A Great Investment – Or an Incitement to Murder? The Tontine

According to the Oxford English Dictionary a tontine is “A financial scheme by which the subscribers to a loan or common fund receive each an annuity during his life, which increases as their number is diminished by death, till the last subscriber enjoys the whole income…” [From the name of Lorenzo Tonti who initiated the scheme in France c 1653].

At first tontines seem to have been large scale affairs, often state-organised, and the reward for investment was the annuity, never a share of the capital, but by the later 18th century the very large tontines were out of favour and they were becoming a device for smaller groups to raise investment for a particular scheme. By the early 19th century there also appear to have been tontines where everything, including the capital, devolves on the survivor. This, of course, makes a perfect motive for murder, even for tontines where the capital is never awarded, but the survivors’ annuities increase with the death of each member. Who would want to stand at the head of a staircase with a fellow tontine subscriber behind you?

My first encounter with the concept of the tontine was in the film The Wrong Box (1966) which was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel of the same name. The heirs of the two elderly Masterman brothers – the sole survivors of a tontine – engage in a range of hilarious and illegal tricks when it seems that one of the brothers has been killed in a train crash.

A few reminders of the tontines remain in the UK, mainly in hotels called The Tontine. There is one is Glasgow, one in Peebles – and the one that reminded me of the whole subject, in Ironbridge, Shropshire.

Here it is at the foot of the famous Iron Bridge itself. The bridge itself was opened in 1784 and immediately became a huge draw for not only  engineers and iron masters but also early tourists. The men behind the bridge saw the opportunity to cash in on this early tourist attraction and formed a tontine to pay for building the hotel. Pioneer industrialists Abraham and Samuel Darby and John Wilkinson were amongst the members of the tontine, but I have not discovered who was the survivor who eventually owned the hotel for himself.

In New York the Tontine Coffee House (1793) was funded by 203 shares of £200 each – a substantial investment. The coffee house on the corner of Wall Street and Water Street became the heart of New York financial dealing – the birth of the stock exchange. In this picture it is shown on the left with the flag above.

Meanwhile I am left wondering if I can’t use a tontine in a murder plot…

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Blowing a Cloud

People have been smoking tobacco in Britain since the late 16th century and for most of that time they were using clay pipes to do it. Clay tobacco pipes are a huge study in themselves with learned societies devoted to tracing their manufacturers and the evolution of the various types, but in their day they were virtually as disposable as a cigarette end. I dig them up in my garden occasionally – my house is built on an old farmyard site  – and here are two. The larger, with a shamrock stamped on it is Victorian, the smaller from a time when tobacco was more expensive and bowls were smaller, is 18th century.

The Victorian bowl has a maker’s stamp on it from Stoke on Trent, one of the major centres for pipe manufacture, although they were made anywhere there was a pottery industry. There are still some clay pipe makers around today producing them for film and TV productions and for clubs, but the industrial scale manufacture ended as late as the 1950s.

You can still visit a clay pipe factory preserved as it was the day the workers put down their tools for the last time in 1957. The Broseley Pipeworks in Shropshire is now one of the Ironbridge Gorge museums and pipe making began on the site in the 17th century. The factory is housed in converted cottages which adds even more to the atmosphere. In the view of the yard you can see the pile of clay in the shed at the back, waiting to be transformed into pipes by a method that was unchanging for hundreds of years. On the other side of the yard was the oven where the pipes, stacked into containers called saggars (then was actually an occupation of ‘saggar-maker’s bottom knocker’, but that’s for another day…), were fired.

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the dusty space are moulds for the long-stemmed ‘churchwarden’ pipes, like those the gentlemen at the top of the post are smoking. The long stem gave a cooler smoke, but they were easily broken. Prints depicting working people often show them smoking pipes with only a stub of a stem so they could safely keep them pipe in their mouths while they worked. One mould, opened out, is on the front bench. The device on the rear bench with the long handle is the press for hollowing out the bowl of the pipe.

By the 19th century a huge range of pipes with novelty bowls were produced, from erotic (ladies’s legs) to political. The Pipeworks contains showcases of hundreds of different models. The popularity and availability of cigarettes finally killed off the clay pipe but for hundreds of years tens of thousands were turned out. In an inn a customer could order a pipe along with his ale and lead tobacco boxes were provided on the tables for communal smoking. The lead kept the tobacco moist and they contained a weight-plate inside to press it down. They are scarce now – many got knocked off pub tables and the soft lead was damaged on stone floors – but I own a dozen or so. This example, complete with its internal plate and a wonderful lid covered in grape vines, shows crossed churchwarden pipes on its side.

 

 

 

 

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To Go On the Buz Gloak or We’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two

The Sami people of Arctic Scandinavia (shown here in a print of c1800) have one thousand words for their reindeer and more than one hundred and eighty for snow and ice, figures that emphasize how important those things are in their lives.

When I was researching for Regency Slang Revealed I found twenty seven words or phrases relating to the crime of pickpocking which suggests that while it might not have filled the thoughts of people in 1800 to quite the same extent, it was a significant crime and one that was encountered on a regular basis.

To go pick-pocketing, or to practice the Figging Law (the art of picking pockets) was to go on the Buz Gloak, to File the Cly or to Dive, Draw, Foist or Shake. There were categories of pickpocket. A Knuckles was a superior practitioner and a Rum Diver was particularly dexterous while a Fork used his middle and forefingers  to delve into pockets. A pick pocket who was constantly at work was said to keep his Fives A-Going.

Pickpockets generally were Buzmen, Cly Fakers, Divers, Dummee Hunters, Files or Foists. Very often they worked in groups – Bulk and File – or had associates who would run off with the stolen goods the moment they were taken – the Adam Tylers. A female pickpocket might well wear a Round-about, a large circular pocket worn under her skirts in which to stash her ill-gotten gains.

Prostitutes often acted as decoys for pickpockets and a man whose mind was anywhere but on the contents of his pockets might well find them empty after an encounter in a back alleyway. But even the most virtuous were in danger – Autem Divers operated in churches, picking the pockets of worshippers whose concentration was on higher things. An Anabaptist, however, was not a follower of that religious sect but a pick pocket who had been caught and suffered summary punishment with a ducking in the nearest pond or under the pump. In a detail from an Alken print of a race meeting (at the head of this post) the man in a blue coat is picking the pocket of another who is totally distracted by a game of dice.

Stealing handkerchiefs (Clouts or Wipers) was a particular specialty. Unlike the paper tissues of today, costing virtually nothing and instantly discarded, a handkerchief in the Georgian period was a large piece of fabric, often good linen (a Kent), fine cotton lawn (a Lawn) or silk (a Sleek Wipe, India Wipe or Fogle), and worth money. Stealing them was to go on the Clouting Lay and a Fogle, Napkin Hunter or Wipe Drawer was the specialist in this form of crime.

Gentlemen often kept their handkerchiefs in a pocket in the tails of their coats which preserved the line of the body of the coat but made the handkerchief vulnerable. Sometimes they were deliberately displayed coming out of the back pocket to perhaps show off a fine Belcher (spotted silk handkerchief) – and that was asking for trouble. The two lads in the print by Alken seem to be stealing just such a handkerchief, one distracting the mark by begging, the other taking the handkerchief.

In no time at all a stolen handkerchief would be in the hands of of a Ferret (pawnbroker) or for sale in a Bow-Wow, a secondhand clothes shop.

Theft of an article worth more than one shilling was a crime punishable by death until 1823, although juries frequently assessed stolen goods at under that value in order to save the accused from the gallows. Stealing handkerchiefs was probably a profitable form of larceny that kept the Buzmen just on the right side of that line, although they could well face transportation and/or a vicious flogging. One pickpocket who did not do too badly, despite being caught, was George Barrington, known as ‘the pickpocket of gentleman and the gentleman of pickpockets.’  He was transported to Botany Bay  in 1791. By 1796 he was the Superintendent of Convicts, and later, High Constable.

The final print, of the famous street entertainer Black Billy performing in front of the statue of Charles I, shows another handkerchief being stolen on the extreme right of the picture. The pickpocket is a most respectable-looking youth – it seems you couldn’t trust anyone!

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From Westminster Hall to Antarctica – the Coronation of George IV

I went to Antarctica in the Spring expecting to have a complete holiday from the Regency. When we sailed past Coronation Island in the South Orkney Group I assumed it was named for Queen Victoria’s crowning, or even a later monarch. But no, this island (one of three so named worldwide) commemorates George IV and was named in December 1821 by two very early Antarctic explorers, the sealers Captain Nathaniel Palmer (American) and Captain George Powell (British). Either news was reaching south very fast or Powell, knowing when he had left British shores that George had become king in 1820, named the island retrospectively. He certainly claimed the South Orkneys in the name of the King – quite how much discussion about  that went on with his American colleague is not recorded! If Powell was hoping for royal favour he unfortunately did not live to receive it, dying in Tonga in 1824.

Back in London on 19 July 1821 George IV was crowned in one of the most magnificent, and completely over the top, coronations in British history. The entire day was too packed with incident for one blog post – not least the dreadful spectacle of the distraught Queen trying to gain  admittance to the Abbey – so I’ll just concentrate on the procession itself. The print I am working from was published on July 24th, just three days after the coronation, and the artist is giving the view from approximately what is now the bottom of Whitehall looking out over the modern Parliament Square in the right foreground and New Palace Yard on the left, now enclosed by railings. The Thames can be glimpsed to the left and Westminster Bridge is beyond the large tree.

I have had to scan the print in halves because of its size. It shows clearly the covered processional way (coverings not shown in order to reveal the participants) weaving its way from the front of Westminster Hall on the left, snaking round the gardens in front of St Margaret’s Church (in front of the Abbey with the Royal Standard flying from its tower) and disappearing from sight before its entry at the West door of the Abbey.

The covered walk was twenty five feet wide (almost eight metres), covered in blue carpet and raised three feet (a metre) above the ground so spectators had the best possible view. The route was lined with stands and galleries with ticketed seats selling from two to twenty guineas each. (That might have helped pay for almost half a mile of blue carpet!)

The procession started half an hour late at half past ten in the morning and was headed by the King’s Herb-Woman and six attendant maids scattering sweet-smelling herbs and petals. Behind them came the chief officers of state, all in specially designed outfits and carrying the crown, the orb and the sceptre, preceded by the Sword of State and accompanied by three bishops carrying the paten, chalice and Bible to be used in the ceremony. The peers in order of precedent, splendid in the robes, followed next and those Privy Councillors who were commoners had their own uniform of Elizabethan costume in white and blue satin.

The King wearing a black curled wig and a black Spanish hat with white ostrich feather plumes had a twenty seven foot long train of crimson velvet spangled with gold stars and walked to the Abbey under a canopy of cloth-of-gold carried by the Barons of the Cinque Ports (also in special outfits). Music was provided by the Household Band.

After the ceremony, at four o’clock the King, now very weary, walked back to Westminster Hall and the great banquet served to three hundred and twelve male guests. Ladies and peeresses, who were not served any refreshments, had to watch their menfolk gorging themselves from the massed galleries that had been built inside the Hall. Amongst the food were 160 tureens of soup. 80 dishes of braised beef, 160 roast joints, 480 sauce boats, 1,190 side dishes and 400 jellies and creams.

The climax of the banquet was the arrival of the King’s Champion, in full armour, mounted on a white charger. The Champion threw down his gauntlet three times, but no-one stepped forward to challenge the King who toasted his Champion from a gold cup. Possibly the medieval glamour of the moment might have been diminished if people had realised that the Champion, from a family who long held the hereditary position, was actually the twenty year old son of a Lincolnshire rector and his charger had  borrowed from Astley’s Amphitheatre.

The Champion’s stable is visible on the extreme left of the print.

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Scenes From a Regency Childhood – glimpses of a young Charles Darwin

This little boy is Charles Darwin, aged 7, painted in 1816. It is difficult sometimes to remember that great men and women, whose images we are so used to seeing when they are in their prime, actually had a childhood! Darwin is such a key figure in the Victorian world that coming across two locations that link to his childhood took me by surprise.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, in 1809 and he was baptised (despite his father being a free-thinker) in the church of St Chad’s in the town. St Chad’s was then a virtually new church, a stunning circular building built in 1792 and designed by Scottish architect George Steuart. In the interior view the altar and stained glass are Victorian additions – in Darwin’s youth there would have been a three-decker pulpit in the centre, in front of the altar steps.

I was hoping to see the font where Darwin was baptised, but that was a silver basin which was later replaced by this one in oolitic limestone. I love the fact that it is full of fossils, a clue to the evolution Darwin so controversially revealed.

One final Darwin childhood scene I discovered in Shrewsbury was this rather plain house on Claremont Hill.

The house was built in 1689 and between 1715 and the 1920s was the manse for the Unitarian minister for the town. Many of Darwin’s family were Unitarians and the house also served as a school giving non-Trinitarian teaching. Both Darwin and his sister attended here in 1817 and I could just picture them climbing those steps. It has another Darwin connection – the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a candidate for the ministry here until a grant from Darwin’s grandfather, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, enabled him to work independently on his radial politics and philosophy.

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A Georgian Facelift

Georgian domestic architecture still impresses us today with its elegant formality, symmetry and fine detailing. Even modest terraces of Georgian houses command good prices and once inside we expect to find high ceilings and a regular ‘rational’ floor plan.

Here is the Square in the centre of the Shropshire town of Shrewsbury – all apparently Georgian with the exception of the medieval market hall just visible on the right and the modern clock tower looming over the rooftops.

But very often all is not as it seems when we view one of these handsome frontages and that was brought home to me when I saw this house, also in Shrewsbury.

The imposing frontage on the corner of Belmont and Belmont Bank dates from 1750, but it has been slapped onto the front of a half-timbered house that is at least a century older. The old house has had new sash windows inserted and the weight of a new front top floor is being carried on the roof beams of the old house. From the front it looks completely Georgian, although the strange brickwork on the side to disguise the jetties of the timber-framed house seems rather odd. But the game is given away the moment one sees it from the side, and as most of the traffic approaching it must have come from that direction it seems a strange economy not to replace both faces. Possibly this would have been structurally impossible, given the way the timber-framed house was constructed – the side face could not be cut back and the frontage was already right onto the pavement, so extending out to cover it was not a possibility.

One wonders just how many of the ‘Georgian’ houses we admire are simply refaced. I have seen some in Bury St Edmunds where the attractive Adam-style fanlights over the door reveal timber beams from the old structure behind them and there are certainly parts of London where entire streets retain early buildings hidden behind more ‘modern’ facades. Jermyn Street in the St James area, for example, appears Georgian and Victorian, but most of those frontages conceal the original 17th century houses. The shopfronts of Paxton & Whitfield (cheesemongers since the mid 18th century) and the historic perfumery firm of Floris are two examples. In Soho many frontages, such as those of Frith Street and Compton Street, conceal buildings of the early 17th century. You can be guided through St James and Soho in Walks through Regency London.

And it wasn’t only the Georgians who saved money by remodelling the exterior of houses, the Victorians did it too. When I was researching for Walking Jane Austen’s London I located two of Henry Austen’s London homes where Jane had stayed. One, in Sloane Street, has no Blue Plaque on at all, the other has one saying that the house, in Hans Square, is ‘on the site of’ Henry’s house. But in fact both of these are simply the Georgian ‘new-builds’ that Henry leased, remodelled and refaced in the late 19th century. Just after the war a researcher managed to gain entry to both and wrote a little book which I managed to track down in the British Library. It describes how the properties were refaced, additional floors added and in the case of the Hans Square House, the front door was moved. It is possible to glimpse the back of the Sloane Street house and see the octagonal room that Jane describes in a letter to her sister Cassandra as the scene of a party that Henry and his wife Eliza threw.

In the images the Sloane Street house is the one with the scaffolding (being remodelled yet again!). Here a new top floor has been added and the whole refaced in 1897. The Hans Square house was refaced in red brick, had a new top floor and the front door shifted in 1884.

 

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A Thundering Good Sermon – Going to Church With the Georgians

In this print by Rowlandson of Dr Syntax Preaching (1813) virtually all eyes in the crowded church are on the minister at the top of the three-decker pulpit. The owners of the most important house in the district are in their own pew to the extreme right, the high-sided pews and the gallery are packed . Everyone else must stand. The altar is out of the picture – literally.

To simplify drastically, by the mid-eighteenth century worship in the Church of England was turning from both ritual and unquestioning belief in what your vicar told you or from the belief in predestination – that some were saved and some were not and that there was not a great deal to be done about it. What mattered by the early 18th century was the decision of the individual to turn to God and to live their lives accordingly – and to do that they needed to hear and understand the Word of God. Sermons became the focus of worship – the minister would expound on a text from the Bible, sometimes for hours. An increasingly literate population was offered texts to study and books of sermons became popular reading. Preachers such as John Wesley and others attracted huge congregations. On Kennington Common in 1739 the radical Anglican clergyman, and Methodist pioneer, George Whitefield, preached nightly in the open air to crowds of between 30-50,000 in the open air. Later that year, fellow Methodists John and Charles Wesley also preached regularly on the Common and attracted similar crowds. The emphasis on preaching became dominant in the parish churches across England. The image below is old Fylingdales church looking west,showing the triple-decker pulpit and the box pews, which are numbered.

Taking communion became something that the congregation would do only a few times a year (five was quite normal)  and therefore the altar moved from being the focus of the church interior, supplanted by the pulpit. In some cases pews were built that faced the pulpit even if that meant their occupants would have their backs to the altar. The pulpit dominated, often a three-decker with a desk at the bottom for the vicar’s clerk, then a desk above that for the vicar to sit at and above that the pulpit where he would climb to deliver the sermon.

The Rowlandson print shows pews with relatively low sides, but many were introduced with sides so high that only the vicar from his raised position could see into them – these were called box pews, enclosed spaces where the churchgoer could focus entirely on what was being said without distraction from others in the congregation. The print of October 1810 in Ackermann’s Repository [above] shows an attentive listener in her box pew. Hearing what was said was crucial and, as a charming reminder of that, the ear trumpets used by an early 19th century vicar’s wife can still be seen hanging on the back of the pulpit in Whitby church. [Below]

Pews were generally rented out so that the same families would occupy them for each service and, for the more prosperous, they soon acquired extra fittings and more comfort. They might be baize-lined, have wider seats with cushions and carpets on the floor. In winter little portable charcoal foot warmers would be introduced. Aristocratic families might well have extremely ornate pews built, separated from the rest of the church in a gallery, a continuation of much earlier practice. For large households the servants might have their own box pew at the back of the church or would occupy part of the gallery. Those unable to afford pew rents would have to stand or take advantage of free pews, often provided by charitable donations.

In Whitby church there is a pew marked ‘For Strangers Only’, to accommodate visitors to the town. At a time when not to attend a place of worship regularly might mark you out as a dangerous radical or freethinker, churches were crowded places on Sundays.

The board in the 1821 Fylingdales church commemorates the number of ‘free’ pews that had been provided in the newly rebuilt church.

But patterns of worship change and by the 1830s there was a move back towards what might be called ‘High Church’. Ritual, communion, vestments, a revival of Gothic styles of architecture and the influence of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement led to another change in church interiors. Box pews were ripped out wholesale, the altar was given renewed prominence and the pulpits were replaced or the old ones cut down in height with the two desk levels removed. Some Georgian interiors suffered more than others. In Coxwold church in Yorkshire the then vicar, Laurence Sterne (author of Tristram Shandy) installed high box pews in the 1760s. In 1906 they were cut down in height by 18 inches. His triple-decker pulpit was reduced in height to a single-decker in the 19th century. Many churches were entirely stripped of their Georgian fittings and ‘restored’ to a Victorian conception of what a medieval church ought to have been. Poet and architectural crusader John Betjeman derided these efforts in his “hymn” The Church’s Restoration.

The church’s restoration

In eighteen-eighty-three

Has left for contemplation

Not what there used to be…

Some churches were spared ‘restoration’, usually by lucky accident or poverty. The old church of St Stephen, perched high above the village of Flyingdales, North Yorkshire, was built in 1821 to replace a medieval church that had fallen into decay. Its interior is therefore complete in the Georgian style with box pews, the three-decker pulpit and seats on the eastern side turned so their occupants faced the preacher, not the altar.

In 1870 the new vicar, apparently despairing of converting the old building (and, reading between the lines, many of the parishioners) to the new ways of worship, had a new church built down in the heart of the village. This was not universally popular and a splinter group kept trying to use the old church for services until the vicar had it locked up except when it was used as a mortuary chapel serving its old graveyard. It is now in the care of the Redundant Churches Fund.

 

 

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