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.

Apr 062019
 

In 1756 William Payne published a book called  ‘An Introduction to the Game of Draughts’ – with  a dedication to the Earl of Rochford written by no less than Samuel Johnson. The good Doctor also wrote the Preface. The game itself had of course been around for thousands 0f years – a board dating back to 3000B.C. resembling the modern draughts board was unearthed at Ur (Mesopotamia). The ancient Egyptians, the Romans the Greeks – all played  a version of chequers.

I had not realized that different countries tend to use boards with a different number of squares – in Britain we use  8 x 8, in Frisia, Poland and Ghana it is 10 x 10, in Canada it is 12 x 12. Whatever: it was obviously popular in the eighteenth century. I rather like this  print, shown on the Lewis Walpole Library site and entitled “Mine host playing a game of draughts and his wife a game of love!”

“Mine host playing a game of draughts and his wife a game of love!” (Lewis Walpole Library, c. 1798)

The game was recommended  because it was more relaxing, more calming, than card games. It was also suitable for the family, as in this painting by Louis Leopold Boilly, entitled “Painting of a family game of checkers” (“jeu des dames”). It was painted in around 1803.

The website of auctioneers Bruun Rasmussen shows an oil painting entitled  “Gentlemen gathered for a game of draughts” painted by J Bavet  – it suggests that it is a somewhat melancholy game!

From 1822, the Lewis Walpole Library have a print  with the title of ‘Draughts – a bad move’ – in a slightly frustrating way it is headed ‘Plate 4’ which begs the question, where are Plates 1, 2 and 3?

And finally, while I appreciate that chess is nothing to do with draughts, a reminder of the fact that there is nothing new about trying to  produce a machine which can out-wit humans. In 1770 an animatronic machine appeared, courtesy of a Hungarian inventor called  Wolfgang von Kempelen. Nick-named The Turk, because the figure wore a turban, the machine toured Europe and America for nearly a hundred years, baffling audiences including Benjamin Franklin. Rumour has it that Napoleon Bonaparte challenged The Turk to a game in 1809 – and lost. The Turk was eventually destroyed by fire in 1854 while being exhibited at a museum in Philadelphia..

Before a match the public were given the chance to examine the ‘box of tricks’ under the table at which The Turk sat – with an impressive display of cogs and levers suggesting that this was how the automata worked. Actually the whole thing was a hoax – no sooner was the table set up for the game than a Chess Master crawled in amongst the cogs, and operated the movement of the pieces manually.

The hoax was not without a happy consequence – one of the men who lost twice to The Turk was a young Charles Babbage. He was so intrigued at the idea of Artificial Intelligence and robotics that he sat  down and came up with his early ideas for computing. And we all know where that led to – on 11 May 1997 the IBM Deep Blue defeated the world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Ah well, happy days.

Apr 022019
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Georgian Gent has just returned from a (first ever) visit to Jersey – and what a magnificent place it is to visit, especially on a warm Spring day with blue skies and empty beaches. The scenery is superb, and around every corner there appears to be a Martello tower, or medieval fortification, showing how the island has tried to defend itself from French invaders over the centuries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the towers are virtually incorporated into modern houses, others are painted on the seaward side so as to be visible to shipping. But they stand as gaunt reminders of  past threats to the security of the island, and I confess that I had forgotten that Jersey had seen an invasion attempt by French forces in January 1781, at the height of the American War of Independence.  Britain was using the Channel islands as a privateering base for attacks on French shipping operating out of Brest, and clearly our military resources were stretched to the limit. A French landing party of some 1400 men sneaked in under cover of darkness and managed to seize the British commanding officer while he was tucked up in his bed. The bleary-eyed Major Moses Corbet was forced to sign surrender documents, believing that the French troops greatly outnumbered the defenders. Not so.

With the governor out of action command of the British defenders fell to a young soldier called Francis Peirson. The 24-year old major led a remarkable counter-offensive and the battle which ensued barely lasted a quarter of an hour before 600 French troops were captured, 78 were killed and 74 seriously wounded. The rest of the invasion force took to their heels and sailed swiftly away towards the French coast, a mere 23 kilometres away.

Major Francis Peirson

Sadly for Major Peirson he was struck by a musket ball through the heart  just before the fighting ended. He died on the spot and was later buried in the Parish Church at St Helier. His opposite number, Baron de Rullecourt  was also mortally wounded.

As for the slumbering Lieutenant-Governor Major Corbet, he was arrested and court-martialled for dereliction of duty and for signing Articles of Capitulation. Perhaps surprisingly, he was merely dismissed from his post – and given an army pension of £250 p.a.

Following the French defeat, efforts to build defensive towers and look-outs throughout the island really got under way: known as Conway towers after Field Marshal Henry Seymour Conway, some 30 towers were constructed. Later, they were supplemented with Martello Towers, constructed to the same design as the ones erected along the south coast of England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

To end with – a picture painted by the American artist  John Singleton Copley entitled ‘Death of Major Peirson’. It is a stirring tribute to a brave young man who died for his country.

Ah well, life’s a beach….

Feb 172019
 

Ahead of giving a talk on 1st March in London to the English Dance Circle, I looked out a post I did in November 2014, when I discussed the role of the Master of Ceremonies at Bath. It still seems relevant, so here it is again:

Rowlandson print, published in March 1782, entitled “A Master of the Ceremonies Introducing a Partner”

Coming across this Thomas Rowlandson sketch on the fascinating Lewis Walpole site  at Yale University reminded me of the important role played by the Master of Ceremonies at venues such as Bath. If you went to a ball you couldn’t just go and chat up a bird you fancied – you had to be introduced. And that was one of the functions of the Master of Ceremonies – to vet the attendees, decide who they were appropriate to be introduced to, and later, to effect those introductions so that the evening would be a success. I imagine it was sometimes a case of “mix and match” – a title needed money, and vice versa, while on other occasions it was mixing “like with like”.

I am indebted to the Austenonly site here for the explanation of the MoC role, given by Joseph Moser in 1807. It was their function to:
“… introduce regularity into large assemblies, to keep order, to repress the ebullitions of passion, to banish, if possible, that contraction or thrusting out of the lips which Shakespear calls pouting; to prevent violent suffusions or flushings in the female countenance; to keep the ladies from tossing, and their noses from turning up, when precedence, partners, and people that nobody knows, with a hundred other serious circumstances, excite those emotions. He has also annexed to his office something clerical, it being his business to join hands: but he goes still farther, he frequently procures partners, who sometimes under his banners enlist for life.” (See The Sports of Ancient London. The Sporting Magazine. )
The print dates from 1795 and shows Richard Tyson, Master of Ceremonies, effecting an introduction of a gentleman who is clearly no longer in the first flush of youth, to a pair of ladies who definitely should only be seen by dim candlelight!
Richard Tyson had been MoC of the Upper Rooms at Bath for a number of years. Since 1771 there were two separate rooms – in time, the new (Upper) Rooms had a separate MoC from the (original) Lower Rooms – a far cry from when there was but one “King” of Bath, in the form of Beau Nash, who was in sole charge of proceedings from 1704 until around 1760.
According to Wikipedia “He (Nash) would meet new arrivals to Bath and judge whether they were suitable to join the select “Company’ of 500 to 600 people who had pre-booked tables, match ladies with appropriate dancing partners at each ball, pay the musicians at such events, broker marriages, escort unaccompanied wives and regulate gambling (by restraining compulsive gamblers).” Not bad for a days work!

Beau Nash, painted by Nathaniel Hone

It does seem a bit hard therefore, that when he died, the long-serving, long suffering Beau Nash ended up in an unmarked paupers grave. He had been a prodigious gambler, with enormous debts. Because of those debts he was forced to move in to the home of his mistress Juliana Popjoy. The poor girl was so distraught when he died in 1761 that she apparently went to live in a large hollowed-out tree. Which is entirely proper for the 18th Century, because of course that is what one did when feeling bereft and lonely!
Meanwhile, my thanks to Master Rowlandson for a rather lovely piece of observation of the manners, etiquette and style of Bath in its Georgian grandeur. Nice one!

***

For anyone interested, I will be giving a talk in London to the Early Dance Centre at 7.15 on 1st March. You can find details on the EDC website here. For tickets, contact the EDC secretary on:-  secretary@earlydancecircle.co.uk

or by telephone on:- 020 8699 8519

Dec 262018
 

 A post dedicated to Stephen:

26th December marks the feast of St Stephen, named in honour of the first Christian stoned to death. It is not to be confused with ‘Boxing Day’ which may, or may not, fall on this day but is correctly the name given to the public holiday occurring immediately after Christmas Day. For instance where Christmas falls on a Friday, Boxing Day (a day when traditionally a Christmas Box would be given, containing coins) will fall on Monday 28th December. St Stephen’s Day is therefore a non-movable religious festival whereas Boxing Day is a movable, secular, one.

Today’s post looks at three different traditions associated with this day, starting with the horse. St Stephen was the patron saint of horses and in some parts of Northern Europe it is traditional to take the horses, suitably bedecked, to church to be blessed. Traditionally the Christmas break meant a ‘holiday’ for all working animals (of which the horse was the most important) and in some areas the horse was therefore awarded a special meal to mark the start of its ‘time off’. In other areas the equine connection is preserved in horse racing, where The King George VI Chase is the second-most important race in the jump-racing calendar (after the Cheltenham Gold Cup) and is held at Kempton Park today.

   

It is also the most important day in the fox-hunting calendar, with meets taking place across the country, despite the ban on hunting live animals.

                        A set of English stamps (1973) based upon the story of Wenceslas.

Secondly the day is always associated with ‘Good King Wenceslas’, who, as we all know, went out on the Feast of Stephen. And yes, there was a Wenceslas, who was pretty good by tenth century standards, though in truth he was a duke in Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – not a king. He was born in 907 into a family wracked by religious and political in-fighting. His grandparents had converted to Christianity and when Grandpa (Duke Borivoy the First) died he was succeeded by Ratislav. Borivoy’s widow Ludmila was entrusted to bring up Ratislav’s son Wenceslas, much to the chagrin of the boy’s own mother Drahomira. who had never converted to Christianity. When Ratislav died he was succeeded by young Wenceslas, a mere 13 year old, and the wicked Drahomira seized her chance, taking power as Regent. She ordered the death by strangulation of dear old Ludmila (well, that is what you did to mothers-in-law in those days) and a period of religious persecution followed. But when he reached the age of 18 Wenceslas saw off his wicked mother and took power for himself (I do hope you are following this at the back, questions will be asked later). He was a good but fair leader, ended the persecution of priests, and was generally a thoroughly good egg. His popularity didn’t go down too well with his duplicitous brother Boleslav, who had his own circle of followers opposed to the spread of Christianity. Boleslav invited his brother Wenceslas round for a cup of tea (or maybe something stronger) and then attacked him as he was going in to Mass. The rest of the dissidents piled in, and the hapless Wenceslas was killed, aged just 28. He quickly became Bohemia’s patron saint and most famous martyr.

 

 

In 1853 the English hymn writer John Mason Neale composed the now-familiar carol, setting the words to a medieval tune known as “Tempus adest floridum” (‘the time is near for flowering’) first published in the year 1582. And if you feel the need to hear it, put this in your browser:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfKtrJ1GvOU                           

Thirdly let us look at the oddest tradition of all, linked to that tiny little bird the wren, since today is also known as Wren Day in many areas of Ireland, and where traditions linked to stoning this smallest of birds to death are still to be found across the country. Echoes of the tradition are to be found on the Isle of Man and, centuries ago, on the English mainland and in particular in Wales. The tradition is so ancient it may well be druidic (the gaelic word for wren is dreolín, which possibly derives from draoi ean, or ‘Druid bird’). Why kill the bird? Well, perhaps the tradition simply marked the end of the year with a mid-winter sacrifice, or commemorated the early Christian attempts to drive out paganism, who knows for certain?

The wren has a reputation which its tiny frame belies. One story has it that the wren is the king of the birds, by virtue of a contest in the bird kingdom to find who could fly the highest: the mighty eagle soared into the skies, leaving all beneath him, except the wren which had hitched a ride on the eagle’s back. When the eagle tired and could ascend no more the wren flew a few feet above it, and landed to the acclamation that he was indeed the king of birds. In Druid lore the birds were a link between heaven and earth – it is possible the druids worshipped the wren and for this reason the Christians opposed it and celebrated the killing of the bird at Christmas time as a symbol of their new order.

But the bird also has a name for treachery, for betraying your whereabouts to your enemies. Legend has that it was a wren which alerted the Jews to where St Stephen was hiding, leading to his capture and death by stoning. And was it not the case that when Cromwell’s soldiers were asleep and the Irish were about to attack, a flock of wrens rose into the air and wakened the enemy with the sounds of their wing beats? Had the same thing not happened when the Viking invaders arrived eight centuries before?

There are a number of such myths and superstitions about the wren and for centuries the Wrenboys would spend the weeks leading up to Christmas either stoning and killing the wrens, or collecting them and tying them alive to a holly (or other evergreen) bush. The Wrenboys would then parade through the town on St Stephen’s Day, knocking on doors. Householders would be asked to give a penny ‘to pay for the funeral of the wren’ – anyone refusing would run the risk of the Wrenboys burying the bird outside their home, a certain way of bringing bad fortune for the year ahead. Anyone making a gift of money would be rewarded with a feather from the bird. This way the Wrenboys collected enough money to finance an evening of liquid revelry at the local hostelry… with singing and dancing. The wren on its decorated pole had pride of place.

Daniel Maclise illustration for S.C. Hall’s Ireland: Its Scenery and Character (1841).

Traditions varied: in some the Wren Boys dressed as mummers in straw costumes; in others they blackened their faces with cork and dressed in old clothes (sometimes women’s clothes). Meanwhile in West Kerry tradition has it that the dancers paraded with a wooden horse’s head – harking back to the time of pre-Christian horse worship. The introduction of Christianity meant that the horse effigy also had to be burnt, and it is this that the dancers commemorate.

The wren was also known as a wran and a number of songs grew up around the tradition. The most popular one (this, based upon a variant used in Cork)  goes:

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
St Stephens’s Day was caught in the furze.                                                                                      
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

Give us a penny to bury the wran.

Nowadays of course there is no bird killing – either a stuffed bird is tied to the holly pole, or a model of one, and this is decorated with ribbons and holly and used for the parade. One particular group of mummers from South West Fermanagh known as the Aughakillymaude Mummers, keeps alive the tradition of such celebrations: