|Study of a bear by Sawrey Gilpin |
© The Trustees of the British Museum
I am, like most writers, often asked where I get my ideas from and I always say the research (which is true), but that can seem a bit vague and wafty, so I thought I’d give an example of how many great ideas one stumbles over, particularly if you have access the The Burney Collection Newspapers via the British Library. I’m looking at one newspaper, The General Advertiser published on Tuesday 21 February 1786. 1786 is when my work in progress is set by the way, but I’m not sure what will happen in it yet, hence the broad research. Annoyingly, I’m not sure any of the following will fit, but each of the following three fragments from the day deserves a novel of its own, so I hope quoting them illustrates the larger point. Finding ideas is not the problem, the work is deciding between them.
The first story is a suggestive fragment, the sort of thing I might use, but I can’t find any way to follow the real story. The second is worthy of a novel firmly based in fact and has an interesting stack of supporting documentation which can be followed via the internet but this is probably not a book for me, fascinating though the story is. The third is one of those oddities which can shed surprising light on a period, and though again, I’m not sure I’ll use it, it offers me a certain flavour of the time which is nevertheless invaluable.
So first, the fragment:
On Friday afternoon about dusk a very genteel dressed man was taken out of the Serpentine with several marks of violence on his face, but he had no more than one farthing in his pocket. He was carried to Knightsbridge to be exposed to view. The Jury sat on his body on Saturday, and brought their verdict, Death by some unknown cause.
Definitely something to warm a crime writer’s heart there, this could be the opening paragraph to a novel. People better versed in archive delving might be able to find out more about the actual facts, I haven’t been able to do so. If anyone can find the coroner’s record or sift through the newspapers for more information, please do let me know what you find.
On the same page is the starting gun for a novel or non-fiction work which I would love to read someday:
Friday last James Bently was charged on oath before Nicholas Foster Esq. with feloniously stopping Edward Tauplin… and feloniously taking from his person a bundle containing a large assortment of Bombazeen...
This story, thanks to www.oldbailyonline.org I could follow up, though the changes in the names don’t give you a lot of faith in 18th century journalism. You can read the whole trial here, but the summary is as follows, and I’m certain this is the same case.
JOSEPH BUTLER, Violent Theft > highway robbery, 22nd February 1786
JOSEPH BUTLER was indicted for feloniously assaulting Edward Poulton, on the King's highway, on the 16th day of February , and putting him in corporal fear and danger of his life, and feloniously taking from his person and against his will, one linen handkerchief, value 6 d. sixteen yards of black bombazeen, value 40 s. a black silk gown, value 40 s. a black silk petticoat, value 20 s. the property of Martha Robinson , spinster.
GUILTY , Death.
He was humbly recommended by the Prosecutrix to his Majesty's mercy.
Now, it seems that mercy was granted. Joseph is recorded (again, the record is via oldbailyonline) as being sentenced to transportation for 7 years in early 1787. Thanks to a brilliant website called http://australianroyalty.net.au/ I know he reached Australia, but he only arrived in New South Wales on 28 June 1790. Joseph was a survivor of the Neptune, one of a fleet of three ships in which the convicts were basically left to rot in the hold for the duration of the journey. Of 1000 convicts some 300 died on the trip out. The death rate led to protests in Britain and after an unsuccessful prosecution of the captain of the Neptune, the system was reformed so private contractors carrying the prisoners were only paid for the convicts who got to Australia alive. Butler married and had children and is buried in Sydney.
Then we have the third story, an advertisement:
Its ancient use, known efficacy and established reputation down to the present time for the valuable purpose of strengthening and preventing the Hair from falling off the Head, or turning Grey, proves its virtue above spurious compositions daily offered to the Public to answer the same purpose.
Prefumer in ordinary to the Princess Royal…. Middle Shug Lane, Golden Square; begs leave to acquaint the Nobility and Gentry, that he has several very large, fat Bears, one of which he has just killed; that such as are pleased to have any of the Grease, will either call or send their servants to see it cut off the animal.
He has just imported from Paris….
Well, that rather stopped me in my tracks. Via the joys of the Burney Papers text search function I can tell you that Mr Hendrie had been killing bears to stop rich Londoners going bald since at least 1778. By June 1783 he was having his shop ‘greatly enlarged and new fronted’, perhaps to match the glamour of his shop sign, ‘a prodigious large Elephant’s tooth’ at the door which he mentioned as a way to recognise his establishment in March of that year. Just in case you accidentally wandered into one of the other bear killers' shops on Shug Lane.
I’m not the first writer to have noticed Mr Hendrie:
I found this advertisement in Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer (London, England), Tuesday, April 1, 1783
This day is published… An Ode to Mr Lewis Hendrie &c… Principal Bear-Killer in the Metropolis.
Rather brilliantly, ten days later the author advertises again to assure the public he means no disrespect to the other bear-killers in the capital, but regards Mr Hendrie as the original.
The writer of the Critical Review, or Annals of Literature thought the ode ‘in some parts very laughable’.
Mr Hendrie continued killing bears until his death in 1790. The bears didn’t get their revenge, I’m afraid, his death was occasioned by the bursting of a blood vessel.
I’ve read a lot about the 18th century in the last ten years, but I admit I never knew that barbers imported bears from America and Russia to fatten and then kill in their shops. In search of a little context I came across this magnificent book, The Georgian Menagerie by Christopher Plumb, which will I am sure tell me a great deal of other things which I didn’t know I didn’t know. Plumb says around 50 bears were killed in London by barbers and hairdressers every year, and offers some of the methods customers used to make the grease smell less unpleasant.
What will I find in the newspapers for 22 February 1786, I wonder?