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Archive for the ‘Georgian period’ Category

A guest post by LH Member Julian Woodford.
Review: Orphans of Empire by Helen Berry.

orphans of empireThe spirit of William Hogarth runs vividly through Orphans of Empire, Professor Helen Berry’s latest book, which explores the story of what happened to the orphaned or abandoned children of London’s Foundling Hospital. Before reading it, I knew that the hospital was the brainchild of the shipwright, sea captain and philanthropist Thomas Coram. I knew too from Jenny Uglow’s excellent biography of Hogarth that the artist had been Coram’s friend and an enthusiastic and active patron of the hospital. But I hadn’t realised just how firmly the Foundling Hospital story was seated in Hogarthian London until I read Berry’s fascinating account, which draws heavily on Hogarth’s work for its illustrations and for two of its principal chapter headings.

I am somewhat red-faced to admit that I had never managed to visit the Foundling Museum, tucked in the north-east corner of Bloomsbury’s Brunswick Square, next door to Virginia Woolf’s former residence and adjacent to the former site of Coram’s hospital. So it was a treat to follow Helen Berry’s directions, taking the road less travelled by the throngs of British Museum or Covent Garden-bound tourists leaving the Underground at Russell Square and instead heading, via Brunswick Square and its giant plane tree, to Coram’s Fields. The Foundling Museum, with its poignant collection of foundling tokens and its impressive recreation of the hospital’s Court Room, (not to mention several stunning Hogarth originals, including Thomas Coram’s lifesize portrait and ‘The March to Finchley’) is a humbling yet hugely rewarding experience, but I can state wholeheartedly that its enjoyment is magnified several-fold by the contemporaneous reading of Professor Berry’s book.

Berry’s account interweaves two themes. She is not the first historian to articulate the broad general history of Thomas Coram and his Foundling Hospital in the context of the eighteenth-century charitable movement among London’s governing elite. But she has broken new ground in exploring the rich seam of the Foundling Hospital archive (seventeen double-decker buses-worth of shelving, as Berry points out). This has enabled her to supplement the institutional story with snippets from the remarkable diary of George King, a foundling who went on to experience life as an apprentice in the City of London before running away to sea, fighting at Trafalgar and teaching in South Carolina before ending his days as he had begun them, institutionalised in London as a Naval Pensioner and as clerk to the Greenwich Hospital. As Berry touchingly puts it, the ‘single precious thread’ of King’s diary, punctuated by the ‘smaller broken whispers’ of other former foundlings, has allowed her to illuminate how Britain’s imperial progress shaped the fates of some of the poorest in society.

Orphans of Empire’s many highlights include Berry’s moving and vivid description of the grief of young mothers as they handed over their new-born babies to the hospital, almost certainly never to see them again. Throughout the book, Berry knits together a most interesting recap of the persistent central role played by the orphan/foundling in myth and literature, from Moses to Romulus and Remus, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Her statistical analysis hammers home the sheer scale of failure of eighteenth-century society and parochial government to provide social support for children. Survivors like George King were lucky: two-thirds of the almost 15,000 children admitted to the hospital between 1756-1760 died while in its care, a mortality rate that sometimes rose to as high as 90%. And I was intrigued to learn that several of the hospital’s main benefactors, including Thomas Coram and Hogarth themselves, along with Georg Friedrich Handel, were each themselves childless and that this lack may have been a driving force of their philanthropy.

My only disappointment in this otherwise excellent book is some careless editing. I became confused by the interchangeable use of the terms ‘General Reception’ and ‘General Admission’ (compounded by distinct index entries) to describe the failed experiment in 1756-1760 when parliamentary funding led to the hospital becoming a national, rather than just a London-based, concern and which led to an explosion in demand that almost overwhelmed the institution’s ability to cope. In a similar vein, the statistical analysis of admission numbers and mortality could have been presented more coherently in a single place instead of being scattered throughout, with some resulting unnoticed editorial duplication (pages 58, 97).

This small gripe is not enough to spoil an enlightening account of one of the peripheral but important byways of Britain’s imperial history. Helen Berry’s use of detailed archival research to amplify and vivify the tale of a famous London institution is instructive and exemplary. Orphans of Empire is a super book, nicely produced, with good black & white illustrations, clear endnotes and indexing, and I recommend it to all London Historians.

Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings. By HELEN BERRY. pp. xv + 364 + 20 illustrations within text, indexed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. £20.00, but available for less. ISBN 978-0-19-875848-8. Hardback. Published 11 April.

This book is London Historians members’ book competition for March 2019.


The Foundling Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays, admission £10 for adults.


Julian Woodford is a historian and author of The Boss of Bethnal Green, Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London. @HistoryLondon

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A guest post by LH Member Val Bott, @BottValbott.

Review: The Hidden Horticulturists by Fiona Davison.

hidden Horticulturists coverWhen the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Garden closed in 1904, greenhouses, fixtures and fittings and plants were moved to Wisley. Amongst the items taken from Chiswick was a modest volume labelled The Handwriting of Under-Gardeners and Labourers. Soon after she became Librarian at the Lindley Library, Fiona Davison came across this in the stores there; its record of 105 young men who had been selected as trainees in the Chiswick Garden in a six year period starting in 1822 set her off on a significant piece of research.

The Society began offering training to raise horticultural standards nationally and the young trainees had succeeded in a very competitive selection process. Each wrote in the book in his own hand a short CV, all covering similar ground; often they were the sons of gardeners or had worked on estate gardens, sometimes both. Each recorded his horticultural experience, the name of the person who had recommended him (usually a Fellow of the Society). This demonstrated his literacy and the fact that he fulfilled the eligibility criteria for admission. Most were young men from England and Scotland but a few came from abroad.

Using this apparently modest and limited source Fiona Davison has traced the life stories of 32 of the apprentices to introduce to her readers. Using the clues offered by the entries in the Handwriting Book, she has asked many questions of the sources. While one was the famous Joseph Paxton, much less was known about others and some had rather lowly lives in comparison. From my own research into 18th century gardeners I am aware how difficult it can be to trace the lives of such individuals and, while she had the advantage of additional sources, like the Census and local newspapers in the 19th century, I can see how hard the author has persisted with her inquiries over three years of spare time research to bring us this book!

She has grouped them according to types of experience, from “The Horticultural Elite”, through the “Deserving Men” lower down the horticultural ladder and “Fruit Experts”, to “Criminals in the Garden”. She writes sensitively and almost affectionately about the young men’s experiences at the Chiswick Garden, describes their successes and failures, traces their future careers, as gardeners on large estates, as plant hunters on the other side of the world or as nursery gardeners some of whom had little business acumen.

Many of the trainees went on to have the kind of lives which would not ordinarily have attracted a biographer, though others left their mark on significant gardens which have survived. Nevertheless the narrative is surprisingly rich because it provides the context offered by their family histories and their horticultural activities in a variety of locations in the UK and abroad. Correspondence and press reports show the difficulties encountered by men who went to Egypt, Ceylon, Australia and South America; some were caught up in difficulties in far-flung colonies or became ill in hostile climates.

The records of the Old Bailey reveal the foolishness of young men caught out selling stolen seeds. But she found in the archives evidence of Joseph Sabine’s poor management of the Chiswick Garden and his failure to spot embezzlement by a protegé which led to serious financial difficulties for the Horticultural Society. So stealing seeds may have been an act of desperation for the men involved, when the Society cut labourers’ wages from 14 to 12 shillings a week and the pay of the under-gardeners from 18 to 14 shillings weekly.

This makes for a thoroughly readable book full of good stories about real people; its glimpses of 19th century history will have a wider a wider appeal than pure garden history. Though attractively designed with rich colour plates, its only shortcoming is the fact that a few of the black and white images in the text are rather grey. However, I am already thinking of the friends for whom it will make an excellent gift!

An RHS exhibition about the Hidden Horticulturists at the Lindley Library runs until 6 May.


The Hidden Horticulturists, Fiona Davison, Atlantic Books/Royal Horticultural Society
published 4 April 2019, £25.00 cover price.


Val Bott. Some of Val Bott ‘s research on gardening history can be seen on nurserygardeners.com. She is the Editor of the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal.

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Very recently this 20 feet wide panorama by the French artist Pierre Prévost (1764 – 1823) has been put on display at the Museum of London. Painted around 1815 just after the Battle of Waterloo, it shows a 360 degree view of London as observed from the tower of St Margaret’s church, Westminster. It was done in watercolour on paper and is glued onto a canvas backing. It was a preparatory piece for a much larger monumental panorama, now lost.

The museum acquired the painting for £200,000 at auction held at Sotheby’s last July.

On Thursday last week I went to see it for the first time. It is lovely. It is not the museum’s fault that the digital versions released since the acquisition cannot possibly do justice to the original version. The colour is far more vibrant for a start. But there is great pleasure to be had zooming in on the detail, which I shall try and demonstrate here. Clearly the artist had a great deal of fun with it.

But also, just to note, for the first time I now properly understand the topography of the old Palace of Westminster: how it stood in relation to the river, Westminster Hall, Old and New Palace yard, and so on.

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Old Palace of Westminster, the centrepiece of the painting.

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New Palace Yard and Westminster Bridge.

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New Palace Yard looking further east to the new Strand Bridge, later Waterloo Bridge, and St Paul’s beyond.

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Detail. Carriages in New Palace Yard.

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Detail. New Palace Yard. A small crowd listening to a speaker, perhaps, or street vendor or performing animal.

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Detail. Two men having a punch-up! Onlookers.

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Detail. Charming depiction of a collier and his cart.

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Middlesex Guildhall, now the Supreme Court.

My only quibble with the display is that the three glass covers of the display cabinet are joined by strips of metal which are actually rather intrusive. I hope these can be improved upon somehow.

That aside, the panorama is a wonder, giving a superb depiction – albeit idealised – of London two hundred years ago. Do go and see it!


More about this at the Museum of London. 

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Guildhall: City of London. History Guide Companion by Graham Greenglass and Stephen Dinsdale. Guest review by LH Member Mark Ackerman.  

ghThe authors, both LH members and City of London guides, have produced a detailed and comprehensive book on the central area of the City of London and its seat of governance, Guildhall, oddly never ‘the Guildhall’ when used in this context. The introduction says the work’s aim is to provide ‘a history, a guide and a companion’ and it ticks all those boxes admirably.

It is full of fascinating facts and stories and I’m ashamed to say, as a Londoner born and bred, I was ignorant of many of them, so it also serves as an educational tool for the likes of me.

The oldest part of the building we still see today, the Great Hall of the Guildhall itself, was begun by master mason John Croxtone in 1411 and largely completed by 1430. It was probably the third such building on the site, a central area first used in Saxon times as a ‘folkmoot’ where citizens gathered.

Croxtone designed his hall in the English Perpendicular Gothic style and it is the oldest non-ecclesiastical building in the City of London. It owed its cathedral-like appearance to Croxtone’s own master, Henry Yevele, with whom he had worked previously on the rebuilding of Westminster Hall. A pitched timber roof topped off the stone fabric but the building was not finally completed until 1499 with the addition of turrets. It also contained the Mayor’s Court and Court of Aldermen but it was felt necessary, even before final completion, to include two cells to restrain unruly apprentices.

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15C Guildhall. Artist’s impression.

This was a huge and costly construction project for the early fifteenth century with the guilds putting up the money. However, just as today the City is (and is likely to remain) the international centre for many financial dealings, so its earlier counterpart wanted to demonstrate to its continental rivals that it too was a major commercial capital.

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Post-fire Ogilby and Morgan map of the area, 1677.

The Great Fire of 1666 spared the stone fabric of Guildhall but, as Pepys wrote, ‘the horrid, malicious, bloody flame’ destroyed the roof. A ‘temporary’ flat wooden roof replaced it for the next two hundred years until Sir Horace Jones, Surveyor to the City, began renovation work in 1860. As the favoured style of his day was Gothic revivalism, Jones could get to work on a building which had been overlaid with Baroque and neo-classical elements by Wren and others after the Great Fire and, as the authors have it, he set about ‘re-Gothicising’ the edifice.

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Porch, chapel and Blackwell Hall, 1820. 

Today, only the old museum and library buildings remain from Jones’s renovation work and Guildhall Yard would have to wait until after the Second World War for the next major rebuild when Giles Gilbert Scott, of the famous architectural dynasty, began the task he had hoped to start before the war when he had advised on renovations to the area. Now the job was a major rebuild including that of the Great Hall itself, badly damaged in a 1940 air raid. It was repaired by October 1954 and welcomed the new Lord Mayor for his banquet the following month.

Sir Giles’s son Richard continued his father’s work in the ’60s and, as the book states, ‘led the way for a contemporary Guildhall Yard and proposed five new construction projects which externally dominate the Guildhall we see today.’ These were an enlarged yard, a new West Wing office complex, a new library and art gallery and the restoration of the crypts below the hall.

The book offers an excellent résumé of the monuments and statuary both outside and within the Great Hall. Of the latter, many are dedicated to obvious heroes such as Nelson, Wellington and Churchill and it is perhaps no surprise to see Pitt the Younger there, our youngest Prime Minster at the age of only 24. Mercury, representing commerce, stands over him but perhaps the Winged Messenger, who also oversaw good fortune, could have kept better watch during Pitt’s lifetime as the alcoholic gambler racked up debts of £40,000 by the time he died. The government eventually paid these off but it is difficult to see that ever happening now as the amount is the equivalent of £3.5 million today.

Another memorial commemorates former Lord Mayor William Beckford, who twice held the post and was MP for the City of London. The son of a Jamaican plantation and slave owner he himself became one of the wealthiest men in the country through these activities. In fact, it was said of him that ‘to see a slave he could not bear….unless it was his own’ and, given the current anti-Colston campaign, one wonders if the activists will next turn their attention to Beckford. Being less prominent, he may be spared.

The banners of the Great Twelve City Guilds hang below the roof of the Great Hall with the Mercers taking pre-eminence as they had provided the most Lord Mayors when the ranking system was decided upon in 1515 after many disagreements, some of which even resulted in fighting and the deaths of guild members. The Merchant Taylors and Skinners were among the most disputatious, fighting over sixth and seventh place, which probably led to the phrase ‘at sixes and sevens’.

The Great Hall was also used for ‘show’ trials such as that of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Day Queen, who was unwillingly manoeuvred into place by her devious father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland. She and her husband were executed for high treason in 1554 with the devious duke, who also coerced her into marrying his son in the first place, soon suffering the same fate.

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Guildhall today. Pic: M Paterson.

The book covers the Lord Mayor’s office in detail and relates how little the true story of Richard Whittington, who held the office four times, has in common with his panto counterpart. But as the fable has it, he did indeed marry an Alice, Alice Fitzwarin, and in reality performed many charitable works including the provision of a large public lavatory, flushed by the Thames. His seventeenth century successor, however, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, would live on in infamy. He it was who, when arriving in Pudding Lane to see the start of the conflagration in 1666, said it was not serious and ‘a maid might piss it out’. He also refused to demolish neighbouring buildings to create a firebreak in case he became personally liable. Pepys described seeing him later that night ‘like a man spent, with a hankercher about his neck’ and bemoaning the fact that he had been up all night although he apparently went back to bed after first being called out. He was an object of public vilification ever after, even while continuing to sit as an MP.

Everything you might wish to know about Guildhall and its environs is here, including chapters on the City parish church, St Lawrence Jewry; the Roman Amphitheatre below the art gallery; the City of London Police Museum and public events held in Guildhall Yard such as the Cart Marking Ceremony every July and the Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Parade in September.

The book has now inspired me to revisit the whole precinct under its expert guidance. It also makes a thoughtful gift for any LH member and for friends and family, and all in good time for the festive season.


GUILDHALL: CITY OF LONDON, A History Guide Companion
Authors: Graham Greenglass and Stephen Dinsdale
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Price: £16.99ISBN: 9781526715418

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A guest post by LH Member Hannah Renier, this article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from October 2014.

It is the summer of 1720, and you decide to walk (not ride) around London’s outer edges, keeping woods and trees on your left all the way. Starting from Hyde Park Corner, you head north to the gallows at Tyburn and east along the Oxford Road, proceed around Montague House and Lamb’s Conduit Street, Clerkenwell and Bunhill Fields, and turn south from Shoreditch to pass Whitechapel. The northern shore of the Thames is lined with wharves and smart seafarers’ houses downstream as far as Wapping, where you get into a wherry (that’s why you don’t have a horse: the horse ferry is expensive). You are rowed across to Rotherhithe Church. After a quick detour inland to Allhallows in the Borough you follow the shore upstream to where wharves, mills and cottages peter out near Vauxhall Gardens. Here you take another wherry from the gunmakers’ stairs at Vauxhall back to the horse-ferry terminus at Tothill, near Westminster, and walk up to Pall Mall and back to Hyde Park Corner. There have been woods and fields, or marshes, on your left all the way; and buildings – newish terraces on the northern edge, and a largely post-Fire jumble in the East and south – on your right.

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The Thames at Horseferry, with Lambeth Palace and a Distant View of the City, London, by Jan Greffier, c1710.

London was four miles long and a mile and a half wide, with a population of around 400,000. It was not easy for horses: there were long slopes up from the foreshore to Covent Garden, Mayfair was hilly, the Fleet basin was treacherously steep on both sides and there were sharp climbs up from the river north of London Bridge. Loads were unlimited, laws against cruelty unenforced, and ignorant farriery ubiquitous. Most peripatetic farriers, recognisable by blue cross-belts with gold horse-shoes on, followed Blundevill’s bad instructions from 130 years ago, and over-pared hooves and heavy-shod them with agonising results.

The summer of 1720 was the height of the boom. South Sea Company stock was giddily high and fortunes were borrowed to buy it. The rich rode in the Park, flirted in private gardens and stepped down from coaches into pleasant squares; some rode out to Ascot where the late Queen Anne had begun a tradition of summer horse-racing, now continued by the German King George.

Back in London were crowds of shortish humans, dodging nervously over cobbles between hackneys and carriages and drays pulled by horses of uncertain temper that might weigh half a ton. Between every few houses were slippery side turns down to cobbled yards; certain streets were edged by ‘kennels’ – drains bridged by culverts; barrels, on ropes, were lowered into gaping cellars. Markets were crowded with impatient horses and scavenging dogs, streets strewn with spilled hay, and the crossing sweeper rarely got to the latest pile of dung fast enough. The smell of manure was omnipresent. Every yard, mews and inn had its dunghill. And this chaos played out against the roar of iron-bound wheels and iron-shod hooves on cobblestone.

Men with money rode their own horses in town, and rich women who happened to be frail or pregnant could be taken by carriage and four, kept at the town house’s stables; although riding ‘on the stones’ in the middle of town, in a heavy creaking vehicle without suspension, was certainly uncomfortable.

Horses, of course, had to put up with people: yelling drivers, bawling street sellers, wailing children, a din compounded in unpleasantness by a stench of sweaty, unwashed wool, for laundry water usually had to be carried from pumps in the street or delivered by barrel. London had thousands of cess-pits, growing obnoxious before they were emptied (the slurry being carted through the streets at night for eventual sale as fertiliser). And human behaviour was unpredictable. John Gay saw it all, in his walks about London.

The lashing Whip resounds, the Horses strain,
And Blood in anguish bursts the swelling vein.
Oh barb’rous Men, your cruel Breasts asswage,
Why vent ye on the gen’rous Steed your rage?

The craze for gin meant inhibitions were released, anger expressed in blows, animals neglected and above all, horses were stolen. A good horse, for quick sale at Smithfield, could fetch £10 at a time when thieves could look forward to getting drunk for a penny and dead drunk for tuppence, pennies being 240 to the pound.

London’s working horses, like their owners, were crowded into cramped accommodation. If they were ever taken out to the fields of Marylebone or Brompton, they could graze on rich grassy meadows dotted with foxgloves and lady’s slipper, celandine and clover. Good fortune of this kind attended royal horses and cavalry horses, but plenty of draught animals toiled in the streets from one year’s end to the next. As to grazing opportunities south of the river, they had to get there first and either way cost a fare or a toll. The horse ferry was quicker than the journey across London Bridge, but picking your way through a cramped dark alley between shops and pedestrians could take an hour. London Bridge was a restraint on trade. Parliament heard repeated demands for a new bridge, but the Archbishop of Canterbury, who profited from the horse ferry at Lambeth, the Watermen, and the Bridgewardens, were solidly opposed.

In the autumn of 1720 the rich got a nasty surprise. The Government, the King, and every other potential investor discovered that the South Sea Company had been a Bubble. It burst, leaving them with debt.

Fine horses were suddenly for sale. Many were stabled on the great estates outside London, but if you were a suddenly impecunious aristo, in town, who chose to ride your best horse at Hyde Park Corner, you might get an offer from a friend.

The great age of horse breeding for racing, when today’s at thoroughbred bloodlines were sired by three imported stallions, was in its heyday. In 1720 the Byerley Turk had recently died, the Godolphin Arabian was yet to be born, but the Darley Arabian was very much alive. Rich men were impassioned by horses as status symbols as never before. The King had imported hundreds of cream Hanoverians, which were much admired. Everyone who was anyone took riding lessons; there were riding houses, with training circuses or even amphitheatres, in Riding House Street and down alleys all over town. Captain Foubert and his family had been running one for years.

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The Darley Arabian, after John Wootton.

If Hyde Park Corner and an exchange between friends was not to be, the South Sea Bubble debtor would sell his horse, or his team of horses and maybe even the carriage he kept in town in an inn yard to a dealer, through an auctioneer like Mr Heath or Mr Osmer or Mr Beevor in St Martin’s Lane – or – and it did happen – on a Friday at Smithfield.

This was of course the start of a long downhill run to decrepitude. A champion horse kept at stud in retirement from the racecourse could easily, like the Godolphin Arabian later, live for thirty years. Or like most others it could, in changing hands, go from racehorse to country hack to carriage horse to carter’s horse in a decade or less. Such a horse might pull a heavy hackney carriage all day or join the team kept by a carter such as Mr Pickford and be sent back and forth along a section of the Great North Road. It was tolled, but still a rough surface. Most cartage horses would die of exhaustion before they were fifteen, for their the lives were fraught with sprains, skin diseases, eye infections, dental deformation and ailments generally arising from inferior care, stress and sometimes cruelty.

Those farriers who took their job seriously did mean well. They were at least as expert as doctors – probably more. While there were inhibitions about cutting human bodies up (and only six years later a royal doctor would ‘witness’ Mary Tofts giving birth to rabbits), horse anatomy had been studied for at least a thousand years. The expertise of a good farrier came mostly from observation of gait and wind and mouth. He dealt with horses daily – all farriers were shoeing smiths – and could tell when something was wrong.

Well informed owners knew that many equine ailments could be traced to poor shoeing. Diagnosis was sometimes perceptive but treatment was usually wishful thinking. The Farrier’s Dispensatory by William Gibson was a popular resource. The author earnestly explained that essential off the-shelf remedies were herbal – leaves, roots, seeds, grains, gums, barks and so on – animal, and mineral. Listing them all, he helpfully suggested cheap alternatives for less valuable horses. Herbs could be gathered or bought. Things like snakeweed and allspice were imported from the Americas or the Indies, then distilled, infused, or administered as balls (pills)or powders, suppositories or plasters. Minerals included borax, arsenic for poultices, petroleum, vitriol, antimony – an excellent all round tonic – and lead, silver, quicksilver, coral and chalk and brimstone. Animal derivatives included dog turd (to reduce inflammation), bear’s grease (a ‘ripener’ to relieve pain), beetles, the anal sac or some other stinking bit of the back end of a beaver (an import, very expensive, but good for the staggers); cow-dung wrapped onto stiff legs; cuttlebone powder, blown into the eyes; frogspawn; pickled herrings or bacon rind applied to wounds, and hoglice (woodlice), a clutch of which, ground into balls with flour, ‘open all manner of obstructions’ and would prevent blindness. Tiny puppies also could be cut open and ‘applied to the part’.

Gibson rejected some older remedies – toads, and fox lungs – although earthworm oil (made by boiling worms in wine) was always useful. Well-meaning as all this was, it does seem that for many horses neglect must have been the better option.

As a postscript to the horrified, please note that an Annals of Improbable Research Ig Award, 2014, has been awarded to a group of scientists who proved that plugs made of bacon, inserted into a human nose, are extraordinarily effective in stopping nosebleeds.

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A guest post by LH Member Prof Sheila Cavanagh.

Prior to 2011, I did not know that the City of London Livery Companies existed. I am now a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Educators and have exercised my statutory right to herd sheep across London Bridge.  Since then London Historians have made a number of memorable visits to Livery Halls and having been fortunate enough to have talks on the subject by fellow member Paul Jagger, I would like to offer a few thoughts regarding this venerable tradition from the perspective of someone who has been introduced to these customs and building fairly late.

My first encounter with the Livery Companies came when I was invited to participate in the celebrations and the luncheons surrounding the Worshipful Company of Poulters Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race outside the Guildhall.  Nothing in my previous experience prepared me for this energetic occasion, where crowds of people in elaborate costumes ran (sometimes in high heels) up and down the course, carrying a skillet containing a pancake that appeared to have been made of concrete. The ceremonial trappings of the occasion were unescapable, as the various Livery Companies offered their distinctive contributions to the event. The Poulters provided eggs, the Gunmakers supplied the starting pistol, the Ironmongers brought the skillets, and various other Companies shared varied skills and items associated with their trades.  The event was memorable, particularly for the graciousness of the crowd, and also at the luncheon that followed the main event. While one hopes that no one ate the remarkably resilient pancakes repeatedly carried across the Guildhall yard, the feast that followed the Race was convivial and delicious.

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Lord Mayor Andrew Parmley (2016-17) rather tentatively showing how it’s done. Image: Worshipful Company of Poulters.

After attending a couple of more Livery events and visiting some historic Livery Halls, I decided to pursue membership myself, although I felt more comfortable following my own profession into the fairly recently chartered Worshipful Company of Educators rather than investigating one of the more established Companies associated with trades far out of my realm of expertise. I also wanted to demonstrate that I had taken seriously the charge associated with my tenure as the Fulbright/Global Shakespeare Centre Distinguished Chair, which urged me to become involved in a range of local activities and organisations during my time in England (the London Historians obviously take pride of place in this endeavour).  Consistently, the groups gathered for Livery functions have been welcoming and interesting.

Recently, for example, I attended a Shrieval Luncheon hosted by the Honorable Company of Master Mariners on HMS Wellington to mark the 2018 election of Sheriffs.  As usual, I was surrounded by a fascinating and congenial group of people, this time representing a range of maritime related professions. I had expected to be relegated to a side table for this event (the equivalent of what Americans call “the Children’s Table” at holiday gatherings). Instead, I ended up seated in the company of The Lord Mountevans, 2015’s Lord Mayor of London and the current Master of the Honorable Company of Master Mariners, Captain R.B.Booth MNI. While this seating arrangement was not or anticipated, it fits well within my experience of the Livery Companies.  When LH Member Tina Baxter and myself herded sheep across London Bridge, for example, I found myself assigned to the same group of sheepherders as prominent actor and director Mark Rylance. As the London Historians who have visited Livery Company Halls in conjunction with our delightful LH comrades know, these occasions are always memorable. From the Barber Surgeons Hall, to the Tallow Chandlers, the Goldsmiths, and the other Halls visited, and to the current exhibition at the Guildhall Library highlighting the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers, the City of London Livery Companies have a great deal of history to share as they help create the history of the City that is to come. I don’t always understand all the traditions associated with the them, but I look forward to learning more from this group of charitable professionals so central to the City of London.

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Tylers and Bricklayers Company display at Guildhall Library, 2018.

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Our visit to Apothecaries’ Hall, 2018.

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Outside Barber Surgeons’ Hall after our visit, 2018.

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This article, by London Historians member Laurence Scales, first appeared in our monthly members’ newsletter from April 2018. 

I recently had my hand on some squares of black silk lace, made by young girls of Bridgenorth in 1774, the residents of a workhouse. This was over fifty years before Sir Edwin Chadwick’s ‘reforms’ and some workhouses were enlightened. Training girls to make lace could save them from destitution.

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Black Silk Lace, 1774.

A few months ago I was invited by the Historian in Residence at the Royal Society of Arts (Royal since 1908), to help catalogue some papers. I cannot claim that they are new discoveries, just that they are little seen. No one has had the time to make the list, until now. So, once a week I commute into the 18th century to make more accessible for future researchers this stash of cultural heritage.

The RSA started in Rawthmell’s coffee house, Covent Garden, in 1754. Since 1774 it has lived in a fine Adam building nearby, now awkwardly equipped with lifts and network cables, and with one or two steps scattered in odd places as if to catch the unwary. The RSA, full name the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (n.b. it has not much to do with art), is not to be confused with the famous scientific Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, nor the Royal Academy of Arts, nor yet the Royal Institution. Dr Johnson was a member of the Society of Arts, as was Benjamin Franklin, William Wilberforce and Karl Marx – and a few other members will make an appearance shortly.

Turnip rooted cabbages, starting a forest from acorns, new recipes for manures, hats made of wood shavings to rival those from Leghorn, cobalt glazes, carrot marmalade, medicinal rhubarb, whale harpoons, and zebra wood from the Mosquito Shore – these all became a focus for the Society of Arts in its first 50 years. It was a period just before progress began to be clearly identified with science, so prizes were awarded for enlightened and patriotic efforts to fill particular wants or shortages in agriculture, colonies and trade, manufacture, chemistry, mechanics and ‘polite arts’. ‘Art’ used to cover all the other things in the list, not just drawing and sculpture. There were also bounties awarded for unsolicited worthy efforts such as lace making at Bridgenorth.

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The ‘Great Room’ of the RSA as depicted c.1810. It remains, complete with allegorical paintings by Sir James Barry.

I see some intriguing items in a day – mostly letters, but sometimes there is drawing, or an ear of wheat, or a square of black silk lace – an exhibition in microcosm, in fact. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a later initiative by this Society, by the way.

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Drawing included with a letter about harpoons, presumably just for the joy of it, in 1777.

It may seem I have found a rather out-of-the-way interest at the RSA. Not so. That recipe for carrot marmalade was eventually copied to Captain Cook at Deptford to try out for a long voyage and avoid scurvy. But it turned out that he did not like it and watered his crew with pine beer instead.

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A Simple Diagram, Georgian Style. Yoke for Ploughing with Oxen Instead of Horses.

And who cares about acorns? Well, the Royal Navy did for a start. And people needed firewood. And then there was new interest in smelting. By 1775 England was going bald. Over 50 years or so the RSA prompted the planting of 50 million trees. (It is believed that the great storm of 1987 only toppled 15 million trees.) While deforestation was one concern, others were already starting to worry about pollution and occupational diseases, and to come up with remedies.

Those awarding the prizes at the Society often did not see the thing they were rewarding. It was a strangely egalitarian society in the sense that the Earl of Winterton, for example, to be considered for his medal had to get his illiterate farm hand (‘X, his mark’) to sign a certificate attesting to the fact that he really did plant all those acorns that the Earl claimed. Sometimes it was the other way round, the farm hand invented something and had to get his boss to testify to its efficacy – the fumigating bellows for example, against ravening caterpillars, tried out in the royal gardens at Kew.

Correspondence about manure and rhubarb criss-crossed the land, long before the penny post. The postal service was very good, even if the best address someone could give was the wagon stopping outside the Bear and Ragged Staff at Smithfield – or at the Artichoke, Radcliffe Highway.

Another member or fellow of the Society was John Howard, the first person ever to be described as a philanthropist. The Howard League for Penal Reform is a name you hear in the news sometimes. But he did not found it. It is named in his honour. John Howard was a landowner of Bedfordshire, interested in new strains of wheat. ‘I often eat some good puddings made of that Turkey wheat,’ he said in a letter to the Society in 1772.

In 1773, when he was aged 52, he suddenly began an obsessive round of visits to hundreds of prisons. Having been appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire he took the job sufficiently seriously (unlike some) that he visited his local jail, and was horrified to find that the only pay received by the jailer had to be found by the prisoners. And many of the prisoners were there because of their debts! It was the same everywhere else in England. Howard then devoted himself to improving prisons for the next 17 years until he died of typhus, from poking his nose into a prison in the Ukraine. Holland produced the best prisons, but at least Britain produced John Howard.

His modest Bloomsbury home rightly wears a blue plaque, the heritage scheme started by the Society in 1866. That scheme has now landed with English Heritage, and imitators. The RSA starts things and then hands them on.

Did the Society find a space for women? Yes. An intriguing 18th century correspondent was Ann Williams, post mistress of Gravesend who hatched silkworms in her dead letter pigeon hole, and reared them in a hatbox, sometimes referring to her little creepy crawlies as ‘reptiles’ with the imprecision of the time. The Society awarded her 20 guineas (equivalent to several thousand pounds today). She wrote, ‘I shall ever think it the happiest period of my life.’

The RSA continues good work. I risk sounding like a commercial. But my real point is that I always come away from the RSA with a feeling of optimism about what people are capable of, even those who are not superhuman. Georgian life was a hard grind, and often cut short. Here was a bunch of rich Georgians rewarding a bunch of usually less well-off people for doing something outside their usual toil, public spirited, worthwhile, perhaps risky, often something as little as planting experimentally a few rows of medicinal rhubarb. Not selling it, mind – just planting it to see if it would grow, for a better future. That spirit is real cultural heritage.

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Another happy ending, from 1768.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in offbeat historical walking tours focusing on intriguing and amusing tales of discovery, invention and intelligence. He is a volunteer working at the Royal Institution for which he has devised walking tours, and also guides walks and tunnel tours for the London Canal Museum. Welcoming residents and visitors who want to look beyond the main London attractions he reveals a wealth of lesser known historic sites and offers a double-take on some famous ones.
Please contact Laurence via his web site.

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