Dec 272013

11Astley’s Circus combined many different traditions – juggling, rope-walking and clowning to name just a few. But the late 18th Century also saw the development of what became mind-reading acts, linked to performances of magic and conjuring. Astley may have been no conjurer, but that didn’t stop him trying his hand at legerdemain, and he even published a book of magic tricks. Mind you, none of the tricks were original and the book was a straight lift of a French volume from a few years previously…

It rather looks as though Astley felt compelled to be a magician in order to compete with arch-rival Hughes. Hughes had opened premises just down the road from Astley’s Amphitheatre by Westminster Bridge, and employed the brilliant Philip Breslaw. The latter was a far, far better illusionist and conjurer than Astley, and they both felt a healthy professional disdain for each other.

Astley also used his brilliance as a trainer of animals to get them to perform all manner of tricks. Billy, a.k.a. The Little Learned Military Horse, would appear to fire a pistol, or lie down and play dead, or lift a kettle and pour a pot of tea. Billy was trained to respond to the subtle sound of soft finger clicks to scrape one or other front hoof on the ground, and Astley used this to enable him to appear to be able to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to questions raised by the audience.

And then there was The Scientific Pig. He was not Astley’s pig, but he appeared regularly in his early shows. The pig was trained to give the appearance of telling the time by looking at a watch produced by a member of the audience; he could read minds; he could spell – and if Gillray’s cartoon shown in my previous post is correct, he would even allow a monkey to ride him round the circus ring. The public rather liked the idea of a performing pig, and I can imagine that Astley had rather a lot of fun getting his porcine friend to react with members of the audience.

This is Rowlandson’s sketch of one such performing porker, drawn in 1785:


More details appear in my book “Astley’s Circus – the story of an English Hussar” where I have a separate section describing some of the acts used in the early performances of what became known as the Circus. Astley's Circus cover 001

Generally speaking, wild animals didn’t get a look-in.  O.K., I can find reference to a zebra and an occasional ostrich, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Astley would have been horrified to learn how the circus entertainment was later to be “sullied” by the introduction of herds of elephants, lions and tigers. These were ‘Americanisms’ brought in a century later by the likes of Barnum and Bailey. The shows put on by Astley were about horsemanship. And the odd monkey. And the occasional pig….


Dec 252013






No, I had never heard of the gentleman until I researched an entry in my ancestor’s diary for December 1798 when he mentions that he had borrowed three volumes of the book entitled ‘Gleanings’ by Pratt, returning them to the rightful owner Mr Collett (the local school teacher I believe) a couple of months later.


PrattsGleanings001.jpg  It turns out that Mr Prattt was a bit of an odd-ball. He was born on Christmas Day 1749 at St Ives Huntingdonshire and died in Birmingham in 1814. He was ordained as an Anglican parson; he wrote poetry, he was a stage actor under the name of Courtney Melmoth; he duped a young girl called Charlotte into entering into a sham marriage ceremony with him; he toured the country with her telling fortunes; and by 1776 had parted from her and taken up a literary career (but not until he had tried his hand unsuccessfully as a book seller in Bath). Not a bad CV for a country parson!

In 1780 he published Emma Corbett, a story of a lovelorn girl who travels to America to find her sweetheart, a soldier called Henry. She herself is captured by rebel forces under the command of George Washington, but is released on his orders. Henry is found having been struck by a poisonous arrow fired by a Native American Indian: she sucks out the venom but he dies, though not before she too is poisoned. She returns to England with their young baby, and they both die too (I do like a story with a happy ending…). As such it was apparently the first English novel to address the subject of the American Revolution.

But there is more to the man for he was also one of the very early animal rights activists. His book “Gleanings” as lent to Richard Hall, was full of comments against man’s cruelty to animals. He opposed blood sports and in his poem Sympathy, published in 1788, he argued that man was born to share the Earth with all animals. As an example he tells the story of having paid five guineas (way, way over the odds) for an old horse,  “intending only, at the time, that he should pass the residue of his days in peaceful indolence, broken in upon only by the infirmities of life, to die a natural death. To this end I obtained for him the run of a friend’s park, where I considered him as a respectable veteran retired on a pension.”  With charitable views like that it is perhaps small wonder that his name and memory is kept alive by modern animal rights activists, who see him as an early hero.




The Old Horse



When he died the following obituary appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine: “No man who ever attained public distinction was more exempt from envy; and though he may, in the vicissitudes of a life unsupported by fortune and exposed to all the casualties of a precarious subsistence, have fallen into errors, nothing of malice or ill-nature can justly be imputed to him; and as his works are all intended to promote the interests of virtue, none of these errors should be remembered in his epitaph.”

So, raise a glass and let us remember a flawed but ultimately well-meaning gentleman who tried his hand at just about everything. He entertained and scandalized many in equal measure, but he was nice to animals (when this was distinctly unfashionable) and that cannot be all bad, can it? Happy birthday Mr Pratt!

Dec 242013

16One of the fascinating “characters” I came across in my research for my book on Philip Astley was the performing monkey  who graced the amphitheatres of London and Paris as one of Astley’s acts for upwards of forty years. He was variously known as ‘Jacko’ or ‘General Jackoo’ and became a firm favourite of the French Court – especially Marie Antoinette – with his ability to ride a horse, sliding down its withers and crawling under its belly to come up the other side.

The Huntington Library has a handbill for Astley’s Amphitheatre, apparently from 28 May 1785, stating that: ‘General Jackoo, the celebrated Monkey from Paris, will, for the first time this season, change the whole of his dress in a surprising manner, and perform his war manoeuvres, dance on the Tight Rope with fetters on his feet, &c.’

He did rather more than change his attire – he would also astound audiences by walking along a tight-rope, smoking a flaming pipe, riding a dog, performing acrobatic tricks etc. This multi-tasking monkey’s long-term engagement at Astley’s Amphitheatre in London was a sensation and earned him accolades wherever he appeared, both in this country and in Europe.

When my ancestor Richard Hall visited the Astley premises in the early 1770’s he paid his two shillings for a seat (and threepence for macaroons!) and then took home with him the handbill. As far as I know it is the only English representation of the agile General Jackoo – shown in a variety of riding positions, controlling two horses at the same time…


The 1780’s saw General Jackoo in his prime – audiences were stunned at the sight of a monkey standing unaided on horseback, carrying a candelabra balanced on a stick held between his teeth.   They howled with mirth at his antics with the clown. They couldn’t get enough of him. Apparently he even had a country dance named after him in 1788 – the ‘General Jackoo’ written in D Major and performed in 2/4 time.



There follows a French  advertisement from 1785, with a series of ten oval wood-cut medallions bearing depictions of General Jackoo, in human dress, supported by a clown. It appears courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale:



The idea of a monkey riding a pig  clearly impressed James Gillray, who drew the pair in this extract from a caricature dating  from 1785. The monkey is doing a head-stand on the back of the pig, while in the background Astley stands on one leg atop his horse Gibraltar.14

But in time this aged simian became arthritic and lame – he slipped down the billing and whereas he was still performing in 1824 (by then, at least 56 years old) in “The Monkey Island and the Lodestone Rock”  it was as a clowning chimpanzee behind “Ourang Outans, king of Monkey Island.” Such are the perils of performing in the theatre of dreams…

Astley's Circus cover 001And you guessed it: more details are to be found in my new book “Astley’s Circus – the story of an English Hussar”

It is available both  in colour and  as a monochrome version. Enjoy!

Dec 232013

I have finally drawn a line under my book on Philip Astley  – it was one of those things which might otherwise have grown and grown, into a history of the whole circus movement. I wanted to keep it as a story of one man’s life. So now it is in print at last – as “Astley’s Circus, the Story of an English Hussar”. have it here and here. The book must have getting on for a hundred illustrations in all, about a third of them in colour. That bumps the price up so I decided to buy-in a stock of books printed in black-and-white. Same number of illustrations, but not in colour and therefore cheaper. I am hoping to be able to sell these ‘economy versions’ on Amazon – if not, via my web address at

front 1200dpi 001Astley's Circus cover 001

Astley was a fascinating character – larger than life, brash, a bully and a brilliant self-publicist and impresario. By 1800 he was undoubtedly one of the most famous commoners in the country, whereas now he has lapsed into semi-obscurity. Ah, the fickle finger of fate –  and fame! He brought entertainment to the masses, and deserves to be remembered…

It will be interesting to back up the launch with talks up and down the country – as well as another Gresham College Lecture in London (March 2014) I am hoping to line up a talk, specifically on Astley, at London Guildhall (date to be confirmed). But equally it will be fun talking about the rough diamond, 200 years after he died, at clubs and societies  around the U.K.   A case of: ‘have book, will travel ‘!

Dec 162013

I have a confession to make: I do not particularly like goats. I think it dates back to the time that I planted 100 hedging plants in a long row, only to find that the next day the resident Rendell goat ate 98 of them, leaving just two spindly saplings. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that my then other half adored “her” goat – in all honesty she was rather more attached to the darned goat than she was to me –  and the more annoyed I got at the predations on my hedging plants the more defensive she became. Apparently I should have looked on it as a privilege that the goat was so discerning as to consume my saplings rather than to have wasted its hunger pangs on brambles and nettles….


My ancestor Richard Hall appears not to have shared my dislike: he drew the Billy goat  shown above, probably to amuse his children. And it reminded me of a couple of caricatures for the 18th Century, both referring to an “old goat” – and in each case meaning the repulsive Lord Q (a.k.a. Lord Queensbury).

The first, published in 1798, is called “The old goat and young kid, or, The Queenborough novelist” and appears courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library.


A wagoner has come up from the country and has stopped outside 15 Piccadilly where a procuress approaches a young girl up from the country, walking across the road. On the left  William Douglas, Duke of Queensbury, is peering at the female talent using his quizzing glass. His lecherous behaviour was legendary – think of him as an 18th Century Jimmy Saville and you won’t be far wrong – and the wagoner is saying:

“Ah, I knew he would dart out like a spider at a fly”

while the procuress says to the father of the young girl:

“It’s very lucky I met with you my honest man, if she behaves well she will be promoted to the service of a Duke.”

Another  caricature entitled “Old Q-uiz the old goat of Piccadilly” drawn & etched by Robert Dighton in 1796, shows the repulsive Duke accosting a young milliner.


In his pocket  is an elixir intended to enable the 72 year old Duke to ‘rise to the occasion’  – “Velno’s vegetable syrup  or Renovating balsam.”

The use of the word “quiz” is interesting. There is a story that the word was created artificially by a Dublin theatre owner called Richard Daly in 1791. He had been challenged to create a nonsense word and get it into popular usage within 48 hours. He wrote the word “quiz” on cards and handed them out to all the  theatrical players – they proceeded to daub the word on all the bridges and street signs throughout Dublin, so that after a couple of days the whole population were asking “what does it mean?” In other words it was what it  represents – a question.

Nice story, but not entirely true, since there is a record of Fanny Burney using the word to mean ‘an odd or eccentric person’ in her diary entry of 24 June 1782. Apparently it was also used to mean a type of toy, not unlike a yo-yo, which was popular in the 1790’s. It only evolved to mean a test of knowledge  later on in the Victorian era….

Dec 132013


az1 - Copy

I find fascinating this little vignette of life in the 1770’s which appeared in one of the Norfolk journals. It concerns a “feral gang” of at least three boys who roamed the countryside, particularly visiting the towns when country fairs were being held, stealing, house-breaking and generally causing mayhem. I assume that this particular victim – Mr John Nelson – was an uncle or other relative of Horatio Nelson – certainly the Nelsons were an old Norfolk family who were moderately prosperous.


There is no mention of an adult or Fagin-type of character controlling the boys – they had a couple of donkeys and roamed around with their “many knives” no doubt being a pain in the backside for all shopkeepers.az1 - Copy (3)

I rather like the story of the desperate gang who infested the market place and did much wickedness on dark nights. But most of all I like the twist in the tale – the recommendation that such youngsters should be sent to sea. Where no doubt they might have met young Horatio Nelson, who by then was coxswain  to Commander Lutwidge on board HMS Carcass, busy trying to locate and survey the fabled North East passage. They got within ten degrees of the North Pole before being compelled to return because of the gigantic pack ice.  It would have been a nice irony if Horatio had encountered Masters Green, Green and Ringer on his icy travels through the arctic…

Dec 112013

File:Sir David Brewster.jpgDavid Brewster, 1781 – 1868, an engraving by William Holl.

Occasionally I come across a scientist who suddenly steps off his academic perch and comes up with something totally unexpected. One such man was David Brewster, born in 1781 in Jedburgh Scotland. His range of interests included that of a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and writer. He was a scientist who studied light – prisms, polarisation of light, mirrors, stereoscopes, lighthouse lenses, etc., He was a Member of the Royal Society, was showered with medals and awards, and was made a knight of the realm in 1831. He is also credited with having invented the sea thermometer. He was an eminent scientist yet in 1815 he came up with the kaleidoscope, an invention which he patented two years later.


He had originally intended it as a scientific tool. It consisted of a tube with two mirrors at an angle at one end and a translucent disc at the other through which diffused light could pass. In between he placed coloured beads. With two mirrors the beads were shown in multiple reflection, the patterns illuminated against a black background. Introducing a third mirror placed at 60° produced six duplicate objects, with eight if the angle was 45°. The three mirrors meant that the patterns filled the whole field of vision.

Brewster turned to a famous lens developer Philip Carpenter to develop his invention once the patent came through in 1817. It was a sensation, with over 200,000 kaleidoscopes sold within three months in London and Paris alone. Carpenter simply could not keep up with demand and Brewster was forced to seek his permission to bring in other manufacturers. He hoped to make a fortune from the invention, but unfortunately for him a mistake on the patent application meant that others were able to copy it with impunity.

In later years he was to become Principal of St Andrews University (1837 to 1859) and then of Edinburgh University (1859, up to his death nine years later). He was devoutly religious, highly strung and often somewhat irritable with people who disagreed with his views. His scientific works are sufficiently obscure as to be quite beyond my limited abilities to understand. Suffice to say that Encyclopedia Britannica delivered this obituary after his death in 1868.

“His scientific glory is different in kind from that of Young and Fresnel; but the discoverer of the law of polarization of biaxial crystals, of optical mineralogy, and of double refraction by compression, will always occupy a foremost rank in the intellectual history of the age.”


And the name kaleidoscope? Well for those of us who never woke up in time for Greek lessons it is a combination of three words from ancient Greece meaning ‘tool for observing beautiful shapes.’ In other words, it does what it says on the tin. Thanks Sir David, and many happy returns of the day! (His birthday was on the Eleventh of December).

Post script. Since first publishing this post two years ago, I came across this caricature entitled “Caleidoscopes, or, Paying for peeping” by Charles Williams dated 1818.It is reproduced courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library and gives some idea of how the kaleidoscope took off as a popular fad. Below the title  it reads “Tis the favorite plaything of school boy and sage of the baby in arms, and the baby of age …”


Dec 062013

This is intended to mark the end of a week which sees a collection of blog posts under the banner of “Peckers, dildos and peccadilloes” – a miscellany of posts “with an adult theme” where the only link is bad taste and smutty humour. For some reason I thought it particularly appropriate to have a week of such posts in that dreary period leading up to Christmas…  If it is not to your taste, look away!

Some of you may know that Thomas Rowlandson was a promising art student who studied at the Royal Academy, who spent time in France, and who inherited a small fortune (well, £7000 was a lot of money in the 18th Century) and then blew the lot on riotous living, gambling and general dissipation. When the dosh ran out he sought to make a living drawing caricatures, and engraving plates for other artists. He also found a profitable side-line in making pornographic prints “for gentlemen” who, presumably, collected them to help pass the time of day amongst friends after a particularly fine  dinner.

I love the underlying theme – that old men are at risk from the predations of scandalously under-clad young ladies, that they are never safe from their womanly wiles. For anyone who is unaware that men and women have sexual organs, I must apologize for the shock, but the un-defaced originals are all there for you to see on Wikimedia Commons here.

3In this picture we have two elderly gentlemen who, for some reason which the artist does not explain, find themselves sans culottes. Maybe it has rained heavily and they found it necessary to lower their sodden trousers. Or maybe, being absent-minded, they had simply forgotten to pull them all the way up that morning. Whatever the reason, nothing can justify the behaviour of the wanton woman who assaults them both simultaneously. Rowlandson has done a wonderful job of catching their shock and horror at having their manhood seized by the well-endowed strumpet who seems intent on having her wicked way with them both. Well, what was a man to do?

Sometimes it looks as though the men are perhaps enjoying the experience, as in this gentle post-prandial scene:


But then look closely – one man in the foreground is being violently sick, but this does not stop the wicked minx lying on top of him. Other men are clearly discussing the cricket score or seeking to have a much-needed drink to quench their thirst. Rowlandson adds the words “With women and wine I defy every care. For life without them is a volume of aire” –  admittedly an ambiguous comment but I choose to think that what Rowlandson is saying here is that he welcomes a breath of fresh air after dinner – not more wine and women! Or perhaps I have mis-read the sorry scene…

4There was no safety in numbers – your friends are waiting outside the door wanting you to come and help them with that morning’s crossword puzzle and you find yourself accosted by a voracious vixen. Such bad form to cavort like that under the beady eye of your fore-father, looking down in a disapproving manner from the wall above! Our hero strives to put a good face on things, but you can be sure that he is an unwilling participant in the sordid scene….

5It wasn’t just above stairs that these unwelcome attentions occurred. Pity the poor manservant in this print. Clearly he has gone to the dairy to fetch a cup of milk, or perhaps to find a quiet spot to contemplate the latest score in the Federation League between Trinidad and Jamaica, and this young lady forces herself upon him. Somehow I think Rowlandson has failed to capture the anguish, the utter despair, on the young man’s face. Perhaps Rowlandson wasn’t too familiar with the Caribbean countenance, but the title (The Dairy Maid’s delight) makes it clear that the pleasure is all hers.

Mr Rowlandson: you were a voyeur and a Dirty Old Man. And also a fine artist with many talents for recording the world around you!

Dec 042013

Carrying on with the “Peckers dildos and peccadilloes” theme:

At present I am much enjoying reading James Boswell’s  London Journal – an account of his foray to the capital between 1762 and 1763. One of the early threads in the narrative is his ardent desire for a spot of nookie; how he befriends a young actress called Louisa and over a period of some weeks persuades her to accompany him to a coaching inn, where they spend the night at what he describes as “a luscious feast.” He is particularly proud of his “godlike vigour” as five times he was “fairly lost in supreme rapture.” Boswell, always skint at the time, rather proudly records that the total expense for his night of passion was eighteen shillings all-in (rather better than the “splendid Madam at fifty guineas a night” he describes in an earlier passage, and ostensibly less risky than going with what, in the vernacular, was described as “a Three Penny Upright” – in other words a whore who would stand while offering her virtue for threepence).

Detail from Newton's "Progress of a  Woman of Pleasure"

Detail from Newton’s “Progress of a Woman of Pleasure”

In the account Boswell describes with some humour how the heightened anticipation of the chase is followed by a somewhat less godlike performance over the ensuing encounters, until the couple end up practising their French on each other rather than thrashing about in wild ecstacy…

Young Boswell was right to worry about the high surgeon’s fees  in the City – indeed he would have done just as well if he had saved his money and gone with the cheaper option, for it is not long before he describes the fiery pain which “too too plain was Signior Gonorrhoea.”

a0The diaries are delightfully open about the whole episode, and how Boswell had to seek treatment – probably involving being injected into his errant member with a mercury concoction delivered by a clyster like this one shown courtesy of the Wellcome Institute site.





Boswell berated young Louisa for giving him the clap, but she insists that although she had the disease some eighteen months prior to their encounter, she considered herself cured. At the time it was thought that the only “armour” against catching the  Great Pox (to distinguish it from the Small Pox) was to wear a condom.

In 2000 Christie’s auctioned three such prophylactics and raised a magnificent £881, describing them as “Three 18th-Century sheep gut condoms, with silk ties, the longest — 9in. (23cm.).”  They were apparently “Condoms (French Letters or Cap-Anglais)  discovered by Lady Salmong amongst some  18th Century documents.”

The condoms – always intended to prevent infection for the man rather than to avoid pregnancy in the woman – were made from sheep intestines. Manufacture was a laborious process involving soaking the intestines in water for some hours, softening the tissue by soaking it in a mixture of lye for several days, changing the solution regularly, scraping off the mucous membrane, softening it by steaming it over hot sulphur, washing and drying it thoroughly before finally cutting it to fit and threading pink ribbon around the top edge.  The thread was intended to be tied around the man’s “yard” so as to keep everything in place. Simples! Oh, and it  needed to be soaked in water before use, to make it supple…


Quality control in a condom warehouse, c.1744

Quality control in a condom warehouse, c.1744


I am reminded of the fascination, as a child, of coming across a box containing my father’s re-usable condom. Ironic really – even that  horrendously thick and sensation-destroying monstrosity was insufficient to prevent my appearance in the world, since my birth was neither planned nor intended! Mind you, I know another relative who was so scared of conceiving that she insisted on her husband wearing not one but two condoms at the same time, the first held firmly in place with an elastic band! Ah, the delights of spontaneous love..

(I am indebted to History Hoydens for the picture of “Quality control in a condom warehouse”, apparently taken from “Sex in Georgian England” by A.D. Harvey).


Dec 032013

Continuing with the “Peckers dildos and peccadilloes” theme:


What is a merkin? Is it

a) a slang term for an American?

b) a lure used in fly fishing?

or    c) a pubic hair wig?

Answer: All of the above.

LBJApparently it started to be used to describe an American after LBJ, then President of the USA, referred to his fellow countrymen in his Texas drawl as what sounded like “merkin people.” It caught on, especially now on the internet.

aa14The second meaning is clearly derived from the third one – the fishing lure vaguely resembles a patch of  alluring (?) hair. Which leads us on to the original meaning of the word, one which the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to 1614. Nowadays, in a world of “landing strips” and “Brazilians” it may seem odd that anyone uses a merkin, but au contraire, I am assured that there is a market for these hair pieces – either with showgirls wanting to cover their modesty, or with film actresses wanting to evade the censor when it comes to “no full nudity.” aa15Indeed I came across a curious advertisement for “The Kitty carpet” which extols the advantages of “a soft, adhesive merkin that fits over your pubic area to supply you with pubic hair when you need it most.” It gushes:

“Going to the beach with your grandmother? Dating an Amish guy? Filming a nude scene in a 1920’s period piece? The Kitty Carpet can give back a piece of what nature intended you to have. Or maybe your carpet just doesn’t match the drapes. That’s one of the reasons the Kitty Carpet is available in Black, Blonde and Pink….Cover your lady bits with a Kitty Carpet in any situation where you don’t want to show the full monty.”

The Oxford Companion To The Body traces the merkin back to 1450, and gives an account of a gentleman who came into possession of a prostitute’s merkin, washed and dried it, gave it a good brush, and then presented it to a cardinal, telling him he had brought him St Peter’s beard….

It’s a rather nice furry little word. Almost onomatopoeic. But, what has it got to do with life in the Georgian period? Because three hundred years ago merkins were not uncommon. They weren’t made out of nylon, they weren‘t a garish pink colour – indeed they were most likely to have been made from a mouse skin which had been dried and “cut to fit”. For what purpose? Well, taking my inspiration from the fulsome enthusiasm of Kitty Carpet:

“Are you a hooker who wants to hide those syphilitic sores? Are you scared that your next customer might lose interest in you when he sees that you have had to shave ‘down there’? Going bald – or wanting to hide the fact that those itching lice have given you the crabs so bad that you shaved your pubic area? Face the world with new confidence – wear a Mikey’s Merkin. Available from our shop at the Sign of the Cross in St James’s Street.”

No, definitely NOT a merkin! In fact a  red fox fur Dress Sporran from Kinloch Anderson

No, definitely NOT a merkin! In fact a red fox fur Dress Sporran from Kinloch Anderson

Remember, this was in the days when shaving body hair was not for nice girls. But body lice were prevalent in an age before personal hygiene came top of the list, and when washing, whether of your clothes or of your body, could be infrequent. Shaving was the best way of reducing the itch – but it did mean you risked comparison with the other class of shavers – the prostitutes. As venereal disease caught hold they would shave to enable the sores to be treated, and then cover their private parts with a dainty piece of mouse-hide so as not to frighten the punters. And no, I am not sure what they used to attach the mouse skin. Nowadays they are either woven on to a mesh and stuck on with spirit gum, or attached to a transparent G-string. It would be nice to think that the Georgians made theirs out of beaver hide (as in “Nice beaver”) but I have found no record to support that hypothesis…

Apparently it was also popular as a way of warning off a woman who was having an affair with your husband. Knit her a merkin and give it to her (a sign that you know that she is lousy and needs a wig down there). Better still, tell her that your husband ‘says to make sure that you wear it next time’ – meaning that your husband suspects that she has the pox, and that you know that she is no better than a common strumpet.

This theme was followed up in a ballad popularised in the 17th Century, which told the tale of a virtuous woman who is picked upon by her sluttish neighbours. They decided to humiliate her for her decency by making dildos and planting them upright in flower pots and then lobbed them over her garden wall. And then they knitted merkins and sent them to her – in other words implying that she was no more virtuous than they were.


The details appear courtesy of the English Broadside Ballad Archive, and in case your eyesight is as poor as mine, it includes this passage:

“Some that were void of grace and shame,

Merkins and Dildoes made,

And threw them o’re their neighbors wall,

this was a hopeful Trade.

A Person of great worth and fame,

whose Vertues well were known,

These Sluts were minded to defame,

as plainly shall be shown”


So, there you have it – no smirkin’ at my merkin! Wear yours with pride – Gay Pride if you prefer the rainbow look…

 Rainbow_01 (Shown courtesy of Ed Shepp).