Jun 252020

My ancestor Richard Hall loved collecting what might be called ‘factoids’ – snippets of information presented as scientific facts, but often rather lacking in accuracy. One of his factoids, stored in his little notebook, reads: ‘Onions afford little or no nourishment; when eaten liberally, produce flatulencies, occasion thirst, headachs and turbulent dreams.’

I must have too much time on my hands, but during lock-down I thought I would do a google search to see where this gem of knowledge came from.

There it is, sure enough, word for word, in a book entitled The New Dispensatory.

It came out in 1753 and although it was not among Richard’s library of books when he died, he may well have acquired a copy, or he may have borrowed it. He was certainly a raging hypochondriac, fascinated by all-things-medical, and his notebooks contain a number of other  entries about drugs, apothecaries and so on. He also loved jotting down remedies and cures. As for the references to ‘flatulencies’ I know that Richard suffered from acute wind and stomach discomfort, as borne out by his numerous diary entries.

Detail from The Apothecary by Pietro Longhi, c. 1752

I see that there is a copy of the first edition of  the New Dispensatory available from Abe Books – for a mere $958, but you’ll need to add shipping! The Abe Books site tells me that William Lewis was a chemist and physician, born in 1708 and living until 1781. Apparently ‘the English dispensatories of the seventeenth and following century were mainly commentaries based on the London and other pharmacopeias, which began to be expanded, more or less comprehensively, in order to work as reference books.’ As  for the  title page stating that it was intended as ‘a correction and improvement on Quincy’, Quincy was apprenticed as an apothecary and published his own ‘English Dispensatory’ in 1721. By 1749 it had already run to twelve editions and many of the prescriptions contained in it were popular throughout the eighteenth century. Quincy had studied mathematics and the philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton, and received the degree of M.D. from the University of Edinburgh.

The book starts with the words:’PHARMACY is the art of preparing and compounding natural substances for medicinal purposes; in a manner suitable to their respective properties and the intentions of cure.’ It goes on to include a long section on all sorts of vegetables, and I can well imagine Richard Hall wading through lists of edibles, finding out what  the side effects were.

Death and the Apothecary, or, The Quack Doctor, by Thomas Rowlandson

Nowadays, he would no doubt have added that onions are about 89% water,  9% carbohydrates (to include 4% sugar, and  2% dietary fibre) 1% protein – and negligible fat. With hardly any calories, who cares if they give you wind, to say nothing of a somewhat powerful breath…

I have never understood why it was usual for pharmacists to hang a stuffed crocodile outside their shop but I was delighted to see that a Nile croc is on display  in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society museum. I don’t think even they know where it came from – or whether it was just a rag week stunt.

O.K. One final Rowlandson to end with – entitled the Apothecaries Prayer. What did apothecaries pray for? A cure to all ailments, an end to Covid 19? No,  quite the opposite! It actually reads:

“Oh mighty Esculapius! Hear a poor little man overwhelm’d with misfortunes, grant I beseech thee to send a few smart Fevers and some obstinate Catarrhs amongst us or thy humble supplicant must shut up shop…”

“and if it would please thee to throw in a few Cramps and Agues, it would greatly help thy miserable servant, for on the word of an apothecary, I have scarcely heard the music of Mortar these two month…”


Jun 182020

We are used to all sorts of indices measuring inflation – retail prices being just one. I always like the Mars Bar Inflation Index, looking at the fluctuating cost of a simple piece of confectionery, after factoring in all the variables such as shrinking bar sizes, alterations to the chocolate content etc. I seem to recall buying Mars bars for around six (pre-decimal) pennies when I was a child – equivalent to two and a half  pence nowadays. Modern bars are now roughly 20% smaller and cost around sixty-five pence. So the inflation rate is around 33-fold over a sixty year period.

And of course we also have the house prices index. Suffice to say that the first house I bought, just half a century ago, cost me £3000. It now can be yours for the bargain price of  half a million pounds – a rise of 166-fold in a fifty year period.

Richard Hall’s calculation of agricultural wages from around 1785

Another index is that of agricultural wages. I was interested to see that my ancestor was sufficiently aware of rising agricultural wages to jot down the  figures. From a day-rate of four pence (one groat) in 1568 it rose by fifty per cent in the next one hundred years, so that it was sixpence a day around the time of the restoration of the monarchy. Over the next one hundred year period it had gone up to one shilling a day – in other words it had doubled in a century, but had trebled over the two centuries.







By 1783 Richard was recording a day rate of one shilling and fourpence and I thought it would be fun just to look at what agricultural wages have done in my lifetime. In reply to a parliamentary question put to the Min. of Ag. and Fish in 1960 I see that the average farm worker toiled for 46 hours a week to earn an average of £8 – for the entire week. The same lucky blighter was only working a 44 hour week by 1969 and yet was being paid  £11/11/-.  Putting that in context, today’s minimum wage is £8.72 per hour which, if you worked a 44 hour week, would give you £383.68 in your pocket every week. So, on my calculations, wages for an agricultural worker have gone up  more than thirty three times over, during a fifty year period.

I am not sure how many working hours there were in a farm workers day in 1760, but let us assume that it was ten. In the two hundred and sixty years between Richard’s calculation of a shilling-a-day in 1760 (five pence in decimal currency rates) and 2020, the rate has risen from 0.5 pence an hour to 872 pence an hour. So, if Richard was concerned at the rate of inflation in his lifetime, you have to wonder how on earth he would react if he knew that wages would be 1744 times higher by the time his great great great great great grandson started rifling through his jottings and memoranda …

And to end with, no post is complete without a Rowlandson, so here is his: Rural Sports, or a Pleasant Way of Making Hay, printed in 1814 and shown courtesy of the excellent  Metropolitan Museum

Apparently, not such a hard life after all, being a farm labourer…..


Jun 072020

The Bell & Anchor public house at 38-40 Hammersmith Road was closed and demolished in the 1970s to make way for the lorry park at London’s Olympia. I only mention it because it was a well-known watering hole 200 years earlier, when it appears to have been run by a Mr Wilson. As at 2 January 1782 the square pillared porch of the pub, bearing the name ‘WILLSON’ appeared in a print published by Carington Bowles. The  four-storeyed building is shown next to the  toll-house known as the Hammersmith Turnpike and the picture is devoted to showing a woman having a driving lesson.

It interests me because  I am fascinated to see how, in the 1780s, driving your own gig or phaeton became  the display of success for the female nouveau riche – and that included all the whores and hookers who made the grade to become ‘Toast of the Town’. Mary Robinson and Gertrude Mahon in particular were famous for their  driving abilities. It was a badge of their success that they not only could afford to have a carriage parked outside their premises, with a matching pair of horses and with footmen in livery, but that they themselves could take the reins and  impress the passers-by as they charged through Hyde Park (or wherever).  A fashionable conveyance did not come cheap – Mary Robinson drove one given her by her lover the Prince of Wales which had set him back 900 guineas. Think ‘Bentley Mulsanne’ – with go-faster stripes…

And of course, that meant that the women had to have driving lessons, starting off in a simple gig. This print, entitled ‘A lesson westward – or, a morning visit to Betsy Cole’ shows the young lady receiving a driving-lesson from a man who sits behind her on the edge of the cart in which is a sheaf of straw. On the side of the cart is a board inscribed “Tom Longtrot’s Academy for Young Ladies. Driving taught to an Inch, Ladies compleatly finish’d in a fortnight, for Gig, Whiskey, or Phaeton: Single Lesson half a Crown, Five for half a Guinea”.

She doesn’t seem particularly comfortable holding the whip and reins at the same time, and has just run over a piglet, one of a litter  accompanying the sow as they scatter for cover. A short, stout, man clutches the London milestone, terrified that he is about to be run over.

It appears on the Yale Center for British Art  site and was based on a water colour by Robert Dighton. Beneath the title it has the warning:

‘When once the Women take the Reins in hand;

‘Tis then too true, that Men have no command.’

The lady driver is shown not, as might be expected, in riding garb, but wearing an elaborate hat with feathers and a muslin dress. Her dress gives the game away – she is intended to be recognized as  ‘a lady of easy virtue’. It is almost easier to see the detail in its original monochrome form:

It’s not a rare print – the last one I saw on the Christie’s site went for £325 ten years ago and there are copies, coloured and uncoloured on various sites including the British Museum one. As the V&A site points out: ‘In the eighteenth century humourous mezzotints such as this were known as drolls. The taste for poking fun at women’s driving skills evidently goes back much further than the invention of the motor car.’

Having been taught the basic skills in handling a gig, managing a single horse, the next stage was to move on to an open phaeton – everyone’s idea of a really sporty conveyance. The most prestigious phaeton was the English four-wheeled  high flyer. I rather like the image of one taken from Wikipedia showing  a high flyer designed by the royal coachmakers Hoopers. It is described as being ‘with a pair of out-sized, swan-neck leaf springs at the rear and the body mounted daringly high’. Impressive – what Georgian harlot wouldn’t want to be a high-flyer driving one of these!