His name was James Stark (19 November 1794 – 24 March 1859), an English landscape painter and a leading member of the Norwich School of Painters. He was elected vice-president of the Norwich Society of Artists in 1828 and became their president in 1829. James had wealthy patrons and, as you would expect, he was consistently praised by the Norfolk Press for his successful career.
James Stark was born in Norwich, the youngest son of Michael Stark, an important dye manufacturer in the city, and his wife, Jane Ivory. He was christened on 30 November 1794 at the Church of St Michael Coslany, Norwich, close to the family home. James was the youngest son of eight siblings. His father Michael Stark (1748–1831) was a Scottish-born dyer who had a considerable literary and scientific background; he ran his own dyeing business on Duke Street, Norwich. Michael Stark was also credited with a number of innovations in the dyeing industry, notably the invention of the formula for ‘Norwich Red Madder’ used for dying the once famous ‘Norwich Shawls’.
James Stark, was dogged with poor health throughout his life, but he was compensated with a talent for art which he began displaying whilst being educated at Norwich School; it was here where he became friends with John Berney Crome, the son of the artist John Crome. It was also whilst James was at school that two of his pencil drawings were exhibited in Norwich; that was in 1809. In 1811, at the age of seventeen, he completed his formal education and did, initially, have ambitions to become a farmer – but that was never to be. Instead, and probably unsurprisingly perhaps, he became apprenticed to John Crome for three years. The Master’s influence on his pupil was to be profound from the outset, for it was in the same year as his apprenticeship commenced when Stark’s first exhibited work, outside of Norwich, was exhibited in London; it was his painting ‘A view on King Street River, Norwich’ and was shown at the Royal Academy.
Two letters from John Crome to his teenage pupil still survive. One, dated 3 July 1814 and sent to Stark’s house in London, contains a reminder to submit work to the Norwich Society of Artists’ forthcoming exhibition. The second letter, considered by art historians to be important, reveals how Crome was able to impart his knowledge to his pupils. Amongst other suggestions, the letter encouraged Stark to consider using more “breadth”. Crome certainly had a strong influence on Stark, who was his favourite pupil; the Master’s preoccupation with depicting trees and woodland scenes led Stark to produce many such scenes himself. He was elected as a member of the Norwich Society of Artists in 1812. He exhibited at the British Institution between 1814 and 1818, winning a prize of £50 in 1818.
It was in 1814, following the end of his Norwich apprenticeship, when James Stark moved to London. There he befriended and became influenced by the artist William Collins. In 1817 he became a student at the Royal Academy. The Bathing Place, Morning was sold in 1817 to the Henry Hobart, the Dean of Windsor. Then, for a short period, he shared lodgings with the portrait painter Joseph Clover. During this period, he began to sell paintings to wealthy patrons: both the Marquis of Stafford and the Countess de Grey bought works from him.
After only two years of study in London, debilitating ill health forced him to return to Norwich. There he devoted himself to painting the scenery around the city and executing a series of paintings of Norfolk rivers, which were eventually engraved and published in 1834. During this time, he was regarded by his friends as one of the leaders of the Norwich School of Painters, and was elected Vice-President of the Norwich Society of Artists in 1828 and President in the following year; It was a time when the Society was struggling to survive.
James Stark had married Elizabeth Younge Dinmore of King’s Lynn on 7 July 1821. In 1830, he moved to London, taking up residence in Beaumont Row, Chelsea where Elizabeth Stark died in 1834, three years after the birth of their son, Arthur James Stark. In 1840 Stark moved to Windsor, where he lived for ten years. During this period in his life, he painted many pictures of the scenery along the Thames and in Windsor Great Park, producing images of trees that revealed his improved understanding of their structure. He returned to London in 1849 to further his son’s artistic education, residing at Mornington Place, Camden Town. He lived there until his death in 1859 at the age of 64.
Development as an artist: Stark mainly worked in oils, though he was also a watercolourist, and produced drawings in pencil and chalk. He initially followed his teacher John Crome in producing works with soft greys and pinks, in a style similar to that of Crome’s Back of the New Mills (c. 1815). His first important success occurred the same year, when he exhibited The Bathing Place – Morning. His Lambeth, looking towards Westminster Bridge (1818), now in the Yale Centre for British Art collection in New Haven, Connecticut.
Stark’s early paintings were followed by landscapes of a repetitive and stylized kind, generally depicting woodland glades, and for which he is generally best known today. Such works were exhibited under the title Landscape. By the mid-1830s, Stark had moved away from the influence of the Dutch masters and was producing paintings that showed nature less heavily and more freely. These works have more descriptive titles. Not all his critics were pleased: the Norfolk Chronicle complained in 1829 of Stark’s move away from depicting formulaic scenes towards a greater use of bright colours and more brilliant lighting effects. His work during this period in his artistic career became more successful. The numerous sketches of the Norfolk countryside he had previously produced gave his exhibited works a freshness that was previously lacking, and which was more appealing to the critics. Cromer, exhibited at the British Institution in 1837, is a good example of this new kind of work, and shows the influence of his friend William Collins and the Norwich artist John Thirtle. Like many of his later works, it is based on earlier sketch.
Like many painters of the Norwich School, Stark produced his own etchings, but these were not exhibited. As they generally lacked a title, they are nowadays difficult to identify and are little known. Geoffrey Searle, in his survey of the etchings produced by the Norwich School, describes Stark’s own etchings as “having a distinctive charm”. The article on Stark in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica noted that:
“his works charm rather by their gentle truth and quietness of manner than by their robustness of view or by their decisiveness of execution”.
Exhibitions and publications: James Stark exhibited paintings throughout his working life. The Norwich Society of Artists, which was inaugurated in 1803 and held annual exhibitions almost continuously until 1833, exhibited 105 works by Stark from 1809–32, of which seventy-three were landscapes and four were of marine scenes.
During his career he had many wealthy patrons and was regarded in London as a successful provincial artist. He was consistently praised by the Norfolk Press. In 1817, when only twenty-three, he and his friend John Berney Crome had been praised in the Norwich Mercury “for their great and rapid strides”. As well as exhibiting in London and Norwich, Stark had his paintings shown in exhibitions as far afield as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dublin.
Stark wrote an essay on the moral and political influence of the Fine Arts, published in the Norwich Mercury on 26 May 1827, criticising those who were apparently indifferent towards the financial plight of the Norwich Society of Artists.
James Stark is buried in the family grave in Rosary Cemetery in Norwich.
Heading Image: A portrait of the artist James Stark, a leading member of the Norwich School of Painters. Inscribed in pencil at the top of the rolled sheet of paper which Stark is holding, ‘Scenery of the/Yare & Waveney’ (both rivers in Norfolk). This is presumably a reference to the Scenery of the Rivers of Norfolk, engraved from Stark’s pictures by Edward Goodall, William Miller and others, with a text by J. W. Robberds (1827-34). National Portrait Gallery.
England in Georgian times is remembered as a period of great elegance and refinement but it was also notorious for the brutality of its judicial system and a time when more than 200 crimes on the statute book carried the death penalty. Imprisonment for debt was commonplace and public floggings and executions were a popular source of entertainment.
The Government of the day had no desire to to improve the life of ordinary people – and probably was not expected do so. It was however expected to protect the land and property of the 3% of the population with wealth; these were the lawmakers and the only ones 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; however, 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 war with Spain meant that there was little real trade to be had – 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 averse 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.”
Popular Heroes of the Period: 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 Duval, 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.
Claude Duval: Claude Duval (or Du Vall) is credited with being one of the first great gentlemen highwaymen. Born in France in 1643, Duval emigrated to England after meeting a group of Royalist exiles, who were laying low in France during the Civil War. Once the war was over, Duval not only moved to England, but got an intimate look at the life of English nobility. Not content to live off a servant’s wage, he turned to the life of a highwayman, and he did it in style.
One of the most famous stories about him is his robbery of a carriage on Hampstead Heath. Here, upon meeting the beautiful young wife of the elderly knight he was robbing, Duval danced with the young woman on the side of the road. He then took only a portion of the money the knight was carrying as payment for the entertainment. He was well known but, by all reports, far from reviled. After fleeing to France for a short time to let the heat die down, he returned to England and was arrested during a drunken night out.
Once his death sentence was given, it was said that a number of his previous victims (mostly women that had been wooed by his courtly demeanor) tried to speak up on his behalf to get him a pardon. It didn’t work. He was executed in 1670, and his body was taken to lie in state at a local tavern. There were so many mourners present that the wake was cut short, as it was deemed rather unseemly.
John Rann: John Rann, also known as “Sixteen String Jack,” was one of the first highwaymen (and indeed, criminals) to make his occupation as much about his celebrity status as about his actual crimes or the spoils of his robberies. He was a larger-than-life, over-the-top figure whose nickname came from his extravagant dress. He was always perfectly groomed and gentlemanly in his appearance, always wearing silk breeches that had eight silver strings hanging from them. He encouraged all rumors that were spread about him, and consequently, there are a couple of different versions of his story.
He was born somewhere around 1752, and at some point, he entered life as a coachman. He was strongly associated with several different women. His apprenticeship didn’t give him enough income to support his lifestyle or his women, so he turned to highway robbery. Many of his crimes were of the flamboyant, drunk and disorderly type. It was ultimately an attempt by one of his mistresses (who quickly gave up his name) to sell a stolen watch that earned Rann his first arrest. When he got off, it only made him that much more confident. He boasted to full pubs of his highwayman lifestyle and predicted his own early death. He got off on minor charges of attempting to climb through windows into homes where the ladies always seemed to come to his defence.
It was a similar situation—his female associates trying to sell stolen property—that led to Rann’s final trial, after he and an associate robbed a clergyman riding through Ealing. His female associates got off, stating that they unknowingly traded clean clothes for the stolen property, but Rann himself was executed in December 1774.
Jack Sheppard: 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 this 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.
Dick Turpin: He was, perhaps, the best known English highwaymen, and he is possibly the worst example of what the idea of a gentleman robber was supposed to be. Born in 1705 in Essex, Turpin couldn’t be bothered to put in the hard work that would have allowed him to make a good, honest living as a butcher, following in his father’s footsteps. He joined a gang instead, raiding houses in the London area, stealing what he could, and outright destroying the rest. Turpin was one of the last members of the gang to be caught; he had since moved on from robbing houses to holding up carriages that were traveling to and from London.
The fictional stories that grew up around Turpin were largely just that: fiction. Turpin became a character in books that embellished the details of his life. Added to the story were dashing good looks, a beautiful, devoted black horse, and a family inheritance that Turpin was supposedly cheated out of. The historical Turpin was a cold-hearted murderer, whose egotistical boasting and a letter back home eventually led to his capture, trial, and execution. It was only after his death and the publishing of a book called Rockwood in 1834, that he was catapulted to fame as a gentleman robber. Perhaps more fitting to his memory was the fate of his corpse. The night that he was buried, Turpin was dug up by grave robbers, who sold his corpse to a doctor for dissection. His body was discovered missing, recovered, and reburied, while the doctor was fined.
Gin – or ‘Mother’s Ruin’: 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 distillery 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.
Back to Walpole: 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.
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Robert Humphrey Marten, to give him his full name, came to Norfolk in September 1825 on a 24-day tour of at least a section of the County which took in Yarmouth, Norwich, Cromer and finally ending with a few days of ‘country delights’ in an unspecified house and location where the family could enjoy shooting, musical evenings, riding, and some fine dining. His intention was to provide ‘heath and pleasure’ for himself, his wife, Emma and daughter Sarah; in this, the party were ably assisted by the family servant. Today we would class them as well-healed tourists.
Mr Marten, who was something of an avid diarist and gifted artist; however, he tells us little about himself. It has been left to future researchers to establish more about his personal details and character. Neverthe less, it seems that Robert was clearly a caring man, his kindness well in evidence in the pages with small acts of kindness. Also, although a serious and deeply religious man, he did seem to possess a ‘cheeky’ sense of humour, alongside his amusement, on several occasions during his travels, of the tactics employed by the smarter element of Norfolk locals to profit from visitors! But there was much more to this man.
The basic facts of Mr Marten were that he was born on 21 March 1763 in London, the second eldest in a typically large family for the time. His father, Nathaniel, was a Mile End pastry cook and his mother was Martha Clarkson. The family attended Congregationalist meetings and family prayers and religious instruction were commonplace in his home.
He married three times, but it was only his second marriage, to Elizabeth Giles in July 1791, that gave him children. At first, the couple lived on a small income, meaning that they had to practice economy – with no partying permitted; instead, they followed the advice of their church, working hard, praying hard and striving to remain cheerful despite their circumstances. But he was to advance in business and fortune, and with improving finances came the opportunity to move to larger premises, first at No. 64 Great Prescott Street in London; it was a comfortable house but with a small garden, of which he seems not to mind. However, by this time, Robert had established himself in maritime insurance, an occupation which had, for centuries, been the most dominant and important line of business. It followed that he became a partner with the company Smith St Barbe & Marten, marking a great step forward for this ambitious 30-year-old. To this firm’s main business, he was responsible for adding the care and disposal of salvaged ships, a big money earner during the ensuing wars with France.
By April 1807 the family was in a position to move again, this time out to Plaistow and live in a large house called ‘Broadway House’ in what was then a small village east of London; a gardener and various servants completed the now well-to-do household. It seems also that his business career was matched only by his role as a religious leader and a reformer. Politically he worked towards removing legal discrimination against non-members of the Church of England. It is also known that he was a friend of William Wilberforce who is reported to have been a frequent visitor to Broadway House. Continuing his religious role, he also helped to found the Non-Conformist Church in Plaistow.
When his second wife, Elizabeth, died in 1811 Robert Marten wrote of twenty years of ‘mutual happiness’ with the mother of his five grown up children. Two more years were to pass before he found his third wife, Emma, said to have been chosen for her very high character and approved by the children. It was Emma who accompanied Robert on his 1825 tour of Norfolk; but by then, the demands of business and philanthropy were beginning to take their toll on Mr Marten’s health, hence the need for a break away from business stresses, towards the more bracing and cleaner air of the Norfolk coast with its recently discovered benefits to the constitution.
Mr Marten simply tells us that, it was on Wednesday 7 September 1825 when he and his party began their tour of Norfolk; leaving from the Custom House steps London and sailing on the Thames-built steam packet ‘Hero’, bound for the County. In little over a day later, they reached the port of Great Yarmouth, having probably enjoyed their mini-cruise more comfortable than any stage-coach journey. Whilst in the town for only a short stay they took the opportunity to visit the more fashionable Gorleston, seemingly a more pleasurable place than its herring-smelt neighbour on the other side of the estuary.
On Saturday, 10 September, Mr Marten’s party boarded yet another, but smaller, steam packet vessel which would make its way inland along the river Yare to Norwich; a city laying some 27 miles and a journey time of approximately 5 hours away. It made good time and once alongside Norwich’s quay, they disembarked above Carrow Bridge at Foundary Bridge – the scene of the 1817 steam packet explosion.
It was probably likely that Robert Marten and his party would have been picked up by a hotel employed vehicle and conveyed into the city; in this instance, it was to the Norfolk Hotel at 25 St Giles in the city centre near the Market Place; here they booked in for a several-day stay. The idea of picking up visitors made good business sense to the hotels of Norwich; particularly, fourteen years later, when trains operated to and from Norwich. The station would be at Thorpe which, incidentally, was the very site of the once Ranelagh Gardens and the point where Mr Marten and his party disembarked in 1825.
Mr Marten and his party were clearly set on taking every opportunity during their stay in the city to explore all its facets; however, high on their list was their need to attend various places of worship. The first opportunity to do this was during their first full day in Norwich, which was a Sunday. They attended morning service at the old St Mary’s Baptist Chapel near Duke Street. It seems that they were a very devout family for during the evening they attended yet another service at the Princes Street Chapel.
Clearly, two visits to a religious establishment in a week was not enough for Mr Marten, for he and his party headed for the ‘solemn grandeur’ of Norwich Cathedral on the Monday morning to attend the 9.45am Matins. Marten described the service as “the same as in other Cathedrals” – this comment may well suggest that he was an Anglian, but one who enjoyed visiting different places of worship. He went on to say in his diary:
“There were scarcely a dozen persons besides the ecclesiastics who officiated. The building is in fair preservation considering that it has been [in use] since the year 1096. The interior is very clean and from the magnitude and architecture presents to the eye a solemn grandeur. The Courts & inclosures and ancient houses around it are also kept in that order & have that still and quiet aspect & that appearance of retirement & comfort which is usually found around Country Cathedrals.”
Mr Marten also took a particular interest in Meeting House buildings and attended a sermon by Mr Joseph Kinghorn, although:
“His preaching was not to us so satisfactory…….He appeared to be more the preacher than the minister or pastor. His pronunciation is very broad…….Mr Kinghorn is a thin tall old gentleman, very plain in his attire, simple in appearance, of acknowledged talents and has entered the lists in controversy with Robert Hall of Leicester on the subject of open communion which is advocated by the latter and opposed by the former.”
On Tuesday, 13 September 1825, Marten and his family continued their tour of Norwich but found the stones with which the Norwich streets were paved very annoying; this would seem to be a strange reaction to a material that had long been widely used for laying road and pavements in many other towns and cities. Nevertheless, they prevailed and on the same day, obtained permission to:
“mount the top of the elevated castle in order to have a panoramic view of the City and the hills which surround it, but we were dissuaded on account of the wind blowing so strong that it would be difficult to stand against it”.
However, they did manage to walk round the castle to where it was “loft enough to afford a view over the houses to the distant hills.” From high on the castle they counted 23 steeples of the 36 churches which the Map of Norwich stated to be within the city. The view “prolonged our stay because of the pleasure we enjoyed”.
“We then walked about the large city & came by St Giles Church into Heigham, and called on Mr Grout who permitted us to go through his important Silk Manufactory. The works are in several floors and the winding twisting bobbings are by machinery moved by a beautiful 20-horsepower engine. These operations are watched and conducted by more than seventy females, some so young as 7 to 8 years of age. These are on foot from seven in the morning till eight in the evening watching the threads, repairing the broken & seeing that all go on well – occasionally supplying oil where wanted to prevent evil from friction. Only that they have half an hour to breakfast & an hour for dinner. And these little girls earn some 5 shillings, some 5 shillings/6d a week.”
“We were then shewn the winding into warp – the subsequent Beaming – & the reeds for the weaving & were informed that a-yard-wide crape has in that breadth 2560 single twisted threads of silk. We then saw one of the female superintendents at her crape loom, and afterwards the turners shop where nine men were employed in preparing Bobbins etc. for the factory here & the much larger [factory] which Mr Grout is now erecting at Yarmouth. The silk used here is principally from Bengal but part was the white silk from China………Seeing a loom going in a private house as we passed, we asked the woman who was weaving Norwich crape & learned that she could, by close application, weave eleven yards each day – but we omitted to ask her earnings by that work.”
Where Mr Marten and family ate and refreshed themselves between forays is not known but they kept going throughout each day. This included walking towards the north of the City until they reached its outskirts and fields beyond and “found the population lively”. They remained clearly amazed by the number of churches around:
“so abounding that the eye could scarcely fail to see two or three whichever way it turned. Many of these were flint faced and some of them with squared flints very carefully cut & nicely laid” – They even counted eleven steeples from their hotel windows.
Their stay was also to include walks through both the eastern and southern parts of the city where they saw “many very large & elegant houses.” Marten even picked up on the fact that Norwich was in the process of building a new prison at the top end of St Giles, in an area now occupied by the Roman Catholic Cathedral. One wing of the new prison was expected to open for business later that year and Marten was sufficiently interested in the site to request a visit. He went on to write:
“We were admitted to go over the whole building. The Governor’s House is in the centre and from several windows he can at all times inspect every part of the prison. The Chapel is in the Governor’s House. His pew is opposite & very close to the Pulpit which is entered from the winding stair case. The Felons are in Pews even with this Governor whose eye may be constantly on them – and the Turnkeys guard the two entrances during the whole of divine services – the Debtors are on the floor of the Chapel and thus everyone can see & hear the Preacher. We were shewn the cells for the Felons who are confined at night separately – but they have a Day Room & they have the privilege of the open air in a yard allotted to them. Condemned Felons left for execution have other & still stronger lonesome cells which they are not permitted to leave until the hour when they are taken to the platform over the entrance gate to surrender their forfeited lives to the violated justice of their Country.”
Marten’s general impression of the City was favourable, apart of course for those streets which were paved with small pebbles and flints, making walking “uneasy to the foot and on which one unused cannot walk either steadily of comfortably.” Other than that:
“We were not accosted in any of our walks even by a single medicant [a beggar] – Everyone seemed busy and we were told by a Gentleman, a resident, that no complaints were heard and that the manufacturers and general business of the place were in thriving condition. Houses of the third and fourth rate & some even beneath these were buildings to a great extension of Norwich, a circumstance which marks many other cities beside this.”
Marten’s final comments, as he prepared his party for their departure from Norwich, was to say that their stay had been pleasant and:
“the Norfolk Hotel intitled to praise for the goodness of its provisions – the neatness of its accommodation……..and attention of its conductors & servants. We were also perfectly satisfied with the reasonableness of its charges. We left the Hotel at 20 minutes before 4 o’clock in the stage for Cromer……….”
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Oliver Fellows Tomkins, to give him his full name, was born in Great Yarmouth in 1873, the fourth son of the Daniel Tomkins. His formal education began in his father’s school in the town before travelling to Switzerland for a short time to complete it. He then spent five years working in business in Norwich, during which time he joined Dr George Barrett’s Congregational Church in Princes Street. Later, Tomkins become a student at Dr Henry Grattan Guinness’ Training College in London where he took a medical course.
The original Princes Street Congregational Church was opened in 1819 with John Alexander becoming its “Founder and First Pastor”, and one of the most popular ministers in and around Norwich from 1819 to 1866 at what is now the United Reformed Church. Dr George Barrett took over the church reigns following the death of Revd John Alexander.
Tomkins was clearly smitten with evangelism for during college holidays and half-terms, he would preach to the North Sea fishermen and volunteer for mission work in English country villages, travelling to each in a caravan, whilst camping at night. He was therefore delighted when, eventually he was appointed to work as a missionary in the Torres Straits of New Guinea. Half of his financial support for this mission was paid for by members of the Home Magazine Missionary Band which helped to pay enthusiastic bearers of ‘God’s word’ to go to many far-flung places in the world.
Tomkins sailed with the Reverend Albert Pearse in December 1899; they were to join the Scottish-born missionary James Chalmers in New Guinea, the territory where Chalmers himself was to ignore calls from his friends to leave and return to England when his second wife died. His refusal, along with the arrival of Tomkins was to have consequences for both of them some sixteen months later.
But for the moment, Chalmers was pleased with the arrival of Tomkins, who would share the burden of his large district. According to Chalmers:
“Throughout Mrs. Chalmers’s last illness, Tomkins [was] “a great help and a great comfort.” No son could have treated me kindlier than he did.”
In his young colleague Tomkins, Chalmers saw reasons for hoping that he might have more time to return to his pioneer work. A few months after Tomkins’s arrival, Chalmers again sent a brief message to the Mission House regarding Tomkins: “He will do”; and that opinion was confirmed again, and again in the months that followed. Dr. William George Lawes was to call them, “the intrepid Paul and the beloved Timothy.”
But we move on – to 7 April 1901 to be exact. This was when Tomkins and Chalmers were on board the ‘Niue’ and had arrived at the Aird River at Kisk Point on Goaribari Island. The last entry in Tomkins’ diary indicates what happened next:
“In the afternoon we were having a short service with the crew, when about twenty canoes were seen approaching ……. They hesitated as they got nearer to us, till we were able to assure them that we meant peace. Gradually one or two of the more daring ones came closer, and then alongside, till at last one ventured on board. Then, in a very few minutes, we were surrounded by canoes, and our vessel was covered with them …… On this, our first visit, we were able to do really nothing more than establish friendly relations with the people. They stayed on board about three hours, examining everything, from the ship’s rigging to our shirt buttons. They tried hard to persuade us to come ashore in their canoes, but we preferred to spend the night afloat, and promised we would visit their village in the morning.”
Neither of the Niue two missionaries, nor the twelve native Christians who accompanied them were seen after this visit to the natives. What really happened was only ascertained a month later, when George Le Hunte, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony, visited the Aird River with a punitive expedition, and heard the story from a captured prisoner. This was quoted from an account supplied by the Rev Archibald Ernest Hunt, who accompanied the Lieutenant-Governor:
“The Niue anchored off Kisk Point on 7 April and a crowd of natives came off. As it was near sunset, ‘Tamate’ [the native name for John Chalmers] gave them some presents, and made signs that they were to go away, and the next day he would visit them ashore. At daylight the next morning, a great crowd of natives came off and crowded the vessel in every part. They refused to leave, and in order to induce them to do so, Tamate gave Bob, the captain, orders to give them presents. Still, they refused to move, and then Tamate said he would go ashore with them, and he told Tomkins to remain on board. The latter declined, and went ashore with Tamate, followed by a large number of canoes. When they got ashore, the whole party were massacred and their heads cut off. The boat was smashed up, and the clothing etc. distributed. All the bodies were distributed and eaten, Tomkins being eaten at the village of Dopima, where they were all killed.”
But just like most stories aimed at a reading public; the writers kept to the old adage ‘don’t let the facts spoil a good story’! One suggested that the ships party was invited back to the native’s village and into a newly constructed ‘Dubu’ for refreshments; clearly, if this was true, the two did not recognise the significance of entering such a communal house – which was for fighting men and could not be used without consecration by a human sacrifice! Tomkins and Chalmers were clearly ‘taken in’ by the welcome; neither could they have seen any meaning behind the piles of human skulls nestled around the crude wooden idols in the corner of the hut, a picture of stark contrast!
True or false, it was the case that other fellow missionaries had already reported similar sights elsewhere; of smoke-blackened human jaw bones dangling from the rafters of village huts, smoke-dried human flesh and notches in trees which denoted the number of humans who had been cooked and eaten in a community. So, some may have thought, what on earth were the two men thinking, when clearly it was common knowledge that there were cannibalistic traditions in the region, a place where the missionaries were trying to bring the word of God!
But for Tomkins and Chalmers it would be too late; no sooner had they taken their places, seated at ground level along one side of the large laid-out spread, when each was clubbed from behind and killed. It was also said that their bodies were prepared and cooked with a variety of sago dishes, cooked with shell-fish, boiled with bananas, roasted on stones, baked in the ashes and tied up in leaves, – to be served as the main course, a feast that had been promised to the victims! Afterwards, their bones were kept on display and seemingly, the native’s ‘Dubu’ house had been suitably blessed by their preferred Gods!
Back home, relatives and friends undoubtedly mourned the loss of Oliver Tomkins and the church he once worshiped in, the Princes Street Congregational Church, held a memorial service for Tomkins. Members afterwards subscribed to a plaque which they placed inside the church building in his memory; it remains there to this day.
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It was a vicious murder that worked its way into 19th century national imagination and also crept into later fiction. Many authors wrote about the crime and the man who perpetrated it. Sir Walter Scott became fascinated by him and even visited the scene of his crime. George Burrows was said to have been at his execution, but certainly wrote about him afterwards as editor of ‘Notable Trials’ when he wrote his personal account of the man’s execution. Scholarly crime studies also made a feature of the man, his background and the reasons for what was a murder, and a gruesome one at that! These studies began to filter through long after the actual gallows, on which the man swung, had long become an exhibit at Madame Tussauds. The murderer’s name was John Thurtell.
John Thurtell is a well-documented person of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with numerous biographies and studies about him in various forms of print which were published in both the United Kingdom and abroad. His was a short and wretched life where many of the opportunities that were offered to him, or came to him by chance, were wasted and he was best known for his personal brand of criminality. Unfortunately, and despite Thurtell being an intelligent ‘hard’ man, he quickly became a compulsive gambler and seemed to have had no trouble in thriving on the trappings of shady deals and illegal prize-fights which he promoted – and in which he sometimes took part.
Born on 21st December, 1794, Thurtell had every opportunity to make the most of his life in times when to be poor probably meant hardship and deprivation. His parents were financially quite well off in their home at Harford Bridges, which is still just a handful of miles south of Norwich, in the County of Norfolk. It was there where his father Alderman Thomas Thurtell, a prominent merchant and city councellor – who also served as mayor of Norwich in 1828, celebrated the birth of baby John, his first son and the first in an ultimate line of several other children. As thrilled as the father must have been with the baby’s arrival, young John was to become his mother’s favourite child. This may have been one of the reasons why, as a child, John was not sent away for his schooling. A second reason may have been that young John, being an unruly child, had to be kept well within sight at all times when awake and active. Apparently, as John grew older, he became ‘not averse to tying canisters to dog’s tails’ – as George Burrow once put it.
Thurtell was certainly not a scholar and when he eventually went to school in Norwich, he remained permanently poor at both spelling and English Grammar. However, he must have shared the family’s social asperations at least, for he lacked the skills for much else. The truth was that he never applied himself to his studies and always seemed pre-occupied with competitive sports, mainly horse racing and prize-fighting (boxing). It was only after too many tussles for his family’s liking that his father decided that maybe a career in the navy would do young Thurtell good. So, at the age of 15 years, and with a freshly purchased commission by way of his father, John Thurtell joined Company 99 of the Marines as a second lieutenant and set out on 8 May 1809 to Chatham where he undertook a period of training before joining the HMS Adamant, a 50-gun Portland-class fourth rate warship which had just completed its final voyage after a thirty-year career as a fighting ship in the Royal Navy; it had served in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars.
During the month that Thurtell joined HMS Adamant, the ship was in the process of being fitted out as a ‘receiving ship’ which would be used, in harbour, to house newly recruited (also ‘impressed’) sailors before they were assigned to a ship’s crew. In the Royal Navy, the use of impressment to collect sailors resulted in the problem of preventing escapees. A receiving ship was part of the solution, for it was difficult to get off such a ship without being detected, and most seamen of the era did not know how to swim! Receiving ships, such as Adamant, were typically older vessels that could still be kept afloat, but were obsolete or no longer battle-worthy.
At the same time as Thurtell was being indoctrinated into his naval role, HMS Adamant was recommissioned under Captain John Sykes and in August 1809, presumably with Thurtell as part of its crew, took part in the ‘Scheldt Operation’ which was aimed at sealing the mouth of the Scheldt to prevent the port of Antwerp from being used as a base against the British Fleet. The primary aim of the whole campaign was to destroy the French fleet thought to be in Flushing whilst providing a diversion for the hard-pressed Austrians. Captain Matthew Buckle took command of HMS Adamant for this operation and was still in post two years later when Rear-Admiral William Albany Otway (not Robert Waller Otway as mentioned in other works – he came to Leith later) adopted the ship as his flagship.
It was on 16 July 1811 when Thurtell was disciplined and discharged from HMS Adamant by Rear Admiral William Albany Otway for misconduct. Beyond this point, real evidence of Thurtell’s immediate life and naval career is non-existent, and therefore some assumptions must be made. For instance, it can be assumed that his discharge was not absolute, for he went on to find another berth with HMS Bellona (another aging ship of the line) on 11 November 1811; just in time to be involved with the ship’s blockade of Dutch ports before a convoy trip to St Helena and back by September 1813 when she returned to the Basque Roads, but was back on blockade duty off Cherbourg by October of that year. From all this, it is clear that Thurtell’s service in the Navy was confined to two old ships which were fit only for blockading duties and not for any degree of real action.
But Thurtell was prone to boasting to his friends and family about his involvement in sea battles; how he stormed the port of San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain for instance. However, Naval records indicate that this and other stories of action on the HMS Bellona were untrue; Bellona was docked at the Isle of Wight on 1 August 1813 when San Sebastian fell and the ship merely cruised past San Sebastian several days after hostilities had ended. He also told a story of how the Bellona captured a brig of war; it was, in fact, an unarmed merchant schooner that surrendered without a fight. By June 1814 there were no further opportunities for his ‘heroism’; this was the month when he resigned his commission and returned to Norwich. Being permanently ashore from this point did not, apparently, curtail his story-telling; and he always seemed to have a good audience around him, particularly in and around the Haymarket public houses in Norwich. It is said that folks there were greatly impressed with his tales of derring-do.
This growing attraction of his to frequent public house brought further interest in the world of boxing, and this was to be fuelled in 1818 by the landlord of ‘The Anchor’ in Lobster Lane, who was none other than Ned ‘Flatnose’ Painter who famously defeated Tom Spring in the August of that year. But three years before all this happened, in fact shortly after Thurtell’s 21st birthday on 21 December, Thomas Thurtell had set his son up in a bombazine business, alongside a designated partner by the name of John Giddons – or was it Giddings? – some accounts refer to the partner being John’s Brother, Thomas Thurtell; maybe it was all three?. No matter; the situation of being backed and supported by his wealthy and respectable parents was a wonderful opportunity for John Thurtell; also having been placed in the booming bombazine manufacturing and selling trade and with a young Quaker girl on his arm – what could possibly go wrong with his life? Plenty it would seem!
Inherent weaknesses with the partnership included the fact that John Thurtell did not like hard work, or show any trace of faithful endeavour towards the business; instead, he preferred frequenting Norwich taverns, and participating in or promoting boxing matches, even making numerous journeys to London in pursuit of the sport – and, inevitably, falling in with the ‘underworld’ fraternity who frequented such pastimes; maybe even, falling foul of ‘The Fancy’ – those professional crooks and gamblers who, seemingly, merged effectively into the the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing at the time. Frequently, underworld elements and gentlemen of so-called genteel society mixed in a sport that during the early 19th century was officially illegal; however, it was widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, boxing — with its brutality, fatalities and associations with unsavoury characters, had ample potential for morals to be expressed. ‘The Fancy’, said a judge in 1803,
“draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.”
It would seem the these ‘gentlemen’ were far better at the game than the likes of John Thurtell, who was seen by them as a country ‘yokel’, despite being the son of an Alderman and having successfully promoted a big fight at North Walsham on the 17 July 1820. That one event was probably the only moment when Thurtell’s standing with ‘The Fancy’, as a backer and partial promoter, was at its highest.
At least anecdotal evidence suggested that Thurtell’s behaviour after this fight remained as bad as ever, and he even caused a fight at another sporting event when he assaulted someone who he accused of being a pickpocket. Maybe his failing business was beginning to play on his mind at moments when he behaved so badly in public. Certainly, within six years of indulging himself elsewhere and not paying due attention to his bombazine business the partnership was swiftly heading towards bankruptcy. By 23 January 1821 Thurtell, it seems, was in an utter mess, but had already planned to go to London to collect a considerable amount of money owed to the bombazine partnership. Much of this money was owed to his creditors, but that was not what was on Thurtell’s mind when he collected it and returned to Norwich, where events took a very ‘mysterious’ turn. He put it about that he had received a note asking him to call on a Mr Bolingbroke who live near Chapelfield. Whilst on his way, an unidentified woman approached him and as they walked along Thurtell was violently attacked and relieved of the £1508. Afterwards he could neither identify the woman or his assailants! It followed that he immediately placed an advertisement in the local Norfolk newspapers; it read:
“£100 Reward: Whereas at about 9 o’clock on the evening of the 22nd inst, Mr John Thurtell was attacked in Chapel Field, Norwich, by three men, knocked down and robbed of a pocket book containing £1,508 in notes, thirteen of which were of the Bank of England, value £100 each, and the name of John Thurtell is endorsed on them. Notice is hereby given that whoever will give information which might lead to the apprehension and conviction of the persons concerned in this robbery, shall be paid the above reward on applying to Mr Thurtell; and any person concerned in the robbery who will give information of his accomplices will receive the reward and a free pardon.”
The total sum involved would seem to be an incredible amount of money to be carrying, and it was quickly established that this little episode was a complete scam and that the so-called wounds he received during the ‘assault’ had been self-inflicted. It became all too clear that Thurtell’s motive was to enjoy a public subscription from the publicity. However, his creditors were never to be impressed or taken in by what had been the latest of Thurtell’s antics and notices of bankruptcy against his and Gidden’s partnership duly appeared, stating that J Giddens and J Thurtell, bombazine manufacturers, dealers and chapmen of Norwich were listed as insolvent, and that Ides, Poole & Greenfield of Gray’s Inn Square had been appointed solicitors. A creditors meeting took place on 15th to 17th March 1821 at the Norfolk Hotel.
Within days of this meeting Thurtell fled to London with a woman named Mary Dobson, whose looks were proving more interesting to him than those of his Quaker girl-friend. They left Norwich, leaving his apparent naïve father as his biggest creditor. By this time John Thurtell was being better known as ‘Jack’ Thurtell, and over the next twelve months or so Jack managed to obtain a licence to run a public house; get his brother, Thomas, imprisoned for a claimed debt of £17 which Jack thought would help discharge his own bankruptcy – that failed but left a bad taste in the mouths of at least his family. Jack also continued with any scam which he thought would bring him money; one involved buying a consignment of bombazine and storing it in a warehouse which he and Thomas had previously had insured for £1900. Jack then made some internal alterations to the warehouse which effectively concealed the inside. He then sold his entire stock for cash, but before it was delivered the warehouse was gutted by fire on the night of 26 January 1823.
The inevitable insurance claim was lodged but when investigators found that there were no traces of bombazine the County Fire Officer refused to settle the claim. Thomas Thurtell, who was clearly a partner in this fraud, not only sued the insurance company but won the case; however, such was the level of suspicion that the insurance company’s Managing Director not only confirmed its refusal to pay out, but threatened to pursue a case of conspiracy to defraud. Jack and Thomas where effectively broke and literally went into hiding, wandering from inn to inn and mixing with the rogues of London. Individuals like William Probert who had married a woman described as ‘physically repellent but financially attractive’, and was thus able to purchase a cottage in Gills Hill Lane, Radlett. Here he lived with his wife, her sister, two children of Thomas Thurtell and a couple of servants. Probert also put his wife’s money to other use, by setting himself up as a wine merchant, a venture that failed around the same time as John Thurtell’s own business ventures collapsed. The two were well matched.
Another rogue was Joseph Hunt, 26 years of age and an illiterate whose only talent was that he could sing. Doubtless there were other such characters in Jack Thurtell’s world of dubious deals and gambling. Then there was 43-year-old William Weare, a gang member and a ‘notorious blackleg’, card sharp, gambler at billiard tables and race horse meetings. He trusted no-one, and kept his considerable fortune about his person, strapped to his chest or secreted within his clothing. He lived in lodgings at Lyons Inn, off the Strand. This had previously been the address of reputable solicitors, which would have made Weare appear ‘respectable’, an image borne out by his appearance, for he was always smartly dressed. He could, and did, fleece many an easy prey and Jack Thurtell, who was considered a novice amongst such ‘sporting people’, was to be Weare’s next victim.
In October 1883, Weare, who had been to Doncaster races, returned to town having had a very successful day. He was approached by one of London gang-leaders who further tempted Weare with more ‘easy pickings’. The victim would be Jack Thurtell who had already lost heavily but was given the opportunity to make up his losses by playing a certain person who was considered poor at playing cards. Jack Thurtell thus met William Weare, who duly lost early rounds, conning Jack to play ‘just one more round’ – Weare took Thurtell for £300, and the loser was not pleased at all and conspired to exact revenge on Weare.
Jack Thurtell invited Weare to accompany him and his few friends out into the country around Radlett for a spot of hunting; Weare gladly accepted. In the meantime, Jack Thurtell and Hunt had bought a pair of pistols, a rope and a large sack; also hiring a gig, which would have been ideal for making the trip to Radlett, except that it would be pulled by two greys which were to prove to be a ‘give-away’ when the planned crime had been committed.
On the appointed day, Weare appeared, complete with a gun and a change of clothing; he accompanied John Thurtell in the gig, whilst Probert and Hunt followed in a second gig. Together, the party raced along the Edgware Road, calling into taverns along the way as they settled into their boozy, sporty and ultimately murderous weekend. Entering Radlett, Thurtell went on ahead whilst, it seems, Probert dropped Hunt off, before heading off along Gills Hill Lane after him. What really happened near Probert’s cottage really depends on which story is believed; people’s accounts varied between the inquest and the trial that was to follow. However, one thing was certain; Jack Thurtell was still aboard the gig when he shot Weare in the face before striking him several times with his pistol. If that was not enough, which it wasn’t because his was a ‘grudge’ assassination in which he demanded full revenge; he cut Weare’s throat.
The Sequell: The deed done, Thurtell must have felt that the score was settled – short of disposing of Weare’s body of course. Now, whether or not Probert helped in this matter is not really clear, so speculation must be that Thurtell carried out this task alone; placing Weare’s body into a sack and dumping it under bushes. This was during the early 19th century when Gills Hill Lane was little more than a track, with wild bushes, tree and hedgerows; at approximately three-quarters of a mile long, this overgrown lane was, in those days, referred to as a ‘dismal ravine’. However, Weare’s corpse was not to lay hidden for long by that lane; Probert and Hunt joined Thurtell at the cottage, which lay east of the lane, before all three went to the hidden site and rifled Weare’s pockets. Then, later that evening, after darkness had well and truly fallen, they carried the body to a nearby field, on horseback, where they threw it into a pond. Thurtell, obviously panicking, then went back to the scene of his crime and searched for the two murder weapons, the pistol and the knife – but with no success. Strange therefore that during the very next day two workmen, who were employed to clear the lane, passed the very same spot and not only noticed blood on the ground, but also discovered the bloodstained pistol and knife. These they passed on to their employer, a Mr Nicholls, who later presented them to the Petty Sessions of the Watford Branch which happened to be sitting, in session, at the Essex Arms Inn; it was on Tuesday, 28 October 1823.
According to Pete Goodrum, in his book ‘Five Norwich Lives’ what followed next was that:
“The Magistrate did not praise or thank Nicholls but unsurprisingly admonished him for taking so long to report his story. On seeing that the pistol was covered in blood, human hair and brains, they were galvanised into action. Constable Simmonds of Watford was given the weapons, along with instructions to go straight to London to request a Bow Street Runner to come down immediately. [After 1815, the Runners’ most regular employment was to respond to help requests from prosecutors outside London. These were likely cases in which their skill and experience was thought to be useful in investigating offences in the provinces.”
At the same time as the police were being alerted, rumours were spreading. Firstly, a gunshot was heard by a Mr P. Smith, at nearby Battlers Green. Secondly, a man named Freeman had noticed a gig in Gills Hill Lane with two men on board; and thirdly, it became established that on the day of the murder, Joseph Hunt had sported a beard and moustache – at the time of his arrest just days later he was to be found clean shaven and wearing Weare’s clothes! Then a chanced remark from a farmer that he had ‘heard a shot’ about the time of the killing forced Probert to waste no time in telling his companions; this resulted in all three men racing back to the pond which held Weare’s corpse, retrieving it, placing it into the gig and driving to another pond near Elstree to drown it once more!
But time and events were against Hunt, Thurtell, Thomas (Thurtell’s brother) and Probert, the latter displaying his extreme uneasiness to such an extent that soon the police authorities became interested in him. Magistrate Clutterbuck visited Probert’s cottage, which stood just north of Elstree and found that Probert had packed his bags and was clearly in the process of making his escape. Probert was questioned and revealed that his weekend guests had been Hunt and Thurtell. A subsequent warrant authorised, at first, the arrest of Thurtell’s brother, Thomas, together with Probert; then the investigation was passed over to the London Detective, George Ruthven, apparently a well-known and minor celebrity.
Again, according to Pete Goodrum:
“Events then moved quickly. One of the magistrates, Clutterbuck, having returned home exhausted, was woken by two visitors. They introduced themselves as John Noel, a London solicitor, and a billiard saloon owner called William Rexworthy. Noel claimed that on his way to the theatre in London he had heard from a patrol on the Edgware Road that there had been a murder of an unknown victim in Hertfordshire. Putting two and two together, he had become anxious that the victim might be his client, William Weare. He had heard from Rexworthy that Weare had planned a trip to Hertfordshire to go shooting with somebody called Jack Thurtell. However, Weare had apparently not returned to London. His lodgings were locked and he’d not been seen in any of his regular haunts. Clutterbuck took his visitors straight to the Essex Arms where the hearing was about to commence and where Noel quickly took legal control.”
Meanwhile, Detective Ruthven arrested Hunt at his lodgings in London before finding Thurtell in the Coach and Horses in Conduit Street, again in the city. Finding some items of Thurtell’s clothing blood stained, some exposed parts of his body covered with cuts and bruises and significantly, a pistol in one of his pockets, he too was arrested. Both Hunt and Thurtell were then taken back to the Essex Arms to join Probert and Thomas; from this point onwards the principle of ‘Honour among criminals’ fell by the wayside as Probert and Hunt turned King’s Evidence and pointed the finger at Thurtell, and also revealed the location of Weare’s body. The inquest had been held at the Artichoke public house in Elstree, whose licensee was foreman of the jury. Dr. Ward and Dr. Kendall, of Watford had examined Weare’s corpse and concluded that the cause of death was as a result of severe blows to the skull by a gun, causing pieces of bone to lodge in the brain.
Joseph Hunt, clearly setting out to save his own skin, gave evidence against Thurtell and spun out a story which included a statement saying that Thurtell had bought the pistols for £1 17s 6d., and that he had also enquired about hiring a gig. Incredulously perhaps, Hunt also revealed that the party under suspicion had called at the Artichoke for a drink on the way to Radlett prior to the murder! He then added that, after the murder, Thurtell had admitted killing the man “who robbed me of £300 at Blind Hookey (cards)”, and that he had taken a gold watch from Weare’s body. Hunt then gave an account of the episode of dumping Weare’s body. Concluding his evidence, Hunt gave more damning details which included him previously passing on to his solicitor the fact that he (Hunt) had received Weare’s clothes and had also shaved off his whiskers. Unintentionally amusing was when a juror asked Hunt: “What has become of your whiskers and moustache?” Hunt apparently replied: “You must be able to see I have cut them off!”
It was the court custom at the time to question each person separately, and without them knowing the submissions of others; these submissions were to vary widely. Probert’s version matched Hunt’s, but only in absolving himself of murder; other than that, he frequently contradicted Hunt’s version. He told the court that Thurtell had gone ahead and killed Weare, and that he (Probert) had not been party to it. He agreed he had helped to dispose of the body and that he, together with Hunt, had shared some of the money stolen from Weare by Thurtell.
As for poor Jack Thurtell, he simply dug a hole from which he failed to extricate himself; particularly on the question of the pistol found on his person when he was arrested. He had, at first denied that he ever owned a pistol, until he was reminded that such a weapon had been found on him; also, that the second of the matching pair had been found ‘within yards’ of the murder spot. Thurtell must have realised that the game was up for him and that it was clear that the three men had obviously lured Weare to Probert’s cottage because Jack intended to murder him. Events at the Hearing was progressing irrevocably to wards a proper Trial. The court returned a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ and committed the prisoners to Hertford gaol to await such a trial, that was set for 6 January 1824 at Hertford.
Languishing in prison for over three months, the three men continued to protest their innocence. Plenty of accusations and counter-accusations were voiced, all designed to set the blame elsewhere. Outside, most of the country who were interested in following the case were fed by Newspapers and broadsheets which peddled the grisliest details of what was becoming a sensational case; and no report failed to mention Jack Thurtell’s fall from grace as a ‘son of Alderman Thurtell of Norwich.’
When the trial commenced on 6 January 1824 it quickly became clear that it was a complicated case, requiring a considerable amount of legal talent to enable a conclusion. To assist in this, legal trickery was employed and this included granting immunity to Probert on condition that he appeared as a witness against Thurtell. Neither he nor Hunt, whose neck was on the line, did Thurtell any favours. It was Thurtell who was allowed to conduct his own defence and appeared to be doing quite well, until he made a big mistake by talking too long and in the process did himself no favours. At the end, the judge summed up, the jury retired only to return with a guilty verdict for both Hunt and Thurtell. The inevitable sentence was that the two men would hang; however, on the eve of their executions, Hunt’s sentence was commuted to transportation. As for Probert, he was only to remain alive and well for barely a year and a half; he died on the gallows in June 1825.
When Thurtell took the short walk to the rope, on 9 January 1824, he was in chains but dressed smart, as was his nature. Soldiers, armed with staves separated him and his execution party from the estimated 15,000 spectators who were there to see the spectacle; many removed their hats. Now, the last words describing this scene are left to those of Richard Clarke:
Execution: “James Foxen, the hangman, arrived from London on the Thursday and made the usual preparations. Thurtell dressed for the occasion and was described as being “elegantly attired in a brown great coat with a black velvet collar, light breeches and gaiters, and a fashionable waistcoat with gilt buttons.” A little before 12 noon on Friday, the 9th of January 1824, Foxen pinioned Thurtell’s hands in front of him with handcuffs and he was then led from his cell to the accompaniment of the tolling prison bell and the prison chaplain reading the burial service. A few moments earlier he had confessed his guilt to the chaplain. He mounted the 5 steps slowly but steadily and positioned himself on the trap. Here Foxen removed his cravat and loosened his collar. When Thurtell had finished praying, Foxen drew the white cotton cap over his head and placed the noose around his neck. The Governor of Hertford Gaol and the Chief Warder both shook hands with him before Foxen adjusted the noose. Wilson said, “Good bye Mr. Thurtell, may God Almighty bless you” to which Thurtell replied, “God bless you, Mr. Wilson, God bless you.” At two minutes past midday on the signal from Mr. Nicholson, the Under Sheriff, Foxen drew the bolts and Thurtell dropped into the box like structure with a crash…….by the standards of the day, Thurtell died easily and was not seen to struggle. After hanging the customary hour, his body was taken down and sent to London for dissection in Surgeon’s Hall in accordance with his sentence.”
Postscript: Great sensation was caused in Norwich by the trial and execution of John Thurtell, at Hertford. The execution took place on 9 January 1824, and on the 24th the Norfolk Chronicle published a letter received by Mr. Alderman Thomas Thurtell, of Norwich, the father of the deceased; it came from Mr. Robert Sutton, High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, in which the writer commiserated with Thomas Thurtell in his great affliction. In the same paper was another letter addressed by Mr. N. Bolingbroke, of Norwich, to the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, in which he wrote:
“It may appear to some that he (the father) has not acted with sufficient kindness of feeling towards his unhappy son; but you may be assured, Sir, that there was no part of his conduct which could not be satisfactorily explained. He has generally acted under the advice of Mr. Unthank, a respectable solicitor in this city, my own, and others. There are many actions in a man’s life of which no correct opinion can be formed without a knowledge of the motives by which such have been influenced.”
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From the moment he was christened, or baptised – whatever you prefer, Onesiphorus Randall was destined to succeed in this world; it may appear to some that, as far as money was concerned, his destiny was pre-ordained – for ‘Onesiphorus’ means “bringing profits”! This is certainly how the future turned out for this splendidly named Norfolk lad who, almost from the moment he moved from the County to London, began his journey towards amassing a fortune.
From an almost relatively inconspicuous start of becoming a publican within a year of his arrival in Poplar, in east London, he soon began dabbling in the building trade thereabouts. He must have realised, even then, that there was money to be made as a fully-fledged property speculator there for the Poplar district was ripe for development. It so happened that he was ‘in the right place at the right time’ and clearly took full advantage of a growing situation. Later, as an increasingly rich man, he was to find time to regularly return to Norfolk and spend some of his wealth on ‘indulgences’ in the County of his birth.
Onesiphorus Randall was born in Cley, Norfolk on August 11, 1798, the youngest of five children. If ‘Ancestry’ records are to be believed then it would appear that his parents were John Randall and Elizabeth, nee Hook. The family were considered to be natives of Holt and, again, it would appear that Onesiphorus’s father, John, was born there in 1756; however, nothing further is known about Onesiphorus’s mother, Elizabeth. The boy’s upbringing and education is also unknown but in 1819, three years after the death of his father, Onesiphorus moved to the Poplar district of London; he was 21-years old. One can only speculate as to why he felt compelled to move, and why he chose Poplar, one of the poorest districts in the capital. Did he strike out blindly when he moved, or did he simply believe that opportunity lay waiting in such a place?
It is known that events moved rather quickly after he arrived in Poplar. Within one year, and barely 22 years old, he was settled as a publican of the Silver Lion in Pennyfields, and ran it until 1831 when he followed a William Blundell to become the licensee of the Globe Tavern at 33 Brunswick Street in Blackwall – that was until 1835. However, in between and sometime around 1825 whilst at the Silver Lion, he became involved in building speculation in the area and he was not alone in doing this. Maybe, over the flowing pints, the word was out that real money was to be made from the land that was increasingly becoming available for house building. Clearly, the area was desperate for cheap houses for rent, to at least those on the bottom of the ladder and the lower middle classes. Here, it should be borne in mind that the opening of the West India Docks in 1802 stimulated a rapid growth in housing development of predominately ‘mean terraces of rented cottages’. Poplar Fields, of which we speak, was the area north of East India Dock Road, and was developed as Poplar New Town from the 1830s to the mid-1850s – see below. By the late 19th century, poverty and overcrowding were rife and firmly established.
Randall’s Estate: Onesiphorus’s initial scheme begun rather modestly in 1827 when he took a lease of land to the south of East India Dock Road. There he built a terrace of four houses, numbered 179–185 East India Dock Road, but known from 1832 as Randall’s Terrace. Onesiphorus occupied the then No. 185 (it later became No. 4) for himself in 1831, and where he was to remain until his death in 1873 at the age of 75.
Then, apart from building ‘modest houses in the adjacent parish of St Leonard’s, Bromley’, Onesiphorus’s began to build his ‘Randall’s Estate’ as part of Poplar’s ‘New Town’ to the north of the East India Dock Road, commonly known as ‘Poplar Fields’ until it was renamed ‘Poplar New Town’ in the 1830s. This land had previously been given over to market gardening and pasture, apart from a potash factory between Upper North Street and the ‘common sewer’ which drained the area. Development of the district east of the sewer began during the 1820s, but the major phase followed the release of the remainder of the area for building from the mid-1840s – this was when Onesiphorus became seriously involved, along with a series of other speculators who had leased areas of land which made up the whole. Within three to four years building of the whole area was ‘carried on with rapidity, equalled, perhaps, by no other suburban district of the metropolis’. The name ‘New Town’ was in use by 1836 and was applied generally to all the developments north of the East India Dock Road.
Onesiphorus ‘Randall’s Estate’ was in the centre of New Town, on a seven-acre field called The Grove. The southern section of this land had been held as copyhold of the manor of Stepney by the Smith family. In 1847 Richard Smith, junior, leased the land to Onesiphorus, having obtained a licence to demise the land for 90 years from Midsummer 1846. To the east of The Grove ran the ancient Black Ditch or common sewer, which formed the eastern boundary of the estate, while its western edge was along Upper North Street. Those boundaries merged at the north and south to form a lozenge-shaped area developed by Randall between 1850 and 1857.
Randall’s Estate was developed in the usual manner of building leases, most of them on terms of 80 years. A variety of local builders and craftsmen were involved in the construction of his estate. Among the most important were George Lester, carpenter; James Harpley Leake, joiner – who later ran the Estate Office for Randall; John Banbury and William Wickes, both bricklayers of Poplar; and Henry Clarke, a local builder. When finished, the development comprised 188 dwelling houses, 42 shops and houses, 49 lock-up shops in Randall’s Market and a large premise, formerly known as the Market House Tavern.
The southern portion of Randall’s Estate was built first, with the Market, which Randall also built, in the centre; streets ran from the market on an east-west axis. But from the outset, the standards of the new buildings were criticised. Randall himself was accused by the district surveyor of building a:
“fourth-rate dwelling house in Market Street of unsound materials and not in a manner to produce solid work, and on insufficient foundations”.
One wall was said to contain a large number of brickbats, and Randall was ordered to rebuild it. Despite this, he seemed to have little intention of making improvements; why should he when there was more money to be made by keeping the cost of his materials as low as was practical – he ‘got away with it’ and was not alone. In 1857, when the Estate was well advanced, the Building News still expressed concern when stating:
“a great number of new streets are in progress, but we regret to observe that they are anything but what they ought to be as regards design, materials and workmanship, being run up in a very paltry style”.
By means fair or foul, the whole estate was completed by the end of 1857. Grove (later Bygrove) Street was developed between 1849 and 1855, with 21 houses erected. Richard (later Ricardo) Street was built between 1851 and 1853, and Randall (later Augusta) Street between 1848 and 1854, with 24 houses constructed. On the south side of the Estate was a terrace of 11 houses, known as King’s Terrace, which was built by 1851 and named after Thomas Henry King, an architect and civil engineer of Spitalfields, who leased the site from Randall in 1851. Market Street included a terrace of nine two storey houses.
All the houses were similar in style and building materials. They were built of greyish brick, two storeys high and enriched with compo dressings which the ‘Building News’ again thought ‘preposterously too heavy in their proportions’. Towards the end of the 19th century, after Onesiphorus Randall had died, the streets of his Estate were described as “mostly straight dull rows of two-storied houses with a frontage of from 14-16 feet containing 6–8 rooms … most of them rise straight from the pavement in their grimy ugliness. There is generally a back yard of varying size and capabilities behind”. It was also self-evident that gardens did not flourish in this part of the east End!
On the north side of Market Street was a terrace of nine houses. The three houses at the centre of the terrace were built beneath a high pediment on which a market clock was placed. Both the pediment and the cupola of unusual shape on the roof were Classical in design. The northern vista of Randall’s Market was close by these houses.
Randall’s Market: At the centre of the development was Randall’s Market. It consisted of a north-south street of lock-up shops with a circus in the middle, where it was bisected by an east-west street. It was an ambitious scheme to establish a shopping area north of East India Dock Road. Costermongers, who were felt to lower the social standing of the area – as if the area had any more ‘slack’ to fall further, were prohibited from trading there. In some of the early deeds, the scheme was called Trinity Market, no doubt on account of its close proximity to the recently built Trinity Chapel in East India Dock Road. But this name was never adopted, and from its first appearance in the Post Office Directories in 1854, it was called Randall’s Market.
(Randall’s Market, built 1851-52, looking north in the 1920s.)
The Market was showy in style but, again, constructed of cheap materials. An ugly cement drinking-fountain was erected at the centre of the market and was surrounded by a punched-metal and glass canopy. Above the fountain was a gas lamp supported by dolphin brackets. The fountain was said to be in a state of rapid decomposition as early as 1857. Despite its architectural pretension, it was a market in a very humble area. The shops were a series of lock-ups with frontages with double-doors and a facade constructed mostly of wood. The roof of the single-storey shops was finished with a low parapet decorated with pierced stucco-work and concrete statues. In the centre of the market stood the Market House Tavern. This was a three-storey brick building with rendered walls. Italianate in style, the Market House had pedimented and embellished windows and the façade was decorated with a niche containing a statue.
Onesiphorus and his Excursions Back to Norfolk: Almost nothing is known of the man himself, except that Onesiphorus Randall was ‘the most eccentric of men’ who, from the very beginning of his property exploits in London, certainly lived up to the meaning of his name. He was said to have married an Anna Pattenden, who was born somewhere in Middlesex in 1780, and was therefore some eighteen years older than Onesiphorus. Again, this calls into question ‘Ancestry’ records which show that a son was born in 1861, also named Onesiphorus – this fact, if that’s what it is, also calls into question the impression that Anna was the mother. Impossible one would say since, in 1861, Anna would have been at least 80 years old! It would seem therefore that Onesiphorus married for a second time – and the best fit here seems to be a Mary Anne Vousley, who was born in Bermondsey in 1839; making her 22 years old when Onesiphorus junior was born at No.4 Randall’s Terrace, Poplar – the father, Onesiphorus Sen. was 63 years of age – some catch with his money!
During this period of a probable re-marriage and birth, Onesiphorus’s wealth continued to grow substantially and he was able to begin his return trips to Norfolk; whether he made these trips alone or with his wife we just do not know. However, it was again during this period that something happened for which he later became long-remembered in the County. Firstly, he bought Woodlands House in Holt (now part of Gresham’s School), before acquiring the ruined Kelling Old Hall and with it, the associated title Lord of the Manor.
Randall’s Folly: The truth is that, while still Lord of the Manor, Onesiphorus’s local ‘fame’ found its root when he built himself a ‘castle-styled folly’ at Salthouse, on the North Norfolk coast. Unusually perhaps, the Folly was located on a mound of land called the ‘Great Eye’, right on the beach rather than in or even near the village. The square two-storey stone structure was named, and always referred to thereafter, as “Randall’s Folly”. and was connected to a large expanse of grass called the ‘Flat Eye’ on which the village cows often grazed. The Folly was fitted with large double carriage doors front and back on the lower floor.
A member of the public, writing to a local paper in 1922, said:
“The familiar square-built stone house standing alone on the beach at Salthouse has been responsible for numerous questions as to its origin, and so many enquiries have been made regarding its association with smugglers and such romantic enterprises – one is sorry to destroy the illusion”
Just why Onesiphorus fitted double carriage doors front and back on the lower floor remained unclear. Although, his reputed penchant for entertaining the ladies, as spread by local gossip, has been suggested as one reason! As one local lady once put it – long after such rumoured events happened:
“I shouldn’t say this perhaps, but – Randall was very fond of women – that’s what that house was built for! It had a big door either end, and he used to drive up in his carriage and round into the house and right through the house with his coach and horses. The coach used to stop in the house till he was ready to go” …. Nod Nod, Wink Wink perhaps!
Certainly, those doors were real and enabled Onesiphorus to drive straight through in order to turn his horses and carriage round ready to return through the house and out over a bridge connecting ‘Flat Eye’ with ‘Great Eye’ and on to join Beach Road. He could bring the ladies into the house in his carriage and on leaving, open the seaward door, drive over the bridge and turn the carriage around on Flat Eye and depart back through the house! One may well wonder where Onesiphorus’s wife was while these alleged romantic dalliances were taking place in that remote Folly – and for which locals had a much saucier and descriptive name! Had anyone, at any time, given thought to the possibility, remote as may have been, that these ladies were images of no other that his wife?
With that thought, fast forward towards the end of the 19th century after Onesiphorus had died. This was when the Folly was bought by the Board of Trade and used as a coastguard station, housing the village life-saving brigade’s rocket cart and associated equipment. The rocket itself was launched from a cannon firing a Breeches Buoy to those in distress; in fact, saving many lives around the turn of the century. These duties gave the Randall’s Folly a new name of the “Rocket House”. By the early 1920’s however, the property had been sold off to become a holiday home, ending its life as a Rocket Brigade House. Nevertheless, the “Rocket House” name stuck until 1937 when it was privately purchased and renamed ‘Great Eye Folly’. The novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) rented the Great Eye Folly from 1950 to 1951 while working on her final novel ‘The Flint Anchor’ published in 1954. She did not live at the Folly alone; Valentine Ackland, her lover, also stayed with her.
Sylvia Townsend Warner described her first impressions of the Folly in a letter to Alyse Gregory – written in 1950:
“…. I think Valentine will have told you about the Great Eye Folly. I have the oddest impressions of it, since we were only there for about fifteen minutes, and conversing all the time with its owners. But the first five of those minutes were enough to enchant me. It is the sort of house one tells oneself to sleep with, and sometimes I almost suppose that it is really one of my dream-houses, and no such solid little assertion of the rectangle breaks the long sky-line of salt-marsh and sea.”
However, by 1937, the great expanse of “Flat Eye” had been lost to the sea but the folly remained, until seriously damaged in the 1953 flood. Surging water way above any normal height, removed half the building. Deemed unsafe, what remained was demolished. Subsequent storms and surges gradually removed all but a small mound of earth of the “Great Eye”, leaving “Little Eye” to the west as a former memory. In the 1600’s, Little Eye was about two thirds of the distance between the coast road and the shingle ridge and from Little Eye to Great Eye. Great Eye merged with Flat Eye which in turn merged with the shingle ridge, this forming a continuous barrier from near the Dun Cow pub, which didn’t open until 1786.
For nearly 100 years, Randall’s Folly had been a well-known landmark between Little Eye and the Beach Road car park. For many years, some local folk could still remember the iconic building rising high above the shingle on the horizon but, the former folly has not been entirely forgotten. That’s because locally, one local tradition still continues. Today, the local Holt Sea Angling Club holds an event at Salthouse Beach on the day after Boxing Day. Conceived by local fisherman and boat-owners, the annual ‘Rocket House Open’ fishing match is held in memory of the Folly which once stood on the “Great Eye” mound, facing seaward.
FOOTNOTE: Onesiphorus died at No. 4 (previously No.185) Randall Terrace Poplar in November 1873 at the age of 75 years. At the time of his death, his income from leasehold houses in the East End of London was said to have amounted to £3,000 per annum. His young son, also Onesiphorus jnr, eventually inherited the estate (for he was only 12 years old at the time of his father’s death – and 14 years when his mother died) after a protracted Chancery case; he died in 1913 at the age of 52 years.
Profile: Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney) (21 May 1780 – 13 October 1845) was a Quaker minister famous for her pioneering work in prison reform. She was featured on the British £5 note from 2001-2016.
An unhappy childhood: Elizabeth Gurney was born in Norwich, Norfolk, on 21 May 1780, one of the 12 children of John Gurney and Catherine Bell. Both her parents were from families that belonged to the Religious Society of Friends, more commonly referred to as the Quakers. John Gurney was a wealthy businessman operating in the woollen cloth and banking industries.
Elizabeth, known as Betsy, was moody, often unwell and tormented by numerous fears. She was dubbed stupid by her siblings for being slow to learn, but was most probably dyslexic. In 1792, Betsy was devastated when her mother died.
Conversion: Betsy’s family were ‘gay’ Quakers as opposed to ‘plain’ Quakers. Though they attended the weekly Quaker meetings, they did not abstain from worldly pleasures like the theatre and dancing or wear simple clothes as ‘plain’ Quakers did.
In 1798, an American Quaker named William Savery visited the Friends’ Meeting House in Goat Lane where the Gurneys worshipped. Betsy had a spiritual experience which was strengthened later that year when she met Deborah Darby, a Quaker minister, who prophesied that Betsy would become “a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame”. (1)
Betsy gradually adopted the ways of a plain Quaker, wearing the simple dress and Quaker cap in which she is depicted on the British £5 note. In 1811, Betsy became a minister for the Religious Society of Friends and started to travel around the country to talk at Quaker meetings.
Marriage and family: On 19 August 1800, Betsy married Joseph Fry, a plain Quaker whose business was tea and banking. They went to live in Mildred’s Court in Poultry, Cheapside, London, which was also the headquarters for Joseph’s business. In 1808, Joseph inherited the family estate at Plashet in East Ham, further out of London.
It was a fruitful marriage though not always a harmonious one. Joseph and Betsy had 11 children: Katherine (1801), Rachel (1803), John (1804), William (1806), Richenda (1808), Joseph (1809), Elizabeth (1811), who died young, Hannah (1812), Louisa (1814), Samuel Gurney (1816) and Daniel Henry (1822).
Betsy’s prison ministry: Throughout her life, Betsy was active in helping others. At Plashet, she established a school for poor girls, ran a soup kitchen for the poor in cold weather and was the driving force behind the programme for smallpox inoculation in the parish.
In 1813, while living at Mildred’s Court, she visited the women’s wing of nearby Newgate Prison for the first time. Betsy was filled with compassion for the awful state of the women and took flannel clothes with her to dress their naked children.
Over the next few years, Betsy’s life was absorbed by family issues, but in 1816, she resumed her visits to the women in Newgate Prison. With the support of the female prisoners, she set up the first ever school inside an English prison and appointed a schoolmistress from among the inmates.
Encouraged by her success, Betsy set out to help the women themselves. She read the bible to them and set up a workroom where the women could make stockings. All the female prisoners agreed to abide by Betsy’s rules. Against all odds, the scheme was successful. The women became more manageable and the atmosphere of the prison was transformed.
Fame and influence: News of Betsy’s success spread and she was inundated with requests for advice from prison authorities and ladies who wanted to set up prison visiting. Over the years that followed, Betsy visited prisons up and down the country, in Scotland, Ireland and on the continent. She became one of the foremost authorities on prison conditions and twice spoke as an expert witness on the subject to Parliamentary Select Committees – in 1818 and again in 1835.
Many of Betsy’s recommendations were included in the Prison Act of 1823 and in 1827 she published Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners which became a manual for good management of prisons and prison visiting.
Family problems: Betsy found it hard to balance family life with her extensive ministry. She was plagued continuously with ill health and oscillated between periods of intense activity and times of nervous exhaustion and depression. She often had to delegate her domestic responsibilities to her husband and other family members whilst she devoted herself to good works. Although Joseph always supported his wife, he sometimes complained that she neglected him.
The Frys were often forced to economise because of financial problems with Joseph’s business. Betsy’s brothers repeatedly came to their rescue, but in 1828, Joseph was declared bankrupt. They had to move permanently to a much smaller house in Upton Lane, Essex, and Joseph was expelled from the Society of Friends in disgrace.
Other areas of ministry: As well as her prison work, Betsy was able to improve the lot of women being transported to Australia for their crimes, providing them with a bundle of belongings to help each woman make a fresh start after their long voyage.
She instigated a project to provide libraries of books for the coastguards whose chief role of preventing smuggling made them isolated and unpopular. This was so successful that the government took over the project and extended it to the navy. Betsy also set up the first nursing academy, to train nurses who could go into private homes and provide care for those who could not normally afford it.
A fitting end: Betsy died on 13 October 1845 whilst on a holiday in Ramsgate. Her funeral was held at the Friends’ Meeting House in Barking on 20 October. The funeral procession from her house to Barking was over half a mile long. Even more mourners waited in Barking to celebrate the life of this remarkable woman.
In 1914, a marble statue of Elizabeth Fry was erected inside the Old Bailey in London, on the site of the Newgate Prison where her prison ministry had begun.
(1) From the journal of Elizabeth Fry, 4 September 1798, as recorded in Life of Elizabeth Fry: compiled from her journal, as edited by her daughters, and from various other sources by Susanna Corder (1853).
(2) Corder, De Haan, Hatton and Isba all record Elizabeth Fry’s death as the 13 October 1845, but some sources state the 12th.
Sources used include:
Corder, Susanna, Life of Elizabeth Fry: compiled from her journal, as edited by her daughters, and from various other sources (1853)
De Haan, Franciscas, Fry (née Gurney) Elizabeth (1780-1845), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn May 2007, accessed 24 Aug 2015)
Hatton, Jean, Betsy – the dramatic biography of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (2005)
Isba, Anne, The Excellent Mrs Fry – unlikely heroine (2010)
The history of domestic lighting has been governed by economics, but also by snobbery and tradition, and occasionally by a dangerous desire for novelty. So wrote Lucy Worsley.
If, for one moment, you think the subject of domestic lighting is dull then just think about life without artificial light; and remember, somewhere in all that was a basic need, which has remained ever since artificial light was first discovered – snobbery and novelty came later. Before then, changes and improvements to the differing forms of lighting were necessary, but this was a gradual process, evolving over many centuries. It was not until the late 19th century when one of the biggest changes in domestic life emerged – the development of, and from, electricity; a ‘miracle’ that happened from the moment its power was switched on.
Rushlights/Rush-Candles: For starters – take rushlights. For centuries past, they were the poor person’s light-source of choice. They were made by soaking the dried pith of the rush plant in fat or grease, building up the layers so as to create a rather scrawny candle. For several centuries rushlights were a common source of artificial light for poor people throughout the British Isles. They were extremely inexpensive to make, as pointed out by English essayist William Cobbett who once wrote:
“This rushlight cost almost nothing to produce and was believed to give a better light than some poorly dipped candles.”
These long, gently-curving lights were balanced in special holders, and to double the illumination, both top and bottom would be ignited – ‘burning the candle at both ends’ as we still say! One of the earliest printed descriptions of rushlights was written by English antiquary John Aubrey in 1673; then in 1789, Rev. Gilbert White gave a detailed description of rushlight making in ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne’.
*The boat-shaped vessel (above), used to hold the fat etc. for coating rushlights, was sometimes called a ‘grissit’.
It was, in fact, well into the third or fourth decade of the 19th century that many labouring families could afford nothing better than rushlights; made at home and, apart from fire-light, had been the one means of lighting for all the preceding generations. In the summer, the common rushes were collected by women and children and peeled to leave all but a narrow strip, which was left to strengthen the pith; these were hung up in bunches to dry. Fat of any kind was collected, though fat from salted meat was avoided if at all possible. It was melted in boat-shaped grease-pans that stood on their three short legs in the hot ashes in front of the fire. They were of cast-iron made for the purpose. The bunches, each of about a dozen peeled rushes, were drawn through the grease and then put aside to dry:
“You peels away the rind from the peth, leaving only a little strip of rind. And when the rushes is dry you dips ’em through the grease, keeping ’em well under. And my mother, she always laid hers to dry in a bit of hollow bark. Mutton fat’s the best; it dries hardest.”
*These two delightful images of making rush candles at home, showing the rushes being peeled and soaked in salt-free melted lard. Photos: By Geoff Charles 1909-2002. Copyright: National Library of Wales.
Rushlight holders were mostly of the same pattern, particularly as to the way the jaws held the rush; the chief variation being in the case of the later spring holders – in these, the jaws were horizontal; although, the usual and older patterns had the jaws upright, their only difference being in the shape and treatment of the free end of the movable jaw and the shape of the wooden block. The counter-balance weight was formed either into a ‘knob’ or a ‘curl’. Occasionally, it had the shape of a candle-socket and later, when tallow dipped candles came into use, the counterbalance was made into an actual candle-socket. There were several kinds of tall rushlight holders to stand on the floor, both of wood and iron. The iron ones nearly always had a candle socket in addition, indicating a later date, and the same kind of spring arrangement to ‘allow of the light being adjusted to the right height. Unless all of iron they nearly always had the cross-shaped block for a foot.
Apart from the effort of actually making rushlights, which was a greasy job, many would say that the work of servicing the lighting, thereafter, was not suited to the fingers of the mother at her needlework. ‘Mend the light,’ or ‘mend the rush‘ was the signal for one of the children to put up a new length. A rushlight, fifteen inches long, would burn for about half-an-hour. Then, two crossed pins would extinguish a rushlight and often, when cottagers were going to bed, they would lay a lighted rushlight on the edge of an oak chest or chest of drawers, leaving an inch over the edge. It would burn up to the oak and then go out. The edges of old furniture were often found to be burnt into shallow grooves from this practice.
Rush-candles, on the other hand, should not be confused with rushlight. A rush-candle is an ordinary candle (a block or cylinder of tallow or wax) that uses a piece of rush as a wick. Rushlights, by contrast, are simply wicks which were not separate from the fuel. As for the expression ‘the game’s not worth the candle’; this implies that lighting a candle felt like burning money itself. Then there was the twenty minutes, a familiar unit of time, for which one rushlight lasted; this often needed to be exploited, like the housewife who might have invited village neighbours over to share a rushlight for an interval of gossip, or hurried knitting.
Candles: Although candles are one of the oldest light sources, they have not changed fundamentally throughout history. Every candle is basically a mass of wax or some other fuel through which is embedded a wick which, when lit, produces light – Simple! They are still used for illumination, although sometimes in the past were used as a means of getting a degree of heating. Early nomadic tribes were first to make candles in Europe and these were made from tallow or animal fat because olive oil became almost non-existent when the Roman Empire fell. Thus, candles made from tallow were to spread across Europe and into Britain.
It was like this until the 18th century when whaling began. It was found that spermaceti, crystallized oil of sperm whale, could replace tallow. It produced brighter light and was available in great quantities and did not produce a bad smell – unlike tallow. After that, some other materials were found that did not involve the hunting of whales – like colza oil which was derived from turnip and oil made from rapeseed that also gave smokeless light. In the 1850s, James Young refined paraffin wax by distilling coal. Paraffin wax is white wax that burns clearly, did not have bad odour and was cheap so it could be produced in great quantities. Because of that, it became common commodity in households.
However, it was only the rich who could afford the profusion of beeswax candles. In large households, a daily ration of candles was often included in employment conditions, and the fate of candle-ends was hotly disputed: they were the preserve of senior servants, who would sell them to supplement their wages. Yet there was another, cheaper alternative. The tallow candle was made from animal fat, ideally sheep or cow, because ‘that of hogs …… gives an ill smell, and a thick black smoke’. The art of creating the longest-lasting blend was very valuable, and in 1390 tallow chandlery was listed among the foremost crafts of London. Tallow candles had a horrible brown colour and made a dreadful meaty stink. Despite this, desperate people would eat them in times of famine for the calories they contained.
Apart from the unpleasant smell, the great drawback to tallow candles was the need to snuff. Their wicks had to be trimmed every few minutes or they smoked. And, in an age of candles, fire-light and timber-framed houses, accidents were common. Once in seventeenth-century London a servant named Obadiah illicitly took a candle up to his bedchamber. There it fell over and burnt ‘half a yard of the sheet’. But the quick-thinking Obadiah woke a fellow servant, and together they ‘pissed out the fire as well as they could’.
The Interiors of the rich, lit by candle-light, were designed to magnify the limited light available. The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was the first room in history to be illuminated to something approaching the light-levels we’d find safe and pleasant today. Its ubiquitous glass reflected candle-light so effectively that the French court began for the first time to hold regular evening parties. In prosperous Georgian drawing rooms, there was likewise silver or sparkle everywhere. The gold rims of plates, the silver of keyholes, even the metallic embroidery on waistcoats: all were intended to aid the eye and maximise candlelight. In fact, a lady’s silver dress had the effect of making its wearer gleam.
Oil Lamps: The light, bright colours of candle-lit Georgian interiors would be replaced by rich, dark hues in the Victorian age. These Deeper tones helped hide the soot produced by oil lamps, which began to replace candles in the later eighteenth century. ‘I have seen houses almost filled with the smoke from lamps, and the stench of the oil’, one footman recollected. In grand houses, lamps required a new room for the cleaning of their glass shades. The Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle had a trifling 400 for his hard-working servants to polish.
Gas: Yet the oil lamp would soon be superseded by gas, and if we are looking for someone to blame for the substance, it may as well be William Murdoch. We know that the flammability of coal gas had long been established and in 1735, Dr John Clayton of Wigan had entertained the members of the Royal Society in London by telling them of how he had burned a few pieces coal, released its “spirit”, and captured it in animal bladders; then, to the great amusement of his friends, set it alight. However, it was Murdoch who, in Britain at least, pioneered the practical use of this party trick for the purposes of lighting. As an early steam buff, he worked out how to produce and store coal gas so that, by 1792, he was able to light his house in Redruth, Cornwall. Darkness – our primordial dread – had lost its dominion with the emergence of gas lighting.
Gas made its debut in London when an entrepreneur, named Frederick Windsor, organised a public demonstration of the new lighting for George III’s birthday in 1807. People both marvelled at and feared the properties of this ‘illuminated air’. Windsor reassured potential clients that gas is even ‘more congenial to our lungs than vital air’. By the 1840s, gas began to make a tentative appearance in the urban home. Gradually it became a middle-class must-have. A contributor to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine even recommended that parties ‘must always be given by gas light ….… if it be daylight outside, you must close the shutters and draw the curtains, the better to show off your ‘gasoliers’. But that was not all, gas must have provided a quite stunning improvement to people’s ability to read, write or sew in the evenings with minimal effort.
Nevertheless, gas had many drawbacks, despite its greater illumination qualities. There were frequent explosions, and it replaced the oxygen in the air with black and noxious deposits. The aspidistra, became a hugely popular plant in the home because it survived well in oxygen-starved conditions. Victorian ladies frequently fainted partly because of tight-lacing, but also because of a lack of oxygen in their gas-lit drawing rooms.
As an aside: – Many middle-class houses traditionally had a pendant light by the bay window of a bedroom. It was not there to principally illuminate a dressing table, but to prevent a person’s shadow from being cast on to the closed curtains when undressing, and thus being seen from the street. Instead, the shadow would be cast only on to the interior walls and away from ‘prying eyes’. away from the outside. This innovation was not confined to the gas era, but carried on with the emergence of electricity and well into the 20th century.
The arrival of electricity in the 1880s caused quite a stir with those who could afford the installation, for it was immensely expensive – and therefore terribly chic! A light bulb would cost the same as the average week’s wages, and you needed your own home generator. Several Fifth Avenue millionaires installed generators in their houses in New York of the 1880’s, and Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt even went to a costume ball as an Electric Light. But these early enthusiasts always ran the risk of accidents; like the very same Mrs Vanderbilt who, after her electrical system caught fire, not only panicked, but had it taken out.
Cost was not the only reason that the widespread adoption of electricity was delayed for many years; another significant factor was that there was no such thing as a standard generators – different brands had different outputs. This meant that many towns had differing currents, and manufacturers were reluctant to develop light fittings because there was no uniform national market for their products. It was not until the National Grid was created in the 1930s that electricity achieved ubiquity. Of course, this bright white light, which saw off the night and was enormously convenient, ensured that we lost something significant: the art of entertaining ourselves in low light levels, conversation, singing and storytelling. All these, and probably much more, were all the casualties of this modern technology.
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The first fact to reveal about Pablo Fanque is that he was born in Norwich in the County of Norfolk. The second, and probably the more important, is the fact that he not only became a brilliant equestrian performer, but famous as the first non-white British circus owner in Britain and the most popular circus proprietor in Victorian Britain during a 30-year golden period of circus entertainment. His life’s story starts in Norwich, and it is this beginning on which the City lays its own claim to this showman’s name and fame.
Norwich boasts the fact that Pablo Fanque, baptised William Darby, was born in the City; the date of his birth was 30th March 1810. He died on 4th May 1871 in Stockport, Lancashire, having left Norwich as a teenager; he only ever returned to Norwich as a performing act.
Fast forward to 2010; this was the year when Norwich first expressed its pride in being associated with the gentleman in the form of a commemorative blue plaque placed on the wall of the John Lewis department store on All Saints Green. Its position was the nearest the authorities could get to the house in Ber Street where Fanque lived his earlier years. Then, in 2018 a student accommodation block was opened in the Norwich, opposite the John Lewis Store and named ‘Pablo Fanque House’.
Much of Pablo Fanque’s early life in Norwich is unknown and speculative. What is known comes from the City’s church records which state, quite clearly, that he was born in 1810. He was one of at least five children born to John and Mary Darby (née Stamp) in Norwich. When Fanque married in 1848, he entered on his marriage certificate “butler” for his late father’s occupation. A Dr. John Turner, in a biography, speculated that Fanque’s father “was Indian-born and had been brought to Norwich and trained as a house servant.” Other accounts have also speculated that Fanque was orphaned at a young age, and even born in a workhouse to a family with seven children.
Over the years, biographers have also disputed Fanque’s date of birth and it was Dr John Turner, again, who popularised the belief that Fanque was born in 1796, presumably based on the 14 May 1871 ‘Era’ newspaper which recorded that Fanque’s coffin bore the inscription; “AGED 75 YEARS”. Dr Turner may also have been influenced by the detail on Fanque’s gravestone, located at the base of his late wife Susannah Darby’s grave in Woodhouse Cemetery, Leeds (now St George’s Field) which reads; “Also the above named William Darby Pablo Fanque who died May 4th 1871 Aged 75 Years“.
But those who support the belief that Fanque was born earlier than 1810 should maybe take note of certain facts. Firstly, his age was recorded in the 1841, 1851 and 1871 Census’s of England as being born in 1810 – surely, not all three would be incorrect! Then, a birth register at St. Andrews Workhouse in Norwich also records the birth of a ‘William’ to John Darby and Mary Stamp at the workhouse on 1 April 1810. This is the same birth year as that on Norwich’s blue plaque (above).
It is particularly worth noting the marriage record of a John Darby to Mary Stamp on 29 March 1791 at St. Stephen’s, Norwich, and the records of their children; these include a John Richard on 4 Jul 1792, Robert on 27 Jul 1794, William on 28 Feb 1796, Mary Elizabeth on 18 Mar 1798, and William (again!) on 30 March 1810. Crucially, the family also had two burial records, a William on 30 April 1797 and Mary Elizabeth on 10 Feb 1801. Now, Genealogists worth their salt would know that it was quite common in families that suffered infant mortalities in the past for a later child to be given the same name as a sibling who had previously died. This was particularly true where parents wished to maintain a family name in perpetuity. These facts strongly indicate that our subject, William, (Pablo Fanque) was indeed born in 1810 – following the earlier William who had died in 1797.
After the death of his father, William Darby became apprenticed to the circus proprietor, William Batty, around 1820, when he was about ten years old and in circumstances that biographers can only dream up. He learned to be proficient at rope-dancing and tumbling and became a talented equestrian performer. Certainly, Darby first picked up the ‘bug’ of being a circus entertainer in Norwich and made his first known appearance in a sawdust ring in the city on December 26, 1821; he was billed as “Young Darby”. Then, as soon as he had grown and developed into a young adult, with the full range of skills that he was to became famous for, William Darby left Norwich and began to tour extensively. It was in 1828 when he first took the name of Pablo Fanque, appearing on the local billboards as ‘Young Pablo’ in a troupe which performed at the Norwich Pantheon that year. In the spring of 1840 William Batty’s Circus again performed in Norwich, the bill boards making reference to ‘Pablo Fanque’ amongst the performers. An article in the Norfolk Chronicle on 21 March 1840 stated:
‘Pablo Fanque Darby commenced the representations with his
extraordinary leaps and other gymnastic feats’.
The following year Pablo decided to set up his own circus while on tour with Batty’s circus. He started with just two horses and an assortment of acts provided by one family: a clown, “Mr. R. Hemmings and his dog, Hector,” together with “Master H Hemmings on the tightrope and Mr. E. Hemmings’ feats of balancing.” These were assembled at his establishment at Wigan, in Lancashire…. “in which county Mr. Pablo is well known, and a great favourite.” Thus started the 30 year period when Fanque ran his own successful circus, only sometimes involving partnerships with others where these were necessary. During this time he toured England, Scotland, and Ireland, but performed mostly in the Midlands and the Northern England counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and what is now “Greater Manchester.”
Throughout the 1840s Pablo’s circus performed primarily in Yorkshire and Lancaster with occasional trips back to Norwich. However, in 1848, Pablo returned to Norwich for a more sustained period, with his ‘Circus Royal’ performing in Victoria/Ranelagh Gardens for the winter season. Pablo performed with William Batty’s Black Mare, Beda and newspaper reports of the time heavily emphasised his return to his native city:
CIRCUS, VICTORIA GARDENS. –On Saturday, the 23rd inst,. Mr Wm. Darby, professionally called Pablo Fanque, a native of Norwich, entered this city with a fine stud of horses, preceded by an excellent brass band. We hear that the performances during the week have been well attended, large numbers having gone away unable to obtain admission.
The Norfolk News, Eastern Counties Journal, and Norwich, Yarmouth and Lynn Commercial Gazette. Saturday 30 December 1848.
Families flocked to his shows in their thousands, lured by exciting poster and newspaper advertisements, street parades and the stories told by those who had been held spellbound by what they had experienced. Fanque was extremely adept at conjuring together new ‘exotic’ names, acts and historical extravaganzas, which could transport poor people out of what many experienced as drab, hardworking lives into a world of imagination, colour, dangerous feats of courage, expertise and sheer fun! His shows appealed equally to those of the higher classes.
One reason for Fanque’s success, one that often goes unremarked in circus histories, was his keen appreciation of the importance of advertising. Among the advantages that his circus enjoyed over its numerous rivals was that it enjoyed the services of Edward Sheldon, a pioneer in the art of billposting whose family would go on to build the biggest advertising business in Britain by 1900. Fanque seems to have been among the first to recognise Sheldon’s genius, hiring him when he was just 17. Sheldon spent the next three years as Fanque’s advance man, advertising the imminent arrival of the circus as it moved from town to town.
In addition to such advertising, Fanque would organise a spectacular parade to announce his arrival in town. In some towns he would drive ‘Twelve of his most beautiful Hanoverian and Arabian Steeds’ through the principal streets, accompanied by his ‘celebrated Brass Band’. He was also known to drive fourteen horses in hand through the streets in some places. When Pablo performed in Norwich he drew heavily on the fact that he was born in the city in order to draw the crowds to his performances. On Saturday 30 December 1848, the Norwich Mercury published the following article:
The Christmas pleasure seekers have been gratified by the appearance in Norwich of Mr. Wm. Darby’s stud of horses and equestrian company. Their location is at the Victoria Gardens, where they arrived on Saturday. Mr. Darby’s professional pantomimic is “Pablo Fanque,” but being a native of this city he has withdrawn the veil from his travelling title, and introduced himself in propria persona in terms that reach the poetic! He states that “it is with those pleasing emotions that dwell in the breast of every Englishman which, when returning to his Native City, (after years of absence) he must delight to indulge, that have induced me to issue this circular and offer these prefatory remarks. No man can appreciate the blessings of home like him who has long been absent. To grasp once more the hands of the playmates of his boyhood: to hear once more the music of the rippling brook upon whose banks he has played in childhood’s innocence: to look once more with solemn reverence upon that hallowed ground where repose the remains of his parents. It is with these impressions indelibly engraved upon my mind that I am brought back to my native city, and to solicit your and my other fellow-citizens kind support, and the amusements I have selected I hope will meet with the same approval that has rewarded my perseverance and study in other parts of the country!” Hitherto, we believe, Mr. Darby and his troupe have given the usual satisfaction which such amusements afford, and as a native of the city, if deserving, we wish him success.
Reviews of the circus performances throughout January and February 1849 praised their high character, with Pablo Fanque and his troupe continuing to draw good audiences. There is a mention to the graceful and daring equestrians, the elegant rope dancing of Mrs Mackintosh, the flexibility and agile movement of The American Brothers and excellent humour of the clowns. Pablo Fanque jun. also performed as an equestrian but is it Pablo Fanque and the ease and skill with which he rode the mare Beda in bold and daring performances which drew the greatest praise.
Even serious churchgoers sought enjoyment from a Fanque circus, whilst risking chastisement from some quarters. It was earlier in 1843, when clergy in Burnley were criticised in the Blackburn Mercury for attending performances of Fanque’s circus. This prompted one reader to respond thus:
“Ministers of religion, of all denominations, in other towns, have attended Mr. Pablo Fanque’s circus. Such is his character for probity and respectability, that wherever he has been once he can go again; aye and receive the countenance and support of the wise and virtuous of all classes of society. I am sure that the friends of temperance and morality are deeply indebted to him for the perfectly innocent recreation which he has afforded to our population, by which I am sure hundreds have been prevented from spending their money in revelling and drunkenness.”
Prior to Pablo’s appearance in Norwich in 1848, he made his highly successful London debut in 1847, under his professional name “Pablo Fanque”.
Describing Fanque and his performance at that debut, The Illustrated London News wrote:
“Mr. Pablo Fanque is an artiste of colour, and his steed … we have not only never seen surpassed, but never equalled … Mr. Pablo Fanque was the hit of the evening. The steed in question was Beda, the black mare that Fanque had bought from Batty. That the horse attracted so much attention was testament to Fanque’s extraordinary horse training skills.”
This same edition of The Illustrated London News also provided an example of how contemporaries regarded Fanque’s performance:
“This extraordinary feat of the manège has proved very attractive, as we anticipated in our Journal of last week; and we have judged the success worthy of graphic commemoration. As we have already described, the steed dances to the air, and the band has not to accommodate itself to the action of the horse, as in previous performances of this kind. The grace and facility in shifting time and paces with change of the air, is truly surprising.” –
Fanque was also described as a “skilful rider” and “a very good equestrian. It was the same newspaper, reporting on another performance at London’s Astleys Amphitheater, that filled in many more biographical details of Fanque:
“… Mr. William Darby, or, as he is professionally known, Mr. Pablo Fanque, is a native of Norwich, and is about 35 years of age. He was apprenticed to Mr. Batty, the present proprietor of “Astleys Amphitheater” and remained in his company several years. He is proficient in rope-dancing, posturing, tumbling etc; and is also considered a very good equestrian. After leaving Mr. Batty, he joined the establishment of the late Mr. Ducrow, and remained with him for some time before rejoining Mr. Batty.”
The Beneficial Nature of Mr Fanque: The “Benefit for Mr. Kite”, a title later to be immortalised by the 20th century’s musical Group ‘The Beatles’, was one of many benefit shows that Pablo Fanque held for performers in his own circus, for others in the profession who had no regular retirement or health benefits, and for community organisations. Fanque was, in fact, a member of the Order of Ancient Shepherds, a fraternal organisation affiliated with the Freemasons. The Order assisted families in times of illness or death with burial costs and other expenses. For example, an 1845 show in Blackburn benefitted the Blackburn Mechanics Institution and the Independent Order of Odd-fellows, offering a bonus to the Widows and Orphans Fund. Fanque held a similar benefit in Bury the following year.
Then in 1857 and 1858, Fanque was again active, holding at least two benefits among other performances. In 1857, in Bradford, he held a benefit for the family of the late Tom Barry, a clown. Brenda Assael, in The Circus and Victorian Society, writes that in March 1857:
“Pablo Fanque extended the hand of friendship to Barry’s widow and held a benefit in her husband’s name at his Allied Circus in Bradford. Using the Era offices to transmit the money he earned from this event, Fanque enclosed 10 pounds worth of ‘post office orders…being the profits of the benefit. I should have been better pleased had it been more, but this was the close of a very dull season.” On 24 October 1858, The Herald of Scotland reported: “IN GLASGOW, ‘Pablo Fanque’s Cirrque Nationale’ offered ‘A Masonic Benefit.”
An 1846 a Bolton newspaper story epitomised the public’s high regard for Fanque in the communities he visited on account of his beneficence:
“Several of the members of the “Widows and Orphans Fund” presented to Mr. Pablo Fanque a written testimonial, mounted in an elegant gilt frame……..Mr. Pablo on entering the room was received with due respect. Mr. Fletcher presented an address……..which concluded:……..’and when the hoary hand of age should cease to wave over your head, at a good old age, may you sink into the grave regretted, and your name and acts of benevolence be remembered by future generations.”
Fanque’s Partnership with W. F. Wallett: During the 1840s and 1850s, Fanque was close friends with the clown W. F. Wallett, who performed in his circus. Wallett also managed Fanque’s circus for a time. Wallett frequently promoted himself as “the Queen’s Jester”, having performed once before Queen Victoria in 1844 at Windsor Castle. He appeared regularly with Fanque’s circus and many towns throughout the north. It was during a ‘benefit’ being held for Wallett in the amphitheatre, Leeds when a balcony collapsed, killing Fanque’s wife; see below.
Throughout his 1870 autobiography, Wallett shares several amusing anecdotes about his work and friendship with Fanque, including the following about their 1859 engagement in Glasgow:
“ The season was a succession of triumphs. One of the principal attractions was a little Irishman whom I engaged in Dublin, who rejoiced in the name of Vilderini, one of the best posture masters the theatrical world ever produced. I engaged him for three months at a liberal salary, on the express understanding that I should shave his head, and convert him into a Chinaman. For which nationality his small eyes, pug nose, high cheek bones, and heavy mouth admirably adapted him. So his head was shaved, all but a small tuft on the top, to which a saddler with waxed twine firmly attached his celestial pig-tail. His eyebrows were shaved off, and his face, neck, and head dyed after the most admired Chinese complexion. Thus metamorphosed, he was announced on the walls as KI HI CHIN FAN FOO (Man-Spider-leg mortal).”
We had about twenty supernumeraries and the whole equestrian company in Chinese costume. Variegated lanterns, gongs, drums, and cymbals ushered the distinguished Chinaman into the ring, to give his wonderful entertainment. The effect was astonishing, and its success extraordinary. In fact the entire get-up was so well carried out that it occasioned us some annoyance. For there were two rival tea merchants in Glasgow at the time, and each of them had engaged a genuine Chinaman as touter at his door. Every night, as soon as they could escape from their groceries, they came to the circus to solicit an interview with their compatriot. After being denied many nights in succession, they peremptorily demanded to see him. Being again refused, they determined to move for the writ of habeas corpus. That is to say, they applied to the magistrate stating they believed their countryman to be deprived of his liberty except during the time of his performance. We were then compelled to produce our celestial actor, who proved to the satisfaction of the worthy magistrate that he was a free Irishman from Tipperary.”
Marriage and Family: Fanque married Susannah Marlaw, the daughter of a Birmingham buttonmaker. They had two sons, one of whom was named Lionel. It was on 18th March 1848 when his wife died in Leeds at a ‘Benefit’ performance for Fanque’s friend, W F Wallett, clown. Their son was performing a tightrope act before a large crowd at the Amphitheatre at King Charles Croft. The 600 people seated in the gallery fell with its collapse, but Susannah Darby was the only fatality when heavy planks hit her on the back of the head. Reportedly, Fanque sought medical attention for his wife at the King Charles Hotel, but a surgeon pronounced her dead. Years later a 4 March 1854 edition of the Leeds Intelligencer recalled the incident, while announcing the return of Pablo Fanque’s Circus to the town:
“His last visit, preceding the present one, was unfortunately attended by a very melancholy accident. On that occasion he occupied a circus in King Charles’s Croft and part of the building gave way during the time it was occupied by a crowded audience. Several persons were more or less injured by the fall of the timbers composing the part that proved too weak, and Mrs Darby, the wife of the proprietor, was killed. This event, which occurred on Saturday the 18th March 1848, excited much sympathy throughout the borough. A neat monument with an impressive inscription is placed above the grave of Mrs Darby, in the Woodhouse Lane Cemetery.”
It is clear that widower Fanque did not waste any time in finding another wife for in June 1848, he married an Elizabeth Corker, a circus rider and daughter of George Corker of Bradford. Elizabeth was 22 years old and was to deliver two more sons to Fanque, George (1854) and Edward Charles “Ted” (1855). Both sons were to join the circus with Ted Pablo achieving acclaim as a boxer, and would tour Australia in that profession. A daughter, Caroline died at the age of 1 year and 4 months and was buried in the same plot as was for Susannah and William.
In Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh there also stands a tombstone dedicated to the memory of two others of Elizabeth and Fanque’s children —William Batty Patrick Darby (13 months) and Elizabeth Darby (3 years). Both died in 1852 but Elizabeth, the younger, died in Tuam, Ireland. This was at a time, in the early 1850’s, when Fanque was performing regularly in Edinburgh. The inscription on the children’s tombstone is thus:
“Sacred to the Memory of
William Batty Patrick Darby son of
William and Elizabeth Darby
Professionally known as Pablo Fanque
who died 1st February 1852, Aged 13 Months
Also of Elizabeth, their Daughter
who died at Tuam Ireland 30th Oct. 1852,
Aged 3 years and 4 months”
It is left to the 1861 census records to reveal that Fanque was living with a woman named Sarah, aged 25, who was described as his wife! But there again, the 1871 census records show him living again with his wife Elizabeth and his two sons, in Stockport.
The successful performance years and the money enjoyed by Fanque were destined not to last beyond the 1860’s. Certainly within a couple of years of his death, Fanque was ‘insolvent’, living in a room in the Britannia Inn, 22 Churchgate, Stockport, with his wife and two sons – George and Ted Pablo. There Fanque died of bronchitis on 4 May 1871. It was a sad end for such an extraordinary man, who rose from humble beginnings in Norwich to reach the top of his profession and in a career that lasted fifty years.
Despite the apparent poor financial circumstances of his last few years, Pablo Fanque’s funeral was a spectacular occasion. One may think that, having been a member of a charitable ‘Order’ and someone who often raised money for others, help came forward to see him on his way. Certainly, his body was brought from Stockport by train and a great procession accompanied him to his resting place, watched by several thousand people. The hearse was preceded by a band playing the ‘Dead March’ from Saul and was followed by Pablo’s favourite horse, ‘Wallett, – partially draped in mourning trappings and led by a groom’, four mourning coaches, and several cabs and private vehicles. Pablo was buried with his first wife in Woodhouse Lane Cemetery, Leeds. Ahead of the funeral procession to the cemetery was a band playing the “Dead March”. Fanque’s favourite horse followed, along with four coaches and mourners. Fanque was buried next to his first wife Susannah Darby. The Cemetery is now named St. George’s Field and part of the University of Leeds campus. While the remains of many of the 100,000 graves and monuments have been relocated, the monument that Fanque erected in his wife’s memory, and a smaller modest monument in his memory still stands.
While some contemporary reports did not refer to Fanque’s African ancestry, other reports noted that he was “a man of colour“, or “a coloured gentleman”, or “an artiste of colour.” These suggest he was of mixed race with partial European ancestry as well. Thirty years after Fanque’s death, the chaplain of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, Reverend Thomas Horne, wrote:
“In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession. The camaraderie of the ring has but one test – ability.”
Thomas Horne was commenting on Fanque’s success in Victorian England despite being of mixed race.
For all the charitable qualities possessed by Fanque, he was far from perfect. Apart from the apparent eye he seemed to have for the ladies, there was a less savoury side to him that should not be forgotten if a sense of balance is to be maintained.
Fanque, at best, seemed to have also been an irritable man, if not violent. In 1847, he attacked a James Henderson, not the J. Henderson on the playbill by the way! James Henderson was an employee who, although taking Fanque to court, the matter was settled without full legal recourse. – “He [Henderson] was unable to keep the horse quiet, and thereupon the defendant, after one or two somewhat uncivil expressions of disapprobation, threw the comb and brush at him (complainant), and then (probably from the force of association) began ‘kicking’ at his legs. — John Leach and James Geary confirmed the complainant’s account …” – (Blackburn Standard – 13 October 1847 p.3.).
Another assault took place in 1849. – “CHESTERFIELD PETTY SESSIONS, SATURDAY, JULY 28. Pablo Fanque Darby, the proprietor of a travelling equestrian establishment, was charged with assaulting John Wright, of Walton, at Baslow, on the proceeding day.” – (Derbyshire Courier – 04 August 1849 p.2.)
However, a chronic problem with Fanque was that he was not good at keeping the finances straight. Nelson had a financial dispute over wages with him in April 1858 which went to court but by October 1858 Fanque had been made bankrupt and in June 1859 was refused protection from bankruptcy, owing £2765 with assets of £165. It turned out that Fanque had fooled everyone into thinking he was “the owner of a large equestrian establishment”, but had in fact sold his business to William Batty some years before and hired it back. A creditor claimed that this sale was fraudulent and although the commissioner found that
“the transactions with Battye……..were of a singular character, and calculated to arouse suspicion………nothing fraudulent had been proved before him”. Even the fact that he had kept no books did not in law “call for punishment”.
However, a charge of perjury was more serious for it was claimed that Fanque had sworn an affidavit that the circus was worth £1000 when it had been previously purchased by Batty for £500. “Unfortunately for the bankrupt’s character, it was too clear that the the affidavit was intended to deceive. The statement that the establishment was worth £1000, and was his property, was entirely untrue … the bankrupt had shown that no reliance could be placed on his word”. – (Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser – 4 June 1859)
Even after his death in May 1871, his propensity not to be honest with regard to the way he handled his debts caused problems for others. John Walker, a juggler in his circus had lent him £5, which he required to be repaid, but Pablo had died suddenly. As a result he sued Elizabeth Darby, his widow and administratrix of the estate. As a result, Elizabeth’s barrister in the case, “asserted that the defendant had not a rag, her husband having died hopelessly insolvent. Sometime before his death, the deceased assigned every particle of his property, in consideration of a sum of £150 lent to him by a Mr. Knight, of Manchester, who had now taken possession of everything”. – (Huddersfield Chronicle – 13 May 1871 p.8.) In order to settle the case, her barrister paid the £5 out of his own pocket.
There you have it! – the ‘not so complete tale’ of Pablo Fanque’s life. However, like with most lives and events legacies remain. In Pablo Fanque’s case, his name was almost forgotten, that is until it became immortalised in the mid part of the 20th century, on the Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – in the song, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’. The words of that song had been lifted by John Lennon from an advertising poster for Fanque’s Royal Circus in Rochdale, in 1843, which Lennon had spotted in an antique shop in Sevenoaks, Kent:
“For the benefit of Mr. Kite/There will be a show tonight on trampoline/ The Hendersons will all be there/ Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair – what a scene/ Over men and horses, hoops and garters/ Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!/ In this way Mr. K will challenge the world!”
Lennon bought the poster while shooting a promotional film for the song, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, in Knole Park. Tony Bramwell, a former Apple Records employee, recalled:
“There was an antique shop close to the hotel we were using in Sevenoaks. John and I wandered in and John spotted this Victorian circus poster and bought it.” The poster advertises a performance in Rochdale and announces the appearance of “Mr. J. Henderson, the celebrated somerset thrower” and “Mr. Kite” who is described as “late of Wells’s Circus.” Lennon modifies the language, singing instead, “The Hendersons will all be there/Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair/What a scene!”
The title “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is taken verbatim from the poster. The Mr. Kite referenced in the poster was William Kite, who is believed to have performed in Fanque’s circus from 1843 to 1845. As for “Mr. J. Henderson”, he was John Henderson, a wire-walker, equestrian, trampoline artist, and clown. While the poster made no mention of “Hendersons” plural, as Lennon sings, John Henderson did perform with his wife Agnes, the daughter of circus owner Henry Hengler. The Hendersons performed throughout Europe and Russia during the 1840s and 1850s.
‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.
Meet John ‘Jack’ Slack, alias the ‘Norfolk Butcher’, alias the ‘Knight of the Cleaver’; a bare knuckle fighter, who was the champion of what is thought to be the first international Heavyweight fight which took place in 1754.
Jack Slack was said to have been born in Thorpe, Norwich, Norfolk, in 1721, where he ran a butchers shop (hence his nickname), Slack was reputedly the grandson of another famous fighter, James Figg, the first English bare knuckle boxing champion.
A contemporary description of Slack says that he was five foot eight inches and a half in height and weighed almost fourteen stone. His physique was ‘compact . . . superior to the generality of men in strength and of excellent bottom.’ He changed his style of fighting to suit his opponent and often came out the victor, punching his opponents with such force that the term ‘a slack’un’ came into general use, meaning a ‘smashing hit.’ In 1743 Slack became the Champion of Norfolk after defeating three local men in boxing matches and by 1748 his renown was such that he sold on his butchery business to his brother and moved to London where his reputation as a fighter continued to grow.
On the 14th March 1750, at Broughton’s Amphitheatre in Oxford Road, London, Slack threw down a challenge to the formerly invincible John (Jack) Broughton (a man some years older than he and known as the ‘Father of Boxing’ who had been taught by Slack’s grandfather, James Figg). Slack, who possessed a talent for getting under other fighters’ skins had, according to the Derby Mercury of 6 April 1750, instigated a dispute with Broughton earlier in the month, during a controversial election campaign in Brentford, which was dogged by allegations of corruption. For reasons unknown, this altercation about the election had resulted in “personal abuse” being exchanged between the two pugilists.
Subsequently, so the Mercury claimed, during a bout at the amphitheatre, Slack “came upon the stage” and “offered to fight Mr Broughton immediately for 20 guineas”. Broughton declined the offer, arguing that he was “not immediately prepared” whereas Slack had been “in keeping some months”. However Broughton did agree to a contest the following month, and a bout was duly arranged for 11 April 1750. In fact, Broughton was eager for the fight – or for the money to be derived from it! He regarded Slack with the utmost contempt and made no sort of preparation; also, so afraid was he that the ‘butcher’ might not turn up at the last minute that he gave him ten guineas to make sure of him! The betting was 10-1 on Broughton when the men appeared in the ring. After all, as boxing went in those days, he did know something about defence, and he was master of two famous blows, one for the body and one under the ear, which were said to terrify his opponents. As for Slack, there was nothing elegant about him. His attitude was said to be ugly and awkward, he was strong and healthy but quite untrained in the true meaning of the word. Standing only 5 feet 8 inches he still weighed as much as 14 stone, nearly as much as his antagonist, who was a taller man.
The match duly taking place on the 11 April 1750, backed by one of Broughton’s patrons, the Duke of Cumberland – he himself to be known as Butcher Cumberland after the Jacobite uprising). This Duke was so enthusiastic at the prospect earning a considerable sum of money for this fight that, it was said, he bet 1,000 guineas on Broughton.
The match lasted just fourteen minutes and eleven seconds, a blow from Slack between the eyes blinded Broughton, and Slack had only to continue hitting him until he was unable to rise again. Slack, it seems, easily emerged as the victor to win the Championship of England and bagging himself not less than 600 guineas. As for the Duke of Cumberland; well, he was quite upset by the loss of his money. At first he told everyone that he had been “sold,” though later on he appeared to have forgiven Broughton and pensioned him. But not so! He went to Parliament, where he was very influential, and had legislation passed that closed Broughton’s Amphitheatre. Thereafter, and to the end of his days, “he could never speak of this contest with any degree of temper.” As for Broughton, he never again raised his fists for money, except to instruct the young and hopeful with the mufflers. When he died, on 8 January 1789, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, the only boxer to be so honoured.
Four years later, on the 29 July 1754, Slack was back in his home county of Norfolk, challenging the Frenchman Monsieur Jean Petit (or Pettit) to a match. Pettit was a muscular giant of a man, reputed to have previously exhibited himself in a circus as a ‘strong man.’ This boxing match took place at Harleston. A letter reporting the fight appeared in the newspapers just days later. This one is taken from the London Evening Post and dated 3rd August 1754.
Extract of a Letter from Harleston in Norfolk, July 30.
‘Yesterday in the Afternoon Slack and Pettit met and fought. At the first Set-to, Pettit seized Slack by the Throat, and held him up against the Rails, and grain’d him so much as to make him turn extremely black. This continued for Half a Minute before Slack could break Pettit’s Hold; after which, for near ten Minutes, Pettit kept fighting and driving hard at Slack; when at length Slack clos’d with his Antagonist, and gave him a very severe Fall; after that, a second and third. But between these Falls, Pettit threw Slack twice off the Stage; and indeed, Pettit so much dreaded Slack’s Falls, that he ran directly at his Hams, and tumbled him down; and by that Means gave Slack an Opportunity of making the Falls very easy.
When they had been fighting eighteen Minutes, the Odds ran against Slack a Guinea to a Shilling; whereas, on first setting out, it was three or four to one on his Head. But after this Time Slack shorten’d Pettit so, as to disable him from running and throwing him down in the Manner he had done before, but obliged him to stand close fighting. Slack then closed one of his Eyes, and beat him very much about the Face. At twenty Minutes Pettit grew weaker, Slack stronger; this was occasion’d by Slack’s strait Way of fighting. At twenty-two Minutes, the best Judges allow’d Slack to have the Advantage over Pettit very considerably, as he was then recovering his Wind, which was owing to Game.
When they had boxed twenty-four Minutes, Pettit threw Slack again over the rails; this indeed Slack suffer’d him to do, as by that Means he fix’d a Blow under Pettit’s Ribs, that hurt him much; whilst Slack was again getting upon the Stage (it was not Half a Minute before he was remounted) Pettit had so much the Fear of his Antagonist before his Eyes, that he walked off without so much as civilly taking Leave of the Spectators, or saying any Thing to any Person, this the Cockers call Roguing of it; for it is generally thought that Pettit ran away full strong. The whole Time of their fighting was twenty-five Minutes, and this Morning the Battle was given to Slack, who drew the first Ten Guineas out of the Box. Thus ended this dreadful Combat. The Box was Sixty-six Pounds Ten Shillings’.
Although sometimes mentioned as a ‘dirty fighter’, victories continued for Jack Slack until 1760 when he finally lost to Bill Stevens (the Nailer) at a bout on a stage erected for the purpose of the fight in the Tennis Court, James Street, London on the 17th June 1760. The Duke of Cumberland, who ten years previously had been the patron of Broughton, found that he really did miss the sport despite the money that that earlier fight had cost him. This time he backed Jack Slack, by not only arranging for the bout to be held in London, with no interference from the law, but also placing a bet on him. However, this time the sum was 100 Guineas, but at least it showed that his heart was still in the game. Unfortunately, the Duke was again on the losing side on three counts; Slack lost the championship, the Duke lost his 100 guineas together with any further interest in boxing.
Feature Photo (Above): – “The Bruiser Bruisd; Or, The Knowing Ones Taken-in” is by an unknown artist in 1750. It depicts the boxing match between Jack Slack and John Broughton in the same year. Newspapers at the time noted how Broughton feared that Slack would not turn up to fight, and so offered him ten guineas ‘not to break his engagement’. It was also said that Broughton was the superior boxer at the beginning of the fight and that the odds were ten to one in his favour. However, confidence was short-lived as Slack ‘put in a desperate hit between Broughton’s eyes, which immediately closed them up’. The blood pouring from the left eye of Broughton is indicative of this wound and the faces of the audience reflect the disbelief that the British Champion had been beaten by Slack in just fourteen minutes. This unlikely result sparked rumours that the match had been fixed, although there does not appear to have been any evidence to confirm this. The spectator depicted directly behind Broughton in a state of disbelief is possibly the Duke of Cumberland, Broughton’s patron who ‘lost several thousand’ on a bet. The Gentleman on both sides of the gallery are pictured giving money to men by their sides, having lost their bets too. The Title implies that the ‘knowing’ spectators were ‘taken in’ by Broughton, however an attempt to incriminate Broughton by emphasising his larger frame in comparison to Slack, is overshadowed by the emphasis placed generally on the exchange of money. Money is presented as underpinning the sport; inviting the viewer to question the honesty of professional boxing. It is possible that the prospect of profiting was an incentive for boxers and patrons to conspire and fool others.
Slack, after this, mostly retired from boxing himself and instead concentrated on his butchery trade. Many sources say he possibly opened a shop on London’s Chandos Street in Covent Garden (he had appeared in the rate books for this street in 1750), but at the time of his fight with the Nailer in 1760, he was reported in the newspapers to be settled at Bristol. He still kept his hand in by training other fighters, possibly running a boxing school in Bristol (he was rumoured to occasionally fix fights for his protégées), and just occasionally was mentioned as fighting himself.
The London Chronicle newspaper, on the 5th January 1765, reported that:
“Slack, the famous Boxer, who has been for some time in Dublin, is under an engagement to fight one Weyburn, a noted bruiser there, for a considerable sum”.
Three years and six months after this fight John Slack died at Bristol on the 17th July 1768 and was buried in that city two days later.
Jack Slack was still remembered some years after his death, the St. James’s Chronicle reporting on the 11th September 1781, and placing him alongside some very noteworthy personalities:
“Some Years ago the three most remarkable Personages of the Age were Kitty Fisher, Lord B__te, and Slack, the Bruiser. At the present Day, says a Correspondent, the three most remarkable Personages are, the Perdita, Doctor Adelphi, and Sir Jeffery Dunstan”.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded, amended or simply to carry an appropriate ‘Credit’, then please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.