‘No profit grows where is no pleasure taken’

It is not a rose glow view of history that holds as fact that during the 19th century the world’s financier was, without doubt, Britain; that is to say London; that is to say The City; that is to say The Stock Exchange.exchange


This is a contemporary take on that topic. When it was written it was about seven years after one worldwide crash and though the author did not know it, presaged the very beginning of another. This extract is from a much, much longer article on The Stock Exchange by John Pebody, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine (now that’s a title, n’est-ce pas?)  in 1873. The magazine has been digitised almost in its entirety and it’s a mix of fiction (often novels such as Clytie published in parts), travelogues, current affairs and gossip. So that when you have tired of reading ersatz historically inaccurate novels such as Spufford and the like, you can get a real passport to that foreign country called the past, rather than a trip to an historical Disneyland, or perhaps more accurately a misplaced 21st century Westworld transmutation of the way it was.


stock exchange

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To set the whole world ‘a-gadding’

You know nothing of progress if you do not know the 19th century.

Let us think for a moment about railroads. Before they came, most rural Europeans lived and died within 20 miles of where they were born. Not because there weren’t adventurous souls among them, but would you want to walk from the back end of nowhere in France to Paris, England to London, or the Italian states to Rome? And you would be making that journey without the slightest idea of what to expect when you got there. News traveled to those tiny villages as haphazardly and tardily as it had in medieval times. At fault was the road system. Without mechanization, making roads fit for the peasant to travel was hard and expensive — so it did not happen. King’s ‘high’ ways and turnpikes improved commercial movements and rich folks’ travelling plans, but all of this required travelers either owning or paying for passage by some form of horse transportation. Even then road networks did not venture far outside major cities. In Britain for example most freight across most of the wilder parts of the country was still being moved by trains of pack horses right up to the start of the 19th century.

And of course for the farmer’s boy or girl there was no cheap nor speedy means of getting about, other than putting one foot in front of the other.

The year Queen Victoria was enthroned, the roads had become good enough that (again for rich folks only) average speeds had crept up to around 11 miles an hour. The 22,000 miles of commercially-funded turnpike roads were then noisy with jingling and trumpeting of more than 3,000 mail coach lines each holding a government contract for delivering letters between two points, but also moving passengers.

Then came the railway. And boy did it change things — and fast.

This was a world which ran on one energy source alone — coal. The fire in the hearth; coal. The gas light in the street; coal. The coke in blast furnaces; coal. The thousands of stationary steam engines powering looms and lathes, pumping water out of mines and sewage out of sewers; coal. Unlike today’s energies, electricity or gas that come down wires or pipes, the tons of black rock had to be physically moved to where it was needed each day, each week to keep towns and cities working. The city of Manchester was using 1,000 tons of the stuff each day. Though there were two canals between where the coal was, near Liverpool and where it was needed in Manchester, a railway line’s shorter distance and greater carrying capacity would save coal customers £100,000 each year in carriage alone — a sum calculated in the billions in today’s money.

The Liverpool to Manchester rail line opened in 1830. Work began in June 1826, just one year after the Stockton and Darlington became the world’s first steam locomotive passenger railway in the world.

Imagine shifting 720 million cubic yards of spoil by hand just for the cuttings alone. Imagine building embankments of 277,000 cubic yards. Imagine building a railway line across four and a half miles of Chat Moss, a bog so soft that a pedestrian could not walk over it unless it had been an unusually dry summer and an iron bar would sink under its own weight. After tons of ballast dumped to consolidate the swamp disappeared without trace an ingenious solution was to use a raft of the moss itself with copious drains and culverts, upon which to lay the ballast to hold the rails.

Add to the construction tasks a 70 foot high brick-built viaduct, a stone bridge across the river Irwell and a tunnel through just over a mile of wet earth, sand and sandstone, and you begin to appreciate the scale of complexity to build just one 31-mile long railway.

If a statistic were needed to illustrate the speed of change, consider the number of stagecoach drivers and guards made redundant in the following decade. Already just a few years into rail travel in 1842 the number had fallen to only 2107. The following year and contemporary source says it was then just 146.Think about whether the 21st century could come close to matching this for the rapid introduction of a novel infrastructure that would overturn accepted reality quite as fast.

The prospect of free movement for poor people previously enslaved by geography was not welcomed by all, even by some Americans, though this comment comes from a canal owner. Canals, like stage coaches, were surpassed by the speed, cost and security advantages of trains.

This man predicted (rightly as it happened) that railroads would set the whole world ‘a-gadding’. “Twenty miles an hour, sir! Why you will not be able to keep an apprentice-boy at his work; every Saturday evening he must take a trip to Ohio, to spend the Sabbath with his sweetheart. Grave plodding citizens will be flying about like comets. All local attachments must be at an end. It will encourage flightiness of intellect. It will upset all the gravity of the nation. Upon the whole, sir, it is a pestilential, topsy-turvy, harum-scarum whirligig.”

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They walked on water

You know nothing about progress if you do not know the 19th century.

In 1818 the first tiny 90 ton steam powered vessel, The Rob Roy, began using its 30 horse power engine on regular trips from Greenock in Scotland to Belfast in Ireland. Subsequently it became the first international non-sailing ship when it went from Dover to Calais.

Not to be outdone, the very next year America bested this by launching the 350 ton Savannah, setting a seemingly impossible jump to inter-ocean travel. After 26 days at sea out of the port whose name she bore, the ship arrived in Liverpool. It wasn’t easy nor an economic proposition — yet. The 90-horse paddle wheel, sail-assisted steamer consumed ten tons of coal each day so all her holds were crammed with the stuff. So strange a sight was a steamer that she was reported as a “ship on fire”, though the sailing cutter from Cork, Ireland sent out to ‘rescue’ her could not keep up with the bare poled vessel.

What these momentous voyages signaled to the age was certainty. The passage would be no less dangerous in the future, but in the age of sail it had never been a sure thing that you would actually arrive — even if the ship did not sink. There are many stories of voyages to America thwarted by the wind and taking 70 days, that’s more than two months. In 1838 a sailing vessel from Ireland had taken 55 days to come within 100 miles of the coast at New Brunswick before being forced back all the way across the Atlantic by the fierce easterly winds. In 1837 after a voyage of 100 days, one of the 180 passengers on board the Diamond from Liverpool to New York offered a gold sovereign for one of the last potatoes on board and was turned down. Seventeen passengers died of starvation. So think yourself lucky when the low-cost airline charges for a rubber cheese sandwich.

It is easy to forget too that, because of the speed and reliability of commercial shipping after steam, the information age was kick-started. While the as-yet ‘unknown unknown’ of international telegraph would improve worldwide communication to become almost instantaneous by the 1860s, before that date a piece of paper that was physically transported across the sea was all the world had to keep in touch with itself.

By the mid century mail went to France from Britain twice a day.

It seems incredible to us today. Friends and relations died, presidents and kings rose and fell, wars started and ended, all without the rest of the world knowing of such events. Demonstrating how amazingly different the fabric of existence was before and had become after steam power — and how far progress had yet to go — is this proud acknowledgement from 1852: “from every important port in the world we receive intelligence in London within two months — excepting the Australia. Newspapers have arrived in October last from California, only seven weeks after publication.”

By the late 1840s, that is to say the same timescale which comparably for us goes back as far as Prozac, The Simpsons, Michael Jackson’s Bad and George Michael’s Faith, steam-ship travel had become routine. Journey times across the Atlantic were measured in a just a couple of weeks — or ten days if you were lucky. And there was already a clamour to build the Suez and Panama Canals.

Can you honestly conceive that Snapchat, Siri or a phone with a camera attached has achieved in as short a time as much for human kind?


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Captain Hornblower or Jack Sparrow? You decide

There are contrary versions of this story. One has a man who thought he could ride on the coat-tails of an illegal scheme, who got caught and rightly, though severely, punished. The other version says that an ambitious but innocent man was cynically cut down by corrupt and overweening authority.

Was it political vindictiveness and a government stitch up? It was in the middle of the Napoleonic War. Successive governments had been waging war against radicalism in France since the Revolution and so it was tough on radicalism at home. Rigged verdicts in political trials were commonplace. When a low-grade scandal came along, the government of Lord Liverpool saw an opportunity to use it to denigrate a Whiggish (what might now be called liberal or left wing) naval hero and MP named Thomas Cochrane. However, Cochrane probably had some part in a particularly lame plot that became known as the Great Stock Exchange Scandal of 1814.

‘Great’ was a misnomer judging by later scandals which would unveil themselves in the century. More a practical joke taken too far than utter criminality, it was a second rate farce which went wrong. It was quickly discovered. Any gains were frozen and subsequently never awarded to the originators of the deception. But it was temporarily the ruin of 39-year old Lord Cochrane.

Admiral (eventually) Thomas Cochrane, the tenth earl of Dundonald, has often been fictionalised. He was the model for Midshipman Easy and Captain Hornblower. His character has been played on-screen by Gregory Peck and Russell Crowe.

Cochrane was a Regency combination of Captain Jack Aubrey from Master and Commander and Top Gun‘s Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. His adept tactical handling of sailing ships in war and his guile in combat were legendary. He even perfected one manoeuvre that was to be later used in the air by Soviet fighter pilots and replicated onscreen in Top Gun. Once, when pursued by three faster ships in storm force winds, he had his crew fix ropes on every sail As the enemies closed at full speed he ordered his men to simultaneously haul the sails up – stopping his ship dead in the water. His opponents shot past and they sailed on for miles before they could turn to pursue him. As night was falling, he he then lowered a lantern in a cask over the ship’s side and dowsed all other lights. The pursuers followed it rather than his blacked out ship.cochrane young

Why go for him? He was the golden boy of the navy, but had made many enemies by being as good as he was. He was a radical who believed in political guerilla tactics to prove his point. Cochrane previously had the temerity to publicly label his commanding officer, a certain Lord Gambier, a coward. As the man was related to late Prime Minister William Pitt by marriage, that may have been a blunder on Cochrane’s part. Cochrane was a danger to the Establishment and he needed metaphoric assassination if and when the opportunity arose.

The Stock Exchange plot was organised by his wicked uncle, a man called Andrew Cochrane Johnstone, along with the uncle’s stock broker. Cochrane Johnstone was a youngest son whose career in the army came to a halt when he was found to have been using the troops under his command in Dominica as his personal plantation workers. As an MP he was kicked out of a particularly rotten borough for being even more corrupt than other MPs. Fleeing back to the West Indies, he was nearly arrested for bribery and fraud while an agent for the Navy, but escaped once more to England. Next he sold guns to the Spanish, though he took the money and did not provide the weapons. So while uncle Cochrane Johnstone was pretty easily identified as the man who thought up the fraud, you could suppose that Cochrane knew something about it – and to have allowed himself to benefit from it, even if he was not actually an active plotter.

The place to stay in the Channel port of Dover during the Napoleonic war was The Ship Hotel. Right on the quayside by the Custom House Dock, this four storey, flat fronted building was so much more than the equivalent of an airport hotel for departing and wearily returning travellers from France. It was a society hang-out akin to the Dorchester or the Four Seasons. Europe’s travelling royalty, the Duke of Wellington, the poet Byron and Marshal Blucher all stayed there on their way to or from London.cocrane ship

Very late on the evening of February 20th 1814 a less notable man in a travel stained scarlet soldier’s uniform, marched up the dozen or so stone steps and banged on the main door of the hotel. He was fresh off a ship called the Eagle just arrived from Calais (so he said). He had astounding news.

Since the woeful French retreat from Moscow the previous winter, there was an inevitability in 1814 about the allies’ final victory against Napoleon Bonaparte. If it were a boxing match the fight would have been stopped, but like so many wars before and since, it was to be fought on for too long after that unavoidable realisation was obvious to both sides.

He called himself Colonel de Bourg, claiming to be an aide to a British commander who had been leading the British army units liaising with the Eastern Front. His news had the few top hatted gents and uniformed officers still up in the smoking room huzzahing, waking the rest of the guests. The news de Bourg brought was that Napoleon was dead – killed by Cossacks, with his body literally torn apart for souvenirs. The allies were heading for Paris and the peace would imminently be made official.

At one o’clock in the morning of the 21st De Bourg sent for a messenger to travel the nine miles along the coast to the Admiralty semaphore telegraph station at Deal. He wanted them to send the tumultuous news to London, which they dutifully did around 4am in the morning on the 21st. As the story would seem to come through official sources, it would be believed on the Stock Exchange.

De Bourg next rented the fastest mode of transport he could get – a post chaise and four horses – and headed for London, stopping off at towns along the way to re-seed the rumour by handing out gold Napoleon coins as tips in order to demonstrate the heady abandon that would come with the imminent cessation of fighting. In London he abandoned his hired chaise and took a cab to return to his home. To keep the rumour going his co-conspirators meanwhile had dressed up in phoney French uniforms with white cockades to wear and decorated their their own chaise with laurel boughs to parade around the town. This further evidence that the war was indeed over ignited the Stock Exchange and prices climbed.

Even though there is some doubt whether the telegraph actually worked that morning and de Bourg’s message ever got to London in that form, nevertheless de Bourg and his compatriots stirred enough excitement to see Government bond prices spike – exactly as the conspirators planned. They began selling hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of bonds they had bought the week before in a government stock called the Omnium, garnering profit ‘for their own lucre and gain’, as the indictment put it.

Except of course Napoleon wasn’t dead. At the battle of Brienne the previous month he had come near death when a corps of cossacks did indeed break through the lines and were heading for Napoleon’s tent, but they were seen off. Napoleon may have been losing the war, but he was very much alive. The British would not hear the last of Napoleon until the battle of Waterloo in 1815.

So this was a scam. Even then with communications as poor as they were, there were enough people arriving from France daily who would pretty soon absolutely refute De Bourg’s claims, so the broker worked quickly offloading the Omnium stocks.

Who was De Bourg? De Bourg, or to give him his real name, Augustus Charles Random de Berenger was a one-time colourist in an artist’s studio, volunteer soldier with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, a renowned shot with rifle and pistol and a debtor who had been confined to the ‘Rules of the King’s Bench’ for nearly a year and a half. The ‘Rules of the King’s Bench’ was an eruv or ghetto in Southwark around the King’s Bench prison itself, where prisoners could live their lives outside jail but still under sentence. Though incarcerated, de Berenger rented four rooms on the top floor of a house near the Bedlam lunatic asylum. He had enough leisure time to occasionally annoy his landlady by playing his violin or the trumpet. His servant (under the Rules of the King’s Bench servants weren’t forbidden) addressed him as Baron de Berenger, as he had the good fortune to marry a Prussian heiress. As he was the husband of a baroness, he could see no reason why not to call himself as baron.

It was indisputable that almost as soon as he got home de Berenger left again and got a cab to Lord Cochrane’s house, off Grosvenor Square. Thomas Cochrane the sailor and MP was a renaissance man. Alongside his naval and political careers he was an inventor. That morning he was in the factory district of Clerkenwell supervising the construction of a new, more powerful version of the ship’s light he had patented which he was to take with him on his next voyage.

De Berenger scribbled a note which was sent to Cochrane in the factory. Cochrane hurried home. Cochrane’s defence was that de Berenger was a stranger to him who introduced himself in the note and told him he was in prison for debt but allowed out on parole. He could never pay his debts so he was begging Cochrane for a place on his warship to America. Cochrane said he refused.

After the note from de Berenger Cochrane joined his ship, but as soon as he realised that word was out that this prime suspect in the fraud had been seen entering his house, he excused himself from his ship and went to the Stock Exchange to tell all he knew. All this did, sadly, was to give the government the excuse it needed to punish him for making waves.

In any event it is difficult to see how much more loaded against Cochrane the trial which began exactly 203 years ago tomorrow could have been. The lawyer for the Stock Exchange was a man whom Cochrane had already previously accused of fabricating evidence. That lawyer had been the lawyer for the man Cochrane called a coward. The lawyer in turn picked as prosecuting barrister a man that had clear conflict of interest, as Cochrane had gone to that same man to seek (as he thought) confidential professional advice from him as to what to do to clear his name. The judge’s summing up defied logic, but that may have been because the judge, Lord Ellenborough, was also a cabinet minister.

Cochrane’s bravado did not desert him, though his country did. Stripped of his rank and his seat in Parliament and had him thrown into the same King’s Bench jail.  He was threatened with the ultimate ignominy for a gentleman — an hour in the public pillory, though that part of the sentence was not carried out. The electors of Westminster stubbornly stood by Cochrane and returned him again in the subsequent by-election. He broke out of prison and attended the House of Commons, there to be arrested and sent back to a more secure cell.

The Times ran the government line that his fall from grace had driven him insane, but that was plainly not so. He reluctantly paid a £1,000 fine (at least £60,000 today) to gain his freedom, but to show how wronged he felt, he wrote on the back of Bank of England £1000 note number 8202, dated June 26 1815 an endorsement. It reads “My health having suffered by long and close confinement and my oppressors being resolved to deprive me of property or life, I submit to robbery to protect myself from murder, in the hope that I shall live to bring the delinquents to justice.”

Discarded by England, the man the French had nicknamed loup de mer simply found himself another war. He distinguished himself as a naval tactician in Chile, then Brazil, then Greece. Eventually He was restored to his rightful place as one of the fathers of the 19th century Royal Navy, but not until 1847 would Queen Victoria re-instate his knighthood.

Also convicted in the Great Stock Exchange Swindle in his absence, Cochrane Johnstone was once more on the run – to France then back to Dominica. He returned to France but the scandal of further frauds on the French government were still hanging over him when he died in 1833.

De Berenger was chased to Sunderland, Newcastle and Edinburgh before being captured in Leith. He got a year for his deception, but you wonder whether he was threatened with much worse, for very soon after his sentencing he began to relate in great detail how the fraud had been planned and the central role that Thomas Cochrane played. He said that Cochrane was present in the meetings in the week before his trip to Dover, and that Cochrane saw the outline plan of De Berenger’s journey to Dover.

Fifteen years later, his appetite for risk never having deserted him, the baron, now richer through an inheritance, bought an 11 acre estate leading down to the River Thames from the King’s Road in Chelsea. He remodelled it as the famous Cremorne Gardens, which for four decades was London’s summertime haunt of party goers, pickpockets and whores.cochrane cremorne

Maybe another one of Thomas Cochrane’s naval enemies, the Earl St Vincent, was right in his Game of Thrones style assessment. Though when he said it he was alluding to Thomas’ uncles, he said this: “The Cochranes are not to be trusted out of sight, they are all mad, romantic, money-getting and not truth-telling—and there is not a single exception in any part of the family.”

Writing just before his death in 1860, Cochrane, then aged 85, explained it all away: “It was one set of stock jobbers and their confederates trying – by means of false intelligence – to raise the price of ‘time bargains’ at the expense of another set of stock jobbers, the losers being naturally indignant at the successful hoax. The ‘conspiracy’ – such as it was – was nevertheless one, which, as competent persons inform me, has been the practice of all countries ever since stock jobbing began, and is in the present day constantly practised, but I never heard mention of the energy of the Stock Exchange even to detect the practice.”

cochrane old

Cochrane: “not to be trusted out of sight”

He was right. Time after time throughout that century and the next up to the present day, financial regulators seem content to do little or nothing to stop such market rigging.


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Another Italian job

This is taken from a California paper from 1855. If you can get past the blatant sexism of the age in parts (handing back the wife to her father, etc), it’s very like a Saki short story. Maybe it is fiction, but I’d like to think it was true. Ingenuity is the best part of revenge, is it not?


rev 5rev6

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An Italian honeymoon ends in tragedy, 1824

Source: An Italian honeymoon ends in tragedy, 1824

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Looking for a new hobby?

There’s a Brit named Tom Jackson who buys picture postcards — mostly from the sixties and seventies — from garage sales, thrift shops and car boot events. He then puts the picture postcards into the ether via Facebook with just one line of the message included.

He now has 40,000 followers, an exhibition at Gatwick Airport and a book. Hurrah!

Here’s the BBC’s report on the man and his hobby


…but here’s just one of his cards for you to get the picture, so to speak…


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He dreamed a dream in time gone by

John Williams (no, not that one), died in April 1841. He was a miner. No, not that kind of miner. He was the Georgian epitome of success. It was said he employed 10,000 people in the tin and copper industry of Cornwall, in the south western tip of Britain. When he died in April of that year, aged 89, his obituarists could only heap praise on the character of the man. He was someone who had not let wealth taint his “simplicity of manners and the mild unassuming dignity with which he bore the honours of fortune.”

So far, so unremarkable, you may say. What the death notices did not mention was Mr Williams’ well-documented brush some three decades before with an unexplained, some might say downright spooky supernatural, event.

That takes us back to of the night of May 11th, 1812. It was the night when Mr Williams had a dream.

Far away, in London, the afternoon had gone very badly for two men. A deranged merchant who had been jailed in Russia and who felt the British government owed him compensation had been fobbed off by bureaucrats once too often. Taking matters – and a couple of loaded pistols – in hand, he hid behind a door in the lobby of the old House of Commons. When the slender wispy figure of the Prime Minister of the day, Spencer Perceval, came in at 5:15pm, the merchant, John Bellingham, shot the Prime Minister, killing him. So, that day which ended badly for Perceval already, was soon enough to do the same for Bellingham, who was eventually hanged for the murder.

Bad news like that travelled fast, but fast in 1812 meant days to reach Redruth in Cornwall. No tearful Walter Cronkite for them. It would be carried by the Mail Coach from London to Exeter and probably by a horseman along the atrocious roads the rest of the way. So the Williams were blissfully ignorant of what had happened a few hours previously when Mr and Mrs Williams went to bed that night.

During the night Williams dreamed the murder. He dreamt it in cinematic detail. He had never seen Perceval in his life and so he did not recognise at first what he was seeing, but nevertheless he could afterwards, but crucially before he could possibly hear reports describe it vividly and accurately to various people none of whom knew either about the murder.

Williams described exactly what he saw. He saw the colour of the clothes people wore. The appearance and demeanour of the people He saw precisely where the bullet hit. He saw the splash and stain of the blood pumping from Perceval’s chest. He saw the way in which Perceval fell. He saw the gentlemen restraining Perceval’s killer who did not try to run away.

He described in detail what he had seen to his wife. He repeated the story to others in the morning and all that day, before the news could possibly have reached Redruth.

Here’s how The Times reported the story a few years later. Let’s take it up from the moment Williams awoke (and yes indeed The Times chose to spell Perceval as Percival):-

Mrs. Williams very naturally told him it was only a dream, and recommended him to be composed, and go to sleep as soon as he could. He did so, and shortly after, again awoke her, and said that he had the second time had the same dream; whereupon she observed he had been so much agitated by his former dream, that she supposed it had dwelt on his mind, and begged of him to try to compose himself and go to sleep, which he did. A third time the vision was repeated; on which, notwithstanding her entreaties that he would be quiet, and endeavour to forget it, he arose, it being then between one and two o’clock, and dressed himself.

At breakfast the dreams were the sole subject of conversation: and in the forenoon Mr. Williams went to Falmouth, where he related the particulars of them to all of his acquaintance that he met.

On the following day, Mr. Tucker, of Tremanton Castle, accompanied by his wife, a daughter of Mr. Williams, went to Scorrier House about dusk. Immediately after the first salutations, on their entering the parlour, where were Mr. Mrs. and Miss Williams.

Mr. Williams began to relate to Mr. Tucker the circumstances of his dream: and Mrs Williams observed to her daughter, Mrs Tucker, laughingly, that her father could not even suffer Mr. Tucker to be seated before he told him of his nocturnal visitation: on the statement of which, Mr. Tucker observed that it would do very well for a dream to have the Chancellor in the lobby of the House of Commons, but he could not be found there in reality; and Mr. Tucker then asked what sort of a man he appeared to be, when Mr. Williams minutely described him; to which Mr. Tucker replied, “Your description is not that of the Chancellor, but it is certainly that of Mr. Percival, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and although he has been to me the greatest enemy I ever met with through life, for a supposed cause which had no foundation in truth. (or words to that effect), I should be exceedingly sorry, indeed, to hear of his being assassinated, or of injury of the kind happening to him.”

Mr. Tucker then inquired of Mr. Williams if he had ever seen Mr. Percival, and was told that he had never seen him; nor had ever even written to him, either on public or private business; in short, that he never had any-thing to do with him, nor had he ever been in the lobby of the House of Commons in his life. Whilst Mr. Williams and Mr. Tucker were still standing, they heard a horse gallop to the door of the house, and immediately after Mr. Michael Williams, of Treviner, (son of Mr. Williams, of Scorrier), entered the room, and said that he had galloped out from Truro (from which Scorrier is distant seven miles), having seen a gentleman there who had come by that evening’s mail from London, who said that ho had been in the lobby of the House of Commons on the evening of the 11th, when a man called Bellingham had shot Mr. Percival; and that, as it might occasion some great ministerial changes, and might affect Mr. Tucker’s political friends, he had come as fast as he could to make him acquainted with it, having heard at Truro that he had passed through that place on his way to Scorrier.

After the astonishment which this intelligence created had a little subsided, Mr. Williams described most particularly the appearance and dress of the man that he saw in his dream fire the pistol, as he had before done of Mr. Percival.

‘About six weeks after, Mr. Williams, having business in town, went, accompanied by a friend, to the House of Commons, where, as has been already observed, he had never before been. Immediately that he came to the steps at the entrance of the lobby, he said, “This place is as distinctly within my recollection in my dream as any in my house,” and he made the same observation when he entered the lobby. He then pointed out the exact spot where Bellingham stood when he fired, and which Mr. Percival had reached when he was struck by the ball, and when and how he fell. The dress both of Mr. Percival and Bellingham agreed with the description given by Mr. Williams, even to the most minute particulars.’


There is no rational explanation for what occurred. Williams telling the story as he did appears to have secured enough independent witnesses to make it certain that he did have such a dream. Maybe that’s coincidence. Maybe not.





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While you’ve a lucifer

The usual suspect book awards are lining up to give accolades to a novel about 18th century colonial New York entitled Golden Hill, by a British author, Francis Spufford. I cannot see why. Half-way through the book, I put down Golden Hill for a week or two – about the time I discovered the hero of the book, a man called Smith, was evidently a time traveller who foolishly violated what in Star Trek they refer to as the Prime Directive.

What I mean is this; the author chose to bestow on his narrator a manner of speaking contemporaneous with the time of the action in 1746 — all Richardson and Smollett. Yet he had put a jarringly factual error at the end of his narrator’s pen. Sadly for readers, Spufford, the son of not one but two history professors, had not done his historical homework

The Lucifer Paradox.

Wikipedia has comprehensive and it is to be believed accurate coverage of the history of the match. Extracted from that document is this passage…

In 1829, Scots inventor Sir Isaac Holden invented an improved version of Walker’s match and demonstrated it to his class at Castle Academy in Reading, Berkshire. Holden did not patent his invention and claimed that one of his pupils wrote to his father Samuel Jones, a chemist in London who commercialised his process. A version of Holden’s match was patented by Samuel Jones, and these were sold as lucifer matches. These early matches had a number of problems – an initial violent reaction, an unsteady flame and unpleasant odor and fumes. Lucifers could ignite explosively, sometimes throwing sparks a considerable distance. Lucifers were manufactured in the United States by Ezekial Byam. The term “lucifer” persisted as slang in the 20th century (for example in the First World War song Pack Up Your Troubles) and matches are still called lucifers in Dutch.

And yet, and yet… our authorial futurologist in Golden Hill can predict into the future not only the outlandish concept of the match in a world of tinder boxes, but even to give it a name and describe its packaging in bundles. Bravo, Spuffurdamus!

Here is the reference below and by the by it’s a long sentence that would have pleased another, given his propensity for such phraseology and of course the ability of his readers to read such sentences in the candle-lit hours, for none other than Charles Dickens would have enjoyed this ramble through the byways of bad writing and would, if confused and jumbled clauses float, have sought to raise the Titanic had it been prepared to do the right thing like Lucifer and to sink before he died or it was built, using nothing save those very clauses’ shared desire to remove the full point from the English language to raise it (Thank-you).

As he tried to penetrate it, the stamping feet fell without malice on his shoes, and he would have reeled back had the rank behind not repelled him just as effectually, so he must stay bruised and upright, as tight packed as a lucifer match amidst a bundle.

One forgiveable Swallow doesn’t deter a Costa Coffee Book Award shortlister to call this book a summer. However it is just littered with similar anachronisms.

Nevertheless I finished it, though I read with pencil in hand, circling anachronisms and verbal modernisms that the editors let slip through, while Pudd’nhead Spufford tried so hard to be writing in 18th century vein.

I could list all the other gaffs but that would seem harsh and pedantic. The bigger sin is of the book is the Downtonisation of history. It continues apace, with dialogue in the tome ripped in places from old scripts of The Sopranos rather than Congreve.

One coda to writers of fiction who read this. You would be embarrassed in front of the creative writing class if you wrote a paragraph where your protagonist sees the un-seeable, or in this case hears the un-hearable through a closed door:-

“After an instant’s silence, there came through the door the sound of furious swearing, of clothes being frantically pulled on”

I’ll allow him to hear the swearing – or at least indecipherable raised voices. But what-the, who-the? What is this man, a bat? A superhero? How noisy can a shirt and a pair of kecks be, FFS?


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Jemmy Wood the banker’s banker

He was not what you’d call a looker. In profile Jemmy Wood bore a passing resemblance to Mr Punch following a good lunch – but James Wood esq, ‘the eccentric banker, merchant and draper’ of the city of Gloucester, England who died aged 80 on this day in 1836,  in his old house above the shop in Westgate Street – died very rich indeed.


His is a story of ‘not quites’. He was not quite the millionaire that the speculations claimed, but pretty close – at a time when to die with a couple of thousand made you rich indeed, £781,107 ten shillings and fourpence made you spectacularly so. His bank was not quite the oldest in the land, but it was pretty darn close. His grandfather started Wood & Co or Gloucester Old Bank in 1716, making it the fourth oldest.

Strolling down his street you could easily miss the bank. It was in a jettied Jacobean or Elizabethan house and shop and through the bullseye glass of the shop windows  were displayed buttons, ribbons and threads – it doubled as a drapers and haberdashery.jemmy 2

In one  corner of the shop was a tiny wooden counter with scales. You could tell it was a bank and you could ascertain what kind of a banker was Wood, by the counterfeit coins that had been nailed to the counter top to warn any future fraudsters. As a practical man Jemmy decided early on that it was not in his interest to give interest on any deposits shorter than a year — even by a day. Jemmy Wood was mean.

In fact he was a miser. He dressed cheaply, he spent little. He was said to have hung around the local docks to gather coal that was dropped as the collier ships were unloaded. Once he went to one of his local farm properties in his shabby tramp like coat and while he was there decided to pick some of his own turnips for himself – only to be beaten by a farm labourer, once for stealing and once more for claiming to be the owner of the field.

He was self-aware though. When journeying by coach to London for his amusement he bet a fellow passenger who had made fun of his cheap old suit that he could do something the other could not. The challenge he set seemed outrageous. The poorly dressed Wood challenged his fellow passenger that when they reached the capital they should each see if they could persuade a bank to advance them a cheque for £100,000. Naturally Jemmy won his £5 bet.

After selling yards of ribbon and a thousand sewing needles and thimbles, interspersed with high finance, all his long life, the renowned banker expired. Unmarried and with no living relatives, it was inevitable that flies began to gather about the jam pot that was old Jemmy’s loot.

He had made a will though,  leaving everything to four executors – or so it seemed. In the battle over the will that lasted years and sapped about half the money it turned out that the lawyer who drew up the will and appeared to be getting a quarter of the money had fiddled with the paperwork. On hearing the old miser was sick he had made a mercy dash from London to Gloucester while Wood lay morphine-adled and dying. The lawyer took papers from Wood’s bureau, stitched together sheets that had been signed and those that had not, using Wood’s own seal. He then burnt inconvenient codocils that gave away some of the money to the city of Gloucester and some other people. Triumphantly he ‘discovered’ the convenient version of the will. His downfall was that one of the servants had rescued from the grate a bit of the bonfire of inconvenient truth and anonymously sent it to one of those cut out from the will.

Despite a reward of £10,000 advertised for information as to who did save the codocil, no-one came forward. Like some early episode of CSI Gloucester, lawyers pored forensically over the handwriting and the spelling comparing it with Wood’s day book and accounts. In the end the foursome did get the money — less the cost of getting it, but the judgement concluded that the lawyer had indeed massaged the document.

When he was found out, he did the right thing and hanged himself – lawyers, eh?

Jemmy 3

Jemmy as a mantelpiece ornament. You could be certain you’d made it when the potters of Staffordshire modelled you in clay





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