Dec 122021

In February I am privileged to be invited back to Colonial Williamsburg to give a talk to fit in with the theme of virtue and vice, as part of their week-long 74th Annual Antiques Forum. Their promotional material for the seminar features a coloured mezzotint by Robert Dighton, published by Carington Bowles, and dating from November 1784.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum site describes the print with the following words:

‘A young woman stands within a compass inscribed ‘Fear God’, holding an open book inscribed ‘The Pleasures of Imagination Realized’. At her feet is an open chest full of guineas from which hang bank-notes and jewels; it is inscribed ‘The Reward of Virtue’. A small dog stands beside her. In the background (right) is a country house, on the left farm-buildings and haystacks.

The four corners are filled with the disasters which beset the woman who does not ‘keep within compass’.

(1) A woman weeps dejectedly with cards and an empty purse on the ground at her feet.

(2) A drunken woman lets an infant fall from her arms; on the wall is a torn print inscribed ‘Domestic Happiness’.

(3) A woman is being conducted to the watch-house by two watchmen, one with his lantern, the other with a rattle.

(4) She beats hemp in Bridewell, a man standing behind her with a whip, as in Hogarth’s ‘Harlot’s Progress’.

The words round the circle are KEEP WITHIN COMPASS AND YOU SHALL BE SURE TO AVOID MANY TROUBLES WHICH OTHERS ENDURE. Beneath the circle is inscribed ‘Prudence produceth esteem’. Below the design four verses are engraved, the first:

‘Instead of Cards my Fair-one look,
(I beg you’ll take it kind)
Into some learned Author’s Book,
And cultivate your mind.’

The woman is warned about the dangers of a promiscuous lifestyle:

‘If lewdness once your Soul alarms,

There’s not so bad an evil,

To prostitute those lovely charms,

Must drive you to the Devil.’

But the admonishment  to ‘keep within compass’ was not confined to women – Dighton produced a companion piece featuring an industrious man, inside the arms of the compass. A sackful of gold coins lies at his feet. Behind the male figure, workers are  toiling hard in the fields; grain is being milled in the mill served by a water wheel; all is prosperity and  wealth. The four corners contain contrasting illustrations, with one showing the man gambling and drinking away his fortune and another with a man sitting with a whore on his lap. Lower corners show the dangers of  a ship striking the rocks i.e. if the man gets out of his depth and takes too many risks. The bottom right quadrant shows the man looking out through the bars of his prison cell.

A slightly different variation of the female inside the compass, showing the lady wearing a fine be-ribboned hat,  is shown here:

Beneath is the slogan ‘Keep within the compass women, Enter not into the way of the wicked and go not into the path of evil men”.  At the corners of the print are examples of “fallen” women. In the upper left a mother is not caring for her child properly; the infant appears to be slipping from her lap. In the top right a woman is shown working in a tavern. In the lower left a woman is standing in a street selling things to make money. In the lower right is shown a prostitute soliciting for business. All of these activities are, it is suggested, inappropriate and demeaning for a woman. The reward for behaving “properly” is written around the circle: “Keep within compass and you shall be sure to avoid many troubles that others endure.” In addition to proscribing certain behaviors on the part of women the illustration describes the appropriate relationship between husband and wife: in a marriage the woman should tend to the family and depend on the man to work and provide for them; her role is to be the “Virtuous Woman” and “a Crown to her Husband.”

‘Keep within Compass’ is not a phrase we are familiar with today – but obviously in the eighteenth century it was well-known.

There has even been a public house at Whitwick in Leicester, more generally called the Rag ‘n Mop, entitled ‘Man Within Compass’. The story goes that in the early 1830’s the publican was a freemason and the compass referred to  the fact that the premises were also used as a masonic lodge. There are records of at least two pubs called, simply, ‘Keep within Compass’, with examples in Uxbridge and High Wycombe. There is also a hotel in Sydney, New South Wales, which shares this name –  while the Wellcome Collection features a print from 1810 entitled ‘The Alehouse Sermon’.

It shows a doctor holding court, offering health advice, outside a pub with its hanging sign of  ‘a man within a compass’.

The Colonial Williamsburg site shows this fan, clearly copying the theme from the Dighton print:


A quick search on Google shows children’s plates transfer printed with the slogan ‘Keep within Compass’.

Elsewhere, I also came across a teapot featuring a man on one side and a woman on the other, on the

 blogsite of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.







On the Hanes and Ruskin Antique site  there is an earthenware bowl, somewhat coarsely decorated:

The Norwich Museum has a rather better illustrated piece of pearlware – in this case another teapot:


The Printed Pottery and Porcelain  site describes the scenes on the teapot as showing: ‘the virtuous woman on one side and the virtuous man on the other. The female figure is on the principal side, that is, the side seen by a right-handed person when pouring the tea. She holds a book inscribed “The Pleasures of Imagination Realized” and stands beside an open jewellery chest labelled “The reward of Virtue”: above her “FEAR GOD”, around her “KEEP WITHIN COMPASS AND YOU SHALL BE SURE TO AVOID MANY TROUBLES WHICH OTHERS ENDURE”, to the left “Attend unto this simple fact as thro[ugh] this life you rove”, to the right “That virtuous and prudent ways will gain esteem and love” and below her “Prudence brings Esteem”. The four scenes beyond the compass indicate the fate of the woman who does not keep within compass: idleness (playing cards scattered on the ground) and dissipation (raising a glass and dropping a baby) lead to arrest by two constables and picking oakum in the workhouse.’

The slogan appears to have been adapted to show current fashions well into the 1820s, with this version being a print by William Darton.

William Darton was a Quaker, and he inherited his father’s print-making business in Tottenham in the early 1800’s. In 1804 he opened new premises at 50 Holborn Hill which he modestly termed ‘The Repertory of Genius’. He retired in 1851 and died three years later but the business was carried on by his son, in partnership with Samuel Clark.

William had specialised in maps and cartographical scenes – mountains and rivers mostly – but in this  print he is clearly updating an existing print to give it a more ‘Victorian’ feeling. The images are framed with somewhat earnest exhortations inspired by the Bible, such as ‘Sacrifice not thy Conscience for Money,’ ‘Spare when Young, then Spend when Old’ and ‘He that goes a-Borrowing, goes a-Sorrowing’. Hard work was obviously the order of the day, with ‘Drive thy business, let not thy Business drive thee’ In a sense  the emphasis has entirely switched away from images of  transgression – no whoring, drinking or gambling scenes here!  No wonder it appears somewhat boring in comparison with the more boisterous Dighton images which it so clearly plagiarised!

As a final thought: the images shown above would have sat happily alongside all those conduct books  urging men, but particularly women, to stick to the  path of righteousness  and virtue. Needless to say, when I give my talk I will be focussing on the  men and women who failed to listen – who chose the path of licentiousness and sin. For me, the activities shown in the corners of both of the main etchings are by far the most interesting!

Aug 172021

It is easy to think of William Hogarth as an artist and satirist and to forget that he earned his bread and butter doing mundane things like drawing trade cards for local businesses. One example is this one for Mrs Holt’s emporium, which stocked all manner of Italian goodies:

It displays a picture of an Italian scene, showing a ship being loaded with goods in Florence. Mercury turns to a woman (emblem of Florence) with a sampling of the goods of the region at her feet. On the right, workers carry loads of goods onto a ship as the merchant looks on. In the distance there is a view of Rome. The four corners of the frame are images of Naples, Venice, Genoa, and Leghorne.

The description tells us that Mrs. Holts, Italian Ware House is marked by two olive posts in [the] broad part of the Strand almost opposite the Exeter Change. Here were sold ‘all sorts of Italian silks as lustrings, sattins, padesois, velvets, damasks, &c. Fans, Legorne hats, flowers, lute & violin strings, books of essences, Venice treacle, balsomes, &c.’

Intriguingly, ‘in a back warehouse all sorts of Italian wines, Florence cordials, oyl, olives, anchovies, capers, vermicelli, Bolognia sausidges, Parmesan cheese, Naple soap, &c’ were to be had. Who said food miles are new? 300 years ago the finest Italian ingredients were to be found in the shops of London. You can just imagine the place, full to the brim with assorted goodies.

William Hogarth died in 1764, which is the year when this trade card is believed to have been issued. It appears on the Lewis Walpole Library site here. I know nothing about Mrs Holt, but it is interesting that she is shown as being the proprietor of the shop – a reminder that  London was by no means closed to business women.

Jul 262021

On 26 July 1745 twenty-two ladies gathered in a field on Gosden Common near Guildford. Half of them – the maids of  Hambledon – wore red ribbons around their hats; the other eleven, from Bramley, were bedecked with blue ribbons in their high hats. Both teams of eleven were decked out in floor-length white dresses. There then ensued what has been described as the first all-female cricket match – one in which the Maids of Hambledon triumphed, scoring 127 notches (i.e. runs, recorded with a notch being cut in a wooden tally-stick). The Maids of Bramley managed a disappointing 119 notches, but who cares, the result was probably the subject of many wagers and for all I know the Hambledon Maids were just more expert at sand-papering the ball, or slathering it with face cream to give their (underarm) bowlers an edge. (Oh no, sorry, that sort of thing came later, with the men’s game….).

Hambledon had become the spiritual home of English cricket and it is here that John Sackville, Third Duke of Dorset played. He was a keen patron of cricket, spending, it is said, over a thousand pounds a year on maintaining his team (according to the Whitehall Evening Post of 1783). And that was before taking into account the huge wagers he made on the match results. He too was keen to foster the women’s game, as well as making overtures to host what would have been the first international cricket match, between the English and the French…. but the French Revolution put paid to that absurd idea!

The women’s game remained a novelty, and was not confined to local village girls having a frolic in the long grass. In 1777 (or possibly a couple of years later) Elizabeth, the Countess of Derby, arranged a match in which both teams were drawn from the upper echelons of society. I have no idea who won, but at least we have some idea of the frocks they wore, thanks to the print made in 1779 – in colour, below, and as a monochrome close up, above). Apparently the game prompted the Reverend H R Haweis to remark “Do I object to cricket, for instance? Personally, I do not care to see a graceful girl straddling behind a wicket, with her nose above the bails, her body doubled-up like a frog’s, and her hands clapped on her knees for support; nor do I think that a young lady’s hands and arms were intended to swing a weighty club, and ‘swipe’, as the boys say, at cricket balls”.

Caricaturists loved showing women attempting to take part in ‘manly pursuits’. Below is an etching entitled “Miss Wicket and Miss Trigger” dating from around 1778.  It is based on a painting by John Collett, from which an engraving by Carrington Bowles was made. The inscription tells us ‘Miss Trigger you see is an excellent shot. And Forty-Nine notches Miss Wicket just got.’ The abstract on the Lewis Walpole site, quoting from the British Museum catalogue, reads:

‘Two well-dressed young ladies meet before a farm house. On the left, Miss Wicket leans on her cricket-bat turning towards Miss Trigger who advances with her dogs, holding aloft a pheasant and two partidges, as she tramples a paper marked “Effeminacy”. Miss Wicket wears a chip hat and jacket with waistcoat, her sporting petticoat short enough to reveal her ankles. Miss Trigger wears a large hat of the bergère style, a long coat with buttoned sleeves and boots. Behind the pair a young girl catches a ball.

I am much intrigued at the idea of Miss Wicket belting up and down a 22-yard track while sporting such exotic head-wear. The print is interesting in showing the early form of bat, shaped like a paddle, in use at the time. Also note the wicket, consisting of two ‘stumps’ being  sticks with a ‘V’ at the top to hold a horizontal stick or bail.

In October 1811 a print by Thomas Rowlandson appeared in the Thomas Tegg publication  called “The Caricature Magazine, or, Hudibrastic mirror”. It announced that: ‘on Wednesday October 3rd, 1811, a singular cricket match took place at Balls Pond, Newington. The players on both sides were 22 women, 11 Hampshire against 11 Surrey. …’
The print appears on the Lewis Walpole site , which quotes from the explanation in the British Museum catalogue :

“The scene is a sloping field. The batswomen are running hard, while one of the field leaps to attempt a high catch; the wicket-keeper crouches behind the wicket, hands on knees. The players have petticoats kilted above the knee, bare heads, necks, and arms; they wear flat slippers, mostly ‘en cothurne’. All the fielders look or run towards the ball; one has fallen with great display of leg; another, running headlong, trips over a dog. Eleven are playing, including those batting. Two girls sit together on the ground, one cutting notches on a stick to record the runs. Others stand near, one with a young man’s arm round her waist. Spectators stand round the field. In the middle distance is a marquee with a flag: ‘Jolly Cricketers’. Here, fashionably dressed men are entertaining the players; a very fat woman drains a bowl of punch, another sits on a man’s knee. A girl descends from a donkey. Behind is a fashionable tandem. The scene is rural except for a smoking lime-kiln.”

And to think that in a mere two hundred and fifty years* it has reached the stage where we meet ‘The Goddess of Cricket’ – the name given to Indian skipper Mithali Raj after she became the first woman to complete 7,000 runs in One Day Internationals. Top notch indeed!


(*I am being ironic)

May 172021

Simon Stevin, in many ways the Father of Decimalisation.

I was intrigued to see that someone at Oxford University is suggesting that our use of Imperial measurements (feet and inches, pounds and ounces etc) should be re-considered because of their links to Empire. How woke. How unutterably, depressingly woke. Apparently the ‘history of modern measurement is tied deeply to the idea of the ‘Empire’ and Imperial standardisation.’ But to me, the point is: which Empire do you want, French or British – or even Roman? Both France and Britain have used a whole raft of different measuring standards, many of them deriving originally from Roman measurements, and both countries started to review and standardise those measurements during the second half of the Eighteenth Century.

The French were quicker off the mark when modernising their standards. Prior to the French Revolution you might have measured distances by the ‘toise’ (roughly two metres). But the French also used the foot, divided into twelve inches, in turn divided into twelve ‘lines’. But the French ‘foot’ was not the same as the English ‘foot’, and its length varied from province to province. As for weights, the French adhered more-or-less to Roman measurements. So you had the pound, divided into sixteen ounces. Except that sometimes it was made up of twelve ounces, each divided further into eight gros, each of 72 grains. Whole units were generally divided into fractions – halves, quarters, eights and sixteenths.

Goodness knows how you traded goods when you had no idea of the size and quantity you were getting!

Neither the French nor the English had moved to embrace decimalisation – largely because it took until around 1500 for Arabic numerals to become prevalent. Back in 1585 a Flemish mathematician by the name of Simon Stevin had brought out a book called ‘De Thiends’ explaining how Arabic numerals could be divided into tenths by the simple expedient of using the decimal point. That book was translated into both French and English, the latter being called ‘Disme: The Art of Tenths Or, Decimall Arithmetike: Teaching how to Performe All Computations Whatsoeuer, by Whole Numbers Without Fractions’.

The English version came out in 1608,  and Stevin realized that his research could mean that weights, measurements and even the currency could all be re-jigged so that it was divisible by ten.

Nearly half a century later, enter Oliver Cromwell. He rather liked the idea put forward by the Oxford mathematician Robert Wood that the English pound should be divided into ‘tenths, hunds and thous’. Cromwell kept the pound – he re-named it the Broad – but also had a gold coin worth fifty shillings minted, worth ten times the amount of the existing five-shilling crown. Both were struck from dies made by Thomas Simon on the presses of the Frenchman Pierre Blondeau. Cromwell never got around to minting a coin for the tenth of a Broad and when Charles II was crowned he immediately went back to the coinage of his Stuart forebears.

Gold fifty-shilling coin of Oliver Cromwell, courtesy of Spink’s catalogue

But by the eighteenth century both international trade and science were beginning to suffer because of the lack of standardisation – French chemists could not communicate their ideas to their English, Swedish or German counterparts because each was using slightly different measuring standards. You needed conversion tables for a whole range of things – from temperature, to weight, from dimension to cost. The British accepted that reform was needed and parliament considered the whole topic in July 1789. M.P. Sir John Riggs Miller put forward a proposal of a system based on length of a seconds pendulum at the latitude of London.

To explain: back in the previous century a French parish priest by the name of Gabriel Mouton had proposed a natural unit based on the size of the Earth. This was the length of a minute (a sixtieth of a degree) of longitude, to be called the ‘mille’ and divided into tenths, hundredths and so on. One thousandth of a mille was called the ‘geometric foot’ and Mouton suggested that a pendulum of this length should be set up in his home town of Lyon. Naturally enough, the English were never going to accept a French calculation based upon a French city – they wanted the pendulum to be based on the Greenwich meridian. There was apparently an attempt by the French to persuade Britain to join forces, but the overture was rejected. Talleyrand had suggested to the French National Assembly that it should make a direct approach to the British government, but on 1 December 1790 the Foreign Secretary informed the French Ambassador in London that the proposed collaboration was ‘not practicable’.

In the event, the British parliament dropped the idea: Sir John Riggs Miller lost his seat in Parliament and the French were free to bring in their ideas on standardisation on their own.

It was with this background to decimalisation that the new United States adopted a decimal currency (ie the dollar and the cent) soon after Independence. In France the National Assembly gave way to the National Convention. In 1794 the Convention decided that the basic unit of measurement should equal to 3 feet 11.44 lines, and was to be named the ‘metre’, from the Greek ‘metron’ (measure). Logic would suggest that multiples and divisions should also have a Greek prefix. But no, the decision was made to use Greek for the multiples (deca and kilo) and Latin for the sub-divisions (deci and milli). So we got kilometres and millimetres. The cubic decimetre became the’ litre’ and the weight of a cubic centimetre of water at its temperature of maximum density was named the ‘gramme’.

The French went further in deciding that the calendar needed a bit of an overhaul. Twenty-four hours in a day was far more than anyone wanted: ten was quite sufficient. The year was kept at 12 months, but each month consisted of three ‘decades’ of 10 days. That meant that an additional five days would be added at the end of each year (six in leap years), The French public never accepted the reduction in hours but the new calendar remained in use until 1805. Years were to be dated from the revolution, so Year Three was 1794-5. I can well remember going round ancient Egyptian tombs, and being surprised at the graffiti left by French antiquarians who poured into the ancient archaeological sites during the French occupation of Egypt between 1798 and 1801. Somehow you don’t expect to see graffiti from 1798 listing the names of French visitors, describing their presence in ‘Year Seven’ but there you go!

The change in French measurements started to be rolled out after 1799. It was announced in 1804 that it was to be applied throughout the nation with immediate effect. However, in practice the metric change took many years. The changes were set out in a book by A Macon entitled ‘Instruction sur les mesures déduites de la grandeur de la terre.’  This was quickly circulated and re-printed throughout France.

Rather more rapidly, the decimalisation of the French currency was accepted readily, not least because the new-fangled franc was much the same size and value as the old livre. The livre had been divided into twenty sous whereas the new franc, containing five grammes of silver, was divided up into hundredths i.e. centimes.

As for Britain, there was an ongoing move towards standardisation and in 1824 the Weights and Measures Act established standardised Imperial units for length, mass and volume, replacing what had been known as Winchester Standards, operating since medieval times. It also introduced two new basic standard units, the Imperial standard yard and the troy pound, and these units were imposed throughout the British Empire.

Under the new rules one Imperial gallon was defined as the volume occupied by 10 pounds of distilled water at 62 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e. 160 fluid ounces). The Americans, being different, went off and decided that their liquid gallon would weigh 128 fluid ounces. Previously the English had used different sizes of gallon when measuring wine and ale, as opposed to dry gallons used for measuring wheat and grain. Indeed there was the extraordinary situation where  in Scotland barley, oats and malt were sold in units equivalent nowadays to thirteen litres – whereas wheat, peas, beans and meal were sold in units of  around nine litres. To make things even more confusing, both sets of unit went by the same name – the peck. Nowadays we only remember the peck from the Peter Piper rhyme, but I gather that in the States you can still buy a peck of apples. Mind you, there were also three different weights going by the title of ‘pound avoirdupois’ during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. All very confusing!

Dry goods such as grain were generally measured by the bushel, with sub-divisions of pecks, gallons and quarts. For Scrabble-lovers, how about the fact that two pecks were called a kenning and four pecks made a firlot? In 1496, a law of King Henry VII instituted the bushel that would later come to be known by the name “Winchester”. So, what of the old Winchester Standards? Well, they appear to date back to pre-Conquest times, when Winchester was the royal seat of Saxon kings such as King Edgar. He kept the ‘prototype’ standards at Winchester and although they were brought up to London after the Norman Conquest the connection with the name ‘Winchester’ remained.

One of the earliest attempts to define the gallon, bushel and quarter is the Assize of Weights and Measures. It is unclear when this was enacted – probably some time between 1250 and 1305. It is listed under Ancient Statutes of Uncertain Date and it states: By Consent of the whole Realm the King’s Measure was made, so that an English Penny, which is called the Sterling, round without clipping, shall weigh Thirty-two Grains of Wheat dry in the midst of the Ear; Twenty-pence make an Ounce; and Twelve Ounces make a Pound, and Eight Pounds make a Gallon of Wine; and Eight Gallons of Wine make a Bushel of London; which is the Eighth Part of a Quarter.

The Winchester Measure of a bushel was mentioned by name in a statute of 1670 entitled An Act for ascertaining the Measures of Corn and Salt. The Winchester bushel contained eight gallons. Coopers were commissioned to produce standard containers of the precise size – nineteen and a half inches in diameter and nine inches high, usually made of ash and bound with copper or iron hoops. Each town would commission its own ‘quality control’ measure. The istDibs site has a picture of one such measure.

John Savidge’s Winchester bushel, courtesy of istDibs

It was stated as having been made by John Savidge of Tower Street in London. Apparently Savidge specialized in making these standard measures and took out a patent in 1744. This size of bushel lasted until 1824 when a larger bushel, of ten rather than eight gallons, was introduced.

I cannot find out much about Savidge but there is a reference in a newspaper of 1753 suggesting that he was declared bankrupt, so perhaps there wasn’t an immediate demand for his measures. Tower Street – now known as Great Tower Street – was a prosperous area leading to the Tower of London, forming part of the processional route used by monarchs on their way to their coronations. The istDibs site give a date for the bushel measure as 1770 and the Walpole Antiques site have a similar one, for Cambridge, dated 1779.

Ah well, the 1824 the Weights and Measures Act certainly applied throughout the Empire: by its own admission it introduced ‘Imperial’ measures so perhaps, in the interests of wokeness, we should ditch it and go back to the Egyptian measure of the cubit. Or perhaps we should abandon both Fahrenheit and Celsius as being  in some way ‘contaminated’ and adopt the Kelvin unit of measuring temperature. Wikipedia has this wonderful explanation of the advantages of  the Kelvin: “It  has the philosophical advantage of being independent of any particular substance. The unit J/K is equal to kg⋅m2⋅s−2⋅K−1, where the kilogram, metre and second are defined in terms of the Planck constant, the speed of light and the duration of the caesium-133  ground-state hyperfine transition respectively.’  Couldn’t have put it better myself – and in case you are wondering, in  the kelvin scale pure water freezes at 273.15 K, and it boils at 373.15 K. Much more satisfactory than boring old Celsius, and with the added bonus that it is not in the slightest bit tainted by Empire….

Lord Kelvin, the man who gave his name to       the kelvin temperature measurement.


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!