I am delighted to welcome my first guest of the year to All Things Georgian, Elizabeth Larby, who, apart from being the archivist at Gresham’s School, Norfolk, has also come across a fascinating diary which she is going to tell us more about today.
The diary is safely stored at Norfolk Records Office, but Elizabeth has also transcribed it and added additional information. I have added links at the end of this post if you’d like to find out more about this fascinating gentleman.
Intrepid Mr Marten set off with his wife Emma, daughter Sarah and servant from the Custom House steps in London aboard the ‘Hero’ steam packet on 7th September 1825 for a voyage to the depths of Norfolk of 24 days duration. The trip – intended for the ‘heath and pleasure’ of the family – took them initially by sea to Great Yarmouth, on to stays in Cromer and Norwich, and finally to a few days of Georgian country delights with friends.
Who was author of the 1825 diary?
Robert Humphrey Marten was born on 21st March 1763 in London, the second eldest in a typically large family for the period. His father Nathaniel was a Mile End pastry cook and his mother was Martha Clarkson. The family attended local Congregationalist (Independent) meetings and family prayers and religious instruction were commonplace in the home.
After assuring himself of her ‘pious principle’ and sampling her sensible conversation, Robert married Mary Reeves in 1789 at Bethnal Green.
Sadly, their happiness was short-lived, and Mary was taken ill during the following year and died in June. By the end of the year, however, on the advice of his father, the young man was once again considering marriage.
Having renewed his acquaintance with Miss Elizabeth Giles, Robert proposed and was accepted. He and Elizabeth were married on 12th July 1791 at Milton-next-Gravesend Church. Living on a small income, the couple had to practice economy in the home and no frivolous Sunday parties were allowed, instead they lived according the advice of their church, working and praying hard, remaining cheerful despite their straitened circumstances.
The first of Robert’s five children, Robert Giles, was born on 22nd June 1792. Improving finances allowed a move to No. 64 Great Prescott Street in London, a comfortable house with a small garden. By this time Robert had become a partner with the maritime insurance company Smith St Barbe & Marten, marking a great step forward for the ambitious 30-year old. To the firm’s main business of insurance, Robert added the care and disposal of salvaged ships, a big money earner during the ensuing wars with France.
By 1805 Elizabeth’s health was declining and a change of air recommended, encouraging a move to Broadway House in the village of Plaistow and a daily commute by two-wheeled chaise for Robert. A gardener and various servants completed the now well-to-do household.
As more dissenting families moved into the area the need for a suitable place of worship became more pressing and Robert was one of the founders of the meeting house in 1807. As well as being a leading light in the chapel, Robert was well known for his generosity and charity in the area and worked tirelessly in support of many causes.
On the death of his second wife Elizabeth in 1811 Robert wrote of twenty years of ‘mutual happiness’ with the mother of his five grown up children.
Another two years passed before a new bride was chosen for her very high character and approved by the children. Emma Martin, who accompanied Robert on his 1825 tour, became his wife on 8th July 1813.
By 1825 the demands of business and philanthropy were taking their toll on Robert’s health in the form of headaches and nervous exhaustion, hence the need for a break at the seaside with its recently discovered benefits to the constitution.
The discovery of Robert’s journal and identify
In 1983 I was looking around for a new project, having completed ‘Poppyland in Pictures’, an illustrated guide to the history of tourism in Cromer whilst working as a volunteer at the local museum. My college history tutor suggested I might see if the Norfolk Record Office had any interesting texts that I could edit and bring to the public’s attention and the little calf-skin diary came into my life. I was immediately struck by the charm of Robert’s writing and the strong element of social history as he described the sights and sounds of Georgian England on his travels.
I soon became fascinated with the diarist and keen to find out more about him than the little he reveals in the diary pages. Robert was clearly a caring man, his benevolence well in evidence in the journal with small acts of kindness to local children and helping a distressed widow on board ship, as well as involvement in missionary work with Norwich worthies. Although a serious man, Robert clearly had a cheeky sense of humour, and there are several instances of his amusement at the canny Cromer locals and their efforts to profit from their visitors!
At this stage though I knew little more than his name so decided to try advertising in The Lady magazine in case he was known to one of their readers. As luck would have it, a family friend of Robert’s great great grandson John W. King just happened to be browsing its pages and came across my plea for information. John soon came up trumps with a family tree and autobiography of my diarist giving all the information I wished for and more.
Newly armed with material on Robert and his background, I set about researching the people and places mentioned on his travels in detail to help bring the tour to life and provide some context.
The diary’s charm and historical value
Robert’s diary is illustrated with contemporary engravings as well as his own careful pencil sketches and it was fascinating to compare the scenes he recorded in Cromer to that of today and find that some have actually changed very little. Cromer was just emerging as a holiday destination for discerning visitors and still retains its charm as a seaside resort – walking on the pier and cliffs enjoying the views, picking up shells & fossils on the beach, enjoying the bracing sea air and tasty seafood are common to the Marten family’s experience and that of today’s tourists.
Norwich still has plenty to interest the visitor, with its old buildings, cobbled streets, churches and markets, but we would perhaps not want to visit places on Robert’s itinerary such as the new prison buildings and factories, the evidence of a changing, industrial society. Yarmouth has probably changed the most with its mass tourism appeal, amusement arcades and funfairs, and is certainly less smelly than when the Martens visited when the town’s prosperity was based on its herring fisheries!
The later Georgian era was called the first great age of popular travel, when the activity was no longer restricted to business or necessity, and was starting to become a pleasure in itself and even associated with idea of an annual holiday. During the last quarter of the 18th century travel books were amongst the bestsellers, and, like the eagle-eyed antiquarian, Robert is always on the lookout for the picturesque view complete with crumbling ruins. The tour ends with a stay in a country house where the family enjoy some typical Georgian delights including shooting, a musical evening, riding, and some fine dining.
Robert Marten died of a coronary at his home in Plaistow, aged 76 on 11th December 1839. In many ways he mirrored the changing society in which he lived and recorded in the pages of his Norfolk journal, sharing common roots in 18th century England, but showing symptoms of the great transformation afoot in the 19th century.
With his sense of order and tradition and preference in all things for the ‘solemn grandeur’ he admired in Norwich Cathedral, he was typical of the 18th century gentleman. Yet, with his interest in the inventions and industrial expansion of the day, the diarist was also very much a man of the 19th century.
Welcome back to this, the concluding part of the rollercoaster which has been the story of Joseph Paul’s life. If you missed the first two parts here are the links for you – Part 1Part 2
To date we have had the deaths of three wives, at least two, being under suspicious circumstances, an attempted poisoning followed by the sudden death of his godmother, plus an assault and possible relationship with an underage girl.
Life really was proving complicated for Joseph and at the end of January 1845, his son Louis, a mere five-years-old died, following an adverse reaction to a vaccination, but, given the suspicious deaths of the others I simply had to double-check the death certificate, just in case!
Joseph finally left Norwich, but not the county as instructed and towards the end of 1845, at St Andrew’s church at Sprowston & Beeston Norfolk, Joseph, a widower, now married for the fourth time. Wife number four, being Sarah Ann Nickalls,[i] daughter of William and his wife, Mary who were silk weavers; with his daughter, Pauline Emma, standing witness to this union. Rather unusually and decidedly annoyingly, the space in the register where Joseph father was to be named the space was crossed through, leaving his origins still no clearer.
The following year, for a change, Joseph found himself in court yet again, this time it was at his instigation, he was suing a gentleman from Lakenham, a Mr Alfred Massey, over the payment for a horse, but the case was dismissed as there was insufficient evidence.
In 1847 Joseph and his fourth wife, still living in Norfolk, produced a son, John Louis (1847- 1904), who they later had baptised in 1855 in London where they had eventually returned to. Curiously, it was John Louis who went on to become a landscape artist and remained in London until the end of his life.
As to where Joseph and the family had disappeared to around the 1851 census, remains a mystery, they simply vanished from the radar. Around Christmas of 1851, Joseph’s eldest daughter, Eliza was married in Norwich, so she obviously remained there after her father and stepmother had moved back to London. His daughter, Pauline, had by 1853 married[ii] a military surgeon in Liverpool, having described her father on the marriage entry simply as an artist.
Joseph Meek Paul was living in Suffolk in 1851[iii] and the following year he sold all the furniture from a reasonably substantial property at Halesworth, Suffolk which he had inherited from Mr James Meek, who had, with his wife Elizabeth, raised him. In 1855 he was to join the army as a lieutenant, eventually married and went out to India, not returning until the late 1880s accompanied by his family. Caroline also married in Liverpool in 1856[iv] and again confirmed her father to be Joseph, an artist, so Joseph clearly worked as an artist his entire life.
Joseph then reappeared some ten years later on the 1861 census,[v] living a relatively quiet life, as an animal painter, in Rugby, Warwickshire, still with his fourth wife, Sarah Ann and their youngest son, John Louis.
They must have moved there sometime before 1859 as Messrs. Cooke & Son were advertising his animal paintings for sale in nearby Leamington Spa that year.[vi]
His son, Napoleon[vii] remained in Norfolk working as a plumber, glazier and ornamental painter, but he had suffered from a lung disease for several years which could well have been caused by working with lead, when he died in September 1861, aged just thirty.
There was no sign of Joseph for a further ten years until he appeared on the census return for 1871.[viii] By this time he had returned to London where he continued as an animal painter along with his youngest child, John Louis, now a landscape artist, who went on to marry three years later, confirming on the marriage entry that his father’s occupation as that of an artist.
The 1881 census[ix] confirmed that Joseph was still living at Ebury Street, London, with Sarah Ann, who said she was from Norwich and that he was from West Wickham, Hampshire, however, there appears to be no such place as West Wickham in Hampshire, so it begs the question as to whether he was trying to avoid detection or was simply mistaken.
Also on the 1881 census was Joseph’s son, John Louis[x] – but he was describing himself as a landscape artist, a term never used by Joseph to describe himself. Joseph’s other son, Charles, didn’t follow his father into the art world, but became a fishmonger and publican and died in Norwich in 1882.[xi]
In 1884, Joseph’s fourth wife of almost forty years, Sarah died,[xii] leaving a will with a small estate worth ninety pounds, which is about six thousand in today’s money, their son, John Louis was named executor and sole beneficiary but not until Joseph had died.
A year later, on 25 March 1885[xiii] a marriage entry appears in the parish register for Heigham, near Norwich for Joseph Paul, widowed, aged seventy-one, an artist, to a Miss Emma Cattermole, who was only twenty-five.
Joseph obviously returned to his native Norfolk to marry for a fifth and final time. Although, on this occasion, it has to be said, Joseph Paul was as economical about his true age as he had been about where he was born, he was in reality, much closer to eighty which seems slightly late in life to be contemplating yet another marriage, especially to such a young woman, begging the question, did he have something of a predilection for young women all along or did he marry her as someone to care for him in his old age?
This marriage was only to last a couple of years, as in May 1887 Joseph Paul died. The newspaper headlines described him as ‘An artist with five wives’.
An inquest was held at St Pancras regarding his death, aged eighty-three, lately residing at 53, William Street, St Pancras. Hannah Paul, a young woman of thirty-five, although she was really only twenty-seven, said that she had been married to the deceased for two years and was his fifth wife. The press got her first name wrong as it was actually Emma and she went on to marry again a few years later.[xiv]
‘He used to earn a great deal of money, but since she had been married to him, he was in rather reduced circumstances, but too independent to appeal to his children for help. They, however, occasionally, voluntarily assisted him. He had said that if he got much poorer, he should take some chloral and put an end to his life; but she did not think he had done so. He suffered from chronic gout. He expired suddenly in bed early one morning. Dr Maddison, who was called in, and who had since made a post-mortem examination, stated that death resulted from syncope when the deceased was suffering from enlargement and weakness of the heart. The jury returned a verdict accordingly’.
Joseph was described by his wife, Emma, as an animal painter and someone who was extremely fond of his art. The one thing that remained consistent throughout Joseph’s long life was that he painted both people and animals, but there is no indication of having ever painted landscapes which is the main subject matter that he had been known for and most of the artwork I have included in the article have been paintings of landscapes, attributed to him.
Joseph Paul was laid to rest at Camden cemetery on 12 May 1887.
His son, John Louis Paul remained in London where according to the 1891[xv] and 1901[xvi] census he was still an artist and sculptor, he died in 1905, leaving four grown-up children – Florence, William, Dora and Daisy.
So why is his life of importance? Well, if you thought Joseph Paul’s life was complicated, his art was even more so. The art world has attributed many pieces of art to him, and accused him of being a forger, with many of these paintings attributed to him being landscapes and overwhelmingly they were painted in Norfolk, with only a few exceptions.
It does rather beg the question as to whether the landscapes of Norfolk and London were genuinely painted by him? The London scenes attributed to him, are clearly copies of earlier works, some in a similar style to those by Canaletto and Samuel Scott. These are believed to be fakes by Joseph, who, it has been asserted, ran a fake art workshop in London, producing old masters.
Given the questions raised about his life and the questions raised about the deaths of those around him, it does seem feasible that there was something fairly questionable about his artwork too but was he really a forger? who can say. The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC has the following snippet of information about Joseph, quite how true, remains unknown, but given the somewhat complicated life he led, it’s not beyond the bounds of probability.
… he and his assistants turned out forgeries of Constable, Crome, and other East Anglian painters, and of Samuel Scott and other painters of old London views.
The Royal Photographic Society Journal, Volume 55 of 1915, wrote the following, which could arguably be a subtle reference to Joseph Paul, although he wasn’t actually named
He was a great actor, a great singer, a great gambler, a great rogue, and a great fool
This quote was perpetuated by Clifford and Clifford in their 1968 book ‘John Crome’ and again by John T Hayes.
Looking at all the available evidence though, landscape painting was the domain of his youngest son, John Louis Paul. So, were the landscape paintings attributed to Joseph Paul really painted by his youngest son, John Louis Paul, and was it his son and not the father who was the forger? The latter would make much more sense.
To add to the equation, of course, there was another artist around during that period, Sir John Dean Paul, who was reputed to have painted mainly scenes of rural Suffolk, including Willy Lott’s Cottage, famously painted by John Constable, plus one or two paintings of dogs and several scenes of central London.
Sir John Dean Paul, an affluent London banker, was regarded as a talented artist, but one who merely painted as a hobby, he much preferred collecting works of art and there appears to be nothing to place him in Norfolk or Suffolk, which possibly means that several paintings of animals and landscapes in Norfolk/Suffolk which have been attributed to Sir John Dean Paul, were actually by Joseph Paul or his son John Louis.
Many works were unsigned, a few simply signed J. Paul. These could have been Joseph Paul, or his son John Louis Paul or even Sir John Dean Paul. Far more work is required by an art expert to unravel this art mystery. As to whether some of the paintings could be regarded as forgeries or merely stylistic copies is another question entirely, but at least now we know more about his complex life.
[i]Norfolk Record Office; Norwich, Norfolk, England; Reference: PD 211/11
[ii]Liverpool Record Office; Liverpool, England; Reference Number: 283 LUK/3/3
Welcome back to the second instalment of the story of Joseph Paul’s life. We left Joseph last week having been cleared of attempting to murder his first wife, but of course, her death did mean that he still had five young children to care for, so what was to be done?
Well, Joseph wasted absolutely no time at all, returning to London and a mere one month after his wife’s death and having decided that his children needed a replacement for their mother, he married wife number two, Harriott Amick, daughter of David and Elizabeth Amick, at All Soul’s Church, St Marylebone on 17 August 1835. Joseph described himself as a widower from near Norwich, so, was this his place of birth or simply somewhere he had been living? the former would appear the most likely answer to that one.
This marriage began badly, as only a few weeks after the happy couple had exchanged their vows, Joseph took out the following notice in the Hertford Mercury, 8 September 1835
Any person or persons who may trust or furnish my wife, Mrs Paul, late Harriet Amick, of 11 Nassau Street, Middlesex Hospital, with any goods or money, will do so at his, her, or their person as I will not hold myself liable in any respect to pay for, or repay the same, or be responsible for any engagement she may enter into with any person or person whatever. Also beware of receiving by, or through her hands, any draft, cheque, or note bearing my signature, and purporting to be issued by me, as if the same be not a forgery, yet payment thereof is stopped at my bankers.
Aug 31, 1835 J Paul
Whatever disagreement had occurred between them, they quickly put it behind them, left London and headed north, settling in north Suffolk, where they remained for a few years. They presented their two children for baptism at Blundeston and Flixton, Suffolk, only a few miles from Great Yarmouth – Charles Joseph (1836-1882) who became a fishmonger and Louis (1839-1845), who died in childhood.
On 28 May 1839, about four years into their marriage, Harriott suddenly died, aged just thirty and was buried in the parish church. Joseph took their son Louis to be baptised two weeks later, so it would be reasonable to assume she died in childbirth, but given the allegations surrounding the death of his first wife, combined with the notice in the newspaper, it does raise some unanswered questions.
Whatever was going on in his private life, which would have been quite a lot, given that he now had, not five, but seven children to raise alone, presumably with his eldest daughter to help, Joseph was still busy painting, sales of his work presumably bringing in enough to support this large family, and according to the Norfolk Chronicle, 1840, Joseph was, a successful animal artist:
Mr Paul, an artist residing in our town, has painted four bullocks in a very superior style and most excellent likenesses; having seen the animals alive, and since the pleasure of having seen one of the animals repeatedly when grazing… Mr Paul has done him justice.
Animal artist? How very strange, most paintings attributed to Joseph are of landscapes, hardly an animal in sight in any of them!
By the time the 1841 census[i] came around Joseph, describing himself simply as a painter, had taken wife number three, Mary, some fifteen years his junior, and was living on North Road, Great Yarmouth along with five of his now seven children – Eliza now aged fourteen, Napoleon, aged ten, Caroline, aged seven, Charles Joseph, aged four and the youngest, Louis, aged two. So far there is no sign of this third marriage, so whether they were legally married or co-habiting remains a mystery, but either way, they regarded themselves as married, as will become clear later on.
Pauline Emma was recorded simply as Emma[ii] and was living with Joseph’s godmother, Mrs Elizabeth Meek, widow of the late James Meek at St Mary in the Marsh, Norfolk, in 1841, aged ten. The census did not give any indication as to whether she was simply visiting Elizabeth on the day of the census or whether she was being raised by her, but with so many children to support it seems likely that Joseph’s godmother was helping out, Joseph’s eldest son seems to have been missed from the return altogether.
It was the same year that a Mr Paul painted ‘The Hopton Hunt’, a painting which has subsequently been attributed by Bonham’s auctioneers, to a John Paul (c1830-1890), now this couldn’t have been Joseph as he painted landscapes didn’t he? perhaps his son John Louis, no, that would have been impossible as the painting is clearly dated 1841, and his son wasn’t born until 1846. The only other artist who was painting at that time was Sir John Dean Paul (1775-1852), an amateur artist, but the style was completely different to his). If it was painted by Joseph Paul then it would fit with him consistently maintaining that he painted animals.
In October of 1843, Joseph’s third wife, legal or otherwise, Mary,[iii] aged a mere twenty-four, died and was buried at the parish church, Ludham, Norfolk.
Just when you would have thought that life couldn’t get much worse for Joseph following the death of three wives in relatively quick succession, on 19 April 1844, he found himself being accused of attempting to poison Elizabeth Meek, who, in court was said to be his mother, whereas in fact, she was his godmother, her maid, Elizabeth Webb, and William Mundy, her manservant.
In court, Elizabeth Webb stated that Joseph Paul, an artist, had arrived at his mother’s home, Lower Close, St Mary in the Marsh, Norwich, about two o’clock and that he went into the parlour to see Elizabeth Meek, whilst she was eating dinner.
He went through the kitchen and into the backyard. Elizabeth Webb, her servant, said that she heard Joseph walk through the passage, go to the safe door, which was near the pantry. She heard the safe door open and then close and heard footsteps walking away, but from the kitchen window, she could not see who opened it.
She asserted that soon after this, Joseph returned to the kitchen and strangely asked her if she had ever had influenza, but didn’t wait for her to reply and simply left. Elizabeth Webb continued with her statement, saying that she went to the safe and saw some meat there which hadn’t been there earlier, she knew this as she had cleaned it out earlier that day and assumed that Joseph must have left it there. She noted that the meat looked strange, there was something white between the fat and the lean, slightly darker than the white of the fat.
She went on to say that later she saw Joseph walking in the garden with Mrs Meek and saw something on the side of his trouser pocket, like a white powder. She thought it best to mention it to Mr Mundy, who told her she should tell Mrs Meek, which she duly did. Her friend, a Mr Elmer arrived, and Mrs Meek said she should tell him what she had found. Mr Elmer took away some of the white powder, returning the following morning to take away the whole piece of meat for examination by Mr Phillipps, the local surgeon, who confirmed that the white powder was arsenic.
Needless to say, suspicion instantly fell upon Joseph and he was arrested. Curiously, upon his arrest, he was found to have two sheets of paper in his pocket upon which was written his defence, so he was obviously expecting to be arrested. His defence being that it was the servants’ word against his. After only ten minutes, somehow, inexplicably, the jury found him NOT GUILTY and he was acquitted.[iv]
His defence counsel also stated that in all likelihood, Joseph was the illegitimate son of Mrs Meek and as such was unable to benefit from her death, so there would have been nothing to be gained by killing her.
Despite being found not guilty, almost immediately after this, questions were being raised about the death of his third wife, Mary,[v] who had died October 1843, so much so that her body was exhumed in May 1844. Had he poisoned her too?
No, apparently not. The inquest concluded she had died of natural causes with specific reference being made to problems with her lungs, but as the saying goes, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’.
Bizarrely though, Elizabeth Meek[vi] died at her home on 29 August 1844, aged eighty-two, only four months after the alleged poisoning case. Needless to say, an inquest was held. The verdict was that she too had died by the ‘Visitation of God’, not due to any suspicious circumstances.
It seems a little more than simply coincidence that all women who came into Joseph’s orbit were to unexpectedly die, but of course, without any proof to the contrary, he remained a free man.
As if life hadn’t proved challenging enough, only a few weeks after being accused of these poisonings, Joseph found himself back in court. Joseph accused Mr Richard Webb, a butcher of Catton, near Norwich, of assaulting him with a stick on his left arm and right thigh. Webb was planning to plead guilty, but his attorney advised him to plead mitigating circumstances.
Joseph’s account of events being, that as he was walking along Pitt Street in Norwich minding his own business, Webb spotted him, jumped out of his cart and began calling him names and that he then struck him violently with a stick, one blow clearly aimed at his head. Joseph grabbed the stick and retaliated, beating Webb. Joseph claimed that his retaliation was all done in self-defence.
Mr Webb’s wife, Maria who was sitting in their cart, saw the whole thing and verbally abused Joseph. Joseph said he had never had a quarrel with Webb and didn’t know what it was all about. On being cross-examined Joseph explained that there was a young lady who lived with Mr Webb, ‘a pretty lass and an interesting girl certainly’ whom he was in the habit of speaking to, and whom he could not manage to avoid.
Joseph believed that Mr Webb had got an exceedingly ridiculous, absurd and unfounded notion into his head about this girl and had been working himself into a state about Joseph speaking to her.
Naturally, Joseph denied any improper intentions towards the girl. Her father, Mr Robert Puncher, had lately been over at Catton, and in Joseph’s view, had her father thought there was anything improper in Joseph speaking to the girl, that it was his duty, as her parent, to come and speak to him about it and he would have taken notice of a parent’s feelings.
The girls’ father was not present when Webb assaulted Joseph, nor was the girl herself, but Joseph had been speaking to her in the street earlier. The case continued with implications growing of improper conduct on Joseph’s part towards the girl and that was Webb’s sole reason for assaulting him.
When cross-examined, Joseph admitted that he had repeatedly been in the habit of talking to Miss Puncher, had lent her a book and had given her one note and offered her another. He said that he had been told she was only fourteen years old, but he believed her to be older. Mrs Webb had apparently, previously told Joseph not to speak to the girl, but for some unexplained reason, Joseph did not believe she was exactly the person to preach morality. Was Joseph actually on the hunt for another wife, one who would be young, healthy and able to care for his brood?
The defence for Mr Webb asked Joseph if he thought it was acceptable for him to be pursuing such a young girl, especially when he had children of his own who were older than her? Mr Puncher was then called to give evidence regarding the age of his daughter –
she would be fifteen years old on the 28th of this month.
The note which had been mentioned was then produced and read out in court
Dear Miss Puncher
Your kindness and friendship have afforded me too much happiness to be lightly parted with, and could I hope for its continuance no change of circumstances shall ever alter my respect for you.
Mrs Webb much wanted to have read me a stormy lecture, but I thought the least said on my part the better. I am not adept in falsity nor in concealing my real feelings, though I would suffer anything rather than you should have the least discomfort on my account. I trust that for your sake you will shift all the blame on me, as I am beyond the reach of any annoyance; and as to what the world may say I care not one iota.
I know full well that the majority of mankind have a malicious pleasure in destroying the happiness of others, and there are few things that I delight in more than to defeat them. There is much I could say but dare not till I have seen or heard from you. May I hope that you will reply to this! If but a line and say when and where I may meet you without fear on your own account. Believe me, neither time nor difficulty shall alter my feelings, on which, as I last week observed, there shall be no variableness nor shadow of turning. Difficulties may arise, but time must and will overcome all.
Yours ever faithfully
The magistrate, having heard the whole case said that he much regretted that Webb had not been able to beat Joseph more soundly and that he should leave Norwich and not return. They felt that there was little doubt that Joseph’s intention was the destruction of the child. Webb was fined one farthing for assault and Joseph was required to pay the costs. Joseph asked if he could explain the note, but the magistrate said he’d heard enough already, and that Joseph was a disgrace.
Although for anonymity, the newspapers merely recorded the child as Miss Puncher, however, the 1841 census confirmed that she must have been Miss Hannah Puncher[vii] who was living at the home of Richard and Maria Webb, she was recorded by the enumerator as being aged twelve at that time, so her father was telling the truth about her age when the incident occurred, and by 1851[viii] Hannah was back living with her father, aged 22, so again the age was consistent and her age also confirmed in the baptism register.
At this trial, the death of Mrs Meek was raised again. Apparently, before her death she had been at Joseph’s house at Catton but had died shortly after the visit. There were reports from her neighbours about the cause of her death, reporting that she had partially eaten a patty at Joseph’s house and the uneaten part she had thrown to her chickens, which died shortly after eating it.
Mrs Meek made a will, written in 1843[ix], in which she left the bulk of her estate including stocks and shares, in trust until aged twenty-one, to Joseph’s eldest son Joseph Meek Paul, who had lived with her and her second husband, James Meek[x] for many years. Joseph senior described as a portrait painter, and his first five children were also named as beneficiaries.
When James Meek had died back in 1835 he left the ‘portrait painter’, Joseph Paul, two hundred pounds and to Joseph’s son, Joseph Meek Paul, he left other parts of his estate at Cratfield, Norfolk, in trust until he came of age.
The most confusing part of the attempted poisoning case, apart from his acquittal, of course, was that Elizabeth Meek was not his mother, but his godmother as she confirmed in her will. There is no evidence of Elizabeth and James having had any children of their own, but clearly, there was a great fondness for Joseph Paul and his children, perhaps Elizabeth regarded him as a surrogate son and, despite what was said in court, Joseph Paul was to benefit from her death.
The reason for being so specific about references to the type of artist Joseph was being described as, being that many works of art today attributed to him are landscapes and yet there appears to be no indication of him having ever painted landscapes, in fact in December 1843, the Norfolk Chronicle, highly commended his style of animal painting:
The party was also highly pleased with a very faithful portrait of this handsome animal, painted by Mr Joseph Paul, of Catton, who promises to take a very high standing in the Landseer style of animal painting.
To summarise this chapter of his life:- wife number two died suddenly, as did wife number three, who was subsequently exhumed. He’d been accused of attempting to poison his godmother who also died suddenly following this an finally, he got thrown out of Norfolk for inappropriate conduct towards a young girl.
For the final part of this story click on this link.
[i] Class: HO107; Piece: 789; Book: 12; Civil Parish: St Mary in The Marsh; County: Norfolk; Enumeration District: 10; Folio: 6; Page: 4; Line: 20; GSU roll: 438870
1841 Census. Class: HO107; Piece: 789; Book: 12; Civil Parish: St Mary in The Marsh; County: Norfolk; Enumeration District: 10; Folio: 6; Page: 4; Line: 20; GSU roll: 438870[ii]
[iii] Norfolk Record Office; Norwich, Norfolk, England; Norfolk Church of England Registers; Reference: BT ANF 1843_h-l
[iv] England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892
Norfolk Record Office; Norwich, Norfolk, England; Norfolk Church of England Registers; Reference: BT ANF 1843_h-l[v]
[vi] Norfolk Record Office; Norwich, Norfolk, England; Norfolk Church of England Registers; Reference: BT ANW 1844_n-p
Let me introduce you to the Norfolk artist, Joseph Paul, who I came across a while ago on a visit to Newark Town Hall and Museum, Nottinghamshire, who have several works paintings by him. They knew little about the artist, except that I was told that he had left his native Norfolk under something of ‘a cloud‘, which was something I couldn’t ignore and needed to know about the man and more importantly ‘the cloud‘.
I could not have imagined for one minute how this story would work out though, the more I delved into his life the murkier it became. His life was complex and his art even more so – the art remains a mystery for reasons which will become more obvious by the end of his story. Many of the works attributed to him, I’m sure were not painted by him. Over these next posts we will trace his life story, accompanied by some of his paintings, so be warned, we’re in for a bumpy ride!
Joseph worked in both London and his native Norfolk, painted mainly landscapes, was reputedly a forger of famous works of art, such as those by Constable, but was this correct? Oh, and he had five wives and was accused of murder on more than one occasion.
According to the art historian Norman L Goldberg, Joseph was reputed to be the son of an artist, Robert Paul, but somewhat frustratingly, Goldberg provided no explanation as to where this idea came from, so right now that is simply speculation.
With some research, it appears there was a London artist named Robert Paul, but like Joseph Paul, nothing seems to be known about him, apart from the fact that several of his works were exhibited at the Norwich Society in the early 1800s. The Norwich connection arguably makes this a feasible connection to Joseph, however, there remains no proof either way for this assumption. A Mr R. Paul appears to have been painting Georgian scenes of London, but as they are all unsigned it is mere speculation.
A Robert Paul was listed in the Westminster rates returns from the early 1780s to the end of the century and was living on Charles Street, St Margaret’s, Westminster. Was he the R. Paul? It’s not at all clear, but it would fit with him painting scenes of central London. All of this is speculation and so as to whether there was any connection between the artist R. Paul and Joseph Paul remains unknown. Whilst this all appears to be incredibly vague, that is because it is, and no excuse can be made for this, the information at present is simply not known, so the focus has to be upon what is known of Joseph Paul.
Joseph Paul was born in Norwich in 1804. Nothing is known of his education or artistic training. He exhibited at the Norwich Society of Artists in 1823, 1829 and 1832, on the last two occasions as a portrait painter. Sometime after 1832, Paul seems to have run up against the law and fled from Norfolk. He acquired a studio in or near London, where he and his assistants turned out forgeries of Constable, Crome and other East Anglian painters and of Samuel Scott and other painters of old London views. Pauls style, even in his occasional original work, which was lacking invention, is marked by coarse handling with thickly and broadly applied impasto, and harshness of tone. A Yarmouth friend described him thus: “he was a great actor, a great singer, a great gambler, a great rogue, and a great fool”. He is said to have been married five times.
The problem with this being, that the same information appears to have been repeated over the centuries and there is, however, no clear evidence to support it and no-one has, in their assertions, provided any sources, apart from repeating each other, thereby creating a mystery persona for Joseph which may, or may not be strictly accurate. The assumptions are correct in that nothing seems to be known of his childhood or for any degree of certainty who his parents were or exactly where he was born and that he married five times.
All that is known about Joseph’s early life is that he appears to have lived with or at least had a close relationship with his godmother, an elderly, affluent woman, one Mrs Elizabeth Meek of Norwich, who, for a guess, helped him financially to pursue his career as an artist.
By 1825, Joseph was living in London, although quite what led him there is unclear, but it would be a fairly safe guess that it was to pursue his career in art and seek his fortune or was he already trying to escape from his past?
It was in the October of that year when he was to meet and marry wife number one, Eliza Vining,[ii] who was nineteen and therefore under the legal age of twenty-one and as such would have needed her father’s consent, which was duly given. Joseph stated he was a Joseph Paul, Esquire from Dover, Kent on the marriage register, so was this true and if so, what was his connection to Norfolk and his godmother, had his parents perhaps died and he had been raised by her or was this to be a little white lie?
Joseph and Eliza soon produced five children, Eliza (1826-1910) who later married a local fishmonger named Thomas Bush; Joseph Meeke (1828-1891) who left England to become a tea planter in Upper Assam; Pauline Emma (1829-1908) who married an army officer, William Appleton; Napoleon (1831-1861) who became a plumber, but who also dabbled in art as an ornamental painter, but who died aged thirty, and last, but not least, Caroline (about 1835-1906) who married a draper, Richardson Taylor.
After the birth of their second child, Joseph and Eliza left London and travelled to Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, where their second daughter Pauline was born, followed by Napoleon.
The youngest of these children, Caroline, consistently stated she was born at Ware, Hertfordshire, as to what they were doing there is unclear unless they were on their way back to London, and although there is no trace of a birth or baptism for her anywhere, however, it does appear likely that she was telling the truth, because, in the parish register of nearby Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, there is a burial entry on 14 July 1835 for Joseph’s first wife, Eliza Paul, along with one for a baby, Josephina, aged one month.
Given these entries, it seems highly likely that Caroline was the surviving twin.
With the tragic death of Eliza, this would have left Joseph with five children, all under ten years old to raise alone, but this was not an end to the matter, questions were being raised about Eliza’s death and as such an inquest[iii] was held at nearby, Hoddesdon.
Joseph, described as a local portrait painter, was suspected of foul play, the allegation having been made by Eliza herself. Described as a very anxious and excitable person, she told a witness just before her death she thought Joseph was trying to poison her, surely this could not be true?
She was in her confinement at the time which would seem to correspond with the burial of Josephine and so she must have been one of the two children Eliza was carrying. After the inquest, it was concluded Joseph was innocent of any charges as there was no tangible proof of him having murdered her, but instead that she had died of natural causes. The surgeon believed, given her condition, that she had become confused and stated the cause of death was simply a ‘Visitation of God’ and on that note the case was closed, Joseph was a free man.
Do join me next week to find out more about his life and four more wives, more confusion about his artwork, oh, and some more suspicious deaths and even an exhumation!
I first became acquainted with this gentleman when a good friend on social media messaged me with ‘I think this story needs you‘. Say no more, I was off down that rabbit hole. What a fabulous painting by John Dempsey of an early 19th-century gentleman from Norwich, but with no name apart from ‘Black Charley’ and nothing more known about him.
Black Charley, Norwich, 1823
The newspapers and parish registers came to the rescue in identifying this very dapper-looking man in his very smart clothing, who appears to have made and sold fashionable boots and shoes from a shop in Norwich, but perhaps looks can be a little deceptive.
The National Portrait Gallery of Australia (to whom the portrait was on loan to from Tasmanian Museum and Gallery), suggests that the gentleman may have been a child brought to England by Capt. (later Rear-Admiral) Frederick Paul Irby who had him baptised in 1813, as Charles Fortunatus Freeman, along with two other children and whilst this is feasible the dates don’t seem to tie up as you will soon find out.
Firstly, let’s give him the name by which he was known – may I introduce to you Mr Charles Willis Yearly of Norwich.
As yet nothing is known about where he was born, whether here in the UK or overseas, but from his burial, we now know that he was born around 1785 which arguably means that he was not the child baptised in 1813, as this would have made him around 28 at the time, so not a child. I still have no idea where the middle name ‘Willis’ came from.
On St Valentine’s Day 1820, Charles married Diana Norman of rural Stradbrooke, Suffolk, at the parish church of St Michael at Thorn, Norwich.
Despite his very dapper appearance, neither he nor Diana was able to sign the register and instead simply made their mark with an X, which leads me to think that perhaps these were more than likely second-hand clothes. The witnesses being Elisha Briggs, a farmer and landlord of The Two Necked Swan, Norwich and William H Houghton., who appears to be the second witness to all marriages around that date.
It was at the end of 1822, at the parish church of St Andrew’s, Norwich that the couple proudly presented their first son and heir, Charles Willis to be baptised. At the time Charles gave his occupation as being that of a ‘broker’, essentially a salesman, so not actually making the boots and shoes in the painting but selling them from his shop, these were second-hand boots and shoes.
The following year saw the arrival of a second child, again a son, Richard Willis, who died aged just two. The next birth was that of Jeremiah in 1825, followed by a daughter, Lydia in 1827.
At the end of 1828 things were not going well for Charles when he found himself in the House of Correction for assaulting a woman, this sentence being ‘three months on the treadwheel‘, which must have made life difficult for Diana as she was pregnant at the time with their final child who was born February 1829, a daughter, Mahalah.
It was then in 1829 that Charles was to die, aged just 44, and was buried on June 17 at St Andrew’s church. Given his sentence, it seems feasible that the time spent on the treadwheel may well have contributed to his demise (speculation of course).
His death was closely followed by that of his infant daughter, Mahalah, whose name appears on the same page of the burial register, but on the 31 December.
This left Diana to work out how to proceed as a widow with three children under 10 – Charles, Jeremiah and Lydia for comfort, but more importantly, to support if they were to avoid the workhouse.
The family business was taken over by a gentleman by the name of Mr Clarkson, who was described in the newspaper as
a dealer in old shoes, being the same colour and successor of a gentleman well known in Norwich by the title of Black Charley.
We meet up with Diana again on the 1841 census, the family had left their shop and moved to Black Horse Yard, Lower Westwick Street, in the St Lawrence district of Norwich.
Clearly, money was in short supply as Diana had become a washerwoman, but by now she had her three children all in their teens to assist with the household chores as well as being in employment. Her son, Charles was a labourer coachmaker, Jeremiah, a hawker, selling around the local area, the census doesn’t offer any clues as to what wares he was selling though. Lydia was just 13, so it would be safe to assume she was helping her mother until aged just 16, she was to die.
Quite what became of their son, Charles is a little unclear, but in 1842 he found himself in court a few times for theft.
In another newspaper report, Charles was described as ‘a mulatto son of Old Black Charley‘, thereby confirming that Charles and Diana’s marriage was a mixed-race marriage.
Young Charles Willis re-surfaced in Bristol when, in 1854 he described himself as a cook when he married a young widow, Catharine Harman. He named his father as Charles Willis, describing him as a cook – this is an occupation that doesn’t seem to have appeared anywhere else.
Being slightly suspicious, I do wonder whether he was being completely truthful when he married, especially as he also got his age wrong – he said he wasn’t born until 1826 when he was born 1822. Quite what happened with this marriage is lost to history right now, but curiously he appeared again in 1862, back in Norfolk where both he and his co-conspirator, John Harman were sentenced to a month in prison for larceny. Was John Harman connected to his wife Catherine, who knows, but it’s an unusual surname, so it seems likely. There is a burial for a Catherine Yearly in 1862 which in all likelihood was Charles’ wife.
Charles re-offended and found himself back in prison only a matter of weeks later, for a further six weeks.
Diana spent her remaining days living in Suffolk, with her son Jeremiah, his wife, Sarah, where at the age of 75, Diana was still working as a laundress.
In 1871, Jeremiah was a marine store dealer and by 1881 they had converted their home into a lodging house – 6, Mariners Street, Lowestoft where they remained until the end of their lives. Jeremiah was buried on 10 June 1886, aged 65, at Lowestoft, just two years after his wife Sarah Ann and as the couple had no children, with their death the Yearly name died out unless any proof appears that young Charles had any children, although that seems unlikely.
It would appear from the 1871 census that Diana was living at the House of Industry, Oulton, Suffolk, incorrectly named as Eliza Yearly, but with her age and place of birth being correct. She died there, aged 90 in 1879.
Those Georgians certainly had entrepreneurial spirit, and I came across such an example of this some time ago in an article I wrote about the things that every respectable woman should own. In 1794, this gentleman, a Mr Nosworthy, advertised the wares that he sold in his store on Queen Street, Norwich. At that stage his was simply one of many similar adverts I plucked from the newspapers as he sold the unusual item referred to as perfumed gloves.
It wasn’t until later that I found myself drawn back to him to take a closer look at exactly who he was, and guess what, he was the gift that kept on giving.
James was born around 1762 and married his wife Martha Slack, in 1783. They bought a shop in Norwich where they sold a whole variety of goods with the added bonus of Martha being a ladies hairdresser. Apart from working in their shop, she also travelled around the county offering her services and in 1789 she advised ladies that she would be in Great Yarmouth, some 20 miles away, on the 9th August, so if they required her services on that date they should book an appointment via the local grocer, Mr Groom on Green Street.
Despite being busy with their business they produced two children, a son, who died shortly after birth and a daughter, Martha Harriot.
In 1790 they had moved premises and expanded the business to include the hairdressing services of Martha, plus expanding into the perfumery market, selling ‘the best sort of foreign and English perfumery – Duty Free’.
James, it appears, was also an inventor and had invented ‘Ear Covers’, I really haven’t quite managed to work out what these were, they could have been akin to ear muffs for warmth, although it seems more likely that they had something to do with hairdressing, so if any of our readers have any suggestions … do tell.
This was a couple that meant business! Seeking out every opportunity to increase their wealth and social standing. When I first met Mr Nosworthy he was selling a whole host of items including everything you needed for sewing; toys for children, crockery and cutlery, stationery, fashion accessories such as purses, fans, parasols, umbrellas and perfumed gloves. He rapidly expanded his range to include everything from children’s rocking horses to wigs.
As his business grew he found it necessary to take on an apprentice, Jonathan Gallant. Business, it appears, was booming.
Two years later he expanded the business again, into selling gold and silver jewellery, everything from thimbles for 1 shilling to 10 guineas for a gold watch chain. He also bought old gold and silver and repaired and cleaned jewellery. He also advised his customers that he had recently received a large quantity of Real Turkey Liquid Black for ladies’ Spanish leather and other kinds of shoes. He sold ladies gowns of all kinds and gown dye.
He also wished for it to be known by all his customers that he had engaged the services of one of the best ladies’ hairdressers from London, sadly he didn’t name the hairdresser.
I can only imagine how large the shop must have been, with all the stock he mentioned in his adverts, it must have been the size of a large modern department store. They even had a department to train hairdressers. Business continued to grow over the following years.
Even James Woodforde, author of The Diary of a Country Parson referred to Mr Nosworthy in his diary, stating that he had purchased a bed from him. Was there nothing James didn’t sell?
In 1797 a merchant and banker, Thomas Bignold founded the ‘Norwich Union Society’, which was set up to insure houses, stock and merchandise from fire. The company was a mutual society, so policyholders received a share of the profits.
Guess who one of the other directors was? – none other than James Nosworthy, he really did have fingers in many pies. Bignold, then changed the company name to Norwich Union Fire Insurance Office, James remained a director.
Early 1808 Thomas Bignold created Norwich Union Life Insurance Society, still with James as a director, but things began to unravel for Bignold. After 1815 a recession began to take effect and claims against the Society increased until eventually his sons and other directors, mainly James Nosworthy, forced him out of the company and into retirement.
Having retired Bignold became something of an eccentric and formed another business, making shoes with REVOLVING HEELS – no, you haven’t misread that – ‘revolving heels’! No, I have absolutely no idea what they would have been like, let alone why he would have thought them necessary. This venture was destined for failure and finally bankrupt him. He ended up in prison, dying in 1835.
James however, died in 1821, leaving the majority of his estate to his wife, Martha and the residue to their daughter Martha Harriot for her sole use even though she had, by that time married the London agent for Norwich Union, Charles Andrew Hackett. Martha promptly advertised their cottage at Thorpe for rent, but she lived on until 1837, leaving everything to her daughter.
A lovely reader has found the answer to the revolving heels
And here we have an image of the revolving heel from 1905
Bury and Norwich Post 05 August 1789
Norfolk Chronicle 27 March 1790
Bury and Norwich Post 10 October 1792
Norfolk Chronicle 23 March 1793
Staffordshire Advertiser 29 June 1805
Norfolk Chronicle 19 March 1808
Stamford Mercury 20 November 1818
A Panoramic View of Norwich; Norfolk Museums Service
We are delighted to welcome the author, Simon Edge, journalist, critic and novelist, to our blog to tell us more about the challenges he face when writing his latest novel, due to be released in a few days time, A Right Royal Face Off: A Georgian Entertainment featuring Thomas Gainsborough and Another Painter. So, with that, we’ll hand you over to Simon:
My first novel was based on the life of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The historical parts were set in the 1870s and 1880s and it did not require a huge effort to think myself into his era. Surrounded as we are by Victoriana – in our culture, our civic infrastructure and the clutter of antique fairs or auction rooms – it’s easy to have an instinctive feel for how the Victorians ate, got around, furnished their homes and so on.
When I came to write a comic novel about Thomas Gainsborough and his rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds for the affections of the Royal Family, I found myself on less sure ground.
The historical events of A Right Royal Face-Off take place between 1777 and 1785, a century earlier than my previous period. Did I have any clear idea what forms of technology were new at that time, and what was about to be invented?
Was I confident of what well-to-do Londoners had for their dinner, or what time of day they ate it? Could I picture a Georgian hackney carriage, or a Georgian newspaper? No, no and no again.
These things are far from unknowable, of course. The works of Fielding, Swift, Sterne or Thackeray offer plentiful insights, and I wince as much as any other visitor to All Things Georgian at the anachronisms in a bad film adaptation of Jane Austen.
However, I didn’t have any instinctive sense of the difference between the 1770s and, say, the 1720s or the 1820s, so there was a high risk of howlers. Most readers don’t have that sense either, but if it’s worth doing historical fiction, it’s worth getting it right.
I live very close to Gainsborough’s House, the painter’s birthplace museum in Suffolk, so I could examine his painting table, the kind of paintbox he might have used, the sort of mannequin he would have employed for human figures in his early paintings (painfully apparent in portraits such as ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’), and so on.
However, I needed basic guidance on ordinary living – the kind of stuff that novelists needs to get our characters out of bed in the morning and to take them through the day.
The trick, especially when you have a deadline, is to find a good guide who can help you cut corners, and mine was Fanny Burney. Her novel Evelina, about a country innocent introduced to London ways, was published in 1778 – spot on for my needs. Joy of joys, my edition came with detailed footnotes explaining hairdressing fashions, the dates of the London season and the difference between a sedan chair, a hackney-coach and a chariot.
Another boon was A Country Parson, the diary kept by the Norfolk vicar James Woodforde between 1759 and 1802. First published in the 1920s, its attraction for generations of readers is its homely detail, with meticulous records of meals taken, conversations with servants, journeys made, and so on. Woodforde lived a rural life, but he came from a similar class to Gainsborough and I found him invaluable every time I needed to give my characters a good feed. For example, when Gainsborough’s journalist friend Henry Bate-Dudley drops in for lunch, I provide him with a lobster, some mackerel, veal cutlets, a mutton leg with caper sauce, and a pig’s face, followed by a pineapple, oranges, a melon, damson tarts and a syllabub. If that gives you indigestion just thinking about it, take it up with Parson Woodforde.
A major issue for anyone writing historical fiction is language, particularly if the narrative is in the first person. You need to avoid anachronism – no shots in the arm or rollercoaster journeys, for example. That may sound obvious, but these things have a way of sneaking in. I once made myself unpopular with a writer friend by objecting to his description of buddleia (named after the 17th-century Reverend Buddle) in a novel about Roman Britain. Nobody loves a smartarse, but that doesn’t mean I was wrong.
Making characters sound authentic to their period isn’t just about avoiding modern slang – you need phrases of the time, too. I plunged into Fielding’s Tom Jones and made lists of idiomatic expressions: ‘he gave loose to mirth’, ‘she opined’ or ‘you are of the vulgar stamp’.
It took me back to my A-levels, trying to shoe-horn a list of idioms into French and German essays, and there is clearly a danger of trying too hard. Perhaps the best you can hope is that you fall into the right kind of linguistic groove. Total authenticity is not the aim.
One well-known literary novel from the 1980s, based on a brilliant idea, is virtually unreadable because it’s written in pedantically accurate 17th-century English. Better to suggest your period and not become inaccessible. A bestselling historical novelist friend insists this is all about word order: rearranging a sentence very slightly can create an impression of unfamiliarity, without forcing the reader out of their linguistic comfort zone.
I also found profanity very useful. We know from Gainsborough’s letters that he was a fantastically sweary person, so in my version he constantly calls the servants addlepates, whoresons and coxcombs. No doubt some of those expressions are ruder than others, just as we have our acceptable swear-words and our beyond-the-pale ones nowadays, but I used them interchangeably. It’s a comic novel, not a doctoral thesis on 18th century idiom.
I hope it entertains people, because that is the primary intention, but I’ll also be delighted if readers feel at home in my version of Georgian England. My bestselling historical novelist friend told me that my 18th century world was “lightly but effectively drawn”. I took that as the highest compliment.
As we have the Commonwealth Games taking place at the moment we thought we’d join in with the spirit of the games and write an article about sport. Our offering this week is about one John ‘Jack’ Slack, aka the ‘Norfolk Butcher’, aka ‘Knight of the Cleaver’; a bare-knuckle fighter, who was the champion of what is thought to be the first international Heavyweight fight which took place in 1754.
Stated to have been born in Thorpe, Norfolk, in 1721, where he ran a butcher’s shop in the county (hence his nickname), Slack was reputedly the grandson of another famous fighter, James Figg, the first English bare-knuckle boxing champion.
In 1743 Slack became the Champion of Norfolk after defeating three local men in boxing matches and by 1748 his renown was such that he sold on his butchery business to his brother and moved to London where his reputation as a fighter continued to grow. He was backed later in his career by none other than Prince William, Duke of Cumberland (himself known as Butcher Cumberland after the Jacobite uprising).
A contemporary description of Slack says that he was five foot eight inches and a half in height and weighed almost fourteen stone. His physique was ‘compact . . . superior to the generality of men in strength and of excellent bottom.’ He changed his style of fighting to suit his opponent and often came out the victor, punching his opponents with such force that the term ‘a slack’un’ came into general use, meaning a ‘smashing hit.’
On the 14th March 1750, at Broughton’s Amphitheatre in Oxford Road, London, he threw down a challenge to the formerly invincible Jack Broughton (a man some years older than he and known as the ‘Father of Boxing’ who had been taught by Slack’s grandfather, James Figg).
Broughton agreed but asked that the fight be deferred for a month as he was not immediately prepared for fighting. The match, which lasted just fourteen minutes and eleven seconds, duly took place on the 11th April 1750, Slack emerging as the victor to win the Championship of England and bagging himself, it was estimated, not less than 600 l. Slack was the only man to ever beat the great Broughton and one nobleman, described as being of the first rank, lost 1000 l. on the match. That nobleman is thought to have been the Duke of Cumberland.
Then, on the 29th July 1754, back in his home county of Norfolk, Jack Slack challenged the Frenchman Monsieur Jean Petit (or Pettit) to a match. Pettit was a muscular giant of a man, reputed to have previously exhibited himself in a circus as a ‘strong man.’ This boxing match took place at Harlston. A letter reporting the fight appeared in the newspapers just days later. This one is taken from the London Evening Post and dated 3rd August 1754.
Extract of a Letter from Harlston in Norfolk, July 30.
‘Yesterday in the Afternoon Slack and Pettit met and fought. At the first Set-to, Pettit seized Slack by the Throat, and held him up against the Rails, and grain’d him so much as to make him turn extremely black. This continued for Half a Minute before Slack could break Pettit’s Hold; after which, for near ten Minutes, Pettit kept fighting and driving hard at Slack; when at length Slack clos’d with his Antagonist, and gave him a very severe Fall; after that, a second and third. But between these Falls, Pettit threw Slack twice off the Stage; and indeed, Pettit so much dreaded Slack’s Falls, that he ran directly at his Hams, and tumbled him down; and by that Means gave Slack an Opportunity of making the Falls very easy.
When they had been fighting eighteen Minutes, the Odds ran against Slack a Guinea to a Shilling; whereas, on first setting out, it was three or four to one on his Head. But after this Time Slack shorten’d Pettit so, as to disable him from running and throwing him down in the Manner he had done before, but obliged him to stand close fighting. Slack then closed one of his Eyes, and beat him very much about the Face. At twenty Minutes Pettit grew weaker, Slack stronger; this was occasion’d by Slack’s strait Way of fighting. At twenty-two Minutes, the best Judges allow’d Slack to have the Advantage over Pettit very considerably, as he was then recovering his Wind, which was owing to Game.
When they had boxed twenty-four Minutes, Pettit threw Slack again over the rails; this indeed Slack suffer’d him to do, as by that Means he fix’d a Blow under Pettit’s Ribs, that hurt him much; whilst Slack was again getting upon the Stage (it was not Half a Minute before he was remounted) Pettit had so much the Fear of his Antagonist before his Eyes, that he walked off without so much as civilly taking Leave of the Spectators, or saying any Thing to any Person, this the Cockers call Roguing of it; for it is generally thought that Pettit ran away full strong. The whole Time of their fighting was twenty-five Minutes, and this Morning the Battle was given to Slack, who drew the first Ten Guineas out of the Box. Thus ended this dreadful Combat. The Box was Sixty-six Pounds Ten Shillings’.
Although sometimes mentioned as a ‘dirty fighter’, victories continued for Jack Slack until 1760 when he finally lost to Bill Stevens (the Nailer) at a bout on a stage erected for the purpose of the fight in the Tennis Court, James Street, London on the 17th June 1760. The Duke of Cumberland, who had previously been the patron of Broughton had backed Jack Slack in this fight and again lost money on the bout.
Slack, after this, mostly retired from boxing himself and instead concentrated on his butchery trade. Many sources say he possibly opened a shop on London’s Chandois Street in Covent Garden (he had appeared in the rate books for this street in 1750), but at the time of his fight with the Nailer in 1760, he was reported in the newspapers to be settled at Bristol.
He still kept his hand in by training other fighters, possibly running a boxing school in Bristol (he was rumoured to occasionally fix fights for his protégées), and just occasionally was mentioned as fighting himself.
The London Chronicle newspaper, on the 5th January 1765, reported that:
Slack, the famous Boxer, who has been for some time in Dublin, is under an engagement to fight one Weyburn, a noted bruiser there, for a considerable sum.
Reports of the date and location of his death seem to vary so we are now able to confirm that John Slack died at Bristol on the 17th July 1768 and was buried in that city two days later.
John Slack’s relations and descendants tried, with varying amounts of success, to emulate his feats in the boxing ring.
In November 1772 the newspapers were talking of a battle fought at New Buckenham in Norfolk between ‘Thomas Allgar, a Butcher of Norwich and James Slack, a Butcher of Bristol, youngest son of John Slack, the noted Bruiser.’ In front of a huge crowd of people, Slack junior lasted through seven minutes of sham-fighting before giving up. No injury had been received by either party, not even a bruise, and the spectators were enraged. James Slack narrowly managed to escape into a small public-house where he managed to procure a disguise in which he could slip away unnoticed.
Some months later, in April 1773, again at Buckenham Castle, Thomas Algar met with Henry Skipper, described as a Dyer and nephew of the famous John Slack; again Algar was victorious.
More successful was James ‘Jem’ Belcher, born in Bristol in 1781, to John Slack’s daughter. Known as the ‘Napoleon of the Ring‘ and a naturally gifted fighter he had but a short career, dying in 1811.
Jack Slack was still remembered some years after his death, the St. James’s Chronicle reporting on the 11th September 1781, and placing him alongside some very noteworthy personalities, that:
Some Years ago the three most remarkable Personages of the Age were Kitty Fisher, Lord B__te, and Slack, the Bruiser. At the present Day, says a Correspondent, the three most remarkable Personages are, the Perdita, Doctor Adelphi, and Sir Jeffery Dunstan.
Edward Bamfield or Bamford (1732-1768), the ‘Staffordshire Giant’, pictured with John Coan (1728-1764), the ‘Norfolk Dwarf’. They both earned a living as sideshow performers; giants and dwarfs were special attractions around the Fleet Street area of London during the 18th century. Engraved by Hawksworth after a portrait by Benjamin Rackstrow and sold by James Roberts, 4th May 1771.
Whilst researching Bartholomew Fair we came across John Coan and thought he was fascinating and worth adding to our blog – we hope you agree. Bartholomew’s Fair was primarily a trading event for cloth and other goods as well as a pleasure fair and drew crowds from all classes of English society, but it also featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, curiosities and wild animals.
On the 5th December 1727 the marriage took place between a John Coan and Sarah (nee Negus) at Tivetshall St. Margaret, then on 31 May 1730, at the same church the baptism of their son John took place, who later was to be known by the epithet of ‘John Coan, The Norfolk Dwarf’ or ‘The Jovial Pigmy’. Having looked at the parish registers there appears no evidence that John had any siblings.
Many reports about John’s life refer to him as being born in 1728, which may well be correct but for whatever reason his baptism didn’t take place until he was around two years old, which possibly implies that at birth he was a normal healthy baby, therefore, his parents saw no reason to have him baptised immediately. Having looked for his baptism at the place named in most reports i.e. Twitshall and found no mention of such a place existing, we revised our search to Tivetshall and that’s where we found him.
According to Edward J Woods book, ‘Giants and Dwarfs’ John, aged one, appeared to have developed at the same rate as other children of the same age, however, after this age, his growth slowed down and by 1744 he was just three feet tall and weighed 27.5 just pounds. Regarded as a freak or curiosity John was ‘exhibited’ at the Lower Half Moon, Market Place, Norwich in July of 1744 when he was a mere 16 years old.
‘The Cabinet of Curiosities: Or, Wonders of the World Displayed’ written in 1824, says that when surgeon William Arderon wrote to his colleague Mr Henry Baker F.R.S on the 12th May 1750, he gave a detailed account of John, aged 22 by this time. At this encounter, Arderon weighed John and noted that with all his clothes on he weighed no more than 34 pounds. He also measured John – 38 inches, this, however, included his wig, hat and shoes. He noted that his limbs were no larger than those of a child aged around 3 or 4; his body perfectly straight, the lineaments of face accorded with his age, he had a good complexion, his voice a little hollow, but not disagreeable; he could sing with tolerable proficiency and could read and write English well. He was also known for his amusing company by mimicking very exactly the crowing of a cock. Arderon’s letter gave the most detailed comparison that he carried out between John and a child aged 3 years 9 months. A full report was included in The London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer of 1751 in an Extract from Philosophical Transactions. As it was so comprehensive we thought it worthy of reproduction in its entirety:
The weight of the dwarf 34 pounds, the child 36 pounds.
The dwarf The child
Round the waist 21 20 & 5/10’s
Round the neck 9 9 & 7/10’s
Round the calf 8 9
Round the ankle 6 6
Round the wrist 4 4 & 3/10’s
Length of arm from shoulder
to wrist 15 13
From the elbow to the end
of the middle finger 10 & 4/10’s 10 & 7/10’s
From the wrist to the end
of the middle finger 4 4
From the knee to the
bottom of the heel 10 & 4/10’s 10 & 7/10’s
Length of the foot
with shoe on 6 6 & 4/10’s
Length of face 6 6 & 4/10’s
Breadth of the face 5 4 & 8/10’s
Length of the nose 1 & 2/10’s 1 & 2/10’s
Width of the mouth 1 & 8/10’s 1 & 8/10’s
Breadth of the hand 2 & 5/10’s 2 & 5/10’s
In the early part of the 18th century dwarfs were very popular with the upper classes and also the monarchy which could explain John’s move from rural Norfolk to London as, according to The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 20 he was presented to the Prince of Wales on the 5th December 1751 and then exhibited to the Royal Society.
His notoriety rapidly spread and his name appeared with great regularity in the newspapers around this time. On Friday the 10th of January 1752 he was introduced to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward and all the other Princes and Princesses, where he stayed upwards of two hours. It was reported that ‘by the pertinency of his answers, actions and behaviour, their Royal Highnesses were most agreeably entertained the whole time and made him a very handsome present’.
Much of John’s appeal was the combination of very small limbs, his jovial personality, wit and intelligence. The General Advertiser of Tuesday 7th January 1752 described him as being a ‘perfect man in miniature, to be seen at the Watchmakers, opposite Cannon Tavern, Charing Cross … that it is impossible for anyone to form a true judgement of him without ocular demonstration.’
According to the newspapers, he made regular appearance at London taverns and aged 23 appeared at The Swan during the Bartholomew Fair. Advertisements such as the one below were frequently seen with spectators paying a shilling to see this ‘curiosity’ of nature.
Public Advertiser, Wednesday, December 25, 1754
The Public is hereby informed that Mr. John Coan the famous Norfolk Dwarf, is to be seen, for One Shilling each person, at Mr Syme’s, the Black Peruke, facing the Mew, Charing Cross. This Man in Miniature is twenty seven years of age, barely thirty seven inches high, and thirty four pounds weight, is (contrary to the generality of small productions) straight as an arrow, of just symmetry of parts throughout the hole and perfect in his faculties, delightful in conversation, to the astonishment of all who have seen him.
In the late 1750s Christopher Pinchbeck established the ‘Dwarf Garden’ at Chelsea where John soon became a fixture entertaining visitors with other persons of his stature. However, by 1762 John began to show the infirmities normally associated with someone much older. His health was showing clear signs of failing; his skin was wrinkled and sallow. Despite this he was fond of wearing bright clothing; sometimes blue and gold, other times purple and silver. Due to his small stature the cost of having clothes made for him was easily within his reach.
For a brief time John lived and performed at The Dwarf’s Tavern in Chelsea Fields which ran along with the proprietor of the neighbouring Star & Garter became extremely popular due to John being regarded as such an oddity, not to mention to excellent food that was served such as ham, collared eels, potted beef washed down with bright wine and punch like nectar.
John died at The Dwarf’s Tavern on the 16th March 1764 according to The Daily Advertiser, dated 17th March 1764,yet despite his premature death his ‘manager’ decided he could make still some money from John unique physique and exhibited his body for as long as possible. John was finally laid to rest on the 14th April 1764 at St Luke’s, Chelsea.
Edward Bamfield or Bamford (1732-1768), the ‘Staffordshire Giant’.
The corpse of Mr Bamford, usually called the giant, was interred in a vault in St Dunstan’s, Fleet Street, London, Nov. 10. He died in the 36th year of his age, of a fever, and has left a widow, and three young children, one of which was baptised on the morning of the day he died. He was seven feet four inches high. It is said that 200l. would have been given for his body, could the surgeons have had it for dissection.