It was on the 4th February 1810 when John Fransham, known as Hornbutton Jack, was buried in the churchyard of St George Colgate, in the city of Norwich. He was born early in 1730 to parents Thomas and Isidora Fransham, and his father was sexton or parish clerk in the same parish of Colgate. Young John was baptised at St George’s on the 19th March 1730. Although clever, John was denied a proper early education when his patron died – but he was retain his love of classical antiquity.
John Fransham (1730–1810) was a freethinker who showed precocity at elementary school level. At a young age he wrote sermons, which the Rector of St. George’s thought good enough to submit to the Dean. With the aid of a relative and an Attorney, said to be Isaac Fransham (1660–1743), John was able to study for the church; however, with the death of this relative, John Fransham found himself apprenticed to a cooper at Wymondham ‘for a few weeks’, at the age of fifteen. By writing sermons for clergymen he made a little money, but could not support himself, and it was said that he went barefoot for nearly three years. John Taylor, D.D., the presbyterian theologian, gave him gratuitous instruction. A legacy allowed him to buy a pony – not to ride, but to ‘make a friend of’ as he told a physician who had been consulted by his father; he thought him to be ‘out of his wits’.
As long as the money lasted, Fransham took lessons from W. Hemingway, a land surveyor. He then wrote to an attorney named Marshall, but was never articled. One of Marshall’s clerks, a John Chambers later to be Recorder of Norwich, took great pains with Fransham who, at the same time, struck up the acquaintance of Joseph Clover the veterinary surgeon. He employed John Fransham to take horses to be shod, and taught him mathematics in return for the young man’s help in classics.
In 1748 John Fransham joined a company of strolling players where, it is said, he took the parts of Iago and Shylock. The players got no pay and lived on turnips; Fransham left them on finding that the turnips were stolen. He sailed from Great Yarmouth for North Shields, intending to study at the Scottish universities and visit the highlands. But at Newcastle-on-Tyne he enlisted in the Old Buffs, was soon discharged as bandy-legged, and made his way back to Norwich with three halfpence and a plaid. After this he worked with Daniel Wright, a freethinking journeyman weaver. The two friends sat facing each other, so that they could carry on discussions amid the rattle of their looms.
After Wright’s death, about 1750, Fransham devoted himself to teaching. For two or three years he was tutor in the family of Leman, a farmer at Hellesdon, just a few miles north of Norwich. He then taught Latin, Greek, French, and mathematics to pupils in the City, when he only taught for two hours a day, giving him time to act as an ‘amanuensis’ – a literary or artistic assistant who takes dictation or copies manuscripts – to Samuel Bourn (1714–1796). He became a member of a society for philosophical experiment, founded by Peter Bilby. With his reputation growing as a successful preliminary tutor for the universities, he reluctantly took as many as twenty pupils, despite being of the opinion that no man could do justice to more than eight. His terms rose from a shilling a week to 15s. a quarter; out of this slender income he saved money and collected two hundred books towards a projected library. If he found a bargain at a bookstall he would insist on paying the full value as soon as he knew it.
In 1767 he spent nine months in London, carrying John Leedes, a former pupil, through his Latin examination at the College of Surgeons. In London he also formed a slight acquaintance with the Queen’s under-librarian, who introduced him to Foote in ‘The Devil upon Two Sticks’ (1768). By this time, Fransham had developed the habit of wearing a plaid, which suggested a green jacket with large horn buttons, a broad hat, drab shorts, coarse worsted stockings, and large shoes. His boys called him ‘Old Hornbuttoned Jack.’
The Chute family had two houses, one in the country at South Pickenham and one in Norwich. Whilst Fransham was back in Norwich, around 1771, the Chutes allowed him to sleep at their City house where his sister, Mrs. Bennett, was housekeeper; he was also at liberty to use their library. The following year Fransham taught the children of Samuel Cooper D.D. at Brooke Hall, Norfolk, on the terms of having board and lodging from Saturday till Monday. However, he soon gave up this engagement as the walk to and from Brooke, of over six miles there and back to Norwich, was too much for him. When Cooper obtained an improved position at Great Yarmouth, Fransham was advised by his friend. Thomas Robinson, a schoolmaster at St. Peter’s Hungate, to write and ask for a guinea. The difficulty was that Fransham had never written a letter in his life, and after he had copied Robinson’s draft, did not even know how to fold it. Cooper sent him 5 pence – About £9 in today’s terms.
The death of young Chute, of which Fransham thought he had had a warning in a dream, threw him on his own resources once again. He reduced his allowance to a farthing’s worth of potatoes a day; however, the experiment of him sleeping on Mousehold Heath in his plaid brought on a violent cold and was not repeated. For nearly three years, from about 1780, Fransham dined every Sunday with Counsellor Cooper, a relative of the clergyman who had introduced him to Dr. Parr. From about 1784 to about 1794 he lodged with his friend, Thomas Robinson but eventually to lodge with Jay, a baker in St. Clement’s. Whilst living there, Fransham would never allow the floor of his room to be wetted or the walls whitewashed for fear of damp; and to have his bed made more than once a week was something that he considered to be ‘the height of effeminacy.’ In 1805 Fransham was asked for assistance by a distant relative, a Mrs. Smith. He took her as his housekeeper, hiring a room and a garret, which was a small top-floor and somewhat small dismal room, in St. George’s Colegate. When she left him in 1806 he seems to have resided for about three years with his sister, who had become a widow. Then leaving her, Fransham made his last move to a garret in Elm Hill. In 1807 or 1808 he made the acquaintance of Michael Stark (d. 1831), a Norwich dyer, and became tutor to his sons, of whom the youngest was James Stark, the artist.
Fransham has been called a pagan and a polytheist, chiefly on the strength of his hymns to the ancient gods, his designation of chicken-broth as a sacrifice to Æsculapius, and his describing a change in the weather as Juno’s response to supplication. His love for classical antiquity led him to prefer the Greek mathematicians to any of the moderns, to reject the doctrine of ‘fluxions’, and to despise algebra. Convinced of the legendary origin of all theology, he esteemed the legends of paganism as the most venerable, and put upon them a construction of his own. He thought that Taylor, the platonist, took them in a sense ‘intended for the vulgar alone.’ Hume was to him the ‘prince of philosophers;’ he read Plato with admiration, but among the speculations of antiquity the arguments of Cicero, author of ‘De Natura Deorum,’ were high in his thinking. He annotated a copy of Chubb’s posthumous works, apparently for republication as a vehicle of his own ideas. In a note to Chubb’s ‘Author’s Farewell,’ he put forward the hypothesis of a multiplicity of ‘artists’ as explaining the ‘infinitely various parts of nature.’ In his manuscript ‘Metaphysicorum Elementa’ he defines God as – wait for it!
‘ens non dependens, quod etiam causa est omnium cæterorum existentium.’ He thinks it obvious that space fulfils the terms of this definition, and hence concludes ‘spatium solum esse Deum,’ adding ‘Deus, vel spatium, est solidum.’
His chief quarrel with the preachers of his time was that they allowed vicious and cruel customs to go unreproved. Asked at an election time for whom he would be inclined to vote, he replied, ‘I would vote for that man who had humanity enough to drive long-tailed horses.’ He was fond of most animals, but disliked dogs, as ‘noisy, mobbish, and vulgar,’ and in his ‘Aristopia, or ideal state,’ he provided for their extermination.
Fransham brought under complete control a temper which in his early years was ungovernable. He rose at five in summer, at six in winter; a strict teetotaller, he ate little animal food, living chiefly on tea and bread-and-butter. To assure himself of the value of health, he would eat tarts till he got a headache, which he cured with strong tea. For his amusement he played a ‘hautboy’ [an archaic form of oboe], but burned the instrument to make tea. Replacing this with a ‘bilbocatch’ he persevered until he had caught the ball on the spike 666,666 times – but not in succession you understand; he could never exceed a sequence of two hundred. His dread of fire led him constantly to practise the experiment of letting himself down from an upper story by a ladder. In money matters he was extremely exact, but could bear losses with equanimity. He had saved up 100 libra, which he was induced to lodge with a merchant, who became bankrupt just after Fransham had withdrawn three-quarters of its value to buy books. In response to his friends’ expressions of condolence, he replied that he had been lucky enough to gain three-quarters of the total lodged with the unfortunate merchant.
At the latter end of 1809 he was attacked by a cough; then in January 1810 he took to his bed and was carefully nursed, but declined medical aid. When dying he said that if he could live his days again he would go more into female society. He had a fear of being buried alive and gave some odd instructions as to what was to be done to prove him ‘dead indeed.’ On 1 Feb. 1810 he expired and was buried on 4 Feb. in the churchyard of St. George of Colegate; his gravestone bears a Latin inscription. A caricature likeness of him has been published; his features have been thought to resemble those of Erasmus, while his double-tipped nose reminded his friends of the busts of Plato. He left ninety-six guineas to his sister; his books and manuscripts were left to Edward Rigby, M.D. (d. 1821); some of them passed into the possession of William Stark, and a portion of these is believed to have perished in a fire; William Saint, his pupil and biographer, seems to have obtained his mathematical books and most of his mathematical manuscripts.
Jewson, C. B., Jacobin City: A Portrait of Norwich 1788 – 1802, Blackie & Sons, 1975.