Aug 122020

In my last blog I mentioned ‘the other’ Samuel Johnson  and the help given to me by Naomi Heap. She has kindly agreed to tell me more about her ancestor. Over to you, Naomi:

Ever sat and pondered the scribblings of a previous occupant? No me neither, let’s face it public toilets are not a place to tarry in the modern age. Even so, these days a necessary encounter with shared facilities is not likely to provide much in the way of reading material. The ubiquitous and poorly shaped phallus is a more likely artistic offering, or alternatively, you might find stylised tags that are entirely illegible to anyone but the ‘artiste’. This was not always the case, and it seems that in the 1700’s the bog-house wall (or glass window if you happened to have a diamond about your person) was an excellent spot to leave your thoughts. The surety that those to follow would be in-situ long enough to enjoy your attempts at verse, was quite literally ‘taken as read’.

‘Merry Thoughts: or the Glass-window and Bog-house Miscellany’ is a collection of such graffiti found in conveniences, tavern windows and public places in the 1700’s. It was published in four parts by one Hurlo Thrumbo – a pseudonym which I will later explain.

First however, here is an example of toilet humour from the time. This cartoon (held by the British Museum) entitled ‘Sawney in the Boghouse’ shows the likely conditions of early public conveniences. As an aside, the joke of this picture is that the Scots Man has his legs in the bottom holes and is sitting on the lid. The words below the picture insinuate that the Scots were so wild they wouldn’t know how to answer the call of nature if it involved indoors facilities.

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

You will notice that our Scottish friend is surrounded by various leaflets and flyers. In the dedication of Merry Thoughts, this practice of advertising in the loo is cited as the very reason for Hurlo Thrumbo’s collection. I paraphrase the author, who considered that the collection of “lucubration” should not be lost as “bum fodder” or be painted over by landlords who would rob the world of such “sparkling pieces” – but they should be kept for posterity in the form of a publication, and so was born Merry Thoughts: Or Glass Window and Bog House Miscellany.

Not only did people leave their thoughts for others to read, it seems that their audience would commonly respond. To use a modern metaphor, they would ‘post’– and you thought that Face Book was a new idea! Of course it’s not surprising that bodily functions feature extensively in the subject matter, as do food and sex, here are some examples. First up, a complaint about the lack of loo paper:

From costive Stools, and hide-bound Wit,

From Bawdy Rhymes, and Hole besh – – t.

From Walls besmear’d with stinking Ordure,

By Swine who nee’r provide Bumfodder

Libera Nos— 

Keeping to the lavatorial theme:

In a Bog-House at the Nag’s-Head in Bradmere._

Such Places as these,

Were made for the Ease

Of every Fellow in common;

But a Person who writes

On the Wall as he shites,

Has a Pleasure far greater than Woman.

For he’s eas’d in his Body, and pleas’d in his Mind,

When he leaves both a Turd and some Verses behind.



  You are eas’d in your Body, and pleas’d in your Mind,

  That you leave both a Turd and some Verses behind;

  But to me, which is worst, I can’t tell, on my Word,

  The reading your Verses, or the smelling your Turd.

Not all the verses are crude. Next up, one written on the Wall at the George in Sandy-Lane, in the Bath Road, a Place famous for Puddings:

  The Puddings are so good in Sandy-Lane,

  That if I chance to go that Way again,

  I’ll not be satisfy’d, unless I’ve twain,

  The one stuck thick with Plumbs, the other plain.

Here is another:

Bog-House at Ludlow._

  Two pitiful Dukes at our Race did appear;

  One bespoke him a Girl, the other new Geer,

  And both went away without paying I hear,

  For the Cheat lov’d his Money, and so did the Peer.


  You Rogue, Taylor shan’t catch me, while your Legs they are cross’d.

  Don’t cry, my dear Girl, since you have got more than you lost.

One of the entries concerns a woman who is fed up with her husband for getting her pregnant so often:

  A poor Woman was ill in a dangerous Case,

  She lay in, and was just as some other Folks was.

  ‘By the Lord’, cries she, then: ‘If my Husband e’er come,

  Once again with his Will for to tickle my Bum,

  I’ll storm, and I’ll swear, and I’ll run staring wild’;

  And yet the next Night, the Man got her with Child

Merry Thoughts is for me a recommended read, not because I have a particular interest in graffiti, vandalism or public loos. Rather because the curator of the verses is likely to have been Samuel Johnson of Cheshire – no, not the lexicographer, but the dancing master and play writer who was also my distant ancestor. Here by circuitous route we come back to Hurlo Thrumbo. There is some dispute as to whether this pseudonym was used by the publisher because of the popularity of Samuel Johnson’s play ‘Hurlothrumbo; or The Supernatural’ which ran at the Haymarket for 30 consecutive nights in 1729. However, in my opinion (I would like to say ‘informed opinion’ because I have studied Sam for over a year now) Merry Thoughts Part I is his collection and compilation, the later books are likely collaborative with some of the verses being sent to him by friends.

Anyway, if you have the time and the money I would recommend searching out a copy of Merry Thoughts. One online source is The Project Gutenberg; an academic team who offer a transcription of parts II, III and IIII. Part I may require an order from AbeBooks.”

Thanks for that Naomi. The Gutenberg transcription supports your contention that Samuel Johnson was the author of the Merry Thoughts and sets out the following endorsement of the value and significance of graffiti:

“modern graffiti is surprisingly like that of earlier periods: scatological observations, laments of lovers, accusations against women for their sexual promiscuity, the repetition of “trite” poems and sayings, and messages attributed to various men and women suggesting their sexual availability and proficiency. And if the political targets have changed over the years, many of the political attitudes have remained consistent. Graffiti is an irreverent form, with strong popular and anti-establishment elements. As actions common to all classes, eating, drinking, defecation, and fornication find their lowly record in graffiti-like form”.

Here are a few more examples contained in Merry Thoughts and contained in an interesting article by Dr. Maximilian E. Novak of the University of California, Los Angeles and entitled Loos, Lewdness and Literature

Rich or poor, we are all the same….

Some of the entries are more romantic than others….

Thank you Naomi for drawing this book to my attention – I knew that the Georgians were a scatological lot, and caricaturists such as Gillray and Newton loved fart jokes, potty jokes – indeed everything and anything lavatorial!



Jul 252020


Most of us have to wait until after we die before somebody builds us a monument – and even then, who knows, they may not get around to it. The solution, of course, is to build your own. The pharaohs of Ancient Egypt knew that and so did the slightly eccentric John Knill, who lived between 1733 and 1811. I am indebted to Angela Humby for bringing this oddball to my attention. This is what she has to say about the excellent John Knill:


“For those who delight (as I do) in reading and learning about what the English like to called “eccentrics”, the 18th century is a goldmine of such people. England has always (proudly I feel!) abounded in eccentrics.

One such delightful character was John Knill born in 1733 at Collington in east Cornwall. A portrait of him by Opie painted in 1779 shows a pleasant looking gentleman in a plain suit of blue, with frilled shirt and ruffles. Beneath this “ordinary” gentleman’s attire however resided a less than ordinary man, with a desire to be remembered long after his lifetime.


On a hill near St.Ives in Cornwall stands a granite obelisk, which vessels use as a landmark whilst off the coast. It was Knill who erected this 50 foot obelisk which has a mausoleum below it, in 1782. During this year he had ceased to act as a Collector of Customs in St Ives. Why did he build it? His will of 1809 tells us exactly why:


“During a residence of upwards of 20 years at St.Ives, where I was Collector of the Customs, and served all offices within the borough, from constable to major, it was my unremitting endeavour to render all possible service to the town in general, and to every individual inhabitant, and I was so fortunate to succeed in almost every endeavour I used for that purpose, particularly in respect to the building of their wall or pier, and in some other beneficial undertakings; and it was my wish to have further served the place by effecting other public works, which I propose, and which will, I dare say, in time be carried into execution. It is natural to love those whom you have had opportunities of serving, and I confess I have real affection for St.Ives and its inhabitants, in whose memory I have an ardent desire to continue a little longer than the usual time those do of whom there is no ostensible memorial. To that end, my vanity prompted me to erect a mausoleum, and to institute certain periodical returns of a ceremony which will be found in a deed bearing the date 29th May, 1797”.

Knill hated the idea of a church burial. However, he had to give up the idea of being laid to rest in his preferred place of his mausoleum (now called Knill’s Monument)) due to “difficulties which stood in the way of consecration” of it. Instead he was buried at St Andrew’s, Holborn when he died at his Chambers at Gray’s Inn Square London in 1811 where his work and official appointments had taken him.


This is not the end of the story though and its continuation could involve you gentle reader if you so wish! Knill left monies for the maintenance of his mausoleum – and specific amounts for other purposes including a ceremony:


£25 to be used as follows – at the end of every 5 years :

£10 for a dinner for the trustees (the mayor, the vicar and the customs officer) and six guests, this to take place at the George and Dragon Inn, Market Place, St Ives,

£5 equally amongst 10 maidens, of ten years old at most, children of seamen, fishermen, or tinners, who dance once round the mausoleum,

£1 for the fiddler,

£2 to two widows chosen from the same classes as the children, to accompany them;

£1 for white ribbons for breast knots;

£1 for clerk, and a new account book when needed;

the remaining £5 to the married parents, of the like classes, who have brought up the largest family to the age of ten, without aid from the poor rate or from property”.

The very first ceremony was on the 25th July 1801 and was attended by John Knill himself. It included amongst other jollities, two of the trustees (the vicar and the mayor waltzing around the upper step of the monument hand-in-hand with the ten young girls!) The next ceremony is just a year away on the 25th July 2021! So if the current situation with Covid-19 allows and you want to join the link and ceremony from John Knill to yourself, it may be a good idea to reserve your hotel room or holiday cottage in the St Ives, Cornwall area shortly! Reports from previous recent ceremonies say that it was still held in exactly the way Knill intended.”


Thanks Angela! I think I will try and dig up some more Georgian eccentrics for future blogs – goodness knows there were plenty of them. But it may only be the perspective of time which gives them eccentricity. Angela reminds me of the very apposite quote by John Stuart Mill, born just five years before Knill died: 

“The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time”

How true of our own era…


Post script: I see that there is a short film on YouTube made at the time of the memorial festivities held in 2011, made by Tony Mason. Here is the link: