Jul 212022

Inflation is a recurring feature of the economy – and it is easy to forget that rising food prices have been worrying people for centuries. I was interested in Richard Hall’s diary entry for  1801 – or rather, an entry in his ongoing review of  what was happening  in the world around him (earthquakes, floods, natural disasters – and  the rising cost of wheat).

He writes: “A Melloncholly time for the dearness of Grain and all sorts of Provisions. Wheat at £55 and £60 the load. Malt 15 shillings the bushel. Mutton nine-pence, Veal nine-pence and Beef eight-pence. Bacon sixteen-pence and cheese ten-pence. Eggs have been as high as tuppence ha’penny each (in April was at four for tuppence).”

But there was some good news as the price of bread started to fall slightly: “March 5th – Bread was one shilling and ten-pence ha’penny for the Quartern Loaf – in April it was one shilling and nine-pence farthing.”  A drop of a penny farthing  over a one-month period may not seem a lot, but back then it was all part of the economic uncertainties linked to poor harvests at home – and the cost of the wars with Napoleon abroad. Bread  really was a staple part of the diet and Richard regularly recorded the cost of his Quartern Loaf, throughout his adult life.

The entry can be compared with what Richard wrote exactly one year earlier – saying that 1800 was memorable for  the high price of corn (“some wheat sold for  £40 and £46 the load”). He commented that the poor in the Country “were obliged to eat very bad bread – distressing to behold.” At that stage the Quartern Loaf was one shilling and sixpence – so it was to rise by another three or four pence over the course of the year – getting on for a twenty per cent increase. We worry about inflation at 9.5% – back then, it was double that rate!

Jul 192022

I was interested in Richard Hall’s diary entry for 17 July 1797 – in other words 225 years ago.

It reads:

Very early this morning a tremendous storm of Lightning, Thunder and great rain – was particularly dreadful in London. The Lightning and Thunder very awful. What a Mercy to be preserved! The Newspaper says “of the dreadful flashes of lightning and the awful peals of thunder that prevailed, no adequate description can possibly be given”

Richard goes on to say that the storm was felt far and wide and that the poor-houses at Yateley in Hampshire were badly damaged. “Two women were struck down by the lightning, but providentially neither of them received any material injury.”

They must be a hardy lot in Yateley – I only know of the place because Flora Thompson, author of the trilogy of novels ‘Lark Rise to Candelford’, lived and  and worked in the Yateley Post Office, back in the early 1900’s.

225 years ago, as now, the weather was a constant topic of conversation,  with each weather pattern more alarming and more extreme than the one which went before…..

Jul 042022

Melbourne Hall from the lake

Before Capability Brown, and before rococo whimsicalities, there were gardens designed in the French style. Two names dominated the English garden scene at the start of the 18th Century: George London and Henry Wise. Copying the ideas  laid down by Le Nôtre, these two partners from the celebrated  Brompton Park Nursery re-designed many famous gardens across the country – at Chatsworth, Longleat, Burghley and at Hampton Court – to name but a few. Most of their designs were phased out later in the century, but the bones of one of their gardens can still be seen at Melbourne Hall, eight miles south of Derby. It has the typical wide terraces, the yew hedges, the extensive use of statues of cherubs and mythical figures, the formal ponds and some magnificent specimen trees.

Sir Thomas Coke

The land on which Melbourne Hall is built was originally purchased by Sir John Coke in 1710 – he had been an MP for several years during the reign of William III. The family were well-connected and his son Thomas  was still a minor when both his parents died and he inherited the estate. After a few years enjoying the dissolute delights of the Grand Tour  he returned to Melbourne Hall and set about laying out the garden, as well as building a large and elegant extension to the house, consisting of  an entire wing overlooking the grounds.

Later generations of the family included William Lamb, who as Second Viscount Melbourne, became Prime Minister – and gave his name to the city of Melbourne in Australia.

Thomas went on to become Vice-Chamberlain of the Household to both Queen Mary and George I and for a short time (in 1704) had been Teller of the Receipt of the Exchequeur – posts which no doubt provided him with a handsome income, enabling him to plough huge sums of money into his building and garden projects. Even so, his income was insufficient to finish the job and when Thomas died  at the age of 52 his son, another John, immediately set about changing the garden designs. It means that some of the original baroque flavour of the garden has been lost, but thanks to the work of the present members of the family, it has been reinstated as a fascinating and rather beautiful garden, which is thankfully open to the public.

The one thing which strikes you as a modern visitor is how odd it is having an off-centre pathway leading from the house to the garden – it looks unbalanced. Apparently it arose because the original plan was for a much larger building, to which the path would have been central.

The extension of the house facing the garden

Nowadays the house is the private home of Lord and Lady Ralph Kerr and is only open to the public for a short while each year (in August).The gardens however  are open three days each week from April through to September and they really are a delight.  Whereas the house is a Grade 2* Listed Building, many of the features in the garden are awarded Grade 1 status, and very fine some of them are. What is called the birdcage is in fact a wrought iron arbour made by the celebrated iron-worker Robert Bakewell between 1706 and 1708 (it was finally finished in 1711) with its  domed roof and iron oak leaves inter-twined with scrolled panels. Research informs me that  ‘the repoussé detail is painted with Bakewell’s hallmark ‘Smolt Blue’ paint and gold leaf.’ Apparently it cost Thomas Coke all or £120 – money well spent for such an intricate structure!

The Bird-cage

Statues are a feature of the garden, including works by Jan van Nost. Most notable is the Four Seasons monument, which was a gift from Queen Anne, but there is also a statue of Mercury, as well as numerous cherubs dotted all over the place. For my money the trees have it – some huge and unusual specimen trees including magnolias, tulip trees, hybridised oak trees, several pond cypress and something which I think I saw called an Indian Bean tree.

Urns and cherubs everywhere…


Statue of Mercury












It is fascinating to walk through the yew tunnel and to see how the yews, neglected in the past for many years, have out-grown their straight jackets and evolved into wibbly-wobbly  clouds of green foliage, trimmed beautifully but irregularly.

Wobbly yews …

All in all, a great place to visit – though I did feel sorry for the large party of Dutch tourists who arrived just as I was leaving and who were, within seconds, hit by a ferocious cloud-burst which must have absolutely drenched them. Not easy to appreciate the delights of “the repoussé detail painted with Bakewell’s hallmark ‘Smolt Blue’ paint and gold leaf” if you are soaked to the skin….

A brook flows through a beautiful group of shrubs.

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….

Apr 162022

One of the perks – and bug-bears – of writing books is having to talk about them – and with two books out by different publishers last month it seemed a good time to get in some practice – all at sea!

The Regent Seven Seas announced a Trans-Atlantic crossing for their new(ish) ship Splendor, sailing from Miami to Barcelona via Bermuda and The Azores. They kindly asked me to come and join them as guest speaker. It really is an exceptional way to travel and it has to be said, Regent do know how to treat their ‘Enrichment Speakers’ well. Not  for me some tiny cabin down by the waterline, or an inside cabin with no chance to see the sun for a fortnight. We (My Dear Lady Wife) and I got a fabulous spacious cabin complete with a sitting-out area, and a private balcony. Marble shower room in place of the normal pre-formed plastic shell which you get with some cruise-lines. And the food!Amazing. I have never eaten so much lobster and rib-eye steak in my life. Everything is free on board – the food, the drink, the excursions – the lot. Talk about luxury! And the space is amazing – I am used to working on cruise ships holding  three or even four thousand people – this just has 375 cabins in total, so enough for 750 passengers in all. In practice we have a mere 580 passengers on board, which means that there is a huge amount of space for everyone. No queuing for dinner, no having to rush to get a seat for the theatre, no getting squashed in the elevator with a dozen people who have never heard of social distancing…

Luxury like this comes at a price – and in my case the price was having to give talks. Rather a lot of them in fact. I planned for eight, fully expecting to have this halved if there was a second speaker on board. There was indeed a second speaker but for trans-Atlantic cruises there has to be plenty of variety so we were each asked to give  the full eight talks. In my case they wanted a ninth because we left Bermuda at 15.00 hours and the Cruise Director (a super guy) decided this counted as a sea-day so my spare came in useful…

Then we had to drop the Azores (rough seas) so then  the aforementioned  lovely Cruise Director  asked if I could fit in a tenth. Digging in the archives of past talks meant I had one I could readily use – Will the Real Captain Bligh Stand Up? (asking if Bligh has had a bad press in film portrayals, dealing with the Mutiny on the Bounty). Somehow I managed to whitewash the old scoundrel, which was rather fun to do. That made it ten talks in ten consecutive days – quite tiring but utterly satisfying and the audiences were lovely. Three quarters were from America  so I wasn’t too sure how Royal Shenanigans of the 18th Century would go down – it  went down well – as did the History of Gin, the Story of the Tea Trade and my own favourite the Journal of a Georgian Gentleman based on the diaries of Richard Hall. I also snuck in a couple of  biographies – one of William Dampier (explorer, scientist, navigator – and pirate) and also Philip Astley (founder of the modern circus). I had also prepared a talk specifically about the waters we were passing through as we left Miami – the story of the sinking of the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet.

We have had a ball – now the sea days are behind us and we can just revel in the luxury of a rather splendid cruise ship as we sail from Malaga to Cartegena  and on to the Balearics. It’s a tough life but someone has to do it!


Mar 102022

O.K. your starter for ten. Where does the phrase ‘there’s gold in them thar hills’ come from?

Answer (allegedly): According to some people, in 1849 from the steps of the Lumpkin County Courthouse, a Dahlonega, Georgia Mint assayer, Dr. M. F. Stephenson, yelled to the townspeople “There’s gold in them thar hills!” He wanted to keep those people looking for gold in Georgia rather than leaving for California.

And what has that got to do with Johnson Matthey? Wikipedia tells me that it is ‘a British multi-national speciality chemicals and sustainable technologies company with its headquarters in  London’. Well, they are one of those comparatively few companies still going strong, quoted on the FTSE 250 index, with its origins back in the eighteenth century. There follows a guest blog-post by Joel Foster, who is the Community Manager at Commodity.com –  and describes himself as Media Partner for: Reuters Events: Commodities Trading USA 2022. And yes, being an American he will be excused for his American spelling of words such as ‘lustre’ and jewellery’!

Gold bar bearing stamp of Johnson Matthey & Pauwels, © Chards


Before handing over to Joel, I would explain that the story starts with John Johnson  (1737–1786) who became an assayer of ores and metals, mostly silver, gold and some base metals, at No. 7, Maiden Lane (now part of Gresham Street between Wood Street and Foster Lane, London EC2)   His son, also called John, was born in 1765 and followed his father into the business, becoming a member of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.  He lived until 1831 and was significant because for a time his was the only commercial assay business in London. He married Mary (née Wight) (1766–1863) and they lived at 6–7 Maiden Lane, in the City of London. By the turn of the century John had become involved with the rapidly developing platinum metals industry, using crude ‘platina’ smuggled to Britain via Jamaica from what is now Colombia.

John and his wife had ten children. One of them was Percival Johnson. Percival was apprenticed to his father and obtained the freedom of the goldsmith’s company on 2 March 1814, becoming a liveryman on 24 April 1816. It was Percival who  went on to become a founder of Johnson Matthey in 1817.

Percival Johnson  ©Johnson Matthey

This then is the guest bog, so over to you Joel:

The gold market in England goes back to 1697; however, Percival Johnson’s developments in gold refining would lift gold from ordinary base metal to the precious metal that dazzles us today.

So how did gold go from being one of the most common metals of lesser value to the basis for today’s most stunning jewelry?

Who Was Percival Johnson?

Percival Johnson founded Johnson Matthey, then the largest precious metals business in England. Born in 1792, Johnson got an early start in precious metals by working as a metallurgical assayer for his father. He launched his own business in 1817, graduating from being his father’s apprentice to becoming a business owner.

In 1846, Johnson became a Royal Society fellow due to his knowledge of metallurgy. His fame in the business world rose when he went into a full partnership with a stockbroker named George Matthey. In 1852, Johnson earned an appointment as assayer for the Bank of England.

George Matthey, © Johnson Matthey

The businessman married twice, first to Elizabeth Lydia Smith in 1817 and later in 1858 to Georgina Elizabeth Ellis. Although Johnson was not known to have left children, his legacy changed how people looked at gold’s value. Gold’s status as one of the most important metals used in modern jewelry is mainly due to Johnson’s work in inventing a new way of refining it.

In 1854, Johnson moved to the Devon community of Stoke Fleming because of his silver mining assets. He retired from his business activities in 1860 after having had a long yet fulfilling career. Johnson died in 1866 at the age of 74.

St Peter’s Church, Stoke Fleming, where Percival Johnson is buried. © Derek Harper

What Was Johnson’s Life Like?

Having been trained in his father’s business, Johnson would have had ample opportunity to learn his craft well. When he started his business in the early 1800s, Johnson imported gold from Brazil. These imports would have been lucrative at the time, despite much of the demand having slowed down, and Johnson rose to the challenge.

How Did Johnson Discover His Gold Refining Method?

Gold has been refined for thousands of years, with methods known as far back as ancient Egypt. However, Johnson’s refining methods at that time were focused on alleviating specific issues with the quality of old imported into England from Brazil. Many of these gold bars had impurities that were challenging to remove.

However, as an experienced assayist not easily deterred, Johnson was well-prepared. He knew enough about the chemical makeup of gold to know what would make gold, an otherwise soft metal, more durable for uses beyond coinage. Johnson discovered that refining gold with other metals, including palladium, increased its durability and improved its shine.

Did Percival Johnson’s Life Change After His Discovery?

Being a Royal Society Fellow, business owner, and renowned assayist would have given Johnson a measure of prestige. Earnings from his refining methods made it easier for Johnson to invest in the silver mining trade. Although Johnson continued to be in a line of work that he enjoyed, this discovery made him much more prosperous.

How Does Gold’s Shininess Matter?

Gold’s shininess helps increase its value as a material for jewelry. When gold stays consistently shiny, this is usually a sign of gold with a higher karat amount. Some gold has been mixed with other metals to increase durability because of its softness, but mixing gold with other materials somewhat decreases the shininess.

How Does Palladium Enhance Gold’s Luster?

Palladium is a popular gold alloy in a lot of gold measuring 14 karats and above. In white gold, which is one of the most valuable types of gold used in jewelry, palladium is one of the most common materials. Because white gold is paler than many other gold colors, the appearance is shinier.

The karat rating of a piece of gold jewelry describes the extent of the gold’s purity. One karat equals 1/24th of a part of pure gold. For example, if a ring is made from 14-karat gold, it’s composed of 14 parts gold and 10 parts of other metals. Pure gold mixed with no other alloys is described as 24-karats.

Is There a Psychological Impact With Improving Gold’s Luster?

Gold appears to glow from the inside, which is behind gold appearing on many illuminated manuscripts. Because gold is highly reflective, it has been associated with the sun in many sun-worshiping cultures. As gold started to become associated with luxury during the Middle Ages, the metal and its color became associated with success.

Are Investors More Likely to Buy Gold With a Better Luster?

Whether investors are likely to buy gold with a better luster depends on whether they invest in gold as jewelry or decorative items. Gold with a better shine has more value on the resale market, with 18-karat or 24-karat gold having the highest value. However, most investors who invest in gold do so on the precious metals market, which has different considerations.

For example, gold is one of the most effective hedges against inflation because gold’s value tends to move independently versus the US dollar. During times of economic uncertainty, gold can be one of the safer investments. Diverse investment portfolios usually include gold.

Is Gold With a Better Luster More Popular as Jewelry?

Although gold has a higher luster than other metals, higher-karat gold has a better overall glow among gold products. The shinier the gold is, the more it symbolizes prosperity for some. Wearing a piece of gold jewelry with a high luster makes many feel wealthy and important, as well as being stylish.

Did Ordinary People Have Better Access to Gold After Johnson’s Discovery?

Better access to gold by ordinary people roughly coincided with Johnson’s discovery, with glass gemstones becoming popular substitutes for more expensive precious stones. During the following Victorian era, Queen Victoria’s style included Romantic-inspired designs and her fashion sense influenced jewelry styles for women of all economic classes. One of the top ways Johnson’s discovery gave people better access to gold was by refining the metal in a way that increased its luster.


Percival Johnson played a role in increasing the value of gold, particularly as an investment. At a time when the demand for gold had decreased, his efforts gave new life to this metal. The modern world owes gold’s value as an investment and a material for jewelry to Johnson’s efforts.


Thanks, Joel. I would stress that I am not advocating that we all go out and buy gold bars – you must back your own judgment and rely on proper advice, but I thought it was interesting to read about precious metals – even if Johnson Matthey pulled out of the gold assaying market in 2015. Having been a world leader in the refining, marketing, and fabrication of precious metals and raw materials for 200 years it now specialises in  the manufacture of catalytic converters and I believe that I am right in saying that one in every three such catalysts is made by Johnson Matthey, worldwide. From shiny gold to pure clean air in two centuries – it’s been an interesting journey!

Mar 012022

The theme for this year’s forum has been Virtue and Vice – and I have been fortunate enough to be invited to Colonial Williamsburg to talk about vice – especially in context of the Royal Family 250 years ago. No, nothing at all about the present lot, but never-the-less encompassing the odd murder, a bit of incest, torture, false imprisonment and an awful lot of adultery. And that was before I got started on the Randy Regent….

The theme was represented by these two Robert Dighton prints from 1785 showing how a prudent man or woman should ‘keep within compass’ ie by living a quiet, decent life, avoiding strong drink and card games – and abstaining from promiscuous behaviour. Given that it is an antiques conference I wasn’t quite sure how my talk, described as being “A romp through the 18th Century, from kings to courtesans and from playboy princes to shady ladies.. ”  would fit in with all these earnest folk wanting to learn about 18th century wallpaper, or card tables from New England, or  silver punch bowls (or whatever). But it was wonderfully received and  great fun to do. There are around 250 attendees (in person) and another one hundred following events ‘virtually’.

Williamsburg is a remarkable project recreating what life was like  300 years ago – but it is no Walt Disney mash-up. The cobblers shop really does make leather shoes; the wig maker is working on real wigs using historically appropriate materials and ingredients; the blacksmith is really making things in an 18th century forge. And there is a magnificent, newly-extended museum, with some fascinating displays. Behind the scenes there is an army of restorers, students doing research and so on – I dread to think how much it costs to run. Let’s just say that last year, during lock-down, they still  managed to raise 100 million dollars in funding …. impressive.

The attendees for the Antiques Forum clearly come here year after year. A show of hands at the start showed dozens and dozens who had been coming regularly for a quarter of a century. There were even some for whom it was their 45th year of coming to the conference, which lasts a whole week. What I like is the atmosphere of old friends getting together again – and we met many people who we recognized from our last visit, in 2019.

The range of talks is staggering. There are four talks in the morning and the same again in the afternoon, covering the whole spectrum of collecting, conserving and learning about the historical background to everything – from silverware to carved wooden pipes, from  drinking cups to paintings, from musical instruments to the development of the billiard hall. You look at the programme and think “Nah, that will be too esoteric or boring” – and then find that it is actually fascinating. And all of the talks have a link, however tenuous, with either vice or virtue. Quite a nice ‘hook’ to hang things on, even if just about every speaker (by pure chance) used Hogarth’s “Modern Midnight Conversation” as their  main starting point!


The Forum ends with a formal dinner tonight, and then it is time to head for home. It’s been a great experience – and I might just try and see if I can wrangle another visit another year!

Oh, and yes, it was a chance to plug my books!!!