July 1792 printed copies were handed out to supporters, and the troops adopted it as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille. The irony is that Rouget de Lisle was actually a royalist, and he narrowly escaped a trip to the guillotine…

Subsequently La Marseillaise was made the official French national anthem (14 July 1795) although it subsequently fell out of favour. Napoleon disliked it, and later French rulers banned it altogether. In the middle part of the eighteenth century it became the anthem of the international revolutionary movement, being adopted as such by the Paris commune in 1871. Its status as the national anthem was restored in 1879.

This is how Richard Newton illustrated the words in a drawing published on 10th November 1792

Newton is one of my favourite caricaturists from the end of the eighteenth century – he only lived to the age of  21 and died in 1798 but in his lifetime displayed an irreverence and a sense of humour – often lavatorial – which I still find appealing!

This is his self portrait:I have often included Newton in my blogs – see here for a post about him from way back in 2012.


Oct 252017

This day 257 years ago a young man was informed of the death of his grandfather, King George II, who was just short of his 77th birthday. It meant that the young Prince of Wales was now King of Great Britain and Ireland, at the age of 22. He was also, let us not forget, ruler of the American colonies…. His life, previously highly sheltered, thanks to an overbearing mother and a very protective Lord Bute, would never be the same again.

Within one year, on 8 September 1761 in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, the King married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He only met her on their wedding day – her measurements having been sent over previously from Germany so that her dress could be tailor-made without her being present. A fortnight later on 22 September 1761 both were crowned at Westminster Abbey.

Here he is, in all his sumptuous finery, as painted by Allan Ramsay, at the time of his coronation. Now that is what I call understated elegance….

You needed a ticket enabling you to attend Westminster Abbey that day, and the Abbey site contains an image of  what you would have needed to see the happy pair in their crowning glory:

Copyright Westminster Abbey

Ironically, the crowning ceremony took place before the new coronation coach – specially commissioned for the occasion and dripping with bling – was ready. My blog here explains why it was not used until the State opening of Parliament in 1762. But  even so the procession must have been mighty impressive – as shown in this painting, a copy of which wends its way round the Royal Mews.

Meanwhile a number of medals had been struck to mark the accession of George to the throne, and I came across one of them on the Metropolitan Museum of Art site here. It really is a very impressive piece of sculpting, done by a designer called Thomas Pingo. You can just make out his name at the base of the shoulder armour, immediately above the date MDCCLX (1760). The Pingo family were prolific medallists – Thomas was appointed Assistant Engraver at the Mint in 1771, a post which passed to his son Lewis when Thomas died in 1776. Another son, John Pingo also designed medals, but  for my money father Thomas was the pick of the crop.

It was not however the official coronation medal – that was designed by L Natter and is shown below:









In gold, these are very rare, with  just 800 being minted. Even rarer were the coronation medals commemorating Queen Charlotte, who was also of course crowned at the same ceremony. Just 400 were minted:








Just in case you were a really keen supporter of the monarchy you could also have looked out for the commemorative plaque – some five and a half inches across, and made from brass:But as always there were other unofficial mementoes of the great occasion – here a commemorative tea caddy and a brooch with a cameo portrait of the king and queen:

By the time George III celebrated his fiftieth anniversary on the throne there were a positive plethora of medals issued in a variety of metals, including one referring to the Grand National Golden Jubilee event. Some of the medals appear below, and are based on images on e-bay, whereas the one at the bottom  appears on the site of Whitmore & C0. It is larger than its fellow commemoratives, at 48mm – and was designed by the medallist Hyde. It has a rather mawkish depiction of children playing at Frogmore on the reverse. This is a reference to the fact that in 1792 the King had purchased an estate at Frogmore as a present to his wife, for her to use as a retreat for her and the unmarried daughters.




And to end with, a superb example of the George III And Queen Charlotte Jubilee Medal – available in gold, silver and silver-gilt. A nice way to commemorate  the reign of a monarch who staggered on until 1820 – albeit with the benefit of the Regent.



Oct 032017

3rd October marks the anniversary of the death in 1703 of a 33 year-old woman called Hannah Twynnoy. Her ‘claim to fame’ is that she is perhaps the first person in this country to be killed – by a tiger.

The eighteenth century saw a fashion for exotic animals being towed around from pub to pub. My ancestor Richard  Hall kept the handbill for one such menagerie show, at the Talbot Inn in 1754.

But back in 1703 young Hannah, the local barmaid, enjoyed teasing and taunting the big cat in a cage in the garden at the back of the  White Lion pub in Malmesbury. Then one day the tiger found its cage door unlocked – and took its revenge on young Hannah, mauling her to death. Her epitaph in Malmesbury Cathedral reads:

In bloom of life

She’s snatched from hence

She had not room to make defence;

For Tyger fierce

Took life away

And here she lies

In a bed of clay

Until the Resurrection Day.

Another memorial to her apparently appeared in Hullavington Church, which reads

“To the memory of Hannah Twynnoy. She was a servant of the White Lion Inn where there was an exhibition of wild beasts, and amongst the rest a very fierce tiger which she imprudently took pleasure in teasing, not withstanding the repeated remonstrance of its keeper. One day whilst amusing herself with this dangerous diversion the enraged animal by an extraordinary effort drew out the staple, sprang towards the unhappy girl, caught hold of her gown and tore her to pieces.”

So, let us remember poor Hannah: a terrifying end to a life of a woman who liked to play with pussy cats – big pussy cats….


Aug 042017

On Tuesday, it was great to get the chance to get up to London and visit the Royal Mews, next to Buckingham Palace, at the invitation of the Royal Collection Trust. Complete with Press pack, it gave the opportunity to have a close look at the State landaus, Semi- State landaus and royal carriages used by the royal family from the Victorian period to the present day. OK so I wasn’t especially impressed by various  modern cars driven by Her Maj, and some of the modern replica carriages, complete with electric windows, hydraulic suspension, heating and so on are “interesting” but somehow are not ‘the real thing’…







For that, I didn’t think you can beat the Gold State Coach, used by every monarch at his or her coronation since George IV. I remember seeing it  when Queen Elizabeth attended her coronation back in June 1953 – and I recall playing with  a tinplate model, complete with eight miniature grey horses. Seeing the original, close to, was fascinating.

It is housed in the Royal Mews in its own room, and it is vast, with the main carriage having a body 24 feet long and 12 feet high. It weighs in at a massive four tons, and needs to be pulled by four pairs of Windsor Greys, each of sixteen hands. That’s an impressive horse power, but necessary for something of that weight. Indeed once those giant golden wheels start rolling, it takes some stopping. A footman has to apply the brake – and even then it takes 30 feet to roll to a halt.  For that reason the carriage is only ever drawn at walking pace, so that the grooms can walk along side it and are on hand in case anything goes amiss. Four pairs of postilions  ride the horses, and by the time you add in footmen/grooms and so on, it is a highly labour-intensive means of moving the monarch from Palace to Abbey.

Somehow it is rather satisfying to know that it is excruciatingly uncomfortable. William IV, otherwise known as ‘the sailor king’ described the motion as being like being tossed in heavy seas, while Queen Victoria hated it for its ‘distressing oscillations’ and in the end transferred her affections to other means of transport such as the Imperial Coach. Poor George VI – he reckoned that it gave him “one of the most uncomfortable rides I have ever had in my life.”

The irony is that it was never actually available for use at the coronation of the monarch who commissioned it – George III. He ordered it to be made in 1760, and splashed out £7562 – that is the equivalent of well over a million pounds nowadays, and for that you got a really spectacular set of wheels, adorned with tritons, cherubs and mythical creatures. The actual coach was designed by architect William Chambers, and was constructed by coach-builder Samuel Butler

Construction took longer than anticipated and George didn’t get to use his new toy until he attended the State opening of Parliament in 1762, and it must have caused quite a stir. The panels are magnificently decorated by the Italian artist Giovanni Cipriani – full of allegorical images of Peace and of Roman gods of War. What I found especially impressive is the thought that there are still people with the skill to repair and renovate a masterpiece like this. My first father-in-law was a coach builder, and I spent many a happy hour watching him apply layer after layer of paint to hand finished panels, rubbing them down with meticulous care, and then using gold leaf to form decorative devices. I remember that the gold leaf was kept inter-leaved in something the size of  a small notebook, and was applied with the softest of brushes. Goodness knows what gold leaf like that would now cost, given the current price of gold…. The end result was as smooth and reflective as a mirror, and it is good to see that these skills are still being practised.

The other rather impressive thing is that all the way round the display room is a huge long painting, by Richard Barrett Davis, entitled “The Coronation Procession of William IV”. Above is just a tiny extract. It was painted in 1831 and shows the procession – all the great and the good, occupying carriage after carriage – as well as showing the golden State Coach in splendid pomp. The catalogue accompanying the display also shows this picture of the carriage being used to convey George III to the Houses of Parliament on 25 November 1762:

George III in procession to the Opening of the Houses of Parliament, attributed to John Wootton

The carriage  is exhibited in a long hall, and is so big that moving outdoors into the Mews courtyard involves dismantling doors and windows. It is just part of a really interesting tour of the Royal Mews. You can see the horses, the tack room, and the stables in the building housing the horses and designed by John Nash.  Well worth a visit, and the exhibition is open through the autumn. There are particular displays linked to the Buckingham Palace Family Festival which opens tomorrow, Saturday 5th August. Details are at www.royalcollection.org.uk


Apr 132017
On a fine day in January 1821 seventeen year old Eliza Balsum was crossing the stream near her home in Hanham on the outskirts of Bristol. With her was her new beau William Waddy. They were laughing and joking as they used the stepping stones to keep clear of the water. On the other side of the stream appeared John Horwood. The same age as Eliza, John had previously been Eliza’s boyfriend but she had broken off the relationship towards the end of 1820 and he had threatened violence against her. Seething with jealousy, John observed the carefree pair and picked up a stone, hurling it at Eliza. It struck her on the temple, causing her to stumble and fall. The poor girl was supported back to her mother’s home nearby, still conscious but in obvious discomfort.

Dr Smith in his masonic robes .

After a couple of days being treated at home she attended the Bristol Royal Infirmary as an outpatient, where she was treated by Dr. Richard Smith, senior surgeon. He observed the depressed fracture at her right temple and decided to have her admitted as a patient to his hospital. Dr. Smith was present when a statement was made by Eliza, in which she named John Horwood as her attacker. Days passed, and Eliza’s condition got worse rather than better, until the good doctor decided that he needed to operate to relieve the pressure on the brain. Trepanning (i.e. drilling a hole in the skull) was a barbarous method of treatment in the days before anaesthesia, and with no understanding of antisepsis. Within a couple of days the girl was dead – and John Horwood was immediately charged with murder. The date was 17th February 1821. His trial took place at the Star Inn in Bedminster (Bristol) and lasted one day. Ironically the trial saw the two people who caused Eliza’s death to be present in the same room, Horwood and Smith, but in very different contexts: one as them as the accused; and the other as main witness. There was therefore no examination as to the actual cause of death, or whether the trepanning operation was bungled. Instead, Dr. Smith recounted the statement made by Eliza, outlined his valiant efforts to save the poor wretch, and convinced the court that it was all John Horwood’s fault. Found guilty, John was sentenced to death and the punishment was carried out within 48 hours. It was 13th April 1821 and John had turned 18 years of age just three days previously.

A contemporary description of John Horwood’s case

Horwood took several minutes to die by slow strangulation. The event was hugely popular with the populace of Bristol, with thousands of people turning out to watch. The prison was adjacent to the unfenced stretch of river known as the New Cut, and the authorities were seriously worried that the crush would lead to spectators falling in and drowning.

That was not the end of his family’s suffering. They were a mining family from Hanham. John was one of ten children and many of the family attended the hanging, intent on claiming the body afterwards so that it could be given a proper burial. Dr. Smith was having none of that – the body was requisitioned by him and he was determined to use it for dissection purposes.

Fresh cadavers were hard to come by legitimately, and here was a corpse he could examine without having to employ body snatchers, as in this etching from the Wellcome Institute, showing the watchman encountering two men who have dug up a recently buried body of a young woman.

A tussle broke out as the family sought to snatch the corpse of John Horwood away, but they failed and Dr. Smith took the body back to his rooms at the Royal Infirmary. After analyzing the body parts he kept the skeleton, still with the noose around its neck, in a specially made cupboard in his home, where it remained until his death on 24th January 1843.

The noose around Horwood’s corpse

It then passed to the Royal Infirmary and there to Bristol University where it remained until nearly two centuries after Horwood had died.

But that was not the only indignity: Smith was in the habit of composing rhymes about the deceased criminals who came before him in his laboratory, and Horwood was no exception. The verse, plus Smith’s notes on the case and Eliza’s confession, were then made up into a book…..and bound with John Horwood’s skin! This macabre practice was not all that uncommon in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It is known as anthropodermic bibliopegy and involves flaying the corpse and sending the skin away to be tanned. Smith’s book still has the invoice from the tanner (one pound ten shillings) inside, and the skin is embossed with a skull and crossbones in each corner. The original is still held by the Bristol Records Office, although it is now very fragile and the contents have been digitised. The sketch of John Horwood, shown at the beginning of this post, was included in the book.

Another examples of the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy is this one using the skin taken from one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators (Father Garnet). An impression of his features has been stamped upon the binding as a reminder of what he looked like, and is still visible, albeit in a very indistinct manner.

For Dr. Smith, it was business as usual: he was a hugely popular figure in his home city of Bristol, doing much charitable work for schools such as Red Maids School. He was a local councilor for many years, and was Deputy Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge close to his home at 38 Park Street. When he died, of apoplexy, in 1843 the whole city seems to have come to a stand-still in mourning. Crowds of many thousands thronged the streets and at one stage the jostling mass of humanity stopped the funeral cortege altogether. He was buried at Temple Church in Bristol. The Bristol  Mirror sadly reported “In his decease Bristol has lost one of her most devoted sons, and best and brightest ornaments.” It described his funeral with the words  “All associated together on this solemn occasion and felt the bitter pang of regret at the loss of one who was a benefactor to his race – a true philanthropist.”

And what of the mortal remains of John Horwood? After languishing for 190 years in a cupboard, it was finally time for him to be laid to rest. So it was that in April 2011, on the exact anniversary and time of his death, John’s body was brought back to Hanham and given a proper funeral. It marked the end of a personal crusade by Mary Halliwell, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Horwood’s brother. The coffin was draped in velvet and carried on a wheeled bier in the manner of funerals of the period of his death. A dignified end at last to a somewhat undignified episode which shows us not just the barbarity of English justice but also the inadequacy of medical treatment some 200 years ago.

Feb 132017

announcementOn 13th February 1817 a massive banking upheaval got under way. The “old” coinage in circulation was called in and exchanged for  a completely new coinage and within a mere two weeks the transfer was complete. It marked the culmination of a secret plan, headed by William Wellesley-Pole who was Master of the Royal Mint, and represented a determined effort by the British Government to restore public confidence in the coin of the realm. For years the public had suffered chronic inflation. They had had paper currency forced on them, which they generally distrusted, and for fifty years the Mint had not minted any silver in significant quantities. Smaller currency was often replaced with locally-minted coper tokens, many of which were only valid in the town of issue.

An added problem had been that the price of silver bullion had gone through the roof. Remember, all coins had a face value which was the same as its intrinsic value, so if the Royal Mint was making a one penny silver coin, it ended up as an absolutely minute sliver of silver – smaller than the size of a  pinkie finger nail. It had also got so thin that the design on one side of the coin interfered with the design on the other. The decision was made to decrease the purity of the silver being used. At the same time, the gold currency was given a total overhaul. Previously it was based on the guinea, a coin having a face value of twenty one shillings. From 1817 the guinea disappeared and was replaced with the pound – and a splendid new design by the Italian engraver Pistrucci was introduced.

bull-headThe whole re-coinage was done in total secrecy, so as not to alarm the public. The distribution of millions of the new coins to Banks throughout the country was done without fuss or loss of any sort, and the whole thing was a huge success. Not that the public liked the new coins, with what was known as the “bull head” of the monarch George III. The problem for Pistrucci was that no-one had seen the King for some years – George III was totally senile, deaf, blind and unshaven, so Pistrucci had to ‘imagine’ a likeness. As with many engravers before and since, he chose to make the royal portrait younger. Wellesley-Pole was already hugely unpopular, as was Pistrucci. The latter was disliked because he was a foreigner, but Wellesley-Pole was despised even more. Not only had he refused to select designs submitted by members of the Royal Academy, preferring Pistrucci’s handiwork, but he was vain enough to have his initials, WWP, appear on the face of the coin. The bull head was considered ugly if not treasonous, giving rise to the ditty:

It is allow’d, throughout the town,

The head upon the new Half-Crown,

Is not the George we so much prize—

The Chin’s not like—the Nose—the Eyes.

This may be true—yet, on the whole,

The fault lies chiefly in the Pole!”

_The_new_coinage wikimediaThe original intention had been to swap all the coins between 3rd and 17th February but the start was delayed by a few days and got under way on the 13th. It gave rise to this caricature by Charles Williams and published by J Sidebotham on 13th February and entitled ‘The New Coinage, or John Bull’s visit to Mat of the Mint! ‘

It shows Wellesley-Pole, referred to as “Master and Worker of his Majesty’s Mint,” shovelling money into a sack, saying “There, Johnny! see how I have been working for you for months past; you can’t say I get my money for nothing.” John Bull replies, “You be a very industrious man, Master Mat, and the prettiest Cole merchant I have dealt with for many a day.”  His sack is inscribed: ‘New Silver to enable the people to give intrinsic value for Bank rags & worthless Tokens.’ Behind him, his wife carries a baby while her children, dressed in rags and with bare feet, scrabble on the floor. A large crowd are gathered behind the family, waiting for their turn to get their hands on the new coins which are being shovelled  in the manner of a coal merchant loading coal.

The change-over involved some 2.6 million pounds-worth of currency – that is, some 57 million coins – being delivered nationwide, using boxes containing £600 of coins (a bag of half crowns, four bags of shillings and another one of sixpences). The destination of each box had to be labelled for each of the 700-odd banks involved nationally, and the Mint employed over one thousand staff to oversee the arrangements. The boxes would then be used to return the old coinage by way of exchange. Astonishingly not one coin went astray – the books balanced to the penny.

The copper coinage was largely  left alone for the time being, but the popularity of smaller value silver coins led to the introduction of the groat (4d) and, during the reign of Queen Victoria, to a half-hearted attempt at decimalisation involving the florin (one tenth of a pound i.e. two shillings) and double florin. One thing was certain: the coins never looked the same again.

Reverse Geo III sov Ben PistThe reverse of Pistrucci’s iconic design for the sovereign i.e one pound coin, shown courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

Jan 052017

twelfth-night-2Nowadays there is little to be said for Twelfth Night other than that you should take down your Christmas decorations. But if you live in Spain, 5th January is Three Kings  – an excuse for much celebration, and men on horse-back handing out sweets and other treats.

In Britain in bygone days Twelfth Night was celebrated with parties – much more so than New Year’s Eve. It was an occasion for much merriment, wassailing,  and consumption of cider – and a special cake. The cake would be a rich fruit cake, often made with exotic spices and maybe soaked in rum or brandy and flamed before being served. Nowadays it has been taken over by the Christmas pudding served on Christmas Day – which is a bit of a shame because let’s face it, by then you have already eaten more than enough….

Twelfth Night, by Thomas Tegg, 1807. © The Trustees of the British Museum: A party of men and women round a table look at caricatures of themselves.

Twelfth Night, by Thomas Tegg, 1807. © The Trustees of the British Museum: A party of men and women round a table look at caricatures of themselves.

Checking through the dairies of ancestor Richard Hall I cannot see any particular celebration for 5th January – 1st January always started with a comment along the lines of “Praise be to the Lord that I have been spared to see another year” and then was followed by a reference to the fact that he was suffering from indigestion and was confined to bed! By the fifth January Richard Hall was usually back to taking tea with neighbours, but nothing in any way celebratory. But then, my ancestor always was a miserable old blighter….

By the time we got to Richard’s great great grand daughter (in other words, my gran) I remember  it was a tradition in the family sixty years ago that we would play parlour games – and none were more typical than The Old Family Coach. I imagine that it was Victorian rather than Georgian in its origin, and I have come across a printed account of the “rules” of the game dating from the 1870s.

old-family-coachI suspect that each family had its own version. My grandmother said that the game very popular when she was a youngster in the latter years of the 19th Century. Each person was allocated a word associated with a trip to the seaside by coach – someone would be ‘the wheels’ another ‘the horses’ another the ‘whip’ ‘the dog’ and so on. A story was then read out by the narrator, along the lines of “The coach set off, the wheels spun round, the horses galloped, the dog barked and the driver spared the whip” and as each word was mentioned that particular person had to get up and turn a circle clockwise. If I remember right the trip to the seaside involved a wheel coming off the ‘old family coach’, so it had to be repaired before the assembled company could complete the journey.

Whenever the words ‘The Old Family Coach’ were mentioned the entire assembled company had to stand up and revolve anti-clockwise. Of course no-one could remember who they were supposed to be, or which way they should be turning, and great fun was had by all….when I tried to reprise this game with my own family they refused to have anything to do with it. I suspect if it had involved karaoke, or money, it might have been better received! As it is, I cannot see the tradition ever being revived, which is a shame. So, on this Twelfth Night, let me raise a toast to the Old Family Coach!