Nov 032011

5 years of diaries

Writing in the first week of November 1783 Richard Hall gives a snapshot of what he and his family got up to in their spare time.


The entries for the week start with the Sabbath: “Heard Mr Addington; Isiah 42.16; a fine day, not cold” before continuing with the information that he “Din’d at Mr Robarts” on the Monday and that it was fine, with a little rain at night, not cold.

On the Tuesday 4th November he “Went with Wife, Daughter (and son Francis who met us later) & Sophy to see Sir Ashton Lever’s Collection of Natural Curiosities – and curious they indeed are. Din’d at a Beefstake House. Fine day, mild”


File:LeverianEngraving.jpgRichard would have been in his element at the museum, also known as the Leverium, and sometimes even as The Holophusicon. Based in Leicester Square the museum opened in 1775 and remained there for over twelve years. Entrance cost half a crown a head and for this visitors could see some 28,000 exhibits (mostly natural history items such as shells, fossils, etc but including various items brought back by Captain James Cook). It is to be hoped that Francis got there in time to share his father’s enthusiasm for shells and fossils, and that ‘Wife Daughter & Sophy’ were not too bored with cabinet after cabinet of exhibits. Good to know that they worked up an appetite and that there was a ‘stake house’ nearby – a reminder that  establishments where hot pies could be bought (‘eat in or take-away’) are nothing new.

I still have Richard’s own collection of fossils and his shells – many of them still meticulously labelled with their Latin names. Richard also kept a little book in which he drew pictures of fossils (here, ‘an Ophiomorphite’). Pre-Darwin it was believed that these creatures were in fact long worms, coiled up in death, before being turned to stone. Coming across a dead centipede rolled up in a spiral, I can inderstand the belief.

On the fifth of November there was no mention of Guy Fawkes or bonfires – rather a more serious note of fears over a conflagration which broke out nearby (“Rose early this morning on account of a great fire in Aldersgate Street. Blessed be the Lord who kept me and mine from the like Calamity”). The entry is a reminder that although the Great Fire of London was a century earlier, Richard’s home at One London Bridge was only a hundred yards or so from the Monument, marking where the Great Fire started. Fires were a great concern to Richard – his diaries are full of similar reports. No wonder he went out and checked that he had renewed his fire cover with the Bird in Hand Insurance Company, raising the sum assured a short time afterwards…

On the sixth Richard noted that it was fine in the morning and that his son “William returned from his Sussex and Kent journeys, through mercy, in safety”.

The entry reflects the fact that the Hall haberdashery business was expanding – rather than simply waiting for clients to come to Town for the season, family members would take it in turns to tour the Home Counties, no doubt armed with swatches and material samples and examples of new fashions, drumming up orders before ‘returning to base’ to have them made up, ready to be returned at the next visit. Indeed the only reason Richard was up in London was to provide ‘cover’ at the shop at One London Bridge. He stayed up for the Lord Mayor’s Show the week afterwards and then returned to his home in the Cotswolds. It “remained fine, but very cool”.

I like Richard’s final entry on this page. It looks as though he started to say that he’ took tea’ before remembering that tea was off the menu, and instead he records that he “drank milk and water with Wife and Daughter at Mrs Reynolds”. No explanation is given as to  why there was no tea, but my guess is that Richard’s digestive system was playing him up and a diet of milk and water was called for. Either that or Mrs Reynolds had committed the faux pas of failing to send the servants out for new supplies of the precious leaves….

Nov 022011

As a child I remember learning the words of the song ‘Bobby Shafto’, with the verses which start:

“Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
Silver buckles on his knee,
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Bobby Shafto’s bright and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He’s my ain for evermair
Bonny Bobby Shafto”.


              Royal Silver Shoe Buckles 

A pair of silver buckles, actually belonging to George III, courtesy of Parbold Antiques

So who was Robert Shafto, what did he do, and why does the song commemorate him? The answer is not entirely straight-forward for there are many myths and contradictions, not helped by the fact that successive generations have added verses of their own.

What appears to be the case is that there was originally a North country ballad sung to a Scottish folk tune which was previously given the title ‘Brave Willy Foster’. Some suggest that the original Robert Shafto was a resident of County Wicklow in Ireland in the eighteenth century. I can find no record of this apart from hear-say.

 What is clear is that even if the words were not initially written about the Robert Shafto who was a resident of Whitworth, near Spennymoor in the north east of the country, he chose to adopt it as an election song. He went on to become an MP, first for Durham City (1760 to 1768) and later for Downton in Wiltshire.

If he is the Bobby Shafto then he was born around 1730, the son of John Shafto who died in 1742. He is believed to have been educated at Westminster School in London before going up to Balliol College Oxford in 1749. Both his father and uncle had served as the local Tory MP in Durham  and they lived at Whitworth Hall, a fine country house which  burned down in 1876. In 1891 the ruined pile was replaced with a Victorian building, now the Whitworth Hall Country Park Hotel.

Our Robert was indeed flaxen haired and a dedicated follower of fashion. He had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The portrait shows him as tall, slim and youthful. What is clear is that when he too stood for parliament he was happy to adopt the moniker of ‘Bonny Bobby Shafto’ and to use this ditty when electioneering.


                 Shafto by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The story, quite possibly totally fictitious, is that Robert was at one stage betrothed to a local heiress, one Bridget Belasyse from Brancepeth  (not far from his home at Whitmore).The story goes that Bobby upped and left her, leaving her devastated. In the story she dies of a broken heart, just a fortnight after her beloved went and married Anne Duncombe in 1774. Or maybe it was a fortnight before the wedding. Or perhaps it wasn’t a broken heart after all, but pulmonary bronchitis. (You makes your choice and takes your pick).

The records show “Anne Duncombe married Mr Robert Shafto on 18th April 1774 in the private dwelling house of her Uncle, Thomas Duncombe, in Grosvenor Square, London. The ceremony was conducted by Thomas Shafto of Brancepeth, the witnesses were Lisburn and T Duncombe esq.”   

So, clearly there was a Brancepeth connection, since Bobby’s brother was rector there. But whether Bobby had ever run off to sea, is not recorded.

Anne was a wealthy woman who inherited a house at Downton in Wiltshire when Thomas Duncombe died. Consequently Bobby and his wife moved South to Downton where they are known to have had three children, John, Robert, and Thomas. It is not known exactly when Anne died, but probably around 1783/4. She was buried at Downton. (And no, they didn’t live at the Abbey!) 

Robert  remained a widower. He died in November 1797, and is buried in the Shafto family crypt beneath the floor of Whitworth Church.   

He was succeeded by eldest son, John Shafto. John’s son Robert Duncombe Shafto also stood for Parliament and it was for probably for his election campaign in 1861 that an additional verse was added:

 Bobby Shafto’s looking out

All his ribbons flew about

All the ladies gave a shout

Hey for Bobby Shafto!

Nov 022011

 As my army of Followers on Twitter swells to a humbling five hundred (for which I am truly honoured and grateful!) it is time for a look at how The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman is doing. It was after all launched a full nine months ago – and it has been a fascinating learning experience. To be honest, sales have been slow, but my hope is that people will take pity on me and buy the book as a Christmas present – otherwise it may be a stuffed canary rather than a turkey for this particular Georgian Gent on Xmas Day!


versus          File:Tweety.pngTweetypie


First the reviews: I was delighted to be reviewed in two of the main family history magazines in August, as well as by an online review magazine called e-vue (which I had never heard of, but as they were extremely flattering, who cares that my children assume that I wrote the review myself!)

Lucy Inglis kindly did a review in The Georgian from which I have extracted some of the nice bits and summarised them later on. Mike Paterson  at London Historians gave me a most helpful plug,and I am very grateful to both Lucy and Mike. It really helps to have such comments from ‘real historians’ ! Several purchasers  have also left appreciative comments on Amazon. Here are some of the reviews:

Brian Clough on eVue: “I loved the book’s illustrations and its elegant colouring and lettering. This fine presentation is an example of a book being as good as its cover. Open up and enjoy….It may prompt you to burrow into your own family archives and do the same…. Author Mike Rendell has done what many have dreamed of doing before him, he has traced his roots and made its history sing.”

Paul Gaskell in Family History Magazine: “Rendell’s sympathetic editing of his ancestor’s words has created a volume that gives a real insight into ordinary life throughout the Eighteenth Century.”

Mike Paterson of London Historians: “The value of this book is that it helps one “live in the clothes” of the mid to late-Eighteenth Century. We get a real sense of what things cost, how people dined and entertained themselves, what were their fears and daily concerns…

These, then, are the brush strokes. The wider canvas of the book gives us much context. We learn, for example, about how the Enclosures Acts affected Hall’s farming interests. We discover how Hall coped with the Gordon Riots of 1780. We are reminded how hostilities with France at the end of Hall’s story caused economic problems – income tax, burgeoning national debt, acute inflation – and was felt most acutely, as usual, by those on the very bottom of the heap.

There is a strong current trend for historical examination of the life of the aspirational middle class. Historians Amanda Vickery and Lucy Worsley have both recently blazed a trail across our screens.  Not for them the rich, the famous, the powerful. This is the history of the street, the shop, the office, the family and the home. Mike Rendell’s excellent book makes a noteworthy contribution to building the picture of Georgian middle-class merchant domesticity.


The book is richly illustrated with photos, maps, contemporary illustrations and, of course, facsimiles of pages of Hall’s own writings. It has generous and interesting appendices”.

Lucy Inglis in The Georgian:

“…For all this, Richard comes across as an engaging character and Rendell does a thorough job of pulling out the fine detail of his ancestor’s education, friends, business and marriage.….It is well-produced and pleasingly illustrated, altogether far superior to the usual run of ‘family history’ books. Hall’s story…. does supply a rare glimpse into a self-confessedly ordinary man’s life in the eighteenth century.”

What is clear is that it is the sort of book which will never sell itself – it isn’t going to battle itself into the front row of the display at Waterstones or other main bookstores. In the few cases where I have managed to get stores to stock the tome (“I’m a local author –can I wheedle a favour…’) I was told that merely sticking it on the shelf wasn’t going to get anywhere unless I was able/willing to attend readings etc. My local library at Totnes has kindly agreed to do a local author promotion in December, which is great. I have also given talks (and sold quite a few books on the back of them)  both in Spain and in the U.K. I thoroughly enjoy doing the talks and intend to do many more in the months to come. What is obvious is that for every one book I sell online at Amazon there are a dozen I can sell in person after a talk, so I suspect that a lifetime of talks to W.I.’s and U3A’s is beckoning!

But, if you are about to start your Christmas shopping and have no idea what to get Uncle Richard or Great Aunt Edith, here is the easy answer: check out my book on-line and  get out the plastic!

For orders from the UK go to Amazon at:

For the States go to Amazon at

And for the rest of the world try the Book Depository because they offer free worldwide delivery via:

There are a number of other links to on-line sellers at my website at:

So, thanks for following, thanks for reading my blogs, and if you buy my book – thanks a hundred-fold!



Nov 012011

Writing a short while after the disaster, my ancestor wrote in his diary the following words:

1755 – Nov 1st – a Great Earthquake in Lisbon – felt in several parts of  Spain. At the same time the Water in the Sea and in Fishponds in several parts of England  had a surprising commotion by suddenly rising, and  overflowing.

It was indeed a major catastrophe. Estimated now as having a magnitude of 8.5 on the Richter scale, the quake hit the port area of Lisbon first and killed around 600 people. The epicentre was hundreds of kilometres away  off the coast and it was 9.30 in the morning when the effects were first felt in the Portuguese capital.

Lisbon was home to perhaps 275,000 people. It was All Saints Day and many of the population would have been attending church. Many buildings collapsed, trapping others indoors. Twenty churches and chapels were destroyed – indeed it was reported that ecclesiastical buildings bore the brunt of the damage and that the brothels of the city went largely unscathed!

The earth shook for nine minutes but just as the survivors thought that the worst was over the city was hit by a giant tsunami which ripped through the sea defences and drowned another thousand residents.

Even worse was to follow; fires triggered by the quake were whipped out of control by high winds and within hours much of the city was engulfed in flames. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the fire – perhaps as many as sixty thousand. The tsunami alone is believed to have killed another ten thousand people by the time it travelled down the coast to Morocco. It was indeed a huge disaster, and one which was to have repercussions throughout Europe.