Oct 282017

Apart from a vague memory that he had ‘something to do with lighthouses’ I knew nothing about Smeaton, and yet he really was a remarkable engineer, with incredibly diverse interests and achievements. He cut his teeth on wind mills and water wheels, working out scientifically their power and effectiveness. He analyzed steam engines, making improvements to the early Newcomen engines and working out ways to measure their performance accurately. He designed bridges and canals; he advised on schemes for harbours and coastal protection walls. He studied the ‘physics’ of cement, not only coming up with a mixture which was quick drying and could be used under water, but also setting out the principles which would eventually lead to modern ‘Portland’ cement. He worked out a way to dovetail solid granite blocks, pegged with marble, to create a structure which could withstand a hundred years of being battered by the sea. He devised a scheme to raise those blocks eighteen metres in the air, from a moving (floating) base so that those stones could be put in place atop the Eddystone Lighthouse.

Smeaton’s drawings for the waterwheels for the Carron Company ironworks on the River Carron near Falkirk. (Drawing courtesy of Engineering Timelines

In carrying out this wide range of work he declared that it was different to that carried out by military engineers, and named his area of expertise ‘civil engineering’ to mark that difference. In many senses he can therefore be described as the father of civil engineering. He was both the product of the Industrial Revolution, and one of its architects. As such he deserves to be better remembered.

Born and brought up near Leeds, where his father was a lawyer, he initially trained for the Law before leaving to make scientific instruments. He had a wonderful way of inspiring others around him, always willing to see how things worked, whether they could be improved and so on. In 1753 he was admitted to the Royal Society and six years later was awarded the Copley Medal. It was the Royal Society which recommended Smeaton, then aged thirty, to be the engineer in charge of rebuilding the Eddystone lighthouse after the previous version burned down in a disastrous fire. In the 1760’s and 70’s he moved on to designing bridges, viaducts, jetties and harbour walls the length and breadth of the country.

In all he is associated with some three dozen major engineering works, some sixty mills and ten steam engines (designed to pump water out of deep mine shafts).He is particularly remembered for the Forth and Clyde Canal, crossing the entire breadth of Scotland from East to West; Ramsey Harbour and Perth Bridge.Perth Bridge

He had inherited Austhorpe Lodge near Leeds, built by his grandfather, and moth-balled by his father. He set about constructing a tall tower for use as his consultancy studio – with a forge downstairs in the basement, a lathe on the floor above, a floor for his models and then a floor used for his drawing room and study, topped off by an attic area used for storage – and Smeaton’s astronomical studies. Once he was immersed in his studies he was never to be disturbed. It was his practice to start each project with a sketch, which he would hand over to his two draughtsmen to have developed into detailed drawings.

He pioneered fixed fees for routine commissions – twenty five guineas for a water mill, thirty guineas for a windmill. Customers were charged one guinea for a consultation at Austhorpe, double that ‘if sent for’ and five guineas if he was required to spend the day in London.

In 1771 he became one of the founder members of the Society of Civil Engineers – a fortnightly dining club for engineers and scientists to meet and discuss current ideas. Upon his death it was renamed the Smeatonian Society – a name it has kept to this day.

On 16th September 1792 Smeaton suffered a stroke while walking in his garden at Austhorpe. He recovered his mental faculties and was aware of his physical incapacity, ruefully remarking “It could not be otherwise; the shadows must lengthen as the sun goes down”. He died on 28th October and is buried in the parish church of St Mary’s, Whitkirk, in West Yorkshire.

The Gentleman’s Magazine contained his obituary: “As a civil engineer, Mr. Smeaton was not equalled by any of the age he lived in: it may, perhaps be added, by none of any previous age”.

Never once did my ancestor Richard Hall mention John Smeaton, and yet there can have been few men who had more influence on the world in which Richard lived.

Smeaton, shown with the Eddystone Lighhouse behind his right shoulder


PS: This post first appeared five years ago (crikes, have I been blogging that long?!) and I will be including Smeaton in my next-book-but-one (on lesser-known Georgian inventors, who languish out of sight while better known, and often less talented, individuals hog the limelight. I appreciate that Smeaton is by no means ‘unknown but he is hardly a household name….).



Oct 252017

This day 257 years ago a young man was informed of the death of his grandfather, King George II, who was just short of his 77th birthday. It meant that the young Prince of Wales was now King of Great Britain and Ireland, at the age of 22. He was also, let us not forget, ruler of the American colonies…. His life, previously highly sheltered, thanks to an overbearing mother and a very protective Lord Bute, would never be the same again.

Within one year, on 8 September 1761 in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, the King married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He only met her on their wedding day – her measurements having been sent over previously from Germany so that her dress could be tailor-made without her being present. A fortnight later on 22 September 1761 both were crowned at Westminster Abbey.

Here he is, in all his sumptuous finery, as painted by Allan Ramsay, at the time of his coronation. Now that is what I call understated elegance….

You needed a ticket enabling you to attend Westminster Abbey that day, and the Abbey site contains an image of  what you would have needed to see the happy pair in their crowning glory:

Copyright Westminster Abbey

Ironically, the crowning ceremony took place before the new coronation coach – specially commissioned for the occasion and dripping with bling – was ready. My blog here explains why it was not used until the State opening of Parliament in 1762. But  even so the procession must have been mighty impressive – as shown in this painting, a copy of which wends its way round the Royal Mews.

Meanwhile a number of medals had been struck to mark the accession of George to the throne, and I came across one of them on the Metropolitan Museum of Art site here. It really is a very impressive piece of sculpting, done by a designer called Thomas Pingo. You can just make out his name at the base of the shoulder armour, immediately above the date MDCCLX (1760). The Pingo family were prolific medallists – Thomas was appointed Assistant Engraver at the Mint in 1771, a post which passed to his son Lewis when Thomas died in 1776. Another son, John Pingo also designed medals, but  for my money father Thomas was the pick of the crop.

It was not however the official coronation medal – that was designed by L Natter and is shown below:









In gold, these are very rare, with  just 800 being minted. Even rarer were the coronation medals commemorating Queen Charlotte, who was also of course crowned at the same ceremony. Just 400 were minted:








Just in case you were a really keen supporter of the monarchy you could also have looked out for the commemorative plaque – some five and a half inches across, and made from brass:But as always there were other unofficial mementoes of the great occasion – here a commemorative tea caddy and a brooch with a cameo portrait of the king and queen:

By the time George III celebrated his fiftieth anniversary on the throne there were a positive plethora of medals issued in a variety of metals, including one referring to the Grand National Golden Jubilee event. Some of the medals appear below, and are based on images on e-bay, whereas the one at the bottom  appears on the site of Whitmore & C0. It is larger than its fellow commemoratives, at 48mm – and was designed by the medallist Hyde. It has a rather mawkish depiction of children playing at Frogmore on the reverse. This is a reference to the fact that in 1792 the King had purchased an estate at Frogmore as a present to his wife, for her to use as a retreat for her and the unmarried daughters.




And to end with, a superb example of the George III And Queen Charlotte Jubilee Medal – available in gold, silver and silver-gilt. A nice way to commemorate  the reign of a monarch who staggered on until 1820 – albeit with the benefit of the Regent.



Oct 202017

a2203 years ago today, the death occurred in Paris of one of the greatest showmen of his Age – indeed of any Age. His name: Philip Astley.

Forget Barnum, forget Bailey – a hundred years earlier than these giants of the circus came Philip Astley, generally acknowledged as “the Father of the Circus.” Most circus stars were (and still are) born into a particular branch of the entertainment world – there are generations of the same family who juggle, or walk the tightrope, or whatever. But Astley had no theatrical or street-entertainment background – his father was a cabinet maker from Newcastle under Lyme. Yet he became a giant of popular entertainment. How? Because of horsemanship.

©Trustees of the British Museum.

©Trustees of the British Museum.

Equestrian skills were at the heart of his acts  – he could get his horse to dance the minuet, or the hornpipe. He could do handstands while riding a horse, firing a pistol. He could ride three or four horses at the same time, and jump from the back of a horse over a ribbon held twelve feet above ground level. He could gallop at full speed, slide off the saddle and pick up a sword from the  ground without  pausing. These were skills honed when he served in the British Army during the Seven Years War. Here was a man who thought nothing of charging through the enemy lines to rescue the Duke of Brunswick, who had fallen injured and been overtaken by the swirl of battle. He also captured an enemy standard and presented it to the elderly George II. Later, he rubbed shoulders with George III, blew the socks off fanatical crowds, and went on to open no fewer than 19 circus premises throughout England and Europe.a5

My ancestor Richard Hall’s handbill from when he went to see Astley in the 1770’s.

 He diversified from horse riding skills to introduce clowning; he did juggling and magic tricks involving an early form of a mind-reading act; he brought a spectacle involving fireworks, an orchestra, juggling, acrobatics, rope walking,  and so on and gave the public what they wanted – skills and thrills a-plenty. He created the role of ringmaster, standing in the centre of a circus ring, controlling the horses and performers, with his bellowing voice and “statuesque” physique (he was over six feet tall, and had a girth like a tree trunk).

a6His business empire was frequently hit by fire, but each time his premises burned to the ground, he re-built them. Curiously he always re-built in wood, never stone, despite the obvious risks of using candles – literally thousands of them – with sawdust on the floor, wooden seats, and with a wooden roof and walls.

He trained and inspired a legion of skilled entertainers and impresarios, who spread the circus throughout Europe, to America, Asia and Australia. Forget the sad parade of wild animals being dragged from town to town – they were not HIS circus. His was based  on equestrian skills – although admittedly he also used  a monkey called General Jackoo who performed acrobatic tricks, and a “Scientific Pig” able to count cards and do mind-reading tricks! Astley  was the horse whisperer of his Age – and a brilliant showman.

He enjoyed royal patronage  both in England and in France – he was a particular favourite of Marie Antoinette.

He  led a remarkable life, but died of “gout in the stomach” in 1814 in Paris, aged 72. He was succeeded by his son John, another brilliant horseman, but he only outlived his father by seven years,  before  liver failure killed him. He died in the same house – and indeed the same room, in the same bed – as his father and both were buried in the same cemetery.

Astley's Circus cover 001

Next year marks the 250th anniversary of the very first circus performance by Philip Astley and to mark the occasion I will be giving various talks about the great man, linked to the book I brought out a couple of years ago entitled “Philip Astley – the English Hussar”.   Meanwhile: I salute the old boy – he was a rough diamond if ever there was one. A man with virtually no formal education, he was a Georgian entrepreneur who should be up there with  all the other greats of the Age, from Boulton to Wedgwood to  Chippendale –  and yet his success is nowadays totally overlooked. I suppose it’s too late to try and get the Royal Mail to honour him with a commemorative stamp? It’s the least we could do to remember him!


P.S. The book on Astley is available on Amazon in both a full colour and a monochrome version. See Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk


Oct 172017

O.K. I am a sucker for Richard Newton  caricatures, so I rather liked this one on the Lewis Walpole site. It features eight depictions of women who are worse for drink. No-one would think it funny to show eight cartoons of men in their cups, but women are of course fair game to all cartoonists…

The first image (top left)  has the words “May we have in our arms what we love in our hearts. No tax upon Gin! Here we go – up, up, up. There we go, down, down, down!

Her pose bears more than a passing resemblance to the image used by Newton in his Progress of a Woman of Pleasure, which is  featured in my book “In bed with the Georgians; Sex Scandal & Satire”:












In the second image an old hag is looking up at the night sky, unsure if she is seeing the sun or the moon:

The third image shows a drunken woman spilling the pail of water which she carries on her head, all over a grave digger. The caption reads “Hollo!  Damn your blood, you old faggot – where are you coming to?”

Next in line we have someone who has had too much of a good thing – she is shown holding a bottle marked ‘Comfort for the Cholick’ while being violently sick:The next one shows our heroine displaying her assets (‘ample’ seems to be the word the Daily Mail feels constrained to use) under the heading “I’m a little sickish or so, but no matter, I’ve given Sal her gruel. She drink Gin with me! Blast me she could as soon swallow the fat landlady!” I like the night watchman in the background waving his rattle, and the street sign showing that we are in the ward of St Giles, one of the poorest and most overcrowded areas of London.

Next up, a lady who needs a lift home. Her companion, smoking his pipe through clenched teeth, remarks “She’s got her quantum by Jingo! She smells as sweet as a daisy, but no matter, I will get the blunt in the morning from her old goat of a keeper. ‘Pon my conscience and soul he will have a precious bedfellow of her tonight!”In the next image the drunken crone has been hit on the head when she walks into a tree stump, bloodying her nose and causing her to drop her bottle of gin. She exclaims “What’s that for you saucy rascal. Here, Watch, Watch, Watch! Lord a Mercy upon me, what a blow! My poor head spins like a top!”And to end with, a woman who can hold her liquor as well if not better than her companion, a soldier who wields a truncheon while apparently unaware that his shoe has come unbuckled and is about to fall off. He is carrying a sword. Somewhat out of breath he remarks “Stick … close… my dear… Charlotte. Hold up your head, my lily of the valley…. I am as sober as a judge…. Women and wine for ever, damn me!”   Her expression suggests that she has seen it all before…An uncoloured version of the print appears on the British Museum site but it is slightly harder to find because it has been mis-named as ‘Specimens of Sweethearts’ rather than ‘Samples’. The Lewis Walpole version appears here. In its original form the print was published by William Holland from his premises at 50 Oxford Street on 23 July 1795, which would have made Newton eighteen at the time. Not surprisingly, the young lad loved drawing ladies’ knockers, so to end with an example of one of my favourite drawings of his, complete with dreadful pun – Newton’s “A peep into Brest with a navel review”

Oct 032017

3rd October marks the anniversary of the death in 1703 of a 33 year-old woman called Hannah Twynnoy. Her ‘claim to fame’ is that she is perhaps the first person in this country to be killed – by a tiger.

The eighteenth century saw a fashion for exotic animals being towed around from pub to pub. My ancestor Richard  Hall kept the handbill for one such menagerie show, at the Talbot Inn in 1754.

But back in 1703 young Hannah, the local barmaid, enjoyed teasing and taunting the big cat in a cage in the garden at the back of the  White Lion pub in Malmesbury. Then one day the tiger found its cage door unlocked – and took its revenge on young Hannah, mauling her to death. Her epitaph in Malmesbury Cathedral reads:

In bloom of life

She’s snatched from hence

She had not room to make defence;

For Tyger fierce

Took life away

And here she lies

In a bed of clay

Until the Resurrection Day.

Another memorial to her apparently appeared in Hullavington Church, which reads

“To the memory of Hannah Twynnoy. She was a servant of the White Lion Inn where there was an exhibition of wild beasts, and amongst the rest a very fierce tiger which she imprudently took pleasure in teasing, not withstanding the repeated remonstrance of its keeper. One day whilst amusing herself with this dangerous diversion the enraged animal by an extraordinary effort drew out the staple, sprang towards the unhappy girl, caught hold of her gown and tore her to pieces.”

So, let us remember poor Hannah: a terrifying end to a life of a woman who liked to play with pussy cats – big pussy cats….