John Money Aloft


The First Crossing of the English Channel by balloon

In the first instalment of balloonist Major John Money’s story, I dealt with the background and the arrangements made in Norwich for the balloon to take off. You will recall, that Money was to have gone up with two other people, but it proved impossible to generate sufficient hydrogen to carry more than Money himself. We’ll now continue with the tale from the point where the balloon left the ground.

Take Off

The balloon finally took off at 4:25 in the afternoon and things started to go wrong from the beginning. First of all, it became entangled in a tree. Then Major Money had to throw out his greatcoat in order to get airborne, even though the balloon carried no ballast. Still, it did eventually take off and rose slowly into the air in a manner, according to the newspaper, “peculiarly graceful and majestic”.

First of all, the balloon headed westwards, which was fine for the spectators since they got an excellent view. However, as it rose higher it virtually doubled back on itself, passing over the Quantrell’s Garden once again and heading now to the north-east. It seemed to be rising and falling, now entering the clouds, now appearing again below them. Forty-five minutes later, it disappeared entirely from sight.

People outside Norwich were able to view it for longer. One man, who had armed himself with a telescope, kept it in sight for a considerable time. It was heading towards Great Yarmouth. Two people, equipped with a speaking trumpet, even called out to Money, who answered by waving a flag.

At around five o’clock, the wind had changed again, veering more towards the north-west. As a result, the balloon now began to turn in the direction of Lowestoft. It also rose still higher, so that it disappeared into the clouds and was lost to sight at 5:35 PM. The last view the man with the telescope had showed Major Money standing in the gondola with his arms held above his head, apparently trying to grasp the bottom edge of the balloon.

From Bad to Worse

Major Money gave his own account of the flight, which was published in the Norfolk Chronicle for July 30th. We therefore know what was happening in the balloon, related in his own words. It makes such an exciting story that I would love to be able to quote it in full, but it’s far too long. You’ll have to be content with some extensive extracts.

According to the Major, he never intended to make more than a short flight. Given that it had been so difficult for the balloon to get airborne, he assumed that he would be able to bring it back to earth whenever he wanted. Sadly, this did not prove to be the case. He soon found that it was impossible to descend. It was his belief that as the balloon rose the afternoon sun caused the gas inside to expand, thus carrying the balloon ever higher. He had equipped himself with a string attached to a valve at the base of the balloon. By use of this valve, he had hoped to be able to discharge gas and cause the balloon to descend. This went wrong too. He found that it took considerable strength to hold the valve open; and even then, little gas escaped. I think we can guess that the bulk of the gas had risen to the top of the half empty balloon, while the valve was at the bottom. It was going to take a very long time to allow sufficient gas to escape. He tried to reach to the part of balloon that was most inflated, but it was far above his head. In desperation, he made a large cut in the ballon in the part that he could reach. This too produced no benefit. This is how he described it:

“. . . no inflammable air [hydrogen], however, escaped by this, and he says that the external air rushed into the lower part of it and swelled it considerably, and he thinks rather disposed the balloon to rise.”

Out to Sea

It was now plain that he was going to be carried out to sea. His main care now was to try to put down in the water while it was still light, thus giving himself the best possible chance of rescue. By now:

. . . he was convinced that he was dropping pretty fast; and this proved true, for about 6 o’clock the boat touched the surface of the sea.

The balloon, when it first touched the water, rebounded several times near forty yards from it, but soon became stationary, and the boat [balloon gondola] filled with water; the Major therefore placed himself with his feet on each edge of the boat, and with his hands over the group he endeavoured to close the lower part of the balloon (which he had before opened), to prevent any air getting out if the balloon tilted, and likewise to prevent any water being admitted; as his only chance of saving his life was preventing the balloon from losing its power of floating, and which evidently must depend on its retaining the air. It was evident however that this was losing, though happily not very quickly; for though the water gained on him, it was eight o’clock before it was above his knees, and 10 o’clock before it was above his waist.

The sea heaved at times very much with large swells, and he was lifted up and depressed again alternately. His most important object was to guard the lower part of the balloon, which required much exertion, and which he had done with tolerable security till past ten o’clock, when being more deeply immerged in the water, he had less command of the balloon, and a large wave suddenly rising, it was thrown quite flat, and the lower part received a large quantity of water. He apprehended this would produce a certain destruction, as it was impossible the balloon could support him much longer if the water were not again discharged; he therefore made an attempt to raise the balloon up, by throwing himself backwards, and pulling it forcibly forwards, and had the satisfaction of seeing the water again discharged; and to prevent the same circumstance occurring a second time, he tore off the lower part of the balloon, and held that part above it tightly with its hands.

Just before he fell into the sea he had the recollection to take his watch out of his pocket, and fix it into his coat buttonhole a little below his chin, so that he could count the melancholy minutes which he passed without moving his hands.

There we must leave poor Major Money again, up to his waist in water and convinced it was only a matter of time before the balloon sank and he was to be drowned. We will take up his story again in the next instalment of this post.


Posted in C18th Norfolk, Tid-bits

The Intrepid John Money


John Money was born in Trowse Newton, near Norwich, probably in 1741. Some accounts say 1752, but I think this is almost certainly wrong, since it would require him to begin his career in the regular army at the age of ten! Since he is said to have served in the Norfolk militia before then, he would have done so at an impossibly early age.

Whenever he began his military career, it was very much his life and he rose to become a general in the armies of Britain, France under King Louis XIV, and the Austrian Netherlands. His military career would make an excellent subject in itself, and I may return to it at some time. However, for the moment I am concerned with his other claim to fame, which is as one of Britain’s very first aeronauts or balloonists.


Money took to the air first in June 1785, less than two years after the Montgolfiers had made their very first ascent using a hot air balloon. What’s still more interesting is that Money, like several other early balloonists in Britain, used a balloon filled with hydrogen gas, not hot air. This first ascent was made from near London. However, what I wish to write about is his second ascent, made on July 23rd, 1785 from Quantrell’s Gardens in Norwich. Since the story is long and exciting, and much of it is available in John Money’s own words, I am going to spread it over several posts.

Let’s begin, therefore, with the details of this particular ascent from Norwich. Here is what was written in the Norfolk Chronicle for Saturday, July 23rd, 1785:

The BRITISH BALLOON THAT ascended from London the Third of June last with Major Money, Mr. Blake, and Mr. Lockwood, will ascend from Quantrell’s Gardens with the above Gentlemen at Half after Three THIS DAY, the 23d of July, for the Benefit of the NORWICH and NORFOLK HOSPITAL;

This is the finest Balloon in England, was constructed by Count Zambecari, and is the only one that has, or is capable of ascending with three Persons; and as the Expence attending the filling is so great, it is probable no such Balloon will ever be seen again in this County.

From the Disappointment the Public felt at the last Aerostatic Experiments made here, this Balloon will be kept some Time floating in the Air, before the Cord is cut, so that the Spectators IN THE GARDEN ONLY may receive every Satisfaction they can wish.

Tickets of Admission only Half a Crown each, to be had at the Gardens THIS MORNING; and Tickets for a publick Breakfast, Music, &c. &c. Five Shillings each, to be had at Tuck and Johnson’s Coffee-houses.

A Bad Start

Things began to go wrong from the start. To produce the hydrogen gas, the balloonists of the time needed copious supplies of iron filings. Somehow, the supply available on that day was insufficient to make enough gas to fill the balloon. It was not able to lift the three people intended, so John Money elected to go on his own. There was barely enough gas even for this, as the same newspaper related just one week later on Saturday, July 30th:

It was intended that Mr. Blake and Lockwood, the gentlemen who before ascended in the same balloon from London with the Major, should also at this time have accompanied him, but there being a deficiency of iron filings [to generate the hydrogen for the balloon] (there not having been, Mr. Lockwood says, time to procure a sufficient quantity) it was found, at four o’clock, that it could not be sufficiently inflated for that purpose, and even when the Major was alone in it, that it would not admit of his taking up any ballast, for it rose in the garden with reluctance, and was at first entangled in a tree, but the Major disengaged himself from this, and soon after throwing out his great coat, the balloon ascended without further interruption, gradually indeed, but in a manner peculiarly graceful and majestic.

So far so good. To discover what happened next, you have to wait for the next instalment of the story.

As an aside, it appears there must be some strange link between Norfolk and balloons, since in the same year of 1785, another distinguished Norfolk resident, William Windham M.P., made a flight in a hydrogen balloon – and almost met the same fate as John Money.

Posted in Georgian Society, Travel | 2 Comments

Living Conditions for the Georgian Rural Poor


Robert Burn’s Cottage

Most of us assume that the rural poor in the 18th-century lived in cottages. But what is a cottage? Is it simply a small dwelling house, maybe with a single room? Is it a small house that stands by itself, rather than being attached to others in a row? How have the poor come to live in such buildings? It’s most unlikely that they owned them, so what form of legal agreement allowed them to live there?

From what I’ve been able to discover, most cottagers in the seventeenth century and early eighteenth held their cottages under the manorial form of leasing called copyhold. Essentially, this meant little more than an agreed tradition of occupation. You might call it ‘customary tenure’ — holding the cottage from the Lord of the Manor by right of inheritance. This manorial form of tenure was based on a “copy” of the proceedings of the manorial court which certified ownership. When ownership was to be confirmed, or transferred from father to son, a jury would hear evidence from those who had lived in the manor lands longest. The court’s agreement would be based on verbal proof that the cottage had been lived in by the same people for as long as anyone could remember.

The Decline of Manorial Courts and Holdings

During the eighteenth century, this essentially mediaeval form of leasing was falling out of use — a process accelerated by the enclosure of the common fields, which steadily undermined the importance and legitimacy of manorial courts. As the poor ceased to be subsistence farmers and were forced to earn their living as agricultural labourers, so the owners of the land and the buildings upon it sought to determine tenancies and rents by commercial principles. Lords of the Manor and copyholders were replaced by landlords and their tenants.

This led to a harsher and more antagonistic relationship between the building’s owner and the tenant. Landholdings were increasingly clustered together to form larger farms, forcing the landless poor into the villages. The larger farms demanded wealthier tenant farmers with the capital needed to support the new, more intensive agricultural methods. The professional land agents who increasingly ran the estates of the gentry for them saw their success measured by the level of rental income they could achieve.

The poor labourer’s cottage was of little use to farmer or land agent. Of course, landlords should have had an interest in maintaining the houses they owned in reasonable order, if only to support their capital value. Providing reasonable living accommodation for the most skilled and valued farmworkers was also an obvious need. Unfortunately, cottagers rarely included such skilled employees. They provided minimal rental income, they prevented farms being organised into larger units, which allowed rents to increase and the capital value of the land to rise, and they could not farm according to the new, ‘scientific’ methods being introduced on large landholdings. Most were unskilled, scraping a living as casual manual labour at peak times and living off parish relief for the rest.

‘Cottagers’ or ‘Paupers’?

It’s probably fair to say that the better-off Georgians had little interest in the domestic lives of the poor. Our chocolate-box image of a country cottage is an extremely modern affair. Cottagers and paupers were often linked together in the minds of writers of the time. Nathaniel Kent, writing in 1775, spoke of “The shattered hovels which half the poor of this kingdom are obliged to put up with, [are] truly affecting to a heart fraught with humanity. Those who condescend to visit these miserable tenements, can testify, that neither health nor decency can be preserved within them”.

Sentiment was one thing; action quite another. Distinguishing between ‘cottages’ and ‘hovels’ mirrored the contemporary distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. The industrious poor struggled to maintain a sufficient income to live in a cottage built of brick or stone, though sometimes still of wooden beams with wattle and daub; a fairly sturdy, weatherproof building in any case. True paupers, those who lacked the industry to better themselves in any way (at least that is what the better-off assumed), lived in ramshackle huts or hovels: poorly-built, leaking, cold and miserable shelters lacking in almost all comfort and often built on waste ground.

In Norfolk, true cottages might be reasonably furnished, at least by the standards of the poor of the time. Some inventories remain, showing tables, chairs, cupboards, beds with blankets and curtains, proper sheets and tableware, as well as the tools necessary to the owner’s trade. These goods might be basic and of low quality, but they did provide some basis for a sensible form of living. For example, by the middle of the century most cottagers in Norfolk could afford to drink tea – even if they had to get it from the smugglers! Paupers had nothing.

The Decline of Rural Employment

It seems clear that the quality of dwellings for the poor was closely linked to local employment patterns. Landless casual labourers were the most likely to be true paupers, living like squatters wherever space might be found free from interference. Those with greater skills — and probably a greater ability to do something to maintain the fabric of their cottages on their own — would live in better homes and possess more household goods. The principal key was regular employment. The so-called agricultural revolution of the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth increased the productivity of the land, but at the cost of providing less chance of regular employment to unskilled labourers.

It’s not surprising that many of these rural paupers made their way into the new industrial towns seeking work in the factories. The dreadful industrial slums in which they were forced to live were probably no worse — though certainly no better – than the hovels in the rural areas they had come from. Meanwhile, skilled farmworkers, especially those living and working on grand estates in Norfolk, gradually experienced an improvement in their living conditions, stemming in part from a paternalistic concern amongst great landowners to be seen as good landlords. However, it generally took some shortage of local skilled labour to provoke these landowners into displaying their concern.

Posted in Agriculture, C18th Norfolk | 4 Comments

The Georgian Ship’s Cat


Replica of Capt. Cook’s HM Bark “Endeavour”
complete with ship’s cat

Cats have been taken aboard ship since at least Viking times and possibly well before that. It was not unusual for ships to be infested with rats and mice, causing obvious problems to on-board supplies of food. The ship’s cat was a hard-working and essential member of the crew, highly valued for the benefits it brought. However, on long voyages and with little to do other than work, it was not surprising that sailors began to value the ship’s cat for other reasons than its ability to keep down the rodent population.

Mousers and Companions

Going anywhere by sailing ship in the eighteenth century was a hazardous business; even more so on a long voyage much of which would be out of sight of land. Everyone in the group, from the captain downwards, must have been constantly aware that disaster could strike at any moment. Tides, winds and waves were not the only dangers, though they might frequently conspire to force a sailing ship onto dangerous shoals or rocks. There must have been many times when the crew felt helpless in the powerful grip of storms and adverse winds.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that sailors were, in general, a superstitious bunch. Anything that might help them to predict or avert bad weather and give them a measure of control over unfavourable situations was important. It’s easy for us today to sneer at their ignorance, but I imagine that very few of us have ever experienced a severe storm at sea on a wooden hulled ship.

Cats also had a reputation for being magical creatures — the companions of witches and wizards and even associates of Satan himself. In other circumstances, black cats tended to be seen as harbingers of evil, but amongst British and Irish sailors, having a black cat cross your path denoted good luck. Having a black cat on board your ship would be even better. Sailor’s wives often kept black cats at home, pampering them in the hope that they would use their magical powers to protect their husbands and bring them home safely from a long voyage. Conversely, to harm a cat aboard a ship — or, still worse, to throw one overboard – would inevitably cause disaster to the vessel and bring many years of bad luck to the person who carried out such a dastardly crime.

We all know about pirates and their pet parrots, thanks to Long John Silver’s parrot, “Captain Flint”, in Treasure Island. They also kept cats, giving them the run of the ship and often treating them as pets. The luckiest kind of cat to own was one with extra toes on its feet, since this was believed to make them better mousers and help them deal with the difficulty of moving about on a pitching deck.

Cats as Weather Forecasters

Sailors used to watch out for odd feline behaviour and thought it was caused by approaching storms of wind or rain. When the ship’s cat ran about wildly, it was because she “had a gale of wind in her tail.” Another superstition stated, “Against times of snow or hail, or boist’rous windy storms; she [the cat] frisks about and wags her tail, And many tricks performs”. And a saying of 1710 had it that, “While rain descends, the pensive cat gives o’er her frolicks and pursues her tail no more.” Licking its fur the wrong way was also taken as a sign of approaching rain.

Some of these superstitions, clearly persist for a very long time. When I was a child in the 1950s, we always had cats, and if one of them sat and washed behind its ears, by licking its front paw and wiping the damp paw over its head, I was told this was an infallible sign of rain. And if the cat ran madly from room to room, as cats sometimes do, this was described as “having the wind in its tail”.


Trim: Matthew Flinders cat
Statue in Sydney, NSW

“Trim”: An Exploring Cat

It wasn’t just the common sailors who showed concern about their cats either. Matthew Flinders, the circumnavigator of Australia, had a favourite cat called Trim. Trim had been born in 1799 on board a ship bound from the Cape of Good Hope to Botany Bay. At one point, the kitten fell overboard but managed to make its way back to the ship and climb up a rope to safety. Flinders and the crew were greatly impressed by this and Trim became a favourite.

The cat went with Flinders on his voyages of circumnavigation in 1801 – 1803 and survived a shipwreck in the latter year. Flinders was even bringing Trim back to England, until he was seized by the French in Mauritius and accused of spying. Trim shared his prison cell until one day he suddenly disappeared. Flinders harboured the darkest suspicions about his cat’s fate, and wrote a touching biographical tribute to the cat, whom he had seen as a faithful and affectionate friend.

A Lucky Spanish Cat

One officer in the Royal Navy even remembered a poor ship’s cat in the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The huge 140-gun Spanish warship Santissima Trinidad, severely damaged during the battle, was seen to be sinking during the terrible storm that followed. At once, the British warship sent out longboats to take off those of the crew on board who were still alive. As the last of these longboats was pulling away from the ship, the lieutenant in charge noticed a cat which ran out onto the muzzle of one of the lower deck guns and clung there, meowing pitifully. At once the longboat was ordered back to rescue the cat. The lieutenant’s report on his return stated that, “Everything alive was taken out, down to the ship’s cat.”

Posted in Tid-bits | 7 Comments

A Georgian (Non)Christmas?

I think it’s fairly well known that many of our present-day Christmas customs were invented in the 19th century, mostly in England by Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria and her family. These have been ‘supplemented’ by some European ones (like Christmas outdoor markets) and many more American ones.

It’s also common knowledge that mediaeval and Elizabethan Christmases were fairly riotous affairs; and that the Puritans banned Christmas under Cromwell for that reason.

I don’t want to repeat what’s already been written by others about the Georgian Christmas celebrations, which seemed to focus on special meals, generally taken with family and friends, and decorations based on evergreens; plus small gifts for family and servants. What interested me was to discover what actually appeared in my favourite primary sources: local newspapers. Did they mention balls, routs, assemblies, theatre performances, pantomimes or anything else festive specifically linked to Christmas? I did a careful search of East Anglian newspapers, decade by decade, and looked at what I found.

For 1700 to 1750

Nothing. Nix. Nada. Not a word.

The only mentions of Christmas — and they were very few — used it as a convenient date for things like taking possession of a house or demanding payment on debts. Nothing festive at all.

For 1750 to 1799

Mentions of Christmas-specific activities were still few and most came from the very last years of the century, strengthening the idea that Christmas celebrations started to grow in popularity in Regency times, then picked up under Queen Victoria. We know George III’s Queen, Caroline Charlotte, first imported the idea of a decorated fir tree from her native Germany (NOT Prince Albert, as usually stated), but Christmas then was still not much more than an excuse for a good meal and some private, family giving of small gifts. The only other custom involved giving monetary ‘tips’ to servants and those shopkeepers with whom you did the most regular trade — though some tradesmen did the reverse and rewarded loyal customers with small gifts and giveaways.

Fun Reading for Children at Christmas?

For the Instruction and Entertainment of Young
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In the CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS will be published
the following :

1. THE HOLIDAY SPY, Price 1d.
2. The Entertaining Traveller, Price, 2d.
3. Virtue and Vice, Price, 3d.
4. Juvenile Biography, Price, 3d.
5. The Adventures of Master Headstrong, and Miss Patient, Price 3d.

(The Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday, 23 December, 1780)

Christmas Gift Delivery

Note there is no suggestion any people will travel, which might be something to think about today. It also strikes me as odd that presents go to London, but only lamb is mentioned as returning. Was there no lamb in Norfolk?

SWAFFHAM, December 7, 1779,
For CONVENIENCY of delivering GAME, PRESENTS, &c. in LONDON against CHRISTMAS and NEW-YEAR DAYS next.

A MACHINE will set out from Mr. WILLIAM TIFFIN’s, grocer in Swaffham, on Wednesday the 22nd and 29th instant, at Six o’clock in the evening, to be at the Four Swans, Bishopsgate-street, very early on Christmas and New-year eves.

(Ipswich Journal, Saturday, 18 December, 1779)

Lynn and London Post-Coaches,
(By way WISBEACH, St Ives, &c.)

SET out from the STAR INN, LYNN, on Friday the 24th and 31st days of December 1790, at Ten o’clock in the forenoon, for the conveyance of presents, &c, to be at the GEORGE and BLUE BOAR INN, HOLBORN, early on Christmas and New Year’s Days respectively.
And from the said and GEORGE and BLUE BOAR, on the Same mornings at the above hour, for the conveyance of lamb, &c. to be at the Star Inn, Lynn, early on the above mornings.
To those country gentlemen whose friends reside in the upper part of the town, the proprietors wish to remark, that as no other coach from this neighbourhood, goes so high up as Holborn, the saving in porterage will be considerable, which when aided by a speedy and careful delivery, they hope will merit their attention.

(The Norfolk Chronicle, 23 December, 1790)

Christmas Charity

We hear that Joseph Windham, Esq. Sheriff for the county of Norfolk, has ordered a dinner on Christmas day, of plumb [sic] pudding and roast beef, with a quart of strong beer, for each prisoner confined in the county gaol at Norwich.

(Ipswich Journal, Saturday, December 23, 1797)

A Last Minute Present?

This Day is published, price One Shilling,
Or 1s. 6d. with Clasps or Straps,

(Neatly bound in red leather, with pockets for notes ; embellished with Two Ladies in the most elegant Full Dresses of the Year; likewise a beautiful Engraving from Darwin’s admired Poem of Eliza — taking her last Farewell of her Babes : both plates designed by Mr. Stothard, and exquisitely engraved by Skelton)

The SECOND EDITION of RACKHAM’s SUFFOLK LADIES MEMORANDUM BOOK; or, Polite Pocket Museum for the Year 1794. The contents of this publication are fully inserted in this paper, NOV. 23, 1795.
Bury : Printed and sold by J. Rackham ; sold also by all the booksellers in the counties of Suffolk, Norfolk, and Essex.

(Ipswich Journal, Saturday, 21 December, 1793)

I wish all my readers a happy holiday and a healthy and prosperous New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Tall Stories Georgian-style


Bust of Baron Munchausen
From “Masterpieces from the Works of Gustave Doré.” New York: Cassell & Company, Limited, 1887.

It’s long been noted that groups of men tend to indulge in boastful talk amongst themselves, each person trying to outdo the others or cap their stories. Maybe this is simply natural competitiveness amongst males, maybe it is more, but the tendency is common. That’s what a ‘tall story’ was in the eighteenth century: using an alternative meaning of the word ’tall’, now rather forgotten, which mean ‘grand’ or ‘lofty’ — a story told perhaps in ‘high-flown’ language and meant to impress.

Others there be, whose parts stand not so much towards tall words and lofty notions, but consist of scattering up and down, and besprinkling all their sermons with plenty of Greek and Latin. (John Eachard, The Grounds & Occasions of the Contempt of the Clergy, 1670)

In contrast, talk in mixed company was not so boastful or grand. Women were not so likely to be impressed by boastfulness, perhaps, and many would lack the education to join in ‘competitions’ based on capping one another’s Latin or Greek quotations. Here, ‘small talk’ was preferable.

A sort of chit-chat, or small-talk, which is the general run of conversation in most mixed companies. (Earl of Chesterfield, Letters, 1761)

‘Serious’ Tall Tales

In many ways, the essence of a tall story is that it should contain exaggeration, not downright lies. Indeed, it ought to be impossible to tell where plain truth ends and exaggeration and elaboration takes over. As a result, eighteenth century accounts of many activities contain statements that would make almost any modern reader raise his or her eyebrows in disbelief.

Was it so at the time? Perhaps not. Some very serious scholars, such as Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), recorded stories which must verge on meeting the criteria for a ‘tall tale’. Take his handwritten record of this tale of an escape by prisoners from Botany Bay in Australia. He records that, on the night of March 28th, 1791, James Martin and eight other prisoners, after being transported from England, escaped from Botany Bay in the governor’s six-oared boat, subsequently travelling along the east and north coasts of Australia, arriving after a journey of 3000 miles in the Dutch colony of Kupang, in West Timor. Eventually being unmasked for what they were, the men were sent back to England to finish their prison sentences, a journey which four of them failed to survive.

Not surprisingly, this famous escape attracted many myths and fictions around the escapees and their feat of survival. Bentham, a noted critic of convict transportation, must have welcomed the contrast between the prisoners’ epic tale of survival and their fate on the return to England.


Of course, the commonest meaning of a ’tall tale’ includes a strong element of humour along with exaggeration and downright creativity. Eighteenth-century newspapers often included such stories, made even funnier by being told, as it were, with a straight face.

An extraordinary instance of sagacity in Rats.

A gentleman in Holland, famous for curious fowls, having observed that a particular hen, which used to produce an egg daily, had omitted for some days, and being desirous of learning the cause, particularly as the hen made the cackling usual after laying, placed himself so that he could plainly observe whatever might pass at the nest, and was greatly surprized [sic] at the appearance of two Rats, immediately after the hen’s quitting it, which conveyed away the egg; this they effected by one of the rats lying on its back, while the other rolled the egg on to its belly, then closing its feet round it, held it securely, while the other dragged it away by the tail, with its mouth. The above is asserted as a truth by person, on whose veracity we can depend. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 9 April 1791)

The most famous purveyor of such tales was undoubtedly a real-life German army captain, Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Baron von Münchhausen (1720-97). During his retirement, he entertained his friends with preposterous stories about his time in the Russian army fighting the Turks. His most famous tale was of being caught between a crocodile and lion, both intent on devouring him. As the lion sprang, the baron fell down, so that the lion flew over his prone body and straight into the crocodile’s outstretched jaws, choking the crocodile in the process. Thus the baron was rid of both threats at once!

The original book of his adventures, published in the late 18th-century, may even have contained some of von Münchhausen’s own stories. However, over time, newer editions added more adventures, mostly invented or stolen from other literary works.

Amazing Feats

Finally, how far can we credit tales of stupendous feats by eighteenth-century people — feats which we believe were not achieved until our own times? For example, was Sir Roger Bannister truly the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes, or did several eighteenth-century men achieve this record long before him?

For example, on 9th May, 1770, James Parrott, a London costermonger, took on a wager of fifteen guineas that he could not run a mile in under four and a half minutes. Elaborate preparations were made to ensure accurate timing. Using the ordinary streets from Goswell Street to Old Street in the City of London, he won his wager.

1770 May 9th, James Parrott, a coster-monger, ran the length of Old St, viz. from the Charterhouse- wall in Goswell Street, to Shoreditch Church gates, (which is a measured mile) in four minutes. (The Sporting Magazine, 1794)

He wasn’t the only one. The Oxford Journal of 22nd December 1787, reported that a man named Powell, a plater from Birmingham, was wagered one thousand guineas that he could not run a mile within four minutes. According to the paper, Powell ran a trial in four minutes, three seconds, saying: “He ran entirely naked, and it is universally believed, that he will win the wager.’”

Whether he won his wager or not, we never hear, The Sporting Magazine for 1796 stated that a man called Weller, one of three brothers, “undertook for a wager of three guineas to run one mile on the Banbury road, in four minutes, which he performed two seconds within the time.” That is, Weller ran a mile in three minutes, fifty eight seconds.

There you have it. If today’s tabloids survive on amazing — and often unbelievable — reports and ‘fake news’ it was much the same 250 years ago. “Believe it or not” was as common a start to a report then as it is today.

Posted in Uncategorized

Dangerous Driving in Georgian Norfolk

Norwich Market Place
Thomas Rowlandson

Today’s traffic may seem horrific, especially at busy times, but at least the cars, however badly driven, have *brakes*. Pending ‘driverless cars’, they also lack minds of their own, unlike horses. In Georgian times, the press of horses, carts, carriages and wagons could be just as frenetic, few having any brakes. The drivers too could be wild and thoughtless, to say nothing of being drunk at almost any hour of the day. To add to it all, poorly-trained horses, inexpert drivers and riders and the tendency of horses to take fright and bolt for no apparent reason, must have rendered town life in the eighteenth century at least as dangerous as it is today.

Here are some excerpts from the local paper to illustrate the point.

Wild Wagoners

It seems that Norfolk in Georgian times was as much inclined to ‘do different’ as it is today, even when this caused danger to those involved. Here’s the Norfolk Chronicle complaining about the dangerous way farm hands in the county drove the heavy wagons of the time.

It happens frequently to persons who travel this county, that their terror is excited, not so much at seeing waggoners [sic] riding on so dangerous a place as the shafts, as their jumping off immediately on any person of genteel appearance meeting them; and subjecting themselves of course from haste to those accidents, which we have frequent occasion to relate and to lament. We believe not all the counties in this kingdom produce so many accidents in this way as Norfolk and Suffolk; the reason we apprehend is, from the different modes of driving. The Norfolk and Suffolk drivers using a short whip and constantly driving by the thiller [see below], are induced to mount the shafts; while drivers in other counties drive with long whips, and from the heads of their teams, and when ease or fancy induce them to ride, it is as natural for them to mount either the leader, or the next to him, as the drivers before-mentioned do the shafts. Where the danger is ten-fold, humanity induces us to wish that farmers would enforce this method, which from the superior excellence of drivers accustomed to it, is well known be the best. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 19 November 1791)

The thiller or thill-horse is the horse that goes between and supports the thills or shafts of a cart, i.e. the rearmost horse in a wagon-team. These wagoners are walking beside the rearmost horse, it seems, taking a rest by hopping up onto the shafts, since they cannot sit on the horse that is between them. The recommended method is to walk beside the lead-horse, then either ride it or the next in line before the shafts.

If you slipped off the shafts, or fell when getting up or down, it was almost certain that the wheels of the wagon would go over you, few recovering from such injuries, given the primitive medicine of the time.

Bolting horses

One night last week as the coachman of Bartlett Gurney, Esq. of this city, was driving his carriage (empty) in trying to pass another which stood at the gate of Alderman Weston’s brewery, near Black Friar’s Bridge; the street being very narrow, one of the wheels caught upon a bench, and the driver was suddenly thrown from his box between the two carriages, the wheel of the chariot passing over the flap of his hat. The horses set off full speed through Bridge-street, Gilden-gate, round Botolph into Pitt-street, Southgate and Muspole streets, rounded St. George’s church into St. Clement’s, over Fye-bridge, and were stopped on Tombland. We are happy to add, the coachman is not materially hurt, and the horses and carriage were still more fortunate. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 8 January 1791)

I wonder what “not materially hurt” means?

One day last week an accident happened to Mr. Waters, farmer at Dagenham, in Essex: Having business a few miles from home, mounted a young spirited horse, but had not rode above a mile and a half when the beast took fright, threw him, and at the same time struck him so violent a blow on the head, that he died on the spot. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 27 June 1778)

In my latest book charting the career of Dr. Adam Bascom, “A Tincture of Secrets and Lies”, he too suffers a fall from his horse which brings him close to death. It was all too common. Because people rode a good deal, it did not mean all of them rode well.

Other Mishaps

On Tuesday last, while the carriage of S. Day, Esq. was standing at Miss Flamwell’s door, with a child in it, a hackney coach driving furiously past, overturned the same, by which accident the child was greatly hurt.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 9 April 1791)

There were other hazards too. Not potholes, like today, but piles of muck!

On Wednesday evening Mr Suffield’s carriage was nearly overturned in going to Catton, owing to a quantity of muck being left in the middle of Coslany-street. Such dangerous nuisances are too frequent in this city, and cry loudly for redress.— It is certainly no small reproach to the police [watchmen] of this extensive city, that the necessary and salutary office of scavenger, should not be filled by a responsible character; and we sincerely hope, that the inhabitants of the market, the shambles, and fish-market will unite in preventing those pestilential nuisances, which have lately abounded in those quarters. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 9 April 1791)

Perhaps today’s roads and traffic aren’t quite so bad after all!

Posted in C18th Norfolk | 1 Comment