Apr 292012


A portrait believed to be of David Cox (per Wikipedia).

The son of a humble blacksmith in one of Birmingham’s poorer districts, David Cox began his career as a painter, selling portrait miniatures and earning  a meagre living as a scene painter at Birmingham’s Theatre Royal, subsequently moving to London to work as a scenery painter at Astley’s Circus. At the age of 21 he decided to embark on a career as a  watercolour painter. He never made a great amount of money from his paintings but supplemented his income by giving drawing classes to the rich and famous, and by publishing a series of “how to paint” books. He also spent more than a dozen years teaching art at a girls’ school in Hereford.

Through the 1830s his watercolours reflected many of the dominant trends in British landscape and watercolour painting during the Romantic era. In particular he was famous for his moodily atmospheric paintings capturing the English weather in all its menacing qualities – lots of vistas with people scurrying to avoid the ominously dark clouds.

To his contemporaries his landscapes were as significant as those by Constable – but whereas Constable made his name in rural Suffolk, Cox specialized in scenes in North Wales (Betws-y-coed in particular) and Morecambe Bay.

He never even tried oil painting until he was fifty-six, but quickly mastered the  technique. In 1841 he returned to Birmingham.  According to one source “He by no means abandoned watercolour painting, and in these same years his watercolours gained a remarkable boldness, gravity and freedom of technique that set them apart from current fashion. In the last decades of his life he stood out as one of watercolours most original and distinctive practitioners”.

For a man who enjoyed such a good reputation at the time he seems to have disappeared off the graph, except in his native Birmingham. A shame – I find some of his paintings quite evocative. Here are a few I like:

                                       Crossing the sand





Westminster from London, painted in 1813.

I like this one of the new (Rennie) London Bridge painted in 1831 not least because it shows a great gap where One London Bridge (my 4xgreat grandfather’s house) has just been demolished. I suspect the tenting arrangements were for the dignitaries attending the bridge-opening ceremony.



Many of his paintings are held at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, including this one entitled ‘The Cross Roads’.







And finally, Snowdonia from Capel Curig:


Happy Birthday David Cox; you may not have been my favourite artist (well, you couldn’t be as you never painted portraits of beautiful women wearing large hats) but some of your paintings are very easy on the eye!



Apr 272012

The Drummond Family Crest. Picture courtesy of Undiscovered Scotland http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/

There is a lot written these days (quite rightly) about the threat of closure to our public libraries; but when did the tradition of free lending libraries start, and where?
Others will no doubt be able to identify the first English library (see later on in this post) but this blog is primarily about a remarkable group of buildings north of the border, in Perthshire. There, situated in the tiny hamlet of Innerpeffray, can be found Scotland’s oldest lending library along with a complete collection of educational and religious buildings built (or re-built) by the Drummond family of Strathearn.
The actual library was founded by David Drummond, the Third Lord Madertie who died in 1694 and who was a brother in law of the “Great Marquis of Montrose” the brilliant commander of Charles I in Scotland. Around 1680 he made some 400 books from his private collection available for public use. These books covered almost the entire sum of human knowledge at that time – in English, Latin, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

The Chapel where the library was originally housed, picture courtesy of http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk

In his will David Drummond left 5000 merks (£277) as an endowment for the new library. In his words, he wanted the library to be maintained “for the improvement and education of the population particularly the young students.” Title passed to his nephew William Drummond, 2nd Viscount Strathallan, who out of respect and affection for his uncle, vested another 5000 merks “as a constant and perpetual stock for the preserving of the said library and maintaining a schoolmaster, and for augmenting the library and building a house . . “.

A trust, entitled the Innerpeffray Mortification, was formed in 1696 to administer the endowment. This Trust, modified over the centuries, looks after the affairs of the library to this day.

For 70 years the library was situated in the loft of St Mary’s Chapel, but in 1762 it moved to a purpose-built building under the patronage of Robert Hay Drummond. He was the Archbishop of York between 1761 and 1766 (and a descendant of Lord Madertie). When he died the Archbishop bequeathed his own collection of books on law, history, geography, mathematics agriculture, the Enlightenment, and social comment – thereby ensuring that the Library’s books covered an incredibly wide range of topics. It is believed that the Archbishop had bought a collection of some 1500 books on the Enlightenment so as to ensure that ‘modern thinkling’ was covered in depth. In all there are some 3000 pre-1800 books on display. The library has a large number of important early Bibles, including a copy of the so-called “Treacle Bible” which was first printed in English in 1568.  Among the oldest printed books held in the collection are a copy of Barclay’s “Ship of Fools” dated 1508 and the Paris edition of Hector Boece’s “Chronicles” printed in 1527. The oldest book dates from 1502 and is a religious treatise “ A mirror on the Final Retribution” by Petrus Reginaldus.

The Library building.



The library went on to have a continuous lending record for over 200 years, lasting up to 1968 when it closed in the face of declining attendances.The first Keeper of Books was Andrew Patoune in 1692. His successor (now also the Library Manager), lives in the schoolhouse, rebuilt in 1847. Although the lending of books ceased in 1968 the building and its collection can still be visited by the public.For further information : tel 01764 652 819 or e-mail info@innerpeffraylibrary.co.uk and see their website at http://www.innerpeffraylibrary.co.uk/index.htm

The chapel where the books were originally displayed is a fascinating example of a collegiate church. Because of its dual status (part religious, part educational) the building was spared the fate of so many buildings at the time of the Reformation. It nowadays houses one of the most poignant examples of a gravestone – the Faichney monument. It was carved by John Faichney, a mason, and commemorates his wife Joanna, who died in 1707 and no fewer than ten of their children who had died before her. The couple are carved on the head of the stone, while the columns on either side of the body of the stone carry small figures depicting each of the ten children. Originally the monument was outdoors, in the churchyard, but was brought inside to protect it from the elements.

And the oldest English Library? Well, there are records of a Library associated with London’s Guild Hall in 1425 but the Library has not survived. There were of course religious and university Libraries dating back much earlier – but they were not open to the general public. Merton College has records of its chained library dating back to 1276, but the books could only be seen by Fellows of the College, not by the general populace. The chained libraries are fascinating – you can find examples linked to religious buildings such as Hereford Cathedral, Wells Cathedral, and an old favourite of mine, at Wimborne Minster in Dorset.

Hereford Cathedral’s seventeenth-century Chained Library is the largest to survive with all its chains, rods and locks intact. A chain is attached at one end to the front cover of each book; the other end is slotted on to a rod running along the bottom of each shelf. The system allows a book to be taken from the shelf and read at the desk, but not to be removed from the bookcase. Oddly the system means that books are stored ‘spine inwards’ – this allows the book to be lifted down and opened without needing to be turned around – thus avoiding tangling the chain.

The Bodleian Library, courtesy of Wikipedia

But by necessity these were not lending libraries, since the books could not be taken from the shelves. The Bodleian Library was opened on 8th November 1602 after its Founder, Thomas Bodley had  ‘set up my staff at the library door in Oxon; being thoroughly persuaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose, than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students’. It was available to the “whole republic of the learned”.

Six years later the City library at Norwich was established, nearly a century and a half before the foundation of the British Museum. Meanwhile Chetham´s Library in Manchester claims to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, having opened in 1653. I suppose it all depends on what you define as ‘public’. And incidentally, Parliament passed the Public Library Act in 1850, whereupon libraries began to spread throughout the nation.

But for its sheer charm and intimacy I like the simplicity of Innerpeffray. Admission is no longer free, and the buildings are closed in the winter months (and on Mondays and Tuesdays) but they can rightly claim to be ‘a jewel set deep in the Strathearn countryside’. Go visit!

Apr 252012

The guillotine has a fearsome reputation – deservedly! It has many nick-names, from “The National Razor” “The Hungry Lady”  “The She-wolf ” “Louisette”   “Madame Guillotine,” and “The Widow”. So, what is its background?

1. Hands up those who think the guillotine was invented by Dr Guillotin?

2. And those who think it was invented at the time of the French Revolution?

3. And those who believe more prisoners were guillotined in 18th Century France than in 20th Century Germany?

All those with your hands up go to the bottom of the class…

There is some suggestion that the earliest decapitation machine was used before 1300 – in place of the axe. Hollinshed, in his Chronicles (published in 1577)  illustrates a guillotine-like machine which was apparently used to execute a guy called Murcod Ballagh in Ireland on first April 1307.

Meanwhile the English town of Halifax had its own machine dubbed the Halifax Gibbet. It was used on market days from the Thirteenth Century up until 1648 and apparently was so feared it gave rise to the saying “Avoid Hell, Hull, and Halifax” (which does seem a bit hard on the good burghers of Hull, what did they do to deserve such opprobrium?)

Further North, the Scots adapted the Halifax Gibbet to produce their very own “The Maiden, in use from around 1564. In France however, it remained traditional to dispatch wealthy people by the sword – a skilled swordsman was needed if it was to be done properly. Poorer people were more likely to be hanged, or worse, broken on the wheel or burned at the stake.

At the time of the French Revolution it was felt that the whole process needed to be made more reliable, more clinically effective, and that the moment of execution should not in itself form part of a process of torture. A committee was formed under Antoine Louis, the King´s Physician, and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery. The committee looked at more humane methods of execution. Enter Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin who on 10th October 1789 put forward six proposals to the ruling Assembly. These were based on the idea that the death penalty should involve decapitation; that the same kind of offences should incur the same penalty, throughout the whole country;  that no discredit should apply to the family of the criminal; that his or her body should be handed to the family for burial immediately after execution; and that burial should take place without any note or mark to register that the deceased was a criminal. The goods and estates of the deceased should not be confiscated.

Dr Guillotin

The six Articles were approved on 3rd June 1791 with the announcement that “Every person condemned to the death penalty shall have his head severed”. This caused a few concerns for the official executioner, Sanson, because he knew that he could not keep pace with all executions throughout the country  and it was recognized that a mechanical solution needed to be found.

The following April Roederer, the Procureur genéral syndic, entered into an agreement with a German harpsichord manufacturer by the name of Tobias Schmidt to make such a machine in return for a payment of 960 francs. This was to include the leather bag in which the severed head could be disposed! The design was apparently that of Dr Louis himself, although some g¡ve credit to Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court.

Various experiments on animals and  human corpses were carried out until the oblique blade was chosen in place of the curved variety. The very first “live” use was on 25th April 1792 when one Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier, convicted of highway robbery, was sent head-first into the bucket. The crowd were not amused – they preferred the less clinical public spectacle of a hanging, or a few botched attempts with the sword! In the aftermath of Pelletier’s execution the contraption became known as the ‘Louisette’ or ‘Louison’ in honour of Antoine Louis. It later became  known as La Guillotine, possibly after a mischievous campaign by one of the good doctor´s political rivals.

Refinements were introduced – nuts and bolts were to be used in place of nails to make the frame more rigid, and the groove down which the blade dropped was to be made in brass rather than iron.

Finally on 21st August 1792 the contraption was set up at the Place du Carroussel , where it remained until the following year apart from when it  was needed for particularly notable executions (such as the King) when it was moved to the Place de la Révolution. Meanwhile instructions were sent out to all departments in France, accompanied by the illustration shown here, so that machines could be replicated throughout the country.

Nine months after her husband, Louis XVI was beheaded, Marie Antoinette went to meet her fate at the same venue i.e. near the gate to the Tuileries Garden at the Place de la Révolution, now known as Place de la Concorde. She became one of the estimated 16,000 people beheaded during the  Reign of Terror (out of a total of perhaps 40,000, most of whom were killed by other methods such as shooting or drowning). Famously, the public were egged on by the tricoteuses – the knitting ladies – who acted as cheerleaders to the spectacle. Eventually public support for the grisly spectacle waned and the National Council turned against Maximilien Robespierre, one of the architects of the Reign of Terror. In July 1794 he was arrested and executed in the same way as those who he had condemned, a fitting end both for him and, in due course, to  the Terror itself.

The guillotine continued to be used in France and its colonies for nearly 200 years.The last public execution in France took place in 1939 and the death penalty was finally abolished in that country in 1981.

History shows that the guillotine had become a favourite of Adolf Hitler. In the German version the steps leading to the execution platform were removed (it was naturally difficult to force a reluctant prisoner, his feet bound, to mount the steps). This meant that a lower drop required the use of a heavier blade. Mostly it was used for killing common criminals and German records show at least 16,500 were dispatched in this way between 1933 and 1945.

It does seem a trifle unfair that the name La Guillotine has been applied to the contraption, thereby associating the name of a fine and humane doctor with a macabre and fearsome instrument of death. He actually opposed the death penalty and simply stated that if it were to be used it should be done in a humane manner. The Guillotin family were so incensed at the association with their name that they petitioned the French government to rename it; when the government refused, they instead changed their own family name.

Wikipedia states that “By coincidence, a person named Guillotin was indeed executed by the guillotine – he was J.M.V. Guillotin, a doctor of Lyons. This coincidence may have contributed to erroneous statements that Guillotin was put to death on the machine that bears his name;however, in reality, Guillotin died in Paris in 1814 of natural causes.”

Guillotin died on 26th March. We remember him with a shudder and with hairs bristling on the back of the neck ….

Apr 232012

Q: What links ‘God save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia’?   A: Thomas Augustine Arne.

Thomas Arne, by Zoffany

Arne was born in 1710 and died in 1778 and in his lifetime was one of the country’s leading music composers for the theatre. The first published version of “God Save the King”, very similar to the present tune, appeared in Thesaurus Musicus in 1744. It became a popular patriotic song the following year, coinciding with the Jacobite Rebellion. It is rumoured to have been sung by forces loyal to the King (George II) after  the defeat at the Battle of Prestonpans. A version of the song appears in the Gentleman Magazine of 1745, where it was referred to as “God save our Lord the King. A new song set for two voices” and there are records that it was being performed at Covent Garden theatre after each performance. Thomas Arne composed a special version for the Drury Lane theatre.


The actual phrase “God Save the King” is much older than the song. It appears several times  in the King James version of The Bible and there is a claim that it was previously used as a watch-word in the English Navy, where the call of “God save the King” was met by the response “Long to reign over us”

The fact that the song has become a national anthem (for great Britain, not for England which does not have one) appears to have been a matter of custom, not law. No Act of Parliament or Royal Proclamation directed it to be played, but in practice the entire anthem is played as a salute to the reigning sovereign (and consort). Other “lesser”  Royals such as the Prince of Wales, only have to endure the first six bars of the dreadful dirge. From time to time there are calls to introduce an English anthem (just as the Welsh and the Scots have theirs), so who knows, maybe we will end up with Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” for the English and we can relegate “God Save the King”  solely  to British occasions….

Arne’s main claim to fame is “Rule, Britannia!” In 1740 James Thomson, a Scottish poet, wrote the words as part of a masque called Alfred. The masque, involving music and dance, was ostensibly about Alfred the Great and was performed to Arne’s music to commemorate the accession of George II. The first performance was at Cliveden, home to Frederick Prince of Wales, on 1st August 1740.


Interestingly, it was written at a time when Britain did not rule the waves. Indeed the correct punctuation of the title is “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!” – in other words it was an exhortation to rule. Later refinements in the Victorian era changed it to a simple statement of fact: “Britannia rules the waves”

At the time it was written, it concluded with the words “Britons never shall be slaves” whereas the version we know is “Britons never, never shall be slaves”

Arne was buried at St Paul’s Church (otherwise known as the Actors’ Church, and designed by Inigo Jones) at Covent Garden where a plaque records his achievement.

Beethoven composed variations on both tunes: God save the King Variations (1802-3) and Rule, Britannia Variations in 1805.


Britannia had been the personification of Britain since Roman times. Roman emperors liked to show their might by demonstrating the conquest of these islands, with the figure of Britannia seated. It then disappeared from our coinage for fifteen hundred years, reappearing on the farthings of Charles II. From there it has appeared on pennies, halfpennies and farthings for over 200 years, but is now relegated to a single guest spot, the reverse side of the fifty pence piece. Unless of course you include the coin known as the Britannia, a bullion coin weighing one troy ounce and with a face value of £100. It (and its fractions) feature either a standing Britannia or occasionally this seated version.

Other numismatic representations of Britannia were seen on the ‘Cartwheel Twopence’ of George III (huge – it contained tuppence worth of copper and would leave a huge hole in your pocket – literally!)


Also on the splendid Victorian farthing: 

And to end with, an example of how Britannia is still used as a symbol of British strength (and weakness!). It appears at Cottage Garden Crafts .

Apr 232012

Time for nice warm feeling: I’ve been nominated for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award by the lovely Laura Purcell at http://lauradpurcell.wordpress.com/about/ If, like me, you choose to pass your time in the Eighteenth Century, then this is a site worth visiting to see what others are writing about and doing.

Receivers of the Very Inspiring Blog Award have to tell you seven things about themselves and nominate seven other blogs.

So here goes, seven things about me…

1. I married my wife on her birthday, which is on Valentine’s Day. It took me a while to find someone for whom I only have to buy one card  each year (birthday, anniversary and Valentine) but the wait was definitely worth-while!

2. I am probably the only blogger in the blogosphere who doesn’t keep cats, or dogs, or guinea pigs. It is not that I don’t like them it is just that animals don’t fit in with my peripatetic existence as I flit from Spain to the UK.

3. I spent thirty years as a lawyer. Ten of them were fun, ten were sort of OK-ish, and ten were frankly boring!

4. I can recite the alphabet faster backwards than forwards (that goes into the ‘not a lot of people know that’ category).

5. I always wanted to be a historian ‘when I grow up’ – lawyering was only ever a way of filling in time!

6. I wrote my first novel when I was eight. I recollect that it was a historical detective book set on the shores of Lake Titicaca and involved stolen treasure! From memory, it was the butler what done it!

7. The reason I wrote the Journal of a Georgian Gentleman (as opposed to a Victorian Gentleman) is that I can barely decipher the handwriting of Richard Hall’s son!

And for the blogs, here is a list which deliberately excludes the ones I can see have just been nominated already:

1. It’s about Time (“Searching centuries of Art, Nature, & Everyday Life for Unique Perspectives, Uncommon Grace, & Unexpected Insights) .

2. English Historical Fiction Authors  for the sheer variety of topics covered.

3. Diary of a Mantua Maker  because it has some superb examples of clothing, shoes etc and how to make them.

4. The London Historians’ Blog on all things London .

5. The irrepressible Lucy Inglis for her informative (but far too infrequent) blogs on Georgian London

6. Number One London

7. Patrick Baty  for anything and everything to do with paints (and the history of houses as revealed by their paint).


Apr 202012

20th April marks the anniversary of the death of a remarkable young man who died, at only 21 years of age, on this day in 1786.

John Goodricke was born in 1764 in Groningen in the Netherlands, to a Dutch mother and an English father who was a diplomat. He was the eldest of five children. In 1769 he contracted scarlet fever, and the illness left him totally deaf.

His parents sent him to Thomas Braidwood’s Academy in Edinburgh, a school with an excellent reputation for educating deaf children. Indeed when Dr Johnson visited the Academy in 1773 he was astonished, remarking “No other city has to show a college of the deaf and dumb, who are taught to speak, to read, to write, and practise arithmetic.” Amazed by what he witnessed from the twelve students, he declared, “they hear with the eye.”

In 1778 the thirteen year old boy was sent to Warrington Academy while the family moved to nearby York. Warrington was a school with an excellent academic record – Joseph Priestly had been a tutor there – but it had no special facilities for deaf pupils. Indeed these would appear not to have been needed because John Goodricke had mastered lip reading, and could communicate fully with his mentors. The school had been founded as a Unitarian theological seminary and one of the teachers was William Enfield. He taught natural philosophy and mathematics – subjects in which his deaf pupil excelled. He also taught religion, elocution and, most important of all, astronomy. It is highly likely that it was Enfield who fostered John’s interest in the night sky.

When he left Warrington John went to live with his family at The Treasurers House in York. From then on the story moves swiftly. John had developed a fascination with the universe and this passion was shared with his cousin Edward Piggott who, at 28, was eleven years his senior. Edward’s father was Nathaniel Piggott, a well-known astronomer, and he provided the eager pair with sophisticated equipment with which to scan the skies at night (a telescope and an extremely accurate timepiece).

Goodricke studied the star Algol, otherwise Beta Persei. It is the second brightest star in the constellation Perseus, and its light takes something like 93 years to reach us. It is distinctive for varying in brightness every few days. In his Journal for 12th November 1782 Goodricke writes:

“This night looked at Beta-Persei …and was much amazed to find its brightness altered. It now appears to be fourth magnitude… I observed it diligently for about an hour upwards…hardly believing that it changed its brightness, because I had never heard of any star varying so quick in its brightness. I thought it might be perhaps owing to an optical illusion, a defect in my eyes or bad air, but the sequel will show that its change is true and that it was not mistaken.

Goodricke measured these fluctuations as occurring every 68 hours and fifty minutes. He correctly surmised that this was a sort of cosmic B.O.G.O.F. (Buy one, get one free) whereby two stars were locked in a perpetual game of merry-go-round, each eclipsing the other at regular intervals. His discovery of the first known eclipsing binary i.e. a pair of rotating stars, opened the way for others to locate similar examples. For this work, he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London in 1783.

John continued to study stars and went on to discover the variability of Beta Lyrae and Delta Cephei, the latter apparently being known as a ‘prototype Cepheid variable’ (whatever that may mean!). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 6th April 1786. Sadly, he never knew of the honour , as he died two weeks later from pneumonia, before news of his election reached him. He is buried in the family grave at Hunsingore Church in Yorkshire.

A plaque at Treasurers House at York, where John made his discoveries, reads as follows:

“From a window in the Treasurer’s House, City of York, the young deaf and dumb astronomer John Goodricke, who was elected a fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 21, observed the periodicity of the star ALGOL and discovered the variation of CEPHEL and other stars thus laying the foundation of modern measurement of the Universe.”

I will leave it to another star-gazer to comment on his achievement. Sir Patrick Moore, the TV astronomer, made the following remarks:

“He was deaf and dumb and remained so all through his life, but there was nothing the matter with either his eyesight or his brain; he became an expert observer as well as a theorist.”

Commemorative stamp from Nicaragua, 1994

One of the colleges at York University is named Goodricke College in his honour.

In the Eighteenth Century it was especially hard for any person to overcome  a disability such as profound deafness – it was a society in which no quarter was given, no allowance made. But he made a significant contribution to the field of astronomy, and deserves to be remembered, as an inspiration to others.

Apr 192012

It isn’t often that a fifty pound note comes into my possession but looking at one reminds me of the partnership which propelled Britain through the Industrial Revolution – the association between James Watt and Matthew Boulton.

Of the two partners, James is the better known, but Matthew was a hugely important figure, with his factory in Soho on the outskirts of Birmingham.

Matthew was an exact contemporary of my ancestor Richard Hall, having been born  on 14th September 1728. His father (also called Matthew) was a buckle and button maker and the younger Matthew followed his father into the family business in 1745. He married Mary Robinson four years later but tragedy struck in 1759 when both his father and his wife died. The following year he married his late wife’s sister (Ann) and in 1768 they had a daughter, followed a couple of years later by a son. The decision to marry his late wife’s sister was not without controversy – it was not actually illegal but it was against ecclesiastical law and there is a suggestion that Matthew had to bribe a clergyman to conduct the ceremony. The controversy prompted him to advise someone else he met,  and who was contemplating marrying the sister of his recently deceased wife, “I recommend silence, secrecy…. and Scotland”

The Soho Manufactory, demolished in the 1860's

Boulton was an ambitious businessman and in 1761 signed a lease of 13 acres of land at Handsworth. It included Soho House which had been constructed in 1757 and Boulton quickly developed the land by building the Soho Manufactury. It specialised in making jewellery, silverware and decorative knick-knacks and these were exported throughout Europe.

Boulton was one of the Founder members of the Lunar Society, a group whose members included such eminent ‘movers and shakers’ as Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgwood. Another member was James Watt, with whom he went into partnership in 1775 making and selling steam engines, in particular to mine owners.

Gas pioneer William Murdoch was also a member. I did a post about him on 9th January. Murdoch had  caused a commotion by illuminating Boulton’s factory with gas lights, for the first time enabling workers to operate in shifts  around the clock. Ironically the Lunar Society got its name from the fact that it met every time there was a full moon – because it made for easier travel home after the meetings. Not that it mattered to Boulton since meetings were held at Soho House, which he remodelled in 1790.

Other notable events in his life  were in 1773 (when the Birmingham Assay Office was opened at his instigation, giving a huge boost to the manufacture of silver goods in the Midlands) and in 1785 when he was elected as a Fellow to the Royal Society. He had strong connections with the theatre, becoming chairman of the Birmingham Theatre Proprietor’s Committee in 1794. Meanwhile his insurance scheme, which from the 1770s provided assistance for his workers in times of sickness, became the model which others followed. He invested money in  the burgeoning canal network, and helped to contribute to the astonishing feat whereby Birmingham, a landlocked town, became a pre-eminent industrial city and port.

The golden trio - Boulton, Watt and Murdoch

A pattern of what became known as the cartwheel penny, dated 1797, courtesy of Spink.

He was made High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1794 and three years later was awarded a contract by the Royal Mint to mint copper coinage. The results were a triumph for Boulton – he demonstrated the power of the Boulton and Watt engines by striking the coins (pennies and two penny pieces) with the inscription incused i.e. set into the rim as opposed to being left raised.

A pair of ormolu antique candle vases made from Carrara marble by Boulton in 1770 courtesy of the website of Jeremy Ltd at http://www.jeremy.ltd.uk/index.htm

His range of manufactured goods was impressive – swords and decorative ormolu items and fancy silver goods were his mainstay. His factory became so famous it became a tourist attraction in its own right, with a tea room opened to cater for the demand.

The minting of the coins involved lapping and polishing the metal blanks and one of the original machines, known as the Lap Machine, is exhibited in the Science Museum. It had been in use from 1788 to 1858.



As well as manufacturing  coins the factory supplied whole minting presses to overseas governments (such as  Imperial Russia) and when the Royal Mint was moved from the Tower of London to its new premises nearby, it purchased Boulton & Watt machinery.

Matthew Boulton died at Soho House on 17 August 1809 of kidney failure. His partner James Watt outlived him by a whole decade but when he too died he was buried alongside Matthew Boulton in the churchyard at St Mary’s Church. Theirs was indeed a partnership which lasted an eternity…

What better  way to remember him than by quoting the words of a Mr J.H.Reddell who wrote to Matthew Boulton in 1800 “Methinks Public gratitude should erect a Column to the memory of the First engineer, Artist and manufacturer that ever existed whose Ingenuity and perseverance enriched his Country beyond the powers of calculation; and the place should be called Boultonia, or Boulton’s Town.”   Well, maybe that is a bit O.T.T., but you get the picture! Instead he is commemorated in a stamp and a medal…

The First class stamp commemorating the bi-centenary of his death in 2009.

Bronze medal commemorating his death, issued in 1809.

Apr 182012

Apparently Jane Austen wrote her first novel Love and Freindship (sic) in 1789 when she was 14. It is classed as  part of her “Juvenilia” – one of 29 stories bound up into three manuscript books. So, if she had her hero pay a visit for the weekend, what would he have packed in his bags? Well,  I can say what Richard Hall would pack for a weekend away, because he noted it in his diary in May 1784. (He was my great, great, great, great-grandfather).

Some of the entries are hard to decipher but it appears to start off with shirts; first a couple of night shirts, then what appears to be two “neck shirts” including a “new fine plain” one. He packed two Ruffles plus “One fine Holland Ditto” as well as three pairs of silk stockings. One piece of gauze, three pairs worsted (stockings,  presumably) went into the case along with a couple of night caps made of “linnen”.


“W. shoes” may have referred to walking shoes but I cannot be sure and I have been unable to decipher the following line apart from seeing that it involved “one Blue Ditto and One Silk”

He needed a cloth coat and waistcoat (he called it “cloath”) as well as a silk waistcoat and a white dining waistcoat. Silk breeches and five stocks were packed as well as “muffatees”. Sadly I have no record showing what these were made from – they were fingerless gloves or wrist bands, often knitted but sometimes made of elasticated strips of leather, or even fancy ones made of peacock feathers. They remained popular for many years – even Beatrice Potter has Old Mrs. Rabbit earning her living by knitting rabbit-wool mittens and muffatees (~ The Tale of Benjamin Bunny).

One knitting site called Dancing with Wolves, states: “in the days before central heating, keeping warm in winter was a major challenge. We think we know about dressing in layers, but most of us don’t have to resort to wearing coats and hats and gloves indoors. But heavy layering was necessary. Working with your hands in mittens is clumsy at best. The solution? Wear muffatees.
“Muffatees are tube-like, fingerless mitts that cover wrist and hand up to the middle of the fingers, usually with an opening along the side for the thumb. The simplest, and possibly earliest form was comprised of the cuff or leg of a worn-out stocking, minus the foot. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, many pairs were sewn from warm cloth, or simply knitted of wool in plain or fancy patterns.”

Several sites give patterns – and incidentally Richard often called them wrist bands (pronounced “risbans” according to the one of the entries in his diary, at the same time as remembering that “waistcoat” was pronounced “wescote”).

They were thought to work on the basis of keeping  the blood warm  at the point where the pulse is felt at the wrist, but leaving the fingers completely unfettered.

For longer journeys Richard would then record how many items of luggage were needed. For a trip lasting a fortnight (travelling the 264 miles from Bourton on the Water to Weymouth and Lulworth Castle and back) he needed seven items, all of them charged separately by the coachman. And then as an afterthought Richard showed an eighth item – his steam kettle!

This would have gone on board along with the Great Trunk, the blue box. the wainscot (i.e. wood-panelled) box, his green bag, his great coat, his shoes and his wig box.



The actual cost of travel was considerable. Richard shows a coach journey from Bourton to Evesham of 41 miles costing  over one pound eleven shillings:

This would have been the equivalent of perhaps a hundred pounds (around 150 dollars) today. This included his dinner at four shillings and ten pence (equivalent to a buying power of perhaps $22 today); the waiter at sixpence (a couple of dollars); the horsler i.e. ostler a shilling (four dollars); and turnpikes one shilling and sixpence (six dollars).  The actual coach fare came to a guinea (getting on for a hundred dollars nowadays), and these figures have to be seen in the light of farm labourers having to get by on ten shillings a week!

Why the turnpikes? Their frequency increased as a direct result of the Duke of Cumberland’s campaign against the Jacobites in 1745/6 . Moving troops north to meet the rebels was handicapped by the dreadful state of the roads, and in the wake of the Duke’s criticism, Parliament encouraged local communities to form Turnpike Trusts. In return for filling in potholes, and re-surfacing and maintaining the roads, each Trust was entitled to levy a toll. Within a couple of decades roads had improved dramatically – to the extent that some coach operators were able to run throughout the night. Think Georgian carriage lamps and think of a coach-and-four thundering through the darkness! The result was a dramatic decrease in journey times. The cost of travel in turn came down, as the operators  reduced their overheads by cutting out  the need to stay  overnight, for instance on the journey between London and Bristol.

Mind you, there was still the risk of being ordered to “stand and deliver” by highwaymen. This picture shows the moment when a coach is hijacked.


But justice was as swift as it was lethal, and here we see the miscreant swinging from the gallows. I love the nonchalant behaviour of the horse-riders as they gossip nearby!

Incidentally all these cut-outs were made by my ancestor Richard Hall. He was born in 1729 and died in 1801 and I suspect that most of the cut-outs were made in the last twenty years of his life, possibly to entertain his young family. I am fortunate enough to have many of his journals  and papers, from diaries to accounts, and from shopping lists to inventories. For more details do have a look at my book The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman.

(The above post was first published earlier today on the excellent website of the English Historical Fiction Authors here.)

Apr 172012

You have to feel sorry for poor William Henry Ireland: his father, a keen Shakespeare buff, regarded him as a total waste of space and even went so far as to suggest he might not have been the father to the child anyway; the mother went further – she denied being the boy’s mum and claimed that she was simply the housekeeper. To make matters worse, although his name was William Henry his family called him Samuel (after a brother, who had died before he was born). One suspects that he felt a trifle unloved, unworthy and un-appreciated!

Nothing he ever did matched up to his father’s expectations, wrapped up as his father was in Shakespearian lore, and pursuing his personal Holy Grail of finding and owning a manuscript written by the Great Bard. At some stage in his youth the boy watched his father make a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon, and noted the simplistic awe with which his father paid good money for “a genuine chair William Shakespeare had actually sat in.” He also noted the reverence with which father looked after ‘ a piece of mulberry tree Shakespeare had planted at Stratford.’ In later  years (1832) the son was to write “Frequently, my father would  declare, that  to possess a single vestige of the poet’s hand-writing would  be esteemed a gem  beyond all price.”

Perhaps desperate to be appreciated, the boy hit upon the plan of giving his father a ‘Shakespeare original’. For hours he practised the signature until he could do it blindfold. Then came the easy bit: he worked as a clerk in a law practice with a huge stock of old mortgage deeds, each with its own seal. A simple cutting exercise obtained suitably-aged blank vellum, onto which he appended an old seal and scrawled “W. Shakspeare” across it. He then handed it to his delighted, if somewhat gullible, father.

Encouraged by this success, young Ireland manufactured an imposing variety of items which the literary world was waiting for – original love poems written by Will to Anne Hathaway, an old promissory note, a letter confirming that Shakespeare was a true adherent of the Protestant faith. and so on. I particularly like the wondrous mastery of the English language in one of the love letters to Anne:

Is there inne heavenne aught more rare
Thanne thou sweete Nymphe of Avon fayre
Is there onne Earthe a Manne more trewe
Thanne Willy Shakespeare is toe you.

I mean, that’s yer actual Shakespeare, innit?

Eagerly his father invited prominent fellows round to view his growing Cabinet of Curiosities, Most, if not all, were totally taken in by what they saw – precisely because they wanted to believe in it. James Boswell paid a house call and was enthralled to be holding what he was convinced was a genuine piece of Shakespeariana, and announced that he could now die a happy man. And die he did, just a few months later.

Others were greatly impressed, including family friend Sir Frederick Eden, who was an expert on old seals. He saw that the seal which had been used had a picture of a quintain on it (a target used in jousting). Why, this was indeed a pun worthy of Shakespeare, since it was clearly an emblem showing a target for a man to shake his spear at! (The pun was totally unintended – indeed William Henry Ireland had never noticed the emblem).

Oh, if only Dad could have kept it all to himself! Oh that Master Ireland had not decided to get a bit above himself! Dad wanted more – so he got it. A hand-written version of the entire play King Lear (faithfully copied out and annotated, in Elizabethan script). And then the coup de grace, an entirely new play by the Bard, the hitherto unknown masterpiece entitled Vortigern and Rowena. It was based, as was many of Shakespeare’s actual plays, upon one of the stories contained in Hollinshed’s Chronicles. Conveniently  old man Ireland kept a copy of the Chronicle in his library, and his son simply lifted the tale from it and hammed up as many verses as he could until, hey presto, he had himself a whole play!

Father then decided to publish a book so that all could share in his great scholarship. Entitled Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare it appeared on Christmas Eve 1795. It immediately provoked a barrage of hostile criticism and outright condemnation as a fake, with its liberal scattering of ‘ees’ at the end of most words! The Telegraph published a mock letter from the Bard to his friend and  rival Ben Jonson: “Deeree  Sirree, Wille youe doee meee theee favvourree too  dinnee wythee meee onn Friddaye nextte, attt twoo off theee clockee, too  eattee sommee muttonne choppes andd  somme poottaattoooeesse.”

But Master Ireland was nothing if not brazen. He took the play to Richard Brinsley Sheridan and asked if he would like to put it on at his newly extended Drury Lane theatre. Sheridan read the script, realized that whereas it might be a load of tripe, it was surely good enough to get bums on seats, and promptly agreed a fee of £300 and half of the profits. The run was due to start on 1st April 1796, but Ireland insisted that the first night be delayed by a day ‘in case people thought it a hoax.’

John Philip Kemble was actor manager at the theatre and clearly had his reservations about the authenticity of the play in which he was to play the role of Vortigern against Dorothea Jordan’s Rowena. But for two Acts the capacity crowd watched and listened politely, fully aware of the question marks over the play but willing to judge it on its merits.

Then came the point in the play where Kemble, playing the part where King Vortigern addresses Death, was to utter the stanza:

O! then thou dost ope wide thy hideous jaws,

And with rude laughter, and fantastic tricks,

Thou clapp’st thy rattling fingers to thy sides;

And when this solemn mockery is ended…

He hammed it up something rotten, and for good measure he then deliberately repeated the final line. The audience went berserk and threatened to tear the theatre down. Bedlam ensued before Kemble prevailed upon the audience to let the Third Act be played. At the end there were catcalls galore and although Kemble came on to announce that there would be a performance of the play on Monday next, he was met by a barrage  of abuse and in the chaos was hauled back on stage to inform all present that Sheridan’s School for Scandal would be performed in its place. Order was restored…

After the 1796 public debacle Master Ireland went to confess all to his father – who basically could not believe that he had been duped. He died a couple of years later, his reputation in tatters. William Henry Ireland decided to make a bob or two out of his notoriety and published the story of the hoax and his part in it as The Confessions of William Henry Ireland in 1805

He struggled to make a living as a poet and writer after that. He was to die exactly 177 years ago today, an impecunious  scribbler who spent time in the debtor’s prison, and who left a wife and children destitute. But for a while, a very brief while, he had got to live the dream: he had been The Bard!

P.S. There was speculation at the time that the entire Ireland family was involved in the scam producing fake manuscripts – simply because many did not think it possible that all the forgeries were the work of one young man. Hence in this John Nixon caricature,  we see William Henry, sitting on the floor. with his parents and two sisters busy churning out fakes. In fact, all the evidence points to Willliam Henry being the only wrong-doer – his father was guilty of stupidity but nothing more.

Apr 152012

Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds


Some time after 1799 my ancestor Richard Hall decided to buy a copy of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary at a cost of three shillings and sixpence, bound, and noted the details in his diary. In fact many of these dictionaries shamelessly used the name Dr Johnson as part of their title and then simply listed the words which he had selected in his original two-volume set. They often missed off the full meanings of words and omitted examples of quotations which were the hall-mark of the original work. The ‘miniatures’ (the equivalent of a modern paperback or pocket sized edition), were intended particularly for school use.







Many added ‘useful extras’ such as this one:

shown courtesy of Abe Books (yours for a shade over £250 to include post and packing!).

Johnson had published his original Dictionary of the English Language on 15th April 1755. It marked the culmination of years of labour. Poor Johnson – he had originally been a teacher in Lichfield in Staffordshire but apparently his pupils did not appreciate his teaching skills. Indeed it is quite possible that he suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome, with complaints about his ‘oddities of manner and uncouth gesticulation’. Throughout his life he suffered from a tic, emphasised by him uttering strange noises ‘as if clucking like a hen” or exhaling air ‘like a whale’ These oddities of manner forced him to move to London in 1737 and for the next decade he scraped a fairly miserable living writing for magazines and struggling to keep his creditors at bay. Fortunately he had been befriended by the actor David Garrick (indeed the latter had been a pupil of his) and Garrick knew his way around London and effected numerous introductions for him. Eventually he was asked by the bookseller Robert Dodsley to compile a definitive dictionary of the English Language. It was not the first attempt – there had been a score of earlier versions spread over the preceding 200 years, but Johnson took things to an entirely new level of erudition and scholarship. The Earl of Chesterfield agreed to act as patron to the project and to pay Johnson the huge fee of 1500 guineas.

Whereas the French had their forty ‘immortals’ (a committee of learned men who made up the Académie Française who would take upwards of fiftyfive years to compile their Dictionnaire) Johnson set-to with between four and six helpers and completed the whole task in a little over 8 years. He was determined to ‘straighten out’ the language, aiming loftily “[O]ne great end of this undertaking is to fix the English language.” In this aim he can be said to have failed miserably, since English refuses to stop growing and evolving.

“Gout” by Thomas Rowlandson

Johnson ended his days gout-ridden and in great pain. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve 1784.


A plethora of pocket editions appeared shortly after Johnson’s death. They sold in their thousands, both in England and overseas, with editions being printed throughout the Nineteenth Century. And so it is that it is a copy of the miniature dictionary which Thackeray has Becky Sharpe hurl out of the carriage window in Vanity Fair (1847).


For a hundred and fifty years, until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared on the scene, Dr Johnson’s Dictionary was the pre-eminent source of words, their meaning, pronunciation, and use.

Post script: I cannot end a post on dictionaries without including my own all-time favourite:

The definition reads “A small red fish which swims backwards” – and the word this is supposed to describe? A crab. But a crab is not necessarily small. Indeed it is not a fish. It is not always red. It does not swim – it crawls. Its movement is sideways not backwards.

So, a masterpiece of inaccuracy on the part of the lexicographer, with every single word being erroneous. And yet….most of us would immediately recognize the description. As Blackadder says to Dr Johnson in the penultimate (and finest) series of Blackadder, it is enough to throw you into a state of total discombobulation.