Apr 252019

There are not many books which celebrate a tercentenary – and are still in print. Even fewer can claim to have been translated into every single major world language – and spawned variations in opera, in films, on television and on radio, in cartoon strips and in computer games. The book is, of course, “Robinson Crusoe”, published on 25 April 1716 and in the intervening centuries more than 700 different editions have appeared.

The book didn’t hang around on the bookshelves for long – the public were entranced by the story of a castaway’s struggle for survival, and four editions appeared in its first year alone. Pirated versions flooded the market. The author, Daniel Defoe, wrote a follow-up entitled “Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe”, which came out in late 1719. For the better part of a century it was customary for the two stories to be sold as a two-volume set, although nowadays the “Farther Adventures” have dropped off the graph. For anyone interested, the “Farther Adventures” see Crusoe return to his island, before heading for Brazil, across to the tip of South Africa, and round to Madagascar where he is marooned for several years. Incredibly, his round-the-world peripatetic existence sees him walk across China, into Russia, through Siberia and over to Archangel before catching a lift back to London on a passing ship.

Personally, I think Defoe should have left his hero at the end of the original book and not bothered with Part Two. Undeterred, Defoe even wrote a third book in the series – but this time as a non-fiction work looking at the underlying themes such as Sin, Redemption and so on. This third part bombed totally and, thankfully, disappeared without trace.

But Robinson Crusoe deserves to be celebrated – even if nowadays it is often reduced to a children’s adventure story. It struck a chord with 18th century audiences, and it still strikes a chord today. Think of the Tom Hanks film “Cast Away”, in which he plays the part of a FedEx employee stuck on a Pacific Island after a plane crash. The story was so realistic that people assume that it was based upon a real-life incident – it wasn’t. Or think of “The Martian” with Matt Damon – it explores exactly the same themes covered in Defoe’s novel and poses the same question: how would we manage if we were stripped of all the trappings of modern civilization?

It’s a theme which is reflected in the radio programme “Desert Island Discs” (now running for over 75 years) and in Reality TV programmes such as “I’m a Celebrity – Get me out of here”. And it has spawned any number of television programmes where a celeb is stranded ‘alone’ and expected to cope. Off hand I recall  the model Julie Ege using it as an excuse for a bikini-modelling shoot, and Joanna Lumley being cast adrift on an island off Madagascar – and making a pair of cave shoes out of her bra. More recently, the actor Robson Greene had himself cast adrift on a remote Indonesian island. From memory he lasted all of three hours before being whisked away suffering from stomach problems, which rather suggests that he wasn’t quite as ‘alone’ as the programme would have us believe.

      Monument to Alexander Selkirk

Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe “was based upon a number of real-life incidents. Usually  Alexander Selkirk is trailed as being the main source – but I rather think that Defoe, a journalist, was happy to meld a number of different escapades. For my money, these definitely include the experiences of William Dampier. Not only did he circumnavigate the world three times – and write a travelog which was hugely popular – but he was stranded on the then uninhabited island of Ascension in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He also returned to Britain with a ‘Man Friday’ in tow – a native from the Philippines named Prince Geolo (otherwise Jeoly) and who was exhibited as a sort of travelling freak show so that visitors could gawp at his tattoos. Sadly, the Painted Prince (as he was referred to)    caught smallpox and died in Oxford shortly after he reached these sickly climes, but his story would have been well-known to Defoe.

Another likely inspiration for Defoe’s ultimate castaway hero was  Henry Pitman, an English-born supporter of the Duke of Monmouth who was sent to Barbados as an indentured servant but who escaped and lived for some time on an island near Aruba in the Caribbean, encountering cannibals and pirates along the way. Another contributor may have been Robert Knox, abandoned on the island of Ceylon for over twenty years, and who wrote a lengthy journal describing his battle for survival, his mental trials and tribulations, and his ultimate escape. It even comes complete with a description of the power of an unexpected footprint in the sand….

To mark this auspicious day, I have brought out my latest book, published by Pen & Sword, called “Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks in the Perilous Age of Sail”. It looks at the phenomenal success of what has been described as the first English novel, considers the various real-life incidents which may have influenced Defoe, and puts the book in context of the many maritime disasters which befell sailors on the eighteenth century. Horrific storms, mutiny, faulty navigation leading to shipwrecks, piracy, broken compasses – all could result in loss of life, but also in remarkable tales of survival. No-one would think that being stranded was a bowl of cherries – but Defoe showed that it could fire the public interest.

Yours truly, plus book, in front of the memorial to Daniel Defoe in the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground in London.




Apr 192019

Next week  we will be celebrating the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s masterpiece. To mark the occasion I have a new book coming out – I haven’t seen it yet but as they say ‘it’s in the post’. Exciting times! If anyone is interested it will be called Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks in the perilous Age of Sail and I will do a blog about it in a couple of days’ time. Meanwhile, details can be found here on the Pen & Sword site

But what of Defoe himself? He was born Daniel Foe, to a tallow-chandler father living in Cripplegate, in around 1660. I say ‘around’ because no-one is quite sure, but he must have had a tumultuous childhood, observing the Plague, the Great Fire of London and so on. Later, as an adult, he changed his name to become, variously, Daniel de Foe or Daniel Defoe. Maybe he liked to sound like a French aristocrat – or, more likely, it was a ruse to throw creditors off the scent.

Daniel Defoe, courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

Daniel Defoe was a curious Jekyll-and-Hyde character. He experimented with various business ventures – usually with his mother-in-law’s money – and tried his hand at wine importing, wholesale hosiery, rearing civet cats for their perfume, and also tile and brick making. He raised money from subscribers to fund a venture involving a new-fangled diving bell for use in salvage operations – and then ran off with the money.

On one occasion he was sentenced to a spell in the pillory – which could  have been  a really nasty punishment if the mob had taken against him. Fortunately for Defoe, the public treated him like a hero and tossed not the usual offering of excrement, stones and rotten vegetables in his direction, but bouquets of flowers.

Defoe in the pillory, dodging floral bouquets, shown courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

In order to stay out of the debtor’s prison he sold his soul to the government by accepting money from Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons. He seems to have become a spy, doing his best to drum up support for the Act of Union with Scotland while living as a ‘mole’ in Edinburgh. For some reason he felt sufficiently qualified to write self-help books on running a successful business, which suggests a man with a fair amount of brass-necked chutzpah! Advising others on cash flow, stock levels etc seems a bit rich coming from a man with a litany of business failures behind him!

He became a journalist, and also used an armful of aliases to write political pamphlets, and novels such as Robinson Crusoe. In all, he probably used more than two hundred different aliases. These enabled him to put forward sometimes contrary views, at the same time as keeping one step ahead of the law – and his creditors, of which there were many.

    As a journalist he used techniques we nowadays take for granted – following up numerous sources and interviewing people around the country before writing a history of The Great Storm of 1703. It was a technique which he probably used when writing Robinson Crusoe – although many assume that it is simply the story of Alexander Selkirk, stranded for 52 months on the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile. It was in fact an amalgam of many true-life castaway stories. People have detected parallels with the story of William Dampier, who circumnavigated the globe three times but was also shipwrecked on Ascension Island – at that stage uninhabited. There are traces of the story of Henry Pitman, stranded on a desert island off Aruba after fleeing from penal servitude on the island of Barbados. Defoe was also probably inspired by Robert Knox, held captive for twenty years on the island of Ceylon.  Defoe’s brilliance was weaving all these tales together and coming up with a story which has stood the test of time. In my new book I get the chance to look at these various influences on Defoe – and also to put the castaway theme in context of what it was like to be a mariner in the eighteenth century.

Defoe went on to write a couple of novels under his own name – ‘Moll Flanders’ and ‘Roxanna’. He was a perceptive recorder of life in the early decades of the eighteenth century and an effective satirist, political commentator and influencer of public opinion. He died in poverty, hiding from his creditors, on 24 April 1731 in lodgings on Rope Makers’ Alley. He was in his seventy-first year and succumbed to what was described as ‘lethargy’ – in other words, a stroke. He was buried two days later at the Dissenters Burial Ground at Bunhill Fields and his long-suffering wife Mary was interred beside him when she died in December 1732.

The connection with my family is that Bunhill Fields was where Richard Hall buried his wife Eleanor when she died in 1780 – and it was also where his father Francis was interred some twenty years earlier. In vain have I looked for  great great great great great grand-daddy’s grave, but I just had to make do with Defoe’s memorial !

So, I will be remembering the shadowy figure of Mr Defoe  next week on the anniversary of his greatest creation, Robinson Crusoe, but also on 24 April being the anniversary of his death. Bye-bye DD!

Apr 142019

One of my all-time favourite Gillray caricatures is the excoriating image of the Prince Regent, bearing the title of ‘A voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion’. It is, in every sense of the word, gross, with its portrayal of the bloated Prince Regent, sitting alongside an overflowing chamber pot, numerous unpaid gambling slips, and a shelf on which are remedies for bad breath – and Velno’s Vegetable Syrup.

So, what of this magic tincture? Velno’s Vegetable Syrup was named after someone  called Vergery de Velnos – probably Jean-Joseph Vergery de Velnos who, in Paris in around 1765, had published a book called “Dissertation sur un nouveau remède anti-vénérien vegetal.” The recipe had been developed  by a Dr Mercier from his premises in Soho’s Frith Street. Dr Mercier had a young assistant by the name of Isaac Swainson and in due course Swainson bought the patent rights for the syrup and promoted it as a cure-all for all the ailments which afflicted mankind – well, and womankind, especially venereal disease. It was to prove to be a marketing sensation, with tens of thousands of bottles being sold. Swainson apparently earned himself £5000 a year from his patent medicine – small wonder when you consider that in addition to curing the French Pox it was also described as eradicating all signs of leprosy, scurvy, tape worms gout, scrofula small pox – and no doubt Housemaids’ Knee. For anyone with ‘scorbutic impurities’ it was an absolute must!

Isaac Swainson in an 1803 portrait by James Raphael Smith

Why was it so popular? Because it was an alternative to the more usual compounds prescribed for the treatment of syphilis, all of which contained mercury. Syphilis (and gonorrhoea) were rampant, especially in cities such as London, and the diseases had horrible symptoms. The cure was however rather worse than the malady, because mercury is not a nice thing to absorb into the human body. Whether popped as pills, drunk as a liquid, or more often as not rubbed into the skin as an ointment, mercury caused devastating changes to the body.

Treatment of syphillis by fumigation, 1776, Lalouette, courtesy of the Wellcome Library

Treatment also included being fumigated – sitting in a hot barrel for hours on end, above a hot iron on which mercury in different forms had been placed, so that the vapours would circulate around the nether regions. This fumigation was spread over four, sometimes six, weeks – hardly an ideal treatment if it meant taking time off work for the entire month or more. For a lady, it carried with it the even more shameful admission that went with venereal disease – that she was in some way to blame, that she was impure. Because, in true chauvinistic style, the eighteenth century males firmly believed that it was the wanton woman, with her uncontrolled carnal desires, which spread the disease. The poor man, on the other hand, was always cast as the innocent victim. And if that sounds a trifle far-fetched, go read the diaries of James Boswell…

Velno’s potion offered the public the chance of a treatment which obviated the shame, the pain and discomfort of visiting the surgery and being given mercury. Not everyone was pleased with the success enjoyed by Swainson – especially the medical profession. Physicians were horrified at the idea that weeks and months of expensive treatment could be avoided by knocking back a few herbs and plant extracts – hence this rather nice caricature by Thomas Rowlandson showing the ‘onslaught against Swainson. It first appeared in 1789 and is shown courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

I like the angry gang of infuriated doctors , one with a giant clyster or syringe, another with a winged statue of the god Mercury, another with a knife and one brandishing a pestle in one hand and a mortar marked ‘Mercury – the only Specifick’ in the other. Behind the rather smug looking Swainson is a list stating “List of Cures – in 1785, 5500; in 1789, 10,000” 

Swainson has been called a  ‘radical quack’ but looking at his career you have to say that whereas the medical profession  dismissed him as a shameless hustler, at least his remedy did not kill the patient, whereas orthodox medicine often did. In 1792 he published a 160-page booklet describing the splendid properties of his vegetable brew. And of course the great thing was that he did not have to name individuals who had been cured (“for reasons easily imagined the cases cannot be publicly stated”).

Swainson had been born in what was then Lancashire, the son of  John Swainson, yeoman, of High House, Hawkshead, by his second wife Lydia Park. He lived between  1746 and 1812 and as a young man he had come to London, studied medicine and got his MD but presumably felt that fame and fortune lay outside the confines of the established medical profession. Certainly there is no record of him ever having been admitted to the Royal Society of Physicians.  It can be assumed that flogging his tinctures at 18 shillings a bottle made him a very wealthy man. He was however dogged by claims and counterclaims by other purveyors of Velno’s Vegetable Syrup – in days when ingredients were not given either on the bottle or on the patent application, it was easy for others to say that theirs was the ‘original’.


An advertisement for Velno’s Vegetable Syrup from La Belle Assemble Magazine of 1808

In 1788 Swainson had taken a lease of land at Twickenham (Heath Lane Lodge) and proceeded to have built a fine dwelling, complete with an impressive botanical garden. The helpful Twickenham Museum site here quotes a  Daniel Lysons who, in 1811, noted that the garden was Scientifically arranged and elegantly laid out, which may be considered as the first private collection of the kind in the kingdom adding that J C Loudon wrote that It contained every tree and shrub that could be procured at the time in British nurseries, and was kept in the first style of order and neatness.

Heath Lane Lodges as rebuilt to the design of Robert           Mitchell, c.1788

Swainsonia formosa

Such was his fame as a botanist and plant collector that Swainson even had a plant named after him – the emblem of South Australia, otherwise known as Swainsonia Formosa – more commonly described as ‘Sturt’s Pea’. All of which is a tad unfair, because the plant’s discovery has nothing whatsoever to do with either Swainson or Dr Sturt, as it had been described and brought to the notice of the British public at least a century earlier, by no less than the great but under-rated explorer William Dampier. Frankly, it should have been Dampieri Formosa, but that’s another story…

Swainson  died on 7 March 1812 at his house in Frith Street, Soho. His body was brought back to Twickenham and was buried in the Holly Road Burial Ground on 14 March, alongside the remains of his wife, Mary, who had died in 1806. They had no children and his estate passed to his niece.

To end with, I came across a remarkable trade token – a copper halfpenny, on Baldwin’s auction site from 2015. It shows a coin in quite superb condition and was perhaps one of only twelve ever minted. It certainly gives some idea of the high regard in which Swainson held himself! He was a fine showman – rather than Hygeia preparing vegetables over a brick oven (as appears from the reverse of the coin) I suspect it was more a case of him chopping up cucumbers, peppers and the odd onion over  a stove in the kitchen at Frith Street. A quack maybe, but a very successful one, and if I ever have the misfortune to suffer from ‘scorbutic impurities’ I will  know what to fetch from the medicine cabinet…besides, it would be an easy way to keep up my five-vegetables-a-day diet!



Apr 112019

In 1758 Richard Hall was living in the area of Southwark called the Bridgefoot when London Corporation decided “to do something” about London Bridge. Until 1749 it had been the only structure linking the North and South banks of the River Thames, but the medieval bridge was hopelessly outdated. I rather like the description of it as “a wall with holes in it” since ships were held up for days trying to pass through the narrow gaps between the arches. Pedestrians jostled and fought their way across the carriageway, threading their way round the shops and houses cluttering up the road.

A View of London Bridge before the Late Alterations engraved 1758 by Samuel Scott circa 1702-1772

A View of ‘London Bridge before the Late Alterations’ engraved 1758 by Samuel Scott and shown courtesy of the Tate Gallery

Parliament finally got round to tackling the problem in 1756 when it passed a Bill enabling the Corporation to  buy up and demolish the buildings littering the superstructure, and to improve the access routes. A passage of thirty one feet open for carriages, and seven feet on each side for foot passengers, was to be constructed and it was directed that there should be a balustrade on each side. The Corporation were authorised to demolish one or more of the central piers so as to create the new Great Arch.

Pulling down the shops and tenements, and dismantling the central pier would have caused chaos if temporary arrangements had not been put in place to enable pedestrians to continue to be able to cross the river. A decision was made to construct a temporary wooden bridge immediately along the western side of the stone bridge, supported on the starlings (lozenge-shaped buttresses on either side of the piers).

The improvements didn’t go down too well with the ferrymen who made their living transporting people across the river: there is every indication that it was a disgruntled river worker who set fire to the temporary structure on the night of 11th April 1758.


A reward of two hundred pounds was offered to catch the culprit but no-one was brought to justice. The temporary bridge had been totally destroyed in the blaze and workmen had to start all over again.

bridge 2

Grace’s Guide has this picture of the fire , and I can well imagine Richard rushing down to the river bank at eleven o’clock at night to see the blaze which had just broken out.

The British Museum site has this etching  showing the damaged bridge the day after the fire, with its central pier missing:

In the foreground you can see the timbers from the temporary bridge structure floating on the river. Ironically when the bridge repairs were finally accomplished it left the Corporation of London with a spare piece of land on the City side of the river (on the extreme left, just in front of the spire of the Wren church of St Magnus the Martyr). Here, my ancestor constructed a haberdashery shop and four-bedroom house  above – the original Number One London Bridge.

Apr 062019

In 1756 William Payne published a book called  ‘An Introduction to the Game of Draughts’ – with  a dedication to the Earl of Rochford written by no less than Samuel Johnson. The good Doctor also wrote the Preface. The game itself had of course been around for thousands 0f years – a board dating back to 3000B.C. resembling the modern draughts board was unearthed at Ur (Mesopotamia). The ancient Egyptians, the Romans the Greeks – all played  a version of chequers.

I had not realized that different countries tend to use boards with a different number of squares – in Britain we use  8 x 8, in Frisia, Poland and Ghana it is 10 x 10, in Canada it is 12 x 12. Whatever: it was obviously popular in the eighteenth century. I rather like this  print, shown on the Lewis Walpole Library site and entitled “Mine host playing a game of draughts and his wife a game of love!”

“Mine host playing a game of draughts and his wife a game of love!” (Lewis Walpole Library, c. 1798)

The game was recommended  because it was more relaxing, more calming, than card games. It was also suitable for the family, as in this painting by Louis Leopold Boilly, entitled “Painting of a family game of checkers” (“jeu des dames”). It was painted in around 1803.

The website of auctioneers Bruun Rasmussen shows an oil painting entitled  “Gentlemen gathered for a game of draughts” painted by J Bavet  – it suggests that it is a somewhat melancholy game!

From 1822, the Lewis Walpole Library have a print  with the title of ‘Draughts – a bad move’ – in a slightly frustrating way it is headed ‘Plate 4’ which begs the question, where are Plates 1, 2 and 3?

And finally, while I appreciate that chess is nothing to do with draughts, a reminder of the fact that there is nothing new about trying to  produce a machine which can out-wit humans. In 1770 an animatronic machine appeared, courtesy of a Hungarian inventor called  Wolfgang von Kempelen. Nick-named The Turk, because the figure wore a turban, the machine toured Europe and America for nearly a hundred years, baffling audiences including Benjamin Franklin. Rumour has it that Napoleon Bonaparte challenged The Turk to a game in 1809 – and lost. The Turk was eventually destroyed by fire in 1854 while being exhibited at a museum in Philadelphia..

Before a match the public were given the chance to examine the ‘box of tricks’ under the table at which The Turk sat – with an impressive display of cogs and levers suggesting that this was how the automata worked. Actually the whole thing was a hoax – no sooner was the table set up for the game than a Chess Master crawled in amongst the cogs, and operated the movement of the pieces manually.

The hoax was not without a happy consequence – one of the men who lost twice to The Turk was a young Charles Babbage. He was so intrigued at the idea of Artificial Intelligence and robotics that he sat  down and came up with his early ideas for computing. And we all know where that led to – on 11 May 1997 the IBM Deep Blue defeated the world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Ah well, happy days.

Apr 022019







The Georgian Gent has just returned from a (first ever) visit to Jersey – and what a magnificent place it is to visit, especially on a warm Spring day with blue skies and empty beaches. The scenery is superb, and around every corner there appears to be a Martello tower, or medieval fortification, showing how the island has tried to defend itself from French invaders over the centuries.








Some of the towers are virtually incorporated into modern houses, others are painted on the seaward side so as to be visible to shipping. But they stand as gaunt reminders of  past threats to the security of the island, and I confess that I had forgotten that Jersey had seen an invasion attempt by French forces in January 1781, at the height of the American War of Independence.  Britain was using the Channel islands as a privateering base for attacks on French shipping operating out of Brest, and clearly our military resources were stretched to the limit. A French landing party of some 1400 men sneaked in under cover of darkness and managed to seize the British commanding officer while he was tucked up in his bed. The bleary-eyed Major Moses Corbet was forced to sign surrender documents, believing that the French troops greatly outnumbered the defenders. Not so.

With the governor out of action command of the British defenders fell to a young soldier called Francis Peirson. The 24-year old major led a remarkable counter-offensive and the battle which ensued barely lasted a quarter of an hour before 600 French troops were captured, 78 were killed and 74 seriously wounded. The rest of the invasion force took to their heels and sailed swiftly away towards the French coast, a mere 23 kilometres away.

Major Francis Peirson

Sadly for Major Peirson he was struck by a musket ball through the heart  just before the fighting ended. He died on the spot and was later buried in the Parish Church at St Helier. His opposite number, Baron de Rullecourt  was also mortally wounded.

As for the slumbering Lieutenant-Governor Major Corbet, he was arrested and court-martialled for dereliction of duty and for signing Articles of Capitulation. Perhaps surprisingly, he was merely dismissed from his post – and given an army pension of £250 p.a.

Following the French defeat, efforts to build defensive towers and look-outs throughout the island really got under way: known as Conway towers after Field Marshal Henry Seymour Conway, some 30 towers were constructed. Later, they were supplemented with Martello Towers, constructed to the same design as the ones erected along the south coast of England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

To end with – a picture painted by the American artist  John Singleton Copley entitled ‘Death of Major Peirson’. It is a stirring tribute to a brave young man who died for his country.

Ah well, life’s a beach….