The daughter of a Norwich watchmaker, Alicia Meynell was born in 1782 and became the first woman in the Jockey Club Records to have raced and won against a man, a record unequalled until 1943. From her early years she called herself ‘Meynell’, perhaps at the request of her Massingham family over near Kings Lynn! Alicia Meynell was to go on to lead a colourful life and was nicknamed the ‘Norfolk Nymth’.
We know that she had at least one sister, possibly older than her, who married William Flint of Yorkshire, a gentleman who was very keen for horses. Perhaps through the Flints, Alicia met and fell madly in love with their neighbour, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Thornton of the Second Regiment of the York Militia. He was a man of some property and respect in the area, and he cut a dashing figure, even at a ripe age of 60 years. Alicia was a young lady of some 18 years of age and only one of a long line Thornton’s mistresses! Despite this ‘discrepancy’, it was Thornton who encouraged Alicia to become an expert horsewoman and one of the things both were to have in common was the ability to ride and ride well. Remember that this was a time when women were at least partly judged by their “seat”: how well they could handle a horse. Alicia was a dynamo. She too knew her horseflesh, and she owned no less than three hunters. She was pleased to ride to hounds, something that was still rather rare for a woman because of the difficulty in thundering over rough, unpredictable terrain in a side saddle – wasn’t easy but Alicia did it, and did it very well. One day while she was visiting her sister, Alicia and her brother-in-law, William Flint, went riding. She was on her husband’s favourite horse, a brute named ‘Vingarillo’. Flint was riding his favourite, a brown hunter named ‘Thornville’. As they argued good naturedly about which horse was better, they decided to race to prove the point. It seems, only a race could settle this argument and so, off they rode. Twice – and Alicia won both times.
A sore loser, Flint challenged her to a real race, at the Newmarket Race Track, and named a princely prize of 1,000 guineas (which would be equivalent to over £28,000 today!). Flint probably thought that Alicia would decline – but she certainly did not! Immediately word spread far and wide. A woman? Racing? Who wouldn’t want to see that! They met on the last day of the York meet in August 1804. The York Herald reported that 100,000 people crowded the race track to watch, more than ten times the number that had assembled for the last “big” race between more famous horses. Even the military in the form of the 6th Light Dragoons was called in for crowd control. The total amount of bets laid was estimated to be over £200,000!
Alicia was in rare form. She wore a dress spotted like leopard skin, with a buff waistcoat and blue sleeves and cap. The crowd adored her. She must have been quite a contrast to Flint, who rode all in white. But his heavenly apparel didn’t reflect his attitude. He refused anyone to ride alongside Alicia to help her if her side-saddle slipped (a common courtesy for women riders), and he ordered her to ride on a side of the track that deprived her of her whip hand. Neither trip handicapped Alicia. She was ahead from the start and stayed that way for nearly three quarters of the four-mile circuit. The Herald reported, “Never surely did a woman ride in better style. It is difficult to say whether her horsemanship, her dress, or her beauty was more admired.” But something happened to Vingarillo in the last mile, causing him to falter, and Flint nipped ahead and won.
Alicia wasn’t at all pleased. After hearing people go on and on about how gentlemanly Flint had been to race with a woman to begin with, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Herald denouncing him and demanding a rematch. But it was a Mr. Bromford who next challenged her to ride the following year, with the prize a £2,000 and a great quantity of French wine. She agreed, but on the day of the race Bromford decamped and the lady won by default. Alicia, in a new outfit with purple cap and waistcoat, buff-coloured skirts, and purple shoes with embroidered stockings, was not about to be sent to the sidelines. That same day, she raced 2 miles on a mare named Louisa against Buckle, one of the premier paid jockeys of the day. The Annual Register records that:
“Mrs. Thornton, by the most excellent horsemanship, pushed forward and came in a style far superior to anything of the kind we have ever witnessed, gaining her race by half a neck.”
Unfortunately, she was not so good at choosing husbands. Colonel Thornton turned out to be something of a scoundrel. When Flint won the first race, the colonel refused to honour the bet he and Alicia had made, insisting it had all been a joke. An outraged Flint showed up at the second race and literally horsewhipped the Colonel in public before being confined to jail for assault. Several years of court battles led to a decision for the Colonel. Even worse, however, is his treatment of Alicia in later years who he left behind when, in 1814, he went off to France; apparently, he preferred France over England , ever since his court-martial some time back! Thorton was never to return, leaving Alicia to raise their illegitimate son alone. When Thorton died 1823, he left a part of his estate to a woman named Priscilla Duins but the bulk went to his illegitimate daughter by her – Thornvillia Dianna Rockingham Thornton – and did he really name her after his ex-friend’s horse!. So it was that Alicia was left nothing from Thornton’s Will, although their ‘alleged’ son, Thomas, received a bequest of £100. But in the end it was Alicia who had the last laugh. While Thornton is barely remembered – a womaniser who lacks honour, Alicia’s name would go down in history. Remember – She remained the only woman listed in the records of England’s Jockey Club to have raced and won against a man – until 1943 that is.
The Wrestlers Inn, the termination point for the `Flying Coach on Steel Springs’ run by Job Smith between Gt. Yarmouth and Norwich, was a well established hostelry. It had the reputation as “the most considerable hostelry in the town” by the time James Sharman was born in 1785. The Inn’s popularity continued to grow to a point when Lord Nelson, having landed in Great Yarmouth on, 6th November 1800 from his victory at the Battle of the Nile stayed at the Wrestlers Inn; he was accompanied by a small party which included Lady Hamilton.
It is said that, standing at an open window of the Inn, Nelson addressed an excited crowd “I myself am a Norfolk man, and I glory in being so”. On his departure, Mrs Suckling the Inn’s proprietor asked Nelson if he would allow her to call the Inn the “Nelsons Arms” in future. “That would be absurd” said the hero “seeing as I have but one”. As a result of this remark, the Wrestler Inn became the “Nelson Hotel ” and remained so for the next 20 years, reverting to its previous name around 1820 – one year after its 1799 ‘pressed’ waiter became ‘Keeper’ of Yarmouth’s Nelson Monument on the South Denes.
John Suckling, Licensee of the Wrestler Inn since 1791, took young Sharman into his employ as a ‘waiter’ – let us just say, for a matter of convenience not fact, that this would have been in early 1799 when James Sharman was 14 years old. Sometime later that year this young lad, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, was press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Had this unfortunate incident not occured when it did then the young Sharman might well have served on Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson during his visit to the Inn on 6th November 1800. Unfortunately it did happen, Sharman was press ganged and the probability was that he was not the only one being grabbed for naval service. Almost certainly, the Press Gang would have targeted other ‘strong healthy-looking persons’ in Yarmouth. The only concession probably offered to Sharman would have been a choice between voluntary or forced servitude.
Sharman had been forced into service by a Crown practice that did allow for the navy to take British subjects into service. There were, of course, certain restrictions laid down by the Government on this practice but anything that stood in the way of ‘a result’ was often ignored; the Royal Navy had a constant need for able bodied seamen to man its fleet. The groups of men that made up the Press Gangs came from amongst sailors, or civilians hired for the purpose. They would roam the countryside, concentrating on areas near the naval ports and the coastal counties, searching for men to compel into the service. If no man-of-war sailor was available, fishermen and merchant sailors were preferred, but any strong healthy-looking person might be taken. Norfolk was not excempt from the practice.
One of the ‘escape clauses’ available to those taken by a press gang was to have access to ‘prominent associates’ ashore and, importantly, the means by which to contact them before the ship sailed. On the basis of such help, the individual would be released. Other means by which release would be granted was if the men taken had communicable diseases or too infirm to serve. The rest would be given a choice between voluntary or forced servitude. Records indicate that the Royal Navy in the 18th Century consisted of 47% volunteers, 24% impressed men and another list of 29% volunteers. The last probably included those who volunteered for service after being forced on board, although no one can be certain about this.
It would be pure supposition to say that Sharman must have ‘volunteered’ at some early point, but he did go on to record a lengthy period of service before being invalided out some years later; he also appeared to have modestly risen in rank. However, at the outset of his new career and, on the basis of his age, he must have been classed as a “ship’s boy” when he joined his first ship. As things turned out that was HMS Weazle, a new 214 tonne sloop-of-war sailing ship with a size of 77 x 26 ft. It had been built by the firm of King in Dover in 1799 and she had 16 cannons. It is not known at what point in the ship’s five year life he actually joined the Weazle but on the 1st March 1804, the ship was wrecked off Cabritta Point near Gibraltar. At the time she was under the command of Lieutenant William Layman (acting) when, during a storm, it ran aground and was smashed to pieces with the loss of one man out of a crew of 70.
By a twist of fate, Sharman then found himself amongst the motley crew of HMS Victory, as proved by his entry in the surviving Ship’s Muster. He was be under the command of Captain Thomas Hardy and, allegedly, given the rank of ‘Able Seaman’. This rank was certainly a leg up from first being a ship’s boy, landsman and then ordinary seaman; it is a further indication that Sharman had established himself as a willing ‘volunteer’ in His Majesty’s Navy and no longer a ‘pressed man’. As an ‘able seaman’ he must have demonstrated to the ship’s satisfaction that he could perform several skilled tasks on the ship. As a result, he would have been paid a bit more than an ordinary seaman and, if possible, assigned to a position consistent with his skills. There were 212 experienced ‘able seamen’ amongst a total motley crew of 821 from mixed nationalities who made up HMS Victory’s manpower at the Battle of Trafalgar.
It has been said that Able Seaman, James Sharman, survived Trafalgar largely unscathed by the experience, leaving the ship’s employ sometime after it had returned to Portsmouth. He took away with him the seeds of what would, in time, become a common belief that it was he who helped carry the fatally wounded Horatio Nelson below decks to the cockpit during the battle. Be that as it may, Sharman went on to have three more ship postings before eventually being discharged through illness and entering the Greenwich Hospital for Seamen. Understandably, he was not happy and on the recommendation of his former Captain Hardy, Sharman was to be appointed “Keeper of the Pillar” in 1817. This post was created to look after a proposed edifice in honour of Horatio Nelson which was to be built on the South Denes on the outskirts of Yarmouth.
During the course from conception through to planning and fundraising, the proposed ‘Pillar’ went through more than one name change. An original suggestion was for something along the lines of ‘Norfolk Naval Pillar’ before opting for ‘The Norfolk Column’ – to think that nowadays, it is referred to as the ‘Britannia Monument’ following restoration in 2005. But back in the early 19th Century, the South Denes on which this pillar/column/monument would be built was still an open, grassy area between the sea beach and the River Yare. This was where fishermen hung out their nets to dry, cattle grazed and public hangings took place. It was also used by the East Norfolk Militia for its military manoeuvres, and also where its officers laid down a proper race course for themselves. The site also became a popular venue for assembled “fashionable personages” to be seen! Maybe it was not envisaged at that time but a few years after Nelson’s death, a Royal Naval Hospital was built on the Denes and, later still, incorporated into a large military barracks.
The idea of raising a monument of sorts to Norfolk’s Nelson was first put forward in the late 1790s after Nelson’s great victory at Aboukir Bay or, in other words Battle of the Nile in 1798. However, this suggestion was not carried through at the time, but was certainly revived after his death at his greatest triumph, the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. We are told that a first proposal was not to have a monument in Yarmouth at all, but on Castle Hill in Norwich, which would not have pleased those in Yarmouth. In fact, it was in 1814 when a group of Norfolk businessmen, with Yarmouth interests, finally set up a committee to collect money for the project, having decided that the open spaces of Yarmouth’s South Denes would be the most appropriate setting – right in the centre of the race course.
It was an area well known to Nelson, rich in military and naval connections and an excellent site for a physical beacon “to guide future generations of navigators towards the harbour mouth” they would say. It would be built in the centre of the recently-established officers’ race course, as soon as subscriptions had reached £7000. That was when the committee in charge finally met in Thetford to choose from 44 different proposals, from which they opted for the Doric design put forward by the prominent London architect William Wilkins. Wilkins was a native of Norfolk and an architect who had designed the Shire Hall in Norwich, London’s National Gallery and Downing College, Cambridge.
The foundation stone of the Nelson’s Monument – aka Norfolk Pillar, the Norfolk Naval Pillar and Britannia Monument – was laid on 15 August, 1817. It was a moment when there “were great huzzahs and goings-on” – 12 years after the death of Norfolk’s favourite son and Britain’s greatest naval hero. During the next two years the column rose to its full height of 144 foot (44 metres), standing clear on the South Denes beach but slightly shorter than the 169 foot (52 metre) memorial to Nelson in Trafalgar Square which, incidentally, followed some 20 years later. Yarmouth’s monument was in the style of a Doric column topped by six caryatid figures that supported a statue of Britannia proudly atop a globe inscribed with the motto from Nelson’s coat of arms ‘Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat’, translating as ‘Let him who has merited it take the palm’. Britannia holds an olive branch in her outstretched right hand, a trident in her left, and looks inland, some say, towards Burnham Thorpe in North Norfolk, Nelson’s birthplace. At its base are inscriptions commemorating Nelson’s victories at St Vincent in 1797, Aboukir on the Nile in 1798, Copenhagen in 1801, and Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. On the western front a Latin inscription reads:
‘This great man Norfolk boasts her own, not only as born there of a respectable family, and as there having received his early education, but her own also in talents, manners and mind’.
The work was completed in 1819 when a fully recovered James Sharman, commenced his duties as “Keeper of the Pillar” – but not before the opening ceremony was out of the way. That affair, marked by “an elegant ball” for three hundred and fifty persons of rank and respectability”. One can assume that ‘common seamen’, including Sharman maybe, would not have been amongst its guests? Be that as it may, we do know that from his first day in charge, Sharman was to remain Keeper for nearly 50 years, living in a cottage nearby that had been built for him. Then in 1827, some ten years after being appointed, Sharman undertook a brave rescue of several sailors from the Brigantine Hammond which was shipwrecked on the beach near his cottage. It was the famous author, Charles Dickens, who read a newspaper report of this exploit whilst writing David Copperfield, which is partly set in Yarmouth. He must have been clearly intrigued because he made the effort to visit Sharman in his cottage and, from this experience, Dickens was said to have based the book’s character, Ham Peggotty, on Sharman. Also, during his visit and talks with the old sea-dog, Dickens was to hear Sharman’s account of his collecting wood from shipwrecks and building a shelter for himself. As the driftwood from wrecked boats tended to be curved, the shelter resembled an upturned boat – again, reminiscent of Peggotty’s boat house in David Copperfield.
But, Sharman was reputed to be something of a ‘colourful character’. Apparently and throughout his life in Yarmouth, he never tired of recounting the exploits of his hero, Nelson, and telling yarns of his own adventures. Who’s to say, he did not spin a tale or two when speaking to Dickens, Similarly, was it Sharman who gave birth to the claim that it was he who carried Nelson down to HMS Victory’s cockpit during Trafalgar! Surely, no one could possibly put it past him, particularly when trying to encourage extra tips from those ‘regaled’ visitors to ‘his’ Monument.
But one event that Sharman could not have made up and must have witnessed occurred in 1863, when an acrobat called Charles Marsh climbed up to stand on Britannia’s shoulders. Sadly, he missed his footing while climbing down and plunged to his death before the horrified crowd gathered below.
James Sharman died in 1867 at the age of 82 years. He was entitled to a Royal Naval funeral and funds were available to finance it but due to an oversight he was borne to his grave, in the Old Cemetery in Yarmouth, accompanied only by members of his family and without anyone from the navy being present. His gravestone, which includes the words ‘HMS Victory’ is now badly laminating and may well have become illegible.
As for his ‘Pillar’? Well, It has ended up being surrounded by commercial and industrial buildings. But despite this, and with the restorations of 2005, there is still grandeur and fascination with it – “a monument to a Norfolk man who bestrode his epoch and commanded the sea”. In 1817, an ‘Able Seaman’ from Yarmouth by the name of James Sharman was allowed the opportunity to looked after his master’s Monument.
Towards the latter part of James Sharman’s 50 years in charge of Nelson’s (Britannia) Monument, the cottage that he lived in became a beer house with him as Landlord. This beer house later became a public house called the ‘Monument House’ followed by being re-named the Nelson Hotel.
James Sharman’s General Service Medal with Trafalgar Bar was sold at auction in 2012 for £27,000!
St Peter’s Church in Ketteringham, Norfolk contains a number of memorials, but perhaps the most curious of them all is the one which is the most westerly of a group of memorials. It is a 1907 memorial to Charlotte Atkyns, who died in Paris in 1836 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, once found herself caught up in the events of the French Revolution and her memorial inscription further recalls that she was the friend of Marie Antoinette. It was said the she made several brave attempts to rescue Marie Antoinette from prison; and after that Queen’s death strove to rescue the Dauphin of France. She bankrupted the family fortunes in this quest, mortgaging the Ketteringham Hall Estate and claiming to have spent an extraordinary eighty thousand pounds, about fifteen million in today’s money.
On her death, she requested that her body be returned to Ketteringham and a marble slab be placed on the chancel walls. Her relatives of the time, left destitute by her apparent eccentric enthusiasms, understandably failed to carry out either request. With the passage of time, it might also be thought that Charlotte’s Francophile adventures, together with the French name of Boileaus, might indicate a connection between the two families; on this point there remains today in St Peters an ‘Atkyns/Boileaus’ pew in situ. The Boileaus were an old Huguenot family who came to Norfolk by way of Dublin and already owned Tacolneston Hall. They were the ones who bought the bankrupt Ketteringham Hall Estate after Charlotte’s death.
Charlotte Atkyns, née Walpole, was considered by some to be an 18th-century Norfolk eccentric; that is being Norfolk by marriage and residency, not by birth. This, of course, did not stop her from suggesting that she was related to the well-known Walpole family of Norfolk, descendants of Sir Robert Walpole, our first prime minister – she was not!
Charlotte was born in County Westmeath & Roscommon in Ireland around 1758, her father was a William Walpole of Athlone. She became an actress and made her debut in Dublin in January 1776, continuing to perform at various other theatres in the city throughout the remainder of that year. Charlotte made her London stage debut as Leonora in The Padlock by Isaac Bickerstaff at the Crow Street Theatre in London before her Drury Lane debut in October 1777. There she had some modest success before then appearing at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in which she displayed, it seems, a versatility as a singer as well as an actress. The theatre management announced her in such terms via the local newspapers:
In 1778 – 79, and after spending a summer in Bath, Charlotte returned to Drury Lane where “as pretty as an angel” she added dancing to her repertoire of skills. However, after that season she completely gave up the stage – for marriage. The story goes that she captured the attention of Sir Edward Atkyns, of Ketteringham Hall, Norfolk and the grandson of a Lord Chief Justice. Edward and Charlotte married on the 18 June 1779 at St James, Piccadilly, London and were to have two sons, Edward and Wright Edward. Unfortunately, Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, was never to be accepted by a Norfolk society which considered her to be ‘a common actress’. This situation was compounded by the fact that her husband was beginning to suffer under heavy debts. The couple’s future time abroad was to be put down to financial difficulties, at least by those who doubted her husband’s wisdom in marrying Charlotte. No sooner had Edward and Charlotte moved to France in November 1784, to get away from their ‘insufferable situation’, when Lady Jerningham wrote in a letter from Lille:
“A great many people have taken refuge here, to fly from their creditors in England; among the rest a Norwich family and a Mrs Atkins of Ketteringham. She was a player, a friend of Miss Younger. You may remember to have heard of her, and he was always a great simpleton or else he would not have married her.”
Others were more complimentary. A note preserved in the Folger Library and dated 1790, reads:
“Mrs Atkins, late Miss Walpole of Drury Lane Theatre, is perhaps the most…….female Equestrian. This Lady, whose residence is at Lille in Flanders, frequently rides for an airing….. to Calais, which is 74 miles and returns the following Day with the greatest ease.”
Charlotte personality and facial features were never in doubt, but despite being described as “pretty, witty, impressionable, and good,” she was thought of as an eccentric. This, however, did not stop the wedded couple from being welcomed in France where they made friendships with influential people at the French court. Among these friends was Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, better known as the Duchess of Polignac – she was a close friend to Marie Antoinette. Apparently, from the moment that the Duchess of Polignac introduced Charlotte to Marie Antoinette, Charlotte was enchanted and thereafter was, reputedly, an intense admirer of the Queen. According to one source:
“Atkyns shared first in the Queen’s amusements, then in her griefs, for she was still at Versailles when the Dauphin Louis Joseph died, and [she was still there] when 1789 began the cycle of years so terrible for French Royalty.”
When the French Revolution broke out, in 1789, Charlotte and her husband moved from Versailles to Lille, a city in northern France. Her relationship with the royal family was claimed to have been somewhat close because after the Atkyns began residing in Lille, Charlotte was to become known locally “as a pensioner on the Royal Treasury.” Then, in 1791, the Atkyns began to flit between France and Ketteringham and Charlotte extended her contacts with French émigrés. It was at this time when she was reputed to have been recruited as a spy and agent by her lover, the Royalist Louis de Frotté, a position that she purportedly fulfilled until 1794.
Once Louis XVI was guillotined in January of 1793, it was enough to make any Royalist lose hope of saving the Queen. However, the King’s death is said to have emboldened Charlotte. Apparently, it was then that she came up with an idea to save the Queen because, “Why should she not go in person to Paris and try her chance?” she would claim. Charlotte believed that the same level of surveillance applied to the King would not be applied to Marie Antoinette and this prompted her to think that she might be able to gain access to the Queen at the Temple. She had a plan!
There were several drawbacks to whatever plan that Charlotte’s concocted. Firstly, she was a foreigner and barely spoke French. There was also little support from her close friend Jean-Gabriel Peltier. Peltier had been a blazing revolutionary who suddenly did an about face and became an intense Royalist. He founded a newspaper with the title of “The Acts of the Apostles”, then violently attacked everyone who disagreed with his ideas.
The day after the insurrection of 10 August, Peltier left France and sought refuge in England where he, supposedly, developed a friendship with Charlotte and would do everything in his power to dissuade her from becoming involved in any plot to save Marie Antoinette. Thus, he wrote to her in the following tone, stating:
“You will hardly have arrived before innumerable embarrassments will crop up; if you leave your hotel three times in the day, or if you see the same person thrice, you will become a suspect.”
But, Charlotte was persistent, and her persistence eventually convinced Peltier about her plot to save the Queen, because even “he admitted that the moment was relatively favourable.” However, events were moving quickly in Paris. Before Charlotte could implement her plan, she too began to doubt it’s feasibility, particularly after word reached her that another plot to free Marie Antoinette had recently failed. This resulted in Peltier trying again to dissuade Charlotte from making any attempt to save the Queen:
“If you wish to be useful to that family, you can only be so by directing operations from here (instead of going there to get guillotined), and by making those sacrifices which you have already resolved to make.”
Charlotte, it seems, was not put off by any of Peltier’s words. Instead, it was claimed that she reached Marie Antoinette anyway. For her story to match other facts, it appears that her meeting with Marie Antoinette would have had to occur after Marie Antoinette had been moved from the Temple to “the Conciergerie; that is to say, after August 2, 1793.” Moreover, this meeting occurred because apparently Charlotte “won over a municipal official, who consented to open the doors of the Conciergerie for her, on the condition that no word should be exchanged between her and the Royal prisoner … [and to] wear the uniform of a National Guard.”
Charlotte, supposedly, agreed to these conditions and on the proposed day of her meeting, she appeared carrying a bouquet, which she offered to the Marie Antoinette. However, because of the stress of the event, Charlotte accidentally dropped a note that was to be presented with the bouquet to Marie Antoinette. As the municipal guard rushed forward to pick it up, Charlotte bent down, grabbed, it and swallowed it. Unsurprisingly, she was immediately ordered out. However, despite this failure, she did not give up. Through friends and persistence, she was able to obtain another meeting. This one was said to be a private interview with Marie Antoinette, and it was reported that Charlotte “had to pay a thousand louis for that single hour.” This time she planned to change clothes with Marie Antoinette so that the Queen would leave the Conciergerie undetected while Charlotte remained behind. If she thought her plan would ever work, she misjudged an obstinate Marie Antoinette:
“[Marie Antoinette] would not, under any pretext, sacrifice the life of another, and to abandon her imprisoned children was equally impossible to her. But what emotion she must have felt at the sight of such a love … She could but thank her friend with tearful eyes and commend her son, the Dauphin, to that friend’s tender solicitude.”
All this, and much else, was done at the expense of her large fortune which enabled her to bribe officials, pay messengers to travel between London and Paris and charter a ship to hover near the coast for months waiting to transport possible fugitives. Charlotte, apparently, would take no rest until she had expended all her energy and her wealth trying to free Marie Antoinette and those close to her. This quest of hers, however, failed and her ‘friend’ the Queen was executed by the guillotine at 12.15pm on 16th October in 1793, famously apologising to the executioner for stepping on his foot while climbing the scaffold. After Charlotte’s husband, Edward, died in 1794 she may again have gone to France to attempt further rescues of the remaining family, but if there were any attempts they were unsuccessful. But, she continued to promote the émigré cause and mortgaged Ketteringham in 1799 to raise funds for this purpose.
Hers remain a wonderful and somewhat dramatic story – given her past background as an actress, – but unfortunately it is one with more than a few holes in it. Many people, in fact, have claimed that Charlotte’s story, about attempting to rescue Marie Antoinette, was false and that the story came from a “cracked old woman who dreamed that she had been the friend of Marie Antoinette.” Ultimately, it seems, that all the source material for Charlotte’s ‘adventures’ come from Charlotte herself. Backing up all this are indications that Charlotte wasn’t even in Paris in 1793 as she claimed. Also, there is no independent evidence of her ever having been at Versailles, or even meeting Marie Antoinette; the only reference to their friendship appear in letters, apparently from eminent people but which Charlotte actually wrote to herself. As it was, papers from Frotté show that he believed her story and there was also, supposedly, a mysterious Countess McNamara, who had spoken of Charlotte’s plot; but, both Frotté and McNamara had, apparently, obtained their information from Charlotte herself! Since then, one 20th century investigation of her story also came to the conclusion that the book written by Frédéric Barbey about Charlotte’s plot relied on faulty evidence:
“There is no other evidence of her [Atkyns] ever having been at Versailles, or ever having seen the Queen, except a few allusions to their friendship in some letter addressed to Mrs. Atkyns, of which M. Barbey has found a large collection in the office of an unnamed Paris lawyer ….., assuming their existence and authenticity. His quotations from these letters suggest that Mrs. Atkyns was in the habit of writing letters from eminent persons to herself.”
As for being the “daughter of Robert Walpole” – as her 1907 memorial in Ketteringham’s church of St Peters has it – it seems to be an assumption by subsequent generations that Charlotte was related to the man who became Britain’s first Prime Minister. It is an assumption without any basis in fact; not only did Walpole never have a daughter called Charlotte, he died 13 years before Charlotte was born. His son was also named Robert, but he had no daughter either. All one can say is that the ‘real’ Charlotte and her husband certainly spent time in France from November 1784, shortly before the Revolution, but they were more concerned with getting out of financial difficulties than political intrigue.
After the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814 Charlotte petitioned unsuccessfully for reimbursement of more than £30,000 which she claimed to have expended in the Bourbon cause.
Charlotte’s petitioning took place around 1823 and it was in that year when she gave Ketteringham Hall to her sister-in-law, Mary Atkyns, in return for an annuity, such were Charlotte’s reduced circumstances. Then, about 1830, Charlotte moved permanently to Paris, where she died on 2 February 1836 with her loyal German maid by her side. Charlotte was buried somewhere in Paris in an unmarked grave, knowing that her fortune had all but gone having remortgaged Ketteringham and spent the modern-day equivalent of £15 million during her, supposing, reign as a female Scarlet Pimpernel. Charlotte Atkyns Will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 26 July 1838.
The marble plaque inside St Peter’s at Ketteringham reads:
“In memory of Charlotte, daughter of Robert Walpole and wife of Edward Atkyns esq of Ketteringham. She was born 18 and died at Paris 1836 where she lies in an unknown grave. This tablet was erected in 1907 by a few who sympathised with her wish to rest in this church. She was the friend of Marie Antoinette and made several brave attempts to rescue her from prison and after that Queen’s death, strove to save the Dauphin of France.”
FOOTNOTE: During the French Revolution, various tales circulated about Charlotte and her activities. Some claimed she acted as a spy for counter-revolutionaries; others that her heart was set on freeing Marie Antoinette from imprisonment and spiriting her and her son out of the country to safety. Unfortunately, the sources for most of these tales date from long after the Charlotte’s death and are heavily laced with romanticism. All that matters now is for readers to note that Lady Charlotte Walpole Atkyns did gain something of a reputation for being an enthusiastic supporter of causes close to her heart; all be it in an eccentric and ‘fanciful’ manner. She did so in comfort and until she had spent most, if not all, of her husband’s money!
We herewith present an (admittedly) random selection of Easter snippets from the early 19th century newspapers; a true Easter miscellany.
On the 25th March, 1802, The Treaty of Amiens, which signalled peace between Great Britain and the French Republic, was signed. It was also the signal for a proposed long school holiday for the Eton schoolboys. Do any of our readers know if the Prince of Wales’ request was granted?
His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has interceded with the Head Master of Eton School for extending the Easter holidays of the Etonians a week longer than usual, in consequence of the Peace.
(Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 26th April, 1802)
The following year, with the truce breaking down, and Britain about to declare war on France, while a few of the nobility remained in London, battle-lines were being drawn elsewhere.
The fine weather, and the Easter holidays, scatter a few of our fashionables around the Metropolis, that they may inhale a little fresh air, preparatory to the suffocating routs and balls of May. The SALISBURYS are gone to Hatfield; the ABERCORNS to Stanmore; the DERBYS to the Oaks; the MORTON PITTS to Corfe Castle; Earl ROMNEY to the Mote, near Maidstone; Lord and Lady HOBART to Roehampton; and Lord HAWKESBURY will take the air between Combe and Downing-street, though he may not always be able to take his breath.
(Morning Post, 5th April, 1803)
Tuesday evening a most furious battle took place between a Chimney Sweep and a Jack Ass Driver, at a small fair which is held on the Easter Holidays at the end of Tottenham-court-road. After half and hour’s hard and obstinate fighting, both being beat to that degree that neither was able to stand, they were forced to give up any farther contest.
(Hampshire Chronicle, 18th April, 1803)
Epping Hunt – Monday, at an early hour, the industrious sons of Spitalfields, Bethnal-green, and Whitechapel, disdaining the somnific powers, rose at the blush of Aurora, and prepared for the far-farmed Epping hunt, big with the fate of Cockneys. The road from town to the sportive scene was thronged by hunters of every description. Some were heavily dressed, and others as bare of covering as Meleager when he killed the Calydonian boar. The gallant troop displayed all the colours of gay Iris, and the sable bearings of a chimney-sweeper were often blazoned by the powderings of a barber’s apron. The cattle were composed of horses, asses, and mules, all high in bone and low in flesh; and the pack displayed every class of the canine species, from the bull to the lap-dog.After having regaled with copious libations of geneva, the motley group arrived at The Eagle, Snaresbrook, and other houses contiguous to the forest. A fine stag had been previously carried from a stable. His horns were sawed off, as usual, except the front antlers, which were braided with ribbands, and he was turned out to the mercy of his pursuers, near Buckets-hill. Finding himself at liberty, he dashed into Fairmaid Bottoms and sought refuge in the forest. The scent was then given, and off went the Cockneys,
“Like wind and tide meeting.”
In a few moments the ground was covered with hats, wigs, and the bodies of fat Citizens. Riders were seen looking for their horses, and horses for their riders. The vendors of gin and eatables, who stood prepared for the scene, immediately rushed in to dispose of their ware, and glasses of cordial consoled the downcast hunters for bruises and pain. Several Nimrods, who had pursued the sport of the day in taxed carts, were overthrown with the loss of their wheels, and the confusion which prevailed produced considerable mirth, at the expence of tailors, tallow-chandlers, weavers, and soap boilers, who had not been able to restrain the fury of their vicious kicking donkeys, and mischievous cart-horses. The stag, as usual, escaped from the fury of its unqualified pursuers, and many of the hunters who had lost their horses returned on foot to the Bald-faced Stag, to celebrate their lucky escape from the perils of the chace. After sacrificing at the shrine of the Jolly God, they returned to town.
(Oxford University and City Herald, 8th April, 1809)
Owing, no doubt, to the extreme coldness of the weather, the Park yesterday was not so prolific in the display of the Spring fashions as was expected, and is as usual on Easter Sunday. Custom, assuredly, is the arbiter of fashion; but the closer such adheres to nature the better. Long waists, and tight stays, although much worn, are not deserving of panegyric. Natures always looks most beautiful as herself, without capricious whimsicalities of stiff ornament. Among the newest articles in the female costume, we noticed the Polish dress, or pelisse, composed of slate coloured sarsenet; it is made open in front, with a gold bordering, and gold buttons. The bonnet, boots, and redicule, were made of the same materials. Among the fashionable equipages were those belonging to the Duchesses of GRAFTON and LEEDS; Marchionesses of WELLESLEY, LANSDOWNE, and HEADFORT; Ladies CASTLEREAGH, CLONMELL, KINGSTON, MEXBOROUGH, D. SMITH, MANSFIELD, and SEFTON. A sudden storm of hail and snow, about half-past three o’clock, destroyed all the fair beauties of the scene in a moment. The company, male and female, who were in the pedestrian promenade, scampered off at the first approach of the enemy, to seek refuge under any covering, however humble, so that it afforded them a secure retreat from the pitiless element. The Park was completely deserted during the after part of the day.
(Morning Post, 3rd April, 1809)
Easter was also a time for Balls; the ones held at the Mansion House in London being particularly spectacular:
The decorations and alterations making at the Mansion-house for the Easter ball are extremely splendid. A carpeting is made to imitate a gravel walk, and each side of the avenues leading to the Egyptian-hall will be ornamented with orange trees, and flowering shrubs.
The Prince of Wales has accepted the invitation of the Lord Mayor to dine and the Mansion-house on Easter Monday. This will be the first public visit ever made by his Royal Highness into the City, and the only instance, for many reigns, of an Heir Apparent going there on such occasion.
(Bury and Norwich Post, 14th April, 1802)
Yesterday John Hawkins, an extra constable, was charged before the LORD MAYOR with concealing a diamond drop, which he found at the Mansion House on Monday night, at the Easter Ball, the property of the Duchess of GORDON, being part of a pair of elegant diamond ear-rings worn by her Grace that day, value above five hundred guineas, and for the recovery of which a reward was advertised.
Mrs. HORSFALL, of the Mansion House Coffee-house, stated, that she saw a constable have such an article in his possession that night, which he said he had picked up in the Mansion House, and described the man, from which circumstance he was discovered. The prisoner at first denied it, but the diamond drop being found, he pretended not to know the value of it. His Lordship, conceiving that he detained it with a felonious intent, fully committed him to take his trial for the same.
(Morning Post, 11th April, 1806)
And if you were attending such a Ball, then, as a fashionable lady, you would need to look your best.
THE EASTER BALL and GALA will be particularly grand in Honour of the Regency, and as the Ladies will appear with extreme lustre on this occasion, it certainly accounts for the present great demand for HUBERT’S ROSEATE POWDER, which effectually removes superfluous hairs on the face, neck and arms, and highly improves the whiteness, delicacy and softness of the skin, thus bestowing a new charm on natural beauty. – May be had of the Proprietor, 23 Russell-street, Covent-Garden; Rigge, 35, and Overton, 47, Bond-street; Dunnett, 3, Cheapside; Davison, 59, Fleet-street, Thorn, 45, Oxford-street; Bowling and Co. 38, Blackman-street, Borough; Harding and Co. 89, Pall-mall; and of all Perfumers. – 4s. and 7s.
(Morning Chronicle, 8th April, 1811)
And we end with the best Easter Gift, (although personally, as chocoholic’s, we’d rather have an Easter egg . . . ), and an Irish Easter cake.
The best Easter Gift, a present to a young Lady, is a Ticket in TOMKINS’S Picture Lottery; which are selling in New Bond-street at Three Guineas each; and a red ticket and a black ticket are sure to gain a prize.
(Morning Post, 25th April, 1821)
CURIOUS CUSTOM – In Ireland, at Easter, a cake, with a garland of meadow flowers, is elevated upon a circular board upon a pike, apples being stuck upon pegs around the garland. Men and women then dance round, and they who hold out longest win the prize.
(Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 17th December, 1825)
With Easter almost here, how about we share with you some snippets about the way Georgians spent their Easter as shown in a few extracts from the newspapers of the day – partying being the most obvious! Let us begin with a letter of complaint, clearly, from someone who didn’t appreciate many of the celebrations that took place during the year and felt it appropriate to vent annoyance to the editor of the Whitehall Evening Post – focusing on a section about Easter…..…
Whitehall Evening Post (1770), August 2, 1783 – August 5, 1783
Some things customary refer simply to the idea of feasting, according to the season and occasion. Of these, perhaps, are lambs-wool on Christmas eve; furmety on Mothering Sunday; Braggot (which is a mixture of ale, sugar and spices) at the festival of Easter … lamb at Easter to the Paschal Lamb. This, perhaps, may be the case also with respect to pancakes on Shrove Tuesday; unless that shall be supposed to allude to ‘the egg at Easter’ an emblem of the rising up out of the grave; in the same manner as the chick, entombed as it were in the egg, is in due time brought to life. So also the flowers, with which many churches are ornamented on Easter-day, are most probably intended as emblems of the resurrection having just risen from the earth during the severity of winter, they seem to have been buried.
A custom, which ought to be abolished as improper and indecent, prevails in many places of lifting, as it is called, on Easter Monday and Tuesday. Is this a memorial of Christ being raised from the grave? There is, at least some appearance of it; as there seems to be trace of the decent of the Holy Ghost on the heads of the Apostles in what passes at Whitsuntide fair in some parts of Lancashire; where one person hold a stick over the head of another, whilst a third, unperceived, strikes the stick, and thus gives a smart blow to the first. But this, probably is only local.
The Hampshire Chronicle, Sunday, March 31, 1788
Of the multitude of customs and ceremonies which formerly commanded attention at this season, but very few are preserved; it is however, universally considered as a time appropriate to recreation and innocent festivity. Amongst the common people it is even now a custom in the North to rise early, in order to see the sun dance. We suppose this o have arisen from some metaphorical expression in the sacred writings. Boys carry a vessel of water into the fields, that the sun may seem to dance from the tremulous motion of the water.
Paper eggs, properly pasche eggs, are stained of different colors and covered with gold leaf, and given to young children in the North of England as a fairing. This is a relic of Popish superstition; an egg being considered a type of the resurrection. This custom prevails in Russia; a long account may be seen in Hackluyt’s voyages. Dr. Chandler also in his travels in Asia Minor says ‘they made us presents of coloured eggs and cakes of Easter bread’.
(It was a family tradition to make pasche eggs for Easter by binding the flowers to eggs with strips of sheeting then boiling the eggs in onion skins. The flowers would act as a resist, creating prints on the hardboiled eggs.) – To continue:
Durand says, that on Easter Tuesday wives used to beat their husbands, on the day following when husbands beat their wives.
In the city of Durham the following custom is still preserved: On one day the men take off the women’s shoes, which are only to be redeemed by a small present. On another day the women take off the men’s in a like manner.
In Yorkshire tansy puddings and cakes are made, which custom Seldon, in his ‘Table Talk‘, has referenced to the bitter herbs which the Jews greatly use at this season. At Newcastle, on Easter Monday a great match is always played at hand ball for a great tansy cake.
Many other incidents might be enumerated, most of which are obsolete, and many generally forgotten; we sincerely however regret, that the memory of anything should be lost, which, by introducing innocent merriment, strengthens the sweet bond of social life.
The Hampshire Chronicle, Monday, April 28, 1794
The belles and beaux, from the fineness of the weather, exceeded far, very far, any number that ever were seen at that favourite spot. From six to eight o’clock, on their return to London, it was one continued throng of holiday people of all ranks and descriptions, from Greenwich park to Westminster bridge. There was no resisting the torrent; and many an honest young woman who was so yesterday morning, will have fatal cause to repent, before this day twelvemonth, the frolic of tumbling down the hill in the park – drunkenness, riots, battles and thefts, as usual, dignified the proceedings. Not less than one hundred thousand persons were present.
At ten in the morning, at least ten thousand equestrians and pedestrians were upon the forest: every species of vehicle from the hand cart and buggy to the light waggon and splendid chariot was there. At one, the stag, bedecked with ribbons was turned out on Fairmaid Bottom – and then the fun began, with running, riding, crossing, jostling, tumbling, hooting, shouting, screaming and howling; which formed the scene that may be seen, but cannot possibly be described, and that indeed never before was exhibited but in a nation of madmen. At four, the stag was at bay in a thicket, near the Royal Oak and was taken and put in a cart and with continual shouts was brought to the starting house in order to afford fresh sport in future.
Georgian England is remembered now as a period of great elegance and refinement but it was also notorious for the brutality of its judicial system and as a time when more than 200 crimes on the statute book carried the death penalty, when imprisonment for debt was commonplace, and public floggings and executions were a popular source of entertainment.
The Government was not expected to improve the life of the people and it had no desire to do so. It was however expected to protect the land and property of the lawmakers themselves, the wealthy 3% of the population who were permitted to vote in elections even though they were unlikely to be the victim of crime unless it was the pickpocket on the street, the robber on the highway, or from poaching on the rich man’s estate. The true beneficiaries of the draconian laws were more often middle class shop owners and tavern keepers who along with the poor were always more vulnerable to being the victims of crime, but this was a by-product of and not the intention of those who made the law.
The man most responsible for the shaping of Georgian England was Robert Walpole. He was born near Houghton in Norfolk on 26 August 1676, the son of a prominent Whig politician who upon his father’s death in January 1701, was elected as Member of Parliament for his old constituency of Castle Rising.
British politics in the eighteenth century reflected a society divided between the pro-Church and pro-Monarchy landed aristocracy and the rapidly expanding commercial class that sought the primacy of Parliament in all things (the vast majority had no say at all) and it was a fraught arena where tensions often ran high. The Tories and the Whigs were not political parties as we would understand them today but factions who formed alliances to best serve their own interests, and it was no friendly rivalry. They were in effect two warring camps with both willing to take up the cudgel if required. Their mutual enmity was reflected in the names they called one another – a Tory was an Irish bandit or thief – a Whig a Scottish rebel or Presbyterian fanatic.
The fact that elections were held every three years guaranteed a febrile atmosphere with members of the different factions meeting in their own coffee houses to conspire with one another and plot their opponents, downfall. Also, Political meetings were violent affairs, graft and corruption was commonplace, votes and constituency seats bought and sold and the behaviour on the hustings would often border on riotous assembly.
Yet this would be the world in which Robert Walpole, the great manipulator not to say enabler, would thrive and prosper. Walpole’s connections ensured that he soon gained political office and he proved himself an able administrator and earned a reputation for probity at a time when such a thing was transparently lacking in politics, this despite the fact that he had been briefly imprisoned for embezzlement in 1712. Having gained the favour of King George I, as he would later his son George II, he began to rise through Government ranks but his ambition was a secret to no one and he was hated by the Tories who time and again tried to discredit him and have him impeached. But, Walpole’s reputation was to soar following the fiasco of the South Sea Bubble.
The South Sea Company had been formed in 1711 as a joint-stock company which through the sale of bonds would purchase the national debt but in reality it was a get rich quick scheme underpinned by promises of vast profits to be made from trade. After all, the Company had been granted a monopoly of trade with South America. The fact that Britain was at the time at war with Spain meaning there was little real trade to be had was a fact that was seemingly overlooked by most investors. The rich flocked to buy shares but by 1720 it was apparent that the South Sea Company was an empty shell and the rush to sell shares caused it to crash spectacularly.
Though Walpole had also invested heavily he had earlier been advised to sell his shares. Even so, he tried to re-invest but his purchase of further shares was delayed in the mail and did not arrive in time. This was to prove a stroke of good fortune both financially and more significantly politically for coupled with a few minor criticisms he had made of the Company’s behaviour in the House of Commons it appeared to many that he’d had the foresight to see the crash coming. However, nothing could have been further from the truth but it provided him with a reputation for financial rectitude at a time when others who should have known better had allowed their greed to overwhelm their common sense.
The King now turned to Walpole to help the Government out of the financial mess it now found itself in, and he seized the opportunity with aplomb. Walpole was quick to smooth things over making a series of emollient and reassuring speeches in the House of Commons and confiscating the estates of the Company’s Directors to pay off those worst hit financially in the crisis. He also deflected criticism away from the King who as Governor of the Company was heavily implicated in its wrongdoings. For this both the King and his successor George II would be eternally grateful. Appointed to the position of First Lord of the Treasury alongside a number of other high offices Walpole was the King’s indispensable man and effectively Britain’s first Prime Minister and he would remain so for the next 15 years. It was to be the beginning of the Whig Supremacy and Walpole was to refashion Georgian England in his own image – a country of both conspicuous wealth and extreme poverty, of unapologetic self-interest and punitive laws.
First Walpole, or Cock Robin as he was known, not always with affection, secured his own position. He accumulated for himself a vast array of patronage, ensured that people who would be his men in Parliament were elected to Rotten Boroughs, and aware that he could break as well as make political careers where bribery didn’t serve his purposes he wasn’t adverse to a little intimidation. As a last resort he could always turn to the King for support. Walpole’s policy would be to maintain the status-quo by appealing to the naked self-interest of those who mattered. He adopted a peace policy avoiding ruinously expensive wars, kept taxes low especially those on land, and introduced laws that would protect property, game, and livestock. The rich could sit back and enjoy their wealth comfortable in the knowledge that they were safe from ideological dispute, revolution, robbery, or foreign invasion, and as long as the calm waters of conspicuous self-indulgence and display remained undisturbed then all was well in Georgian England. It would prove for the time being at least a winning formula.
The most potent symbol of Walpole’s England was to be the Debtor’s Prison. Every major city had at least one and there were seven in London alone, the most notorious of which were the Fleet Prison in Farringdon Street and the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. These prisons were Government owned but privately managed, and were run for profit. For example in 1728, Thomas Bambridge purchased the Letters of Patent to run the Fleet Prison as its Warden for £5,000, and like most Warden’s he immediately divided the prisoners into those who could pay for their keep and those who could not. Indeed, Bambridge was to become particularly notorious for extorting money from his inmates even manacling them on occasions until his demands were met. It was possible to be imprisoned for a debt as little as £2 and incarceration would often come as the result of a request from the creditor.
Whilst in prison the interest on the debt would continue to accrue and release would only come after a financial arrangement had been made for repayment of the debt or the creditor himself relented, and with no specific time to be served a prisoner could be wrangling for his release ad nauseam. For those able to pay imprisonment would be less onerous and depending on how much money they had they might get a cell to themselves with a bed, they would also be able to purchase food, and beer that was often brewed on the premises. They could receive visits from their family, if they were not already imprisoned with the inmate which sometimes happened, and could even conduct business.
The Fleet Prison even permitted prisoners to live within a short distance of the confines of the prison itself, a practice known as the “Liberty of the Rules”. If you were unable to pay for your keep then you would be left to rot in the squalor of the common cells, the damp, windowless, rat-infested rooms situated on the ground floor where the petty criminals were confined. Forced to sleep on a bare floor strewn with straw, fed on gruel twice a day, and with nowhere to urinate or defecate disease was rife and life expectancy short.
The “Bloody Code” as it was to become known, saw offences ranging from poaching, the theft of a loaf of bread, and sheep stealing through to murder and treason carry the death penalty. It was harsh in the extreme, as also were the penalties for those crimes that did not carry the ultimate sanction such as being publicly whipped, branded with hot irons, and confined to the pillory for days on end. In the case of many women and children, and those men who could show themselves to have been of previously good character there was always the option of transportation to the colonies as an indentured slave.
Despite the many laws that now made up the statute book there were few formal structures in place with which to enforce them. There was no police force at this time and instead every parish was obliged to have at least a Constable but these were unpaid volunteers often concerned only with the status their position brought them and little concerned with the actual enforcement of the law. In London and other major cities there were paid Watchmen, these were often elderly ex-soldiers who patrolled the streets at night and at the top of every hour would ring a bell to declare the time and cry – “All is well.” Though they were much-maligned at the time they did play a role in keeping the streets safe at night and provided reassurance if nothing else.
In 1749, the author Henry Fielding who had been appointed Chief Magistrate for London along with his brother John founded the Bow Street Runners. They now largely replaced the “Thief Takers”, the men often recruited from amongst the criminal underworld itself who would investigate crimes and arrest people for a fee. This had always been an unsatisfactory arrangement to say the least for the Thief Takers were most likely involved in the crime itself and were merely turning in their associates for money. The Bow Street Runners did not serve as policemen as we would understand them, they did not patrol the streets at night or make themselves available for emergencies. They did however serve writs and make arrests on the authority of the Chief Magistrate, and they travelled the length and breadth of the country to do so.They were also paid for the first time by central Government.
Justice was administered by Local Magistrates who were invariably drawn from amongst the wealthiest of any parish. They were unpaid and often found their work burdensome and time consuming. Also there was no oversight as to their activities and they were not necessarily disinclined to act maliciously or take a bribe. Indeed, the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, the son of Robert, remarked of the Magistrates in London: “The greatest criminals of this town are the officers of justice.” More serious crimes such as burglary, murder, and treason would be tried before the Quarterly Assizes and in London at Newgate, later to become the Old Bailey.
Unlike the trials for petty crime more serious offences were tried before a jury of the accused person’s peers. Even so, it was commonplace for such cases to be dealt with quickly as it was rare for there to be a defence barrister as none was provided by the State. Also, the presumption on the part of the Magistrates was always one of guilty. Also, the fact that the Courtroom itself would be liberally sprinkled with fresh smelling herbs and flowers to mask the smell of the filthy and unwashed prisoners indicates the attitude of those dispensing justice.
A guilty verdict at the Quarterly Assizes would invariably carry the death penalty and such trials were popular events that would be well attended and raucous affairs. The crowd would heckle and jeer throughout but a silence would descend upon the courtroom as the Judge would place the black cap upon his head and speaking these words pass the sentence of death:
“Prisoner at the bar, it is now my painful duty to pronounce the awful sentence of the law which must follow the verdict that has just been recorded, that you be taken to the place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your sinful soul.”
Public executions in London were carried out at Tyburn and were occasions for a social gathering in an atmosphere that often resembled that of a fairground. Thousands of people would gather in the field where the gallows were located whilst others lined the streets of the three mile journey of the condemned man from his place of incarceration to his place of execution. Carried on a cart where he would be sat upon his own coffin and accompanied by the Sheriff, a Chaplain and an armed escort the condemned man was for a short period at least the centre of attraction and sometimes as the cart passed a tavern the landlord would offer him a last drink to which the Sheriff would invariably reply: “Not for him, he’s on the wagon.” There would be a celebratory feel to the day with music played, pies sold, and many people drunk. As in the Courtroom however once the condemned man mounted the gallows the crowd would fall silent to hear the Chaplain’s last words:
“You have been adjudged by the laws of this country unworthy any longer to live, unworthy to walk this earth, unworthy to breathe its air, and that no further good to mankind can be expected from you, only the example of your death to warn others in the future, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
The common people knew full well that the justice system was not there to serve them as a popular saying of the time testifies: “The laws grind the poor, and the rich make the law”. As a result the more notorious a criminal, no matter how brutal, the more likely he was to be treated as a folk hero in the tradition of Robin Hood, and Highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, Claude Vall, and Sixteen String Jack who intercepted and robbed the Stage Coaches ridden by the rich were particularly admired and became celebrities. In 1774, when the famous Highwayman John Rann was found not guilty of robbery thousands of people who had gathered outside cheered and carried him aloft from the Court.
The most popular hero of his day however was the 22 year old apprentice carpenter, Jack Sheppard. He had served five years of his apprenticeship and had been showing great promise at his chosen profession when encouraged by the other apprentices he began to frequent the Black Lion Tavern in Drury Lane, a popular haunt of the local criminal underworld and with his newly acquired taste for alcohol and having made the association of a local gang leader, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, he soon found that there was easier money to be made in crime than there was in having to work for a living and he quickly progressed from petty theft and pick-pocketing to burglary.
Arrested on numerous occasions it was to be his increasingly spectacular prison escapes that made him a popular hero. Arrested once again and sentenced to hang he promised to escape on the day of his execution but the pocket knife he was carrying to cut the ropes that bound him was discovered. Nonetheless, he had another plan and remained supremely confident that he would not hang and boasted of his forthcoming escape calling upon public to come and witness it. The people expected him to be as good as his word.
Jack Sheppard, a wide-eyed young man with a ready smile was only 5’2” and weighed barely 100 pounds and he firmly believed that as the cart was wheeled away to leave him hanging he would not be heavy enough for the noose to break his neck, and so he had arranged for his friends to cut him down and take him to a doctor to be revived. On 24 January 1724, more than 200,000 people turned out to see Jack Sheppard hang – or escape?
On his journey to the gallows Sheppard joined in the celebratory mood revelling in the banter and urging on the crowd. He even persuaded the Sheriff to stop off at the City of Oxford Tavern so he could down a pint of ale.
As he stood beneath the gallows with his neck in the noose he continued to play to a crowd that truly expected him to escape once again. As the cart was pulled away from beneath his feet the raucous crowd descended into a hushed silence as they watched his body squirm and twitch. But there was to be no escape this time and his Sheppard was to dangle from the rope for a full 15 minutes as he endured the agonies of slow strangulation. When the body was at last cut down the crowd surged forward to grab their souvenirs, they pulled out tufts of his hair, cut off his fingers, and gouged out his eyes.
His friends who had planned to rescue him before death’s deadly embrace took hold never even got close to retrieving his lifeless corpse. Such had been the popularity of Jack Sheppard that newspapers were forbidden to write of his exploits and theatres were banned from using his name for the next forty years.
London was the largest city in the world with a population of over 800,000 and was growing all the time. It was a place like no other with more than 50,000 shops, taverns, restaurants, coffee houses, and brothels where every need and desire could be catered for; a place of both outlandish display and grim squalor, with beautiful parks and filthy streets; a place of hucksterism and gaudy self-indulgence. A city of vice, violence and disease its many iniquities were vividly captured in the paintings and lithographs of the artist William Hogarth, and no problem was more evident than that of public drunkenness.
By the 1720’s London was quite literally awash with gin, or “Mother’s Ruin,” as it was known. The craze for gin had caught on in the 1690’s following its cheap importation from the Netherlands and within a decade distilleries producing it were cropping up not just in London but throughout the country. Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London alone more than half were Gin Palaces. By 1743, it is estimated that the English were drinking up to 10 litres of gin per head of population a year.
Drunkenness had become a common feature on the streets of all England’s major cities and with it a corresponding rise in the crime rate, and the number of abandoned children that thronged the streets and dead babies that littered the gutters had become a national disgrace. Attempts to stamp out the craze for gin were easier said than done, however. The Gin Act of 1736 that priced it at 20 shillings a gallon and required a licence to sell it at a fee of £50 per annum provoked disturbances so violent that they lead to it being repealed in 1742. A further attempt to curtail its production and distribution the following year were to lead to the Gin Riots that were to leave many dead and cause widespread destruction throughout London. Learning the lessons of past mistakes a series of more moderate measures were introduced which over time saw a decline in the consumption of gin and by 1757 it was perceived to be no longer a problem.
By this time Robert Walpole, the man who had done so much to forge Georgian England in his own image was long gone. He had by the early 1740’s ceased to be seen as the guardian of wealth but as an impediment to increased prosperity and people had tired of the widespread corruption that had so come to mark his time in power. His peace policy of placating Britain’s enemies abroad had come to be seen as a national humiliation and his increased taxes on commodities to ensure that the tax on land remained low was damaging the economy. Many amongst an aspiring and growing middle-class, and even many of his natural supporters amongst the nobility and gentry, now saw their futures in overseas trade and the expansion of Empire and so with his enemies, and he had always had many, gathering in Parliament and fearing impeachment on 11 February 1742 he resigned, returning to his palatial home at Houghton Hall a bitter and resentful man. There he died in great splendour three years later on 18 March 1745, aged 68, a bloated caricature of himself and the country he had created. The draconian laws that Walpole had introduced did not go with him, however.
Indeed, the number of capital offences on the statute book increased. It still remained possible to be hanged for impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, going out at night with a blackened face, damaging a turnpike, and writing a threatening letter. Most of these offences would continue to carry the death penalty late into the Victorian era though as the decades passed they were rarely enforced. Even so, between 1791 and 1891, long after the Bloody Codes had first been introduced more than 10,000 people were hanged in England alone, and imprisonment for debt and Debtor’s Prisons were not abolished until the Bankruptcy Act of 1869. The first professional police force wasn’t established until 1829 when the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police to maintain law and order on the streets of London.
Inspiring oddities from mass public nudity to a mechanical gin-selling cat, the craze for gin swept across London and much of England during the first half of the 18th century. Writing for History Extra, Mark Forsyth, author of A Short History of Drunkenness, explores the history behind this alcoholic spirit…
Gin causes women to spontaneously combust. Or, at least, that was the theory. There are two documented cases of British ladies downing gin and going up in smoke, and a few more of European women doing the same with brandy. The matter was taken seriously enough to be discussed by the Royal Society in 1745.
We don’t take stories of spontaneous human combustion that seriously any more (for reasons I’ll get back to), but for a historian, the stories are fascinating because they’re part of the great Gin Panic. This was the moralising and serious counterpart to the great Gin Craze that swept London and much of England in the first half of the 18th century and produced (aside from the ignited ladies) mass public nudity, burning babies, and a mechanical gin-selling cat.
Alcoholic spirits were a pretty new commodity in 18th-century society, though they had actually been around for a long time. They started as a chemical curiosity in about the 10th century AD. They were being drunk by the very, very rich for pleasure by about 1500, as shown when James IV of Scotland bought several barrels of whisky. But even a hundred years later, in 1600, there was only one recorded bar in England that sold spirits to the curious (just outside London, towards Barking).
Then in about 1700, spirits hit. The reasons are complicated and involve taxation of grain and the relations with the Dutch, but the important thing is that gin suddenly became widely available to Londoners, which was a good thing for the gin-sellers as Londoners needed a drink. The turn of the 18th century was a great period of urbanisation, when the poor of England flocked to London in search of streets paved with gold and Bubbles from South Sea [the South Sea Bubble was a speculation boom in the early 1710s], only to find that the streets were paved with mud and there was no work to be had. London’s population was around 600,000. There were only two other towns in England with populations of 20,000. London was the first grand, anonymous city. There were none of the social constraints of a village where everybody knew everybody’s business. And there were none of the financial safeguards either, with a parish that would support its native poor, or the family and friends who might have looked after you at home. Instead, there was gin.
A craze among the poor
It’s very hard to say which was bigger – the craze for drinking gin that swept the lower classes, or the moral panic at the sight of so many gin drinkers that engulfed the ruling classes. Anonymous hordes of poor, often homeless people wandered the city drinking away their sorrows, and often their clothes, as they readily exchanged their garments for the spirit.
Before the industrial revolution and the rash of cotton mills that would fill the north of England a century later, cloth was very expensive. Beggars really did dress in rags, if at all, and the obvious thing to sell if you really needed money fast was, literally, the shirt on your back. The descriptions left to us by the ‘Gin Panickers’ would be funny – if they weren’t so tragic.
Indeed, the most notorious single incident of the gin craze was the case of Judith Defour, a young woman with a daughter and no obvious husband. The daughter, Mary, had been taken into care by the parish workhouse and provided with a nice new set of clothes. One Sunday, in January 1734, Judith Defour came to take Mary out for the day and didn’t return her. Instead, she strangled her own child and sold the new clothes to buy gin.
Judith Defour was probably mentally unwell anyway, but her case became a public sensation, because it summed up everything that people thought about the new craze for drinking gin: she was poor; she was a woman and she was a mother. Judith was selling clothes for alcohol and as the clothes had been provided by the workhouse, she was therefore taking advantage of the rudimentary social security system, combining benefits fraud with infanticide.
The arrival of gin
Before gin had come on the scene, Englishmen had drunk beer. English women had drunk it too – up to a point – but beer and the alehouses where it was served had always been seen as basically male domains. Gin, which was new and exotic and metropolitan, didn’t have any of these old associations. There were no rules around gin. There were no social norms about who could drink it, or when you could drink it, or how much of it you could drink. A lot of places served it in pints because, well… that’s what you drank. A country boy newly arrived in the city wasn’t going to drink a thimbleful of something.
This was, quite literally, put to the test in 1741, when a group of Londoners offered a farm labourer a shilling for each pint of gin he could sink. He managed three, and then dropped down dead. It’s amazing he got that far, as gin, in those days, was about twice as strong as it is now and contained some interesting flavourings. Some distillers used to add sulphuric acid, just to give it some bite.
And so the efforts to ban drinking among the lower classes began. And they didn’t work very well. When authorities decided to ban the sale of gin, there were fully fledged riots. The poor didn’t want their drug of choice taken away. They loved ‘Madam Geneva’, as they called the spirit.
In any case, the government decided to tax the living daylights out of it. But people simply didn’t pay the tax, so government tried to pay informants to hand in unlicensed gin-sellers. This attempt turned ugly as a number of mobs formed to attack even suspected informants, and several people were beaten to death. Not that the informants were necessarily that nice; they could, and some did, run the whole thing as a protection racket – “pay me or I’ll claim the reward from the government”. And into this chaos it’s almost unsurprising that a mechanical cat should make an entry.
The Puss-and-Mew machine
The contraption known as the ‘Puss-and-Mew machine’ was simple. The gin-seller found a window in alleyway that was nowhere near the building’s front door. The window was covered boarded over with a wooden cat. The gin-buyer would approach and say to the cat: “Puss, give me two pennyworth of gin,” and then place the coins in the cat’s mouth. These would slide inwards to the gin-seller who would pour the gin down a lead pipe that emerged under the cat’s paw. The crowds loved it and the inventor, Dudley Bradstreet, made three or four pounds a day, which was a lot of money. As nobody witnessed both sides of the transaction, no charges could be brought.
The Gin Craze was a classic example of a drug without social norms. Every society on earth has had its narcotics (and almost every society has chosen alcohol). But those narcotics have come with social rules about when, where, how and why you ‘get blasted’. Every age and every society is different. Today, young adults tend to get drunk on a Friday evening, while in medieval England, the preferred time was Sunday morning. In ancient Egypt, it was the Festival of Hathor and in ancient China, it was during the rites that honoured the family dead.
Nowadays, gin is just another spirit, but in the 18th century, gin had no norms, no rules, no mythology and no associations. It was anyone’s, and that was its danger: a danger that in the popular imagination was easily transmuted into spontaneous female combustion.
A final note on these combustible ladies: they were all reasonably old and reasonably well off. The strange thing about spontaneous human combustion is that in all cases the body is reduced to a small pile of ashes, whilst nearby objects – however burnable – are not even singed. A human body actually burns at around 1,200 degrees Celsius. A burning house rarely gets above about 800 degrees. So, while the stories don’t stand up scientifically, a society that believes such stories is very good for those who stand to inherit the victim’s fortune.
In the course of a human life, cohabitation will inevitably occur once one’s children have reached young adulthood – but have not left home. One must quickly learn to adapt to the ways of others in order to create a harmonious and comfortable home for all those existing within. The simple tasks like washing the dishes, taking out the rubbish and checking to see if that’s a dead rat under the sink may come naturally for most. Respecting one another’s space and privacy while still maintaining a cordial, if not close friendship is a balancing act that requires an almost choreographed precision. Many pairings would have succeeded, were it not for their lack of ‘pooping’ etiquette.
Poop etiquette is the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group while pooping. The following is to teach the ‘uneducated’ the best practices in common decency when defecating while living with people.
When a human relieves themselves of their built up fecal matter, some release animalistic sounds in the forms of grunts, moans, and “ughgodwhyyy?” When alone, one can freely release these sounds at whatever volume he or she chooses. However, if company is at home, consider for a moment, how unnerving these sounds would be. As you hoot and holler your company on the other side of the wall is left wondering if there is anything they can do to help……… Please believe, there isn’t.
Another technique to consider so as to drown out the cacophony of pooping would be to turn on the sink to buffer the sound of your hefty droppings splattering into the toilet bowl; or even the trumpet sounds of air being expelled from the bowels. That, (I must replace it) noisy ceiling fan would help even better – or try singing!
After stewing in one’s own stench for a while, human’s become impervious to the smell of their personal musty odours. However, that scent can carry throughout entire house or apartment, subjecting everyone and everything to the complete hell on earth. To prevent this, one should first, close the door – Always close the door! Secondly, spray beforehand. This saves you and whoever is in the smelling radius from being subjected to the funk of 40 thousand years. If that doesn’t work, light a cigar and open a window.
Using up all of the toilet paper never goes well with the person who has to buy it. Sometimes, when one poops, wadding occurs – the younger you are the more you do it! Wadding is a scientific term for wrapping toilet paper around your hand 30x to protect the hand from contact with any fecal matter. Here, there is a common misconception that wadding will help clean your backside better because there is more toilet paper. That is FALSE. Save youself and your partner some money and some arguments and purchase a bidet which will afford the most thorough booty wash ever. Introducing the bidet to the household will adjust everyone’s way of approaching the way they poop, knowing that such an aid will cater for any bottom in the house.
When one has completed their defecation ritual, it is customary to flush so that no skidmarks are left behind.. However, one flush may not be enough when there is a mountain of fudge deposited. Well, one must wash away any ‘leftovers’ from the toilet bowl with an extra flush – or get down on your knees and scrub!
By following this etiquette, everyone will thrive together in cohabitation, particularly young adults, just as long as they don’t date one another’s exes.
On the 10th February 1788 Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes married in Australia; the first wedding ceremony in the new colony. Celebrations are afoot this year in Austalia to celebrate both the 230th Anniversay of the First Fleet’s arrival and the couple’s Wedding; also Susannah Holmes birth some 250 years ago. Here is their story as a tribute:
Maybe, with enough imagination, one could visualise a low February sun here, quietly painting tones of cold colour on Surlingham Church’s ancient round tower. Everything would be quiet, except maybe, the sound of rooks gossiping as they left their winter roost nearby. That almost perfect silence would remain so long as the visitor stayed still, but any movement forward towards the church door to enquire further, there would be heared the soft crunch of the frosted grass as footsteps left a silent trail of prints.
Almost 250 years ago and amongst a score of baptisms, a special baby girl was annointed from the church’s font. She would leave her own footprints, not in the frost or snow of Norfolk, but in the margins of history on the other side of the world. Yet regretably, she would remain strangely anonymous in the county but maybe not so now in the village of her birth. That child’s name was Susannah Holmes. Her story, and that of her lover and later husband Henry Cabell (now Kable) still has a strength of line that not only defies true description but, on the face of it, is stranger than fiction.
Susannah’s story started in Surlingham and remained in the shadows of village events until the ancient pages of the Norfolk Chronicle and the Norwich Mercury newspapers recorded, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, that in November 1783, she had been committed to Norwich Castle Gao,l accused of stealing clothing, silver teaspoons and linen, valued £2.00, from the home of her employer Jabez Taylor at Thurlton which was nine miles away. On the 19th March 1784, at Thetford Assizes, Mr. Justice Nares donned his black cap and sentenced Susannah to be ‘hanged by the neck until she was dead’. But her life was later spared and she was sentenced instead to fourteen years transportation to the plantations of America. Susannah Holmes would never see her Surlingham village and its round-towered church again.
In the claustrophobic squalor of Norwich Castle cells Susannah Holmes met another young convict also sentenced to death at Thetford Assizes and later reprieved. His story was darker still. The Norfolk Chronicle reported that Henry Cabell from Laxfield in Suffolk had joined his father and uncle Abraham Carman in robbing a house at nearby Alburgh. According to the Chronicle,
“they stripped it of everything moveable, took the hangings from the bedsteads and even the meat out of the pickle jars.They also regaled themselves with wine having left several empty bottles behind them.”
The Norwich Mercury also reported how the local Constable Mr Triggs and three assistants went to Carman’s house and discovered the gang trying to burn the evidence. When they broke down the door they were attacked by the three men.
“A severe combat took place in which Mr. Triggs received a terrible cut to the head and was otherwise much hurt.”
Sentenced to death, young Henry was reprieved on the orders of the Home Secretary Lord North, probably because of his age, and sentenced to seven years transportation. These were the days of ‘the Bloody Code’ when more than 150 offences carried the death penalty. What became of Henry’s father and uncle is recorded by the Chronicle in one chilling seventeen word sentence:
“On Saturday last Carman and Cabell were executed on the Norwich Castle Hill pursuant to their crimes.”
Having been sentenced to death for separate robberies, Susannah and Henry were both reprieved but incarcerated in Norwich Castle for three years whilst the authorities decided what to do with them. The American War of Independence had halted transportation to the New World and plans were being made at Government level to send convicts to Australia instead, to a place on its eastern coast that the explorer James Cook had only set Western eyes upon in 1770. Whilst the couple also waited, they did so in prison conditions that were unsanitary, over-crowded and disease-ridden, stifling in summer, ice-cold in winter with cells often under water. But according to the prison reformer John Howard who visited the prison at this time, the gaoler George Glynne was a humane man. Although prisoners were shackled they were also allowed to mix. So it was that Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes first met and fell in love, simple unfettered villagers awaiting shipment to they knew not where.
In 1786 Susannah gave birth in her Castle cell to a baby boy. They called him Henry Jnr. That same year mother and baby were sent on the long journey to the stinking prison hulk ‘Dunkirk’ at Plymouth to await transportation. They went alone. Agonisingly, the order from London forbade father Henry from going with them. He must have thought that he would never see his family again – but this story was about to get worse, much worse, before it got better. Mother and baby were also cruelly separated. Captain Bradley who was in charge of the ‘Dunkirk’ had orders only to receive Susannah and turned her baby away. The Norfolk Chronicle made reference to the plight of the girl from Surlingham:
“The frantic mother was led to her cell execrating (cursing) the cruelty of the man and vowing to put an end to her own life.”
What happened next became a ray of hope when John Simpson, the Norwich prison turnkey (warder) who had escorted mother and child to Plymouth, gathered up baby Henry and made haste to London where, in an age governed by unbridgeable class conventions, the humble turnkey did something truly astonishing. He went to the palatial offices of the new Home Secretary Lord Sydney who was finalising plans for the first convict fleet to sail for Australia. Refused entry, Simpson slipped in a side door only to be told that he would have to wait several days to see the man whose name would soon be bestowed on a new city at the world’s end. The Norfolk Chronicle again tells the story much better:
“Not long after, he saw Lord Sydney descend the stairs and he instantly ran to him. His Lordship shewed an unwillingness to attend to an application made in such a strange and abrupt manner. But Mr. Simpson described the exquisite misery he had been witness to and expressed his fears that the unhappy woman in the wildness of her despair should deprive herself of existence.”
It worked. Lord Sydney not only ordered that mother and child be reunited but gave instructions that the father should be allowed to join them as well. So Simpson set off wearily for Norwich to collect Henry Cabell. Together with the baby, they made the final journey to Plymouth and a remarkable reunion.
The Norwich gaoler, widely feted for a short time as ‘the humane turnkey’, would slip back into the shadow of anonymity, maybe to be rediscovered by descendants of his own children? – if indeed, there are descendants of this Norwich hero living today? It is not even known the fate of the two other female felons Elisabeth Pulley and Anne Turner who were sent from Norwich with Susannah to await transportation. What we do know is that transportation was a one-way ticket. There was no coming back.
It is worth noting here that the spelling of Henry’s name, like his life-story, was unpredictable. The parish records show he was the son of Henry and Dinah Keable. The newspapers called him Cabell, perhaps a mispelling. When he arrived in Australia it became Kable (probably a phonetic spelling) which it remains with his descendants. rom here Kable it is.
On 11th May 1787 a fleet of 11 ships slipped anchor and edged out of Portsmouth into a stiff westerly breeze. Amongst them was HMS ‘Friendship’ with sails trimmed to meet the stiff breeze. The ship sat deep in the water with a course set to take its crew and passengers to the other end of the world. On board was this Susannah Holmes, a young Norfolk girl, her lover from Suffolk and their recently born son. They were just three amongst a total of some 800 convicts being carried by the First Fleet – to be hailed ever after by their Australian descendants as ‘the reluctant pioneers.’ Ahead lay one of the greatest sea voyages in history and an adventure for the young Norfolk family which is well beyond the wildest imagination of any story-teller.
Friendship – 278 Tons (a) 274 (k) 75 ft. (22.9m.) long, 23 ft. (7.0m.) beam, carried 73 people + 76 male and 21 female convicts. (170) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states 25 Seamen, 40 Marines, 76 and 21 Female Convicts (162). Skippered by: Master Francis Walton. Little is known about where and when the Scarborough was built c. 1784 During her return voyage to England her crew came down with scurvy and with insufficient crew to man her she was scuttled and sunk in the Straits of Macassar 28 Oct 1788.
That ‘First Fleet’ of eleven sailing ships set out on a voyage of epic proportions and into the unknown and into the history books. Altogether, the fleet was carrying almost 800 male and female convicts and a similar number of crew and marines. The ships were overcrowded. The ‘Friendship’ carried 72 unwilling prisoners, many of them originally sentenced to death and now sentenced to ever-lasting exile in the British Empire’s newest colony. All must have cursed their vessel’s ironic name.
But perhaps Susannah, from Surlingham, and her Suffolk-born Henry may have felt differently. At least they and Henry Jr were together and, remarkably, they did not travel with empty-handed thoughts. The separation of mother and baby prior to departure had caused such an outcry that the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, had been compelled to reunite them. Their plight had captured the public imagination and an appeal raised money to buy them clothing and a few possessions; but even here there is yet another twist in the story – but more of that later.
How extraordinary that this simple and uncomplicated couple, together with their companions were to have more than a future for themselves; One day, sometime after being shuffled away from our shores, they would be feted as the founders of modern Australia. Extraordinary, too, that whilst it appears that so much is known about Henry and Susannah, the available contemporary documents reveal scant personal details. It is known that Henry Kable was the first of nine children and that Susannah Holmes had a brother and sister, but there are no images of what either looked like. There is only one description of Henry as being a “fine, healthy young fellow” and a suggestion that he might have been red-haired. That’s it! Much more is known about the ships; two naval vessels, six convict transports and three supply ships. The itineraries survive and include lists of handcuffs, leg irons, livestock, coal, tools, food and water of course, as well as 5,000 bricks and a ‘piano’ belonging to the naval surgeon.
At Cape Town, Susannah and the other women on board the Friendship were transferred to the Charlotte to make way for 30 sheep. One of the marines wrote in his diary: “I think we will find them more agreeable than the women.”
Charlotte: – 346 Tons (a) 335 (k), 105-ft. (32m.) long and 28-ft. (8.5m.) beam. When surveyed at Deptford Yard on 3 November 1786 measured 6’6′ afore, amid and aft and weighed 345 tons. Carried: Crew ± 30 + 45 others + 88 male and 20 female convicts. (183) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states 30 Seamen, 42 Marines, 86 Male and 20 Female Convicts. (178) Skippered by: Master Thomas Gilbert (qv). Built in 1784, A three masted fully square rigged with neither galleries or figurehead. After her return to England she was sold to a Quebec merchant in 1818 and was lost off the coast of Newfoundlands in Nov. 1818.
The 13,000 mile voyage through often uncharted and turbulent seas took 252 days and almost unbelievably not a single ship was lost. Sadly the same cannot be said of the convicts. Forty three either died en route or, as the manifest puts it, ‘left our vessels.’ Twenty two babies were born to prisoners or marines’ wives. Remarkably, only two died. Henry Kable Jr. also survived.
Enter another hero in this strange story. If the first was John Simpson, the Norwich prison turnkey whose efforts had reunited Susannah and Henry, the second was the Commander of the First Fleet Expedition, a Captain Arthur Phillip. Clearly a competant sailor, his navigational skills were to take the Fleet safely through the iceberg-strewn Southern Ocean to arrived in Botany Bay on the 18th January 1788. A week later the Fleet sailed into what they called Port Jackson at the time. A strong belief endures to this day in Australia that the ‘fine, healthy young fellow’ Henry Kable carried the Captain, later to become Govenor Phillip, through the surf and on to the beach where he dedicated the new settlement to the Home Secretary Lord Sydney who had ordered the establishment of this far-off penal colony.
Alexander: Barque-built – Convict Transport – 453 Tons ,114 ft. (34.75m.) long and 31 ft.(9.5m) at the beam. Deptford survey in October 1786 recorded her measurements of 7’3″ between decks afore, 6’11” midships and abaft. Carried: Crew ± 30 + 20 others + 195 male convicts. (245) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states there was 30 Seamen, 35 Marines and 194 Convicts (259) 14? Skippered by: Master Duncan Sinclair – Owner: William Walton & Co. Built as a 3 master-square rig, 1 quarter deck ± 114 x 31ft and 2 decks without galleries or figurehead, and was registered at Hull in 1783. The largest ship of the fleet, and little is known after her return to England and disappeared from records in 1808.
Two weeks later the lovers, together with three other couples were married by the Fleet’s chaplain – theirs were the first marriages in this new land. Then, our couple discovered that their possessions, which had been purchased after that earlier public appeal in England, had disappeared from the above ship, ‘Alexander’.
So, in an effort to secure justice, they sued the ship’s Captain Duncan Sinclair. They not only won their case but two and half centuries later that court ruling remains an historic legal precedent. Governor Phillip had obtained Royal assent to establish a court of civil jurisdiction with a judge advocate; the writ issued by the Kables was the new Court’s inaugaural hearing. This would have been impossible in England where convicts were regarded as ‘dead’ in law with no rights whatsoever. Blackstones’ criminal law bible had put it rather more bluntly:
“A felon is no longer fit to live upon the earth…to be exterminated as monster and a bane to society…he is already dead in law.”
Well, on the other side of the world the young Norfolk felon and her Suffolk born husband, once condemned to death, were well and truly alive – both in person and in the young Australia’s law. The Court that day, ordered the Captain to pay Susannah and Henry £15 in compensation. It was a wise decision of course for for how else would this group of convicts ever reform and develop in a civilised way without any legal rights, especially as 80,000 more convicts would arrive in the years ahead.
So it was that in the years that followed, the Kables thrived. At first, conditions were harsh, trying to survive in the primitive hovels that sprung up round the Bay. Famine was ever-present but it became clear that the Colony remained undaunted. Henry was made an overseer of a convict gang, then a constable and finally Governor Phillip appointed him as the first Chief Constable of New South Wales. Susannah laboured in a different way by way of not only feeding her growing family, giving birth to ten more children of which all but one survived. The family grew rich and even powerful. For a while Henry ran a public house called the Ramping Horse, named it is believed after Rampant Horse Street in Norwich. Its drunken revellers conveniently carted off to the nearby gaol which was also run by Chief Constable Kable.
At the last we are still not quite done with the firsts.The first ship of any size in the new colony was named after the Kable’s eldest daughter Diana. It was built by her father as part of a fleet that traded across the Pacific. And the same daughter of convict parents married brilliantly to a senior civil servant who had come to help establish the colony. It was Australia’s first ‘society’ wedding. By now her father had served his sentence and grown ever more wealthy with several estates and trading partnerships as well as just one more first on this vast continent, a stage coach service.
Henry Kable died in 1846 at the age of 82. He was buried alongside his beloved wife who he had outlived by 21 years. Susannah was 61 when she died in 1825. Ten generations later the dynasty they founded is thriving and meets appropriately enough at Kable’s restaurant in Sydney to remember their celebrated forebears who famously became known as the First Fleeters.
This year of 2018 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Susannah Kable, (nee Holmes), the Surlingham lass who is rightly regarded as one of Australia’s founding daughters. A few years ago she was voted one of that country’s most influential historic figures.
On 10th February 2018 a Kable Family reunion was organised for the descendants of Henry and Susannah, to celebrate the couple’s 230th Wedding Anniversary. The main venue for the activities was held in the Hawkesbury Race Club, Windsor. It included Registration and Welcome followed by a Church service and Dinner. Then on the following day, 11th February 2018 a Windsor heritage walk and bus tour took place, followed by a Light lunch. See Activities here for the full details.
Strange, how very undeserving, that in the country and county of her birth, she is seldom remembered and maybe only by parish historians
Back in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church at Surlingham, Norfolk the February sun had risen higher and taken the crispness from the early frost, but everywhere remained white. and the bare trees were leafed with snow. Beneath them the graves continued to say nothing. If it had not been for the theft of linen and silver teaspoons, Susannah Kable (Holmes) may, as likely as not, been laid to rest here beneath a Broadland sky instead of elsewhere far away. Who knows?
Before we proceed with what happened to the Royal Naval ship HMS Invincible some 217 years ago take particular note of Hammond’s Knoll, a 6-mile (9.7 km) long sandbank off the coast of Norfolk, England, just off Happisburgh. This is an innocent sandbank below high water and when the sea behaves itself; but when the weather is foul and the tide is low, it is best to stay alert and on guard – it can be dangerous. At low water, the sandbank has only a depth of about 6 fathoms at each end, and 3 fathoms in the centre. Nowadays, the Hammond’s Knoll is marked by lighted buoys at its north and east ends – this was not the case on the 16th March in the year of our Lord 1801.
The East Anglian coast is recognised as dangerous when the weather and sea choose to be foul. Many ships have been lost to gales over the centuries – some say the number runs into thousands. Storms in this part of the world seem frequent and ferocious either side of Autumn and Spring, wrecking and shifting the many sandbanks and shoals as they rage. In winter months particularly, the prevailing off-shore westerly wind would, more than likely, become a north-easterly, thrashing down from Scandinavia and the Artic. battering the lee shoreline. Ships which managed to sail a safe course through those ever shifting sands would still risk being smashed by the wave’s force, overwhelmed or driven ashore.
In the days of sail, the sea lanes up and down the eastern coast were far busier than they are today. Any storm would, as likely as not, have created a havoc of torn canvas, tangled ropes, broken masts and dead bodies. No ship, whether they be on Government business or commercial trading, were immune from posible disaster. Even the large fishing fleets that once thrived on herring could be lost; in fact, in 1789 around 130 fishing smacks and coasters were wrecked between Southwold and Cromer – one of more than a few such instances. With so many storms over the years the losses have been many, with coastal churchyards well used with graves and memorials for those who did not come home safely. These included resting places for members of the Royal Navy.
Britain once prided itself on having the greatest navy in the world and her sea battles were renowned, but East Anglian seas were even a challenge to military ships. Amongst those who did fall foul of the seas off Happisburgh, two stand out; the first was HMS Peggy which, in short, was wrecked on 19th December 1770 with thirty-two of its men losing their lives. They were buried in Happisburgh churchyard while their ship, the Peggy, was to remain on the beach for many years thereafter.
The HMS Invincible disaster was the other instance of a Royal Naval ship going down. She was a 74-gun, Ramilles Class third-rate ship, thirty-six years old in the spring of 1801 and battle-wearied, but nevertheless a stirring sight when fully rigged.
Launched at Deptford in March 1765, the HMS Invincible had served in the American War of Independence. Her battle honours included Cape St Vincent 1780, Chesapeake 1781, St Kitts 1782 and the Glorious First of June in 1794, where she was badly damaged and lost fourteen men. In 1797, she took part in the invasion of Trinidad which captured that island from the Spanish. So by 1801, HMS Invincible, which had a proud record of service, was back in British waters..
By March of that year, and with the war against France in a protracted state, fear remained that the French would seize the powerful Danish navy and use it against Britain. Therefore the British Baltic fleet, led by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and with Nelson as his second-in-command, was directed to sail to Copenhagen and make sure the Danish fleet could not fall into French hands.
HMS Invincible was to be part of this fleet so it was ordered to sail from Chatham, with its crew of around 600, and meet up with the fleet of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker which was already in the Sound preparing for the planned attack on the Danish fleet – to be known later as the Battle of Copenhagen 1801. HMS Invincible sailed on its journey under the flag of Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty.
During its way north, Invincible, with the ship’s newly appointed, thirty-fout year old, Captain John Rennie, put into Yarmouth to collect final orders and stock up with ordnance, stores and ammunition. She was by then a 1,631 ton war ship, as prepared as she could be for the battle ahead. Her state of readiness meant that on the 16th March she was able to leave Yarmouth Roads and, with a master and pilot aboard, set a course towards the notorious area of shifting sandbars off Happisburgh on the north-east coast of Norfolk.
The Master and Pilot clearly thought that they could navigate through the shoals safely, but a rising wind and the strong tide forced the ship off course. Within an very short time, at 2.30pm to be precise, she struck the sandbank of Hammond’s Knoll where the effect of wind and waves tore down the masts and began to break up the ship. The crew did all they could to save the ship. They jettisoned provisions and when the mizzen mast went they cut away the mast, hoping that the ship would float off the sands at high water. Whilst all this was going on, Invincible repeatedly fired a distress signal with its guns. For a while, it looked as if the crew’s efforts of jettisoning every they could would work for the Invincible moved slightly into deeper water. But, as she did so an even heavier swell and stronger wind caused the ship to lose its rudder. Unmanageable, she was driven back on to the sandbank. There she remained whilst the only thing left for the crew to usefully do was to man the pumps and try to keep as much of the ship as possible above water.
The wreck was only a few miles offshore and its distress signal, by way of frequent firing of the guns, was eventually answered by the collier Hunter, on her way into Yarmouth – but unfortunately she, for one reason or another, ignored the Invincible’s plight. Only the Yarmouth smack The Nancy, fishing for cod under its skipper, Daniel Grigson, came to Invincible’s aid. He offered whatever assistance he could. However, By midnight, it was clear to all on the royal naval ship that nothing could be done to save it and the order was for two of her boats to be lowered with Totty, the Purser, four midshipmen and some seamen in one and seamen in the other. They made it safely to The Nancy and then made a second run only for one of the boats to capsize as it approached The Nancy for the second time. Those men who had been thrown into the water were, fortunately, picked up by a Collier which had also answered the distress signal from the Invincible.
Both The Nancy and the Collier remained on rescue watch throughout that Monday night to pick up survivors, although neither were able to offer any assistance to Invincible herself.Then, after dawn had broken, the final act of this tragedy was played out. Those on the rescue ships were nothing more than spectators to the death throes of the Invincible as she shifted gradually into deeper water before slowly sinking. As she lowered herself below the surface waves, those on its forecastle made a last desperate attempt to survive by leaping into the sea before trying to get on board the last of the ship’s launches. Some made it but others were beaten back by those safely on board who feared that the launch itself would also capsize if overloaded. The weapons they used to repel greater numbers were the launche’s oars.
When the Invincible finally disappered into the depths, it took with her about 400 crew. Out of a full complement of 600 and, bizarrely, 50 passengers despite the fact that the ship was scheduled to go to war, one hundred and ninety persons were saved. Not included in this number of survivors was Captain Rennie who, duty bound, was the last man to leave his post; when he did so he was not only wet and extremy cold but suffering from exhaustion. He tried to swim to a launch but gave up. At that final moment before he drowned he seemingly had accepted his fate when he lifted his hands and place them over his face before sinking calmly beneath the water. Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty reported Rennie’s loss in his Report for the Court-martial which was to follow, calling him ‘a truly zealous and intelligent Officer’. That same Report also described the last moments of the HMS Invincible :
“At daylight on Tuesday morning, I observed that the Invincible had not a single Boat, either alongside or astern of her, and the tide ran so strong that it was impossible to get the fishing Smack to her, but the moment the tide slacked … she stretched under the Invincible’s stern, endeavouring by all possible means to work up and get alongside of her; but before that could be accomplished the Ship went down in thirteen fathoms Water, and out of 600 persons that belonged to the Invincible they have not been above 190 saved and now living; several who were picked up by the launch died very soon afterwards. I am extremely grieved to inform you that Captain Rennie was among the number of those drowned; by his death the service has lost a truly zealous and intelligent Officer … The horror of the scene at the Moment the Ship went down far exceeds all power of description.”
Amongst those who had reached The Nancy, and were later landed at Great Yarmouth, were those who were still to die as a result of the experience. In total, more than 400 were lost, compared to the 256 who were to die at the Battle of Copenhagen. On his way home from his triumph, Nelson still made time to visit “his men” from the Invincible lying injured in Great Yarmouth hospital.
For days after the wreck, bodies were washed up all along the coast. Most were brought on carts to Happisburgh churchyard, where they were buried in a huge, unmarked communal mound grave in unconsecrated ground to the north of the church. Of all those lost only six received a proper burial in the Holy Trinity & All Saints churchyard at Winterton the 20th day of March, 1801. Their names unknown
But the story of the Invincible did not end there because an attempt was made by a Mary Cator in 1913 to erect a memorial as a reminder to the lives lost. She raised money by subscription but when it was found that there was no official record that proved that bodies from the Invincible were buried in the mound, she returned the money raised. Then in 1924, Mary Cator’s persistence to ensure that an appropriate memorial existed in St Mary’s churchyard paid off. This was the year when the church bells were re-hung and Mary gave a treble bell on which was inscribed ‘In memory of Nelson’s men wrecked off Haisboro in 1801‘. A memorial at last! – but the story did not even endthere.
The unconsecrated land where the dead were buried was later incorporated into Happisburgh churchyard, then in 1988, the remains of many of the Invincible’s crew were located by chance in their original mass grave during the digging of a new drainage channel. There was found a disordered mass of bones less than three feet below the surface. These remains were reburied with proper rites; then, ten years later, in 1998, a memorial stone was erected to their memory by the Ship’s Company of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, together with members of the Nelson Society,, the Happisburgh parochial church council and a descendant of Captain John Rennie. This was a final recognition of all those who had died on HMS Invincible in 1801, summed up by St Mary’s Rector, Reverend Doctor Richard Hines as being:
“interpreted as a gesture of Christian faith that even in their most desperate moments those who perished out in the cold North sea did not perish beyond the love and presence of Almighty God” The Memorial’s inscription came from Revelation and reads ‘And the sea gave up the dead that were in it’.
Footnot: The compulsory court martial that followed Invincible’s sinking was held on the HMS Ruby at Sheerness. It absolved the Amiral and the Captain (posthumously) of culpability in the disaster, but posthumously blamed the harbour pilot and the ship’s master, both of whom had been engaged to steer the ship through the reefs and shoals of the dangerous region – they should have known the location of Hammond Knoll, especially since it was daytime and in sight of land.
The only amusing side to this story concerns the many casks that were seen floating on the sea after the HMS Invincible went down. Some 150 were brought ashore by the customs officers and were found to contain brandy. Others casks escaped and were to be picked up by delighted villagers; many of whom drank themselves into oblivion – one even died from his excesses!