Mar 102019

On the morning of 10th March 1777 a crowd, estimated as being twenty thousand strong, gathered by the naval dockyard in Portsmouth. Towering above them was the mizzenmast struck from the warship HMS Arethusa, specially erected for the purpose. And the purpose? To hang one John Aitken, otherwise known as John Hill, otherwise known as John the Painter, for arson in the royal dockyards. abc3

It is hard to see Aitken in a heroic light – he was 24 years old, a highwayman, a burglar and, on at least one occasion, a (self-confessed) rapist. He was also responsible for a one-man wave of arson and bomb attacks apparently aimed at weakening the British Navy – and hence helping the cause of the revolutionary forces in the American War of Independence. Whether he was genuinely motivated by political ideology, or whether he just wanted to attain notoriety and to escape from a hum-drum existence is unclear. Certainly he had spent a couple of years in America – after he fled there to avoid prosecution for raping a young girl who was looking after some sheep in a field near Winchester.

He had had a somewhat deprived childhood in Edinburgh, where he was born, the eighth of twelve children, in 1752. His father soon died, which curiously gave young John a boost in life because it meant that he was eligible for free education at a charity school set up by George Heriot which provided help for the poor fatherless children of Edinburgh (or, as the Scottish dialect has it, the “puir, fitherless bairns”). When his schooling finished he tried his hand at various jobs, including that of a house painter, but drifted into a life of petty crime.

John_the_PainterAs a 21 year old, running away in order to avoid being imprisoned for rape, he secured a passage to Jamestown in Virginia on the basis of signing an Indenture of Apprenticeship, but discovered that he was not suited to a life of servitude working on the tobacco plantations. He ran away and spent a couple of years drifting through Philadelphia, Boston and New York.

In 1775 he returned to England and embarked on a career of political arson. Not only did he aim to destroy naval ships in harbour, but also to cripple the repair of ships by burning down the dockyards and ropewalks upon which the navy depended.


He comes across as something of a loner desperate to make a name for himself – in a pub he apparently heard a group of people talking about how vulnerable the Navy was to the ravages of fire, and in his words “I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design, and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truly heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America, and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world!”

He seems to have been able to gain access to a number of naval installations in Bristol and Portsmouth and, using his knowledge of inflammable materials gleaned from his time in the paint trade, he succeeded in fire-bombing a small number of installations.abc2

His first attempt, at Portsmouth, had to be aborted when he accidentally got locked in the ropewalk and had to hammer on the door to be let out!  He stayed close by, and returned on 7th December 1776 when he managed to set off three incendiary devices. One building was destroyed – but hardly the mass conflagration of the whole city and dockyards which Aitken apparently intended.

He later made his way to Bristol where he triggered off a number of small fires, all of them extinguished without serious damage. The authorities were convinced that a whole gang of terrorists were on the loose – a number of wholly unrelated fires were also attributed to him. The panic caused by the reports of the arson attacks helped the government push through the Treason Act, enabling suspected rebels to be seized without the right of habeas corpus (in other words, without the courts having the right to question the legitimacy of the imprisonment). Eventually a reward of one thousand pounds was posted, his description was circulated, and the Bow Street Runners were employed to track him down. Before long, Aitken was apprehended while travelling through Odiham in Hampshire and taken in for questioning.

At first he proved unwilling to cooperate but a government agent managed to gain his confidence while in prison and to secure sufficient details from him to enable a conviction to be obtained.

The gallows created from the mast of HMS Arethusa, some sixty feet above ground level apparently made it the highest ever used for an execution. Clearly the authorities wanted people to see the punishment from as far away as possible – which perhaps explains why, following his death, the corpse of John Aitken was suspended in chains at Fort Blockhouse, overlooking the harbour at Portsmouth, where it remained for many years, a gruesome reminder of the fate which awaited terrorists in the 18th Century.

I see that arson in the King’s Dockyards featured earlier in the 1770’s – the Lewis Walpole Library site has this etching entitled “The blind Justice & the secretaries One Eye & No Head examining the old woman and little girl about the fireing  of Portsmouth Dock Yard.” c1

The incident referred to occurred in June 1770 but the etching came out a year later. It shows Justice as being not just half-blinded but as an ugly old hag with her scales of justice heavily tipped by a bag of gold coins. The secretaries include the blind magistrate Sir John Fielding (wearing a visor), and the Earls of Rochford, Sandwich and Suffolk. They are examining an old crone and her daughter who have been arrested on a charge of setting fire to a part of the dockyard at Portsmouth. Fielding is saying ” I see plainly that you are guilty. You have that hanging look”. One of the earls says “Some body must hang for this, right or wrong, to quiet the mob and save our Credit.” In vain the old crone claims that she is a poor honest woman and that her betters know more about the fire than she does….

Parliament has always taken a dim view of burning down the Royal Navy. The “Dockyards etc. Protection Act 1772” set out a comprehensive list of crimes punishable by death, such as causing a fire or explosion in a naval dockyard, magazine, warehouse, or ship –  and oddly it remained a capital offence even after the death penalty for murder was abolished in 1965. The 1772 Act was finally repealed by the  1972 Criminal Damage Act. It rather looks as though John the Painter was the only person ever executed under this particular piece of legislation, which is strange when I can recall from my days as a law student that we always had to remember that the death penalty still existed in certain circumstances such as arson in Her Majesty’s dockyards. No matter that it hadn’t happened for  two centuries, you needed to remember it!


The paper cut-outs were all made by my ancestor Richard Hall in the 1780’s.

Feb 252018

aa1As obituaries go, this one from the 1821 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine is perhaps the least revealing: the Countess of Jersey, mother of ten children, died on 25th July. “She was very unpopular at the period of the unhappy marriage of our present Sovereign.” The “why” is not explained, but actually there is an awful lot more to the story of Frances, Dowager Countess of Jersey, than appears in this death notice.

For a start, look at the circumstances of her birth. Her father the Right Reverend Philip Twysden was well-connected and had been made Bishop – O.K., an Irish bishopric, but a Bishop nonetheless. But as rough diamonds go, he was quite something. Unfortunately, successful and solvent he was not – he became bankrupt. Unlike other bishops, he decided to do something about his parlous financial straits – not for him hand-wringing and whingeing. He took his destiny into his own hands – and turned to …. highway robbery!


Apparently he was staying the night of 1st November 1752 at Royden Hall in Kent, where he met a doctor. The good medic was apparently engrossed in treating a sick man, while the Bishop surreptitiously contrived to remove the charge from the doctor’s pistol. Unfortunately for his Right Reverence, the manoeuvre was noticed by the patient. Later, the patient alerted the doctor – who therefore re-loaded his pistol and on the next day set forth for Wrotham Heath. There, in some remote spot, the Bishop suddenly appeared from the undergrowth and demanded that the medicine man should hand over his valuables, while advancing towards him with all the menace that comes from knowing that the victim was unarmed. Bad mistake! The doctor shot the Bishop dead, which, as ways to go and meet your Maker, is an unusual ending for a man of the cloth. Not good news for his unfortunate widow, who was already pregnant and who later gave birth to a girl destined to make her mark in the gossip columns of the nation.

Frances, Countess of Jersey, by Thomas Watson after Daniel Gardner, mezzotint published in 1774

Fast forward from 1752 to 1780 and  an attractive young lady is about to make her mark on the world…

It seems strange that with her infamous father she ever made it down the aisle with anyone respectable, let alone on the arm of the 34 year-old  (4th) Earl of Jersey, George Villiers. She was just seventeen years old.

George Villiers, 4th Earl of Jersey by Ozias Humphry RA. © National Trust, Osterley Park


There then followed the baby-farming years – ten sprogs in the period between 1771 and 1788. To outward appearances, all seemed respectable, but having hit her fortieth year and become a grandmother she cut the traces and began an affair with the Prince of Wales. Well, in fairness she had already been “romantically linked” to one or two (well, four or five) other members of the aristocracy, but clearly the son of the reigning monarch was a better catch, even if he was “married” to his long-term mistress Maria Fitzherbert. Within a year this rocking granny had prised the Prince away from Maria. She helped push the Prince into a marriage with his cousin Caroline of Brunswick (1794). As the Queen Consort hated her new husband, and had very little to do with him once she had produced an heir, it left the way clear for Lady Jersey to tighten her grip on the Prince, and she became “the paramount paramour” for at least five years.

'A lady putting on her cap, - June 1795' by James Gillray © National Portrait Gallery, London

‘A lady putting on her cap, – June 1795’  by James Gillray, showing the Countess of Jersey putting on her head-dress/ setting her cap at the Prince.      © National Portrait Gallery, London

What of her husband? Well, in 1795 he was no doubt consoled by the fact that he was rewarded with being made up to Master of the Horse to the Prince of Wales. “Cuckold-in-Chief, more like.

This Gillray from 1796 shows Caroline bursting in onto the  embedded Prince and  the Countess, in a print called “The Jersey smuggler detected; – or – good causes for discontent [separation]”

© British Museum

© British Museum

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes her as “a scintillating society woman, a heady mix of charm, beauty, and sarcasm”. That barely does justice to a woman renowned for her scheming. In the Journal of Mary Frampton she is described as being “a clever, unprincipled, but beautiful and fascinating woman, though with scarcely any retrieving really good quality.” To Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, she was “la Peste” – in other words “the Plague.”

Her ability to spend money – buckets and buckets of it – was legendary and she made no effort to reduce her extravagance even when the Prince ended their affair in 1799. She was a constant thorn in his side, continuing to meddle and manipulate, causing mischief at every turn. The Prince responded by referring to her as “that infernal jezebel.”

Throughout this time her husband continued to put up with her shenanigans even though her extravagance led to him being threatened with imprisonment on account of his debts.

On 22 August 1805, the Earl of Jersey died. The impoverished Frances had the bare-faced cheek to apply to the Prince for a pension. Reluctantly he eventually agreed. Still her debts mounted, but from time to time her son the 5th Earl would wipe the slate clean, as well as allowing her a jointure of £3,500 a year. So, she struggled by into her 69th year, when she died at Cheltenham on 23 July 1821. Her obituary really doesn’t do justice to her, so instead  I will finish with another caricature from Gillray…

NPG D13025; 'Fashionable-jockeyship' by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey

The Prince is shown holding up two fingers while being carried  by the Earl towards  the figure of the Countess of Jersey, who is attempting to hide under the bedclothes. “Buck, Buck, how many Horns do I hold up?” enquires our fashionable jockey, to which the cuckolded Earl replies “E’en as many as you please!”  On the wall a picture shows a fat old sow dancing to an angelic tune…

Nov 132017

John Peel, Cumberland farmer and keen huntsman.





Prudence suggests I preface my words with a confession: I am not here to express an opinion one way or another about hunting. I have never hunted, but have never sought to sabotage a hunt either. I simply comment on the life of a man who lived to hunt (pine marten and hares mostly, but foxes if the chance arose). He is immortalised in a song, written in his lifetime by a close friend, and I thought it was worth finding out about the man behind the song.

The words were written by John Peel’s hunting companion, a man called John Woodcock Graves, in Cumbrian dialect. Graves frequently refined and altered the song, and over time some of the lines have changed. It seems clear that the original version referred to ‘a coat so grey’ – nowadays it is usually ‘a coat so gay’ (referring presumably to the fashion for wearing ‘hunting pink’, allegedly after the tailor named Mr. Pink. Legend has it he was a London tailor who bought large quantities of red material after the American War of Independence in 1783, and became popular for hunting attire. Mr Pink may however have been apocryphal since no-one has located his place or date of business).

It is in any event more likely that John Peel, a rugged farmer in a desolate area of the moors, hunted in a coat woven from the local Herdwick sheep, which are about as grey as you can get.

Grey rather than Gay – and certainly not Pink!
                   Herdwick rams – Courtesy of Wikipedia.


John Peel was probably born in 1776 – the records show that he was baptized the following year. The family lived at Greenrigg in the parish of Caldbeck, a remote area on the Cumbrian Fells where farming was hard and the population sparse.




When he was twenty he fell head over heels with the eighteen year old Mary White, daughter of a local (more prosperous) farming family. Her family were aghast and forbade the marriage. Mary’s mother interrupted the banns as they were being read with the words ‘I forbid the banns. They’re far ower young!’ Undeterred the impetuous John Peel borrowed ‘Binsey’ (his father’s fleetest horse) and eloped with his lovely lady. She shimmied down from her bedroom window at midnight (ah, the stuff of romance!) and together they galloped up to Gretna Green (across the border in Scotland). They returned, married, a few days later.

And the circumstances in which the song was written? Leave that to Graves, the song’s writer: “Nearly forty years have now wasted away since John Peel and I sat in a snug parlour at Caldbeck, hunting over again many a good run, when a flaxen-haired daughter of mine came in saying “Father, what do they say to what Granny sings?” Granny was singing to sleep my eldest son with a very old rant called “Bonnie (or Cannie) Annie.” The pen and ink for hunting appointments being on the table the idea of writing a song to this old air forced itself on me, and thus was produced, impromptu “D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so gray.” Immediately after I sang it to poor Peel, and I well remember saying to him in a joking style, “By Jove, Peel, you’ll be sung when we’re both run to earth.”

                                         A paper cut-out of horse and hounds, made by my ancestor Richard Hall c. 1780.

For many years Peel kept his own pack of hounds – an expensive hobby, costing about £40 a year. He would start the day’s chase on horseback, mostly on his 14-hand dun gelding called Dunny, but would then abandon the horse to make the pursuit over the rough scree slopes on foot (a custom known locally as ‘chasing the ace’).

Typically he would set off at daybreak and hunt all day, covering as much as 50 miles of the roughest terrain before returning to sink a pint (or three) at the Sun Inn at Ireby. He must have made a striking figure – a tall man, who stood bolt upright, with chiselled features and bright blue eyes.

He died in 1854 aged 78 and is buried in St Kentigern’s Church at Caldbeck.





John Peel’s memorial, before it was desecrated and smashed by hunt saboteurs.




And Graves, the man who immortalised Peel? He went to live in Hobart, and died there in 1886. When I was in Tasmania a couple of years back I had the chance to look out his memorial in Hobart’s St David’s Park.

So, all together now:

D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so grey,

D’ye ken John Peel at the break of the day,

D’ye ken John Peel when he’s far, far away,

With his hounds and his horn in the morning?



For the sound of his horn brought me from my bed,

And the cry of his hounds which he oft-times led;

Peel’s view halloo would awaken the dead,

Or the fox from his lair in the morning.


Yes, I ken John Peel and Ruby too!

Ranter and Ringwood, Bellman and True,

From a find to a check, from a check to a view,

From a view to a death in the morning.


Then here’s to John Peel from my heart and soul,

Let’s drink to his health, let’s finish the bowl,

We’ll follow John Peel thro’ fair and thro’ foul,

If we want a good hunt in the morning.


D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so grey?

He lived at Troutbeck once on a day;

Now he has gone far, far, far away;

We shall ne’er hear his voice in the morning.


Aug 152017

In my current book,  ‘In Bed with the Georgians, Sex Scandal and Satire’ I mention the small-but-beautifully-formed ‘pocket rocket’ known as  Gertrude Mahon. As a teenager she decided to run away to France to get married to an impecunious Irish fiddle player, much against her mother’s wishes.  Bow Street runners were sent to intercept the pair before they could leave Dover, but the resourceful Mr Mahon invited his captors to have a few libations with him before he returned with them to go before a judge. He promptly drank them both under the table thereby enabling him to escape to France with young Gertrude. Once in Paris he got  married, got Gertrude pregnant, and then left her for another woman.

It raises the question: just what was it like travelling over to France, both in terms of the Channel crossing, and in terms of packing, safety, cost and so on? My ancestor Richard Hall kept a delightful little guide describing a five-week trip across the English Channel in order to visit Paris and Versailles. Richard  obviously operated a sort of lending library for his close friends, since this volume was numbered 15 and he refers to loan books, by number,  in some of his papers.

The original booklet was published in 1750, priced one shilling, and although the name of the author is not given, the booklet ends on page 38 with the words “I am, Dear Sir, your most assuredly, A.Z., Middle Temple, June 15, 1750”. I thought it might be fun to reproduce part of it, since it gives a vivid picture of what travel was actually like in the middle of the eighteenth century. All aspiring historical novelists please note – this is a chance for you to tell it as it really was….!

So, you started with your portmanteau trunk, acquired your ‘common necessaries’, got yourself a French dictionary and called on your banker for a letter of credit. The writer recommends taking twenty guineas in gold, and as the note at the foot of the page explains, he is assuming a budget of £45 for a single gentleman, £25 each for a pair  travelling together, and a very reasonable £20 a head for four people. Clothing costs were extra…

Extract from R P Bonnington’s ‘Seascape off Calais’, showing a packet boat approaching the shore, and shown courtesy of the British Museum.

For one guinea you could cross the Channel in a ‘tight but good vessel’ and it was handy to be reminded to take a collation of cold meat with you in case the pangs of acute hunger set in. The three bottles of wine probably helped with the tedium. And for those who preferred not to have to travel with hoi polloi, there was much to be said for forking out the five guineas and having the vessel all to yourselves.

It is interesting to hear about the procedures for clearing French customs (apparently the Governor’s aged cook was known to perform the checks of your person, presumably giving you a good pat down with a wooden spoon….). I was intrigued at the idea that your suitcase would then be searched before being plumbed, i.e. sealed with a lead seal so that you were unable to access the contents before you reached Paris.

Handy to know that half a crown slipped into the pocket of the guy at the Customs House was all that was necessary, plus a few pence to the porters and half a crown (three livres) to your attendant ‘who is himself too proud to carry anything bigger than a small hand-basket.’

A nice comment about French horses – whereas in England we are used to good strong steeds, the French will palm you off with something little bigger than a greyhound, so goodness knows how it will cope with a heavy trunk. But in general, with good roads, you will cover six miles in the hour – described as being ‘one post’. Handy hack: always carry a lot of binder twine with you because the French will rip you off if you try and buy cordage to tie your cases down. 5 or 6 livres for a ball of string! Outrageous conduct, quite appalling….

Thomas Rowlandson’s The Paris Diligence

Good to know that the Silver Lion and, later on, the Red Lion, are to be recommended, and Handy Hack number 2 is to insist always on a  carriage  that is hung upon springs and with good glasses (ie clear windows for looking out at the French scenery). I rather like Handy Hack number 3 – ‘pray observe not to be too free with their small wines, which, like the water in Paris, will certainly flux you, if you drink them in draughts.’ Oops, gotta run…

Ah the joys of French bedding! Handy Hack number 4 has to be that you insist on seeing that the linen on the bed is properly dried and aired before use. I like the mental image of French beds piled high with mattresses, topped with damp, clammy sheets. I recall reading a similar complaint in a letter from one of George I’s ministers, complaining about wet bedding on his frequent trips accompanying His Majesty back home to his beloved Hanover.

At this point I will leave off the summary of the “do’s and don’ts” when travelling through France: next time. French money, French wines – and the appalling state of French loos.

My ancestor’s paper cut-out of a coach and four

Nov 202016

1759 thanksgiving

A week after the naval victory over the French at Quiberon Bay, Richard noted the “Day of General Thanksgiving, observed for the great and plentiful harvest, and the train of successes the Lord has been pleased this year to give us over our Enemies in Europe, Asia, Affrica and America”. The Battle of Quiberon Bay was the icing on the cake, rounding off the ‘annus mirabilis’ which saw British forces triumph around the world.

File:Quibcardinaux2.jpg                Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum.  ‘The Battle of Quiberon Bay’ by Nicholas Pocock, painted in 1812.

Quiberon Bay is situated off the French coast near St Nazaire. The English fleet under Sir Edward Hawke had been attempting to bottle up the French navy in Brest harbour so as to stop any possible invasion plan; a vicious storm had developed, forcing the bulk of the English fleet to run for cover in the Channel, but enough ships remained to see the French attempt to break the blockade under cover of the storm. The English with 24 ships of the line, re-grouped and chased the French into Quiberon Bay, notorious for its shallows and rocky passages. In the teeth  of the gale Hawke’s ships cornered the French under the command of Marshal de Conflans. After a battle which lasted for hours in the storm-lashed bay, the English captured, or forced aground, six of the French ships of the line.


Battle of Quiberon Bay, the Day after. Richard Wright, 1760.

Marshal de Conflan’s flagship, the mighty Soleil Royal, was driven onto the shallows, and torched.  Two and a half thousand experienced French sailors were killed or captured. Although a number of large French ships escaped, they were but a shadow of the original force, and posed little threat to the British navies for the rest of the Seven Years War. The battle was a turning point in the balance of sea power, and so when news of the victory reached London, the Day of Thanksgiving was announced. The clergy took to their pulpits in droves to praise the Lord for helping us trounce our enemies, and Horace Walpole remarked that “our bells are worn threadbare with ringing for victories”.

For Richard and the rest of the population it was apparent that the very real threat of invasion by the French was completely finished – it must have been a huge relief. After years of demoralizing news the country had triumphed over the French in every theatre of war. With hindsight it can be said that 1759 marked the occasion when the British Empire eclipsed the French one. And Richard was able to sit down with a sharp pair of scissors, spectacles perched on the end of his nose, and cut out a piece of paper to show the might of Britsh Armed Forces.

Nov 072014

travel 3Richard Hall kept meticulous details of his travels around the country. He recorded the mileage, he recorded the length of journey and whether he had a meal, he recorded the route and the turnpike tolls, and he recorded the weather on the trip! And at the end of the journey he generally wrote in his diary that “through Journey’s Mercies” he had been spared to reach his destination!

The point is: travel was still something of an ordeal in the 1780’s. It would take him two days to get from the Cotswolds, where he lived, to central London, where he had his business. Two days of rattling, bone-shaking discomfort, sitting cheek-by-jowl with people he probably would have preferred not to have been sitting next to!

Here is his separate note-book of distances, includ1 travel 001ing the 13 mile trip from Bath to Bristol, and  the 85 mile trip from Bourton-on-the-Water to London. On another page he recorded that the  journey back from London cost him £5/2/00 ( the equivalent of some £400). Why? Because he came back by private chaise. The hire of the chaises came to £4/3/08; he paid eleven shillings to the drivers; six shillings and fourpence for turnpike tolls; and a not very generous one shilling to the “hostler” (ie the ostler – the man who looked after the horses).

He would have followed his route on one of the splendid linear maps printed by Bowles and Co – this is one showing the journey between Banbury and Bristol.

travel 1Unfortunately I do not have the diary recording Richard’s trip to Paris with his new bride, from thirty years earlier. A shame – I have his guide book dated 1750 which gives fascinating detail of which  vessels to charter for  your crossing to Calais, how to hire a coach in France, and so on. It includes the warning that you should always have with you “a small collation of Cold Meat, and two or three Bottles of Wine to serve you in the passage” ie across the Channel. You should especially take care to ensure that the plumbing on your trunk (ie the lead seal affixed by the Customs Officer) should not be broken. It was best to hire a French guide – but he would be too proud to carry any of your luggage (“nothing larger than a small hand-basket”) so you would have to pay ten pence per item (“one livre”) to a surly French porter.

8The  guide advises you that the French will try and rip you off at every turn, and is particularly scathing about French horses (“one, sometimes two, of the three horses are not  much bigger or stronger than a large Greyhound”). Making sure that the trunks are tied down properly was vital – so that they did not go walkies when you stopped. The guide warns “a good deal of strong cordage will be wanted to fasten your Trunks behind the Chaise… for you’ll else be made to pay a price for it there and then which will make you amazed, perhaps five or six livres for what will cord on a Couple of middling trunks.”

The guide sets out some vital information. For instance, the Bulls Head at Abbe Ville had good champagne, and even better, the stop at Luzarche involved “Good things – and a handsome Landlady.” Stay at Amiens and you could get both the good champagne AND a merry Landlady – though no mention of whether she was handsome. Well, even in those days, perhaps you couldn’t have everything….

Mind you, it was important to avoid being robbed  while passing through France. As Horace Walpole wrote to the Honourable  Henry Seymour Conway on 28 September 1774:
” Let me give you one other caution …. Take care of your papers at Paris, and have a very strong lock to your porte-feuille. In the h`otels garnis they have double keys to every lock, and examine every drawer and paper of the English they can get at. They will pilfer, too, whatever they can. I was robbed of half my clothes there the first time, and they wanted to hang poor Louis to save the people of the house who had stolen the things.”   Tut-tut, such bigotry! But then,  the French were as bad about us: they generally opined that you could not walk down any street in London without having your pocket picked and your watch stolen…

More about  travel, and what Richard  packed, and the perils of eating French food, can be found in “The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman”.

Sep 152014
Edouart's self-portrait - in other words he is showing himself in profile, cutting out his profile...

Edouart’s self-portrait – in other words he is showing himself in profile, cutting out his profile…

On Monday 22 September I am giving a talk about 18th Century paper-cutting at the Holburne Museum at Bath. It includes a section about the life and works of a remarkable French profile-cutter who rejoiced in the name of Auguste Armand Constant Fidele Edouart. He had been born in 1789, served under Napoleon, and fled to England as a penniless refugee when the Bourbon monarchy were restored to the French throne.

For a while he tried to eke a living teaching French to the English, and making mourning pictures – usually portraits on ivory, made with hair from the deceased. But one day he was shown a shadow picture (as silhouettes were called) which had been cut by a machine, Never modest about his talents, Edouart announced that he could do better – and promptly did just that! He describes the scene as follows:

“I … took a pair of scissors, I tore the cover of a letter that lay upon the table, and took the old man by the arm and led him to a chair. I placed him in a proper manner so as to see his profile, then in an instant I produced his likeness.

The paper being white I took the black snuffers” [in other words, candle snuffers covered in soot] “and rubbed it on with my fingers.

This likeness and preparation, made so quickly, as if by inspiration, was at once approved of… the ladies changed their teasing and ironical tone to one of praise and begged me to take their mother’s likeness, which I did with the same facility and exactness”

It led to a total change of course for Edouart – he gave up teaching, and hair pictures, and concentrated on what he called “silhouettes” – named after the despised French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette. The term ‘a la silhouette’ was originally intended to be derogatory, because the man was renowned for being a cheapskate. Etienne de Silhouette’s ‘crime’ was trying to balance the books of the French economy by melting down the  gold table settings used by the royal family, and replacing them with silver plate and gilt. For that he got the sack – and a reputation for being miserly. But Edouart was happy to adopt the term, in order to distinguish his profile cuts from the inferior ones made by machine. The point was: if you could afford it, you would have your portrait painted in oils; if not, you could have your profile cut out of paper for just a few pence. It was a substitute – but a very popular and effective one.

Note the small boy on the right trying to distract the boy on the chair, earnestly declaiming poetry, by tickling the back of his neck.

Note the small boy on the right trying to distract the boy on the chair, earnestly declaiming poetry, by tickling the back of his neck.

He spent time in Bath and Cheltenham before moving to Edinburgh, cutting hundreds and hundreds of portraits along the way. And then he decided that he would go to the States, and prepare likenesses of all the great and the good. His years there involved creating some 4,000 portraits, including profiles of four U.S. presidents, five members of the supreme court, six state governors, six college presidents, eighteen mayors, six commodores, thirteen generals, thirty state or federal court judges, fifteen authors, and at least twenty-nine physicians….

The Gibbs brothers playing squash

The Gibbs brothers playing squash



The renowned violinist, Paganini, ferociously fiddling away...

The renowned violinist, Paganini, ferociously fiddling away…









You get the impression that Edouart measured his own importance by the importance of the people whose likenesses he took!

He meticulously kept copies of every single silhouette he ever made – indexed and cross-indexed five times over, with the records kept in numerous leather-bound books. But by 1849 he decided to return to France – and set off aboard the good ship Oneida. The vessel got as far as the Channel Islands where it was wrecked in a bad storm – Edouart escaped with his life, but lost most of his luggage, including many of the volumes of duplicates.

A magic lantern show, the silhouettes positioned against a lithographed background.

A magic lantern show, the silhouettes positioned against a lithographed background.

The poor man was devastated – he had set such store by keeping a complete record of his life’s work, and he suffered something of a nervous breakdown. Certainly he never cut another profile ever again. Mind you, his withdrawal from the world of silhouettes may have had something to do with the fact that Mr Daguerre had brought out his ‘daguerrotype’ in 1839. The same year had seen Fox-Talbot patent his system of recording photographic images on paper, and the new-fangled photography was spelling the death-knell of the silhouette. It was a shame – some of Edouart’s profiles are beautifully done, and his surviving cut-outs are a fascinating record of the movers and shakers of the period between 1825 and 1850, on both sides of the Atlantic.

If anyone is interested, come along to my talk at the Holburne  next week – tickets are a fiver. The talk accompanies an exhibition at the Holburne Museum, showing some of Edouart’s silhouettes cut while he was in Bath – and I will also be bringing along some of my own collection of dozens of cut-outs  from the 18th Century. More information about my collection can be found here.

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Aug 312014


Little did I think, when I used some of Richard Hall’s paper cut-outs to illustrate “The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman”, that I would end up not only publishing a separate book, just on his paper-cuts, but also would be lecturing on the subject. It’s a strange old world…

edouartUp until now it has mostly been to W.I.’s and history groups, but recently I received an invitation to give a talk at the Holburne Museum in Bath. It links in with an exhibition they are currently hosting on the works of a Frenchman called Auguste Edouart, who was exiled in Britain after the fall of Napoleon. He started off teaching French, progressed to making mourning pictures out of hair from the recently deceased, and ended up as a most prolific exponent of the art of taking silhouettes. Not for him a mere head and shoulders jobby, bronzed or highlighted with gold. He only did full-length portraits, always in plain, unadorned black, and over the course of 25 years he made tens of thousands of these silhouettes. He stayed in Bath and Cheltenham before going up to Edinburgh, and then spent  six years in the States cutting likenesses of all the great and the good. He obviously liked doing statesmen and politicians, but wasn’t averse to doing wealthy bankers, lawyers, entertainers – anyone as long as they were the movers and shakers of American Society.

Anyway, the  Holburne wanted a talk, combining the life and works of Mr Edoaurt with a look at the paper-cutting traditions in England  during the second half of the eighteenth century, so if you are anywhere near Bath at tea time on 22 September do come along! It is scheduled to start at three p.m. and should take three quarters of an hour and I will bring with me  several dozen of the original paper cuts made by my ancestor for people to see. I will even bring along his original pen-knife and a few of his diaries, as well as  giving people a chance to look at “The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman” and my booklet on the actual paper-cuts.


More details of the talk can be found here   – I hope to see some of my Followers there!

Sixteen String Jack – the making of a hero (John Rann).

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Oct 172013
Sixteen String Jack, courtesy of the british Museum, referring to the fact that he had been acquitted 17 times prior to receiving his death sentence.

Sixteen String Jack, courtesy of the British Museum, referring to the fact that he had been acquitted 16 times prior to receiving his death sentence.

I am not quite clear why some villains manage to capture the public’s imagination as heroes, while others are treated as a thieving menace. Take highway robbery – there is nothing very subtle, clever or brave about brandishing a gun and threatening to blast somebody’s head off if they don’t hand you their watch (or whatever) and yet Georgian society seemed willing to treat some of these robbers as having a heroic quality, simply because they swaggered and boasted and liked to be seen around town with a pretty girl on each arm, while dressed in fine clothes which they had either stolen or bought using the proceeds of crime. No more so than one John Rann, whose distinguishing “trademark” was that he liked to stand out from the crowd by wearing eight brightly coloured ribbons tied around each knee – hence his moniker of “Sixteen String Jack”. Why sixteen? One story was that each ribbon represented a time when he had been acquitted of highway robbery…. On one occasion he was charged with breaking and entering – but it turned out that he had an assignation with the girl who lived there; she had fallen asleep and rather than give up and go home, he decided to clamber up to her window on the first floor and “help himself”. He was apprehended by the watchman and dragged before Sir John Fielding. On hearing the evidence from the girl that she would have freely admitted the young man had she not been asleep, the judge had no choice but to dismiss the case.

The Road to Ruin, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Road to Ruin, © The Trustees of the British Museum, showing John Rann            at Bagnigge Wells.

You might think that John Rann would count his blessings and keep a low profile; but no, far from it. He headed out to the fashionable spa at Bagnigge Wells, disporting himself in what the Newgate Calendar described as “a scarlet coat, tambour waistcoat, white silk stockings, laced hat, &c”, and publicly declared himself to be a highwayman. He became quarrelsome, and somewhat drunk, and started to chat up one of the young ladies in the ballroom. This led to a spate of minor scuffles – someone prised a gold ring from his finger, at which he remarked that he cared not, for it cost but a hundred guineas, and why, he could make that amount in one evening’s work! Not surprisingly, some of the assembled company at the Wells grew weary of his tiresome behaviour and gave him a right going over, and for good measure chucked him out the first floor window when he declined to make himself scarce. The River Fleet presumably provided him with a soft landing, and the Newgate Calendar remarks that “Rann was not much injured by this severe treatment; but he complained bitterly against those who could so affront a gentleman of his character.”

Richard Hall's cut-out of a highway robber at work.

Richard Hall’s cut-out of a highway robber at work.

It had all started very differently. He was born in a village outside Bath into a very poor family. He had no formal education and for a while eked a living selling goods from the back of a donkey as he toured the streets. When he was 12 he came to the attention of “lady of distinction” who no doubt was impressed by his barrow-boy chutzpah and way with words. She took him on as a servant in her household and all seemed well for a couple of years. He came to London, got a job at a stables at Brooke’s Mews and in due course became a driver of a post chaise. But the ambitious young man wanted to impress – and to do that he needed more money than the could get from his wages as a driver. highwayman7It appears that he extended his repertoire as a pick-pocket by chancing his arm at robbery on the King’s Highway – a capital offence if caught. He was dragged before the magistrates on a number of occasions but each time managed to talk his way out of the charge. He liked to adopt the persona of a modern day Robin Hood – well, he robbed the rich, even though he never seemed to follow it up by helping the poor. He enjoyed being in the public eye – he turned up at Barnet Races sporting an elegant blue satin waistcoat trimmed with silver, to make sure that he stood out. He was followed by hundreds of people, who were eager to gratify their curiosity by the sight of a man who had been so much the subject of gossip. On at least one occasion he turned up to watch the fun at Tyburn, thoroughly upstaging the poor man who was about to be sent to the gallows. One story has it that he even bragged that one day he would be the main attraction, and not just a bystander. He appeared at the Old Bailey in April, 1775, charged with others of robbing Mr. William Somers on the highway, and was acquitted for lack of evidence. Shortly afterwards he was again tried, for robbing a Mr. Langford, but again was acquitted for the same reason. The lad appeared to be above the law, and how he loved it! 16 string jackA month later a Miss Roache (his girlfriend – one of many), was caught trying to pawn a watch which Rann had stolen during a robbery “near the nine-mile stone on the Hounslow road.” Again he was hauled before the Bench and when Sir John Fielding asked him if he would offer anything in his defence, Rann replied “I know no more of the matter than you do, nor half so much neither.” His appearance in court was suitably flamboyant – the Newgate Calendar comments that he “had a bundle of flowers in the breast of his coat almost as large as a broom; and his irons were tied up with a number of blue ribands.” Once more, he got off… On another occasion he was sent to Marshalsea Debtors Prison for failure to pay a debt of fifty pounds – he sent word to his mates and in no time a steady stream of ne’er-do-wells, male and female, turned up at the prison gates and paid off the debt. Various other acquittals followed until one September afternoon in September 1784 he stole items from Dr. William Bell, physician to the Princess Amelia. Bell gave evidence that he was riding near Ealing when he observed two men of “rather mean appearance” ride past him. The Newgate Calendar takes up the story: “A short while afterwards one of them, which he believed was Rann, crossed the head of his horse, and, demanding his money, said “Give it to me, and take no notice, or I’ll blow your brains out.” On this the doctor gave him one shilling and sixpence, which was all the silver he had, and likewise a common watch in a tortoise-shell case.”

An 18th Century tortoiseshell and silver watch, courtesy of Bonhmas.

An 18th Century tortoiseshell and silver watch, courtesy of Bonhmas.

Later that evening Miss Roache tried to offer the watch to a pawnbroker in Oxford Road. He had his suspicions about the watch, and turned it over to observe that it had been made by a well-known watchmaker called Mr. Gregnion, of Russell Street, Covent Garden. The pawnbroker contacted Mr Gregnion, who confirmed that he had made the watch for Dr. Bell.The net was closing tight: John Rann and his associate William Collier were arrested and committed to Newgate, charged with highway robbery; Miss Roche was charged, along with her servant, with being an accessory after the fact. In the event Miss Roche was found guilty and sentenced to be transported for fourteen years; her servant was acquitted. When Rann appeared for his trial the Calendar reports that he was “dressed in a new suit of pea-green clothes; his hat was bound round with silver strings; he wore a ruffled shirt; and his behaviour evinced the utmost unconcern”. He was so confident that he would get off scot-free that he ordered a fine supper to be provided for the entertainment of his special friends and associates. But the atmosphere became more sombre when all present realized that this time there would be no acquittal. A short time afterwards he was found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. Still the merriment continued – on October 23rd he held another dinner, this time for seven girlfriends. It was by all accounts a mirth-filled evening.

The Tyburn stone at the junction of Edgeware Road, and Oxfiord Street, Marble Arch, and

The Tyburn stone at the junction of Edgeware Road, and Oxford Street, Marble Arch.

The hangman’s noose was finally put round his neck on 30th November 1774. James Boswell was one of the people in the large crowd which turned up to watch. According to the Newgate Calendar “when he came near the gallows he turned round, and looked at it as an object which he had long expected to see, but not as one that he dreaded, as might reasonably have been expected.”       highwayman6According to contemporary reports Sixteen-String Jack went to the gallows wearing his pea-green suit and all his finery complete with a huge nosegay in his buttonhole. He decorated his foot shackles with bright blue ribbons. Some accounts suggested he enjoyed some lively banter with the crowd, danced a jig, and generally showed no sign of fear or apprehension. According to Boswell he was cheered by ‘the whole vagabond population of London’. He was twenty four years old when he died.

highwayman 5

Another paper cut, more gallows humour!

Another paper cut, more gallows humour!


Highwayman Sixteen string Jack PH THeydon Bois nr Epping forest

In the Victorian era there was an insatiable appetite for stories about Rann’s exploits, and even today there is a public House named after him at Theydon Bois, near Epping Forest. And in case anyone is interested in the paper cut-outs I have published a book of them (see here) and it is also available on Kindle  – see here.

Jan 182013

I recently came across the bill submitted to my ancestor Richard Hall by the Funeral Director on the occasion of the death of his first wife Eleanor in 1780. The undertakers (that is to say, the company which undertook the arrangements….) were John Cooper & Co. Here is the bill:

I have included it because it gives some idea of what was involved in a funeral in the Georgian Era in the latter part of the 18th Century. Eleanor Hall had died in her 47th year – she got up and had breakfast as normal on 11th January 1780 at her home at One London Bridge, had a splitting headache at midday, and was dead by six in the evening. In all probability she suffered a brain haemorrhage. It must have been a terrible shock for Richard, who had married Eleanor nearly 27 years earlier, and for their three grown-up children, who all lived at the property.

Richard records her death in his diary “Oh the affliction of this Day. My Dear and Affectionate Wife was suddenly seiz’d with a pain in her head after Twelve at Noon, which issued in a Fit; no Prescription of Physician Avail’d”

Richard was devastated and made this beautiful cut-out in paper as a memorial. The memento is only just over one inch across and is extraordinarily delicate.

He would have employed the firm of John Cooper & Co to make all the arrangements for the actual funeral, which was to take place at Bunhill Burial Grounds (where many Dissenters were buried). Richard and Eleanor were both Baptists and as an additional incentive to choose Bunhill, it was where both her parents had been buried back in 1754. The expenses even included opening up the family vault and constructing a tent over it so as to keep prying eyes at bay.

The invoice starts by showing the actual funeral as taking place on January 18th (exactly one week after Eleanor’s death) 233 years ago today.

To start with the actual coffin and furniture:

An inside Elm Coffin lined and ruffled with fine Crape and a mattress (£1/11/6)

A Superfine Sheet, Shroud and Pillow (£1/15/00)

An outside lead coffin with plate of Inscription (£4/10/00)

An Elm case covered with fine Black Cloth, finish’d in the best Manner with black nails and drape, Lead Plate Cherubim handles, lead plate and wrought Gripes (that is to say, grips) (£5/10/00).

Then there were the extras:

4 Men going in with Lead Coffin and Case (10/-)

7 Tickets and Delivering   –  7 shillings.  (These would have been official invitations to attend the funeral service, sent out to close friends and often in the form of Memento Mori like this one, shown courtesy of the University of Missouri ).

Hanging the Shop and Stair-case in Mourning (in other words, draping black cloth over the entire ground floor and stairs of One London Bridge, from where the funeral procession started its sad and solemn journey)

Use  of 16 double silver’d sconces and Wax Lights for ditto

2 Porters with Gowns and Staves with Silk cover & hats & gloves

The best Pall


There then follow a few items which are hard to decipher. What looks like:

A coffin lid of black feathers and man in hatband and gloves

Crape hatbands

Silk ditto

Rich three-quarter Armozeen scarves[a form of black silk used at funerals] for a Minister

12 Pairs of Men’s laced kid gloves

2 Pairs of Women’s ditto

6 Pairs of Men’s and Women’s plain and one pair Mitts

Use of 11 Gent Cloaks

A Hearse and 4 coaches with Setts of horses

Velvet Coverings and black feathers for hearse and six

10 Hearse pages with truncheons , 6 of ye bearers

10 Pairs of gloves and favours for ditto

Eight coach pages with Hatbands and gloves

Use of 5 Coachmans cloaks

10 pairs of gloves for ditto and Postillion

Paid at Bunhill for opening the Vault and for Tent

Fetch and carrying Company

Turnpike and drink for the Men

A total of £51/8/6 which you would need to multiply by perhaps seventy to give a modern-day equivalent i.e £3500 or $5250

It must have made a sombre and imposing sight as the funeral cortege wended its way north of the Hall household on its one mile journey to the graveside. As Richard noted in his diary that night, it had been “a very damp day, some part Foggy, not very Cold” You can almost see the black horses with their black plumes, attended by page boys dressed from tip to toe in black, the heavy coats of the pall bearers, the coffin lined with black velvet….

(This blog is a reprise of a post I did in September 2012 for London Historians)