Nov 102020

Some people count sheep to help them get to sleep – John Rickman counted people, over and over again. He was the driving force behind the country’s first census, in 1801, but also oversaw the following three censuses, in 1811, 1821 and 1831. By the time he retired there were clear trends emerging from the figures – trends which needed to be understood by a government coping with the economic strains of a country moving into a modern industrial society.

The idea of holding a national census had first been considered by Parliament back in 1753. The intention then was to register the “total number of marriages, births, and deaths, and also of the total number of the poor receiving alms from every Parish and Extra-parochial Place in Great Britain”. It was introduced by Thomas Potter, the MP for St Germans in Cornwall and it elicited considerable opposition – it would cost too much, it wasn’t feasible, it could give our enemies information which could be damaging to us by exposing numerical weaknesses.

The MP for York, a Mr. Thornton, went so far as to say that he did not believe:

‘that there was any set of men, or, indeed, any individual of the human species so presumptuous and so abandoned as to make the proposal we have just heard. …. I hold this project to be totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty …. The new Bill will direct the imposition of new taxes, and, indeed, the addition of a very few words will make it the most effectual engine of rapacity and oppression that was ever used against an injured people….. Moreover, an annual register of our people will acquaint our enemies abroad with our weakness’.

Nevertheless, the Bill passed its first hurdle but there was insufficient time for it to complete all its Readings, and the Bill lapsed.

Thomas Malthus, courtesy of the Wellcome Institute

The likely enormity of the effects of a rapidly growing population was laid bare by an Anglican vicar from the small parish of Wotton, near Guildford. Writing in 1798 Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus published a book entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population and it really set the cat among the pigeons. In it, he considered how population growth related to the economy and put forward the proposition that whenever the food supply increases, population will rapidly grow to eliminate the abundance. In the long term, the population would grow so much that there would be insufficient food for them, and starvation would result. He maintained that in the absence of war, disease or moral control (i.e. sexual abstinence) the only limit to population growth would ultimately be a shortage of food.

His views triggered a fierce debate about the role of the State, on contraception, on compulsory sterilisation and also on the future of agriculture. Malthus condemned the import of foreign corn, arguing that the Corn Laws were needed to impose taxes so as to encourage home-grown grain crops. He was also opposed to the nation’s Poor Laws, feeling that they enabled the poor to buy more food, in turn putting up prices.

Arguments swirled around as the ideas of Malthus were tossed around by politicians like a hot potato. Basically, no-one could be sure whether the population was growing or shrinking. The government didn’t know where its resources were most needed, and there was a sneaking fear that the number of men available for conscription, in the event of war with France, might be less than that of our enemy. At this point in time a statistician named John Rickman entered the fray: he was a man who disliked theories – especially those of Thomas Malthus. He liked facts and figures, and he liked certainty. He accordingly pressed Parliament to carry out a census in accordance with the following principles:

1          “the intimate knowledge of any country must form the rational basis of legislation and diplomacy.”

2          “an industrious population is the basic power and resource of any nation, and therefore its size needs to be known”

3          “the number of men who were required for conscription to the militia in different areas should reflect the area’s population”

4          “there were defence reasons for wanting to know the number of seamen”

5          “the need to plan the production of corn and thus to know the number of people who had to be fed”

6          “a census would indicate the Government’s intention to promote the public good”, and

7          “the life insurance industry would be stimulated by the results”.

    Rickman was a successful lobbyist. He was appointed as Private Secretary to Charles Abbot (later Lord Colchester), the MP for Helston in Cornwall. In 1800 Abbot introduced a Population Bill ‘for taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain, and of the Increase or Diminution thereof’. It was passed and the Act came into force on the last day of December 1800. The first census was held just three months later – a remarkable tribute to the administrative skills and endeavours of John Rickman. He not only laid down the procedures, selected the questions, appointed the enumerators and received the results; he also analysed the results and was able to present the findings to Parliament by the end of 1801 – just nine months after the census was carried out.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane – a typical view of overcrowding in Georgian London

The first census result give us a population of just below eleven million in 1801, rising by 15% to nearly 12,600,000 in 1811. Within ten years it had gone up to 14,481,139 – an increase of just under 15% in 1821. Within another ten years it had risen to 16,643,028, an increase which hints at the social changes and stresses which affected the Victorian era. The quicker the rate that the population grew, the poorer the living accommodation became and in the 1840’s it was calculated that Liverpool had a population of about 40,000 living in cellars, with an average of 5 or 6 persons in each cellar. Higher population densities meant higher death rates and shorter life expectancy.

The 1821 census introduced a new question, about the age of the population, calculated in five-year bands (up to the age of twenty) and ten-year bands thereafter. The results revealed that that a huge mushroom in growth was building up – one half of the population was under the age of twenty. That contrasts with a modern figure of one quarter. It meant that these ‘Victorian baby boomers’ would soon come of age, want housing, require education, fresh water and effective drainage – and need feeding.

Victorian slums by Gustave Dore, courtesy of the Wellcome Institute

Within another twenty years urbanisation had tilted dramatically and by 1851 the combined population of the British Isles (including Wales Scotland and Ireland) was a staggering 27 million. London alone had grown in size from around 1.5 million to 2.5 million people in just forty years.

And just who was the ‘Head of the Household’ …. shown courtesy of the British Library

Rickman’s career included twelve years as the Speaker’s Secretary and twenty-six years as Clerk Assistant at the Table of the House of Commons. During his tenure he helped overhaul the rules and arrangements for recording and publishing parliamentary proceedings – rules which hadn’t changed since the 1680’s.  His work was recognized in 1815 when he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and international recognition came in 1833 when he was awarded honorary membership of the Société Française de Statistique Universelle. Somehow, in among all his work on the census, he acted from 1803 as secretary to the commissions for making roads and bridges in Scotland, and for constructing the Caledonian canal, and in 1823 was nominated to a commission for building churches in the highlands and islands of Scotland. He was a close friend of Thomas Telford, adding extensive notes to an autobiography of the great engineer which Rickman published in 1838, some years after Telford had died. He also acted as Telford’s executor. A man described as being so badly dressed that he could easily be mistaken for a tramp, in his spare time Rickman wrote articles about the antiquity of the stones at Stonehenge. All in all, definitely a man who could cure insomnia at a thousand paces….

He died in August 1840 and is buried at St Margaret’s, Westminster.


Oct 272020
Having chosen a George Cruikshank  illustration in my last blog, here is another one, dating from 1819 and entitled ‘Landing the Treasures, or Results of the Polar Expedition!!!’ 
The background to it was the fact that in the 19th century the British government, under the guidance of John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty, renewed its efforts to find the North-West Passage – the seaway through the Arctic, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In 1818 John Ross was sent to look for this route, which had fascinated explorers ever since Frobisher’s unsuccessful attempt in the 1570’s. Men like Henry Hudson and William Baffin had given their name, and in some cases their lives, to exploring the area.  As for Ross, he headed one of the most controversial journeys of all because, having reached Lancaster Sound he turned round and came home, announcing that the route was blocked by icy mountains. Strangely, no-one else had seen the mountains and his crew gave  evidence suggesting that the captain was either mistaken – or an outright liar.
The etching appears on the Library of Congress site but is also to be found on the British Museum site which gives the following lengthy explanation:
A procession headed by John Ross extends from the coast (right), where Esquimaux dogs swim ashore from a boat, to the gate of the British Museum, part of which is on the extreme left. Sailors, all of whom have lost their noses (replaced by a triangular black patch) carry the scientific objects brought back from the expedition to Baffin’s Bay. Ross, very stout, and wearing a large false nose, goose-steps pompously, ignoring a black fiddler with a wooden leg (Billy Waters) wearing a plumed cocked hat, who leans towards him, saying: “O, Captain he is come to Town, doodle doodle Dandy Ho / How you do Sir: hope see you well Sir?!!” After Ross marches his nephew, a dwarfish boy, in naval uniform, supporting the fore-paws of an enormous (dead) Polar Bear, carried on the shoulders of six sailors, the hind-legs resting on the shoulders of a seventh who says: “’tis a good thing I’ve lost my Nose.” On the bear are stars in the form of the constellation of the Great Bear.
Behind the bear walks a lean military officer, Capt. Sabine, who holds up his musket with a gull spiked on his bayonet labelled: ‘-? Sabini.’ Two soldiers follow carrying a barrel slung from a pole and inscribed Red Snow for B M’. Beside them marches a naval officer holding in gloved hands the staff of a Union flag. The next pair carry between them a tree-stump labelled ‘Esquimaux Wood for B M’. One of them looks round at a black sailor behind him to say: “I say Snowball, mind you don’t tread on my heels [these are missing].” The black sailor walks on stumps and has also lost a hand. He answers: “No! No, Massa Billy! & mind you no tread on my toes!” He wears a smart short jacket and shirt-frill, showing that he is an officer’s servant. He carries on his head a large canister inscribed ‘Worms found in the Intestines of a Seal by a Volunteer—for Brit. Mu.’
The next sailor carries a chest on his head inscribed ‘Moluscæ for the British Museum’ and points a fingerless hand to a large block of stone on the ground labelled ‘Granite for BM’, to which a pole is tied; he asks: “who the hell’s to carry the big stone—?!!” The last sailor of the procession holds the leads of four fat and frightened Esquimaux dogs who have just landed; a small British dog expresses its contempt for them. Just stepping ashore is a grotesque Esquimaux, ‘Jack Frost’, with spiky hair and beard, wearing below the waist a muff-like garment of fur. He resembles a Stone Age man by E. T. Reed. He holds a tall spiralled pole labelled: ‘Lance made of Horn of ye Sea Unicorn, used in common, as a walking stick’. Under his left arm is a portfolio. Three sailors are still in a boat; one leans over to send two dogs ashore; another with a boat-hook asks the third: “If they kill the Dogs & stuff ’em! what will they do with Jack Frost.” The sailor answers: “Cut his throat & stuff him also, I supposes.” In the background is Ross’s ship, the ‘Isabella’, at anchor, with a broom at the masthead to show that she is for sale.

The procession is bordered by a cheering crowd, hats are frantically waved, In the foreground on the extreme left is a stout, disgruntled ‘cit’, who says: “I think as how we have Bears [speculators], Gulls, Savages, Chump wood. Stones & Puppies enough without going to the North Pole for them.” In the background (left) are tiny spectators watching from the high wall of the British Museum: Sir Joseph Banks, grasping the top of a ladder, stands on the wall, waving his hat: “Huzza! they have got Eursa Major as I live! Huzza!!” Leach (1790-1836), the naturalist, leaps high, exclaiming: “I see it! I see it! the North Pole by Jupiter!! I’ll cling to it like a leech Huzza! huzza!! Huzza.” A man standing on the wall shouts: “I see Jack Frost!! Huzza! with the N Pole in his hand!! Huzza.”

Ross had returned on his ship Isabella but when the Admiralty heard evidence from William Edward  Parry, in charge of the smaller vessel the Alexander they decided to send Parry back to have another look. In 1819 he was put in charge of the Hecla, with his second in command Matthew Liddon on the Griper. They were able to prove that Lancaster Sound did indeed form part of the North West Passage. Parry began to map the numerous islands through which the North-West Passage would have to be navigated. In doing so his ships crossed a longitude of 110° W,  reaching Melville Island via the Barrow Strait. This meant that Parry qualified for a prize of £5000 offered by the British Parliament.

The crews of the Hecla and Griper preparing to spend winter ashore, courtesy of the Mariners Museum

However, once he reached Melville Island the sea froze over and Parry was forced to spend the next ten months imprisoned on the ice-bound island. It was here that he showed his great strengths as a commander. The crew were kept busy by putting on plays, at fortnightly intervals. He even started a newspaper, calling it the North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle. It contained humorous anecdotes about life on board, including ones about ‘the non-cookery of our pies in proper time for dinner’ or ‘proposals for the eradication of snoring at night.’  Parry demonstrated that, with enough provisions, a ship and crew could winter successfully above the Arctic Circle.

Melville Island courtesy of Google Maps

When the ice finally broke up, Parry attempted to push further westward towards Banks Island, but progress was incredibly slow and it wasn’t long before he had to make the decision of either spending another winter frozen solid, or of  retreating and coming home to Britain. He chose the latter, which must have been an enormous relief to the crew! His voyage stands out as a monument of human endeavour, especially when contrasted with the humiliating failure of Captain Ross before him. He was to return to the area in 1821 and again in 1824 – each time using  the Hecla as part of his fleet. She was then retired from Arctic duty and was used to survey the West African Coast between 1828 and 1831 after which she was sold off by the Navy. Sadly, she ended her days off Greenland as a whaling ship and was wrecked in 1840.

Portrait of W E Parry by Charles Skottowe

(I am grateful to the Royal Museums Greenwich site for the factual information about the voyages of Ross and Parry).

Sep 122020
DCF 1.0

Rev John Newton

Tomorrow I head to Olney, the town where the Rev. John Newton preached  two and a half centuries ago. It will give me a chance to re-unite the town with a letter written by the good reverend  in October 1775. I am donating the letter to the local museum so that it can be appreciated by a larger audience and it gives me an opportunity of repeating a blog  which appeared in March 2016, and bringing it up to date:


John Newton was the fascinating individual who we remember today as the composer of Amazing Grace – fascinating because he was at one  stage actively involved in the slave trade, but eventually recanted and became a church minister campaigning tirelessly for abolition.

Not that he gave up his wicked ways overnight – despite an epiphany in May 1748 when the ship he was in nearly foundered off the coast of Donegal. The hull was smashed but the cargo broke free and miraculously wedged itself in the gaping hole – and the ship stayed afloat long enough to reach landfall.

It was a while before Newton abandoned all his links to the slave trade. The letter I discovered among Richard Hall’s papers show something of the inner torment he went through, including self-loathing, contempt etc.

Newton 5 001I came across it in an envelope written by my great aunt Annie some time in the 1930s – I vaguely recall her from the 1950s when I was a kid, having to bellow into her silver ear trumpet to say ‘thank you’ for the pocket money (all of one penny, if I remember right) which she had pressed into my eager palm. I remember it because even then a penny was a tad derisory, especially as the old bat was loaded. By then she was well into her nineties, and I never saw her again. Mind you she was quite a character: she and her sister never married and lived together in a commune in a remote part of Wales, rearing goats and ingesting prodigious quantities of  cocaine, in one form or another. It was a while before I understood what ‘coke-head’ meant – but Annie was definitely on a higher plane than the rest of us!

She did have her faults – one was being tee-total (no, coke is OK but the demon drink is a dreadful scourge of the working classes…) and when her father died she rushed over to his home in London’s Park Lane, and promptly poured all the contents of his rather extensive wine cellar down the drain…. so I am none too proud of Aunt Annie!

She would seem to have recognized who John Newton was, and why he was important, but that didn’t stop her taking a sharp knife to the letter and cutting off the wax seal with the imprint of Newton’s signet ring (perhaps she collected seals. Maybe she flogged it … or smoked it for all I know). It did rather leave a hole in the letter, but beggars cannot be choosers…

Newton 1 001Anyway, the letter was written by John Newton on 2 October 1775. It starts off with the words “Dear Sir, when your letter came to Olney I was in London, nor did I receive it till a little before my return, and since I came home I have been quite taken up with things which could not be deferred. Otherwise you would have heard from me much sooner. I should have made a point (tho’  in general I am not a very punctual correspondent) of answering  your first letter speedily as a proof of the value I set upon it – and especially when it brought me the interesting news of the great danger Mrs Robinson has been in, and the Lord’s goodness in bringing her through it and making her the Mother of a living child.”

Rev. Thomas Robinson

Rev. Thomas Robinson

Mrs Robinson was the wife of the Reverend Mr Thomas Robinson of Leicester. Apparently in another letter from John Newton, addressed to John Thornton, he remarked: “that Mr Robinson preaches the gospel at Leicester…  Leicester is a dark place, but if the Lord is pleased to continue Mr Robinson there, who knows but that wilderness may soon blossom like the rose!”

Hmm, so much for Leicester. Some years earlier Rev. Robinson had apparently been passing through the town on election night and abhorred the place so much, and was so disgusted by the general behaviour of the population that he “had privately whispered a prayer to God that it might never be his portion to reside at Leicester”. The prayer was obviously muddled in transit, because back came the good Lord’s decision to make him accept the curacy of St Martin’s (now the cathedral). Not all our prayers are answered…

Robinson’s wife Mary (nee Boys) died in 1791 but at the time of Newton’s letter she had obviously just produced a son. I have no idea what happened to him.

The Newton letter continues: “The Providential turns in my life have indeed been very remarkable yet I can readily allow you to think your own case no less extraordinary, because you are acquainted with your own heart – I am a stranger to mine. Non omnia nec omnibus might have been the proper motto for my narrative. Alas the most marvelous proofs of the Lord’s patience and goodness to me are utterly unfit for publication, nay I could not whisper some things into the ears of a friend. It has been since my conversion, and not by what happened before it that I have known the most striking instances of the vileness and depravity of my nature. My heart, as the ancients fabled of Africa, has been continually producing new monsters…. I have good reason to believe that it is still comparatively  a terra incognita to me and that it contains treasures, mines, depths and sources of iniquity in it of which I have hardly  more conception than I could form of looking at the fishes that are hidden in the sea by taking a survey of the fish in Billingsgate.”

The next bit was excised by my aunt’s sharp knife cutting round the seal, but the epistle continues:  “… I believe most who are called by Grace can recollect previous periods of life when they felt something of the working of Grace put in with them and they derive instruction from them afterwards, yet I conceive that these impressions are for the most part different toto genere  from that great radical and instantaneous change which takes place within the moment of Regeneration when a new and truly spiritual light is darted into the soul and gives us such perceptions as we were before unacquainted with.”

Newton 4 001The letter ends “Cease not to pray for us, and believe me to be Your Affectionate and obliged servant and brother, John Newton”

Unfortunately the letter in with Richard Hall’s papers is in poor condition – it has split down the folds and looks somewhat ragged around the edges. Originally it was what was known as ‘an entire’ – in other words it was folded up so that the address appeared on the outside, with the ‘wings’ tucked in on each side. So, no need for an envelope, making for a cheaper postage rate.

Newton wrote many hymns, the most famous being Amazing Grace, which he wrote for a service on New Year’s Day, 1773. In 1780 Newton left Olney to become Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, where he became a particularly effective preacher and a friend of William Wilberforce. Newton died on 21 December 1807. He lived long enough to see Wilberforce’s bill abolishing the slave trade passed in Parliament that same year.

All in all, an interesting piece of history, and one for which I suppose I must thank good old Aunt Annie.  And I am delighted to find a good home for the letter – it has been on a very long journey!

A post-script to the blog: it was great being able to call in and deliver the letter to the Museum staff at Olney. It left me with a lovely feeling that I had ‘done the right thing’. The staff were kind enough to turn out on a Sunday and if ever I had any doubts as to whether the letter was going to a good home, they were totally dispelled! I am so pleased it has a permanent home, in the UK, and has not been snapped up by a wealthy private collector! It can now be appreciated by all visitors to Olney – or at least, it will be once the Museum is able to open normally. At that stage I very much look forward to re-visiting the lovely Museum and meeting the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff.

Sep 302019

This is the concluding part of my various blogs re-visiting some of my Irish-themed posts – a repeat of a post made seven years ago when I paid a visit to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin:

As a young boy at boarding school (yes, thanks for reminding me, I am talking about half a century ago…) I recall the excitement of opening a parcel from Guinness containing a poster designed to go on the side of a London bus. Proudly I stuck it up on two walls of the dorm: there in foot-high letters was the slogan known to everyone –  “GUINNESS IS GOOD FOR YOU”. Fast forward fifty years and no doubt there are laws against encouraging minors to partake of alcohol, just as there are rules in small print urging the consumer to ‘drink sensibly’. And of course, the slogan itself is banned. It is enough that we all know it does us good, but Guinness is not allowed to make the claim because it cannot be proved…

And what of the man, good old Arthur? For years no-one was quite sure of his date of birth, which made it awkward to have a decent bi-centennial celebration to mark the occasion. So, when it came to the 275th anniversary some Dr Spin at Guinness decided that the great day was actually … 24th September 1725. No matter that Arthur’s gravestone at Oughterard states that he was 78-years-old when he died on 23rd January 1803, indicating that he was in fact born sometime in 1724 or early 1725. A specific date is easy to commemorate, and slowly the custom of ‘Arthur’s Day’ is catching on. The first ‘Arthur’s Day’ took place on 24th September 2009, to celebrate 250 years of the Guinness Company – 250 years since Arthur signed the lease on the St. James’s Gate brewery. This year it occurs on 27th September (cue much musical celebration and consumption of dark liquid). Rumour has it that in fact the timing of Arthur’s Day has more to do with the fact that it is roughly six months after St Patrick’s Day – a good and timely marketing ploy! At one minute to six o’clock (that is, at 17.59) there is a toast to commemorate the 1759 founding of the Guinness brewery empire.

Quite a bit is known about Arthur’s family, most of it contradictory! His father was Richard Guinness, and when he was a young man he moved to County Kildare and one story has it that he sold milk from a roadside stall near Celbridge, just down the road from a stall run by local farmer William Read (who sold home-brewed ale). The two became friends, no doubt in part over a drop of home-brew, but also because Read had a daughter called Catherine. Richard and Catherine decided to get married.

One other resident in Celbridge was a certain Dr Price, a man whose religious calling did not preclude him from owning a small malt-house in Celbridge (where a pub called The Mucky Duck now stands). Dr Price was busy moving up his professional ladder, ending up in 1744 as Archbishop of Cashel. His responsibilities meant that he needed a land agent – someone responsible for collecting the episcopal rents throughout the county – and Richard somehow persuaded the good Reverend to give him the job. He lived at the malt-house, the better to perform his duties which included brewing beer for workers on Dr Price’s estate.

In  1722 the Archbishop had taken over James Carberry’s  malting house in Celbridge, where Richard and Elizabeth lived in the early years of their marriage. Perhaps the Archbishop was inspired by Richard’s ability to “make a brew of very palatable nature.”

Richard and Catherine had at least 5 children, of whom Arthur was one. Richard not only named the baby Arthur (in honour of the Archbishop) but inveigled him into becoming the lad’s godfather, a shrewd move as it  turned out…

                                    The Courtyard Hotel by the banks of the River Liffey

Dr Price died in 1752 leaving Richard Guinness, and also Arthur Guinness his godson, the sum of one hundred pounds each. Arthur was 27 years old, and suddenly he had money. He also appears to have acquired the skills necessary to brew beer commercially, probably from working at a local brewery. His mother had died in 1742, and his father remarried to Elizabeth Clare whose family owned an inn in Celbridge. This may have been called The Bear & Ragged Staff or possibly the White Hart Inn – who cares, it is now the site of a Londis supermarket, and no, it doesn’t merit a photograph!

Arthur used his inheritance in 1755 to develop a brewery at the Leixlip site, some 17 kilometres from Dublin (the site of the current Courtyard Hotel in Leixlip). The venture prospered, and after a couple of years he handed over the brewery to his younger brother Richard and headed off to the bright lights of the big city. The year was 1759 and history was about to be made.

It wasn’t an easy time in the industry – the English had imposed tax tariffs in an attempt to stop England being flooded with Irish beer. Undaunted, Arthur found a four-acre derelict brewery site in the centre of the city of Dublin, at St James Gate, and signed a 9000 year lease at a rent of £45 pa on 31st December 1759.

That month Arthur entered his signature, as a new brewer, in the Minute Book of the Dublin Brewers and Maltsters Corporation. Within eight years he had risen to become Warden and then Master of the that body. He was also one of the four brewers’ guild representatives on Dublin Corporation.

In the spring of 1761 Arthur married Olivia Whitmore. She was a 19-year-old heiress from Dublin, the daughter of a prosperous merchant family. Arthur and Olivia had 21 children, ten of whom lived to adulthood. From 1764 their country home was at Beaumont House (now Beaumont Convalescent Home). And if having 21 children doesn’t say something about the efficacy of the family product, then I don’t know what does!

The first hint of an export trade occurred around 1769 when there is a reference to six and a half barrels of ‘Dublin Ale’ being shipped to England, notwithstanding the punitive tax. By then Arthur was experimenting with porter, a drink named after the street and river porters in the City of London and who were apparently especially partial to a glass or two after a hard day’s work. Or even, instead of a hard day’s work…

Shrewdly,  Arthur  engaged members of the Purser family who had come over to Dublin from London, where they already had an established track record of brewing porter. Together they forged a partnership which was to dominate the brewery scene.

Coopers making barrels (18th Century).

Surviving excise data shows that by 1778 Arthur was selling porter to England. It wasn’t always plain sailing. The records show that in 1775 Dublin Corporation tried to make him pay for his water supply notwithstanding the fact that his 9000 year lease included water rights. When the Sheriff and a group of men turned up at St James’s Gate to cut off his water source, Arthur seized a pick-axe from one of the men and began to shout ‘with very much improper language that they should not proceed.’ Unwilling to risk further ire, the sheriff and his men beat a hasty if undignified retreat…

A considerable expansion to the brewery was started in 1797 and in 1799 the family took the major step of stopping the brewing of ale, so that it could focus solely on “Guinness’s Extra Strong Porter”

In time this porter developed into ‘stout’ (meaning ‘strong’). It came about after the 1817 invention of patent malt (i.e. malted barley roasted until black). It gave the brew a distinctive burnt flavour and, in 1840, the stout was renamed “Guinness Extra Stout”

By the time Arthur died the brewery was producing some 20,000 barrels a year. Affectionately, both Arthur and his product had become known as ‘Uncle Arthur’ throughout the city. Arthur was buried in his mother’s burial plot at Oughterard, County Kildare in January 1803.

Thereafter the business expanded rapidly throughout Europe and the rest of the world, aided and abetted by distinctive advertising campaigns which are nothing if not memorable. Which is where I came in at the start with my poster at boarding school. Here are just a few of the splendid posters from the post-War years (oh, and one which came out very much earlier, possibly in 1794). I will leave it to the readers to work out which is which, promoting what James Joyce formerly (nay, famously) feted as “The Free,  the Flow, the Frothy Freshener”

























For much of the history I am indebted to the Guinness site at and in particular to Eibhlin Roche, Guinness Archivist.


Post script: one of the reasons for this post is that my ancestor Richard Hall had a brother-in-law called William Snooke. His diary contains an intriguing entry for July 1774, suggesting that he made a purchase of “Light Guinness”. This was just a few years after the first recorded imports of ‘Dublin Ale’. Was ‘Dublin Ale’ known as ‘Light Guinness’? If so it suggests an early familiarity with the brand name.

Sep 012019

I recently completed a round-Britain lecture cruise on board the Crown Princess, which involved visiting a couple of places in Ireland. Well, three in Ireland (Cork, Dublin and Belfast, but I only visited Cork and Dublin. Somehow Belfast doesn’t ‘do it for me’ so I gave it a miss….)

It reminded me that I had done several blogs linked to Ireland so I thought that I would re-visit some of them. First up – the remarkable story of Charles Banconi:-

Hearn's Hotel

Hearn’s Hotel

For a change, travel back to Ireland and visit  Hearn’s Hotel, at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. It is the sixth of July 1815, and a small jaunting carriage pulls away exactly on time, heading for Cahir some ten miles or so away. The jaunting carriage was a slightly odd two-wheeled conveyance, unprotected from the elements, where the seats were in a row facing sideways onto the road. This day there were no passengers – the six seats were all unoccupied, and the single horse has no difficulty plodding its lonely journey. The same thing happened the next day, but then the 31-year-old Italian printer whose idea it was to set up a coaching service decided that it was a case of ‘double or quit’. So he arranged  for two jaunting carriages to be ready and waiting at the appointed hour on the following day, both ready to make the journey as advertised to the good burghers of Clonmel. To observers it looked as though there was a competition. That certainly attracted public attention, and before long there were dozens of people queuing to make the two-hour  journey, at a rate of a penny-farthing a mile. It was certainly a darned sight quicker than the five- to eight-hour journey offered for the same trip by boat.

Jaunting cart

Jaunting cart


bianconi-photoJourneys in Ireland were incredibly slow at the time – the roads were poor, travel was in its infancy, and there was no integrated transport service. It would be another thirty years before rail travel opened up the countryside, and in those thirty years the coach service mushroomed in a most remarkable way. And the man behind it? Charles Bianconi.

Carlos Bianconi, born on 26 September  1785 at Tregolo in what is now Lombardy in Italy, had escaped from his mother country just before it was over-run by the forces of Napoleon. He was relatively poorly educated – the priest at the local school he attended described him as a ‘troublesome dunce’ who left school ‘almost as ignorant as when he entered it and a great deal more wilful.’ As a 16 year old he had travelled to England but then moved across to Ireland, and was apprenticed  to the owner of a print-shop. Selling the prints took him around  Dublin and its neighbouring towns and villages, usually on foot. He would  peddle the prints which he carried in his satchel as he walked from town to town. Eventually he set up his own print and engraving shop in Clonmel, and as the business started to expand he travelled around on the appalling roads to deliver his wares, often stopping to give a lift to pedestrian travellers. No doubt it was this which gave him the idea of providing a public transport service, given that the only alternatives were the prohibitively expensive Mail Coaches.




Shortly after he launched a separate coaching business he was fortunate to be able to buy a number of ex-Army horses (no longer needed following the Battle of Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic Wars). These magnificent animals, well-trained and strong, could be picked up ‘for a song’ – well, for between ten and twenty pounds – and the coach business expanded quickly, with new routes being added until  they criss-crossed the country. Bianconi started to build his own coaches, eventually moving up to a twenty-passenger long-coach. They were known as ‘Bians’ or Bianconi Coaches, and soon became a familiar sight everywhere. Coaches meant coaching Inns, and a network of Bianconi Inns were developed, some of them still remaining to this day.

Bianconi Bar, Main Street, Kildysart

Bianconi Bar, Main Street, Kildysart

The business was at times seriously under-capitalised but an interesting account in the Irish Story – an online history blog, comes up with this information:

“In 1826, came the famous Waterford by-election when the Beresfords – landlord family who had dominated that county’s politics for 70 years – were ousted by the Catholic Association party of Daniel O’Connell – campaigning for Catholic Emancipation.  Bianconi had actually been retained by the Beresfords (who were staunchly opposed to Emancipation) to transport their voters to the election, but feelings were running so high that he felt his drivers to be endangered and asked to be released from his contract. The Beresfords reluctantly agreed, and Bianconi was promptly retained by the O’Connell supporting team. He may well have been partly responsible for their resounding success, but from his point of view the important thing was that he was paid £1,000 (perhaps as much as €1,000,000 in today’s values) for his services. This was the capital he needed.”

The scale of operations was remarkable. Here are just some of the statistics:

*  By 1845, Bianconi was one of the largest proprietors of horses and vehicles in the whole of Europe, with a fleet of one hundred cars,  and 1,400 horses.

*  He employed a hundred drivers as well as  130 ostlers to look after the animals.

*  Each day, the Bians covered over 4,200 miles of Irish road, serving 120 towns and villages.

*  The horses consumed around 3,500 tons of hay a year, plus 35,000 barrels of oats.

*  In its heyday the business was paying Bianconi £35,000 a year.

*  He was  twice made mayor of Clonmel.

* He was renowned for looking after his staff, knowing all of the drivers by name, and when they were too old or infirm to work he provided them with food and lodging in his cellars at his house at Longfield House, Boherlahan, County Tipperary, referring to them as his “fireside fellows”.

*  When the Great Famine came, he famously employed his men to carry out maintenance work at his beloved Longfield House with its 1000 acres of prime farmland, rather than see them starve.

And when the railways eventually arrived, Bianconi wisely arranged his coach itineraries to include the railway stations which his passengers would then use for their onward journey. Oh, and he invested his money in the railways themselves, thereby securing his future when the coaching side of the business declined. He died, a multi-millionaire in today’s terms, in September 1875, at the age of 89. The story goes that as he died the sound of a phantom coach was heard clattering up the long driveway to the house….

Irish commemorative stamps

Irish commemorative stamps

I am indebted to the historian Turtle Bunbury for some of the facts used in this article, based on his blog here. Thanks too to Stephen Lombard for first regaling me with the story of Mr Bianconi and his coaches – and for showing me the prints made in the 1850s showing the Biancs in use. It is a remarkable story, especially for  a man dismissed as a dunce. Nowadays, immigrants tend to get a bad press. Here was an immigrant who had the imagination and courage to transform the world around him…


Jun 022019

Today I visited Lyme Regis and Charmouth to do a spot of fossil-hunting on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. It reminded me of the post I did a few years back on the remarkable Mary Anning, so I have dusted it off and here it is again:

Today the spotlight is turned not on a well-educated man, or a wealthy daughter with aristocratic connections, but on a girl who was amongst the poorest of the poor; who in many ways led a miserably hard and short life; who could barely read and write, and yet was someone who amazed the scientific world in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Her name was Mary Anning, born in Lyme Regis in Dorset on 21st May 1799. She cannot be said to have had an auspicious start in life. She was one of ten children – but eight died in childhood. An elder sister had already been called Mary but she had perished in a fire when her clothes were ignited from some burning wood shavings. Our heroine was born five months after this tragic death, and was named Mary in memory of her dead sibling.

Mary had luck, of a sort, on her side. When she was eighteen months old she was being held in the arms of a neighbour called Elizabeth Haskings who was in a group of women watching a travelling show. A storm sprang up and the group took shelter beneath an elm tree, but a bolt of lightning struck the tree, killing three of the women including Elizabeth. Yet Mary was apparently unscathed. Fate had something quite remarkable in store for the young girl…

Mary’s parents were Dissenters, meaning that education opportunities were limited and the family were subject to legal discrimination. A member of the Congregationalist Church, she attended Sunday School and here learned the rudiments of reading and writing. The Congregational Church, unlike the Anglican Church, attached great importance to education, particularly for young girls, and she was encouraged in her development by the pastor Revd James Wheaton. Her prized possession was apparently a copy of the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review in which the good Reverend had apparently written two articles; one reiterated the importance of understanding that the world was created by God in seven days, and the other, somewhat curiously, suggested that a study of the new science of geology was to be encouraged.

Father was a carpenter and cabinet maker and business was tough. Even worse, her father died when Mary was eleven, leaving the family without any apparent means of support.

After the father’s death the destitute family eked a living finding fossils along what is now termed the Jurassic coast in Dorset. In 1811 Mary’s elder brother Joseph found a fossilized skull of what was thought to be a crocodile protruding from the crumbling cliffs of Blue Lias. Mary was given the task of slowly exposing the ancient creature, uncovering not just the skull but 60 vertebrae. It was difficult work, scrambling to reach the exposed rock face, at risk from the tides and rock falls, but the young girl showed an aptitude for the work. Besides, there were rewards: the skeleton was bought by the local Lord of the Manor called Henry Hoste Henley for £23. He in turn sold it to a private collector called William Bullock, and he exhibited it in London with the rest of his fossil collection in his Museum of Natural Curiosities. In 1819 it was bought as a ‘crocodile in a fossil state’ by the British Museum, for £45. The creature was eventually called Ichthyosaurus (‘fish lizard’) by the scientists Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare. It was the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus ever recorded, and both men went on to make their name on the back of Mary’s efforts.

The find was to change Mary’s life and, in time, her studies of anatomy, geology, paleontology and scientific illustration were to propel her to considerable fame (but never fortune). The world of scientific discovery was not just dominated by men, it was dominated by Anglicans, people of good education and usually privilege. An ill-educated, impecunious, girl from her background was never going to find acceptance easy.

She did however have supporters. Her big break came in 1820. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch had previously got to know Mary and her brother Joseph and had bought a number of items from them. He decided to auction off some of these specimens and the sale generated huge interest from all over the country and indeed throughout Europe. The specimens were sold for £400, a huge sum at the time, and the generous Lieutenant-Colonel handed the entire proceeds over to Mary.


In time she became the focus of attention – not just collectors and scientists would visit her tiny beach-front shop, but also socialites keen to see and speak with this witty, knowledgeable but poorly-educated woman.


Throughout the 1820’s and 30’s she hammered away, discovering the long-necked plesiosaurus or sea dragon in 1823, a ‘flying dragon’ i.e. the pterodactyl (in 1828) and hundreds, upon hundreds of other fossils. Squaloraia a cross between a shark and a ray, was discovered in 1829. In the winter of 1830, she found a new, large-headed Plesiosaurus, and sold it for £210. She became an expert on the delightful subject of bezoar stones (now known as coprolites, that is to say, fossilised faeces!). She also proved that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs, by grinding up the fossilised remains and mixing them with water to produce an inky substance similar to sepia ink in squids. Her brother Joseph demonstrated this with his drawing of one of Mary´s fossils, shown here.

She helped show the astonished world what marine life looked like in the Jurassic period, some 140 to 200 million years ago, before mammals ruled the earth. Scientists such as Henry de la Beche helped her financially when he handed to her the proceeds of sale from his engraving entitled Duria Antiquior, a more ancient Dorset – a scene of prehistoric life based upon fossils which she had found and identified.



Not everyone accepted her without question: the French anatomist Georges Cuvier dismissed one of her finds as a fake, but Mary was able to refute the allegation of forgery and, in fairness, Cuvier acknowledged his error and became a fan of hers. For some, they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give credit to the achievements of a mere woman – and a poorly educated one at that. Even her own gender seemed amazed at her skill and knowledge, as in this diary entry, made in 1824, by Lady Harriet Sivester, after visiting Mary Anning:

“. . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved. . . It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”

Ah, so that was it: Divine favour, not skill and hard work ….

For years she carried on chipping away at rocks with her hammer, accompanied by her faithful dog Troy, who always appears beside her in paintings of the day. Eventually in 1833 Troy was killed in a rock-fall when the tide undermined the ledge he was standing on, but Mary was unharmed. She was however distraught at the loss of her constant companion. She knew only too well the irony that it was the really high tides in winter which revealed the fossil deposits, just as it was the same tides which made the rock face unstable and liable to collapse.

Hers was not to be a long and happy life. She died of breast cancer at the age of 47 on 9th March 1847. In her lifetime success and recognition evaded her. She had been barred from admission to the Geological Society on account of her gender (women were not admitted to their ranks until 1904). At one stage she wrote “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone” and only one journal ever published anything from her – and that a letter to the editor, not an article. And one, only one, other geologist named a specimen after her in her lifetime, when the Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz named two fossil fish after her, Acrodus anningiae and Belenstomus anningiae.

The gravestone marking where Mary & her brother are buried.

In fairness to the Geographical Society they did help her financially through her final illness. She was buried in St Michael’s Church in Lyme Regis.

The Mary Anning window

Recognition came after her death: three years later the Geographical Society paid for a stained glass window at the church in her honour. The inscription reads “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”

Finally, more than a hundred and fifty years after she died, the Royal Society included her in their 2010 list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science. Some might say: better late than never.

Post script: I particularly enjoyed doing this post because my ancestor Richard Hall was an avid fossil collector. I still have some of the items he collected along with his booklet of fossil drawings. I especially liked the way that he believed that the ammonites were actually long worms, curled up in death, with their mouths in the centre of the spiral, turned to stone. More details appear in The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman.


Apr 142019

One of my all-time favourite Gillray caricatures is the excoriating image of the Prince Regent, bearing the title of ‘A voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion’. It is, in every sense of the word, gross, with its portrayal of the bloated Prince Regent, sitting alongside an overflowing chamber pot, numerous unpaid gambling slips, and a shelf on which are remedies for bad breath – and Velno’s Vegetable Syrup.

So, what of this magic tincture? Velno’s Vegetable Syrup was named after someone  called Vergery de Velnos – probably Jean-Joseph Vergery de Velnos who, in Paris in around 1765, had published a book called “Dissertation sur un nouveau remède anti-vénérien vegetal.” The recipe had been developed  by a Dr Mercier from his premises in Soho’s Frith Street. Dr Mercier had a young assistant by the name of Isaac Swainson and in due course Swainson bought the patent rights for the syrup and promoted it as a cure-all for all the ailments which afflicted mankind – well, and womankind, especially venereal disease. It was to prove to be a marketing sensation, with tens of thousands of bottles being sold. Swainson apparently earned himself £5000 a year from his patent medicine – small wonder when you consider that in addition to curing the French Pox it was also described as eradicating all signs of leprosy, scurvy, tape worms gout, scrofula small pox – and no doubt Housemaids’ Knee. For anyone with ‘scorbutic impurities’ it was an absolute must!

Isaac Swainson in an 1803 portrait by James Raphael Smith

Why was it so popular? Because it was an alternative to the more usual compounds prescribed for the treatment of syphilis, all of which contained mercury. Syphilis (and gonorrhoea) were rampant, especially in cities such as London, and the diseases had horrible symptoms. The cure was however rather worse than the malady, because mercury is not a nice thing to absorb into the human body. Whether popped as pills, drunk as a liquid, or more often as not rubbed into the skin as an ointment, mercury caused devastating changes to the body.

Treatment of syphillis by fumigation, 1776, Lalouette, courtesy of the Wellcome Library

Treatment also included being fumigated – sitting in a hot barrel for hours on end, above a hot iron on which mercury in different forms had been placed, so that the vapours would circulate around the nether regions. This fumigation was spread over four, sometimes six, weeks – hardly an ideal treatment if it meant taking time off work for the entire month or more. For a lady, it carried with it the even more shameful admission that went with venereal disease – that she was in some way to blame, that she was impure. Because, in true chauvinistic style, the eighteenth century males firmly believed that it was the wanton woman, with her uncontrolled carnal desires, which spread the disease. The poor man, on the other hand, was always cast as the innocent victim. And if that sounds a trifle far-fetched, go read the diaries of James Boswell…

Velno’s potion offered the public the chance of a treatment which obviated the shame, the pain and discomfort of visiting the surgery and being given mercury. Not everyone was pleased with the success enjoyed by Swainson – especially the medical profession. Physicians were horrified at the idea that weeks and months of expensive treatment could be avoided by knocking back a few herbs and plant extracts – hence this rather nice caricature by Thomas Rowlandson showing the ‘onslaught against Swainson. It first appeared in 1789 and is shown courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

I like the angry gang of infuriated doctors , one with a giant clyster or syringe, another with a winged statue of the god Mercury, another with a knife and one brandishing a pestle in one hand and a mortar marked ‘Mercury – the only Specifick’ in the other. Behind the rather smug looking Swainson is a list stating “List of Cures – in 1785, 5500; in 1789, 10,000” 

Swainson has been called a  ‘radical quack’ but looking at his career you have to say that whereas the medical profession  dismissed him as a shameless hustler, at least his remedy did not kill the patient, whereas orthodox medicine often did. In 1792 he published a 160-page booklet describing the splendid properties of his vegetable brew. And of course the great thing was that he did not have to name individuals who had been cured (“for reasons easily imagined the cases cannot be publicly stated”).

Swainson had been born in what was then Lancashire, the son of  John Swainson, yeoman, of High House, Hawkshead, by his second wife Lydia Park. He lived between  1746 and 1812 and as a young man he had come to London, studied medicine and got his MD but presumably felt that fame and fortune lay outside the confines of the established medical profession. Certainly there is no record of him ever having been admitted to the Royal Society of Physicians.  It can be assumed that flogging his tinctures at 18 shillings a bottle made him a very wealthy man. He was however dogged by claims and counterclaims by other purveyors of Velno’s Vegetable Syrup – in days when ingredients were not given either on the bottle or on the patent application, it was easy for others to say that theirs was the ‘original’.


An advertisement for Velno’s Vegetable Syrup from La Belle Assemble Magazine of 1808

In 1788 Swainson had taken a lease of land at Twickenham (Heath Lane Lodge) and proceeded to have built a fine dwelling, complete with an impressive botanical garden. The helpful Twickenham Museum site here quotes a  Daniel Lysons who, in 1811, noted that the garden was Scientifically arranged and elegantly laid out, which may be considered as the first private collection of the kind in the kingdom adding that J C Loudon wrote that It contained every tree and shrub that could be procured at the time in British nurseries, and was kept in the first style of order and neatness.

Heath Lane Lodges as rebuilt to the design of Robert           Mitchell, c.1788

Swainsonia formosa

Such was his fame as a botanist and plant collector that Swainson even had a plant named after him – the emblem of South Australia, otherwise known as Swainsonia Formosa – more commonly described as ‘Sturt’s Pea’. All of which is a tad unfair, because the plant’s discovery has nothing whatsoever to do with either Swainson or Dr Sturt, as it had been described and brought to the notice of the British public at least a century earlier, by no less than the great but under-rated explorer William Dampier. Frankly, it should have been Dampieri Formosa, but that’s another story…

Swainson  died on 7 March 1812 at his house in Frith Street, Soho. His body was brought back to Twickenham and was buried in the Holly Road Burial Ground on 14 March, alongside the remains of his wife, Mary, who had died in 1806. They had no children and his estate passed to his niece.

To end with, I came across a remarkable trade token – a copper halfpenny, on Baldwin’s auction site from 2015. It shows a coin in quite superb condition and was perhaps one of only twelve ever minted. It certainly gives some idea of the high regard in which Swainson held himself! He was a fine showman – rather than Hygeia preparing vegetables over a brick oven (as appears from the reverse of the coin) I suspect it was more a case of him chopping up cucumbers, peppers and the odd onion over  a stove in the kitchen at Frith Street. A quack maybe, but a very successful one, and if I ever have the misfortune to suffer from ‘scorbutic impurities’ I will  know what to fetch from the medicine cabinet…besides, it would be an easy way to keep up my five-vegetables-a-day diet!



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 102019

One of the interesting characters I came across doing the research for my forthcoming talk to the Early Dance Centre was one particular Master of Ceremonies at the Upper Rooms in Bath. Captain William Wade had stepped into the breach after a contested election between the Master of the Lower Rooms (William Brereton) and the Master of the assembly rooms in nearby Bristol by the name of Mr Plomer. The original election descended into fisticuffs and the reading of the Riot Act – and at the end of the unseemly squabble Captain Wade was chosen as a consensus candidate acceptable to both sides. He took up his office in 1769.


And what a pretty boy he was! Here he is, looking magnificent in all his finery, in a painting by Thomas Gainsborough dating from 1771. I mean, THAT is what I call a waistcoat! Captain Wade quickly earned the nick-name of “the Bath Adonis” – but he was eventually forced to retire from his position after rather publicly misbehaving. It must have been all rather humiliating for Mrs Katherine Wade, who had given birth to five of his children and who was very much still alive when her husband’s eyes started to wander….

John Hooke Campbell (1733-1795); by Francis Cotes, courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.

He was named in the divorce proceedings of Elizabeth Eustacia, wife of John Hooke Campbell.  Mr Campbell  was a dour Scotsman and when he had married Devon girl Elizabeth in 1762 I don’t think he knew what he was taking on. They had three daughters – Eustacia, Charlotte and Louisa. I suspect that his wife’s world fell apart when both her parents died in the same year – 1764, and although there is an early reference to a boy called Matthew I suspect that he died in infancy and there is nothing to suggest that John Hooke Campbell was ever going to get a male heir. He seemed preoccupied with changing his name – from  John Hooke Campbell to John Campbell-Hooke, no doubt conscious of his  dynastic importance. A double-barrelled name always looks good!

To give him his full title he was The Right Honourable the Lord Lyon King of Arms. As such he was the head of Lyon Court,  the most junior of the Great Officers of State in Scotland. He was the official with responsibility for regulating heraldry in Scotland – issuing new grants of arms, and serving as the judge of the Court of the Lord Lyon, the oldest heraldic court in the world. Dare one assume that perhaps he was too busy with his heraldic work to spend much time  and attention on his wife, who was four years younger than him and who clearly liked to party, party?

The Tea Room at the Assembly Rooms, Bath: per Wikimedia

The couple were leading separate existences – and in time Elizabeth fell for the charms of Captain Wade. She would rent premises in Bath – or near Brighton where the good Captain  also held the position of MC – and this gave the Captain plenty of opportunity to pop round for a quick bit of nookie whenever he got the chance. And all of this was to come out into the public arena when  husband John finally woke up and smelled the roses. He sued the Captain for damages in criminal conversation – a sort of precursor to divorce, and this entailed a full trial. This involved just about every servant  in the household being called upon to give evidence. What is clear is that the below-stairs staff were preoccupied with  looking through keyholes and pressing ears against the walls, listening in to amorous conversations and ‘noises off’. Each servant was called in turn, and made depositions about  hearing inter-connecting doors opening and closing, of the young children being moved up to the garret out of the way, of shadowy figures holding candles being observed in corridors and of midnight moaning and squeaking bed-frames. The evidence ran to an impressive seventy pages, starting off with the assertion that Elizabeth ‘was and is a very loose woman of a lustful and wicked disposition’, who had committed ‘the foul crime of adultery’.

And all of this was reported in trial accounts which became best sellers, as prurient readers could  learn about every aspect  of the affair.

The reports of this and numerous other adultery trails were then consolidated and published in seven volumes. A quick look on the web suggests that a set of six of the seven are available for the discerning reader, at a not unreasonable price of $2500.

John won his case in 1777 and subsequently petitioned Parliament for a divorce, leaving his ex-wife free to marry Captain Wade once the original Mrs Wade had died in 1787. Before the year was out,  the ‘Bath Adonis’ had married Elizabeth, on 30 June 1787 at St Marylebone in London. Sure, he was sacked as MC in Bath for bringing his office into disrepute; however he  continued as MC in Brighton, thereby proving that somewhat different standards of propriety existed in the South coast resort compared with what was acceptable in the ever-so-respectable city of Bath. I make no comment about whether there has been much change there then !

For the next twenty years Captain Wade was responsible for arranging  entertainments  at assemblies in Brighton at both the Castle Inn and the Old Ship. He died in Brighton on 16 March 1809

All this scurrilous talk of scandalous behaviour is far too detailed to get more than a passing mention in my forthcoming talk to the Early Dance Circle on 1st March 2019  – but it was great fun doing the research, since I may well be able to use it in my next-book-but-one, on Sex and Sexuality in the Georgian Era. Meanwhile if you are free and in London on the evening of 1st March – do come along. The talk is at Swedenborg Hall, Swedenborg House, 20 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2TH and starts at 7.15 Details can be obtained from the  EDC Secretary: or by ‘phoning on 020 8699 8519

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.