Mar 172016

Would my ancestor have noticed an Irish connection on 17th March as he grew up in London in the middle of the eighteenth Century? Almost certainly, yes. Dean Swift in his Journal to Stella demonstrates that the wearing of crosses on this day was not confined to Ireland and that the custom had travelled abroad with its citizens as they crossed the Irish Sea. Writing in 1713 he remarks that in London “The Irish folks were disappointed that the Parliament did not meet today, because it was St Patrick’s Day; and the Mall was so full of crosses, that I thought all the world was Irish”

The traditional St Patrick’s Cross differed  according to gender: the one worn by men and boys was made of a square of paper, each side about three inches long, on which a circle was drawn. Using a quill pen and the index finger as a rough pair of dividers the circumference of the circle was used to create small arcs inside the circle. These would then be coloured, often by the children, traditionally using egg yolk for yellow, chewed grass for green – and a pricked finger for red! An alternative pattern was to draw an inner circle, ringed along its edge with six smaller circles. The whole would then be set within a larger circle and each of the constituent parts of the pattern would then be coloured. The resulting equivalent of an intricately designed Celtic cross would then be pinned to the cap and worn throughout the 17th  March.

For the girls there was a different custom: a cross was made of stiff card and pinned onto a circle of silk. The arms of the cross would then be decorated with ribbons and bows, with a rosette of emerald green silk  attached to  the centre. The decorated cross would then be pinned beneath the wearer’s shoulder on her right hand side.     (Illustration  courtesy of National Museum, Dublin).

And the wearing of the shamrock? Well that was certainly already a custom in the 1700’s. In 1727 the botanist Caleb Threlkeld identified the shamrock as the white clover (‘Trifoleum repens’) and remarked “This plant is worn on the 17th March yearly, which is called St Patrick’s Day, it being a current tradition that by this three-leaved grass, he emblematically set forth to them the mystery of the Holy Trinity. However that be, when they wear their seamar-oge, they often commit excess in liquor, which is not a right keeping of a day to the Lord; error generally leading to debauchery.” He goes on to describe the break in Lenten fasting as being called “wetting the shamrock”

Others have identified the shamrock with other plants from the same family. But whether it was the clover or oxalis or the common trefoil, tradition had it that when the last drink was about to be drunk, the wearer removed the leaf and placed in St Patrick’s Pot (‘pota Pádraig’), delivered a toast, and then having emptied the pot or bumper, threw the leaf over his left shoulder.

So, there we have it – the day was celebrated by young and old alike, at home in Ireland but also wherever they congregated overseas, and it invariably ended up with the consumption of alcohol. It also was a pretext for abandoning the rigours of Lent for one day – observers of St Patrick’s Day felt able to eat meat instead of the wretched herring on which they had subsisted for the previous few weeks!

But those who were not of Irish extraction were always happy to use the Saint’s Day as an excuse for ribaldry and frankly racist behaviour, as shown by a newspaper report from March 1740 :

“Being St Patrick’s Day, the Butchers in Clare Market hung up a Grotesque Figure, to represent an Irishman; and a great Number of Irishmen coming to pull it ’down a fierce Battle ensu’d, when much Mischief was done, and some very dangerously wounded; but a File of Musqueteers being fetched from St James’s several of the Rioters were carry’d before Col De-Veil, who sent three of them to Newgate”.

By 1803 the celebration of  St Patrick’s Day seems to have become rather more fun …. (shown courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library).

St Patricks day in the morning

P.S. Why 17th March? Because that was the day in 432 that St Patrick, a bishop, was captured and carried off to Ireland as a slave.

P.P.S. First time St Patrick’s Day was celebrated in New York City? 1756 in the Crown & Thistle Tavern

Aug 202015

lwlpr04251I recently came across this Carington Bowles print on the wonderful Lewis Walpole site here. I was looking for images of windmills, and sure enough, there is one in the background. Otherwise it is a typically quiet rural scene – well, apart from the sailor trying to nick a local girl from her boyfriend by offering her a coloured ribbon. The oik of a boyfriend looks somewhat peeved, and one of the dogs is drinking the milk from the pail while no-one is paying attention. It is from 1778 and is interesting as an example of what sailors, labourers and milkmaids were wearing at the time.

Wheat_close-upAs I say, I was actually researching windmills in connection with a much less pastoral scene – the food riots of 1766. The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1766 lists progressive hardship throughout the latter half of the year as the harvest failed to live up to expectations, and prices started to sky-rocket. The export of grain was  halted, but there was still not enough to go round, at a time when bread, made from wheat, really was a staple part of the diet.

People in the country started to take the law into their own hands, and rioting occurred in many places. Here is the start of a report of what was happening in the West Midlands: aaa1

You have to feel a bit sorry for the wheat growers – it was after all simply a case of supply and demand. Worse was to follow in Coventry later in October, as the magazine explains:

cccaaSo we had mob violence, aimed at reducing prices for cheese. Meanwhile in Salisbury rioters were enraged when they  attacked a windmill at Bradley and found that the miller was adulterating the wheat with ground chalk, lime and horse beans. This so provoked the mob that they set out and destroyed another seven or eight bolting mills in the area ( “bolting” – otherwise “boulting” – being another word for sifting).

bbbbbbbbb1As the report stated, more serious insurrections occurred in Norwich, which seemed to be aimed at destroying local businesses as much as it was about feeding the poor. Sack after sack of “flower” ie flour was thrown into the river, a water pumping building was destroyed, bakers shops were plundered and smashed, warehouses set fire to and gutted. Sounds like quite a party…

The repercussions were swift and ruthless. Two months later the Gentleman’s Magazine reported on a number of criminal trials linked to the outbreak of mob violence. In virtually every case, the ringleaders were sentenced to death:mmm

I find it fascinating that in the middle of a record of  people sentenced to hang, there was a report of a man coughing up a “plumb stone” which he had swallowed four months earlier and which had “gone down the wrong way.” Obviously the health of the son of Sir Alexander Powel rated more highly than the fate of a few rioters…



Oct 252014

avavavaIdly leafing through back-numbers of The Gentleman’s Magazine (as one does) I came across this obituary from November 1787:







I rather like the idea of William Elliott living to 93, and recording that his happiest times were when he was a beggar. It reminded me of the lovely portrait by Nathaniel Hone The Elder of a beggar (by the name of James Turner). Interesting though that Elliott not only ran a Lottery Office – but was also a lottery winner… £10,000 would have been more than three quarters of a million pounds in modern terms.

Mind you, he had quite a life – running a distillery; eating chicken for five years while  marooned a la Robinson Crusoe; getting a job as a strolling player; becoming a quack doctor; dealing in horses; ending up as a porter. Not many people get to try quite so many careers – you cannot say that the Eighteenth Century didn’t provide opportunities for entrepreneurship and  a change of job!

Oct 042014

“Mountebank” ( n):   A charlatan.

According to Wikipedia (and we all know that to be the fount of all knowledge don’t we, boys and girls) the word apparently comes from the Italian phrase monta in banco – literally referring to the action of a seller of dubious medicines getting up on a bench to address his audience of potential customers. I looked it up on account of the variant spelling in this seventeenth century  image of a “Mountabanck or charlatan” by the Dutch artist Marcellus Laroon:a3

Charlatans appearing to turn glass into diamonds,  or quacks promoting spurious cures (“snake oil salesmen”) or mountebacks promising great fortune were obviously a feature of street life in the Georgian era. I came across this snippet from the London Gazette 26 October 1776:


I hadn’t come across the phrase “plate lottery” before but I assume it related to a form of unregulated raffle where people purchased the chance of winning some trinket or bauble – in this case a pair of ear-rings worth no more than five or six shillings.  Apparently it was not uncommon for minor lotteries to be based upon silver plate and jewellery or even, on occasion, books.

I love the splendidly Biblical description of “these locusts, who prey upon the vitals of the unwary.” What is remarkable is how successful the guy was – the article refers to “immense sums”  which he had accumulated with his fraudulent money-raising scheme, as evidenced by the fact that he was able to pay the fine of fifty pounds – the equivalent of several thousand pounds in modern money.

Extract from Giovanni Michele Graneri's Village Market Scene with Quack

Extract from Giovanni Michele Graneri’s Village Market Scene with Quack

Nowadays our man would be selling fake Rolex watches, or operating in a fairground booth, offering a prize of a giant teddy bear to anyone buying a winning ticket – of which none had been printed. Nothing changes – only that most modern mountebanks seem to make their money by offering on-line fake medicines, based in countries where “locusts preying upon the vitals of the unwary” appear to be immune from prosecution. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Now, where did I put my snake oil…




Aug 062014

I was intrigued by this advertisement in the Stamford Mercury, which appeared at the end of October 1777. I had not come across “English Coffee” before but I love the way that ‘unsolicited testimonials – genuine or otherwise – have long been used to promote different products.

zzz - Copy

Good on you, Mr Stephens, be you ever so humble a servant!

The only “English Coffee” I know is a sort of liqueur coffee made with Gin, Kahlua, and Cointreau mixed into a cup of hot coffee and then topped with whipped cream (and some more Cointreau to taste).

This clearly, was something altogether different for the advertisement continues with a description of its ingredients – “a balsamic extracted from a variety of the choicest aromatic plants and herbs, and also certain barks.”

It apparently gave relief “for every species of consumptive and nervous complaints viz. recent colds, coughs of long-standing, asthmas, tremors, vertigos, palpitations and spasmatic twitches, in all which cases it operates with amazing success.”


a coinanother  coinWell I don’t know about you, but if it cures those dreadful spasmatic twitches I get most mornings, then I want some of that English Coffee. And as it states, it is clearly intended for a decayed constitution like mine and better than either sago (yuk, you have got to be kidding!) or jelly (now you are talking!). I am sure that I would greatly enjoy anything which was “salubrious to my body.” In fact at only two shillings and sixpence a canister, bring it on!


May 092014

a1111While doing some research for my book on Astley and his circus* I was intrigued by some of the newspaper advertisements – especially this one dating from May 1796, appearing in the Oxford Gazette. For a start it actually uses the  name “circus” – whereas Astley normally referred to the performance area as an “amphitheatre” – so much so that he was given the derogatory name of “Amphi-Philip.”

It is intriguing to see that there were no fewer than fourteen different firework ‘divisions’. Some of the fireworks look pretty impressive, with suns, wheels pyramids and ‘bombs.’ Astley promised the good burghers of Oxford an amusing and interesting spectacle, the like of which had never been seen  “Ranelagh Gardens only excepted”

aaqaaaqwI like the warning that Ladies and Gentlemen should not expect to be able to change gold at the door –  a reminder that change was in very short supply in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century. At one shilling a head for admission even to the “second places” (i.e. those towards the back) it was never cheap! But it gives an interesting insight into the popularity for anything “new” and  dramatic – and also demonstrates the clever way Astley used different spectacular entertainments to promote the actual circus. He would arrive in town on an afternoon and start assembling his temporary staging etc. He would then put on the firework display – and the next evening he would  invite the public back again – this time to see the horse riding, the clowns, and the juggling acts.

* If you are interested, the book is called ‘Astleys Circus – the story of an English Hussar’ and is available in Europe here and in the States here.

front 1200dpi 001Astley's Circus cover 001


Jan 252014

When idly perusing the newspaper reports from the 18th Century I occasionally come across stories which completely  distract me from whatever I was looking for. That is certainly true of this gem, from 1771. It appeared in the Reading Mercury & Oxford Gazette on 21st July:


Now I have to admit – I am not especially close to my sister – certainly I wouldn’t expect her to put her coat on, let alone cross the street to come and see me. So the idea of a sibling dressing up in a man’s garb and travelling half way round the world is an intriguing one. How wonderful that the deception was exposed by so lowly a creature as the common louse! It would have made for an interesting shower scene….

Oct 262013

I came across this newspaper cutting from 1776 and thought how little has changed over the ensuing centuries:


So, I think we can take it that there is nothing new in people of all ages going out on a Friday night and getting absolutely rat-arsed. (Or rather, using the terminology from Grose’s  1811 “Dictionary in the Vulgar Tongue”   “Getting bloody Lushey” ). In fairness to Nikki Reed (who she?) this following image is a still from an instantly forgettable film called Empire State, but I could just as easily have used any of a number of photographs which appear with monotonous regularity in our national newspapers.


I have a certain sympathy for Police Chiefs who want to see drunks detained in privately run “drying out hotels – and then being made to pay for the accommodation – in order to deter the serial drunk-and-disorderly. As they said in 1776, if not, who will wonder  if the gaols should be filled again in a fortnight?

May 132013

I have a terrible confession: I am not particularly a cat-person. That, against a background of knowing that a huge majority of my followers on Twitter are moggy-lovers! I don’t dislike cats: I just don’t understand them. Or rather, I didn’t until I read the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1754. It explains:

“The phaenomenae of electricity, which has so many surprising properties, seems to be of two sorts, natural and artificial. The last is to be obtain’d from all bodies naturally susceptible of it, as glass etc in which the property lies dormant till excited to act by friction, or some other violent motion.

Natural electricity is common almost to all animals, especially those destin’d to catch their prey by night; cats have this property in the greatest degree of any animal we are acquainted with; their furr or hair is surprisingly electrical. If it be gently raised up it avoids the touch till it be forc’d to , and by stroking the backs in the dark, the emanations of electrical fire are extremely quick and vibrative from it, follow’d by a crackling noise as from glass tubes when their electrical atmosphere is struck. It appears to me of singular use to animals destin’d to catch their prey in the dark: they give a sudden and quick erection of their furr, raises the electrical fire, and this, by its quickness running along the long pointed hairs over their eyes, and illuminating the pupilla enables them to perceive and seize their prey. It would be worth while to enquire whether all the wild sort that catch their prey with the paw are not endow’d with the same vibrations of electrical fire; the cat is the only domestic animal of that species but such a discovery in the ferocious kind would still be an additional demonstration of that infinite wisdom so easily discoverable in the minutest executions of all his works, and so perfectly adapted to a proper end.”

The article is interesting in illustrating the 18th Century preoccupation and fascination with electricity, from its cause to its effects. I rather like the idea of cats seeing in the dark because of their ‘natural electricity’.

Mind you, while looking for illustrations to go with this post I came across a highly inappropriate, un-funny (and downright cruel!) picture of a cat piano, apparently designed in 1650 by one Athanasius Kircher a 17th century German Jesuit scholar.

According to the Neatorama site “The piano was designed to raise the spirits of an Italian prince who was too stressed out. The musician would select cats whose voices were at different pitches then arrange them in the pens accordingly. The piano delivered sharp pokes into the tails of the cats”. (No, not funny, definitely in bad taste, definitely worth including….). I mention it as an example of how cruelty to animals was endemic: more so because cats had always been associated with witchcraft.

Oct 262012

There is nothing new about Lonely Hearts advertisements in magazines, as shown by this one from the March 1740 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine:


“As your Paper is calculated for the Fair Sex, and comes to the Hands consequently of a great number of pretty young Ladies, I address this Letter to you, as the Contents of it regard their Interest as well as my own. You must know that I am an old Batchelor, worth forty thousand Pounds, in my sixty-third year, or thereabouts, somewhat infirm of Body but perfectly sound of Mind: I have always been averse to Marriage, but am now willing to enter into that holy State on such Conditions as will hereafter be specfy’d. Having fairly got over the Rigour of the late Severe Season which has swept so many of my Age away I am inclin’d to think from some sensible Juvenilities I perceive about me, that this Spring will make me twenty Years younger than I am, and that when Lent is over, the Entering into the Bands of Wedlock would conduce much to my Health as well as Happiness.

Having such an Intention, and such a Fortune, you may wonder that I want  a Match. Why, sir, I know well enough that I might not be long wanting would I but disclose my Mind to some Ladies, but Sir, I am very bashful and at this Time should not care to go through the least Formality of Courtship: I know if I have a very fine,  beautiful,  accomplish’d young Lady (and such a one only will I have) my Money must buy her; therefore I endeavour to get such a Purchase with as little trouble as possible, and that is my Occasion of writing this Letter to you.

I have heard that when Persons of my Wealth and Age marry such young Ladies as I have described, they are us’d very ill by them when they are in any Sickness: and that sometimes the Doctor Apothecary, or Nurse or something or other helps them forward to the other World, that the young Widow may enjoy the large Jointure settled on her: For which Reasons… that I may be under no Apprehension of having my Pillow pull’d from under my Head in a fit of the Phthisick; and that I may have all due Care and Comfort administer’ to me by my Wife, I do propose to any Young, beautiful, accomplish’d young Lady, who will take me for her wedded Husband, to give her three thousand Pounds, down on the Day of Marriage, and to settle on her six hundred Pounds per annum during my Natural Life; but on the day of my Decease the said six hundred Pounds per Ann. shall entirely cease, and go as I shall think Proper to dispose of it in my last Will and Testament, she having no Claim or Title to any Part thereof.

You must see by my Meaning by this Scheme; tis her Interest to have me live as long as possible: If any Lady such as I have describ’d, will accept of this Proposal, let her send a line (… to the Editor) and on your advertising the Receipt, you shall hear from me.


Solomon Single

Ed: If any Lady, after a very nice Calculation of the Value of such a Marriage, thinks proper to accept Mr Single’s Proposal, on her writing to me I shall obey his Directions…”

Well it has to be said it isn’t the most romantic of declarations – money for love (well, more like: money for status, with a bit on the side thrown in). I may be a gentleman of similar years to Mr Single, also perhaps of infirm body but sound mind (or is it the other way round…) but I cannot say I sympathize with him in his predicament!

My ancestor’s drawing of an old goat!

In fact it merely highlights the lack of opportunities for women in the 18th Century unless they were prepared to marry – and for some, marrying an old goat for a lump sum of £3000 was perhaps a price worth paying. Play your cards right and the Old Boy’s ticker wouldn’t stand the pace for long, and you would be free to go looking for your next elderly gentleman….