Jul 212022

Inflation is a recurring feature of the economy – and it is easy to forget that rising food prices have been worrying people for centuries. I was interested in Richard Hall’s diary entry for  1801 – or rather, an entry in his ongoing review of  what was happening  in the world around him (earthquakes, floods, natural disasters – and  the rising cost of wheat).

He writes: “A Melloncholly time for the dearness of Grain and all sorts of Provisions. Wheat at £55 and £60 the load. Malt 15 shillings the bushel. Mutton nine-pence, Veal nine-pence and Beef eight-pence. Bacon sixteen-pence and cheese ten-pence. Eggs have been as high as tuppence ha’penny each (in April was at four for tuppence).”

But there was some good news as the price of bread started to fall slightly: “March 5th – Bread was one shilling and ten-pence ha’penny for the Quartern Loaf – in April it was one shilling and nine-pence farthing.”  A drop of a penny farthing  over a one-month period may not seem a lot, but back then it was all part of the economic uncertainties linked to poor harvests at home – and the cost of the wars with Napoleon abroad. Bread  really was a staple part of the diet and Richard regularly recorded the cost of his Quartern Loaf, throughout his adult life.

The entry can be compared with what Richard wrote exactly one year earlier – saying that 1800 was memorable for  the high price of corn (“some wheat sold for  £40 and £46 the load”). He commented that the poor in the Country “were obliged to eat very bad bread – distressing to behold.” At that stage the Quartern Loaf was one shilling and sixpence – so it was to rise by another three or four pence over the course of the year – getting on for a twenty per cent increase. We worry about inflation at 9.5% – back then, it was double that rate!

Mar 102022

O.K. your starter for ten. Where does the phrase ‘there’s gold in them thar hills’ come from?

Answer (allegedly): According to some people, in 1849 from the steps of the Lumpkin County Courthouse, a Dahlonega, Georgia Mint assayer, Dr. M. F. Stephenson, yelled to the townspeople “There’s gold in them thar hills!” He wanted to keep those people looking for gold in Georgia rather than leaving for California.

And what has that got to do with Johnson Matthey? Wikipedia tells me that it is ‘a British multi-national speciality chemicals and sustainable technologies company with its headquarters in  London’. Well, they are one of those comparatively few companies still going strong, quoted on the FTSE 250 index, with its origins back in the eighteenth century. There follows a guest blog-post by Joel Foster, who is the Community Manager at Commodity.com –  and describes himself as Media Partner for: Reuters Events: Commodities Trading USA 2022. And yes, being an American he will be excused for his American spelling of words such as ‘lustre’ and jewellery’!

Gold bar bearing stamp of Johnson Matthey & Pauwels, © Chards


Before handing over to Joel, I would explain that the story starts with John Johnson  (1737–1786) who became an assayer of ores and metals, mostly silver, gold and some base metals, at No. 7, Maiden Lane (now part of Gresham Street between Wood Street and Foster Lane, London EC2)   His son, also called John, was born in 1765 and followed his father into the business, becoming a member of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.  He lived until 1831 and was significant because for a time his was the only commercial assay business in London. He married Mary (née Wight) (1766–1863) and they lived at 6–7 Maiden Lane, in the City of London. By the turn of the century John had become involved with the rapidly developing platinum metals industry, using crude ‘platina’ smuggled to Britain via Jamaica from what is now Colombia.

John and his wife had ten children. One of them was Percival Johnson. Percival was apprenticed to his father and obtained the freedom of the goldsmith’s company on 2 March 1814, becoming a liveryman on 24 April 1816. It was Percival who  went on to become a founder of Johnson Matthey in 1817.

Percival Johnson  ©Johnson Matthey

This then is the guest bog, so over to you Joel:

The gold market in England goes back to 1697; however, Percival Johnson’s developments in gold refining would lift gold from ordinary base metal to the precious metal that dazzles us today.

So how did gold go from being one of the most common metals of lesser value to the basis for today’s most stunning jewelry?

Who Was Percival Johnson?

Percival Johnson founded Johnson Matthey, then the largest precious metals business in England. Born in 1792, Johnson got an early start in precious metals by working as a metallurgical assayer for his father. He launched his own business in 1817, graduating from being his father’s apprentice to becoming a business owner.

In 1846, Johnson became a Royal Society fellow due to his knowledge of metallurgy. His fame in the business world rose when he went into a full partnership with a stockbroker named George Matthey. In 1852, Johnson earned an appointment as assayer for the Bank of England.

George Matthey, © Johnson Matthey

The businessman married twice, first to Elizabeth Lydia Smith in 1817 and later in 1858 to Georgina Elizabeth Ellis. Although Johnson was not known to have left children, his legacy changed how people looked at gold’s value. Gold’s status as one of the most important metals used in modern jewelry is mainly due to Johnson’s work in inventing a new way of refining it.

In 1854, Johnson moved to the Devon community of Stoke Fleming because of his silver mining assets. He retired from his business activities in 1860 after having had a long yet fulfilling career. Johnson died in 1866 at the age of 74.

St Peter’s Church, Stoke Fleming, where Percival Johnson is buried. © Derek Harper

What Was Johnson’s Life Like?

Having been trained in his father’s business, Johnson would have had ample opportunity to learn his craft well. When he started his business in the early 1800s, Johnson imported gold from Brazil. These imports would have been lucrative at the time, despite much of the demand having slowed down, and Johnson rose to the challenge.

How Did Johnson Discover His Gold Refining Method?

Gold has been refined for thousands of years, with methods known as far back as ancient Egypt. However, Johnson’s refining methods at that time were focused on alleviating specific issues with the quality of old imported into England from Brazil. Many of these gold bars had impurities that were challenging to remove.

However, as an experienced assayist not easily deterred, Johnson was well-prepared. He knew enough about the chemical makeup of gold to know what would make gold, an otherwise soft metal, more durable for uses beyond coinage. Johnson discovered that refining gold with other metals, including palladium, increased its durability and improved its shine.

Did Percival Johnson’s Life Change After His Discovery?

Being a Royal Society Fellow, business owner, and renowned assayist would have given Johnson a measure of prestige. Earnings from his refining methods made it easier for Johnson to invest in the silver mining trade. Although Johnson continued to be in a line of work that he enjoyed, this discovery made him much more prosperous.

How Does Gold’s Shininess Matter?

Gold’s shininess helps increase its value as a material for jewelry. When gold stays consistently shiny, this is usually a sign of gold with a higher karat amount. Some gold has been mixed with other metals to increase durability because of its softness, but mixing gold with other materials somewhat decreases the shininess.

How Does Palladium Enhance Gold’s Luster?

Palladium is a popular gold alloy in a lot of gold measuring 14 karats and above. In white gold, which is one of the most valuable types of gold used in jewelry, palladium is one of the most common materials. Because white gold is paler than many other gold colors, the appearance is shinier.

The karat rating of a piece of gold jewelry describes the extent of the gold’s purity. One karat equals 1/24th of a part of pure gold. For example, if a ring is made from 14-karat gold, it’s composed of 14 parts gold and 10 parts of other metals. Pure gold mixed with no other alloys is described as 24-karats.

Is There a Psychological Impact With Improving Gold’s Luster?

Gold appears to glow from the inside, which is behind gold appearing on many illuminated manuscripts. Because gold is highly reflective, it has been associated with the sun in many sun-worshiping cultures. As gold started to become associated with luxury during the Middle Ages, the metal and its color became associated with success.

Are Investors More Likely to Buy Gold With a Better Luster?

Whether investors are likely to buy gold with a better luster depends on whether they invest in gold as jewelry or decorative items. Gold with a better shine has more value on the resale market, with 18-karat or 24-karat gold having the highest value. However, most investors who invest in gold do so on the precious metals market, which has different considerations.

For example, gold is one of the most effective hedges against inflation because gold’s value tends to move independently versus the US dollar. During times of economic uncertainty, gold can be one of the safer investments. Diverse investment portfolios usually include gold.

Is Gold With a Better Luster More Popular as Jewelry?

Although gold has a higher luster than other metals, higher-karat gold has a better overall glow among gold products. The shinier the gold is, the more it symbolizes prosperity for some. Wearing a piece of gold jewelry with a high luster makes many feel wealthy and important, as well as being stylish.

Did Ordinary People Have Better Access to Gold After Johnson’s Discovery?

Better access to gold by ordinary people roughly coincided with Johnson’s discovery, with glass gemstones becoming popular substitutes for more expensive precious stones. During the following Victorian era, Queen Victoria’s style included Romantic-inspired designs and her fashion sense influenced jewelry styles for women of all economic classes. One of the top ways Johnson’s discovery gave people better access to gold was by refining the metal in a way that increased its luster.


Percival Johnson played a role in increasing the value of gold, particularly as an investment. At a time when the demand for gold had decreased, his efforts gave new life to this metal. The modern world owes gold’s value as an investment and a material for jewelry to Johnson’s efforts.


Thanks, Joel. I would stress that I am not advocating that we all go out and buy gold bars – you must back your own judgment and rely on proper advice, but I thought it was interesting to read about precious metals – even if Johnson Matthey pulled out of the gold assaying market in 2015. Having been a world leader in the refining, marketing, and fabrication of precious metals and raw materials for 200 years it now specialises in  the manufacture of catalytic converters and I believe that I am right in saying that one in every three such catalysts is made by Johnson Matthey, worldwide. From shiny gold to pure clean air in two centuries – it’s been an interesting journey!

Feb 282022

The Capitol Building

The George Washington Memorial

This week I visited Washington, for the first time. Just my luck to find that everything was closed for President’s Day the first day after I arrived. But unlike British Bank Holidays, when it always rains, the Americans seem to have managed to train their weather so that it was a glorious day. Mind you, it was made up by the rest of the week when it was dismally cold and damp, but hey, one magnificent day is worth suffering for a little time afterwards!

Second World War Memorial







Not having been to the city before, I had pictures in my mind’s eye – of the Capitol building under siege from rioters, of the Lincoln Memorial and the crowds lining the waterway listening to the “I had a dream” speech, of the Presidential helicopter landing on the White House Lawn – but I had no idea how the  buildings all connected. It was fascinating to amble along the entire stretch of the National Mall – a big, almost traffic free, area leading from the empty Capitol Building, resplendent in gleaming white and looking like a wedding cake, down past the various Smithsonian Museums, to the Washington Memorial and on to the World War II memorial (which I found rather moving and poignant) and on to the Lincoln Memorial.


I had vaguely thought that there was ONE Smithsonian, not appreciating that this is the umbrella title for a whole collection of very separate buildings – one devoted to Air Travel and Space, one to the history of the Native Americans, one to the story of African Americans, another to Natural History, another to modern sculpture and Art, and so on. We popped into some of the exhibitions – all free of course.

Library of Congress – exterior














But the highlight, as far as I was concerned, was the chance to see the Library of Congress, situated behind the Capitol Building in a most impressive edifice. You need to book a timed entrance ticket online the day before visiting but it is well worth the hassle. What do you expect in a library – especially one claiming to have the biggest collection in the world. Books? Well, there aren’t any on view in the main part of the building, apart from a small collection showing the books belonging to Thomas Jefferson. He apparently gave his entire library to the American people after the Brits burned down the original collection, when we  attacked Washington and set fire to the White House 200 years ago.

What you see, instead of books, is a magnificent marble edifice, richly decorated in the Beaux Arts style, but very much trumpeting American superiority. The statuettes carry not candles, but electric lights (a US invention) while the cupids speak into an early telephone (claimed by the Americans because it was first trialed in  the US). There are impressive mosaic statues, fabulously decorated ceilings – and then you get a peep into the magnificent Reading Room.

Even this hall of learning is not where most of the books are kept. If you sell books in the States and want your writing to have the benefit of copyright you have to donate two copies, one of which will be stored in one of the gigantic warehouses which are located near the main LoC building. These are protected from fire, not by water sprinklers, but by inert gases. Interestingly the books are not stored by year, or author or subject matter – they are stored by … size.

The Reading Room

To get the very maximum of books into the shelving, all the books are measured and put onto the shelf of the appropriate size. God help the curators if  the guy with the bar code machine gets his records muddled – you would never be able to find anything. Anyway, nice to think that tucked away in the vaults will be a number of my books, all courtesy of Pen & Sword.

Getting back to the main LoC building: what really made it interesting were the guides – who were able to give a fascinating account of anything and everything to do with the building. There were dozens of them scattered in the entrance foyer, on the stairs – everywhere you looked. The building is one which Americans are immensely proud of – and why not?

Reading Room Ceiling

My interest in the LoC  arose originally because they acquired part of the  royal collection of 18th Century etchings and prints. George V decided that the caricatures etc, many of them lewd and politically incorrect, had no place in the royal collection and flogged the lot to the States. I think that this was some time back in the Twenties. Their gain is our loss, and I have featured many of the LoC prints at various times in my books. No, they weren’t available to view on this particular occasion – I would have needed to apply well in advance, but it was really interesting to see where everything is stored.

Statue of Minerva, in mosaics


I liked Washington. I couldn’t say I would want to spend weeks there, but it felt incredibly open and much of the central area is compact and ‘walkable’. We had a magnificent tapas dinner down on the Wharf – at least as good as anything I had in the twenty years I lived in Spain – plus an extraordinary meal in a Chinese Take-away recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide. They did say that the place had less atmosphere than the moon. Correct. They did say that the Peking Duck was sensational, and made up for everything. Correct. No matter that the rest if the food was pretty inedible, that duck was quite superb…

Aug 242021

The Lewis Walpole site has this mezzotint of what is described as “an exact representation of the depositing the body of her late Majesty Queen Caroline in the family vault at Brunswick, Augt. 24, 1821 : with the Revd. J.W.G. Wolff delivering her funeral prayer amidst the tears and sobs of the company’.

The description on the site is as follows:

“The coffin of Queen Caroline on a cloth-covered platform over which pallbearers hold an elaborate black canopy is carried down the aisle of church, followed by a minister who lifts his right arm as if speaking from the text in his left hand. To the right stand young women who throw flowers from their baskets as the procession passes. On the right, with an organ behind, soldiers stand in attention holding torches.”

The mezzotint was published by W B Walker and reflects the public concern for a woman who was treated appallingly by her husband, George IV. He banned her from attending his coronation at Westminster Abbey on 19 July 1821. Despite this snub, she turned up and tried to gain entry but was turned away from the coronation at the point of a bayonet. That night, she fell ill. Rumours circulated that she had been poisoned. More likely, she was suffering from stomach cancer. She lingered for three weeks before dying at Brandenburg House in Hammersmith at 10:25 p.m. on 7 August 1821 at the age of 53. Her body was carried through London to the port of Harwich and from there was shipped to her native Brunswick where she was interred under a gravestone marked “Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England.”

Poor Queen Caroline. Deserted by her husband the King, she had  spent some years travelling in Europe accompanied by a number of male admirers including her servant the swarthy Italian Bartolomeo Pergami. She had been ridiculed endlessly by the English Press, and hounded by her husband, who sought to divorce her on the grounds of her adultery. Talk about ‘kettle’ and ‘pot’!

Bartolomeo Pergami being installed as a Knight Companion of the Bath – a print showing the scandalous suggestion that the Queen was sharing her ablutions with her servant Bartolomeo.

Queen Caroline may have been no oil painting but she didn’t deserve the ridicule and  scorn heaped on her by large sections of the British public. After all, she married the King in good faith. He reportedly got so drunk  when he met her, for the first time, on their wedding day, that he passed out later in the fireplace and failed to perform his marital duties, finding her offensively ugly and exhibiting poor personal hygiene. Forget the fact that he was a serial womaniser, was probably suffering from venereal disease, and was grossly overweight: in the view of many she was ‘beyond the pale’ and she deserved no sympathy.

R.I.P. Caroline, buried two hundred years ago today.

Jul 122021

One of the perks about writing is that one occasionally gets an interesting invite to preview days – such as the Press Day at Buckingham Palace last Thursday to link in with the fact that the palace gardens are now open to the public, throughout the summer. We’ve all seen the crowds queuing to meet the royal family at the formal tea parties – but this was different, a chance to explore the gardens, walk round the lake, and marvel at this quiet oasis surrounded by bedlam beyond the walls.

OK., there were dozens of other Press-related people there as well, but not that many, and sitting on the lawn in front of the palace, eating sarnies (crusts removed, of course) was quite delightful.Two things particularly interested this Georgian Gent – the Waterloo Vase and the Buckingham Palace gin, made with botanicals grown in the garden. First: the Vase. It is enormous – some eighteen feet tall, carved from a gigantic block of finest Carrara marble. Viewing it from a distance, from a slightly raised path and surrounded by blocks of colour created by the Queen’s rose garden, you don’t fully appreciate how big  the thing is. Our guide hardly came up to the top of the plinth on which it stands. Except that it isn’t called a mere plinth – the Royal Collection website describes it as  being “supported by a gadrooned torus and a spreading socle foot mounted on circular and square plinths and a large square stone stand”. The images are shown courtesy of the Royal Collections Trust (because private photography was not allowed at this point on the tour).

Interestingly, the vase was commissioned by Napoleon as his commemorative urn. Apparently, when he passed through Tuscany in 1812 on his way to the Russian Front he saw this enormous block of uncarved marble and asked for it to be set aside  so that it could be adorned, at a later date, with  symbols of his great victories-to-come. When he met his Waterloo the chunk of marble was gifted to the Prince Regent in 1815 by Ferdinand, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who presumably didn’t want it cluttering up his driveway. The Prince Regent thought it would look good as part of his collection of art and commemorative statuary in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle, and so the sculptor Richard Westmacott was commissioned to carve decorative panels around the outside of the urn. No-one thought to hollow out the inside, so it remains as a thirty-something-ton block of somewhat weathered marble, serving no particularly useful purpose and adorning the rose garden which Harry Wheatcroft designed for the monarch.


Too heavy to sit on any of the  palace floors, the vase was gifted to the National Gallery in 1836. The gallery was custodian of the unwelcome gift until 1906, when it was gleefully handed back to the royal family. And so it remains, adorned (apparently) with bas reliefs of King George III siting on his throne, and of the un-horsed Emperor Napoleon, viewed, until now, only by Her Majesty, the gardeners, and others permitted to walk round the rose garden. Until now, that is. Because the Palace Gardens are now open to the public, and a guided tour includes the rose gardens, leaving every hour on the hour. The guide is extremely helpful, and escorts you round in parties of 20 to 30 people, which makes the experience much more interesting. And so even hoi polloi, like me, can view this absurd, gigantic, but utterly pointless vase – and reflect on the way that the Prince Regent was so desperate to bask in the glory of the Battle of Waterloo that he claimed the victory for himself. That is why, in the words of the Royal Collections Trust: “The handles of the vase are personifications of winged Victory and Defeat, the latter cowering behind a shield. Above Victory is a third and smaller panel illustrating an allegory of Peace presenting the Prince Regent with a palm and Europe emerging from a refuge beneath a throne.”  And there was I thinking that the Battle of Waterloo had very little to do with the Prince Regent, when all along, he was the one who saved Europe single-handedly….

As to the gardens, the website tells me that it is ‘a walled oasis in the middle of London’and that it is the largest private garden in the capital and boasts 325 wild-plant species, 30 species of breeding birds, and over 1,000 trees, including 98 plane trees and 85 different species of oak. Who would have thought that it provides a habitat for native birds rarely seen in London, including the common sandpiper, sedge warbler and lesser whitethroat? Well, you know now.

It also contains the National Collection of mulberry trees – harking back to the days when King James I planted a small forest of mulberries, hoping to stimulate a silk industry in this country. Unfortunately he planted the wrong sort of mulberry – the silk worms like the black variety, not the white one. But today the collection features some forty different types of mulberry bush. In the past I have eaten the fruit – looking slightly like an elongated raspberry. Odd taste. But I was interested because mulberry is one of the botanicals used in a new Palace Gin launched this year. I wasn’t too sure when the press release stated that it uses the mulberry leaves – I had assumed that it would be the berries which imparted the flavour. There are also  berries from the hawthorn bushes growing in the gardens, along with lemon verbena and bay leaves. As my next-book-but-one will be all about the History of Gin, and how craft gins have flourished using different methods of production and with different ingredients, I was interested  to try the palace gin – because I cannot imagine many other producers have access to mulberries. So I bought a bottle, and very nice it is too. (Actually this isn’t my pic, it’s from the Royal Collections Trust).


And now for the plug: The Garden at Buckingham Palace will open from Friday, July 9, to Sunday, September 19, 2021. £16.50 for adults. Garden Highlights Guided Tours should be booked with the main ticket and are priced at £6.50 for adults. Tours will run 12 times a day. www.rct.uk, +44 (0)303 123 7300. Pre-booking is essential. 

That is enough product endorsement! All in all, a lovely day out.

May 022021

Reading other people’s marriage proposals is somewhat intrusive – I recently came across the one written by my Dad to my Mother  from the early years of the last war, and felt distinctly awkward about reading his declaration of love – especially as he started off with the words “Mother thinks it would  be a good idea if I write to you…” ! Apparently he was nearly turned down out of hand!

Another letter from within the family dates from 11 September 1823. It was sent by Samuel Cox while living at Stratford on Avon, addressed to the object of his desire, one Anne Adams. She had been widowed two years earlier, at the age of 28, and Sam Cox was seven years her junior. Very forward…. He was also quite brave – she already had three young children in tow.

I am setting out the letter in full, because it gives a lovely insight into the etiquette of letter writing. It reads:

Honoured Madam

It is from the most sincere love and affection which I have for you that I now take up my pen to write these few lines, but words are infinitely too weak to convey those sentiments I would fain express – it is impossible for me to express the feelings of my heart. I have long since struggled with a most honourable and respectful passion for you and have often tried to reveal it personally, as often in this way in those delightful opportunities I have been so much favoured with (and have always considered them as such) but never till now could could prevail upon my fear and doubts, when I have been about to reveal the secret which is too big for my heart. Fear as always beclouded my hopes to such a degree that I have been under the painful necessity of suspending my purpose. The delight I have often experienced in your company is impossible for me to express and never do I entertain the hope of seeing you but it affords me the  greatest pleasure. But when I have the happiness of being with you instead of being animated, as I ought, I am utterly confounded. What is this owing to but a diffidence in myself and an elevated opinion of YOU and is but one evidence of the most ardent affection?

Do not consider that I have been too precipitate: long has the flame been kindled almost ever since I had the honour of knowing you. I trust I need not say that my intentions and motives are honourable and if you would but encourage my humble suit nothing shall be wanting on my part to make the affection reciprocal; it will my my greatest concern at all times how to promote your happiness (the truth of which my future conduct will prove). I trust Providence will soon place me in those circumstances that I shall be enabled to keep you with that respect which you are deserving.

Favour me with an answer to this letter, my whole heart is in it. Do not look towards me with indifference, because I have here professed my attachment to you – I know it is presumption on my part but I cannot help confessing ( in some measure) the feelings of my heart.  Believe me when I say that my future happiness depends upon your smiles. Condescend then, to embolden my respectful passion with one favourable line; that if what I  here profess and hope further to have an opportunity to assure you will be found to be an unquestionable truth, then my humble address will not quite be unacceptable to you and then you will ever oblige.

Your most affectionate and sincere lover,  Samuel Cox

I love the way that the word  ‘marriage’  is never mentioned.  ‘Will you marry me?’ is not a question directly asked: it is simply a request to be permitted to express heart-felt feelings, a prelude to formal courtship. Very Jane Austen. Somehow I feel we have lost something in the modern age – emojis which translate to “I fancy you something rotten, let’s go to bed” don’t have the same resonance as a man who has obviously trembled with the enormity of putting pen to paper to express his innermost thoughts and desires.

Sadly, I do not have the reply but the letter obviously worked – the couple married  exactly two months later, on Christmas Day 1823 and went on to have a son, James, who ended up as mayor of Shakespeare’s birthplace. They also had three other children together, including Mary Cox who married my great great grandfather in 1842. Mary  was a stout and formidable matriarch, based on the photographs I have of her. Her husband Richard was an altogether more delicate figure, who entered the church and for many years was vicar at Highweek near Newton Abbot in Devon. Thus we trace our family histories, back to a simple declaration of love from a 24 year old swain, head over heels with an older woman. All together now, aaahh!

Mar 212021

Today is census day in Britain. Well, most of Britain. Scotland gets a year’s grace because of Covid but for residents in England Wales and Northern Ireland today is the day we count heads. It is interesting to look back at the very first census, and to see the things that our rulers were interested in finding out about us.

A census has been held every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941 (during the last War).

A Bill proposing a head-count had been drafted way back in 1753. The intention back then was to register the “total number of marriages, births, and deaths, and also of the total number of the poor receiving alms from every Parish and Extra-parochial Place in Great Britain”.

It was introduced by Thomas Potter, the MP for St Germans in Cornwall and it elicited considerable opposition – it would cost too much, it wasn’t feasible and it could give our enemies information which could be damaging to us by exposing numerical weaknesses.

The MP for York, a Mr. Thornton, went so far as to say that he did not believe: “that there was any set of men, or, indeed, any individual of the human species so presumptuous and so abandoned as to make the proposal we have just heard. …. I hold this project to be totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty …. The new Bill will direct the imposition of new taxes, and, indeed, the addition of a very few words will make it the most effectual engine of rapacity and oppression that was ever used against an injured people…..Moreover, an annual register of our people will acquaint our enemies abroad with our weakness.”

Nevertheless, the Bill passed its first hurdle but there was insufficient time for it to complete all its Readings. The Bill lapsed and the idea was dropped for nearly half a century until a statistician named John Rickman appeared on the scene and put it back on the agenda.

John Rickman

By the time Britain was about to get embroiled in a war with France under Napoleon, no-one could be sure whether the population was growing or shrinking. The government did not know where its resources were most needed, and there was a sneaking fear that the number of men available for conscription, in the event of war with France, might be less than that of our enemy. Faced with the vague assumption that the population of the country was  somewhere between nine million and eleven million persons, Rickman urged Parliament to commission a census in accordance with the following principles:

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

2. An industrious population is the basic power and resource of any nation, and therefore its size needs to be known;

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

4. There were defence reasons for wanting to know the number of seamen;

5. The need to plan the production of corn and thus to know the number of people who had to be fed;

6. A census would indicate the Government’s intention to promote the public Good; and

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

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

Rickman’s career included twelve years as the Speaker’s Secretary and twenty-six years as Clerk Assistant at the Table of the House of Commons. During his tenure he radically overhauled the rules and arrangements for recording and publishing parliamentary proceedings. These rules hadn’t changed since the 1680s. He also personally supervised the population returns for four successive decades. His work was recognized in 1815 when he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and international recognition came in 1833 when he was awarded honorary membership of the Société Française de Statistique Universelle. Somehow, in among all his work on the census, he acted from 1803 as secretary to the commissions for making roads and bridges in Scotland, and for constructing the Caledonian canal, and in 1823 was nominated to a commission for building churches in the highlands and islands of Scotland.

He was a close friend of Thomas Telford, adding extensive notes to an autobiography of the great engineer which Rickman published in 1838, some years after Telford had died. He also acted as Telford’s executor. A man described as being so badly dressed that he could easily be mistaken for a tramp, Rickman died in August 1840 and is buried at St Margaret’s, Westminster.

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

Britain was a country in transition: in 1831 28% of the population was employed in agriculture and 50% lived in rural conditions. A quarter of the population lived in towns of over 20,000 persons. Within another twenty years urbanisation had tilted dramatically and by 1851 the combined population of the British Isles (including Wales, Scotland and Ireland) was a staggering 27 million. London alone had grown in size from around 1.5 million to 2.5 million people in just forty years.

[This article is an extract taken from a rather longer piece published in the March/April edition of the publication Jane Austen’s Regency World, available via subscriptions@lansdownmedia.co.uk]

Dec 272020

Today I heard the sad news that  a friend of mine in Spain, a near-neighbour called Kevin, had been found dead in his home on St Stephen’s Day. It is particularly sad because Kevin had had a really rough time this past year or so, and Christmas is always a difficult time to be on your own, regardless of Covid Restrictions. In memory of Kevin I thought I would do a blog about the company he worked for before he retired, Chubb’s, the locksmiths.

Charles Chubb, 1772 – 1846

Chubb’s traces its roots back to 1804 when Charles Chubb opened a ship’s ironmongery and chandlery business in Winchester. With his brother Jeremiah they moved the business to Portsmouth in 1818. In the previous year there had been a burglary at the dockyard in Portsmouth and the British Government arranged a competition  open to anyone who could produce a lock that could be opened only with its own unique key. Jeremiah hit upon the idea for  a new design: a detector lock which was not only difficult to operate without the original key, but which would clearly show if any attempt had been made to pick the lock. Jeremiah’s design for a a four-lever lock incorporated a security feature known as a regulator. It meant that if it was picked or opened with the wrong key the lock would  stop working until a special key was used to reset it. The regulator would be tripped if an individual lever was moved too far.

Chubb’s detector lock, courtesy of Wikimedia, in the public domain.

Various developments in locksmithing had been made in the recent past, not least with the Bramah ‘unpickable lock’  developed by Joseph Bramah. In 1788 Robert Barron had come up with a double-acting tumbler lock, but the Jeremiah Chubb invention was new and meant that Jeremiah was able to claim the £100 reward offered by the government. That was a lot of money – equivalent to perhaps £8000 nowadays. The story goes that Jeremiah personally delivered his special lock to a convicted prisoner serving time on one of the rotting prison hulks in Portsmouth Docks, with an offer of a £100 and a free pardon if he could open the lock. Given that the prisoner was a locksmith who had  successfully met every previous challenge put before him, the prisoner leapt at the chance of freedom – but after two or three months of twiddling and fiddling he had to concede defeat.

With this invention under their belt, and with good  government contacts, the Chubb brothers moved to near Walsall in the West Midlands to manufacture locks. Jeremiah decided that his future lay in America and brother Charles  took over sole responsibility for running the company. In 1823 Chubb’s were awarded a special licence by George IV and went on to become the sole supplier of locks to the Post Office and to HM Prison Service. This was apparently despite the fact that when the Prince  was shown the lock he accidentally and rather painfully  sat his ample posterior on the padlock, with its key inserted in an upright position…. ouch!

Improvements to the design of the lock were made and an extra two levers were added. They challenged anyone to open their six-lever lock – a challenge which took a generation to be successful. It was not until the Great Exhibition in 1851 that Alfred Charles Hobbs, a rival locksmith, finally worked out a way of opening the detector lock without triggering the regulator.

The company moved into the business of making safes. The first patent for a burglar-resistant safe was taken out by the company in 1835 and their first safe-making works were opened in Cowcross Street, London two years later. In 1838 the first fire-resistant safe was invented, with the gaps between the iron plates filed with fire retardant materials.

By the 1840s Chubb customers included the Bank of England as well as the Royal Consort, Prince Albert, and when a secure setting was needed for the display of the Koh-i-Noor diamond at the Great Exhibition it was Chubb’s who got the contract to come up with a special display cage.

By then Charles Chubb had died (in 1846 at the age of 75) and the business was taken over by his son John Chubb. The company expanded worldwide, with impeccable contacts throughout the security industry. Eventually, the company got taken over, and ended up under the same ownership as its erstwhile rivals, Yale and Union.

I have no idea what role Kevin held in the Company – since his customers were mostly either banks or governments it was hardly something he could discuss. He was a fine man, excellent company and I am saddened to hear that he has died.

R.I.P.  KK


Dec 192019

The Petit Trianon – west facade. Neo-classical geometric perfection, but no room for personal idiosyncrasies….


A few views of the interior – nothing soft or feminine here.

The Marlborough Tower – so called after a popular lullaby of the time

Driving  towards Paris this summer I stayed the night at Versailles – and it gave me the opportunity to  visit the gardens and, in particular, to go round the park of the Grand Trianon. It includes the small cube-shaped chateau called the Petit Trianon, built between 1762 and 1768 during the reign of Louis XV of France. It was intended, to begin with, as a private home for  the king’s mistress – initially for Madame de Pompadour but she died four years before its was completed and it went on to be occupied by her successor, Madame du Barry.

When Louis XV died he was succeeded by the newly-married Louis XVI. He gifted the Petit Trianon to his new queen Marie Antoinette and she quickly set about redecorating it and making it into her own retreat – a place to escape from the constant scrutiny and plotting which dominated life at Versailles. She  altered the botanical gardens, bringing in Anglo-Oriental gardens more in tune with prevailing tastes. She had married at the age of 19, and must have hated being surrounded by elderly courtiers constantly using her to try and influence the king. Here at the Petit Trianon she could  lay down rules about who could visit.









She also developed  the hameau or hamlet, a mock-rural idyll where, the story goes, she could dress as a peasant and spend her days milking the cows and parading  her sheep on the end of silk ribbons. It is certainly a curious place to visit – a place of leisure designed by the architect Richard Mique. There is a lake, a meadow-land, a classical temple of love, a grotto and cascade and a tower in the form of a lighthouse. There is a mill house – which never contained any mill mechanism – a dairy and a working farm house. Dominating the group of buildings is the “Queen’s House”, connected to the adjoining building by a wooden gallery.












The style of the rustic, supposedly vernacular, buildings reminded me of the group of houses at Blaise Hamlet at Henbury, just north of Bristol. These were designed by John Nash in the late 1790’s and both hamlets have a similar feel of ‘cultivated antiquity’ – they are fake, but they are pretty and lovely to visit.

Sep 232019

One of the highlights of my visit to Dublin was the chance to go round Casino Marino on the outskirts of that beautiful city. It may be called a “casino” but it has nothing to do with gambling – it is simply a building in the Marino area of the city and the name translates roughly as ‘The small house by the little sea’. Small maybe, but beautifully formed, and if ever a building is like a Tardis it is this one.

James Caulfeild, 1728 – 1799

Construction work started in the 1750’s on the direction of James Caulfeild, the First Earl of Charlemont, following the design of his friend Sir William Chambers. Sir William is better known for designing Somerset House and the irony is that because of his other work commitments Sir William never got to Ireland to see his masterpiece.

Sir William later wrote in his book The Treatise on Civil Architecture (1791) that the ideas for the Casino were derived from an un-executed design for ‘one of the end pavilions of a considerable disposition made soon after my return from Italy….for Harewood House.’

The Earl wanted an Italianate temple, in the neo-classical style, but he also wanted one with 16 rooms. It is fifty foot square, a masterpiece of elegance, balance and attention to detail. Work continued on the house until the 1770’s but within a hundred years the building had fallen into neglect. In 1876 the Charlemont Estate was sold, and the Earl’s nearby home was demolished in the 1920’s. Meanwhile the Casino remained in a state of disrepair until 1930 when an Act of Parliament was enacted to allow it to be taken into state ownership. Recently restored by the Office of Public Works, the building now stands as a perfect example of Chambers’ work and the cultural aspirations of the Irish ruling classes.

From the outside all is symmetry. Clever positioning of stone balustrades disguise the fact that it is on three floors – you only see one floor from outside. It is designed on the plan of a Greek Cross, with a column on the end of each arm of the cross. But while these columns mark the symmetry, some are hollow and bring rainwater down off the roof. Chimneys are disguised by giant urns along the roof. Clever concave glass in the windows mean that from the outside you cannot see in, hiding the fact that one large window frequently serves two, and sometimes three, rooms on the inside.

The interior is beautifully decorated with ornate ceilings and plasterwork.

There is an elaborate, if tiny, entrance area with beautifully ornate parquet floors. These exquisite floors, using rare woods, continue throughout the house.



The casino was not really designed as a home – that was a few hundred yards away, but it was linked to the Earl’s house by an underground tunnel so that he could escort his friends to the building in secrecy, and so that servants could come and go unnoticed. There is a library, rooms to display objets d’art, niches for Roman statuary, a kitchen and, upstairs, a State Bedroom.

The Casino remains as one man’s determination to encapsulate in a single building all that he found perfect on his Grand Tour. It was a tour which had taken the Earl nine years, travelling through Italy, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. Of course it is a shame that it is no longer linked to Marino House. Of course it is a pity that it is not still furnished with original pieces, or adorned with original paintings. And yes, it is a shame that constant wear and tear on the ornate floors by the public mean that carpet runners have had to be laid down as protection. But that is nit-picking: the place is a beautiful gem, well worth a visit! A more friendly, knowledgeable set of guides would be impossible to find. They are charming, like the building they so lovingly promote and look after.