Today is the feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the gifts of the Wise Men. But I am not going to talk about gift, rather than a remarkable theft.
Over three hundred years ago Nahum Tate, arguably the worst poet ever to be appointed Poet Laureate, wrote his one brilliant work, the Christmas carol, While shepherds watched their flocks (he is otherwise best known for rewriting Shakespeare to give happy endings to King Lear and Romeo and Juliet).
When While shepherds watched their flocks was first published it was suggested that it be sung; To St. James’s Tune or any other Tune of 2 and 6 Syllables. As, for various curious reasons, it was the ONLY Christmas carol that was permitted to be sung in churches, it rapidly became very popular. Singers throughout the land soon began to fit it to different tunes, over thirty are known to have been used, both adaptations of existing music, and specially composed tunes. One, written by Jane Savage in 1785, is the earliest known Church of England hymn by female composer.
However there was no generally preferred tune, for example, the music book of Thomas Hardy’s grandfather contains two completely different tunes. Then, in 1805, Thomas Clark a Canterbury shoemaker and choirmaster, published a tune which he called Cranbrook, after a village in Kent. This tune was tried with various hymns, then with While shepherds watched their flocks it was an instant success. It spread rapidly, and seemed likely to become the standard tune for the carol.
If you listen to this most people will say, “Isn’t that the tune to …..”
In the middle of the nineteenth century the Heptonstall glee club was on an outing to Ilkley Moor, like most choir outings they sang, and made up a silly song about a courting lad and lass. Unlike most songs written in these circumstances, someone wrote it down, and the choir continued to sing it at their concerts.
This version spread like wildfire, and was soon sung all across Yorkshire and beyond. So much so that it is regarded by many as the Yorkshire ‘National’ Anthem
And that was that. Victorian Hymn Book compilers weren’t that prudish, but the idea of a carol sung to the tune of a comic song was too much, and a tune written in the sixteenth century was a safe alternative, and that is what we sing today.
People now say that While shepherds watched their flocks was once sung to the tune of On Ilkla Moor baht ‘at and even consider that the tune is a Yorkshire one.
And that is the true tale of the Yorkshire Carol Theft
As a contribution to Black History Month I give you this story which was written in 1830, I will tell you more at the end.
A lucky day it was for little Fanny Elvington when her good aunt Delmont consented to receive her into her family, and sent for her from a fine old place, six miles from hence, Burdon Park, where she had been living with her maternal grandfather, to her own comfortable house in Brunswick Square. Poor Fanny had no natural home, her father, General Elvington, being in India with his lady; and a worse residence than the Park could hardly be devised for a little girl, since Lady Burdon was dead, Sir Richard too sickly to be troubled with children, and the care of his grand-daughter left entirely to a vulgar old nurse and a superfine housekeeper. A lucky day for Fanny was that in which she exchanged their misrule for the wise and gentle government of her good aunt Delmont.
Fanny Elvington was a nice little girl, who had a great many good qualities, and, like other little girls, a few faults; which had grown up like weeds under the neglect and mismanagement of the people at the Park, and threatened to require both time and pains to eradicate. For instance, she had a great many foolish antipathies and troublesome fears, some caught from the affectation of the housekeeper, some from the ignorance of the nurse: she shrieked at the sight of a mouse, squalled at a frog, was well-nigh ready to faint at an earwig, and quite as much afraid of a spider as if she had been a fly; she ran away from a quiet ox, as if he had been a mad bull, and had such a horror of chimney sweepers that she shrank her head under the bedclothes whenever she heard the deep cry of “sweep! sweep!” forerunning the old clothesman and the milkman on a frosty morning, and could hardly be persuaded to look at them, poor creatures, dressed in their tawdry tinsel and dancing round Jack of the Green on Mayday. But her favourite fear, her pet aversion, was a black man; especially a little black footboy who lived next door, and whom she never saw without shrinking, and shuddering, and turning pale.
It was a most unlucky aversion for Fanny, and gave her and her aunt more trouble than all her other mislikings put together, inasmuch as Pompey came oftener in view than mouse or frog, spider or earwig, ox or chimney-sweep. How it happened nobody could tell, but Pompey was always in Fanny Elvington’s way. She saw him twice as often as anyone else in the house. If she went to the window, he was sure to be standing on the steps: if she walked in the Square garden, she met him crossing the pavement: she could not water her geraniums in the little court behind the house, but she heard his merry voice singing in broken English as he cleaned the knives and shoes on the other side of the wall; nay, she could not even hang out her Canary-bird’s cage at the back door, but he was sure to be feeding his parrot at theirs. Go where she would, Pompey’s shining black face and broad white teeth followed her: he haunted her very dreams; and the oftener she saw him, whether sleeping or waking, the more her unreasonable antipathy grew upon her. Her cousins laughed at her without effect, and her aunt’s serious remonstrances were equally useless.
The person who, next to Fanny herself, suffered the most from this foolish and wicked prejudice, was poor Pompey, whose intelligence, activity, and good-humour had made him a constant favourite in his master’s house, and who had sufficient sensibility to feel deeply the horror and disgust which he had inspired in his young neighbour. At first he tried to propitiate her by bringing groundsel and chickweed for her Canary-bird, running to meet her with an umbrella when she happened to be caught in the rain, and other small attentions, which were repelled with absolute loathing.
“Me same flesh and blood with you, missy, though skin be black,” cried poor Pompey one day when pushed to extremity by Fanny’s disdain, “same flesh and blood, missy!” a fact which the young lady denied with more than usual indignation; she looked at her own white skin, and she thought of his black one; and all the reasoning of her aunt failed to convince her, that where the outside was so different, the inside could by possibility be alike. At last Mrs. Delmont was fain to leave the matter to the great curer of all prejudices, called Time, who in this case seemed even slower in his operations than usual.
In the meanwhile, Fanny’s birthday approached, and as it was within a few days of that of her cousin, Emma Delmont, it was agreed to celebrate the two festivals together. Double feasting! double holiday! double presents! never was a gayer anniversary. Mrs. Delmont’s own gifts had been reserved to the conclusion of the jollity, and after the fruit was put on the table, two huge dolls, almost as big as real babies, were introduced to the little company. They excited and deserved universal admiration. The first was a young lady of the most delicate construction and the most elaborate ornament; a doll of the highest fashion, with sleeves like a bishop, a waist like a wasp, a magnificent bustle, and petticoats so full and so puffed out round the bottom, that the question of hoop or no hoop was stoutly debated between two of the elder girls. Her cheeks were very red, and her neck very white, and her ringlets in the newest possible taste. In short, she was so completely a la mode that a Parisian milliner might have sent her as a pattern to her fellow tradeswoman in London, or the London milliner might have returned the compliment to her sister artist over the water. Her glories, however, were fated to be eclipsed. The moment that the second doll made its appearance, the lady of fashion was looked at no longer.
The second doll was a young gentleman, habited in the striped and braided costume which is the ordinary transition dress of boys between leaving off petticoats and assuming the doublet and hose. It was so exactly like Willy Delmont’s own attire, that the astonished boy looked at himself, to be sure that the doll had not stolen his clothes off his back. The apparel, however, was not the charm that fixed the attention of the young people; the attraction was the complexion, which was of as deep and shining a black, as perfect an imitation of a black boy, in tint and feature, as female ingenuity could accomplish. The face, neck, arms, and legs were all covered with black silk; and much skill was shown in shaping and sewing on the broad flat nose, large ears, and pouting lips, whilst the white teeth and bright round eyes relieved the monotony of the colour. The wig was of black worsted, knitted, and then unravelled, as natural as if it had actually grown on the head. Perhaps the novelty (for none of the party had seen a black doll before) might increase the effect, but they all declared that they had never seen so accurate an imitation, so perfect an illusion. Even Fanny, who at first sight had almost taken the doll for her old enemy Pompey in little, and had shrunk back accordingly, began at last to catch some of the curiosity (for curiosity is a catching passion) that characterised her companions. She drew near – she gazed – at last she even touched the doll, and listened with some interest to Mrs. Belmont’s detail of the trouble she found in constructing the young lady and gentleman.
“What are they made of, aunt?”
“Rags, my dear!” was the reply: “nothing but rags,” continued Mrs. Delmont, unripping a little of the black gentleman’s foot and the white lady’s arm, and showing the linen of which they were composed-; – “both alike, Fanny,” pursued her good aunt, “both the same colour underneath the skin, and both the work of the same hand – like Pompey and you,” added she more solemnly; “and now choose which doll you will.”
And Fanny, blushing and hesitating, chose the black one; and the next day her aunt had the pleasure to see her show it to Pompey over the wall, to his infinite delight; and, in a very few days, Mrs. Delmont had the still greater pleasure to find that Fanny Elvington had not only overcome and acknowledged her prejudice, but had given Pompey a new half-crown, and had accepted groundsel for her Canary-bird from the poor black boy.
NOTE. — About a month after sitting to me for his portrait, the young black gentleman whom I have endeavoured to describe, (I do not mean Pompey, but the doll,) set out upon his travels. He had been constructed in this little Berkshire of ours for some children in the great county of York, and a friend of mine, travelling northward, had the goodness to offer him a place in her carriage for the journey. My friend was a married woman, accompanied by her husband and another lady, and finding the doll cumbersome to pack, wrapped it in a large shawl, and carried it in her lap baby fashion. At the first inn where they stopped to dine, she handed it carelessly out of the carriage before alighting, and was much amused to see it received with the grave officious tenderness usually shown to a real infant by the nicely dressed hostess, whose consternation, when, still taking it for a living child, she caught a glimpse of the complexion, is said to have been irresistibly ludicrous. Of course my friend did not undeceive her. Indeed I believe she humoured the mistake wherever it occurred all along the north road, to the unspeakable astonishment and mystification of chambermaids and waiters.
This story was written by Mary Russell Mitford, a noted writer in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her life story is remarkable, I won’t go into details, please look her up, but she finally achieved success with her stories about rural life. These were first published in various magazines, and then brought together in several volumes under the collective title of Our Village. The Two Dolls is to be found in the fourth volume published in 1830, and subsequently included in one of many collections of her stories called Children of the Village.
These stories are based upon her life in Three Mile Cross near Reading in Berkshire, including a mixture of real and imaginary people. One real person, who appears in the background of several stories, was a professional doll maker. So I suspect that the doll was real (and probably the story of his travels to Yorkshire are true), though Pompey and Fanny Elvington are just delightful and remarkable fiction.
Lately there has been some trouble in our village, children have been playing the traditional game of irritating people by ringing the doorbell and running away.
Now this has probably been going on since doorbells were invented (which was long before the word doorbell was invented – possibly by Jane Austen, certainly she was the first to write the word down).
However the Georgians, as well as inventing the word ‘doorbell’ also invented a way of dealing with the problem which probably couldn’t be used today (health and safety enthusiasts have a lot to answer for).
In June 1789, the Poultry, an area of London, was pestered by a man ringing the bells on various houses and shops at night. It caused considerable disruption and fear, but by the time doors were opened the perpetrator had fled into the ill-lit London streets. Finally one man had enough, Thomas Ribright, optician at the sign of the Golden Spectacles, he was much more than a simple optician, he was a maker of scientific instruments and decided to use his knowledge to set a trap. He described what he did in a letter to the Times, 8 July, 1789.
A tradesman, who lives not an hundred miles from me, having made a practice of ringing my bell violently in the night time, by which my family were greatly alarmed, I resolved, if possible, to punish the disturber of my rest. For this purpose I pasted some tin filings upon the pavement before my door, and having made a communication between the handle of the bell and the conductor of an electrical machine, by means of a wire, I charged a large jar to be ready for his reception. A few moments after my neighbour, as I suspected, made an attempt as usual; but instead of accomplishing what he intended, he received the whole contents of the jar, which made him stagger, and when I opened the door, I found him leaning against one of the supporters of the door, exclaiming, What! you shoot people, eh! d-n ye.- These are the real circumstances of the affair , and to the truth of them I am ready to make an affidavit if necessary.
Thomas Ribright had been experimenting with the transmission of electricity through various media. He had connected a fully charged Leyden jar, a means of storing a large electrical charge, then linked it to the back of the doorbell. Outside he had coated the doorstep with tin filings to provide a good earth, and waited.
The result was better than he could have imagined. The perpetrator, Peter Wheeler, a local grocer and tea-dealer, who had been nicknamed ‘Count Fig’ because of his airs and graces, and who seems to have quarrelled with most of his neighbours, was now ruthlessly mocked. One cartoon depicted him as the ugliest man in London.
Thomas Ribright prospered, after all he certainly made excellent scientific instruments, but never seems to have had the need to electrify his doorbell again, and modern rules and regulations would, I fear, prevent us from using his methods today.
Today ‘The Hundred’, the latest cricket tournament ended, with the women’s games proving particularly popular. This has been seen, by several newspapers, as a great step forward for women’s cricket.
However over two hundred years ago there were very popular women’s games. In 1792 The Sporting Magazine reported.
A very curious match of cricket was played by eleven girls of Rotherby, Leicestershire, against an equal number of Hoby, on Thursday, on their feast week. The inhabitants of all the villages adjacent were eager spectators of this novel and interesting contest; when, after a display of astonishing feats of skill and activity, the palm of victory was obtained by the fair maidens of Rotherby. There are about ten houses in Rotherby , and near sixty in Hoby; so great a disproportion affords matter of exultation to the honest rustics of the first mentioned village. The bowlers of the conquering party were immediately placed in a sort of triumphal car, preceded by music and flying streamers, and thus conducted home by the youths of Rotherby, amidst the acclamations of a numerous group of pleased spectators.
I really like it that the only thing the, probably male, reporter found to comment on, other than that the match was well played, was the fact that the tiny village of Rotherby was able to field a full team of talented, cricket playing, young women, (incidentally the difference in population between the two villages was considerable. At the time of the first census, in 1801, Hoby had a population of 294, and Rotherby 95.)
In the late eighteenth century The Sporting Magazine was very popular and was bought by groups of sportsmen as well as individual enthusiasts, I am sure that in the winter of 1792 there were many sporting gentlemen who read the article and raised a glass to the cricketing maidens of Rotherby and Hoby, as we salute their sporting descendants today.
Today is the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the great writer, Sir Walter Scott, The Wizard of the North. This is something I wrote a few years ago concerning the mutual admiration the two greatest novelists of the day had for each other’s work. The Wizard of the North.
Today, the Times published a piece on some work being carried out on one of the treasures of the Wallace Collection, the glorious work by Fragonard, The Happy Accidents of the Swing. In the article it mentioned that one of the things they hoped to discover was, if the elderly gentleman pushing the swing had originally been painted as a bishop, as a tale told about the paintings creation suggested.
This description of the elderly gentleman ‘pushing’ the swing is repeated in both the Wallace Collection’s catalogue and on their website. However if you look closely at the painting you will see that he is not ‘pushing’ the swing, rather he is ‘pulling’ it using a pair of ropes.
And that is the puzzle, if you look at illustrations, and surviving examples, of swings over the centuries it is clear that they were either swung by the person on the swing, or pushed from behind. This happened across Europe, Asia and Africa from the second millennium BC until the present, apart from in Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there the swing was swung by ropes.
Why this should be is a mystery, certainly at this time swinging was seen as an adult, as well as a child’s, recreation and was prescribed as a suitable exercise for elderly persons. Certainly the use of ropes would make swinging an elderly lady or gentleman easier, when they couldn’t swing themselves or it would be inappropriate to push them.
Also swinging was regarded as an ‘adult’ activity in that a young lady could be swung so that a viewer could have an ‘interesting’ view like the lover in Fragonard’s painting. This ‘activity’ is described in the remarkable poetic description of the great gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, by Gilbert West in 1732.
A cool Recess there is, not far away, Sacred to Love, to Mirth, and rural Play. Hither oftimes the youthful Fair resort, To cheat the tedious Hours with various Sport. Some mid the Nine-pins marshall’d Orders roll, With Aim unerring the impetuous Bowl. Others, whose Souls to loftier Objects move, Delight the Swing’s advent’rous Joys to prove: While on each side the ready Lovers stand, The flying Cord obeys th’ impulsive Hand. As on a Day contending Rivals strove, By manly Strength to recommend their Love; Toss’d to and fro, up flew the giddy Fair, And scream’d, and laugh’d, and play’d in upper Air. The flutt’ring Coats the rapid Motion find, And One by One admit the swelling Wind: At length the last, white, subtile Veil withdrew, And those mysterious Charms expos’d to view— What Transport then, O — possess’d thy Soul! Down from thy Hand, down dropt the idle Bowl: As for the skilful Tip prepar’d you stood, And Hopes and Fears alarm’d th’ expecting Croud. Sudden to seize the beauteous Prey he sprung; Sudden with Shrieks the echoing Thicket rung.
But the swing was also used by children, with the pulling ropes attached, though with a much more innocent purpose. In the delightfully titled; Healthful Sports for Young Ladies of 1822, is a description of a swing that would make a modern health and safety enthusiast proud.
The posts which supported the swing were a little decayed since the preceding year, but they were soon repaired. Madame D’Hernilly recommended prudence to the young people in partaking of this amusement, and, as an additional precaution, she took care to be present whenever they enjoyed it, and strictly ordered that no one should swing in her absence. They were prohibited standing upon the seat; neither were two persons allowed to get in at the same time; Ernestina, or Aglaé, or another of their friends, placed themselves by turns upon the seat, which was furnished with a soft cushion; and, while the one who took the exercise grasped the cords tightly with her two hands, two or three of her companions pulled the end of the cord, and thus made it go backward and forward.
And that is almost the last mention of ropes pulling a swing. I have seen a few later pictures, but these are clearly inspired by earlier works. Why they appeared, why they disappeared, I don’t know, but it is little puzzles like this that can make history so fascinating.
[The man (certainly no gentlemen) who pursued the young lady in the gardens at Stowe was a local clergyman, Conway Rand. Randy had been used as a term for a drunken gathering before this date, but it is only after this time it is used for a man who is sexually excited. Officially the origin of that meaning of the word is unknown – but perhaps?]
I was recently listening to a podcast, on the remarkable story of Princess Caraboo, which had an epilogue to the story which I hadn’t heard before. When Mary Baker retired from impersonating a Princess from Javasu, she settled down as a supplier of leeches to Bristol Infirmary (a ‘respectable and genteel’ occupation, according to the Dictionary of National Biography.)
Now it is leech gathering (and not the impersonation of princesses) that is the lost occupation. Medicinal leeches were used as a method of bloodletting, taking blood from person to cure a disease, indeed they were probably a safer alternative to having an incision made with a dirty lancet, as medicinal leeches aren’t known as a major source of infection.
Leeches are native to Britain and although rare now were once widespread, a pond near where I once lived on the New Forest is called Leechey Pond, and were collected from the wild for doctors to use. A woman would walk, bare legged, in shallow water where leeches lived. As they attached themselves to her skin she would remove them and put them in a container. Women were considered better at this as their softer and hairless skin was thought to attract the leeches.
But woman’s involvement with leeches didn’t end there; Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) describes a doctors visit to her aunt.
Sunday 19 September 1819
Mr Sunderland [the doctor] called to see my aunt and staid near ½ hour. She is to have 2 leeches set on each foot to ease the noise & swimming in the head.
Monday 20 September
My aunt had the leech-woman from Northowram this afternoon. 2 leeches on each foot. Her charge, 6d. each leech as is common, & my aunt gave her a shilling over, for which the woman seemed exceedingly obliged. They seem to have done, my aunt says. She fancies she felt her [head] relieved immediately after the bleeding.
But what to do if you didn’t have a leech-woman in your area, why you would send to the local apothecary, who would supply you with leeches. They would come in small glass jars, always with a broad lip for a cover to be tied over it, as they were notorious for escaping.
You might get a leech or two if the doctor prescribed them, or you might keep some in the house, as we keep a few medicines today. For example Jane Austen wrote to her sister on Thursday June 23 1814;
We had handsome presents from the Gt House yesterday, a ham & the 4 leeches.
But when you had your leeches, who was to apply them – the women of course. It was considered the duties of any well brought up young woman to care for the sick. If there was sickness in the house, the women cared for the invalids, if you lived on your own, and were believed to be unwell, then you could almost guarantee that some young female relative would be dispatched to oversee your care – whatever you, or the young woman, wanted.
Guides to young women’s behaviour detailed how they should handle leeches, the ‘Young Lady’s Friend’ first dismisses any squeamishness;
If you have been with persons who were foolish enough to feel any disgust at leeches, do not be infected by their folly; but reason yourself into a more rational state of mind. Look at them as a curious piece of mechanism; remember that, although their office is an unpleasant one to our imagination, it is their proper calling, and that when they come to us from the apothecary they are perfectly clean, though slippery to the touch. Their ornamental stripes should recommend them even to the eye, and their valuable services to our feelings.
Then explain how to use them;
To make them take hold in the very spot required, you have only to take a piece of blotting-paper, and cut small holes in it where you wish them to bite; lay this over the place, and put the leeches on the paper. Not liking the surface of the paper, they readily take hold of the skin, where it appears through the holes, and much trouble is thus saved. When they are filled, they will let go their hold, and you have only to put them on a deep plate, and sprinkle a little salt on their heads, and they will clear themselves of blood; then wash them in water with the chill off, and put them away in clean cold water.
I don’t know what you think, but I am glad that this woman’s activity has disappeared.
Two hundred years ago, John Keats died in Rome. On his way to Italy he landed for a short time somewhere on the south coast of England, the last time he was to set foot on English soil. A century later Thomas Hardy wrote that;
“In September 1820 Keats, on his way to Rome, landed one day on the Dorset coast, and composed the sonnet, “Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art.” The spot of his landing is judged to have been Lulworth Cove.”
In fact there is some doubt that Keats wrote ‘Bright Star’ during a stop on the Dorset Coast, some people have considered it was written the previous year, whatever the truth, it is a beautiful sonnet, addressed to his lover Fanny Brawne.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.
In 1920 Thomas Hardy used the story as the basis of a remarkable poem, imagining himself as a time traveller;
Lulworth Cove in Hardy’s day
At Lulworth Cove a Century Back
Had I but lived a hundred years ago
I might have gone, as I have gone this year,
By Warmwell Cross on to a Cove I know,
And Time have placed his finger on me there:
“YOU SEE THAT MAN?”–I might have looked, and said,
“O yes: I see him. One that boat has brought
Which dropped down Channel round Saint Alban’s Head.
So commonplace a youth calls not my thought.”
“YOU SEE THAT MAN?”–“Why yes; I told you; yes:
Of an idling town-sort; thin; hair brown in hue;
And as the evening light scants less and less
He looks up at a star, as many do.”
“YOU SEE THAT MAN?”–“Nay, leave me!” then I plead,
“I have fifteen miles to vamp across the lea,
And it grows dark, and I am weary-kneed:
I have said the third time; yes, that man I see!
“Good. That man goes to Rome–to death, despair;
And no one notes him now but you and I:
A hundred years, and the world will follow him there,
(Those of you who have read some of my short essays will know I can go down odd byways, so if you are not interested in curious numismatic history, please go to the end and I think the punchline there will surprise and I hope please you.)
Fifty years ago the government, pandering to foreigners and people who could only count on their fingers, changed our simple currency of four farthings to a penny, twelve pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound, which had worked well for over a thousand years and ensured that every child had to have a reasonable knowledge of mathematics to survive, to a boring system of one hundred pence to a pound.
But I am not going to revisit that controversial decision, rather I want to consider far more controversial coins, the penny and two-penny coins of 1797.
In the 1790’s England’s currency was a mess (so was Scotland and Ireland’s but not quite so bad). The problem was the Royal Mint, it had become stuck in its ways since it was Sir Isaac Newton’s day job, and it didn’t like copper coins.
This may seem odd, but it was true. It felt that coins should be gold or silver. There were plenty of them, in gold there were Guineas, Half-Guineas and Third-Guineas (no Sovereigns then as the pound was a value, not a coin). In silver there were Crowns, Half-Crowns, Shillings, Sixpences, Groats and Threepences. Twenty years previously they had been forced to make Halfpennies and Farthings (again the penny was a value not a coin) but these were not very good and since then the Industrial Revolution had happened.
This had led to the growth of cities and factories, where people to be paid regularly, and without small change it could be difficult. Giving three men a guinea and saying, ‘That’s your pay for a week, sort it out’, wasn’t very helpful.
There were two ways people tried to get by, one was for firms to issue their own money, this worked but caused it’s own problems, the second was forgery. This was so common that one turnpike company complained that half the coins collected one year were forgeries.
A real halfpenny of 1775 and a contemporary forgery
Finally, things had to change and so, the government ordered that a new coinage should be authorised, penny and twopenny coins. There was just one issue, that didn’t seem too much of a problem, the mint insisted that;
The intrinsic value of such [coins], workmanship included, should correspond as nearly as possible with the nominal value of the same.
In other words a Penny should be worth a penny in metal and manufacturing costs, which would have been fine but for two things.
First, vast deposits of copper had just been found in North Wales and Anglesey, Britain was now the main producer of copper in the world, and the cost of the metal had plummeted.
Second, instead of the coins being produced one at a time by a man with a screw press in the basement of the Tower of London, the contract to make them had been given to Boulton and Watt. The coins were to be made using the massive steam presses at the Soho Factory in Birmingham, the most technologically advanced place on earth, manufacturing costs were tiny.
All this seemed great, but it meant that to fit the criteria of the Penny being worth one penny, it would have to be massive. In fact so big that the suggestion made by Charles Darwin’s mad grandfather Erasmus Darwin could be brought to reality. The coins would be made so that, ‘One Penny should weigh On Ounce and each Two Penny piece Two Ounces.’.
The coins are beautiful, but big – and heavy. If you had one shilling and fourpence in your pocket it would weigh one pound (453 grams if you count on your fingers). They were nicknamed ‘Cartwheels’ in part from the broad border and in part from their weight. They were universally disliked and after 1797 they were replaced by coins of the same size we used until fifty years ago.
You would think that coins minted in only one year over two hundred years ago, and rapidly withdrawn would be very rare but they are not. For one reason, remember they weighed one and two ounces. A properly made one ounce weight cost more than a penny, and so they survived, in kitchens and small shops, on the scales as weights!
But you may remember, if you got this far, I mentioned slavery in the title of this piece. A few years ago I found this copper disc, I could see it had been a coin hammered flat, a withdrawn cartwheel penny no longer used as a coin, just a copper disc. Then I turned it over, and felt faint as I read the words crudely stamped on the back, perhaps the greatest slogan ever written.
AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER 1808
This was the motto of the abolitionists, and the date is the year after the Slave Trade was abolished. Tokens were routinely handed out at political meetings, was this made for a meeting celebrating the ending of the ‘the vile traffic in slaves’? or was it a meeting called to restart the campaign to finally abolish slavery throughout the Empire and later the World?
Whatever the truth, it still makes my hand tingle when I handle this tiny scrap of metal with its wonderful message.