Jun 262022

A few miles from Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds is a remarkable house built in 1805, known as Sezincote. With its Georgian adaptation of traditional Indian architecture from an earlier century, it is easy to dismiss it as a bit of whimsy, with its onion-domed roof and its emphasis on carved bulls, elephants and so on. The fact that the future George IV visited it in 1807 gives credence to the idea that this pseudo-Mughal style inspired HRH to embark on the design for Brighton Pavilion.

The main house with its onion-dome roof (own photo).

Sezincote House. Image courtesy of AJD. CC-BY-SA-2.0

It isn’t without its detractors, with the Indian diplomat-writer-politician Shashi Tharoor describing it as an ‘incongruous monument to the opulence of the nabobs’ loot’. This refers to the fact that the land on which the house was built was originally acquired in 1795 by a nabob (ie wealthy person usually employed by the British East India Company, who subsequently returned from India  with vast wealth acquired while working overseas). His name was Colonel John Cockerell. He died three years later and it was his brother Sir Charles Cockerell who decided to build a house ‘in the Indian style’ on the site, using another brother by the name of Samuel Pepys Cockerell as architect. Oddly, for a man who was a surveyor employed by the East India Company, Samuel Pepys Cockerell had never been to India, so his designs must have been based on drawings and descriptions given to him through his brother.

Sezincote Gardens. Image by Cameraman. CC-BY-SA-2.0

The house is set in gardens laid out on the instructions of Humphry Repton (he of the Little Red Books fame), and very fine they are:

The Gardens at Sezincote, photographed by Michael-Dibb. CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Brahmin bulls atop the wall, gardens beyond … (own photo).

Statue of the three-headed snake in the gardens at Sezincote (own photo).

But for my money the most extraordinary building is the curved orangery, which leads off from the main house in an arc:

Photograph courtesy of Historic England

Historic England has this to say about the amazing structure:  Orangery. 1800-1805, refaced 1980. By Samuel Pepys Cockerell, Thomas Daniell and Humphry Repton. Reconstituted grey stone copying original colour; glass roof with limestone slate roof over octagonal room. Mogul/Hindu style. Orangery curves away in quarter circle from rear left of house,terminating in an octagonal room far left. Facade comprises an arcade of 15 pointed arches each with double doors with glazing bars, flanked by matching glazed lights to either side. Cusped lights with radiating glazing bars over. Stone steps up to arcade far right with cast iron models of Brahmin bulls at bottom. Parapet with pointed merlons and pointed copper finials at intervals above piers of arcade. Octagonal room far left with glazed double door at front and on left to match those of arcade but with some coloured glass. Engaged columns at corners extended up above roof level with ball finials at top. Central open-sided octagonal minaret at centre of octagonal pyramidal roof. Interior: Coade stone altar against far wall of octagonal room decorated with figure of seated god and palm tree in relief. Elaborate bronze lantern hangs from centre of ceiling. Stone steps up to forward facing entrance with models of Brahmin bulls at base. Octagonal room formerly used as aviary for exotic birds.

Sezincote House,The-Orangery. Photograph by-Michael-Garlick -CC-BY-SA-2.0

Unfortunately the house was not open to the public on the day I visited. I am not going to get drawn into the discussion about how  Britain looted India – and prefer instead to accept at face value that this is what happened – people made an obscene amount of money abroad, brought it back to this country, and used it to build some extraordinary structures. Nowadays, of course, the planners would be sticking their oar in, but I for one am glad that wealthy eccentrics in the Georgian era were able to indulge their fantasies in such a way. It is a lovely place to visit, in delightful countryside.

Jun 222022

Meandering through the Cotswolds is always fun – coming across somewhere new and interesting is always a pleasure. And so it was with  the gardens adjoining Painswick House – billed as being the  best (if not, only) surviving rococo garden in Britain.

It is easy to forget, but before Lancelot Brown came along and ripped up all before him, there was a short period where rococo was all the rage for garden design. After William III and his Dutch-inspired straight canals and formal water features came a brief period of whimsy – with men like the delightfully named Batty Langley designing gothic buildings reached by circuitous and often serpentine paths. And it was during this time – the 1740s – that the owner of Painswick House decided to  convert the valley below his new residence into a rococo garden.

What you see today is largely a modern recreation, but it has been done tastefully and  faithfully, based on a picture painted by Thomas Robins in 1748. A drawing by the same artist is held by the V&A, made in 1742.

Thomas Robins drawing of the gardens in 1742, shown courtesy of the V&A

The V&A has this to say about the artist: “Thomas Robins is an enigmatic artist and, so far, little has been discovered of his life. He may be descended from the family of Robins who held the manor of Matson. He published a Prospect of Bath in 1757 and A View of the Baths and Pump Room in 1764. His son Thomas Robins the Younger was a drawing master.
Between 1747 and 1770, Robins produced a series of drawings and paintings of English country houses and, in particular, their gardens. His surviving drawings and paintings epitomise English rococo taste. Robins was either specially attracted to rococo gardens, or had a reputation for the delineation of such gardens in the circles of cognoscenti of the rococo.”

The house itself is not open to the public – Wikipedia describes it as a limestone building with tiled roofs, and states that it has a nine-bay front with a central door set in an Ionic porch with a pediment. From the area which is open to the public there is hardly anything visible but Wikipedia includes an image, shown courtesy of Mike Baldwin and shown under Creative Commons Licence BY-SA 2.0

Painswick House

It is the gardens that are worth a visit –  maintained by a  charity called the Painswick Rococo Gardens  Trust. As recently as forty years ago the whole valley was  covered by a pinewood plantation – and all the rococo features had been obliterated. Thanks to a lot of hard work – and influenced by the Robins pictures – many of the original features have been restored.

For instance the close up of the Robins painting shows a red, crenalated, summer house immediately behind and to one side of the house, giving views of the valley beyond:

The structure was re-imagined and is now a two-storey structure, known as the Eagle House (presumably because it gives a bird’s eye view of the garden). More particularly it is stated on the Historic England site that it was “present in 1748, rebuilt in 1991, is listed grade II*and consists of an octagonal, gothic, battlemented summerhouse. Set into its basement is an alcove seat. From this, and the main summerhouse room, there is a view north-east across the valley to the Doric Seat”




At the top of the garden is the Red House. The Historic England site describes it as being “present in 1748, listed grade II*. It is an elaborate gothic garden pavilion with ogee-headed cusped openings and rendered, red-painted stone walls; inside is a fireplace. From the pavilion’s door there are glimpses of other structures and a view down the axial hedged alley down the upper part of the valley. This is straight, whereas some of the other paths, including one which bisects it, are serpentine.”


From the Red House the winding path leads down to a formal area called the Exedra (Greek for ‘meeting place’, I believe) and which is described as being “a white-painted wooden screen with gothic arches and surmounted with battlements and pinnacles. This was built in the 1990’s, based on a structure shown on Robins’ 1748 painting. To its front (south-west) is a small formal garden with pool. South-west of this, and occupying the greater part of the upper end of the valley, is a kitchen garden comprising symmetrically disposed wedge-shaped beds arranged around a small circular pond. South-west of the kitchen garden is a grass slope running down to the Bowling Green.”

All in all, a lovely garden in a beautiful setting.

Jun 142022

Edward Jenner. Image courtesy of Wellcome Institute





It is a staple of many a quiz competition: who was the first person to carry out a vaccination? Answer, of course, Edward Jenner – the country doctor from Berkeley in Gloucestershire. The story of Blossom the cow, Sarah Nelmes the milkmaid and James Phipps – the young boy given a dose of cowpox and subsequently exhibiting an immunity against small pox – is well known. But like so many stories it hides the truth, and the truth is that Jenner was not the first, by some twenty-odd years. That isn’t to lessen his contribution to immunology – and after all, he gave us the word “vaccine”, and is the man who ultimately enabled the World Health Organization to announce, in 1980, that “Smallpox is dead”. But he wasn’t the first – and he certainly wasn’t the first to come up with the idea that cowpox provided immunity against smallpox.

Enter a man who lived just round the corner from my home in Sherborne: Benjamin Jesty. He had been born in the small village of  Yetminster in around 1736 and was one of at least four children born to the local butcher, a man called Robert Jesty.

Upbury Farm, Yetminster. (Image in the public domain).

Son Benjamin grew up and became a farmer, and in March 1770 married a local girl called Elizabeth Notley and settled at Upbury Farm, next to Yetminster church.The couple went on to have four sons and three daughters, but  for the purposes of this blog, we are only interested in the two eldest children.

Country folk had long known that milkmaids made good nurses for patients suffering from small pox – simply because they never caught small pox themselves. The reason, which was not fully understood, was that the milkmaids generally came into contact with cow pox – where lesions and pustules develop on the udders of cows. The infected udders were handled by the milkmaids – they caught the cow pox and perhaps suffered a few days with a minor rash and the odd blister appearing on their hands. But they never got small pox.

In 1774 there was an outbreak of small pox in the area south of Yeovil, affecting various villages including Yetminster. Jesty was understandably worried about his family contracting the disease which was often described as The Angel of Death. It killed  a large percentage of its victims – and those that weren’t killed were often left blind and with facial disfigurations.  Jesty would not have been too worried about himself – he had had cowpox and although he had been in contact with people suffering from small-pox he had never caught the disease and felt immune. But his wife had not helped with milking the cows and had never  had the cowpox. Nor had his two eldest boys.

At that time, Jesty’s cows were all in good health – no cow pox anywhere to be seen. So Jesty marched his wife and young family over to a friend’s farm in nearby Chetnole, where the farmer had several cattle exhibiting sores and blisters on the udder.

Armed with a long needle, Jesty lanced one of the blisters and then pricked the arm of each of his two boys – thereby smearing them with the infectious material. No problem there – and both children went on to develop cow pox. In turn, they gained immunity from small pox, a fact established beyond doubt over subsequent years when they were deliberately infected with small pox – but never caught the disease. Not so lucky was Mrs Jesty. Let’s face it, mucking around with a needle around a cow’s undercarriage is likely to pick up all sorts of bacteria and gubbins. Injected with this cocktail of germs, poor Mrs Jesty not only caught cow pox but also suffered a high temperature, considerable pain, and her arm swelled up so badly that it was feared that she would lose it. For some days she was at death’s door, but gradually recovered.

When news leaked out that Jesty had deliberately introduced material from a lowly animal – the cow – into the body of his wife the local population were horrified. They hurled abuse at Jesty whenever they saw him, spat at him, and apparently even threw stones at him, such was their disgust at his behaviour. It wasn’t natural. It smacked of witch-craft. It flew against the Scriptures. It was treading into the Lord’s territory. Mrs Jesty might develop bovine tendencies – grow horns – or have uncontrollable urges if she saw a bull….

The public outrage meant that Jesty kept pretty quiet about his experiment. He was after all, a country farmer, not a man with any medical training, and had no understanding about disseminating knowledge by delivering papers to learned societies. He just kept shtumm, although it is likely that he occasionally carried out the procedure on other people in the locality. When he moved to Downshay Manor Farm at Worth Matravers near Swanage on the Dorset coast in about 1797 he met Dr.  Andrew Bell, a Scottish educationalist-come-preacher who went on to vaccinate over 200 of his parishioners in 1806.

The original vaccination took place two decades before Edward Jenner carried out his own experiments. Did he hear of Jesty and his darning needle? There is no way of knowing. Similar experiments had been taking place in Germany and elsewhere, and in many ways Jenner was simply following up on ideas contained in a paper delivered to the Medical Society London in 1765  by someone he knew well – a doctor from nearby Thornbury called Dr Fewster. No record of the paper remains but its title “Cow pox and its ability to prevent smallpox”  gives a strong hint  as to its message. Why didn’t Dr Fewster  carry out the experiment which Jenner later implemented? Probably because as a country doctor he made a very good living practising what was called the Suttonian Method of Variolation – basically giving a person small pox by infecting him or her with  material taken from a smallpox victim who was known to have had only a mild attack. Pioneered by three members of the Sutton family, this method made many doctors rich – and they weren’t about to embrace a totally new idea if it meant doing them out of their job.

Jenner made his experiment on eight-year-old James Phipps, proving the idea that immunity could be gained from vaccination. He repeated the experiment on numerous occasions – he delivered papers showing the results, he attended meetings and in his own words became the ‘clerk of vaccination’ – sending details and samples of cowpox matter to numerous countries. To Jenner, quite rightly, goes the fame – he was indeed the ‘father of immunology’. But he also made a lot of enemies – especially in the medical profession –  and many were outraged when the government voted to pay Jenner £10,000 as compensation for his loss of revenue as a country G.P. One of the opponents was so outraged that he arranged for his private Institute, known as  the Original Vaccine Pock Institute, to interview Jesty in 1805. They cross-examined him as to exactly what procedure he had carried out, how it had been done, the date, and so on. They interviewed his son and indeed infected the son with smallpox material to show that his immunity still existed despite a thirty-year interval. The Institute commissioned an artist, Mr M W Price, to paint Jesty’s portrait and issued a statement, printed in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal  setting out Jesty’s claim to be the first vaccinator in history.

Benjamin Jesty: Oil painting by M.W. Sharp, 1805. Picture shown courtesy of  Wellcome Images

Jesty died at Worth Matravers on 16 April 1816 and was buried in the local churchyard. His widow, Elizabeth, died eight years later and was buried alongside him. Jesty’s headstone reads:

(Sacred) To the Memory OF Benj.in. Jesty (of Downshay) who departed this Life, April 16th 1816 aged 79 Years. He was born at Yetminster in this County, and was an upright honest Man: particularly noted for having been the first Person (known) that Introduced the Cow Pox by Inoculation, and who from his great strength of mind made the Experiment from the (Cow) on his Wife and two Sons in the Year 1774.


Jun 042022

Last month I did a trans-Atlantic crossing on the Splendor – see previous blog. This month I did another one, this time using the northern route (New York to Southampton) on board the Queen Mary 2. It was all a bit strange and last-minute-ish because until the day before I flew out to New York I had no inkling that the cruise was taking place. Apparently Cunard had been let down at the last moment when the designated  lecturer went down with Covid. So the call went out: can you drop everything, pack, and catch a flight first thing in the morning?

Oddly, my diary revealed nothing to prevent such craziness so I accepted the challenge, rushed off to get a Lateral Flow Test, caught a plane to JFK airport, and arrived at 13.00 the next day. I then spent the most perplexing hour of my life sitting in a Yellow Taxi, trying to explain to the driver where Brooklyn Harbour was. He hadn’t a clue. To the extent that when his SatNav went blank he screeched to a halt in the middle of a three-lane highway in order to consult his phone, with cars hooting and flashing as they swerved in and out around us. He literally stopped there for half a minute. He then asked ME to look up the address on my phone and he finally moved off, steadfastly sitting in an imaginary lane straddling most of the carriageway. Eventually, I arrived at the ship an hour later, queued to get on board, and left US shores at 17.00 hours after a stay lasting all of four hours. Crazy!

Was it worth it? Well, I had never worked for Cunard before and it was certainly an experience. Especially as we had three days of thick billowing white fog, resulting in the melancholy sound of the fog horn every few minutes throughout the night, three nights in a row. I gather that is fairly normal when going past the Labrador coast! Not good for a man who needs his beauty sleep – especially as My Dear Lady Wife had to stay behind in the UK. By an absurd coincidence she had sent off her passport for renewal just one week earlier – she had used up almost all the pages and  was going to need a new passport at some stage. We had been warned of 16 week delays. As it happened the new one was issued within a fortnight – but not in time for her to accompany me on the cruise. So she missed out on a freebie – something I will doubtless have to pay for shortly!

When I accepted the cruise I didn’t know it was themed with the Olivier Awards. It meant that the passenger list included loads of theatre luvvies and if your ‘thing’ is going to dance workshops, singing workshops, and master-classes in make-up, wig making, set design and so on, this was definitely a cruise for you.

The theatres on board were lovely, and the thing which struck me is that normally you know full-well that your audience is coming to listen to you because they have nothing else to do. Not so with Cunard – my talks were packed out with people who were there because this is where they wanted to be, and they were really appreciative. Well, let’s say I am not normally accustomed to getting riotous applause DURING a lecture. It was fun (sort of) being collected as ‘a token celebrity’ to share people’s dinner tables. It was fun meeting people from all walks of life. It was fun going to some of the shows on board, and above all it was fun giving four very different lectures. I started off with the History of Gin and  moved on to Royal Shenanigans.

Actually, NOT the theatre on board the QM2 – a different one!

I did Everyday Life in Georgian England and ended up with the story of Philip Astley – Father of the modern Circus (and of modern variety shows). And then it was all over – we reached Southampton after six days. At least it gave me an opportunity to strut my stuff in my new dinner jacket which I had bought especially for my gig on the Splendor – only to discover that there really weren’t any formal nights on Regent Atlantic crossings. Good old Cunard had two, so it was a chance to don my finery. And to learn the one thing about travelling solo which I had never appreciated: you need a partner to help put on cuff links when wearing a dress shirt. I am not saying it was the only thing I missed my wife for – but after wrestling for ten minutes with the wretched links it gave me a deep understanding of  the value of companionship and mutual assistance!

I am not going to make a comparison between the Splendor and the QM2 – they are as different as chalk is to cheese. Both serve as a reminder of how today’s world is so very different to that of my ancestor Richard Hall – it has shrunk to an extraordinary degree. The family diaries show that when Richard’s father was looking for a bride he set out on horseback, visiting all the manor houses within a radius of one day’s travel. So, a radius of twenty to thirty miles. That was his world and he knew that that was here he would find his bride. 300 years later I wasn’t looking for a bride – but I was happy to fly thousands of miles just to catch a ship which in my ancestor’s days might have taken up to six weeks to do the crossing. Travel is something we take for granted – it really is a small world….