Dec 292016

charles-macintosh-1766-to-1843I see that Google are today honouring Charles Macintosh, who was born this day in history 1766. We remember him for giving his name to a raincoat – using a method of rubberising fabric which he patented in June 1823

His success in keeping us all dry rather overshadows his other work as an Industrial Chemist – he made important contributions to the production of steel and was jointly credited with the patent awarded to James Beaumont Neilson in 1828 in connection with the ‘hot-blast’ process. In 1824 he was made  a Fellow of the Royal Society – and died in 1843.

And so, in memory of the demise of the lovely Debbie Reynolds a link from macintoshes to …  the film “Singing in the Rain”, here via YouTube with “You were meant for me.”

Some came in, and some went out. So, Hello George, and Goodbye Debbie….


Dec 152016

Among a large collection of Richard Hall’s letters which came to light just a couple of years ago is the correspondence from his father-in-law Benjamin Seward to the latter’s brother-in-law George Knapp, barrister. The collection includes this one from Badsey in Worcestershire dated 15 December 1736 – in other words, 280 years ago.

By way of background: Benjamin was a hosier, one of seven sons. He did rather well for himself in the aftermath of the Great Fire, buying up farmland in the area of North London and flogging it off for development. Most of his 6 brothers lived in Badsey, near Evesham, with their parents. By his early forties Benjamin had amassed enough of a fortune to buy The Mansion House at Bengeworth (now the Evesham Hotel) a couple of miles down the road. He chose the place in part so that his parents could assist him with the task of bringing up his two infant daughters, Frances and Eleanor. Their mother had died when Eleanor was born, and George Knapp was their mother’s brother. By the time of this letter the children were 5 and 3.

This background explains the keen attempt by Benjamin to find himself a new wife. I thought others might like to see the poetic (?) turn of phrase used to describe his interest in the Ladies (“My zeal for the Petticoat Pleasures”).

The letter reads:

“I blame myself for my long silence, at the same time I can’t help complaining of yours. Since my last I took a second tour to Birmingham where I was very agreeably entertained. I was at Two Balls and very merry amongst the Fair Lasses but as yet I am only a General Admirer.”

He then refers to his two young children: “ My two little charmers have so great an Ascendant over my Affections that I shall not I hope precipitously be a Particular One, tho my zeal for Petticoat Pleasures is too well known to admit of a Disguise. Therefore when I come to London again, which I propose doing soon after Xmas, I may chance to venture a Second Voyage if there is a Fair Prospect of Casting Anchor at the Cape Du Bon Esperance.”

In other words he made no secret of the fact that he was desperate to marry a second time if the chance came along…

The address section of the letter (known as an entire) showing delivery to Joe’s Coffee House at Mitre Court, Fleet Street.

In due course Benjamin did indeed find another wife – I think possibly it was his fortune rather than his flowery prose which did the trick! They married and moved into Bengeworth Mansion House and the daughters grew up in a happy and stable environment. My ancestor married Eleanor, the younger daughter, when she was 21, spending the honeymoon at Bengeworth while Dad and Step-Mama went up to London. Both parents were to die within a few weeks of the wedding, leaving the house and lands equally to Frances and Eleanor. By virtue of the Property Laws then in force, this meant Richard was suddenly a very wealthy 25 year old.

It may seem slightly curious that Benjamin’s younger daughter was able to keep her father’s letters; they came into her possession when George Knapp, (addressee) died and Richard (executor) discovered the letters with George’s effects. Even more remarkable is that no-one else thought of binning them in the intervening 280 years! For very many  years they have nestled safely and unseen in a concertina file of papers which my second cousin has kindly let me photograph. I am now reading through the correspondence and general ephemera and maybe eventually I will decide to bring out a Second Edition of the Journal of a Georgian Gentleman in order to include all this extra material.

Meanwhile a paperback version is available  for £9 + p&p. Do contact me via if you are interested. No-one can say I don’t try and make Christmas shopping simple!


Dec 122016

Thumbing through back numbers of the Gentleman’s Magazine as one does, (preferably online via the Hathi Trust Digital Library  here ) I came across the ever-readable section for 1821 entitled “Obituaries, with Anecdotes of Remarkable Persons”. Actually I was looking for the entry relating to the amazing business-woman Eleanor Coade, artificial stone manufacturer, who will be featuring in my next book, to be called ‘Petticoat Pioneers’   Anyway, my curious eyes alighted on this entry:

Dec 12 At Brighton, aged 108, Phoebe Hessel. Through the goodness of His Majesty, and the occasional assistance of many liberal persons in the place, Phoebe’s latter days were rendered very comfortable. When His Majesty, then Prince Regent, was informed of her extreme age, and of her necessities, with his usual generosity, he requested some one to ascertain of what sum she required to render her comfortable. “Half a guinea a week” replied old Phoebe “will make me as happy as a princess.” This, by His Majesty’s command, was regularly paid to her. She was a woman of good information, and very communicative, and retained her faculties till within a few hours of her death.

Phoebe_Hessel's_GravestoneThe following epitaph, about to be placed in Brighton church-yard, details her singular story:- “In memory of Phoebe Hessel, who was born at Stepney in the year 1713. She served for many years, as a private soldier in the 5th Regiment of Foot, in different parts of Europe, and in the year 1745 fought under the command of the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Fontenoy, where she received a bayonet wound in the arm. Her long life, which commenced in the reign of Queen Anne, extended to George the Fourth, by whose munificence she received comfort and support in her latter years. She died at Brighton, where she had long resided, December 12, 1821, aged 108 years and lies buried here”

Sure enough, a quick look at Wikipedia shows the gravestone, recently restored by the Northumberland Fusiliers as successors to the 5th Regiment of Foot. There seem to be various different versions about how she came to be serving in the British Army. One story has it that her mother died when she was a youngster, and the only way that her father, a serving soldier, could look after her was by teaching her to play fife and drums, and enlist with him. Another story says that she fell in love with a soldier by the name of Mr Golding and couldn’t bear to be parted from him. So in 1728 she  joined him on active service in the West Indies, dressed as a man, and ended up visiting various battlefields in Europe. After serving for at least seventeen years she was injured at the battle of Fontenoy.

At the start of the Battle of Fontenoy the French and British generals apparently had a meetign to discuss who would get to fire first. They don't make wars like that any more....

At the start of the Battle of Fontenoy the French and British generals apparently had a meeting to discuss who would get to fire first. They don’t make wars like that any more….

One can only assume that her fellow soldiers were none too observant, and that having a relaxing hot shower after a sweaty hour or two on the battlefield  was not a common practice. Even so, there are one or two bodily functions which might have given the game away, but apparently not, and one story has it that her impersonation was only detected when she committed an offence which merited being stripped to the waist and being whipped. Imagine the surprise on the face of the Officer in charge of the punishment detail…. “what are you doing with those two, Hessel?!” Or words to that effect.

Anyway, she and her boyfriend were discharged (honourably) from the army, with full pay, and they married and settled in Plymouth where she bred little Goldings, all nine of them. Sadly eight of them died in infancy, and the ninth was later drowned at sea. Mr Golding also died and his widow made her way along the coast to the sleepy village of Brighthelmstone (aka Brighton). There she married a local fisherman called Thomas Hessel. He too died, in 1780, by which time  good old Phoebe was in her late sixties. She did what every woman of her age should do: she bought herself a donkey. She then became a well-known if eccentric character roaming around the streets of Brighton on her donkey flogging fish and vegetables to anyone who would have them.

By the turn of the century she was 87 years old, still to be found selling gingerbread and oranges, near where the Royal Pavilion was being built on the corner of Old Steine and Marine Parade. She apparently loved telling stories about her life in the Army, no doubt embellishing the tales with each telling.  The Prince Regent got to hear of her and when she fell on hard times and was sent to the Work House he made sure she got paid a pension of  10/6 a week – enough to keep her away from the debtors prison. The pension ran from 1806 until her death at the age of 108 in 1821.

She lived just long enough to be involved in George IV’s coronation celebrations held in Brighton on 19 July 1821. As Brighton’s oldest resident, she was guest of honour at the Town Banquet.

Phoebe Hessel, artist unknown.

Phoebe Hessel*, artist unknown.

Apparently she had been born in Stepney – in the Tower Hamlets area of London – and had been given the nick-name of ‘The Stepney Amazon’. The memory of this remarkable lady lives on in the names of two Stepney streets, Amazon Street and Hessel Street.

Phoebe: I have not the faintest idea where truth ends and fiction begins. Plays and books in the eighteenth century were full of tales about lovelorn young girls enlisting in foreign wars in order not to be separated from the object of their love. Maybe you were one of the inspirations for those stories. Maybe you did go undetected as a female throughout your twenties and thirties, despite wearing an army uniform alongside hundreds of fellow soldiers. For all I know every one of the tales of derring-do with which you regaled the Prince of Wales, and anyone else who would listen and give you a bob or two, were gospel truth. But no, I am not going to include you as a ‘petticoat pioneer’ in my new book, due out next year with Pen & Sword, because I cannot see you as a ‘pioneer’ when you resorted to deception. Your story is however a good reminder of how hard it was for a woman to succeed in a man’s world, and small wonder there were cases of women pretending to be men – in order to marry a wealthy (but unobservant!) heiress, or like Margaret Ann Bulkley (a.k.a. Dr James Barry) in order to pursue a career in medicine.  Whatever, good on yer Phoebe!

* I am grateful to Janet Beal for pointing out that this may well not be a portrait of Phoebe – but is more likely to represent Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. See Wikipedia here.

Dec 072016

Regardless of whether or not you like boxing, the fact remains that in the eighteenth century boxing  was hugely popular, and was regarded as fairer than duelling with sword or pistol. Huge crowds were attracted to bouts, which could last from dawn until dusk, and widespread gambling underpinned the contests.

7th December marks the anniversary of the death in 1734 of one James Figg, hailed at the time as the Father of Modern Boxing (or, as he would call it, the ‘manly art of self-defence’).

figg-4-plaqueHe had been born around 1695 to a poor farming family in Thame, Oxfordshire, the youngest of seven childen. Later he was to develop into a 6-foot tall, 185-pound athlete, who early-on exhibited a prodigious talent for fencing. He also mastered the short sword, cudgel, and quarterstaff. Later he took up the study of “boxing” as the unarmed combat, which had become popular in the late 1600’s, was commonly called.

The “boxing”practiced by Figg was in a different league to what we know today: it was a no-holds-barred contest which would usually take place over 3 bouts, one of swordplay with a choice of live swords, daggers & shields; one of bare-knuckle boxing; and one of quarterstaff or cudgels. Bare knuckle fighting permitted eye gouging, hair pulling, spitting, head-butting, purring (shin-kicking), stomping and kicking downed opponents, as well as wrestling throws, and grappling whilst on the ground. The men who took part in these gladiatorial contests were called prize fighters – because they fought for a prize of a purse, or cups or free drinks etc. Of all these prize fighters, James Figg was the outstanding champion of his time.

He developed his own unique style  (known as ‘Figg’s fighting’) – rather than wading in and risking injury to himself he would sum up his opponent first and alter his style accordingly. He brought to boxing the thrust-and-parry skills he had perfected while fencing. If his opponent was a wrestler he would batter him with fierce blows; if the rival was a better boxer then he would grapple him to the ground to gain a submission. Figg prospered as he travelled the length and breadth of the country attending fairs and shows, challenging all-comers. He gained the patronage of the Earl of Peterborough and set up a fighting academy to train other pugilists, as well as a fighting stage known as Figg’s Amphitheatre’. Similar amphitheatres were set up in Hyde Park and in Oxford Street.

Figg went on to claim the title of Champion of  England in 1719.

The pub in Thame named after local hero James Figg

The pub in Thame named after local hero James Figg

He defended his title on many occasions and is believed to have won 269 out of his 270 fights. The only blemish on his record was when he lost to Ned Sutton, a man he had previously beaten.


The Sutton v Figg match

The decider was to take place on 6th of June 1727, in front of an audience of 3,000 spectators, including the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. The first round was with swords and a cut to Sutton’s shoulder resulted in Figg winning that round. A thirty minute break was permitted before the start of the second round. This was bare knuckle fighting which Figg won by a submission. The third round was with cudgels during which Figg shattered Sutton’s knee to win the match and reclaim the title. Not the sort of man to run into on a dark night!

After 1730 Figg largely gave up fighting, concentrating on training and promoting others, in particular George Taylor (who succeeded him as Champion of England and who was to take over the business when Figg died) and the legendary Jack Broughton (possibly Figg’s own grandson, and a man who will get a post of his own in due course). It was Broughton who was the first to introduce rules for boxing (laying down regulations about the size of the ring, who holds the purse, not kicking a man when he is down, and the length of count). Under ‘Broughton’s Rules’ a fallen boxer would be given a count of thirty seconds to come up to his mark – a line scratched on the floor of the ring, If he failed to ‘come up to scratch’ he lost the bout. Prior to Broughton there was the chaotic situation where there were no weight divisions or round limits, and no referee. Broughton also brought in an early form of boxing glove or muffler, but these were used only for exhibition matches and for practice bouts in order to avoid the risk of injury to his trainees, many of whom were young aristocrats.

James Figg's trade card

James Figg’s trade card