Dec 272020

Today I heard the sad news that  a friend of mine in Spain, a near-neighbour called Kevin, had been found dead in his home on St Stephen’s Day. It is particularly sad because Kevin had had a really rough time this past year or so, and Christmas is always a difficult time to be on your own, regardless of Covid Restrictions. In memory of Kevin I thought I would do a blog about the company he worked for before he retired, Chubb’s, the locksmiths.

Charles Chubb, 1772 – 1846

Chubb’s traces its roots back to 1804 when Charles Chubb opened a ship’s ironmongery and chandlery business in Winchester. With his brother Jeremiah they moved the business to Portsmouth in 1818. In the previous year there had been a burglary at the dockyard in Portsmouth and the British Government arranged a competition  open to anyone who could produce a lock that could be opened only with its own unique key. Jeremiah hit upon the idea for  a new design: a detector lock which was not only difficult to operate without the original key, but which would clearly show if any attempt had been made to pick the lock. Jeremiah’s design for a a four-lever lock incorporated a security feature known as a regulator. It meant that if it was picked or opened with the wrong key the lock would  stop working until a special key was used to reset it. The regulator would be tripped if an individual lever was moved too far.

Chubb’s detector lock, courtesy of Wikimedia, in the public domain.

Various developments in locksmithing had been made in the recent past, not least with the Bramah ‘unpickable lock’  developed by Joseph Bramah. In 1788 Robert Barron had come up with a double-acting tumbler lock, but the Jeremiah Chubb invention was new and meant that Jeremiah was able to claim the £100 reward offered by the government. That was a lot of money – equivalent to perhaps £8000 nowadays. The story goes that Jeremiah personally delivered his special lock to a convicted prisoner serving time on one of the rotting prison hulks in Portsmouth Docks, with an offer of a £100 and a free pardon if he could open the lock. Given that the prisoner was a locksmith who had  successfully met every previous challenge put before him, the prisoner leapt at the chance of freedom – but after two or three months of twiddling and fiddling he had to concede defeat.

With this invention under their belt, and with good  government contacts, the Chubb brothers moved to near Walsall in the West Midlands to manufacture locks. Jeremiah decided that his future lay in America and brother Charles  took over sole responsibility for running the company. In 1823 Chubb’s were awarded a special licence by George IV and went on to become the sole supplier of locks to the Post Office and to HM Prison Service. This was apparently despite the fact that when the Prince  was shown the lock he accidentally and rather painfully  sat his ample posterior on the padlock, with its key inserted in an upright position…. ouch!

Improvements to the design of the lock were made and an extra two levers were added. They challenged anyone to open their six-lever lock – a challenge which took a generation to be successful. It was not until the Great Exhibition in 1851 that Alfred Charles Hobbs, a rival locksmith, finally worked out a way of opening the detector lock without triggering the regulator.

The company moved into the business of making safes. The first patent for a burglar-resistant safe was taken out by the company in 1835 and their first safe-making works were opened in Cowcross Street, London two years later. In 1838 the first fire-resistant safe was invented, with the gaps between the iron plates filed with fire retardant materials.

By the 1840s Chubb customers included the Bank of England as well as the Royal Consort, Prince Albert, and when a secure setting was needed for the display of the Koh-i-Noor diamond at the Great Exhibition it was Chubb’s who got the contract to come up with a special display cage.

By then Charles Chubb had died (in 1846 at the age of 75) and the business was taken over by his son John Chubb. The company expanded worldwide, with impeccable contacts throughout the security industry. Eventually, the company got taken over, and ended up under the same ownership as its erstwhile rivals, Yale and Union.

I have no idea what role Kevin held in the Company – since his customers were mostly either banks or governments it was hardly something he could discuss. He was a fine man, excellent company and I am saddened to hear that he has died.

R.I.P.  KK


Dec 232020

Ignatius Sancho painted by Thomas Gainsborough and  shown courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery of Canada.

14 December 2020 marked the 240th anniversary of the death of the remarkable Ignatius Sancho. I have blogged about him before: he was  a writer, a composer, a shop-keeper – and very possibly a man born aboard a slave ship. He was brought to England as an infant and emerged from a difficult upbringing to become the first person of African descent to vote in a British general election. He is also the first known person of African descent to have an obituary published in British newspapers.

I have been reading some of his letters recently because he wrote a description of the Gordon Riots in 1780 – the year he died. The rioting culminated in the destruction of Langdale’s Gin Distillery, when rioters broke in and ‘liberated’ thousands of gallons of impure gin. The gin, and the people struggling to collect it as it cascaded into the streets, caught fire and the whole area was engulfed in a fireball which apparently could be seen for thirty miles. Sancho wrote a series of letters – ostensibly eye-witness accounts, but very possibly embroidered with passages gleaned from the newspapers. I found them interesting because I am much engaged in researching the ‘History of Gin’ for a book project.

Dancing in style

Anyway, Sancho was a keen observer of British traditions and was also a fine musician. I knew he wrote several musical pieces but had not appreciated his interest in English dance. That is, until I was reminded by the Early Dance Circle, to whom I spoke a year or two back. To coincide with Sancho’s death  the EDC have published a short film on Youtube, available here. If you are interested in how the Georgians actually danced – as opposed to what Hollywood might lead you to believe – do have a look at the video. It is entitled ‘Celebrating the life and dances of Ignatius Sancho.’ It turns out that Ignatius  published four collections of compositions as well as a treatise entitled A Theory of Music. It’s possible for any of us today to learn to dance these dances and enjoy their elegant musicality and sense of fun. For information about classes, visit Early dance groups are spread all across the UK. Many groups also perform for the public.

Anyone interested in the story of Ignatius will inevitably come across the excellent research carried out by Brycchan Carey. He specializes in the history and culture of slavery and abolition in the British Empire and his web pages contain a wealth of interesting source material about men such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano.

Do have a look at the EDC video even if, like me, you have two-left feet!

Give me sunshine….


PS I see that a first edition  (1782) of the two-volume set of letters from Ignatius Sancho is coming up for auction in January with Gloucester-based auctioneers Chorley’s. The letters cover a wide range of topics – as far as I know they do not relate at all to his dance and musical output – but if you have a few hundred pounds to spare, it would be an interesting punt. He was a forceful advocate for the abolition of the Slave Trade – in one of the letters he writes of “the Christians’ abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the African Kings – encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them guns to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.” 

The letters give an interesting perspective on life in London in the second half of the nineteenth century, seen from the viewpoint of a man who used the pen-name ‘Africanus’. I must re-read the diaries of my ancestor Richard Hall because he makes various mentions of ‘Scipio Africanus’ – there was a financial tie-up between the two men – and I have never managed to establish who ‘Scipio Africanus’ was. It seems to have been a common moniker for freed slaves and I recall that there is a colourful tombstone marking a’ Scipio Africanus’ grave in Henleaze, Bristol, but he died in 1720, some years before my ancestor was born. Definitely time for some more research….

Image shown courtesy of Chorley’s, auctioneers.

Dec 202020

Detail from a caricature by Richard Newton, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale.

In 1729 the government decided to try and do ‘something’ about the social ills known nowadays as the Gin Craze. The result was the first Gin Act, passed in 1729 and aimed at  increasing duties on distilled spirits, charging fees to all distillers for a licence, and introducing the idea of paid informers to help the Excise Men nail those dealing in the pernicious spirit.

The late 1730s saw a constant battle in the streets over gin, with the ‘mob’ targeting informers, fighting off the constables, and, if possible, grabbing as much free booze as they could. In 1735, one small riot seems to have involved the simple storming of a gin shop, leading to the newspapers carrying a story that on Tuesday 8th April ‘At Seven Dials occurred a Riot at the closing of a Gin Shop owned by Captain Speke. When the Mob became outrageous in their attempts to force the stoutly defended Building, Justice of the Peace Mr Maitland read the Riot Act but the Mob refused to disperse peaceably as required, the Guard of the Tower was called to enforce the Peace with Ball, Butt and Bayonet, after which all was quiet. The Shop was wrecked by Intruders and all the Genever Spirits lost.’

An explanation of what had happened was given in a satirical piece, purportedly written by someone calling themselvesCholmondeley-Fitzroy, Lord Foppingham.’ He wrote:

‘Here I must add, the remarkable facts that the honest builder Jack Church had obtained in regard of the gin shop of Captain Speke. This novel innovation of trade has no entrance, doors, nor any visible shop-man. In their stead, one pays custom by introducing coin into a slot, whereupon gin issues forth from a spout below. The expense is of the common sort for such trade – perhaps one shilling for a pint bottle. Their trade was brisk. Church struck up an acquaintance with two Tipstaffs, there to serve a summons … They had, he heard, been unable to serve it, their diligence baffled by the extraordinary nature of the place. None had been observed to enter or leave. Boldly, that night, Church effected an entry to the premises, in search of incriminating evidence. He reports that the place is so shuttered as to be wholly dark within. The gin is stacked up, crammed into every space.’ 

The idea of a slot-machine-operated gin-delivery system was certainly new and it was designed to get round the law by concealing the identity of the person selling the liquor. Being a blank wall with no visible door meant that the Excise Officers did not know who to go against, whereas the legislation stated that they had no power of entry unless the identity of the retailer was known to them. It was actually the idea of Dudley Bradstreet, an Irishman born in Tipperary in 1711 and who subsequently went on to publish his story in a book published in 1755 under the modest title of The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet Being the Most Genuine and Extraordinary, perhaps, ever written.

The enterprising Captain Bradstreet had an interesting career, including being a government spy, criminal, entrepreneur, brewer, playwright and serial seducer. Some reports suggest that the good Captain already had a murky background linked to the trade in gin – that he himself had traded gin illegally and also that he had acted as an informer, securing the conviction of others. He certainly was well-versed in the new law and its limitations and apparently used his last £13 to buy a consignment of gin from Langdales Distillery in Holborn. He then nailed a wooden figure of a cat’s head to the wall of a building rented in the name of a lawyer-friend in a quiet area behind the Barbican in Islington. In doing so he established what was soon known as a ‘Puss and Mew shop’ – ‘Puss’ because a buyer would address the cat with the words “Puss, do you have two penn’orth of gin?”  to which Bradstreet, hidden from view, would answer in the affirmative by replying “Meouw”. The payment would be inserted into a small tray which would then be retracted, following which the appropriate measure would be poured by funnel down the tube, to be collected in the recipients receptacle of choice – or swallowed ‘down the hatch’ if he or she was desperate enough!

A modern replica of the sign of the Black Cat shown courtesy of the Beefeater Gin Distillery

In the book, Bradstreet explained his scheme:

‘The Mob being very noisy and clamourous for want of their beloved Liquor, which few or none at last dared to sell, it soon occurred to me to venture upon that Trade. I bought the Act, and read it over several times, and found no Authority by it to break open Doors, and that the Informer must know the Name of the Person who rented the House it was sold in.

To evade this, I go an Acquaintance to take a House in Blue Anchor Alley, in St Luke’s Parish, who privately convey’d his bargain to me. I then got it well secured… and purchased in Moorfields the Sign of a Cat, and had it nailed to a Street Window; I then caused a Leaden pipe, the small End out about an Inch, to be placed under the Paw of the Cat; the End that was within had a funnel in it.
When my House was ready for Business… I got a Person to inform a few of the mob, that Gin would be sold by the Cat at my Window next day, provided they put the Money in its Mouth, from whence there was a Hole that conveyed it to me… I heard the chink of Money, and a comfortable Voice say, “Puss, give me two Pennyworth of Gin.”

I instantly put my Mouth to the tube, and bid them receive it from the Pipe under the paw, and then measured and poured it into the Funnel, from which they soon received it. Before Night I took six Shillings, the next Day above Thirty shillings, and afterwards three or four Pound a Day…’

The ruse soon caught on and in the space of one month Bradstreet cleared £22. No-one could see who was sitting inside behind the sign of the cat and therefore no-one could act as informer and pass details to the Excise men. All that the authorities could establish was that the premises were rented by a lawyer who declined to name the occupier, claiming it was in breach of his client confidentiality.

Sadly, nothing remains of the premises used by Bradstreet and the entire Blue Anchor Alley disappeared from maps when the site was redeveloped with a modern, concrete, block of flats in the 1960s. As for the sign, this has long disappeared although a replica can be seen at the Beefeater Gin Distillery premises at Kennington in London.

Before long the sign of the Black Cat was everywhere, an indication that both retailers and purchasers were determined to flout the law. Soon, Captain Bradstreet was able to emerge from the dark room in which he would barricade himself in, and retire from this particular venture in order to concentrate on his main interests, namely wine, women and song. He was a chancer, a flamboyant extrovert, going on stage, writing a play and bragging about his numerous affairs. He died in 1761, long after the ‘copycats’ had been caught, prosecuted or driven out of business.


Dec 062020

Detail from Newton’s Samples of Sweethearts and Wives, via Lewis Walpole Library

We all know about the eighteenth century gin craze: how men and women of ‘the lower orders’  got completely rat-arsed. As Hogarth put in his print of Gin Lane, you could get drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence. The low cost of distilled spirits meant that  the starving poor could escape from their miserable, grinding, poverty into a world of oblivion. Gin was the equivalent of the zombie-drugs taken by addicts, leaving them completely insensate. No-one pretended that it gave anyone a high – it simply numbed the brain. Small wonder, when the distilleries churning out the gin by the barrow-ful were not averse to cutting the spirits with  ingredients ‘to make it taste better’. Well, that is, if you like your gin with turpentine. Or even worse, flavoured with urine. Or perhaps a snifter diluted with sulphuric acid? You name it, the gin-shops mixed it. The resulting alcoholism was most evident in the London metropolis and extended  to men and women of all ages – but women in particular. Many of them had come to the capital as economic migrants, to seek their fortune, only to find that the living conditions were appalling, the job prospects distinctly limited, and the wages insufficient to cover basic living costs. Newspapers  were full of cautionary tales, but generally confused cause and effect. The poor were poor because they spent their money on gin, not the other way round. The poor were idle, the poor were being seduced by luxuries into thinking that they could have things without having to do an honest day’s work.

The Gin Shop, shown courtesy of the Wellcome Institute

One case more than any other shocked the nation: the trial and execution of Judith Defour. The trial took place in March 1734. Defour was a single mother, aged about thirty, and was charged with strangling her own child, a two year-old toddler. Judith’s background was that she was born into a sober, hard-working family who worked in the weaving trade and as a young girl she had started to work as a silk winder. In the words of the Newgate Ordinary, in her mid-twenties “she fell into bad Company, and had a Bastard-Child, which died; and then she had another, the unfortunate Child lately murder’d by her.”

She lost her job (quite possibly because she had a child out of wedlock) and drifted in and out of the gin shops. On several occasions she dropped off her child, called Mary, at the local work-house. She did this in January 1734 but at the end of that month she returned to collect Mary, who by then had been clothed by the Parish. She was accompanied by her friend Sukey, who was described as ‘one of the most vilest of Creatures in or about the Town’. In order to get Mary released from the control of the parish she first had to forge a letter of release from the Church. Judith and Sukey then hit upon the idea that they could make a few bob if they sold the baby’s clothing. The Old Bailey Proceedings recounted that the court heard how Defour ‘took the Child into the Fields, and stripp’d it, and ty’d a Linen Handkerchief hard about its Neck to keep it from crying, and then laid it in a Ditch.’ They then presumably went off to flog the clothes so that they could go off boozing for the rest of the week.

Later, in court, Judith admitted that she throttled the child in order to sell ‘the Coat and Stay for a Shilling, and the Petticoat and Stockings for a Groat.’ Worse, she was motivated to do this so that she could afford to go out and purchase  ‘a Quartern of Gin’ with her mate Sukey, who was with her at the time and was egging her on.

She was caught and sent for trial within a matter of days. The jury found her guilty of murder; her punishment was death. Sentence was carried out immediately despite the fact that she ‘pleaded her belly’ i.e. claimed that she was pregnant at the time. The execution was duly carried out at Tyburn on 8th March 1734, after which her body was anatomised – in other words, handed over to the medical profession for dissection.

At her trial Judith Defour confessed her crimes and according to the records contained in the Ordinary of Newgate she said that ‘she was very sorry for what was done, that she never was at Peace since it happened, that she scarce desired to live; and therefore she made a voluntary Confession she had been always of a very surly Disposition, and untractable Creature, a Despiser of Religion, negligent in her Duty to God and Man, and would take no good Advice of her Friends, nor of any good or sober People. She drank and swore much, and was averse to Virtue and Sobriety, delighting in the vilest Companies, and ready to Practice the worst of Actions. She acknowledged the Justice of her Sentence, and died in Peace with all Mankind’.

The Gibbet by Thomas Rowlandson, courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art

Hers was a truly shocking case and one which helped ensure that Parliament had no choice but to intervene  to try and curb the worst excesses of the gin trade. The Gin Act of 1736 was a failure. The Gin Act of 1743 was even more of a failure. It wasn’t until parliament passed a workable law that things got under control, with the 1751 Gin Act. By then you have to wonder how many other women committed  ‘the foul crime of murther’ in order to fund an uncontrollable drink habit…