Beggars Banquet

07 17 death of a miser heronimus boschYesterday, I wrote about money and how it is worth nothing until you exchange it for something else. Today, I want to look at some of the people who didn’t get round to spending what they had while they were alive. Writers have long been fascinated by misers. Aesop, writing in the seventh or sixth century BC, tells us a story of a miser who buried his gold. But he came back to look at it every day and someone saw him, dug up the gold and stole it. The miser was distraught at the loss of his wealth. His neighbour consoled him by telling him that he might just as well bury a stone instead, or even just come back each day and look at the empty hole. Because he wasn’t using his gold, it would really be exactly the same thing. Buried gold is as useless as stone or an hole in the ground.

There are loads of examples of misers in literature, in theatre and in art, but there are also plenty of real life hoarders. I’ve mentioned a couple of them over the past year, and I have found that they are not necessarily greedy people, but they are not well people and are often profoundly eccentric. A true miser will live in apparent penury, in detriment to their comfort and their health so, often, their wealth is only discovered posthumously. Some, although they inherited huge sums, were assumed by the casual observer to be beggars. But some of them actually were beggars. Certainly, their accumulated riches were not as vast as those of John Camden Neild or John Elwes but were, nonetheless, remarkable. Robert Chambers, in his entry for July 17th, mentions Mary Wilkinson, who he describes as a ‘beggar and bone grubber’, who had £300 sewn into her ragged clothing. He also mentions Frances Beet who was found to have hidden £800 in her bed and rickety furniture and a character called ‘Poor Joe All Alone’ who had made his living selling matches and ballads and performing magic tricks yet he managed to amass a fortune of £3,000 by the time he died in 1767. Joe left the money he had saved to help support widows and orphans.

Both Robert and I have a particular reason for telling you about rich beggars today, because July 17th is the anniversary of the death of William Stevenson, who died at Kilmarnock in 1817. I have no idea when he was born, possibly some time around 1730. Stevenson was trained as a mason, but spent the greater part of his life begging. Up until his last illness, the only thing we know about him was that he and his wife had separated. They must had hated each other a lot, because they had made an agreement that if one of them ever proposed they got back together, they would pay the other £100. As far as we know, they never saw each other again.

Stevenson fell ill at the age of eighty-five and was confined to bed. His chief concern was that what little money he had scraped together would not last. But it did. When he knew he was close to death, he began to make arrangements for a grand send off. He sent for a baker and ordered twelve dozen funeral cakes and a great quantity of sugar biscuits. He ordered wine and liquor in correspondingly large amounts and said that more of both should be purchased if that proved to be insufficient. Next, he sent for a joiner and ordered himself an expensive coffin. Then the gravedigger, and asked for a roomy grave in a dry and comfortable corner. He told an old lady who had been looking after him where she might find £9 hidden in his home to pay for all the expenses, and assured her that she had been remembered in his will. He died shortly afterwards and, when his room was searched they found a bag of silver pieces, more coins hidden in a heap of old rags and £300 hidden in a trunk. They also found bonds and securities. His fortune amounted to around £900. To the old lady, he left £20, which may not sound like much but, in today’s money, that’s close to £1,800.

William Stevenson lay in state for four days while his distant relatives were gathered to attend his funeral. But it was not a sombre affair. It was a party. Whole families were invited. He was visited by the young and the old, by beggars and poor tradesmen. The older attendees found they had each been left sixpence, the younger ones, threepence. After the burial, everyone repaired to a barn, where most of them got so drunk that they had to be helped home. Some did not make it home at all, but fell asleep on a pile of corn sacks. The only account I could find of William’s funeral was by someone who clearly didn’t approve of it. It uses words like ‘wicked’, ‘careless’ and ‘waste’. It also goes on to say that those who missed the celebrations threatened to dig up his body so that they could give him another send off. They left him where he was, but apparently, the party continued for several weeks. That doesn’t sound like a waste to me. I think when a funeral is such fun that you want to do it all over again – that’s a pretty good funeral.

Funeral Riot

Today I08 14 charlotte of brunswick want to tell you about the time there was a riot at the Queen’s funeral procession. The year was 1821 and the Queen was Caroline of Brunswick, whose husband had recently been crowned King George IV.

George, then Prince of Wales, had agreed to marry Caroline only because it meant that his father, King George III, would pay off his gambling debts. He was in fact already married to Maria Fitzherbert but the marriage was not recognised because it had taken place without the consent of his father. Caroline was chosen for him as a suitable bride because she was the daughter of the king’s favourite sister. Yes, they were cousins, but the two did not meet until three days before their marriage. They did not like each other at all. When George met his future wife, his first reaction was to call for a glass of brandy. Her first thoughts were that he was very fat and not as handsome as his portrait.

They married in April 1795. George was clearly drunk at the ceremony. Nine months later Caroline gave birth to a daughter and three days after that George wrote out a will leaving all his possessions to Maria Fitzherbert and to Caroline, one shilling. George claimed that they had only had sex three times, twice on their wedding night and once the night after. He said that it had taken a great deal of effort on his part: to conquer my aversion and overcome the disgust of her person. While Caroline said that George had: passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him.

08 14 george ivIn less than two years the couple were living apart. There was a lot of animosity on both sides and probably a lot of affairs too. Caroline agreed to leave the country in exchange for a substantial allowance. George III died in January 1820 so Caroline was now nominally Queen. She was offered even more money to remain in Europe but she declined and returned to Britain. George was not a popular man, he was terribly extravagant. The press were quick to point this out and it did not go down well. Caroline, on the other hand, was seen as a wronged woman and had a great deal of support when she returned.

The King, however, wanted a divorce. He aimed to prove that she had had an affair whilst in Europe with a man called Bartolomeo Pergami. She probably did, but that didn’t make her any less popular with the people (they really didn’t like George). Eight hundred petitions were raised in her favour, carrying almost a million signatures.

08 14 coronationGeorge refused to allow Caroline to attend his coronation. When she turned up at Westminster Abbey, she was greeted with drawn bayonets and the door was slammed in her face. She fell ill that night and died three weeks later. She had asked to be buried in Brunswick in Germany so her body had to be taken from her home in Hammersmith to Harwich on the coast. The people wanted to mourn their Queen but the government found the whole affair a terrific embarrassment and decided it would be best to send the coffin all around the north of London quietly instead of parading it through the City. They were worried there might be trouble. There was. When the cortège tried to turn north at Hyde Park they found their way barred. The Queen’s working class supporters had got there first and built a barricade. When the soldiers that were accompanying the procession tried to tear it down they were pelted with missiles. They tried to take different route, but the way to Knightsbridge and the entrance to Hyde Park were also blocked. This time the barricades were on fire. The crowd were determined to force the funeral procession through the City. There was a terrible altercation. Soldiers were pelted with stones, many of the people were injured and two men were shot and killed. This only made the now huge and furious crowd even more determined to have their way. The now less than splendid cortège found every escape route blocked by the angry mob and they were forced towards the City. This show of mass solidarity against authority by ordinary people was unprecedented.

08 14 funeral riotThe two men who were killed, Richard Honey, a carpenter and George Francis, a bricklayer had a monument raised in their memory by their friends and colleagues. Part of the inscription reads:

Victims like these have fallen in every age
Stretch of pow’r or party’s cruel rage
Until even handed justice comes at last
To amend the future and avenge the past

There was a trial following their deaths and the verdicts were murder and manslaughter, but as the soldier who had pulled the trigger could not be identified, no one was ever brought to book. Caroline’s London home is long since demolished but you can still see this monument in the churchyard of St Paul’s, Hammersmith.