Boxmoor, capital punishment, crime and punishment, eighteenth century, footpads, hanging, Hemel Hempstead, highway robbery, highwayman, James Blackman Snooks, last hanging, Last highwayman, newgate, nineteenth century, regency crime, Robber Snooks, robbery, The Old Bailey, theft
A life of crime
James Snooks was born in Hemel Hempstead on the 16th August 1761, the second of four children to John and Mary Snooks. That is pretty much all that is known of the early life of James Snooks.
The next time the name of James Snooks appears is in connection with a case held at the Old Bailey on the 15 January 1800 where he was indicted for stealing a gelding valued at 91 shillings. The horse the property of Thomas Somerset disappeared from his paddock in Preshute near Marlborough on the 1st November 1799. On the 1st December 1799, the horse was discovered by one of Somerset’s men being driven along the Bath road on the way to the Cinque Port Fencibles. The investigation carried out determined that the horse had come into the possession of a Mr James Langhorne who had sold it in a private auction to a Mr Bishop who in turn had sold it to a Mr Marsden, a horse dealer. Mr Langhorne testified that the name “Blackman” was entered in his books as the person from whom he had acquired the horse. Langhorne also stated that after receiving a good character reference from a Mr Chancellor for James Blackman Snooks, he gave Snooks the money owed to him from the sale. After it was discovered that the horse had been stolen, Mr Langhorne’s foreman had searched for Snooks and after a game of cat and mouse had finally caught the prisoner. Snooks was acquitted of the charge due to lack of evidence since no-one had ever seen the horse in Snooks’ possession and Mr Somerset couldn’t be 100% sure that the horse had been stolen and not simply got out of its paddock.
Although Snooks escaped from justice this time, he didn’t learn his lesson. At some point either before or after his trial Snooks took to the road and enjoyed for a time at least, a relatively successful career as a highwayman, his preferred area of operation being the road between Bath and Salisbury. That is until he made during one of his heists, a grave error in judgement which led to the hangman’s noose.
One theft too many
On Sunday 10th May 1801 at around 10.15pm, John Stevens, a post boy was travelling from Tring to Hemel Hempstead when he was ambushed and robbed at gun point by a single highwayman mounted on a dark coloured grey horse. The man stole six mail bags full of promissory notes and letters. One of the letters contained a large sum of money comprising of £50 and £10 notes. In total the amount stolen was estimated at £500. Once the bags had been emptied of anything of value, he threw away the rest and left them strewn over the moor.
The man had chosen an isolated part of Boxmoor near Bourne End to make his attack, probably reasoning that the remoteness as well as being under the cover of darkness would conceal his identity. Unfortunately it was as he was making his get-away that he made a fatal mistake and one which he would live to regret. Along with the empty mail bags and the worthless letters, he also discarded a saddle with a broken strap.
After the highwayman had disappeared, Stevens made his way back and reported the robbery to both the Postmaster and the High Constable John Page (of the King’s Arms of nearby Berkhamsted). The next day they began their investigation.
To catch a highwayman
During the course of his enquiries, Page discovered that several people remembered seeing a man at the King’s Arms fixing a broken girth strap. The man in question was identified as James Snooks. Snooks had previously worked for Page as an ostler a year or so earlier. He was known to have lived in Hemel Hempstead in 1800 and so was perfectly positioned to observe the post boy’s route.
The next step was to find Snooks. On top of the ususal £100 reward offered for the capture of highwaymen by Parliament, a further £200 remuneration was promised by the Postmaster General. The high price on Snooks head shows just how serious and determined the officials were to bring Snooks to justice.
The London Chronicle in May 1801 published an article on the crime in which they recounted what took place on the night in question as well as giving a detailed description of Snooks. In most myths, novels and folklore highwaymen tend to be cast into the role of debonair, handsome, roguish adventurers. In the case of Snooks this couldn’t be further from the truth. He was described as in his late 30s/early 40s, 5 feet 10/11 inches tall with short light brown hair and a face left pitted due to smallpox. The Chronicle also states that Snooks was last seen leaving his lodgings at 3 Woodstock Street wearing a blue coat, black velvet collar, Marcella waistcoat with blue and white stripes, velveteen breaches and dark coloured stockings.
Snooks had after leaving the King’s Arms headed to Southwark before continuing on to Hungerford. Why he decided to return to his home town where he was well-known seems strange; maybe he was panicking, maybe he was arrogant or maybe he simply trusted in his friends and family to protect him.
Despite his precarious situation it was reported that Snooks could not help bragging about his nefarious deeds and finally his luck ran out. On the 8th December 1801 whilst driving a post-chaise through Marlborough Forest, the driver William Salt recognised Snooks and with the help of his passengers managed to apprehend him. Salt had gone to the same school as Snooks and so was in no doubt about whom he was capturing. When searched £200 were found on Snooks’ person as well as a brace of pistols. Snooks’ career as a highwayman was over.
Although it was pretty much universally accepted that Snooks had been the man behind the highwayman’s mask, proving it was a little harder. Due to the theft having taken place at night Stevens was unable to conclusively identify Snooks as the thief.
The nail in the coffin turned out in the end to be the money itself. Whilst in Southwark, Snooks had despatched a servant to purchase some cloth for a coat on his behalf and to bring him back the change. accidentally he had given the girl £50 instead of a £5 note. £50 in 1800 would have been worth about £900 in today’s money. This note aroused the trader’s suspicions and he contacted the authorities. On investigation the note was traced back to the Tring mail robbery. Snooks must have been aware of his blunder and this was probably why he fled Southwark in such haste.
Trial and Judgement
Snooks was initially imprisoned in Newgate prison before being transferred to Hertford gaol on the 4th March 1802. The trial was held at the Hertford Assizes five days later. The verdict was guilty and he was sentenced to be hanged. Transportation was not an option as the crime was considered “of a nature so destructive to society and the commercial interests to the country”.
The actual sentence was for Snooks to be hanged in chains, a rather gruesome means of execution. Page, now promoted to the position of High Constable of the Hundred of Dacorum was given the task of deciding where the execution was to take place. Page decreed it would be held at the place where the crime had been committed. This ruling was not unusual and was often used when officials wanted to make an example out of a particular case.
By the start of the 1800s people were starting to lose their taste for grisly public executions and that was probably the reason why the residents of Boxmoor decided to petition the court to commute the sentence to that of a simple hanging.
Two days later on the 11th March 1802, James Snooks was taken from the gaol and transported to his final destination on Boxmoor. As custom dictated the condemned man was allowed to stop for one final drink. It was reported that Snooks when faced with his escorts’ impatience exclaimed “it’s no good hurrying – they can’t start the fun until I get there”.
A large crowd had been gathering since early that morning to witness justice being served. The day had been declared a local holiday and people were excited and eager to hear the highwayman’s last words. Unfortunately from their point of view Snooks failed to live up to their expectations. His audience made their feelings clear as they stamped and hissed as he spoke about the necessity to observe the Sabbath and the need for children to listen to their parents and follow their advice in order to avoid being drawn into a life of crime. At the end of his monologue he offered his gold watch to anyone who was prepared to assure him of a decent burial. No-one accepted his offer and he was strung up from one group of five horse-chestnut trees
His body was eventually cut down and unceremoniously tossed into a makeshift grave which had been layered with straw. A rather unpleasant scene then ensued with the executioner trying to strip the corpse of its clothes insisting that it was his right. Page had to step in and stop the chaos and prevent any further desecration of the body. He ordered the remaining straw to be thrown in on top of the corpse and the grave to be filled in. The officials then retired to the Swan Public House for a drink.
The next day the villagers obviously had a change of heart as they returned to the execution site, exhumed the body, placed it in a wooden coffin and then reburied it at the same spot.
In 1904 the Box Moor Trust placed a small white headstone on a site which is believed to have been the area where Snooks was hanged. The exact location of the grave is unknown. The inscription on the gravestone is simply “Robert Snooks 11th March 1802”. James Snooks has gone down in history as Robert Snooks probably due to a corruption of his nickname ‘Robber Snooks’. The headstone and a small footstone placed in 1994 now stand some 20m off the A41 on Boxmoor Common between Bourne End and Boxmoor.
The last highwayman to be hanged in England
Snooks himself was a common all garden thief. There was nothing distinctive about him in life but in death he achieved a rather unexpected notoriety, that of the last highwayman to be hanged in England.
The occupation of highwayman was becoming less attractive as a criminal activity and by 1815 it was rare for mounted robberies to take place. There were a number of reasons for this decline. One of which was the expansion of gated and manned toll roads and turnpikes which hampered the highwaymen’s escape. Another reason was the increase in 1800 of horse patrols. This together with the newly formed police service which had started in London in 1805 had resulted in pushing the highwayman’s area of operation away from the city and further into more remote locations. A final obstacle and the one that had been Snooks’ downfall was the introduction and greater use of notes as currency. Notes as Snooks found out were traceable and so harder to get rid of than gold. The golden era of the highwayman was over.
As tradition dictates Snooks has become somewhat of a mythical figure and a number of supernatural stories have become associated with him.
It is said that if you run around the four trees where Snooks was hanged you will see his ghost. A slight issue with this particular story but one which seems not to bother this particular restless spirit, is that the trees which now stand near the grave are not the same ones as in 1802 (the original trees were cut down years ago when they became diseased).
One legend states that if you walk around the gravestone three times and call out Snooks name he will materialise. A slight variation on this theme recounts that if you summon Snooks whilst circling the stone twelve times he will appear and join you in a danse macabre!
On a number of occasions it has been reported that the grave site has been disturbed at night by people trying to find Snooks skull and bones to use them in magical rituals.
Lastly fresh flowers are often seen at the stone along with children’s drawings. . For me for some reason the idea of children’s sketches being given almost as an offering sends a chill up my spine.
Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
Robert Snooks – Highwayman, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/domesday/dblock/GB-500000-204000/page/2
Last highwayman hung in Hemel Hempstead, http://www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/towns-and-villages/hemel-hempstead/last-highwayman-hung-in-hemel-hempstead
James Snooks, the last highwayman to hang, http://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/news/5759738.James_Snooks___The_last_highwayman_to_hang/
Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
Snook’s Grave, http://www.thegranthams.co.uk/paul/graves/snooks.html
Whores and Highwaymen, Crime and Justice in the Eighteenth Century Metropolis by Gregory J. Dunston, 2012
Stand and Deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2014
Beware, the ghost of highwayman Snooks, http://www.hemeltoday.co.uk/news/beware-the-ghost-of-highwayman-snooks-1-6380931
10 Notorious Men from European History, http://listverse.com/2016/04/02/10-notorious-highwaymen-from-european-history/
Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002
The proceedings of the Old Bailey, JAMES-BLACKMAN SNOOK, Theft > animal theft, 15th January 1800., https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18000115-45-person434&div=t18000115-45#highlight
 The proceedings of the Old Bailey, JAMES-BLACKMAN SNOOK, Theft > animal theft, 15th January 1800., https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18000115-45-person434&div=t18000115-45#highlight
 Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
 Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
 Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
 Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
 Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
 Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
 Stand and Deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2014
 Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
 Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
 Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
 James Snooks, the last highwayman to hang, http://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/news/5759738.James_Snooks___The_last_highwayman_to_hang/
 Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
 Robert Snooks – Highwayman, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/domesday/dblock/GB-500000-204000/page/2
 10 Notorious Men from European History, http://listverse.com/2016/04/02/10-notorious-highwaymen-from-european-history/
 Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
 Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002
automaton, Catherine Tylney-Long, Colonel Luttrell, dark humour, death, eighteenth century, gallows humour, Georgian, haunted houses, history, John Joseph Merlin, Lord Tylney, morbid, Mrs Delany, Wanstead House, William Pendarvis
The Grave humour of the Georgians
It is well-known that the Victorians had a love of all things macabre and death-related: from elaborate funerals to Memento Mori – in the nineteenth century death was in vogue. However, their eighteenth century ancestors, the Georgians, despite being less obviously morbid, certainly knew how to get a kick out of death when the mood suited them. As Autumn is now upon us, and Halloween fast approaches, a little bit of Georgian ghoulishness may suffice to whet the appetite!
Laughing at death
The tendency for some humans to laugh at death has been likened to a kind of instinctive cognitive behavioural strategy – it allows individuals to face what they fear most, such as their own inevitable demise, whilst offering them the catharsis of laughter . In the past, when death was such a visible part of most people’s lives, a bit of dark humour might help cut death down to size- to tame it a little. Of course, the terrors of the grave could also offer up a damn good scare. In the eighteenth century, the newly emergent Gothic novel found a ready audience of people who revelled in its dark aesthetic. Science and technology also offered opportunities for experiencing horror first hand in the forms of mechanical automatons and the immersive horror offered by magic lantern phantasmagoria shows. In short the Georgian’s were some of the first horror fans.
The following anecdotes have been shamelessly plundered from Julian Litten’s erudite and engrossing book on all things funereal: The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral since 1450.
An invitation to drinks with Sir William Pendarvis
For every thrill seeking eighteenth century libertine, there was an equal and opposite moralist, ready to offer their censure of decadent or immoral behaviour – whilst still relishing the details.
Mrs Delany, strong on piety and moral improvement, related the following tale of death-based debauchery, which occurred in about 1720:
“Sir William Pendarvis’s house was the rendezvous of a very immoral set of men. One of his strange exploits among other frolics, was having a coffin made of copper (which one of his mines had that year produced), and placed in the great hall, and instead of his making use of it as a monitor that might have made him ashamed and terrified at his past life, and induce him to make amends in future, it was filled with punch, and he and his comrades soon made themselves in capable of any sort of reflection; this was often repeated, and hurried him on to that awful moment he had so much reason to dread.”
This early eighteenth century baronet would seem to be no different from many of his dissolute peers, such as the irreligious Philip Wharton of Hell-fire infamy, but perhaps a kinder parallel exists with the irascible Squire Weston of Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones. Mrs Delaney had personal experience of the hard-drinking Pendarvis clan, she had been married at seventeen to sixty year old Alexander Pendarvis, so she clearly had good reason to be unimpressed by Sir William’s antics. But perhaps at the end of the day, Pendarvis was just another of the species of the carousing and bibulous English squire – albeit with a dark sense of humour – no doubt a dreadful husband but probably a great drinking buddy.
I wonder if he was buried in his punch bowl coffin?
Colonel Luttrell’s death masque(rade)
On 6 February 1771 Mrs Cornely held a Masquerade at the Pantheon in London. Such gatherings were popular in the eighteenth century and one could expect to see the usual throng of merrymakers dressed as harlequins, monks and medieval princesses, eager to party the night away. However, one guest, Colonel Luttrell, took things a little too far and his costume somewhat killed the atmosphere. RS Kirby, who witnessed the debacle, related that Luttrell cast such ‘a pall of gloom’ over the other guests that he had to leave almost as soon as he got there. And the reason for this downturn in the festivities…he had come dressed as a coffin!
Satan-Machines and the human condition
Before elaborating on the third tale of ghastly Georgian humour, in which Lord Tylney alarmed his guests with a gruesome garden ghoul, some preamble may be justified.
Philosophers have argued what it is that makes us human since time immemorial. In the seventeenth century Rene Descartes, in his Passions of the Soul and The Description of the Human Body, argued that humans and animals were basically automatons, humans distinguished only by their ability to reason. It was natural then, for life-like mechanical automatons to become part of that debate, similar today’s philosophical debates concerning when and if artificial intelligence might achieve sentience. Jessica Riskin, in her essay Machines in the Garden shows that far from viewing these human-machines as soulless – as we often do now – in the past they were often seen as capable of acting unexpectedly, playfully, wilfully and responsively.  This certainly comes across in Lord Tylney’s extraordinary display (described in the next section) with a choreographed event involving interaction between the living participants and the automatons.
What may seem unusual is that Tylney’s spectacle was so viscerally frightening. The most famous automatons, such as the exquisite silver swan at Bowes Museum or the dainty little keyboard player beloved of Marie Antoinette, may be slightly uncanny, but they are intended to be objects of beauty not fear. Nevertheless, historically, it was not unusual for automatons to be of a more menacing form. For many years the Catholic Church had been using mechanical and hydraulic automata as part of their clocks and organs to illustrate religious themes. But they had also been using automata to scare the devil out of their congregations with much more gruesome automatons – a famous example being the Sforza Devil.Many of these ‘Satan-machines’ had a pretty dramatic repertoire – wild rolling eyes, demonic expressions, chomping jaws, flapping wings and arms. Evan a tiny monk, created in 1560 by Juanelo Turriano, and now in the Smithsonian, that marched about offering benedictions in a rather sinister manner. Clearly these machines were intended primarily for the spiritual and religious improvement of the congregation, but Riskin also points to plenty of instances where their antics caused amusement . Of course, they were also good for business, drawing crowds of the curious and the faithful.
While the church used automatons in their mission to save their congregations souls, those who could afford to, used automatons for entertainment. Many princes of the church, royalty and noble families in Europe used hydraulic machines to create jump scares and booby traps for unsuspecting guests – water spouts could be triggered to drench guests and mechanical humans, animals, and dragons lurked about gardens and in grottoes to delight and amaze onlookers.
Lord Tylney’s Clockwork Cadaver
Perhaps the most interesting of Litten’s anecdotes occurred in at the fabled and ill-fated Wanstead House, Redbridge, London.
Wanstead House is most famous as the home of the beautiful and tragic Catherine Tylney Long, whose sad spectre is said to still haunt the grounds of the park. In 1768, long before the lovely Catherine met her tragic end, it was the setting of a spectacular or should that be spooktacular *sighs* practical joke that would be the envy of many modern haunted houses.
The following account is from the pen of an Italian Noblewoman, a guest at Wanstead and witness to the macabre piece of immersive theatre orchestrated by John, 2nd Earl Tylney (1712-84):
“Many lights appear in the trees and on the water. We are off and have great excitement fishing up treasure… tied to bladders. His Lordship is hailed from the shore by a knight, who we are told is King Arthur, have you the sacrifice my Lord, who answers no, then take my sword and smite the water in front of the grot and see what my wizard has done, take also this dove and when asked, give it to the keeper. Off again to some distance from the grotto, the lights are small and the water still, the giant eagle appears and asks, have you the sacrifice, no my Lord answers, so be it and disappears in steam.
His Lordship smites the water with King Arthur’s sword, all the company are still, a rumble sucking noise comes in front of the opening of the grotto the water as if boiling and to the horror of all the company as though from the depth of hell arose a ghastly coffin covered with slime and other things.
Silence as though relief, when suddenly with a creaking and ghostly groaning the lid slid as if off and up sat a terrible apparition with outstretched hand screeching in a hollow voice, give me my gift, with such violence, that some of the company fell into the water and had to be saved and those on the shore scrambled in always confusion was everywhere. We almost fainted with fright and was only stayed from the same fate by the hand of his Lordship, who handed the keeper the dove the keeper shut its hand and with a gurgling noise vanished with a clang of its lid, and all went pitch. Then the roof of the grotto glowed two times lighting the water and the company a little, nothing was to be seen of the keeper or his coffin, as though it did not happen. [sic!]” 
His Lordship may have been intending that some beautiful creature would swoon into his arms at the dramatic events, but he may have been a little disappointed that it was the lady in question – as Lord Tylney was not that way inclined.
Litten credits Lord Tylney with the concept for the event. Perhaps he had been influenced by the ghoulish phantasmagoria shows so popular at the time or automatons on display in noble houses and gardens both in England and on the continent. He certainly spent much of his life living in Italy where there were they had been popular for centuries.
But who was the macabre mechanic who breathed life into the drama? Litten looks to clues in the tableau to find the author of the mechanical pyrotechnics. The King Arthur motif would seem to be significant, as are the words ’see what my wizard has done’. Merlin was Arthur’s wizard, could this also be a covert reference to the extraordinary talents of John Joseph Merlin, famed for his exquisite automata such as the silver swan at Bowes Museum in Co. Durham. The eccentric inventor had arrived in England in 1760 and quickly made a reputation for himself (and not just for automata, Merlin had a penchant for cross-dressing and was a keen, if not always proficient, roller-skater). In the small world of the London elite, it is not unlikely that Tylney crossed paths with the brilliant John Joseph Merlin. Especially as Merlin’s penchant for cross-dressing may have appealed to Lord Tylney who is believed to have been homosexual. Merlin would certainly seem an ideal candidate for executing such an elaborate and memorable spectacle – although it is unlikely we will ever know for sure.
Tylney’s macabre drama draws on a long tradition of using automatons to scare and to entertain, but he also draws on elements of cutting edge contemporary culture with his emphasis on the Gothic with its predilection for knights and ghouls and good old jump scares. His guests had the opportunity for a good (safe) scare and a drenching if they weren’t too careful!
Saved from the flames
It is interesting to note that Julian Litten was given this tantalising titbit of Georgian horror by one Stuart Campbell-Adams, who explained that it was nearly lost in the mists of time. In a suitably gothic twist, this vignette of eighteenth century ghoulishness was amongst Tylney family papers intended to be consigned to the flames following the dissolution of Wanstead House. Only the quick thinking of either a maid or female relation of Catherine Tylney-Long saved them from destruction. Whoever the lady was, she clearly had a wicked sense of humour!
Sources and notes
Litten, Julian, ‘The English Way of Death The Common Funeral Since 1450’ Robert Hale, 1992 
Riskin, Jessica, ‘Machines in the garden’ at-http://arcade.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/article_pdfs/roflv01i02_03riskin_comp3_083010_JM_0.pdf  
It’s Good to be Bad: The psychological benefit of dark humour’ by Meg, 2014) at – http://megsanity.com/article.asp?post=14 
Cartomancy, eighteenth century, England, Folk hero, Fortune-telling, Gipsy, Gypsy, Gypsy Hill, Gypsy life, Gypsy Queen, John Keats, Margaret Finch, Norwood, palm reading, Romany, South East, Surrey, Vagrancy Act
And liv’d upon the moors:
Her bed it was the brown heath turf,
And her house was out of doors.
Her apples were swart blackberries,
Her currants, pods o’ broom;
Her wine was dew of the wild white rose,
Her book a church-yard tomb.
Her brothers were the craggy hills,
Her sisters larchen trees;
Alone with her great family
She liv’d as she did please.
No breakfast had she many a morn,
No dinner many a noon,
And ‘stead of supper she would stare
Full hard against the moon.
But every morn, of woodbine fresh
She made her garlanding,
And every night the dark glen yew
She wove, and she would sing.
Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen,
And tall as Amazon:
An old red blanket cloak she wore,
A chip hat had she on.
God rest her aged bones somewhere–
She died full long agone! 
This poem was written by John Keats for his sister Fanny, in either the July or August of 1818, whilst on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Charles Brown. The beauty of the Kirkcudbrightshire coastline with its “craggy moors towering inland” reminded Brown of Sir Walter Scott’s evocative descriptions in his book ‘Guy Mannering’. Brown recounted the story to Keats who was unfamiliar with the book.
The character of the gypsy Meg Merillies in particular caught Keats attention. In the novel Meg plays a pivotal role in moving the plot forward and is instrumental in bringing the story to its happy and resolved conclusion. Scott eschews the widely held view of gypsies as criminal (e.g. horse thieves) and sinister and instead presents a romanticised version. Meg is portrayed as mysterious and enigmatic fulfilling the traditional role of the kind and generous wise woman and healer who uses her otherworldly senses to help those around her.
Scott based his character of Meg on the famous Scottish gypsy Jean Gordon who lived in the first half of the 18th century. Jean is described in contemporary sources as being unusually tall (six foot), having a remarkable appearance and an unusual dress sense. She was regarded by all who knew her as honest and respectable, unfortunately for her, her sons were not. On the 5th June 1730 her three sons and two of their wives were hung for sheep stealing at Jedburgh. Two years later, Jean herself was arrested possibly for vagrancy and banished. In 1746 she was grabbed and drowned in the River Eden after angering a crowd with her vocal support for Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Keats’s Meg is as much a part of the physical landscape as she is the world of people. The verses emphasise the harshness of the life she leads and her poverty but for me the overriding impression it leaves is one of freedom. Despite the overall beauty of the words it is the first line of the last stanza ‘Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen’ which always catches my eye. Although it refers to the Scottish Queen Margaret, it conjures up in my mind the image of another Margaret, another queen who fits the theme of the poem so perfectly, that is, Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Roma generally travelled around the country making a living as best they could, returning to London and its outskirts during the winter months. The largest identified group of Roma congregated in Norwood, Surrey. The main families were believed to be the Lees and the Coopers who “were reputed to be rich, [and]…were not held in disrepute like poorer gypsies in some other areas”.
The popularity of Norwood was due to its “remote and rural character, though lying so handy for both London and Croydon” and this is one of the reasons why Finch and her community decided to settle there. A hill in Norwood originally derogatorily nicknamed Beggar’s Hill eventually due to its strong historical and cultural association with the Roma became known as Gypsy Hill.
A leader of her people
As so very little is known about the life and background of Margaret Finch, her role as the Queen of the Gypsies has to be gauged from other sources. To be named as the Queen is the ultimate accolade so the fact that Margaret was elected to the role shows how important and respected a person she would have been in her community.
How old she would have been when she was elected is unknown, it could have been at any age depending on when her predecessor decided to name a successor. Evidence from a newspaper article published on the 2nd August 1899 gives some idea of the characteristics needed to fulfil the role of Queen. The article reports on the election of Laurel Harrison, 17, to replace her grandmother Snake Mary who at the time was 94. Laurel is described as carrying “herself well and has the dignity befitting her new position. She is said to possess the gift of intuition to an unusual degree, being this especially well fitted for her future as the principal fortune teller of her people”. It is more than likely that as in the case of Laurel Harrison the role of Queen was passed on in Finch’s own branch of her family as after Margaret’s death her niece ‘old Bridget’ took on the role. After Bridget’s own death in August 1768, her niece, another Margaret became Queen.
In her role, Margaret’s advice would have been sought on any important issues affecting the Roma society. The Roma have an extremely complex socio-political structure made up of nations or ‘natsiia’ which are then broken down into other subgroups with the family being the smallest unit. One of the most important components of the structure is the Kris or Council of Elders which deals with any issues or disputes which are too complex or grave to be dealt with by the bandoliers (rulers of the Communities). Margaret would have had the power to choose each bandolier for each community and would have used her wisdom and experience to choose a suitable candidate. She would have also elected the head of the Kris which unlike the other Elders was a permanent position. As the leader of the combined Gypsy nations she would have had the final word in all decisions or instructions among the tribes with all the members pledging loyalty to her.
It is not surprising then that when Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies chose to settle in Norwood in Surrey it became the beating heart of Gypsy London.
The most famous gypsy of her age
Finch was a unique individual. As the Queen of the Gypsies she must have inspired fear, devotion and respect from amongst her own people. Not much information is known about her early life but more than likely she had spent the first half traveling throughout Britain. It is only when she grew older and settled permanently in Norwood that descriptions of her appeared. As an old woman she was described as “a withered, wild and grotesque” figure with bony, claw-liked hands who lived with an emaciated terrier and smoked a pipe.
Her singular appearance and behaviour fascinated people who travelled large distances to visit her and ask her advice. According to one report Margaret lived in a conical shaped hut made out of branches at the base of an ancient tree at the lower end of Gypsy Hill.
A report published by James Caulfield a year after Margaret Finch’s death stated that the “oddness of her figure and ye fame of her fortune-telling draw a vast concourse of spectators from ye highest rank of quality, even those of ye lower class of life”
Margaret Finch’s reputation was such that she was considered the greatest and most famous gypsy of her era. This may have been the reason why in his ‘History of Signboards’ the author Larwood tries to suggest the possibility that Margaret was one of the gypsies that Samuel Pepy’s wife visited along with some of her companions in August 1668 at Lambeth. Although there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Margaret was at Lambeth on that date and some of his calculations are suspect (he states that Margaret was seventeen at the time but if her age at the time of death was roughly correct, she would have been in her thirties), it does show the depth of her fame.
The role of fortune telling ♠ ♣ ♥ ♦
As a foreign people in a foreign land, looked on with suspicion due to their unusual lifestyle, looks and customs, gypsies would have had limited employment choices and so had to make a living as best they could. Their numbers added to those already travelling through the country searching for work i.e people forced off their land due to land enclosures and later the Industrial Revolution as well as war veterans. With the limited opportunities open to them they became pedlars, hawkers, street performers and fortune tellers.
Fortune telling has been an important source of income for many gypsies over the centuries. In general fortune tellers were regarded with suspicion. This situation was not helped by the fact it was known that groups of professional vagabonds disguised as gypsies travelled to fairs to rip off anyone they could. By the late 18th century it was not uncommon to find male con artists dressed in a green robe and wearing a false beard (beards equalled wisdom) purporting to be from the mystical East. Stories abounded of young serving girls allowing in pretend gypsy women who promised to tell them their future for a shilling and then proceeded to steal their master’s silver plate or cloth. It was nearly impossible for most people to differentiate between genuine and fake gypsies. This combined with the pervading fear of the other, those who did not fit into the commonly accepted pattern of social behaviour, made gypsies both fascinating and frightening.
Not only was fortune telling a way to earn money but it would have given Margaret an aura of mystery and magic as well as an opportunity for her to make contacts amongst non gypsies. Usually gypsy society is insular with contact with non gypsies (except when it is necessary) disapproved of but the role of Queen was also seen as a contact point between the two societies. From the people that came to her to find out their futures, Margaret would have been able to learn about changes in the social and political climate and to discover secrets and useful information. Gypsies used many different divination methods to predict the future such as crystal gazing, tea leaves and palmistry, the method that Margaret was believed to favour was cartomancy.
Cartomancy, whereby a meaning was ascribed to each card in a standard deck was extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Louisa Lawford in her 1851 book ‘The Fortune-Teller’ gives a list of the card meanings. Although there is no surviving written record of the meanings that Margaret would have assigned to her cards it is highly possible that they would have been very similar for example,
Ten of Clubs – fortune, successes or grandeur; reversed, want of success in some small matter
Ace of Clubs – signifies joy, money or good news; reversed, the joy will be of brief duration
King of Hearts – a fair liberal man; reversed, will meet with disappointment
Seven of Hearts – pleasant thoughts, tranquility; reversed, ennui, weariness
Ten of Spades – tears, a prison; reversed, a brief affliction
Queen of Spades – a widow; reversed, a dangerous and malicious woman
Seven of Diamonds – satire, mockery; reversed, a foolish scandal
Nine of Diamonds – annoyance, delayed; reversed, either a family or love quarrel
Above all Margaret must have been a shrewd woman as she ran a highly successful business. She would have been well aware how much her image contributed to her popularity. She would not have been so successful if she had given people unfavourable or distressing readings. In was in her interest to keep her clients happy and that included maintaining an exotic and bizarre appearance.
The end of an era
When Margaret Finch died on the 24 October 1740 she was reported to be about 109 years old. She had spent over half a century telling fortunes. She was buried in St George’s, the Parish Church of Beckenham. It is said that a large crowd gathered to see her on her final journey accompanying her body in a procession which included two mourning carriages. In death as in life she remained a strange and unique character. She had to be buried in a deep square box because due to her habit of sitting with her chin resting on her knees, her muscles had become so contracted that she could not alter her position.
In one way Margaret was lucky to die when she did as only four years later King George II’s Vagrancy Act was passed. Although bills against vagrancy had been in existence since the mid-16th century (when the number of people with no fixed abode rose due to the dissolution of the monasteries) with punishments fluctuating in severity from slavery and death to whipping and branding and where at one point it was illegal just to be a gypsy, this new law ushered in a new era, establishing strict guidelines on how to deal with ‘vagrants’. The Act allowed the authorities to arrest anyone they didn’t like and those without a visible means of subsistence such as “unlicensed pedlars, fencers, jugglers, bearwards, minstrels, fortune tellers and gamesters”.
As the century finally due to a close the situation of the Norwood gypsies was becoming increasingly precarious. In August 1797, 30 men and children were arrested under the Vagrancy Act and in 1802 the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought charges against the Norwood fortune tellers. Faced with forced enclosure of the Common and persecution, the gypsy families including the Lees and the Coopers finally left Norwood for good. By 1808, the area was being referred to as the place which was “once the haunt of a numerous horde of gipsies”. Remarkably the small building which Finch had lived in was still standing.
Things did not get any better. In the Vagrancy Act of 1824, Section 4, it is clear that gypsies were being singled out and closely monitored as the authorities attacked them through one of their main means of survival “every person, pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects” were to face the full force of the law. The Roma were only removed from the Vagrancy Act in 1989!
The legacy of Margaret Finch
Margaret Finch was considered one of the most remarkable people of her time and her fame and those of the Norwood gypsies continued after her death. For instance, in 1777 a very success and popular pantomime called ‘The Norwood Gypsies’ was performed in Convent Gardens. A number of publications believed to be either written by or inspired by the Norwood gypsies were published including the ‘Norwood Gypsy Fortune-Teller’ which was extremely popular with all levels of society. The book claimed to be able to teach its readers the art of divination including telling fortunes by grounds of tea or coffee and by lines in the hand, the science of foretelling events by cards and ‘directions to choose a husband by the hair’!
Not only did Margaret earn money for herself and her community but her presence generated income for local businesses, “Norwood, and the roads leading to it; on a fine Sunday, resembled the scene of a fair; and, with the greatest difficulty only, could a seat or a mug of beer be obtained, at the place called the Gipsy-house.”. From that time onwards there has always been a pub near the site which has taken it name from its famous inhabitants including the Gypsy Queen and Gipsy Tavern (both of which have now closed). The latest inheritor of the title is the ‘Gipsy Hill Tavern’.
On a last note, in the Victorian artist John McCullum 1851 painting of the lych gate at St George’s Church you can see the small figure of a woman on the right. Many believe this to be Margaret Finch. Even today crystals mainly amethysts are left at the lych gate. Amethysts are believed to be a calming and meditative stone which help people make contact with the psychic and spiritual realms. The stones are only ever to be found at this spot in the churchyard. Maybe they are left as a tribute to Margaret Finch or as recognition of the spiritual essence of the place, or simply as a reminder of this area’s unique nature. Whatever the reason the memory of the gypsies of Norwood and their famous Queen lives on.
Keats: Poems Published in 1820, John Keats
Summary and Analysis of Meg Merillies by John Keats, https://beamingnotes.com/2014/09/21/summary-analysis-meg-merilies-john-keats
Jean Gordon, www.scottishgypsies.co.uk/jean.html
The Norwood Gypsies, http://www.rwhit.dsl.pipex.com/chp14.htm
The Norwood Gypsies, http://romanygenes.com/the-norwood-gypsies/4574799978
Reading Eagle, August 2nd 1899, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid-19558
South London Gypsy History http://transpont.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=margaret+finch
The History of Signposts by John Camden Larwood, 1868
The Gypsy!, http://larp.com/jahavra/gypsy1.html
The Fortune-Teller or peeps into futurity, Louisa Lawford, 1861
Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes, http://www.cornellcollege.edu/english/blaugdone/essays/vagrancy.htm
The Norwood Society, http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/85-the-norwood-gipsies.html
Margaret Finch, www.beckenham.history.co.uk/margaretfinch
Vagabands and Beggar, www.rictornorton.co.uk/gu10.htm
Gypsies and Travellers, www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Gypsy-travellers.jsp
19th century fortune telling from the drawing room to the courtroom, https://mimimathews.com/206/01/11/19th-century-fortune-telling-from-the-drawing-room-to-the-court-room
Romani people in fiction, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_fictionhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_fiction
Gypsies – Sociopolitical Organization http://www.everyculture.com/Russia-Eurasia-China/Gypsies-Sociopolitical-Organization.html
 Keats: Poems Published in 1820, John Keats
Summary and Analysis of Meg Merillies by John Keats, https://beamingnotes.com/2014/09/21/summary-analysis-meg-merilies-john-keats
 Jean Gordon, www.scottishgypsies.co.uk/jean.html
 The Norwood Gypsies, http://www.rwhit.dsl.pipex.com/chp14.htm
 The Norwood Gypsies, http://romanygenes.com/the-norwood-gypsies/4574799978
 Reading Eagle, August 2nd 1899, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid-19558
 South London Gypsy History, http://transpont.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=margaret+finch
 The History of Signposts by John Camden Larwood, 1868
 The Gypsy!, http://larp.com/jahavra/gypsy1.html
 The Fortune-Teller or peeps into futurity, Louisa Lawford, 1861
 Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes, http://www.cornellcollege.edu/english/blaugdone/essays/vagrancy.htm
 The Norwood Society, http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/85-the-norwood-gipsies.html
 Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes, http://www.cornellcollege.edu/english/blaugdone/essays/vagrancy.htm
 South London Gypsy History, http://transpont.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=margaret+finch
 Margaret Finch, www.beckenham.history.co.uk/margaretfinch
Architecture, Castle of Otranto, Chopp'd straw hall, committee of taste, eighteenth century, English Villa, fellow goths, Georgian taste, gloomth, Gothic, Gothick, Grand tour, Horace Walpole, horror, John Chute, Lady Waldegrave, literature, Richard Bentley, stained glass, Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham
Strawberry Hill – a dream of gloomth
Miss Jessel and I recently had the opportunity to coordinate our haunted schedules and take a trip to Twickenham to visit one of the most unusual and, to my mind, beautiful houses in England.
Strawberry Hill is a unique building in English architecture – one that fits nowhere comfortably. It is not a castle, nor a venerable ancestral seat, nor yet is it a picaresque folly or a classic English Villa. What is, is drama, theatricality, the promise of dark mysteries and unfolding horror….In short, Strawberry Hill is as idiosyncratic, affected and inspired as the extraordinary man who created it. A man who, saturated as he was with the gloomth and venerable barbarism he made fashionable, let his Gothic architectural masterpiece inspire his Gothic literary masterpiece…and thereafter spawn a whole genre of Gothic literature and popular culture.
Horace Walpole (1717 -1797): connoisseur, writer, art critic and gossip
It is hard to read any history or biography concerning the eighteenth century without coming across some usually acerbically witty observations from Horace Walpole. A voluminous correspondent, writer and art critic, he was deeply concerned with recording events around him, seeing on the spot observations as valuable tools for historians. From the Coronation of George II to the Cock Lane Ghost, Walpole was there to offer his spiky comments to his correspondents and to posterity.
He was born in 1717 into the powerful elite of eighteenth century society. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was, in all but name, Britain’s first Prime Minister. This is proved extremely beneficial for Horace, as his father ensured he never had to work by granting him 3 lucrative sinecures. His mother, Catherine Shorter, whom he is said to have taken after, was from a family of eccentrics.
Like most of his contemporaries Walpole rounded off his formal education with a Grand Tour to the continent. From 1739 -1741, accompanied by his friend, the poet Thomas Gray, he traveled to Italy. Temperamentally very different: Gray liked to spend hours studying historical sites, while Walpole preferred living it up and partying on down, they soon fell out . This tour, and its cultural influence was to have an important impact on his later ideas for Strawberry Hill as he endeavored to re-create the ‘gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals’ at home.
By 1747, Sir Robert had been in his grave for two years, leaving Horace, his youngest son the lease on a London property and enough money to begin looking about for a country retreat. Nothing as grand as Houghton Hall where he had grown up, but something more bijou and compact. A bachelor pad, but with enough space for the chi-chi little house parties that Walpole was so fond of throwing. It had to be somewhere fashionable, after-all Walpole was a man of taste and refinement, and it had to have good transport connections to the capital with its social and political scene.
At that time Twickenham was being what we would now call gentrified. By the time Walpole went house-hunting, Twickenham’s rustic cottages had been transformed into stylish English Villa’s (such as the classically elegant Marble Hill, home to Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, and long-suffering mistress of George II) and real estate was in seriously short supply. Walpole was lucky though, and snapped up the last vacant plot – Chopp’d Straw Hall – from one Mrs Chenevix, a luxury ‘toy’ woman (think uber-posh geegaws for the very rich, rather than Barbie dolls and teddy bears for the proletariat). This image of the house as an exquisite toy seemed to tickle Walpole and he often referred to his home in those terms:
“It is a little play-thing of a house that I got out of Mrs Chenevix’s shop, and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw.”
He was to spend the next fifty years adding and elaborating on the original house – as Maev Kennedy wrote, Walpole achieved a:
‘spectacular conjuring trick [..] [a] miniature medieval castle wrapped around a modest little country house.’ 
How not to build English Villa – throwing away the rule book
From Palladio to Inigo Jones and Lord Burlington, by the eighteenth century the prevailing architectural fashion was Classical: symmetrical, ordered, regulated by the ‘noble rules’ and harking back to the roman country villa .
When Walpole chose to buck the trend and go Gothick, he was not the first. Vanbrugh and William Kent had been earlier trailblazers. Where he was different was in using actual architectural examples to create a new Gothic building. He was not adding a sympathetic extension, or restoring an existing Gothic building like Vanbrugh and Kent had done. He was taking research and turning it into a reality, twisting the invariably Classical English Villa into something more organic, more irregular, dramatic, more English. And it was completely at odds with the dominant Classicism of the day. As Michael Snoddin, curator at the V&A commented:
“The most striking external feature of Strawberry Hill was its irregular plan and broken picturesque silhouette.” 
It must have seemed shocking to his neighbors!
Yet, despite its oddity, it also fitted with the sensibility of the eighteenth century perfectly, the Picaresque movement was popular at the time, and the very nature of eighteenth century style was very feminine – think Rococo curves. It also tapped into the growing interest of Antiquarians in the Medieval past of Britain, whilst not omitting modern conveniences, as Walpole was at pains to point out:
“In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinement in luxury. The designs of the inside and outside are strictly ancient, but the decorations are modern.”
There was almost a national pride in the resurgence of the style – something that would become more pronounced in the 19th Century when the Victorian’s enthusiastically embraced the Gothic style of architecture. Walpole certainly appreciated that England’s Medieval heritage needed to be preserved, and this is typified in his method of using actual examples of medieval decoration and interior design. His preferred period was the Perpendicular period of 1330 – 1550, and this is evident at Strawberry Hill .
According to Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi:
“Horace Walpole used new materials, had amazing ideas, but utilized these to reinvest the past with excitement. Both Georgian and Victorian Gothic architecture grew from a style which recalled the past but which was also the epitome of modernity.” 
Hence the term Strawberry Hill Gothic, or Gothick with a ‘k’ was coined, to distinguish this modern Gothic from true Gothic style.
My Fellow Goths
Although Walpole was the driving force behind Strawberry Hill, he also deferred to and acted upon the decor and design suggested by his Committee of Taste, his ‘fellow Goths’. Membership varied over the years but the two most prominent members were John Chute, who specialized in early buildings, antiquarianism, and heraldry; with Richard Bentley influencing interiors, furniture and decoration.
Together Walpole and his Committee created a theatrical experience using a range of techniques: use of light (the windows are slightly larger than might be expected), the absence of light (blue glass and stained glass give a wonderful Gloomth to many of the rooms), use of vivid colour and rich gilding (one can only imagine how gorgeous the Long Gallery must have looked by candle-light – with its gilded fan vaults ablaze and casting eerie shadows on the walls).
Many of the rooms are vivid hues – the Blue Bed Chamber, the Rich Red of the Long Gallery, the purple of the Holbein Room. – while some rooms are muted – the entrance hall and staircase, the trunk-ceiled passage setting a more sombre scene. Whereas today, the sheer peacockery of the place removes any sense of dark mystery or foreboding, in the eighteenth century the impression would have been quite different.
As Chalcraft and Viscardi note, Walpole used illusion to create a mood for each room – nothing is quite what it seems. Plaster, wood and paint imitate stone carvings, giving, as Sally Jeffrey observed, an almost illustrated delicacy to the building reminiscent of its academic sources . Throughout the building, the vistas are carefully planned, the visitor moves through the house in a particular way, the design and layout is immersive, intended to alter the mood of the viewer, or focus their attention on a particular object or scene. Today, the house is sparsely furnished, but in Walpole’s day it was crammed with the six thousand objects he had collected, each placed for maximum impact and each with its own story to tell.
No surprise then that the house has always attracted visitors, Walpole was even occasionally run out of his own home by the massed hordes of upper crust sight-seers, and he would retreat to a cottage nearby. However, oh the whole he seemed to have rather enjoyed the attention, even going so far as to create rules for visitors and issuing the very first country house guide in 1774, for their edification.
The Castle of Otranto
Of course, the fame of Strawberry Hill also lies in it being the inspiration for the tale cited as the first ever Gothic Horror story – The Castle of Otranto.
On 9th March 1765 Horace Walpole wrote to the Rev William Cole:
” I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate…” 
And so the Gothic Horror Genre was born. The story is rather like the house itself, which is not quite what it purports to be. in 1764 Otranto was launched onto the reading public as an ancient Italian Tale, discovered in a remote library and translated by the antiquarian William Marshall. Once its warm reception had been assured, subsequent editions named Walpole as the author.
Unfortunately, rather like the house itself, the tale has lost some of its sense of dread and mystery over the years, leaving a theatrical, slightly breathless melodrama in its stead: death by gigantic helmet, portraits coming to life, a rotting corpse hermit with a message from beyond the grave and swooning maidens aside, the tale does lay out the standard tropes enthusiastically adopted in later Gothic tales. There is a cursed noble family, a long-lost heir, a doomed highborn beauty. Earthly moral peril and otherworldly threat create dynamic tension and heighten the drama.
Mario Praz, in his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition, despite acknowledging The Castle of Otranto to be the first of its genre, sees it as a rather weak example of Gothic horror, noting somewhat dismissively that like Strawberry Hill itself, Otranto was merely – ‘Rococo in Gothic disguise’. 
Despite the modern criticisms, in the Eighteenth century the tale was a ‘best seller’. The popularity of the Castle of Otranto may seem to be a paradox in the Enlightened eighteenth century. However, the century that prided itself on the rational and scientific progress was also a century that saw more and more people becoming urbanized and losing their connection to the countryside in the wake of ‘progress’. Almost as a counterbalance to things becoming to rational and to classical, there was a growing interest in the picturesque and in Britain’s medieval past as people yearned to rediscover and reconnect with the chaos of nature.
In literature De Sade and in art Piranesi tapped into and exploited this desire for primordial chaos and destruction. As Praz explains, a sensibility grew up where horror became a source of delight – charm and repulsion were combined and “the ‘beautiful horrid’ passed by insensible degrees into the ‘horribly beautiful'” 
Walpole can be seen in his creation of Strawberry Hill and his writing of The Castle of Otranto successfully tapping into the zeitgeist of the mid-eighteenth century and in doing so became both a fore-runner of the Gothic literature so popular later in the century and of the Gothic architectural style so beloved of the Victorians.
So, despite Walpole’s fears that ‘My buildings are paper…and will all be blown away in ten years after I am dead’ both of his great works, Strawberry Hill and The Castle of Otranto, have survived the centuries to become culturally significant landmarks.
Strawberry Hill today
After Walpole’s death in 1797, Strawberry Hill suffered a checkered fate with some sympathetic and some not so sympathetic custodians. Sadly, the famed collection was broken up and sold in the 1840’s.
By 2004 Strawberry Hill was listed as endangered by the World Monument Fund. But, thanks to the Strawberry Hill Trust the house was saved. The Trust are restoring the house to the state it was when Horace Walpole lived in it, so the colours are vivid and the textiles fresh. The visitor may sometimes have difficulty telling what is ‘real’ and what is a reconstruction, but the overall effect is glorious and I feel sure Walpole would have approved.
It is the 300th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s birth next year, and as part of the celebrations the Trust planned to try to reunite Horace Walpole’s lost collection with Strawberry Hill. Bringing together hundreds of items from all over the world is a huge undertaking, and now it looks like this won’t happen until 2018. However, it should be well worth the wait.
To find out more about visiting Strawberry Hill, you can find their website at:
To find out more about the Walpole Collection, visit the Lewis Walpole Library:
Sources and notes
Images: By Lenora unless otherwise stated.
Chalcraft, Anna and Viscardi, Judith, 2011, ‘Strawberry Hill Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle’ Francis Lincoln Ltd    [and most quotes from Horace Walpole]
Fairclough, Peter, ed. and Praz, Mario, 1986, ‘Three Gothic Novels’, Penguin  
Jeffery Sally, ‘Architecture’ in Ford, Boris, Ed, 1995, ‘The Cambridge Cultural History of Britain Vol 5 Eighteenth Century Britain’, Cambridge University Press  
Kennedy, Maev, 25 Feb 2015, ‘Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s fantasy castle, to open its doors again’ , The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/feb/25/strawberry-hill-horace-walpole-gothic-castle-otranto-open-again 
Walpole, Horace, republished 2016, ‘A Description of Strawberry Hill’ The Strawberry Hill Trust.
bride abductions, Bridget Hyde, clandestine, Earl of Rochester, eighteenth century, Elizabeth Malet, fleet marriages, forced, heiress, Marriage, Marriage Act 1753, Mary Wharton, Pleasant Rawlins, seventeenth century, Sibble Morris
Nowadays the idea of anything being clandestine suggests something having an unsavoury, grubby and secretive undertone but in the 17th and 18th centuries many couples preferred to have a clandestine marriage. Tens of thousands of couples from all walks of life were legally and respectably married in clandestine ceremonies.
Clandestine marriages were recognised in Canon Law as long as the ceremony was performed by an ordained clergyman. A clandestine marriage had a number of advantages over an official marriage for instance it did away with the need for publishing banns and buying a licence making the ceremony cheaper and quicker, the betrothed couple were not restricted to marrying in their own parish, if need be the date could be backdated to cover an unplanned pregnancy and couples could be married away from the public eye as well as interfering relatives. This type of marriage could be especially convenient for foreign couples who had just moved to England and as yet were not registered in a parish or soldiers and sailors on limited leave.
A number of places became well-known centres for clandestine marriages including All Hallows Church in Honey Lane, St Pancreas in Soper Lane, Mayfair Chapel (which tried to encourage business by having as a centrepiece the supposedly embalmed corpse of the wife of the parson) and the notorious area of the Fleet.
Under The Rules of the Fleet
Strangely enough the Fleet Prison was one of the most popular settings for clandestine marriages in the 17th and 18th centuries and whereas elsewhere this type of marriage was seen as perfectly reputable, Fleet marriages were often viewed with suspicion.
Prior to the law of 1711 (which closed a quirky loophole in the law) marriages took place in the prison chapel. The prison was well set up for the celebration of nuptials with the happy couple able to enjoy a range of facilities including a tap-room, coffee-house, public kitchen and eating room and even a sports area which had been built to accommodate the hundreds of visitors the prison attracted each week. As with all prisons at the time bribery was rife and anyone willing to pay could do as they pleased. This ensured that the prison wardens and clergy for the correct fee would obligingly look the other way if the marriage was in any way dodgy.
When the prison was finally banned from holding marriages, business just moved outside its walls to an area which for some bizarre reason fell beyond the jurisdiction of the church but was still classed as being under ‘the Rules of the Fleet’. This unsavoury neighbourhood which had sprung up allowed prisoners to live in lodgings outside the prison compound as long as they paid the keeper a fee for loss of earnings. The taverns and coffee houses such as the Bull and Garter, The Great Hand and Pen and The Star took full advantage of the new business opportunity and turned themselves into extremely profitable ‘marriage houses’ (half the marriages in London took place in the Fleet). These marriage houses used any means possible to encourage business and some even had their own in-house clergyman such as Dr Gainham who could be found at the Rainbow Coffee House.
Touts were employed to harass and persuade visiting couples to pop into their marriage house for a quick ceremony and even single gentlemen were approached – I guess that there must have been a pool of potential wives that you could marry at short notice!
It is not surprising then given the character of the place, the booming marriage industry and the fierce competition amongst around 80 disgraced clergymen at a loose end and living in the area, that everyone involved was prepared to turn a blind eye to unwilling participants or repeat customers.
Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753
The passing of the Marriage Act proposed in 1753 by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke and implemented the following year put an end to clandestine marriages. From then on it was illegal to get married without bans or a licence, girls under the age of 21 had to get the permission of their parents or guardians and the marriage itself had to take place in an Anglican church (Jews and Quakers were exempt). Verbal and written contracts were no longer accepted as legal evidence of marriage. Couples had to register their marriages in a parish’s register and the signatures of the bride and groom had to be witnessed.
This Act would have appealed to Daniel Defoe and other like-minded individuals who believed that prior to this “a gentleman might have the satisfaction of hanging a thief that stole and old horse from him, but could have no justice against a rogue for stealing his daughter”  and who had to confine his daughters to their chambers to prevent them from being abducted by “rogues, cheats, gamesters and such like starving crew…”.
It took six days for the new legislation to be passed as there were influential opponents of the law who believed that all that was needed was a tightening up of the current system and better record keeping. The politician Henry Fox was concerned that the delay which publishing banns and obtaining a licence created might even ruin some women. He believed that some rogues would convince their intended wife to compromise herself and then drop her before they got to the altar. The Act was also accused of being used to protect the insular nature of the aristocracy by barring new blood and commoners from entering its hallowed circle and some worried that the law would prevent children from being legitimised.
The downside of the current system was the few but distressing cases of forced marriages of young girls in particular heiresses and the numerous cases of bigamy which came up regularly at the Old Bailey. Although these cases gave weight to the necessity of the Act, the MP Charles Townshend questioned those who regularly spouted these examples. He believed that the legislation was an overreaction and asked his peers to consider that although forced marriages were scandalous and “a public evil. But how rarely do such infamous marriages happen, especially with respect to those that are under age”.
How often did these sorts of marriages really occur is difficult to gauge. Forced marriages did happen but in reality Charles Townshend was correct and these incidents were rare. Nevertheless the damage and distress they caused their unfortunate victims should not be underestimated.
The notion that an unscrupulous and undesirable suitor could persuade or force a wealthy young heiress into an unsuitable marriage against the wishes of her family generated a high level of paranoia amongst the aristocratic and wealthy classes. Older relatives trying to pre-empt and restrict inappropriate behaviour in their female offspring recounted to them cautionary tales of the perils of abduction and impulsive marriages.
“Here, upon my [Samuel Pepys] telling her [Lady Sandwich] a story of my Lord Rochester’s running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallett, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and foot men, and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her, and carried away.”
The abduction of the wealthy heiress Elizabeth Malet on the 26
May 1665 scandalised London and infuriated King Charles II who quickly signed a warrant for the arrest of Lord Rochester. Sent to the Tower and later to sea, it seems that Rochester’s had not abandoned his matrimonial plans as in January 1667 he again ran off with Elizabeth (this time with her consent). They married in a clandestine ceremony at Knightsbridge Chapel against the wishes of her father, John Malet.
Bridget was the daughter of the acknowledged beauty Mary Hyde and the wealthy Sir Thomas Hyde. On the death of her father shortly after she was born, Bridget became an heiress worth £100,000 and a pawn in her relatives’ tug of war game.
In 1674, Mary became seriously ill and Bridget now aged about twelve was sent to stay with her mother’s sisters, Susan and Sara in Hertfordshire. Her aunts had not done quite as well in their marriages as their successful sister, marrying two brothers of the name Emerton who worked as bailiffs on the Hyde estate. Aware that Bridget’s step-father, Robert Vyner was hoping to marry Bridget to the son of Lord Danby (in return for a cancellation of his debts which were the result of lending money to Charles II) and afraid for their own livelihood, Bridget’s aunts decided to marry her to her cousin, John. Probably presenting the marriage in the form of a game, Sara and Susan convinced Bridget to go through the ceremony which was conducted by the morally challenged priest, John Brandling. When Vyner found out about the marriage he was furious seeing all his plans falling apart. Determined not to be bested by his wife’s deceitful relatives, Vyner took the case to the Ecclesiastical Court to have it declared null and void. In the meantime Bridget returned to her step-father’s care but her estates were awarded by the Court of the King’s Bench to Emerton. The case lasted six years!
For some reason, Bridget seemed to attract trouble like a moth to a flame. Whilst the legality of her marriage was being debated she became the subject of a second marriage plot. One fateful night, Vyner invited a man known as Henry Wroth to dinner at his house in Ickenham. On finishing his dinner Wroth repaid his host’s hospitality by pulling out a gun and absconding with Bridget. Wroth with his ‘unwilling bride to be’ headed towards Richmond where he had a ferry waiting for them. Vyner pursued and Wroth was arrested. Bridget was unharmed except for losing an amber necklace and a hankerchief.
In 1680 the Ecclesiastical Court finally came to a decision and announced in favour of Emerton (possibly due to the key witnesses being unable to testify as they had been excommunicated) despite the fact that the marriage was conducted without the consent of the Bridget’s guardian, Vyner or even Bridget herself. The story did not end there as Danby was still determined that Bridget would eventually marry his son. For the next two years Danby and Vyner entered into negotiations with Emerton. All Emerton had ever really wanted was financial compensation in order for him to renounce the marriage. Thinking that things were progressing far too slowly, Viscount Dunblane decided to matters into his own hands and eloped with a this time willing Bridget to St Marylebone Church (another notorious location for clandestine marriages). The Ecclesiastical Court ever mindful of their own interests, suddenly decided that the marriage with Emerton was not legal!
Although it is sad that even after all this, Bridget did not have the fairy tale ending she deserved (as in a few years Dunblane had run through all his wife’s fortune forcing her “to part with all her plate”) she did in a way finally get the man she wanted as shortly after their marriage it was reported “The Lord Dunblane is dancing with his mistress day and night, and she dotes on him.”
In 1701, the seventeen year old heiress, Pleasant Rawlins was arrested for an imaginary unpaid debt of £200 trumped up by a Haagen Swendsen, a German adventurer whose advances Pleasant had previously rebuffed.
Seized under false pretences, Pleasant was taken first to the Star and Garter in Drury Lane and then moved to The Vine in Holborn where Swendsen’s accomplice, a Mrs Baynton convinced Pleasant that she would be incarcerated in Newgate if she refused to go through with the marriage. Now more afraid of being murdered by her captors than worried about imprisonment, a terrified Pleasant reluctantly agreed to the union and was married to Swendsen in the Fleet Prison.
When Pleasant’s horrified family finally found out what had happened to her, Swendsen and Mrs Baynton were arrested and the marriage ruled illegal. Swendsen was found guilty and hung but a pregnant Baynton escaped the death penalty.
The Honourable James Campbell of the Clan Campbell was an officer in the Royal Scots Army and the British Army, politician and unsuccessful kidnapper. In November 1690 Campbell conspired with Sir John Johnson to abduct the thirteen year old daughter of the late Philip Wharton (cousin of Lord Wharton) worth £1500 and heiress to Goldsborough Hall in North Yorkshire from outside the home of her mother in Westminster.
Her aunt and cousins who had been in the coach with Mary testified in court that after having returned from dinning with a Mr Archibald Montgomery in Soho they saw a coach drive hurry past them. On stopping, three men jumped out and in the process of forcing Mary into the six horses coach knocked the footman down and pushed one of her cousins into the gutter. Mary was taken to Watson the coachman’s house where despite being in tears and protesting she was coerced in to marrying Campbell. Disturbingly evidence from the Old Bailey trail also suggests that she tricked into sleeping in the same bed as Campbell by his female accomplice, Mrs Clewer (whether or not Mary was raped by Campbell can’t be ruled out but is not inevitable as often girls married before their 14th birthday would sleep in the same bed as their husband on their wedding night but actually consummate the marriage a few years later).
The next day Campbell compelled Mary to write a reassuring letter to her aunt telling her that she was happily and safely wed and that they would soon visit. Whilst Mary and Campbell were having breakfast, Mary felt ill and was taken to an apothecary where her family finally found her and removed her from Campbell’s clutches by order of the Lord Chief Justice.
Although Johnson was convicted of abduction and sentenced to death, Campbell escaped due to a plea of ignorance of English law. Apparently in Scotland at the time abduction was a conventional method of obtaining a wife and he was falsely led to believe by Johnson that such practices were also accepted in England. Even though his excuse was accepted as reasonable by the powers that be it does sound a little dubious to me.
The marriage was annulled on the 20 December of that year and Mary later married her guardian, the son of her aunt. Hopefully after undergoing such a horrible ordeal Mary went on to have a happy and successful life.
The evidence given in the case of Sibble Morris is particularly disturbing and heart-breaking and does clearly reveal how vulnerable young girls could be.
On the 5 March 1728, Sibble Morris and her maid Anne Holiday were paying a second reluctant visit to a Mrs Hendron. On the way they met two acquaintances of theirs, Kitty Pendergrass and Peggy Johnson who told them that Mrs Hendron was not at home and was instead visiting a house in New Round Court in the Strand. They convinced Sibble to accompany them there. On arrival they all entered the house and made their way to a shuttered candle lit room filled with a number of people including a Mr Richard Russel (who Sibble had met only once on the previous visit to Mrs Pendergrass’ house and whom she believed to be a wealthy merchant) and a clergyman.
Frightened and wanting to leave both Sibble and her maid were pulled into the room and the door closed behind them. Mrs Pendergrass told Sibble that it was no use screaming as no-one would hear her. Despite the fact that the girl was young only about 16 years old, was in a near faint and had to be held up throughout the ceremony and could not speak, the clergyman seemed not to notice anything amiss. Even when questioned in the trial he maintained his innocence and stated that he was under the impression that he was marrying a gentleman to a servant and that she was just overcome by the whole situation.
After the ceremony, “Hendron and others dragg’d her [Sibble] up Stairs to a Bed-Chamber, which was also shut up with Shutters, and Kitty Pendergrass and Peggy Johnson, pulled off her Cloaths by Force, Hendron holding her Hands; and that one Mrs. Rigy was there present while all this was done, that they forc’d her into Bed, and that Hendron held her down in Bed” and waited until Russel joined them.
It was only on the following Thursday that Sibble’s father heard about the marriage from a man who had pretended to be a friend of Russel. On hearing the devastating news Mr Morris confronted his daughter, who in her distress admitted that it was due to fear and shame that she had not told him what had happened. Mr Morris refused to speak to Russel who on hearing that a warrant for his arrest had been issued, fled.
Throughout the trial, Sibble maintained that she had never at any point agreed to the marriage. Russel’s female accomplices were found guilty of aiding and abetting a kidnap and rape and sentenced to death but the incompetent, oblivious and brainless clergyman (if you can believe he really did not know what was going on) was let off.
To love, honour and OBEY!
What did Hardwicke’s law really achieve? Girls were still forced to marry men they abhorred and detested just now they did it with their parents or guardians’ blessing. The main objective of the Act was never the welfare of vulnerable young girls but the protection of a family’s property by placing complete control on where it would be bestowed in the hands of the heiress’s parents or guardian. Girls lost any power or control they may once have had over their own lives and became just a pawn in their family’s dynastic game of chess. Any chance of escaping their family’s clutches and marrying their own choice of husband was now cut off (although the long shot of Gretna Green was still available).
In an ironic way if one of the aims of the Marriage Act was to protect women it did so by imprisoning them within their families and making them even more vulnerable to forced marriages then before.
Elizabeth Wilmot, Countess of Rochester: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Wilmot,_Countess_of_Rochester
Samuel Pepys, Diary of Samuel Pepys
Georgian London: http://www.georgianlondon/post/494612709431/fleet-marriages
Marriage among Londoners before Hardwicke’s Act of 1753: when, where and why? http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/people/newton/MarriageArticleDRAFT.pdf
Fleet Prison: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fleet_Prison
The Fleet Prison: http://www.okima.com/tour/fleet.html
From Fleet Street to Gretna Green: The Reform of “Clandestine Marriage” under Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, http://jenpayne10.info/clandestine.html
Daniel Defoe: Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom
Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde
Nigel Pickford, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynne, 2014
Naomi Clifford: Two 18th-century bride abductions http://www.naomiclifford.com/two-18th-century-bride-abductions/
James Campbell (of Burnbank and Boquhan): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Campbell_(of_Burnbank_and_Boquhan)
John Johnson, William Clewer, S – C -, Grace Wiggan, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 10th December 1690: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t16901210-56
Mary Hendron, John Wheeler, Margaret Pendergrass, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 1st May 1728. http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17280501-13-off75&div=t17280501-13#highlight
Guardian Shorts: A Marriage Proposal by Sophie Ward http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/jan/30/guardian-shorts-a-marriage-proposal-by-sophie-ward-chapter-1
The History of Parliament: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1660-1690/member/osborne-peregrine-1659-1729
Jacqueline Rose: Godly kingship in restoration England: The politics of the royal Supremacy, 2011
 Georgian London: georgianlondon/post/494612709431/fleet-marriages
 Marriage among Londoners before Hardwicke’s Act of 1753: when, where and why? http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/people/newton/MarriageArticleDRAFT.pdf
 Full text of “The history of the Fleet marriages [electronic resource] http://www.archive.org/stream/historyoffleetma00burnrich/historyoffleetma00burnrich_djvu.txt
 Daniel Defoe: Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom
 Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde: http://nigelpickford.com/sad-history-bridget-hyde-2/
 Samuel Pepys, Diary of Samuel Pepys, Entry on the 28 May 1665
 Elizabeth Wilmot, Countess of Rochester: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Wilmot,_Countess_of_Rochester
 Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde: http://nigelpickford.com/sad-history-bridget-hyde-2/
 Nigel Pickford, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynne, 2014
 Naomi Clifford: Two 18th-century bride abductions http://www.naomiclifford.com/two-18th-century-bride-abductions/ Naomi Clifford
 James Campbell (of Burnbank and Boquhan): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Campbell_(of_Burnbank_and_Boquhan)
 John Johnson, William Clewer, S – C -, Grace Wiggan, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 10th December 1690: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t16901210-56
 Mary Hendron, John Wheeler, Margaret Pendergrass, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 1st May 1728. http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17280501-13-off75&div=t17280501-13#highlight
ann hurle, black nun, bloody code, capital punishment, crime and punishment, eighteenth century, forgery, ghost of the bank of england, Ghosts, hanging in England, historical crimes, nineteenth century, philip whitehead, sarah whitehead, the black nun, thomas maynard, threadneedle street, william dodd
“Criminals do not die by the hands of the law. They die by the hands of other men.” ― George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman
Death as a form of punishment has been around for as long as people have existed although the form it has taken has varied with hung, drawn and quartered; boiling in oil; burning at the stake; beheading with a sword and hanging varying in popularity at different times. Hanging for crimes was first introduced by the Anglo-Germanic tribes in the 5th century but was abolished during the reign of William the Conqueror’s and replaced with the more ‘humane’ punishment of castration and blinding for all but the crime of poaching royal deer. Hanging was reintroduced by Henry I and in the 18th century was the ‘principle punishment for capital offenses’. Beheading (last used in 1747 in the execution of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat) was only used for those from the high born classes whilst women found guilty of counterfeiting or murdering their husbands were burnt (witches in England were hung rather than burnt as in Scotland). Burning at the stake was abolished in England in 1790. Public executions were ended in 1868 with the curtain finally falling on capital punishment in the United Kingdom in 1969.
The Bloody Code
“[There is] no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to the law to be punished with death as in England” ― Sir Samuel Romilly
In 1688, there were 50 crimes punishable by death in English law, in 1765 this number had risen to 160 and astonishingly in 1815 this figure had reached more than 220. The reason for this was a new penal code introduced in 1791 which turned most minor misdemeanors into capital offences. This code became known by the grim nickname of ‘The Bloody Code’ and between its introduction and abolition in 1822 more than 10,000 men, women and children were sentenced to death. The implementation of the code reveals a deep anxiety in the minds of the wealthy and powerful classes to any threat to their possessions, rights or properties. This anxiety was intensified by the events of the French Revolution which saw the accepted social order turned on its head.
Amongst the usual offences such as arson, murder, piracy, rape and treason were a number which would seem extremely peculiar to us today.
- Begging in the company of gipsies for a month
- Malicious maiming of cattle
- Damaging Westminster Bridge
- Impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner
- Strong evidence of malice in children seven to fourteen years old
- Stealing from a shipwreck
- General poaching
- Begging without a licence if you are a soldier or sailor
- Writing a threatening letter
- Destroying turnpike roads
- Stealing from a rabbit warren
- Pick pocketing goods worth more than one shilling
- Being out at night with a blackened face
- Cutting down trees
- Unmarried mothers concealing a stillborn child
Despite the severity of the punishment many people charged with these crimes (with the exception of murder, robbery and burglary) were not executed but instead had their sentences either commuted to transportation or permanently postponed often on the grounds of pregnancy of the offender, benefit of clergy, official pardons or performance of military service. Confusion about punishments and the whims of judges affected the consistency of the rule of law as well affecting the strength of the sentences handed as judges were sometimes unwilling to find a defendant guilty knowing they would be executed. People were in general inured to the death and severity of the punishments handed out to criminals and in a society where children were treated as adults the hanging of Michael Hammond and his sister Ann, possibly aged 7 and 11 respectively at Kings Lynne for theft in 1708 made little impact.
The Heinous Crime of Forgery
“[Forgery] the false making or altering of a document, with intent to defraud” – Collins Concise Dictionary
In 18th and 19th century law forgery was listed under the category of ‘Deception’ which also included bankruptcy, fraud, perjury and a miscellaneous section which included the illegal procurement of documents such as marriage licences or the unlawful insertion of names into registers. In England the offence of forgery was considered as serious as murder and was treated with the same harshness. Although the early records of the Old Bailey show that many of those convicted of forgery were punished with the pillory and fines later as the Bloody Code legislation was implemented more and more were sent to the gallows.
The earliest cases from the Old Bailey records show that the pillory was initially the punishment of choice for most judges for example in May 1689 a John Ingham was indicted for forging the signatures of two Justices of the Peace. His aim was to obtain the release of an Edward Williams from Newgate. He was sentenced to spend three days in the pillory: the first day at Hick’s Hall; the second at Temple Bar and; the third at Westminster Hall Gate as well as finding sureties for his good behaviour for twelve months.
One of the reasons that forgery came to be seen as such a heinous crime was that with the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694, the English financial system became dependent on paper credit so any attempt to fraudulently copy or counterfeit documents such as stamps or bonds was perceived as an attack on the very foundations on which England stood. In the 1820s forgery along with arson at the Royal Docks, treason, murder, piracy and burglary was one of the last offences which carried a capital sentence. In 1832 forgery (with the exception of the forgery of wills and certain powers of attorney) was taken off that list by a parliamentary act. Eventually in 1837 all forms of forgery were exempt.
The minister, the mastermind and the scammer: Three cases of forgery
William Dodd – The decadent Anglican minister
William Dodd lived above his means. He enjoyed the good things in life but unfortunately his partiality for fine living resulted in him accumulating bills he was unable to honour. In order to save himself and his wife from bankruptcy he decided to forge a bond for £4200 in the name of a former pupil, the Earl of Chesterfield. All was going well and the banker accepted the bond in good faith. Unluckily Dodd was not the best forger and the banker noticed a blot on the bond and decided to go and see the Earl to get a clean copy signed. Dodd confessed immediately to the fraud and despite a public campaign for a Royal pardon he was hung at Tyburn in June 1777. Dodd was the last person to be hanged for forgery at Tyburn.
Ann Hurle – The master criminal
One of the cleverest and ambitious although ultimately doomed forgery scams was attempted by the 22-year-old Ann Hurle. Her background was sketchy but on the 10 December 1803 she met her friend of six months, a stock broker, George Frenallon at the Bank Coffee House. She persuaded him to obtain a power of attorney for her as she wanted to sell a Bank of England 3% stock which she had been given by a Benjamin Allin of Greenwich. Ann told George that the stock had been given to her as a present in thanks for the good work her aunt, his housekeeper had performed over the years. Once Ann received the power of attorney, she disappeared. On returning with the signed document, she had it witnessed and then took it to Thomas Bateman, a bank clerk at the Bank of England. Bateman who knew Allin’s signature became suspicious as the signature differed from that found on other documents. Despite Ann’s reassurances that the differences were due to Allin’s being over 90 years old, Bateman was not satisfied and he decided to go in person and see Allin. Allin confirmed that the signature was not his. Ann was arrested at Bermondsey and tried and convicted of the charge of attempting to defraud the Bank of England of £500 (which is in today’s money over a quarter of a million pounds). On Wednesday 8th February Ann was hanged near St Sepulchre’s Church.
Thomas Maynard – The shameless scammer
Thomas Maynard was hanged at Newgate on the 31 December 1829. His crime was defrauding His Majesty’s Custom House of the amount of £1973 by counterfeiting a warrant order and fixing the signatures of three Commissioners of Customs to it. He was also accused of a secondary charge of trying to defraud a Sir William Boothby. Witnesses attested to Maynard’s and his accomplice, Richard Hubbard Jones decadent behaviour after receiving the money. They said that the two men lived extravagantly, showing off their money and allowing women who called themselves their wives to run up huge debts with tradesmen. Both Maynard and Hubbard were arrested trying to travel to France. £280 were found on Maynard and £250 on another unknown man who was traveling with them. Strangely only Maynard was convicted of the crime, for some reason Jones was not tried. Maynard has the distinction of being the last person to be hanged for forgery in England.
Sarah Whitehead:The Black Nun of Threadneedle Street
One of the most famous hauntings in London and the one that always sends chills along my spine is believed to be that of the ghost of Sarah Whitehead, otherwise known as the Black Nun. Sarah’s tragic tale begins in 1811 when her brother, Philip, a disgruntled former clerk in the Cashiers Office of the Bank of England was found guilty of forgery and attempting to defraud the bank. On the day of the trial, Sarah’s friends worried about her reaction kept the news of his conviction from her by persuading her to leave the rooms which she shared with her brother and go with them to their house off of Fleet Street. When her brother failed to return home, Sarah tried to find him. Either her brother had never told her he had left the bank or she had nowhere else to look since she kept going back to the bank in the desperate hope that someone would have heard from him. Eventually either out of annoyance or pity, one of the clerks finally blurted out the truth. The shock destroyed her mind. On her death she was believed to have been buried close to the bank of England on the former site of St Christopher le Stocks, which was demolished in 1781 when the premises of the bank was extended. The former graveyard became the gardens of the bank.
There are different accounts of what happened after Sarah was finally told the truth. One version is that she visited the bank every day for the remainder of her 25 years asking politely for her brother whilst another that on her visits she was verbally abusive to the bank’s staff. A third recounts how she became convinced that the bank had stolen money from her and would demand that they return what they had taken. Eventually in 1818 the bank’s governors tired of her constant presence gave her a sum of money on the provision that she would never come back, a promise she kept.
Even though the precise details of the story vary slightly, the one thing they all agree on is Sarah’s appearance. For the rest of her life she always wore full mourning weeds which consisted of a long black gown and full black veil.
Have you seen my brother?
For over the next two hundred years Sarah’s spirit has been unable to rest. She has been seen at the Bank of England itself, at Bank station (where railway staff have recalled how she leaves behind a feeling of terrible sorrow and hopelessness) and in the former graveyard of the church where she was originally buried. Those witnesses who have seen her in the garden have said that she walks hesitantly, groping her way along as if she is blind then she falls to her knees and beats the ground with her fists, crying and shaking violently before she suddenly vanishes.
She has been most often seen at night wandering the streets around the bank and in particular Threadneedle Street still intent on finding her beloved brother. She has been reportedly seen by numerous people, some who knew the legend, most who didn’t. People of all ages, beliefs and lifestyles, people alone or with others have claimed to have seen a woman dressed peculiarly in black, walking slowly along the road. It is usually her strange attire which first catches their eye. Sometimes she stops them and with eyes downcast asks politely about her brother. Receiving a negative answer she turns and walks dejectedly away, disappearing from sight. Some people seeing her walk past are overcome by a feeling of intense grief and loneliness and approach her asking her if she needs help. Needless to say she just turns and asks her constant question, ‘Have you seen my brother?’
History or urban legend?
When looking at different websites and accounts of the Black Nun they all give Sarah’s brother’s name as Philip. On one of the websites the blogger states that there is no record of a Philip Whitehead appearing in the Old Bailey. Searching through the online records I agree, there is no evidence of Philip Whitehead but there is a Paul Whitehead aged 36 who was convicted of forgery and sentenced to be hanged. Looking at the proceedings of the trial, certain details emerge which fit with the legend surrounding Sarah Whitehead including the date of the trial, the 30th October 1811 and the fact that Whitehead was a former clerk in the Cashiers Office at the Bank of England. The transcript from the trial records that Whitehead was indicted on six counts of forgery, the main charge being ‘’for feloniously forging and counterfeiting an acceptance on a certain bill of exchange for 87 l. 10 s. with [the] intention to defraud ”. Whitehead was hanged at Newgate on the 29th January 1812 in front of a large crowd. He was described as being of ‘genteel appearance’ and who together with the five other condemned men “met their fate with decent fortitude, and when on the fatal scaffold shook hands, after which they were launched into eternity…”.
Maybe Paul Whitehead is not Philip Whitehead but if he isn’t then why is there no record of the latter’s trial or maybe the legend of Sarah has been fabricated based on Paul Whitehead’s crime and death. Personally I believe that it was a mistake and Philip is Paul Whitehead and that the story of the historical Sarah is true. I also hope that if her spirit is lost that one day she will be reunited with her brother and finally gain the peace of mind she has been searching for, for so long.
Charles Duff, A Handbook on Hanging, 1928
Tim Lambert, A History of the Death Penalty in the UK, http://www.localhistories.org/capital.html
The 222 Victorian crimes that would get a man hanged: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1203828/The-222-Victorian-crimes-man-hanged.html
Capital punishment in the United Kingdom http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_the_United_Kingdom
The Bloody Code – http://www.slideshare.net/DHUMPHREYS/the-bloody-code
Sir Samuel Romilly, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Samuel Romilly, 1840
Sara Malton, Forgery in Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, 2009
William Dodd: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Dodd_(priest)
The Black nun, http://legendsoflondon.wix.com/1800s#!the-black-nun
The Bank of England and the Black Nun: http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/england/greater-london/hauntings/the-bank-of-england-and-the-black-nun.html
The proceedings of the Old Bailey: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/index.jsp
The Bloody Code, http://community.dur.ac.uk/4schools/Crime/Bloodycode.htm
 A Handbook on Hanging, Charles Duff, 1928
 The 222 Victorian crimes that would get a man hanged: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1203828/The-222-Victorian-crimes-man-hanged.html
 Capital punishment in the United Kingdom http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_the_United_Kingdom
 The Bloody Code, http://community.dur.ac.uk/4schools/Crime/Bloodycode.htm
 The Bloody Code – http://www.slideshare.net/DHUMPHREYS/the-bloody-code
 William Dodd: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Dodd_(priest)
 The Black nun, http://legendsoflondon.wix.com/1800s#!the-black-nun
 Black Nun of the Bank of England (or, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street): http://www.watkinsbooks.com/ushahidi/reports/view/83
A Bloody Scene in Covent Garden
It was past 11pm on the 7th April 1779, when Mary Anderson, a local fruit-seller, perhaps hoping to profit from the thirsty crowds exiting the theatres, found herself witness to one of the eighteenth century’s most infamous and talked about murders. Here she describes events in her own words:
“I was standing at the post. Just as the play broke up I saw two ladies and a gentleman coming out of the playhouse; a gentleman in black followed them. Lady Sandwich’s coach was called. When the carriage came up, the gentleman handed the other lady into the carriage; the lady that was shot stood behind. Before the gentleman could come back to hand her into the carriage the gentleman in black came up, laid hold of her by the gown, and pulled out of his pocket two pistols; he shot the right hand pistol at her, and the other at himself. She fell with her hand so [describing it as being on her forehead] and died before she could be got to the first lamp; I believe she died immediately, for her head hung directly. At first I was frightened at the report of the pistol, and ran away. He fired another pistol, and dropped immediately. They fell feet to feet. He beat himself violently over the head with his pistols, and desired somebody would kill him.” 
The lady was rushed to the nearby Shakespeare Tavern, a surgeon was called and pronounced her to be dead – the ball of a gun having passed through the crown of her head and exited under her left ear . The murderer, somewhat bloody from his self-inflicted wounds, was apprehended by Constable Richard Blandy and taken to the tavern where he was questioned by Sir John Fielding (the well-known blind magistrate and brother to the celebrated novelist Henry Fielding). The murderer was committed to Tothills Prison Bridewell and thence to Newgate to await trial.
The Earl and his mistress
The victim in this very public tragedy was Martha Ray the mistress of the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu. The Earl of Sandwich had been so distraught upon hearing of his long-term mistress’ murder, he is said to have locked himself in his room and wept. He is said to have never fully recovered from her loss.
Although a notorious rake and alleged member of Sir Francis Dashwood’s version of the Hellfire Club, Sandwich was also a diligent and industrious (if often unpopular) servant of the Crown and First Lord of the Admiralty. In fact, it was long hours at the admiralty that gave birth to the greatest convenience food ever – the Sandwich – when the Earl slapped some naval beef between two slices of bread, in order that he need not leave his desk . Lord Sandwich was also of a distinctive appearance, an acquaintance, one Joseph Craddock, on seeing Lord Sandwich walking along a street, commented to his companion:
“I am sure it is Lord Sandwich; for, if you observe, he is walking down both sides of the street at once.” 
Compared to her noble lover, Martha Ray had humble beginnings. Ray’s father was a corset-maker in Covent Garden, and his young and charming daughter Martha was an apprentice milliner when Sandwich first set his practiced eye upon her. Fresh-faced, intelligent and agreeable, Sandwich took her has his mistress when she was only 17. The partnership stood the test of time, and through Sandwich, Ray was able to educate herself beyond what would have been possible for a working class woman at that time. Musically gifted she soon became a well-known singer and musician (although rather proprietorially, Sandwich would not allow her to perform in public).One man who was captivated by Martha Ray and her talents was Richard Dennison Cumberland, who raved that she was:
“..a second Cleopatra – a woman of thousands, and capable of producing those effects on the heart which the poets talk of so much and of which we are apt to think Chimerical.”
However, not everything in the garden was rosy for Martha and Sandwich, despite the fact that for sixteen years they lived publicly like man and wife, Martha often found herself ostracised by the respectable wives of the Earl’s friends. This was particularly pronounced when they visited his country seat Hinchingbrooke in Hertfordshire. Here local ladies recoiled from associating with a demi-mondaine – Sandwich after all was a married man. It was at Hinchingbrooke that Lord Sandwich was fated to introduce to Martha, the man who would eventually become her murderer.
Although on the surface the couple’s relationship appeared happy – they had several children together, Ray shared Sandwich’s admiralty apartments and they went about together to concerts and parties – it seems at one time at least, Martha had investigated the possibility of striking out on her own, and making a professional career out of her singing. Ever possessive, Sandwich appears to have quickly quashed this attempt at independence.
This attempt to break free may have been due to the fact that despite providing Ray with a generous allowance, Sandwich failed to make any financial settlements on Ray or her children – if Sandwich died before Ray she could find herself in dire financial straits. As a practical woman who had grown used to the finer things in life, and with a number of illegitimate children to support, Ray would naturally have been looking for some kind of guarantee of financial security. She was also talented enough to support herself through her singing. It has been suggested that this wish for financial security, or perhaps respectability, may also have led to her dallying with the idea of marriage to a young man who had ardently pursued her since their first meeting at Hinchingbrooke….
James Hackman, Soldier, Stalker and murderer
James Hackman was born in 1752 in Gosport, Hampshire. Described as of too impatient and volatile temper to go into trade  in 1772 his parents instead purchased a commission as Ensign in the 68th Regiment of Foot. Sometime in 1775 he was heading up a recruiting party in Hertfordshire when he was invited to Hinchingbrooke by Lord Sandwich, here he met Miss Ray.
From the very first, the young man was utterly bewitched by the talented, charming and intelligent older woman. In an age of sentiment and feeling, Hackman became utterly obsessed by Martha Ray, his unattainable goddess.
He was a frequent visitor to Hingingbrooke and seems to have begun pursing Ray with offers of marriage very early in their relationship. Ray always rejected his offers – perhaps aware that a poorly paid soldier could not afford to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed. Ray seems a practical and pragmatic woman, prepared to stand on her own two feet given the opportunity, however, as virtually no letters or written accounts exist from Martha Ray herself, it remains speculation as to whether she as an agreeable hostess, merely tolerated Hackman’s advances, or if she welcomed and encouraged them, or whether she feared them.
The day of the murder
On the day of the murder, Hackman, who had recently been ordained a minister of the Church of England (perhaps impatient that his army career often took him away from the object of his obsession), had tried to approach Martha Ray by letter, but upon calling on her had been turned away by Ray’s companion and fellow singer Caterina Galli. His letter was returned unopened.
Later that day, he dined with his sister and brother-in-law telling them he would return later in the evening. However, fired up by his earlier rejection, he instead set out to pursue Miss Ray. At about 6pm he saw Lord Sandwich’s coach heading out with Miss Ray and Signora Galli, towards Covent Garden. He pursued it. The ladies were off to watch Love in a Village by Thomas Arne. They may have been joined by male companions – friends of Lord Sandwich. Driven to a frenzy by this perceived betrayal, Hackman rushed back to his lodgings, wrote two letters: one a suicide note to his brother-in-law, the other a love letter to Miss Ray. He also loaded two pistols.
Just past 11, Miss Ray and Miss Galli were exiting the piazzas at Covent Garden and were being so jostled by the crowd they were unable to reach their coach. A gallant Irish Attorney, John MacNamarra, stepped in to assist the ladies through the crowds. Just as he handed Miss Galli into the coach and was about to assist Miss Ray, Hackman stepped out of the crowd and grabbed her arm. As she turned to him he pulled out two pistols and shot her in the face. He then tried unsuccessfully to shoot himself.
MacNamarra, who initially thought Ray had just fainted, later recalled his horror at the events:
“The sudden assault of the assassin, the instantaneous death of the victim, and the spattering of the poor girl’s brains all over his own face.” 
Hackman later claimed that he had only intended to punish Ray by making her witness his own suicide, but driven into a jealous frenzy at seeing her on the arm of another man, he turned the gun on her as well.
John Brewer in his fascinating book ‘Sentimental Murder’ explores how the story evolved over time. Initially there was some consensus and agreement about the individuals involved in the event, Hackman’s camp and Sandwich’s camp both agreed to present all participants in the best light. However the sensational murder was a constant source of gossip and speculation, James Boswell visited Hackman in jail; Horace Walpole sniped about the age difference of victim and killer; Dr Johnson speculated that the fact Hackman took two pistols proved he intended there to be two deaths.
Soon contemporary authors, such as Manasseh Dawes and Sir Herbert Croft began manipulating the story to fit the sentimental ideal of the day, they helped to create in Hackman a sympathetic figure, a paragon of sentimental feeling and a man overtaken by his emotions for a woman whom he had a sexual relationship with, but who had at best rejected him and at worst betrayed him. Readers were invited to feel pity for or even identified with the killer rather than the victim . Later still Victorian writers tended to view the tragic outcome of the meeting of Hackman and Ray as the inevitable wages of a sinful life, symptoms of the louche and decadent Georgian age. Martha became culpable for her own demise. Yet it seems to me that it is entirely possible that Martha Ray was the innocent victim of a stalker.
Anatomy of a stalker
Stalkers are most commonly men in their thirties, and most frequently men who have had a previous romantic relationship with their victim. Stalking has been described in such cases as an extension of domestic violence  this sub-type of stalker is most likely to fall within the ‘rejected stalker type. If gossip and later writers were correct in their surmise that Ray and Hackman did have a brief romantic relationship in 1778, this could be a match for Hackman.
Another possible stalker type for Hackman is the ‘intimacy seeker’. Intimacy seekers may be strangers to the victim, perhaps dazzled by celebrity, talent or beauty (Martha Ray certainly had all three in spade-fulls) and bent on pursing a romantic relationship with that person. This type of stalker can be delusional and suffer from erotomania – a belief that their victim actually reciprocates their feelings . Hackman may only have been a periphery figure in Ray’s social world – the only firm evidence of their meeting is during 1775 and there is no clear evidence that they were ever intimate. In fact all accounts seem to agree Ray consistently rejected Hackman’s marriage proposals.
Hackman, smitten with Ray, then pursued her at a distance, following her, observing her and writing to her. Unfortunately Ray’s correspondence does not survive so we can never know if she confidently brushed off Hackman’s pursuit, or whether she came to dread his missives, dread the black clad figure constantly dogging her footsteps.
He resorted to murder when he perceived she had betrayed him with another man.
Katherine Ramsland, writing for The Crime Library, gives a five point progression for stalkers which seems to fit with Hackman’s behaviour:
- After initial contact, the stalker develops feelings like infatuation, and therefore places the love object on a pedestal.
- The stalker then begins to approach the object. It might take a while, but once contact is made, the stalker’s behavior sets him up for rejection.
- Rejection triggers the delusion through which the stalker projects his own feelings onto the object: She loves me, too.
- The stalker also develops intense anger to mask his shame, which fuels the obsessive pursuit of the object. He now wants to control through harassment or injury.
- The stalker must restore his narcissistic fantasy.
- Violence is most likely to occur when the love object is devalued, as through an imagined betrayal.
At his trial, Hackman provoked sympathy, his handsome and polite demeanor coupled with his tears of grief and contrition, all scored points with the sentimental ‘audience’ at the trial.
He claimed he only intended to kill himself, using his letter to his brother-in-law as evidence:
“My Dear Frederick, When this letter reaches you I shall be no more…….You know where my affections were placed; my having by some means or other lost hers,….has driven me to madness…May heaven protect my beloved woman, and forgive this act which alone could relieve me from a world of misery I have long endured. Oh! If it should be in your power to do her any act of friendship…” 
and he justified his actions as those of a man driven to a temporary frenzy by love and jealousy:
“I protest, with that regard to truth which becomes my situation, that the will to destroy her who was ever dearer to me than life, was never mine till a momentary phrensy overcame me, and induced me to commit the deed I now deplore. The letter, which I meant for my brother-in-law after my decease, will have its due weight as to this point with good men.” 
Despite his fine appearance and genteel manners, and his ‘extenuating’ circumstances, he was found guilty of the murder of Martha Ray. James Hackman: soldier, clergyman, stalker and murderer was hanged at Tyburn on 19 April 1779.
James Hackman may have had his just punishment under the law, but in the literature of the following two centuries he was often presented as more of tragic figure rather than a jealous murderer; his motives were explored and he was seen as a victim of his heightened sensibility and of a fickle woman. Martha Ray, attractive, charming, intelligent and talented, almost becomes the villain of the tragedy or is depicted as at least partially responsible for her own death. Sympathy is not with the victim of this crime but with the perpetrator.
Perhaps this is somewhat jaded view, but it sometimes seems that little has changed, society and the media all too often seem willing to provide a damning moral judgement on women when they are the victims of violent or sexual crimes.
Notes and sources
Akwagyiram, Alexis http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3717696.stm 
Brewer, John (2005), A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
   
Castleden, Rodney, Infamous Murderers: Maniacs filled with hatred and rage via googlebooks 
Craddock, Joseph, 1826, Literary and Miscellaneous Memoirs 
Muller, Robert , Ph.D. In the Mind of a Stalker, 2013, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-about-trauma/201306/in-the-mind-stalkerPsychology Today 
Ramsland, Katherine, ‘Stalkers:The Psychological Terrorist, http://www.crimelibrary.com/criminal_mind/psychology/stalkers/5.html 
Trial of James Hackman, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?ref=t17790404-3   
Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913 (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.1, 24 March 2014
Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Ray 
That an Englishman’s home is his castle, is a well used phrase about the English love affair with their own bricks and mortar. But in the eighteenth century it might as well have been stated that an Englishman’s home was his own classical Arcadia. During that century countless English gentlemen were sent off on the Grand Tour to finish their education and many came back with a passion for all things classical, and quite often they came back with a treasure trove of antiquities as souvenirs (both authentic and fake).
One such Grand Tourist who returned to England with a particularly spectacular classical vision was Thomas Coke (1697 1759) 1st Earl of Leicester (fifth creation).
Coke set off on his grand tour between 1712 -1718 and came back not only with an extensive new library, an enviable collection of art and classical sculpture, but also with a BIG idea. He planned to create a perfect Palladian country house set amidst an Arcadian Idyll in the heart of the English countryside.
During his travels he met Lord Burlington, the man who helped revive the Neo Palladian movement in Britain in the eighteenth century, and William Kent the noted Palladian architect and landscape architect.
Coke sounds like the typically Fielding-esque ‘squire Weston’ type of English gentleman – his favourite pass times were drinking, gambling and cockfighting. And despite his aristocratic wealth, he wasn’t immune from financial troubles, he suffered heavy financial losses when the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720, which seriously delayed his construction plans.
Nevertheless with the help of Kent and Burlington, and a host of others, Coke set about creating one of Norfolk’s, and England’s, grandest stately homes: Holkham Hall. The Holkham estate, with its Perfect Palladian palace and landscape repleat with lake, obelisks, arches and temples was the Earls very own little piece of Italy on English soil. But despite its visual appeal, it was also an expression of the Earl’s Whig political principles – Whigs were rather fond of likening themselves to the Ancient Romans and his political allies would have recognised Holkham as much as a political statement as an aesthetic and intellectual one.
The hall took so long to complete that, sadly, Thomas did not live to see it finished. He died in 1759 and it was left to his indomitable widow, Lady Mary Tufton, to ensure that his plans for the hall were carried out. Holkham Hall was finally finished in 1764, five years after Thomas Coke’s death; and the grounds not until the mid-nineteenth century. The final cost of the hall has been estimated at £90,000 and this astronomical cost ensured that the hall was left virtually unaltered by subsequent heirs. Holkham Hall remains one of England’s finest Palladian Houses and is still lived in by the Coke family to this day.
Holkham Hall has long been one of my favourite Stately Homes and here are a few of my photographs, taken over a number of years. With thanks to James Blakeley for permission to reproduce his photographs. (Other images have been sourced from the internet and credited as appropriate).
Holkham Guide books – various
Holkham Hall is open to the public:
I first came across the glass harmonica or glass armonica when reading Lydia Syson’s excellent book ‘Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed’ while I was researching that fabulously eccentric eighteenth century sexologist.
Of the many extraordinary and complex musical instruments that enjoyed often brief vogue in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the eerie tones of the Glass Harmonica seemed to fit perfectly into the growing urge for sensation and sensibility. Graham was no stranger to the glass harmonica, and being an early fan of music therapy he employed it to great effect in his exotic Temple of Health and Hymen.
Other fans included Anton Mesmer, famous proponent of Animal Magnetism and Mesmerism, who used the intense celestial music of the glass harmonica to help guide his patients into a deep trance.
The instrument enjoyed popularity in Britain, Europe and America and over 100 pieces of music were written for the instrument during its heyday including works by Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.
Benjamin Franklin and the glassychord
The glass harmonica – briefly called the ‘glassychord’ – was a technical upgrade on the ‘wineglass filled with water’ branch of music (a popular form of music in the early eighteenth century); it was developed by none other than Benjamin Franklin during his time in England as Colonial Agent.
Franklin was inspired to create his glass harmonica, or armonica as he later named it, following Edmund Delavals performance on the wine glasses in 1758. OK, its not as low brow as it sounds, this form of music has been around for hundreds of years, and was very popular. It was given some very dignified names: Seraphim, Glass harp and (titter ye not) the Angelic Organ.
Franklin (always a fan of more popular than high-brow music) loved the sound of the glasses, but wanted more harmonies in his music (American’s are so demanding LOL) so he set about re-designing the instrument. Wikipedia describes his innovations thus: “an instrument consisting of variously sized and tuned glass bowls that rotate on a common shaft, played by touching the spinning glass with wet fingers”
His main innovation seems to have been tipping the glasses on their side and rotating them. Originally the glasses would have rotated through a trough of water. Franklin also developed a colour coding system to indicate the note that each glass represented.
His new Glassychord was premiered in 1762, played by the musician Marianne Davies (b.1743/44 -d.1818).
The Bristol Journal advertised it as:
“The celebrated glassy-chord, invented by Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia: who has greatly improved the musical glasses, and formed them into a compleat instrument to accompany the voice; capable of a thorough bass, and never out of tune. Miss Davies from London, was to perform in the month of January, several favourite airs, English, Scotch and Italian, on the Glassychord (being the only one of the Kind that has yet been produced) accompanied occasionally with the voice and the German Flute.” January 12th 1762, quoted in the Papers of Benjamin Franklin (1)
Its harmonies and melodies were so intense and ethereal that it soon became known as the ‘voice of angels’ and was credited with the power to transport the listener to heightened states of emotion and sensation.
Celestial Music or Bad Vibes?
Davies soon became famous for her performances on the instrument, Franklin seems to have had one made for her, whilst keeping one for himself. She and her sister travelled Europe performing on the instrument to great acclaim. Davis even taught Marie Antoinette the Armonica. However, it is her later tribulations with poor health that have helped gain the Armonica its more sinister reputation.
“I had a violent return of my nervous complaints which brought me so low that there were little hopes of my recovery. I was near a twelvemonth confin’d to my Room, and most part of the time to my Bed.” Extract from a letter from Marianne to Franklin 1783
Marianne eventually died in a mental hospital. It is worth noting she never attributed her illness to her long association with the glass harmonica – but that didn’t stop others making the link. Marianne Kirschgessner was another famous virtuoso on the glass armonica whose career was cut short – some said due to nerve damage caused by the instrument.
Others too, feared the baleful effects of its insanely ethereal tones fearing it could induce hysteria and even madness in listeners. Tales of deaths during concerts lead to the instrument being banned by order of the police in certain German cities. People credited it with scaring animals and causing premature births. Although the eighteenth century was a century of scientific enlightenment, there was also a strong vein of superstition still running through it and some people feared that the otherworldly strains of the glass harmonica would raise the spirits of the dead. This lead to proscriptions on the instruments usage: not after midnight, and definitely not near a graveyard. It may also explain its popularity at magic lantern horror shows.
Although the instrument undoubtedly had its fans: Mozart, Jefferson, Paganini all adored it – it even featured in Mozart’s final work – it also had its critics:
JM Rogers, writing in his ‘Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body, in 1803 stated:
“Its melancholy tone plunges you into dejection..to a point the strongest man could not hear it for an hour without fainting.”
Thomas Bloch, a contemporary glass harmonica musician provided the following quote from a musical dictionary about the Glass Harmonica’s baleful effects which said its tunes:
“..are of a nearly celestial softness..but can cause spasms” (!)
Suggestions of lead in the paint or glass have been put forward for the instruments unfortunate link with mental illness (Bloch points out that there was a 40% lead content in some glass at that time)…but what ever the cause, it’s association with madness was forever crystalized in the popular mind when Donizetti used it in his 1835 opera Lucia Di Lammermoor. The eerie piping tones of the armonica emphasis the sense of Lucia’s derangement, following her bloody murder of her bridegroom, in what has become know as the ‘Mad Scene’.
The madness fades…
The instrument was popular on both sides of the Atlantic for about a hundred years, but eventually it fell out of fashion. It’s sinister reputation for destroying the minds of those who played or heard it must have had an impact, but the fact was that the instrument was not an easy one to master and could be very temperamental. Being made of glass it was delicate, and in depending on water for its tone, it could react badly if the water was either to hard or to soft. Oh, and it was also a bit fussy about the temperature.
Its other big problem was that as fashions in music moved from the intimate chamber orchestra’s of the eighteenth century to the huge symphonies of the nineteenth, its voice simply got lost in the vastness of symphony orchestras and huge concert halls. Amplification was simply not possible at the time.
These days flutes can often be found replacing the glass harmonica in orchestras, but there are still a dozen or so players in the world today. This is largely thanks to a Massachusetts glass blower called Finkenbeiner who began something of a renaissance for the instruments in the 1980’s. Thanks to this you can still occasionally come across performances with this strange and melancholic instrument to this day.
Here are two examples of the Glass Harmonica in action – but remember – listen at your own peril – you have been warned!
Here Hayoung Lee sings Lucia in the ‘Mad Scene’ from Lucia Di Lammamoor by Donizetti, the performance is accompanied by Glass Harmonica
Thomas Bloch playing Mozart on a Glass Harmonica based on Benjamin Franklin’s design:
Sources & Notes
Syson, Lydia, 2008, ‘Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed’, Alma Books