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.
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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 then the young Sharman might well have served on Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson during his visit to the Inn on 6th November 1800. But it did happen, Sharman was earlier press ganged and the probability was that he was not alone in 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.
FOOTNOTE: 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!
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items of ‘general interest’ only. It endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material; however, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, please rest assured that the appropriate ‘credits’ are always given in our articles, and no violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.
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.”
The “few” mentioned above were Lucy Lady Boileau and her husband, Sir Maurice Boileau BT (of Ketteringham Hall, 3rd Baronet of Tacolneston); Lady Dorothy Nevill (an English writer, hostess, horticulturist and plant collector and the daughter of the third Earl of Orford); Prince Frederick Duleep Singh (of Elvedon Hall, the son of the deposed and exiled Maharaja Duleep Singh of the Punjab); the Earl of Orford (Robert Horace Walpole, 5th Earl of Orford); Sir Spencer Walpole (English historian and civil servant) and James Nevill.
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!
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.
‘Persons unacquainted with country affairs are apt to associate everything that is rustic and even vulgar with the vocation of a drover; but there was never a greater mistake.
From ‘Obituary of Robert Hope’ 1826
As early as 1359 there is a record of two Scottish drovers being given letters of safe passage through England with cattle, horses and other merchandise and yet, for centuries, the trade of driving cattle to English markets did not flourish, Why? Well, the main reason was the wars between Scotland and England that lasted centuries; any trade with England was actively prevented as it was seen as giving aid to the enemy. However, in 1603, James the Sixth ascended the English throne as James the First of England, uniting the two countries; by 1607, free trade had been agreed between the two.
This free trade agreement launched cattle droving to almost unimaginable heights, helped in no small way by the active discouragement of cattle rustling, or ‘reiving’. This unlawful practice had once been the scourge Scotland and if continued, would have been a threat to any meaningful movement of cattle. With rustling reduced significantly – for it was never completely eradicated, neither was the nice little earner for a few enterprising tough individuals who offered to ‘protect your cattle’ – some with a less romantic view would term it simply as a ‘protection racket’. Most, however, conducted the business honestly and there was no doubt that droving would not have grown into a huge operation, which it did by the middle of the 17th century, without complete trust in those who took your cattle to market and returned with the money, whether it be honouring ‘bills’ or handing over cash.
In the lawless days of Scotland, cattle were the main source of a man’s wealth, obtained either by raiding or trading. The beasts were small and thrived on the hills, moorland and the intemperate climate which no doubt conditioned them for the future long drives to the English markets. Daniel Defoe noted that “in the South West of Scotland the gentlemen took their rents in cattle. Some of them acquired such large numbers that they took their own droves to England; a Galloway nobleman would often send upwards of 4,000 head of black cattle a year”. In the North of Scotland he found that “the people lived dispersed among the hills. They hunted, chiefly for food and, again, bred large quantities of black cattle with which they paid their rent to the Laird”. These cattle, which came from the remotest parts, were driven south, “especially into the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex”. The burial of two Scottish drovers in Thrandeston, Suffolk —William Brown on 6 February 1682 and John Deek on 21 November 1688 —provides evidence of the traffic in cattle from Scotland to East Anglia in the 17th century.
For the most part, however, the drovers handling these cattle would have been local Scottish men who, in May of each year, would visit farms bargaining for cattle, often for only one or two at a time because many of the Highlands farming tenants were very poor. Gradually as summer advanced, the Drovers would gather together a herd before heading south across the border and into England. For example, in 1663 the border town of Carlisle recorded 18,574 cattle passing through during that year. By the middle of the 18th century, 80,000 cattle a year were being driven south. These totals would have been made up of herds of at least 100 strong and often up to 2,000 strong; many, if not all, on their way to markets in Norfolk and London. This movement was a clear indication that the economy was balanced between the Scottish cattle breeder and the East Anglian farmer. The former, until improved methods of farming were developed in Scotland in the early 19th century, was unable to bring his cattle to a condition suitable for a wholesale butcher. The East Anglian farmer, on the other hand, was within reach of the London markets and had grazing, straw and, later, root crops, enabling him to fatten and finish the beasts; the resulting manure provided a valuable by-product.
The farmers in the Highlands and Islands needed to reduce their stock in the autumn owing to the difficulties of winter feeding. Dealers would visit the Highlands to attend the local markets, and notices would be posted on church doors informing the farmers when they would be in the District so that cattle could be brought from the glens. The business revolved on credit: a price was agreed and, if the cattle fetched more within a certain period, the seller received more; but the reverse also applied and farmers suffered many a loss. The cattle might change hands again before reaching Crieff Tryst which, until the middle of the 18th century, was the largest cattle market in Scotland and considered to be the gateway to the Highlands and convenient to both buyers and sellers.
Before the Rising of 1745 the trade had been in the hands of the Scots, but later, English dealers in greater numbers were visiting the Scottish markets and Falkirk, further south, replaced Crieff in importance. The Falkirk Trysts were held in August, September and October and lasted several days, during which time endless droves arrived from the North. They spread over a large area of the surrounding country which was enlivened by many tents selling refreshments and interspersed with banks for the financial transactions. When an agreement was reached, the tar dishes were brought out and the cattle marked and taken from the field. Small jobbers would send their purchases to a common trysting place where they were consigned to a drover who collected cattle from several grazings. The topsman could, without scruple, reject any beast he considered unfit for travel, as his remuneration was a small sum per head for every beast safely delivered to a market. These men were entrusted with the management of other people’s property worth thousands of pounds.
The term ‘drover’ covered a wide range of men, from the cattle dealer who turned over thousands of pounds a year to the hired hand who helped to drive the beasts. By an Act of Parliament of 1562, drovers had to be registered: they also had to be married householders and at least thirty years old. This was obligatory until 1772. They came to enjoy a professional reputation which enabled them to assume the role of travelling bankers. It is probable that only the topsman was required to register.
The Galloways were bred in the South West districts of Scotland, and were popular in Norfolk and Suffolk as they were easily fattened. A similar pattern of sale occurred: a number of local cattle markets, a large weekly market and three autumn markets on the Whitesands of Dumfries. The droves heading for England from both Dumfries and Falkirk passed through Carlisle. The cattle were shod for the journey and accounts vary as to whether the shoes were fitted at the outset of the drive or when rough roads were reached. The ‘cues’ were made of thin, crescent-shaped metal plates and, to be fully shod, a beast needed two to a hoof, but often only the outer hoof was covered. To accomplish the operation, its front and back legs were tied together and the animal thrown on its back. An experienced man could shoe seventy beasts a day.
From Carlisle, the path to East Anglia lay across the Pennines to what is now the Great North Road, turning eastwards south of the Wash. In the autumn, when the industry was at its peak, the roads south were thronged with cattle: 2,000 a day passed through Boroughbridge and there were many times when from dawn to sunset Wetherby was never free from beasts. The route chosen depended on the decision of the topsman, the head drover. If the weather had been wet the rivers might be impassable; if dry, certain paths would be devoid of wayside grazing. A drove would consist of 200 or more beasts with one man to every fifty or sixty cattle. They went to Norwich, Long Stratton and Hoxne at a steady pace, averaging twelve to fifteen miles a day. The topsman, usually the only man mounted, would ride ahead to warn oncoming traffic and secure overnight pasture for the beasts and shelter for the men. If neither was available they slept in their plaids alongside the cattle.
The men reputedly often travelled barefoot and carried their own food, a mixture of oatmeal and water called ‘crowdie’, in a leather bag. In the early 19th century they received between three and four shillings a day, twice that of a farm labourer, and ten shillings for the return journey. They had to pay their own expenses —at one time, nine pence a night for lodgings in the winter and five pence in the summer.
Norfolk’s St Faiths Fairstead:
For hundreds of years the village of Horsham St Faiths was famous for its annual cattle market, traditionally named the St Faith’s Fairstead, held there from October 17th for three weeks each year. This fair was granted a Charter in 1100 and the last cattle fair was held there in 1872. Whilst the Fairstead itself ran from October 17th each year, the so-called ‘Norfolk Season’ began at Candlemas, on 2 February. Drovers taking cattle from the Fair, made weekly journeys during February and March, twice weekly during April, May and June, with possibly one or two journeys in August and September. The season appears to have been approximately the same in Suffolk.
The site on which the St Faiths Fairstead was held was situated just outside Horsham St Faiths, to the north of Norwich. It occupied at least 50 acres along the present Spixworth Road, between Bullock Hill and Calf Lane, two legacies of the old Fair. In those far off days, the Fairstead consisted of many small fields which Drovers would hire to hold their cattle for the duration of the sales. Then, alongside these fields, there were a further three acres called ‘The Lond’ which held the market stalls. Whilst the St Faiths Fairstead attracted sellers and their livestock from around Britain, it was particularly favoured by Scottish Drovers who brought with them Norfolk’s favoured beast – the Galloway.
“The purchase of Scotch in the district is chiefly at the Fair of St. Faiths, to which Scots drovers bring annually great numbers. The most common age is 4 years old. Some have been worked in the collieries.” –
Norwich Mercury circa 1800
Invariably perhaps, and because of the good business links between Norfolk and the markets at Dumfries and Falkirk, the largest droves that came into Norfolk probably headed for the St Faith’s Fair. There were, of course others of which the Hempton Fair, near Fakenham, was used, not only to sell cattle in their own right, but to also assist the selling of those heads which failed to find buyers at St Faiths. The date for the Hempton Fair was usually on, or around, the 22nd November.
As for the St Faith’s droves, they usually left Dumfriesshire around the 14 September, the 340 miles taking twenty-eight days, at an approximate twelve miles a day. Before reaching St Faith’s, each drover would have hired a field for his beasts, the majority being bullocks, four to five years old, mainly black or brindled, some dun and a few red. To accommodate each herd, the host farmer would have ensured that his fields would offer ‘a full bite of grass‘ for the cattle. However, before arrival and employing the usual practice of ‘showing off’ his cattle to attract buyers, the ‘topsman’ drover would have assessed likely demand and price. As long as sales continued he would stay, up to a fortnight, before moving any unsold stock to another market.
As with all markets and sales, there was an art to selling lean cattle and much could be gained by choosing a favourable stand. The cattle looked best on a gentle slope with a minimum of forty beasts, especially the polled variety which stood closer together. Sixty were better and eighty better still. Ten beasts, matched for quality, would be segregated in one corner in the hope of persuading a grazier to buy all ten, in which case a discount would be given. The grazier had to know at a glance how much a beast would improve on good, bad or indifferent land as well as on turnips, in three, six or twelve months.
Whilst the Scottish drovers would eventually leave and return with business done, those cattle not retained for breading purposes would have further to go before their travels ended. There would be those sold on to Suffolk & Essex graziers who would further fatten these cattle on the luxuriant grass of coastal marshes before, in turn, selling them on to London buyers. The remainder would be fattened by local Norfolk farmers themselves, before returning to the St. Faiths Fairstead at some future date to sell their cattle direct to their own London customers. Local drovers would undertake the task of taking the animals to London and their final destination of Smithfield Market and the wholesale butcher – there to help feed a large and hungry city. It was a fact that Suppliers to London relied heavily on the Scottish Drovers who brought cattle south, together with the English (particularly East Anglian) farmers who fattened the beasts. The London meat market of Smithfield recorded in 1794, 108,000 cattle arriving for slaughter, at least 80% of which came from Scotland along the extensive network of Drove Roads.
Back at Horsham St Faiths, as elsewhere, local drovers would advertise their services to those attending the Fair. The advertisements for the times and places for drawing in the stock for Smithfield invariably began with the drover thanking the graziers, gentlemen farmers, jobbers and friends for past favours and the hope that he would continue to merit their future custom. When each beast had had the owner’s mark clipped from its coat, preparations for the journey (approximately a week) were complete.
One such 1826 advertisement from a John Mald at St Faiths is an example:
“John Mald, drover from Norwich to London, returns his sincere thanks to his friends and the public for that liberal share of patronage which he received last year, and begs respectfully to assure them that the same unremitting attention will be paid to the punctual delivery of all cattle etc. with which he may be entrusted, to any salesman whom they may appoint.”
Once a contract had been agreed with farmers at the Fair, John Mald would issue a Notice of time and place for collection of each consignment:
“J.M. Will start on Saturday 2nd December 1826 and stop at Homesfield Swan on Sunday night; Wortwell Bull Monday morning; Cap Inn, Harleston, at 12 o’clock; Needham Fishmonger’s Arms; Brockdish Greyhound and Scole Inn that night. Also at the Queen’s Head, Long Stratton at nine o’clock; Tivetshall Ram at twelve; Dickleburgh Kings Head at three in the afternoon, and meet at Scole Inn the same night. On Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock at Wortham Dolphin; Botesdale Greyhound till two; Pakenham Woolpack that night; Bury Market every Wednesday; and at Alpheton Lion that night.”
It is clear from this Notice that J.M’s drove would set out on a Weekend, arriving in London the following Sunday, ready for the Monday market. Smithfield Market was held weekly on Mondays and Fridays, with the latter day being favoured by Suffolk farmers. At Mile-End, salesmen would meet John Mald, as too other drovers, taking charge of their lots and handing over payment. It was Mald’s responsibility to take the money back to the Norfolk farmers. It was clear that the East Anglian drover, like his Scottish counterpart, had to be a man of integrity, financing the overheads of the journey and returning with his clients’ profit in cash or short-date bills on a local bank, which he would dispense on settlement day. A typical settlement day is described by William Marshall at the ‘Angel’ Inn at Walsham, Norfolk in 1780.
“There was a roomful of graziers who had sent bullocks to Smithfield the previous week. The weekly journey was made alternately by the drover, J. Smith of Erpingham, and his servant. Smith sat with each man’s account and a pair of saddle bags with money and bills lying on the table before him. A farmer would sit at his elbow, examine the salesman’s account, receive his money, drink a glass or two of liquor, throw down sixpence towards the reckoning and return to the market”…. “What a trust, no security but his honesBeyond
Norfolk Chronicle – 4th November 1899 – Page 2.
There was once a public House at Horsham St Faiths called the HIGHLAND LADDIE, whose licensee in 1794, was Samuel Lovick. [This is not to be confused with the ‘Highland Laddie’ of Wisbech Road, Kings Lynn that was to be run by a Robert William Blyth some years later than 1794].
The St Faiths Fair was the centre for sales of cattle which had mostly been reared in Scotland. Very few cattle grazed in Norfolk were bred in the county when the Fair was at its prime. Cattle grazed were chiefly Galloway Scots, which years ago, gave way to Irish cross-breeds. The development of Norwich cattle market did much to close the Fair and indirectly the shutting of the Highland Laddie Inn’.
Beyond Norfolk and nearer to London:
Similarly, Suffolk drovers followed same practice and would place notices in the local press advertising where they would be collecting cattle stock. James Howlett of Brome, a drover and salesman was one:
A postscript to his advertisement assured ‘those gentlemen who may be pleased to confer their favours’ on him that every attention would be paid to their stock, and every care taken ‘to obtain the best price the market will afford to the benefit of his employers’ 2 January 1819). The advertisement ends ‘Please to direct, 60 West Smithfield, London’, which suggests that he was commissioned by a Smithfield salesman.
Inevitably misfortunes occurred. The drovers Benjamin Bell and his son Thomas farmed near Canobie in Dumfriesshire and brought droves to East Anglian fairs. They left home in mid October 1746 with a drove which contained 500 particularly good beasts which Thomas had bought at a favourable price after bargaining for twenty-four hours. On reaching Hoxne, on this occasion, in December they met with disaster – Distemper! Thomas wrote to their backer on Christmas Day to say that the illness was raging in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex and there was no way for them to escape. The cattle in the area were dying at an alarming rate, and one hand at Hoxne had already lost 300. An Act of Parliament had been passed which obliged them to insure any cattle sold; they had sold forty beasts to a Mr Wilson of Colchester and had heard that they were all dead. On 7 January Thomas wrote again saying that he had found twenty-nine dead in one pasture, and twenty-five in other pastures; the rest were all infected. They were expected to dig pits and bury the infected beasts within three hours. The Bells had charges to pay and no money. He added that they would be home by Candlemas and people could do what they would with them. Apparently, the Bells’ fortunes recovered during the ensuing years!
In June or July 1766 there was an increased demand for Scottish beasts owing to a shortage resulting from a series of past cattle plagues. Many of the dealers in East Anglia went to Scotland for the first time and bought direct, depriving Scottish drovers of custom; this deprivation of trade stimulated a number of ‘drovers’ to become dealers in their own right. There developed a class of professional cattle dealer, referred to as ‘drover dealers’, whose reputation for honesty and fair-dealing became recognised throughout the country. They were highly organised, hard-headed businessmen who rode thousands of miles to cattle markets; they therefore needed a stud of horses, and rented thousands of acres of grazing. Many of them dealt with the English markets and sent their own droves south, where they employed a salesman or used the services of another firm.
These droves would start travelling down in January February and March, when the usual venues were either the Tie’ Nagpie] or the ‘Cardinal’s Cap’, both at Harleston. George Campbell was one of the first men to sell in this manner; his notice in the local newspaper for 2 January 1779 advised the gentlemen, farmers and graziers in Norfolk and Suffolk that he had on the road, on its way to Harleston and Hoxne, ‘a capital drove of Galloway Scots and heifers which he is determined to sell upon the most reasonable terms at the above places’. The date of sale was to appear in a future issue. The advertisement was repeated in the editions of 9, 16 and 23 January. On 30 January a further notice announced that the sale would begin on the following Monday, 1 February, and continue until all the cattle were sold. The First three days’ sale would be at Harleston, the next three at Hoxne, ‘and to change alternately’. The drove was said to be ‘very capital’ and would be ‘sold cheap’. The sale was evidently successful, for Campbell inserted a further notice on 20 February, intimating that he would be at Harleston with yet another capital drove by the end of March.
Campbell’s journeys emphasise the organisation required of the drovers, who had to work to a tight schedule to arrive at their destination on time. January, February and March were not the best months to be travelling on foot from Scotland to East Anglia. Grazing would have been at a premium, while paths could be water-logged, frozen, or obliterated by snow Overnight stops with fodder had to be reached and occasionally the weather did defeat them. James Campbell intended selling a capital drove at the Tye’ Inn, Harleston, on Wednesday 15 January 1794 which he advertised in the Local newspaper on 4 January. A week later a further notice informed the graziers that ‘owing to the badness of the roads’ the drove would be a day late and shown on 16 January.
Another name of note was William McTurk, possibly a relative of Robert McTurk who, in his day, was a dealer of consequence. A bystander recalled seeing one of his droves, numbering seventy-five score of Galloways, passing through Carlisle on its way to Norfolk. McTurk would buy between one and two thousand large cattle at Falkirk, sweeping the fair of the best lots before the other dealers had made up their minds to begin. He was a stout man with a calm, composed demeanour, who would sit on his pony and buy seventy score without even dismounting. He rented large grazings in Dumfriesshire, where he wintered his highlanders ready for the southern markets.
With a workforce of one man to fifty or sixty beasts there could be a number of Scotsmen at the fairs and sometimes tempers flared. A violent fight took place between the Scotsmen and the locals at the `Bell’ in Hempton, Norfolk, in August 1791. Several people were injured, two seriously. The drovers then broke into a neighbouring public house where they attacked people and swore they would defend themselves against the Civil powers to the last drop of their blood. The next morning Lord Townshend armed his servants and tenants, surrounded the house and ordered them to surrender. The few who refused broke through the roof as evening approached and were caught nearby.
On the outskirts of London, such as Mile End, there were ‘layers’. These were areas outside the City’s jurisdiction where the beasts could be fed, watered and rested before they were collected by the licensed London drovers in the early hours of market day. Such ‘layers’ possessed great advantages as the stock went into the market less fatigued and in better condition than is possible in the usual method of droving. Early morning departure for Smithfield appears to have been at 3 o’clock when it would just be possible to see the beasts; the implication here is that salesmen came to the ‘layers’ and found advantages there.
As the droves funnelled towards the Capital they caused much inconvenience to the local inhabitants. When it was proposed to close one ancient footpath in Hornchurch Lane the tenants of Havering Enclosure wrote in alarm to the Commissioners to say that the path ‘enabled the women and children of the industrious tradesmen to enjoy the benefit of the air free from the dread and danger of the numerous droves of cattle and from the greater dread of insults from the drovers’. It is not difficult to imagine the disturbance caused by jostling cattle being driven through the narrow London streets. In 1839 regulations were enforced as to the number of beasts and the hours in which they could be driven. No dogs were to be used. On their left, upper arm, the London drovers wore a metal badge stamped with the armorial bearings of the City of London and their licence number. Further regulations in 1850 stipulated the routes the cattle had to follow; those from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge were met at ‘layers’ in Stratford or Mile End and were to be driven via Shoreditch, Worship Street, Barbican and Long Lane. Tolls were paid at the City gates and to the City of London for the beasts sold in the market. On reaching Smithfield the beasts were tied individually to long lines of oak rails where the salesmen negotiated sales with the carcase butchers. Although the cattle had their prescribed routes through the City they caused much disruption and the public voiced their distress at the cruelty suffered by the beasts which, alarmed and frantic from pain, would rush in any direction but that which was intended.
By the early 19th century, droving as a major industry was nearing the end of its days. The peace, after the battle of Waterloo in 1815 finished the Napoleonic wars, meant the shrinking navy needed less beef but other changes were even more important. The first half of the nineteenth century saw a revolution in agriculture. Enclosed systems of fields replaced open common grazing and large, fatter cattle were bred and raised ready for market. More importantly, by the 1830s, faster steamships were being built and farmers in the lowlands and elsewhere started to ship cattle directly to the southern markets instead of by the long arduous overland droves. Then, once railways were being established from the 1850’s, an even swifter and more reliable means of transporting cattle and other agricultural products to market was being offered. By then, cattle had been more carefully bred and were not hardy enough to take the long road anyway.
In East Anglia few traces of the long trails south now remain. ‘Bullock Hill’, ‘Calf Lane’ or ‘Fair’ incorporated in the name of a road suggests a one-time involvement, while the Inns, where farmers brought their cattle to be taken to London, now have large car parks. Was this where the men congregated with their cattle? – and, did the rivers nearby provide water for the drinking troughs?
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.
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.
In February 2018, the following article by Mark Forsyth , appeared in History Extra. Its title: “The 18th-Century Craze for Gin”. Readers of this Blog, who might have missed the article the first time round, might like to read it for themselves now. Apologies for a few minor tweaks to the article, and also for leaving out the advertising and other extraneous matter which only detracts from an interesting article. Read on:
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.
Norwich, 4th March 1736: It was on this day when the City ladies read with mounting excitement of “A Fresh and Neat Parcel of the Royal Beautifying Fluid” which had arrived in Norwich. Praise for its efficacy was not modest:
“So exceedingly valued by the Ladies of Quality and all who have used it for its transcendent Excellency in beautifying the Face, Neck and Hands, to the most exquisite Perfection possible. It gives an inexpressible fine Air to the Features of the Face and a surprising Handsomeness to the Neck and Hands which it immediately makes excellent Smooth, Fine and delicately White” As if that is not enough:
“It takes away all disagreeable Redness, Spots, Pimples, Heats, Roughness, Morphews [blemish or birth mark], Worms in the Face, Sun-burnt, Freckles or any other Discolouring in the Skin”.
It needed only a few wipes with a little of the royal fluid, dropped on to a clean napkin, to make a lady’s face “fine, clear, soft and fair, as to cause Admiration in the Beholders”. The same retailer, William Chase, a Norwich bookseller, also stocked “the incomparable powder for the teeth, which has given such great satisfaction to most of the Nobility and Gentry in England for these Twenty Years”.
(Norwich Mercury, 4/5 March 1736)
Bless them, the Georgians cared greatly about their appearance. Indeed, the lure of a pretty face in make-up became so strong in the Georgian period, and was considered so irresistible, that parliament, apparently, considered passing a law to protect men from being duped by painted ladies with designs on their purse:
“An Act to protect men from being beguiled into marriage by false adornments. All women, of whatever rank, age, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty’s subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes and bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witch-craft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.”
Put forward in 1770 likely as a wry jab at fashion rather than a serious law, this amendment to the Witchcraft Act was never passed, nor did it make it into the debating chamber. Nevertheless, beauty treatments were abundant in Georgian Norfolk and , indeed, Britain as a whole. Here are just seven which today may be considered as the most weird and wonderful…….!
White, White and White! Our obsession with acquiring the perfect sun-kissed tan would have utterly perplexed the Georgians. In the 18th century a suntan was a sure sign that one worked outdoors, whereas the polite, wealthy classes remained indoors and out of the sun’s glare. The most basic and perhaps famous Georgian fashion was porcelain white skin, for both men and women.
Alongside horse manure and vinegar, the main ingredient in skin-whitening creams and powders was lead. Daubed liberally on the face and neck, these creams and powders helped to achieve that all-important ‘never been outdoors’ look. Whiteness was accentuated by using blue colouring to highlight veins, while lips and cheeks were tinted with yet more lead – this time coloured with carmine [a bright-red pigment obtained from the aluminium salt of carminic acid] or even with mixes containing highly toxic mercury.
With the widespread use of lead, it was hardly surprising that fashionable sorts began to suffer serious reactions to their make-up. From eye disorders to digestive problems and even, in extreme cases, death, the price of following the fashion for blanc was high. The prized porcelain skin tone so beloved of Georgian fashionistas wasn’t financially easy to achieve either. Deadly or not, skin creams were an expensive addition to a lady’s make-up bag and for those seeking beauty on a budget the options were limited: for both hair and face a light dusting of wheat flour might have to suffice.
Speaking of Patches… Also known as mouches, beauty patches were small clippings of black velvet, silk or satin that were attached to the face to cover blemishes, including smallpox scars and damage wrought by white lead, or just as a bit of decoration. Often kept in highly decorative containers, these patches enjoyed many years of popularity.
Just as fans could be used to communicate a secret message, the position of these skin patches eventually came to be associated with coded meanings. For example, if one wished to show political allegiance, a patch on the right-hand-side of the face denoted a Tory while a Whig wore a patch on the left. On a more intimate note, a patch in the corner of the eye might be an invitation to a would-be paramour.
Unlike face creams, patches weren’t only the preserve of the rich. If you couldn’t afford finely shaped silk and velvet then a little bit of clipped mouse skin would do just as well. Patches even appeared in many pieces of Georgian art; perhaps most famously in William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress:
Even Hugh Hair! The popular image of the later 18th century is one in which enormous and flamboyant wigs teetered precariously atop the heads of fashionable ladies, but this isn’t actually accurate. There was plenty of teetering hair but it was often real, with wigs generally worn only by 18th-century men.
Ladies and gents alike achieved their fashionable pale hair colour by applying hair powder, which was made from flour or starch and puffed onto the head with a pair of bellows [a device constructed to furnish a strong blast of air]. For that typically Georgian ‘big haired’ look the wealthy employed an army of stylists who built elaborate structures atop their heads around wooden frames padded with extra sections often made from horse hair.
Curling tongs were also developed: these resembled a pair of blunt scissors, with two metal prongs and wooden handles. When the prongs were heated in the fire the hair could then be wrapped around them and held in place until the curl had set. Alternatively, clay rollers were heated in an oven and then applied to the hair or wig. Heads also would often be adorned with wax fruit and other decorations such as flowers or even model sailing ships, and the most elaborate hairstyles would remain in place for days or weeks at a time. Within these monumental headpieces our fashionable gentleman and ladies acquired the occasional lice, but the Georgians had an answer for that too: specially designed rods were sold that could be slid between the layers of hair and used to scratch the lice bites, while ensuring that their fashionable hairstyles stayed perfect. If the lice became really itchy there was always the possibility of treating them with mercury, but given that this was known to potentially cause madness or death, a scratching rod was usually the preferred option.
Mouse Eyebrows With lead liberally applied to the face as a matter of routine, it is hardly surprising that people’s eyebrows often fell out. Georgian fashionistas therefore adopted a new approach and began to pluck out or shave what eyebrow hair remained before pencilling on a new brow or using lead or burnt cork to colour one in.
As black brows became a popular look, occasional mentions of a rather strange new fashion began to emerge: in 1718, celebrated poet Matthew Prior wrote a satirical poem about Helen and Jane, who wear eyebrows made of mouse skin. Evidence for mouse skin brows remains scant, but mention of them does appear in satire throughout the early 18th century.
It was a ‘Must’ to Pad the right places Many 21st-century celebrity careers have been established upon (or at least bolstered by) the strength of a shapely bottom. Yet this is nothing new: fashionable Georgian men were no strangers to a bit of strategic padding.
Skin-tight breeches designed to show off the well-formed legs of their wearer became all the rage – but what if one didn’t have well-formed legs? For those who were too skinny to fill the garment, padding was the natural answer. Just like a modern padded Bra enhances the bosom, pads of fabric or horsehair could be inserted to breeches that would give the impression of muscled calves.
These pads could also be inserted anywhere else the male wearer might like a boost! These pads were the preserve of the most fashion-conscious of Georgian and Regency men. They found popularity among the highly fashionable, flamboyant chaps known as Dandies who wore corsetry and pads to create the perfect male shape.
What about that Gleaming Smile! With the upper classes indulging in all manner of sugary treats, it’s hardly surprising that the teeth of our Georgian beauties were far from perfect. Tooth powders (also known as dentifrice) were therefore used to whiten teeth: among their ingredients of cuttlefish and bicarbonate of soda was often the mysteriously named spirit of vitriol. Better-known today as sulphuric acid, this mineral (which we now know to be highly corrosive) certainly whitened the teeth, but primarily because it stripped them of their enamel completely.
Unsurprisingly, many Georgians required dental surgery and, without anaesthetic, such procedures were a skin-crawling affair. Once the troublesome tooth was removed, the richest patients could opt for a replacement live tooth to be purchased from a donor and threaded directly into the socket. Some of these live teeth had actually come from the mouths of corpses, bringing with them whatever disease and infections their original owner had been subject to.
If a pricey live tooth was beyond your means and a gap simply wouldn’t do, there were alternatives on offer: anything from a single tooth to a complete set of dentures could be constructed from materials including porcelain, ivory, or even the teeth of soldiers who died at the battle of Waterloo. Known as ‘Waterloo teeth’, these were gathered from the mouths of dead soldiers and became highly sought after. After all, a client knew that a Waterloo tooth had come not from a man who died of disease or a corpse dug up by grave robbers, but a young and (hopefully) healthy soldier who died honourably on the battlefield.
Plus a Face Pack! Less well-known than white Georgian faces and huge hair is ‘Fard’, a regency face mask used to soothe sunburn and “cutaneous eruptions” [spots].
Fard was a mix of sweet almond oil, spermaceti [a waxy substance found in the head of a sperm whale] and honey that was dissolved over heat and, once cooled, applied to the face and left on overnight. The recipe, was first published in The Mirror of the Graces,1811 followed by reprints which must have meant that the fashion continued decades later.
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