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.

Kindred Spirit

07 10 robert chambersToday, I am celebrating the birthday of Robert Chambers who was born in Peebles in the Scottish Borders in 1802. He and his brother William founded W & R Chambers Publishing, who eventually produced Chambers Dictionary. That’s my favourite dictionary, but that’s not why I wanted to tell you about him. I discovered Robert a year ago when I was writing on Tumblr and he has been with me almost every day since. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Both Robert and his brother were born with six fingers and six toes. Both had undergone surgery to remove the extra digits but one of Robert’s operations had left him lame. So he was not an active child, but became instead a great devourer of knowledge. When he found a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica in his father’s attic, it kept him entertained for years. His brother later said of him: “the acquisition of knowledge was with him the highest of earthly enjoyments.” I have learned so many interesting things whilst researching this blog that I’m inclined to agree.

The family moved to Edinburgh in 1813 and when Robert was sixteen he began to run a second hand book stall on Leith Walk. When his brother William bought a printing press, they began to publish magazines together, with Robert providing the content. In 1832 they began to produce a weekly magazine called ‘The Edinburgh Journal’. It cost one penny and included articles about history, religion, language, and science.

In 1844 he produced a book called ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’. It began by explaining the formation of the solar system, continued with the geology of the earth and followed the pattern of increasingly complex lifeforms right the way up to humans. He talked about how one species of creature may have arisen from another. He would have referred to it as the transmutation of species, we would now call it evolution. This was all very controversial and ungodly at the time and Robert went to great lengths to conceal his authorship. He dictated it to his wife, so the manuscript would be in her handwriting and then sent it to a different publisher. It brings together a lot of ideas that were around at the time regarding how our world came to be as it is. Some of the experiments he cites are questionable, such as one which suggests insects can be made to arise spontaneously from electricity. But his examination of fossil records, which points out that fossils of simpler organisms are found in older rocks, is good.

Vestiges quickly became a bestseller. The first edition sold out in only a few days. Over ten years, it sold over 20,000 copies. Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln was also impressed by it. Others were not so keen. Such a theory rather cut God out of the equation, which was a pretty shocking claim. Roberts book received a lot of scathing reviews. At least one of his critics thought it was such awful nonsense that it must have been written by a woman. Some of the theories in the book were similar to those being pursued by Charles Darwin. Darwin found some of his explanations a little clunky. He didn’t feel that the, then anonymous, author of Vestiges had really described the environments that caused animals such as a woodpecker to develop in the way it had. But for many years, Vestiges was the only book available in English the explained the theory of evolution. Its reception by its critics may also have been what put Darwin off publishing his ‘Origin of Species’, which appeared fifteen years later. Robert’s authorship of Vestiges was not revealed until 1884, thirteen years after his death.

07 10 chambers book of days Robert Chambers’ last work was ‘Chambers Book of Days’ published in 1864. It was subtitled: ‘A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character’. It’s a massive work that runs to two volumes each with more than 840 pages. It contains, for each day of the year, a list of the births and deaths of notable people and a list of the saints associated with that day. Then underneath are a number of short essays about the some of the people, or the events that happened on that date. When I discovered Robert, I was happy to have found a kindred spirit. His undertaking was much larger than my meagre effort. He wrote around two thousand essays for his ‘Book of Days’ and he didn’t even have the internet to help him. It seems his family all thought the huge amount of work he put into his book contributed to his early death in 1871. Despite this warning from history, I have pressed on with my project and now have only twelve days to go.

Robert has helped me out of many a hole in this last year. When Wikipedia failed me, I turned to him. Sometimes, I’ve felt he was up against the same problems as me when seeking something interesting to say about a particular date. But he has also introduced me to some wonderful characters. Without him, I would not know so much about mountebanks, eighteenth century bets and weird burials. You can find Chambers Book of Days, in a searchable format here. If you want to know what he has to say about today, I recommend you scroll to the bottom and read ‘Child Suckled by Goat.’

Sepulchral Vagaries

06 21 captain backhouse tombToday is the anniversary of the death of Captain Thomas Backhouse who died on this day in 1800. In life, he was a soldier who served in Europe, India and the Philippines. But today’s post is not about his life. Today I am looking at unusual burials, and Captain Backhouse is my first example.

When Thomas Backhouse retired to Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, he declared that he would “have nothing to do with the church or the churchyard”. Instead, he began to build himself a tomb. It was around eleven feet square, built of flint and bricks. The walls tapered to a pyramid and were finished at the top with a flat stone about three feet square. I assume that the tomb is now long gone, as this is the only picture of it that I could find. “Bury me there,” he said, “in my own wood on the hill, and my sword with me, and I’ll defy all the evil spirits in existence to injure me.” When the captain died, his body was placed in a coffin, along with his sword and stood on end in a niche in the wall. Presumably so the evil spirits didn’t catch him lying down. Then, the niche was bricked up. His body remained there, standing to attention, for seven years, until one of his sons returned from India and had his body removed to the churchyard.

This gave rise to a tale among the villagers that the old man’s body was guarding the property until his son came to take possession of it, and also that his ghost still haunted the mausoleum. There is a splendid tale about some boys who were out in the woods when they came upon the tomb. One said to another : “Jack, I’ll lay you a penny you dursn’t put your head into that window, and shout out, Old Backhouse.” The boy took the challenge. He thrust his head through the window and yelled “Old….” That was as far as he got. The boys outside heard the screams, they saw him kick and struggle, they saw that something had a hold of him and that he couldn’t get away. They all ran away, terrified.

This is what really happened. When Jack put his head in at the window, his first shout had roused an owl that had taken up residence there. The owl was also frightened, and it’s first instinct was to make for the only exit – the window. Jack, seeing it’s great pale face hurtling towards him, thought it really was the ghost of Old Backhouse. The window was of a Gothic design, pointed at the top. He had jerked up his head to get away and it had become lodged in the top of the window. So Jack was stuck in the window and the owl inside was flying round screeching and making occasional lunges at his face. Luckily, some men, working in a nearby field, heard the frightened yells of his friends and went to help him. They pulled him out. He was unconscious and had to be carried home. Luckily he made a full recovery, although for several days there was concern that: “his intellect was impaired”. Though he certainly never stuck his head in Backhouse’s tomb again, so maybe his intellect was improved if anything.

The other really weird burial I want to tell you about today is that of Reverend Langton Freeman of Whilton, Northamptonshire. He died on October 9th 1784 and, as this year long project of mine will be up in just over a month, I won’t be here to tell you about it then. So let’s look at him now. In fact, I can let him speak for himself about how he wanted his body disposed of. The following is an extract from his will:

“…first, for four or five days after my decease, and until my body grows offensive, I would not be removed out of the place or bed I shall die on. And then I would be carried or laid in the same bed, decently and privately, in the summer house now erected in the garden belonging to the dwelling house, where I now inhabit in Whilton aforesaid, and to be laid in the same bed there, with all the appurtenances thereto belonging; and to be wrapped in a strong, double winding sheet, and in all other respects to be interred as near as may be to the description we receive in Holy Scripture of our Saviour’s burial. The doors and windows to be locked up and bolted, and to be kept as near in the same manner and state they shall be in at the time of my decease. And I desire that the building, or summer house, shall be planted around with evergreen plants, and fenced off with iron or oak pales, and painted of a dark blue colour; and for the due performance of this, in manner aforesaid, and for keeping the building ever the same, with the evergreen plants and rails in proper and decent repair,”

All this seems to have gone ahead as he requested. I have this story, and the other from Robert Chambers ‘Book of Days’ which was published in 1864. He tells us that until relatively recently, the summerhouse was still surrounded by trees, but they had now been cut down. There was a hole in the roof and, two years before he was writing his book, some men had climbed in to have a look round. His body was still there and still intact.

I have stolen my title for today’s post from Robert Chambers. He has quite a lot to say on the subject. If you want to read about more unusual burials, you can visit Robert here. He will tell you about a farmer, named Trigg, who had his body encased in lead and set into one of the roof beams in his barn. Or Geoffrey de Manville, the 1st Earl of Essex, who could not be buried because he had been excommunicated. His body was taken by the Knights Templar. They put it in a lead coffin and hung it in a tree in their garden until they had received permission from the Pope to bury it. They buried it at a new church they had built themselves in the City of London. A cursory search of the internet tells me that he died in 1144, but the new church was not consecrated until 1185, so he was in that tree for a really long time. I don’t have a picture of the tree, but here is the church, which is still standing…

06 21 temple church

Away with the Showfolk

As I hinted the other day, I am still separated from all my notes for this blog because I recklessly tried to upgrade my laptop to windows 10 and it didn’t like it. I know I had something planned for today, but can’t for the life of me remember what it was.  So I had a look at what Robert Chambers had to say about April 14th, back in 1864, in his ‘Book Of Days’. Mountebank Distributing his Wares on the Stage

Robert tells us that, on this day in 1684, a notice was published suppressing all ballad singers, rope dancers and mountebanks who did not have a licence to perform from the Master of Revels. At that time the Master of Revels was Thomas Killigrew, who I feel certain I’ve mentioned before. A rope dancer, I discovered, is a tightrope walker. Robert has quite a lot to say about mountebanks. I knew the term referred to some sort of scurrilous person, but according to him they seem to have been specifically showmen who travelled about selling fake medical cures. They did not work alone. As well as having accomplices amongst their audience to come forward and be ‘cured’, their shows seem to have included a harlequin, a clown and possibly a brass band. I learned two names for a clown that I’ve never heard before. They are merry-andrew and jack-pudding. The entertainment value of the shows they put on was well worth the sixpence they charged for whatever quack cures they were selling. Sometimes, they practised dentistry. It seems pulling teeth was a spectator sport back in the day. The brass band was to drown out the cries of the patient.

Robert Chambers mentions several people who I’d like to revisit on another occasion, but for now I want to tell you about a character surnamed Russell who seems, among other things, to have claimed some medical knowledge. I don’t know when this person was born, probably some time in the late 1660s or early 1670s and lived in Streatham, London. Russell died in 1772 and was buried on April 14th. Russell is described as an itinerant vagabond and seems to have lived to be at least a hundred years old. You might have noticed that I’m avoiding the use of a gendered pronoun for this person. The reason is that, in life, everyone believed Russell to be a woman called Elizabeth, but after her death she was found to be a man. What little information I’ve found about Elizabeth Russell is very old and uses the word ‘he’ all the way through, but as Ms Russell chose to live as a woman, I’m going to stick with ‘she’.

An examination of church registers reveals that her father, John Russell had two sons: William in 1668 and John in 1672. If Elizabeth was born John, she lived to be 100, if William, she was 104. Elizabeth herself believed that she was 108. In 1770 she acquired a copy of a certificate of baptism belonging to her sister Elizabeth who may have died in infancy or just moved away. Elizabeth Russell seems to have taken up a travelling life with ‘strollers and vagabonds’ and she travelled all over Europe. Sometimes she travelled in the company of another once famous, now forgotten vagabond, Bamfylde Moore Carew. In later life, she settled in Chipstead in Kent, where she kept a large shop. She also travelled the countryside hawking her wears along with a man she said was her husband. In fact, she changed her surname to his and was known as ‘Bet Page’. I have been unable to find out exactly what it was that she sold. Googling ‘Bet Page’ is hopeless, you just end up with loads of gambling websites. But I did find out that she worked with travelling physicians and learned their ways.

She had a good reputation as both a healer and an astrologer. She was also an excellent seamstress who could sew a mean shirt. Elizabeth could have lived comfortably on what she earned, but spent most of it in the alehouse, buying drinks for herself and her friends. It’s pretty amazing that, over two hundred years later, we know anything at all about her, but she really came to attention because she was so very old. She became a frequent visitor to Henry Thrale, the MP for Southwark and it was at his house that she met Samuel Johnson. Doctor Johnson enjoyed talking with her very much. He found her shrewd, sensible and to have an excellent memory, despite her advanced age.

Elizabeth died very suddenly and everyone was astounded when it was discovered that she had been a man. Elizabeth had been a woman for as long as anyone could remember. I’ve no idea what prompted her to live as a woman. Whether it was what she actually wanted or whether it was just a really good disguise, she certainly had everyone fooled. She often used to share the bed of her landlady when a new lodger came along unexpectedly. Tantalisingly she is described as having a: ‘wildness and eccentricity… which seemed to border on insanity’ but no one seems to have gone into any detail about how this manifested itself.

Light and Shadow

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESToday is Candlemas and, in the northern hemisphere, we should be over the worst of the winter. At least in terms of unacceptable day length, there could still be plenty of cold weather ahead. Today we are half way between the solstice and the equinox. All the candles that will be used in services throughout the year are brought into church to be blessed at Candlemas. It also commemorates two events. The presentation of the infant Jesus to God in the Temple at Jerusalem and the ritual purification of Mary forty days after giving birth. Women were considered unclean for forty days after giving birth to a son. If Jesus had been a girl, she would have been unclean for sixty days.

Like most Christian festivals, it’s roots are much older. In Ancient Rome, February 2nd was commemorated as the day that Pluto, the god of the underworld carried away Proserpene (in Greek, Persephone). Her mother Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, and her female attendants searched everywhere for her with torches and candles. When she was found in his kingdom, Pluto agreed to let her return to her earthly home, but first he made her eat six pomegranate seeds. Anyone who ate the food of the dead, could not return to the land of the living in any permanent way, 02 02 frederic leighton the return of perspephone (1891)so Proserpene could return to her mother for six months of every year, the other six months she must spend in the underworld with Pluto. This is clearly a myth about the changing seasons. In Spring, Ceres welcomes her daughter and everything begins to grow. But when she has to leave again everything dies and we have Winter. In Rome, the event was celebrated annually with a procession of torches and candles. Also, in this month, they had a festival called Februa, after which this month is named. They carried candles to all parts of the city in a ritual act of purification. So it’s easy to see how the stories of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary fitted in well with an existing tradition. Whether you are welcoming Jesus as the Light of the World, or searching for the returning spring; celebrating the purification of Mary, or driving out some lingering spirits left over from the old year, a candle or two wouldn’t go amiss.

There is also a pretty widespread superstition connected with Candlemas. The weather on that day is supposed to predict how long the winter will last. If the weather is fine, it means that winter is far from over and the crops that year will be bad. If it snows and the weather is terrible, it means an early spring. Robert Chambers gave us a lovely Scottish rhyme about it when wrote about Candlemas in his ‘Book of Days’ in 1864:

If Candlemass day be dry and fair,
The half o’ winter’s to come and mair;
If Candlemass day be wet and foul,
The half o’ winter’s gave at Yule.’

He tells us that this belief existed throughout Europe and in Germany, on February 2nd, a shepherd would rather see a wolf in his stable than the sunshine. He also says that the Germans believed that the badger will look out of his sett on Candlemas Day. If it is snowing, he will come out and go hunting. But if the sun is shining, he will go inside and go back to sleep because he knows winter isn’t over. This same superstition crossed the Atlantic with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Only they don’t use the badger to foretell the weather. They have a groundhog. Today is also Groundhog Day. There are several weather 02 02 groundhogpredicting groundhogs in the United States and Canada. The most famous is probably Punxsutawney Phil. With great ceremony, he will emerge from his temporary home on Gobbler’s Knob, just outside the town of Punxsutawney. He will be attended by several gentleman in top hats. If Phil sees his shadow, he will return to his hole and there will be six more weeks of winter. If Phil does not see his shadow, he has predicted an early spring. The Groundhog Club, who attend him tell us that Phil speaks his prediction in a language called ‘groundhogese’ that only the president of the club can understand. The president then interprets it for the rest of the world. They further insist that there has only ever been one Punxsutawney Phil and that the same animal has been making his predictions since 1886.

In 2013, a man from Ohio issued an indictment against Phil when he wrongly predicted an early spring. He called for the death penalty. But no such indictment was issued against Ohio’s own prediction groundhog Buckeye Chuck, who also failed to see his shadow. Punxsutawaney Phil doesn’t always get it right. Probably he gets it right less than half of the time. But then, he does spend the rest of the year living in a library, so maybe he’s a bit out of touch.

Thomas Browne mentions the weather-lore prediction as well in his book ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ first published in 1646. He says: “…there is a general tradition in most parts of Europe, that inferreth the coldness of the succeeding winter from the shining of the sun on Candlemas-day”. It is a large and sprawling work with no index, so I haven’t been able to find what else he had to say about it. But as the book is alternately titled ‘Vulgar Errors’, I presume he thought it was all nonsense too.

Here’s What You Could Have Won

01 11 man announcing winnersThere’s been a lot of fuss recently about the British National Lottery, which has recently increased the number of balls from forty-nine, to fifty-nine, decreasing the chances of winning the top prize from one in fourteen million to one in forty-five million. The first English lottery, which was drawn, or rather began to be drawn, on this day in 1569 had much better odds. Everyone won a prize. Also all the money that was raised was spent on prizes. 40,000 lots were sold at ten shillings each. That meant it raised £20,000. The top prize was worth £5,000 made up of £3,000 in cash £700 in silver and gold plate and the rest in tapestries and expensive fabric. The many smaller prizes were either luxury goods or a small cash prize. I imagine you’re wondering how anyone profited by this. Well, they didn’t, not really. But rather than waiting till the end of the week to find out if you’d won, the ticket holders had to wait three years. The tickets had been sold in 1566. What the money did do was provide an interest free loan for the government which was used for the: “reparation of the havens and strength of the Realme, and towardes such other publique good workes”. Specifically it was used to strengthen our ports at a time when England was competing with Spain, Holland and Portugal to set up colonies overseas and establish export markets.

To promote the lottery, scrolls were posted all over the country showing drawings of the prizes on offer. Despite the tempting prizes and the assurance that no one would lose, ticket sales were slow . Queen Elizabeth was forced to offer other inducements to ticket holders. Anyone with a ticket could visit certain towns in the kingdom and do anything they liked there for seven days, without fear of arrest. Just so long as it wasn’t treason, murder or piracy. The drawing of the lottery began on January 11th outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Each ticket had to be matched against a prize and recorded. It took a really long time. The lottery continued to be drawn day and night until May 6th. I’m afraid I don’t know who won the big prize.

It can’t have been a huge success, Because the second ever English lottery seems not to have taken place until 1585. it was to win a rather splendid suit of armour. We know that in 1612, James I granted a lottery to raise funds for a colony in Virginia which was won by a poor tailor, so that’s nice. Lotteries really took off in the reign of Charles II. The government had learned by this time that they could make far more money if they included ‘blanks’ in the draw, which meant there were people who didn’t win anything at all. They would raise money for a scheme by selling £10 shares in the lottery to brokers who actually paid around £16 for them. The brokers then offered the tickets to the public for about £20. In practice, not many people could afford to buy a whole ticket and it was common for them to sell a person half a ticket, a quarter, an eighth, even a sixteenth. The money they could get from sixteen people for a sixteenth share would be more than the £20 they could get for a whole share, and they made the most money this way. What you have here, in essence, is a stock market.

Lottery brokers would vie with each other for custom by advertising how many previous winners they had sold tickets to. As though, just because they had once had a couple of winners, they were somehow lucky and would be favoured again. One firm of lottery ticket contractors paid an old woman £50 a year to become a nominal director simply because her name was Mrs. Goodluck. Then, as now, people had their favourite lucky numbers. Some people won and their stories were recorded: The baby who won £1000 the day after his birth; an innkeeper who won £20,000 and bought a new coach and horses for the coachman who brought him his ticket, but mostly they lost. The real winners were the government and the brokers. By 1826 people had got a bit fed up with the way the lottery was run and the whole thing rather imploded. Robert Chamber’s, in his Book of Days has rather a lot to say about lotteries on his entry for this day. Writing in 1864, he can’t believe people could ever have been so stupid as to think they had a chance of winning. I wonder what he would think if he could see us now?

I Bet You

07 10 robert chambersToday 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.

11 29 sir walter raleighSir 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.

11 29 john james heideggerThere 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.