The Swan Circle

A story of Georgian networking

18th Century Digressions, Society and Politics No Comments »

Georgian hairWhile researching 18th century hair-styles and wondering how extravagant they actually were, I discovered an article in a 1773 edition of The Gentlemen’s Magazine which makes a very important point: women were walking conductor’s of electricity. Here’s what said chappie had to say:

Singular Effects of Electricity.-by P. Brydone, F.R.S.

A Lady who has her head surrounded with a wire cap, and her hair stuck full of metal pins, and who at the same time stands upon dry silk, is to all intents and purposes an electrical conductor insolated, and prepared for collecting the fire from the atmosphere: And it is not at all surprising, that during thunder-storms, or when the air is extremely replete with electrical matter, she should emit sparks, and exhibit other appearances of electricity.—I imagine a very trifling change of dress, which from the constant versatility of their modes may some day take place, would render this Lady’s disease altogether epidemical amongst the sex. Only let the soles of their shoes be made of an electric substance; and let the wires of their caps, and pins of their hair, be somewhat lengthened and pointed outwards; and I think there is little doubt, that they will often find themselves in an electrified state: —But, indeed, if they only wear silk, or even worsted stockings, it may sometimes prove sufficient; for I have often insolated electrometers as perfectly by placing them on a piece of dry silk or flannel, as on glass.

How little do our Ladies imagine, when they surround their heads with wire, tha most powerful of all conductors; and at the same time wear stockings, shoes, and gowns of silk, one of the most powerful repellents; that they prepare their bodies in the same manner, and according to the same principles as Electricians prepare their conductors for attracting the fire of lightning! If they cannot be brought to relinquish their wire caps and their pins, might they not fall upon some such preservative as those which of late years have been applied to objects of much less consequence?

Suppose that every Lady should provide herself with a small chain or wire, to be hooked on at pleasure during thunder-storms. This should pass from her cap over the thickest part of her hair, which will prevent the fire from being communicated to her head; and so down to the ground.—It is plain that this will act in the same manner as the conductors on the tops of steeples, which from the metal spires that are commonly placed there, analogous to the pins and wires, were so liable to accidents. You may laugh at all this, but I assure you I never was more serious in my life. A very amiable Lady of my acquaintance, Mrs. Douglas, of Kelso, had almost lost her life by one of those caps mounted on wire. She was standing at an open window during a thunder-storm: The lightning was attracted by the wire, and the cap was burnt to ashes; happily her hair was in its natural state, without powder, pomatum, or pins; and prevented the fire from being conducted to her head, for as she felt no kind of shock, it is probable that it went off from the wires of the cap to the wall, close to which it then stood. If it had found any conductor to carry it to her head or body, in all probability she must have been killed.—A good strong head of hair, if it is kept perfectly clean and dry, is probably one of the I preservatives against the fire of lightning. But so soon as it is stuffed full of powder and pomatum, and bound together with pins, its repellent force is lost, and it comes a conductor*. We have it even in our power to be making experiments in electricity. And although this fluid is the most subtile and active of any that we know, we can command it on all occasions; and I now so accustomed to its operations, that I seldom comb my hair, or pull off a stocking, without observing them under some form or other. How surprising is it that mankind should have lived and breathed in it for so many thousand years, without almost ever supposing that it existed!

•Since the writing of this, the author has made some experiments on the electricity of hair, which tend still to convince him the more of what he has advanced. A Lady told him, that on combing her hair in frosty weather, in the dark, she had sometimes observed sparks of fire to issue from it. This made him think of attempting to collect electrical fire from hair alone, without the assistance of any other electrical apparatus, to this end, he desired a young Lady to stand on a cake of bees-wax, and to comb her sister’s hair, who was sitting on a chair before her.—Soon after she began to comb, the young Lady on the wax was greatly astonished to find her whole body electrified; darting sparks of fire against every object that approached her. The hair was extremely electrified and affected an electrometer at a very great distance: He charged a metal conductor from it with great ease; and in the space of a few minutes collected as much fire immediately from the hair, as to kindle common spirits; and by means of a small phial gave many smart shocks to all the company. A full account of these Expeiiments was lately read before the Royal Society. They were made during the time of a very hard frost, and a strong head of hair, where no powder or pomatum had been used for many months.

The Common Man’s Dress, 1758

18th Century Digressions, Society and Politics No Comments »

All you need to know about 18th century men's fashion in one advert… okay perhaps not everything, but I found this quite useful in regard to fabrics:

'‘Mens and Boys ready made broad and narrow Cloth Cloathes, Ratten and Frieze Suits… Fustian Cloaths of all Sorts, Everlasting Waistcoats and Breeches, Velvet and Shag Waistcoats and Breeches, Russia Drab Frocks of all sizes, Fearnought and Duffle Coats and Waistcoats…’ (1758, May 13 Norwich Mercury)

The Perfect Hoop Petticoat

18th Century Digressions, Society and Politics No Comments »

Various petticoats a la mode

The new fashion for the circular hoop petticoat was picked up by Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer on the 26 April 1783 in the following biting paragraph:

'The perfect hoop petticoat is to undergo a material alteration before the Summer commences, and is to be a perfect imitation of that magnificent one worn by the fair islanders of Myconia, which is perfectly circular, and of course furnishes that beautiful simile of comparing a woman to a star ; as then it may be truly said, that every lady moves in her own orb, and shines in her own sphere. There may indeed arise some objections to those kind of ornaments, viz. that a slender woman in such a dress stands upon a basis so exorbitantly wide, that she resembles a tunnel; and that a woman of low stature, when she moves, gives us a perfect idea of a child in a go-cart.'


MJ Holman


The end of an era: George III’s Jubilee at Kew

Entertainment & Culture, Family History, Society and Politics, The Swan Circle, West Family 1750-1800 2 Comments »

Kew Green in 1810


Kew Green in 1810

It was 1809 and the patriarch was dead. Henry West was long gone and with him the little empire he had built at Kew was dying; the old Swan Tavern on the Brentford Ait had been surrendered by his wife in 1793 to Thomas Samuel Maycock and from him to Elizabeth Legh and her descendants; until finally Robert Hunter irritated occupant of the house opposite, made a complaint to the City of London about the noise. The island, he said 'was a great Nuisance to this parish and Neighbourhood on both sides of the river…,' it lured, enticed and encouraged the worst type of behaviour drawing debauched individuals to the 'House of Entertainment, which has long been a Harbour for Men and women of the worst description, where riotous and indecent scenes were often exhibited during the Summer months on Sundays'.
   Whilst under the proprietorship of the West family, the Swan Tavern had dazzled George IV and he had used it to plot his seduction of Mary Robinson, but by 1800 his father's court had drifted away to Windsor and old King George III paid his last visit to Kew in 1806. He did not return to this fond place of memories for his jubilee, but the remaining members of the West family including my great, great, great grandparents Henry and Henrietta would have joined in the celebrations on Kew Green:

   "The morning was ushered in by the firing of cannon, and the ringing of bells. The board of Artificers walked in procession to Church at ten o'clock. After divine service, Messrs. George and Henry Warren [local landowners and probably relatives of Henry West’s chum Thomas Howlet Warren] entertained 100 persons with roast beef, plum-pudding. &c. in a spacious marquee, erected for the purpose, upon Kew Green. Porter, ale, and punch, were likewise plentifully distributed. On his Majesty's health being drank, 50 pieces of cannon were discharged. In the evening, the whole town was illuminated. A grand gothic arch was erected, from the centre of which the British Star was suspended, and underneath a striking likeness of his Majesty, with the motto of "Virtue, Honour, and Glory." The whole of the trees around the green were illuminated by variegated lamps, in radiant arches, wreaths, and columns, and the evening concluded with a rustic dance, and fire-works".

Surely even a fogyish stick-in-the-mud like Robert Hunter would not have objected to such a celebration on his doorstep.

MJ Holman


An account of the celebration of the jubilee, on the 25th October, 1809; being the forty-ninth anniversary of the reign of George the third, collected and publ. by a lady, the wife of a naval officer
Kew Past, David Blomfield

Garrow’s Law Series 2: The Trial of Robert Jones

Family History, Society and Politics, The Swan Circle 1 Comment »


Garrow's Law


Francis Henry Hay and The Mercer Family

This Sunday TV viewers in the UK will continue to enjoy a new series of the 18th century courtroom drama Garrow's Law. The second season aired last year and included a story loosely based on the shocking trial of Captain Robert Jones. Garrow was never involved in the Robert Jones controversy nor were the events portrayed in the TV episode exactly akin to the factual events that were played out in 1772; the writer, Tony Marchant was concerned with Garrow's own story arc and changed the facts to mirror the counsel's personal predicament.

The real story of Captain Robert Jones and his trial can be found on the Old Bailey website and on Rictor Norton's website Gay History and Literature. The story of Jones, the treatment of gay men by the British justice system (the law did not prosecute lesbians) and the events of 1772 are widely covered in a number of books, articles and websites focusing solely on Robert Jones.

I was rather disturbed by this. If there was a perpetrator then there must have been a victim irrespective of whether one believes in the plaintiff's complicity in this specific case, and for what it's worth I do believe he was complicit to a degree. So what about the 'victim' of the 1772 trial? He is mentioned in the literature, 'a thirteen year old boy called Francis Henry Hay', but there is little else of any note.
Regular readers of this blog can probably guess at what is coming next. I always seem to have some connection to the people and events that are the subjects of my posts and in this instance it is with Francis Henry Hay; he was the nephew of my great, great, great uncle William Mercer. William was one of the main witnesses at the trial.
I will not discuss the trial in any detail here, I will leave that for the source list at the end of this article and the aforementioned references. My main focus will be on Francis Henry Hay with the intention of balancing the available literature of the trial and hopefully ensuring less of an onus on Robert Jones. 
I do not claim to know what went on in the mind of Francis Henry Hay, I have no evidence to suggest that the boy was completely innocent and a victim or was naïve and curious about a possible sexual encounter. I do know, however, something of both the Hay and the Mercer families and thought it would be interesting to reflect on their background and social standing.
If you have read my post The Abduction of Frances Mercer then you will already be familiar with the Mercer family. William Mercer was little Frances Mercer's brother and both children were the offspring of Francis and Jane Mercer; on 30 November 1757 their other daughter Mary married Alexander Hay at St Martin in the Fields.

According to his trial testimony Francis Henry Hay was born on 31st January 1760 and had lived for sometime with his grandfather Francis Mercer before moving into his uncle William Mercer's house at the beginning of 1772. The Mercer family were probably of Scottish descent and linked to a number of Scottish families: the Cowies, the McKenzies, the Dewars, the Drummonds and of course the Hays. At the time of the trial, William Mercer was living at No. 1 Parliament Street, roughly where Westminster Tube is today; he later moved to Northumberland Street next door to what was then Northumberland House.

William Mercer was a jeweller by trade and his Will has the appearance of a jeweller's catalogue: a brilliant hoop ring, a handkerchief pin, a brilliant ring, a shirt pin, brilliant cluster ring, diamond ring, pearl bracelets set in gold… and the star item a watch by Mudge and Dutton. Most of these items belonged to my great, great, great aunt Sarah. William also included in the Will 'two gold seals, one of the family arms the other my crest and cypher' as well as portraits of William Mercer and Sarah Mercer by George Morland and two of the same by George Saunders.
On the witness stand William was asked to describe the course of events and how the assault on Francis Henry Hay by Robert Jones was brought to the attention of the authorities. He recalled that he had notified Justice Mercer; could this have been a member of his own family?
'Justice Mercer' was probably George Mercer JP for Surrey and Middlesex and was said to be a descendant of the Aldie Mercers. The Aldie Mercers had links to the Mercer Elphinstone family and Margaret Mercer Elphinstone was famously painted by George Saunders.


The Hay Family


Francis Henry Hay was working in his uncle William's shop when he met with Captain Robert Jones in St Martin's Lane and Jones told him he had a buckle to mend. Hay went with the Captain to his lodgings to collect the buckle and Jones allegedly sexually assaulted him in the dining room.
A month or so later Jones was called to trial at the Old Bailey for the assault and Hay appeared on the stand, followed by his uncle and another future family member William George Brest. Francis Henry Hay's father Alexander Hay did not appear at the trial and only a vague reference is made to the mother Mary who lived in Tavistock Street. Could Alexander have been dead by this date? His Will was written in 1762, but not proved until 1776 so possibly. Alexander's Will is curious because not only does he name his father-in-law Francis Mercer as sole executor, he also grants him Letter of Attorney for his freehold house in Justice Walk, Chelsea (see pictures) to hold for Francis Henry Hay; he also writes of several sums owed to him by various individuals, most notably the Earl of Rothes.
Intriguingly, John Leslie, the 10th Earl of Rothes was the son of John Leslie and Lady Jean Hay the daughter of the 2nd Marquess of Tweeddale. Could there have been some link between the two Hay families? Unfortunately I have not been able to answer that question.
I can only find a passing reference to Alexander's father, but I have managed to discover the Will of his uncle, also called Alexander. The senior of the two Alexanders had acquired large amounts of East India Company stock, most of which was divided between family members at the time of his death in 1757. In particular, £30 of East India Company stock was bequeathed to his sister Elizabeth Hay of Dundee, Angus; sadly Elizabeth never saw a penny as she died before her brother. Alexander senior was buried at Chelsea Old Church on 15 April 1757 under pews 19 and 20!

In his Will of 1791 Francis Mercer left the house in Justice Walk to his grandson Francis Henry Hay 'of Quebec', so at some point the boy had fled or escaped the ramifications of the Robert Jones trial and all the controversy that followed. At present we do not know if he ever returned or what happened to him.

The aforementioned William George Brest was a friend of the Mercer family and at the time of the trial a book-keeper to Mr Prater of Charing Cross. Mercer had turned to Brest hoping he could extract from the boy an account of the events that had occurred at the lodgings of Robert Jones. Brest later became William Mercer's brother-in-law and became the proprietor of an upmarket coffee house.
Amazingly, both Mercer and Brest become embroiled in another court case. This time before the King's Bench where both defendants were called to answer allegations regarding a bond and a lottery ticket!

That story will be told in another blog post.

Robert Jones Trial 1772 – Old Bailey Online

The First Public Debate about Homosexuality in England

George Saunders (Sanders) at the NPG

George Morland

More Mudge and Dutton

Justice Walk, Chelsea



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