Nero: destroyer or builder?

Until 24th October 2021, visitors to the British Museum have the opportunity to explore the life of one of Rome’s most infamous rulers. Nero: the man behind the myth tells Nero’s story through 200 ancient objects, many of which are lucky to exist today. As well as learning about Nero’s tyrannical rule, the items on display reveal the history and skill of an ancient civilisation. The British Museum allows individuals to admire the craftsmanship of statues, armour, coins and items of luxury. Sticking to the known facts, the museum encourages people to develop their own opinion about the Emperor Nero. Was he a destroyer of Rome or Rome’s finest rebuilder?

The exhibition begins with a marble statue of Nero as a boy, approximately 13 years old. Three years later, Nero would become the fifth Emperor of Rome and the final ruler of Rome’s first dynasty, the Julio-Claudians. Born on 15th December AD 37, Nero’s real name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father died when he was very young and his mother, Agrippina (AD 15/16-59), later married Emperor Claudius (10 BC-AD 54).

Eighty years before Nero became Emperor, his great-great-grandfather, Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), established a new form of government in Rome, known as a principate. Augustus was adopted into the Julian family by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), whose death sparked a civil war. When Augustus crowned himself Emperor, he ended the war, which resulted in a long period of peace and prosperity.

In 38 AD, Augustus married Livia (58 BC-AD 29), the mother of Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37), who became the next Emperor of Rome. Before Augustus died, he persuaded Tiberius to adopt his great-nephew Germanicus (15 BC-AD 19). Augustus wished Germanicus to be the heir to the throne after Tiberius. Unfortunately, Germanicus died prematurely, probably from poison, so the throne passed down to Germanicus’ son, Caligula (AD 12-41).

Caligula, to put it bluntly, was a tyrant. He banished his sisters, Agrippina, the mother of Nero and Livilla, for allegedly conspiring against him. To end his destructive rule, the Praetorian Guard assassinated him. Since Caligula had no children, his uncle Claudius, the brother of Germanicus, became the next Emperor. Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile and married her. Although Claudius wanted his son Britannicus to inherit the throne, Agrippina persuaded him to choose Nero as crown prince and heir.

Not everyone approved of Claudius’ decision, particularly the supporters of his previous wife Messalina, the mother of Britannicus. Even before Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile, Messalina feared Nero’s growing popularity. She allegedly sent men to kill Nero, but they were chased away by snakes hiding in the boy’s bedroom. Although Nero denied this story, he began wearing a gold bracelet containing the remains of a snakeskin.

To cement his claim as heir, Nero married Claudius’ daughter, Claudia Octavia in AD 53. According to rumours, Agrippina believed her son was ready to take over as Emperor, so she poisoned Claudius. To begin with, Agrippina acted as her son’s co-ruler and appointed Nero’s former tutor, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, as his chief advisor.

Seneca, along with the Praetorian Guard, tried to weaken Agrippina’s grip on her son. The Praetorians were established by Augustus as his personal guard, and they continued to support and protect each subsequent emperor. They swore allegiance to Nero the moment his mother crowned him as Emperor, but they disapproved of her constant meddling in empire affairs. Over time, Nero managed to push his mother away, eventually removing her from the palace after Britannicus’ death in AD 55. Agrippina’s waning power is evident when studying Roman coins. The first silver denarius issued after Claudius’ death shows a profile of Agrippina in a prominent position. Later coins contained the heads of both Agrippina and Nero, facing each other. In AD 55, a new design put Nero’s face in front of his mother’s, and the following year, Agrippina disappeared from coins altogether.

As well as the throne, Nero inherited the empire’s many problems, including tensions with rival powers. For years, the Parthians argued over the state of Armenia, but soon Nero directed his attention to Britain, where Boudica, Queen of the Iceni tribe, started a violent rebellion. Claudius captured parts of Britain in AD 43, and by AD 60, Boudica raised an army powerful enough to fight back. As well as the Iceni tribe, Boudica hired soldiers from the Trinovante tribe of Essex, totalling tens of thousands of people. They destroyed many Roman settlements, including Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Londinium (London). The Roman General, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, finally defeated Boudica in AD 61.

Following the war with Britain, Nero resumed focusing on Rome’s long-standing struggle for control of Armenia. Relations with Parthia grew worse when the Parthian king installed his brother Tiridates on the Armenian throne. After taking military action, Nero agreed to let Tiridates rule over Armenia on the condition that he let Nero crown him as king. With this compromise in place, the two empires finally experienced a period of peace.

When not worrying about the actions of his enemies, Nero concentrated on the people of the Roman Empire. He built many new buildings, including the Imperial Palace, baths and food markets. Nero improved the food system and implemented tax reforms to benefit the population. Unlike previous emperors, Nero also believed providing entertainment for his people was important. He encouraged public performances of plays and became the first emperor to act on stage – something that divided public opinion. Nero was also a keen musician, but his eagerness to perform in public provoked resentment among the senatorial elite who believed the Emperor should not mix with the plebs.

Nonetheless, Nero’s involvement with everyday entertainment made him popular with the people of Rome. Nero enjoyed chariot racing, despite the consensus that Charioteers were of low status. Racers competed in specific teams or factiones, each recognised by a different colour. Written evidence suggests Nero raced for the Green team because he often dyed the sand in the arena that colour. Nero’s passion for horse racing began as a child when he and his friends reportedly played with wooden chariots and toy horses.

According to Nero’s biographer, Suetonius (AD 69-122), Nero performed the roles of the mythical figures Orestes and Oedipus in tragedies on the stage. Based on Greek myths, Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father, and Oedipus unknowingly committed incest with his mother. There is no physical evidence that Nero played these roles, and some suggest Suetonius deliberately made this claim to hint at crimes Nero committed against his mother Agrippina.

Nero ordered his mother’s death in AD 59 after he suspected her of plotting against him. He also exiled and executed his first wife for similar reasons. Actions such as these were not uncommon in the Roman Empire, and Roman princesses often faced accusations of conspiring against rulers. Nonetheless, Nero’s actions tarnished his reputation, particularly his act of matricide.

During her lifetime, wild tales of Agrippina’s sexual promiscuity spread across the empire, as did her alleged sexual relationship with her son. These may only be rumours made up by those who feared her power. Nero openly admitted to ordering Agrippina’s death but claimed she had planned to assassinate him. Whilst some celebrated Nero’s salvation, others soured towards the Emperor, despite previously disliking Agrippina.

In AD 62, Nero remarried to Poppaea Sabina, who soon faced the wrath of the senate, who distrusted women in power. Nonetheless, the public loved Poppaea, which they demonstrated with poems and writing scratched into walls: NeroPoppaenses.

“Poppaea sent as gifts to most holy Venus a beryl, an ear-drop pearl and a large single pearl. When Caesar came to most holy Venus and when your heavenly feet brought you there, Augustus, there was a countless weight of gold.”

Poppaea gave birth to Nero’s only child, Claudia Augusta, in AD 63. Sadly, the child died three months later. Poppaea passed away in AD 65 after suffering a miscarriage. Although Nero expressed his grief by honouring his wife with a lavish funeral, many believed her death was his fault, suggesting he had violent tendencies.

Both Poppaea and Claudia Augusta were deified, and a marble statue of the latter was produced, depicting what she might have looked like if she had reached childhood. The hairstyle resembles Nero’s at the time of her birth, and in her right hand, she holds a butterfly. This insect is a symbol of the soul, which flutters out of the body after death.

Following Poppaea’s death, Nero married a third time. Not much is know about his third wife, Statilia Messalina, other than she outlived him. The lack of information suggests the public did not warm to her as they had Poppaea, who they saw as the perfect wife for Nero.

It is hard to trust ancient documents, especially those concerning the Roman Empire because they often contain exaggerated facts or outright lies depending on the author’s opinion or feelings. Poppaea’s death is one such example, and another is the great fire of Rome in AD 64. Flames raged for nine days, destroying a large portion of the city. Although Nero helped reconstruct buildings and provided relief for citizens, many accused him of starting the fire. The myth claims Nero stayed in his palace and “fiddled while Rome burned”, yet other evidence suggests Nero was not in the city at the time of the fire.

Three of fourteen Roman districts were reduced to ruins by the fire, including the Imperial Palace. Fires were common in Rome, as they were in most major cities due to flammable building materials and the reliance on flames for light and warmth. Yet many suspected an act of arson and pinned the blame on Nero, who in turn accused a new sect of Jewish origin, later known as Christians. Natural disasters also impacted Nero’s reign, for instance, the earthquake in AD 62, which destroyed most of Pompeii.

Whilst Nero supplied aid for the rebuilding of Rome and Pompeii, he also started building a new palace to replace the one lost in the fire. Only a few traces of the old palace remain, but its opulence is evident from the surviving fragments of ornate columns. Nero wanted his new palace to be bigger and better and named it Domus Aurea, “Golden House”. Nero’s plans were ambitious, and the building remained incomplete by his death in AD 68. He imported yellow marble from North Africa, red and green porphyry from Egypt and Greece, and white and black marble from Turkey to decorate the floors and walls of the palace. Frescoes adorned the ceilings, and the walls featured intricate geometric friezes.

Nero planned to host large banquets in the Domus Aurea as a way of expressing his wealth and power. He owned many expensive items with which he could impress his guests, including an exceptionally rare cup made from the mineral fluorspar. Ancient historians claim Nero paid one million sesterces for this item. He also owned silver dining sets. Nero’s political enemies used the construction of Domus Aurea and Nero’s possessions to paint him as a tyrant, pointing out that his new palace sat on land that once belonged to the public.

During the aftermath of the fire and the death of his second wife, Nero was at the height of his power. This was also the turning point that led to his demise. Nero planned to expand the empire across the Black Sea by invading Ethiopia, but revolts in Judea, Gaul (France) and Spain forced him to abandon these ideals. He also had less support from the senate than he had in previous years.

Nero managed to suppress the rebellions in the outer areas of the empire and marked the end of a lengthy war with Pathia in AD 66 by opening the gates of the temple of Janus in Rome. These gates were symbolically closed during times of conflict and opened during times of peace. The last time the gates were open was during the reign of Augustus. Nero celebrated this victory by issuing coins to mark the occasion.

During a tour of Greece, Nero aimed to participate in all the Greek festivals, but some of his military campaigns prevented him. Nonetheless, he granted Greece freedom from taxation in AD 67 and used the 6,000 prisoners captured during the rebellion in Judea to start building a canal in Corinth. These acts made Nero popular with the people, but those in the elite classes began to despise him.

Many members of the Senate felt threatened by Nero’s love of the common people. They wanted the Emperor and Senate to tower above the rest of the empire, but Nero often stooped down to his people’s level – although his palace suggests this was not always the case. In AD 65, the senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso led a plot against Nero known as the Pisonian Conspiracy. When Nero found out, he ordered Piso and the other conspirators to commit suicide. Although the people of Rome rejoiced that Piso’s plot had failed, other senators started to turn against Nero, and more plots followed. By AD 67, Nero had few allies left in political and military positions. Knowing this, many senators and governors took the opportunity to rebel, including Gaius Iulius Vindex, the governor of Gaul.

As the rebellions gained momentum, the remaining members of the Senate declared Nero an enemy of the state and threatened him with execution. To avoid this degrading death, Nero chose to commit suicide in June AD 68 at the age of 30. His 14-year reign came to an abrupt end, leaving people torn between grief and joy. For some, Nero had been a saviour, and rumours spread that he would return from the dead. For others, Nero had been a tyrant and someone to fear.

The year following Nero’s death became known as the Year of the Four Emperors, where the elite classes fought over the throne. Nero had no children and no heir, so there was no obvious successor. The first man to claim the throne was Lucius Sulpicius Galba, the 70-year-old governor of Spain. He reigned for seven months but failed to gain popularity with the people, resulting in his assassination. Marcus Salvius Otho, the governor of Lusitania (Portugal), took Galba’s place but found it equally difficult to exert his power. After three months, Otho took his life.

Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), took Otho’s place but failed to gain support. Although he tried to abdicate, he was executed by the Praetorian Guard. Finally, Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian), a man from relatively humble origins, claimed the throne in December AD 69. He had supported Nero and fought on the Emperor’s behalf during the Jewish rebellion of AD 66. The people and Senate were happy with this final competitor, and Vespasian ruled for ten years until his death, after which his son Titus took the throne.

During the Year of the Four Emperors, many of Nero’s statues were destroyed. As a result, very few remain today. Nero’s enemies deliberately decapitated his stone portraits, and others were used to produce new statues of later emperors. A marble portrait of Vespasian, for example, was re-carved from a likeness of Nero. Traces of Nero’s signature hairstyle are evident at the base of the neck.

The Romans attempted to write Nero out of history, which adds weight to the stories about the tyrannical Emperor. The British Museum questions these beliefs by providing evidence to the contrary. The exhibition, whilst trying to stay impartial, leans towards a more positive description of Nero. Many of the negative connotations were written long after Nero’s death. These stories were likely distorted and exaggerated over the years. That is not to say there is no truth in those allegations, but the physical evidence reveals Nero rebuilt Rome after the great fire, achieved peace throughout the empire and had a large public following.

So, was Nero a cruel, ruthless tyrant or was he a young, inexperienced ruler trying his best in a divided society? Was he a megalomaniac, or did Nero try to do what was best for his Empire? Should we believe what historians of the past have written or make judgements based on evidence unearthed by archaeologists? Ultimately, we will never know the truth, but this exhibition reveals we cannot fully rely on anything to give us an accurate account of ancient history.

Nero: the man behind the myth is open until 24th October 2021 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £20 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


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The Making of a Saint

Until 22nd August 2021, the British Museum is finally hosting its Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint exhibition, which celebrates the 850th anniversary of Becket’s brutal murder. Having been postponed due to Covid-19, visitors can now discover the murder that shook the Middle Ages and learn about the life, death and legacy of Thomas Becket. The exhibition features objects from the British Museum’s collection and those on loan from Canterbury Cathedral and other locations around Europe and the United Kingdom. Each object, whether an illuminated manuscript, item of jewellery or a sacred reliquary, helps to tell the story of Becket’s journey from a merchant’s son to an archbishop, to a martyr and a saint.

Pendant with an image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, 15th century, England.

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in December 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda. Both parents were of Norman descent and may have named their son after St Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day falls on 21st December. Gilbert Becket was a small landowner who gained his wealth as a merchant in textiles. At the age of 10, Becket attended Merton Priory in the southwest of London. He later attended a grammar school in the city where he studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. At around 18 years old, his parents sent Becket to Paris, where his education expanded to include the Liberal Arts, such as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

After three years, Becket returned to England, where his father found him a position as clerk for a family friend, Osbert Huitdeniers. Shortly after this, Becket began working for Theobald of Bec (1090-1161), the Archbishop of Canterbury. At this time, Canterbury Cathedral was a place of learning, and Becket received training in diplomacy. Theobald entrusted his clerk to travel on several important missions to Rome. He also sent Becket to Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France, to study canon law. Following this, Theobald named Becket the Archdeacon of Canterbury and nominated him for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor.

Thomas Becket was appointed as Lord Chancellor in January 1155. He became a good friend of King Henry II (1133-89), who trusted Becket to issue documents in his name. Becket had access to Henry’s royal seal, which depicted the king sitting on a throne, holding a sword and an orb. For his work as Lord Chancellor, Becket earned 5 shillings a week. The king also sent his son Henry (1155-83) to live in Becket’s household. It was customary to foster out royal children into other noble families, so it was a great honour for Becket.

Following Theobald’s death in 1161, Henry II nominated Becket for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a strange choice because Becket had no religious education and lived a comparatively secular lifestyle. Nonetheless, a royal council of bishops and noblemen agreed to Becket’s election. On 2nd June 1162, Becket was ordained a priest, and the following day, consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester (1096-1171).

It soon appeared Henry had an ulterior motive for selecting Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He wished Becket to continue to hold the position of Lord Chancellor and put the royal government first, rather than the church. This would place the church under Henry’s power, but his plan failed, and Becket renounced the chancellorship, which Henry saw as a form of betrayal. Despite his secular background, Becket transformed into an ascetic and started living a simple life devoted to humility, compassion, meditation, patience and prayer. Becket also started to oppose Henry’s decisions in court, which created significant tension between them.

The rift between Henry and Becket continued to grow throughout the two years following Becket’s archbishopric appointment. Their main arguments focused on the different rights of the secular court and the Church. Henry wished to punish churchmen accused of crimes at court, whereas Becket insisted this infringed upon the rights of the Church. Neither Henry nor Becket gave up their argument, and the issue was never resolved. Becket disagreed with many of Henry’s decisions and refused to endorse and sign documents.

On 8th October 1164, Henry summoned Becket to Northampton Castle to stand trial for allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. Despite Becket’s attempts to defend himself, he was convicted of the exaggerated crimes. Angry and fearing for his life, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the continent, where he spent six years in exile under the protection of Louis VII of France (1120-80).

At his coronation banquet, the Young King is served by his father, King Henry II (Becket Leaves, c.1220-1240).

Running away did not fully protect Becket from the king. Henry confiscated Becket’s land and wealth in retaliation for leaving the country without his permission. He also forced members of Becket’s family into exile. The king took the opportunity to go against the ways of the Church, knowing that while in exile, Becket could not prevent anything. On 14th June 1170, Henry II had his son Henry crowned as joint monarch at Westminster Abbey. By ancient rights, only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform coronations, but the king undermined Becket by asking the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London to conduct the ceremony.

Learning of the “Young King’s” coronation, Becket approached Pope Alexander III (1100-81), who had previously forbidden the Archbishop of York from conducting such ceremonies. The Pope permitted Becket to excommunicate the bishops involved. This was a punishment reserved for serious offences.

Becket initiated a fragile truce with Henry II and returned to Canterbury on 2nd December 1170. At this time, Henry was unaware that Becket had excommunicated the bishops involved with young Henry’s coronation but soon learned about the act while at his Christmas court in Normandy. He reportedly flew into a rage and called Becket a traitor and “low-born clerk”. Four of Henry’s knights witnessed this outburst and hatched a plan to arrest Thomas Becket on behalf of the king.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket

On 29th December 1170, the four knights: Reginald FitzUrse (1145-73), Hugh de Morville (d.1202), Richard Brito and William de Tracy (1133-89), arrived in Canterbury. They found Becket in the cathedral and informed him he had to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Becket refused and proceeded to the main hall for vespers. Meanwhile, the knights went away and returned with their armour and weapons. Seeing this, the monks tried to bar the doors to the cathedral, but Becket allegedly exclaimed, “It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!”

According to eye-witness reports, the four knights rushed into the cathedral wielding their weapons and shouting, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?” Standing near the stairs to the crypt, Becket announced, “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die.” The knights attacked, severing a piece of Becket’s skull. “His crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church.” (Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189)

Thomas Becket’s story does not end at his death. The exhibition at the British Museum uses objects to narrate the events in chronological order. Becket’s death occurs only one-third of the way into the narrative, suggesting the Archbishop’s legend had only just begun.

The spilling of Becket’s blood had defiled the sanctity of the cathedral. The monks needed to act quickly to clean up the mess. They placed his body in a marble tomb in the crypt and cleaned up the blood, which they kept in special containers. Due to the number of eye-witnesses, the news of Becket’s death spread quickly, so the monks closed the cathedral to the public to prevent people from entering out of morbid curiosity.

On hearing of Becket’s murder, Henry II was shocked but initially refused to punish his men. This implicated the king of the crime, and rumours soon spread that Henry had ordered his men to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s popularity grew, and Henry feared his people turning against him. The pope also suspected Henry of foul play, so to appease him, Henry performed penance twice in Normandy in 1172. Afterwards, the king travelled to Canterbury to acknowledged his involvement with the crime and asked the monks to punish him accordingly. Henry underwent public humiliation by walking barefoot through the city.

Cult-like worship of Thomas Becket began throughout the country before spreading to the continent. People travelled from far and wide to visit his tomb, which the monks eventually opened to the public. Soon, rumours spread of miracles that happened to those who visited the location of Becket’s remains, which drew thousands more to the cathedral. On 21st February 1173, the Pope officially made Becket a saint and endorsed the growing cult.

Lead ampulla, c. 1170–1200, England.

Members of the Thomas Becket cult believed the saint’s blood held miracle properties. Becket’s blood-stained clothes were sought by those who believed touching them could cure them of many ailments. The monks also sold Becket’s diluted blood, known as St Thomas Water, to pilgrims in special flasks decorated to reflect the saint’s life. Many unwell people consumed the “water”, who claimed it healed them from their life-threatening illnesses. These flasks have been found as far as the Netherlands, France and Norway, indicating the distance people travelled to visit the saint.

A monk called Benedict, who witnessed Becket’s murder, undertook the task of recording all the miracles that occurred to pilgrims visiting Becket’s tomb. By 1173, he had recorded over 270 stories, and still, people continued to arrive at the cathedral in the hopes of receiving similar treatment. In 1220, Becket’s body was moved to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel, which helped accommodate the influx of visitors. This relocation marked the 50th anniversary of Becket’s death and was celebrated with a ceremony attended by King Henry III (1207-72), the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228), and large numbers of foreign dignitaries.

On loan from Canterbury Cathedral is a “miracle window” that reveals several experiences of pilgrims who visited Becket’s shrine. In 1174, the cathedral suffered a devastating fire, which destroyed most of the east side of the building. Over the next fifty years, stonemasons worked laboriously to repair the damage. During this time, they also built a new shrine for Becket’s body. The new chapel was decorated with stone columns and a marble floor. The stained-glass “miracle windows” completed the shrine.

“In the place where Thomas suffered … and where he was buried at last, the palsied are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, the possessed of a devil are freed … I should not have dreamt of writing such words … had not my eyes been witness to the certainty of this.” (John of Salisbury, Becket’s clerk and biographer, 1171)

The six-metre tall windows, twelve in all, only reveal a handful of the miracles following Becket’s death. The window exhibited at the British Museum is the fifth in the series and records people cured of leprosy, dropsy, fevers, paralysis and other illnesses and disabilities. Six panels of the window tell the story of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant accused of theft. He was punished by blinding and castration, but during the night, Becket visited him during a vision. When Eilward awoke, he discovered his eyes and testicles had regrown.

St Thomas’ popularity continued to grow during the next couple of centuries. The pilgrimage to his shrine became as famous as those to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims arrived from as far north as Iceland and as far south as Italy to visit Becket’s shrine and experience his miracles. The cathedral began selling souvenir badges and other paraphernalia made from lead, resulting in one of the earliest gift shops in the world. The majority of the badges featured images of Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury or with a sword in his scalp to indicate his murder.

One of these souvenirs is referenced in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400), one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature. The book tells the story of an imagined group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. To pass the time on their journey to the shrine, each character competes to tell the best tale, for which the winner would receive a free meal on their return to the Tabard Inn in London. Chaucer’s characters are an eclectic mix of medieval pilgrims, such as a yeoman, a merchant, a shipman, a knight, a miller and a friar.

Pilgrimages to St Thomas’ shrine continued until the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547). English kings and their families respected the saint, often visiting the cathedral and commissioning spectacular commemorative items. Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), did the same, but the king’s attitude towards Thomas Becket changed when he tried to file for a divorce. Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) refused to comply with Henry’s wishes, so he took it upon himself to reject Catholicism and create a new branch of Christianity, the Church of England. In the years following his self-appointment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Henry dissolved Catholic convents and monasteries, destroying buildings and their contents in the process.

On 5th September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury, where he and his men set about dismantling the shrine of Thomas Becket. They stole the jewels and gold embedded into the tomb, then removed the saint’s bones. Following this act, Henry stripped Becket of his sainthood. Henry VIII’s allies supported his actions and condemned pilgrimages and denounced Becket as a traitor. They removed his name from books, and anything containing references to Becket was destroyed.

Those who opposed the crown continued to revere Thomas Becket. They also respected the former chancellor Thomas More (1478-1535), who shared a similar fate when he opposed the king. No longer able to collect mementos of Thomas Becket, people began treasuring objects connected with Thomas More. Similar acts occurred after the execution of the chancellor Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) during the reign of Mary I (1516-58).

Devoted Catholics managed to keep Becket’s memory alive by worshipping him in secret during the reigns of Protestant kings and queens. Many items connected to the Archbishop survived due to the number of pilgrims and devotees on the continent. One of the rarest reliquaries to survive is a fragment of Thomas Becket’s skull. The bone rests on a bed of red velvet and is secured in place by a golden thread. It is protected by a silver and glass case upon which is written “Ex cranio St Thomae Cantvariensis”, meaning “from St Thomas of Canterbury’s skull”. It is likely someone smuggled the reliquary out of the country during the Tudor period.

Opinions remain divided as to whether Thomas Becket is a saint and martyr or a traitor and villain. Yet, for the majority of people, Becket is a name confined to school history books. There is no cult following or pilgrimage route, yet kiss marks have been discovered on display cases holding some of the most revered objects. Perhaps Thomas Becket still has a following after all!

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is open until 22nd August 2021 in The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £17 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


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Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One

Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has returned to the South Western city of Bristol for more adventures. On his last trip, he visited the cathedral, Clifton Suspension Bridge, the SS Great Britain, Bristol Aquarium and the M Shed, but there was still so much left to explore. After patiently waiting out another Covid-19 lockdown, the double-vaccinated gibbon made his great escape in the back of a Vauxhall Corsa. Having returned from his latest adventure, Simeon wishes to tell you everything he discovered.

Broadmead and Castle Park

Simeon’s favourite way of exploring a city is by taking part in a Treasure Trail. Last year, Simeon solved a murder mystery, but this time, he received instructions about a TOP SECRET spy mission. An Eastern bloc spy ring called the “Trojans” had attacked the computers of Bristol businesses and were demanding a ransom of £10 million. The only way to avoid paying the ransom was to discover a four-digit code. Agent Simeon, under the code name “Achilles”, immediately started searching for clues and discovered some interesting facts about Bristol along the way.

The trail began in Broadmead, a street in the shopping district of the city. Originally called Brodemede as far back as 1383, the name may mean “broad meadow”, referring back to its pre-city times. Alternatively, it may refer to brodemedes, a type of cloth once woven in Bristol. In the 18th century, a shopping arcade was built in Broadmead, but the area received significant damages during the Second World War. Rebuilding began in the 1950s, and today, Broadmead is home to a shopping centre called Cabot Circus, which opened in September 2008.

In 1227, a man named Maurice de Gaunt founded a Dominican priory called Blackfriars on Broadmead. Its name describes the black hooded cloaks of the friars who inhabited the building. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, the friars surrendered the buildings and contents to Henry VIII (1491-1547). Two years later, William Chester, the Mayor of Bristol purchased the buildings from the king.

During the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), the Smiths and Cutlers Company bought the old priory and leased parts of the buildings to other organisations, for instance, a workhouse for poor girls. During the 17th century, the Religious Society of Friends acquired the premises and became known as the Quaker Friars. Only part of the original priory remains standing today. During the 20th century, the building housed the Bristol Register Office. In recent years, it has become home to a restaurant.

Llywelyn ap Dafydd (c.1267-1287), the eldest son of the then Prince of Wales, was buried in the priory grounds after a four-year imprisonment in Bristol Castle. This information confused Simeon because he could not see a castle anywhere. The matter was soon cleared up after Simeon carefully crossed the road to Castle Park.

Situated in Castle Park is the partially excavated remains of the stone keep and two preserved vaulted chambers of Bristol Castle. It was built in the Norman era to protect the walled city of Bristol from attack. The original castle, a timber motte and bailey, was presumably built on the orders of William the Conqueror (1028-87). It was strategically placed between the River Avon and the River Frome and surrounded by an artificial moat.

The castle was later rebuilt in stone and became the possession of Robert of Gloucester (1090-1147), the half-brother of Empress Matilda (1102-67), the legitimate heir to the throne. During Matilda’s fight with her cousin, Stephen (1092-1154) over the English crown, Matilda appointed Robert as her trusted right-hand man. Bristol Castle became a notable location in the war. Stephen was briefly captured and imprisoned in the castle but released in exchange for other prisoners. When Stephen became king, he thought little of the city of Bristol and the castle remained Robert’s property.

When Robert of Gloucester died, the castle and title passed down to his son William (1116-83). Unfortunately, William fell foul of King Henry II (1133-89), who confiscated Bristol Castle, making it a possession of the crown. As a result, the castle became one of the most important in the country. King John’s (1166-1216) sons received their education at Bristol Castle, including the future Henry III (1207-72), who added a barbican, gate tower and great hall during his reign.

By the 16th century, Bristol Castle showed signs of neglect, as recorded by the English poet, John Leland (1503-52). He wrote a description of the castle, noting its dungeons, church and domestic quarters, but revealed, “Many towers still stand in both the courts, but they are all on the point of collapse.” Bristol Castle had fallen into disuse and, after the civil war, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) ordered the destruction of the castle in 1645.

The land on which the castle once stood is used as a public park today. In the centre stands the ruins of St Peter’s Church, which was bombed during the Bristol Blitz on the night of 24th November 1940. The church foundations date back to 1106, but the majority of the building was constructed in the 15th century. Excavations after the Second World War revealed St Peter’s may have been the first church built in Bristol.

The majority of the church walls are still standing, but the roof and interior suffered severe damages. Rather than demolish the rest of the building, the city maintains St Peter’s Church as a memory of the civilians who died during the Bristol Blitz. A plaque on the south wall of the church lists the 200 Bristolians who lost their lives on the night of the Blitz. Nearby, another plaque remembers the names of citizens from Bristol who died fighting against the Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

St Peter’s is not the only church destroyed during the Bristol Blitz. Temple Church in the Redcliffe district of the city, which Simeon visited towards the end of his trip, remains an empty shell and is protected by English Heritage. Fortunately, the unique bell tower survived the bombing. Constructed between 1441 and 1460, the tower leans towards the left due to subsidence. During the construction, builders noticed the lower sections sinking into the ground and attempted to correct it by building the upper section at a different angle. The reason for the subsidence was due to the soft alluvial clay beneath the foundations, which was compressed by the weight of the stone.

The destruction of the church revealed the foundations of a previous round nave from the 12th century. This belonged to the Knights Templar, who received the land from Robert of Gloucester. After the suppression of the Templars, the Knights Hospitaller took over the building in 1313. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the church became the property of the crown, but the Bristol Corporation managed to purchase it from the king in 1544.

Back on the spy trail, Simeon trekked through the Physic Garden running parallel to St Peter’s ruined nave. Replacing a neglected sensory garden, the Physic Garden was planted by the luxury fragrance brand Jo Malone London in 2015 as part of a global charity initiative to support people living with mental ill-health and physical disabilities. Designed to nourish and nurture, the garden is a peaceful haven for rehabilitation and recovery. Jo Malone London also supported the homelessness charity St Mungo’s to create the Putting Down Roots (PDR) programme, which encourages the homeless and jobless to help maintain the garden, earn qualifications in horticulture, and seek permanent employment.

Behind the church, Simeon was excited to discover a feature called Beside the Still Waters. Two Kilkenny limestone fountains sit in small ponds, which are joined together by a narrow channel of water. At one end, the carved stone resembles a pine cone, and at the other, the stone has a cinquefoil form, giving it the appearance of a garlic bulb. The feature was created by Peter Randall-Page (b.1954), who has public work on display in several locations, including London and Cambridge. Randall-Page focuses on the geometry of his designs, which he explains “is the theme on which nature plays her infinite variations”.

Simeon was intrigued to discover another sculpture nearby of a throne made of Normandy limestone. While inspecting it for clues for his spy mission, Simeon found giant footprints at the base of the throne. Simeon is now convinced that giants once roamed the city of Bristol, but this sculpture was commissioned in the early 1990s during the new landscaping of Castle Park. The sculptor is Rachel Fenner, who takes inspiration from ancient natural and archaeological sites of Britain.

With no time to worry about the existence of giants, Simeon hurried on through Castle Park – he had spies to catch! He even resisted climbing the five Silver Birch trees planted in memory of the five D-Day landing beaches, code-named Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah and Omaha. Nor did Simeon notice the memorial trees for Anne Frank and the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the centre of the park stands another sculpture, which Simeon paused at to sniff for clues. Unveiled by the Bristol Civic Society in 1993 to provide drinking water, the bronze fish fountain was created by ceramic artist Kate Malone. The water spouts, which poured out of the mouths of the fish, were later turned off when they failed the updated Water Regulations Advisory Scheme. Plans to refurbish the fountain are underway, so hopefully Malone’s work will function once again.

Whilst combing through the rest of Castle Park for clues, Simeon spotted a couple more things of note, such as several bird and bug boxes hanging on a wall. Opposite this, an S-shaped footbridge takes people across the Floating Harbour to the Finzels Reach development. The bridge opened in 2017 and, in Simeon’s opinion, is far more attractive than some of the industrial-style bridges. Unfortunately, Simeon did not have time to cross the bridge – he had spies to catch – but he was able to enjoy the experience later in the week.

Situated on the harbour is a floating ballast seed garden called Seeds of Change. Ballasts were frequently unloaded from trading ships in the harbour between 1680 and 1900. They often contained seeds of plants from all the countries the ships had visited, some of which flourished after arriving in Bristol. In 2007, Bristol invited Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves (b.1961) to exhibit her work in an exhibition at the Arnolfini gallery. During her stay, Alves dug up some of the remaining ballasts and extracted the seeds, which she grew and displayed in the gallery.

In 2010, Bristol invited Alves back to the city to develop a permanent ballast garden. A disused barge in the Floating Harbour was selected as the location of the garden, and with the help of German designer Gitta Gschwendtner, Alves chose several plants grown from seeds by participating schools and organisations. These plants arrived in Bristol from all over the world and include figs, asphodels and squirting cucumbers. Admittedly, the Seeds of Change garden did not look all that impressive to Simeon, but many new plants may flourish between now and September. 

Having collected all the clues he needed from Castle Park, Simeon returned to Broadmead, where he enjoyed following a snake-like blue line along the pavement. Along the way, he rested his weary legs on stone spheres decorated with blue mosaic tiles. This installation refers to Bristol’s famous blue glass, produced in the city in the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Bristol Blue’ glass was mostly used for medicine bottles, and the landscaping firm Reckless Orchard recycled many of these to create the blue bricks seen along Broadmead.

Great work, Simeon! You have managed to solve all the clues, worked out the code and stopped the Trojans. Simeon patted himself on the back and set off in search of some well-deserved tea and cake.

Treasure Island Trail

Being the adventurous little gibbon that he is, Simeon sought out another treasure trail to follow around Bristol. Put together by the Long John Silver Trust, the trail takes intrepid explorers around parts of Bristol’s harbour to celebrate the city’s connection with Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-94) classic novel Treasure Island (1882). Simeon’s task was to locate eight wooden barrels, upon which he would learn a bit about both the book and the city.

Simeon located the first barrel outside the old Merchant Venturers’ Almshouses. Built in 1699, the houses accommodated many sailors, including William Williams, the first person to introduce a pirate treasure map in his book The Journal of Llewellin Penrose, a Seaman. Stevenson incorporated the idea for his novel, which involved pirates, treasure hunting and a young lad from Bristol.

Treasure Island begins at the Admiral Benbow Inn on the Bristol Channel, where an old sailor named Billy Bones warns the innkeeper’s son, Jim Hawkins, to keep a lookout for “a one-legged seafaring man”. On Simeon’s walk through Bristol, he came across the Llandoger Trow, a historic public house built in 1664. It is this building that inspired Stevenson to invent the Admiral Benbow Inn. It is also where English writer Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) met Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721), a Scottish privateer who spent four months stranded on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean. Intrigued by Selkirk’s story, Defoe wrote one of the first English novels, Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk may also be the inspiration for Stevenson’s character Ben Gunn.

In the book, a blind beggar visits Billy Bones to give him “the black spot”. This is a summons to share a map leading to buried treasure. Shortly after, Bones suffers a stroke and dies, and the beggar and other men attack the inn in search of the map. Jim finds the treasure map first and escapes. After sharing his find with Squire Trelawney and Dr Livesey, they secure a ship called the Hispaniola to seek the treasure, but first, they need to hire a crew. In a fictional Bristol pub called The Spy-Glass, they meet the landlord, Long John Silver, who offers his services as a cook. Jim is a bit wary because Silver only has one leg, and he recalls Billy Bones’ warning. 

Stevenson described The Spy-Glass as having a spy hole through which people could warn others of the presence of press gangs or slave traders. In Bristol, Simeon came across a pub called The-Hole-in-the-Wall, the only known pub in the country to have a spy hole feature. It is likely Stevenson based The Spy-Glass on this pub, which has other similar features, including doors leading on to separate streets so that patrons could make a swift exit. Fortunately, Simeon did not see any one-legged seafaring men in the area.

The Treasure Island Trail took Simeon to Redcliffe Wharf, where he learned of the many barrels loaded onto and taken off ships in the harbour. In the book, Jim Hawkins finds himself trapped in a barrel when he overhears Long John Silver’s plans to find and keep the treasure for himself. Simeon shuddered at the thought of getting trapped inside one of the barrels on the trail. Fortunately, they also function as plant pots, so there was no danger of Simeon falling in.

On the trail, Simeon heard about a real-life pirate who grew up in the Redcliffe district. Edward Teach (1680-1718), better known as Blackbeard, served on an English ship in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), after which he became a notorious pirate. He attacked merchant ships and stole their goods, weapons and valuables. Fortunately, there is no record of Blackbeard killing anyone. (“Phew!” thought Simeon.) Blackbeard’s second-in-command, Israel Hands, also known as Basilica Hands, inspired Stevenson’s character of the same name, a villainous sidekick of Long John Silver.

Simeon thoroughly enjoyed the Treasure Trail spy mission and the Treasure Island Trail. It was a lot of walking for such a small gibbon but he learned a lot of information about Bristol. Simeon still had several days to enjoy in the city, but first, he needed a nice long rest. He will tell you about the rest of his trip next week. See you then!

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights


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Stamps: A Brief British History

The history of the British postal system dates back to the 12th century when King Henry I (1068-1135) appointed messengers to deliver letters to and from members of the government. Since then, the country has developed an efficient national service, which inspired countries around the world to do the same. Britain also takes credit for the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, which revolutionised the method of sending letters both in Britain and across the planet.

Monarchs followed in Henry I’s footsteps, utilising messengers to carry letters. Henry III (1207-72) gave his men uniforms to show they were on official business for the King. The general public could hire messengers, but these men had no distinguishing clothing. Many households sent kitchen boys or other servants to deliver notes across the city or to neighbouring towns.

Messengers often travelled for several days to deliver the monarch’s messages to recipients in other counties or countries. Although some went on foot, most had horses to speed up the journey. During the reign of Edward I (1239-1307), stations, later known as post houses, were set up in or between various towns where mounted couriers could change horses or rest for the evening. Centuries later, these establishments developed into post offices.

Although postage stamps did not emerge until the 19th century, post markings developed as early as the 14th century. Urgent letters often featured handwritten notes, such as “Haste. Post haste”, which let the courier know to make the delivery a priority. During the 16th century, the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) developed a “gallows” symbol to indicate the degree of urgency. The contents did not necessarily concern the gallows or execution, but it let the messenger know it was a letter of extreme importance.

In 1516, Henry VIII (1491-1547) appointed Brian Tuke (d.1545) as the “Master of the Postes”, thus creating the Royal Mail. At this time, only the royal family and members of the court could use the postal service. Tuke oversaw all the post to and from the royal court and arranged for couriers to make several deliveries during one journey. For this, Tuke received £100 a year and received a knighthood. Tuke also served as High Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire and owned manors in South Weald, Layer Marney, Thorpe, and East Lee.

During the reign of Charles I (1600-49), the Royal Mail became available to the public. The King instructed chief postmaster Thomas Witherings (d.1651) to arrange “a running post or two to run day and night between Edinburgh and Scotland and the City of London, to go thither and come back in six days”. Thus, the Post Office came into being. Witherings also oversaw the construction of six “Great Roads” and employed a postmaster to take charge of each one. The postmaster’s duties included providing new horses at every two and a half miles for the couriers.

In 1661, Charles II (1630-85) replaced the “Master of the Postes” with the Postmaster General. The King appointed Henry Bishop (1605-91) as the first man with this title and gave him the responsibility to oversee the handling and delivery of the Royal Mail. Since the service was made available to the public, the number of people sending letters rapidly increased. As a result, it took longer for letters to arrive. After a series of complaints, Bishop devised the first postmark “that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer may dare detayne a letter from post to post; which before was usual.” This postmark, which was first used on 19th April 1661, quickly became known as the “Bishop Mark” after its creator. It consisted of a small circle of 13 mm diameter with the month abbreviated to two letters in the lower half and the day in the upper. Bishop also increased the delivery routes across the country, with post offices in each town. Eventually, unique postmarks developed for each area to show from whence the post came.

Letters and parcels were usually paid for by the recipient on receipt. Some people complained about the expense, particularly about letters sent over short distances. To improve the system, an English merchant, William Dockwra (1635-1716), with the help of his assistant Robert Murray (1635-1725), devised the London Penny Post in 1680, which allowed inhabitants of London to send mail across the city for one penny. To use this service, the senders took their letters to a local post office and paid the penny fee rather than relying on the recipient to pay the charge.

Whilst the London Penny Post was successful, the rest of the country were charged per distance, weight or amount of paper used in their letters. People came up with ways to avoid paying the steep charges, such as writing extra small or, if the letter was not prepaid, reading the message and handing it back to the postman. After many discussions, the Great Post Office Reform of 1839 and 1840 set about reversing the financial losses of the service as a result of this misuse. The Reform aimed to nationalise the penny post, a concept championed by Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879). After much debate, Royal Mail adopted Hill’s suggestion of charging one penny to send an envelope of up to half an ounce in weight anywhere in the country or two pence if the fee was collected from the recipient.

The Post Office felt sceptical about lowering the price of postage to a fixed rate of one penny, but Hill rightly pointed out that it would encourage more people to send letters. This sparked the worry that post offices would soon become the busiest establishments in British towns and cities, which inspired Rowland Hill to devise a new means of sending mail. Rather than paying for each letter at a post office, Hill suggested selling prepaid adhesive labels to stick on envelopes. This meant people could buy several labels in one go and reduce the number of trips to the post office. Instead, they could place their letters in the provided post boxes. Thus, the world’s first stamp was born.

The world’s first stamp, the Penny Black, came into use on 6th May 1840 and allowed letters of up to half an ounce to be sent anywhere in the country. Rowland Hill first proposed the idea in 1837, although it took some time for the Post Office to agree to it. Eventually, Hill received permission to begin the project and announced a design competition for the new stamps. Over 2,600 people submitted entries, but they were all impractical. Finally, Hill chose a simple design featuring the profile of Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Hill commissioned the engraver Charles Heath (1785-1848) to engrave the image of the Queen based on a sketch by Henry Corbould (1787-1844). The size of the stamp was 3/4 inch wide by 7/8 inch tall (19 x 22 mm), which allowed room for the portrait as well as the words “Postage” and “One Penny”. The two upper corners on the design featured the Maltese Cross, and the bottom corners denoted the position of the stamp in the printed sheet. A printed sheet held 240 stamps in 20 rows of 12 columns. The stamps on the top row contained the letters AA, AB, AC and so forth, and on the bottom row, TA, TB, TC etc. The stamps were printed in shades of black, hence its name.

Two days after the Penny Black came into use, the Post Office issued a Two Penny Blue for the postage of letters weighing up to an ounce. The stamps were an immediate success, but the Penny Black soon began to cause problems. After receiving letters, post offices marked the stamp in red ink to show it had been used. Due to the darkness of the Penny Black, the red ink did not show up well and was easily washed off. Learning of this, many people were able to reuse the stamps. By February 1841, the Penny Black had been replaced with the Penny Red, and post offices used black ink to mark used stamps.

Whilst purchasing several stamps on one sheet was useful, the only way to separate them was to cut them out with scissors. This inefficient method inspired printers to develop more practical ways, such as perforation, which became standard practice in 1854. Lines of small holes along the edges of each stamp allowed the user to tear them apart without causing any damage.

The Penny Red and Two Penny Blue were a great success, but people also wanted to send letters and parcels that weighed more than one ounce. Some letters arrived at their destination with more than one stamp affixed to the envelope. This encouraged the Post Office to issue stamps for higher values. Between 1847 and 1854, they produced three new stamps: 1 shilling (12 pence), 10 pence and 6 pence. They were green, brown and purple respectively, and featured a watermark with the letters V R. Unlike the red and blue stamps, these embossed postage stamps were octagonal and could only be printed one at a time.

In 1855, a new method of printing allowed for the production of cheaper stamps. Surface printing, which is still used today to print wallpaper, is an automated printing method that quickly transfers an image to the paper using very little ink. A large reel of paper is threaded through the machine, which in the 19th century resembled a Ferris wheel. Whilst the first stamp printed in this method was a 4 pence stamp, printers were soon churning out halfpenny and penny halfpenny stamps.

The first halfpenny postage stamp was the Halfpenny Rose Red, first issued on 1st October 1870. Nicknamed “Bantams” due to their small size, the stamps were only 17.5 mm × 14 mm (0.69 in × 0.55 in), half the size of a Penny Red. These were intended for the sending of newspapers and postcards, which usually weighed less than letters. The stamps featured the engraved portrait of Queen Victoria with “12d” printed on either side. They were printed 480 to a page and watermarked with the word “halfpenny”. After ten years, the Halfpenny Green replaced the Rose Red.

On the same day as the Halfpenny Rose Red, the Post Office issued the Three Halfpence Red, also known as penny halfpennies. Printed in a similar colour as the halfpenny, the Three Halfpence was suitable for sending letters that weighed more than half an ounce but less than one ounce. The stamps featured the profile of Queen Victoria surrounded by the words “Three Halfpenny Postage”.

Larger stamps, including 5 shillings (25p), 10 shillings (50p), £1 and £5 also appeared in the 1870s and 1880s. Around the same time, the contract with Messrs. Perkins, Bacon & Co, who printed the Penny Red, came to an end. The stamps were temporarily replaced by surface printed Penny Venetian Reds but new laws resulting from the Customs and Inland Revenue Act of 1881 necessitated the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” on the stamp, so the Post Office commissioned a new design resulting in the Penny Lilac.

The Penny Lilac broke with the traditional design of stamps, which had rectangular designs. The new stamp, whilst printed on perforated rectangles, featured the profile of Queen Victoria inside an oval containing the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” and “One Penny”. Early versions of the Penny Lilac had 14 dots in each corner, but later versions had 16. Unlike the previous stamps, the engraved design was printed in purple while the background remains blank. This meant the stamps could be printed with less ink, allowing Royal Mail to save on expense.

All the other stamps needed new designs due to the Customs and Inland Revenue Act. Printers decided to use the same colour purple for the lower valued stamps (1 12d, 2d, 2 12d, 3d) and green for the higher (4d, 5d, 6d, 9d and 1s). The choice of colours was chosen to prevent forgers from reusing the stamps. People frequently washed red and blue stamps to remove postmarks, but the new purple and green inks would fade in contact with water.

Many complained about the new designs because they were simple in comparison to the original stamps. This was due to the rush to create them after the 1881 Act. The 2d, 2 12d, 6d, and 9d stamps were a horizontal format, which also received complaints. Due to this, the Post Office considered revamping the designs.

The Post Office commissioned their designers to produce unique designs for each existing stamp from a halfpenny to one shilling. With Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee approaching in 1887, they aimed to print them that year in her honour. Collectively, these stamps are known as the “Jubilee Issue” and have a more elaborate design than the lilac and green stamps. Despite celebrating the Queen’s 50th year on the throne, they decided to continue using the original profile picture of the 18-year-old Victoria. Some of the stamp designs contained two different colours to make them easier to tell apart.

Happy with the new designs, the Jubilee stamps remained for the rest of Victoria’s reign. When her son, Edward VII (1841-1910), succeeded the throne in 1901, new stamps became necessary. By reusing the frames for the Jubilee stamps, the Post Office quickly issued new versions featuring the profile of the new king. To prevent people from reusing the stamps, they were printed on chalk-surfaced paper, which was designed to smear if anyone attempted to remove the postage mark.

When George V (1865-1936) became king in 1910, the stamp design remained relatively the same, but in 1924, the United Kingdom released its first commemorative stamp. Featuring the King’s profile on one half and a lion on the other, the stamps commemorated the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley Park from 23rd April 1924 until 31st October 1925. Of the 58 territories in the British Empire, only Ghana and Gibraltar did not participate. Each country brought items to exhibit and sell based on their cultures, which they displayed in unique pavilions. Malta’s pavilion, for example, was modelled on a Maltese fort and the Australian pavilion displayed a 16-foot diameter ball of Australian wool.

The next major change in stamp design occurred after the death of George V. In 1936, Edward VIII came to the throne, prompting the Post Office to issue a set of four stamps ready for his coronation. Unfortunately, Edward VIII abdicated, and the stamps were only used for a few months. In comparison to previous designs, the Edward VIII stamp was rather simple, only featuring the profile of the king, a crown, the denomination and the word “Postage”. The design was suggested by 18-year-old H.J. Brown and the portrait of Edward was photographed by Hugh Cecil (1889-1974). To prevent forgeries, the stamp was watermarked with the symbol of a crown and “E8R”. The 12d green, the 1 12d brown and the 2 12d blue were issued on 1st September 1936, followed by the Penny Red on 14th September.

George VI’s (1895-1952) stamps were relatively simple in comparison to its predecessors, yet they were more ornate than Edward VIII. The new stamp featured an image of the King based on a plaster cast by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). They were printed on a solid colour background with the words “Postage” and “Revenue” written on either side of the King’s profile. In the corners, a flower represented each of the countries that made up the United Kingdom: a rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, a daffodil for Wales and shamrocks for Northern Ireland. In 1937, the stamps became lighter in colour because the printers wished to save money on ink in anticipation of the Second World War.

In 1940, the Post Office released commemorative stamps to celebrate the centenary of the postage stamp. At double the size of the usual stamps, the centenary stamps featured the portrait of Queen Victoria and George VI side by side. A total of six different designs were produced, one for each of the denominations from 12d to 3d. Other commemorative stamps printed during George VI’s reign celebrated the king’s silver wedding, the liberation of the Channel Islands, the 1948 London Olympic Games, the Universal Postal Union’s 75th anniversary and the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

New stamps were once again needed when Elizabeth II (b.1926) succeeded her father in 1952. The image of the Queen was taken from a photograph by Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976), who had worked as a royal photographer since 1937. In the photograph, the Queen wears the State Diadem, which Queen Victoria wore in her portrait for the Penny Black. Over 75 designs were considered for the stamp before deciding upon five that resembled the much-loved stamps of the past. Eighteen different values of stamps were printed featuring the new Queen whose face was half turned to the viewer rather than in profile.

During Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, there have been hundreds of commemorative stamps, for example, the Coronation in 1953 and the World Scout Jubilee Jamboree in 1957. Yet, until 1964, the only people to feature on stamps were members of the royal family. In celebration of his 400th birthday, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) became the first “commoner” to have his face on a British stamp. A series of five stamps were designed for the occasion, one of which displayed the playwright’s face alongside the Queen. The other designs contained the Queen and an illustration portraying a scene from a Shakespeare play.

Whereas the profiles of previous monarchs were easy to reproduce as a silhouette to print on other items and commemorative paraphernalia, the Queen’s half-turned face caused problems. This prompted a redesign of British stamps in 1967 using a profile image made by English sculptor Arnold Machin (1911-99). Rather than an ornate design, the stamps were reduced to a coloured background, profile image of the Queen and the denomination in the bottom left-hand corner.

In 1970, the stamps needed editing again after Great Britain adopted decimal currency. New denominations appeared in the corners of the stamps, such as, 10p, 20p and 50p. In 1972, the Post Office issued £1, £2, and £5 stamps and later the odd values of £1.30, £1.33, £1.41, £1.50 and £1.60.

The new prices of stamps were confusing for many people, so the Post Office restricted the higher denominations to £1, £1.50, £2 and £5. In 1988, they issued four new designs featuring illustrations of castles from each country in the United Kingdom, based on photographs taken by Prince Andrew (b.1960). A small version of the Queen’s profile sat in the corner of each stamp alongside the image of Carrickfergus on the £1 green stamp, Caernarfon on the £1.50 brown, Edinburgh on the £2 blue and Windsor on the £5 brown.

Due to inflation, prices of stamps increased, which caused many difficulties for designers and printers. To work around the problem of fast-changing rates, the Post Office released non-denominated postage stamps, known as 1st class and 2nd class. These stamps remain in use today, and the prices can change without affecting the design. In 1993, self-adhesive stamps were printed, meaning people no longer needed to lick the back of a stamp to stick it to the envelope. In 2009, two ellipsoidal panels were added to each stamp to make them harder to remove and reuse.

Every Christmas, the Post Office releases festive-themed stamps, which always feature a small profile of the Queen in one corner. Hundreds of commemorative stamps are also printed each year, some of which cost more than the standard rate. People who have been commemorated include Princess Diana (1961-97), the Queen Mother (1900-2002), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Inigo Jones (1573-1652), William Morris (1834-96), Roald Dahl (1916-90), Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the gold medal winners of the 2012 Olympics. Significant events, such as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the millennium, received special stamps, as have the anniversaries of buildings and organisations, including Westminster Abbey, the NHS and Great Ormond Street. Even fictional characters have featured on British stamps, for instance, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh.

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A Ball of Wool

On my recent blog, The History of Postcards, published on 9th April 2021, I received a comment that said, “Hazel can make anything interesting, perhaps next week the history of a ball of wool!” Whilst this suggestion is undoubtedly a joke, it made me think. Is it possible to write an article about a ball of wool? Could it be an interesting topic to research? So after some thought and a few internet searches, my response to this comment is “Challenge Accepted!” 

From where does wool come? Most people will say sheep, which is true, but wool is also obtained from other animals, including goats, oxen, rabbits and camels. The history of wool begins around 6000 BC, where archaeological evidence in Iran suggests people kept sheep for their wool. Fragments of woollen garments dating to circa 3000 BC exist in the Middle East, but the animals arrived in Europe much later, where the oldest wool textile, found in a Danish bog, dates to c. 1500 BC.

To remove the woollen fleece from the sheep requires a pair of shears. These may resemble a large pair of scissors or, more recently, a power-driven toothed blade similar to human hair clippers. Yet, the first shears did not appear until the Iron Age (c. 1500-500 BC). Before then, people collected the wool by hand, either plucking it straight from the sheep or using sharp bronze combs.

Around the time of the Roman invasion in 55 BC, the British Isles had a thriving wool industry, which helped clothe the majority of people in the country. Soon, wool joined linen and leather as the most common clothing textiles in Europe. Other fabrics, such as cotton and silk, arrived later from India and China, and only the most wealthy could afford such luxuries.

By the 1st century AD, European people bred sheep specifically for wool production. As Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) explained in his encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History), some areas were already selectively breeding the animals to produce superior fleeces. Pliny claimed Apulian wool, collected from sheep in the heel of Italy, was the “most esteemed”, often used for making cloaks. He explained that although shearing sped up the wool collecting process, some countries still preferred to pluck it from the animal.

Pliny also described the various colours of wool found in different areas of the world. In Southern Italy, sheep tended to have white fleeces, but in the north, black sheep frequented the Alps, and Erythræan or red wool came from countries bordering the red sea. Wool gathered in Istria, a peninsula shared today by Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, was not as suitable for making garments, whereas sheep in Egypt produced the best wool for embroidery. In Gaul, they used fleece to make carpets and felt. They also dyed the wool to create beautiful patterns, although black wool did not take any colour.

A fair in Champagne in the 13th century

With so many varieties of wool, the fabric soon became a tradeable commodity. In the 12th century, traders flocked to “Champagne Fairs” in the French county of Champagne, where they sold many textiles and spices. Usually, they held six fairs a year, with the first held annually on the 2nd January. The second took place on the Tuesday before “mid-Lent” and the third on the Tuesday before Ascension Day. The fourth fair, known as the “fair of St. John”, occurred on the Tuesday after St John’s Day (24th June), which celebrates the birth of Saint John the Baptist. The fair of St. Ayoul always took place on 14th September to mark the Exaltation of the Cross, and the final fair took place on All Souls’ Day (2nd November).

The Champagne Fairs made different qualities of wool available to other areas of Europe, and the trade became a serious moneymaker for much of the Southern continent. Italy remained the forerunner of wool production until the 15th century when English exports outranked them. As mentioned above, wool arrived on the British Isles with the Romans, but it was not until the 12th century that wool became Britain’s greatest asset.

Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500)

Cistercian Abbeys around Europe were instrumental in the success of the wool trade. Known for their “enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit,” they “were catalysts for development of a market economy” for much of the 12th century. Cistercians owned a lot of farmland on which they grew crops and bred animals, including sheep. England, in particular, was indebted to the Order for starting a successful wool trade with other countries. The Cistercians sent raw wool to cities in Flanders, where it was dyed and refined into cloth. The income from this industry was significant for the English Crown, which imposed an export tax on wool known as the “Great Custom”.

Maltolt, meaning “bad tax” in Norman-French, is the name given to a series of wool taxes between 1294 and 1297. Taxes imposed in 1275 granted Edward I (1239-1307) a half-mark customs duty per exported sack of wool, but when the Anglo-French War began in 1294, the price increased. All wool gathered in England belonged to the king who charged traders 40 shillings per sack. Unhappy with the “Great Custom”, a group of noblemen wrote a series of complaints or Monstraunces to the king’s government. They claimed the Maltolt had driven the country to poverty amongst other grievances, forcing Edward to cease the taxes.

The Woolsack

By the 14th century, the wool trade was of great importance to the economy of England. Wishing to symbolise this, King Edward III (1327-77) suggested his Lord Chancellor should sit on a wool bale whilst in council. Now known as the Woolsack, the tradition has passed down the centuries and is still used today. The bale has been replaced many times, but in 1938 the House of Lords discovered the Woolsack stuffed with horsehair. Since reupholstered and filled with wool, the Woolsack is covered with red cloth and includes a backrest for more comfort. Since 2006, it is the Lord Speaker who sits on the Woolsack rather than the Lord Chancellor.

Although England was one of the largest wool exporters, they relied on other countries to turn the wool into garments and so forth. During the 14th century, Flemish weavers fled to England to escape taxes in Flanders, bringing with them their knowledge of weaving. Under their expertise, England could turn their wool into cloth, thus being able to trade both raw fleeces and textiles. By the time of the Black Death (1346-53), the most fatal pandemic to date, England accounted for approximately 10% of the wool trade.

The plague halted wool production, but by the 15th century, trade picked up once again. The English wool industry far surpassed the continent, and the government began to discourage exportation. When the Huguenots, French Protestants, fled to England in the early 16th century, they brought their weaving knowledge and expertise. With their help, the English industry became self-sufficient, no longer needing to send fleece abroad to transform into cloth.

Determined to be more successful than Flanders and Italy, England outlawed wool exportation. Nonetheless, this did not stop people from trying to ship the material to France. Known as Owlers because they worked predominantly at night, participants smuggled 480,000 pounds of wool a year across The Channel. They usually set off from Romney Marsh, sparsely inhabited wetlands in Kent and East Sussex, but the government soon found out, and those caught lost their hands as punishment.

In 1699, William III (1650-1702) issued An Act to prevent the Exportation of Wool out of the Kingdoms of Ireland and England into Forreigne parts and for the Incouragement of the Woollen Manufactures in the Kingdom of England. The act aimed to squash the growing woollen industry in Ireland and the American colonies. It also forbade the use of foreign wool, meaning shopkeepers in England could only sell clothing made from the fleeces of English sheep. The government wished to profit from the English wool trade without any other country benefiting from sales. Naturally, several people opposed this rule and wool was transported overseas by Owlers and sold on the black market.

Queen Bertha of Burgundy instructing girls to spin flax on spindles using distaffs

Until the 18th century, the wool industry relied on manual spinning wheels and looms to create cloth. Known as the “cottage industry”, many did this from the comfort of their own homes. The homemade garments, usually produced by women, were made from raw wool supplied by a subcontractor. The subcontractor often employed many women and families to produce cloth for a small amount of money.

Harris Tweed

Manual labour in the cottage industry was slow, but subcontractors usually had several workers, allowing them to make a steady profit. One notable brand, Harris Tweed, began its life as a cottage industry in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Islanders living on Lewis and Harris, the Uists, Benbecula, and Barra made a living as crofters, weaving cloth for personal and practical uses. The islands were often cold, so the inhabitants needed thick clothing, but they also sold fabric to the mainland for income. Using only pure wool from sheep on the islands, Harris Tweed is easily identifiable from flecks of colour made from natural dyes. Although the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century sped up cloth production, Harris Tweed is still produced by hand. The fabric is often sought after in the fashion industry and is used by many companies, including Hugo Boss, Topman, Nordstrom, Dr Martens, and Nike.

Handloom weaving in 1747, from William Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness

The Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) brought radical changes to wool production, almost putting cottage industries out of business. Many inventors built devices to help speed up the textile making process. Machines, such as handlooms, worked better for cotton, which is finer than wool. Soon the cotton industry surpassed the wool industry with over 900 factories in Britain by 1797. At that time, cotton made up 2.6% of Britain’s textile output, which increased to 17% in 1801. Wool, on the other hand, only rose from 10% to 14.1%.

Until the 18th century, textile workers used man-powered spinning wheels to turn wool into yarn (balls of wool). To lessen the manual labour, English inventor John Kay (1704-79) patented the flying shuttle in 1733, which halved the production time. Operated by one person, the frame used a series of mechanisms to spin the wool into long strands. In 1764, Lancashire weaver James Hargreaves (1720-78) developed the spinning jenny, which allowed a single worker to spin up to eight spools of wool at a time. As technology improved, this increased to 120.

The first machine that did not rely on human power to work was the water frame, patented by Richard Arkwright (1732-92) in 1767. Initially used for cotton rather than wool, the machine’s mechanisms were powered by a waterwheel. Usually made from wood and fitted with buckets or blades, the wheels were attached to the walls of the mills and factories above a running stream. As the water flowed against the buckets or blades, the wheel turned, thus powering the machines inside. The downside to this invention was its reliance on water flow. They required fast-moving streams that would not dry up in the summer months. This requirement limited the number of places suitable for such mills.

A Roberts self-acting spinning mule

For places without access to suitable water streams, Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule in 1779. Although this involved manual labour, each machine held 1,320 spindles, significantly increasing the output of the textile industry. By 1825, inventor Richard Roberts (1789-1864) improved production further by patenting the self-acting mule. After starting the mule by hand, each mechanism caused a chain reaction so that the machine continued moving for a length of time. The self-acting mule grew popular and gradually replaced the previous machines. Roberts invention was a vital piece of equipment until the mid-20th century when electric looms became favourable.

Engraving of Ned Ludd, Leader of the Luddites, 1812

Sadly, the introduction of machines cost many people their jobs. Factories needed fewer people to spin the wool, increasing unemployment. In 1812, a secret organisation called the Luddites protested against the Industrial Revolution, destroying textile machinery in the process. Led by Ned Ludd, a weaver from Leicester, the Luddites met at night on the outskirts of industrial towns to plan their attacks. After entering the town, they smashed machines and sent death threats to factory owners before escaping through secret getaway chambers.

“I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.” So said Lord Byron (1788-1824) in the House of Lords regarding the Luddite Riots. The British Army frequently clashed with the Luddites, arresting many participants who faced a mass trial in York in January 1813. Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act, which made machine sabotage a capital punishment. At least 60 men were found guilty and sentenced to either execution or penal transportation. Fearful of this new law, the Luddite organisation disbanded.

Despite their methods of protest, the Luddites made a valid point about the Industrial Revolution. Traditional textile industries, particularly those in East Anglia, suffered greatly. Instead, large cities, such as York, developed into industrial areas, taking work away from people in small towns and villages. Transporting criminals to the colonies also backfired on the British economy. Those sent to Australia found jobs raising sheep and producing wool. By 1845, the Australian wool industry surpassed Britain, even providing wool for British factories.

The history of balls of wool or yarn is less precise than wool in general. It is assumed manufacturers first wound the spun wool into balls or skeins to avoid knots and snags many centuries ago, but it is uncertain when wool became commercially available in this manner. Today, balls of wool come in all colours and sizes and are used by those who knit for a hobby as well as clothing factories. Yet, knitting was not always a hobby but a necessity. Before cheap clothing stores, women made garments from scratch to clothe their families. The oldest knitted artefacts are socks dating from 11th century Egypt, although evidence suggests the technique predates archaeological evidence.

Madonna Knitting, by Bertram of Minden 1400-1410

Archaeologists have discovered knitting needles and crochet hooks in the Middle East dating back to the 3rd century AD. In Europe, the earliest evidence of this skill comes from 13th-century Spanish tombs in the royal Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas. Records suggest Christians hired Muslim slaves to produce knitted garments, but in the 14th century, it became a respected skill amongst all women. Several paintings from the 14th and 15th century depict the Virgin Mary knitting clothes for her son, Jesus Christ.

Long before the Industrial Revolution, inventors found ways to speed up the knitting process. In 1589, English clergyman William Lee (1563-1614) devised the stocking frame, controlled by a series of pedals and levers. Unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) refused to grant him a patent because the woollen stockings were too rough for her royal ankles. This had no reflection on the machine but rather her preference for silk. Despite this rejection, Lee found success in France when King Henri IV (1553-1610) offered him financial support.

The Knitting Woman by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1869

Unlike the machinery invented during the Industrial Revolution, the stocking frame never found its way into factories. Instead, workers used them at home in their cottage industries, which only went out of fashion after the introduction of steam-powered knitting machines in the 19th century. Hand-knitting quickly declined in the clothing industry, but it increased in popularity as a hobby. Authors such as Jane Gaugain (d.1860) published books about this leisure activity, featuring many knitting patterns.

During the First World War, the government encourage women, men and children to knit clothing for allied soldiers. This included socks, hats, gloves and scarves because frostbite was as deadly as the enemy. The Red Cross published pamphlets to teach the unskilled how to knit. These were also sent to soldiers so they could repair damaged clothing.

After the war, knitting continued as a popular hobby, and knitted garments became fashionable. In the 1930s, families began knitting out of desperation during the Great Depression because it was far cheaper to make clothes than purchase them. Some knitters even sold their items to make money.

The Second World War sparked the Make Do and Mend campaign. As well as knitting for soldiers, the Ministry of Information published pamphlets encouraging households to limit waste at the height of rationing. The booklets provided instructions about darning socks, patching holes and making many items of clothing. Whilst this helped the country save on resources, it also boosted morale by making people on the “home front” feel they were doing their bit for the war effort.

During the 1950s and 60s, knitted clothing, particularly in bright colours, became haute couture. The government thought knitting was a useful skill and made it a part of the school curriculum, although only for girls. This changed after factories started using computerised knitting machines, allowing them to mass-produce knitted garments and sell them at low prices. By the 1990s, younger generations rejected the skill as an “old person’s thing”.

The 21st century is experiencing a resurgence in knitting, often inspired by celebrities and online craft blogs. The internet allows people to share their ideas and creations, which are far more inventive than the scarves and socks usually associated with the hobby. Magazines, websites, and videos provide everything beginners and advanced knitters need to know to create amazing outcomes, all of which start life as a simple ball of wool.

There ends the long and varied history of a mundane object. At first glance, a ball of wool may not seem an exciting topic, but after picking at the surface, a never-ending story unravels. So, dear reader, I hope I have lived up to your claim that I “can make anything interesting”.


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The History of Postcards

It has probably been a while since most of us have sent or received a postcard due to the Covid-19 restrictions across the world. Also, the increased use of smartphones has reduced the need to send “wish you were here” notes in the post when it is easier and cheaper to upload a photograph or message onto social media. Yet, as deltiologists (also known as postcard collectors) will tell you, postcards have an interesting history, which blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many cards purchased as souvenirs in the past are now collector’s items and have appeared in auctions since 1896.

Penny Penates postcard

The earliest known postcard was received in 1840 in Fulham by the composer and writer Theodore Hook (1788-1841). Known for his practical jokes, Hook likely sent the card to himself, either as an experiment or to poke fun at postal workers. The card, which bears a Penny Black stamp, features a hand-drawn caricature of postal clerks holding large pens. They are seated around an inkwell labelled “Official” with the words “Penny” and “Penates” on either side. Penates, or Di Penates, were household deities in Ancient Roman religion responsible for guarding the storeroom. Hook’s illustration suggests the post workers either looked after their pennies or the Penny Black stamps.

In 2001, a collector discovered the Penny Penates postcard and the British Philatelic Association confirmed it is the oldest documented postcard in the world. It is also the oldest card sent with a Penny Black stamp, which was only used between May 1840 and February 1841. In 2002, Penny Penates made history again, becoming the most ever paid-for postcard at auction, selling at £31,750 to a collector in Latvia.

Lipman’s Postal Card

The first commercially produced postcard appeared in 1861 in the United States of America, although manufacturers saw no need to decorate one side of the card with an image. Instead, the card, patented by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, was plain on both sides – one for the message and the other for the recipient’s address. After selling the rights to Hymen Lipman (1817-93), the man credited for making the first pencil with an attached eraser, they added a border to the message side.

In 1870, commercial postcards began selling in the United Kingdom. These were also blank on both sides but featured a printed stamp, which the Post Office included in the price of the card. Only the Post Office had permission to sell postcards, which they sold in two sizes. The larger of the two eventually fell out of use in favour of the smaller due to ease of handling. Eventually, the Post Office introduced a standard size of postcard at 5.5 by 3.5 inches.

Other European countries adopted postcards slightly earlier than the United Kingdom, although the Prussian government worried about privacy issues. In 1869, the Austria-Hungary post office issued blank postcards, of which approximately 3 million were used in the first three months. When the Franco-Prussian war began in July 1870, soldiers saw the benefits of this inexpensive method of writing to people back home. Soon, post offices throughout Europe and further abroad agreed to the sale of postcards.

The claimed first printed picture postcard

In 1870, postcards began featuring a picture on one side with a small space to write a message. The reverse remained blank for the recipient’s address. Historians continue to debate over the origins of this idea, with the majority agreeing the first picture postcard was created by a soldier at Camp Conlie. Léon Besnardeau (1829-1914), the alleged inventor, resided at the training camp during the Franco-Prussian war, where he developed a lithographed design to print on postcards. This particular illustration featured two piles of military equipment topped by a scroll and the arms of the Duchy of Brittany. In French, the inscription reads, “War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany.”

Meanwhile, others argue the first picture postcard appeared in Germany three days before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. August Schwartz, a bookseller from Oldenburg, is regarded as the illustrator of this card, which bears the postmark 16th July 1870. Yet, neither of these cards resemble the souvenir postcards of today, the earliest of which appeared in Vienna in 1871.

North Bay, Scarborough

In the United Kingdom, the first picture postcards appear in 1894 at the beginning of the “Golden Age of Postcards”, which lasted until 1914. The Post Office permitted other publishers to print the cards, which led to a rise in postcards of landscapes and scenic views. ETW Dennis and Sons of Scarborough were the first company to print postcards outside of the Post Office. Edward Thomas West Dennis (1847-1923), a Quaker, saw a commercial gap in the market and began producing postcards for seaside resorts, which consumers purchased as mementoes of their holidays or sent home to friends and family.

Despite permitting others to print postcards, the Post Office provided strict rules about the design. Regulations stated the back must only contain the address, and publishers could print up to five words on the front as well as an image, as long as they left space for the sender to write a message. Society thought it unseemly to write personal messages where anyone could see, so the limited space prevented people from divulging too much information. Nonetheless, some people tried to get around this by writing along the edges of the illustration as well as in the space provided.

When talking about postcards, the historian Steve Hillier likened them to “the text message of their time”. Due to the small message space, households often received several postcards from the same sender. This prompted the Post Office to reconsider its regulations. The outcome, released in 1902, was the Divided Back postcard, which allowed people to write a message on one half and the address on the other. On the front, the picture took up the entire space.

With the rate of sending a postcard at half a penny, many continued to favour postcards over letters. Whilst today postcards are generally received from people on holiday, early 20th-century publishers produced cards for villages and towns across the United Kingdom. For example, in 1910, an inhabitant of the village of Upminster in Essex sent a postcard to a friend in France, asking them if they had recovered from their recent cold. The postcard contains a photograph of The Bell Inn, which dominated the crossroads at the centre of Upminster for 200 years before its demolition in 1963.

During the First World War, postcards helped boost the morale of soldiers, but also remained an effective form of communication with friends and family in Britain. Some postcards contained lengthy updates, whereas others simply said, “meet me off the train at 2 pm tomorrow”, or something equally mysterious. Whilst today we cannot guarantee next-day delivery, even with a first-class stamp, postmen once delivered letters to houses twice a day, providing a near-instant method of communication.

Whilst the war halted the production of seaside and holiday postcards, the industry saw a rise in military postcards. Some of these contained photographs of regiments or individual soldiers, which are now collectors’ items. Publishers also printed humorous cards to keep people’s spirits up, particularly those on the front lines or the injured. These postcards usually featured a cartoon rather than a photograph and saw a revival during the Second World War.

After the end of the First World War, postcard production picked up once more, although it never achieved the popularity of the Golden Years. The price of postage increased to one penny in 1918, then one and a half pence in 1921. The latter caused public protest, so the price reverted to one penny the following year.

The 1930s saw a rise in cartoon-style postcards, many of which were labelled bawdy or saucy. These illustrations shocked those with strong British morals, but others thoroughly enjoyed the innuendos and double entendres. Cartoonists often poked fun at stereotypical characters, such as vicars, large women and unfortunate husbands. They also made inappropriate jokes about the private lives of the average person.

Synonymous with the saucy postcard genre is the English graphic artist Donald McGill (1875-1962), who eventually received a fine for breaking the Obscene Publications Act 1857. His career as a postcard designer began unintentionally in 1904 after drawing a humorous get-well card for a sick nephew. McGill’s family encouraged him to produce more illustrations, and within a year, he had a full-time occupation. He started taking risks with the content of his drawings, noting the more vulgar they became, the better they sold.

McGill earned the title “King of the Seaside Postcard”, but after the outbreak of the First World War, he produced anti-German propaganda postcards instead. His illustration style remained consistent, with bright colours and caricature figures, but the messages focused on bolstering British morale and insulting the enemy. As a child, McGill lost a foot after an accident playing rugby, so he could not physically fight. He saw his humorous postcards as his contribution to the war effort.

Throughout the war, McGill designed approximately 1,500 postcards. His early war illustrations focused on the soldiers but later turned to the Home Front, wives, families, female munitions workers and the Red Cross. McGill often included puns in his work, for example, a soldier hanging up his laundry with the caption, “A blow on the Hindenburg Line!” The Germans built the Hindenburg Line or Siegfriedstellung from concrete, steel and barbed wire as a form of defence, which after several attacks, broke in September 1918.

Whilst the majority of McGill’s wartime postcards involved humour, he also produced sentimental cards featuring poems, which soldiers sent home to their sweethearts. Yet, linking all his postcards together is British patriotism, which inspired other artists and printers to produce similar illustrations.

After the war, McGill began designing postcards for the International Art Company, formed by Robert and Louisa McCrum. For 17 years, McGill produced his usual standard of work, but as time went on, new rules and censorship issues put pressure on the artist. The company prevented McGill from drawing people with red noses or women with exaggerated cleavage, which he found ridiculous rules to follow. Eventually, McGill resigned and worked on a freelance basis for other companies. In retaliation to the censorship issues, McGill’s outcomes became more saucy and shocking.

The outbreak of World War Two in 1939 put a halt to postcard production. With paper in short supply, McGill took a temporary job as a clerk for the Ministry of Labour, but he could not refrain from drawing for long. In 1944, McGill started drawing for D. Constance Ltd, but the newly elected Conservative government of the early 1950s grew concerned about McGill’s immoral illustrations.

Although McGill was not the government’s only target, he was required to attend a trial in Lincoln on 15th July 1954. In his defence, McGill’s lawyers claimed he had no intention of creating innuendos in his postcard designs, of which he produced over 12,000 during his career. They also claimed the “double meanings” needed pointing out to the artist after the production. The court did not believe these arguments and fined McGill £50 for breaking the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Whilst this does not seem a large sum, McGill also lost his income source because no reputable company wished to print his postcard designs.

Postcards of a similar nature to those by McGill also suffered from the government’s intervention. They issued strict rules about taste and decency in art and literature and censored approximately 167,000 books. Many protested against this censorship and appealed for an amendment to the Obscene Publications Act. In 1957, McGill supplied evidence before the House Select Committee, saying he felt “a national system of censorship would be open to the vagaries of individual interpretation.” The appeal resulted in the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which allowed the printing of McGill’s postcards and the publication of controversial books, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930).

The revival of saucy postcards inspired bawdy films, such as the Carry On franchise, which ran from 1958 until 1978. McGill’s illustrations regained popularity, and by his death in 1962, surpassed 200 million sales. Printers continued producing McGill’s postcards until 1968 after phasing them out in favour of modern designs.

Postcards never regained their post-war popularity but continued to be a cultural aspect of the British seaside. Colour photography replaced illustrations, which allowed souvenir shops to sell depictions of resorts and towns, often in unrealistically sunny weather conditions. Photographers developed their careers in the postcard trade, for instance, John Hinde (1916-97), who found success in Ireland. In the 1960s and 70s, Hinde teamed up with Billy Butlin (1899-1980), the British entrepreneur, to produce postcards for the many Butlin Holiday Camps around Britain. Hinde employed three men, Elmar Ludwig, Edmund Nägele and David Noble, to help capture idealistic views of Butlin locations.

Hinde often enhanced some of the colours in his photographs to create the optimistic tone Butlin desired. He meticulously planned the snapshots to depict images of a fun-filled family vacation. Typical scenes included large swimming pools, amusement parks, recreational activities and indoor dining. Today, these overly bright postcards are considered kitsch by collectors and cost much more than the few pence Butlin’s charged.

Modern seaside postcards usually feature more than one high-quality photograph of the area. Developments in technology allowed photographers to capture realistic images of the resort without the need for enhancements. Postcards are available in most locations and countries, which thousands of tourists purchase to send home to their family and friends. Contemporary postcards have no value in collections, yet in the future, they may prove of some worth.

In the Smartphone Age, holiday postcards are fast becoming something of the past, but printing companies are fighting to keep them fresh and alive. Many online companies allow people to personalise postcards to send on a variety of occasions. People can chose generic images or upload digital photographs and include text in a variety of typefaces. Is this the beginning of a new chapter in the history of postcards?

Postcards from Donald McGill’s era may have no relevance in today’s world, but for deltiologists, they are worth hundreds of pounds. Some consider saucy postcards a form of art, and we can thank the artists for breaking censorship boundaries and allowing us to be more open and accepting of people’s lives. Whilst some people may dislike lewd comments and foul language used in television and literature, the amendment of the Obscene Publications Act has allowed people to discuss sexual health, mental health and other taboo subjects.

So ends the brief history of postcards in the United Kingdom. Who knows what the future holds for this method of communication?


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The History of Jeans

Jeans (noun) hard-wearing casual trousers made of denim or other cotton fabric.

Originally designed for miners, jeans have been items of fashion since the 1950s when actors, such as Marlon Brando (1924-2004) and James Dean (1931-55), wore them in popular films. Rebellious teenagers adopted jeans and other denim clothing as signs of rebellion, but from the 1960s onwards, jeans became the typical clothing of the younger generation. Today, jeans are the most popular style of trousers in Western culture, worn by people of all ages. Although this style of fashion is relatively new, jeans have a longer history than one might expect.

The word “jean” allegedly comes from the French name for the Italian city of Genoa: Gênes. During the 16th century, textile workers in Genoa developed a fustian (heavy woven) cloth of “medium quality and of reasonable cost” suitable for everyday work clothes. The Genoese Navy commissioned trousers of this material for their sailors because they were suitable for wearing in both dry and wet conditions. In France, they developed a similar but coarser textile. The term “Denim” is a contraction of de Nîmes, meaning “from Nîmes”, a place in France. Traders considered Nîmes’s “denim” higher quality, which they dyed blue using indigo from Indian bush plantations.

A Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie – The Master of the Blue Jeans, c.17th century

The first recorded quantity of “jean fustians” arriving in the British Isles is from 1576, and by the 17th century, the working-class in Northern Ireland relied on the jean fabric for their clothing. Being cheaper, they typically used the Genoese material, which an anonymous artist, nicknamed The Master of the Blue Jeans, depicted in his paintings.

Jean and denim developed over time to resemble the fabric we are familiar with today. A third fabric of a similar nature appeared in India during the 17th century. Even cheaper than Genoese jean, the off-coloured blue or white fabric was worn by the poor people of the village of Dongri, near Bombay. It is from this name that we get the word “dungaree”.

Until the 19th century, “jean” was the name of the fabric rather than the style of trousers. In 1795, the Swiss banker Jean-Gabriel Eynard (1775-1863) travelled to Genoa in search of commercial ways to make money. André Masséna, 1st Duke of Rivoli (1758-1817), entrusted Eynard with making purchases for his French troops, who fought in the French Revolutionary Wars. Eynard commissioned Genoese textile workers to produce uniforms for the soldiers, including trousers made from a blue fabric called bleu de Genes. This garment style grew in popularity and became known in English speaking countries as “blue jeans”.

Levi Strauss

The man credited as the first manufacturer of jeans as we know them today is not Eynard but rather Levi Strauss (1829-1902). Born in Germany, Strauss moved to the United States at the age of 18 to join his brothers Jonas and Louis, who ran a dry goods business in New York called J. Strauss Brother & Co. After working for a while with his brothers, Strauss decided to move to San Francisco to live with his sister Fanny and her husband, David Stern (1820-75).

In 1853, Strauss became an American citizen and set up a wholesale business with his brother-in-law. David Stern & Levi Strauss, later renamed Levi Strauss & Co., imported material from Europe, from which they made clothing, bedding, handkerchiefs, tents and so forth. Using a canvas material, Levi Strauss & Co. produced sturdy trousers for farmers, factory workers and miners. After experimenting, Strauss and Stern discovered denim cloth was more suitable.

US Patent No. 139,121

In 1872, one of Strauss’ regular customers, Latvian-born tailor Jacob Davis (1831-1908), approached him with a proposition. For some time, Davis had produced trousers for working men from duck cloth, which he purchased from Strauss. To make weak seams and pockets stronger, Davis added copper rivets, which proved a great success. His trousers sold quickly, and before long, he could not keep up with the sales. Noticing Levi Strauss & Co. were selling trousers made from the more practical denim fabric, Davis asked Strauss for financial backing to make denim trousers with rivets and apply for a patent. After agreeing to become partners, Strauss and Davis worked together to produce these new trousers, later known as jeans. On 20th May 1870, they received US patent No. 139,121 for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings”.

The first jeans, or “waist overalls” as they were known at the time, had two pockets at the front and one at the back, in which workers could place various items when needed. As the trousers grew in popularity, men of other professions began wearing them. After this, Strauss added a third smaller pocket at the front for pocket watches. Initially, jeans were designed with men in mind and fastened with a zip fly down the front. When women started wearing jeans, the company manufactured female versions with a fly on the left side. Later, the fly was moved to the front of the trousers.

Levi’s 501

“Few pieces of clothing genuinely deserve the title of “icon.” The Levi’s 501 sits right at the top of that very short list. “

Jonathan Evans, Esquire

In 1901, Strauss added another pocket on the back of the jeans, taking the total up to five. Known as their 501 model, the style quickly caught on and became the standard design in the fashion industry. One-hundred and twenty years later, the 501 model is still going strong, although with minor alterations.

Ladies Iridescent Ranch Pants

The first line of jeans specifically targeted at women appeared in 1934. For some years, women had worn men’s jeans or “waist overalls”, but Strauss noticed they were not suited to the female figure. Levi’s 701, with a zip on the left side, were instantly popular amongst women who lived or worked on farms and ranches. For others, they were considered inappropriate and unacceptable, at least until the 1950s. Levi Strauss & Co. produced female jeans long before trousers became an acceptable fashion for women. For this reason, the company is recognised as a champion of women’s equality with men.

Until the 1950s, jeans were only worn by those working outdoors. After the release of film dramas, such as Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean, youths adopted jeans as a sign of rebellion. Yet, the more people who jumped on this bandwagon, the more mainstream jeans became. By the 1960s and 70s, jeans were an accepted form of casual clothing. Many fashion companies manufactured and sold styles based on the original designs by Levi Strauss & Co.

As of the 2010s, jeans are both a casual and fashionable item of clothing for both men and women. Manufacturers sell jeans for all occasions in a range of styles. Whilst some brands are expensive, most people can afford cheaper pairs of jeans dyed with synthetic indigo rather than a natural dye. Although blue is the traditional colour of jeans, they are now available in a range of different colours.

A sketch of Levi Strauss jeans © Sophie Glover

As well as experimenting with the style of jeans, manufacturers have made alterations to make the fabric more durable. When Levi Strauss & Co. sold their first range of jeans, people washed their clothing less frequently than today. When the electric washing machine arrived in 1908, people noticed that frequent washing caused the denim material to shrink. In 1962, Levi Strauss & Co. introduced pre-shrunk jeans, which would not shrink further when washed. Known as 505 jeans, they were identical to the iconic 501, except the company guaranteed the jeans would remain the same shape.

The process of pre-shrinking allowed manufacturers to produce specific cut jeans of varying sizes. In 1969, Levi Strauss & Co. introduced boot-cut jeans (517), which suited a slim waist but fitted over a pair of boots. Later, they designed another version with a lower waistline (527). As fashions changed over the decades, clothing companies altered their jeans to suit, for example, slim, skinny, baggy and tapered jeans.

Stone-washed jeans

“In 1965, Limbo was the first retailer to wash a new pair of jeans to get a used, worn effect, and the idea became a hit.” 

Michael Belluomo, editor of Sportswear International Magazine, Oct/Nov 1987

Although the shrinking issue had been addressed, washing machines altered the appearance of jeans by fading the colour. In 1965, a New York boutique called Limbo used this to their advantage, selling jeans with a washed, worn look. This new idea caught on, and textile makers started experimenting with various ways to create this effect.

Many consumers bought regular jeans and purposely altered the colour by frequent washing. Surfers in California bleached their jeans with saltwater and hung them in direct sunlight to fade. This lived-in appearance grew popular in the 1960s, but the process took weeks to perfect. Today, manufacturers use a pumice stone and chlorine to create the same effect, which they sell under the label “acid-wash” or “stone-washed”.

Snow wash jeans

In the 1980s, punk rockers used bleach to create faded patterns on their jeans. Rather than altering the colour of the entire fabric, this technique left sections of the original dark blue dye around the seams. Once again, fashion companies, including Levi Strauss & Co., caught on and manufactured similar jeans, which they labelled “snow wash” or “pre-washed”. This style grew popular, taking the association away from punk rockers.

Subcultures continued to find ways to make their jeans unique, such as adding embroidery, metal studs and rhinestones. Each time, manufacturers caught on and replicated the style. Even jeans with deliberate rips and tears became popular, often costing more than a regular pair.

Today, many styles of jeans are available, regardless of current fashions. Trends quickly come and go, often influenced by celebrities. During the late 2000s, skinny jeans were popular in youth cultures, but after Canadian singer Justin Bieber (b.1994) endorsed low-rise jeans in 2017, they became the latest fashion. On the other hand, rappers inspired fans to wear baggy or sagging jeans, often worn several inches below the waist.

Buying jeans can be confusing because of all the various names and styles. Cigarette jeans, for example, are similar to skinny jeans but are the same width from the knee to the ankle. Skinny jeans hug the calves, and straight jeans are the same width from the top of the leg to the bottom. To add to the confusion, some brands give these jeans different names.

Wide-leg is another term for baggy jeans, which are currently popular in “gangsta rap” subcultures. For centuries, baggy trousers have come in and out of fashion. In the 1500s, loose-fitting breeches were the norm until aristocrats wished to differentiate themselves from the masses, after which they wore tight clothing. Yet, when the general public adopted this new fashion, the upper classes reclaimed baggy trousers. During the early 20th century, baggy trousers were a sign of rebellion because they went against the prim-and-proper fashion of the day. The 1950s and 1990s saw a rise in baggy jeans amongst the general public, inspiring subcultures to adopt skinny jeans to differentiate themselves from mainstream cultures. Today, rappers wear baggy jeans to set themselves apart from the skin-tight jeans worn by “metalheads”.

Bootcut jeans regained popularity in the 2000s by those who did not wish to identify with either rappers or “metalheads”. By 2006, women’s bootcut jeans became thinner across the thighs, emphasising their body shape. Gradually, the material around the ankles also reduced until skinny jeans became the new norm. To compensate for this change in fashion, “metalheads” and rock stars began wearing even thinner jeans, known as super-skinny or drainpipes.

Jeggings

For many people, skinny jeans were not a comfortable addition to their wardrobe, but to keep up with the latest trends, they felt obliged to replace their baggy jeans. Realising this, jean manufacturers designed an alternative to skinny jeans. Jeggings, a portmanteau of the words jeans and leggings, appeared on the market in 2010. Whilst they have the appearance of denim jeans, jeggings have the comfort and feel of cotton leggings, which stretch easily over the leg.

Today, the average person owns seven pairs of jeans or items of clothing made from denim. Skirts, shorts, shoes and jackets have appeared as alternatives or accompaniments to jeans. Approximately 7.5 billion feet of denim is produced every year to keep up with the demand. Despite their popularity, jeans are not an appropriate form of clothing in some establishments. In recent years, some places of work have relaxed their rules about clothing to allow workers to wear jeans, so long as they appear smart. Posh hotels, restaurants and parties for distinguished guests continue to turn away people who arrive wearing denim.

Admittedly, jeans are not for everyone, and some people may have never owned a pair of jeans, let alone seven. Yet, everyone is familiar with the blue trousers and denim fabric. Nearly every clothing store stocks jeans, and it is impossible to walk through a town without seeing someone wearing denim. The history of blue jeans is relatively short, yet they have influenced the fashions of the (western) world. We must wait and see what jeans have in store for us next.


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The Most Beautiful Girl in the Midwest

Hazel, Lady Lavery

“The most beautiful girl in the Midwest” is how the Irish historian Dr Sinéad McCoole (b.1968) describes Lady Lavery, an American woman who became the face of Ireland in the 20th century. Married to a painter, Lady Lavery sat for over 400 paintings, including one reproduced on banknotes for more than 50 years. How did an American woman become the most recognisable face in Ireland?

Lady Lavery was born Hazel Martyn in Chicago on 14th March 1880. Her father, Edward Jenner Martyn, was a descendent of a Galway tribe that dominated the Irish county between the 13th and 16th century. Hazel and her sister Dorothea Hope (1887-1911) grew up in relative comfort due to their father’s success as a businessman. Sadly, Edward passed away when his eldest daughter was only 17 years old, but his wealth allowed Hazel to attend finishing school in the city. She earned a reputation in Chicago high society circles for her beauty, which attracted many suitors, including Edward “Ned” Livingston Trudeau Jr, the son of the doctor who made progress with tuberculosis treatment.

Hazel and her sister enjoyed the arts and, whilst Dorothy aspired to be a playwright, Hazel set her sights on becoming a painter. She regularly visited Europe in pursuit of her dreams, while her fiancé Trudeau waited for her return. On one trip, Hazel attended an artists’ retreat in Brittany, France. Here, she met the Irish painter John Lavery (1856-1941), famed for his portraits and landscapes. Writing home to her mother, Hazel described Lavery with great fondness. Her mother disapproved of the relationship because of their 24 year age difference and urged Hazel to return home to her fiancé.

In 1903, Hazel and Trudeau married in New York. Sadly, five months later, Trudeau tragically died, leaving behind his widow and unborn child. On 10th October 1904, Hazel gave birth to Alice, but it was not an easy pregnancy, and she took several months to recover. In June 1905, Hazel and her mother travelled to the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, England, to aid her recovery. While there, she received several visits from Lavery, with whom she had regularly corresponded since her husband’s death.

On one visit, Lavery painted his first portrait of Hazel and made his affections clear. Hazel’s mother continued to oppose the match and rarely let the couple spend time alone. On a trip to Italy in 1906, Hazel accepted a marriage proposal from Leonard Thomas, a wealthy diplomat, but the relationship did not last. Meanwhile, Hazel remained in contact with Lavery and, after her mother passed away in 1909, they married and moved to London. For a brief time, Hazel divided her time between England and America. After her sister died in 1911 from anorexia nervosa, Hazel cut ties with her birth country.

John Lavery

Whilst born in Belfast, John Lavery grew up in Scotland where he associated with the Glasgow School of art. Lavery launched his career as a society painter after receiving the commission to paint Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition. After moving to London in 1889, Lavery befriended artists such as James Abbott Whistler (1834-1903) who greatly influenced his work.

In London, Lavery married Kathleen MacDermott with whom he had a daughter, Eileen (1890-1930). Sadly, Kathleen passed away from tuberculosis shortly after the birth of her daughter. By the time Lavery met and married Hazel Martyn, he was a well-established artist in the capital city.

Mrs Lavery sketching, 1910

During their early years of marriage, Hazel acted as a London society hostess, welcoming prestigious guests to dinners and soirees or her husband’s studio for a portrait sitting. Whilst Hazel sat for the majority of Lavery’s portraits he also took on commissions. Flirtatious in nature, Hazel enjoyed being the centre of attention, particularly around male guests. Lavery tolerated this vice, but others gossiped about rumoured affairs.

There is no evidence that Hazel did conduct an affair, although she did correspond with many men. Amongst those to whom she regularly wrote are the authors Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). She also knew many politicians due to her husband’s position as an official artist for the British government during the First World War. Future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) famously asked Hazel to teach him to paint during his portrait sittings.

The Artist’s Studio: Lady Lavery with her Daughter Alice and Step-Daughter Eileen

In 1918, John Lavery received a knighthood, making him and his wife Sir and Lady Lavery. The same year, Hazel and John took an active interest in their Irish roots, particularly after the Sinn Féin election victory. Churchill mentioned in his letters to Hazel about his concerns over the growing tensions between Britain and Ireland. The Lavery’s had many social and political contacts in both countries and wished to help bring peace between the nations.

The Laverys lent their house at 5 Cromwell Place in South Kensington as a neutral location for negotiations for the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945) led the British side with Churchill as Colonial Secretary. Michael Collins (1890-1922), an Irish politician, headed the Irish delegation. Both Churchill and Collins were regular visitors to the Lavery’s house and were grateful to Lady Lavery for her hospitality.

Collins grew fond of Hazel and rumours flew about a potential affair. Some biographers claim Hazel loved Collins, whereas others say there is no proof of a romantic relationship. Nonetheless, members of the delegation questioned their closeness, fearing Hazel to be a spy. She appeased them by calling herself a “simple Irish girl” and converting to Catholicism.

Due to their connections with both British and Irish politicians, the Lavery’s home became a safe place for discussions away from the hostile environment of the courts. Hazel’s presence often diffused bitterness, allowing peaceful talks to take place. Many letters written by Hazel reveal her organisation skills and a gift of persuasion, which helped the negotiations run smoothly. Although Hazel came from America and lived in England, her Irish roots bridged the gap between the warring nations.

Michael Collins: Love of Ireland by John Lavery

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 6th December 1921, thus ending the three-year Irish War of Independence. Ireland gained its freedom, although arguments regarding the status of Northern Ireland continued. Civil War broke out in Ireland and, despite attempts to talk peacefully, Michael Collins was assassinated on 22nd August 1922. Rumours of an affair between Collins and Lady Lavery flew once more when a letter addressed to “Dearest Hazel” was found on his body. Yet, the gossipers were silenced at his funeral when Collins’ fiancé Kitty Kiernan embraced Hazel as though a close friend. As the Irish biographer Anita Leslie (1914-85) put it, Hazel and Collins were “soul mates rather than bed mates”.

Until 1922, Ireland used the British pound; after gaining independence, they wished to create a new currency. Many discussions took place within the Irish government until September 1927, when they publicly introduced their idea of a “Saorstàt Pound”. (Saorstàt is the Irish word for “free state”.) The government planned to issue new coins and banknotes but needed to think carefully about their design. Joseph Brennan (1887-1976), the Chairman of the Currency Commission, set up an advisory committee to discuss design proposals.

Lavery’s portrait of Hazel for the Irish banknotes

The committee approached several artists and printers before commissioning John Lavery to paint an “emblematic female figure” to appear on the new notes. They chose Lavery due to his ongoing support during the war and peace talks as well as his artistic ability. Whereas British notes featured the reigning monarch, the Irish government wanted “an archetypical Irish Cailín or Colleen, symbolic of Irish womanhood.” (Cailín is the Irish word for “girl”.) As the committee expected, Lavery asked his wife to sit for the portrait.

“I really feel that you are too kind and generous when you suggest that my humble head should figure on the note, and you know I said from the first that I thought it wildly improbable, unlikely, impractical, unpopular, impossible that any committee would fall in with such a suggestion. Indeed apart from anything else I think a classic head, some Queen of Ireland, Maeve perhaps, would be best, someone robust and noble and fitted for coinage reproduction …”

Lady Lavery in a letter to Thomas Bodkin on the advisory committee

Having her portrait painted by her husband was not a new thing for Hazel, but knowing she would soon be on every banknote in Ireland was a little unnerving. Nonetheless, Lavery produced a faithful likeness of his wife with her arm resting upon an Irish harp. In the background, he included an Irish landscape. The shawl Hazel wore was also typical of the country. The government paid Lavery 250 guineas for the painting, and the first notes featuring Hazel’s face arrived in September 1928.

The public automatically assumed the portrait on the new notes was Hazel Lavery. Not only had John Lavery painted it, but the likeness was evident. The government attempted to protect Hazel’s identity by openly denying that she was the sitter. They worried people would not accept the notes because of Hazel’s reputation as a flirt and the rumours surrounding her relationship with the late Michael Collins. Fortunately, the public readily accepted the new notes, and the identity of the sitter remained anonymous.

Following the success of the new banknotes, John Lavery received the Freedom of Dublin. Despite this, the Laverys decided to remain living in London, although they frequently visited Ireland. Initially, Hazel remained involved with Irish politics, but changes within the political parties distanced her from those in charge. Lavery continued to paint portraits of his wife and produced other artworks for exhibitions. During this time, Hazel’s health, which had never been good, began to deteriorate.

After a routine operation to remove a wisdom tooth, Hazel passed away on 1st January 1935, aged 54. Her funeral took place at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Knightsbridge area of London, followed by a simple burial in Putney Vale Cemetery. In Ireland, her death received more attention, and the government arranged a memorial service.

Lady Lavery by John Lavery

Although many portraits survive of Lady Hazel Lavery, the paintings she produced during her lifetime are missing. As Churchill’s cousin Sir Shane Leslie (1885-1971), said, “Had it not been for Hazel’s portrait as the colleen of Irish banknotes, her features and even her name would now be forgotten in a land which has never accounted gratitude amongst its theological virtues”. Without the banknotes, which Ireland used until the introduction of the Euro in 2002, Hazel’s involvement with the Anglo-Irish Treaty would remain unknown.

In many cases, women are written out of history, not out of malicious intent, but because society did not consider them important at the time. It is with thanks to historians who wondered about the identity of the Irish Cailín on Ireland’s old banknotes that we know anything at all about Lady Lavery. As a result, we have an intriguing story about an American woman who became the face of Ireland. It is a great shame Hazel’s paintings are lost, and that we know little else about her personal life. Hazel’s story contains many unanswered questions but also opens our eyes to the possibilities of many more hidden histories.


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Unfinished Business: Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst received two mentions at the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library, but not for her role with the Suffragette movement, as one might expect. Whilst the curators referenced her involvement with the Votes for Women campaign, their focus revealed the scandal caused by her “illegitimate” child with an Italian man who she lived with but never married. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), despite being a campaigner for women’s rights, disowned her daughter. The exhibition also displayed a painting by Sylvia Pankhurst, inspired by the harsh conditions of women’s workplaces in the early 20th century.

Born in Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May 1882, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was the second of three daughters for Richard (1835-98) and Emmeline Pankhurst, future founders of the Independent Labour Party. Estelle, who preferred her middle name Sylvia, attended Manchester High School for Girls with her sisters Christabel (1880-1958) and Adela (1885-1961). The sisters shared a passion for fine art, and all three became suffragettes, along with their mother. Sylvia, who attended the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906 after winning a scholarship, noted the lack of opportunities for women in the art sector. Determined to do something about this, Sylvia and her friends established the East London Confederation of Suffragettes, which later amalgamated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Aiming to be a “painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment”, Sylvia produced many of the banners, leaflets and posters for the WSPU, who she began working for full time in 1906. One of her most famous designs for the union is the “angel of freedom” motif that appeared on badges, jewellery, chinaware and printed materials. The trumpeting angel usually appeared on a green, purple and white background. These were the identifying colours of the WSPU introduced by the Bristol-born suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) in 1908.

WSPU Membership Card

Another example of Sylvia’s work for the union is the WSPU Member’s Card. Sylvia drew an illustration of a group of women holding a banner that said “Votes, Votes, Votes!” The date of production is uncertain, but due to the lack of WSPU colours, Sylvia likely designed the card early on in her WSPU career. Below the drawing is written the union’s purpose: “Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty…” All women were issued a membership card on signing up with the WSPU. They were also required to sign another card to pledge not to support any political candidate until women could vote.

Cradley Heath Chainmaker, 1907

In 1907, Sylvia toured the industrial towns in England and Scotland. She discovered the female workers were underpaid and unfairly treated in comparison to their male colleagues. Chainmakers, for example, received a pittance and many worked from home because they also needed to look after their children. In some instance, the children worked alongside their mothers for long hours. Sylvia painted portraits of many of these women, including a chain maker at a shop in Cradley Heath. The artwork reveals the poor working conditions the women faced every day, emphasised by the bucket of boiling water precariously balanced on a pile of bricks.

After her tour, Sylvia settled in Leicester where she met Alice Hawkins (1863-1946), a suffragette whose statue now stands in Leicester Market Square. Soon, she befriended another suffragette, Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973), “a merry militant saint” with whom Sylvia established a WSPU presence in the city. Unlike her mother and sisters, Sylvia preferred to concentrate on local campaigns rather than national. For this reason, on her return to London, she set up the East London Federation of the WSPU, assisted by fellow campaigner Amy Bull (1877-1953).

Sylvia regularly wrote articles for the official WSPU newspaper Votes for Women. Founded in 1907 by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), the newspaper updated members and supporters of the WSPU on their latest successes and plans. Many suffragettes sold the monthly paper on the street to passers-by for 3d until it became a weekly paper, after which the price dropped to 1d. 

As well as writing for the newspaper, Sylvia documented the history of the WSPU from 1905 until 1910, which she published under the title The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement. The book, which is still in print, gives a just and accurate account of the WSPU’s progress, at least from Sylvia’s point of view, and lets the reader see behind the scenes to discover what animated the protestors. First published in 1911, the book does not contain the outcome of the suffragette’s campaign, yet Sylvia aimed to fuel the reader’s passion for their cause. 

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910

In 1913, Sylvia spoke at the Albert Hall about the working conditions for workers in Dublin. In so doing, she involved herself with the Labour Party, which went against the rules of the WSPU. The union identified as independent, and its members were forbidden from having political affiliations, at least publically. Worried that Sylvia’s alliance with the Labour Party would damage the WSPU’s reputation, Emmeline and Christabel removed Sylvia from its membership.

Undeterred by her family’s rejection, Sylvia continued to campaign for Votes for Women. At the age of 24, the police arrested Sylvia for her militant approaches. Over the next few years, Sylvia found herself in prison on fourteen more occasions. Between February 1913 and July 1914, Sylvia went on hunger strike during her imprisonments and described the painful force-feeding she endured in magazine articles. Despite not being a member of the WSPU, she received the union’s Hunger Strike Medal for “valour”.

During 1914, Sylvia grew concerned about the WSPU’s campaign, which focused solely on women’s rights. She wished to tackle wider issues than women’s suffrage and aligned with the Labour Party. Labour politician Keir Hardie (1856-1915) supported Sylvia’s passions for women’s rights, amongst other things, and the pair developed a close relationship.

Despite her disapproval of the WSPU, Sylvia continued to work with the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which later changed its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation when it broadened its politics. At the suggestion of the American suffragette Zelie Emerson (1883-1969), Sylvia founded the Women’s Dreadnought newspaper (later the Worker’s Dreadnought). The first copies appeared in March 1914 on the same day Sylvia spoke at a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square. As well as women and workers’ rights, the paper campaigned against the impending war.

When the war began, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst enthusiastically campaigned in favour of military conscription. This horrified Sylvia, a staunch pacifist, who expressed her views in articles for the WSPU newspaper, now named Britannia. Although the government encouraged women to take on the work left behind by the male soldiers, many women lost their previous jobs due to the war. Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes established a toy factory and offered work to these women. They also demanded allowances for women whose husbands were away at war. In 1915, Sylvia attended and spoke at the International Women’s Peace Congress, held at The Hague, but this lost her many followers who believed they should support the war effort.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sylvia moved in with an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio (1875-1954). They lived in Woodford Green in North East London, commemorated by a blue plaque opposite Woodford station. Sylvia and Corio shared left-wing political ideas; in 1920, Sylvia’s organisation, now named the Workers’ Socialist Federation, hosted the first meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). With women’s rights still in mind, Sylvia encouraged her followers to adopt Communism, saying “In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up.”

In 1927, Sylvia gave birth to a son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst (1927-2017). Her mother, Emmeline, held the opinion that children should not be born out of wedlock. Sylvia, on the other hand, objected to marriage and taking a husband’s surname. When Emmeline asked for the name of Richard’s father, Sylvia responded: “an old dear friend whom I have loved for years.” She declined to give her mother Silvio Corio’s name, and Emmeline refused to speak to her daughter for the rest of her life.

Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policies in India, 1932

By 1930, Sylvia lost interest in communist politics but continued to hold anti-fascist views. She also held anti-colonialism opinions, speaking against British policies in India at a protest in Trafalgar Square in 1932. The same year, she helped establish the Socialist Workers’ National Health Council. The organisation, which had connections with the Labour Party, campaigned for a National Health Service. Since the creation of the NHS, the organisation, now known as the Socialist Health Association, continues to support the health service in politics. As of 2020, the GP Brian Fisher is the chair.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37), Sylvia responded by publicly supporting Haile Selassie (1892-1975), the Emperor of Ethiopia. She wrote articles about the invasion in newspapers and raised funds for projects, such as the first Ethiopian teaching hospital. She took a great interest in Ethiopian life and collected information about their art and culture. Eventually, she published her findings in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History in 1955.

After the liberation in 1937, Sylvia continued supporting Ethiopia and encouraged their union with the former Italian Somalia. MI5 monitored Sylvia’s correspondence closely, fearing her leftist ideals would pose problems for the British government. In a letter written in 1948, the secret service discussed tactics for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”, particularly after learning Selassie considered her a friend and adviser. Nothing much came of MI5’s investigations, and in 1956, Selassie invited Sylvia and her son to move to the capital city Addis Ababa.

Sylvia set up the Ethiopia Observer, a monthly journal documenting the cultural developments in the country. Her son Richard began working at the University College of Addis Ababa and later founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. In 1957, Richard married Rita Eldon and had two children, Alula (1962) and Helen (1964). Sadly, Sylvia passed away before she could meet her grandchildren.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s grave

After she died in 1960 aged 78, Sylvia Pankhurst received a state funeral, becoming the only foreigner buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. In a speech, Selassie called her “an honorary Ethiopian”, and provided a burial plot in a section reserved for patriots.

Sylvia Pankhurst was not as famous as her mother and older sister but her name is listed on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Whilst Sylvia did help to improve lives for women, the British Library focused on the reaction caused by her decision not to marry the father of her child. At the time, people looked down on women in Sylvia’s position, yet she did not let this deter her. Sylvia continued to campaign and behave as she did before the birth of her son, albeit estranged from her family.

Richard continued his mother’s work by editing the Ethiopia Observer, and in 1962, founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. From 1976 to 1986, Richard lived in England, where he researched at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2004, he received an OBE for his services to Ethiopian studies and earned the honorary title “Dejazmach Benkirew” by the Union of Tigraians of North America. Sylvia’s grandson Alula is an Ethiopian scholar with a PhD in Social Anthropology from Manchester University. Her grand-daughter Helen is a women’s rights activist and earned a CBE in 2019 for services to gender equality. 

Sylvia Pankhurst lives on through her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who share her passion for an equal world. She also lives on through the musical Sylvia, written in honour of the centenary of Representation of the People Act 1918 and the end of the First World War.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft


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Looking Sharp

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany

In the National Gallery, is a painting called The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), a German neoclassical painter. Zoffany, who spent his early years in England under the patronage of George III (1738-1820) and Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), captured the Sharp Family making music aboard their pleasure boat, Apollo, with All Saints Church, Fulham in the background. The Sharp siblings regularly appeared on the River Thames with their instruments to entertain the public on the banks.

Produced between 1779-1781, Zoffany’s painting indicates the wealth of the family through the portrayal of the upper-class fashions of the 18th century. Their musical boating parties attracted many people, evidencing their popularity, particularly among local dignitaries and even royalty. Yet, the family came from a more humble background.

The siblings grew up in Durham with their parents, Thomas Sharp (1693–1759), Archdeacon of Northumberland, and Grace Higgons, the daughter of English clergyman and travel writer George Wheler (1651-1724). Although they had an honourable upbringing, they did not have the financial advantages of the upper classes. Through sheer determination, love of music and fondness for each other, the Sharps worked their way up the ranks, first giving recitals at one of the brother’s home, before performing fortnightly water-borne concerts on their large barge between 1775-1783.

Granville Sharp

Seated in the centre of the painting is the most well-known of the Sharp siblings. Granville Sharp, born in Durham in 1735, played a variety of instruments, including the clarinet, oboe, flageolet, kettle drums, harp and a double-flute. He also sang with an impressive bass voice, which George III described as “the best in Britain”. Respected for his musical skills, Granville often signed his name G#, but it was not only in music that he made his name.

At the time of Granville’s birth, he had eight older brothers, although only five survived infancy. Five sisters soon followed, bringing the total number of children to 14. Their parents put away money for the children’s education, but by the time Granville reached his teens, the money was exhausted. Although he began his schooling at the all-boys school in Durham, Granville and his siblings received most of their tuition at home.

At the age of 15, Granville travelled to London to work as an apprentice for a linen draper. He found the work tiresome and longed for opportunities to hold discussions, arguments and debates. To fuel his passion, Granville took an interest in his fellow apprentices, learning Greek in order to debate the orthodox Bible with a Socinian colleague (someone who believes in God and Christian ideals but not the divinity of Jesus). He also learnt Hebrew so as to have theological discussions with a Jewish friend.

Not all of the Sharp brothers entered apprenticeships. The eldest, John, followed his father’s footsteps and was ordained into the Church. Whilst their father had not found wealth in that position, John worked hard to establish a miniature welfare state in his home in Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland where he was the perpetual curate. During his career, John oversaw the establishment of a school, a library, a hospital, and the first lifeboat service.

William Sharp (1729-1810)

At the age of 14, William Sharp (1729-1810) moved to London to study surgery. His exceptional skill and demeanour attracted the patronage of George III, who hired William as his private surgeon. After attending to Princess Amelia (1783-1810), who was often in poor health, the king offered William a baronetcy, which he turned down. Although William was well-off, he never forgot his past and paid attention to the needs of the poor. He considered his high position in society to be a stroke of luck, so established a free surgery for those denied such good fortune.

Like Granville, his brother James came to London as an apprentice. After completing his apprenticeship in ironmongery, James rose through the ranks to become a pioneer of the industrial revolution. James enjoyed making music in his spare time, often meeting with Granville and William, as well as his sisters Elizabeth and Judith who had also moved to London. The siblings usually met at William’s house in Mincing Lane, where they also gave concerts. Unfortunately, James passed away before the family began performing on the Thames.

Granville’s apprenticeship came to an end in 1757, the same year both his parents passed away. He quickly secured himself the position of Clerk in the Ordnance Office at the Tower of London, a civil service position, that also provided enough free time to pursue his musical talents and intellectual hobbies. Being so close to his siblings, both familially and geographically, allowed his passion for music to flourish. He also discussed his work with his brothers, who informed him of the goings-on in their careers.

Granville Sharp the Abolitionist Rescuing a Slave from the Hands of His Master – James Hayllar

On a visit to William’s surgery in 1765, Granville met a young black slave with severe wounds to his head. The slave, Jonathan Strong, originally from Barbados, received the injuries from his master David Lisle, who bashed the young lad repeatedly over the head with a pistol. After almost blinding him, Lisle discarded Strong on the streets where he was discovered and taken to William’s free surgery. Granville assisted William to treat Strong, but his condition was so severe, they needed to transfer him to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Out of the kindness of their hearts, Granville and William paid for Strong’s four-month stay.

After Strong left hospital, the Sharp brothers continued to look after him. When he was strong enough, they found him employment with a Quaker apothecary, where he worked for a year and a half before being discovered by his previous master. David Lisle, a lawyer, believed he still owned Strong, despite discarding him in the street two years previously. Lisle wished to sell Strong to his friend James Kerr of Harley Street for £30. Kerr owned a plantation in Jamaica and wanted to ship Strong to the Caribbean to work there. Lisle and Kerr employed two men to kidnap Strong but did not anticipate the slave’s new contacts.

Following his capture, Strong managed to get word to Granville, who immediately went to the Lord Mayor of London to plead his case. The Lord Mayor, possibly Sir Thomas Davies, in turn, spoke to Lisle and Kerr about their claim on the slave. Kerr produced the bill of sale to prove he had purchased Strong from Lisle, but without more evidence, the Lord Mayor ordered Strong’s release from his imprisonment. The case, however, was far from over.

Almost immediately after his release, a second kidnap attempt took place, this time by West India Captain David Laird, who threatened to take Strong straight to James Kerr. Fortunately, Granville witnessed the attack and claimed he would charge Laird with assault if he did not let the young man go. Meanwhile, Lisle tried to sue Granville £200 for taking his property. When Granville approached his lawyers on the subject, they told him Lisle had every right to claim Strong as his possession. Unable to “believe the law of England was really so injurious to natural rights,” Granville spent the following two years studying English laws.

Lisle soon gave up the fight, but Kerr remained determined to win his case. After two years of persisting, the court dismissed the case and fined Kerr for time-wasting. For the first time in his life, twenty-year-old Jonathan Strong was a free man. Sadly, his freedom did not last long, and he passed away five years later.

Granville Sharp

Granville’s association with Jonathan Strong earned him the moniker “protector of the Negro”. A couple of slaves approached Granville for support, hoping for similar results, but the courts were reluctant to be involved in human possession disputes. At this time, British organisations were the largest slave traders in the world. Slave labour was vital for the British economy, therefore, owners were reluctant to free their slaves.

Determined to put an end to slavery, Granville published A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery: Or Admitting the Least Claim of Private Property in the Persons of Men in England in 1769. He expressed the view that “the laws of nature” make everyone equal and it is only laws imposed by society that state otherwise. He demonstrated that slavery was illegal because the freedom of a man was priceless. Granville received support from James Oglethorpe (1696-1785) of Cranham Hall, the founder of the American state of Georgia. Together, they unsuccessfully attempted to convince British leadership to give slaves the same rights as Englishmen. 

Slavery had never been authorised by law in England and Wales. Granville used this to his advantage when learning of the plight of another black slave in 1772. James Somerset, an enslaved African, travelled to England with his American owner Charles Stewart in 1769 but managed to escape a couple of years later. Unfortunately, slave hunters found Somerset and locked him in a ship bound for Jamaica. Before Somerset attempted to flee, Charles Stewart had him baptised as a Christian. On learning of his capture, three of Somerset’s Godparents complained to the courts. When Granville heard of the case, he supplied the lawyers supporting Somerset with his formidable knowledge of English laws.

Granville proved that slavery was illegal under English law, so Somerset became a free man the moment he stepped on English soil. Although the court case lasted five months, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, William Murray, Lord Mansfield (1705-93), announced James Somerset’s freedom and ended the proceedings. Somerset and his supporters celebrated the result, but this was not the end of slavery. Whilst it was illegal to own a slave in England, the law condoned using slaves in overseas territories.

The Slave Ship – J. M. W. Turner

Plantation owners in the Americas continued to exploit slaves, abducting them from their homes in Africa and forcing them to work in harsh conditions in a foreign land. In 1781, 60 slaves died from neglect and over-crowding aboard the British slave ship Zong, causing the crew to take drastic action, massacring over 130 slaves by throwing them overboard. To add to the morally corrupt event, the shipowner tried to claim compensation for the loss of his property at sea. 

Granville learnt of the massacre in 1783 from Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), a freed slave from the Kingdom of Benin. Horrified by the events aboard the Zong, Granville immediately involved himself with the court case against the Liverpool merchant claiming insurance. The merchant’s lawyer John Lee (1733-93) claimed: “the case was the same as if assets had been thrown overboard.” Granville argued that jettisoning slaves was murder and should be punished accordingly. Unfortunately, the judge dismissed Granville’s accusation but ruled the slave owner could not file for insurance due to lack of evidence. 

Medallion, 1787

The more Granville learnt about the lives of slaves, the greater his wish to abolish slavery entirely. He was not alone with this wish, but the largest groups of anti-slavery protesters were Quakers, a domination forbidden from participating in Parliament. In 1787, nine Quakers and three Anglicans established the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but to make an impact, they needed someone with parliamentary connections. A vote unanimously elected Granville, one of the Anglican founders of the society, to present their petitions.

Due to modesty, Granville refused to chair the meetings for the society but regularly attended for the following twenty years. Parliament rejected many of their petitions, but they continued to work tirelessly nonetheless. The society received support from other anti-slavery campaigners, including the founder of the Wedgwood company Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), who arranged the production of anti-slavery medallions, and the politician William Wilberforce (1759-1883), who presented the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, albeit unsuccessful. Through Granville’s connections, the society also received support from abolitionists in America.

Granville made attempts to return freed-slaves in Britain to their native countries. Many worried they would return to slavery, so Granville drew up plans for a new Christian society called “The Province of Freedom”. The first attempt struggled from the start, with fires on ships and many Africans returning home before the plans were fully operational. The first settlement, named Granville Town, lasted a few months before local tribes burnt it down. A second attempt to create “The Province of Freedom” proved more successful. With the help of a former American slave, Thomas Peters (1738-92) and British brothers, Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) and John Clarkson (1764-1828), Granville helped to found the port city Freetown in Sierra Leone.

In 1807, the society’s hard work paid off when the Houses of Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act/Act of Abolition. When Granville, now 71 years old, heard the news, he fell to his knees in prayer. Many of the original abolitionists did not live to see the result and Granville received the affectionate accolade of the “grand old man of the abolition struggle”.

A white glass medallion of Granville Sharp by Catherine Andras 1809

As well as anti-slavery campaigns, Granville supported American colonists, which meant resigning from his job due to its support for the British forces fighting in America. Away from politics, Granville enjoyed his music but also established the British and Foreign Bible Society (now known as the Bible Society) with Wilberforce and Methodist preacher Thomas Charles (1755-1814) to spread the use of the scriptures throughout the world. Initially, the society focused on printing bibles in Welsh but soon produced bibles in Scots Gaelic and Manx Gaelic. They sent Gospels abroad in the languages of the Iroquois and Romani people in Canada and America to make the Bible accessible for more people. By 1824, the British and Foreign Bible Society had “distributed 1,723,251 Bibles, and 2,529,114 Testaments—making a total of 4,252,365.” Today the society is global with 150 Bible Societies around the world.

Granville Sharp passed away on 6th July 1813 before he had the chance to see the full effects of the Slave Trade Act. His tomb lies beside the graves of his siblings William and Elizabeth in All Saints Church, Fulham, which is visible in the background of the painting of the Sharp family.

“Here by the Remains of the Brother and Sister whom he tenderly loved lie those of GRANVILLE SHARP Esqr. at the age of 79 this venerable Philanthropist terminated his Career of almost unparalleled activity and usefulness July 6th 1813 Leaving behind him a name That will be Cherished with Affection and Gratitude as long as any homage shall be paid to those principles of JUSTICE HUMANITY and RELIGION which for nearly half a Century He promoted by his Exertions and adorned by his Example

Inscription on Granville Sharp’s tomb

A memorial in Westminster Abbey remembers the life of Granville Sharp and, in 2007, he featured on the 50p Royal Mail stamp issued to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom. His is also memorialised in Granville Town in Sierra Leone and Granville in Jamaica, both named in his honour.

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany intrigues viewers, who wonder about the identity of the musical family and the reason behind their public concerts. At a glance, it is impossible to tell that one family member made such an impact in the 18th century, helping to bring about changes that continue to shape our societies today.

Granville’s legacy suggests that not everyone has forgotten him, but the majority of people have not heard his name. It goes to show how quickly good deeds of others are overshadowed by new events, which in turn get buried beneath the ever-growing pile of history. In an attempt to discover the Sharp Family in Zoffany’s painting, a lesser-known period of Georgian Britain has emerged. Next time you view a portrait of someone you have not heard of, “google” them. You may be surprised by what you learn.


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