“It is necessary to be well acquainted with the disposition of a free, proud, fickle and violent people, before one can conceive of the indignation occasioned by this intelligence… The Admiral was burned in effigy in all the great towns; his seat and park in Hertfordshire were assaulted by the mob, and with great difficulty saved. The streets and shops swarmed with injurious ballads, libels, and prints, in some of which was mingled a little justice on the Ministers” – Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Second. [1]

The British public greeted the news of Admiral Sir John Byng’s defeat at the Battle of Minorca on 20th May 1756 with shocked disbelief. In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Seven Years War, they had been relentlessly fed on a diet of chauvinistic political rhetoric in which Britain’s naval power was frequently identified as the most tangible aspect of her superiority to other nations. Britons had nothing to fear from the prospect of war with France and should scorn the idea of forming alliances with other European nations, an anonymous pamphleteer assured his readers. “Great Britain, being an island… has no need of foreign assistance… if we carry on the war wholly by sea and have nothing to do with the Continent, we shall have everything to hope and nothing to fear.” William Pitt the Elder delivered a similar message to the House of Commons, demanding that the government “break these fetters which chained us, like Prometheus, to that barren rock” (i.e. Europe) and strike out to pursue a naval and colonial war against France. “Sea War, no Continent, no subsidy, is almost the universal language” the Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, concluded wearily after another such debate. However, those with a firmer grasp on the reality of Britain’s political and military situation in 1756 were far less sanguine in their assessment. After surveying the dilapidated state of the defences of Gibraltar, Lord James Tyrawley wrote that he feared that the course of international events was being steered by the “natural prejudices” of “English coffee-house politician[s]” who believe “that Gibraltar is the strongest town in the world, that one Englishman can beat one Frenchman, and that London Bridge is one of the seven wonders of the world.” [2]

As the shock of Minorca reverberated through the nation, popular opinion turned to the question of who was to blame. Fearing that the public’s gaze would eventually settle upon himself, the Duke of Newcastle ensured that defeat was seen as being the responsibility of Byng and Byng alone. Walpole recalled that “the impression against Mr. Byng was no sooner taken, than every art and incident that could inflame it were industriously used and adopted.” The government published exerts of the Admiral’s own account of the battle which were discreetly edited to convey a tone of satisfaction that was guaranteed to further inflame public opinion against him. “They descended even to advertise in the Gazette, that orders were sent to every port to arrest Admiral Byng, in case he should not have been met by Sir Edward Hawke [who had been dispatched to arrest him]. All the little attorneys on the Circuit contributed to blow up the flame against the Admiral, at the same time directing its light from the original criminals.” The “original criminals” were of course the Duke of Newcastle and his ally Henry Fox, whose pre-war programme of spending cuts had resulted in Byng taking command of a squadron in which half the ships were in a state of disrepair and all were undermanned. Byng was court-martialled and executed in relatively short order, not as Voltaire famously quipped “pour encourager les autres”, but in the hope that further debate about the failings leading up to the loss of Minorca could be quietly laid to rest alongside him. [3]

The government was unsuccessful in entirely deflecting blame for the crisis away from itself and the mood of the country provided fertile ground for caricaturists. Pamphlets, ballads and satirical prints attacking Newcastle and Fox were produced in large numbers. “A new species of this manufacture now first appeared, invented by George Townshend: they were caricatures on cards. The original one, which had amazing vent, was of Newcastle and Fox, looking at each other, and crying, with Peachum, in the Beggar’s Opera, ‘Brother, brother, we are both in the wrong’.” Townshend’s caricature was also used to decorate other items, such as this enamelled snuff box which was manufactured in Birmingham sometime during 1756. It’s not difficult to see why objects like this were popular; hitherto satirical prints had been relatively large and delicate items that had to be viewed indoors. The simplicity of Townshend’s caricatures and the portability of these new mediums gave graphic satire a new sense of sociability. Humorous images could now be carried into society and enjoyed with one’s friends. Townshend’s association with this particular image possibly also lent it a degree of respectability that meant it was construed as being particularly ‘safe’ to share in polite company. That may explain why this particular image was chosen for use in decorating a more expensive item like a snuff box. [4]

One aspect of this object that’s particularly charming is the spelling mistake in the scroll at the top of the item. In the original print it reads “Gallus So Near”, in reference to the sympathies which Newcastle and Fox are accused of harbouring towards the French. However, the craftsman responsible for copying the design onto the box lid clearly had no clue what “Gallus” meant (it’s the Latin word for rooster, the animal commonly associated with France in English satires of this period) and has mistakenly engraved it as “Galtus So Near”, thus rendering the phase nonsensical.

  1. Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Second, vol. 2, 2nd ed., London, 1847, p. 218.
  2. All quoted in Brendan Simms, Three Victories and a Defeat, The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783, London, 2007), p. 398 & pp. 412 – 418.
  3. Walpole, p. 218 & 227.
  4. Ibid. p. 229.