Today I have been referring to Chambers Book of Days, which is a massive two volume work written by Robert Chambers and published in 1864. It takes each day of the year, in chronological order, mentions notable births, deaths and saints days and includes several longer articles on events connected with that day. So, as you might imagine, I like him a lot.
There are two basic problems related to researching this blog. Firstly, I am sometimes presented with a long list of completely awful things that happened on a certain day. This is dispiriting, and on those days Robert has often presented me with some forgotten individual or event which has escaped the wikipedia day lists. The second problem is called ‘falling down a wikipedia hole’ when I become so distracted by following links that have nothing to do with the original story but are none the less fascinating. Robert didn’t have the internet, but something similar seems to happen to him occasionally. Just as he seems to be near finishing recording the days events, he will find a topic that sends him off at a complete tangent.
Today’s entry is a good example. He has a small story about a man called Foster Powell who, on November 29th 1773, set off to walk from London to York and back again. It took him three days to walk there, and three days to walk back. He did this for a bet and won a hundred guineas for his effort. This leads Chambers to take a look at other mad bets in history and gives me the opportunity to share a few of them.
Sir Walter Raleigh once won a wager against Queen Elizabeth I about the weight of smoke contained in a pound of tobacco, they weighed out the tobacco, set fire to it and then weighed the ashes. By subtracting the weight of the ashes from the original pound they assumed they had calculated the weight of the smoke. Then there was a gentleman named Corbet, about whom we know nothing except for the fact he made a bet that his leg was the handsomest in the whole kingdom. Apparently he won and, in 1864 at least, his family still had a picture showing how the legs of the various claimants were measured.
In 1806 in York two men called Thomas Hodgson and Samuel Whitehead bet each other five shillings which of them could dress the most weird. Hodgson chose to fasten bank notes of varying denominations all over his coat and waistcoat and a row of five guinea notes and a netted purse of gold on his hat. On his back he had attached a sign saying ‘John Bull’ Whitehead appeared dressed half as a white woman and half as a black man. On one side he wore a silk stocking and slipper and had painted one half of his face. On the other he wore half a gaudy, long tailed, linen coat, half a pair of leather breeches, a boot and spur. I think the judges made the wrong decision because they awarded the wager to Hodgson. Maybe they were distracted by the showy display of wealth. Then there was the unnamed man who laid a wager that he could stand all day on London Bridge with a tray of sovereigns fresh from the royal mint, offering them for sale at a penny each, and that he would be unable to sell them. He won, he wasn’t able to shift a single one.
There was the case of John James Heidegger, Master of Revels to George II. He was not a good looking man, but took this fact with good humour. He bet his friend, the Earl of Chesterfield, that he could not produce an uglier person than himself in the whole of London. A search was made and the earl presented a very old lady from the neighbourhood of St Giles who was, at first sight, as poorly blessed by good looks as himself. But then Heidegger asked if he might put on the lady’s bonnet, and everyone had to agree that he had won his bet.
One last example from Robert Chambers exuberant list is a man who bet his friend that he dared go into the crypt at Westminster Abbey at midnight. To prove he had been there, he would stick a fork in one of the coffins. He accomplished this, but as he turned to leave he felt something pull at him. He was so scared that he fainted. After a while, his friend came to look for him, found him on the floor and revived him. It turned out that as he tried to walk away, the fork had caught on the hem of his cloak.
I can’t really leave the subject of historical bets without mentioning someone else who is similarly fascinated by these odd wagers. In fact, he’s made a couple of series for the BBC about them. Tim FitzHigham has also unwittingly provided me with a couple of colourful characters for this blog. So, this might not make much sense, but here he is with my friend Bob recreating a bet to find out whether a man can run faster than a racehorse.