John Black and “The Lady Shore”

Death of the Captain of the “Lady Shore”

Death of the Captain of the “Lady Shore”

John Black was born on 31 October, 1778, in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. He spent his childhood at Woodbridge in Suffolk. His father, also called John, was curate at Butley from 1789 to 1813, Chaplain at the Woodbridge House of Correction, Headmaster of the Woodbridge Free School and Chaplain at the army camp at Bromeswell. He was also a classical scholar and a prolific author.

Most of what we know about the son’s life comes from his published letters to his father: An authentic narrative of the mutiny on board the ship Lady Shore; with particulars of a journey through part of Brazil: in a letter, dated “Rio Janeiro, Jan. 18, 1798”, to the Rev. John Black, Woodbridge from John Black, one of the surviving officers of the ship. (Rev. John Black, Ipswich, 1798).

“The most disagreeable, mutinous set of villains”

Young John first went to sea in 1795, aged 17, in the Walpole, a trading vessel and East Indiaman. His real adventures began in May, 1797. That was when he wrote to his father from Torbay, where he had signed on as purser and navigator of the Lady Shore, bound for Sydney, Australia.

The ship was carrying soldiers as reinforcements for the New South Wales Corps, who guarded the convicts, plus food and farming equipment. Both were sorely needed. There were also 69 female convicts, one male army prisoner, some wives and children of the crew and a single passenger and his wife.

Many of these so-called soldiers had been conscripted forcibly. They included former deserters and dissident Irish. There were even some French prisoners of war, who had already tried to escape and were suspected of plotting another attempt. Nearly all were unwilling to go to Australia and had been causing problems before the ship even set sail. In his letter to his father, Black described them as “the most disagreeable, mutinous set of villains that ever entered a ship.”


After eight weeks at sea, off the coast of Brazil, the threatened mutiny broke out. The soldiers, led by the French prisoners-of-war, began it. They were joined by some of the sailors, the ship’s surgeon (under duress) and 66 of the female convicts. Together they seized the ship and killed the captain and first mate.

“One of the ringleaders, a Frenchman, mounted the arm chest, and, through the interpretation of Major Semple, read the rules they had adopted; and desired we would follow them under pain of death. They also informed us … that they intended to give the officers the long boat, and to put into her thirty-two people, as soon as they had passed the latitude of Rio de Janeiro … ”

After being confined below decks for two weeks, Black, with with twenty-nine men, women and children were put in a longboat and set adrift. Their number included the remaining ship’s crew, the army convict, the passenger and his wife, four other wives, four children and three female convicts. They had a little water and some basic provisions. They were also allowed a pocket compass and a quadrant to help them find land. The nearest was some 300 miles distant.

“They put into the boat three small casks of water, containing about ninety gallons, four bags of bread, and three pieces of salt beef. We, however, were fortunate enough to evade the search of the sentries in the confusion, and got into the boat two hams, two cheeses and a small keg, containing about four gallons of rum …”

“Lightning and rain, and a tremendous sea”

The Lady Shore sailed away under command of the mutineers, leaving the longboat behind. The castaways hoisted sail and headed for the Portuguese coast of South America. It was no easy journey.

“We had the wind from the N. E. and fine weather for the first eight hours, after which we had variable winds, with heavy thunder, lightening and rain, and a tremendous sea … At noon [the next day], it cleared up a little and we had land in sight, from about two points on the larboard bow to right astern: we supposed ourselves, from the run we had had, to be about twenty miles to the southward of Port St. Pedro.”

As luck had it, they were spotted by a local boat, despite more heavy seas and driving rain. It helped them find their way to land at the harbour at St. Pedro, now Rio Grande in the Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sul. They had been only two days in the boat. Black thought it a miracle. The local people could scarcely believe their tale.

A passage to Rio

John Black and his companions were received kindly by the local Portuguese authorities. They also promised passage to Rio de Janeiro to find a British ship to take them home. Yet delays mounted. Some of their remaining goods were stolen and Black became increasingly impatient of the long wait. Instead, he decided to make his own way overland to a port where he might take ship for Rio. He left, accompanied only by Major Semple, the former army prisoner from the Lady Shore.

The generous Portuguese provided a baggage horse, two guides and even two servants for the pair. The 480 mile journey to Santa Caterina now became something of a triumphal progress as the enthusiastic natives provided feasts along their way and safe places to rest.

“A great superfluity was provided for our supper, and at least twelve or fourteen dishes went away untouched; among which were a roast turkey, pig, ducks, fowls, mutton, pork and beef, cooked different ways; sweetmeats of all kinds and good wine.”

When they reached Santa Caterina Island, Black and his companion found some ships of the Portuguese navy which took them on to Rio de Janeiro. The whole journey had taken six weeks.

“We were upon our arrival conducted to the Palace, and having produced our letter from the General at Rio Grande, we were kindly received by the Governor; and had each separate apartments allotted us at the palace. We found here part of the Portuguese squadron, stationed on this coast, consisting of four ships of the line, three frigates and a brig, under the command of Admiral Antonio Januario, who received up with great politeness, and very kindly offered us a passage to Rio Janeiro, for which place he would sail in about a month.”

John Black was safe. The fate of the mutineers and the Lady Shore was not so benign. The ship reached Montevideo in Uruguay, where it was seized and sold by the Spanish authorities for 40,000 dollars. The male mutineers were thrown into jail. The women “judged pretty enough” were shared out among favoured Spanish in Montevideo, doubtless for the pleasure of the menfolk. The other women joined the men in jail. What happened next is not known, but it was unlikely to have been good. Nothing was ever heard of men or women again.

Posted in Crime | 2 Comments

Mahogany: An Eighteenth-century Wood


Jamaican Mahogany Tree
Photographed c. 1940

The use of mahogany in domestic furniture became so ubiquitous in the 19th and early 20th centuries that it’s something of a surprise to discover that the wood was virtually unknown in Britain before the start of the eighteenth century. In fact, no furniture using mahogany has been positively identified in Britain before that date. The tree itself was known from the middle of the 17th century, but any earlier usages appear to have been confined to small amounts used in shipbuilding. In fact, surviving Customs returns make no mention of the import mahogany for any reason until 1700, when £5 worth seem to have been imported during that whole year from Jamaica. Some was on sale in London not long after, as this advertisement in the London Gazette of 25th February, 1702 shows. However, the “Mary Man of War” mentioned was a Spanish ship taken as a prize, so this sale may have been more by chance than design.

On Wednesday the 3rd of March next, at 9 in the morning, will be exposed to publick Sale by the Candle, at Salters-Hall in St Swithern’s Lane, London, a Parcel of Damag’d Cocheneal, out of the Mary Man of War; together with the remaining Goods of the Little Galeon, call’d the Mary’s Prize, consisting of 4 bags of Cocheneal, some Calcin’d Earth, Pictures, Lackered Tea Tables, Chocolat-mills, White and Brown Sugar, Molosses, Nicaragua and Mahogany-wood, West Indian Box, etc.

The Wood Itself

The true mahogany tree is native to the Caribbean, together with Central America and the southernmost parts of Florida. Most of the wood imported into England came from Jamaica, although a significant part of the trade passed through the American colonies before 1776. Some of it must have stayed there, since probate inventories from Philadelphia mentioned mahogany amongst the stock held by cabinetmakers and joiners early in the century, while mahogany furniture was listed for domestic premises at around the same time.

It looks as if the earliest use of mahogany for furniture making in England may even be later than its use in the American colonies. This can’t be proved, since there’s no firm evidence of the first production of mahogany furniture. There is only a series of anecdotes stating that 1724 marked the date when production of furniture using mahogany began. Before that time, fine English furniture was mostly made from local woods, such as oak, walnut and yew-wood.

Another likely explanation for its quick take-up by cabinetmakers and joiners was an Act of Parliament in 1721 (The Naval Stores Act, George I cap.8) that removed all duty from timber imported from the American Colonies. Since much of the mahogany reaching England came via those Colonies, along with a good deal of American walnut, the removal of duties doubtless greatly stimulated the trade. By the 1740s, mahogany furniture was being made throughout the kingdom. It was even being exported back to the West Indies by the middle of the century. It had become the fashionable wood and the cabinetmakers who used it prospered greatly.

Jamaican Mahogany

The island of Jamaica was of vital importance to British trade in the 18th century. For a start, it was the major source of sugar — ‘White Gold’ — and with it the wealth of a good many English merchants. It was also the focal point for the triangular trade in slaves, many of which worked in the sugar plantations. Ships sailed from Liverpool or Bristol to the West Coast of Africa, picked up a human cargo of slaves, sold them in Jamaica, bought sugar with the proceeds and returned to England, where a good deal of the sugar was sold into continental Europe. Since mahogany trees grew abundantly in Jamaica, it made excellent sense to use this timber as another source of profitable cargoes. Much of the mahogany brought into the country during the 18th century was imported by these routes, then distributed via coastal shipping. We know the wood for Walpole’s Houghton Hall in Norfolk arrived via King’s Lynn, which had no direct trade with Jamaica.

Mahogany in English Furniture

Sir Robert Walpole’s architects used mahogany extensively in building Houghton Hall in the 1730s . The wood was used for doors, door cases, stairs and panelling, suggesting that, while undoubtedly new and highly fashionable, the cost of mahogany was at least comparable to other, alternative woods. Walpole was certainly extravagant in building his mansion, but the widespread use of mahogany throughout the building would probably not have been possible had it commanded a significant premium.

Why did mahogany quickly become so important? While part of this must be down to fashion, there were also severely practical reasons. Compared with the woods available previously, mahogany combined greater ease of working, relative freedom from warping and instability and superior colour, graining and finish. James Macfadyen, writing in 1837, praised ‘Old Jamaican Mahogany’ as superior to that produced by any other country, adding:

The exquisite beauty of the finer kinds of mahogany, the incomparable lustre of which it is susceptible, exempt also from the depredations of worms, hard, durable, warping and shrinking very little, it is pre-eminently calculated to suit the work of the cabinet-maker. Accordingly, these admirable properties, added to its abundance, and the largeness of its dimensions, have occasioned it to be manufactured into every description of furniture.

Sadly, as the largest and most easily accessible trees in Jamaica were harvested, they were not replanted. Supplies had to be taken from higher elevations and drier, rockier ground. The trees that grew there produced much harder, closer grained wood, which was tougher and less easily worked, but allowed for the legs and rails of furniture made after the 1750s to be made more slender. What we now think of as the Chippendale-style of furniture would not have been possible without access to wood of such strength. Over time, demand outstripped supply and other woods of similar strength, colour and grain also came to be known as mahogany, some of these grown elsewhere in Central and South America, some as far away as southeast Asia.

The next time you are visiting some English stately home, take a careful look at the furniture. You will almost certainly see that furniture from the first half of the 18th century and earlier appears markedly sturdy in design. In contrast, late Georgian and Regency furniture, nearly all of it in mahogany, displays a slender elegance that was subsequently lost in the Victorian taste for excessive elaboration.

Posted in Commerce, Georgian Society | 6 Comments

John Fransham, Norfolk’s Pagan


Fransham illustration, 1767
“The entertaining traveller; or, the whole world in miniature. Giving a description of every thing necessary and curious; … To this new edition is added, an account of the gigantic patagonians, lately discovered. By Mr. John Fransham, of Norwich. In two volumes.”

I am always on the lookout for examples of genuine eccentrics in the grand old English tradition. People who follow their own path in life, even at the expense of ridicule from others. Individualists who may be odd, even barking mad, but are also both harmless and somehow lovable too. One such was John Fransham, a Norwich man deemed by many at the time to be a pagan and a polytheist. In today’s terms, he’d probably be judged a freethinker, who believed the universe was governed by natural forces rather than any kind of deity.

This is what was said of him soon after his death:

John Fransham, the Norwich Polytheist, a very eccentric character, was born in St.George’s Colegate. He was an excellent mathematician, and was a great admirer of the ancient writers on this science. He frequently took rapid solitary walks, with a broad brimmed hat slouched over his eyes, and a plaid on his shoulders, and was supposed to sleep often on Mousehold Heath. He died on February 1st, 1810. His biography was written by his pupil, Mr. Saint.

He was born the son of Thomas and Isidora Fransham some time early in 1730 (he was baptised on the 19th March). His father was probably the sexton of the parish of St. George in Colegate, Norwich, though some writers say he was the parish clerk. Either way, young John was a precocious child and both the parish minister and an unnamed relative encouraged him to aim for a university education and entry to the church. It was not to be, since the relative died and the money ran out.

Finding an occupation

This is when Fransham’s eccentricity and his determination to choose his own path in life first showed itself clearly. He seems to have tried out several potential apprenticeships. He tried becoming a cooper at Wymondham, but soon rejected that. Next came a short period helping a veterinary surgeon, a Mr Joseph Clover, with menial tasks. He gave that up following a difference of opinion over the practice, common then, of docking horses’ tails. All this time, it’s said, he just about supported himself by writing sermons for clergymen, though his extreme poverty forced him to go about Norwich barefoot.

Nevertheless, the lad must have had something about him, since his biographers claim Mr Clover taught him some mathematics, while the famous Dr John Taylor, then a local Unitarian minister and theologian, also gave him instruction free of charge. A legacy of £25.00 paid for a few lessons from Mr W. Hemingway, a land surveyor, until the money ran out — though he spent part of it on buying a pony, which he didn’t ride but kept as a pet. He even tried working in an office for an attorney. Despite the efforts of other staff members to help him learn, he seems to have given that up quite quickly as well.

In 1748, he even joined a company of strolling players, who seem to have been so poor as actors that they mostly lived on turnips stolen from the fields. Fransham left them rather than be a party to theft.

A wandering life

After leaving the actors, he took ship from Great Yarmouth intending to visit Scotland, but got no further than North Shields, where he enlisted in the army, but was soon discharged as bandy-legged. Once again, he had neither money nor employment. It is said he made his way back to Norwich with only three halfpennies in his pocket and a piece of rough tartan cloth.

Back home, Fransham set himself up working with Daniel Wright, a freethinking journeyman weaver. Naturally, little about the arrangement was usual. He and Wright set up their looms facing one another and engaged in philosophical discussions amidst the clattering of the looms. Fransham might even have continued with employment, for he said Wright possessed “a finely philosophic spirit and a soul well purified from vulgar errors”. Sadly, Wright died in 1750 and the 20 year-old Fransham immediately gave up weaving.

What next?

Throughout his life so far, Fransham had managed to accumulate an unusual degree of learning for a person with such a humble background, let alone one who rarely had two pennies to rub together. This he now put to work, starting as a tutor to a farmer’s family at Hellesdon, just outside Norwich, and rapidly gaining a reputation in preparing young men for university. By this means, he earned enough money to haunt second-hand bookstalls and amass a library of some 200 volumes.

Even here, his eccentric nature showed through. One day he bought a book for two shillings and showed it to a friend, who said he had a good bargain, for the volume was worth seven shillings at least. At once, Fransham returned to the book stall and insisted on paying the astonished woman owner the ‘missing’ five shillings!

Many other stories were told of him as the years passed. How he amused himself with a child’s toy called a ‘bilbao-catch’. This was a stick with a pointed end with a ball tied to it by a length of string. A hole in the ball fitted over the point and the object was to toss the ball up and try to catch it on the point of the stick. In time, he could do this around 200 times in succession and boasted that he had caught it 666,666 times in total. He also carried a stick around with him and threw it, measuring the distance of the throw each time.

In later life, Fransham wrote various works of philosophy and theology, often setting out his ideas of Nature as the only ‘ruler’ of the universe. The Norwich Record Office holds these items, for example: ‘Memorabilia Classica’, essays, including ‘The Code of Aristopia or Scheme of a perfect Government’, ‘Synopsis of Classical Philosophy’, ‘English Politics’, Illustrations as pencil and wash sketches. Needless to say, while these brought him some notoriety, they made him little money. He was reduced to writing begging letters and persuading relatives and various acquaintances to let him lodge with them.

Of course, he had to be an eccentric guest. He refused to allow the walls of the rooms in which he slept to be whitewashed or the floors wetted, never made his bed more than once a week and had such a fear of fire that he kept a rope-ladder dangling from his window and practised going up and down it to make sure he could leave as quickly as he thought might be needed.

He continued teaching a little, but his health gradually failed, not assisted by the experiment of sleeping outside on Mousehold Heath, wrapped only in the tartan cloth he had brought back from Newcastle. In January 1810 he became bed-ridden, but though he was carefully nursed he refused any medical aid and told those attending on him that, if he could live his days again, he would have nothing to do with women. He also had a morbid fear of being buried alive, so gave minute instructions on what was to be done to prove he was dead before he should be buried. He died on 1 February, 1810, and was buried in the churchyard of St. George, Colegate, where his father had been sexton 80 years before.

Final thoughts

What strikes me most about Fransham’s story is not his eccentricity but the surprising light it throws on Georgian life in Norwich. Here is a child of a poor family, albeit a gifted one, who managed to amass enough education one way and another to become a respected teacher; a man who could make enough of an impact on others to be able to have his writings published and stories told about him long after his death; and a freethinker whose views on animal cruelty, diet (he was a vegetarian and a lifelong teetotaller) and honesty in business dealings (witness the book purchase) are curiously modern. We tend to see Georgian times as both class-dominated and socially rigid. John Fransham’s life suggests neither of these was entirely correct and that, even almost 300 years ago, people could respond to one another’s humanity rather than see them as stereotypes.

Posted in Norfolk Eccentrics | 1 Comment

The Business Troubles of a Georgian Merchant


The British packet “Antelope” captures the French privateer “L’Atalante”, 1793
(National Maritime Museum)

Robert Plumsted was a merchant and we are fortunate to have his Letter-book, covering the period from November 1756 to April 1758. Although it includes only copies of the letters he wrote, not those he received, it still gives us a unique insight into the business issues and problems of an English merchant in the first part of The Seven Years War.

He seems to have been trading a good deal with the American colonies and the West Indies, especially Antigua. Not surprisingly, since he was himself a Quaker, a good deal of the American business was with Pennsylvania, but he also traded with merchants in Maryland and New York. He exported many manufactured items, from agricultural tools, blankets, textiles, thread and hat-pins to garden seeds, pepper mills and pewter utensils. In return, he imported iron ore, sugar, wheat and similar commodities.

The Seven Years War

Many of his problems arose directly from the outbreak of war and the fighting that erupted in America with the French and their Indian allies.

In May, 1756 he wrote to one correspondent:

On the 18th instant war was declar’d here against France, they have laid siege to Port Mahon and fear may have taken it. This oblig’d the government to declare [war] — which I am sorry for, being in great hopes an accomodation [sic] would have been brought…

He also notes when Pitt the Elder became prime minister in December of that year:

Wee have an intire change in the ministry, publick affairs are put into new hands and great reformations upon the carpet. Wee hope for more promising events than last year-which have been verry unfavourable…

That ministry didn’t last long though and he was soon sounding a note of deep gloom:

Wee have had no sea engagements lately. All Europe seems in a ferment and wn the sword will be sheath’d is only known to him who permits such a heavy scourge to fall upon the nations; to humain view things look very gloomy, and how soon our temporal affairs may be involv’d in the general confusion we know not. Certain it is, that wee are in a very precarious situation and those who have the least concerns in trade seem the most secure…

Stranded or Captured

The war brought him more specific worries as well. Crews may be taken by Press-gangs, leaving vessels stranded or too ill crewed to commence a voyage. Delays became endemic, with severe effects on cash flows. French privateers were also active throughout the Atlantic and especially where valuable cargoes like sugar might be expected. It wasn’t only cargoes that might be lost. Business letters, orders and bills of exchange could easily go missing, so merchants were forced to resort to sending duplicates and triplicates by different routes.

The only way of dealing with the privateers was to travel in convoy, guarded by suitable naval vessels. This added further delays, since ships had to wait until a suitable number had assembled before setting sail. There were no set or regular times for convoys to leave. Bad weather could separate the vessels en route, leaving stragglers vulnerable to lurking privateers. Nonetheless, Plumsted acknowledged the navy was doing all it could and recorded occasions when all went well, such as this from 1757:

The Leward Island fleet came verry unexpectedly, tho verry agreably upon us and by the great care of the men’a’war, I think all the ships got safe in to their different ports. I wish the next may have as good success…

The Worries of a Quaker

The fighting in America and Canada meant a demand for weapons and ammunition to be sent from England to sustain the troops and their Indian allies. This brought particular concerns for a pious Quaker like Plumsted. Was it permissible under the Quakers’ pacifist principles to carry such goods, let alone trade in them? There were business issues as well, since shipping arms required an expensive licence.

On a few occasions, he did send limited numbers of sword-blades and guns, taking no profit on them, but the clash with his beliefs soon grew too much for him and he declined further business of that kind:

You know, wee as a people, are in principle against everything that tends to war and bloodshed, and consistent with this belief can neither be active therein or pertake of the profit arising from the sale of goods the use whereof is for destructive purposes. This lays me under a difficulty, which there seems but one expedient for. The demand for these things are but temporary they cease in time of peace and now are but a verry small part of your busyness, would it be any great ill convenience to you to let them drop. It would ease me from a scruple that at present I cannot divest myself of…

Payment and Credit

Plumsted seems to have been strongly opposed to what he termed “the pernicious practice of giving such long credit”, adding that “it will never answer in a large trade and small capital”. He even tried to avoid “bad payers”, even if that meant his own business would be limited as a result. Unfortunately, his best efforts seem often to have failed, even when doing business with fellow Quakers on the other side of the Atlantic.

He took one to task most severely for his delays. The use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ shows he is writing to a fellow member of the Society of Friends:

I have thine of 25th 10 mo: [25th October] and continue to admire at the excuses thou makes. I expected the rum would be pleaded, though to my certain knowledge not one farthing of the proceeds was directed to be paid to me … Thy invention no doubt will furnish thee with materials for another letter when thou art ashamed of being silent any longer and as thou know how to improve calamitys to thy own advantage, thy next if thou please may turn upon provincial affairs.

To another he wrote:

… thou has deceiv’d both me and my attourney so often, that wee can give verry little credit to anything thou says. If thou hast either honour or honesty, my forbearance with thee should produce some better effects. I am ashamed of thy shuffling tricks, they render thee very contemptable and are a most ungratefull return for my long patience.

The picture these letters show is that of an honest, hardworking man trying hard to survive in a world suddenly become even more hostile than usual. Whether he succeeded after 1758, I don’t know. He deserved to. It’s easy to view the warfare of the time purely from the military or political points of view, neglecting issues which must have been far more pressing to most people. The scarcity of wheat for bread-making and the need to import it from America. The temporary stopping of exports to continental distilleries and the fall in the price of barley this produced. The constant ups and downs in the costs of basic foodstuffs as merchants sought to sell to the highest bidders. If a prosperous merchant like Robert Plumsted found the times difficult to negotiate, imagine how hard they must have been for the poor, with no security of food or employment.

Posted in Commerce | 2 Comments

Don’t Mess with Eighteenth-Century Doctors!

Le_Duel_Marion,_Eugène_de_BeaumontHere’s a delightful story from The Norfolk Chronicle of 26th March, 1796, concerning a quarrel between a doctor and an army officer over the officer’s demand that the doctor should play his flute when he didn’t want to. Since it’s rather a lengthy story, I’ll summarise most of it.

The doctor concerned, one Dr Young, was said by the paper to be “remarkable for the urbanity of his manners and the cheerfulness of his temper”. Perhaps not on this occasion, when he was “on a party of pleasure with a few ladies” going up the Thames to Vauxhall Gardens and entertaining the party by playing his flute.

It seems the doctor stopped playing when a rowing boat, containing several army officers, came up alongside. One of the officers at once demanded to know why he had put his flute away. The doctor replied, “For the same reason that I took it out; to please myself.” This seemed to infuriate the officer, who demanded that he continue playing or he would throw him into the river. At the time, the doctor — the writer claimed it was to prevent further upset to the ladies in the party — did as the officer demanded. However, when he saw the same man later in the evening on his own, the doctor went up to him and challenged him to a duel to take place the following morning. The officer accepted and they chose swords as the weapons.

From this point onwards, I’ll let the paper tell the story in its own words.

The duellists met the next morning at the hour and place appointed; but the moment the officer took his ground, the Doctor presented to his head a large horse pistol. “What! (said the officer) do you intend to assassinate me?” — “No, (said the doctor) but you shall instantly put up your sword and dance a minuet, otherwise you are a dead man.” Some short altercation ensued, but the Doctor appeared so serious and determined, that the officer could not help complying. “Now, Sir, (said the Doctor) you forced me to play yesterday against my will, and I have obliged you to dance this day against yours; we are again on an equal footing, and whatever other satisfaction you demand, I am ready.” – The officer forthwith embraced the Doctor, acknowledged his impertinence, and begged that for the future they might live on terms of the sincerest friendship, which they ever did after.

There you have it; and if the story wasn’t true, it ought to have been. I wonder whether Dr Adam Bascom would have behaved in the same way?

Posted in Tid-bits | 2 Comments

Pamphleteering: Welcome to the Georgian Internet

The Anti-Jacobin

It’s amazing how similar the world of the late-eighteenth century pamphlet wars is to today’s social media. Both provide a more or less open space for people to express their views on any topic, join in controversies and try to influence and form that elusive power known as ‘Public Opinion’. Neither demand any literary skill — or even much in the way of literacy. Both display more or less total disregard of the truth, often resorting to the crudest lampoons and distortions to hammer home their message. If the pamphlets of the eighteenth century seem laughable now, that’s mostly because of changes in the use of language, not modern sophistication. Spend five minutes with Twitter, Facebook or even the television and you’ll witness a good deal that would put even the crudest Georgian pamphleteers to shame.

Radicals and Revolutionaries

Perhaps the period when government propaganda was most common and most successful was from 1792 onwards, when the target included attacks on the ideas and beliefs associated with the French Revolution.

Part 2 of Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man” was deliberately made cheap to buy so that it could obtain the widest possible circulation. That was why, according to the Attorney General of the time, he had not brought a prosecution for seditious libel against Part 1, which sold for three shillings (maybe £30 today). “Reprehensible as that book was,” he explained, “it was ushered into the world under circumstances that led me to believe that it would be confined to the judicious reader.” Part 2 was sold as a sixpenny pamphlet. Paine’s style of writing was also graphic and easy to understand. When the Attorney General “found that even children’s sweetmeats were wrapped up with parts of this, and delivered into their hands, in the hope that they would read it,” he felt he had to prosecute.

The Government’s Response

The Post Office was supposed to carry any newspaper, pro or anti-government, so long as the price was paid. In the welter of pamphlets that were now being produced, the government too resorted to establishing (and subsidising) ever more pro-government newspapers and broadsheets to fight fire with fire. Naturally the opposition and the radical groups fought back, so the government, unable to forbid circulation outright, encouraged the Post Office to ‘lose’ issues sent to distant subscribers by post. Trying to use the law relating to ‘seditious libel’ as a means of suppression produced mixed results, mostly because the grounds for determining if a publication fell under that definition were unclear. Under the Libel Act of 1792, juries in libel trials were charged with deciding if material was libellous. Lengthy battles followed in the courts, juries were reluctant to convict and the government learned to tread warily.

That left matters more or less in limbo, so the government shifted their focus instead to suppressing radical groups directly, rather than concentrating on what they published. It took a while, and several failures on the government side, but eventually nearly all radical opposition was driven underground — at least for the duration of hostilities with France.

A New Concept: Public Opinion

The 1790s were the first time when the governing class in Britain thought it necessary even to consider the views of the common people. They had seen what had happened in France when ordinary folk — the sans culottes — were mobilised by the radicals to assault and overthrow an entrenched regime. What could happen there could happen in Britain.

In 1797, The Anti-Jacobin; or Weekly Examiner, perhaps the most successful pro-government publication, claimed a circulation of 50,000. For comparison, the most popular newspaper of the time, The Times, printed some 3,000 copies per day. Hannah More’s series of “Cheap Repository Tracts” reached a collective circulation of a million copies. Later she collected and republished them in book form, subdivided into sections called “Tales for the Common People” and “Stories for Persons of Middle Rank.” Others wrote Anti-Jacobin novels. Most had identical ‘plots’ in which a naïve person is mislead into following a radical philosopher. This produces various calamities until the ‘victim’ of the deception either sees the light and returns to sensible ways, or falls in destitution and often ends on the gallows.

It’s fair to say that many of the authors of these pamphlets were no more sophisticated — and no more eager to abide by the truth — than many whose words fill social media today. Propagandists on both sides were far more interested in making a point than avoiding misrepresentation or outright fiction. Even educated writers who put pen to paper to produce a pamphlet or article, often anonymously, churned out crude, often farcical rubbish. Still, as we know to our cost today, it’s sometimes the crudest caricatures that produce the most effects. The Internet trolls, purveyors of fake news and the hacks who write for scandal-sheets are part of a thoroughly dishonourable tradition that goes back 250 years or more.

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Georgian Attitudes Revealed


A street in Norwich
© AW Savage, 2017

There are times when I’m looking through some primary document and find myself brought up short by a comment that reveals an outlook or attitude that would never be acceptable today. A time when the only possible response is “What!?” It helps to remind me that social attitudes in the past were sometimes very different from those that prevail nowadays; and that judging past situations by present standards is both futile and pointless. Indeed, much of the worth of an interest in history is the constant reminder that context changes meaning; and that maintaining perspective is an essential part of reaching a sound understanding of any subject.

This happens most often when I glance through eighteenth-century newspapers. Take these examples. All come from a single page in The Norfolk Chronicle for August 26th, 1797.

Devotion (Not) Rewarded

This first story is rather a long one, so I will summarise the earlier part. It concerns a young man who formed a “tender connection” with a young lady by whom he had a child. His rich father however said that he would disinherit him if he did not “break off the connection”. All this happened while he was still at school. When he came to go to university, he promised to do as his father had asked. Secretly, the young woman dressed as a man and went to university with him, where she joined him in the study of the Ancient Classics. This she did so well that she won several prizes.

At the end of their university studies, the two next entered the Middle Temple to study the law. Once again, the young lady dressed as a man, applied herself diligently to her work and shone in the law as she had at the University.

After all this, the young man dumped her.

You can easily imagine the response there would be today. Unstinting praise for the devotion, hard work and cleverness of the young woman. Universal condemnation of the heartlessness of her lover. Not in 1797! Here’s what the newspaper wrote at the conclusion of the article:

After such constancy, few minds, we hope, are prepared to imagine the fate of the fair unfortunate; for she is now abandoned by her lover, a prey to grief, and with acquirements [sic] that, in her sex, are rendered almost useless in her progress through life by the custom of the world. The mother of the Gentleman has settled an annuity on her, but the philosophy of the schools does not prevent her from being inconsolable.

Barely a word of praise for her devotion. Nothing about her ability and hard work. No words of condemnation for her lover. Nothing really but an acknowledgement that all her learning would now be useless to her — even for bringing her consolation.

A Scientific Experiment

I will quote the next article verbatim.

Madame Blunet brought 21 children into the world in seven births. The French Academy, desirous, like Juno in Ovid, to know which contributed most to the success of this extraordinary fertility, whether the man or the woman, in order to ascertain the facts, proposed that Mons. Blunet, should make an experiment with his maid. He did so, and she presented him with three male infants at the end of nine months.

That’s it.

I love the euphemism “make an experiment with his maid”. Presumably, both wife and maid were expected to go along with this in the cause of scientific curiosity.

Damned Foreigners!

My final excerpt comes from a piece describing a visit to China by Sir George Staunton in which, according to the article, “they had an opportunity of seeing and examining almost everything that the country offers most curious, being continually accompanied by several persons of the highest dignity and authority in the Empire, who had it in charge every degree of attention and respect should be shown to them.”

After commenting on China’s vast population and the ingenuity shown in producing sufficient food for them, the writer turns to what he clearly sees as that nation’s greatest strength.

The most wonderful thing in China is the uniting so many millions of people under the influence of regular government. This is facilitated by the authority of age and experience over youth and ignorance, which is established by the laws, and confirmed by the immoral [sic!] usages of China.

Even so, the writer cannot leave the subject without a burst of British disdain for these damned foreigners; one that manages to draw in the French as well!

The Chinese are far inferior to the Europeans in scientific knowledge; but they greatly resemble the French, de la veille Cour, in vivacity and urbanity, in an overweening conceit of themselves, and in manifest airs of conscious superiority over strangers with whom they converse. They value and cultivate arts only in proportion to their utility.

Maybe the newspapers haven’t changed that much in 250 years.

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