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Saturday 29 December 2012


If you’re thinking of making any New Year resolutions, it might be a good time for me to share this illustration - The Reformation - from 215 years ago. It comes from a story called The History of Miss Mancel from the June 1807 issue of the monthly children’s periodical, The Youth’s Magazine.

"She took an opportunity when they were alone of throwing herself upon her knees at their feet and with a voice interrupted by sobs imploring their pardon for the uneasiness she had given them."

The magazine was founded in 1805, by my 3x great grandfather William Brodie Gurney, a man committed to education as a means of self-improvement. Education, WBG believed, improved one’s usefulness to God and society. When he perceived a lack of moral reading matter for the children attending his pioneering network of non-conformist Sunday schools, he came up with the idea of a regular publication of improving tales of fact and fiction. And when the Sunday School Union, the organisation he co-founded in 1803, was hesitant about the cost, Gurney and his friend William Lloyd funded its production themselves.

Although the Religious Tract Society formed in 1799 had already begun to produce material aimed at children, The Youth’s Magazine was the first regular publication of its kind. As the emphasis on literacy as a path to spiritual enlightenment took hold, the magazine spawned over 40 imitators in the first half of the nineteenth century. Those were followed by more secular “comics,” such as Chums, The Eagle and The Beano, which in turn inspired the counter-culture magazines of the late twentieth century from Mad to Viz.


We’ve come a long way from The Reformation! Siobhan Lam has posted (on the Victorian Web site) a synopsis of the story whose key moment the picture captures. Eliza Mancel, the only daughter of fond wealthy parents, is “endowed by Heaven with a very beautiful person, a fine capacity, and a very retentive memory.” But she is also a spoiled brat with a bad temper. After alienating all her friends and family, Eliza at last becomes ashamed of her behaviour and asks her parents for “advice and directions.”

This is her moment of reformation, and her “humble and ingenuous confession rekindled all the latent sparks of love in the bosoms of her parents.” While her mother is incapacitated by her feelings, Mr. Mancel teaches Eliza to look to God. From then on, Eliza Mancel is utterly good and pious, all her friends and family love and admire her, and she grows old and dies happy. The narrator then reminds his audience to check their tempers and beware of gaining evil habits that may be hard to reform later. To help the reader on his or her young way, the piece ends with Luke 18:13 – “God be merciful to me a sinner.” (The story is signed "E.T.")

William Brodie Gurney (1777-1855)
editor and parent

William Gurney was a joint editor of the magazine for the first ten years of its existence, and remained its treasurer for thirty years. He continued to contribute occasional pieces and involve himself in its production until his death. His first son was born the year before he founded The Youth Magazine, and his first daughter the year before he published The History of Miss Mancel as a warning to children and their parents.

The Youth''s Magazine, 1832

Saturday 22 December 2012


Henrietta Patterson and Thomas Collins, aunt and uncle of my 3x great grandmother, were married on 19th November 1761. Mr Collins, according to his obituary in The Gentleman magazine, "had the happiness to be united to a lady whose views in life were quite accordant with his own."

Thomas was a successful builder, and an ornamental plasterer of distinction, the favourite of the great 18th century architect Sir William Chambers. His wife Henrietta was “a bright example of conjugal affection and urbanity.” Certainly Thomas, and presumably to some extent his wife too, mixed in the most urbane circles imaginable for the time – he was “a desirable member of the society of Dr Johnson,” the pre-eminent wit and raconteur. 

 Samuel Johnson (1709-1784),
Giuseppe Baretti (1719-1789) and Charles Burney (1726-1814)
all painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, another member of their circle

The obituary drops in the names of other members of the Collins’ circle, with which I am less familiar, but which presumably would have impressed the reader in 1830 – Giuseppe Baretti was a literary critic and friend of Dr Johnson; William Strahan was the publisher of many of Johnson's works including his celebrated Dictionary; John Nichols published Johnson's Lives of the English Poets; Rev Dr Charles Burney was another friend of Johnson and a noted music historian; Major James Rennell was surveyor-general of Bengal and a pioneer of the emerging science of oceanography. All are recorded as friends of the Collins's.

William Strahan (1715-1785) by Reynolds, 
James Rennell (1742-1830) by Scott,
and Sir Harry Trelawney (1756-1834) by an unknown artist

The private papers and public impressions of the work of all these great men are the substance of weighty archives in universities and galleries around the world. But I'm delighted to own a letter written to my 5x great aunt Henrietta Collins nee Patterson in 1795. It's not from any of the above; but it's written in very much the same sparklingly witty tone that one would expect from any of that circle, by a certain Thomas P. Walter. I think Walter may have been another of the Johnson crowd, as he makes reference to Johnson in the letter, and he may have been a doctor, as he discusses ships' hospitals at one point.

Mr Walter writes from Yarmouth, where he is hoping to catch a packet boat, but keeps missing his chances by virtue of not getting up early enough. A few days since, he writes, I was going to embark with two Turks, a Jew, a Frenchman, a Bankrupt and Sir Harry Trelawney, but the vessel sailed before breakfast, and I let Monsieur, Moses and the two Musselmen get maukish together without contributing to “the publick stock of harmless pleasure” as Johnson says on another occasion. As to myself, I always prefer embarking after dinner, and I may then politely say to every morsel, before I swallow it, “Jusq’au revoir.”

A British coastal packet

He complains about shortages caused by the war – the Napoloeonic War – which result in too few beds for the number of passengers on board the packets, whose scheduled journeys along the coast might last several days. A packet that makes up only eight beds, carries twenty, thirty and forty people. I am sure this war must be materially against the interests of the country!

He wishes Thomas and Henrietta good health and recommends the sea air. But the main purpose of his letter is to warn Henrietta that he has occupied himself while waiting in sending her an unusual gift. In one wonderful sentence he announces, I should not have troubled you with this letter but to say that I have availed myself of my situation here to add to my gratifications by forwarding to you a Turbot with the proper appendages, which I take the liberty of hoping you will do me the Honour to accept.

A turbot

A turbot! It's not quite as far-fetched as it sounds. A fish could be packed in ice or straw to keep it fresh. But from Yarmouth in Norfolk to Mrs Collins’ address in Berners Street in central London is 115 miles as the crow flies, perhaps 150 by mail coach - a long day's journey. A flat fish sent on 22nd July (the date of Walter's letter), even in a wet English summer such as they were having that year, would be less than fresh by the time it arrived. Perhaps Thomas Walter is acknowledging that when he adds, it will be a fine one – at least I trust you will rely on the intention.

I do sometimes wonder if the whole thing is a practical joke, leaving Henrietta in dread of a rotten fish which never arrives. Thomas cheerily signs off his letter with another splash of grim humour: I propose daily to get into one of these Calcutta Cutters where I may be either smothered or drowned. Adieu, dearest Madam, your ever obliged, devoted & affectionate Th. P. Walter.

Whatever you're eating on Christmas Day, Season's Greetings from Tall Tales!

Saturday 15 December 2012


A couple of days ago, 13th December 2012, was the 175th anniversary of the birthday of my great grandfather William Henry Gurney Salter. As a rule I don’t celebrate the 175th anniversary of many ancestors’ birthdays – that way madness lies. But I am reminded of this one by a rather special birthday card which he received on his 85th, and which survives in the family archive.

To describe the card as handmade is to describe a Vermeer as hand-painted. It is an ornately inscribed booklet: two sheets of stiff paper, hand-stitched together and then bound by vellum straps and red silk ribbon into a vellum cover.

Inside, in the finest of calligraphy, the first page reads simply 1837-1922, in blue ink. The left-hand side of the central spread has his 85th birthday in red – 13th December 1922 – and a black monogram of his initials W.H.G.S. On the right, in gold, a quote from Proverbs XVII 6 which can still bring a lump to my throat because I’m sure my father also once cited it:
Children’s children are the crown of old men: and the glory of children are their fathers.
Below, in red, a simple dedication: With best wishes, W.H.

William had retired only ten years earlier from his position as head of the firm of Gurney & Sons, shorthand writers to the Houses of Parliament. He had succeeded his uncle Joseph Gurney in 1879 and Joseph’s predecessors in the post were Joseph's father, grandfather and great grandfather. William handed over the reins to his cousin William Gurney Angus in 1912; and Angus’s untimely death at the age of 54 only two years later saw the leadership of the firm pass out of the family for the first time in its 160-year history.

The man who took on the weighty mantle in 1914 was Walter Hodgson, the W.H. who drew the exquisite lettering in my great grandfather’s birthday card. Walter came to the post at short notice and in difficult times. Military service of one’s country in the First World War took precedence over civilian occupations and William Salter, only recently retired, returned to his old firm to help Walter settle in and cope with staff shortages. I like to think Walter’s card was a measure of his gratitude and affection for the old man of the firm – William was after all the last link with the firm’s founding family.

Eventually Walter Hodgson ran the firm in partnership with a colleague, Herbert Arthur Stevens. In 1927, a year before William’s death, the partnership was dissolved and Stevens took over in sole charge. The company survives to this day. William dedicated much of his retirement to writing a history of it, which was published privately in 1924. He also took it on himself to update in 1902 the Gurney family history first circulated in 1845 by his grandfather (and Joseph Gurney’s father) William Brodie Gurney – I have William Salter’s own copy with his handwritten notes.

William Henry Gurney Salter (1837-1928)
in 1911, aged 74, the year before his retirement
painted by celebrated portrait artist William Strang

Both books are treasure troves of detailed information and anecdote. But that 85th birthday card from Walter Hodgson, bound up in vellum, is a beautiful and physical illustration of the web of history which they cover.

13th December 2012 was also the 80th birthday of my father-in-law. Happy birthday, Jack!

Saturday 8 December 2012


My great great uncle Frederick ran Reyner’s Ltd in Ashton under Lyne, at first with his brother Joseph and then after Joseph’s death in 1891 as sole proprietor. The company was what was known as a combined firm: Reyner mills both spun cotton and wove it. His large workforce made him a significant figure in the local community and as a result he also served on the local bench as a magistrate. Many of his cases were recorded in the local newspaper The Ashton Reporter, mostly the sort of petty misdemeanors that itch the skin of a well-ordered patriarchal society such as Ashton’s.

The Ashton Reporter building on Warrington Street
(the site now occupied by Marks & Spencer)

By the end of the century Reyner’s was finding it hard to compete with more modern weaving operations. In 1903 it closed one mill altogether and in 1912, having let out its weaving sheds to another firm, concentrated on spinning alone. It was against this background of decline in the industry that Charles Allen appeared before Frederick on Monday 24th February 1902.

Mr Allen, a middle-aged man, still regarded himself as a weaver; but the fact was that he hadn’t worked in that capacity for three years. Instead he scraped a living filling and delivering bags of coal. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, and of course thirsty work.

A lodging house, or doss house (this one in London)
where often beds were used in shifts by different men throughout the day

Mr Allen, who I think was relatively new to the area, was staying at the Model lodging house in Scotland Street, Ashton, built in the 1890s to accommodate itinerant cotton workers. At no more than a few pennies a night its facilities were, one assumes, basic, and it seems that Mr Allen had planned to indulge himself with a little luxury the previous Saturday night. He left a full shilling, twelve pence, with the mistress of the Blue Bell inn down the road. But he went drinking elsewhere and found himself locked out of the Blue Bell when he returned there after closing time.

With just tuppence in his pocket he wandered up to the Model – but all the beds there were occupied, and he had no choice but to walk away. It was a bitterly cold winter’s night, and Charles asked a policeman where he might find a bed. All the constable could suggest was that Charles keep walking. This he did “until he was tired and done up.” At about half past three in the morning he found himself passing a brick kiln belonging to one George Barlow. It must have been recently fired because it was open, empty and – most importantly – still warm.

A brick kiln (this one in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire)

Charles gratefully stepped in and lay down, and it was there an hour later that Constable Cameron found him fast asleep. Although he may have been new to the area, Mr Allen was, it emerged, no novice at sleeping rough. Speaking for the prosecution at the hearing, a certain Superintendent Hewitt reported that Allen had seven previous convictions, six of them for sleeping out. “For a time,” Hewitt recounted, “Allen has kept teetotal, but he has broken out again.” Lugging coal sacks is thirsty work. It may have been in part a charitable act by Frederick Reyner, the mill owner with no work for weavers, when he sentenced the prisoner to seven days’ detention in a warm cell.

Saturday 1 December 2012


This marks the third anniversary of Tall Tales from the Trees, for which I wrote the first article on 29th November 2009. 170 postings later, thanks to everyone who has popped in, for the more than 74,000 page views. I still try to bring history into focus by looking at the little things, the ordinary people who lived through it. By and large my ancestors didn’t make history; but like everyone else’s ancestors they were there when it happened and their lives were shaped by it.

Take my 3x great uncle Charles. Unremarkable man: Bristol solicitor, Liberal campaigner, would-be MP, local militia man, landlord and letter writer. He left no particular mark on the world, unless you count the memorial lectern given in his name to his local church after his death. What he did leave was his portable writing-case, on which he drafted his letters and in which he stored items of correspondence received of professional and personal significance.

Captain Charles Castle (1813-1886)
letter writer and traveller

From my late uncle John I inherited not the case but its contents – 120 letters from the 1830s to the 1860s with unique glimpses of his public and private life. News from those who had emigrated to Australia, tensions within the family at home, business failures – I’ve drawn on many of them for articles here. In addition, it contained his passport, which he obtained in a great hurry along with several visas for his honeymoon in 1861.

Stuffed inside the pass book were four loose visa documents from earlier trips to Europe, probably made in connection with a wine importing venture in which he was involved for a while. Their dates, and the differences between them, offer a very direct illustration of a transitional period in European politics.

All are for travel in France. Here’s one from 1847:

And here’s one from 1850:

Spot the difference? The first is issued “Au Nom De Sa Majesté LE ROI DES FRANÇAIS,” in the Name of His Majesty THE KING OF THE FRENCH; the second is from the “RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE, Au Nom Du Peuple Français,” the FRENCH REPUBLIC in the Name of the French People.

In 1848, between the issue of these two documents, the French political system underwent its second overwhelming upheaval in just 60 years. The French revolution of 1789 swept away the Ancien Régime, the old ruling class, and the First French Republic was proclaimed in 1792. A constitutional monarchy (more accountable than the absolute rule of the pre-revolutionary French kings) was returned to power in 1814. But a poor harvest in 1846, the same one which produced the catastrophic Irish famine, led in France to food shortages, poverty and an economic crash. In 1847, while Charles Castle was travelling in France, riots broke out in French industrial towns, where unemployment ran as high as 60%.

Public assembly had been banned in France since 1835. Instead gatherings such as funerals and weddings became the focus for crowds to hear dissident politicians. This “banquet campaign” harnessed popular dissatisfaction in the second half of 1847, to the extent that two “banquets” planned for early 1848 were prohibited by the prime minister François Guizot. The renewed rioting which followed that prohibition led directly to a second French revolution, a coup d’état which overthrew the king Louis-Philippe and established the Second French Republic – the republic whose name appears at the top of Charles’s 1850 visa.

The reverse of Charles Castle's 1850 French visa

All four visas carry extensive stamps and notes on the back, not only from France but from Prussia, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Some of the 120 letters he kept were posted to European addresses to await collection by Charles on his travels. One day I will sit down to decipher all the marks, correlate them with his correspondence and work out his itinerary.

The passports issued by the monarchy and the republic are, it is worth pointing out, identical in every respect, except for the addition after 1848 of a note at the top of the need for a Provisional Pass if travelling into the countryside. It’s a nice case of “plus ça change”! All of them include a description of Charles Castle’s appearance – brown hair, brows and eyes; a high or open forehead, and medium to long nose; a small to medium mouth; and a round chin and an oval face. His height seems to vary between 1.87 before the revolution and 1.75 afterwards! (Perhaps as an imperial Englishman he was unfamiliar with metric conversion.)

Charles’s visas were not his only connection with the revolutionary events of 1848, which saw challenges to the regimes of many European countries. Perhaps because of what he saw in France, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the failed Hungarian revolution. When its leader Lajos Kossuth came to Britain in 1851, Charles and his brother Michael drafted a petition in his support which attracted 5585 Bristol signiatures, and Charles received the personal thanks of the exiled politician. I have written about the Hungarian connection here in the past. Another ancestor, John Salter, was directly caught up in the French disturbances. A horticulturalist living in Versailles, he had to flee France at short notice and  return to London, where he promptly opened the Versailles Nursery in Hammersmith. You can read his story here too.
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