Feb 282012

When British M.P. Tom Driberg started writing a gossip column in the Daily Express in 1928 he chose the nom de plume ‘William Hickey’. Later the journalist Nigel Dempster took over the name for many years – but why William Hickey?

William Hickey’s portrait courtesy of WikiGallery.org

It turns out that in the 18th Century there was a real William Hickey, and one who was if anything rather more colourful than even Driburg or Dempster (neither of them exactly shrinking violets).He was born in Pall Mall London on June 30, 1749, the seventh son of a successful Irish solicitor and his Yorkshire-born wife. (I love stories about seventh sons – must do a separate post on them some time, preferably accompanied by Georgie Fame crooning ‘I’m the one, I’m the one, the seventh son…’).

He was packed off to Westminster School but was chucked out at the age of  14 for spending too much time in the pub, for leading what he himself described as ‘a life of idleness and dissipation’, and for failing to do any schoolwork. His parents sent him to a private school in Streatham where he seemed to buckle down and obtain a reasonable education. Arguably he didn’t need one, for Master William lived by his wits. He was supposed to be training to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, but the allure of the gaming tables proved more attractive. That and playing billiards and cricket. And keeping a mistress called Nanny Harris, and generally leading a life of merry debauchery. He was living way beyond his means and ended up embezzling £500 from his father’s firm (perhaps £40,000 would be a modern equivalent, not exactly a minor indiscretion!). For that, Dad packed him off out of harm’s way and sent him to India. The year was 1769, and William was not yet 21…

The signs of a mischievous disposition were there from a far earlier age: in 1755 the Hickey family had moved in to Cross Deep Lodge in Twickenham and became near neighbours of the elderly Thomas Hudson, an artist of some note. Writing about Hudson at a later date Hickey recalled  ‘His figure was rather grotesque, being uncommonly low in stature, with a prodigious belly, and constantly wearing a large white bushy periwig. He was remarkably good tempered, and one of my first- rate favourites, notwithstanding that he often told me I should certainly be hanged.’On one occasion Hickey encountered the old gentleman leaning on his stick, and with a deft kick dislodged the stick and sent the unsupported Hudson sprawling on the ground in indignant rage. His other party trick was to paddle out onto the Thames in a canoe, then flail his arms and shout while pretending to be in danger of drowning, just to see if he could lure some unsuspecting Good Samaritan to come to his ‘rescue’.

All that was to end when he was sent out to India in disgrace, but he built up a practice in Calcutta as an attorney and appears to have been a success.


Hickey and his servant William Munnoo in 1819 by Wm. Thomas, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.


William kept himself busy jotting down his recollections of life in Calcutta and Madras, adding to it details of a visit to Jamaica as well as reminiscences of his time in London. These memoirs became the basis of a huge project, completed in 1810 but not published until another century had passed (between the years 1913 and 1925).

The Memoirs run to 740 pages  and give an extraordinarily vivid picture of life in the late 18th-century. Originally published in four volumes there is also a condensed version entitled The Prodigal Rake: Memoirs of William Hickey’ still in print and available on Amazon.

One of his recollections concerned a night spent with the famous courtesan Emily Warren. He writes: ‘Never did I behold so perfect a beauty. I passed a night that many would have given thousands to do. I however, that night, experienced the truth – that she was cold as ice, seemingly totally devoid of feeling. I rose convinced that she had no passion for the male sex.’

Ah well, William, lesson learned: you may buy the lady’s body but you will never possess her soul…

Emily Warren (otherwise Emily Pott, otherwise Emily Bertie, otherwise …take your pick) had become a prostitute at the age of twelve on the streets of London but rose to achieve considerable fame and notoriety. In the end she joined Hickey’s friend Robert Pott of the East India Company on a trip to India, but died on the voyage in 1782.

‘Portrait of a lady, said to be Miss Emily Bertie, known as Emily Pott’, a painting by George Romney (courtesy of Wikipedia).



For William, a life  as a young tearaway, followed by just about every excess available at the time, led to a long and happy (if dissolute) life, He died at the end of May 1830. I like to think that he was most at home in scenes like this, from Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress:







or this one from James Gillray:


William Hickey, rake and libertine: who ever would have thought that you would make it to 80?!

Feb 242012

To say that tea caddies came in all shapes and sizes in the Eighteenth Century is an understatement. Tea was an expensive commodity – and for large parts of the century taxation upon tea was high. Tea canisters, which became known as caddies (after the Malay word kati, representing the unit of weight by which tea was sold in the Far East) became common. This was an era before pre-blended teas and it was fashionable for hosts to have their own blend, combining bohea (green) tea with ordinary tea in a mix to suit the host or hostess. Many of the caddies came with containers for the two varieties of tea, and with a glass mixing bowl where the leaves could be blended. Because tea was not to be entrusted to the servants, the actual caddies were kept under lock and key and, as they were generally displayed in the more showy rooms in the house such as the Drawing Room, some of the containers were extremely elaborate.

A fine selection of these caddies can be seen at the fascinating website for Hampton Antiques. Their stock is constantly changing and the items shown here are not necessarily available, but do have a look at their site  at http://www.hamptonantiques.co.uk/

They specialize in boxes of all types. Among my favourites:


                                           The tented-top tortoise-shell and ivory caddy

A rare octagonal green turtle-shell box (boo, hiss!) with ivory beading, silver  escutcheon, and with turtle-shell inner lids with bone handles.

A lovely pear-tree wood caddy in the shape of a pear,

with other apple-shaped caddies in the background.




 And the large Regency caddy which combines all the features in one beautiful design – a turtle-shell case, two separate compartments and an etched cut-glass mixing bowl.

For Richard Hall, taking tea was always something to be listed in the diary. Indeed at the end of the year he correlated a list of ‘Who took Tea with us’ and the corresponding ‘Those with whom we took Tea.’ There are many more details of his tea-drinking habits in my book Journal of a Georgian Gentleman.

Dish of Tea 1780

Feb 222012

In 1794 William Hall, Richard’s eldest son, decided to sever the partnership he had with Richard. Both had been involved in the haberdashery business conducted from the family premises at Number One London Bridge. Richard had no wish to return from the Cotswolds to pick up actively running the business so it was agreed that William’s half share would simply pass to his younger brother Francis. First an inventory had to be drawn up, with a valuation, showing ‘who owned what’ in the family premises. Room by room every stick of furniture, ornament or household effect was itemised.

One of the items disclosed on the list was an orrery, a form of astronomical instrument used to illustrate the movement of the planets around the sun. The machine with its clockwork mechanism was first made in about 1715 by a John Rowley at the request of Charles Boyle, Earl of Orrery.

A more recent example made in 1770 by Benjamin Martin can be seen at the Science Museum in Kensington.

The thing about an orrery is that although it is excellent for showing planetary movements, and illustrating lunar and solar eclipses etc. it cannot be fully accurate in showing relative sizes or distances (otherwise a representation of the earth as an object the size of a pound coin would have to be scaled up to show the sun as a massive object a quarter of a mile away! Neptune would be five miles distant! The alternative would be to show the Earth and closer planets as incredibly tiny objects). So, an orrery is not to scale, but it can be extremely accurate at demonstrating the rotation of planets as well as showing their relative paths through the heavens.

A number of concentric tubes (corresponding to the number of planets being shown) are constructed around a central axis on the top of which is placed a globe representing the sun. In some instruments the globe contains a candle to light the mechanism for night viewing. Each tube is topped by a radiating arm linked to a short vertical arm supporting the planet in question. As the clockwork mechanism is turned the planets rotate. Some models are designed specifically to show the Earth in relation to the Sun and Moon and are known as a lunarium.

What is interesting is that such a scientific instrument, with its complicated gearing, would be in a private house. It demonstrates the Hall family’s fascination with astronomy – a fascination borne out by the many references in Richard’s diaries to meteors, planets, eclipses and so on.

A splendid site on the web belonging to an Australian engineer called Brian Greig shows his work as a modern orrery maker (http://www.orrerymaker.com/index.htm) and these lovely pictures of some of his machines give an idea of the sort of thing which Richard might have owned.

                                                     The Zodiac Jovian




A different machine called a Troughton (replica) is shown here with its turning handle.

Throughout the Eighteenth Century people would flock to see these machines being demonstrated, and it is likely that one such exhibition was witnessed in Derby by an artist called Joseph Wright. He made a name for himself capturing scenes from scientific experiments. The sense of wonderment is captured in this famous painting by him. It is entitled A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery and was first exhibited in 1766. The philosopher (i.e. scientist) is based upon the portrait of Isaac Newton by Kneller. The original is held in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Their website shows it at http://www.derby.gov.uk/LeisureCulture/MuseumsGalleries/ArttreasureTheOrrery.htm

Feb 202012

Challenged to think of a female scientist in the Georgian era I struggled to get beyond Caroline Herschel, about whom I have already blogged. Checking through the inventory of female scientists is a depressingly short list, partly because educational opportunities for women were so limited, and also because the higher echelons of acadaemia were firmly barred. But it turns out that there was an exception – not in England, but in Bologna where the university can claim to be the oldest in Europe, and where the person in question became Europe’s first ever official female teacher.

So let us raise a cheer for the flag bearer, the numero uno, the woman who blazed a trail for others to follow: one Laura Bassi. Never heard of her? Shame on us all, because her achievements really were rather remarkable.

Laura was born in Bologna in 1711 with considerable advantages: her dad was a wealthy lawyer, and one who was well-connected. Her father was sufficiently broad-minded to want more for his daughter by way of education that mere reading, writing, embroidery and musical accomplishments; he insisted that she received a private education to match any male. Perhaps she was encouraged because she was the only child of the Bassi household to survive childhood.

She was a child prodigy, who excelled at mathematics, philosophy, logic, meta-physics, anatomy and natural history. She was also a fluent linguist. By the age of 21 she was appointed professor of anatomy at Bologna University (1731) and in the following year was elected to the Academy of the Institute for Sciences. Her doctorate was marked by a lavish ceremony, one in which she was presented with an ermine cape, a ring, and a jewel-encrusted silver crown of laurels. A special medal was struck to mark the occasion, showing Bassi as the Goddess Minerva. 1733 saw her appointment to the Chair of Philosophy but in these early years her opportunities for teaching were distinctly limited. Why? Because it would not have been seemly for a woman to appear before a hall-full of men. Therefore her early teaching opportunities were limited to those where the general public were invited.

Her natural inclination was towards the sciences in general, and to physics in particular. She was a follower of Newton and helped introduce Newtonian ideas on physics and natural philosophy to Italy. For 28 years she lectured, and at the same time produced numerous papers of her own on topics ranging from physics (13 papers); hydraulics (11 papers); mathematics (2 papers) and one each on mechanics and chemistry.


She was particularly interested in Newton’s theories on optics, light and the laws of motion. From 1745 to 1778, she gained respect for her research on mechanics, hydrometry, and on the properties of gases including their elasticity. This respect was also tempered by a widespread antagonism towards her from male contemporaries: being a female academic scientist in a male dominated world was never going to be easy. In 1738 she married Giuseppe Veratti, a fellow academic. Some reports give her as having as many as twelve children by Giuseppe, others say a mere eight. Five of her offspring reached adulthood.

Being married had one important consequence: she was able to petition the University to allow her to teach from home. This would not have been ‘proper’ for a single woman but was acceptable for a married one. She carried out numerous experiments on electro-magnetism from home and, jointly with her husband, was interested in the role of electricity in medicine.

In all her scientific and academic efforts she was supported by Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, and when the Cardinal was made Pope Benedict XIV he formed an elite group of scholars (called the Benedettini, after himself). In 1745 the group had 25 members and at Pope Benedict’s insistence, Laura Bassi was one of them – the only woman). Pope Benedict was also from Bologna, and had always supported Laura as being ‘the woman to put Bologna on the map’. Her unique qualities, made all the more rare because she was a woman, made her a star in Bologna’s firmament. She was an exceptional scientist, and an exceptional lecturer.

The University of Bologna Graduation ceremony

She used her connections to get the University to pay for scientific equipment to be installed in her home. In time, these powerful patrons saw to it that by 1760 she was the highest paid professor at either the University or the Institute for Sciences.

When she was 65 she was appointed to the new Chair in Experimental Physics. She had a teaching assistant – her husband! She died in Bologna two years later on 20th February 1778 and was succeeded to the Chair of Experimental Physics by her husband. There may have been better scientists in the Eighteenth Century, but none of them were women; there may have been more innovative and controversial lecturers, but she had extraordinary staying power. Here was a woman who blasted her way to the top of her chosen profession, and stayed there. She was the first, and deserves to be an inspiration to all who encounter barriers at the workplace, or are held back by prejudices and bigotry.

Feb 172012

Throughout the 1770s and 1780s Richard went to town on buying furniture, and all of it mahogany. It is a reminder how fashions in furniture changed over the centuries. I suspect Richard had inherited good old solid oak furniture from the previous century. But tastes changed and after a period when walnut was uppermost, mahogany swept into favour. Everything was changed – wardrobes, chairs, tables, sideboards and book cases. Craftsmen such as Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite led the fashion, with their directories of designs which were copied everywhere.









Mind you the prices have gone up a bit! The glazed display case has gone up five hundred-fold and is priced at £1450 with Antique antiques at http://www.antique-antiques-uk.com/ and the linen press/armoire has already been sold. The two items shown are more or less time-correct for Richard’s purchases but the originals have long since left the family.

Very few of Richard’s pieces of furniture have been handed down – I have six chairs and a dressing table mirror but very little else.

Why mahogany? Because it was a hardwood with straight graining which could readily be cut into planks suitable for furniture making, and which buffed up to a rich, glowing, reddish-brown colour when polished. The colour darkens with age. Originally the term meant West Indian or Cuban mahogany but supplies of the species Swietenia Mahogani were quickly exhausted and the trade turned to its neighbour from Honduras called Swietenia macrophylla. In time plantations were introduced throughout the Far East and today most genuine mahogany comes from India, Bangladesh, Fiji and Indonesia.


I love the way mahogany reflects the light, as shown in this 1772 picture by the American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815).

The sitter is Dorothy Wendell (otherwise Mrs. Richard Skinner). Just look at the sheen and consider how much the wood reflects the light, compared with the dark oak of the previous century…no wonder Richard specified ‘any wood you like as long as it’s mahogany’!

Feb 152012

One of the things I like most about the Eighteenth Century is an awareness that ‘there walked giants’ – men and women who made a difference to the world in which we live. Few of us know of Henry Maudslay, yet he was a brilliant engineer who made the Industrial Revolution possible. His achievements were staggering.

He was born in Woolwich in 1771. His father died when he was nine years old and times must have been hard. As a twelve year old he went to work in the docks as a ‘powder monkey’ – loading cartridges. He moved on to training in a smithy, working with iron, and quickly made his name as a brilliant innovator and skilled technician.

At the age of 18 he came to the attention of locksmith Joseph Bramah, who had recently invented the ‘unbreakable padlock’ but needed someone to design the machinery to make it a feasible business proposition. The year was 1789. Maudslay not only designed the machinery to make the padlock, but proved its efficacy by putting it in the Bramah shop window with a challenge of 200 guineas for anyone who could open it. The challenge went unmet for nearly half a century – and then took the American locksmith A C Smith some fifty one hours, spread over a sixteen day period, before he could open the darned thing in 1850.

 The Maudslay lock

During the time he worked for Bramah Maudslay realized the importance of standardisation, and inter-changeability. As an example, all nuts and bolts were previously hand-made in matching pairs – dismantle a bolted piece of equipment and unless you kept the pairs together you would have a devil of a problem re-assembling it again. Maudslay worked with such precision that he was able to mass-produce interchangeable nuts and bolts, and manufacture screws to a standard size and strength. It spawned a revolution. Before Maudslay, a man typically worked a lathe with a treadle, holding the piece of metal being worked against the cutting edge and moving it by hand. Maudslay re-engineered the whole process so that countless identical pieces could be made – a feature which became the hallmark of all his projects.

Courtesy of http://home.howstuffworks.com

In 1791 he married Bramah’s housemaid and six years later had the nerve to ask for a raise (by then he was Bramah’s manager). Bramah declined, so Maudslay left to set up his own business, in tiny premises in Wells Street (off Oxford Street). Here he made further inventions of precision tool making equipment. Just one example brought him a contract with the Royal Navy to supply 42 machines for making wooden rigging blocks (each ship needed thousands of these). The machines could churn out 130,000 blocks a year using just ten (unskilled) operators – compared to over a hundred skilled workers needed previously. The machines worked on a mass-production assembly-line basis – one of the first examples in this country. Another naval contract was for the invention of a tool to punch holes in boiler plates – a job which needed immense accuracy, and was previously done, often badly, by hand.

Maudslay did further developments on lathe design, coming up with new gearing, rests etc and worked with such precision that he needed to invent the first ever bench-mounted micrometer (accurate to one ten thousandth of an inch).

The Maudslay lathe

Nick-named ‘The Lord Chancellor’ he used it to settle any arguments about the accuracy of his workmanship. James Nasmyth, a former apprentice of Maudslay who went on to invent the steam hammer, described the significance of Maudslay’s slide lathe as follows: “its influence in improving and extending the use of machinery has been as great as that produced by the improvement of the steam engine in respect to perfecting manufactures, and extending commerce.”

In many ways it was his influence on his apprentices which became his biggest legacy. His factory became a centre of excellence to which all aspiring engineers sought admission. If you were a Maudslay Man you were marked for the top! He inspired and motivated them, drumming in the maxims by which he worked. These were intended to encourage clear planning and a dedication to simplifying the process. “First get a clear notion of what you desire to accomplish, and then you will succeed in doing it” was one maxim. Another was “When you want to go from London to Greenwich don’t go via Inverness”. Simplicity was paramount. I rather like ” ‘Remember the get-at-ability of parts. If we go on as some mechanics are doing, we shall soon be boiling our eggs with a chronometer”.

The business expanded and in time Maudslay took two of his four sons into partnership, along with the brilliant young admiralty draughtsman Joshua Field. By now the business, known as Maudslay Sons & Field, was based in Lambeth and specialized in the production of marine engines for the Navy. In 1823 the Navy commissioned their first ever steam-powered engines for HMS Lightning, using an engine supplied from the Lambeth works. Within thirty years more than 200 vessels were using Maudslay Sons & Field engines, including the mighty 750 horse power engines commissioned for Brunel’s SS Great Western.

Somewhere along the way Maudslay also manufactured flour and saw mills, made precision machinery for minting coins, and produced steam engines.

In 1825 Isombard Kingdom Brunel’s father Marc had started work on the first tunnel under the Thames, linking Rotherhythe and Wapping. It was a huge undertaking, and it was 1842 before the tunnel was finished. It was the Maudslay steam pumps which kept the tunnel dry, and it was their manufacture of the Brunel-designed shield which made the tunnelling possible.

Maudslay never lived to see the tunnel completed. In 1831 he caught a chill crossing the English Channel and died a month later on 15 February. He was buried in St Mary Magdalen Church in Woolwich.

 A Maudslay grinding machine for ornamental turning, courtesy of http://www.birminghamstories.co.uk/


On this the anniversary of his death, spare a thought for a man who really did engineer the Industrial Revolution.

Feb 142012

My wife had the good sense to be born on 14th February. I had the good fortune that she agreed to marry me on her birthday a quarter of a century ago, so Valentine’s Day is a rather special one in the Georgian Gentleman’s calendar. And so it is that instead of slaving over a hot blog I am actually fishing for blue marlin off the coast of Australia. I doubt if I will catch as big a prize as I did 25 years ago, when the beautiful Philippa consented to marry me, and some might wonder whether the girl would not have preferred something shiny and silvery – but I say what the heck, a marlin is shiny and silvery enough, and who needs more rings and ornaments?

See you back in the Eighteenth Century shortly…


Feb 132012

By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library

I have always wanted to write a truly lavatorial post for this blog, and this is it –the story of the flush toilet!


Its origins lay back in Elizabethan times when in 1596 Sir John Harington came up with his mighty Ajax (his name for a flushing privy).His invention was therefore the very first ‘john’. The Ajax closet (‘a jakes’ being the medieval name for a toilet)  consisted of a seat perched over a brick tank, with a cistern of water which could be directed by means of a valve being opened. Once a week it was necessary to empty the contents of the closet into a cesspool. Harington made two – one for himself and one for his godmother, who happened to be Queen Elizabeth.


Harington published a book entitled ‘The Anatomy of the metamorphosed Ajax’ giving builders etc details of how to build his privy (the Frontispiece reads ‘How unsavoury places may be made sweet, noysome places may be made wholesome, filthy places made cleanly’). Harington never got over the ridicule and scorn heaped upon him for his invention, and in particular for having written a book about it, and it never caught on.


A lady of easy virtue, and a commode: both covered by the title  ‘Conveniences’ (©British Museum).






People continued to use the ‘close stool’ and it appears in all its glory in a number of Gillray’s cartoons including this one  showing His Majesty George III and his wife Queen Charlotte enthroned on their respective latrines, when in rushes William Pitt with news that the King Gustavus III of Sweden has been assasinated. The year was 1792.

By that date the world was finally ready for the flush toilet. The saviour had come in the form of Alexander Cumming, a watch maker who in 1775 patented his design. This consisted of a pan with a sliding valve at the bottom called The Strap, which could be released by the user at the same time as water was delivered from a cistern operated by a separate tap.

The Cummings Patent Toilet,Courtesy of the Gladstone Pottery Museum.

Around this time a young locksmith-cabinet maker called Joseph Bramah appeared on the scene. He will get his own mention in a later blog. Suffice to say that he was working with a Mr Allen, installing closets based upon the Cummings patent, when Mr Allen decided on a few improvements aimed at stopping the water freezing in cold weather. He replaced the Strap with a hinged flap which sealed the base of the bowl. To Allen should go the credit, but to young Bramah went the patent. He opened a factory in Denmark Street St Giles and throughout the next century the Bramah factory poured out the new-fangled sanitary ware. They were generally housed in fine mahogany furniture, and there is a particularly fine example to be seen in Kew Palace, and another at the residence of Queen Victoria at Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight.

It wasn’t long before potters like Josiah Wedgwood got in on the act, designing his first decorated closet pan in around 1777. Small wonder they became status symbols with their beautiful designs. Mind you, there was no sewerage system to go with them, so ‘the problem’ of the effluent was merely moved further down-stream, so to speak.

Fortunately another design improvement hit the market in 1782 when the stink trap was introduced by John Gallait. This consisted of a water trap (similar to a modern bottle trap), but unfortunately they were impossible to keep clean…but at least it was a step in the right direction.

And what of Thomas Crapper, widely believed to have invented the flush toilet? Well, he wasn’t even born until 1836 and in fact what he invented was the ballcock. And no, he didn’t give his name to the human waste we all associate with his name – ‘crap’ had been in use for some time, although quite possibly it became fashionable because of the association with his toilets. The story has it that American servicemen, visiting these shores in the First World War, popularised the phrase ‘going to the Crapper’ because that was the name in bowl! Try telling that to the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary, who point out that the word was in use in its modern sense by 1846, probably deriving from the Old French ‘crappe’ meaning waste. 

Post script: ‘spending a penny’? Look no further than the Great Exhibition of 1851 where visitors wishing to avail themselves of the facilities (known as Monkey Closets and designed by George Jennings) were obliged to part with one penny for the privilege.

And one final Gillray to end with: a delightfully  revolting engraving showing the different national characteristics of conveniences: the English use a water closet, the Scots use  a bucket, the French les Commodites, and the Dutch…the lake.

Feb 102012




Tomorrow marks the birthday of William Henry Fox Talbot, 212 years ago.


He was  the only child of William Davenport Talbot and Lady Elisabeth Fox Strangways (daughter of the Second Earl of Ilchester)., and he was brought up in the family home at Lacock Abbey  Chippenham. He was educated at Harrow School and at Trinity College Cambridge, and had a sharp scientific mind.He started photographic experiments early in 1834, some five years before the Frenchman Louis Deguerre exhibited his pictures taken by the sun. When Daguerre went public he gave no details of the process, whereas when Talbot showed his five-year-old pictures to the Royal Institution on 25 January 1839, he followed it up two weeks later by passing the technical details of his photogenic drawing process to the Royal Society. Daguerre chose not to disclose details of his process until August. In 1841, Talbot announced his discovery of the calotype or talbotype, process.  In August 1841, Talbot granted a license to the first professional calotypist.

Talbot’s original contributions to photography included the concept of a negative, from which many positive prints could be made. He was also the first to use gallic acid to develop the image.
A positive from taken from the earliest known photograph, taken in 1835, showing the lattice window at Lacock Abbey. Nowadays, visitors to Lacock Abbey can see a fascinating exhibition of Talbot’s work.

The negative of the same picture








The mid-Eighteenth Century saw Talbot embroiled in patent rows with other inventors, and in response to widespread pressure he agreed to waive copyright charges for amateur photographers, although professionals were still expected to pay hefty fees.

Talbot was a Member of Parliament for Chippenham between 1832 and 1835. He was  a keen archaeologist and helped decipher the cuneiform writings from ancient Assyria. He died in Lacock in 1877 and is buried in the village where he spent the whole of his life.


Feb 082012

Writing a short while after the event, 21 year old Richard Hall wrote:
“An Earthquake felt in London Thursday February 8th 1750 about half after 12 o’Clo. at Noon”.
Below he added “Another Shock Thursday March 8th 1750 about half after 5 o’Clo in the morning”

observables ' earthquake

On the first occasion people could feel their chairs shaking. Pewter mugs crashed to the floor and crockery rattled. In Southwark a slaughterhouse collapsed and in Leadenhall Street a chimney crashed noisily to the ground.

But the second quake, exactly one month to the day later, was much stronger. It had been presaged by 30 minutes of almost continual thunder and lightning. This ceased and at 5.30 the population woke in a startled panic to a violent shaking of their buildings. People rushed out into the street in their night attire; the dogs of the city howled in terror; church bells started tolling and a maid in Charterhouse Square was thrown from her bed and broke an arm.


Horace Walpole wrote of the event as follows:
I felt my bolster lift up my head; I thought somebody was getting from under my bed, but soon found it was a strong earthquake, that lasted near half a minute, with a violent vibration and great roaring. I rang my bell; my servant came in, frightened out of his senses: in an instant we heard all the windows in the neighbourhood flung up. I got up and found people running into the streets, but saw no mischief done: there had been some; two old houses flung down, several chimneys, and much chinaware. The bells rung in several houses.’

Earthquakes are not of course common in the London area. Scientifically-minded people at the time were able to conjecture that immediately below the earth’s surface there is a void – a honeycomb of air pockets – and that from time-to-time violent winds, or possibly flames, or water, or maybe all of the above, would rush thought these pockets causing quakes on the surface. The Gentleman’s Magazine was able to inform its anxious readers that there were three types of quake: the ‘Inclination’, where the earth vibrated from side to side; the ‘Pulsation’  where it shook up and down; and the ‘Tremor’ “when it shakes and quivers every way like a flame.”

But the Church was having none of this scientific mumbo-jumbo. The Bishop of London Thomas Sherlock wrote to all his clergymen calling on them to inform their flocks of the true reason for the earthquakes: pornography. In fact the word had only recently been coined, from Greek roots meaning ‘writing about prostitutes’. Were these quakes not ‘immediately directed’ against London, the sinful city? After all, nowhere else experienced the tremors. Was it not a reflection at the Lord’s wrath at the publication of ‘The Memoirs of Fanny Hill, this vile book, the lewdest thing I ever saw’?

‘Have not the histories of the vilest prostitutes been published?” he bellowed from the pulpit, going on to have a swipe at swearing and blasphemy, the ‘unnatural lewdness’ for which God had destroyed Sodom, and for the constant publication of books which challenged ‘the great truths of religion.’

So there you had it: London was to be punished on Divine instructions. It was obvious to all but the severely stupid, and/or atheists, that come 8 April there would be The Big One, and that it was time to get out of Town fast. And so it came to pass that on 8 April  1750 a large slice of the population of London sought safety by taking to the roads into the countryside. Gridlock ensued – absolute chaos spread upon the face of the land. The overcrowded city, well used to traffic jams, had not seen anything quite like it. Come nightfall, everyone went back home, and no more was heard about earthquake cycles for some time.

But what of Fanny Hill, the book which sparked off the disquiet? The novel, purportedly an autobiography, was published in two instalments in November 1748 and February 1749. The publisher was described as “G. Fenton”, but this was actually Fenton Griffiths and his brother Ralph. In November 1749, a year after the first installment was published, the Griffiths boys were arrested and charged with “corrupting the King’s subjects.” In court, the author  renounced the novel and it was officially withdrawn. However, as the book became popular, more and more pirate editions appeared, so much so that by the end of the Eighteenth Century there were nearly two dozen versions in circulation in English, with over a dozen French translations, as well as editions in German, Italian and Portuguese.

It would be 200 years before the book was officially published but it remained hugely popular ‘underground’. Famously, both Wellington and Benjamin Franklin are said to have had pirate copies in their possession. It was only after the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial that the book appeared openly (1963, Mayflower Press).

I will leave it to others to comment on the style and content of the work. Suffice to say it is eye-wateringly graphic, and perpetuates the myth of the ‘happy hooker’ – a fifteen year old girl goes to London, inadvertently finds herself in a brothel, is corrupted by the other girls and then finds that a very good living is to be made doing horizontal athletics… The heroine adores sex in all its many forms, embraces them all with enthusiasm and writes home to tell her friend about her experiences in a series of letters. There is no grinding poverty (but lots of grinding), no nasty diseases, no degradation or cruelty – just lots of bonking and a good time had by all.

Thomas Rowlandson’s brothel scene entitled ‘A Sketch from Nature’ published in 1784

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to find that the story of the merry harlot was not in fact written by a woman, but by a man serving time in prison (on account of his debts). The author was John Cleland, born in 1710. He was well educated, and had spent time in the army and then with the East India Company in Bombay. He returned to this country with sizable debts (just under a thousand pounds) and was imprisoned for over a year in the wretched and notorious Fleet Street prison. It was with a view to clearing his debts that he put pen to paper and set down the lurid tale of young Fanny Hill…

Some things don’t add up with the story. The print run of 750 copies was immediately snapped up, at a price of three shillings a copy. The publisher went on to rake in ten thousand pounds but the book only made the author a paltry twenty guineas (the amount for which he sold the copyright – nowhere near enough to have paid off his debts and thus secure his release from jail). And yet he was released from prison just three weeks after the second edition came out, expressed total contrition, and no-one mentioned his debts again. He declined to speak about the book, saying that he was thoroughly ashamed of it, that the print run had finished, and that he did not want to add anything which would give it more publicity. Years later, as an old man, he told the diarist James Boswell he had written it when he was just a youth, and that many years later had prepared it for publication when he was in prison and desperately needed money. This figures – because there are various references to the name ‘Fanny Hill’ in the  years before the book reached the publisher, possibly indicating that the story was being spread by word of mouth or being read in private clubs in manuscript form.

Cleland lived on in poverty at lodgings in Petty France in London until his death aged 79 in 1789.There is no record that he married, or had a mistress, and nothing is known about what was presumably a riotously mis-spent youth. Somewhere along the line he learned rather more than was good for him about life in a brothel, but he never told the world how or where he picked up this knowledge. As an old man, Cleland wrote a guide to good living, a sort of health manual which was very unusual at the time. He sang the praises of fruit and vegetables, and advocated cold baths and exercise. He pointed out that without the ‘control of passion’
his own health had suffered ‘irretrievable damage’ as a result of ‘the most abandoned intemperance’ as a young man. No other clues were given as to the licentious debauchery which he presumably experienced before putting pen to paper.

Fanny Hill is Cleland’s legacy – it has given him a notoriety which has lasted through the centuries, but at the time never made him rich. Fanny goes from strength to strength, but the author is largely forgotten.