Thursday, 21 March 2019

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 13 - "The Giant O'Brien," by Hilary Mantel

London's seasonal fairs, of which Bartholomew Fair was the best known, had, since Medieval times, been a focus for public entertainment, as well as social interaction and commercial transactions. Storytellers and performing bears, jugglers, musicians, and fortune tellers, all vied for the attentions of stall-holders and revelers. Later, as "London" became more than just "The City," and as burgeoning theatres and shopping arcades attracted increasing numbers of people to "The West End," entrepreneurs from across the British Isles, and from further afield, began to think in terms of "curiosities" that they could "exhibit" for the entertainment of an eager (and sometimes gullible) public.

Throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, there were "sapient pigs," trained to perform calculations, spell out words, and even tell fortunes, by picking up cards with their mouths; "mermaids," created by stitching together the desiccated torsos of monkeys with the tails of fish; and a whole host of bearded ladies, hermaphrodites, and "freaks of nature."


Advertisement for "Toby the Sapient Pig," 1817 (image is in the Public Domain).


Often suffering from disabilities or serious illnesses, the living "exhibits" were mercilessly exploited for the profit of others. Some "exhibitions" were overtly racist, as in the case of Sara Baartmans ("the Hottentot Venus"), a woman from southern Africa, who was exhibited in London and Paris between 1810 and 1815.


Caricature by William Heath (1810), of Sara Baartman, with the politicians, Richard Sheridan (in green), and Lord Grenville (image is in the Public Domain).



Charles Byrne (1761-83), the "Irish Giant," was born in County Tyrone, and arrived in London in 1782. He was 7'7" (2.31 metres) tall, the result (we now know) of the pituitary tumour that would take his life just a year later. He was exhibited at Spring Garden-gate, Piccadilly, and Charing Cross, and, on his death, his body was acquired, contrary to his own wishes (he had asked to be buried at sea), by the surgeon, John Hunter. Despite recent attempts to secure a burial for his remains in accordance with his wishes, his skeleton is still on display in the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields (the remains of Sara Baartman, by contrast, were returned to South Africa for burial).


Charles Byrne (centre), flanked by the Knipe brothers (twin giants), by John Kay, National Portrait Gallery D14755 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Hunterian Museum, with Charles Byrne's skeleton at the end. Photo: Paul Dean (StoneColdCrazy) - licensed under GNU.

John Hunter, portrait by John Jackson (1815), after a lost original (1786) by Sir Joshua Reynolds: National Portrait Gallery 77 (image is in the Public Domain).



Hilary Mantel's novel, The Giant O'Brien is based on Byrne's life story, but, by changing the name, she gives herself free license to invent the many details that history has not remembered about the real man (we know almost nothing of Byrne's background, character, or life in London beyond his public appearances).



In the novel, the life-stories of the giant, Charles O'Brien, and that of the surgeon, John Hunter, are juxtaposed. Both are outsiders in London, but, whilst the dour Scot is a calculating man of science; the Irish giant is a man steeped in traditional story-telling and folklore, a generous and engaging character with an original perspective on London life. Whether this reflects the personality of the real Charles Byrne is open to question (he is unlikely to have had much learning of any kind, and may have suffered from mental impairment as a result of his condition), but what is certain is that London in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries was a meeting place for people from many different backgrounds, and with sharply contrasting outlooks on the world.

"London is like the sea and the gallows. It refuses none. Sometimes on the journey, trapped in the ship's stink and heave, they had talked about the premises they would have at journeys end. They should be commodious, Vance said, and in a fashionable neighbourhood, central and well-lit, on a broad thoroughfare where the carriages of the gentry can turn without difficulty. 'My brother has a lodging in St Clement's Lane,' Claffey said, 'I don't know if it's commodious.' Vance blew out through his lips. 'Nest of beggars,' he said. 'As to your perquisites and embellishments, Charlie, they say a pagoda is the last word in fashion'  ... 'Will you have a story?' the Giant soothed them. For the time must be passed, must be passed" ... The Giant did not stop to ask what kind of story they would like, for they were contentious, like fretful children, and were in no position to know what was good for them. 'One day,' he began, the son of the King of Ireland journeyed to the east to find a bride.' 'Where east?' Vance asked, 'East London?' 'Albania,' the Giant said. 'Or far Cathay.'" 

"Seventeen forty-eight saw John Hunter, a set-jawed red-head astride a sway-backed plodder, heading south towards the stench of tanneries and soap-boilers. He came to London across Finchley Common, with the gibbeted corpses of villains groaning into the wind ... At the top of Highgate Hill he came to the Gatehouse Tavern, and observed London laid out before him. The evening was fine and the air mild." 

"London is ringed by fire, by ooze. Men with ladders carry pitch-soaked ropes in the street, and branched globes of light sprout fro the houses. Pybus thinks they have come to a country where they do not have a moon, but Vance is sure they will see it presently, and so they do, drowned in a muddy puddle in Chandos Street." 

"That summer the Gint grew rich. He washed in Castille soap, and made the purchase of some decanters. His followers ate green peas and strawberries. Joe Vance played with the writing set, and Pybus, Claffey, and Jankin haunted the skittle-alleys, the cock-fighting, the prize-fighting, the dog-fighting, and the bull-baiting. 'If we go on so,' said Claffey, grinning, 'we will have tamboured waistcoats like the quality, and silver buckles to our shoes.' 'What do you mean, if we go on so/ I am not likely to shrink.'

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

How Art Began? Antony Gormley on Prehistoric Art

The British sculptor, Antony Gormley, in a recent television programme (available on BBC I-Player until the end of February), explored the question of how art began, among some of the earliest human hunter-gatherer groups during the Pleistocene era (between 2.6 million and 11.7 thousand years ago). Like the exploration of the same topic by the German film-director, Werner Herzog, in his documentary, "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams", his viewpoint is an intensely personal one: that of an artist, confronting the work of his fellow artists (albeit across a chasm spanning tens of millennia); rather than that of an archaeologist or prehistorian, trying to make sense of "Palaeolithic art," alongside other categories of material evidence. Whilst Herzog's exploration was of a specific site (the Chauvet Cave, in the French valley of the Ardeche), Gormley, refreshingly, takes a truly Global perspective, travelling through France and Spain, and on to Australia, by way of Indonesia, taking in, along the way, some of the most important recent discoveries in his field of interest.

Antony Gormley and I are separated in age by just fifteen years, and, early in our careers, we both undertook journeys through Europe, alighting (it would seem from the glimpses of his photo album) at many of the same prehistoric sites. His journey took place at the end of his training at the Slade School of Art; whereas my various journeys happened before, during, and after my archaeological studies at Cambridge; so it would be unsurprising if we were seeking answers to different questions (although he had previously followed the same course at Cambridge that I would later follow, and would surely have been taught by some of the same people).

Intriguingly for a sculptor, Gormley has almost nothing to say about Palaeolithic sculpture (there is plenty of it, in ivory, bone, and stone, and some of the finest pieces featured in the British Museum's recent "Ice Age Art" exhibition), focusing instead on the paintings and engravings found on the walls of caves, and on outcrops of rock. His journey begins, unsurprisingly, in the French valley of the Dordogne, at the site of Les Combarelles, which featured in my youthful "Grand Tour," as it did in his.


The cave of Les Combarelles. Photo: Ethan Doyle White (licensed under CCA).


Engraving of a lion, Les Combarelles. Photo: Heinrich Wendel (licensed under CCA).


The cave contains more than six hundred paintings and engravings, made by hunter-gatherers between thirteen and eleven thousand years ago. For Gormley, it is "a cathedral of memory, but also of joy in living things," and reflects the timeless concern of the artist with the question: "what does it feel like to be alive now." He continues to the nearby cave of Font-de-Gaume, where the art is seventeen thousand year old. "It's the act of drawing that's the thing," he concludes, "and maybe it came, and maybe it didn't." We must, he insists, "give up on the idea of the hairy caveman being a brute," but I imagine that he must have given up on such ideas, as I had, before beginning his studies, or we would neither of us have made the early-career "pilgrimages" that we did.


Reindeer depicted on the wall of Fond-de-Gaume. Image: H. Breuil, 1912 (image is in the Public Domain).


At Pech-Merle, he meets the French prehistorian, Michel Lorblanchet, who has undertaken an experimental reconstruction of some of the painted works.


Hand-stencil from Pech-Merle. Photo: French Ministry of Culture, PA00094994 (image is in the Public Domain).


Horses depicted at Pech-Merle. Photo: Kersti Nebelsiek (image is in the Public Domain).


Lorblanchet considers sites such as Pech-Merle, Font-de-Gaume, and Les Combarelles as "Temples of Nature," and he is surely influenced, here, by his Eighteenth Century compatriot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who romanticised the status of hunter-gatherers as existing in an idyllic "state of nature." Rousseau's vision, in turn, goes back to the Classical ideas of the Greek poet, Hesiod, and the Roman Ovid:

"No cities were yet ringed round with deep, precipitous earthworks; long straight trumpets and curved bronze horns never summoned to battle ... but nations were free to practice the gentle arts of peace. The Earth was equally free and at rest, untouched by the hoe, unscathed by the plough-share, supplying all needs from its natural resources. Content to enjoy the food that required no painful producing, men simply gathered arbutus fruit and mountain strawberries ..." (Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by David Raeburn, Penguin Classics).

This is unlikely to have been the view of an Ice Age forager-artist, standing with her daughters looking down on the valley of the Lot, or the Dordogne.

At Niaux, in the French Pyrenees, Gormley encounters "a very different kind of imagery." It reminds him of the work of Picasso, and, as he explains, he does not care for Picasso "because he was a predator." For him, this art is full of egotism, and obsessed with death, infused with "our species sense of superiority, and the right to end the lives of other creatures." He sees in it "the beginning of the end" of a world view based on a appreciation of the human role within nature, yet its artists lived between twelve and fourteen thousand years ago, and may well have been the contemporaries of those at Les Combarelles. Perhaps, in his own terms, Gormley has simply encountered an individual artist for whom he does not care?


Bison depicted at Niaux. Photo: HTO (image is in the Public Domain).


The journey continues into Spain, where Gormley visits the site of La Cueva del Castillo. The art here is, at least superficially, similar to some of that at Pech-Merle, but the surprise comes with the dating: the hand-stencils here go back some forty thousand, eight hundred years, meaning that a wider chasm separates its artists from those of Niaux or Les Combarelles than separates them from contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, or Antony Gormley himself.


Paintings in the Cueva del Castillo. Photo: Government of Cantabria (licensed under CCA).

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Hand-stencils in the Cueva del Castillo. Photo: Miguel Anguel de Arribas (licensed under CCA).


This poses further questions. Gormley was presumably taught at Cambridge, as I was, that the practice of art was unique to fully modern humans, our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens. Yet the dates from El Castillo, and other sites in Spain (some going back more than sixty thousand years) raise the likelihood that art was being produced by some of the other human species (including Neanderthals) with whom our ancestors shared the Earth over a period of millennia (most modern Europeans, in any case, share a proportion of Neanderthal DNA, showing that the two species not only interbred, but that the offspring were fertile, and some of them were, themselves, our ancestors).

Further surprises (at least for those who have not been following the most recent discoveries at conferences, or via social media) come from further afield. At Petta Kare, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, hand stencils remarkably like those from El Castillo and Pech-Merle have been found to date back forty thousand years; and the site itself seems to have continued in use for more than a millennium, with later artists, around thirty thousand years ago, adding representations of the babirusa, a native wild pig (images not publicly available, although they are shown in Gormley's film).


Hand-stencils from Petta Kare. Photo: Cahyo Ramadhani (licensed under CCA).



In Australia, the dating evidence is, for the moment, more ambiguous, but the earliest art may date back as far as sixty thousand years. Here again, however, we encounter the restless ghosts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ovid, and Hesiod; which haunt not the sacred places of the Aboriginal Australians, but rather the deepest recesses of our own European imaginations. Modern Aboriginals, some of them artists themselves, are presented as the direct inheritors of this ancient tradition, but can this be any more true than to see Antony Gormley as standing in a direct line of succession from the unnamed masters (or, indeed, mistresses) of Pech-Merle?


Human figures from Kimberley, Western Australia. Photo: Tim JN1 (licensed under CCA).



Aboriginals are not "survivors" from the Palaeolithic (except in the sense that we all are), clinging to a tradition that the rest of us abandoned more than ten centuries ago, but, like us, inventors and innovators of their own dynamic culture. Antony Gormley is, I suspect, very likely to be proven right in his belief that we would find early prehistoric art in other regions of the world (in Africa and India, for example), "if only we looked hard enough." In the course of this looking, we might well discover that the human concern with "leaving a trace," which we see alike in the surviving works of the World's earliest artists, and in those of contemporary artists around the World, is written into the DNA, not only of our species (Homo sapiens sapiens), but of an entire genus (Homo), of which we happen to be the only surviving representatives.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Streets of Old Westminster: Precincts of the Palace of Whitehall

A visitor to London, exploring the City of Westminster, and having explored Parliament Square, can walk northwards, along Whitehall, to Trafalgar Square. Whitehall today is lined, as it has been since the Seventeenth Century, by government buildings (HM Treasury, The Ministry of Defence, The Scottish and Welsh Offices), and by statues of some of the leading figures in British military history. Downing Street, where the Prime Minister of the day resides, leads off from it, as does Scotland Yard, formerly the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police from 1829. Whitehall also forms part of one of the most important ceremonial routes in the life of the nation: Royal coronation, wedding, and funeral processions pass this way (replacing the Medieval and Early Modern processional route from the Tower of London through the City); and it is at the heart of the annual commemoration of British and Commonwealth War dead.


Whitehall in 1953, decorated for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Photo: Ben Brooksbank (licensed under CCA).


Whitehall today, looking south, with the Monument to the Women of World War II; and the Cenotaph in the background. Photo: Tbmurray (licensed under CCA). 



In the Thirteenth Century, the area lay outside the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. Most of the English bishops and archbishops kept palaces in London, allowing them to participate in the life of the Court, including the House of Lords. This was York Place, the London palace of the Archbishops of York. As such, it was occupied by Cardinal Wolsey, but was later seized from him by Henry VIII.


Sketch of the Palace of Whitehall, c 1544, including a water-gate (image is in the Public Domain).



During the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I, and James I, the two palaces (Westminster and Whitehall) functioned, in effect, as a single complex. Henry VIII added a bowling green and tennis court, and James I commissioned Inigo Jones to design what is now "The Banqueting House."


Inigo Jones's plan for a new Palace of Whitehall, c 1638 (image is in the Public Domain).

The "Banqueting House." Photo: ChrisO (licensed under GNU).

The ceiling of the "Banqueting House," painted by Peter Paul Rubens, and commissioned by Charles I as a memorial to his father, James I. Photo: The Wub (licensed under CCA).


In 1606, Shakespeare's Macbeth, with its dark themes of regicide and ensuing chaos, received its first performance in this building, in front of James I and his Queen, Anne of Denmark; yet just forty-three years later, the same building witnessed a true regicide, as their son, Charles I, stepped out from one of its windows onto the scaffold, witnessed by a young Samuel Pepys, who recalled a single Biblical verse: "The memory of the wicked shall rot."


The execution of Charles I, c 1649 (image is in the Public Domain).



Pepys had been taken to witness the execution by his father's cousin, the Republican, Sir Edward Montagu, and, during the Commonwealth era, the Palace of Whitehall was occupied by Montagu's patron, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. A few decades on, both Montagu and Pepys were Royal servants, playing key roles in the Navy of Charles II.  Pepys began his career as a Naval administrator living, effectively, as Montagu's servant, in his grace and favour apartment in Axe Yard; and later had his own home and offices nearby. There were bars and restaurants in New Palace Yard, where Pepys wined and dined his business contacts and his mistresses; and a theatre, where he enjoyed plays.


The Palace of Whitehall in 1680 (image is in the Public Domain.


New Palace Yard in 1647, by Wenceslas Hollar (image is in the Public Domain).


The old Palace of Whitehall, by Hendrick Danckaerts, c 1675, with the "Banqueting House" on the left (image is in the Public Domain).


Whitehall was re-modeled as a public street in the Eighteenth Century, and the elements of the former palace were gradually dismantled, leaving only the "Banqueting House" as a reminder of its former glories.


Whitehall in 1740, looking south, by John Maurer: the "Banqueting House" is on the left (image is in the Public Domain). The "Holbein Gate" at the centre was builtin 1532, and demolished in 1759.

The Horse Guards Building was designed by William Kent (better known for the interiors and gardens of stately homes), and built, after his death, between 1750 and 1759. Photo: Alistair Welkin (licensed under CCA). 

The modern layout of Whitehall (Ordnance Survey, image is in the Public Domain).



At the Northern end of Whitehall stood Charing Cross, built between 1291 and 1294 to commemorate the funeral procession of Eleanor of Castille, Edward I's Queen. This was destroyed as an "idolatrous" symbol during the era of Cromwell's Commonwealth (the copy that now stands outside Charing Cross Station in The Strand was built during the Nineteenth Century. An equestrian statue of Charles I was erected, in its place, in 1675, and has stood there ever since.


Charing Cross, from John Rocque's map of 1746 (image is in the Public Domain). Northumberland House was the London residence of the Percy family, Dukes of Northumberland. 

Charing Cross and Northumberland House, by Canaletto, 1752 (image is in the Public Domain).

The pillory at Charing Cross, by Thomas Rowlandson & Augustus Charles Pugin, 1809 (image is in the Public Domain).


Trafalgar Square as we know it today was laid out between 1842 and 1843, the present National Gallery standing on the site of a succession of royal stables, the earliest of which seems to have been built in the Thirteenth Century, to house the King's falcons, as well as his horses. Trafalgar Square is, in a very real sense, the symbolic heart of London, a venue for both public celebrations and political protests.

The Royal Stables at Charing Cross, designed by William Kent, and completed in 1793 (image is in the Public Domain).

Trafalgar Square before the building of Nelson's Column, by James Pollard, c 1839. Berger Collection, Denver, Colorado (image is in the Public Domain).

Trafalgar Square taken by Sir Norman Lockyer from a helium balloon, 1909 (image is in the Public Domain).


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Monday, 12 November 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 12 - "The Quality of Mercy," by Barry Unsworth

Eighteenth Century London was the hub of a continually expanding network of global contacts. At its wharves and quays, ships arrived bearing lacquer-ware, porcelain, and tea from China; cotton fabrics from India; tobacco from North America; chocolate from Mexico; coffee and spices from Indonesia; and sugar from the Caribbean; smaller ships brought coal from the north-eastern ports of England, which was increasingly burned as a fuel in London, in preference to wood, the nation's forests having been depleted for the building of ships. The new commercial system was underpinned by innovations in banking, insurance, and corporate governance; but it was also underpinned by something more tangible, yet less visible to most Londoners: the trade in human beings.


Coal merchant's advertisement (image is in the Public Domain).

The Pool of London, by John Wilson Carmichael (image is in the Public Domain).


Advertisement for a coffee house in London (image is in the Public Domain).


Almost every spoonful of sugar consumed in London, and every tot of rum carried on the ships for the benefit of their crew-members, had been produced on plantations in colonies such as Jamaica or Barbados, on the basis of slave-labour. The slaves were Africans, who had been shipped to the Caribbean, often on British ships, with British captains; they were the property of British plantation owners; yet very few of them ever came to Britain itself. Although tens of thousands of ordinary Britons owned shares in companies that formed part of the supply chain, slavery itself was largely out of sight and out of mind.


"Slave Dance," by Dirk Valkenburg, Dutch Brazil (image is in the Public Domain).


May Morning," by John Collet, 1770: Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain). A black servant joins the celebrations: under English law, he would not have been a slave.


From the mid-Eighteenth Century, movements emerged in Europe, committed to the abolition of slavery. Within Britain, these campaigns were often led by Evangelical Christians, and by religious dissenters, including Quakers and, later, Methodists. In 1777, a key ruling at the Old Bailey determined that a fugitive slave who had arrived in England, was a free man, since English law included no provision for the institution of slavery, and that, in the words of Lord Justice Mansfield,  "[slavery] is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law" (in other words, an Act of Parliament, which never actually came to pass).


Portrait of Lord Mansfield's nieces, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Lindsay, Scone Palace, Scotland, 1778 (image is in the Public Domain). Dido was the daughter of a slave mother and a planter father, and lived as a member of Lord Mansfield's household.


Design for an Abolitionist medallion, by Josiah Wedgwood, 1795 (image is in the Public Domain). 


The first book published by an African author in English, 1782 (image is in the Public Domain). Direct testimony by individuals with first-hand experience of slavery played an important part in the Abolitionist movement. 


With so many vested interests, however, the process of abolition was a slow and painful one. Slavery was formally abolished by the newly created French Republic in 1794, but this was revoked by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. In England, William Wilberforce's act of 1807 outlawed the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but British plantation owners continued to make use of slave labour until 1833.

Illustration from Voltaire's "Candide" (widely read across Europe). His protagonist meets a maimed slave in Surinam: "it is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe," the caption reads. Image: Jean-Michel Moreau, 1787 ((image is in the Public Domain).


Barry Unsworth's novel, The Quality of Mercy, is based around an imagined conflict (though closely based on historical circumstances), between a ship-owner, Erasmus Kemp, whose slave-ship has been taken over by its crew,and run aground in Florida; and the abolitionist, Frederick Ashton, who accuses Kemp of insurance fraud (in claiming for the value of slaves allegedly thrown overboard on the orders of the Captain), and seeks to demonstrate, in the courts, that, as human beings, the slaves had never been Ashton's lawful property. The situation is complicated by a love-interest between Kemp and Ashton's sister; and by the position of Sullivan, the ship's Irish fiddler, one of the few men who might actually know what happened on the ship, and who is, unbeknown to Kemp or Ashton, making his way on foot to a mining community in County Durham, with a message for the family of a murdered ship-mate.




"On finding himself thus accidentally free, Sullivan's only thought was to get as far as he could from Newgate prison while it was still dark. Fiddle and bow slung over his shoulders, he set off northwards, keeping the river at his back. In Holborn he lost an hour, wandering in a maze of courts. Then an old washer-woman, waiting outside a door in the first light of day, set him right for Gray's Inn Lane and the northern outskirts of the city ... An hour's walking brought him to the rural edges of London, among the market gardens and brick kilns north of Gray's Inn Road ... At a junction of lanes here was a huddle of houses and a small inn. He was hungry but he did not dare to stop. One way led to Watford the other to St Albans. He took a shilling from his new purse and tossed it. It came down heads. St Albans then."

"'I had hoped the business might be settled privately between us,' Van Dillen said. 'The outcome must be doubtful in law and if we go to the extent of a hearing there are costs to be thought of. Why should we fatten the lawyers, Mr Kemp?' He was not finding the interview easy. He was physically uncomfortable, for one thing; the seat of his chair was too small for a man of his bulk, and the weather was unseasonably hot. The room had only one window, and the morning sun, strong despite the clogging air of London, slanted through it and lay directly on him. He felt overheated in his bob-wig and broadcloth suit ... He felt an itch on the side of his neck, some insect crawling there ... the windless days and early heat had produced a plague of small black beetles that flew about blindly, getting tangled in wigs and snared in the corner of eyes, copulating and dying, leaving a scurf of corpses ... 'What can be predicted are the legal costs,' Van Dillen said. 'My good sir, the facts are not in dispute, at least as regards the central fact of the Negroes being cast overboard and the necessity thereof.' 'It is precisely the necessity of it that the insurers will dispute if it comes before a court."



"Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying," by J.M.W. Turner, 1840, Museum of Fine Art, Boston, 1840 (image is in the Public Domain). Slavery was already illegal in British territories at this time, but Turner was campaigning for its global abolition.



"The insurance claim on eighty-five African slaves, cast overboard while still alive from the deck of the 'Liverpool Merchant' on grounds of lawful jettison, was heard at the Guildhall, Justice Blundell presiding. In contrast to the long course of postponements and delays that preceded it, the hearing itself was brief, occupying no more than three hours of the court's time. The insurers were represented by an elderly lawyer named Price, who had a large experience of such cases. Kemp's lawyer, Pike, had wished to hold his fire for the criminal trial at the Old Bailey, which was due to be held at a date not yet specified; he had recommended a young barrister named Waters to represent the ship's owner."      

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 11 - "The Fatal Tree," by Jake Arnott

The London that endured the Great Plague of 1665 was largely swept away, the following year, by the Great Fire of London. Although blamed, at the time, on foreign or Catholic agents provocateurs, the fire was, in fact, an accident; the inevitable consequence of the growth of a city of timber-framed buildings with thatched roofs. The new city that sprung up in its place was built, largely, of brick, stone, and tile, and had, as its centre-piece, Sir Christopher Wren's bold new design for Saint Paul's Cathedral, as controversial a piece of architecture in its time as anything built by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, or Renzo Piano in our own times. 


London in 1751, by Thomas Bowles (image is in the Public Domain).


London was still growing, its population swelling from an estimated 200 thousand in 1600; to 600 thousand in 1700; and 959 thousand by 1801; an increase fueled mainly by migration from the British countryside. Members of the aristocracy were, increasingly, spending part of the year "in town," attracted by a "social season" that included performances of Shakespearean plays and Italian opera; and the life of the coffee-house, which combined business with pleasure. Many poorer people were attracted to the city by the new opportunities in domestic service and the retail trade, but social mobility operated in both directions, downwards, as well as upwards: a servant, apprentice, or shop-worker who lost his or her position (including women who became pregnant, who were almost invariably dismissed) had few options open to them apart from prostitution or crime.


John Roque's map of London, 1741-45 (image is in the Public Domain).

"The Rake at the Rose Tavern," by William Hogarth, Sir John Soane's Museum. The anti-hero of the series (The Rake's Progress), Tom Rakewell, is here being relieved of his watch by a prostitute.


"The Rake in Prison," by William Hogarth, Sir John Soane's Museum.


In a city without a Police force, the fear of crime was real, and ever-present, and the authorities responded with harsher and harsher penalties. In 1688, there were fifty offences listed as being punishable by death; by 1776, there were almost two hundred; by 1799, two hundred and twenty. Prostitutes and pickpockets feared both the cells of Newgate Prison, and the "triple-tree" of the Tyburn gallows, where Marble Arch stands today.


Newgate Prison, 1780 plan by the architect, Charles Dance.

The Inner Court of Newgate Prison in the 18th Century (image is in the Pubic Domain).

Newgate Prison in 1902, prior to its demolition (image is in the Public Domain).

Newgate Prison in 1902.

Tyburn in 1680, National Archives WORK 16/376 (image is in the Public Domain).


The City authorities employed "Under-Marshals" to keep law and order, and to apprehend & prosecute criminals, but, heavily dependent on testimonies from within the criminal community, the opportunities for, and temptations of, corruption were manifest and manifold. The most notorious example was the self-styled "Thief-Taker General," Jonathan Wild, who was himself hanged at Tyburn in May, 1725.


Ticket for the public execution of Jonathan Wild (image is in the Public Domain).

Prison scene from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), which satirises both the legal and political situations of the day, by William Hogarth (1728), Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).




Jake Arnotts novel, The Fatal Tree, follows the criminal careers of Elizabeth Lyon ("Edgworth Bess"), and her lover, the burglar, Jack Sheppard. These were real people (Sheppard was hanged in 1724; Lyon was transported to Maryland), and Arnott has made extensive use of the records of trials at the Old Bailey: his Bess narrates her own story, using the "Canting" patois known to have been used by prostitutes and criminals in Eighteenth Century London), which is interspersed with the commentary of William Archer, a fictional journalist (addressed to his editor) with personal and criminal secrets of his own.


Jack Sheppard, by James Thornhill, 1724 (image is in the Public Domain).


Elizabeth Lyon:

"I was born in the small town of Edgworth, some ten miles north of London, the year Queen Anne came to the throne.If any seek significance as to why the place of my birth was later to provide my notorious alias, they might note that the old Roman road from thee makes one straight line to London, without a single turn or bend in it, and ends directly where Tyburn now stands. So this as my swift journey from innocence and, in truth, I was headed for the gallows of that wicked city too soon and far too young ... ".

"Arriving in London I felt a fierce assault on all my senses: the bewildering parade of  people and carriages in the streets, the mad bustle of business, the shriek and clatter of its traffic. And the stench! Scattered heaps of filth, dead fish and offal, dung everywhere. Ragged beggars clamoured at every corner. I held my little bundle  close and made to walk in a manner that might show I knew my way. But I was hopelessly lost."

"It was dark as we left the coffee-house, and the lamps of the link-boys glowed here and there, marking out a constellation across the cobbled piazza. One of the theatres had just emptied its crowd, an now a boisterous audience set forth to make its own drama. We passed the column with its sundials and gilded sphere. On its steps women sat selling hot milk and barley broth. I was led up a side-street to a quiet and respectable-looking terrace. 'Welcome to our house of civil reception,' said Punk Alice, as she ushered me up some steps to the front door. As we entered, a surly footman roused himself from a chair in the hallway. 'Fetch Mother,' Alice snapped at him, and he skulked off to some back-parlour."

William Archer:

"Dear Applebee, Thank you for the ten guineas received on account and your comments on the text. You rightly protest that many will complain of the possible corrupting influence of this story, that Bess rather flaunts her bodily crimes and pleads little for the mercy of her soul. But you know as well as any that this might be her final whoring and could well be a draw to the public. From a shadow-world a shadow-gospel is rendered: the flesh made word where only the intoxication of sin can be offered as mitigation. And though I'm sure that the idle reader may appreciate this, it is to be hoped that when her case comes up before the next sessions she can deliver a better defence than that. But, then, you know the old jest about a jade who plied her trade by the Temple: that if she had as much law in her head as she had in her tail, she would be one of the ablest counsels in England."    

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.