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Saturday 28 August 2010


The Verralls of Lewes in Sussex are a respectable old family. In time they became doctors and solicitors, but they began (at least so far back as I’ve been able to trace them) as shopkeepers and innkeepers. For at least two generations in the eighteenth century they kept the White Hart Inn in the town and in around 1734 Richard Verrall, a son of the White Hart landlord, was invited by the local toff the Duke of Newcastle to set up a coffee house.

The White Hart Inn, Lewes

Coffee houses arrived in Britain in 1650. Charles II  considered them "places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers" and they were hugely popular. When the New Coffee House opened in Lewes, there were about 550  coffee shops in London alone, many affiliated to a particular profession or political persuasion. The Duke of Newcastle set Richard Verrall up in business in order to give the Sussex town’s Whigs a meeting place and talking shop. As one French visitor to London put it, coffeehouses, "where you have the right to read all the papers for and against the government," were the "seats of English liberty."

When Richard died young only eight years later, his brother Henry (my great aunt’s 3x great grandfather!) took over the running of it. Henry kept the coffee house for over 40 years, and must have been at the centre of the town’s gossip and political debate, hosting the radical movers and shakers of the day in his shop. One such radical was a certain Tom Paine, an excise officer from Norfolk who was posted to Lewes in 1768.

Tom Paine’s house in Lewes, 1768-1774

Thomas Paine involved himself in local politics, and also campaigned for a pay-rise for his fellow excise officers – he himself had to pad out his income by running a tobacco shop in Lewes. Henry certainly knew him, and it is reported that one day, after a game of bowls, they repaired to the White Hart for a bowl of punch. As the drink flowed Verrall quipped, in reference to Frederick II of Prussia (with whom Britain had been allied during the recent Seven Years’ War), “the King of Prussia was the best fellow in the world for a King, he had so much of the Devil in him.” Paine apparently subsequently reflected that “if it were necessary for a King to have so much of the Devil in him, Kings might be very well dispensed with.”

Memorial plaque on the wall of the White Hart Inn, Lewes

In 1774 Paine was sacked from his job in Excise and met Benjamin Franklin in London, who suggested he emigrate to British colonial North America. There he became known as the father of the American revolution because of the radical ideas he published in a pamphlet called “Common Sense” in 1776. He returned to Britain in 1787, and in 1791, on the eve of the French revolution, published his masterpiece, “The Rights of Man.”

A descendent of Henry’s (the writer Edward Verrall Lucas, not me!) was thus able to claim that Thomas Paine, the driving force behind the two greatest political events of the age, had been inspired by a casual remark over punch in the pub by Henry Verrall. Although that may be a little unlikely, it does seem a distinct possibility that Paine’s ideas were honed in the talking shop that was Verrall’s New Coffee House in Lewes. 

Saturday 21 August 2010


What better way to celebrate my fiftieth post on this blog than with a song!

Deborah Castle was my 3x great aunt. Her brother Charles was travelling widely through Europe in the autumn of 1847. He left Deborah a list of addresses and she wrote to him frequently with news of family and events in and around their home in Bristol.

Her news regularly included recent or forthcoming public entertainments. There was the Weymouth Regatta for example, at which “there were a great many about, chiefly as you may suppose of the lower orders.” She went to a concert by a singer called Phillips, “a very thin attendance hardly enough I should think to cover his expenses.”

Deborah's letter of 19th September 1847 to Charles,
sealed with wax and written in two directions to save paper 
- surprisingly easy to read (although you may disagree)

When Charles reached Milan in October 1847 he got Deborah’s news that

“Jenny Lind is coming here [Bristol] to sing at the theatre for one night, and one in Bath. The prices are raised 5/- gallery and various prices up to 25/- boxes. Whether the theatre will fill at such a figure I rather doubt, as so many have now heard her. We talk of going. Michael [brother of Deborah and Charles] protests against giving so much but I think it will end in our going with Miss Adams who is in want of a chaperone.”

Jenny Lind (1820-1887):
(left) as Alice in the opera Robert Le Diable by Meyerbeer (ceramic figurine c1847)
(right) in a portrait by Eduard Magnus now in Stockholm (painted 1862)

Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale, had been famous in Europe for nine years before she made her English debut in the presence of Queen Victoria at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, in an opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer. It was 4th May 1847, only four months before Deborah wrote to Charles, and Lind spent most of the rest of the year touring the provinces of Britain and Ireland.

She was at the height of her powers. A year earlier, Mendelssohn had written the soprano part in his new oratorio Elijah with her in mind, including the high F sharp for which she was famous. Mendelssohn fell in love with Lind (as Hans Christian Andersen had done four years earlier). There are persistent rumours that they had an affair, and that in 1847 Mendelssohn asked her to elope with him to America. She didn’t go, but she was so devastated by his untimely death that November that she was unable to sing Elijah for a year afterwards. When she finally tackled it, it was to raise funds for a Mendelssohn Scholarship (of which a young Arthur Sullivan, later of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, was the first recipient).

PT Barnum brought all hs showbiz razzmatazz
to the promotion of Jenny Lind in America
(cartoon of her first concert there, 1850)

The great showman PT Barnum finally persuaded her to go to America, where she gave 93 concerts between 1850 and 1852. She made $250,000, much of it for charity; Barnum made $500,000. She returned to England however, retiring and settling in Malvern where she died in 1887.

I do hope that Deborah, Michael, Charles and Miss Adams bit the bullet and paid the extortionate ticket price. They could afford it. Jenny Lind would never again be as confident and care-free as she was in that summer and autumn of 1847, royally applauded by kings and queens, universally admired by the public, and passionately adored by Mendelssohn. Although the Bristol concert was to be given in 1848, after Mendelssohn’s death, it would have been a pity to pass the once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear the nightingale sing.

The Victoria Rooms, Bristol,
in which Jenny Lind sang in 1848,
had been opened only six years earlier

Saturday 14 August 2010


I wish I had some record of the reaction of Deborah Castle’s family, her brothers and sisters, to her marriage at the age of 44 to Sir John Bowring. I know that Sir John’s family, in his case his children, were not pleased that she was replacing their mother in his affections and in their family home.

From Deborah’s point of view she was at last free to marry following the death three years earlier of her mother, whose lifelong companion she had resigned herself to being. She was 24 years younger than Sir John, whose first wife had died two years earlier. He was certainly in need of a friendly face, having just returned from a disastrous last public appointment as governor of Hong Kong (see my post about his launching the Second Opium War!).

Sir John and Lady Bowring,
photographed by Disdéri Eugène, 1864

Starting a war was not the best way to round off an illustrious career. Sir John had made his mark in many arenas – as a politician, linguist, iron magnate, hymn-writer, you name it. One of his last acts as an MP, just before his posting to Hong Kong, was to lay the foundations for Britain’s decimal currency.

The chain of events began with the fire which burnt down the old Palace of Westminster in 1834. When it was thought that the nation’s standard weights and measures had been lost in the blaze (the standard yardstick and so on) a new Royal Commission for Weights and Measures was set up. Its report in 1842 – how slowly things move in British politics! – went beyond its terms of reference in arguing the advantages of a decimal system of currency as well as of weight, volume, distance and so on.

The destruction of the Palace of Westminster
(JM Turner, 1834)

A second commission was deemed necessary, to confirm the findings of the first, which it did after only a year in 1843. A mere four years after that Sir John Bowring, a leading supporter of decimalisation, argued a proposal for it in the House of Commons.

Younger readers may not know the full extent of the madness that was Britain’s old currency: there were twenty shillings in a pound, although until 1816 the largest coin was not the pound but the guinea, worth twenty-ONE shillings. Twelve pennies made up each shilling and there were four farthings in each penny, 960 farthings to the pound. This was in the days when a farthing could still buy something and a pound was an unimaginably large sum of money for most people.

Other coins over the years included the crown (worth five shillings), the half-crown (worth two shillings and sixpence), the shilling, the sixpence, the threepence (pronounced thruppence or threppence), the penny and the halfpenny (pronounced hayp-knee). From 1816 there was for a while a coin worth one pound, called a sovereign.

British small change circa 1970

As Sir John said in 1847, Great Britain stands alone with her complicated and entangled system, so unintelligible to foreigners, and often so embarrassing to her own subjects.” He suggested a pound divided into 100 new units called Victorias, with ten Victorias making an intermediate unit called a Queen. (He also suggested retaining and revaluing the smaller coins: the farthing would become 1/1000th of a pound instead of 1/960th, the ha’penny 1/500th and the penny 1/250th, to ease the transition for the public.)

Although it was a mathematical nightmare, the old currency was much easier to work with in common fractions: 240 pennies can be divided by two, three, four, five, six, eight, ten, twelve, fifteen, sixteen, twenty and twenty-four and still leave a whole number of pennies, unlike 100 cents, centimes, centesimi, Victorias or anything else.

The principle objection to decimalisation in Britain however was not the maths but the fact that Britain’s major enemies of the past 50 years, France and America, had gone decimal with the franc and the dollar. Doing what they had done would never do! Instead the government decided to take a little time to consider the idea, and as a holding measure agreed to Sir John’s suggestion of a new coin worth one tenth of a pound (two shillings) to be called not the Queen but the florin. (Bowring later said he had wanted it to be called the dime.)

The Godless Florin of 1849,
"one tenth of a pound"

The “little time” the government took to decide in favour of full decimalisation was in fact 124 years, for most of which we lived with the madness of two almost equally valuable coins, the florin worth two shillings and the half crown worth two and a half shillings. Bowring’s florin survived the 1971 changeover to become the “ten new pence piece,” which was shrunk to its present 10p size in the bicentenary of his birth, 1992.

It is lucky to have survived at all. The first florins, appearing at last in 1849, became known as the godless florins. The design omitted the usual Latin phrase Dei Gracia Fidei Defensor” “By the grace of God, Defender of the Faith.” Queen Victoria and the general public were outraged, especially when it became known that the Master of the Mint was a Catholic. The coin was blamed for everything from economic misery to plague and pestilence, and quickly (1851, quick by British standards, at least) redesigned.

 I'm delighted to add in August 2014 that a new biography of Sir John Bowring has just been published. "Free Trade's First Missionary" is written by Sir John's descendent Philip Bowring and deals with his time in Europe and Asia. Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, said of the new book: "This scholarly and very readable biography, written by one of Asia's most distinguished journalists, shows how free trade became part of Hong Kong's DNA." It's published by Hong Kong University Press and is available on Amazon as a real book and also in a Kindle edition. (And this blog is acknowledged in the introduction!)

Saturday 7 August 2010


Doctor Thomas Baynton’s report:

“Master Wm. Castle, son of Thomas Castle, esq. of Portlandsquare, Bristol, when about a year old, was observed to have lost his health, and it was discovered that he could not move his legs as well as he had been accustomed to do. On examining the spine I discovered that four of the lower dorsal vertebrae were in a diseased and protruded state, and that great pain was occasioned by moderate compression, either of the bones or contiguous soft parts. Absolute rest on a hair mattress was strictly enjoined; the muriate of lime, in appropriate doses, directed, and the constant care of a confidential servant ensured. The advantages resulting from those means were soon apparent; they continued progressively to increase till the cure was accomplished. At the end of the tenth month he was allowed to roll and play on a carpet; in a short time after he got on hit feet without assistance, and has continued in perfect health from that time to the present. The curve is entirely removed.”

A Visit to the Doctor
(18th century engraving)

Young master William was my great great grandfather. Doctor Baynton published this review of the boy’s case in his 1813 bestseller, “An Account of a Successful Method of Treating Diseases of the Spine. With Observations, and Cases in Illustration.” It was the sequel to his publishing debut of 1797, “A Descriptive Account of a New Method of treating Old Ulcers of the Legs,” which sold so well that it ran to a second edition, “enlarged, corrected and considerably improved,” in 1799.

Baynton’s Big Idea, when it came to treating spinal disorders, was complete and horizontal rest for anything up to 18 months on a sort of very firm hospital bed of his own design.

Draining a patient
(18th century engraving)

Although his ten months of treatment must have seemed an eternity for the one-year old boy, William was lucky, in a way. By 1811 Baynton had altogether dispensed with the still-widespread 18th century practice of “draining” a patient, a procedure which had hitherto been applied to all manner of ailments.

“Draining” was nothing more than blood-letting. Blood was drawn off into a measuring bowl in specific amounts depending on the condition being treated. It could be taken from the arm as in the above illustration, but was often collected direct from the affected area. Heated glass cups were placed on the skin. The resulting vacuum drew the blood to the surface in a dome of flesh, from which the blood could more easily be let. “Cupping” was even then a centuries-old procedure which, although largely discredited now, is still sometimes practiced today in alternative therapies.

Cupping-glasses (left) and a measure-marked blood-bowl
from the late 18th century

I’m not qualified to work out from Baynton’s description what exactly was wrong with William. Muriate of Lime (calcium chloride) was used as a cooling poultice to reduce inflammation, I think. But obviously – because here I am writing about him – my great great grandfather survived.

Baynton was described in 1830 by one biographer as “not backward in cherishing the idea that he had outstripped all his brethren in professional attainments. I never was in his company without hearing him relate some Wonderful Wonder in rescuing some patient from the jaws of death.” He had such a low opinion of his medical brethren’s abilities that in 1820 he refused treatment for a urinary infection, from which as a result he died at the age of 59. But it must be noted that his Big Idea for the treatment of ulcers – dressing them instead of deliberately keeping them open – was still in use as Baynton’s Method 200 years after he devised it.
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