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Too soon? He would have been long dead by now anyway, but you have to ponder whether he was ever concerned that his very name marked him out for early departure from Earl’s Court…
Sad story from 1824…
A tale of an eminently practical solution to psychosomatic mental illness from August 1808. They did not call it the Age of Enlightenment for nothing…
If you were born on this day June 28th you are in good company. Henry VIII of England, 1491; Sir Peter Paul Rubens, in 1577; Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1712. One less famous who should be celebrated along with the others was also born this day. But this man had a trick up his sleeve.
For on this same day comedian Charles Mathews hung on for half an hour into the 59th anniversary of the day of his birth back in 1776 then shuffled from this world’s stage for the last time in 1835 from chronic heart disease.
Mathews was unfairly said to be the prototype for The Pickwick Paper’s scurrilous Mr Jingle. But in reality was an intelligent, benevolent latterly irascible man who was hugely respected for his talent and numbered Sir Walter Scott and Byron among his friends.
In his 40 years on the stage he played hundreds of parts in comedy plays and in Shakespearean roles too. Aside from scripted parts, he was the first to devise At Homes, the equivalent of “An Evening with…” during which he held an audience for a three hours in a one man show that involved anecdotes, songs, impersonation, ventriloquism and some ‘greatest hits’ excerpts from his many successes in London stage comedies of the late Georgian and Regency period.
No-one who saw his show had anything but praise. His meticulous observation of character types was oh so recognised by his contemporaries. He impersonated the famous who would be known to the knowledgeable London theatre crowd but he’d also satirise plain folk. He did them all – it was said he had three different Yorkshire accents. He could conjure up a Frenchman from Paris, or the South or from Flanders. Add to that his ‘Mr Moritz the jilted German’, or ‘Humanity Stubbs who was always saying one thing and never meaning another’ and you get a flavour of the man’s versatility.
Above all he mined down into the souls of his subjects. Said one friend after his death: “Our brother Jonathan [slang for a rube American], in his pure and transatlantic garb first became known to us through his personation. In his Scotch characters he present every shade of humour from the flinty hearted iron fisted son of mammon Mr MacSillergrip to the talkative polite and benevolent widow of the domine whose likeness was recognised by every inhabitant of Edinburgh.”
Another recalled: ‘His great forte, to my thinking, was his representation of elderly gentlemen, but whatever he played he played like an artist’
His spontaneous offstage wit and humour was often said to be even funnier than his onstage act. But of course the question is was he any good, or more precisely would our sophisticated 21st century take on what is funny, want to write off Mr Mathews as of his time.
I don’t think so. Judging from the freshness of his prose that can be found in a four volume biography published after his death by his equally accomplished second wife and widow Mrs Ann Mathews, formally the actress Ann Jackson. Part is in fact autobiography and here is a flavour of the man speaking of his childhood:
‘I have referred to my nurse, who was alive to tell the tale within ten years of the date hereof. She assured me that I was a long, thin, skewer of a child; of a restless, fidgety temperament, and by no means regular features — quite the contrary; and, as if Nature herself suspected she had not formed me in one of her happiest moments, the Fates combined with her to render me more remarkable, and, finding there was not the least chance of my being a beauty, conspired to make me comical.’
Happy Birthday Charles Mathews.
In 1864 a Cambridge gentleman farmer and agricultural scientist, Philip Howard Frere by name, wrote up his experiments in feeding various combinations of fodder. He shared with the readers of the Journal of the Bath and West of England Society that by spending £25 on an “American Grist Mill” (American in name only as it was one of thousands made by Riches and Watts in Norfolk) he could mill for other farmers, make a profit and in three years recoup the cost of the machine as well.
Economics and the Victorian Farmer might seem a dull enough subject, but seven little lines can tell an awful lot about life and its quality among the agricultural labouring community.
Look more closely at his list of costs for what amounted to best part of another day’s work after the end of the working day. A bit of background: The amounts listed are in shillings (s) and pence (d). And you need not worry much that there were in fact 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. Those English eh? They could actually add and subtract this stuff in their heads in those long ago days.
I would have liked to ask Frere what he meant by the last cost, listed as Use of Mill and Steam-engine because he seems to have owned it and calls it “my locomotive steam engine”, but as he is more than a little dead by now, we’ll let that pass. What is more important are the first six lines.
Here’s what I saw in the figures:-
Energy costs were huge in relation to labour costs.
Skilled labour was well rewarded in comparison with unskilled, with the engine man getting twice as much as the grunt workers.
Young men were introduced into the labour force at a lowly wage and were doubtless made well aware of their station in life by the men.
And then we come to the next item – five quarts of beer. It was part of Frere’s cost structure of doing business. It served both to hydrate and at the same time placate the workers engaged as they were in meaningless, repetitive and strenuous work.
Last of all, you see that the government took its cut out of the beer — and it was a hefty chunk too. Frere had to pay tax equivalent to the cost of the liquor itself. The British tax structure has relied on the fact that the British like their drink.
As I said, there is much to be gained from what otherwise might appear dry as dust statistics. I only hope that you can see these four men from the same village or a nearby one, labouring on into the summer evening. The older man who works the steam engine has the role as foreman and this is marked out for all to see by the wearing of the bowler or Derby hat. Can you see the boy who treads carefully among the seniors and is the butt of every practical joke going? “Fetch me a left-handed screwdriver boy…” As the evening goes on and the drink takes effect they strike up songs – tales of ploughmen, lusty millers, bold grenadiers, maidens and lilies. Perhaps one of them does a little step dance as they work. Eventually as the last sack is emptied, they dutifully pack up and tidy the barn, then depart, still singing quietly so as not to wake the village, with only the engine man remaining to dampen the fire and rake out the coals.
All from seven lines in an account book.
“Cave” and “Aladdin’s”, not words you associate with a place to park your car. But let he (or she) who has not turned their garage into a room for the temporarily unloved and yet too precious to be parted with, cast the first knick knack into the box labelled charity shop.
I am not saying that emptying your garage will provide you with an epiphany, but mine did. In effect I got more than one revelation. The first was the rule that, in life, as in art, “condition is everything”. The second is that how lowly, at least in money terms, is held the craftsmanship of hundreds of years past. And the third — and indeed for me the most important is my sudden acquaintanceship with my new friend, Catherine Macaulay.
For the wiseacres who knew of her all along, keep going, nothing to see here. Move along a couple of paragraphs. But for me, and of course you, even though we’re ‘smarter than the average bear’ when it comes to minor historical figures, this is new news.
We knew of women occasionally surfacing from a sea of man centeredness — women who pioneered by doing, Angelika Kauffmann RA, the Mary Wollstonecraft’s, mother and daughter, Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale, Sacajaweya, Elizabeth Fry, Susan B Anthony and many, many more. But I knew nothing of the world’s first woman who was a professional historian.
Amid the cds and bank statements from 20 years past I found a large leather bound book. It was nobly titled The History of England and it was published 255 years ago in 1763. Who was the author? the ‘celebrated historian’ (to use the phrase that often preceded her name in contemporary news stories), Catherine Macaulay. What the… who the…?
This wasn’t some dilettante who wrote fanciful history for children – and there were a fair few of those who took to writing as an alternative to sewing samplers. Macaulay was that good an historian that admirers even published poems about her historical method. I quote a couple of lines from The Scots Magazine in December 1763 after volume one of the history had been received. It ends:-
She from the pedant’s hearse and tyrant’s grave
Strips the false plumes that slave-historians gave
And, soaring free, where man has checked his flight
Shows women fitter both to rule and write
A bit of abbreviated biography might be helpful. Catherine lived from 1731 to 1791. Her family was rich enough to see that she was privately educated by a governess. Her parents’ own enlightenment meant she learned the subjects more often reserved for a boy child. Greek and Roman history gave her ‘an enthusiasm for libertarian and republican ideals’.
She married Scottish physician George Macaulay in 1760. After her marriage she began her History of England from the Accession of James I to That of the Brunswick Line. It was published in eight volumes between 1763 and 1783. The History was widely read in spite of controversy over its republican sympathies. It championed the Parliamentary cause but condemned Oliver Cromwell as a tyrant.
Husband number one died in 1766. She moved in 1774 to Bath, where she ‘attracted many admirers’. Macaulay took up the cause of the American colonists by attacking the Quebec Act and British colonial taxation in her Address to the People of England, Scotland and Ireland (1775). In 1778 aged 47 she again married to William Graham, a 21-year-old.
Thereafter she styled herself Catherine Macaulay Graham.
On a trip to America in 1784–85, she and her husband were guests of George Washington at Mount Vernon. Her last political tract, Observations on the Reflections of The Right Hon. Edmund Burke on the Revolution in France (1790), defended the French Revolution. President Washington wrote her a long and consequential letter in that year. Reflecting on leaving the British Empire he castigates the “remainers” after what be be called his country’s Amerexit. Washington tells her: ” I think you will be persuaded that the ill-boding politicians — who prognosticated that America would never enjoy any fruits from her independence, and that she would be obliged to have recourse to a foreign power for protection — have at least been mistaken.”
Now why I am writing about Mrs Macaulay and what does that have to do with the epiphanies? Among the mouldering bank statements was a first edition of volume one of her History. It is a first edition. It is 255 years old. It is perfect in all respects bar one, as its board front cover is no longer secure. As I said before, condition is everything, it seems. Antiquarian booksellers I contacted, who I imagined would jump at the opportunity to take up and repair this piece of feminist history to preserve and sell on for future generations, they all declined.
But at least I got to meet Mrs Macaulay.
There is a time when ‘principles’ become not a good thing but an obsession. Like jealousy or revenge, stubborn adherence to ‘principles’ taken to a point where they are self-harming can erode the mind.
This old man does not sound deranged but as he calmly gives his testimony, he does sound profoundly broken and angry. Has he let ‘principles’ overtake his right mind..? you can decide.
It is 1861 when the British papers carry the report of a debtor up before the authorities to explain why he should be discharged from his debt. This happened all the time though. A businessman or a tradesman who could not pay his bills went through these hoops every day.
But in earlier times than 1861 a debtor was put in jail to concentrate his mind about paying his creditors. Dickens’ dad was an example. But in the enlightened 1860s the debtor was simply made to account for himself financially and if it seemed he was an innocent who had run out of money rather than a fraudster he was discharged from bankruptcy after a couple of years. As part of the tidying up process debtors were found still in jail and were being set free.
This man before the court was a victim of those ‘earlier times’. He should have been angry and who could blame him? The arthritic old man, William Miller by name is speaking under oath to the registrar of the Queen’s Bench Prison, an humane man who is only trying to clear up now what authorities should have done five long decades before – release William Miller from a debtor’s prison as seemingly he had never been a debtor in the first place.
It is a murky story and one has to suspend disbelief or the truth of everything Miller testifies, but from his side the facts are these. In 1814, yes that’s right 1814, Miller was a carpenter and cabinet maker in the sleepy Hampshire town of Christchurch. Miller still can recall the day — Saturday September 3rd that his Kafka-esque nightmare began..
He says that a man named Cull accused him of owing the absolutely eye-wateringly huge sum in those days of £1,000. How a simple carpenter could run up what was the equivalent of millions nowadays is never questioned. Cull has him arrested and thrown into debtors’ prison, where he still languishes in 1861 (though since 1854 he had been moved from Winchester prison to London).
Miller forcefully and clearly states that the paperwork that put him there in the first place was unofficial, unauthorised, illegal and possibly forged. He adds that he owned property in the town that would have provided rents to satisfy at least some of the debt but the money went missing. Miller claims that there is further back story attached to his jailing in that, according to Miller, the man Cull had seduced one of his sisters. As this possibly occurred before Miller was incarcerated, that might present circumstantial evidence of malign motive on Cull’s part.
The kindly registrar named Winslow told the sickly 77-year-old man that he would release him that day if only he would declare himself bankrupt, but the old man stuck by his principle that no man should acknowledge that he was a debtor when he plainly was not. The unspoken fact was that fifty years had institutionalised Miller beyond redemption. He was simply scared of the fate awaiting him outside prison.
Independent evidence is scant today to corroborate Miller’s story . If absence of evidence is ever evidence of absence this might be the case. It was the law that every bankrupt Tom, Dick or Harry across England got his name published in the official London Gazette as part of the punishment. And while there were dozens of bankrupt millers by trade that year there were fewer Millers by name and none named William nor any within 100 miles of Christchurch in 1814.
There was a family named Cull residing in Christchurch at that time. It was in a position of some power in town, with one member acting as the town’s auctioneer. That man had a son who was the right age to be a seducer during Napoleonic times but that isn’t proof.
William and Miller is such a common coupling of names that most villages would have record of one, so that haystack may hide a needle, who knows? However, there is a record of an 84-year old named William Miller dying in Christchurch in 1867, so that may have been our man, as their respective ages almost match. For he was released — probably as much against his wishes as his original incarceration was. One can only hope that those six years he had left were better than the rest of his adult life, stolen from him.