Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Guest Blog - Mike Rendell with a Georgian Treasure Trove
I remember, just after I got married and had moved in with my wife, carrying a horse-hair chest up three flights of steps to her top floor apartment in Bristol. “What’s in there?” she asked. My response “Family papers” seemed to pacify her although the disdainful look on her face suggested that she was not too keen on my addition to her furniture. ”It can go behind the door in the Hall where it won’t be seen”
The horse-hair trunk bought in 1782 for half a guinea (I still have the receipt!).
Next followed six extremely old and dilapidated Tea chests, with sharp, jagged metal binding strips. “And what are those?” she intoned. “Not sure, more family papers I think” I replied tentatively. And it was at that point that I discovered that there was no such thing as ‘Love me, love my Tea chests’ because I was met with the ultimatum to ‘use them or lose them’.
And so, over the intervening 24 years I have started to do just that, discovering that this was not just one time capsule but a whole series of time capsules, all muddled together, and reflecting the fact that for generations we have been incorrigible hoarders!
There were some things I recognized immediately – my father’s handwriting on bundles of letters to my mother, written from Burma; my grand-fathers letters from the trenches in the First World War; copies of newspapers recording royal births marriages and deaths for the last few centuries. Then there were the confusing items –unnamed diaries dating back to the 1600’s, shopping lists from the 1790’s, a contemporary account of the Great Fire of London, all of them dotted about amongst early back numbers of the Illustrated London News, Punch, and so on.
Unlocking the puzzle came about when I located a manuscript booklet entitled “Family and Personal Recollections” dated around 1800. It was written by my great great great great grandfather Richard Hall and outlined his life and what he had been told about his ancestors. It explained that the family had owned lands in what is now Wiltshire but which was then in an enclave of Berkshire. Obviously well-to-do, with their own coat of arms, they had prospered until one day in 1720 when their world collapsed. Their land had been pledged as security for loans enabling them to buy South Sea Stock. The stock collapsed in what became known as The South Sea Bubble and the only son (Francis, aged 25) was suddenly faced with the prospect of finding a trade and making a living.
Francis became a hosier (i.e. he made silk stockings) in unfashionable Southwark. His son Richard was born in 1729 and I have many of his school books including his Maths, English and French exercise books. Richard also became apprenticed as a hosier, and married well i.e. to the daughter of a wealthy business-man who had retired to Evesham. The parents-in-law died in quick succession; Richard inherited a large estate; and soon had plans to move the business across the river Thames to a much more salubrious address within the City boundaries - Number One London Bridge. It was the very first time the address had been used officially - street numbering did not come in until 1765. Nowadays it is the address of a glass and concrete structure south of the river, but in the 1760’s it was the very first shop people encountered as they crossed into the city, immediately alongside Fishmongers Hall and St Magnus the Martyr Church.
I still have Richard’s accounts for the construction of the building (£850), his insurances in the Bird in Hand Insurance Company for trade goods and personal effects (£2,800), as well as his window display cards showing that he had branched out into selling not just stockings but silks, fabrics and general haberdashery items. And whenever he bought in a consignment of lace or calico he would place an advertisement in the day’s paper, buy a copy, put a ring around the relevant passage in pencil, and put the paper in the bottom drawer. I still have them along with his accounts, his daily diaries, and the general ephemera of everyday life.
Richard prospered and he had three children. The eldest was taken into partnership when he was 25, but almost immediately disaster struck. Richard’s wife died of a heart attack and Richard did what most people did at that time if they were widowed and with a young family who had yet to leave home - he re-married almost immediately. His choice of bride was met with dismay and then outrage by his children because he chose to marry their “aunt” (more accurately the sister of Richard’s brother-in-law), a woman who was nearly young enough to be their own sibling. More to the point they could see their inheritance going out the window if she were to have children. She did so almost immediately, but not before the three older children had ganged up on their father with an ultimatum: you can marry who you like but you will never stay with that woman under the same roof as us. This was unacceptable to Richard, who walked out on the business and on his three children and went to live with his new bride and family at Bourton-on-the-Water.
The family papers then show the differences between life in the City and life in a Cotswold village. I have his shopping lists showing what he had sent down on the wagon ( a pianoforte, numerous pipes of port, as well as oranges and other treats and special groceries i.e things not available in the local shops). He jotted down his favourite recipes and, since he “enjoyed ill health” he itemised his symptoms and his medicines. He describes going “to be cupped at the bagnio” (an alternative medicine designed to increase blood flow and rid the body of toxins). He describes the weather in great detail (the country was enjoying a mini Ice Age and it was not unusual for there to be snow on the ground from mid-November onwards, for weeks and weeks on end. Some of his descriptions are succinct (‘a dribbling sort of a day’) and others highly descriptive (‘Exceeding sharp. Snow. Froze very Hard. Froze the water in the chamber pot’). He describes seeing the aurora borealis in Gloucestershire. He mentions small pox as the real dreaded killer disease, and records when he had his family variolated (an early form of inoculation). This was still prior to the research of Edward Jenner which led to the development of a vaccine based upon cowpox.
He also bought and read many books, which remain today. I have his Bible (it has been in the family for 460 years now!) and I have a fascinating little guide to travellers in France from around 1750. It is full of wonderful advice to travellers - how to avoid being man-handled by French customs officers, how to seal your trunk to stop people stealing things from it, and how to avoid the French custom of putting sheets on the bed while still damp. It also offers helpful advice to travellers about what not to eat in France. I just love the bit about cheap wines in Paris giving you 'a violent looseness' and stating that nowhere else in the elegant or delicate world is so ill provided with conveniences. Ring any bells?
Richard was clearly adept with a fine pair of scissors and amused himself (and, I suspect, his children) by making paper cut-outs. Some are incredibly detailed and many of the features are barely thicker than a human hair. Shown here is the ‘In Memoriam’ which he cut out when his wife died – I wonder if it was intended to go into the back of his fob watch since it is just about the right size.
Actual size about one and a half inches across
I have also included a scene showing the fate which befell highway robbers (hanging from the gallows)
and a rather impressive formal sword (about 5 inches long).
I appreciate that my problems are very different to those of many people - I have too much information, not too little! But I have edited the material and made it into a book so others can see what daily life was like in the second half of the 18th Century. It is intended not just as the story of one man (who happens to be my 4xGreat Grandfather) but the story of anyone living through those fascinating times.
Mike’s book ‘Journal of a Georgian Gentleman’ is published by the Book Guild and is available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Journal-Georgian-Gentleman-Richard-1729-1801/dp/1846245230
He also blogs on a more-or-less daily basis on anything and everything eighteenth century at