Mar 282021

Image courtesy of David Cohen, Unsplash

To mark the fact that the clocks changed last night, a look at one of the ideas which triggered the whole question of daylight saving – a letter to the editor of The Journal of Paris dated 1784, from no less a person than Dr Benjamin Franklin, then living in Paris.

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, 1778



You often entertain us with accounts of new discoveries. Permit me to communicate to the public, through your paper, one that has lately been made by myself, and which I conceive may be of great utility.

Brass Quinquet lamp

I was the other evening in a grand company, where the new lamp of Messrs. Quinquet and Lange was introduced, and much admired for its splendour; but a general inquiry was made, whether the oil it consumed was not in proportion to the light it afforded, in which case there would be no saving in the use of it. No one present could satisfy us in that point, which all agreed ought to be known, it being a very desirable thing to lessen, if possible, the expense of lighting our apartments, when every other article of family expense was so much augmented.

I was pleased to see this general concern for economy, for I love economy exceedingly.

I went home, and to bed, three or four hours after midnight, with my head full of the subject. An accidental sudden noise waked me about six in the morning, when I was surprised to find my room filled with light; and I imagined at first, that a number of those lamps had been brought into it; but, rubbing

‘Shutters’ courtesy of
Valentin Lacoste, Unsplash

my eyes, I perceived the light came in at the windows. I got up and looked out to see what might be the occasion of it, when I saw the sun just rising above the horizon, from whence he poured his rays plentifully into my chamber, my domestic having negligently omitted, the preceding evening, to close the shutters.

I looked at my watch, which goes very well, and found that it was but six o’clock; and still thinking it something extraordinary that the sun should rise so early, I looked into the almanac, where I found it to be the hour given for his rising on that day. I looked forward, too, and found he was to rise still earlier every day till towards the end of June; and that at no time in the year he retarded his rising so long as till eight o’clock. Your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon, and seldom regard the astronomical part of the almanac, will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises. I am convinced of this. I am certain of my fact. One cannot be more certain of any fact. I saw it with my own eyes. And, having repeated this observation the three following mornings, I found always precisely the same result.

Yet it so happens, that when I speak of this discovery to others, I can easily perceive by their countenances, though they forbear expressing it in words, that they do not quite believe me. One, indeed, who is a learned natural philosopher, has assured me that I must certainly be mistaken as to the circumstance of the light coming into my room; for it being well known, as he says, that there could be no light abroad at that hour, it follows that none could enter from without; and that of consequence, my windows being accidentally left open, instead of letting in the light, had only served to let out the darkness; and he used many ingenious arguments to show me how I might, by that means, have been deceived. I owned that he puzzled me a little, but he did not satisfy me; and the subsequent observations I made, as above mentioned, confirmed me in my first opinion.

This event has given rise in my mind to several serious and important reflections. I considered that, if I had not been awakened so early in the morning, I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candle-light; and, the latter being a much more expensive light than the former, my love of economy induced me to muster up what little arithmetic I was master of, and to make some calculations, which I shall give you, after observing that utility is, in my opinion the test of value in matters of invention, and that a discovery which can be applied to no use, or is not good for something, is good for nothing.

I took for the basis of my calculation the supposition that there are one hundred thousand families in Paris, and that these families consume in the night half a pound of bougies, or candles, per hour. I think this is a moderate allowance, taking one family with another; for though I believe some consume less, I know that many consume a great deal more. Then estimating seven hours per day as the medium quantity between the time of the sun’s rising and ours, he rising during the six following months from six to eight hours before noon, and there being seven hours of course per night in which we burn candles, the account will stand thus;–

In the six months between the 20th of March and the 20th of September, there are

Nights 183
Hours of each night in which we burn candles 7
Multiplication gives for the total number of hours 1,281
These 1,281 hours multiplied by 100,000, the number of inhabitants, give 128,100,000
One hundred twenty-eight millions and one hundred thousand hours, spent at Paris by candle-light, which, at half a pound of wax and tallow per hour, gives the weight of 64,050,000
Sixty-four millions and fifty thousand of pounds, which, estimating the whole at-the medium price of thirty sols the pound, makes the sum of ninety-six millions and seventy-five thousand livres tournois 96,075,000

An immense sum! that the city of Paris might save every year, by the economy of using sunshine instead of candles. If it should be said, that people are apt to be obstinately attached to old customs, and that it will be difficult to induce them to rise before noon, consequently my discovery can be of little use; I answer, Nil desperandum. I believe all who have common sense, as soon as they have learnt from this paper that it is daylight when the sun rises, will contrive to rise with him; and, to compel the rest, I would propose the following regulations:

Image courtesy of Jarl Schmidt, Unsplash

First. Let a tax be laid of a louis per window, on every window that is provided with shutters to keep out the light of the sun.

Second. Let the same salutary operation of police be made use of, to prevent our burning candles, that inclined us last winter to be more economical in burning wood; that is, let guards be placed in the shops of the wax and tallow chandlers, and no family be permitted to be supplied with more than one pound of candles per week.

Third. Let guards also be posted to stop all the coaches, &c. that would pass the streets after sunset, except those of physicians, surgeons, and midwives.

Fourth. Every morning, as soon as the sun rises, let all the bells in every church be set ringing; and if that is not sufficient?, let cannon be fired in every street, to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest.

All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days; after which the reformation will be as natural and easy as the present irregularity; for, ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûte. Oblige a man to rise at four in the morning, and it is more than probable he will go willingly to bed at eight in the evening; and, having had eight hours sleep, he will rise more willingly at four in the morning following. But this sum of ninety-six millions and seventy-five thousand livres is not the whole of what may be saved by my economical project. You may observe, that I have calculated upon only one half of the year, and much may be saved in the other, though the days are shorter. Besides, the immense stock of wax and tallow left unconsumed during the summer, will probably make candles much cheaper for the ensuing winter, and continue them cheaper as long as the proposed reformation shall be supported.

For the great benefit of this discovery, thus freely communicated and bestowed by me on the public, I demand neither place, pension, exclusive privilege, nor any other reward whatever. I expect only to have the honour of it. And yet I know there are little, envious minds, who will, as usual, deny me this and say, that my invention was known to the ancients, and perhaps they may bring passages out of the old books in proof of it. I will not dispute with these people, that the ancients knew not the sun would rise at certain hours; they possibly had, as we have, almanacs that predicted it; but it does not follow thence, that they knew he gave light as soon as he rose. This is what I claim as my discovery. If the ancients knew it, it might have been long since forgotten; for it certainly was unknown to the moderns, at least to the Parisians, which to prove, I need use but one plain simple argument. They are as well instructed judicious, and prudent a people as exist anywhere in the world all professing, like myself, to be lovers of economy; and,from the many heavy taxes required from them by the necessitities of the state, have surely an abundant reason to be economical. I say it is impossible that so sensible a people, under such circumstances, should have lived so long by the smoky, unwholesome, and enormously expensive light of candles, if they had really known, that they might have had as much pure light of the sun for nothing. I am, &c  A SUBSCRIBER.

The letter appears in a book of selected scientific letters entitled The Ingenious Dr. Franklin. edited by Nathan G. Goodman and published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1931. 

I quote the letter in full because it is a reminder of just how our ancestors were daylight dependent, in an era before proper street lighting and where almost all activities carried out indoors after dark would have involved candles. It is interesting because even back in 1784 eight hours of sleep was regarded as  the norm.

My own ancestor Richard Hall went even further than Benjamin Franklin recommended – he proposed getting up a quarter of an hour earlier every week from mid-April onwards. In his diary he writes:

“Early rising is a habit easily acquired, so necessary to the dispatch of country business, so advantageous to health, and so important to devotion, that except in cases of necessity it cannot be dispensed with by any prudent or intelligent man. Let a person accustomed to sleep until eight in the morning rise the first week in April at a Quarter before Eight, the second week at Half past Seven, the third at a Quarter after Seven and the fourth at Seven. Let him continue this method until the end of July subtracting one quarter of an hour each week from sleep, and he will accomplish the work which at first sight appears difficult.”

Image courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.



The idea of rising at half past four in July just because it is light may not appeal to anyone who is distraught at the idea of having lost an hour’s sleep  last night – but it did go to show that making the most of daylight hours is not just a modern concern. Besides, in the winter I suspect that my ancestor just rolled over at eight o’clock in the morning and went back to sleep….

Mar 212021

Today is census day in Britain. Well, most of Britain. Scotland gets a year’s grace because of Covid but for residents in England Wales and Northern Ireland today is the day we count heads. It is interesting to look back at the very first census, and to see the things that our rulers were interested in finding out about us.

A census has been held every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941 (during the last War).

A Bill proposing a head-count had been drafted way back in 1753. The intention back then was to register the “total number of marriages, births, and deaths, and also of the total number of the poor receiving alms from every Parish and Extra-parochial Place in Great Britain”.

It was introduced by Thomas Potter, the MP for St Germans in Cornwall and it elicited considerable opposition – it would cost too much, it wasn’t feasible and it could give our enemies information which could be damaging to us by exposing numerical weaknesses.

The MP for York, a Mr. Thornton, went so far as to say that he did not believe: “that there was any set of men, or, indeed, any individual of the human species so presumptuous and so abandoned as to make the proposal we have just heard. …. I hold this project to be totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty …. The new Bill will direct the imposition of new taxes, and, indeed, the addition of a very few words will make it the most effectual engine of rapacity and oppression that was ever used against an injured people…..Moreover, an annual register of our people will acquaint our enemies abroad with our weakness.”

Nevertheless, the Bill passed its first hurdle but there was insufficient time for it to complete all its Readings. The Bill lapsed and the idea was dropped for nearly half a century until a statistician named John Rickman appeared on the scene and put it back on the agenda.

John Rickman

By the time Britain was about to get embroiled in a war with France under Napoleon, no-one could be sure whether the population was growing or shrinking. The government did not know where its resources were most needed, and there was a sneaking fear that the number of men available for conscription, in the event of war with France, might be less than that of our enemy. Faced with the vague assumption that the population of the country was  somewhere between nine million and eleven million persons, Rickman urged Parliament to commission a census in accordance with the following principles:

“1. The intimate knowledge of any country must form the rational basis of legislation and             diplomacy;

2. An industrious population is the basic power and resource of any nation, and therefore its size needs to be known;

3. The number of men who were required for conscription to the militia in different areas should reflect the area’s population;

4. There were defence reasons for wanting to know the number of seamen;

5. The need to plan the production of corn and thus to know the number of people who had to be fed;

6. A census would indicate the Government’s intention to promote the public Good; and

7. The life insurance industry would be stimulated by the results”.

Rickman was a successful lobbyist. He was appointed as Private Secretary to Charles Abbot (later Lord Colchester), the MP for Helston in Cornwall. In 1800 Abbot introduced a Population Bill ‘for taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain, and of the Increase or Diminution thereof’. It was passed and the Act came into force on the last day of December 1800. The first census was held just three months later – a remarkable tribute to the administrative skills and endeavours of John Rickman. He not only laid down the procedures, selected the questions, appointed the enumerators and received the results; he also analysed those results and was able to present the findings to Parliament by the end of 1801 – just nine months after the census was carried out.

Rickman’s career included twelve years as the Speaker’s Secretary and twenty-six years as Clerk Assistant at the Table of the House of Commons. During his tenure he radically overhauled the rules and arrangements for recording and publishing parliamentary proceedings. These rules hadn’t changed since the 1680s. He also personally supervised the population returns for four successive decades. His work was recognized in 1815 when he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and international recognition came in 1833 when he was awarded honorary membership of the Société Française de Statistique Universelle. Somehow, in among all his work on the census, he acted from 1803 as secretary to the commissions for making roads and bridges in Scotland, and for constructing the Caledonian canal, and in 1823 was nominated to a commission for building churches in the highlands and islands of Scotland.

He was a close friend of Thomas Telford, adding extensive notes to an autobiography of the great engineer which Rickman published in 1838, some years after Telford had died. He also acted as Telford’s executor. A man described as being so badly dressed that he could easily be mistaken for a tramp, Rickman died in August 1840 and is buried at St Margaret’s, Westminster.

As for the census returns which Rickman masterminded, the first three census results give Britain a population of just below eleven million in 1801, rising by 15% to nearly 12,600,000 in 1811. Within ten years it had gone up to 14,481,139. Within another ten years it had risen to 16,643,028, an increase which hints at the social changes and stresses which affected the Victorian era. The faster the rate that the population grew, the poorer the living accommodation became and in the 1840s it was calculated that Liverpool had a population of about 40,000 living in cellars, with an average of 5 or 6 persons in each cellar. Higher population densities meant higher death rates and shorter life expectancy.

Britain was a country in transition: in 1831 28% of the population was employed in agriculture and 50% lived in rural conditions. A quarter of the population lived in towns of over 20,000 persons. Within another twenty years urbanisation had tilted dramatically and by 1851 the combined population of the British Isles (including Wales, Scotland and Ireland) was a staggering 27 million. London alone had grown in size from around 1.5 million to 2.5 million people in just forty years.

[This article is an extract taken from a rather longer piece published in the March/April edition of the publication Jane Austen’s Regency World, available via]

Mar 082021

I have always been a sucker for boxes – especially apothecary boxes – so I was intrigued to see this little number featured on the excellent Mark Goodger site. O.K. you need to have a shade short of £3000 spare but it really is exquisite! It stands just  under fourteen inches tall, is made of mahogany with brass fittings, and comes with  plethora of original glass bottles and implements.

Mark’s site describes it as  being: “Antique mahogany apothecary cabinet with a brass carry handle on the top and two brass escutcheons on the doors. The one on the left side door is false. Once unlocked the right-hand door can be opened revealing half of the boxes contents. This allows access to a small brass tab on the top of the left-hand door which is what keeps it closed and secure.With both doors open all 23 glass jars can now be accessed.”

The glass bottles are all labelled and range from  Boracic Powder, Syrup of Senna, Pure Glycerine, Peroxide of Hydrogen, Senna Pods, Boric Acid, Oil of Eucalyptus, Liquid extract of Cascara Sagrada, Acetic Acid, Finest Castor Oil, Tartaric Acid, Purified Epsom Salts, Turpentine, Magnesia, Distilled Water, Saltpetre, Linseed Oil, Borax, Gee’s Linctus, Best Arrowroot, Tincture of Quinine, Finest Olive Oil, and ending up with Sweet Spirit of Nitre.

The bottles are divided up, with nine inside each door and  five of the larger jars held in the main body of the cabinet. Beneath those jars are five drawers,each with turned bone handles.
The middle drawer contains various medical supplies including a funnel, glass plate, tongue depressor, glass pestle, measuring cylinder, glass beaker and a set of weighing scales.
The large drawer at the bottom of the box contains four silver topped jars in fitted compartments, four small jars with stoppers, and a large glass mortar.

This apothecary cabinet also features a false back that can be slid open – if you know how!  In this secret compartment there is space for  glass jars  labelled: “Carbonate Soda, Paregoric Elixir, Laudanum, Essence Peppermint” – presumably the more expensive and dangerous items.

I appreciate that the date makes this little treasure Victorian rather than Georgian, but I am inclined to overlook this small aberration – it looks fascinating. Do have a look at the Mark Goodger site – his stock is constantly changing and whether you are into tea caddies, sewing boxes, writing cases or jewellery boxes there is always something to catch your fancy!

Mar 012021

I was delighted to see a review of my book in the ever-readable Jane Austen’s Regency World (March/April issue).

For those who are not subscribers (and I have to ask: why not?) here is the review:

More of my titles with Pen & Sword will be coming out soon – that is one thing to be said for lock-down, it gives a real incentive to get on with writing!