May 172021

Simon Stevin, in many ways the Father of Decimalisation.

I was intrigued to see that someone at Oxford University is suggesting that our use of Imperial measurements (feet and inches, pounds and ounces etc) should be re-considered because of their links to Empire. How woke. How unutterably, depressingly woke. Apparently the ‘history of modern measurement is tied deeply to the idea of the ‘Empire’ and Imperial standardisation.’ But to me, the point is: which Empire do you want, French or British – or even Roman? Both France and Britain have used a whole raft of different measuring standards, many of them deriving originally from Roman measurements, and both countries started to review and standardise those measurements during the second half of the Eighteenth Century.

The French were quicker off the mark when modernising their standards. Prior to the French Revolution you might have measured distances by the ‘toise’ (roughly two metres). But the French also used the foot, divided into twelve inches, in turn divided into twelve ‘lines’. But the French ‘foot’ was not the same as the English ‘foot’, and its length varied from province to province. As for weights, the French adhered more-or-less to Roman measurements. So you had the pound, divided into sixteen ounces. Except that sometimes it was made up of twelve ounces, each divided further into eight gros, each of 72 grains. Whole units were generally divided into fractions – halves, quarters, eights and sixteenths.

Goodness knows how you traded goods when you had no idea of the size and quantity you were getting!

Neither the French nor the English had moved to embrace decimalisation – largely because it took until around 1500 for Arabic numerals to become prevalent. Back in 1585 a Flemish mathematician by the name of Simon Stevin had brought out a book called ‘De Thiends’ explaining how Arabic numerals could be divided into tenths by the simple expedient of using the decimal point. That book was translated into both French and English, the latter being called ‘Disme: The Art of Tenths Or, Decimall Arithmetike: Teaching how to Performe All Computations Whatsoeuer, by Whole Numbers Without Fractions’.

The English version came out in 1608,  and Stevin realized that his research could mean that weights, measurements and even the currency could all be re-jigged so that it was divisible by ten.

Nearly half a century later, enter Oliver Cromwell. He rather liked the idea put forward by the Oxford mathematician Robert Wood that the English pound should be divided into ‘tenths, hunds and thous’. Cromwell kept the pound – he re-named it the Broad – but also had a gold coin worth fifty shillings minted, worth ten times the amount of the existing five-shilling crown. Both were struck from dies made by Thomas Simon on the presses of the Frenchman Pierre Blondeau. Cromwell never got around to minting a coin for the tenth of a Broad and when Charles II was crowned he immediately went back to the coinage of his Stuart forebears.

Gold fifty-shilling coin of Oliver Cromwell, courtesy of Spink’s catalogue

But by the eighteenth century both international trade and science were beginning to suffer because of the lack of standardisation – French chemists could not communicate their ideas to their English, Swedish or German counterparts because each was using slightly different measuring standards. You needed conversion tables for a whole range of things – from temperature, to weight, from dimension to cost. The British accepted that reform was needed and parliament considered the whole topic in July 1789. M.P. Sir John Riggs Miller put forward a proposal of a system based on length of a seconds pendulum at the latitude of London.

To explain: back in the previous century a French parish priest by the name of Gabriel Mouton had proposed a natural unit based on the size of the Earth. This was the length of a minute (a sixtieth of a degree) of longitude, to be called the ‘mille’ and divided into tenths, hundredths and so on. One thousandth of a mille was called the ‘geometric foot’ and Mouton suggested that a pendulum of this length should be set up in his home town of Lyon. Naturally enough, the English were never going to accept a French calculation based upon a French city – they wanted the pendulum to be based on the Greenwich meridian. There was apparently an attempt by the French to persuade Britain to join forces, but the overture was rejected. Talleyrand had suggested to the French National Assembly that it should make a direct approach to the British government, but on 1 December 1790 the Foreign Secretary informed the French Ambassador in London that the proposed collaboration was ‘not practicable’.

In the event, the British parliament dropped the idea: Sir John Riggs Miller lost his seat in Parliament and the French were free to bring in their ideas on standardisation on their own.

It was with this background to decimalisation that the new United States adopted a decimal currency (ie the dollar and the cent) soon after Independence. In France the National Assembly gave way to the National Convention. In 1794 the Convention decided that the basic unit of measurement should equal to 3 feet 11.44 lines, and was to be named the ‘metre’, from the Greek ‘metron’ (measure). Logic would suggest that multiples and divisions should also have a Greek prefix. But no, the decision was made to use Greek for the multiples (deca and kilo) and Latin for the sub-divisions (deci and milli). So we got kilometres and millimetres. The cubic decimetre became the’ litre’ and the weight of a cubic centimetre of water at its temperature of maximum density was named the ‘gramme’.

The French went further in deciding that the calendar needed a bit of an overhaul. Twenty-four hours in a day was far more than anyone wanted: ten was quite sufficient. The year was kept at 12 months, but each month consisted of three ‘decades’ of 10 days. That meant that an additional five days would be added at the end of each year (six in leap years), The French public never accepted the reduction in hours but the new calendar remained in use until 1805. Years were to be dated from the revolution, so Year Three was 1794-5. I can well remember going round ancient Egyptian tombs, and being surprised at the graffiti left by French antiquarians who poured into the ancient archaeological sites during the French occupation of Egypt between 1798 and 1801. Somehow you don’t expect to see graffiti from 1798 listing the names of French visitors, describing their presence in ‘Year Seven’ but there you go!

The change in French measurements started to be rolled out after 1799. It was announced in 1804 that it was to be applied throughout the nation with immediate effect. However, in practice the metric change took many years. The changes were set out in a book by A Macon entitled ‘Instruction sur les mesures déduites de la grandeur de la terre.’  This was quickly circulated and re-printed throughout France.

Rather more rapidly, the decimalisation of the French currency was accepted readily, not least because the new-fangled franc was much the same size and value as the old livre. The livre had been divided into twenty sous whereas the new franc, containing five grammes of silver, was divided up into hundredths i.e. centimes.

As for Britain, there was an ongoing move towards standardisation and in 1824 the Weights and Measures Act established standardised Imperial units for length, mass and volume, replacing what had been known as Winchester Standards, operating since medieval times. It also introduced two new basic standard units, the Imperial standard yard and the troy pound, and these units were imposed throughout the British Empire.

Under the new rules one Imperial gallon was defined as the volume occupied by 10 pounds of distilled water at 62 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e. 160 fluid ounces). The Americans, being different, went off and decided that their liquid gallon would weigh 128 fluid ounces. Previously the English had used different sizes of gallon when measuring wine and ale, as opposed to dry gallons used for measuring wheat and grain. Indeed there was the extraordinary situation where  in Scotland barley, oats and malt were sold in units equivalent nowadays to thirteen litres – whereas wheat, peas, beans and meal were sold in units of  around nine litres. To make things even more confusing, both sets of unit went by the same name – the peck. Nowadays we only remember the peck from the Peter Piper rhyme, but I gather that in the States you can still buy a peck of apples. Mind you, there were also three different weights going by the title of ‘pound avoirdupois’ during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. All very confusing!

Dry goods such as grain were generally measured by the bushel, with sub-divisions of pecks, gallons and quarts. For Scrabble-lovers, how about the fact that two pecks were called a kenning and four pecks made a firlot? In 1496, a law of King Henry VII instituted the bushel that would later come to be known by the name “Winchester”. So, what of the old Winchester Standards? Well, they appear to date back to pre-Conquest times, when Winchester was the royal seat of Saxon kings such as King Edgar. He kept the ‘prototype’ standards at Winchester and although they were brought up to London after the Norman Conquest the connection with the name ‘Winchester’ remained.

One of the earliest attempts to define the gallon, bushel and quarter is the Assize of Weights and Measures. It is unclear when this was enacted – probably some time between 1250 and 1305. It is listed under Ancient Statutes of Uncertain Date and it states: By Consent of the whole Realm the King’s Measure was made, so that an English Penny, which is called the Sterling, round without clipping, shall weigh Thirty-two Grains of Wheat dry in the midst of the Ear; Twenty-pence make an Ounce; and Twelve Ounces make a Pound, and Eight Pounds make a Gallon of Wine; and Eight Gallons of Wine make a Bushel of London; which is the Eighth Part of a Quarter.

The Winchester Measure of a bushel was mentioned by name in a statute of 1670 entitled An Act for ascertaining the Measures of Corn and Salt. The Winchester bushel contained eight gallons. Coopers were commissioned to produce standard containers of the precise size – nineteen and a half inches in diameter and nine inches high, usually made of ash and bound with copper or iron hoops. Each town would commission its own ‘quality control’ measure. The istDibs site has a picture of one such measure.

John Savidge’s Winchester bushel, courtesy of istDibs

It was stated as having been made by John Savidge of Tower Street in London. Apparently Savidge specialized in making these standard measures and took out a patent in 1744. This size of bushel lasted until 1824 when a larger bushel, of ten rather than eight gallons, was introduced.

I cannot find out much about Savidge but there is a reference in a newspaper of 1753 suggesting that he was declared bankrupt, so perhaps there wasn’t an immediate demand for his measures. Tower Street – now known as Great Tower Street – was a prosperous area leading to the Tower of London, forming part of the processional route used by monarchs on their way to their coronations. The istDibs site give a date for the bushel measure as 1770 and the Walpole Antiques site have a similar one, for Cambridge, dated 1779.

Ah well, the 1824 the Weights and Measures Act certainly applied throughout the Empire: by its own admission it introduced ‘Imperial’ measures so perhaps, in the interests of wokeness, we should ditch it and go back to the Egyptian measure of the cubit. Or perhaps we should abandon both Fahrenheit and Celsius as being  in some way ‘contaminated’ and adopt the Kelvin unit of measuring temperature. Wikipedia has this wonderful explanation of the advantages of  the Kelvin: “It  has the philosophical advantage of being independent of any particular substance. The unit J/K is equal to kg⋅m2⋅s−2⋅K−1, where the kilogram, metre and second are defined in terms of the Planck constant, the speed of light and the duration of the caesium-133  ground-state hyperfine transition respectively.’  Couldn’t have put it better myself – and in case you are wondering, in  the kelvin scale pure water freezes at 273.15 K, and it boils at 373.15 K. Much more satisfactory than boring old Celsius, and with the added bonus that it is not in the slightest bit tainted by Empire….

Lord Kelvin, the man who gave his name to       the kelvin temperature measurement.


May 022021

Reading other people’s marriage proposals is somewhat intrusive – I recently came across the one written by my Dad to my Mother  from the early years of the last war, and felt distinctly awkward about reading his declaration of love – especially as he started off with the words “Mother thinks it would  be a good idea if I write to you…” ! Apparently he was nearly turned down out of hand!

Another letter from within the family dates from 11 September 1823. It was sent by Samuel Cox while living at Stratford on Avon, addressed to the object of his desire, one Anne Adams. She had been widowed two years earlier, at the age of 28, and Sam Cox was seven years her junior. Very forward…. He was also quite brave – she already had three young children in tow.

I am setting out the letter in full, because it gives a lovely insight into the etiquette of letter writing. It reads:

Honoured Madam

It is from the most sincere love and affection which I have for you that I now take up my pen to write these few lines, but words are infinitely too weak to convey those sentiments I would fain express – it is impossible for me to express the feelings of my heart. I have long since struggled with a most honourable and respectful passion for you and have often tried to reveal it personally, as often in this way in those delightful opportunities I have been so much favoured with (and have always considered them as such) but never till now could could prevail upon my fear and doubts, when I have been about to reveal the secret which is too big for my heart. Fear as always beclouded my hopes to such a degree that I have been under the painful necessity of suspending my purpose. The delight I have often experienced in your company is impossible for me to express and never do I entertain the hope of seeing you but it affords me the  greatest pleasure. But when I have the happiness of being with you instead of being animated, as I ought, I am utterly confounded. What is this owing to but a diffidence in myself and an elevated opinion of YOU and is but one evidence of the most ardent affection?

Do not consider that I have been too precipitate: long has the flame been kindled almost ever since I had the honour of knowing you. I trust I need not say that my intentions and motives are honourable and if you would but encourage my humble suit nothing shall be wanting on my part to make the affection reciprocal; it will my my greatest concern at all times how to promote your happiness (the truth of which my future conduct will prove). I trust Providence will soon place me in those circumstances that I shall be enabled to keep you with that respect which you are deserving.

Favour me with an answer to this letter, my whole heart is in it. Do not look towards me with indifference, because I have here professed my attachment to you – I know it is presumption on my part but I cannot help confessing ( in some measure) the feelings of my heart.  Believe me when I say that my future happiness depends upon your smiles. Condescend then, to embolden my respectful passion with one favourable line; that if what I  here profess and hope further to have an opportunity to assure you will be found to be an unquestionable truth, then my humble address will not quite be unacceptable to you and then you will ever oblige.

Your most affectionate and sincere lover,  Samuel Cox

I love the way that the word  ‘marriage’  is never mentioned.  ‘Will you marry me?’ is not a question directly asked: it is simply a request to be permitted to express heart-felt feelings, a prelude to formal courtship. Very Jane Austen. Somehow I feel we have lost something in the modern age – emojis which translate to “I fancy you something rotten, let’s go to bed” don’t have the same resonance as a man who has obviously trembled with the enormity of putting pen to paper to express his innermost thoughts and desires.

Sadly, I do not have the reply but the letter obviously worked – the couple married  exactly two months later, on Christmas Day 1823 and went on to have a son, James, who ended up as mayor of Shakespeare’s birthplace. They also had three other children together, including Mary Cox who married my great great grandfather in 1842. Mary  was a stout and formidable matriarch, based on the photographs I have of her. Her husband Richard was an altogether more delicate figure, who entered the church and for many years was vicar at Highweek near Newton Abbot in Devon. Thus we trace our family histories, back to a simple declaration of love from a 24 year old swain, head over heels with an older woman. All together now, aaahh!

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!

Feb 092021

The news this week is all about how cold it is, how the ‘Beast from the East’ is hitting travel on roads across the country – but just to put it in perspective, in 1814 the temperature had fallen below freezing overnight on 27 December 1813 – and stayed below zero every night until 7 February. That meant five whole weeks of it being perishing cold, and  for the first four days of February a Frost Fair was held on the River Thames between Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge.

The Lewis Walpole Library site at Yale University has a number of interesting images of the fair.

The scene shows the boats frozen solid on the banks of the river and the people queuing to get onto the ice via what was called the New City Road. There are numerous booths, known delightfully as Fuddling Tents, where people could sit and sip gin – and get befuddled. There were skittles matches, swings and spectator sports. I like it because on the top right hand corner, just alongside St Magnus the Martyr Church and in front of the Monument marking the seat of the Great Fire of London, stands  what I will describe as my family home:

The red arrow marks the building  then known as One London Bridge, built by my ancestor Richard Hall fifty years earlier. When Richard had died in 1801 the building had passed to his son Francis. Good to see that Uncle Francis had lit a fire, judging from the smoke belching forth from the chimney. Below the arrow you can make out the water wheels which would have been frozen solid – normally they thumped away for several hours either side of high tide, pumping water to the wealthier houses in the neighbourhood.

The second print shows more of the fuddling tents and gives some idea of the colourful fairground-type of atmosphere, with people slipping and sliding (and in cases falling through the ice).

Finally, the Lewis Walpole site gives us Gambols on the River Thames February 1814. More tents – selling Gin and Gingerbread, more slipping and sliding, more fun on the ice.

There was dancing, there was nine pin bowling – and even the chance to marvel at an elephant led across the river near Blackfriars Bridge. There were printing presses churning out ephemera marking the occasion. And then, on 5 February the thaw started – rapidly. Several people were drowned, all evidence of the Frost Fair  thawed and was washed away, and while we may moan about the Beast from the East it is hard to see that the Frost Fair will ever make a re-appearance. Nowadays the river flows faster – the arches of the current London Bridge no longer slow the flow, while the construction of the Embankment means that the water occupies a narrower channel and therefore runs faster.


Jan 192021

Hogarth’s Four times of the Day – Morning, Noon, Evening and Night

Being a history nerd I happily spend some of my spare time trawling through the Hathi Trust Digital Library site, which has on-line copies of loads of books and newspapers from the Georgian era. I recently came across one book on the site which describes what people of all ages and all classes  got up to on a particular Sunday in 1764. It goes by the somewhat wordy title of ‘Low-life, or, one half of the world, knows not how the other half lives, being a critical account of what is transacted by people of all religions, nations, and circumstances, in the twenty-four hours between a Saturday night and a Monday morning.

O.K. it is tongue-in-cheek, and is poking fun at Londoners for being idle and  vice-ridden. It is dedicated to the artist Hogarth and is intended as a sort of literary accompaniment to Hogarth’s four-part series of  Morning, Noon, Evening and Night. Its anonymous author describes a typical Sunday in London, seen through the lives of a whole host of different citizens – apprentices, merchants, whores, newly-weds – starting at midnight on Saturday. It describes the prostitutes walking the streets, bribing the watchmen with a bottle of Geneva to ‘look the other way’, and explains how midnight was the middle of the working day to many publicans, gin-shop owners and bawdy-house keepers – a reminder how even in the eighteenth century London was a city which never slept, on-the-go right around the clock. It continues with a scurrilous and amusing look at what everyone was getting up to on their Day of Rest, and it occurs to me that anyone writing a novel set in the 1760s could do well to look through the book to get ideas about what peripheral characters could be shown to be getting up to!

Just as an example, here are copies of some of the pages describing Hour 2:


And so it goes on, before moving on to discuss three in the morning; four; five; etc right through until midnight. Some of the examples are delightful and I  just think it paints a fascinating if biased picture of London life. The particular book can be found on the Hathi site here. The great thing with the digitised book is that it is fully searchable – not only that, but it seems to be able to work out when a ‘long s’ is ‘s’ not ‘f’. [On some other sites you have to search separately for, say, ‘Wesley’ and Wefley’ – not here, it reveals both variants]. Hathi Trust is a partnership of academic and research institutions, offering a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world. To get the most out of it, and to be able to download images, you need to join as a member, but anyone can just browse and see what is on offer. A great research tool for aspiring writers!

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.