Feb 282014

1Whenever I am really, really pushed for time, I resort to a guaranteed way of putting off having to buckle down and do things! I click here on the website for Fisher London. I am never disappointed if I look up the ‘latest acquisitions’ – there is always something ‘small but beautifully formed’ which takes my fancy, totally messing up my work plans, and today was no exception. They have what is called a toleware spice box – and I gather that toleware is a generic term for items made of metal, often painted or “japanned” and with links to the kitchen.

2It really is splendid – it is only three inches high and just under eight inches wide, but it is a cracker! The site describes it as:

“Dating from the Regency period, an exceptional example of this highly sought- after item: a charming, decorative toleware spice chest `japanned` in black with contrasting neo-classical scrolls, stylised palmette motifs and centred to the lid with a ribboned description, `SPICE`. The lid, which closes on a simple hasp, opens to reveal the individual canisters for the essential spices of the period; ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves and mace. A full-width rectangular compartment would probably have held vanilla pods. The chest also retains the original, matching grater. A truly delightful piece to delight the most discerning collector. Circa 1810-30.”

3aI love the little canisters labelled for each small amount of spice – none of your catering-sized Barts refills from the Cash and Carry containing enough spice to last you five years! Spice was expensive, and this would have kept it in good condition until it was ready to be used.

To have the original grater as well is a real bonus – this is a piece which was used in every day living, a very direct link to life in a prosperous household 200 years ago. I make no comment on the price – £220 – other than to say – what else can you get this attractive, this complete, this “honest” for that sort of money?






Do have a look at the Fisher London site – Hilary tells me that for the month of March she is also exhibiting in a pop-up shop in Bloomsbury, at 17a Rugby Street. It opens on Saturday 1st and runs until 29th March.



Feb 212014

jethro-tullJethro Tull was an unusual character – he was born into a family of land-owning gentry in Berkshire in March 1674. He studied law at Gray’s Inn, and qualified as a barrister in 1699, although he never practised law.

In the same year as he qualified he embarked on a cut-down version of the grand Tour (it only lasted four months instead of the more usual two years). He returned from this glimpse of agricultural practices outside England and married Susanah Smith. They went on to have a son and four daughters.

He had seemed destined for a career in politics but it appears that he took over the family farm known as Howbery Farm, Crowmarsh Gifford – perhaps he inherited it, or perhaps an outdoor life was considered beneficial to him (he suffered from a lung condition which caused him breathing difficulties).

JT plaque_tullIn 1710 Jethro and his family moved to Prosperous Farm near Hungerford. In some ways he was an unlikely farmer – farmers need to have patience. The one thing Tull was not was patient – and he hated waste. He hated paying his men to broadcast seeds i.e. scattering them by hand into ploughed furrows – when this was totally hit and miss. The idea of paying for good seed which was then going to be cast to the winds and lost amongst the stones and weeds was anathema to him. He berated the labourers for being incompetent because their wastage cost him his profits. He instructed his workmen to sow the seed at very specific densities and depths. They either refused or were unable to achieve his targets and Tull set about experimenting with a mechanical seed drill of his own design.

JT8The machine was intended to eliminate wastage and maximize efficiency. It had a revolving cylinder, fed with seed from a hopper and funnel. The seed was fed straight into a channel dug by a plough attached to the front of the machine, and the channel was then filled in by a harrow at the rear. Significantly, Tull decided that the contraption was best suited to being pulled by horse, rather than by oxen.

Tull travelled to Europe again, this time in search of a cure for his tuberculosis. He combined this with checking out continental farming methods, especially in France and Italy where he saw at first hand the practice of ploughing vineyards instead of using manure. He returned to Prosperous Farm and implemented this method with great success.

The original idea of the seed drill had not caught on at first, and Tull modified the design on his return from Europe and experimented with new techniques, coming up with a way of pulverising the earth between the rows. This had the effect of killing off weeds which might otherwise have competed with the growing seeds and Tull was able to demonstrate that he could grow crops year after year without the need for manure, and without needing to leave the land fallow.

JT horse-hoeIn addition to the mechanical seed drill he worked on a mechanical hoe, and made modifications to the traditional plough, which not only tilled the soil but cut off the weeds and left them on the surface of the soil where the natural nutrients could be recycled. Mind you, he was a product of his Age – brought up to believe that all life represented a balance between the four elements (i.e. of earth, air, fire and water). He believed that the roots of plants had tiny mouths which could eat the goodness in the earth. His science may have been a bit flaky but his machines were a huge advance, as was his empirical approach to measuring and perfecting farming methods.

JT s_Horse-Hoeing_Husbandry-w-In 1731 he published his ideas as “Horse-hoeing husbandry : or, An essay on the principles of vegetation and tillage. Designed to introduce a new method of culture; whereby the produce of land will be increased, and the usual expence lessened. Together with accurate descriptions and cuts of the instruments employed in it.”

This was followed in 1733 by a second version with a slightly modified title “The horse-hoeing husbandry: or, a treatise on the principles of tillage and vegetation, wherein is taught a method of introducing a sort of vineyard culture into the corn-fields, in order to increase their product and diminish the common expense.”





His methods were ridiculed by others. He was attacked in the agricultural periodical “The Practical Husbandman and Farmer” and accused of plagiarizing earlier writers. The controversy over his invention was to last for another century, but he was eventually vindicated and in many ways can be regarded as the forerunner of modern farming. Many editions of his Horse-hoeing Husbandry were published subsequently, and in 1822 William Cobbett edited it. It was translated into French, notably by H. L. Duhamel Dumonceau the naturalist and agriculturalist, between 1753 and 1757.

He died at Prosperous Farm on 21st February 1741, but because the Old Style of calendar was used on his gravestone he appears to have been buried on  9 March 1740. He was definitely not buried alive a year before he died!



But of course his name lives on, thanks to Ian Anderson, the lead vocalist, flautist and acoustic guitarist of the rock band known as Jethro Tull. He founded the rock band in December 1967. All of which enables me to repeat this splendid pastiche used by a Czech tribute band by the handy name of  Bratranci Veverkové. Thanks guys! And if you fancy a quick blast of the real thing, here is a link to the magnificent “Living in the Past” courtesy of YouTube.


Feb 192014

A sad little story appeared in the Bath Chronicle  in August 1795, about a fisherman called Simon Harman – a married man with seven young children. He drowned at sea off the coast of Brighton. One of his children, an eleven year old son, was also in the boat when it sank, but he was spared from the same fate. His father had held him on his chest long enough for the boy to be saved by other fishermen, but not before father had sunk beneath the waves, never to be seen again, leaving the son hanging grimly onto an oar which was providentially to hand…

I re-tell the tale as a reminder of the perils of people trying to eke a living at sea 200 years ago – and also because of the story of the generosity of those on shore. Yes, you can argue that the Prince (presumably the Prince of Wales) could afford to fund the  performance at the Theatre in Brighton that night and to hand over the receipts of £117. Yes, if  a filly called “Woodpecker” owned by the Earl of Egremont had just won a race for a purse of fifty pounds he could afford to pass it over to the widow – but at least he made the gesture and I suspect that  Mrs Harman was grateful to receive “compensation” of nearly £200, when many other widows would have had to get by on nothing at all. Hard times….

Fishermen at Sea,  by JMW Turner

Fishermen at Sea, by JMW Turner, dated 1796

Feb 142014

For Valentines Day  a chance to re-visit an earlier post on the subject of love: I thought  it would  be nice to show a handful of different views of love by that ever-so-naughty Thomas Rowlandson. For a change, not his pornographic studies, but a contrasting view of love amongst different sections of Georgian society.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Let us start above stairs with this lovely and intimate study called “A Happy couple.” It is a pen-and-ink sketch showing the two love-birds in a private moment  – the girl looking down at her embroidery, while her beau draws her likeness from just across the table. For them, love (like life) is beautiful.

The whole thing is very understated and simple. You almost feel that Rowlandson was intruding into their private world by sketching them at all …

Secondly, another above-stairs view entitled “Couple and Dog.”


It shows the happy couple, eyes locked, walking arm in arm through the woods, their yapping pooch keen to be the centre of attention. No chance! They only have eyes for each other.

AA2Then there is an altogether more physical demonstration of love below stairs in this one entitled “A Kiss in the Kitchen.” I really admire the background detail: the parrot in the cage, the dog snaffling food from the table, the other servants going about their business – and of course the sheer passion of the couple clearly intent on having a good snog. And a bit of a grope… the guy just cannot believe his luck!

The long and the short of love amongst the lower orders is shown  in the fourth Rowlandson – it may be absurd, but it is affectionate and rather sweet. The title is “A little help in kissing the maid!


And finally, one which shows that love can be found even amongst the poorest of the poor, even amongst the ragged urchins eking a living by sieving through the cinders and other detritus thrown onto the rubbish tip. It is called “Love and Dust” and appears in two different versions on the Lewis Walpole site, one with bare breasts and the other with the breasts coloured in (somewhat unconvincingly!).


The amorous male is shovelling cinders onto the sieve. She looks eagerly into his eyes. Her clothes are tattered and torn, she has no shoes on her feet, merely torn pieces of material tied around her ankles. Two other ugly crones kneel, one of them sieving, the other knocking back a slug of gin. In the foreground is the skeleton of a dead horse. Overhead, a group of crows circle and in the background the refuse cart trundles away into the distance. Even here, at this fetid site, love is in the air, a triumph of hope over adversity.

Thank you, Thomas Rowlandson, for these charming reminders that love is what makes the world go round!

Feb 112014

I am not normally very keen on anthropomorphic pictures – animals dressed up as humans – but I bumped into these two pictures of monkeys in human guise and they reminded me of Genral Jackoo, the performing monkey in Philip Astley’s amphitheatre. They are by a French artist called Christophe Huet, and were painted  around 1735. The first is a sledging-on-ice scene, and rather effectively demonstrates men’s fashion – at least in France – at that period.

Monkey business Christophe Huet 1735-40

The second is perhaps more indicative of what General Jackoo might have looked like – riding a horse:Monkey business 2 Christophe Huet 1735-40

In practice I suspect he was adorned in a rather more masculine, if not military, attire but the popularity of Christophe Huet and his monkey paintings in aristocratic circles in France may help explain why Jackoo was such a favourite of Marie Antoinette. She adored the performing simian and saw him perform on many occasions.

Huet also decorated many of the panels at the splendid chateau at Chantilly, some thirty miles north of Paris. I went there once – at least forty years ago and still shudder at the memory. I had booked a coach trip from Paris and remember being a little bemused at receiving enthusiastic applause when I climbed aboard the coach, which set off immediately. I loved the chateau and was delighted to hear that there would be sufficient time to stroll through the woods after the official tour, and that the coach would leave for Paris at 4.30. Off I strolled, returning a while later to discover a totally empty car-park, a locked up chateau, and not a soul in sight. Unbeknown to me, the clocks had changed  that day and in my ignorance/stupor I had failed to acquaint myself with the  correct time. Hence the earlier applause – and the current deserted state of the chateau…. I recall a long, long forest walk in the dusk, before reaching a train station, and having hardly enough francs to pay for the train fare into Paris.

But any bad recollections of Chantilly are unfair – there are some beautiful rooms including La Grande Singerie and La Petite Singerie, both of which Huet helped to decorate:

Monkey Business 3 La Grande Singerie

Monkey Business 4 La Grande Singerie






Again, there were (not surprisingly) a preponderance of monkey motifs, as in this detail:Monkey business 5 La Grande Singerie Chantilly






Now, a monkey on a slack-wire, that really could have been General Jackoo to a “T”

For years Jackoo (a.k.a. Jacko) performed on horse-back –  juggling, performing acrobatic manoeuvres – and balanced on wires stretched  between upright posts. I did a separate blog about him here and included this extract from a Parisian hand-bill showing the monkey going through his paces:


Astley's Circus cover 001My book about Philip Astley seems to have got off to a good start – if you are interested in finding out more about this fascinating character, his circus amphitheatres and his performing animals  (especially horses) – see the Amazon site  here for Europe and here for the USA.






Feb 082014

321O.K., so land drainage isn’t a particularly racy subject, but if you are a farmer trying to grow crops on claggy clay soil then you might get quite excited about someone who can drain the land. I was brought up on the edge of the Somerset levels – a lowland area prone to constant flooding. Dutch engineers in the mid-17th Century speeded up the medieval process of draining the swampy land, putting in drainage ditches called “rhynes”. I was always told that this was a Dutch or German word – the same as in the River Rhine – meaning a river or canal. A system of sluice gates enabled farmers to control the water levels, letting the water flow away when the tide was out, and keeping the sea at bay when it came in.

But today’s post is about a man who helped transform the landscape and make it productive in areas where the problem was not that the land was below or at sea-level, but where it was boggy because of an underlying clay layer. His name: Joseph Elkington. He was born in 1739 and died in 1806, and in his day was a really Useful Chap. In 1753 he inherited the family farm called Princethorpe in the parish of Stretton-on-Dunsmore which, my atlas tells me, is somewhere in the middle of the area between Coventry and Rugby. Think English Midlands, but also think poor, badly drained soil, unsuited to rearing livestock because the animals all got foot-rot, and hardly any use for arable purposes because the roots rotted away. But a year after splashing his way around his fields Mr Elkington decided to investigate the area where a series of small natural springs were bubbling up through the gravel. He dug a trench into the swampy area, some four feet deep. It was wet. No surprise there. No doubt similar inspection trenches had been dug by thousands of farmers across the country over hundreds of years – and then abandoned. But the tenacious Mr Elkington was no quitter – he jumped into the trench with his crowbar and plunged it into the bottom of the trench. When he extracted the crowbar it was like removing a plug – the underground “reservoir” of water poured out and ran off down the ditch.

elkington drainage

Over the ensuing years he refined his technique, using augurs to drill holes both downwards and sideways to get at the trapped water and to release it into drainage run-offs. He quickly made a name for himself in Warwickshire – small wonder since his work meant that instead of growing reeds and sedge grasses, the land was suddenly productive. Grass would grow, and sheep could graze without needing to wear rubber boots (yes, I know, a deliberate anachronism – but you get my point). Where grass grew it was a matter of time before barley followed. News of his splendid transformation of the farmlands of the Midlands reached the ears of Parliament and of the newly formed Board of Agriculture. On 10th June 1795 the House of Commons passed a resolution calling on the King to pay The Man a hundred pounds – which he duly did, throwing in a gold ring for good measure. The King, a.k.a. Farmer George, knew a whacky wheeze when he saw one. But the Board of Agriculture were a tad worried because Joseph Elkington was not a very fit man – there is a suggestion that he suffered from epilepsy – and there were concerns that the Drain Meister might kick the bucket before he had finished draining the entire countryside. So they wisely paid for a land surveyor called John Johnstone to accompany Mr E. on his travels, observing his methods and preserving his skills for prosperity. Or is that “posterity.” Anyway, Johnstone dutifully trailed along behind Elkington like a faithful spaniel, recording and scribbling in his notebook, finally publishing his observations as “An Account of the Mode of Draining Land according to the System practised by Mr. Joseph Elkington;” with 19 explanatory diagrams, it was published in 1797 and although it may not have become a best-seller on the shelves of the 18th century equivalent of Waterstones, it helped spread the word.


Elkington worked alongside Capability Brown in devising schemes to transform Fisherwick Park near Lichfield. He prospered enough to move to a 500 acre farm at Madely, known appropriately as “Bog Farm”. And when he wasn’t marching across England’s green and marshy land, augur in hand, he was busy fathering eleven children, nine of whom reached adulthood. Indeed nowadays he is mainly remembered because one of his children sired a lad who became a Birmingham engineer, a pioneer of the electro-plating industry by the name of George Elkington.

But back to Joseph and his drains: he lived until October 1806 and when he died he was buried in All Saints churchyard, at Stretton-in-Dunsmore, alongside his wife. A small memorial records his contribution to the science of land drainage. Which encapsulates all I like about the Georgian Era – his life made a difference. Nowadays no-one but a few anoraks have ever heard of him, so let me help put the man back where he belongs – in the middle of his favourite bog.

(I prepared this post many moons ago but I am publishing it now because the Somerset levels are severely flooded – and have been all year. My sympathies are with the people who live there – we have known the technology for draining the land for centuries, and have failed to continue with the dredging and maintenance necessary to preserve that delicate balance between land and sea).

Feb 062014

Next time you reach for a bottle of aspirin to treat your headache, or back pain or rheumatic fever – let’s just call it “an ague” – spare a thought for good old Edward Stone, a vicar who lived at Chipping Norton. One day in around 1757 he was walking across the meadow near his home. Willow trees were thriving in the damp boggy conditions and he idly stripped off a piece of the willow bark (as one does) and chewed it. Now, willow bark is extremely bitter – and the good Reverend immediately remembered another very bitter bark – one brought back from South America and known at the time as Jesuit’s Powder or Peruvian Bark. It was known for its beneficial qualities – because it contained quinine.

jesuits barkRichard Hall used Jesuit’s  Bark   (see my blog on curing wind or flatulence,  here ) and would have appreciated the laterally-thinking Reverend Stone.


Stone surmised that the bitter willow might have similar qualities to Jesuit’s bark. He carried out an experiment by gathering a pound of common white willow bark. He dried it by hanging it in a bag over a bread oven for three months and then pulverised it with a pestle and mortar to create a dry powder. He then split it up into small doses and administered it to around fifty ague-ridden parishioners (amazing to think how many gullible people must have been living in Chipping Norton at the time – “Trust me, I’m a vicar, now swallow this bitter pill”). Every one of the victims/patients noticed an improvement, or as the vicar himself said, the pills “were a powerful astringent and very efficacious in curing agues and intermittent disorders.”

Stone conducted a series of clinical trials to ascertain the most efficacious dose. As he was later to write:

“Being an entire stranger to its nature I gave it in very small quantities, I think it was about twenty grains of the powder at a dose, and repeated it every four hours ….Not perceiving the least ill consequences I grew bolder with it and in a few days increased the dose to two scruples, and the ague was soon removed.”

 My ancestor Richard Hall’s explanation of apothecaries’ measures – a scruple being the equivalent of twenty grains ( originally a twenty-fourth part of one ounce).

Stone administered the powder “with any common vehicle such as tea, water or small beer” and noted the time taken for the patient to improve. In fact he had discovered salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. On 25th April 1763 he wrote a letter to Lord Macclesfield, the President of the Royal Society, outlining his researches of the previous six years, and giving details of the findings.

Stone's letter, published courtesy of the Royal Society

Stone’s letter, published courtesy of the Royal Society. In it he was mistakenly referred to as ‘Edmund’ but his name was ‘Edward’.

It was to be another ninety years before a more digestible compound of acetyl chloride and sodium salicylate was developed – later marketed by Beyer under the name of Aspirin. (The name “Aspirin” was finally trade-marked at the end of January 1899). But it was Stone who did the initial scientific research and who ironically “re-discovered” the properties of the willow. These had been known to the Ancient Greeks – Pliny and Hippocrates had both extolled its virtues as a pain-killer some 2000 years earlier, but it had then disappeared from view. Stone’s scientific approach kick-started more research – not bad going for a vicar with no medical or scientific training.

Stone died aged 66 in 1768 and the blue plaque recording his achievement was put up near where he lived in Chipping Norton some ten years ago. Now, where can I find a headstone for an Ed Stone…


(And just in case you decide to try your hand at making your own willow-aspirin I came across this website  – just don’t blame me if the results poison you, along with fifty other people of the parish you live in!).


Feb 032014

Trawling through different museum websites looking for images to use in my next book (an illustrated history of the Georgian era) I was delighted to come across the Library of Congress site. I particularly  liked this caricature which I had not seen before, dating to 1772. It is entitled ‘Out of fashion – in fashion’  and is a rather nice way of showing how men’s dress altered in the middle of the 18th Century – not just in terms of the cut of the fabric, but also the patterns of the material.


As the site says: “Two gentlemen in contrasted costumes starting back amazed at each other; one wears the fashionable dress of ca. 1750, the other a large laced hat of the Kevenhuller style, a loose, wide-skirted, large cuffed coat, and a bag attached to his wig”.

Never mind the bag, cop those leopard-print knee-length breeches with matching waistcoat!