James Guidney, aka Jemmy the Rockman, was a well-known character on the streets of Birmingham in the latter years of the Georgian and into the Victorian era, with his red military jacket and long white beard. Jemmy was a true English eccentric and had lived a life full of colour and adventure. He eventually settled at Birmingham where he sold a form of rock candy on the streets, which he called his ‘Composition’, crying out as he walked with his tin of his sweets, “Composition – Good for cough or cold – Cough or cold”.
Luckily for us, in his old age he wrote his autobiography, enabling us to tell his story completely.
Jemmy was born at Norwich to Jeremiah Guidney, a poor but hard-working man – Jemmy said he was born on the 1st September 1782 at Norwich but the only matching baptism we can find is dated the 21st March 1779, at St Julian’s in Norwich and for a James Wilcock Gidney whose parents were named Jeremiah and Mary.
Jeremiah sent young Jemmy to a charity school on alternate days and to a spinning school where five hundred boys worked at spinning wool into skeins, and Jemmy excelled at this – more so than he did at his charity school lessons. At thirteen years of age he left both of these schools and worked with his father for a year, selling milk or apples and as an errand boy. Then, in 1797, he fell in with a recruiting party at Norwich, took the King’s shilling and enlisted with the 48th Northamptonshire Regiment as a drummer (Jemmy says this was in June, but his enlistment date is 1st October 1797 and he was eighteen years of age, suggesting the 1779 baptism is the correct one – the dates he gives in his biography are ever slightly out). His adventures were about to begin.
Around a year after he enlisted the 48th left England on board the Calcutta man of war bound for Gibraltar where they remained about a year and a half. After that they were sent to Minorca and then to Malta, via Leghorn (now Livorno). They arrived on the island of Malta in the September of 1799, according to Jemmy.
French troops were occupying the citadel of Valletta and the 48th were part of the force besieging it – a siege which lasted some months before the French surrendered and the British took possession. It was now that James’ fortune took a turn for the worse. General Abercromby landed on Malta on his way to fight the French forces under Napoléon Bonaparte in Egypt. Abercromby was at the head of an army 60,000 strong and he reviewed the troops stationed in Malta and chose the 48th to join his expedition. They duly embarked with him but he changed his mind and, instead of taking them to Egypt, left them at Fort St Angelo on the other side of the water from Valletta. It was at Fort St Angelo that Jemmy contracted ophthalmia and lost his right eye.
Perhaps, though, the loss of an eye was preferable to the loss of his life for Abercromby’s decision saved Jemmy from facing the French troops.
While stationed at Fort St Angelo Jemmy had a strange encounter. One spring morning in May 1802 he was walking to the Catholic Church and saw a lamb in front of him, which began to play around his legs then settled to walk beside him. After walking some distance the lamb turned around, blocked Jemmy’s path and took on the form of a man who addressed Jemmy by name and commanded him to always wear a beard in the future. Jemmy touched the head and face of the strange man standing in front of him, not able to believe his eyes, and swore that he distinctly felt the flesh of a man – Jemmy broke out in a cold sweat while the man resumed the shape of a lamb. Turning back to his camp, the lamb accompanied him as far as the place they had both encountered one another at which point it disappeared. Jemmy did as instructed though and grew a beard which he wore for the rest of his life with the exception of one short interlude, which we will come to in due course.
A year later the 48th left Malta and sailed back to England where they spent the some time in barracks on the south coast and on the Isle of Wight where they were sent to try to prevent smuggling. Then, in February 1805, they went back overseas, first to a garrison on Gibraltar and then to an island which Jemmy named, in his autobiography, as Paraxil off the African coast, their duty to stop Spanish boats from replenishing the supplies of the Spanish army. There he had a lucky escape; leading eleven men to the African mainland to fill a dozen casks with good drinking water, they were caught in a storm on their return and, to save themselves from a watery death, pulled off their clothes and swam back to the mainland. Ten African men, with muskets, were on the beach though and they seized all the men except Jemmy and one other, taking them prisoner. Jemmy and his companion instead jumped back in to the sea and, despite the storm, swam for Paraxil and safety.
While the 48th regiment went off to serve, with distinction, in the Peninsular War between 1809 and 1814, Jemmy was instead transferred into the 1st Royal Veteran Battalion and remained with them at Gibraltar until April 1810, when he was sent back to England and promoted to Sergeant and Drum Major.
Eventually, in the summer of 1814, the Battalion was disbanded and Jemmy and his comrades were told to assemble at Hyde Park Corner on the 21st July, which they duly did. After eight days billeted at Highgate they were marched to the Chelsea Hospital where they were passed by the board and given a pension of a shilling a day in recompense for their services.
And so Jemmy had to adapt to life outside the army. He returned to his birthplace, Norwich, and found himself a job as a footman and butler to a gentleman who lived in the nearby village of Thorpe, but he only lasted six months there as he was too used to travel to be so sedentary. Instead he married (signing himself as James Kidney), at Lakenham on the 10th of January 1817 (in his autobiography he says 6th January 1816), to a woman named Phoebe Crow who lived at Norwich and had a life annuity of £60 a year. With this Jemmy set himself up as a travelling dealer in haberdashery but, after being attacked by a foot-pad, he instead began to weave bombazines and crapes. In 1821 Phoebe died, and Jemmy, ever restless, travelled the length and breadth of the country selling ‘Turkey rhubarb, little books, &c.’
After Phoebe’s death he gave up his pension, feeling that he could manage well enough without it, and thought he would travel to mainland Europe. So Jemmy went to London and procured a passport to Paris, for which he paid ten shillings. He didn’t understand the Vagrant Act, which prohibited begging, and thinking that by busking he’d earn a few coppers he began to sing the Freemason’s Hymn, which got him taken up by a couple of policemen to the Magistrates at Hatton Garden where he was convicted as a rogue and a vagabond, had his passport taken off him and was committed to Cold Bath Fields prison for three months. Jemmy dates this to August 1824 but he was once again wrong with his dates – it was June 1823 and was reported in the newspapers. From Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 24th August 1823.
A tall, ferocious-looking fellow, with a dark, heavy bushy beard, which nearly hid his features, was brought up, charged with being a rogue and vagabond. The prisoner who gave his name [as] James Guidney, is a well-known character on the town, and a complete impostor. He was taken up in Holborn, singing in some foreign tongue, and accosting ladies and gentlemen. He was blind of the right eye, and his appearance was sufficient to frighten women and children, and at every five seconds he pulled out his box and took a pinch of snuff. On his being searched, several cards of address, a Jew’s hymn-book, and a passport signed that day by the French Consul, were found in his pocket. He spoke no other than the English language, and that very fluently. On the magistrate asking him what religion he was brought up to, or why he let his beard grow; he said he was brought up a Protestant, but on seeing his error, he renounced it, and was converted to the Jewish religion, in which he expected to live and die. He had been a staff serjeant in the first Royal Veteran Battalion, and had a pension of one shilling a day, which he threw up, and his intention was to go to the Continent, to become a hawker of rheubarb and other articles. The Magistrate ordered the passport to be enclosed and returned to the French Consul, and the prisoner to be committed for three months as a rogue and vagabond to the House of Correction, and to have his beard shaved off. – He exclaimed, “No man alive shall shave my beard off.”
But shaved off it was! So, Jemmy was well known to the authorities, not something he had touched upon in his autobiography, nor had he mentioned converting to another religion. He was also quite clearly suspected of being a foreigner in appearance (his discharge papers from the army describe him as having a dark complexion, dark brown hair and hazel eyes). His arrest and incarceration scotched his plan of going to France and upon his release he ‘continued to perambulate the country, selling his small wares’ until he was taken on as a hermit for a month’s residence at Tong Castle in Shropshire. And it was after his month as a hermit that he travelled to Birmingham and began to sell his ‘Composition’.
He had at least two sons, James born around 1825 in Birmingham and Charles, born in December 1827 and who died eleven months later. In the May of 1828, and on the same day that Charles was baptised, Jemmy married for the second time, to Elizabeth Pitt, the eldest daughter of the late Mr Pitt of Northwood Street, locksmith and bell-hanger. Their marriage took place in St Martin’s church and the baptism of Charles, on the same day, at St Phillip’s – maybe they did not want to admit to a child born out of wedlock to the vicar who married them? Strangely, on the same day at St Phillip’s, and entered immediately above Charles’ baptism, is one for James, son of Thomas and Elizabeth Pitt, born on the 14th February 1825 – is this the son who later calls himself James Guidney? And if so, was he actually Jemmy’s son as, in Jemmy’s own account (in which admittedly several of the dates are incorrect) he does not leave the Hermitage at Tong Castle and travel to Birmingham until 11th July 1825, almost five months after this James’ birth? For we can find no baptism for a James Guidney in Birmingham around 1825.
Jemmy remained in Birmingham, selling his ‘Composition’ on the streets from nine o’clock in the morning until eight or nine o’clock at night. In 1841 he, Elizabeth and James were living in the yard of the White Lion inn in the St Martin’s area of Birmingham with Jemmy listed as a ‘dealer’. By 1851 it was just Jemmy and Elizabeth and they’d moved to Communication Row in St Thomas’. Elizabeth became ill and Jemmy struggled to care for her, asking for his pension to be reinstated in 1844.
By 1861 Elizabeth was gone from Jemmy’s side, possibly into the workhouse, and his son James and his young family was living with him. A subscription was set up in the early 1860s for Jemmy, with people far and wide sending money to support him, and in 1862 a ballad was sung around the streets of Birmingham titled ‘Jemmy the Rockman’. Capitalizing on his new-found fame, Jemmy published his autobiography, ending it with an advertisement for his services.
Having had very considerable experience as a Drummer, James Guidney will be happy to attend any Public Parties of Pleasure, and may be found at his residence, 18, Communication Row, Birmingham.
Jemmy died on the 28th September 1866 and was buried in Witton Cemetery in Birmingham.
Our final image of him comes courtesy of the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.
Birmingham Daily Gazette
Birmingham Daily Post
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Some Particulars of the Life and Adventures of James Guidney, a Well Known Character in Birmingham, written from his own account of himself, third and enlarged edition, 1862
Birmingham from the Dome of St Philip’s Church by Samuel Lines, c.1821, Birmingham Museums Trust