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Saturday 28 May 2011


The last edition of the current series of Word of Mouth (BBC Radio 4’s programme about aspects of the English language) was broadcast earlier this month. It was a brief history of the art of shorthand-writing, in which I have an ancestral interest, so I tuned in out of curiosity.

Thomas Gurney (1705-1770)
with the symbols of his invention

It was a good programme as far as it went – the Romans used shorthand, which I didn’t know; and the Elizabethans reintroduced it, which I did know (all those transcription errors in trying to capture Shakespeare’s scripts from live performances!). However from there it cut straight to some admittedly fascinating archive recordings of the original Mr Pitman, leaving a glaring gap - no reference at all to the Gurney System of Shorthand, the first modern system, invented in 1722 by my 5x gt grandfather Thomas Gurney.

It was the first system used in verbatim reporting of events, in which it was proved to be capable of extremely accurate record. Gurney Shorthand was the official system of both the Old Bailey (from 1750) and of both Houses of Parliament (from 1813) throughout the 19th and early 20th century, presided over by at least six generations of the Gurney family and widely used - not least by Charles Dickens who used it as a young reporter in the House of Commons, and whose firsthand experiences of learning shorthand were quoted in the Radio 4 programme!

Shorthand notes written by Charles Dickens
and preserved in the Dickens Museum, London

My first ever blog post here was about William Brodie Gurney, Thomas’s grandson, who took eye witness statements at the shooting of prime minister Spencer Perceval in 1812. WBG was also present at the trial of Queen Caroline in 1820 and at many other great political events and proceedings. The firm of WB Gurney & Sons still exists, and recorded proceedings at the inquiries into the sinking of the Titanic (1912) and the  Herald of Free Enterprise disaster (1987).

The first edition of Thomas Gurney’s Brachygraphy: Or An Easy And Compendious System Of Shorthand appeared in 1750. By 1924 when his great great grandson William Henry Gurney Salter was writing A History of the Gurney System of Shorthand, Brachygraphy was in its 18th Edition. WHGS, my great grandfather, also held the official post in the Houses of Parliament; he was succeeded in it by his nephew William Gurney Angus, the last direct descendent of Thomas Gurney to follow in the founder’s footsteps.

Frontispiece of Thomas Gurney’s Brachygraphy:
Or An Easy And Compendious System Of Shorthand
(15th Edition)

It’s probably just as well that Word of Mouth made no reference to Gurney Shorthand: there’s enough here for a whole other programme. And if anyone from the BBC is reading this, I’m happy to write the script!

Saturday 21 May 2011


I am writing during a week in which Elizabeth II has made a historic and controversial state visit to the Republic of Ireland, the first by a British monarch to that country since 1911, when it was still under British rule. My thoughts turn to my Irish ancestors, who were themselves descendents of earlier waves of English settlers planted in Ireland by earlier conquests. Known as the Protestant Ascendancy, such descendents were the ruling classes of Ireland, the landed gentry against whom the ordinary people of Ireland fought for their independence.

The Massys were a large and powerful Ascendancy family. They first came to Ireland in 1641 and through consolidation of their position they acquired estates running to many thousands of acres. Such wealth seems to attract further wealth, and in 1757 Hugh, 1st Baron Massy and my 5x great grandfather, inherited the estate of Elm Park at Clarina, Co. Limerick. Having already the huge Duntrileague estate in the county, Hugh passed Elm Park along to his younger brother George, an Anglican clergyman who lived life to the full at Elm Park and died of apoplexy in 1782.

Eyre Massey (1719-1804)
in a portrait possibly by Robert Hunter
sold in 2009 by Christie’s for £22,500

Elm Park then passed to Hugh and George’s youngest brother, my 6x great uncle Eyre Massey. Eyre was 63 at the time. As the youngest of six Massy brothers he had lived his life with no prospect of inheritance, and had therefore had to work for a living. This he did by a distinguished military career, serving for over 60 years with his regiment the 27th Foot, the Enniskillings.  He fought campaigns in the West Indies, Scotland and Canada (to which I’m sure I’ll return in later posts), retiring from active service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1782 to take on the responsibilities of Elm Park.

Eyre came out of comfortable semi-retirement in 1794 to take military command of the city of Cork, then preparing for the threat of invasion by Napoleonic France. His suppression of a mutiny by 2000 young recruits there in 1795 earned him a promotion to the rank of General. Two years later he was appointed Governor of the city of Limerick, and further promoted to Marshal of the Army of Ireland.

You’d think, now that he had estate and rank, that the 78-year old would be content with his lot. He had a very happy homelife by all accounts, having wed Catherine Clements, 25 years his junior, whom he described in 1798 as “a very virtuous good wife, and a most excellent mother … whom I adore” – remarkably affectionate language for the times, and after 30 years of marriage too. But in 1796 their eldest son George had died aged only 25; and more in an attempt to console Catherine than for his own aggrandisement, he now sought a further honour – a peerage.

His desire for elevation coincided with political events in Ireland – the move towards a formal union of Ireland and Britain by the Acts of Union in 1800, which abolished the Irish houses of parliament in favour of direct rule from London. 26 new peerages, the so-called Union peerages, were created in Ireland to ease the passage of the bill, and one of the very last peers to be so elevated – on 27th December 1800 – was Eyre Massey, 1st Lord Clarina of Elm Park.

Eyre, by now 81, lived as Lord Clarina for only four years before his death in 1804. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland legitimised by the act survived until it was violently dissolved by the Irish War of Independence in 1921 – which is why it has taken until now for a British monarch to walk on Irish soil again.

The Union flag, (above) of Great Britain (1606-1800)
(and below) of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801-1921)

Information in this article comes from various sources, not least the detailed biography of Eyre by Matthew Potter in the Summer 1998 edition of the Old Limerick Journal.

Saturday 14 May 2011


Apologies if you’ve come here in search of Jameson Moss the young actor and musician! What are the chances of you finding instead my cousin Hampden Gurney Jameson, the celebrated botanical artist who specialised in illustrations of British mosses?

Hampden Gurney Jameson (1852-1939) c1892

I wrote recently about my indigo-trading Jameson ancestors, of whom William Gurney Jameson was the last to deal in the exotic dyestuff. Hampden was William’s younger brother. Coming like so many of my ancestors from a proud philanthropic and nonconformist background he enrolled in around 1870 as a medical student at the University of London (the institution established in 1826 by nonconformists at a time when they were barred from other universities in England).

But perhaps in emulation of his mother’s cousin, his near namesake John Hampden Gurney who became a priest, Hampden Gurney Jameson dropped out of medical school and himself trained for holy orders at Oxford. After his ordination he served parishes in London, Lincoln and Eastbourne. But it was probably at Oxford that he fell in with a group of rarified botanists, the bryologists – students of mosses.

Capillary thread-moss (Bryum capillare) on a stone wall
photographed in Dumbartonshire by Lairich Rig

I imagine that bryologists are to botany what indigo merchants are to general trade – pretty specialised. But if you’ve stopped for even a moment on a country walk to look closely at a patch of moss on a tree or wall, you’ll know just how varied and beautiful these plants are – so much more than merely the wadding to line your summer hanging baskets with. Hampden was clearly swept along by his Oxford companions’ enthusiasms and began to study, write and draw.

He wasn’t the first or the last man of the cloth to make an important mark on the study of nature – think of Rev Gilbert White’s pioneering 1789 Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Hampden’s contributions included a Key to Genera and Species of British Mosses (1891) and his Illustrated Guide to British Mosses (1893).

Hugh Neville Dixon (1861-1944)

Hugh Neville Dixon’s Student’s Handbook of British Mosses first appeared in print in 1896, with 40 black and white plates of detailed illustrations by HGJ, many of them from Hampden’s own Guide. The third edition of Dixon’s book, in 1924, was reprinted twice, in 1954 and 1970 but has by now largely been displaced by E.V. Watson’s British Mosses and Liverworts (1955). However a facsimile edition of Dixon and Jameson’s long-running collaboration is now available once again, 115 years after it first appeared. Hampden’s drawings are kept in the archives of the Natural History Museum.

Dixon’s Student’s Handbook of British Mosses
with illustrations by Hampden Gurney Jameson

Much information for this article comes from Mark Lawley’s excellent online biographical sketch of Hampden.

Saturday 7 May 2011


An odd series of coincidences led me here. First of all I was writing an article on the history of dyes for a book about inventions. Quite separately about the same time, a friend lent me a copy of Simon Garfield’s popular history of the colour mauve. And then a day or two later someone got in touch with me via this blog: it turned out that our great great grandmothers were sisters, Emma and Mary Anne Gurney. Emma married William Augustus Salter, a young Baptist minister – he was ordained in his first church less than a fortnight before their wedding.  Her older sister Mary Anne married William Kingsbury Jameson, son and heir of William Jameson senior, an indigo merchant in the City of London.

Now that’s a profession you don’t hear much of these days! But when WKJ died in 1864, he left an estate of nearly £70,000, an indication of the economic importance of the global indigo trade at the time. Indigo the colour comes from indigo the plant, Indigofera tinctoria, which for thousands of years has been soaked in water and beaten to a pulp with bamboo sticks to produce the richest of all blues for painting and dyeing. For ease of storage, transport and trade the liquid is heated until it dries to a block of deep blue paste.

Indigo paste

The plant comes originally from the Indian sub-continent (which gave indigo its name), and contains in stronger measure the same chemical component as woad, the plant which was the traditional western European source of the colour blue. Indigo came to Europe when a Portuguese trading ship returned from the East with a cargo. From Portugal a consignment found its way in the 1570s to the docks of London.

Some European states put up protectionist resistance to indigo, which they saw as a threat to their native woad industry. But in time Britain saw the advantages of a valuable crop grown in the colonies of its expanding empire. In 1770 it was importing nearly a million pounds worth not only from Bengal but also from its plantations in South Carolina. France and Portugal also introduced the plant to their colonies in the Americas from Brazil to Mississippi.

Navy blue frock coat of a British admiral, c1805
when Britannia ruled the waves

It is the sheer depth of colour which made indigo such a precious commodity. And it became so valuable that merchants dealt in it as a currency of credit. As a dye, its popularity increased as the British textile industry expanded towards the end of the eighteenth century. The dark satanic cotton mills of northern England boosted demand for the deep exotic blue, in everything from Union Jacks to Navy Blue uniforms. A whole new class emerged in Britain, the blue-collar workers. In the age of Empire, Great Britain wore blue.

Britain, and merchants like the Jamesons, dominated the world indigo market in the first half of the nineteenth century. William Jameson senior was originally in partnership with a German entrepreneur called Charles Aders. But in 1832, the year William junior and Mary Anne got married, the firm of Jameson & Aders was restructured as William Jameson & Son. I imagine it was a wedding gift; but it may also have been that Aders was glad to be bought out. He was a passionate collector of early Flemish art who might have welcomed an injection of cash to pay for his acquisitions. As it was, Aders was declared bankrupt with a year or two of parting company with Jameson.

William Henry Perkin
invented mauveine, the first synthetic dye

Dealing in indigo was a license to print money, to judge from the value of WKJ's estate. What could possibly go wrong? Why aren’t the Jamesons indigo millionaires to this day? In 1856, an English chemist called William Henry Perkin accidentally invented the world’s first synthetic dye – he had been trying to synthesise quinine, a treatment for malaria. The new colour was mauve, the first of a wave of unimagined shades which excited the fickle world of fashion. Why be boring blue any more? Prices of traditional natural dyestuffs almost halved over the next five years, as colourful chemical alternatives were found. Although it was more than thirty years before a true synthetic version of indigo was found, cheaper approximations replaced it in many uses.

Karl Heumann
produced a viable synthetic indigo dye

Never again would indigo be the blue gold it had been for William Kingsbury Jameson and his father. WKJ’s son William Gurney Jameson did, it’s true, follow his father into the business. But trade tapered off, and in 1890 the German chemist Karl Heumann finally produced a viable synthetic indigo. By then WGJ had shut up shop. In 1881 he described himself merely as a general merchant; 1891 found him “living on his own means” at a boarding house in Bristol, and he died unmarried, the end of the line, the following year. Within twenty years  of Heumann's breakthrough the indigo industry was all but extinct.

Thanks to Ian Mackintosh, archivist of the Worshipful Company of Dyers, for help with background information about the indigo trade; to descendents of WKJ, who have shared their family knowledge with me; to Simon Garfield’s history of synthetic dyes, “Mauve;” and to Kate Long, whose definitive online thesis on indigo is a damn good read!
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