Racing, gurning and competitive smoking

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Does anything sum up English eccentricity better than rural sports of the 18th century? For, when else would you be able to race donkeys to win cheese AND competitively smoke tobacco to win a hat?

Any contest to win cheese sounds like a good time to me. However, just thinking about competitively smoking a pound of tobacco makes my lungs hurt, I don’t care how good the hat up for grabs was.

Advertisements for these rollickingly fun games,  Diversions on Tunbridge Wells Common,  were printed by Jasper Sprange in 1797. As the go-to jobbing printer in the town, Sprange printed everything from the mundane (notice for dung for sale) to the nationally important (recruitment of soldiers to fight in France).  Also worth an indignant mention is the oh-so-Georgian crime of ‘wanton destruction of a sedan chair on the common’, reward for information offered. All of these cuttings can be found in the sample albums that Sprange kept, two of which survive at Tunbridge Wells Museum.

Sprange printed advertisements for these rural diversions twice a year, in August and a day after old Michaelmass (11th October.) He also created posters for similar events happening in nearby Tonbridge and Penshurst between 1796 and 1801.

The diversions offered an intriguing variety of long forgotten sports with socially prescriptive rules governing participation. The ‘jingling match’ ( a game in which blindfolded players try to catch one not blindfolded player who keeps jingling a bell) was not open to serious people such as parish clerks or grave diggers, for fear their solemnity would spoil the fun.

A race where young women competed to win a prize of a fine ‘Holland smock’ or chemise was only open to those of ‘good repute’. The idea of girls racing for a smock was just too saucy for the urban observer and was mercilessly satirised in both prose and print.

Some years ago I saw a female race;

the prize, a shift–a Holland shift, I ween:

Ten Damsels, nearly all in naked grace,

Rush’d for the precious Prize along the Green.

The Works of Peter Pindar, 1812

thomas-rowlandson-rural-sports-smock-racing-published-1811

In this above print by Thomas Rowlandson, 1811, the prize of the smock can be seen hoisted into the air towards the back of the common. Also seen: fighting, drinking, and a generally bawdy Georgian crowd.

While researching these rural sports, I found out that Stool-ball is still a game played in Sussex (it’s a bit like cricket) and I’m absolutely overjoyed to find out that competitive gurning through a horse collar is still going strong at Egremont Crab Fair in Cumbria for nearly 800 years. I feel that bizarre old English sports could become a new area of interest. They offer a glimpse into what people did for fun, and are infinitely more palatable than other Georgian pastimes of watching blood sports and attending public executions.

 

This is what a receipt for 52 slaves looks like

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Slavery indenture, 1818 – click image to zoom in

 

This is what a receipt for 52 slaves looks like.

Found in the archives at Tunbridge Wells Museum at first glance, it looks like any other property contract of 1818- handwritten on parchment, signed and sealed with wax. Yet, attached at the end is a shocking list of 52 slaves. Ranging in age from a year old baby named Saturday to a 46 year old field hand named Petronie, these slaves were sold with Trinidadian plantation land by British investors in 1818.

Although Britain’s national role in the transatlantic slave trade ended in 1807, slavery in Trinidad and other colonies persisted until the Slavery Abolition Act, 1838. At the point of abolition in the colonies, there were 46,000 slave owners in Britain. These absentee slave owners were geographically spread across the country and a town like Royal Tunbridge Wells was no different.

William Lushington of Tunbridge Wells signed this contract for selling Trinidadian land and slaves. His Father, William Lushington the elder, established a West India merchant firm in the late 1700s. For a period, the firm grew rich trading in sugar grown by slaves and was financed by the bank Boldero & Lushington. With the bank’s collapse in 1812, the bank’s receivers started to call in William’s debts, triggering the sale.

The contract itself offers only basic information about the enslaved people being sold such as their given names, ages and occupations. The cruel custom of attributing slaves with high cultural status, classical names such as Hippolyta, Plato and Cleopatra, can also be seen.

The majority of the slaves were described as field hands, with a few working as cook, watchman, foreman, sick nurse and mule boy. Four ‘runaways’ were also recorded. Fugitive slaves remained the legal property of their owners and if caught were subject to violent punishments such as whipping, branding or execution. The ‘future progeny’ of slave women – their children – were also considered a financial asset in the contract and were squabbled over by the Lushingtons and the bank’s receivers.

How many of these enslaved people survived slavery to see abolition in Trinidad? We might never know. What is clear however is that when abolition finally came in 1838, it was the slave owners who were awarded compensation – a staggering total payout of £20m (£16bn in today’s money) by the British government .

The monumental research by University College London into the impact of British slave-ownership enabled me to delve further into the Lushingtons and their Tunbridge Wells connection. Despite his bankruptcy, William Lushington was able to leave a modest fortune and at least two slave plantations to his daughters Charlotte and Augusta Lushington of Tunbridge Wells. With abolition, the sisters made a compensation claim for the freeing of their 218 slaves in Grenada and Trinidad totalling over £7000.

Most likely it is through Charlotte and Augusta, who were buried locally at Trinity Church, that this contract came to Tunbridge Wells and was donated to the Museum. The Lushingtons’ legacy of slave ownership is part of a local and often obscured history yet to be explored. As after all, there are 16 other slave owners of Tunbridge Wells claiming compensation in 1838, including a Reverend and a High Sheriff of Kent.

God rot Tunbridge Wells! Handel and the Occulist

Handel portrait

George Frideric Handel

We love culture in Tunbridge Wells. Galleries, art centre, music venues – we can’t get enough. So, it’s with a hushed tone that I ask, did one of the greatest composers of his age, George Frideric Handel eventually meet his demise because of a charlatan eye doctor in Tunbridge Wells?

1735 was a good year for Tunbridge Wells. Richard ‘Beau’ Nash arrived in the town and managed its summer entertainments. It was also the year that Handel took a trip down from London to Tunbridge Wells, for the first of many visits.

The drinking of the spa waters might have attracted earlier health tourists in the late 1600s but it was the good company and entertainment that brought high society and Handel to the town over the summer months. Handel visited and dined with nearby friends in Kent, and kept company with fellow musicians, with many private concerts being promoted by Nash. It was also during this time, Handel purportedly had a run-in with Tunbridge Wells’ Ladies’ Music Society and was to have exclaimed, God Rot Tunbridge Wells! A slogan that somehow hasn’t caught on in local tourism literature.

Towards the end of his life Handel was in poor health and experiencing nervous disorders and failing eyesight but found seclusion away from London, back in Tunbridge Wells.

Enter: the flamboyant oculist, John ‘the Chevalier’ Taylor. Was he a charlatan and quack medicine man? 18th century medicine is generally objectionable to modern sensibilities, with its blood letting and purgative treatments. However, Taylor was also undoubtedly a showman and cute self-promoter who knew how to both announce his arrival in a wagon painted with a giant eye, and make a hasty exit:

He practiced in the most flamboyant way, drawing crowds to watch procedures in the town square – and then getting out of town before the patients took their bandages off…

John Chevalier Taylor

John ‘Chevalier’ Taylor

In 1758, both Handel and Taylor were in Tunbridge Wells. The [really, really, terrible] poem, On the Recovery of the Sight of The Celebrated Mr Handel, by the Chevalier Taylor, dated Tunbridge Wells 15 August 1758, was printed and also published in the London Chronicle on 24 August. The poem is stuffed full of classical allusions and proclamations of Taylor’s greatness, culminating in him single-handedly restoring Handel’s eyesight.

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Courtesy: U.S. National Library of Medicine

There is no other evidence to support that Taylor did actually operate on Handel, apart from this poem. At any rate, Handel’s eyesight did not recover and he died after his surgery with what was described as a painful eye condition.

Without a post mortem it’s impossible to say if Taylor’s treatment did in fact kill Handel. Interestingly, Taylor allegedly went on to treat the composer Johann Sebastian Bach who also died with an eye complaint. Maybe we should focus on the fact that Handel was a repeat visitor of the town, even becoming a donor to King Charles the Martyr chapel in 1755, and it was the good company, musical diversions and seclusion from London that kept him coming back, not the dodgy, potential fatal medical treatments?

Hello world

This blog is a place to share the unexpected and surprising history of Tunbridge Wells in a constructive way (because my family/friends/pets can only humour me for so long.)

Working with the Museum collections since 2013, the surprises and questions have just kept on coming. Why do we have a taxidermy dog?  Who stole a hive of bees and vandalised a sedan chair in the 1800s? And more seriously, what do we know of the history of working class Tunbridge Wells? What is the connection between slavery and  the spa town? Who were the inspiring women of the past that this generation can look up to now? These topics will soon be explored but see below for an image of our beloved Minnie the Lu Lu terrier, forever entombed in a Tunbridge ware cabinet.

Exploring the hidden past of Tunbridge Wells means focussing on all those unsung histories that have been previously overlooked or ignored. It also means questioning the myths and assumptions that are often made about local history. I hope that you find my research interesting and it provides you with an insight into the wonderful collections of the Museum – all views my own.

Minnie