Apr 302017

Richard dentist


“Thursday 16th

Had a very indifferent night the past, with my Tooth – today was enabled to go through the operation of having it drawn out, which gave me great relief.  Part fine, part dull, not very cold.”










In his diaries my ancestor Richard Hall makes mention of several trips to the dentist – and it gives me the shudders just to think of what that would have entailed in an era before anaesthetics. But at least Richard was already in pain – and the procedure was aimed at reducing that discomfort. Imagine what it must have been like for someone with perfectly good teeth, volunteering  to have an

Extracting a tooth, by William Henry Bunbury

Extracting a tooth, by William Henry Bunbury

extraction. Why would they do that? Money. It is a fact of life that in some countries today people feel compelled to sell their organs to raise cash to pay off their debts – the trade in kidneys in India being a case in point. But in Georgian England the craze was for the rich (a description synonymous with excessive eating, rich foods – and gum disease) – to replace their blackened, stinking, stumps with nice fine white teeth. Where were  they going to get such pearly white replacements? Why, from the poor who, on account of their sugar-free diets, generally did not suffer from bad teeth.


This fashion started to become popular in the last 20 years of the 18th Century – before the trend to use ‘Waterloo Teeth’ ie the teeth removed from the corpses found on the battlefield of Waterloo, and harvested for dentists to use back in Britain. In her ‘Memoirs’ the writer Laetitia Matilda Hawkins tells the story of an impecunious Emma Hart, way before she became the mistress of Horatio Nelson, deciding to sell her front gnashers in order to pay off her debts. On the way to the dentist to face the horrors of the tooth-puller she met a fellow servant and was talked into selling something altogether different – her virtue. Somehow I think she made a wise choice – I doubt if she would ever have snared the Hero of the Nile if she had greeted him with a broad gummy grin where her front teeth had originally been.

John Hunter had been at the forefront of popularising the idea of using transplants: his book “Natural History of the Human Tooth” suggested that the dentist should always have  at least two potential donors in attendance. If the first one didn’t have teeth which fitted the recipient, try the stand-by! Once the dentist had found an approximate fit, he would then hold it firmly in position by wiring it in to the adjoining teeth. Other dentists used replacement teeth made out of pottery, ivory, bone or even gold. Contrary to some reports they were not made out of wood, which would have gone soggy and broken apart due to the acidity of the mouth.

The transplanted teeth did not of course grow – but there are instances where they remained in place for months, and sometimes even years. What had started as a craze in London spread to Paris. There, the dentist Pierre Le Mayeur perfected the technique before heading to America to make his fortune.

George Washington's dentures, courtesy of Mount Vernon

George Washington’s dentures, courtesy of Mount Vernon

He even treated George Washington and we know that Washington wore dentures – but there is no record that he received any transplanted teeth. However, his aide, Colonel Richard Varick, certainly did receive transplanted teeth – prompting Washington to write this fulsome endorsement: “I have been staggered in my belief at the efficacy of transplantation of living teeth”.

The New York newspapers of 1784 carried  advertisements from Le Mayeur, offering payment of £2.2.0 (two guineas) for a set of front teeth “on applying to Number 28 Maiden Lane New York.” Apparently there were not enough takers, and by the time Le Mayeur reached Richmond he was offering five guineas a tooth – “slaves teeth excepted.”

The latter comment reminds me that when I did my university thesis on organ transplantation nearly half a century ago I was in correspondence with a certain Christian Barnard, who of course used a non-white donor for the first heart transplant – into a white person. But 200-odd years ago, slave teeth were not considered suitable. Le Mayeur went on to advertise that he had transplanted upwards of a hundred and twenty teeth during a six month period “and that not one of his operations has failed of the wished-for success”. In practice however, few transplants stayed firmly in place for even six months, and back in England dentists were already pouring scorn on the practice. The view of Thomas Berdmore* and William Rae, both dentists to George III, was that the operations were “dangerous and immoderately expensive”. In particular they were of the opinion that the only way you could get a good fix was if the root of the tooth being transplanted was of the identical length, shape and size as the one which had just been removed. Mind you, that merely prompted the unscrupulous dentists of the period to resort to “re-planting” i.e. taking out the old tooth,  filling it, disguising the discolouration – and putting it straight back into its original socket without the recipient being any the wiser as to where his “new” tooth had come from!

Anyway, I am grateful to John Woodforde for his book ‘The Strange Story of False Teeth’ for the information which I have used: now for what I really like, a quick look at how caricaturists liked to show dentistry!

Transplanting of Teeth by Thos Rowlandson 1787

First up, a rather appropriate Thomas Rowlandson print shown courtesy of the British Museum site, and which first appeared in 1787. It is entitled ‘Transplanting of Teeth’ and the site contains this explanation:

“A fashionable dentist is extracting the teeth of the poor in order to insert ‘live teeth’ immediately into the jaws of his patients. In the centre a young chimney-sweep sits in an arm-chair, over the back of which the dentist leans, holding the boy’s head, and inserting an instrument into his mouth. Next (left) a lady sits in a similar chair watching the sweep with a pained and angry expression; she holds a smelling-bottle to her nose; she has just endured an extraction and is about to receive a transplantation. On the right a good-looking young lady leans back, her fists clenched in pain, while a spectacled dentist peers closely into her face, placing his instrument in her mouth. Behind her a lean, ugly, and elderly man wearing regimentals stands in profile to the right, holding a mirror in which he inspects his mouth with a dissatisfied expression. On the left a ragged boy and girl are leaving the room, both crying with pain: the girl inspects the coin in her hand. On the door is a placard: ‘Most Money Given for live Teeth’. A placard on the wall is headed by a coronet and two ducks, indicating quackery: ‘Baron Ron——Dentist to her High Mightiness the Empress of Russia’.


Another Rowlandson, on a more general dentistry theme, is this one from 1811, showing the proud (French) dentist displaying his handiwork ie a full set of artificial dentures:

Rowlandson's French Dentist 1811

Other artists loved depicting the cruelty and barbarism of the dentist. Here we have ‘The Dentist, or teeth drawn with a touch’ by Robert Sayer from 1790-2The Dentist or teeth drawn with a touch by Robert Sayer 1790-2

Or how about this one:The London Dentist after Robert Dighton pubd Bowles & CarverIt is entitled ‘The London Dentist’ and is described as being ‘ after Robert Dighton’ and was  published by  Bowles & Carver in or shortly after 1784. But for my money I always like the drawings made by John Collier, sometimes described as ‘the Lancashire Hogarth’. He used the pseudonym Timothy Bobbin:


I recall doing a blog post once before about John Collier and dentistry – here. So I will end with another chance to see one of the images which I used at the time – with the sadistic tooth puller brandishing a red hot coal under the nose of the ‘patient/victim’, forcing him to pull his head backwards thereby pulling out the tooth.

Shown courtesy of the Wellcome Institute

Shown courtesy of the Wellcome Institute

And for anyone planning a trip to the dentist later today – my apologies!


*PS I recall doing a separate blog on royal dentist Thomas Berdmore five years ago here.

Apr 262017

Bellamy 1I rather hope that the good citizens of the Devon village of  Hittisleigh will be out celebrating today – their most famous son,  Samuel Bellamy, went to meet his maker exactly three centuries ago, in a storm thousands of miles away.

One of six children, he was born to Stephen and Elizabeth Bellamy in 1689. His mother died a few weeks later, and at a young age he was sent away to sea to earn a living. And what a living it turned out to be. After a stint in the Royal Navy he “went freelance” and found that a spot of piracy was just the thing to cure a broken heart. There are various stories about a doomed love affair – variously with a young girl, or with an old maid, but either way, it was a love which was not meant to be.

In 1716 he left Cape Cod to go in search of the wrecks of a Spanish treasure fleet which had gone down in a storm off Florida the year before – but  he had no luck finding the wrecks. By now Bellamy was  on a ship called the Marianne, under the captaincy of the famous pirate Benjamin Hornigold – and there he met the first mate, none other than a man called Edward Teach, later to become known as the notorious pirate Blackbeard.

When Hornigold failed to capture any ships, largely on account of the fact that he refused to plunder British vessels, his crew rebelled. On a popular vote they deposed Hornigold as Captain, and in his place elected Samuel Bellamy.

He was known as ‘Black Sam’ on account of his thick black head of hair, tied back and left un-powdered. Not for our hero an ageing grey wig. Here was a man who loved fine clothing, especially a black coat. He was tidy, meticulous, and proud of his appearance. His preference was to carry four duelling pistols tucked in at the front of his outfit, and ‘mean moody and magnificent’ he must indeed have seemed to all who saw him.

Model of the Whydah Gally

Model of the Whydah Gally

His fortune was made one day in the Spring of 1717 while he was sailing his ship  in the channel between Cuba and Hispaniola. Bellamy caught sight of an exceptional ship known as the  Whydah Gally. She was on her maiden voyage and had just completed the first two of the three legs of the slavers triangle. In other words she had taken goods down to Africa, exchanged them for slaves (and ivory) crossed over to the Caribbean, sold the 300-odd slaves, and was bringing back a cargo of rich merchandise including a large quantity of gold and silver. A later manifest shows that there were actually 180 sacks of bullion, each weighing 23 kilos. Now that is an awful lot of bling…

Bellamy chased the Whydah Gally for three days – not an easy task because the new ship was a racing-fast, state-of-the-art vessel built in London in 1715, and owned by Sir Humphry Morice. She got her name from the African slaving port of Ouidah. But eventually Bellamy got close enough to send a shot across the bows of the Whydah Gally, whereupon the Captain lowered his flag in surrender.

The haul was quite amazing and, faced with having to transfer everything to his own ship, Bellamy chose a far easier option: he simply handed the keys of his own ship over to the good captain, swapped over a few cannon, and off he went in the sleek and rather impressive new boat, which was of course totally unscathed. It was typical of the man that he treated the captured captain and crew so well – Bellamy was always polite, well-mannered and averse to unnecessary violence.

Bellamy 4Operating the Whydah Gally and one other ship, in tandem, the pirates proved an unstoppable force as they hunted down merchant shipping throughout the Caribbean, and, in particular, up the coast of the Carolinas. Bellamy was extremely popular with his crew – they referred to him as the Pirate Robin Hood, and regarded themselves as Robin Hood’s Men. And then, two months after seizing the vessel, disaster struck. She must have been low in the water on account of all the looted merchandise on board – and was clearly not in a position to outrun the storm which suddenly hit them as they were off the coast of Cape Cod. It was midnight  when the storm struck, and in the early hours of the morning of 26 April 1717 the ship’s main mast broke and the ship was dragged down onto the sandbank. She went down in 10 – 30 feet of water just a short distance from the shore. All on board drowned, including ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy. He was 28.

103 bodies were washed ashore, leaving around 40 crewmen unaccounted for. And there the wrecked ship remained, with its 5-ton haul of treasure still intact and on board, until 1982  when it was located by a diving crew led and funded by underwater explorer Barry Clifford. Over the years some 200,000 artefacts have been brought to the surface. Of course the gold treasure is what makes the headlines but interestingly the ship’s bell has also been recovered – establishing beyond doubt that this was indeed the Whydah Gally. The ship’s name, and the date of launch, are engraved on the bell. Copyright in the images of the silver treasure and the bell presumably belong either to the National Geographic or to Barry Clifford – and I am indebted to both of them.Bellamy 3

Had he lived, Black Sam would have been one of the richest pirates of all time. His wealth was achieved in an incredibly short time – he was only an active pirate for a single year. Nowadays the treasure would be measured not just in  millions, but at over a billion pounds.

Bellamy 5There are of course no portraits of Black Sam, but I rather like the “imagined likeness” prepared by artist Gregory Manchess on behalf of the National Geographic Magazine. My thanks to both of them for the use of the image.

A good looking hunk if ever there was one! I particularly like the artist’s website in which he shows the portrait emerge from the canvas in a series of photographs – you can find it here.

So spare a thought for a violent storm exactly three centuries ago, and a brave, handsome and extremely wealthy young man  who drowned this day 1717.


Apr 222017
Pattens from circa 1720, shown courtesy of the V&A

Pattens from circa 1720, shown courtesy of the V&A

It was not uncommon for women in the 18th Century to wear strap-on metal “shoe supports” to lift the shoe off from the ground, so that long coats and dresses did not drag along the mud and puddles which made walking around town so hazardous. Especially linked to working class women, the pattens often feature in caricatures, but I had forgotten how often Thomas Rowlandson makes use of them. Here are a few:

First up , from 1803 and shown on the excellent Lewis Walpole site, a Rowlandson entitled “A cat in Pattens”. The woman’s aspirations to being fashionable, complete with fur muff and collar, are clearly no more than a sight for sore eyes in the opinion of the one-eyed beggar and the chimney sweep. I love the poodle, trimmed and crimped.Pattens 3 Rowlandson 1803 lwlNext up, a Rowlandson from 1807 entitled “A Nincompoop or her henpeck’d husband”, also on the Lewis Walpole site. The ‘lady’ with her ostrich feather plumes, carries her fan, leaving her husband to tow alongside, umbrella under his arm, and carrying her bag – and pattens.Pattens 5 1807 Rowlandson lwl

Another Rowlandson, this time from 1811 and appearing on the British Museum site, shows a midwife on her way to see a client, clutching a lantern and a bottle of  cordial and passing the bored watchman and the yawning chimney sweep.

Pattens 7 1811 Rowlandson BMusA year later Rowlandson did a similarly unsympathetic  depiction of  a woman having to walk through rainy streets with his “Wet under foot” showing the woman wearing pattens and walking over cobbles. Again, it is on the Lewis Walpole site:

Pattens 4 Rowlandson 1812 lwlRowlandson was not of course the only caricaturist to highlight pattens. Here are two more. First up, “Piety in pattens, or Timbertoe on Tiptoe” showing the man with a wooden leg somewhat dwarfed by the mop-wielding woman perched on incredibly high pattens. Her smile suggests that she rather likes where he is putting his hands….

Pattens, circa 1720, courtesy of the V&A

To end with, a rather later drawing, once more from the British Museum site, by C J Grant. It dates from 1831 and shows what happened if you walked the streets without pattens…. although the lady in question is blissfully unaware of the dirt covering the back of her dress…. As she says “I’ve walked pretty clean, considering.”


Pattens 6 B Mus CJGrant 1831

Post script: you can find out more about the business of selling pattens etc on the excellent London Street Views site here, with its description of the premises of H E Morey in Bishopsgate Street.



Apr 182017

In an earlier  post I mentioned about Richard worrying about events around him – none more so than the British weather.

Here is a page reviewing the weather trends in 1794/5:Scan_20170321The page opens with the comment  that January 1794 saw considerable frosts and that it was slippery walking. At the latter end of January there was much snow – which lay on the ground. The weather was described as “sharp”. March saw much wet weather – occasionally it was very fine, and with very little frost. However, June and July saw “fine hay-making”. It was very warm, a very dry season. Richard notes that rain was “much wanted” and that he only got a small crop of gooseberries and currants (“much blited”). The summer saw much Lightning and Thunder but there was a fine harvest. Richard states that the year ended  with heavy snowfalls: “December 24th 1794 a frost set in, much snow in the night of 25 December – held on ’til Tuesday January 27th.” In other words snow lay on the ground for the period of an entire month. The thaw then set in “and at night a great flood” Typical British weather – it then turned cold again, with snow, and it froze very hard.

Ten days later on February 9th on “Thursday morning about 8 o’clock a second flood took place, greater than the former. About this time great floods were very general in places throughout the kingdom – great damage done to bridges,  a large number of them. A distressing time”. Apparently the flood at Cambridge was almost a foot higher than the remarkable one of October 1762, while the flood in Oxford and its neighbourhood on February 7th was “so great as has not been known for 22 years”. This suggests to me that Richard gleaned this information from reports in the newspaper and then wrote things up in his diary – and indeed some of the weather entries relate to far-distant places such as St Petersburg and Berlin.

The next page of the day book is taken up entirely with his records for bottling off currant wine, before meandering off into a memorandum about powers of attorney, the sale of £500 South Sea Stock intended for the benefit of Horsleydown School in London (of which he was a trustee) and more payments to have his short and longcase clocks cleaned.

This particular note book ends with a review of the days on which he did his laundry – or rather, as her put it, the days when he “wash’d a great wash”. March 27 1794 was apparently warm enough to do the first laundry of the Spring – presumably because the bedding could be hung out on the hedges to dry – and was repeated on June 2nd. The next time he did any washing was a double dose on September 10th and 11th. That seems to be it for the year, so unless he had rather a lot of sets of bedding that would suggest a change of sheets just three times a year…. no wonder the Georgians got bed bugs!



Apr 162017


My ancestor was a real worrier – and the older he got the more he worried – and the more he filled his diaries with notes about what concerned him. Those concerns spilled out into his collection of day books and informal jottings – and here is one example.

It starts off with the comment that 1792 saw “very catching Haymaking  – good crops”. This was followed up with the words “Very Catching Harvest – large crops”. He saw a pretty good crop of fruits – “little Wall fruit, but large quantity of Gooseberries and Currants. Many plumbs and a great many damsons.” So far, so good (and I assume that ‘wall fruit’ are those grown espalier-style against a wall, such as apples, figs and peaches).

The next entry was made a year later: 1793 January and February it was “very sickly”  – particularly in the village where Richard Hall lived (Bourton on the Water) and the villages adjacent. A sore throat and fever prevailed. The seasons seemed ‘out of synch’ in the sense that there was very little frost and hardly any snow. Then in March it turned very cold, with high winds. Come April 1st  it was a very snowy day – more snow than at any time all winter long.

Richard saw it as a “melancholy time for War and great failures” – first from country banks and then to numbers of individuals. It was, he surmised, “perhaps the greatest number of bankruptcies in a short space of time that was ever known.”

May was remarkably cold, but the haymaking and harvest were good and then Richard appears to have cheered up – the wheat harvest was particularly good, there was a medium crop of fruit, and the weather turned warm in October and stayed mostly mild until the end of the year.

Punctuating these comments were the facts that on April 1st 1793 Mr Fox cleaned his upstairs clock, and came back on January 6th 1794 to clean the short clock (I assume that this was his bracket clock – unfortunately no longer in the family). He seems to have lost faith in William Fox and his ability to sort out his clocks, because that summer he resorted to having the upstairs clock cleaned by Mr Hardyman. Elsewhere he records that the cost of cleaning the clock was half a crown (2 shillings and sixpence). Mr Hardyman was certainly a handy fellow in the village – he also acted as barber! Richard remarks that on July 2nd 1792 he began to shave with My Hardyman – and in those days a shave was a probably a whole-of-head experience

The next page of his jottings was taken up with a couple of shopping lists – the things he needed to get from Mr Johnson’s shop. In case you wish to do your own deciphering of Richard’s scrawl – here it is:

Scan_20170320 (2)

In subsequent years, as war with France dragged on, and the National Debt grew ever-larger, Richard’s jottings became even more troubled and haphazard, ending up with pages and pages of scrawl about the iniquity of Income Tax, about “the Irish Question” and about the sky-rocketing price of bread. As I said at the start, poor Richard, he was a worrier all the time!

Apr 132017
On a fine day in January 1821 seventeen year old Eliza Balsum was crossing the stream near her home in Hanham on the outskirts of Bristol. With her was her new beau William Waddy. They were laughing and joking as they used the stepping stones to keep clear of the water. On the other side of the stream appeared John Horwood. The same age as Eliza, John had previously been Eliza’s boyfriend but she had broken off the relationship towards the end of 1820 and he had threatened violence against her. Seething with jealousy, John observed the carefree pair and picked up a stone, hurling it at Eliza. It struck her on the temple, causing her to stumble and fall. The poor girl was supported back to her mother’s home nearby, still conscious but in obvious discomfort.

Dr Smith in his masonic robes .

After a couple of days being treated at home she attended the Bristol Royal Infirmary as an outpatient, where she was treated by Dr. Richard Smith, senior surgeon. He observed the depressed fracture at her right temple and decided to have her admitted as a patient to his hospital. Dr. Smith was present when a statement was made by Eliza, in which she named John Horwood as her attacker. Days passed, and Eliza’s condition got worse rather than better, until the good doctor decided that he needed to operate to relieve the pressure on the brain. Trepanning (i.e. drilling a hole in the skull) was a barbarous method of treatment in the days before anaesthesia, and with no understanding of antisepsis. Within a couple of days the girl was dead – and John Horwood was immediately charged with murder. The date was 17th February 1821. His trial took place at the Star Inn in Bedminster (Bristol) and lasted one day. Ironically the trial saw the two people who caused Eliza’s death to be present in the same room, Horwood and Smith, but in very different contexts: one as them as the accused; and the other as main witness. There was therefore no examination as to the actual cause of death, or whether the trepanning operation was bungled. Instead, Dr. Smith recounted the statement made by Eliza, outlined his valiant efforts to save the poor wretch, and convinced the court that it was all John Horwood’s fault. Found guilty, John was sentenced to death and the punishment was carried out within 48 hours. It was 13th April 1821 and John had turned 18 years of age just three days previously.

A contemporary description of John Horwood’s case

Horwood took several minutes to die by slow strangulation. The event was hugely popular with the populace of Bristol, with thousands of people turning out to watch. The prison was adjacent to the unfenced stretch of river known as the New Cut, and the authorities were seriously worried that the crush would lead to spectators falling in and drowning.

That was not the end of his family’s suffering. They were a mining family from Hanham. John was one of ten children and many of the family attended the hanging, intent on claiming the body afterwards so that it could be given a proper burial. Dr. Smith was having none of that – the body was requisitioned by him and he was determined to use it for dissection purposes.

Fresh cadavers were hard to come by legitimately, and here was a corpse he could examine without having to employ body snatchers, as in this etching from the Wellcome Institute, showing the watchman encountering two men who have dug up a recently buried body of a young woman.

A tussle broke out as the family sought to snatch the corpse of John Horwood away, but they failed and Dr. Smith took the body back to his rooms at the Royal Infirmary. After analyzing the body parts he kept the skeleton, still with the noose around its neck, in a specially made cupboard in his home, where it remained until his death on 24th January 1843.

The noose around Horwood’s corpse

It then passed to the Royal Infirmary and there to Bristol University where it remained until nearly two centuries after Horwood had died.

But that was not the only indignity: Smith was in the habit of composing rhymes about the deceased criminals who came before him in his laboratory, and Horwood was no exception. The verse, plus Smith’s notes on the case and Eliza’s confession, were then made up into a book…..and bound with John Horwood’s skin! This macabre practice was not all that uncommon in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It is known as anthropodermic bibliopegy and involves flaying the corpse and sending the skin away to be tanned. Smith’s book still has the invoice from the tanner (one pound ten shillings) inside, and the skin is embossed with a skull and crossbones in each corner. The original is still held by the Bristol Records Office, although it is now very fragile and the contents have been digitised. The sketch of John Horwood, shown at the beginning of this post, was included in the book.

Another examples of the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy is this one using the skin taken from one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators (Father Garnet). An impression of his features has been stamped upon the binding as a reminder of what he looked like, and is still visible, albeit in a very indistinct manner.

For Dr. Smith, it was business as usual: he was a hugely popular figure in his home city of Bristol, doing much charitable work for schools such as Red Maids School. He was a local councilor for many years, and was Deputy Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge close to his home at 38 Park Street. When he died, of apoplexy, in 1843 the whole city seems to have come to a stand-still in mourning. Crowds of many thousands thronged the streets and at one stage the jostling mass of humanity stopped the funeral cortege altogether. He was buried at Temple Church in Bristol. The Bristol  Mirror sadly reported “In his decease Bristol has lost one of her most devoted sons, and best and brightest ornaments.” It described his funeral with the words  “All associated together on this solemn occasion and felt the bitter pang of regret at the loss of one who was a benefactor to his race – a true philanthropist.”

And what of the mortal remains of John Horwood? After languishing for 190 years in a cupboard, it was finally time for him to be laid to rest. So it was that in April 2011, on the exact anniversary and time of his death, John’s body was brought back to Hanham and given a proper funeral. It marked the end of a personal crusade by Mary Halliwell, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Horwood’s brother. The coffin was draped in velvet and carried on a wheeled bier in the manner of funerals of the period of his death. A dignified end at last to a somewhat undignified episode which shows us not just the barbarity of English justice but also the inadequacy of medical treatment some 200 years ago.

Apr 082017

B MuseumEncountering anyone with autism, whether or not combined with savant syndrome, can be an extremely perplexing and fascinating experience. I always found a resonance with the Dustin Hoffman portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in Rainman – my own uncle had a similar pre-occupation with numbers, constantly counting and calculating totals.

So the focus today is about an enigmatic character by the splendid name of Jedediah Buxton, He was born in Derbyshire, near Chesterfield, in around 1702. Father was a clergyman, but Jed “emerged unscathed” from his rudimentary education at the local school, and spent his entire life unable to read or write. Not an auspicious start for a man who somehow or other contrived to make a reasonable living as a farm labourer. So how come that we know about him, and how come there are numerous versions of his portrait? More to the point, how did he manage to run his life so that he had a constant source of free beer? By his own calculations, he blagged his way to 5116 free pints, including 2,130 from the Duke of Kingston. The answer: mental arithmetic.

Engraving from The Gentleman's Magazine, 1754

Engraving from The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1754

From the age of twelve Jedediah was pre-occupied with numbers – adding, subtracting, and multiplying. At its most basic level there was a purpose – he could walk a field, calculate its square footage and then divide the total to establish how many broccoli plants would be needed to fill the field if planted seven feet apart, in rows four feet from each other. Except that having worked out the number of plants, he then complicated matters by recalculating the square footage by reference to the number of barley corns (at three barley corns per inch) and then how many human hairs (at 48 hairsbreadth to the inch). If that wasn’t bad enough, he would then decide to multiply the resulting figure by itself – to give a massive figure which would take hours to calculate. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, Jed could down tools and have a drink, and then carry on with these calculations in his head at a significantly later date – sometimes days and even weeks later.

In working out these figures, Jedediah invented several new numbers, to enable him to cope with the concept of “millions of millions of millions”. He referred to “tribes” (a figure of ten to the power of eighteen) and “cramps” (ten to the power of thirty nine ). He was known to be set a challenge, go back to digging ditches in the fields, cogitating and calculating, then sit down in the local pub at the end of the working day and, armed with his free drinks, would finish the number crunching. His skill reached the ears of the editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine, who sent a Mr Halliday to interview Jedediah. He remarked that he found Jedediah to be “a very illiterate man,” though he had “a good notion of the square, oblong, triangle, and circle.” Commenting on his powers of concentration he said “He never regarded our talking, but sat as one heedless of everything about him, except his pot of beer, which he took notice of.”

Jed3There seemed no end of people who would challenge Old Jed to work out obscure and utterly useless calculations – the number of hairs one inch long in a cubic mile (“586 thousand, 40 millions of millions, 972 thousand, 673 millions, and 24 thousand”).” But, if a hair be no longer than it is broad [i.e. 48 hairs to the cubic inch], he then came up with the answer that there would be 28 tribes,129 thousand, 966 millions of millions, 688 thousand, 305 millions, and 152 thousand hairs, to fill the space of a cubical mile.” Giss another pint!

Another favourite question dealt with the story of the famer who objected to the farrier charging him twopence a nail for the one hundred and forty nails needed to re-shoe all of his horses. “Well”, says the farrier, “what if I charge you a farthing on the first nail, double on the second, and so on?” “Right” said the farmer, only to discover that he had been well and truly had – Jedediah calculated that the farmer would end up paying the staggering sum of 725,958,238,096,074,907,868,531,656,993,638,851,106 pounds, 2 shillings, and 8 pence for his 140th nail – two to the power of 139, divided by 960 (being the number of farthings in the pound). In fact I gather from an interesting article by Steven Smith   giving full details of the calculation that the answer was wrong – various figures were transposed, although many of the figures are correct. As Eric Morecambe  might have said to Andre Previn “They are the correct numbers, just not necessarily all in the right order”.

Jedediah had married Alice Eastwood at Ault Hucknall Church and they had three children − John, Susannah and Sara. But in 1753 Alice died. The following year some sort of wanderlust got into Jedediah and he walked down to London (200-odd miles) to see the sights, take in a show, whatever. He also thought that he would call in and see the King, but George II was not at home. So he went to see a play – the performance was Richard III at the Drury Lane Theatre and it was a chance to listen to David Garrick declaim – but Jedediah preferred to spend the entire performance counting the individual words spoken by the great thespian, and, in the case of the dancers, calculating how many steps they took. (And no, I wasn’t aware that Richard III was that strong on dancers, but there you go). He also called in to say “hello” to the great and the good at the Royal Society, impressed them with his mathematical talents, and received a small stipend in recognition of his remarkable skills. He left the capital distinctly unimpressed by London, and headed back to the fields of his beloved Derbyshire, and carried on digging ditches and counting barleycorn for another eighteen years.

One story goes that in 1772 the Duke of Portland dropped in to make his acquaintance, and volunteered to come back and see Jedediah the following Thursday. Imagine the surprize felt by the Duke when Jedediah announced that he would not be seeing the Duke again, since he expected to die that very Thursday – and die he did at exactly the time specified by him. A neat calculation, and one which he got exactly right….

Blue plaque shown courtesy of Wikipedia

Blue plaque shown courtesy of Wikipedia

Jedediah was buried in the church in Elmton, the village where he was born and spent his entire life. A blue plaque commemorates his genius.

Apr 042017

Back in March 2014 I  did a post about a wonderful William Heath caricature entitled The March of Intellect. I think it is worth repeating:

What must the world have looked like to the inhabitants of this country when the effects of industrialization were beginning to bite? Seeing all around you the changes brought about by steam power – in industry, the mines and so on, where would you think it would all end? In 1829 railways were only just being developed (the Liverpool to Manchester  line would open the following year) and the land had not been criss-crossed with metal tracks, but stories abounded about experiments and coming changes. In transport, balloons looked set to transform the world and already char-volant carriages were scooting along roads propelled by high flying kites. Engineers were tunnelling and building bridges – what if these developments came together with Mighty Steam, and enabled us to travel vast distances, under the water, through the skies, over land?

And what might the social consequences be of mass transit, of the poor suddenly being able to enjoy the fruits of their labours? How would these changes affect our world? People fantasized about “what might be” long before Jules Verne came along, and one of the fascinating forecasts is to be seen in a caricature published in 1829 and drawn by William Heath under the pseudonym Paul Pry.

Heath 1829 March of Intellect

The original appears on the Museum of London site here and on the British Museum site here.

It is titled “The March of Intellect” and has the alternative title of “Lord how this world improves as we grow older.’ The main title is borrowed from a well-known phrase of the time, describing how the likes of Jeremy Bentham, Lord Brougham and others thought that educating the masses, and harnessing technology, would transform our world – for the better. Not all is as it seems…

The alternative title, which appears above the drawing, shows that the scene depicted is intended to be ironic. It comes from a poem by the playwright George Colman:

The Lady wrote just what Sir Thomas told her;

For, it is no less strange than true,

That Wives did, once, what Husbands bid them do;–

Lord! how this World improves, as we grow older!

Have a look at the picture and consider how the different ideas have been arrived at – I seem to find a new reference every time I look at it.

Dealing with some of the details:

PP1 - Copy1 The flying batman. This idea of the postman flying to collect a letter with the aid of his winged cape owes nothing to the comic book hero, but is a curious case of crystal-ball gazing. Rowland Hill’s penny post was to come in over ten years later – and how the winged device resembles the wing-suits sponsored by Red Bull in base-jumping displays!

Heath 1829 March of Intellect - Copy (4)2 The pineapple-eating dustbin-man A nice social commentary. In the Georgian era pineapples were luxury items, enjoyed by the wealthy. No clearer example of social change can be made than that a bin-man could afford to scoff such an exotic fruit, while his companion devours an ice cream!

PP3 - Copy (2)3 The bellows-driven carriage for one. A contraption enabling the single occupant to be driven along, via a propeller activated by a giant pair of bellows at the rear of the machine, operated by a man in a hat pulling on a rope.


PP3 - Copy (8)4 The vacuum train, apparently taking passengers from Greenwich Hill to Bengal.  A turbaned conductor shouts ‘Now who’s for Bengal?. Well, maybe Heath was being more prescient than we realize! In fact Brunel tried (and discarded) his ideas for an atmospheric train – where air is pumped out of the tunnels through which the trains were to run – on a section of the South Devon Railway line between Exeter and Plymouth. The year:1847. Fast-forward 170 years and scientists are currently looking at vac-trains capable of speeds of five times the speed of sound – reducing the travel time from New York to Beijing to just a couple of hours, and serious plans are afoot for a vac-train running on maglev lines to operate between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Who said London to Bengal was far-fetched! Just for the record, the Channel Tunnel is over thirty miles long, and the Delaware Aqueduct tunnel exceeds 85 miles in length.

PP3 - Copy (3)5 The automatic water sprinkler to harden road surfaces. John Loudon Mcadam pioneered new methods for road building, specifying in exact detail the size and shape of the stones to be used. At that early stage it was not bound with tar – that didn’t come in until a century later – but others were seeking to improve on McAdam’s work with “water-based macadam” ie sprinkling water on to dust so that it settled between the sharp stones to give a smoother, more compacted, surface. The image shows a machine spouting water in all directions with the placard reading ‘Mc Adams Newly Invented to lay the Dust he makes’

PP3 - Copy (7)6 The suspension bridge linking Bengal and Cape Town.OK we haven’t got there yet – but the Menai Bridge (1826) which linked Anglesey to the mainland of Wales appeared to open up limitless possibilities. In practice the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge is currently the longest suspension bridge at just under 2000 metres

PP27 The coffin on a crane, a graveyard on a church roof. With Burke and Hare terrorizing the families of the newly-dead with their corpse-stealing activities, what better place for a graveyard than on the roof of the church, heavily protected with iron spikes, so that coffins would be hauled up by cranes to outwit the grave robbers? There is a placard reading “This Church Yard is perfectly Safe”

PP3 - Copy (11)8 The mechanical shoe-polisher. A man sits reading his paper while a steam-powered machine buffs and polishes his shoes. Now I could do with one of those…Above, a machine with a giant razor offers a close shave – for some reason dedicated to the Duchess of St Albans with the words ‘The St Al—ns New Steam Razor Patronized by her Grace’

Heath 1829 March of Intellect - Copy (2)9 A solution to the Irish problem. Fire them into space! “A quick conveyance for the Irish Emigrants”

PP3 - Copy (6)10 A kite plane. A lady in a twin-propelled machine flies elegantly over the countryside, powered by a kite. Not as daft as it sounds – people have flown the Channel on kites, crossed it in boats pulled by kites – and the modern micro-lite has more than a passing resemblance to a kite.

Heath 1829 March of Intellect - Copy (3)11 A horseless carriage linking Bath and London in only six hours! A huge wagon with a steam pipe trundles along. Preposterous, of course there will never be such a thing…

PP3 - Copy (10)12 An iron horse carrying passengers Well what else is a train? Here we have a driver (dressed as a jockey) with a central pole – presumably for steering – stuck into the head of the beast. Behind, the passengers consist of a bewigged lawyer, a lady in a riding habit, a well-dressed man and a pipe-smoking Irish labourer. How egalitarian! The slogan reads ‘The Steam Horse VELOCITY No Stopage on the Road’.

PP1 - Copy (2)13 Re-fuelling. A lady with a steam trolley full of lumps of coal. She cries out ‘Delicate Viends [sic] for your Quadrupeds’; on it is a basket of coal with the sign ‘Prime Cats Meat’.

PP3 - Copy



14 Getting rid of the National Debt. Why, build castles in the air, of course!

PP3 - Copy (5)15 Travel by airship to New South Wales.  Here we have a whale-like monster with webbed wings and a poster reading ‘For New South Wales’; Passengers of both sexes are shown through a window, below which are the words ‘with Convicts’


PP3 - Copy (9)16 The river boat pulled by dolphins. A bit fanciful! It was an ironic take on the overcrowded River Thames when steam boats started plying their trade on the river (1815) and offering passengers the luxury of eating on board, playing parlour games etc. The driver shouts ‘Come up there’

PP3 - Copy (4)18 Soldiers on a flying platform. Apparently when Napoleon was threatening to invade England thirty years earlier there were scare-stories that his soldiers would fly across the Channel on a magic carpet, kept in the air by balloons. Ok, so we end up with hovercraft and B-52 bombers , but the end result is the same. Heath imagined flying soldiers: what we got was an air-force.

Heath 1829 March of Intellect - Copy19 Ludicrous architecture. Marble Arch is topped by a gibbet, with the placard ‘Designed to Elevate the Architects’ while a man kneels to adjust the noose, busy smoking his pipe. Beyond is a fanciful concoction of spires and domes, with a huge mandarin figure holding up two fingers and a lantern, with a clock on his stomach. I presume this is a reference to the chinoiserie craze and the building of the Pavilion at Brighton. Meanwhile Buckingham Palace sports a giant bird and a giraffe on the roof. And why not, pray?


Where will it all end?

In total, Heath shows some lovely glimpses into how “Progress” was regarded – potentially for the good, but more likely to turn out for the bad. To quote Master Shakespeare in The Tempest, “O brave new world, that has such people in it!

Thanks to the British Museum and the Museum of London for the images and helping decipher some of the nuances in the images which Heath depicted. He died at the age of 46 in 1840, having specialised in satirical prints for the last twenty years of his life. There were two other prints under the same title of The March of Intellect, and together they offer a fascinating insight into how Progress (with a capital ‘P’) appeared to  people in the pre-Victorian era.