In my last blog I mentioned ‘the other’ Samuel Johnson and the help given to me by Naomi Heap. She has kindly agreed to tell me more about her ancestor. Over to you, Naomi:
Ever sat and pondered the scribblings of a previous occupant? No me neither, let’s face it public toilets are not a place to tarry in the modern age. Even so, these days a necessary encounter with shared facilities is not likely to provide much in the way of reading material. The ubiquitous and poorly shaped phallus is a more likely artistic offering, or alternatively, you might find stylised tags that are entirely illegible to anyone but the ‘artiste’. This was not always the case, and it seems that in the 1700’s the bog-house wall (or glass window if you happened to have a diamond about your person) was an excellent spot to leave your thoughts. The surety that those to follow would be in-situ long enough to enjoy your attempts at verse, was quite literally ‘taken as read’.
‘Merry Thoughts: or the Glass-window and Bog-house Miscellany’ is a collection of such graffiti found in conveniences, tavern windows and public places in the 1700’s. It was published in four parts by one Hurlo Thrumbo – a pseudonym which I will later explain.
First however, here is an example of toilet humour from the time. This cartoon (held by the British Museum) entitled ‘Sawney in the Boghouse’ shows the likely conditions of early public conveniences. As an aside, the joke of this picture is that the Scots Man has his legs in the bottom holes and is sitting on the lid. The words below the picture insinuate that the Scots were so wild they wouldn’t know how to answer the call of nature if it involved indoors facilities.
You will notice that our Scottish friend is surrounded by various leaflets and flyers. In the dedication of Merry Thoughts, this practice of advertising in the loo is cited as the very reason for Hurlo Thrumbo’s collection. I paraphrase the author, who considered that the collection of “lucubration” should not be lost as “bum fodder” or be painted over by landlords who would rob the world of such “sparkling pieces” – but they should be kept for posterity in the form of a publication, and so was born Merry Thoughts: Or Glass Window and Bog House Miscellany.
Not only did people leave their thoughts for others to read, it seems that their audience would commonly respond. To use a modern metaphor, they would ‘post’– and you thought that Face Book was a new idea! Of course it’s not surprising that bodily functions feature extensively in the subject matter, as do food and sex, here are some examples. First up, a complaint about the lack of loo paper:
From costive Stools, and hide-bound Wit,
From Bawdy Rhymes, and Hole besh – – t.
From Walls besmear’d with stinking Ordure,
By Swine who nee’r provide Bumfodder
Keeping to the lavatorial theme:
In a Bog-House at the Nag’s-Head in Bradmere._
Such Places as these,
Were made for the Ease
Of every Fellow in common;
But a Person who writes
On the Wall as he shites,
Has a Pleasure far greater than Woman.
For he’s eas’d in his Body, and pleas’d in his Mind,
When he leaves both a Turd and some Verses behind.
You are eas’d in your Body, and pleas’d in your Mind,
That you leave both a Turd and some Verses behind;
But to me, which is worst, I can’t tell, on my Word,
The reading your Verses, or the smelling your Turd.
Not all the verses are crude. Next up, one written on the Wall at the George in Sandy-Lane, in the Bath Road, a Place famous for Puddings:
The Puddings are so good in Sandy-Lane,
That if I chance to go that Way again,
I’ll not be satisfy’d, unless I’ve twain,
The one stuck thick with Plumbs, the other plain.
Here is another:
Bog-House at Ludlow._
Two pitiful Dukes at our Race did appear;
One bespoke him a Girl, the other new Geer,
And both went away without paying I hear,
For the Cheat lov’d his Money, and so did the Peer.
You Rogue, Taylor shan’t catch me, while your Legs they are cross’d.
Don’t cry, my dear Girl, since you have got more than you lost.
One of the entries concerns a woman who is fed up with her husband for getting her pregnant so often:
A poor Woman was ill in a dangerous Case,
She lay in, and was just as some other Folks was.
‘By the Lord’, cries she, then: ‘If my Husband e’er come,
Once again with his Will for to tickle my Bum,
I’ll storm, and I’ll swear, and I’ll run staring wild’;
And yet the next Night, the Man got her with Child
Merry Thoughts is for me a recommended read, not because I have a particular interest in graffiti, vandalism or public loos. Rather because the curator of the verses is likely to have been Samuel Johnson of Cheshire – no, not the lexicographer, but the dancing master and play writer who was also my distant ancestor. Here by circuitous route we come back to Hurlo Thrumbo. There is some dispute as to whether this pseudonym was used by the publisher because of the popularity of Samuel Johnson’s play ‘Hurlothrumbo; or The Supernatural’ which ran at the Haymarket for 30 consecutive nights in 1729. However, in my opinion (I would like to say ‘informed opinion’ because I have studied Sam for over a year now) Merry Thoughts Part I is his collection and compilation, the later books are likely collaborative with some of the verses being sent to him by friends.
Anyway, if you have the time and the money I would recommend searching out a copy of Merry Thoughts. One online source is The Project Gutenberg; an academic team who offer a transcription of parts II, III and IIII. Part I may require an order from AbeBooks.”
Thanks for that Naomi. The Gutenberg transcription supports your contention that Samuel Johnson was the author of the Merry Thoughts and sets out the following endorsement of the value and significance of graffiti:
“modern graffiti is surprisingly like that of earlier periods: scatological observations, laments of lovers, accusations against women for their sexual promiscuity, the repetition of “trite” poems and sayings, and messages attributed to various men and women suggesting their sexual availability and proficiency. And if the political targets have changed over the years, many of the political attitudes have remained consistent. Graffiti is an irreverent form, with strong popular and anti-establishment elements. As actions common to all classes, eating, drinking, defecation, and fornication find their lowly record in graffiti-like form”.
Here are a few more examples contained in Merry Thoughts and contained in an interesting article by Dr. Maximilian E. Novak of the University of California, Los Angeles and entitled Loos, Lewdness and Literature
Thank you Naomi for drawing this book to my attention – I knew that the Georgians were a scatological lot, and caricaturists such as Gillray and Newton loved fart jokes, potty jokes – indeed everything and anything lavatorial!