Jan 312014

The other day I was reading the Leeds Intelligencer – for 25th October 1774.

O.K. – I’ll admit it, I was checking it out because it had details of a visit to the city by my hero Philip Astley. Anyway, I came across this splendid advert for a wind-mill which was about to come up for auction.  I might have been a bit worried about it only being offered on a 25 year lease, but hey, it would have been the chance to lead the world in bio-diesel research! Or maybe not…

Brown flax seed

Brown flax seed – used to make linseed.

Apparently  people in this country were using vertical millstones –  known as edge runners – which moved round a central post in order to crush oil-bearing seeds (such as linseed and oil seed rape) since the 14th Century. So this was offering well-established technology, and I rather liked the full description of all the tools which went with it. As you can see, it came with  an acre of land,  – quite enough to bruise and squeeze between 100 and 200 tons of vegetable matter a year. Vegetable oil had uses in cooking, as a food additive, as a lubricant and for treating wool. Later, vegetable oils were used in the manufacture of paints (particularly linseed oil) and in the manufacture of soap.

It sounds like a splendid business opportunity, especially when you remember that after you had extracted the oil you would be left with press cakes – ideal as an animal feed! And if you got tired of making vegetable oil you could also try your hand at what the advertisement calls “rasping and chipping Dying Woods”. What’s not to like?

aaaqWikipedia has this image of an  Edge mill at an oil mill at Heusweiler in Germany, and it gives a fair idea of what the buyer can have expected:

aqaqaqaSo, I think I will be popping along to the Talbot Inn some time between four and six o’clock  on the fifteenth of November and see if I cannot pick up a bargain – only 240 years late! I rather fancy trying my hand at grinding  flax to produce linseed oil – good in gilding i.e. for applying gold leaf to decorative features, picture frames and so on, and in the production of putty – especially useful since large numbers of small panes of glass would be needed  in all those 1770’s sash windows… or maybe I will import loads of olives from my garden in Spain and make myself some olive oil!

Jan 282014

The year was 1792; down in darkest Cornwall an amazing first was about to be achieved by a little known mining engineer called William Murdoch (sometimes the spelling was Murdock). He had been working in the local tin mines overseeing the new Boulton and Watt steam engines, so he was pretty used to dark conditions. He experimented with coal-gas and ended up with a new form of light which was to revolutionize the way people lived and worked. In that year he became the first person to illuminate his house in Redruth with gaslight.

                             The sign on Murdoch’s house in Redruth.

From there he took his invention to the Boulton factory at Soho in Birmingham, installing factory lights in 1786, thereby enabling workers to operate their machinery even in winter darkness, and later, in  longer shifts and night work. In 1802 the factory lit the new-fangled gas light in an outside display, much to the astonishment of the local residents.

The light was somewhat primitive – the gas mantle would not be invented for another hundred years but improvements came thick and fast. In particular a German inventor called Friedrich Albrecht Winzer (or, as he is better known in our country, Frederick Albert Winsor) helped pioneer the development, and patented the first gas lamp in 1804.

 F.A.Winsor, 1763 – 1830.


In 1804 Winsor demonstrated the gas light as a way of lighting the stage at London’s Lyceum Theatre. A short time afterwards, on 28th January 1807 he amazed the good people of Pall Mall in London by igniting the world’s first gas-lit street lamp. It was far more effective than earlier oil lamps, or candles. The lamps also proved to be far cheaper to operate, with running costs 75% less than available alternatives.

Winsor went on to form the Gas Light and Coke Company, incorporated by Royal Charter in 1812. It became the first gas producing company in the world. Winsor appointed as Chief Engineer one Samuel Clegg, who had been part of the Boulton team at Soho. He was a great innovator patenting something (which sounds obscure and therefore impressive) called the horizontal rotative retort in 1816 – an apparatus which purified the coal-gas with cream of lime. He also developed the self-acting governor and went on to develop the first credible gas meter for measuring consumption. Next time you get your gas bill you will think nicely of Mr Clegg, won’t you?

By the end of 1813 Westminster Bridge would be illuminated by gas and by the end of the decade over 300 miles of gas piping, supplying over 50,000 burners, had been laid beneath London’s streets. This thereby established a tradition of digging up lengths of the public highway, causing maximum inconvenience to pedestrians and road users alike. The Gas Light and Coke Company was indeed the forerunner of British Gas.

The City of Westminster commemorative sign 

Meanwhile across the Channel a Parisian named Phillipe Lebon had been experimenting with gas lighting since the turn of the century. His house and gardens were illuminated in this way in 1801. By 1820 Paris had adopted gas street lighting. Back in England the gas lighting industry really took off and within a few years most large towns were lit by gas, partly because of the cost-benefits and partly because the light emitted by the lamps was far superior to other alternatives. Introduced into the work place and private homes the new lighting facilitated a boom in literacy. It also spawned around a thousand gas works throughout the country by 1859.

When the gas mantle was introduced into theatre-land in 1885 it involved a small bee-hive shaped woven element impregnated with lime. Burning the gas though this meant the actors were …. in the lime-light. Nevertheless, safety interests meant that once Thomas Edison invented the electric incandescent lamp in 1879, theatres and public buildings quickly adapted to electric lighting. Oddly enough I can remember buying a house in 1980 which had not been renovated for over a century, and there in each room was a small gas lamp (and no other form of lighting). Sad to say, I ripped them out and brought in electricity…but such is progress!

Around 1600 gas lamps still remain in use in London – mostly in areas where the nostalgic and  historical feel is deemed important such as outside Buckingham Palace, in the Royal parks and in almost all of the area around Covent Garden. At night a small army of workers are still to be seen polishing the glass globes, checking the pilot lights, and making sure the mantles are not carbonising.

lamp man watch it! Beware the lamp-man!

Jan 252014

When idly perusing the newspaper reports from the 18th Century I occasionally come across stories which completely  distract me from whatever I was looking for. That is certainly true of this gem, from 1771. It appeared in the Reading Mercury & Oxford Gazette on 21st July:


Now I have to admit – I am not especially close to my sister – certainly I wouldn’t expect her to put her coat on, let alone cross the street to come and see me. So the idea of a sibling dressing up in a man’s garb and travelling half way round the world is an intriguing one. How wonderful that the deception was exposed by so lowly a creature as the common louse! It would have made for an interesting shower scene….

Jan 222014

Sometimes in Spanish bars you see a group of elderly gentlemen enthusiastically playing a game of cards called truc – it seems to involve a lot of triumphalism and theatrical posturing, and apparently is very similar to the English game called “Put”. In Catalonia they play it as a foursome but with partners (as in Bridge) and this gives rise to some intriguing signals between players on the same side. Apparently:

Closing one eye: means you hold a three.

Pouting your lips: means you hold a two.

Showing the tip of your tongue: means you have an Ace.

Obviously it helps if you can give these signals to your playing partner without being observed by the other two players! It also means that if a Catalonian winks, blows you a kiss and then sticks his tongue out at you, it is best not to call the Police until you have checked what game he is playing….

Truc seems to be a bit more complicated than the old English game of Put, but it is clear that they share a common ancestry – no doubt sailors brought it back from abroad. There are records of Put being played in England as far back as the 16th Century.

a cotton lewis walpole

I had not come across Put until I saw this Thomas Rowlandson/George Woodward collaboration, published by Ackermann in August 1799 and appearing on the Lewis Walpole Library site. It is called “A game at Put in a country alehouse”. The yokel on the left says “Zome-how – I donna half like the looks o-thee!” while holding a pair of fives and an ace. Across the table his companion looks shell-shocked at a hand containing a royal card and two aces (?) and announces “I put.”

So, how was Put played and what is it all about? It was certainly a very popular game in taverns in the 18th Century, even though (or rather, because) it relied relatively little upon skill or memory, but rather a lot on “brass neck” and bluffing. No suits to worry about, no counting of cards already turned up: just you pitting your wits against your opponent (usually only two people played, but it could be three or four), armed with just three cards for each deal.

a cotton2The first thing to remember was that it wasn’t “aces high” – or even low. The sequence in the 52-card pack was (high) 3-2-A-K-Q-J-T-9-8-7-6-5-4 (low) – the same as in truc. Three cards were dealt to each player, and the non-dealer would lead off. His opponent would try and win the trick by playing a higher card. Remember: there were no trump cards and no suits to follow.

The game was won by the first player to score 5 points over as many deals as necessary. Where both players played cards of equal value, that trick was tied and the player who led had to do so again. A player who won two tricks, or one trick when both the others were tied, won the hand, and scored one point. If the players each won a trick and the other trick was tied, the hand was deemed to be a draw and no points were scored – this was called “trick and tie”.

What makes the game interesting, and gives it a quality similar to Brag, is that players try and ‘con’ their opponent by talking up their hand. Either player, when about to lead a card, may do one of three things:

1.  He can throw his hand in, thus conceding the deal and giving a point to the opponent.

2.  Lead a card without saying anything. His opponent must then play.

3.  Say “Put”, which is short for “I put it to you that you should throw your cards in while you have the chance.” If the opponent follows this advice, the deal ends and the putter scores 1 point. If not, it is a case of ‘put and see’ and the putter leads and the other must play.

What this means is that a player with a weak hand may still win, by asserting the strength of his hand and hoping that his opponent will cave in. It led to much histrionics and double bluffing.

a1a1The game was mentioned in a book by Charles Cotton called The Compleat Gamester, (London, 1674). a cotton st james church piccadillyCotton was an intriguing person – a close friend of Isaac Walton and a contributor to his Compleat Angler, published in 1653. His Compleat Gamester was considered the “standard” English-language reference work on the playing of games – especially  games where betting was a popular feature, and including billiards, card games, dice, horse racing and cock fighting. His authorship of the book was not disclosed at the time it was first published, although it was acknowledged in some of the later editions. Poor Cotton died bankrupt in 1687 and is buried in St James Church Piccadilly.

Various later editions of The Gamester appeared in the 18th Century. According to Cotton, Put was an extremely disreputable game. He called it “the ordinary rooking game of every place” and much of his chapter on Put is devoted to a description of various common types of cheating. This might be done by marking the cards, or introducing cards from another pack, etc. He also explained “The High Game”, in which the cards were stacked so as to deal the victim a three and two twos, while the dealer dealt himself a two and two threes. The non-dealer would fancy his chances and call ”Put” and perhaps agree some extra wager on the side, which the dealer would then “see” and win. Cotton remarked that you were unlikely to get away with this more than once against the same player!

Jan 192014
Dame Hannah Rogers

Dame Hannah Rogers

An insight into the horror of being an orphan in the Eighteenth Century – and a female orphan at that – is shown by the actions of some of the early philanthropists. Here were people moved to acts of extreme generosity because of the dire prospects facing young girls who had lost their parents. And the other day I came across someone who was prepared to do something really quite significant – at least in terms of money – to try and improve the lot of others.

Her name was Dame Hannah Rogers. She was the wife of Sir John Rogers of Blatchford, in the Devon village of Cornwood, and when she made her will on 8th September 1764 she bequeathed the not inconsiderable sum of £10,000 towards the cost of upkeep of a school for orphans in Plymouth. The school was originally a tavern – the Bowling Green House – and the trustees of Dame Hannah’s Will bought the lease of the premises at the end of 1787. This cost £25.

The school provided education for “poor and unfortunate” girls who had been living in either Devon or Cornwall, and who were between the age of 8 and 14. By 1820 the school was looking after 44 girls – the bequest required the school mistress to maintain the girls in return for a capitation fee of three shillings per week per pupil. The girls were given a new pair of shoes every two years, and were provided with a cloak and hat. To meet this expense the Charity paid five guineas per child.

When the girls left school, every effort was made to ensure a proper training. The Charity paid the “signing on” fee of a guinea due on apprenticeships for every girl, as well as the legal fees for drawing up the formal deed of apprenticeship.



Interestingly, the school mistress was paid a salary of a hundred pounds a year – while the master who was responsible for teaching the girls to write, in the last three years of their schooling, was paid £20 per annum. In all the school cost a shade under £700 a year to run – out of income generated by Dame Hannah’s bequest running at £836 p.a.

Normally this would have been a healthy surplus but unfortunately the trustees had appointed a treasurer by the name of Thomas Cleaver. When he died in 1819 it was found that he was insolvent – and that the Charity’s bank had been somewhat lax about paying funds across into Cleaver’s own account. The ledger accounts did not tally with the Bank passbook …. Cleaver was presumably on the fiddle. The Trustees were also a tad negligent about their supervision of the funds – under an order from the Court of Chancery they were supposed to meet twice a year, and to keep minutes. Instead they met once a year – and did not! They were supposed to spend a maximum of a guinea a year on a trustees’ luncheon – they spent twice that amount. There is however no record to show that they overlooked one particular term of Dame Hannah’s bequest – namely that they should each be paid five guineas a year!

I am grateful to Brian Moseley for the information about the school at the website here

Not the most auspicious of starts for the charity, but astonishingly it went from strength to strength. The school managed to change in a changing world – so that by 1887 it had evolved into the Dame Hannah Rogers’ Endowed Charity School for Girls in Ivybridge, constructed on land donated by Lord Blatchford. It had as its aim the training of young orphan girls for domestic service. Later the school became an orthopaedic hospital and later still, in 1949, it opened as the first school in the country devoted to children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy,

Nowadays Dane Hannah’s name still lives on: the website of Hannahs – the home of the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust – gives more details, and can be found here.  In their words “Since then (1949) we’ve gone from strength to strength, enabling and enriching the lives of more than 500 disabled children and their families annually. In 2008, we saw a desperate need for young adults with disabilities. As a result we opened Hannahwood; a transition programme for 19-25 yr olds.”

In 2009 the Trust acquired premises at Seale Hayne (I can remember it as an agricultural college). As the website states “There’s an outdoor pursuits centre, recording studios, sensory music rooms, farm, gallery, bistro, workshops, vocational courses and learning placements. It’s a passion-infused creative space abundant in opportunities for all abilities.”

I think it is rather wonderful that a woman’s vision over two centuries ago still lives on, helping people lead rewarding and worthwhile lives. Hannah – I salute you for your vision and generosity – and Hannahs, I hope your next two centuries are as successful as your past!

Jan 172014

15I was really blown away by a lovely review about my latest book on Amazon  under the heading of “Fascinating history of the famous Astley’s Amphitheatre”

It is described as being by ‘Joyously Retired Teacher’ – and my only regret is that I do not know her identity and am unable to thank her for her Five Star review*. She writes:

“The author traces young Phillip Astley from his early days as a carpentry apprentice through his successful career as a horse trainer in the German War and then to his development of the modern circus, although—as the author points out—he never used the word circus in connection with his entertainments. The story of Astley’s Amphitheatre continues with Phillip Astley’s death in 1814 and his son’s in 1821, until it was finally closed in 1893 and the final building—built by a successor—in 1895. 

You may not have realized that Astley’s performances were not exclusively held in his location south of Westminster Bridge. He took his horses, performers, wooden structures, and all on tour in various parts of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland…and, when war was not a barrier—to the continent. He was revered by many, including Marie-Antoinette, who called him “le plus bel homme d’Europe” and presented his son with a gold medal set with diamonds. His French theatre was appropriated by the revolutionaries, of course, but when a temporary peace occurred in 1803, he not only was given an audience with Napoleon Bonaparte, but was granted reparations by said monarch. But his most valuable connection was with King George III, who assisted him with various licensure problems and even made a bow to him at one point, which was a spectacular coup for an uneducated man who built an entertainment empire that changed forever the face of circuses and clowns and equestrian performances.

Mr. Rendell, the author, was fortunate to have inherited the papers of his four-time great grandfather, which included a treasure trove of original documents from the 18th century. Other images of paintings and sketches and advertising flyers were lent via the generosity of several museums. I have to say I read this book from beginning to end when I first sat down with it. It took a good three hours even while I skimmed over some of the newspaper clippings, but I will undoubtedly go back to them later since I LOVE the insights I get on the way people’s minds worked 200+ years ago from reading these old clippings.

 The price may seem high, but this item is one of a kind.”

5 star

I entirely take the point about the price – in full colour Amazon laid down the asking price at £17, which I think is too high, so I submitted the pdf of the book to a printer and got it printed off as a black-and-white version which I can then make available for £9.00. So, hopefully at nine pounds it is reasonable value and readers get the choice – obviously it looks better in colour as there are dozens and dozens of images. On the other hand many of the images are extracts from newspapers, and so are in monochrome anyway! You pays your money and you makes your choice….

Astley's Circus cover 001The other review  – also Five Star – is by my ever so faithful correspondent Sarah Waldock (look at most of my posts and she has left a helpful comment). She writes:

“Mike Rendell is an exemplary researcher, who can also write in a way that draws the reader in.  This book fills a gap in available information about the famous Astley and his entertainments .  Anyone who is a devotee of tales from the Long Regency will have heard of Astley’s Amphitheatre – now at last a full and comprehensive explanation of how it began and what actually happened there!  Generously illustrated throughout and with reference to period ephemera this is a ‘must have’ book for any devotee of the period – or anyone who is interested in the history of showmanship.  Thank you, Mike, just what I needed for my library!”


Thanks, Sarah, that is most kind of you.

I can only say that I am delighted if people enjoy the book – and to urge others to post feedback because as an author it is always helpful to hear what readers like about a book, (and indeed, what they do not enjoy!). Meanwhile, if you are tempted – check it out here for Amazon Europe and here for America. I will not be releasing it as an e-book because of copyright restrictions – many of the museums and galleries were extraordinarily helpful, but tended to want a fee if it was going to be available online.

*Susana Ellis, who writes historical romances, has now stepped forward to reveal herself as ‘Joyously Retired Teacher’ – many thanks Susana. You can see her website here.

Jan 132014

I thought I would have a look at a rather interesting caricature drawn by James Gillray in 1792.

NPG D12456; 'Vices overlook'd in the new proclamation' by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey

© National Portrait Gallery

The four quadrants show Gillray’s  view on royal profligacy. In the top left,  “Avarice”, Gillray echoes the prevailing view that King George III and his wife were  motivated by money – that their miserliness was  all linked to a desire to hoard a personal fortune. They rest their moneybags on the table, alongside a book of interest tables. Poor Queen Charlotte – Gillray generally showed her as a money-grabbing harridan!

I find it intriguing that whereas America saw George III  as a tyrant, we regarded him as a bit of a buffoon who had a habit of asking a question and immediately coming up with his own answer. He was parodied for his love of farming and for his simple lifestyle, and somewhat unfairly accused of amassing a personal fortune at the expense of the general public. What I can say is that Richard Hall’s diaries show that he was deeply loved by certain sections of the public – Richard invariably calls him ‘good King George.’

The other three quadrants all show the contrasting folly of the three royal princes, whose extravagancies counter-balance the  miserliness of their parents. Top right in “Drunkenness” we have the Prince Regent, a stock figure of fun because of his alcoholic  behaviour, gluttony  and womanising. He is shown, drunk and incapable, being led from a tavern.

In the lower left  quadrant, entitled “Gambling”   Gillray shows us the Duke of York, gambling away no small fortune as he prepares to throw the dice.  To the right in “Debauchery” we see his royal brother the Duke of Clarence – later to become William IV – pictured with his actress-mistress Dorothy Jordan. He had started living openly with her the previous year, and she went on to become mother to his ten children. “Jordan” was Georgian slang for a chamber pot – hence the potty shown hanging from the wall.

Not exactly a complimentary comment about the King and his sons, but remember, in France they had destroyed the Bastille,  imprisoned their royal family, and were preparing to drag them off to the guillotine.  In contrast, Gillray was positively  Best Friend Forever of the King and his reprobate sons. But given the simple, almost frugal, tastes of George III it would  have been lovely to have  known the response of the King to the publication of Gillray’s print. I bet he went ballistic!

Not until ‘Spitting Image’ do we get a repeat of such an acerbic commentary on the Royal Family, and it is interesting to consider how a 20th Century Gillray would have shown such illustrious personages as the three sons of our own Dear Queen! He would have  had a field day…. the man was a ‘ball of bile’ and would never have missed such obvious targets!

Thank you Mr Gillray – next year marks the bi-centenary of your demise, and I look forward to seeing renewed interest in the way you viewed the world.

Jan 082014

15One of the things I find intriguing about Astley is that he had a most rudimentary education – his formal schooling ended when he became apprenticed to his cabinet-making father at the age of nine. Yet he went on to rub shoulders with royalty. He perfected the role of the self-publicist to the extent that he became famous both nationally and internationally – he was the Richard Branson of his era, an entrepreneur who seemed incapable of keeping his name out of the papers. It didn’t matter whether he was floating down the Thames with a British flag under each arm to mark the birthday of George III – or arranging for one of the very first hot-air balloon ascents in this country – or putting on his full military costume and on his milky-white charger Gibraltar parading with pipe and drum across Westminster Bridge to his new amphitheatre. He attracted press interest wherever he went, until he became perhaps the most recognizable face in the land, more famous than politicians, more loved than any of the contemporaries who performed before audiences up and down the country.

He kept his acts fresh by rotating the acts, encouraging people to come back and see the show over and over again during the London season (Easter to September). He would then take his circus on tour visiting places as far afield as Norfolk, Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester. He developed amphitheatres in Dublin and Paris and visited Belgrade and Vienna to introduce his particular brand of entertainment to the rest of Europe. He had a real flair for giving the public what they wanted. And what they wanted was variety, colour, noise – the whole works!

16Some mocked him for his lack of education – he apparently got into all sorts of problems in deciding whether to put an “h” in front of words beginning with “a”. So he spoke of “the horses in Halexander The Great’s harmy having hardly hany harmour.” He mis-pronounced words, and mangled the English language by combining two different words to create  new ones. But his malapropisms merely endeared him to the people he met.

14Astley (or perhaps it should be Hastley…) was a fierce supporter of the monarchy and a devoted follower of the Duke of York. His patriotism led him to heroism in the Seven Years War – he had captured an enemy colour, he had broken though enemy lines to rescue the injured Duke of Brunswick, and when he was in his fifties he re-enlisted to join his old regiment (the Fifteenth Hussars) in the war against the French.

He was obviously built like the proverbial brick shed, and at a height of over six feet, and with a deep, bellowing, Sergeant Major’s voice he must have been a truly impressive spectacle as he strode around the centre of the ring, whip in hand, pioneering the role of the ringmaster. It would have been a most imposing sight, with Astley wearing his pseudo-military costume, complete with its red jacket;  there is little doubt in my mind that he was never happier than the time when he was in the army. The army taught him the lessons he put to good use in his civilian life – discipline, endless attention to detail, and a refusal to surrender to life’s vicissitudes. And today, 8th January, was his birthday (he was born in 1742). So, I raise my glass to an extraordinary man – cheers Philip!

More information on my book “Astley’s Circus – the story of an English Hussar” appears here.


Jan 062014
Bourton Manor House 1775

6th January  1775: William Snooke (brother-in-law of Richard Hall, records that he sat down to a fine dinner with Mr and Mrs Clifford snr, Mr and Mrs William Clifford and their seven children (and maid), John Fox snr. and Sally Twining, Mr and Mrs William Fox, and William Weale.

They ate a prodigious feast for Dinner which William proudly records in his diary:

Ham, Greens, 3 fowls roasted


Leg of Mutton, potatoes etc

Boiled rump of beef (large)

After: pudding, mince pies and a forequarter of home Lamb.

glutton for punishment

This was not enough to stave off the pangs of hunger all day, and so in the evening the company re-assembled and polished off tarts, stuffed beef, mince pies, cold mutton, oysters, cold sliced beef, cold lamb, apple pies and pears.

Is it small wonder that an entry on the expenses page opposite the date shows the entry: “altering Mrs Snooke’s stays –  three shillings”. Somehow I  think the alterations were more likely to have been to let the corset out, not make it smaller…

18th century stays