Aug 192020

Sawney in the Boghouse. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The recent guest post by Naomi featured a print showing a Scotsman mis-using a close-stool or convenience. The original came out in 1745, just before the Jacobite uprising, and was at a time when anti-Scots feeling ran high. The reference to ‘Sawney’  or ‘Sawnee’ was a shorthand way of describing someone from Scotland – much as we might use ‘Jock’ today. I gather that it derived from the popular Scottish name of ‘Alexander’, which the English tended to shorten to ‘Alec’ and which  was abbreviated to ‘Sandy’ north of the border. ‘Sandy’ got corrupted to ‘Sawney’ and for several centuries it was used as a term of contempt by the English to refer to a stupid fool, of Scottish origin. The term went out of use some time in the 1800’s.

Sawney in the boghouse. © National Portrait Gallery, London

When James Gillray drew his version of Sawney in the boghouse in June 1779 he was copying a version which had appeared ten years earlier. The Gillray version, according to the British Museum site, is described as follows:

A Scot in Highland dress and wearing a feathered cap is seated in a latrine, his legs thrust down two holes in the board. He grasps in his left hand a rolled document inscribed “Act for [esta]blishing Popery”. Behind him a stone wall is indicated on which is etched (left) a thistle growing out of a reversed crown, inscribed “Nemo me impune lacessit”. On the right. and over Sawney’s head is engraved:

“‘Tis a bra’ bonny seat, o’ my saul”, Sawney cries,
“I never beheld sic before with me Eyes,
Such a place in aw’ Scotland I never could meet,
For the High and the Low ease themselves in the Street.”

In the background can be seen a thistle and crown – referencing the common accusation that the Scots were Jacobites. The ‘Act for establishing Popery’ refers to the Catholic Relief Act, fiercely opposed by many, and leading to serious riots in Edinburgh and Glasgow in February 1779.

Gillray was obviously rather pleased with this racist nonsense and in January 1796 brought out a particularly revolting piece entitled National Conveniences. The British Museum site gives us this explanation of the four panels:

[1] ‘English Convenience – the Water Closet’. A grossly obese alderman of repulsive appearance sits full-face, clasping his sides. He wears his gown and chain, one gouty leg is swathed in bandages. On the wall behind his head are two placards: ‘Bill of Fare, – Turtle Soup Fish Poultry H . . .’ and a broadside, ‘Roast Beef of old England headed by a sirloin’.
[2] ‘Scotch Convenience – the Bucket’. A woman seated in back view on a pair of tongs across a bucket in some sort of permanent shelter composed of ramshackle planks. On this are two papers: ‘The Sweets of Edinbro’ to the Tune of Tweedside’  and ‘Croudie a Scotch Reel’. In the foreground are pigs and poultry.

[3] ‘French Convenience – le Commodites’. A pretty young woman, full-face, in a latrine with three apertures. She crouches with one foot on the ground, one on the seat. On the wall are two papers: ‘Caira nouvelle chanson’ and ‘Soupe Maigre petit Chanson.’

[4] ‘Dutch Convenience – the Lake’. A stout man (? or woman) in back view sits on a rail, smoking a pipe. In the foreground is shallow water with ducks. Behind and in close proximity are town houses with high crow-stepped gables.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Gillray relished lavatorial jokes and happily applied them to political caricatures. Here we have ‘Evacuation before Resignation‘ showing Lord John Cavendish, a Whig politician who was briefly Chancellor of the Exchequor in 1782. His Lordship announces “We must save everything” – to which the servant, catching vomit in an upturned hat, remarks “For the Public Good”. Charming!

In the public domain – via Library of Congress

The young caricaturist Richard Newton delighted in lavatorial jokes: here, above, his defence of the  Habeas Corpus Act, which the King sought to suspend. It appeared in 1798 – the year that the 21 year old Newton died – and shows John Bull, archetypal Englishman, sticking out his bare backside and breaking wind  in the face of George III. Treason indeed!

                                            Junction of the Parties © The Trustees of the British Museum

But I think my favourite Gillray  potty joke – because it resonated with the Cameron-Clegg coalition – was this one from 1783 entitled Junction of the Parties. It depicts Charles James Fox and Lord North, who briefly entered into a coalition in 1783. The two stand back-to-back and defecate simultaneously into a pot, the contents of which were being stirred by the Devil, who holds his nose against the stench and stands between them, balancing with one foot on the lower back of each man. Superimpose Messrs Clegg and Cameron onto the faces of the defecators and it brings the parody right into the 21st Century.

Aug 122020

In my last blog I mentioned ‘the other’ Samuel Johnson  and the help given to me by Naomi Heap. She has kindly agreed to tell me more about her ancestor. Over to you, Naomi:

Ever sat and pondered the scribblings of a previous occupant? No me neither, let’s face it public toilets are not a place to tarry in the modern age. Even so, these days a necessary encounter with shared facilities is not likely to provide much in the way of reading material. The ubiquitous and poorly shaped phallus is a more likely artistic offering, or alternatively, you might find stylised tags that are entirely illegible to anyone but the ‘artiste’. This was not always the case, and it seems that in the 1700’s the bog-house wall (or glass window if you happened to have a diamond about your person) was an excellent spot to leave your thoughts. The surety that those to follow would be in-situ long enough to enjoy your attempts at verse, was quite literally ‘taken as read’.

‘Merry Thoughts: or the Glass-window and Bog-house Miscellany’ is a collection of such graffiti found in conveniences, tavern windows and public places in the 1700’s. It was published in four parts by one Hurlo Thrumbo – a pseudonym which I will later explain.

First however, here is an example of toilet humour from the time. This cartoon (held by the British Museum) entitled ‘Sawney in the Boghouse’ shows the likely conditions of early public conveniences. As an aside, the joke of this picture is that the Scots Man has his legs in the bottom holes and is sitting on the lid. The words below the picture insinuate that the Scots were so wild they wouldn’t know how to answer the call of nature if it involved indoors facilities.

Sawney in the Boghouse. © The Trustees of the British Museum

You will notice that our Scottish friend is surrounded by various leaflets and flyers. In the dedication of Merry Thoughts, this practice of advertising in the loo is cited as the very reason for Hurlo Thrumbo’s collection. I paraphrase the author, who considered that the collection of “lucubration” should not be lost as “bum fodder” or be painted over by landlords who would rob the world of such “sparkling pieces” – but they should be kept for posterity in the form of a publication, and so was born Merry Thoughts: Or Glass Window and Bog House Miscellany.

Not only did people leave their thoughts for others to read, it seems that their audience would commonly respond. To use a modern metaphor, they would ‘post’– and you thought that Face Book was a new idea! Of course it’s not surprising that bodily functions feature extensively in the subject matter, as do food and sex, here are some examples. First up, a complaint about the lack of loo paper:

From costive Stools, and hide-bound Wit,

From Bawdy Rhymes, and Hole besh – – t.

From Walls besmear’d with stinking Ordure,

By Swine who nee’r provide Bumfodder

Libera Nos— 

Keeping to the lavatorial theme:

In a Bog-House at the Nag’s-Head in Bradmere._

Such Places as these,

Were made for the Ease

Of every Fellow in common;

But a Person who writes

On the Wall as he shites,

Has a Pleasure far greater than Woman.

For he’s eas’d in his Body, and pleas’d in his Mind,

When he leaves both a Turd and some Verses behind.



  You are eas’d in your Body, and pleas’d in your Mind,

  That you leave both a Turd and some Verses behind;

  But to me, which is worst, I can’t tell, on my Word,

  The reading your Verses, or the smelling your Turd.

Not all the verses are crude. Next up, one written on the Wall at the George in Sandy-Lane, in the Bath Road, a Place famous for Puddings:

  The Puddings are so good in Sandy-Lane,

  That if I chance to go that Way again,

  I’ll not be satisfy’d, unless I’ve twain,

  The one stuck thick with Plumbs, the other plain.

Here is another:

Bog-House at Ludlow._

  Two pitiful Dukes at our Race did appear;

  One bespoke him a Girl, the other new Geer,

  And both went away without paying I hear,

  For the Cheat lov’d his Money, and so did the Peer.


  You Rogue, Taylor shan’t catch me, while your Legs they are cross’d.

  Don’t cry, my dear Girl, since you have got more than you lost.

One of the entries concerns a woman who is fed up with her husband for getting her pregnant so often:

  A poor Woman was ill in a dangerous Case,

  She lay in, and was just as some other Folks was.

  ‘By the Lord’, cries she, then: ‘If my Husband e’er come,

  Once again with his Will for to tickle my Bum,

  I’ll storm, and I’ll swear, and I’ll run staring wild’;

  And yet the next Night, the Man got her with Child

Merry Thoughts is for me a recommended read, not because I have a particular interest in graffiti, vandalism or public loos. Rather because the curator of the verses is likely to have been Samuel Johnson of Cheshire – no, not the lexicographer, but the dancing master and play writer who was also my distant ancestor. Here by circuitous route we come back to Hurlo Thrumbo. There is some dispute as to whether this pseudonym was used by the publisher because of the popularity of Samuel Johnson’s play ‘Hurlothrumbo; or The Supernatural’ which ran at the Haymarket for 30 consecutive nights in 1729. However, in my opinion (I would like to say ‘informed opinion’ because I have studied Sam for over a year now) Merry Thoughts Part I is his collection and compilation, the later books are likely collaborative with some of the verses being sent to him by friends.

Anyway, if you have the time and the money I would recommend searching out a copy of Merry Thoughts. One online source is The Project Gutenberg; an academic team who offer a transcription of parts II, III and IIII. Part I may require an order from AbeBooks.”

Thanks for that Naomi. The Gutenberg transcription supports your contention that Samuel Johnson was the author of the Merry Thoughts and sets out the following endorsement of the value and significance of graffiti:

“modern graffiti is surprisingly like that of earlier periods: scatological observations, laments of lovers, accusations against women for their sexual promiscuity, the repetition of “trite” poems and sayings, and messages attributed to various men and women suggesting their sexual availability and proficiency. And if the political targets have changed over the years, many of the political attitudes have remained consistent. Graffiti is an irreverent form, with strong popular and anti-establishment elements. As actions common to all classes, eating, drinking, defecation, and fornication find their lowly record in graffiti-like form”.

Here are a few more examples contained in Merry Thoughts and contained in an interesting article by Dr. Maximilian E. Novak of the University of California, Los Angeles and entitled Loos, Lewdness and Literature

Rich or poor, we are all the same….

Some of the entries are more romantic than others….

Thank you Naomi for drawing this book to my attention – I knew that the Georgians were a scatological lot, and caricaturists such as Gillray and Newton loved fart jokes, potty jokes – indeed everything and anything lavatorial!



Aug 072020

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from Naomi Heap, who lives in Auckland, asking if my ancestor Richard Hall had written in his diaries about meeting Samuel Johnson. No, not THAT Samuel Johnson, but an ancestor of hers by the same name and who is generally described as being ‘a dancing master from Cheshire’. I have sympathy for Naomi having an ancestor with a name usurped by someone or something more famous. After all, my family name is ‘Hall’ and googling  a search for my dear old uncle Albert – ie Albert Hall – reveals pages and pages about some hideous Victorian monstrosity in London, and nothing at all about my forebear! (Memo to self: tell Google that they have their priorities all wrong….).

I confessed to Naomi that Richard Hall had never mentioned her ancestor – which was not surprising given that ‘her’ Samuel Johnson was born in 1691 and Samuel’s main claim to fame was a play performed in London in 1729 (the year Richard was born). The play was called Hurlothrumbo and appears to have been a completely over-the-top  production of nonsense, parodies, skits and jokes.

Frontispiece shown courtesy of Google Books

I was intrigued by Naomi’s story, because it seems to me that the world has room for more than one Samuel Johnson, particularly for one who was quite an odd-ball. Here was a dancing master-cum-jester working itinerantly in England, who wrote his play circa 1720, performed parts of it to various friends over the following 9 years, and eventually had it accepted at the Haymarket Theatre. The opening night was the 28th of March  1729. All of his friends attended and apparently pledged themselves to applaud the play from beginning to end. This went on for more than thirty performances and attracted full houses. The play was attended by people of fashion, and included the Duke of Montagu, who may have come up with the original idea of a piece of theatrical whimsy which parodied prevailing tastes, particularly for the performance of tragedies.

John Byrom’s Literary Remains records that on the 2nd of April 1729 Mr Johnson was the chief talk of London and that in Dick’s coffee house the day after the opening night and the play was all everyone was talking about, “it was Hurlothrumbo from one end to the other”. When Samuel arrived, everyone crowded round him “like so many bees”.  There may even have been royal patronage as Byrom states that “the Prince has been told of it and will come to see it” although he goes on to say that he planned to  work with Samuel to remove some of the passages that were unfit for the ladies so that they could see it.

The play is reported as having been totally surreal: a later commentator wrote ‘A more curious or a more insane production has seldom issued from human pen.’ Central to the performance was Johnson himself, wandering around the stage, playing the part of Lord Flame, often on stilts, while fiddling away on his violin. He danced and fiddled away throwing out nonsense verse, leading one commentator to say “Hurlothrumbo is a farrago of nonsense, hardly relieved by one or two good burlesque touches and by approaches to wit…”

There is a reference to Hurlothrumbo in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones: “Thus the famous author of Hurlothrumbo told a learned bishop, that the reason his lordship could not taste the excellence of his piece was, that he did not read it with a fiddle in his hand; which instrument he himself had always had in his own, when he composed it.”

Despite its obscure and whimsical nature – or perhaps because of it  – the play appears to have gained something of a cult following, and Johnson stayed on in London and apparently composed a number of other plays in a similar vein, including ‘The Blazing Comet’ and ‘A vision of Heaven’. Perhaps it is as well that no printed record of many of his other plays remain! At some stage Johnson went back to Manchester to revive his teaching career as a dance instructor – apparently taking grave offence from a particular lady who declined to accept his offer of tuition.

In 1743 aged 52 Johnson retired to the village of Gawsworth, near Macclesfield, where he lived at Gawsworth Old Hall for thirty years. The house was allowed to him by two successive generations of Lord Harrington’s. He was known as ‘Maggoty’ (meaning whimsical) or ’Fiddler’ Johnson. He also kept the stage name ‘Lord Flame’. He died on the 3rd of May in 1773 at a house called the New Gawsworth Hall, and  he is interred in a small wood in the neighbourhood and his ghost was said to have ‘long haunted the spot’. All this earned him an entry in volume 30 of the Dictionary of National Biography published between 1885 and 1900.

A bit more about Samuel is to be found on the website of a group called Maggoty – a six piece ceilidh band operating in the Manchester/North West area. To quote from their website: ‘His grave, a grade II listed ashlar brick tomb standing in a beech wood, can still be seen today. The final resting place of Samuel, nicknamed Maggoty Johnson, is unusual in that it is not in a graveyard or other consecrated ground, and there are two memorial stones with alternative inscriptions. He was initially buried at St James’s Church; the parish record shows his burial on the fifth of May. However family members arranged for him to be moved to un-consecrated ground in line with his own request, unusual in a country where most were buried in a churchyard. Transcriptions of the grave inscriptions are displayed on plaques near the grave. The first inscription is joyful and was probably dictated by Johnson himself. The second” [placed there three generations later by The Countess of Harrington, Maria Stanhope née Foote – apparent descendent of British dramatist Samuel Foote] “in more righteous less joyful times, scorns the first’s mocking of Judgement Day.

The original inscription

The second inscription, both shown courtesy of the National Trust

“Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson, alias ‘Lord Flame’, was a poet and musician of considerable talent. He appears to have been one of England’s last professional jesters, employed by the Lord of Gawsworth, but available for hire to the local gentry where, because of his sharp wit and endearing repartee, he was invariably allowed free license”.

Many thanks to Naomi for drawing this man to my attention. In my next blog Naomi will explain what else her ancestor is remembered for – a collection of bon mots collected from public conveniences in the first half of the eighteenth century!