“The Trouble with Servants …”

It’s easy to look back on the eighteenth century and imagine how wonderful it must have been to have a small army of servants to do all the work — at least if you were a member of the upper classes. Fetching and carrying, cleaning and polishing, cooking and washing and mending; the servants did all the work, while the master and mistress passed their time in whatever way they chose. Well, not quite. As anyone who has been responsible for others will know, it takes more than giving orders to keep things running smoothly.

The hiring, supervision and disciplining of the household servants was the job of the mistress of the house. Some were more successful in the role than others. It helped to have grown up in a grand household and seen it done before, but even that gave no guarantee of competence when your turn came. I have been reading the personal diary of an eighteenth-century lady who had nothing but trouble with her servants, despite being the sister of a baronet, brought up in the substantial mansion of Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

Miss Gertrude Savile

Gertrude Savile (1697-1758) kept a diary for many of her adult years, though only the entries for 1721-22, 1727-31 and 1737-57 have survived. She never married and was dependent on her brother for a significant, period, until a series of small inheritances made her an independent woman with her own household, first in Nottinghamshire and then in London. She had her freedom, but with it came having to deal with her own servants.

It’s important to note that we have only her comments on them and their behaviour. Their view might have been somewhat different! She was not a person who was easily pleased. Nevertheless, the entries she made in her diary suggest these servants were a long way from the meek, obedient drudges common in today’s costume dramas. They bullied her, stole from her, had affairs amongst themselves, and generally did as they wished whenever she was absent from home.

Examples

To avoid endless repetition, I’m going to concentrate on the three of the last four years of the diary, those of 1754, 1755 and 1756. Even so, I’ll be summarising a good deal. Remember that this is a small household, belonging to a single, unmarried woman. For most of the time, she has only four servants: a cook, a personal maid, a housemaid and a footman. Please also note that the spelling has been modernised in all of the quotations that follow. It’s ironic that, in one place in the diary, Gertrude Savile accuses a woman who wrote to her of being unable to write literate English and spell properly. Gertrude’s own spelling is always wayward and from time to time varies between eccentric and downright imaginative!

In January, 1754, she began the year by replacing the housemaid. In March, she sacked the footman, calling him “a stupid, slovenly good for nothing” and accusing him of either stealing or killing one of her favourite dogs. June was a particularly active month in replacing servants. The replacement footman, who presumably came in March, was turned out. She described him as “a sad fellow” who frightened her with “getting into the parlour window”. I have no idea exactly what she meant by this, but she writes that she was afraid to tell him he must go without having a male neighbour present to protect her.

Two days later, she fired the cook, describing her as “lazy and careless” and “as all the rest, a liar and deceitful”. A new footman came at the end of the month, but problems remained. In July, she sacked Martha (“deceitful, cunning, but one remove from an idiot.” ) and Clarissa (“… proved Irish.”) In September, the cook gave notice after three warnings. What these were about is not recorded. However, Gertrude describes the cook as “an uncommon worthless, cheating, strange creature.”

Things go quiet until November, when a new maid comes. Gertrude is now using an agency, Fielding’s, to obtain staff, instead of relying on friends and other contacts. She also, as we shall see, experimented with taking a maid from the Overseers of the Poor. Neither turned out well. By January of the following year, 1755, she has discharged two maids, one for being pregnant and the other, the charity girl, after having discovered that she had been a child prostitute and treated for a venereal disease at the expense of the parish.

In May, she replaced all three maids and vowed she would never take another servant from Fielding’s. One of the maids had problems with her sweetheart; another was described as “a Taffy [Welsh woman], and one of the most silly, ignorant ones that ever came from her country”,;and the third was simply dismissed with no reason given. She also dismissed the footman and took another, who only lasted until July, being described as “idle and careless, but good-natured and respectful to me.” At the same time, she dismissed two of the maids, describing one as “a great strumpet, even in my house with John Beckett [the footman]. A new footman came, John Barlow. He later caused so much trouble that I have devoted a separate post to his circumstances. All went quiet again until November when another maid was sacked for being “good-natured, but stupid.”

1756 opened quietly enough. Then, in February, Gertrude records receiving an anonymous letter about one of the maids and the cook, claiming that they had “abundance of company whenever I was out.” I presume this means (paying?) male company, for the letter apparently also accused the maid of having “a cousin, who often lay in my house and carried out lapfulls of something.” This was followed by the departure of another maid (“a deaf, stupid, lazy, prating, good for nothing.”). All was now quiet until the affair of John Barlow, the footman mentioned above, and the subject of a later posting. It’s interesting that, by this time, Gertrude is offering an increase in wages to those whom she hires, provided they stay at least a year. She also begins to note that their wages now include “no tea”, presumably because the cost and the excise duty make it too expensive.

Although the diary continues through 1757, there are few references to the servants. In fact, the whole nature of the entries changes, leaving out day-to-day comments on household matters in favour of fewer, but much longer, entries describing international and national events. I will, however, pick out one entry from March, 1757, concerning Sarah Howard, since it gives a somewhat kinder picture of Gertrude than has been possible from the early entries. Here it is in full:

“Sarah Howard went. I let her rub on till she gave me warning to go, the day her year was up. She could be very smooth and do her work very well, but the great thing I kept her for was her extraordinary tenderness to all dumb creatures, which I never knew or believed could be in so bad a person as she really was in all other respects. I knew my poor dogs and cats had a great protector in her; that she would not upon any provocation (as almost all servants will) not only not hurt them herself, but would let nobody else [do so]. This was a very great thing with me, whose love to them puts it so much in my servants’ power to make me miserable. There was more that was uncommon in her; she was, though a good deal past her bloom and very fat, not only very handsome, but had one of the sweetest, most composed, serene countenances I ever saw. By her looks, one would think her an angel. She was a Londoner.”


Savile, Gertrude, et al. Secret Comment: The Diaries of Gertrude Savile, 1721-1757. Devon: Kingsbridge History Society; [Nottingham]: Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, 1997.

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The Case of the Amorous Footman

This is a taster for my next article about the problems of managing servants in the 18th-century, with particular reference to the diaries of Gertrude Savile. It focuses on events in July, 1756, and concerns her footman, John Barlow, and the havoc that one male in a household of three females (four, if you count Gertrude herself) can bring about.

We begin on July 6th, when Barlow had a quarrel with one of the maids, Sarah. Afterwards, she went to her mistress and told her a long tale of what had been going on in the household behind her back. Gertrude had obviously been quite taken with Barlow herself, since she records that, in the course of the year, she had given him a livery coat and waistcoat, three “frocks” and two more waistcoats. She had also, she said shown, “forbearance and kindness to him in his sickness.” This seems to have been a series of epileptic fits.

Now, however, she reproaches herself for having kept him on, despite recording that he abused, cursed and threatened her. Why did she do it? Perhaps the catty nature of some of her remarks throughout the record of the incident gives us a clue. Barlow must certainly have had something, since it appears that all three of the maids were under his spell. Even Gertrude herself refers to him at one point, perhaps sarcastically, as “the Adonis John Barlow”. She then writes:

“I was silly enough to think him a sober and modest fellow but he was far otherwise, a scandalous whoremaster; made quite a brothel of my house with one if not two of my maids. There is little doubt of Ann Jennings being his strumpet, old, ugly and demure as she was; she, I suppose, bought his favours. He charmed the housemaid also, so that (I am since convinced) her jealousy was the cause of her letting me know the scandalous affairs long transacted in my little family.”

Even when she was sacking him, Gertrude gave him one of his new “frocks”, his waistcoats and a hat, whether from fear or liking she does not record. What she does say is that he “haunted the house every day” for a time, supposedly to ask her to give him a character, but actually to try to get what he could from the maids. She says that she was so terrified and miserable she had to get the coachman to stay as much of the day as he could and asleep in the house overnight.

More Trouble

This went on for most of the month, until, at the end, she sacked Ann Jennings:

“… a woman more vile than her paramour. She must have bribed the young fellow to make a whore of her. Made? No: she must have been so before. What victuals, beer, wine, candles, soap, coals, everything but what they might by law be hanged for, was given out of my house. I am amazed at my stupidity to let such doings continue, but all my four servants hanging together, and my lameness, made them secure from my detection.”

On the 30th, she sacked the cook, of whom she wrote:

“I thought it was impossible she could be amorously disposed and be such a beast in her dress, though young and pretty. I often in jest said to her, ‘Sure you have no sweetheart; you would not be such a slut if you had’.”

She continued to employ the housemaid who had informed on Barlow, despite being “sick of the same distemper”, after she had dismissed the others. Meanwhile, she replaced both her personal maid and cook, and hired a new footman called William. None of them lasted a year in her service.

Reality versus Hollywood (and Television)

All this took place in London, and I cannot help wondering whether she would have found it such an easy matter to replace her servants had she been living outside the capital. Perhaps, if she had known in advance that she could not easily replace any whom she dismissed, or who left of their own accord, she would have taken greater care to try to keep those whom she found most acceptable. Perhaps not. I know of at least one case in Norfolk in which the mistress of the house had at least as much trouble with servants as did Gertrude; though that case occurred almost a hundred years later. While it’s obvious from the diary that Gertrude Savile was difficult, demanding and often downright bitchy, there is nothing to suggest that her situation was altogether unusual.

As I said in my first post on this subject, too many of our notions about life in grand households during the 18th and 19th centuries come from costume dramas. There everything from the cleanliness and politeness of the servants to their generally good behaviour has been passed through the sanitising and romanticising lens of television and film. Gertrude’s picture of lazy, deceitful, lustful and larcenous servants makes a good corrective. It is also probably somewhat closer to the truth.


Savile, Gertrude, et al. Secret Comment: The Diaries of Gertrude Savile, 1721-1757 . Devon: Kingsbridge History Society; [Nottingham]: Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, 1997.

Posted in Georgian Society | 4 Comments

William Windham and the Fight against France and Napoleon

William Windham III

The story of the Norfolk squire who became the British government’s principal agent engaged in stirring up Royalist opposition to the French revolution and Napoleon.

I’ve mentioned before how often I’m struck by the similarities between events in the 18th-century and those of recent times. I’ve known about this particular set of events for some time, but I hadn’t looked into it in any detail until now. When I did, I was surprised by the similarities between Winston Churchill’s S.O.E (Special Operations Executive) of World War II, which he charged with “setting Europe ablaze”, and the attempts by the government of William Pitt the Younger, during the wars against Revolutionary France and Napoleon, to use French royalists as a kind of Resistance. What made it even more interesting to me, was that one of the main guiding hands behind this effort to incite rebellion and guerrilla warfare was William Windham, a Norfolk squire.

William Windham of Felbrigg Hall

Windham was the third owner of Felbrigg Hall near Cromer to bear that name, but the only one of his family to make a substantial career in politics. He was an MP and, in time, became both a national figure and a cabinet minister. He is rather forgotten today, perhaps because he never made it right to the top. However, in the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th centuries, he played a key role in the British government’s clandestine campaign against the French.

For much of this period, Windham held the post of Secretary at War — roughly the equivalent of today’s Minister of Defence — and was primarily involved in the administration of the war effort. He resigned with Pitt in 1801 and went into opposition, then briefly returned to the cabinet and active politics in the so-called “Ministry of All the Talents” of 1806-7. Throughout his political life, he was a controversial character, vilified by some for ‘changing sides’ to join Pitt, but never really trusted by those who he served in government either.

Indeed, in many ways, Windham was always an ambivalent figure. Maybe it was his chronic indecision, his tendency to philosophise, or his lack of charisma. Many commented on his intelligence and fine gifts as an orator, as well as his tendency to be influenced by more powerful characters like Burke. Yet he could also be cold-hearted and dismissive of others. His main weaknesses seem to have been a lack of emotional insight and a poor understanding of his fellow humans. He had started his political career as something of a liberal in his attitudes. However, as time progressed, he became more and more rigidly conservative and reactionary; a deep-dyed monarchist, who publicly supported bear-baiting, camp-football, bare-knuckle boxing and similar violent ‘sports’ on the grounds that they were traditional and ‘built character’.

Failure as an Organiser of Covert Operations

Lord Malmesbury certainly thought Windham was a bad judge of men, whose enthusiasm could be too easily engaged for fundamentally ill-judged projects, so long as they accorded with his preconceptions. These were too often drawn from the influence of Edmund Burke, which never left him, despite his mentor’s death in 1797. Malmesbury wrote of Windham:

“Windham is uncommonly and classically clever, but has the very fault he attributes to Pitt – no real knowledge of mankind; not from not living in the world, but from not being endowed with those qualities (inferior in themselves) which would enable him to judge of their real designs and character. For this reason, he was the dupe of every emigrant who called on him; and he still persists in the idea of the bellum internecinum [a monarchist rebellion leading to civil war], and the invading of France. Burke spoilt him, and his genius still rules him.”

Windham served as MP for Norwich for many years. Finally, his ardent support for an increasingly unpopular war, and his lack of attention to local views, saw him defeated and forced to turn to a ‘rotten borough’ to retain a seat in parliament. And that was despite spending some £11,000 of his own money, it is claimed, in bribing voters — something like £1.5 – 2 millions in today’s terms!

Windham’s Hatred of Republicanism

At the beginning of his political career, Windham was a Whig and a supporter of Charles James Fox. When the Terror began in France, he seems to have been as horrified as many others in the country. At around the same time, he came under the influence of the arch-conservative Edmund Burke, who had become the most influential opponent of the revolution in France. As noted above, Burke’s influence stayed with Windham for the rest of his life. Though he claimed to remain a Whig in Party terms, he thereafter served as part of Pitt’s Tory administration, becoming an ardent supporter of the exiled Bourbon monarchy and a bitter opponent of Napoleon and everything connected with him.

From this time onwards, Windham was consistent in his support of almost any French émigrés willing to carry the fight against the Directory and Napoleon onto French soil. Most were fantasists, but he seems either not to have realised that; or else been blinded by an urge to destroy all the French revolution stood for. He provided these émigrés with money from secret funds, supported their plans and ideas in cabinet, and ran a number of secret agents charged with stirring up local rebellions. In this he was aligned with the Foreign Secretary of the time, Lord Grenville, and George Canning — a leading Tory politician.

When Napoleon seized power in 1799, Windham, Grenville and Canning were already planning an all-out effort on behalf of the royalists for the following year. Although Napoleon, on coming to power, made overtures of peace to Pitt, these three were able to persuade him to continue the war, albeit somewhat half-heartedly.

Assassination!

Probably the peak of Windham’s activities on behalf of the French royalists came in 1800, when a group of exiled royalists hatched a plot to assassinate Napoleon. People of the time regarding assassination as a terrible crime, so a pamphlet, “Killing no Murder” was circulated to try to justify such a course of action. Even so, the royalist group made a pretence of claiming to want to kidnap Napoleon rather than kill him; while, as we shall see, Windham, on behalf of the British government, made a pretence of refusing direct involvement. The following quotations are taken from Windham’s own diary:

“31st July, 1800. Saw General George [Cadoudal], who … predicts that Buonaparte will be cut off [assassinated] before two months are over; though he professes not to know specifically of any such intention. Seems to think such [a] course of proceeding legitimate, and had thrown out the idea to Pitt, as he had done before to me. Not necessary to say that no countenance was given to it.”

“16th September, 1800. He [Cadoual] talked of the designs to cut off Buonaparte by Assassination; second of the general instability of his government, to which latter opinion I felt inclined to assent. On the other, having before expressed my opinion I did not now say anything.”

“19th September, 1800. [Met Rivière, aide de camp the the comte d’Artois, who produced] wild proposals of carrying off or cutting off Buonaparte, which I pointedly declared a Brit. Ministry could give no countenance to.”

It’s quite clear that these denials cannot be taken at face value. Windham arranged for the Royal Navy to provide transportation for the conspirators to return to France, together with a very substantial amount of money to finance their activities. It seems most probable that his intention throughout was to allow the British government to deny involvement in any assassination, not to prevent it being attempted.

The Fall of Pitt’s Government

The plot, of course, failed and Napoleon’s continued success finally forced the British government into making peace in 1801. Pitt resigned, ostensibly over the king’s refusal to grant emancipation of Irish Catholics, though many thought this no more than a convenient pretext. Windham, vehemently opposed to any peace, resigned as well.

In opposition, Windham continued his attacks on Napoleon and the French government, praying that, “God avert a peace with a Jacobin Republic!” And while Pitt secretly supported the new ministry in negotiating the so-called Peace of Amiens, Grenville and Windham steadfastly opposed both the negotiations and the final agreement. Windham also seems to have orchestrated support, perhaps using Grenville’s money, for various newspapers and other publications which continued to attack the peace and decry any rapprochement with France. He even continued to meet with French royalists and supply them with money for their activities, whether from his own pocket or from other people is not clear.

Final moves

After the collapse of the short-lived peace in 1803, a vigorous campaign of propaganda was put in place against Napoleon, aided and abetted by the opposition in Parliament, which now included not only Grenville and Windham, but also Charles James Fox.

By 1804, Addington’s government had finally had enough and brought a prosecution against William Cobbett, the principal mouth-piece for Grenville and Windham, charging him with seditious libel. He was found guilty and fined the enormous sum of £1500. Then, when Addington fell in 1806 and Grenville became Prime Minister, William Windham returned to the Cabinet. That administration lasted barely a year. By now, however, Windham’s star was on the wane and he left politics for good. He died in 1810, never having seen the final overthrow of the man and the regime in France he had so doggedly opposed.

Was his failure to create a viable opposition uprising in France due to ill luck, poor judgment or simply backing the wrong groups? It certainly wasn’t due to lack of effort on his part, nor lack of funds. Nevertheless, since history is often hard on the losers, Windham has been relegated to the sidelines — even the footnotes — in most historical accounts of the time. I leave it to you to judge how far this is deserved.

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“Naming and Shaming” in Georgian Newspapers

Mutual_Accusation

In Georgian times, as today, not all marriages were happy — or even tolerable. Wives ran away. Husbands absconded and deserted their families. Injured parties craved revenge. The discovery that advertisements could be used to publicly “name and shame” the guilty party, as well as seek protection from their future actions, spawned a whole new category of media content.

This melée of marital mischief may be found in many of the advertisements in various local newspapers of the time. Declarations of refusal to honour debts, claims of abandonment, accusations of infidelity and many other bad behaviours were aired openly. The fundamental motivation for doing this, of course, was as much legal and monetary as emotional: the injured partner didn’t want to bear responsibility for the actions of another, or have to cope with the mess they had left behind.

Chelmsford Chronicle, Friday, 11 April 1783: WHEREAS ANN REED, Wife of GEORGE REED, of Burnham, Essex, has eloped from her said husband; therefore notice is hereby given, that the said George Reed, will not pay any debts contracted by his said wife, from and after the the day of the date hereof. The Mark of GEORGE REED.

The Ipswich Journal, Saturday, 1 April 1758: Whereas ANN, the Wife of Robert Baker, of Store by NAYLAND, has eloped from her said Husband without any Provocation, this is to forewarn all Persons not to trust the said Ann Baker, for he will not pay any Debts which she shall contract for; and also to forewarn all Persons not to harbour the said Ann Baker, otherwise they will be prosecuted as the Law directs. Witness, ROBERT BAKER.

Men ran away as well, leaving their responsibilities behind them. This one ran twice, committing bigamy in between!

Chelmsford Chronicle, Friday, 8 September 1786: A CAUTION to the PUBLlC. This is to Give NOTICE, That one JOSEPH WRIGHT, who sometimes goes by the name of KNIGHT, a baker, formerly Leicester, where he has left four children chargeable to the parish, and late of Ingatestone, in the county of Essex, from whence has eloped, and where he married time, though his first wife still living; he is about 5 feet 3, stout made, full-faced, and much pitted with the small-pox; has a sear from the kick of a horse in his right cheek; — the public are desired to guard against the specious pretences of the said WRIGHT, as he has been the ruin of at least one family in lngatestone.

Certain phrases recur often in advertisements like these, perhaps in the belief that they carried some legal weight; making the overall statement official in some way and binding on others. Often the remaining spouse refuses to “pay any debts which she/he shall contract for”, thereby trying to insulate themselves from demands for money supplied to their straying marital partner. Another phrase used is “absented herself from bed and board” meaning something like refusing to supply what a wife was required to do.

Sherborne Mercury, Monday, 29 September 1800: WHEREAS JANE HENRY, Wife, having absented herself from my bed and board, without my consent, and otherwise offended by public prostitution of her person, hereby give Notice, That no person may trust her on my account, as I will pay no debts of her contracting from and after this date. — Witness my hand, this 10th day September, 1800, JOHN HENRY, Boatswain his Majesty’s Ship Culloden.

It was not unknown, of course, for a wife who ran away to make sure of her finances before leaving. £160 would last her several years at least, so his ban on paying her debts was not going to have much effect.:

Hereford Journal, Thursday, 5 May 1785: ELOPEMENT. WHEREAS ELIZABETH, the wife of VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, late of Portsmouth, and now of Brecknock, has lately eloped from her husband, and taken with her Bank Bills value £160. Notice is therefore given to the Public in general, that the said Vaughan Williams will not be answerable for, or pay, any debts which his said wife may hereafter contract. As witness his hand the 19th of April, 1785. The mark X of VAUGHAN WILLIAMS. Witness, JOHN LILWALL. HEREFORDSHIRE. March 19, 1785.

Sometimes “carrot and stick” was used to persuade the fugitive to return, with how much success it is impossible to say. Nor was the pursuer always an abandoned wife or husband. If a family was left without a breadwinner, the cost fell on the parish, under the terms of the Poor Law. It was in the interests of the overseers to get the person back and paying again.

Hereford Journal, Wednesday, 28 February 1798: ELOPEMENT. Whereas JAMES LINK, Wheelwright, has eloped, and left his Wife and Family, chargeable to the parish of Fownhope, in the county of Hereford. He is about 27 years of age, 5 feet 10 inches high, grey eyes, and light hair.— Whoever will apprehend the said James Link, and lodge him in any of his Majesty’s Gaols, and give notice thereof to the Overseers of the Poor of Fownhope aforesaid, will be rewarded and paid all expenses for apprehending him. N. B. If the said James Link will voluntarily return to his family he will be forgiven. JOHN SLADE, Overseer. Feb. 27, 1798.

Of course, what was said in one advertisement might be swiftly rejected in another, as in this case from America, just after the War of Independence was underway.

Connecticut Courant, March 24, 1777: Whereas Deborah Taylor, of East Windsor, wife of the subscriber, has deserted my bed and board, and refuses to live and cohabit with me, these are therefore to warn all persons not to trust her on my account, for I will not pay any debt of her contracting from the date hereof. James Taylor. East Windsor, Feb. 24 1777.

Connecticut Courant, May 12, 1777: In the Connecticut Courant, March 17, 1777, James Taylor was so ungenerous, unhumane [sic] and abusive as to advertise Deborah his wife as a deserter from his bed and board, which is so to abuse the unfortunate Deborah as to oblige her to declare to the public, that James Taylor never did provide neither bed or board for his wife or family, but was for most part of his time absent, but for what purpose I cannot say; he brought nothing home but abusive language for my comfort and the support of his children; and since this unhappy war, he has been inlisted [sic] as a soldier, and went to Canada, from whence he deserted, and his unusual return, on the account of the season of the year, he was suspected for a deserter, was the reason I would not find him any longer bed or board, and not now under the necessity of applying to my friends for necessary subsistence for myself and children. Deborah Taylor. East Windsor, April 16, 1777.

Now that really is naming and shaming!

 

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The True Nature and Business of Cunning-Folk

Murrell's_Magic_Book

A late 18th-century Magic Book

I’ve been reading and thinking a good deal about 18th century Cunning-Folk. The first discovery I’ve made is simple: I knew a great deal less about who Cunning-Folk were and what they did than I thought I knew.

What made someone part of the group of local, ‘alternative’ practitioners known as Cunning-Folk? Where did they get their power and authority? What did they believe about themselves? More importantly, what did their clients and the people amongst whom they moved believe about them? What did they even do? Were they all quacks and charlatans; little more than confidence tricksters or stage magicians, who preyed on people’s gullibility?

These are some of the questions I’m going to try to answer in a series of blogs during the coming months include:

  • Who were these Cunning-Folk? How did you gain this reputation?
  • What did they do for people?
  • What cultural beliefs and context allowed them to operate?
  • How did they relate to the orthodox medical practitioners of the time?
  • How did they fit into what was supposedly an overwhelmingly Christian country?
  • How did they differ from witches and warlocks — always supposing they did?

I’ve already featured a Cunning Woman in my two most recent Ashmole Foxe Mysteries. She’s in “Bad Blood Will Out” and she also appears in the following book, “Black as She’s Painted”. However, neither delves deeply into her activities. In one sense, this is fair. What I have discovered suggests that the ‘high tide’ of the Cunning-Folk occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries, with a slow decline thereafter, as an increasing emphasis on rationality and science replaced mystical and supernatural explanations of natural phenomena.

The Cunning-Folk may have faded from our lives, but they never went away entirely. The more I discover about them and their activities, the more similar much of it appears to today’s booming industry in alternative medicine and life-styles. Orthodox medicine and state interventions may have triumphed on the surface. Look more closely, however, and you could argue that the Cunning-Folk are having the last laugh!

In that vein, here’s an excerpt from the “Norfolk Chronicle” for Saturday, 1st April 1815:

At the trial of Lucy Black, for robbing Robt. James, the following peculiar circumstances were detailed. The prisoner, it appeared, was the grand-daughter of the prosecutor’s wife, and resided with the prosecutor. The whole family went to the meeting house on the March instant, but the prisoner not being quite ready, did not go with the prosecutor, but remained in the house herself, and arrived at the meeting-house, which was at a considerable distance, within a few minutes after the prosecutor. On their return home, the prisoner observed to the prosecutor, that she saw a light in his dwelling, which was then above mile distant. The prosecutor also, saw a light, but could not discern at what house. When they got home, they found two squares of the outside window broken, as if for the purpose of getting in a hand open the casement, and a briar bush under the window was partly cut away and much trampled down. Upon entering the house they found the things scattered about, chest broken open, guineas missing thereout. A very extraordinary stratagem of the prisoner led to the suspicion of her having committed this robbery, during short time that she remained in the house after the prosecutor was gone to the meeting-house. She related to her grandmother shortly after, that she had been to the cunning woman, Lucy, who had told her that the bigger half of the money would be returned the next day, at about the same hour that it was stolen. At about eight o’clock on the following evening, the prisoner said she heard a noise and went into the garden to make out what it was. Shortly afterwards, she returned, and said she saw somebody in a dark coat fly over the garden gate, upon which the prosecutor went out to see this extraordinary sight. He did not see the dark coated Genius, but the prisoner took this opportunity for picking up a paper parcel at the door containing eleven guineas, which she took to her grandmother, observing that the fortune-teller’s prediction had come true.

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“Crier! Call the Ghost”!

“A remarkable instance of a person being tried for murder on the pretended information of a ghost.”

This was the headline above an article in the Chelmsford Chronicle dated 9th April, 1784. The minute I saw it, I knew it was tailor-made for this blog. I often spend a considerable amount of time browsing through 18th-century newspapers. It’s nearly always time well spent. Besides, I enjoy it. However, on this occasion I felt I had truly struck gold.

The story concerns a farmer who was returning from Southam market in Warwickshire, when he was murdered on his way. The next morning, a man went to the farmer’s house and asked his wife whether her husband had come home the evening before. The anxious woman said that he had not and she was beginning to feel terrified that something had happened to him. Her visitor now told her an extraordinary tale:

“Your terror, said he, cannot equal mine, for last night, as I lay in bed, quite awake, the apparition of your husband appeared to me, showed me several ghastly stabs in his body, told me he had been murdered by such and such a person [here he gave the person’s name], and his carcass thrown into a marle-pit.”

Needless to say, the woman raised the alarm and the pit was searched. Sure enough, they found the farmer’s body, and its wounds exactly matched the description the man had given of them. What happened next seems barely credible, even given the widespread belief in ghosts at the time. The man whom the ghost had “accused” was at once apprehended, brought before a justice, and committed for trial on a charge of murder. What’s more, according to the newspaper report, “the jury would have convicted, as rashly as the justice of the peace had committed him, had not the judge checked them.”

The presiding judge, Lord Chief Justice Raymond, stepped in to bring the process to a halt:

“I think, gentlemen, you seem inclined to lay more stress on the evidence of an apparition than it will bear. I cannot say that I give much credit to these kinds of stories, but be that as it will, we have no right to follow our own private opinions here; we are now in a court of law, and must determine according to it; and I know not of any law now in being which will admit of the testimony of an apparition; nor yet if it did, does the ghost appear here to give evidence.”

He then instructed the court crier to call the ghost as a witness. This the crier did, calling three times. Unfortunately, at least for the prosecution, the ghost failed to put in an appearance. The judge therefore dismissed the case with the following words to the jury:

“Gentlemen of the jury, the prisoner at the bar, as you have heard, by undeniable witness, is a man of the most unblemished character; nor hath it appeared, in the course of the examination that there was any manner of quarrel or grudge between him and the party deceased. I do believe him to be perfectly innocent; and as there is no evidence against him either positive or circumstantial he must be acquitted.”

What of the man to whom the ghost had apparently told his tale? The judge made the obvious inference:

“From many circumstances which arose during the trial, I do strongly suspect that the gentleman, who saw the apparition, was himself the murderer; in which case he might easily ascertain the pit, the stabs, et cetera without any supernatural assistance; and on such suspicion I shall think myself justified in committing him to close custody, so the matter can be further enquired into.”

The article ends by relating that the man was taken immediately into custody and his house searched, producing various proofs of his guilt. He at once confessed the murder and was tried and executed at the next assizes.

Was this a true story, or a piece of “false news” that was going the rounds and appealed to the editor as something that would amuse his readers? There is no means of knowing for certain, but I rather suspect the latter; especially since the article ends by stating that it should be, “a sufficient caution to others, not to be over hasty in giving credit to the testimony of apparitions.” There’s also a notable lack of names in the story. The dead farmer, the man accused of his murder, and the accuser are none of them named, which would surely not have been the case if it was a direct report of an actual trial. It all sounds more like the kind of story that somebody tells while propping up the bar in the local hostelry.

Still, I would just love it to be true! Wouldn’t you?

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Turkeys in Boots

4-driving-turkeys

No, this is not a bizarre idea for a new Christmas panto! Just a plain, factual statement of what took place in Norfolk in Georgian times.

From the late 16th century, thousands of geese and turkeys were walked the hundred miles from Norfolk to Leadenhall market in London each year. The journey would take three months and the birds wore special leather boots to protect their feet. Geese wouldn’t allow themselves to be shod (hence the contemporary phrase “to shoe a goose” for something difficult), so their feet were dipped in tar and covered with sand.

Turkeys in England

Turkeys didn’t come to England from the colonies in North America. They were here long before that. The birds were introduced to Europe by the Spanish, who found the Aztecs of Mexico and Central America rearing them. The latest research suggests this had been going on for maybe 2000 years, long before the Aztecs, and already the domesticated birds were not the same as the wild ones. They were more docile, slightly smaller and darker, and the black plumage contrasted well with the white flesh. By 1525 or so, turkeys had reached England from Spain via merchants of the Levant Company. Since these merchants were associated with the Middle East, the strange birds were assumed to come from Turkey, hence the common name. (As an aside, the French name, dindon, is a corruption of d’Inde, ‘from India or the Indies’. I believe the Portuguese call them ‘peru’. )

Plucking the Turkey exhibited 1776 by Henry Walton 1746-1813

Plucking the Turkey
Henry Walton Tate, 1776

Turkeys became immediately popular with the rich, since they had more meat on them than the small Tudor chickens. Their meat was also far tastier than that of other birds of a comparable size then available, such as swans or peacocks. Henry VIII is known to have eaten turkey at Christmas — not because of any link to that time of year, but simply because he wanted to show off. Eating turkey was at that time an extremely expensive luxury.

King James I is reputed to have had turkey replace pork at a number of banquets and ceremonial occasions, labelling it ‘the king of birds, the bird of kings’. Within half a century of its introduction, turkey was already a favoured meat at grand Christmas meals. George II loved the bird, and, in 1851, turkey replaced swan as Queen Victoria’s choice for her Christmas dinner.

By the time English colonists were heading for America in appreciable numbers in the late-1500s and 1600s, the rearing of turkeys for market had become concentrated in eastern England , especially Norfolk. The land was suitable and it was within a reasonable distance of London. The breed of turkeys in England had already been improved into what later became known as the “Norfolk Black“, which is generally considered the oldest turkey breed in the UK and can still be found on certain farms. Some of these birds were even taken to the American colonies, where they were crossed with wild birds to produce most of the dark-feathered commercial varieties used today.

Getting to Market

By the early 18th century, some 150,000 to 200,000 turkeys were being walked to London from Norfolk each year. These Norfolk turkeys were reared and then sold live at October sales at Aylsham and Attleborough. They were arranged into small flocks of between 300 and 1,000 birds and driven fairly slowly, to avoid loosing too much weight from the exercise. All along the way, there would be stops for rest and feeding, especially in stubble fields. The journey usually took around three months, with the first flocks setting off in August. They would be bought by London middle-men, then walked by drovers to Smithfield Common, where they had a further period resting and building up their weight. Having been slaughtered in early to mid-December, the turkeys were sold at market to local butchers and individual buyers.

Never a cheap meat, turkeys quickly became a bird of choice for major holidays, such as Christmas. Writers on cookery, such as Hannah Glasse in the 1740s, made sure to include a number of recipes for cooking turkey . She also described certain items as ‘the size of a turkey egg’, implying this was common knowledge. The 18th-century Norfolk diarist Parson Woodforde commented in an entry for 1770 that a turkey weighing 14lbs was, “the finest fatted turkey that I ever saw, it was two inches in fat on the breast after it was roasted”.

Arriving in Style

Turkeys didn’t just walk from Norfolk to London either. Many were slaughtered locally, dressed, then loaded onto the stagecoaches. During four days in 1793, over 2,500 turkeys were sent by passenger coach from Norwich to London for Christmas. The coachmen even thought the trade “paid better” than human passenger at that time of year.

In The Book of Christmas, by Thomas Kibble Hervey (1836), the author states:

Our readers will acquit us of exaggeration, when we tell them that Mr. Hone, in his Every Day Book, quotes, from an historical account of Norwich, an authentic statement of the amount of turkeys which were transmitted from that city to London, between a Saturday morning and the night of Sunday, in the December of 1793;—which statement gives the number as one thousand seven hundred, the weight as nine tons, two cwt., and two lbs., and the value as £680. It is added that, in the two following days, these were followed by half as many more.

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