The Swan Circle

A story of Georgian networking

An ancient ‘hen-wife’

18th Century Digressions, Society and Politics 1 Comment »

We research one thing and seem to be inevitably drawn towards another, hence one of my first actions after creating this blog was to name a category 18th Century Digressions. I seem to digress an awful lot.

So in the middle of researching the Hay family for a rather long blog post that will possibly emerge from my creative rut and fuzzy brain fog of late, I discovered this:

Dec. 10 [1772].—Died at Whittingham, in East Lothian, Barbara Wilson, a virtuous old maid, aged 120, hen-wife to Alexander Hay, of Drummelzier, esq. She had spent the most of her life as a servant in that family, and was so remarkable a genealogist of her feathered flock, as to be able to reckon to the tenth generation. In testimony of her uncommon merit, her corpse was conveyed to the common burial-place there, by a large assembly of females, uniformly dressed suitable to the occasion, and interred with the greatest decency. No male person was permitted to accompany the funeral.

I think the majority of us genealogists won't be expecting that kind of send-off.

Who Dares… dies of alcohol poisoning

18th Century Digressions, Entertainment & Culture, Society and Politics No Comments »

Let's think about the Georgians and their favourite pastimes and act-ivities. This is not meant to be serious, so scholars and historians please don't kick me down the broadband ether, it is a frivolous and flippant exercise for the Silly Season.
   We know t
here were many respectable and not so respectable occupations that helped Georgians pass the time; so how about a bet on a cockfight? Or on a pair of bare knuckle fighters? Perhap we could partake in a good riot or a quart of gin between friends? Maybe a quadrille or a trip to the theatre to see The Country Wife? Gambling? Or drinking and gambling? Perhaps pursue the two pastimes together and indulge in a drinking wager for a guinea?
   It seems that the wager was an attractive concept for all types and classes of people. It was a form of gambling and a way to make a name for oneself locally, and perhaps get smashed at the same time. No doubt some wagers were agreed whilst the protagonists were already under the influence of alcohol and therefore extra drinking might push them over into oblivion and a wager with St Peter. Maybe that is how some people managed to extricate themselves from paying.
   Not all wagers involved drink though. I compiled this list of wagers whilst rummaging through the newspapers and in some instances the participants seemed to have been quite sober. This is not a TOTP list by the way, more like a shuffle. You pick your own favourites:

  • 'A fine tortoiseshell cat was on Friday morning seen approaching London Bridge, peaceably seated in a large bowl dish [floating on the Thames]. As she advanced towards the fall, every one anticipated that she would be overturned and precipitated into the stream. She kept her seat, however, with great presence of mind and amidst loud cheers, shot the centre arch with as much dexterity as the most experienced waterman….It turned out that the voyage was undertaken for a wager between two Richmond gentleman, and that the puss was embarked at the turn of the tide in the course of the night, and happily reached her destination without sustaining any injury'.
  • 'At the great age of 104 years, John Alfred Parnell, of Corfe Castle farm-house, he retained all his faculties till within two years of his death. In his youthful days he was a noted pedestrian, and could go with ease six miles an hour for two hours together, and several times has walked for small wagers twenty one miles within four hours; and in his 99th year he walked seven miles within two hours, for a wager'. [From an Obit.]
  • 'A curious trial, in which the rev. R. Gilbert was plaintiff', and sir M. M. Sykes, bart. M. P. defendant, came on at the York assizes, for the recovery of a bet on the life of Bonaparte ; the condition of which was, that the plaintiff, on paying 100 guineas, should receive one guinea per day so long as Bonaparte should live. For nearly three years the defendant continued to pay the stipulated sum'. [Court ruled in favour of defendant]
  • 'At Stoughton this evening a labourer entered a public house with a sixpenny loaf under his arm; some drinkers wagered the price of the loaf that he could not eat the loaf and a pound of cheese in three hours; he set to work and ate the lot "within three minutes of the time fixed"'.
  • 'At Stamford… with two bets to one against him, a young man carried half a hundredweight in each hand 20 yards and back, 140 times in three hours…'
  • 'One day last week a master-bricklayer, in Finsbury, rowed from the Old Swan at London-Bridge, to the Swan at Chelsea, against tide, for a considerable wager, against another person, who started from the same place by land, and won the wager by two minutes…'
  • 'A one-armed youth, a news-carrier, ran eleven times round the Upper and Middle Moorfields with a coach rear-wheel; he won a wager of four guineas, beating his time of an hour by five minutes'.
  • 'Stephen Junks, Stick-in-the-mud, a rubbish-carrier, drank three pints of gin for a wager in a Kent-street tavern, went home to bed, and was found dead by his wife'.
  • 'John Miller the Running Glass-blower, for a wager of half-a-crown, drank a quart of aniseed-water near Ragfair in 54 minutes (the time allowed was an hour); he soon after had convulsions and died in the afternoon'.
  • 'At Ely a baker, drunk, wagered two guineas that he could carry twelve stone of flour in a sack for a mile without stopping, and starting from Bug's-lane turnpike, did it in twenty-five minutes'.

These days we might be more inclined to sit in a bath of beans for charity or see how many medium sized individuals will fit into a mini. We are probably more aware of the dangers of alcohol to partake in drinking bets, but we might try some of the other things.

Except for the cat wager. Don't do it. As they say on the TV, 'Don't try this at home… you might receive a call from the RSPCA'.


This poem appeared in the newspapers in 1814:

Such little hopes I'd always found
Of gaining Betsey for my wife,
That I had wager'd Dick a pound
I should not win her all my life.

But—thanks to Heav'n !—my anxious care
Is all remov'd ;—the knot is tied;
And Betsey—fairest of the fair—
Consents at length to be my bride.

To Dick, then, as in honour bound,
Well pleas'd I bold myself in debt ;—
Thus, by the oddest luck, 'tis found
I lose my wager—win my Bet!
Strand, Oct. 27, 1814. 

Fatal Beauty: the whores of Bridewell

18th Century Digressions, Society and Politics No Comments »

William HogarthIn the second half of the eighteenth century the rep-utable inhabitants of Covent Garden, St Martin in the Fields, St Mary le Strand and St Clement Danes met at the Blakeney's Head in Bow Street to draw up a scheme for clearing the area of the numerous brothels and street whores.They nominated and appointed individuals to a committee that would patrol the parishes every month and present all necessary information before a magistrate. 
  In Bridewell Prison many of the whores stripped themselves stark naked 'to take the diversion of dancing. The Beadle (whose business it was to give the delinquents their proper discipline) hearing of their design, and thinking it very necessary that they should have music, appeared amongst them with the proper ensigns of his office, and made them dance to the brisk tune of the Cat o' nine tails'.
   Members of the public expressed their concerns in the press regarding the treatment of the women; many commentators argued that the funds raised for caring for the impecunious Palatines (see previous post) could have been used to alleviate the plight of the poor prostitute. One particular author made a plea to the public and the authorities for the better treatment of all the street women:

   'They are first seduced by those who ought to be their protectors; are hunted by those who gain the current shilling for the discharge fee; committed to a prison, which can work no amendment in them, but from which they come totally corrupted, and destitute of any remains of shame which they might have left; and then let loose again, without the means of getting honest bread, to return to their loathsome trade, and afford another fee on being taking up afresh. When they are not in prison they are subject to the insults of the inhuman; to the vile extortions of the bawds and panders, for whose profit, rather than their own, they live a life of infamy, and die the martyrs of their fatal beauty, and a loss to the community…'

MJ Holman @mishjholman

The Poor Palatines of London

18th Century Digressions, Society and Politics No Comments »

Palatine CampIn 1764 The Daily Advertiser printed a letter from the pastor of the Lutheran Church in Goodman's fields concerning the plight of some refugees. Six hundred Germans, Protestant Wurtz-burghers and Palatines were travelling to the island of St John in America, but were unable to continue further and were stranded in London.
  Four hundred individuals came ashore, whilst the rest were detained aboard ship. The conditions were dire and though many ex-pats were charitably contributing to a fund for provisions, they were too few to sustain such a number; all the refugees were "in a manner without food, many without clothes, and some sick, yet obliged to lie in the open fields, exposed to all the inclemencies of a rainy season." The women in particular were suffering and one mother and her new borne child died.
  The morning of the letter a hundred tents were supplied from the Tower, followed swiftly by a payment for the passage of the two hundred who were  contained in the foul quarters of the ship. Londoners opened their coffers and started donating; subscriptions were declared at coffee-houses and a physician, a surgeon and male midwife offered their services. In a Cornhill coffee house, a committee took charge and advertised for two ships of not less than 200 tons burden.
  Not everyone was happy with the idea of this 'foreign aid' and many raised the criticism that the givers were not so forthcoming to assist the native poor of London who could "barely keep life and soul together". Even after such discussions, most observers agreed that conditions within the refugee camp were appalling and that those packed behind Whitechapel Church in an "intolerably nasty, inconvenient, and unwholesome" situation were suffering. Huddled together in tents that were barely two yards wide, a family of eight or nine endured the indignity of having no access to water except some stinking pools in an nearby ditch and the masses of inquisitive Georgian Londoners crowding together to get a glimpse of their plight.

MJ Holman @mishjholman

How to float a Georgian

18th Century Digressions, Manufacturing & Industry, Military & Naval 1 Comment »

F. C. Daniel's Life Preserver'A droll and not indecent sight'

In the autumn of 1764, an experiment was conducted at London Bridge to test the efficacy of the Patent Air Jacket; one tester was a woman in a mob cap with red ribbons, the other was a man eating bread and cheese and firing a pistol, obviously testing the efficiency of the air jacket in cases of drowning whilst eating a cheese 'sandwich' and firing a gun scenario. According to one eyewitness, "it was a droll and not indecent sight, they all being dressed in flannel shifts and linen breeches".
   During the previous Spring, William Cobb a cordwainer from St Swithin's Lane, Cannon Street had submitted his patent for a 'Method of making an Air Jacket and proper Shoes for Swimming', explaining:

 'The jackets are made of calves, neat, or sheeps leather, or any thing pliable that will hold air, cut in the form of a short jacket without sleeves, with pieces sewed on the outsides and back bigger than the insides or back to hang loose and hollow, to contain a sufficient quantity of air blowed through a bag or receptacle, with a pipe fixed to it to convey the air into the receptacle, which receptacle is fastened on to one of the loose sides to convey the air into the loose sides and back, by means of a communication from one part of the jacket to the other. The jacket to be buttoned before, button-holes round the skirts to be buttoned or fastened to the waistband of the breeches. The upper strap of the receptacle to be buttoned to the upper button of the jacket, and the lowest strap to the nearest lower button it comes to. Then hold the pipe with your teeth and blow into the receptacle till the jacket is filled with air, stop the pipe with the cork, then use it in swimmng.
'The shoes are made with pieces of wood cut in the form of a sole of a shoe, and hinges screwed on to the wood with joints covered with leather, fastened on to common shoes, to open and shut in swimming like a swan's foot'.

   Surprisingly, the shoes never caught on. However, in 1808 The Repertory of Arts published a description of Mr F. C. Daniel's 'Life-Preserver' (see illustration above), for which Daniel won a Gold Medal from the Society of Arts. The Repertory of Arts describes the two inventions as 'similar', but did Mr Daniel borrow from William Cobb? Daniel certainly had many advocates for his invention, there were testimonies from happy nautical folk thankful for a contraption that resembled an instrument of torture or an unwieldy chastity belt. John Dickenson of Norwich was a gentleman grateful for its assistance during a boat trip:
   "I went from the city of Norwich, in a pleasure-boat that I keep for the amusement of sailing, in company with a gentleman and two ladies… we set sail about four o'clock, it being moon-light during the night; and fortunately procured, in case of accident (the wind blowing hard at South-east) one of your life-preservers… [At] the extremity of a broad water, two miles over, known by the name of Braydon, a sudden gust overset the boat, precipitating myself, companion, and two ladies, into as agitated a water as I have ever seen at sea… The gentleman, whose name is Goring, was inexpert at swimming, and with difficulty kept himself up, till I reached him; and then directing him to lay hold of the collar of my coat, over which the machine was fixed, I proceeded toward the ladies, whose clothes kept them bouyant, but in a state of fainting when I reached them [naturally, they were women]: then taking one of the ladies under each arm, with Mr Goring hanging from the collar of the coat, the violence of the wind drifted us on shore upon Burgh Marshes, where the boat had already been thrown, with what belonged to her. We got the assistance of some countrymen directly, (after taking refreshment at a marsh farmer's house, where we were procured some dry clothing for the ladies, who were now pretty well recovered,) and by their endeavours put the boat in sailing trim, and prosecuted our voyage to Norwich, which we effected by eleven o'clock that night".

   It seems apparent from Mr Dickenson's account, that the ladies concerned did not require the use of Mr Daniel's marvellous invention thanks to their voluminous petticoats and bouyant stays, if only they could have just stopped fainting!

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