Mar 282021

Image courtesy of David Cohen, Unsplash

To mark the fact that the clocks changed last night, a look at one of the ideas which triggered the whole question of daylight saving – a letter to the editor of The Journal of Paris dated 1784, from no less a person than Dr Benjamin Franklin, then living in Paris.

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, 1778



You often entertain us with accounts of new discoveries. Permit me to communicate to the public, through your paper, one that has lately been made by myself, and which I conceive may be of great utility.

Brass Quinquet lamp

I was the other evening in a grand company, where the new lamp of Messrs. Quinquet and Lange was introduced, and much admired for its splendour; but a general inquiry was made, whether the oil it consumed was not in proportion to the light it afforded, in which case there would be no saving in the use of it. No one present could satisfy us in that point, which all agreed ought to be known, it being a very desirable thing to lessen, if possible, the expense of lighting our apartments, when every other article of family expense was so much augmented.

I was pleased to see this general concern for economy, for I love economy exceedingly.

I went home, and to bed, three or four hours after midnight, with my head full of the subject. An accidental sudden noise waked me about six in the morning, when I was surprised to find my room filled with light; and I imagined at first, that a number of those lamps had been brought into it; but, rubbing

‘Shutters’ courtesy of
Valentin Lacoste, Unsplash

my eyes, I perceived the light came in at the windows. I got up and looked out to see what might be the occasion of it, when I saw the sun just rising above the horizon, from whence he poured his rays plentifully into my chamber, my domestic having negligently omitted, the preceding evening, to close the shutters.

I looked at my watch, which goes very well, and found that it was but six o’clock; and still thinking it something extraordinary that the sun should rise so early, I looked into the almanac, where I found it to be the hour given for his rising on that day. I looked forward, too, and found he was to rise still earlier every day till towards the end of June; and that at no time in the year he retarded his rising so long as till eight o’clock. Your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon, and seldom regard the astronomical part of the almanac, will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises. I am convinced of this. I am certain of my fact. One cannot be more certain of any fact. I saw it with my own eyes. And, having repeated this observation the three following mornings, I found always precisely the same result.

Yet it so happens, that when I speak of this discovery to others, I can easily perceive by their countenances, though they forbear expressing it in words, that they do not quite believe me. One, indeed, who is a learned natural philosopher, has assured me that I must certainly be mistaken as to the circumstance of the light coming into my room; for it being well known, as he says, that there could be no light abroad at that hour, it follows that none could enter from without; and that of consequence, my windows being accidentally left open, instead of letting in the light, had only served to let out the darkness; and he used many ingenious arguments to show me how I might, by that means, have been deceived. I owned that he puzzled me a little, but he did not satisfy me; and the subsequent observations I made, as above mentioned, confirmed me in my first opinion.

This event has given rise in my mind to several serious and important reflections. I considered that, if I had not been awakened so early in the morning, I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candle-light; and, the latter being a much more expensive light than the former, my love of economy induced me to muster up what little arithmetic I was master of, and to make some calculations, which I shall give you, after observing that utility is, in my opinion the test of value in matters of invention, and that a discovery which can be applied to no use, or is not good for something, is good for nothing.

I took for the basis of my calculation the supposition that there are one hundred thousand families in Paris, and that these families consume in the night half a pound of bougies, or candles, per hour. I think this is a moderate allowance, taking one family with another; for though I believe some consume less, I know that many consume a great deal more. Then estimating seven hours per day as the medium quantity between the time of the sun’s rising and ours, he rising during the six following months from six to eight hours before noon, and there being seven hours of course per night in which we burn candles, the account will stand thus;–

In the six months between the 20th of March and the 20th of September, there are

Nights 183
Hours of each night in which we burn candles 7
Multiplication gives for the total number of hours 1,281
These 1,281 hours multiplied by 100,000, the number of inhabitants, give 128,100,000
One hundred twenty-eight millions and one hundred thousand hours, spent at Paris by candle-light, which, at half a pound of wax and tallow per hour, gives the weight of 64,050,000
Sixty-four millions and fifty thousand of pounds, which, estimating the whole at-the medium price of thirty sols the pound, makes the sum of ninety-six millions and seventy-five thousand livres tournois 96,075,000

An immense sum! that the city of Paris might save every year, by the economy of using sunshine instead of candles. If it should be said, that people are apt to be obstinately attached to old customs, and that it will be difficult to induce them to rise before noon, consequently my discovery can be of little use; I answer, Nil desperandum. I believe all who have common sense, as soon as they have learnt from this paper that it is daylight when the sun rises, will contrive to rise with him; and, to compel the rest, I would propose the following regulations:

Image courtesy of Jarl Schmidt, Unsplash

First. Let a tax be laid of a louis per window, on every window that is provided with shutters to keep out the light of the sun.

Second. Let the same salutary operation of police be made use of, to prevent our burning candles, that inclined us last winter to be more economical in burning wood; that is, let guards be placed in the shops of the wax and tallow chandlers, and no family be permitted to be supplied with more than one pound of candles per week.

Third. Let guards also be posted to stop all the coaches, &c. that would pass the streets after sunset, except those of physicians, surgeons, and midwives.

Fourth. Every morning, as soon as the sun rises, let all the bells in every church be set ringing; and if that is not sufficient?, let cannon be fired in every street, to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest.

All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days; after which the reformation will be as natural and easy as the present irregularity; for, ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûte. Oblige a man to rise at four in the morning, and it is more than probable he will go willingly to bed at eight in the evening; and, having had eight hours sleep, he will rise more willingly at four in the morning following. But this sum of ninety-six millions and seventy-five thousand livres is not the whole of what may be saved by my economical project. You may observe, that I have calculated upon only one half of the year, and much may be saved in the other, though the days are shorter. Besides, the immense stock of wax and tallow left unconsumed during the summer, will probably make candles much cheaper for the ensuing winter, and continue them cheaper as long as the proposed reformation shall be supported.

For the great benefit of this discovery, thus freely communicated and bestowed by me on the public, I demand neither place, pension, exclusive privilege, nor any other reward whatever. I expect only to have the honour of it. And yet I know there are little, envious minds, who will, as usual, deny me this and say, that my invention was known to the ancients, and perhaps they may bring passages out of the old books in proof of it. I will not dispute with these people, that the ancients knew not the sun would rise at certain hours; they possibly had, as we have, almanacs that predicted it; but it does not follow thence, that they knew he gave light as soon as he rose. This is what I claim as my discovery. If the ancients knew it, it might have been long since forgotten; for it certainly was unknown to the moderns, at least to the Parisians, which to prove, I need use but one plain simple argument. They are as well instructed judicious, and prudent a people as exist anywhere in the world all professing, like myself, to be lovers of economy; and,from the many heavy taxes required from them by the necessitities of the state, have surely an abundant reason to be economical. I say it is impossible that so sensible a people, under such circumstances, should have lived so long by the smoky, unwholesome, and enormously expensive light of candles, if they had really known, that they might have had as much pure light of the sun for nothing. I am, &c  A SUBSCRIBER.

The letter appears in a book of selected scientific letters entitled The Ingenious Dr. Franklin. edited by Nathan G. Goodman and published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1931. 

I quote the letter in full because it is a reminder of just how our ancestors were daylight dependent, in an era before proper street lighting and where almost all activities carried out indoors after dark would have involved candles. It is interesting because even back in 1784 eight hours of sleep was regarded as  the norm.

My own ancestor Richard Hall went even further than Benjamin Franklin recommended – he proposed getting up a quarter of an hour earlier every week from mid-April onwards. In his diary he writes:

“Early rising is a habit easily acquired, so necessary to the dispatch of country business, so advantageous to health, and so important to devotion, that except in cases of necessity it cannot be dispensed with by any prudent or intelligent man. Let a person accustomed to sleep until eight in the morning rise the first week in April at a Quarter before Eight, the second week at Half past Seven, the third at a Quarter after Seven and the fourth at Seven. Let him continue this method until the end of July subtracting one quarter of an hour each week from sleep, and he will accomplish the work which at first sight appears difficult.”

Image courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.



The idea of rising at half past four in July just because it is light may not appeal to anyone who is distraught at the idea of having lost an hour’s sleep  last night – but it did go to show that making the most of daylight hours is not just a modern concern. Besides, in the winter I suspect that my ancestor just rolled over at eight o’clock in the morning and went back to sleep….

Dec 232020

Ignatius Sancho painted by Thomas Gainsborough and  shown courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery of Canada.

14 December 2020 marked the 240th anniversary of the death of the remarkable Ignatius Sancho. I have blogged about him before: he was  a writer, a composer, a shop-keeper – and very possibly a man born aboard a slave ship. He was brought to England as an infant and emerged from a difficult upbringing to become the first person of African descent to vote in a British general election. He is also the first known person of African descent to have an obituary published in British newspapers.

I have been reading some of his letters recently because he wrote a description of the Gordon Riots in 1780 – the year he died. The rioting culminated in the destruction of Langdale’s Gin Distillery, when rioters broke in and ‘liberated’ thousands of gallons of impure gin. The gin, and the people struggling to collect it as it cascaded into the streets, caught fire and the whole area was engulfed in a fireball which apparently could be seen for thirty miles. Sancho wrote a series of letters – ostensibly eye-witness accounts, but very possibly embroidered with passages gleaned from the newspapers. I found them interesting because I am much engaged in researching the ‘History of Gin’ for a book project.

Dancing in style

Anyway, Sancho was a keen observer of British traditions and was also a fine musician. I knew he wrote several musical pieces but had not appreciated his interest in English dance. That is, until I was reminded by the Early Dance Circle, to whom I spoke a year or two back. To coincide with Sancho’s death  the EDC have published a short film on Youtube, available here. If you are interested in how the Georgians actually danced – as opposed to what Hollywood might lead you to believe – do have a look at the video. It is entitled ‘Celebrating the life and dances of Ignatius Sancho.’ It turns out that Ignatius  published four collections of compositions as well as a treatise entitled A Theory of Music. It’s possible for any of us today to learn to dance these dances and enjoy their elegant musicality and sense of fun. For information about classes, visit Early dance groups are spread all across the UK. Many groups also perform for the public.

Anyone interested in the story of Ignatius will inevitably come across the excellent research carried out by Brycchan Carey. He specializes in the history and culture of slavery and abolition in the British Empire and his web pages contain a wealth of interesting source material about men such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano.

Do have a look at the EDC video even if, like me, you have two-left feet!

Give me sunshine….


PS I see that a first edition  (1782) of the two-volume set of letters from Ignatius Sancho is coming up for auction in January with Gloucester-based auctioneers Chorley’s. The letters cover a wide range of topics – as far as I know they do not relate at all to his dance and musical output – but if you have a few hundred pounds to spare, it would be an interesting punt. He was a forceful advocate for the abolition of the Slave Trade – in one of the letters he writes of “the Christians’ abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the African Kings – encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them guns to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.” 

The letters give an interesting perspective on life in London in the second half of the nineteenth century, seen from the viewpoint of a man who used the pen-name ‘Africanus’. I must re-read the diaries of my ancestor Richard Hall because he makes various mentions of ‘Scipio Africanus’ – there was a financial tie-up between the two men – and I have never managed to establish who ‘Scipio Africanus’ was. It seems to have been a common moniker for freed slaves and I recall that there is a colourful tombstone marking a’ Scipio Africanus’ grave in Henleaze, Bristol, but he died in 1720, some years before my ancestor was born. Definitely time for some more research….

Image shown courtesy of Chorley’s, auctioneers.

Dec 202020

Detail from a caricature by Richard Newton, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale.

In 1729 the government decided to try and do ‘something’ about the social ills known nowadays as the Gin Craze. The result was the first Gin Act, passed in 1729 and aimed at  increasing duties on distilled spirits, charging fees to all distillers for a licence, and introducing the idea of paid informers to help the Excise Men nail those dealing in the pernicious spirit.

The late 1730s saw a constant battle in the streets over gin, with the ‘mob’ targeting informers, fighting off the constables, and, if possible, grabbing as much free booze as they could. In 1735, one small riot seems to have involved the simple storming of a gin shop, leading to the newspapers carrying a story that on Tuesday 8th April ‘At Seven Dials occurred a Riot at the closing of a Gin Shop owned by Captain Speke. When the Mob became outrageous in their attempts to force the stoutly defended Building, Justice of the Peace Mr Maitland read the Riot Act but the Mob refused to disperse peaceably as required, the Guard of the Tower was called to enforce the Peace with Ball, Butt and Bayonet, after which all was quiet. The Shop was wrecked by Intruders and all the Genever Spirits lost.’

An explanation of what had happened was given in a satirical piece, purportedly written by someone calling themselvesCholmondeley-Fitzroy, Lord Foppingham.’ He wrote:

‘Here I must add, the remarkable facts that the honest builder Jack Church had obtained in regard of the gin shop of Captain Speke. This novel innovation of trade has no entrance, doors, nor any visible shop-man. In their stead, one pays custom by introducing coin into a slot, whereupon gin issues forth from a spout below. The expense is of the common sort for such trade – perhaps one shilling for a pint bottle. Their trade was brisk. Church struck up an acquaintance with two Tipstaffs, there to serve a summons … They had, he heard, been unable to serve it, their diligence baffled by the extraordinary nature of the place. None had been observed to enter or leave. Boldly, that night, Church effected an entry to the premises, in search of incriminating evidence. He reports that the place is so shuttered as to be wholly dark within. The gin is stacked up, crammed into every space.’ 

The idea of a slot-machine-operated gin-delivery system was certainly new and it was designed to get round the law by concealing the identity of the person selling the liquor. Being a blank wall with no visible door meant that the Excise Officers did not know who to go against, whereas the legislation stated that they had no power of entry unless the identity of the retailer was known to them. It was actually the idea of Dudley Bradstreet, an Irishman born in Tipperary in 1711 and who subsequently went on to publish his story in a book published in 1755 under the modest title of The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet Being the Most Genuine and Extraordinary, perhaps, ever written.

The enterprising Captain Bradstreet had an interesting career, including being a government spy, criminal, entrepreneur, brewer, playwright and serial seducer. Some reports suggest that the good Captain already had a murky background linked to the trade in gin – that he himself had traded gin illegally and also that he had acted as an informer, securing the conviction of others. He certainly was well-versed in the new law and its limitations and apparently used his last £13 to buy a consignment of gin from Langdales Distillery in Holborn. He then nailed a wooden figure of a cat’s head to the wall of a building rented in the name of a lawyer-friend in a quiet area behind the Barbican in Islington. In doing so he established what was soon known as a ‘Puss and Mew shop’ – ‘Puss’ because a buyer would address the cat with the words “Puss, do you have two penn’orth of gin?”  to which Bradstreet, hidden from view, would answer in the affirmative by replying “Meouw”. The payment would be inserted into a small tray which would then be retracted, following which the appropriate measure would be poured by funnel down the tube, to be collected in the recipients receptacle of choice – or swallowed ‘down the hatch’ if he or she was desperate enough!

A modern replica of the sign of the Black Cat shown courtesy of the Beefeater Gin Distillery

In the book, Bradstreet explained his scheme:

‘The Mob being very noisy and clamourous for want of their beloved Liquor, which few or none at last dared to sell, it soon occurred to me to venture upon that Trade. I bought the Act, and read it over several times, and found no Authority by it to break open Doors, and that the Informer must know the Name of the Person who rented the House it was sold in.

To evade this, I go an Acquaintance to take a House in Blue Anchor Alley, in St Luke’s Parish, who privately convey’d his bargain to me. I then got it well secured… and purchased in Moorfields the Sign of a Cat, and had it nailed to a Street Window; I then caused a Leaden pipe, the small End out about an Inch, to be placed under the Paw of the Cat; the End that was within had a funnel in it.
When my House was ready for Business… I got a Person to inform a few of the mob, that Gin would be sold by the Cat at my Window next day, provided they put the Money in its Mouth, from whence there was a Hole that conveyed it to me… I heard the chink of Money, and a comfortable Voice say, “Puss, give me two Pennyworth of Gin.”

I instantly put my Mouth to the tube, and bid them receive it from the Pipe under the paw, and then measured and poured it into the Funnel, from which they soon received it. Before Night I took six Shillings, the next Day above Thirty shillings, and afterwards three or four Pound a Day…’

The ruse soon caught on and in the space of one month Bradstreet cleared £22. No-one could see who was sitting inside behind the sign of the cat and therefore no-one could act as informer and pass details to the Excise men. All that the authorities could establish was that the premises were rented by a lawyer who declined to name the occupier, claiming it was in breach of his client confidentiality.

Sadly, nothing remains of the premises used by Bradstreet and the entire Blue Anchor Alley disappeared from maps when the site was redeveloped with a modern, concrete, block of flats in the 1960s. As for the sign, this has long disappeared although a replica can be seen at the Beefeater Gin Distillery premises at Kennington in London.

Before long the sign of the Black Cat was everywhere, an indication that both retailers and purchasers were determined to flout the law. Soon, Captain Bradstreet was able to emerge from the dark room in which he would barricade himself in, and retire from this particular venture in order to concentrate on his main interests, namely wine, women and song. He was a chancer, a flamboyant extrovert, going on stage, writing a play and bragging about his numerous affairs. He died in 1761, long after the ‘copycats’ had been caught, prosecuted or driven out of business.


Aug 192020

Sawney in the Boghouse. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The recent guest post by Naomi featured a print showing a Scotsman mis-using a close-stool or convenience. The original came out in 1745, just before the Jacobite uprising, and was at a time when anti-Scots feeling ran high. The reference to ‘Sawney’  or ‘Sawnee’ was a shorthand way of describing someone from Scotland – much as we might use ‘Jock’ today. I gather that it derived from the popular Scottish name of ‘Alexander’, which the English tended to shorten to ‘Alec’ and which  was abbreviated to ‘Sandy’ north of the border. ‘Sandy’ got corrupted to ‘Sawney’ and for several centuries it was used as a term of contempt by the English to refer to a stupid fool, of Scottish origin. The term went out of use some time in the 1800’s.

Sawney in the boghouse. © National Portrait Gallery, London

When James Gillray drew his version of Sawney in the boghouse in June 1779 he was copying a version which had appeared ten years earlier. The Gillray version, according to the British Museum site, is described as follows:

A Scot in Highland dress and wearing a feathered cap is seated in a latrine, his legs thrust down two holes in the board. He grasps in his left hand a rolled document inscribed “Act for [esta]blishing Popery”. Behind him a stone wall is indicated on which is etched (left) a thistle growing out of a reversed crown, inscribed “Nemo me impune lacessit”. On the right. and over Sawney’s head is engraved:

“‘Tis a bra’ bonny seat, o’ my saul”, Sawney cries,
“I never beheld sic before with me Eyes,
Such a place in aw’ Scotland I never could meet,
For the High and the Low ease themselves in the Street.”

In the background can be seen a thistle and crown – referencing the common accusation that the Scots were Jacobites. The ‘Act for establishing Popery’ refers to the Catholic Relief Act, fiercely opposed by many, and leading to serious riots in Edinburgh and Glasgow in February 1779.

Gillray was obviously rather pleased with this racist nonsense and in January 1796 brought out a particularly revolting piece entitled National Conveniences. The British Museum site gives us this explanation of the four panels:

[1] ‘English Convenience – the Water Closet’. A grossly obese alderman of repulsive appearance sits full-face, clasping his sides. He wears his gown and chain, one gouty leg is swathed in bandages. On the wall behind his head are two placards: ‘Bill of Fare, – Turtle Soup Fish Poultry H . . .’ and a broadside, ‘Roast Beef of old England headed by a sirloin’.
[2] ‘Scotch Convenience – the Bucket’. A woman seated in back view on a pair of tongs across a bucket in some sort of permanent shelter composed of ramshackle planks. On this are two papers: ‘The Sweets of Edinbro’ to the Tune of Tweedside’  and ‘Croudie a Scotch Reel’. In the foreground are pigs and poultry.

[3] ‘French Convenience – le Commodites’. A pretty young woman, full-face, in a latrine with three apertures. She crouches with one foot on the ground, one on the seat. On the wall are two papers: ‘Caira nouvelle chanson’ and ‘Soupe Maigre petit Chanson.’

[4] ‘Dutch Convenience – the Lake’. A stout man (? or woman) in back view sits on a rail, smoking a pipe. In the foreground is shallow water with ducks. Behind and in close proximity are town houses with high crow-stepped gables.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Gillray relished lavatorial jokes and happily applied them to political caricatures. Here we have ‘Evacuation before Resignation‘ showing Lord John Cavendish, a Whig politician who was briefly Chancellor of the Exchequor in 1782. His Lordship announces “We must save everything” – to which the servant, catching vomit in an upturned hat, remarks “For the Public Good”. Charming!

In the public domain – via Library of Congress

The young caricaturist Richard Newton delighted in lavatorial jokes: here, above, his defence of the  Habeas Corpus Act, which the King sought to suspend. It appeared in 1798 – the year that the 21 year old Newton died – and shows John Bull, archetypal Englishman, sticking out his bare backside and breaking wind  in the face of George III. Treason indeed!

                                            Junction of the Parties © The Trustees of the British Museum

But I think my favourite Gillray  potty joke – because it resonated with the Cameron-Clegg coalition – was this one from 1783 entitled Junction of the Parties. It depicts Charles James Fox and Lord North, who briefly entered into a coalition in 1783. The two stand back-to-back and defecate simultaneously into a pot, the contents of which were being stirred by the Devil, who holds his nose against the stench and stands between them, balancing with one foot on the lower back of each man. Superimpose Messrs Clegg and Cameron onto the faces of the defecators and it brings the parody right into the 21st Century.

Jul 102020

Back in 1989 the French postal service issued a stamp featuring  the French version of our stage coach, called a diligence – or ‘dilly’ as it was  sometimes referred to. I only know about it because I inserted the words ‘Grand Tour’ into the search page on the Yale Center for British Art site, and it brought up this rather  lovely water colour by my fave artist Thomas Rowlandson, entitled ‘The Paris Diligence’.

Apparently the dilly was  one of the forms of transport used by the less well-off  travellers on their leg of the Grand Tour, heading from Paris to Lyons en route to the Med. and on into Italy. Obviously the wealthier aristos would have their own carriage, and would go from Lyons into Switzerland, through the Alps, and if necessary have the carriage dismantled and carried through the more mountainous terrain before it was re-assembled for the ride down across to Florence, Venice, and on to Rome and Naples. But for those doing Europe on a shoestring you would have no choice but to share your journey with a cart-load of other tourists.

I had not appreciated that this meant sharing your journey with as many as fifteen other people. There appears to have been three separate sections on the velocipede – and half a dozen passengers could sit perched up on the roof. I like the detail shown by Rowlandson – the two beggars  seeking alms from the passengers at the rear of the coach; the startled sow and her piglets; the inn sign for ‘Le Qoque en Pate’; the nuns kneeling before the cross in the background, watched by a group of monks; the motley bunch of passengers which include soldiers and members of the clergy.

The original of the Rowlandson  image  appears to have been reproduced as a hand-coloured print in 1810, when it was published by Thomas Tegg. A pirated copy was then published in Dublin under the title of ‘French Travelling’. The British Museum site has this somewhat garish example:

According to Wikipedia an English passenger on the Le Havre to Paris diligence in 1803 had this to say about the cumbersome conveyance:

“A more uncouth clumsy machine can scarcely be imagined. In the front is a cabriolet fixed to the body of the coach, for the accommodation of three passengers, who are protected from the rain above, by the projecting roof of the coach, and in front by two heavy curtains of leather, well oiled, and smelling somewhat offensively, fastened to the roof. The inside, which is capacious, and lofty, and will hold six people in great comfort is lined with leather padded, and surrounded with little pockets, in which travellers deposit their bread, snuff, night caps, and pocket handkerchiefs, which generally enjoy each others company, in the same delicate depository. From the roof depends a large net work which is generally crouded with hats, swords, and band boxes, the whole is convenient, and when all parties are seated and arranged, the accommodations are by no means unpleasant.
Upon the roof, on the outside, is the imperial, which is generally filled with six or seven persons more, and a heap of luggage, which latter also occupies the basket, and generally presents a pile, half as high again as the coach, which is secured by ropes and chains, tightened by a large iron windlass, which also constitutes another appendage of this moving mass. The body of the carriage rests upon large thongs of leather, fastened to heavy blocks of wood, instead of springs, and the whole is drawn by seven horses.”

The Rowlandson diligence looks as though it was the equivalent of the stretch limo. Diderot’s Encyclopedia has  this picture of  a more truncated version:

Plodding along at an impressive six or even seven miles an hour, drawn by small sturdy Norman horses, the Paris to Lyons leg of the journey must have taken quite a few days – the distance is just over 280 miles. Just imagine the bone-shaking, genuinely shocking, monotonous tedium of spending four days in one of those contraptions, even if the Diderot example shows that the leather straps were eventually replaced by leaf springs.

Some passengers liked the experience. Writing in 1739 the traveller Sacheverell Stevens enjoyed the journey from Paris to Lyons, especially the speed (“300 miles which it performs in four days”) and the cost (“the fare for each passenger is 100 livres and everything found upon the road… but not so expeditious and easy as a post chaise, but infinitely more diverting, occasioned by the odd assemblage of the passengers such as monks, pilgrims, officers, courtezans etc.” On the other hand, unless you fancied experimenting  with your schoolboy French, conversation may have been fairly restricted, even with the courtezans…. The journey would have been noisy, tedious – and lacking in toilet facilities!

The diligence could keep pace with the canal boats, but was no match for the trains once they started to criss-cross Europe. And of course the trains altered the whole idea of the Grand Tour – it was no longer the preserve of the nobility. Mass transit brought culture to the middle classes and before long, tourism was a major industry which ended up destroying the charm and allure of the cities being visited. Before that, you might have dallied in your dilly, but at least you didn’t harm the environment…

Jun 072020

The Bell & Anchor public house at 38-40 Hammersmith Road was closed and demolished in the 1970s to make way for the lorry park at London’s Olympia. I only mention it because it was a well-known watering hole 200 years earlier, when it appears to have been run by a Mr Wilson. As at 2 January 1782 the square pillared porch of the pub, bearing the name ‘WILLSON’ appeared in a print published by Carington Bowles. The  four-storeyed building is shown next to the  toll-house known as the Hammersmith Turnpike and the picture is devoted to showing a woman having a driving lesson.

It interests me because  I am fascinated to see how, in the 1780s, driving your own gig or phaeton became  the display of success for the female nouveau riche – and that included all the whores and hookers who made the grade to become ‘Toast of the Town’. Mary Robinson and Gertrude Mahon in particular were famous for their  driving abilities. It was a badge of their success that they not only could afford to have a carriage parked outside their premises, with a matching pair of horses and with footmen in livery, but that they themselves could take the reins and  impress the passers-by as they charged through Hyde Park (or wherever).  A fashionable conveyance did not come cheap – Mary Robinson drove one given her by her lover the Prince of Wales which had set him back 900 guineas. Think ‘Bentley Mulsanne’ – with go-faster stripes…

And of course, that meant that the women had to have driving lessons, starting off in a simple gig. This print, entitled ‘A lesson westward – or, a morning visit to Betsy Cole’ shows the young lady receiving a driving-lesson from a man who sits behind her on the edge of the cart in which is a sheaf of straw. On the side of the cart is a board inscribed “Tom Longtrot’s Academy for Young Ladies. Driving taught to an Inch, Ladies compleatly finish’d in a fortnight, for Gig, Whiskey, or Phaeton: Single Lesson half a Crown, Five for half a Guinea”.

She doesn’t seem particularly comfortable holding the whip and reins at the same time, and has just run over a piglet, one of a litter  accompanying the sow as they scatter for cover. A short, stout, man clutches the London milestone, terrified that he is about to be run over.

It appears on the Yale Center for British Art  site and was based on a water colour by Robert Dighton. Beneath the title it has the warning:

‘When once the Women take the Reins in hand;

‘Tis then too true, that Men have no command.’

The lady driver is shown not, as might be expected, in riding garb, but wearing an elaborate hat with feathers and a muslin dress. Her dress gives the game away – she is intended to be recognized as  ‘a lady of easy virtue’. It is almost easier to see the detail in its original monochrome form:

It’s not a rare print – the last one I saw on the Christie’s site went for £325 ten years ago and there are copies, coloured and uncoloured on various sites including the British Museum one. As the V&A site points out: ‘In the eighteenth century humourous mezzotints such as this were known as drolls. The taste for poking fun at women’s driving skills evidently goes back much further than the invention of the motor car.’

Having been taught the basic skills in handling a gig, managing a single horse, the next stage was to move on to an open phaeton – everyone’s idea of a really sporty conveyance. The most prestigious phaeton was the English four-wheeled  high flyer. I rather like the image of one taken from Wikipedia showing  a high flyer designed by the royal coachmakers Hoopers. It is described as being ‘with a pair of out-sized, swan-neck leaf springs at the rear and the body mounted daringly high’. Impressive – what Georgian harlot wouldn’t want to be a high-flyer driving one of these!


May 192020

At present I am researching milliner’s shops in the 1780s – an esoteric subject, I appreciate, but one which is fascinating. It is part of my research into the life of an actress who will be featured in my next-book-but-one, on whores, harlots and mistresses who made something of their lives. This particular actress started life as a milliner and I was aware that ‘milliner’ was often a euphemism for ‘whore’.

The term ‘milliner’ extended to far more than making hats and  originally described the range of accessories and fashion items sold by travelling salesmen  from Milan. By 1747 the The London Tradesman could  describe a milliner as a retailer who would ‘furnish everything to the ladies that can contribute to set off their beauty, increase their vanity or render them ridiculous’. They worked alongside others in the fashion industry: the haberdasher supplied the fabrics, the mantua-maker made up the gowns, the stay maker made the stays and the milliner brought everything together and actually made  things fashionable. If you wanted to be a la mode, you went to the milliner. It was the milliner who supplied the sashes and ribbons, the ruffles and other accessories. It was the milliner who dealt in tippits, gloves, muffs – and exotic headwear.

But working in a milliner’s shop was not without its moral dangers: the same article in The London Tradesman stated that ‘the vast resort of young Beaus and rakes to millinery shops exposes young Creatures to many Temptations, and insensibly debauches their Morals before they are capable of Vice’. It went on to warn that ‘Nine out of ten young Creatures that are obligated to serve in these shops are ruined and undone: Take a Survey of all common Women of the Town, who take their Walks between Charing-Cross and Fleet-Ditch and, I am persuaded, more than half of them have been bred milliners, have been debauched in their Houses, and are obliged to throw themselves upon the Town for want of Bread, after they have left them. Whether it is owing to the Milliners, or to the Nature of the business, or to whatever cause is owing, the Facts are clear, and the Misfortunes attending the Apprenticeship so manifest…it ought to be the last shift a young Creature is driven to.’

So I was particularly keen to locate a print I came across a few years ago, published by Carington Bowles in 1782. I found it again on the Lewis Walpole Library site at Yale University and it is entitled ‘A Morning Frolic, or the Milliners Shop’. A differently coloured version can also be found on the British Museum site which describes the scene as follows:

Interior of a milliner’s shop, the counter running across the print, behind it are three milliners, dressed in the fashion of the day with elaborately frilled muslin caps on their high-dressed hair. Two fashionably dressed men are on the near side of the counter, intent on a flirtation. One, wearing riding-dress, sits on the edge of the counter, his legs dangling, while he leans on his elbow and looks over his right shoulder towards a pretty young woman who is sewing, seated in profile to the right. The other visitor (right) lounges against the counter as he hands a “Masquerade Ticket” to a young milliner. The third milliner stands; she is sewing at one of the elaborately frilled muslin head-dresses of the day.
The print shows the arrangement of a shop at this period. The shop-window is partly visible on the left, with wares for sale suspended across it on cords. On the wall is an oval mirror in a carved frame, while on the right shelves fill a recess in the wall and support boxes, inscribed “Feathers, Love Coxcomb, Mode”. An arched-top coffer, such as milliners in street scenes are depicted as carrying, stands open on the counter, a piece of lace hanging from it. On the near side of the counter is a tall circular stool for customers. In the foreground is a Pomeranian dog. 1782

The mezzotint was hand-coloured and is based on a water-colour by the artist Robert Digby. At that stage Carington Bowles was a well-known map-printer who also produced etchings from his shop described as being a ‘Map & Print Warehouse, No.69 in St. Pauls Church Yard, London’. I rather like the idea of the pair of rakish young gentlemen debating what to do with their morning, and deciding to go and chat up the young milliners in the shop round the corner. Armed with a ticket to a masquerade, perhaps at Ranelagh Gardens, they would have thought that they were onto a sure thing – one of the girls was bound to leap at the invitation. And everyone knew  what went on in the dark recesses and quiet alleyways at Ranelagh….

Nov 052019

I came across this mezzotint on the Lewis Walpole library site entitled ‘Lady Friz at her toilet’, dating from around 1780. According to the description on the site: ‘In an elegant bedroom a young woman sits at her dressing table looking at her reflection in the mirror. At her side is a barber with combs in his apron who gestures at her image which shows the elaborate high hair of the fashion.’

I rather like the way these prints show what the bedroom furnishings looked like – the embroidered curtains over the canopied bed; the blinds which are furled half way down over each window; the sash-like net curtains tied with a bow atop the mirror glass, framing the lady’s image; the patterned wallpaper and carpet. The verse underneath is somewhat uninspiring: ‘Ma’am Friz at her toilet is sat in full view/Surveying her head dress by Monsieur Frizeau/Cosmetics are lying with Powder and Puff/In an hour or two she’ll be handsome enough’.

The print was made by William Humphrey at 227 Strand. William was the sister of Hannah Humphrey, always associated with James Gillray, and when she started out as a print-maker she too operated from that address before establishing herself in Bond Street. William was a fine engraver who eventually moved into dealing in older prints, with a line in portraits which he imported from the Continent. He had a brother George who specialised in natural history curiosities (shells, fossils and the like). Together the Humphrey family say a lot about the way that  people in the 18th century were prepared to buy household ornaments and pictures. Meanwhile the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies tells us that William ‘died probably about 1810, and apparently in pecuniary difficulties’.

Perhaps ten years earlier Robert Sayer had produced a print entitled ‘The Toilet’. It too shows a lady seated at her dressing table, putting a piece of jewellery in her hair while looking in a mirror, but this time there is no French primper alongside her. Again, it is interesting because it shows the wall decorations (carved oval mirrors) and the ornamental wall-sconce, as well as revealing the large  amount of material adorning the lady’s dressing table.

And finally, Robert Sayer went on to publish another print entitled ‘The Toilet’ in 1786, also shown on the Lewis Walpole site. Again, it is interesting because it reveals the striped wallpaper, the patterned carpet and all the paraphernalia which was needed before a lady was ready to present herself to her admiring public – the powders, the hairpins and so on.

Drawing young ladies sitting in front of a mirror seems to have held a particular fascination for male artists – but I like them mostly for the way that they almost inadvertently show us exactly what  was fashionable in terms of fabrics, soft furnishings and so on.

Oct 052019

New blogs have been conspicuous by their absence during the past two or three months – I have been finishing off two books for Pen & Sword, both of which are due out in 2020. One will be on the great Georgian inventors, artists, thinkers and industrialists whose achievements are so often overlooked – we concentrate on one or two big names and forget the army of other ‘greats’ who equally deserve their place in the lime-light.

The other book is part of the series on Sex and Sexuality through history – my contribution will be a book on the Georgian era. Good fun doing the research – and after my wife had finished reading the proofs she admitted that she had learned a lot!

The next six months or so will be quiet on the blogging front – numerous trips abroad (South America, India and Thailand, the Caribbean and Tahiti/Hawaii) will see to that. Some of these breaks involve lecture cruises with Celebrity, which I am greatly looking forward to. So, I will concentrate on preparing and polishing talks which are destination and itinerary relevant – always a challenge!

But ahead of the 200th anniversary of the death of George III I had been asked to write an article for the excellent magazine Jane Austen’s Regency World, about the king’s funeral at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. I must admit I had never given much thought to the role of the funeral director, but it turns out that there was one family of funeral undertakers who were closely connected with almost every one of the royal funerals in the 19th Century. That firm was Bantings, operating from premises at St James’s Street in London and they were appointed to their role by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. They carried out the funeral arrangements for George III, in 1820, his brother William IV in 1830, and the Duke of Gloucester four years later. In addition, they dealt with the funerals of both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – as well as for many other members of the royal family. They also saw off the Duke of Wellington on his final journey and the company continued to hold the Royal Warrant until 1928 when William Westport Banning retired from the business.

But the odd ‘factoid’ I enjoyed finding out was that back in 1796 William Banting had been born – growing up to become an excellent carpenter and funeral director, a good organizer – and a pioneer of a diet which we would now recognize as the Atkins Diet. In his thirties he started to put on weight and his corpulence led him to try exercise – but he found that this just led him to eat more and put on weight. As he himself remarked: ‘It is true I gained muscular vigour, but with it a prodigious appetite, which I was compelled to indulge, and consequently increased in weight, until my kind old friend advised me to forsake the exercise.’
He tried a starvation diet. He tried taking baths and drinking medicinal waters but to no avail. He experimented with sea air, and all manner of tinctures unguents and potions – even special shampoos. He could not stoop to tie his shoes, nor walk upstairs easily. His weight went up to 202 pounds – high for a man who was only five feet five inches tall and therefore with a BMI of over 33. He was going deaf, his eyesight was failing and he was becoming less and less mobile.

Enter the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist Dr William Harvey, freshly returned for a trip to Paris where he had met the Frenchman Claude Bernard. Barnard was promoting a low-carb, low sugar diet as being beneficial to good health, and Harvey saw Banting as an ideal test case. He persuaded Banting to give up all of his sugar- and starch-rich foods – things like bread butter, milk, sugar, beer and potatoes and to replace them with fruit and green vegetables. He was allowed meat and dry wine, and was encouraged to eat meals four times a day. It worked – Banting’s weight plummeted to 156 pounds within the year – a weight loss of three and a half stone. More to the point, his hearing and eyesight were restored. His girth reduced by over twelve inches and the poor blighter had to get new clothes made by his tailor or he would have been a laughing stock at all those royal funerals….

He lived until the ripe age of 81, a living testament to his dietary ideas.

Shown courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

He didn’t keep the success to himself – he felt that his experience could improve the lives of the working poor, recognizing that their diet tended to be heavy on carbs, with starchy potatoes and bulky foods like bread, and drinks such as beer. So, Banting published his views in a pamphlet entitled ‘A Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public’. It ran to numerous editions and in many ways led on to modern views on obesity, the link to diabetes and so on. But for the first half-century the Banting Diet was dismissed as nonsense by scientists and dietitians and it wasn’t until the 1920’s that Banting’s ideas were fully vindicated. Banting felt that the medical profession would never take him seriously, observing: ‘At one time I thought the Editor of the Lancet would kindly publish a letter from me on the subject, but further reflection led me to doubt whether so insignificant an individual would be noticed without some special introduction’.

It was in the 1960’s that cardiologist Robert C. Atkins put forward his ideas on restricting carbs while emphasizing protein and fats. Poor old Dr Atkins – he had a history of heart attacks, congestive heart failure and hypertension and died nine days after slipping on an icy pavement, hitting his head. He was 72 – and intriguingly weighed 258 pounds when he died, far, far more than Banting in his most obese period. I think you can say that Banting believed in practising what he preached – I am not quite so sure about Dr Atkins!

Whereas Dr Atkins no doubt made a fortune publicizing his diet, well, really, it’s little different from the diet proposed by Banting, and from which Banting made not one penny.

By the end of the nineteenth century the word ‘banting’ was synonymous with ‘dieting’  – as in ‘I need to go on a banting’. Here a cartoon from the Spectator Magazine


And if you want to see what Banting recommended – no exotic superfoods, no weird and wonderful ingredients brought in to the country from foreign climes, just this:

For breakfast, I take four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast.

For dinner, five or six ounces of any fish, except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, one ounce of dry toast, fruit, any kind of poultry of game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry or Madeira — Champagne, port and beer forbidden.

For tea, two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar.

For supper, three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret.

For nightcap, if required, a tumbler of grog — (gin, whisky, or brandy, without sugar) — or a glass or two of claret or sherry.

It may be Aldi – but it is champagne…!

I must say I warm to anyone who recommends a diet with plenty of beef and chicken, washed down with good claret and brandy – but I think I will pass on the idea of kidneys for breakfast, if you don’t mind! And I am sorry, but a diet without champagne is a complete no-no…..

Jan 152019

  Today (15th January) is supposed to have been the date when, in 1797, a haberdasher called John Hetherington caused a sensation by wearing a top hat in the streets of London. Legend has it that he caused a riot. The story goes that when he “appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat (which was shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people) … several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected, and had his right arm broken.” It doesn’t sound really plausible, with the unfortunate hat-wearer allegedly being bound-over in the sum of £500 to keep the peace, particularly as the tale does not look as though it appeared in print until another one hundred years had elapsed, with doubtful provenance then being given as an authority.

More to the point, the top hat (a name which was not to appear until the nineteenth century) had been in existence for many years. The only thing ‘new’ was that by the 1790s they were being made of silk rather than beaver pelts – but the whole thing about this was that the silk was made to look like beaver using a fabric called silk shag (a form of hatters’ plush, which had a soft silk weave with a very long, defined nap). It is highly unlikely that the uninitiated would have noticed the difference. In any event a more likely candidate for the first use of a silken substitute for fur was George Dunnage, who advertised just such a hat in 1793 calling it ‘an imitation of beaver’. Why would anyone have been astonished at it – unless the whole story was a fabrication put about by Mr Hetherington as a sales puff?

In the time of Richard Hall any such item of headwear would have been known as a beaver hat (topper, stovepipe, high hat, cylinder hat or chimney pot hat were all later appellations). But tall, towering, absurd structures had been around for centuries. Have a look at this one:

(as worn by the French king Henry IV 1552-99 ).










But don’t think  such absurdities were confined to the French side of the Channel. Here, painted in 1595 is the man who was to become our own James I (at the time, just plain James VI of Scotland. Well, not exactly plain.) Now that hat would have frightened the pigeons…







The fashion disease spread to nobles as well – here is the first Earl of Exeter, Thomas Cecil, painted in 1605 .








And when a certain Guido Fawkes ventured to blow up the Houses of Parliament history recorded him wearing a singular structure on his head.  

O.K. it had a floppy brim, but it wasn’t exactly a close fitting skull cap was it?




Through into the Eighteenth Century William Hogarth shows the Lord Mayor wearing a fine beaver in 1749,  and by the end of the century tall hats were commonplace as in this 1796 water colour by the French artist Carl Veney. He made a specialty  of painting les incroyables (the French equivalent of the Regency dandies).

James Gillray was also showing the monarch and his family in straight-sided beaver hats. Whether the popularity of the new silk versions caused the collapse in the fur trade, or whether the collapse in the fur trade forced manufacturers to become more inventive with their alternatives, is not clear. The new methods were quite complicated and two different weights evolved, one for ‘Town’ and a heavier one, more suitable for riding, known as ‘country weight’.

Wikipedia gives the method of construction: ” A town-weight silk top hat is made by first blocking a piece of cheesecloth that has been coated with shellac on a wooden top hat block (which is made of several inter-connecting pieces like a puzzle so the block can be removed from the shell, as the opening is narrower than top of the crown) to form the shell. After the shell has more or less dried but is still a bit sticky, the block is removed and the silk plush, which comes in several different pieces, is cut to the correct pattern, then stuck onto the shell. The top flat part of the crown uses a single flat disc of silk plush that has a circular nap. The sides consist of one or two rectangular pieces with the ends cut at a diagonal. The edge of the crown where the side pieces and the flat disc meet are carefully hand stitched together. The side pieces where the seams meet at the sides are not stitched as the silk nap conceals the seams.

The upper brim is also covered with a piece of silk plush or with silk petersham (a ribbed silk). The under-brim is also covered with either cloth or silk. After the hat has fully dried, the brim is curled and bound with silk grosgrain ribbon, and a hat band (either silk grosgrain with or without a bow, or a black wool mourning band without a bow) is installed. Finally, the lining and the leather sweatband are carefully hand-stitched in.”  The country weight hat is heavier because it starts with extra layers of shellac and calico.

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel in a fine chimney-pot hat.

Other famous wearers were Abraham Lincoln,  with the good luck topper as worn to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865…

The Mad Hatter,          Dr Seuss,         Uncle Sam

Boy George      Fred Astaire       Madonna

Marelene Dietrich         Also the much lamented Screaming Lord Sutch

 (longest running British political party leader 1963 -1999, Monster Raving Loony Party).

Princess Diana with her take on the topper:

So, forget about John Hetherington: it seems fairly clear that the top hat has been with us for over four hundred years. It had its heyday in the Victorian era, and remains today with vestiges of its former glory – outside posh hotels, at Royal gatherings, and as a fashion statement.

 And so, in the immortal words of Leslie Nielsen as Lt Frank Drebin in Naked Gun:

 “Nice beaver”