Newton’s Dances of Death!

If the printseller William Holland was still abed at six o’clock in the morning on Friday 27th May 1796, then he may well have been woken by the sounds of commotion on the street outside. A few hundred yards from Holland’s shop, close to the spot where the porticoed entrance to the Pantheon ballroom jutted out above the pavement of London’s Oxford Street, a fight was breaking out. The unlikely instigator of this early morning street brawl was a young clergyman. His would-be opponent was a somewhat bemused coachman, who had been driving a cart of Oxford Street when he saw the carriage ahead of him pull over and a post-boy leap down to ask directions of a pedestrian. Seconds later the clergyman leapt from the back of the carriage and began beating the boy viciously as he admonished him for his poor sense of direction. The spectacle prompted cries of censure from several bystanders, including the coachman, who pulled up in order to remonstrate with the vicar for his mistreatment of the child.

The man in question was the Reverend Lord Frederick Townshend, son of the Marquis of Townshend who was a distinguished military leader, former Viceroy of Ireland and amateur caricaturist. And unfortunately the coachman now found himself on the receiving end of his lordship’s rage. Townshend cursed the coachman, accusing him of concealing the whereabouts of the Bishop of Bristol’s London residence in order to keep him from an important meeting. The coachman protested that he’d never met the Bishop but this only drove the young clergyman to further paroxysms of rage. Flinging his coat to the ground and tearing his waistcoat and shirt off, the Reverend Lord demanded that the coachman step down from his wagon to fight. Sensing that the young curate had lost his mind, the coachman declined the offer, upon which Townshend gathered up his belongings and sauntered off down Oxford Street as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

A few seconds of silence may have hung over the small crowd of spectators as all eyes followed Townshend’s retreating form, but this was broken suddenly by the sound of a cry. One of the onlookers had taken the liberty of peering through the window of his carriage and saw a blood soaked body sitting within. The corpse was that of Lord Charles Townshend, the Reverend Lord Frederick’s brother and at 27 years old the newly elected MP for Great Yarmouth. The pair had been returning to London together after campaigning to secure Charles’s victory in a by-election. The back of Charles’s skull had been blown open, showering the interior of the carriage with blood, bone and brains. His mouth lolled open on his chest, revealing a second gunshot wound that had discharged a torrent of blood over his clothes. A surgeon would later concluded that the presence of two wounds and the lack of damage to the victim’s teeth indicated that a pistol loaded with two balls had been placed in his mouth before being fired. The post-boy admitted to having seen Lord Frederick throw a gun from the carriage an hour before they arrived in London but confessed that he hadn’t dared stop to ask the reason for this. A number of people now took off in pursuit of Frederick Townshend. Overtaking him at the junction of Swallow Street, they escorted him to the Marlborough Street Police Office where he was placed in custody. Townshend was later declared insane. The reasons for the murder remained a mystery but the press generally attributed it rumours that Townshend repeatedly indulged in heavy bouts of drinking whilst on the campaign trail with his brother and that this had left his mind in a disordered state by the time they left Yarmouth early that morning.

Of course we do not know whether William Holland actually witnessed this incident but it was certainly in keeping with the theme of a series of prints he published a little over a month later. Newton’s Dances of Death! consists of 24 small caricatures in which Death unexpectedly appears to strike down his victims. As the name implies, the images were the work of the young caricaturist Richard Newton (1777 – 1798), who would be visited by the Grim Reaper himself only two years later. Holland was responsible for adding text to the images (as was his habit). However, the text is absent from the version shown here. This suggests that this plate is either a test pressing of some kind, produced to check the engraving of the image before text was added to the plate, or that the text was added retrospectively in order to add interest to the design at a later date. Exerts from the edition published with text can be found in the BM collection. Surviving examples appear to be quite scarce.

Although representations of The Dance of Death date back to the early medieval period, Newton’s images owe more to Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1538 version in which Death has a well developed sense of irony and often dispatches his victims with an ironic quip. In one of Holbein’s engravings, Death sneaks up behind a judge, who is ignoring a poor man to help a rich one, and snaps his staff, the symbol of his power, in two. A chain around Death’s neck suggests he is taking revenge on corrupt judges on behalf of those they have wrongfully imprisoned. In contrast, Death seems to come to the aid of the poor ploughman, by driving his horses for him and releasing him from a life of toil; the glowing church in the background implying that this humble but virtuous man is on his way to heaven. Newton’s caricatures continue in a similar vein; with a miser, a greedy parson and a grave robber being amongst those whom the Grim Reaper is shown laying claim to. Although the images are perhaps difficult for modern viewers to relate to – few today would regard the prospect of infant mortality as a subject for humour – they reflect the cultural mores of a time in which premature death was a feature of everyday life and seems to have been dealt with in a much more matter of fact way.


Derby Mercury, 2nd July 1796

Jemmy Whittle, the Devil, St Dunstan and the Laughing Boy

The Laughing Boy c.1780

The name James Whittle (1757 – 1818) will no doubt be familiar to readers of The Printshop Window. Whittle and his partner Robert Laurie (1755-1836) co-owned one of eighteenth-century London’s most well-known printshops. Laurie and Whittle inherited their business from Robert Sayer (1725 – 1794) but it origins could be traced back to a member of the Overton family, a dynasty of publishers that had sold books and prints in the city since the early sixteenth-century. Their shop at 53 Fleet Street must therefore have been regarded as an established feature of London’s topography; a reassuring beacon of continuity in a city that was hurtling towards modernity with growing rapidity. 

The radical publisher William Hone (1780 – 1842) certainly looked back on his youthful forays into Laurie & Whittle’s with a glow of nostalgia. In 1827, he included the following anecdote in the second volume of his Every-Day Book (1827):

At Laurie & Whittle’s printshop “nearly opposite St Dunstan’s Church, Fleet-street”, or rather at Jemmy Whittle’s, for he was the manager of the concern – I cannot help calling him “Jemmy”, for I knew him afterwards in a passing way when everybody called him Jemmy; and after his recollection failed and he dared no longer flash his merriment at The Cock at Temple Bar and The Black Jack in Portugal-street, but stood, like a sign of himself, at his own door, unable to remember the names of his old friends, they called him “poor Jemmy!”

I say,  remember at Jemmy Whittle’s there was always a change of prints in springtime. Jemmy liked, as he said, to “give the public something alive, fresh and clever, classical and correct!” One print, however, was never changed. This was “St Dunstan and the Devil“. To any who inquired why he always had “that old thing” in the window, and thought it would be better out, Jemmy answered, “No, no, my boy! That’s my sign – no change – church and state, you know! – no politics, you know! I hate politics! There’s the church, you know (pointing to St Dunstan’s), and here am I, my boy! It’s my sign, you! No change, my boy!

Alas, how changed: I desired to give a copy of the print on St Dunstan’s day in the first volume of The Every-Day Book, and it could not be found at “the old shop”*, nor at any printsellers I resorted to. 

Another print of Jemmy Whittle’s was a favourite with me as well as himself, for through every mutation of “dressing out” his window it maintained its place with St Dunstan. It was a mezzotinto called “The Laughing Boy”. During all seasons this print as exhibited “fresh and fresh”… I am now speaking of five and thirty years ago, when shop windows, especially printsellers’, were set out according to the season. I remember that in springtime Jemmy Whittle and Carrington Bowles in St Paul’s Churchyard, used to decorate their panes with twelve prints of flowers of “the months”, engraved after Baptiste*** and coloured “after nature” – a show almost, at that time, as gorgeous as “Solomon’s Temple in all its glory, all over nothing but gold and jewels”, which a man exhibited to my wondering eyes for a halfpenny. 

Although bits of this exert have been quoted in books about eighteenth-century caricature before, I took the liberty of reproducing almost all of it here as I think it raises a couple of interesting points. Firstly, there’s a nice bit of human interest in the fact that “poor Jemmy Whittle” clearly suffered some sort of cognitive decline in his final years that robbed him of his memory and left him “standing like a sign of himself” in the doorway of 53 Strand. One must assume that by this point the running of the business had been entirely handed over to Laure and / or Laurie’s son, who was to take on full responsibility for the shop after Whittle died in 1818. Whittle’s continued presence can be explained by his will, dated 1811, which indicates that he and his family lived in the same building as the printshop, as did Robert Laurie and his family and a number of their employees.

Secondly, while I was aware that Whittle eschewed political prints, the full quotation can be read in way that suggests Whittle was conservative rather than apolitical in his outlook. The decision to avoid publishing politics may therefore have had an implicitly political dimension to it. Hone was recalling the events of the mid-1790s, a time when the British government was locked in a literal and figurative war against French-inspired radical republicanism at home and abroad. The freedom of the press and public assembly were curbed in a deliberate effort to discourage ordinary men and women from engaging in political discourse. It’s hard not to see Whittle’s decision to avoid displaying political prints in his windows as endorsing this reactionary stance in some way. The remark “no change – church and state, you know! – no politics, you know!” certainly has echoes of the slogan “church and king forever” which was adopted as the rallying cry of the loyalist societies of this period. Whittle’s comment “no change” could certainly also be interpreted as having more than one meaning.

Finally, I didn’t know that printshops of this period were in the habit of changing their window displays in accordance with the season. It doesn’t come as a surprise, after all topicality was the lifeblood of the satirical print-trade and seasonal prints of the type Hone described could be wheeled out year after year without the need to invest in new designs. There is some circumstantial evidence that this practice extended to printshops with a more well developed connection to satirical publishing. Years ago I attempted to put all of S.W. Fores prints into a database to see if it was possible to analyse any trends in his patterns of publishing (a crazy idea – Fores published thousands of prints and I never got past the 1790s). One of the trends that did emerge from this rough and ready piece of data mining was the fact that Fores seems to have published large quantities of prints on 1st January each year. This makes sense when one remembers that a significant proportion of his business (possibly the most significant element) was taken up with the sale of stationary, which would include items like diaries, calendars and ledgers that would typically be purchased on or around the first day of the new year. A new window display of prints may therefore have been used as a lure to get customers into the shop to sell them stationary, or as a means of ‘upselling’ to customers who were mainly interested in buying a new diary or ledger for the year. This interesting historical titbit also makes one wonder if James Gillray’s famous ‘weather’ series was produced to give a seasonal flavour to Hannah Humphrey’s window displays?

* By the time Hone was writing Whittle was dead and Robert Laurie had retired, leaving the business shop in the hands of his son, Richard Holmes Laurie, who ran it until his death in 1858. Although copies of the Laughing Boy have survived, I’ve been unable to locate a copy of their version of The Devil and St Dunstan. One assumes it would have looked something like the woodcut version etched by George Cruikshank in the 1820s, which is linked in the article.

** The Laughing Boy was already at least twenty years old by the time Hone saw it in the mid-1790s. A copy of the print carrying Robert Sayer’s publication line can be found in the British Museum and it is listed in Sayer’s 1775 sales catalogue.

** The prints may have been taken from Bowles’s Florist (1777), an illustrated botanical encyclopedia “containing sixty plates of beautiful flowers, regularly disposed in their succession of blowing: to which is added an accurate description of their colours with instructions for drawing and painting them according to nature: being a new work intended for the use and amusement of gentlemen and ladies delighting in that art.”

*** Hone’s description suggests this was a raree show of some kind.

C.J. Grant’s Political Drama – An Online Talk

I’ll be giving a short talk about my book on the caricaturist C.J. Grant at 2pm (GMT) on 9th December 2020. The event will be hosted by the Working Class Movement Library as part of their series of online lectures for lockdown. 

The talks are free and open to everybody, so do feel free to pop along to say a virtual hello. You can go to the event page by clicking HERE. A registration link will be added to that page in the coming days (I’ll try and remember to add it here too) and registered guests will receive an email with a Zoom link shortly before the talk begins.

“The Horrid and Inhuman Murderer” Thomas Simmons by Angelo & Rowlandson, 1807

It was half-past eight on the evening of 20th October 1807 and Sarah Harris, a maid in the employment of George Boreham of Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, was attending to her duties in the kitchen of Boreham’s farmhouse.  Sarah was busier than usual that evening as her master and his wife were entertaining. Mr and Mrs Boreham had been joined at dinner by their four adult daughters, Esther, Anne, Elizabeth and Sarah and Mrs Hummerstone, a family friend who ran the Black Lion Inn in the town.

George and Anne Boreham were upstairs while Mrs Boreham, Mrs Hummerstone, Esther, Elizabeth and Sarah retired to the parlour. The distant hum of the ladies conversation may have been perceptible to Sarah Harris as she set about her work at the rear of the building. Gradually though, another noise began to filter into the room from outside. It was the sound of a man’s voice, raised in anger, cursing and swearing, as he made his way into the small courtyard that backed onto the farmhouse. Sarah Harris knew the owner of that voice well and her heart may have sunk to hear it. It belonged to Thomas Simmons, her former lover and an employee of the Borehams who had recently been fired for violent misconduct.

Simmons was twenty years old with aquiline features, a sallow complexion and a curly thatch of dark brown hair. He had worked for the Borehams for the past three years but proved himself to be a thoroughly indolent and untrustworthy a servant who possessed a violent temper. When not arguing with his fellow servants, he spent a good deal of his time idling about the farmhouse in an effort to woo Sarah Harris, with whom he had become infatuated. Harris was described as being many years older than her would-be suitor and was perhaps initially flattered by the attention. There was even talk of marriage but the relationship quickly broke down as it became clear that Simmons could not control his temper. Several weeks earlier, Simmons had severely beat Harris after an argument, threatening that he would kill her. The incident prompted the Borehams to dismiss the troublesome young man from their service and Sarah used the sacking as an excuse to break off the relationship, informing him that Mrs Boreham had told her that she could not expect to keep her own station if she chose to marry so disreputable a man.  Simmons had sworn revenge on both Sarah Harris and the Boreham family. It was a threat which he now appeared to be about to carry out.

As Harris looked though the kitchen window into the darkness of the yard beyond, Simmons pallid features gladly became discernible through the gloom. On seeing her, he swore loudly, pointed to the nearby kitchen door and demand to be admitted. Sarah opened the window and advised him to leave quietly, warning that there was company in the house. Simmons snarled back that he did not give a damn about the company and that he would “do them all” if necessary and with that he lunged through the window and struck the maid. Terrified, Harris fled, calling for help as she ran to hide in the adjoining wash-house. Meanwhile Simmons began banging at the kitchen door in an effort to gain access to the farm. Hearing the noise, Mrs Hummerstone sallied forth from the parlour, perhaps reasoning that her experience of dealing with drunken disputes in the town’s pub meant that she was best equipped to confront the Borehams’ quarrelsome former employee. She flung open the doorway and demanded that Simmons leave immediately. He made no response but reached into his pocket, drew out a knife and drove into Mrs Hummerstone’s neck with such force that her bonnet was knocked from her head. Simmons then drew the blade across her throat, opening up a huge gash that left him drenched in blood. With the way ahead now clear, he ran into the house, leaving the unfortunately Mrs Hummerstone to stagger a short distance into the yard, vainly searching for help before she expired in a heap on the ground.

Simmons charged into the parlour with a roar and launched himself upon Esther, stabbing her repeatedly in the chest and neck and killing her instantly. As Elizabeth and Sarah ran screaming from the room, the attacker turned his knife on their elderly mother, wounding her in the neck before flinging her on top of her daughter’s body.  Returning once more to the kitchen, Simmons resumed his search for Sarah Harris. On discovering the maid he chased her back into the hallway, knocking down Mr Boreham who, despite his infirmity, had managed to hobble downstairs with the intention of confronting the intruder with a poker. Simmons wrestled Harris to the ground and the pair fought for a several moments. Sarah managed to fend off numerous blows aimed at her neck and face and suffered deep cuts to her hands and arms in the process. Eventually she broke free and ran out into the street crying “murder!” as loudly as she could. Simmons took to his heels and fled.

Several of the townspeople ran towards the cries. They later recalled passing Mrs Hummerstone’s body lying in the yard, discovering the unconscious form of Mr Boreham in the hallway and the scene of carnage that awaited them in the parlour. Thankfully one of those in attendance was the local surgeon, who quickly realised that Mrs Boreham’s wound was not fatal and was able to provide medical assistance to the surviving members of the family. With the alarm now raised, the men of Hoddesdon began to search for Simmons in earnest. He was eventually discovered hiding under some hay in a nearby cow shed and dragged to the Bell public-house. It was here that the constable found him the next morning. He had been badly beaten by his captors and was tied to a post with such force that it was feared that he might succeeded in cheating the hangman of his prize.

The trial took place at the Hertford Assizes the following spring. Simmons admitted his guilt, stating that although he never intended to harm Mrs Hummerstone, he had entered the farm with the intention of killing Sarah Harris and members of the Boreham family. The defendant was asked if he had anything to say before the verdict was delivered but he simply “answered, in a careless tone – No!” He was found guilty and sentenced to be hung and his body anatomised.

And there the story ends; save for an odd supernatural footnote in what is an otherwise all too human tale of murder and misery. Shortly after his arrest, Simmons told a constable that he had been startled by a flapping sound while he was fighting with Sarah Harris. While in jail the prisoner, who claimed to be in a great deal of distress, called for a priest and explained that “he heard a kind of fluttering noise behind him, and on looking back, saw a brown figure, with wings extended, which frightened him so much, that he let the maid take knife out of his hand, and crawled out of the back door on his hands and knees, and the figure followed him to the garden gate.” Perhaps the story was conceived in effort to excuse his cowardly flight from the scene of the crime? Or perhaps it indicated that Simmons had suffered a complete mental breakdown? In either case, it cut little ice with the authorities and did not prevent him being sent to his death a few months later.

News of the murders spread rapidly throughout the country and a number of engraved likenesses of Simmons were produced in London. Some of these were bound into sixpenny pamphlets recounting the facts of the case, while others appear to have been sold in their own right. The fencing master and amateur artist Henry Angelo, whose memoirs suggest a partiality for lurid tales of murder, travelled up Hertford Goal to sketch Simmons in the exercise yard. Angelo’s drawing was engraved and published by his friend Thomas Rowlandson, whose publication line appears at the foot of the print along with two lines of text providing some information about the sitter. Although the likeness strays close to caricature, it captures the thoroughly mundane aspect of Simmons appearance. This in itself was problematic for some contemporary commentators, who simply refused to believe that so horrible crime could be committed by someone of so unassuming a disposition. It was this adherence to the principles of physiognomy that moved one pamphleteer to complain that many of the engravings of Simmons that had so far been published in London had failed to capture “his long hatchet face, and cadaverous aspect” with sufficient vigour.

Quotes & References

Anon. Horrid Murder. The trial of Thomas Simmons… (London, 1807)

Anon. Inhuman murder, at Hoddeson. The trial of Thomas Simmons (London, 1808)

William Holland, The Corsican Dissected, 1803

The eighteenth-century saw a surge of interest in medical science. Private anatomical schools opened up around the country, catering for audiences in which medical students rubbed shoulders with gentleman scholars whose interests reflected the Enlightenment fascination with all aspects of the natural sciences. One of the first private schools of anatomy to open its doors in London was that founded by the Scottish expatriate Dr William Hunter in 1768. Hunter introduced the new ‘Parisian’ method of teaching anatomy, encouraging students to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty cutting up bodies, rather than relying on theoretical knowledge gleaned from books. Hunter’s teaching methods proved to be popular but the unintended consequence of this was that it led to a shortage of dead bodies for dissection. 

The anatomists initially contented themselves with the regular crop of fresh corpses that could be harvested from the gallows. But eventually even the brutal standards of eighteenth-century justice failed to produce a satisfactory supply of cadavers and the anatomical schools were  forced to turn to the black market in an effort to keep meat on the table. Gangs of body snatchers were hired to exhume corpses and smuggle them in via the back door. Inevitably, some of these criminals decided to shortcut the process by killing people in order to sell their corpses for dissection. The revelation of the deeds committed by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh and John Bishop and Thomas Williams in London, eventually jolted a complacent government into action. Under the terms of the Anatomy Act of 1832, medical schools were allowed to dissect bodies which remained unclaimed from prisons, workhouses and mental hospitals. Even this proved controversial, as in many cases these bodies were unclaimed because the deceased’s family was too poor for pay for a burial. The Act was therefore seized upon by radical agitators as yet another example of the injustices that were heaped upon the poor by an indifferent ruling class.

William Holland did not live to see the political disputes of the 1830s but it’s possible that he may have found himself in agreement with the agitators of this later era. He had held radical views of his own in his day and had even been jailed for distributing the works of Thomas Paine in defiance of government censorship. Chastened but not wholly deterred, Holland would go on to produce numerous scurrilous prints which vociferously attacked the reactionary policies enacted by the Tory administration of William Pitt the Younger during the 1790s. By the time this print was published in October 1803, he seems to moderated his views still further, or at least realised that after 10 years of bloody warfare against revolutionary France his customers were no longer interested in prints trumpeting the benefits of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Like other English radicals of the period, Holland’s views on the conflict may have changed as it became clear that Bonaparte had little interest in the idealistic democratic values of 1789 and sought merely to place himself at the head of an aggressively expansionist French empire. In May 1803, the Peace of Amiens finally collapsed and war resumed. French forces began massing on the Channel coast and Britain was gripped by an invasion fever which, amongst other things, found expression in the consumption of satirical prints that spat patriotic defiance at the soon-to-be Emperor and his minions.

This print was one of a number of caricatures of Napoleon that Holland published in 1803. Most of these were patriotic in nature but in a handful of cases it appears as though Holland could not resist taking a sly jab at his old enemy Pitt, whom he still saw fit to rank alongside Bonaparte and the Devil amongst the “plagues of Europe“. The First Consul of France is shown as a ‘visible man’ – an anatomical chart in which the skin is peeled back to reveal the layers of tissue, bone and organs beneath. Each part of his anatomy is labelled with text which reveals something of his insidious character e.g. “Eyes of deep design”, “a heart as black as jet” etc. etc. The image appears to have been based on an caricature of Pitt that Holland published in 1797, which may in turn have been copied from even earlier designs by William Dent (HERE and HERE). The plate isn’t signed but it bears Holland’s characteristic script and may well have been designed, if not engraved entirely, by the publisher himself.