Aug 102012

Today marks the death of Scottish-born Allan Ramsay  228 years ago. As a twenty year old Ramsey had travelled from his native Edinburgh, first to London and then to Italy, to hone his skills as a painter. On the left is his  portrait as a twenty year old, courtesy of the National Gallery Complex in Edinburgh, and right, a later self-portrait courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.



In 1761 he was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to George III – a job which necessitated him painting large numbers of portraits of the monarch and his family, to present to ambassadors and other dignitaries. Sounds like a real poisoned chalice to me….

King George III painted in 1762

















Queen Charlotte, painted the same year.



His private life was not particularly happy – his first wife died in childbirth and none of their three children reached adult-hood. He re-married in 1752, his bride being one of his drawing pupils called Margaret Lindsay. They had eloped together, following opposition from her family. She died in 1782.



Ramsay’s first wife Anne




              and second wife Margaret.





Ramsay suffered ill health and was forced to give up painting shortly after 1770, having shattered his right arm in an accident. He died aged seventy in 1784.

I particularly like this portrait of Lady Mary Coke, with its acres of white satin.





and also thus striking portrait  of Jean Abercromby, Mrs Morison of Haddo, painted around  1767.



So, let us raise a glass of Irn Bru and toast the health of Allan Ramsay – happy birthday!



(A modified version of this post first appeared on my Posterous site in 2011)

Aug 082012

Throughout the 18th Century I have come across stories of people suddenly appearing in a remote village, and no one can work out where they came from or why. Perhaps it is an indication of how little the population moved around, that strangers stood out in this way. There are echoes perhaps in the modern era with stories of children emerging from a forest claiming to have amnesia and uttering nothing but grunting sounds. You can bet that the red-tops will run with stories of ‘feral children being raised by wolves’ or whatever. They are generally found to be fakes…

Here then is a variation on that theme – as evidenced in a letter which my ancestor Richard Hall received some time in the 1780s. It is undated, so I cannot be more specific, but it appears to be in response to a query by Richard for information. Presumably he had gleaned some facts, and was intrigued to know the full story.

Complete with 18th Century spelling it reads:

Dear Sir

Your desire I comply with in sending you the extraordinary intelligence which my Brother sent me from Leicestershire, the following is the whole of it. As I know you will love to hear anything entertaining from Leicestershire, I therefore send you the following account, which altho it may seem strange, yet you may depend on it being true.

Last July there came a Stranger one night to Mr Samuel Horton’s of Mowsley in a miserable condition. Miserable indeed! Barefooted and bareheaded, and without breeches or coat, in a lamenting and pitiful manner, crying with all his strength, a poor creature well he might, being in such a forlorn condition. You must think that they would be much alarmed at a Fellow’s coming in that manner – alarmed! Not only they but the whole neighbourhood was alarmed too, and poor Mrs Horton who you may know is in common a timmerous Woman was so dreadfully affected by the manner of his coming that she almost fainted away – took her bed and was extreamly ill – yea, did not overget it for several weeks. However her husband (as you know) is a very affectionate kind Man, took compassion on the Stranger, and treated him more like a familiar than an Enemy or Stranger, and indeed if he had not compassion on him he must have died, for he was so weak that he could not possibly go to another Town. His Wife too was as willing as himself that the poor creature should be harbourd and care taken of him, which you will say was very commendable in her, as she had sufferd so much by him. You will say that this was very commendable indeed. Well this poor creature has been entertain’d by them, yea by them clothed from top to toe – generous treatment you will say to one they never saw before, but what could they do, for altho the Neighbours shewed compassion &tc by word, yet not one of them bought so much as an Old Hat, or Breeches to put on him, however it is very commendable in them, they let him want for nothing.

You will want to know what sort of fellow this is, where he came from, and what made him come there in such a manner.

Well, take the following account such as it is, tho a better perhaps you could not have even from himself, he is so odd. Odd, you’ll say, why he is some fool or Madman. No he is neither, tho if you saw him in some of his fits and Whims (and he has strange ones at times) you would think that he has not much sense, or at least doth not make much use of it. However, you’ll judge by the following. After things were settled a little and he had been warm’d, Cloth’d and Refresh’d several Persons talk’d to him

There then follows an odd passage about trying to ascertain the man’s religion – something which nowadays would be of supreme indifference to the story, rather like questioning him about which football team he supported. But to the writer, the fact that he was not in favour of “infant sprinkling” ( i.e. infant baptism) nor “dipping” (adult baptism) was important. The letter shows that the man was no papist, It continues “You will think he is a Quaker, answer no, for he has no notion of their Light within, nor Enthusiastical Spirits…neither is he an Atheist.”

The letter gives this description of his appearance:

“As to his person he is of an engaging countenance, very fair, his Eyes Blue.; light coloured hair, like Flax as if very young, but then he has never a tooth in his Head, as if very Old. Yet his having no teeth does not at all affect his Speech but is as fluent and as much an Orator as I think you ever heard in your Life, of his Age, and he never speaks but with the utmost regard to propriety.”

The letter ends with a suggestion that Richard is most welcome to travel to Leicestershire to see the man for himself, adding “He is like Travellers that have been used to all kinds of Company, never dasht nor bashfull and he is such a Master of language that he can converse freely in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, as easily as he can speak to you in the plainest English, which is his Mother Tongue”

The letter was found in a horse-hair chest amongst other papers of my ancestor, and tantalisingly there is no follow-up or explanation. So if anyone out there knows the story behind ‘the wild man of Leicestershire’ I will be interested to hear!


Aug 062012

Disused industrial chimneys are two a penny, but some are special. Dotted around the world are tall towers, usually beautifully made of brick, which are a reminder of a very particular use – buckshot manufacture. You can see them in London and in Iowa, Melbourne and Baltimore – and indeed there is a particularly hideous concrete one (circa 1968) in Bristol. The oldest surviving one was put up in Chester in 1793. And they all owe their existence to one man – William Watts.

The Shot Tower, Crane Park, West London

Good old WW was a Bristol plumber and in 1782 he discovered a way of making perfect lead shot. Prior to that date lead shot was made by casting the molten metal into a mold containing 8 to 10 spherical cavities. But they rarely filled up evenly, and were prone to becoming pitted or be mis-shapen, which caused problems for the poor soldiers who had to fire their muskets accurately.

WW recounted two different tales as to how he came by the idea of using gravity to make the lead shot, both involving dreams. In one version, he had the dream where he was in a shower, not of rain, but of perfectly spherical lead shot (plumbers apparently dream in lead…) WW knew that rain drops are not the tear-drop shape which we tend to visualize them as being – they are in fact round, and for a very good reason. As water falls it assumes a spherical shape because that causes the least surface tension and reduces resistance to gravity. True, lead shot is tear-shaped if it is just poured straight into a barrel of water, and it only assumes a spherical shape if gravity has had a chance to pull it into shape as the metal cools.

WW decided to experiment with dropping molten lead from a great height – the story going that he rushed up to the top of St Mary Redcliffe Church and poured hot lead through a sieve and noticed little ball-bearing type perfectly-formed spheres hit the ground below. Somehow I can’t see the Churchwarden being too pleased…

The other dream version has it that it was the long-suffering wife of William Watts who had the dream; that she woke her husband twice in the same night to say that she had this vision of perfectly formed shot falling from the skies into a bucket of water, and that in the following morning she commanded her husband to fetch a ladle, a colander, and some lead so that an experiment could be carried out from the top of the stairs to see if her dream would work.

This version gave rise to the following dire ditty:

    Down from the staircase-head

    She throws small drops of lead

    One fell on Watt’s nose. ‘twas scalding hot,

    The rest into the water cold

    In drops of perfect roundness roll’d

    And Watts with wonder did behold

    The birth of Patent Shot.

(I am truly sorry for that awful doggerel): but what is certain is that in 1782 Watts set about doing some serious home improvements to his house. It was already three storeys high. He added another level, and another, and another. Then he put crenellations around the top to make it look nice, while inside he cut holes in all the floors and ceilings, one on top of the other (see why I say that his wife was long-suffering?).

Watts shot tower in Bristol, before demolition in 1968

He then lifted the stone slabs on the ground floor in order to give access to the deep well underneath the house, which was in Redcliffe Street Bedminster. At last he was ready to amaze the world with perfect buckshot (and all I can say is thank goodness there were no Town Planners around to stop him!). Up he went onto the roof, got out his copper sieve, stood over the line of the fall (some 150 feet to the well below) and started pouring molten lead. Eureka! There in the bottom of the well was lead shot as round and shiny as you could wish for! In 1783 he took out the patent “for making small shot perfectly globular in form and without dimples, notches and imperfections which other shot hereto manufactured usually have on their surface”, and sat back and grew rich.

Everyone wanted to use his discovery, and shot towers sprang up around the globe. His shot helped the British army in the Napoleonic Wars.

Ironically his idea was successful because he was using lead from near Priddy in the Mendips (where the Romans had been mining lead 1500 years earlier). The  remains of the disused lead mines are still in evidence today – and one feature of Mendip lead is that it is high in arsenic content. Arsenic makes the lead form into globules rather than into a long string of metal…. so WW was fortunate because otherwise he might have had to sell lead string, which is not generally of much use either on the battlefield or when taking pot-shots at over-flying geese!

For a while all went well for Mr and Mrs Watts; Bedminster was never the most fashionable part of the City of Bristol, and the pair of them had aspirations to go with their new found wealth. They moved up to Clifton, one of the more fashionable parts of Bristol. In 1790 WW decided to sell out, to a local brewer called Philip George who called the business the Philip George Patent Shot Company. The price was £10,000, an enormous sum of money – equivalent to perhaps £700,000 today. Thus fortified, WW looked around for other money-making ideas, and  decided to do a bit of property speculation – close to the sheer cliff face which is the Avon Gorge.

Just as Fate had smiled at his endeavours in Bedminster, so it decided that poor WW would lose every penny he had on this new venture: in order to safeguard the houses he was putting up in Windsor Terrace he had to build a wall – an enormous wall. ‘Huge’ does not do justice to the structure, known ever since as Watts Folly. The foundations alone ate up his ten thousand pounds and on 1st March 1794 he was declared bankrupt. It was to be another twenty years before his project was finished.

His curious home-come-tower remained as a shot factory until 1968 when it was demolished for a road widening scheme. The irony is that the company (by now known as Sheldon Bush & Company) then obtained planning permission to build a huge concrete shot tower right near the city centre. There it sits, ugly as sin, doing virtually nothing, as the shot-making business has ceased and it is linked to offices as a ‘conference centre in the sky’. In 1995 the structure was granted Listed Building status (meaning that it cannot be readily demolished) presumably on account of its sheer awful ugliness, a tribute to Sixties bad taste in design. And so it remains, a monument to one man’s foresight and sheer determination to make a dream come true two hundred and forty years ago!.



I am grateful to Paul Townsend who runs a site called The Changing Face of Bristol for the picture of the old Watts Tower in Redcliffe Street. My thanks too to Chris Hern for pointing out that although it is called a shot tower the tower at Crane Park, as illustrated in this piece, was actually a mill tower and was not used for making shot.


Aug 012012

On 1st August 1797 the ship Lady Shore was some four days off the coast of Brazil. The ship had been built for the East India trade, and had gained its name after Lady Charlotte Shore, wife of Sir John Shore, who was Governor General of India at the time. It was on its way to Botany Bay in Port Jackson (the original name for Sydney) and on board were a decidedly motley crew and cargo. The purser, John Black, had joined the ship in Torbay a couple of weeks earlier and had described the sixty soldiers on board (destined to join the new South Wales Corps) in a letter to his father as “the most disagreeable, mutinous set of villains that ever entered into a ship.”  There had already been an attempted mutiny – the soldiers did not want to go to New South Wales, and their number included deserters as well as French and Irish Prisoners of War.

In a well-rehearsed plot, in the early hours of 1st August the French-led soldiers mutinied. At 2 a.m. the cry of “Vive la République !” rang out and the mutineers ran to take their fighting positions. According to the account in Wikipedia: one controlled the hatch of the women’s quarters; two, the hatch of the quarters where soldiers slept, threatening to kill anyone trying to get out; two covered the deck and were to shoot any sailor or soldier present there and who would not surrender; two would control the hatch of the officers’ quarters; two would arrest the captain; two would seize the three officers on deck and prevent them from giving alarm; and the last one would open an ammunition box, distribute it to his fellow mutineers, and patrol to prevent anyone to flank them.

The captain, by the name of James Willcocks, was killed along with the Chief Mate Lambert.The mutineers quickly took control of the ship and anyone not part of the mutiny was locked below decks (apart from the ship’s carpenter, by the name of Thomas Millard, who was given the job of building a long boat). Intriguingly two of those on board kept diaries which have survived – one by the purser John Black, and the other by Thomas Millard. Fate was to have rather different outcomes in store for the two diarists…

An extract from Millard’s diary, courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Millard describes the events of 1st August: ‘We were Alarm’d by the firing of Musketts on the deck and to my Great Surpris the Capt falling down the steeridge ladder which woke me out of my Sleep,’ he wrote.

Another officer was shouting: ‘Give them the ship, Give them the ship.’

Millard records: ‘I was afraid every minute that some or the others would Blow my brains out with Pistol or run the Bayonets into me.’

Millard was obviously good at his job in constructing a sea-worthy vessel, because a fortnight after the Lady Shore had been seized the purser and 28 others were set adrift in the longboat, along with “three small casks of water, containing about ninety gallons, four bags of bread and three pieces of salt beef.” Thomas Millard was kept behind on board the Lady Shore, as a prisoner of the mutineers.

The castaways had also managed to smuggle aboard “two hams, two cheeses, and a small keg containing about four gallons of rum.”  They were also given a quadrant for navigation (John Black was the navigating officer as well as being the purser) and he had a small pocket compass. They were some 300 nautical miles from the Portuguese controlled coastal settlement of Rio Grande…. and they were the lucky ones!

Remaining on board were the mutineers and the cargo – which just happened to consist of 66 female prisoners on their way to the New South Wales penal colony, for offences which we would now describe as minor – mostly theft and pilfering. For them, the freedom they thought had suddenly materialised was to bring untold horrors.

Staying with the castaways, they encountered tropical storms, torrential rain and high sea, but after only two days found themselves hurled ashore at Rio Grande where the locals took pity on their condition, gave them food and shelter, and in due course escorted them to Rio de Janeiro. For the purser it was a chance to resume his sailing career, mainly as a privateer i.e. someone authorized by the British Government to carry out acts of piracy on the High Seas (mostly against the Spanish and French merchant vessels). He later became a whaler in New South Wales, and subsequently bought land, built a liquor store and developed a successful business. He continued to have itchy feet and spent most of his time at sea, leaving the shop to be managed by his wife. Some years later (1802) he was on board The Fly which sank with all hands on its journey from India back to Tasmania.

But let us return to the unfortunates on board the Lady Shore, heading for an unknown future…

The Lady Shore headed not for Portuguese territory of Brazil but for the Spanish controlled territories of Uruguay, landing at Montevideo some 300 miles to the south. There they were all imprisoned. Well, more accurately, the prettier female convicts were billeted on eager locals throughout the town, while those less endowed with female graces were locked up along with the soldiers who had taken part in the mutiny. There is no record of the fate which met them, but the conditions in which they were kept must have been appalling. For the women, a life as an unpaid house servant was probably the best they could hope for…

The carpenter, Thomas Millard, was allowed out of prison during the day because his skills were needed as a shipwright – and because it was accepted that he alone of the prisoners had taken no part in supporting the mutiny. He was ultimately released from captivity, in the summer of 1799, and made his way north to America, settling in New Jersey, marrying, and having 2 children.

It is Millard’s diary of the ensuing 18 months which was auctioned at Sotheby’s on May 9th this year, fetching £12,500. It provides a fascinating companion to the story written by John Black and which was published by his father on the basis of letters home etc.

I find it strange that we all know the story of The Mutiny on the Bounty – but not the Mutiny on the Lady Shore. Here, if ever there was one, is a film crying out to be made! With a cast of 66 women, a handful of Frenchmen and a suitably swash-buckling John Black it sounds like a sure-fire box office success!