Oct 312013

1You know what a sucker I am for Georgian  bits and bobs so it will come as no surprize that for today’s blog I am slipping in a bit of social history in the form of a “small but perfectly formed” miniature lidded chest. It is made of mahogany, and is about six inches tall and must have belonged originally to a Society – perhaps a gentlemen’s club – where new members were  selected by the existing members.

It appears on the delightful Fisher London site. There it is described as being “An exceptionally rare, 18th century Ballot Box…. The miniature lidded chest comprising one full width and two half-width drawers, is craftsman made from mahogany with its original `Dutch drop` brass handles and raised on four original brass feet.  The lid lifts to reveal an integral, chamfered top, centred by a circular hole through which the ball was dropped. The lid served as a privacy shield in order that fellow members were unable to see which colour ball had been selected – white if you supported the candidate, black if you did not.  After all votes had been cast, the top drawer would be opened and if it contained all white balls, the candidate was elected. If he was `blackballed`, he would be forbidden membership or not granted the post for which he was standing.”

2I think it is a fascinating piece of Georgian history – dating from around 1740 to 1760 – and a reminder of how membership of clubs, societies, lodges and other associations exploded in popularity in the Eighteenth Century. The lovely thing about the piece is that it still has the white and black clay balls used in the voting process. It is all so splendidly British – a secret ballot which really was secret, and where you could cast your vote in complete privacy, with no recriminations!

Rendell – you’ve been black-balled. Can’t argue with that!


Oct 272013

On 27th October 1779 a woman emerged from Newgate prison, attached to a hurdle dragged behind a cart. Thus she was taken to Tyburn (near the site of today’s Marble Arch). Once there, she had a rope attached to her neck, and kindling wood and faggots were stacked around her. Just before the flaming torch was put to the wood, the executioner pulled on the rope, thus strangling the poor woman before the flames consumed her body. Her name was Isabella Condon.

I had always assumed that being burnt at the stake went out with the Tudors – not so, it remained as a punishment for women until 1790. This penalty applied to Petty Treason (eg if a woman murdered her husband) or High Treason (a term which included counterfeiting coinage). Astonishingly a man might only be hanged for the offence of counterfeiting, whereas his female counterpart suffered the gruesome and ghastly fate of being burned in public. Of course, if she was lucky she would never feel the flames, but on at least one occasion in the 18th Century the executioner let go of the rope while lighting the faggots and was himself beaten back by the flames and hence was unable to retrieve the rope and strangle the poor woman, who died hideously and extremely slowly.

As a reminder of the cruel barbarism of “Justice” just two centuries ago it may be worth looking at the crime Isabella had been convicted of: forging a shilling.

What you needed to do this was relatively simple – you required a saucer with wet sand, a few genuine coins, a file, a bit of sandpaper, a cork, some “black stuff” and a pair of tweezers. You needed a melting pot and an iron flask, together with a phial of “Aqua fortis” (nitric acid) plus a vessel for pouring the metal in the mould, a scale and white arsenic. This was the classic equipment of a counterfeiters’ workshop.

In a later case John Nicholls, then director of the Royal Mint in the Tower, appeared in person at the Old Bailey in April 1788 to explain the mechanics of forging to the Court. He explained that the iron flask was a die with which to make an impression of both sides of a coin in the sand-filled container. The first impression was made with coarse sand, which was smoothed with finer sand to avoid “small, irregular holes in the cast work piece”. Afterwards, the sand mould dried above a fire. Subsequently, copper was melted into the cast. By adding arsenic, the copper appeared a shade lighter and hence similar to silver. John Nicholls called this mixture “East Indian copper”. The nitric acid was used to make it lighter still – if there was any trace of silver in the copper mixture it would come to the surface of the counterfeit coin when doused with the acid. After the shilling cooled down it could be worked on with file, sandpaper and cork to get it to look the right colour and finish.

This then was what counterfeiting involved. Isabella’s trial took place on 15th September 1779. The indictment against her was that on 3rd August, “one piece of false, feigned, and counterfeit money, to the likeness and similitude of the current coin of this realm called a shilling, she did feloniously, traiterously, and against the duty of her allegiance, falsely make, forge, and coin”.

On the day in question Isabella was at Peartree Court, Cold Bath Fields, in London. Acting on information, three officers entered the premises at midday and found Isabella sitting in a chair, working a counterfeit coin on the apron covering her lap. On a table alongside her they found a key. One of the arresting officers takes up the story:

“We took her from thence to her dwelling-house, which is in a little court at the top of St. John’s Street. When we came to the end of the court she was asked which was her house; she showed us the door, and with that key we opened it, and went in; we went up, I think, to the two-pair-of-stairs room, where we found all these utensils; here is a cork they make use of for finishing, & scowering-paper, and melting-pots; here is the stuff they black them with to make them look old; here is the fine sand they use to make the impressions with; here is a stick with aqua fortis upon the end of it, which they use to clean the pieces with; this flask was ready set for casting”. (The flask was opened in court; it was filled with sand, in which were made impressions for coining shillings and sixpences.)

In all, seven coins were discovered to be fake, three of which had been finished. The others were still in the course of being made. Similar accounts were given by the other two officers. An officer from the Royal Mint by the name of Mr. Fletcher was called to inspect the counterfeits in Court and announced succinctly:

“I am a moneyer in the mint. These are all bad”

Isabella denied the charge, claiming that the equipment had been left at her premises by a young woman who was renting the room from her – not very convincing given that she was caught red-handed with the coins in her lap! She was permitted to ask questions, but had no defence lawyer. After a trial lasting just a few minutes the First Middlesex Jury returned a verdict of guilty. Mr. Justice Gould sentenced the prisoner to death by burning, and sentence was carried out one month later.

Ann Beddingfield burned at the stake for murdering her husband, 1763

Burning remained the punishment for female forgers until 1790 – the last woman to be punished in this barbaric way was Catherine Murphy (also known as Christian Bowman), who was put to death on Wednesday 18th March 1789. The Times led a campaign to change the law, which was brought in originally because the equivalent punishment for men was to be hanged, drawn and quartered – and this would not have been appropriate for a woman since it would have involved public nudity. As the Times put it “The execution of a woman for coining … reflects a scandal upon the law and was not only inhuman, but shamefully indelicate and shocking. Why should the law in this species of offence inflict a severer punishment upon a woman, than a man? It is not an offence which she can perpetrate alone – in every such case the insistence of a man has been found the operating motive upon the woman; yet the man is but hanged, and the woman burned.” On another occasion (24th June 1788) The Times stated :“Must not mankind laugh at our long speeches against African slavery … [when] … we roast a female fellow creature alive, for putting a pennyworth of quicksilver on a half-penny worth of brass.”

A case of ‘The Law, her Fate Condon’d’ ?….

As it happened one Thomas Condon, husband of the late Isabella, was himself hanged a few years later – for counterfeiting coins… so much for the death penalty being a deterrent!

(The court extracts appear courtesy of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey online).

This blog first appeared a couple of years ago but I thought it merited another outing so have dusted it off…


Oct 262013

I came across this newspaper cutting from 1776 and thought how little has changed over the ensuing centuries:


So, I think we can take it that there is nothing new in people of all ages going out on a Friday night and getting absolutely rat-arsed. (Or rather, using the terminology from Grose’s  1811 “Dictionary in the Vulgar Tongue”   “Getting bloody Lushey” ). In fairness to Nikki Reed (who she?) this following image is a still from an instantly forgettable film called Empire State, but I could just as easily have used any of a number of photographs which appear with monotonous regularity in our national newspapers.


I have a certain sympathy for Police Chiefs who want to see drunks detained in privately run “drying out hotels – and then being made to pay for the accommodation – in order to deter the serial drunk-and-disorderly. As they said in 1776, if not, who will wonder  if the gaols should be filled again in a fortnight?

Oct 232013

a oneI have always assumed that antique Knife Boxes were designed to hold …. knives! So I was delighted to come across a fine looking knife box on the ever-helpful Hampton Antiques site which put me right – they were designed to hold ALL types of cutlery! Open the lid and you find the cutlery deck, in which there are apertures to fit almost any kind of knives, forks, and spoons.

a two

I would have loved to have had  a matching pair of these, adorning a mahogany sideboard. A shame there is only the one! The knife box was made around 1800 out of  mahogany, which has a lovely patination, and is inlaid with an unusual representation of a conch shell. I had thought it would have looked fine and dandy on the Sheraton-style serpentine sideboard which I would have liked to pair it with, and which I stumbled across at the Patrick Sandberg Antique site. 

The Sandberg blurb described the sideboard, from around 1790, as being “boxwood line inlaid throughout, having a padouk wood crossbanded top above crossbanded panelled drawers and inlaid with boxwood ‘quadrant’ flowers. The Sideboard with serpentine frieze inlaid with central oval paterae and scrolled harebell decoration is supported on boxwood strung square tapering legs ending on spade toes.”

It really is superb and obviously was a snip at £14,500. I say “was” – it is no longer available but the site is worth looking at for some splendid pieces of furniture, ornaments etc.

Here are close-ups:


Meanwhile, back to the knife box:

a three

a four

It measures fourteen inches high and roughly nine inches wide and deep. Yours, or rather mine, for £950.

Oh well, back to day dreaming….

Sixteen String Jack – the making of a hero (John Rann).

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Oct 172013
Sixteen String Jack, courtesy of the british Museum, referring to the fact that he had been acquitted 17 times prior to receiving his death sentence.

Sixteen String Jack, courtesy of the British Museum, referring to the fact that he had been acquitted 16 times prior to receiving his death sentence.

I am not quite clear why some villains manage to capture the public’s imagination as heroes, while others are treated as a thieving menace. Take highway robbery – there is nothing very subtle, clever or brave about brandishing a gun and threatening to blast somebody’s head off if they don’t hand you their watch (or whatever) and yet Georgian society seemed willing to treat some of these robbers as having a heroic quality, simply because they swaggered and boasted and liked to be seen around town with a pretty girl on each arm, while dressed in fine clothes which they had either stolen or bought using the proceeds of crime. No more so than one John Rann, whose distinguishing “trademark” was that he liked to stand out from the crowd by wearing eight brightly coloured ribbons tied around each knee – hence his moniker of “Sixteen String Jack”. Why sixteen? One story was that each ribbon represented a time when he had been acquitted of highway robbery…. On one occasion he was charged with breaking and entering – but it turned out that he had an assignation with the girl who lived there; she had fallen asleep and rather than give up and go home, he decided to clamber up to her window on the first floor and “help himself”. He was apprehended by the watchman and dragged before Sir John Fielding. On hearing the evidence from the girl that she would have freely admitted the young man had she not been asleep, the judge had no choice but to dismiss the case.

The Road to Ruin, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Road to Ruin, © The Trustees of the British Museum, showing John Rann            at Bagnigge Wells.

You might think that John Rann would count his blessings and keep a low profile; but no, far from it. He headed out to the fashionable spa at Bagnigge Wells, disporting himself in what the Newgate Calendar described as “a scarlet coat, tambour waistcoat, white silk stockings, laced hat, &c”, and publicly declared himself to be a highwayman. He became quarrelsome, and somewhat drunk, and started to chat up one of the young ladies in the ballroom. This led to a spate of minor scuffles – someone prised a gold ring from his finger, at which he remarked that he cared not, for it cost but a hundred guineas, and why, he could make that amount in one evening’s work! Not surprisingly, some of the assembled company at the Wells grew weary of his tiresome behaviour and gave him a right going over, and for good measure chucked him out the first floor window when he declined to make himself scarce. The River Fleet presumably provided him with a soft landing, and the Newgate Calendar remarks that “Rann was not much injured by this severe treatment; but he complained bitterly against those who could so affront a gentleman of his character.”

Richard Hall's cut-out of a highway robber at work.

Richard Hall’s cut-out of a highway robber at work.

It had all started very differently. He was born in a village outside Bath into a very poor family. He had no formal education and for a while eked a living selling goods from the back of a donkey as he toured the streets. When he was 12 he came to the attention of “lady of distinction” who no doubt was impressed by his barrow-boy chutzpah and way with words. She took him on as a servant in her household and all seemed well for a couple of years. He came to London, got a job at a stables at Brooke’s Mews and in due course became a driver of a post chaise. But the ambitious young man wanted to impress – and to do that he needed more money than the could get from his wages as a driver. highwayman7It appears that he extended his repertoire as a pick-pocket by chancing his arm at robbery on the King’s Highway – a capital offence if caught. He was dragged before the magistrates on a number of occasions but each time managed to talk his way out of the charge. He liked to adopt the persona of a modern day Robin Hood – well, he robbed the rich, even though he never seemed to follow it up by helping the poor. He enjoyed being in the public eye – he turned up at Barnet Races sporting an elegant blue satin waistcoat trimmed with silver, to make sure that he stood out. He was followed by hundreds of people, who were eager to gratify their curiosity by the sight of a man who had been so much the subject of gossip. On at least one occasion he turned up to watch the fun at Tyburn, thoroughly upstaging the poor man who was about to be sent to the gallows. One story has it that he even bragged that one day he would be the main attraction, and not just a bystander. He appeared at the Old Bailey in April, 1775, charged with others of robbing Mr. William Somers on the highway, and was acquitted for lack of evidence. Shortly afterwards he was again tried, for robbing a Mr. Langford, but again was acquitted for the same reason. The lad appeared to be above the law, and how he loved it! 16 string jackA month later a Miss Roache (his girlfriend – one of many), was caught trying to pawn a watch which Rann had stolen during a robbery “near the nine-mile stone on the Hounslow road.” Again he was hauled before the Bench and when Sir John Fielding asked him if he would offer anything in his defence, Rann replied “I know no more of the matter than you do, nor half so much neither.” His appearance in court was suitably flamboyant – the Newgate Calendar comments that he “had a bundle of flowers in the breast of his coat almost as large as a broom; and his irons were tied up with a number of blue ribands.” Once more, he got off… On another occasion he was sent to Marshalsea Debtors Prison for failure to pay a debt of fifty pounds – he sent word to his mates and in no time a steady stream of ne’er-do-wells, male and female, turned up at the prison gates and paid off the debt. Various other acquittals followed until one September afternoon in September 1784 he stole items from Dr. William Bell, physician to the Princess Amelia. Bell gave evidence that he was riding near Ealing when he observed two men of “rather mean appearance” ride past him. The Newgate Calendar takes up the story: “A short while afterwards one of them, which he believed was Rann, crossed the head of his horse, and, demanding his money, said “Give it to me, and take no notice, or I’ll blow your brains out.” On this the doctor gave him one shilling and sixpence, which was all the silver he had, and likewise a common watch in a tortoise-shell case.”

An 18th Century tortoiseshell and silver watch, courtesy of Bonhmas.

An 18th Century tortoiseshell and silver watch, courtesy of Bonhmas.

Later that evening Miss Roache tried to offer the watch to a pawnbroker in Oxford Road. He had his suspicions about the watch, and turned it over to observe that it had been made by a well-known watchmaker called Mr. Gregnion, of Russell Street, Covent Garden. The pawnbroker contacted Mr Gregnion, who confirmed that he had made the watch for Dr. Bell.The net was closing tight: John Rann and his associate William Collier were arrested and committed to Newgate, charged with highway robbery; Miss Roche was charged, along with her servant, with being an accessory after the fact. In the event Miss Roche was found guilty and sentenced to be transported for fourteen years; her servant was acquitted. When Rann appeared for his trial the Calendar reports that he was “dressed in a new suit of pea-green clothes; his hat was bound round with silver strings; he wore a ruffled shirt; and his behaviour evinced the utmost unconcern”. He was so confident that he would get off scot-free that he ordered a fine supper to be provided for the entertainment of his special friends and associates. But the atmosphere became more sombre when all present realized that this time there would be no acquittal. A short time afterwards he was found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. Still the merriment continued – on October 23rd he held another dinner, this time for seven girlfriends. It was by all accounts a mirth-filled evening.

The Tyburn stone at the junction of Edgeware Road, and Oxfiord Street, Marble Arch, and

The Tyburn stone at the junction of Edgeware Road, and Oxford Street, Marble Arch.

The hangman’s noose was finally put round his neck on 30th November 1774. James Boswell was one of the people in the large crowd which turned up to watch. According to the Newgate Calendar “when he came near the gallows he turned round, and looked at it as an object which he had long expected to see, but not as one that he dreaded, as might reasonably have been expected.”       highwayman6According to contemporary reports Sixteen-String Jack went to the gallows wearing his pea-green suit and all his finery complete with a huge nosegay in his buttonhole. He decorated his foot shackles with bright blue ribbons. Some accounts suggested he enjoyed some lively banter with the crowd, danced a jig, and generally showed no sign of fear or apprehension. According to Boswell he was cheered by ‘the whole vagabond population of London’. He was twenty four years old when he died.

highwayman 5

Another paper cut, more gallows humour!

Another paper cut, more gallows humour!


Highwayman Sixteen string Jack PH THeydon Bois nr Epping forest

In the Victorian era there was an insatiable appetite for stories about Rann’s exploits, and even today there is a public House named after him at Theydon Bois, near Epping Forest. And in case anyone is interested in the paper cut-outs I have published a book of them (see here) and it is also available on Kindle  – see here.

Oct 102013

a4I find it intriguing the way places and districts come in and out of fashion. Take Bagnigge Wells ( pronounced ‘bag-nidge’). Once, it was the reputed home of Nell Gwyn, who is said to have entertained Charles II at her summer home beside the banks of the fragrant River Fleet, all gardens and Elysian delights.

Then in 1738 it became a popular place of public entertainment when the spring waters were harnessed for their health-giving properties, with people flocking down what is now the Kings Cross Road to take the waters. In turn it became a threepenny concert hall, attracting the lower end of the spectrum. And then it fell out of fashion altogether. Maybe because the public found that the Fleet River was no more than a public cess-pit, or wondered if the cholera epidemics were in some way linked to drinking the putrid waters – whatever, it fell out of favour.

It spent a while as an area notorious for assignations and unseemly conduct – and then it disappeared from view altogether. Bagnigge Wells was ereased from the maps by the middle of the 19th Century, and it is easy to forget that it ever existed. But what of its heyday, when it drew the rich and famous, when it was THE place to see and be seen?

It was in the mid-1750’s that the tenant of Bagnigge Wells House, a Mr Hughes, was pottering about his garden watering the flowers and noticed, as he went about the garden, that the flowers generally died as soon as they were tended to. He mentioned this to a passing medical man by the name of Dr Bevis, who tasted the water and pronounced it rich in iron – an ideal source of the chalybeate medicine so popular at the time for anyone “suffering from their nerves.”

Mr Hughes quickly made the decision: ‘Bugger the flowers, what I need is to drive a big well down into the flowerbeds and make it into a health spa’. He did so and to his delight found that the second well delivered a different sort of water. Hastily he constructed a temple where the two different waters could be brought to the surface, blended, and be sold to the eager populace in gallon jars. A spacious banqueting hall known as the Long Room was built, and Mr Hughes sat back to count the money flowing in, as the water flowed out…

Writers extolled the efficacious qualities of the waters:

“Ye gouty old souls and rheumatics crawl on,

Here taste these blest springs, and your tortures are gone;

Ye wretches asthmatick, who pant for your breath,

Come drink your relief, and think not of death.

Obey the glad summons, to Bagnigge repair,

Drink deep of its waters, and forget all your care.”

© The Trustees of the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum says this of the mezzotint: “The interior of the long room at Bagnigge Wells, filled with a crowd of tea-drinkers, fashionably dressed in the macaroni manner. The central group consists of a courtesan who stands arm-in-arm with a macaroni, while with her left hand she beckons to another macaroni (right) who bows, hat in hand.  On the right. are groups seated and standing at tea-tables; a serving-boy walks (left to right.) holding a tea-tray in one hand, a large kettle in the other. In the foreground (right) a couple in deep shadow sit at a table. Two chandeliers with lighted candles hang from the ceiling.  15 June 1772”

But if you fast-forward twenty years, the clientele had changed. Instead of gout-ridden old men crawling through the undergrowth, there were young ladies in pursuit of randy males wishing to purchase their favours. It became a notorious place of assignation, and also a place to strut your stuff on a Sunday afternoon:

“Thy arbours, Bagnigge, and the gay alcove,

Where the frail nymphs in am’rous dalliance rove.

Where prentic’d Youths enjoy the Sunday feast,

And City Matrons boast their Sabbath’s rest

Where unfledged Templars first as fops parade,

And new made Ensigns sport their first cockade.”

© The Trustees of the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum


In the Daily Advertisement for July, 1775, this advertisement appeared:—

“The Royal Bagnigge Wells, between the Foundling Hospital and Islington.—Mr. Davis, the proprietor, takes this method to inform the publick, that both the chalybeate and purging waters are in the greatest perfection ever known, and may be drank at 3d. each person, or delivered at the pump-room at 8d. per gallon.”

The Road to Ruin, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Road to Ruin, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The middling sort still visited the ornamental gardens to take tea or listen to the concerts or to meander along the banks of the Fleet but the numbers decreased year on year. In 1779 the owner announced the opening for the season and reminded the public of the invaluable health-giving properties of the waters adding that “ladies and gentlemen may depend on having the best of Tea, Coffee, etc., with hot loaves, every morning and evening.”

Hot loaves and coffee maybe, but trade failed to pick up. Even worse, it appears that when houses were constructed in the early years of the nineteenth century, the builder decided that the underground reservoir made a ….very good cesspit! Cromwell’s History of Clerkenwell states:

“Beneath the front garden of a house in Spring Place and extending under the front pavement almost to the Pantheon Gate lies the capacious receptacle of a mineral spring, which in former times was in considerable repute, both as a chalybeate, and for its supposed efficacy in the cure of sore eyes. When Spring Place was erected (c. 1815) the builder converted the receptacle beneath into a cesspool for the drainage of his houses.”

Nice one! The Fleet disappeared from view, the owner of the Springs went bankrupt, and the gardens were sold off to developers. Soon, the very name passed into history, and all that remains are a few etchings to remind us of its story.



Post script: For anyone wanting a really good “get down and get dirty” view of Bagnigge and the way the sewers in the early nineteenth century were developed to transform the area, see the excellent article by ‘Sub-Urban – main drainage of the Metropolis’ here.

Oct 052013

With a year and a bit to go before the next general election, and with Bonkers Cable already suggesting that the coalition might not last the course, I thought it apposite to have a quick look at an earlier coalition – the one between Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford and  Charles James Fox.

Gillray, with his usual subtlety, showed the two gentlemen defecating into the same chamber pot – with the added insult that the pot bears the Royal cypher. The Devil stirs the pot…

NPG D12991; 'The coalition' (Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford; Charles James Fox) by James Gillray, published by  George Humphrey

The print, entitled The Coalition, appeared in April 1783 and appears courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. I feel it needs bringing more up to date, to make it more relevant to a modern audience ….aaaab (2)

Well, that’s my view of politics and politicians!

Oct 022013

Richard Hall owned a splendid forerunner of the Rough Guide to Paris, dating from the 1750s, explaining the perils of travel in 18th Century France. In particular the reader is warned of the perils of using beds which have not been properly aired, pointing out that French maids were notorious for not drying the bed linen properly, and not ironing out the creases!

aaa8Which reminded me of slickenstones, a.k.a. slickers, slickstones, or sleekstones. I encountered one on the fascinating Fisher London site  – repository of all sorts of delightful knick-knacks and household antiques. I saw their site when I noticed that they were following me on Twitter – and the least I can do is pass on their details. There are lots of Georgian goodies for purchase…

The site describes this slickenstone as a “fine quality example of this rare item of Georgian domestic treen: a `slickenstone` or linen smoother crafted in inverted mushroom form from solid lignum vitae wood selected for its dense grain, imperviousness to water and characteristic contrasting figure, now of lovely colour with rich patina. …A lovely piece to delight the most discerning collector of English domestic treen. Impossible to date accurately but probably circa 1680-1750.”

Sometimes made of glass or marble and often of lignum vitae – a very, very dense wood – they are a lovely reminder of times gone by. Not only that but they are often beautifully smooth “touchy-feely” objects. No time to heat up your iron to smooth the sheets? Out with the mushroom-shaped slickenstone and press down firmly, moving it briskly in a circular motion to get rid of those creases….

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery have a splendid wooden one with a carving of the head of a negro woman on it  here.aaa9

You can sometimes find them in antique shops for around a hundred pounds – google the word and it reveals many glass examples. I think they are lovely simply because they have such a mundane history – these were used, not looked at, but they have a simplicity and function which makes them well worth collecting. Thanks  for the link, Fisher London!