Apr 252019
 

There are not many books which celebrate a tercentenary – and are still in print. Even fewer can claim to have been translated into every single major world language – and spawned variations in opera, in films, on television and on radio, in cartoon strips and in computer games. The book is, of course, “Robinson Crusoe”, published on 25 April 1716 and in the intervening centuries more than 700 different editions have appeared.

The book didn’t hang around on the bookshelves for long – the public were entranced by the story of a castaway’s struggle for survival, and four editions appeared in its first year alone. Pirated versions flooded the market. The author, Daniel Defoe, wrote a follow-up entitled “Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe”, which came out in late 1719. For the better part of a century it was customary for the two stories to be sold as a two-volume set, although nowadays the “Farther Adventures” have dropped off the graph. For anyone interested, the “Farther Adventures” see Crusoe return to his island, before heading for Brazil, across to the tip of South Africa, and round to Madagascar where he is marooned for several years. Incredibly, his round-the-world peripatetic existence sees him walk across China, into Russia, through Siberia and over to Archangel before catching a lift back to London on a passing ship.

Personally, I think Defoe should have left his hero at the end of the original book and not bothered with Part Two. Undeterred, Defoe even wrote a third book in the series – but this time as a non-fiction work looking at the underlying themes such as Sin, Redemption and so on. This third part bombed totally and, thankfully, disappeared without trace.

But Robinson Crusoe deserves to be celebrated – even if nowadays it is often reduced to a children’s adventure story. It struck a chord with 18th century audiences, and it still strikes a chord today. Think of the Tom Hanks film “Cast Away”, in which he plays the part of a FedEx employee stuck on a Pacific Island after a plane crash. The story was so realistic that people assume that it was based upon a real-life incident – it wasn’t. Or think of “The Martian” with Matt Damon – it explores exactly the same themes covered in Defoe’s novel and poses the same question: how would we manage if we were stripped of all the trappings of modern civilization?

It’s a theme which is reflected in the radio programme “Desert Island Discs” (now running for over 75 years) and in Reality TV programmes such as “I’m a Celebrity – Get me out of here”. And it has spawned any number of television programmes where a celeb is stranded ‘alone’ and expected to cope. Off hand I recall  the model Julie Ege using it as an excuse for a bikini-modelling shoot, and Joanna Lumley being cast adrift on an island off Madagascar – and making a pair of cave shoes out of her bra. More recently, the actor Robson Greene had himself cast adrift on a remote Indonesian island. From memory he lasted all of three hours before being whisked away suffering from stomach problems, which rather suggests that he wasn’t quite as ‘alone’ as the programme would have us believe.

      Monument to Alexander Selkirk

Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe “was based upon a number of real-life incidents. Usually  Alexander Selkirk is trailed as being the main source – but I rather think that Defoe, a journalist, was happy to meld a number of different escapades. For my money, these definitely include the experiences of William Dampier. Not only did he circumnavigate the world three times – and write a travelog which was hugely popular – but he was stranded on the then uninhabited island of Ascension in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He also returned to Britain with a ‘Man Friday’ in tow – a native from the Philippines named Prince Geolo (otherwise Jeoly) and who was exhibited as a sort of travelling freak show so that visitors could gawp at his tattoos. Sadly, the Painted Prince (as he was referred to)    caught smallpox and died in Oxford shortly after he reached these sickly climes, but his story would have been well-known to Defoe.

Another likely inspiration for Defoe’s ultimate castaway hero was  Henry Pitman, an English-born supporter of the Duke of Monmouth who was sent to Barbados as an indentured servant but who escaped and lived for some time on an island near Aruba in the Caribbean, encountering cannibals and pirates along the way. Another contributor may have been Robert Knox, abandoned on the island of Ceylon for over twenty years, and who wrote a lengthy journal describing his battle for survival, his mental trials and tribulations, and his ultimate escape. It even comes complete with a description of the power of an unexpected footprint in the sand….

To mark this auspicious day, I have brought out my latest book, published by Pen & Sword, called “Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks in the Perilous Age of Sail”. It looks at the phenomenal success of what has been described as the first English novel, considers the various real-life incidents which may have influenced Defoe, and puts the book in context of the many maritime disasters which befell sailors on the eighteenth century. Horrific storms, mutiny, faulty navigation leading to shipwrecks, piracy, broken compasses – all could result in loss of life, but also in remarkable tales of survival. No-one would think that being stranded was a bowl of cherries – but Defoe showed that it could fire the public interest.

Yours truly, plus book, in front of the memorial to Daniel Defoe in the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground in London.

 

 

 

Apr 192019
 

Next week  we will be celebrating the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s masterpiece. To mark the occasion I have a new book coming out – I haven’t seen it yet but as they say ‘it’s in the post’. Exciting times! If anyone is interested it will be called Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks in the perilous Age of Sail and I will do a blog about it in a couple of days’ time. Meanwhile, details can be found here on the Pen & Sword site

But what of Defoe himself? He was born Daniel Foe, to a tallow-chandler father living in Cripplegate, in around 1660. I say ‘around’ because no-one is quite sure, but he must have had a tumultuous childhood, observing the Plague, the Great Fire of London and so on. Later, as an adult, he changed his name to become, variously, Daniel de Foe or Daniel Defoe. Maybe he liked to sound like a French aristocrat – or, more likely, it was a ruse to throw creditors off the scent.

Daniel Defoe, courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

Daniel Defoe was a curious Jekyll-and-Hyde character. He experimented with various business ventures – usually with his mother-in-law’s money – and tried his hand at wine importing, wholesale hosiery, rearing civet cats for their perfume, and also tile and brick making. He raised money from subscribers to fund a venture involving a new-fangled diving bell for use in salvage operations – and then ran off with the money.

On one occasion he was sentenced to a spell in the pillory – which could  have been  a really nasty punishment if the mob had taken against him. Fortunately for Defoe, the public treated him like a hero and tossed not the usual offering of excrement, stones and rotten vegetables in his direction, but bouquets of flowers.

Defoe in the pillory, dodging floral bouquets, shown courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

In order to stay out of the debtor’s prison he sold his soul to the government by accepting money from Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons. He seems to have become a spy, doing his best to drum up support for the Act of Union with Scotland while living as a ‘mole’ in Edinburgh. For some reason he felt sufficiently qualified to write self-help books on running a successful business, which suggests a man with a fair amount of brass-necked chutzpah! Advising others on cash flow, stock levels etc seems a bit rich coming from a man with a litany of business failures behind him!

He became a journalist, and also used an armful of aliases to write political pamphlets, and novels such as Robinson Crusoe. In all, he probably used more than two hundred different aliases. These enabled him to put forward sometimes contrary views, at the same time as keeping one step ahead of the law – and his creditors, of which there were many.

    As a journalist he used techniques we nowadays take for granted – following up numerous sources and interviewing people around the country before writing a history of The Great Storm of 1703. It was a technique which he probably used when writing Robinson Crusoe – although many assume that it is simply the story of Alexander Selkirk, stranded for 52 months on the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile. It was in fact an amalgam of many true-life castaway stories. People have detected parallels with the story of William Dampier, who circumnavigated the globe three times but was also shipwrecked on Ascension Island – at that stage uninhabited. There are traces of the story of Henry Pitman, stranded on a desert island off Aruba after fleeing from penal servitude on the island of Barbados. Defoe was also probably inspired by Robert Knox, held captive for twenty years on the island of Ceylon.  Defoe’s brilliance was weaving all these tales together and coming up with a story which has stood the test of time. In my new book I get the chance to look at these various influences on Defoe – and also to put the castaway theme in context of what it was like to be a mariner in the eighteenth century.

Defoe went on to write a couple of novels under his own name – ‘Moll Flanders’ and ‘Roxanna’. He was a perceptive recorder of life in the early decades of the eighteenth century and an effective satirist, political commentator and influencer of public opinion. He died in poverty, hiding from his creditors, on 24 April 1731 in lodgings on Rope Makers’ Alley. He was in his seventy-first year and succumbed to what was described as ‘lethargy’ – in other words, a stroke. He was buried two days later at the Dissenters Burial Ground at Bunhill Fields and his long-suffering wife Mary was interred beside him when she died in December 1732.

The connection with my family is that Bunhill Fields was where Richard Hall buried his wife Eleanor when she died in 1780 – and it was also where his father Francis was interred some twenty years earlier. In vain have I looked for  great great great great great grand-daddy’s grave, but I just had to make do with Defoe’s memorial !

So, I will be remembering the shadowy figure of Mr Defoe  next week on the anniversary of his greatest creation, Robinson Crusoe, but also on 24 April being the anniversary of his death. Bye-bye DD!

Mar 202019
 

love-at-300dpiFor the cover on my book “In Bed with the Georgians – Sex Scandal and Satire in the 18th Century” I chose a print based on a painting by William Matthew Peters. I subsequently acquired an original print of the lady in question, thanks to the generosity of one of the readers of this blog, for which I am extremely grateful.

The Rev W M Peters

The Rev W M Peters

Peters was quite an interesting character. Some books describe him as “ a portrait and history painter from the Isle of Wight” while others ascribe to him an Irish birth and ancestry. His father appears to have been a garden designer working in Dublin and who had originally done work for Lord Cobham at Stowe. As a youth Peters went twice to Italy to study the works of the great Renaissance artists. He returned from the first trip (to Rome) in the early 1760s and then went again to Rome, and Venice, in the early to mid 1770s. He gained the somewhat over-egged title of “the English Titian” – due to a series of portraits of ladies in various stages of undress. He apparently painted them as a tribute to the works of Titian, intending to emulate Titian’s “Venus” by showing modern-day seductresses. However, whereas Titian painted his Venus stretched out full length on her bed, entirely naked, Peters showed only the head, shoulders and breasts. Peters provided his ladies with contemporary night-caps along with familiar names of the period eg Lydia, Belinda, Sylvia (and Lucrece…?).

Lydia. circa 1777 . shown courtesy of the Tate Museum

Lydia. circa 1777 . shown courtesy of the Tate Museum

Described as "a Study for Lydia" - same hat, same breasts... It poses the question: how much study did he really need to do?

Described as “a Study for Lydia” – same hat, same breasts… It poses the question: how much study did he really need to do?!

Sylvia

Sylvia

He may have seen them as tributes to the great Italian Masters, but the public saw them as erotic art which they could buy as pin-ups, and copies appeared in print many times over. Not all the critics were in favour. When Peters exhibited The Woman in Bed at the RA summer exhibition the critic in The Morning Chronicle of 26 April 1777 noted: “We cannot … help thinking that the inviting leer of the lady, and her still more inviting bosom, ought to be consigned to the bedchamber of a bagnio, where each would doubtless provoke a proper effect; in the present situation they serve to prevent the pictures around them from being so much seen and admired as their merits demand, for every man who has either his wife or daughter with him, must, for decency sake, hurry them away from that corner of the room”

Belinda - the basis for the print used on my book cover

Belinda – the basis for the print used on my book cover, but showing rather less décolletage – and a different hat!

Matthew Peters had trained in London under the portraitist Thomas Hudson and when he returned from his second Italian tour Peters had moved into a house belonging to Lord Grosvenor in Millbank. It was then, presumably urged on by patrons such as Lord Grosvenor, that he began to paint his studies of courtesans. And let’s face it, Lord Grosvenor certainly knew a lot of courtesans… I can just imagine him coming home after a torrid night between the sheets at a local brothel and saying to Peters “Look who I’ve brought for you to paint.”

By the late 1770s Peters, was getting increasingly worried about the damage to his reputation as a serious artist, and so abandoned painting courtesans. This became even more important to him when he decided to become ordained in 1781, Subsequently he was appointed Honorary Chaplain to the Royal Academy, and was highly embarrassed by his quasi-erotoc offerings. According to the Tate Gallery he expressed “a profound regret that he ever devoted his talents to such subjects, not only because they were degrading to his character but [also] from sincere moral regret.” He went on to become rector of Eaton, Leicestershire, then rector of Wolsthorpe, Leicestershire, in 1788, and became Prebendary of Lincoln in 1795 He was also chaplain to the Prince Regent, so we can safely say that he was not just a man of the canvas but also a man of the cloth….

In 1777 he had been elected a full Member of the Royal Academy. He married Margaret, daughter of the Rev John Knowsley and they had various children including a son, Edmund, who took the surname of Turton in order to receive a benefit under the will of Dr John Edmund. He carried on painting – mostly mawkish pictures of young children ascending to Heaven, but I rather go along with the comment on his works which appeared in the Dictionary of Irish Artists in 1913 “Peters’ work as a painter was very unequal; but in his portraits he shows a strength and ease in painting, with good colour, which raises him to a higher level than has hitherto been accorded him. Had he devoted his talents to portraiture instead of wasting them on his historical pictures and his ill-drawn, badly-coloured angels and pious children by which he is best known, he would have been regarded, and taken his place, as one of the best painters of the English school.”

Peters died at Brasted Place, Kent, on 20th March, 1814. I confess that I rather like his seductive nudes with their ‘come hither’ look. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have any of his other  paintings hanging on my study wall. My book is intended as a rattling read through the bedroom antics of Georgian Britain, and I am grateful to the Rev. Peters for providing me with a most suitable cover.


in-bed-etc

Jan 012019
 

Having been commissioned to write a book on sex and sexuality in the eighteenth century, I started, as is my universal habit, by looking through the works of Gillray, Rowlandson and other caricaturists for inspiration.Here are two which caught my eye – definitely from the top shelf. The first is interesting in not relating to life in the capital, but suggesting, shock horror, that people in the country had sex. It is Rowlandson’s picture of ‘Sex around a country cottage’, and shows the irate old lady of the house, brandishing her broom at two dogs who have already engaged in coitus and are locked end-to-end. On the roof,  a pair of cats are at it like … cats, and no-one is taking any notice of the two sets of lovers having it off in the garden.

The second came to my attention as an interesting variation of a duet on the piano….

It is by Rowlandson,  and was probably etched some time after 1790 and before 1810, and bears the title ‘A music master tuning his instrument.’

I wish an indecently splendid New Year to everyone. Now excuse me, I must get down to some more research for next year’s book….

Dec 242018
 

Richard Trevithick by John Linnell, Science Museum, London 

It was Christmas Eve, 1801 and a large crowd had gathered in the Cornish town of Camborne. The stretch of road running up from Tehidy Road and along Fore Street was known as Camborne Hill, and the crowds watched in amazement as a noisy, steam-belching leviathan called ‘Puffing Devil’ moved slowly up the ascent, turned round, and then came back down again. The excitement of the occasion was described by a local cooper, Stephen Williams, who was to write later:
‘Twas a stiffish hill going from the Weith up to Camborne Beacon, but she went off like a little bird. When she had gone about a quarter of a mile, there was a roughish piece of road covered with loose stones; she didn’t go quite so fast, and as it was flood of rain and we were very squeezed together, I jumped off. She was going faster than I could walk, and went on up the hill about a quarter or half a mile farther, when they turned her and came back again to the shop.’

The event was commemorated in the song ‘Camborne Hill’:
Goin’ up Camborne Hill, coming down
Goin’ up Camborne Hill, coming down
The horses stood still;
The wheels went around;
Going up Camborne Hill coming down

It is a song still associated with Cornish prowess – especially on the Rugby field – and is one of the most lasting tributes to a man who died a pauper, and yet was a real pioneer of the Industrial Revolution. His name – Richard Trevithick – is little known nowadays, and as any schoolboy will tell you, the inventor of steam locomotion was not Trevithick but father-and-son George and Robert Stephenson.

Actually, that is not correct. The Stephenson ’Rocket’ may be renowned the world over, whereas Trevithick’s ‘Catch me who can’ engine is hardly remembered. And yet it was the first in the world to carry fee-paying passengers, in 1808. The ‘Rocket’ is rightly famous for having won the Rainhill Trials held to decide the best design for an engine to run along the Liverpool-Manchester line. Yet that was in 1829, a quarter of a century after Trevithick had pioneered the use of a high-pressure steam engine to provide locomotive power. Trevithick’s invention came first, and he deserves far more credit for his inventiveness and his dogged determination. Indeed, he can be seen as one of the first of that breed of heroic failures which litter the story of modern progress.

I am featuring him as one of my ‘forgotten heroes’ in a book to be published by Pen & Sword, probably under the title of “Georgian Greats – Unsung Heroes of the (Industrial) Revolution” – or some such. I intend to showcase a couple of dozen individuals who, but for a quirk of fate, would have been household names in the vein of Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt et al. The spotlight often dazzles us, but in doing so hides the achievements of men on the side-lines – men like Trevithick. Nowadays we may talk about ‘first mover advantage’ whereas history tells us that it is not the man who is first with his ideas who wins – it is the man who can market them.

Dec 022018
 

Just got back from a splendid fortnight cruising in the Indian Ocean (Mauritius, the Seychelles, the Comoros Islands and Madagascar). Unfortunately, the riots on Reunion meant that we had to give that island a miss – but against that, the weather was great and there cannot be many better places to spend a November day than afloat in the Indian Ocean.

I gave four talks – the first on Piracy in that part of the world 250 years ago (Olivier Levasseur et al). As luck would have it my book  ‘Piracy and Privateering’ came out just as we sailed – and my ‘author’s copies’ were held up in the post. Never mind, they greeted me on the doorstep when I got back. I had forgotten that it was going to be available in hardback format!

The second talk was on Royal shenanigans – the randy Regent and his entire family, with tales of murder, rape, incest and imprisonment (making straight-forward adultery seem somewhat tame). The audience seemed to like that, so I did anther ‘mini-talk’ on courtesans and hookers of the 18th Century. I paired it up, slightly incongruously, with the remarkable story of survival in the face of adversity by seven women abandoned on an island close to Reunion in the 1770s. No running water, no trees, no vegetation – but those seven survived fifteen years before being rescued. Incredible story. I give more details of it in the book ‘Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks’ which comes out in April to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Finally, I gave a talk on my old favourite – everyday life in Georgian England, looking at ancestor Richard Hall and his experiences as a hosier at One London Bridge. It is good practice for the presentation I will be giving when I do a USA tour in February – with talks in New York and Colonial Williamsburg. Before then I fancy doing another lecture cruise – possibly involving Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Watch this space – but quite when I can find time to finish the two books I have contracted to give Pen & Sword is something of an unknown! An end-January deadline is looming large…

 

Nov 012018
 

A lot is happening at present. At the end of November Pen & Sword are publishing my latest book, Pirates and Privateers in the 18th Century – the final flourish’ and I will be telling some of the exploits when I do a lecture-cruise for Fred Olsen on board the Boudicca when she sails in two weeks time through the islands of the Indian Ocean. In particular I will feature the remarkable story of Olivier Levasseur – possibly the wealthiest pirate who ever lived – who operated out of the Seychelles, was captured off Reunion, and was hanged on Mauritius. All very apt, as our ship will be visiting … the Seychelles, Reunion and Mauritius. Ooh argh me hearties, there be tales of buried treasure….

Meanwhile I am checking the final proofs for a book due out next Spring to mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe. It will look at the whole question of castaways and shipwrecks in the Georgian era, and include some of the stories which are believed to have inspired Defoe to write his famous work. Nowadays Robinson Crusoe is almost always published as a single story, and it was only when I started the research  for my book that I realized that Defoe had written two sequels, and that in the Victorian era both  the original book and the first of the two sequels were usually published as a single item. The second sequel seems to have disappeared without trace – by then Defoe was somewhat running out of inspiration and was flogging a dead horse.

One of the castaway stories will be featured on the cruise – the astonishing tale of survival about a group of shipwrecked women (captured slaves) who survived fifteen years on a tiny island, without running water and with no useful vegetation, living off birds and turtle eggs. The French had deserted them on this barren island, near Reunion, promising to return. Well, they kept their promise, but only after a decade and a half. It really is a remarkable survival story.

To cap an interesting year I have been asked to go to Colonial Williamsburg in the States in February to deliver a lecture on life in Georgian London. I  have always wanted to do a lecture tour in America, and this is my chance! They are holding a five-day seminar in this (largely replica) Georgian  colonial town and it will be great to see all the buildings and the demonstrations of 18th Century skills. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is extremely generous and  have taken care of everything.

Meanwhile I am putting the final touches to my book on ‘unsung Georgian heroes’ – inventors etc who changed our world but who are largely overshadowed by the greats of the Georgian period such as Boulton, Watt, Wedgwood and ‘the rest of the boys in the band’. I have to submit it to Pen & Sword by the end of January. Time, then, to start on my final oeuvre, which will be on Sex and Sexuality in the Georgian era. Who ever would thought that retirement could be such good fun?

Sep 022018
 

As part of my trawl through the backwaters of the 18th Century, looking for overlooked heroes to include in my forthcoming book** with Pen and Sword on ‘forgotten’ Georgian Greats, I came across the name of Thomas Boulsover. “Who he?” I hear people ask. Well, he played his part in bringing high quality domestic ornaments within reach of ordinary households – he discovered a way to plate silver.

On 1 September 1760 the inveterate gossip Horace Walpole wrote a letter to his friend Mr Montagu:

As I went to Lord Strafford’s I passed through Sheffield, which is one of the foulest towns in England, in the most charming situation, where there are 22,000 inhabitants making knives and scissors. … One man there has discovered the art of plating copper with silver. I bought a pair of candlesticks for two guineas that are quite pretty.

What Walpole was referring to was the discovery by Thomas Bouslover of a method of fusing copper and silver to produce a material now known as ‘Old Sheffield plate’. Even then, eighteen years after the initial discovery of plated silver, the items made from the new material (in this case a pair of candlesticks) were considered ‘quite pretty’ – a reflection of the fact that design, decoration and form were important even if the candlesticks were retailing at a fraction of the cost of solid silver items.

Boulsover was born in 1705, and was apprenticed as a cutler in the parish of Ecclesfield (four miles to the north of Sheffield city centre) to Joseph Fletcher. He qualified in 1726 and married Hannah Dodworth two years later. The pair went on to have ten children, of whom only two reached adulthood. For twenty years Thomas Boulsover was busy making and repairing knives. But if Sheffield’s reputation was built on cutlery it was to receive a huge boost due to a discovery which Boulsover made in 1742/3. There are a number of stories, some no doubt apocryphal, about the curious accident which led to his discovery. One suggests that he was repairing a knife handle, made of silver, holding it in a vice while he applied heat to the silver. Unknown to him, a copper penny was wedged in the vice and, as his concentration wandered, he overheated the silver, causing the silver to fuse with the copper in the penny. However, realistically, this cannot have been the first time that the two metals had been fused. What was new was that Boulsover recognized something very particular about the way the two metals had joined – they were fused in such a way that the ’sandwich’ remained in the same proportions, even when beaten or rolled into a lesser thickness.

It was the fact that the copper and silver expanded in unison which was hugely significant. Boulsover started to experiment, noting that the silver melted at a lower temperature than copper. By placing a flat copper sheet under the silver as it was heated and liquified, the silver ran evenly over the copper, then fused with it. It could then be fed through a succession of rollers to make a finer and finer gauge of plated metal. And because copper cost a fraction of the cost of silver it meant that the metal was ideal for making items which looked like silver, which could be made into products traditionally made of silver, and which satisfied the growing demand of the public for decorative items which ‘wouldn’t break the bank’.

To begin with Boulsover kept the discovery to himself and decided to concentrate on making straight-forward items such as buttons. He needed capital to expand the business and approached a friend of the family called Strelley Pegge, and asked for a loan. It was granted and twelve months later Mr Pegge was surprised to find that Thomas Boulsover wished to pay back not just the interest on the loan but the entire capital. He apparently explained his success to Mr Pegge by pointing out that whereas he could sell his buttons for a guinea a dozen (21 shillings) the silver in those buttons cost a mere three shillings – and the cost of the copper was almost insignificant.

Button-making turned out to be a most profitable exercise and there is a story that ‘when he had been in business some time he sent the sweepings from the workshop floor, which he had taken great care of, to Mr. Read, a silver refiner, in Green Lane, and in a little time they sent him back £100 worth of silver — so much for the value of shop sweepings’. Certainly Boulsover missed a trick – he never patented the process, and therefore missed out on royalties.

Other cutlers in Sheffield could see the opportunities of developing their skills in working with metal, be it in pure silver or by using a cheaper silvery substitute. They diversified away from simply making blades. Craftsmen worked in both metals, silver and plate, and in time Sheffield silversmiths were able to petition Parliament for their own Assay Office in 1773. No longer did they have to wait while their products were sent down to London for assaying and return – they could sell direct to the general public, further helping establish the reputation of the city. The fact that the craftsmen could also make buttons, snuff boxes, and decorative fish slices out of a far cheaper metal did nothing to harm this reputation – it just brought the wares to a wider market.

The next development was the introduction in 1770 of a ‘double sandwich’ i.e. copper plated on both sides with silver. This still left the problem of a copper edge being visible when the metal was cut, but this was overcome, initially by rolling the edge to make a silvered ridge, and subsequently by applying silver wire along the length of the visible copper edge.

It was left to a colleague of Boulsover to develop further commercial possibilities of plated silver. His name was Joseph Hancock, and before long he was manufacturing a wide range of goods, starting with saucepans, then coffee pots, hot water jugs and moving on to candlesticks. He prospered and emerged as a Master Cutler from 1763 and was one of the thirty ‘guardians’ appointed to oversee the Sheffield Assay Office. When Hancock died in 1791 a local newspaper described him, most unfairly, as ‘the founder of the plated business in Sheffield, as he was the first person who commenced a manufactory of the goods.’ This was to completely overlook Boulsover’s involvement in silver plating, which gave a huge boost to the region’s economy. In time, more Sheffield plate was made in Birmingham than it was in Sheffield, largely thanks to Matthew Boulton making use of the fused material in his new factory at Soho.

Boulsover seems to have been happy to diversify into other areas where his experience of rolling, rather than hammering, metal could be put to good use. Up until then, wood-cutting saws were hammered from a single piece of steel, and setting the teeth was a difficult and inefficient process. Boulsover developed a system whereby the steel could be fed through rollers and also found a simple way for setting the teeth at an angle. Man-power was soon superseded by horse-power and then by water-power. To this end, Boulsover opened a mill on the stream below his house at Whiteley Wood, which he had bought from his original benefactor Strelley Pegge in 1757. As a result of his diversification he was being described in trade directories  from 1774 onwards, not as a silver plater, but as  ‘a manufacturer of saws, fenders, edge tools, Casted and Emory, from Sycamore Street’. By the end of the century there were two water-wheels and a steam engine powering the forge’s drop hammers at the industrial premises which Boulsover had started in the Porter Valley. It is thought that the forge ceased as a commercial enterprise around 1887.

Boulsover died at his Whiteley Wood home in September 1788 and was buried in St Paul’s Church Sheffield on 12 September. He never made a fortune from his discovery – but others did. The process remained popular until the production of nickel silver, otherwise known as German Silver, in around 1820. This used 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc – and its nickel content gave it a harder, silvery, appearance which made it more resistant to the copper showing through the top layer due to daily wear and tear. In turn, German silver was largely overtaken by electroplating, which came in during the 1840s. In a way they all proved one thing: there was a commercial appetite for objects which looked like silver, shone and sparkled like silver, but which were in fact made largely from base metals.

Former Methodist Chapel, then a cowshed, now a derelict building, at Meadow Farm, Bents Green. (Picture courtesy of Mark Knapton).

There are small memorials to Boulsover in Tudor Square in central Sheffield, and at Wire Mill Dam in the nearby Porter Valley. There is also a small Methodist Chapel still standing (actually it then became a cowshed and is now completely disused), in the grounds of Meadow Farm, adjacent to the site of the old steel-rolling premises. It had been erected by his two surviving daughters and bears the inscription: ‘This chapel was built by Mary Mitchell and Sarah Hutton in 1789 in memory of their father Thomas Boulsover, the inventor of Sheffield Plate (1705 – 1788).’  Fame has certainly been transient for poor Thomas Boulsover.

**Due out some time towards the end of 2020 – first there will be books on Piracy (due out this year) and on the story behind Robinson Crusoe (due next April).

Mar 152018
 

It was a strange feeling, being thousands of miles away in India (where International Women’s Day is widely celebrated) to realize that back in the UK Pen & Sword were releasing my latest book “Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era – the 18th Century struggle for female success in a Man’s World” – onto an unsuspecting public. It was  slightly odd  returning to the UK and seeing the book for the very first time – always an exciting moment for an author, and realizing that I wasn’t the first person to have a look at it!

Overall, I am pleased with it because  the book marked the conclusion of a fascinating voyage of discovery – until I started the research I hadn’t appreciated  the obstacles faced by women 300 years ago – obstacles such as a general lack of proper education, and obstacles of a legal nature (coverture reduced married women  to a state little better than slavery). I was intrigued to see that some women pushed the door ajar – only for it to be slammed shut immediately afterwards. It is almost as if the public recoiled from the whole idea of change – the Terror which followed the French Revolution was a clear example of how change could get out of control. And people only had to consider the scandalous behaviour of Mary Wollstonecraft – that fascinating proto-feminist – to see how female emancipation could so easily lead to disaster (she had, after all, been an unmarried mother, had attempted suicide on more than one occasion, and was readily dismissed as a rotten role model and, as Horace Walpole said, as a ‘painted hyena’). There is a certain irony in finding that a pioneer actually set-back the cause which she so fiercely espoused. Nowadays, her ideas are back in fashion, but she certainly went out of favour in the Victorian era!

The book looks at some of the  “petticoat pioneers” who started to break the mould – who refused to take a back seat and let the men take all the credit. The 18th Century is, when all is said and done, a century dominated by the roar of male success – men headed the Industrial Revolution, men spearheaded the growth of the British Empire, men explored, discovered, invented – and ruled. But that did not mean that women threw in the towel, and the book looks at pioneers such as Elizabeth Raffald (cook, delicatessen owner, employment-exchange owner, newspaper proprietor, and highly successful author) and Eleanor Coade (who set up a factory making products out of artificial stone). It includes the silversmith Hester Bateman, the formidable chocolatier Anna Fry, and also my favourite paradigm-shifter, the remarkable Hester Pinney. Here was a woman who enjoyed great success as a financial adviser, dealing in stocks and shares – and who preceded the first woman to cross the floor of the Stock Exchange by 250 years. I look at pioneering artists, novelists and actresses, as well as reformers and educationalists such as Elizabeth Fry, Hannah More and the anti-slavery firebrand Margaret Lady Middleton. There are one or two scientists, inventors and teachers (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Jane Mercer and Sarah Guppy) and, perhaps standing out for all the wrong reasons, the astonishing tale of Teresia ‘Con’ Phillips. She was a bigamist, a sex worker – and a woman who never gave up in her pursuit for justice through the courts, inspiring men such as Jeremy Bentham to advocate reform of our arcane legal system, and leading directly to the 1753 Marriage Act of Lord Hardwicke. Here was a woman who just wouldn’t give up, and her life was certainly a roller-coaster!

One of the things I discovered was the often over-looked influence of the Quakers. I had not appreciated that the Quaker belief in equality not only meant that they opposed slavery, but also that they treated boys and girls equally, and generally refused to follow conventional ideas about primogeniture. I was intrigued to see the Quaker introduction of fixed prices for a product – no haggling. Their word was their bond- and the book considers how Quakers “punched above their weight” in the market place. They may have been few in number, but just think of the industries they dominated – not just chocolate-making (Fry’s, Cadbury’s Rowntree’s etc) but also banking (Lloyds, Barclays, Friends Provident). Think Clarke’s shoes, Bryant and May matches, Huntley & Palmer biscuits, and the iron and steel-makers of the Darby family at Coalbrookdale, to name just a handful. And what distinguished these Quaker businesses was that women played an active part in the decision-making process – making it all the more remarkable that 250 years later there are still only seven companies in the Footsie Top 100 which have a woman as CEO. 7% doesn’t look like equality to me!

The book ends with a look at some of the areas where women still have not made a significant breakthrough – such as the miserable 3% of airline pilots who are female, or the unequal percentage of female surgeons, consultants, judges and senior partners in legal firms. But the emphasis is not intended to be on where we are now – it tries to look at how people fought injustice, poor education and legal opposition three centuries ago. I thoroughly enjoyed researching the book  – it isn’t intended to be academic, but hopefully it will contain something of interest to general readers. Let me know!

It is available direct from the publishers here, and (in the U.K.) on Amazon.co.uk   Those of you who are readers in the States will have to wait until 3 July before it is available on Amazon.com – apparently it takes that long for the copies to float across the Atlantic on a slow paddle steamer….

Feb 202018
 

1212One of the phenomena of the Georgian era was the popularity of the masked ball. It appealed to all social classes, and people did rather more than just put on a ‘Lone Ranger’ pair of eye-goggles; they dressed up as clowns, shepherdesses, allegorical figures vegetables – whatever took their fancy. They cross-dressed, and, liberated by their apparent anonymity, abandoned all propriety and sense of inhibition.

Probably for that reason they were often frequented by prostitutes on the pull. Which is where my interest came in, because I had been looking  at masquerades in context of my book “Sex, Scandal and Satire – In bed with the Georgians”.

The image at the top comes from the ever-excellent Lewis Walpole Library site, and shows all the principal characters at a masquerade in 1789 at the Rotunda. As you can see, the people attending theses balls went to a lot of trouble with their costumes. The same site gives us “The Beauty Unmask’d” (left) and “Lady Betty Bustle and her Maid Lucy preparing for the Masquerade at The Pantheon” on the right.

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The one on the left, with her ermine-lined cape, dates from 1770, and the elegant lady dolled up to the nines on the right is from two years later. Somehow I don’t see them as bestowing their favours on the young gallants for less than a fortune. On the other hand, this one from the British Museum site, is clearly ready for a bit of horizontal jogging – her swain has already removed his mask and is absolutely sure that he is on to a good thing. It dates from 1771.

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As the verse underneath puts it, ‘Our Buck unmasks and makes his wishes known, … No Art can curb, no Mask can hide desire.’

Here is a more ‘tasteful’ image, once more from Lewis Walpole, showing a masquerade at the Argyll Rooms in 1826:

1414It all seems a bit staid to me, so to end with, a view from the raucous, joyful, over-the-top Thomas Rowlandson in his 1790 picture entitled “Dressing for a masquerade”

171717A group of happy hookers are getting ready for the ball, decolletages to the fore. I love all the action, with the hairdresser, the maid holding up a mirror, the stocking being rolled up, the masquerade head-dress with its discreet veil, and the dog barking at all the excitement. The masked lady on the right is gazing at her reflection as she struggles with the lacing on the back on her outfit, and as ever with Rowlandson, the figures are either rather beautiful or incredibly ugly!  Somehow you know that their evening will revolve around pleasure – and that someone is going to have to pay for it!

(First posted in modified form 2014)