Innocent enjoyment, 1808

Who lost their marbles?

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We retired to my rooms and drank tea, talking away on art, starting principles, arguing long and fiercely, and at midnight separating, to rest, rise, and work again until the hour of dinner brought us once more together, again to draw, argue or laugh…

Two weeks ago, before the plague landed in my house, I introduced the early 19th century artist Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846), who had painted and written about a ‘mock election’ in the debtors’ prison where he was temporarily an inmate. Haydon is an interesting character.

The judgement of history seems to be that Haydon was more of a talented writer than the artist he aspired to be, although he can hardly be said to be well known for either today – a few of his works adorn the walls of large country houses (and ‘The Mock Election’, bought by George IV, now hangs in a back room of Buckingham Palace), but his life story tells of his struggle to break into the art establishment. He preferred painting grand historical and religious scenes, which were not particularly in favour; and he disdained the portrait work which sometimes he had to turn to to earn a crust.

He was born in Plymouth, Devon, to a printer/publisher and a vicar’s daughter, went to grammar school, and quickly fell in love with art. Early success with work at the Royal Academy was eclipsed by a long-running spat with the institution, and he often fell out with people and institutions, which did him no service. However, he also became close to many leading figures of his day, notably the poets Keats, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as Sir Walter Scott and the Scottish painter David Wilkie.

I’ll finish his own story another time soon, but this week let’s look at one of his enthusiasms, a work of art which is as controversial today as it was when Haydon and Lord Byron took different viewpoints 200 years ago: the work known as the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles. This collection of sculptures is attributed to the Greek sculptor Phidias, who had one of the Seven Wonders of the World in his resumé; he was active in the mid-fifth century BC. The marbles were originally in the Parthenon in Athens but over more than a decade at the very start of the 19th century around half of them were removed by Scottish soldier and diplomat Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin; his initial scheme appeared to have been simply to copy the artworks, but he then claimed an Ottoman Empire decree gave him the right to actually remove them; he sold them to the British government in 1816 and they have been in the British Museum for most of the time since. Greece and the UK remain in dispute over the marbles, which many people say should return to their homeland.

As I mentioned, this is not a new debate. Lord Byron (who we have met before in the political sphere) thundered against the removal of the marbles from their Romantic, ruined setting in multiple poems. As early as 1809 his ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ referred to Elgin by name and the “mutilated blocks of art”; his anti-Scottish ‘The Curse of Minerva’ (1811) focuses on the marbles in particular; and in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage he alludes to Elgin as a “plunderer” and “violator”.

Benjamin Haydon, however, was a fan of the marbles being in Britain, if only to be able to enjoy them from an artistic and anatomical perspective, and supported the plan for the nation to acquire them. But whatever we might think of the ethics of ancient treasures across the world being moved to museums, his description of encountering them in 1808 at Elgin’s home in Park Lane is full of such passion and enthusiasm – as well as nostalgia for youth – that it’s worth a read.1

Wilkie proposed that we should go and see the Elgin Marbles as he had an order. I agreed, dressed, and away we went to Park Lane. I had no more notion of what I was to see than of anything I had never heard of, and walked in with the utmost nonchalance.

This period of our lives was one of great happiness. Painting all day; then dining at the Old Slaughter Chop House; then going to the Academy until eight to fill up the evening; then going home to tea – that blessing of a studious man – talking over our respective exploits, what he had been doing, and what I had done, and then, frequently, to relieve our minds fatigued by their eight and twelve hours’ work, giving vent to the most extraordinary absurdities. Often have we made rhymes on odd names, and shouted with laughter at each new line that was added. Sometimes, lazily inclined after a good dinner, we have lounged about near Drury Lane or Covent Garden, hesitating whether to go in, and often have I (knowing first that there was nothing I wished to see) assumed a virtue I did not possess, and pretending moral superiority, preached to Wilkie on the weakness of not resisting such temptations for the sake of our art and our duty, and marched him off to his studies when he was longing to see Mother Goose.

One night when I was dying to go in, he dragged me away to the Academy and insisted on my working, to which I agreed on the promise of a stroll afterwards. As soon as we had finished, out we went, and in passing a penny show in the piazza, we fired up and determined to go in. We entered and slunk away in a corner; while waiting for the commencement of the show, in came all our student friends, one after the other. We shouted out at each one as he arrived, and then popped our heads down in our corner again, much to the indignation of the chimney-sweeps and vegetable boys who composed the audience, but at last we were discovered, and then we all joined in applauding the entertainment of Pull Devil, Pull Baker, and at the end raised such a storm of applause, clapping our hands, stamping our feet, and shouting with all the power of a dozen pair of lungs, that to save our heads from the fury of the sweeps we had to run downstairs as if the devil indeed was trying to catch us. After this boisterous amusement, we retired to my rooms and drank tea, talking away on art, starting principles, arguing long and fiercely, and at midnight separating, to rest, rise, and work again until the hour of dinner brought us once more together, again to draw, argue or laugh.

Young, strong, and enthusiastic, with no sickness, no debilities, full of hope, believing all the world as honorable as ourselves, wishing harm to no one, and incredulous of any wishing harm to us, we streamed on in a perpetual round of innocent enjoyment, and I look back on these hours as the most uninterrupted by envy, the least harassed by anxiety, and the fullest of unalloyed pleasure, of all that have crossed the path of my life.

Such being the condition of our minds, no opportunity for improvement was ever granted to the one which he did not directly share with the other; and naturally when Wilkie got this order for the marbles his first thought was that I would like to go.

To Park Lane then we went, and after passing through the hall and thence into an open yard, entered a damp, dirty pent-house where lay the marbles ranged within sight and reach. The first thing I fixed my eyes on was the wrist of a figure in one of the female groups, in which were visible, though in a feminine form, the radius and ulna. I was astonished, for I had never seen them hinted at in any female wrist in the antique. I darted my eye to the elbow, and saw the outer condyle [the rounded prominence at the end of a bone] visibly affecting the shape as in nature. I saw that the arm was in repose and the soft parts in relaxation. That combination of nature and idea which I had felt was so much wanting for high art was here displayed to mid-day conviction. My heart beat! If I had seen nothing else I had beheld sufficient to keep me to nature for the rest of my life. But when I turned to the Theseus and saw that every form was altered by action or repose, – when I saw that the two sides of his back varied, one side stretched from the shoulder-blade being pulled forward, and the other side compressed from the shoulder-blade being pushed close to the spine as he rested on his elbow, with the belly flat because the bowels fell into the pelvis as he sat… when I saw, in fact, the most heroic style of art combined with all the essential detail of actual life, the thing was done at once and for ever. ... I felt the future, I foretold that they would prove themselves the finest things on earth, that they would overturn the false beau-ideal, where nature was nothing, and would establish the true beau-ideal, of which nature alone is the basis… I felt as if a divine truth had blazed inwardly upon my mind and I knew that they would at last rouse the art of Europe from its slumber in the darkness.

I do not say this now, when all the world acknowledges it, but I said it then, when no one would believe me. I went home in perfect excitement, Wilkie trying to moderate my enthusiasm with his national caution…

I passed the evening in a mixture of torture and hope; all night I dozed and dreamed of the marbles. I rose at five in a fever of excitement, tried to sketch the Theseus from memory, did so, and saw that I comprehended it. I worked that day and another and another, fearing that I was deluded. At last I got an order for myself; I rushed away to Park Lane; the impression was more vivid than before. I drove off to Fuseli, and fired him to such a degree that he ran upstairs, put on his coat and away we sallied. I remember that first a coal-cart with eight horses stopped us as it struggled up one of the lanes of the Strand; then a flock of sheep blocked us up; Fuseli, in a fury of haste and rage, burst into the middle of them, and they got between his little legs and jostled him so much that I screamed with laughter in spite of my excitement. He swore all along the Strand like a little fury. At last we came to Park Lane…

I expressed myself warmly to Lord Mulgrave and asked him if he thought he could get me leave to draw from the marbles. He spoke to Lord Elgin, and on the condition that my drawings were not to be engraved permission was granted to me. Conscious I had the power, like a puppy I did not go for some days, and when I went was told that Lord Elgin had changed his mind. The pain I felt at the loss of such an opportunity taught me a lesson for life; for never again did I lose one moment in seeking the attainment of an object when an opportunity offered. However, I applied again to Lord Mulgrave and he in time induced Lord Elgin to admit me. For three months I drew until I had mastered the forms of these divine works and brought my hand and mind into subjection…

I drew at the marbles ten, fourteen, and fifteen hours at a time; staying often till twelve at night, holding a candle and my board in one hand and drawing with the other; and so I should have stayed till morning had not the sleepy porter come yawning in to tell me it was twelve o’clock, and then often have I gone home, cold, benumbed and damp, my clothes steaming up as I dried them; and so, spreading my drawings on the floor and putting a candle on the ground, I have drank my tea at one in the morning with ecstasy as its warmth trickled through my frame, and looked at my picture and dwelt on my drawings, and pondered on the change of empires and thought that I had been contemplating what Socrates looked at and Plato saw…

Oh, those were days of luxury and rapture and uncontaminated purity of mind! No sickness, no debility, no fatal, fatal weakness of sight. I arose with the sun and opened my eyes to its light only to be conscious of my high pursuit; I sprang from my bed, dressed as if possessed, and passed the day, the noon, and the night in the same dream of abstracted enthusiasm; secluded from the world, regardless of its feelings, unimpregnable to disease, insensible to contempt, a being of elevated passions…


The text that follows is from the Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, published in 1853 seven years after Haydon’s death by Tom Taylor. Haydon had written his own life account up to 1820 between 1839 and his death – so the wistful memories of youth he evokes in the passage excerpted are those of a man now in his 50s; the rest of the work was compiled by Taylor from Haydon’s extensive journals.

Self-isolation, 1665

A plague upon this house

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That every House visited, be marked with a Red Cross of a foot long, in the middle of the door, evident to be seen, and with these usual Printed words, that is to say, Lord have mercy upon us, to be set close over the same Cross, there to continue until lawful opening of the same House…

Apologies to anyone expecting more about Benjamin Haydon this week – I’ve had to defer my research, my household having fallen prey to Covid-19. We’re lucky: we’re double vaccinated, and seem to be recovering. But it’s still not a trivial thing, and my heart goes out to all those who have suffered the countless consequences of this pandemic.

We’ve been following government rules about self-isolation, of course – but as always, there’s a historical perspective to show that this sort of policy is far from new. I’m not going to go into all the details of the 1665 Great Plague of London here, as plenty of people have explored those in the light of coronavirus (the 1665 epidemic was bubonic plague, with a horrific mortality rate of around 30%). But here, as a short interlude before normal service hopefully resumes here, are the self-isolation rules imposed for that situation, printed as ‘Orders conceived and published by the Lord Major and aldermen of the city of London, concerning the infection of the plague’.1 Many of the rules are remarkably familiar.

Orders concerning infected Houses, and Persons sick of the Plague

Notice to be given of the Sickness

The Master of every House, as soon as any one in his House complaineth, either of Botch, or Purple, or Swelling in any part of his body, or falleth otherwise dangerously sick, without apparent cause of some other Disease, shall give knowledge thereof to the Examiner of Health within two hours after the said sign shall appear.

Sequestration of the Sick

As soon as any man shall be found by this Examiner, Chirurgion or Searcher to be sick of the Plague, he shall the same night be sequestred in the same house. And in case he be so sequestred, then though he afterwards die not, the House wherein he sickned shall be shut up for a Moneth, after the use of due Preservatives taken by the rest.

[Examiners were reliable people appointed in each parish to gather data about which houses were affected by the plague; ‘chirurgeon’ is an earlier form of the word ‘surgeon’, ie here a doctor; searchers were generally women, appointed to examine corpses and determine the cause of death.]

Airing the Stuff

For sequestration of the goods and stuff of the infected, their Bedding, and Apparel, and Hangings of Chambers, must be well aired with fire, and such perfumes as are requisite within the infected House, before they be taken again to use: this to be done by the appointment of the Examiner.

Shutting up of the House

If any person shall have visited any man, known to be Infected of the Plague, or entred willingly into any known Infected House, being not allowed: the House wherein he inhabiteth, shall be shut up for certain daies by the Examiners direction.

None to be removed out of Infected Houses, but, &c.

Item, that none be removed out of the House where he falleth sick of the Infection, into any other House in the City, (except it be to the Pest-house or a Tent, or unto some such House, which the owner of the said visited House holdeth in his own hands, and occupieth by his own servants) and so as security be given to the Parish whither such remove is made, that the attendance and charge about the said visited persons shall be observed and charged in all the particularities before expressed, without any cost of that Parish, to which any such remove shall happen to be made, and this remove to be done by night: And it shall be lawful to any person that hath two Houses, to remove either his sound or his infected people to his spare House at his choice, so as if he send away first his found, he may not after send thither the sick, nor again unto the sick the sound. And that the same which he sendeth, be for one week at the least shut up and secluded from company for fear of some infection, at the first not appearing…

Every visited house to be marked

That every House visited, be marked with a Red Cross of a foot long, in the middle of the door, evident to be seen, and with these usual Printed words, that is to say, Lord have mercy upon us, to be set close over the same Cross, there to continue until lawful opening of the same House…


That where several Inmates are in one and the same house, and any person in that house happen to be infected; no other person or family of such house shall be suffered to remove him or themselves without a Certificate from the Examiners of Health of that Parish; or in default thereof, the house whither he or they so remove, shall be shut up as in case of Visitation.


Read the full text here.

The mock election, 1827

'What is the world but a prison of larger dimensions?'

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Before me were three men marching in solemn procession, the one in the centre a tall, young, reckless, bushy-haired, light-hearted Irishman, a with a rusty cocked-hat under his arm, a bunch of flowers in his bosom, his curtain rings round his neck for a gold chain…

This week, only a shortish item for Histories but it will introduce an interesting character, who I hope to look into further over the next week or two. The character in question is the artist Benjamin Haydon (1786–1846), but let’s save his own notable life story for now and peer over his shoulder at an amusing event he depicted in both paint and words.

The event is the Mock Election of 1827, which took place at the King’s Bench, a debtors’ prison in the London borough of Southwark since at least the 14th century (it finally closed in 1880). Haydon spent two brief periods there as an inmate in 1823 and 1827.

In July of the latter, the inmates were bored and decided to hold a mock election – complete with three candidates, lively hustings for each with broadsides, speeches and election officers, and election day itself on the 16th. Even the guards joined in, until the marshal, a Mr Jones, brought things to an abrupt and rather aggressive halt. But let’s let Benjamin give his eyewitness account – here is his painting, The Mock Election, and his description of the shenanigans, which he published in 1828 to accompany the picture.1

Nothing during the last year excited more curiosity than the Mock Election, which took place in the King’s Bench Prison; as much from the circumstances attending its conclusion , as from the astonishment expressed that men, unfortunate and confined, could invent any amusement at which they had a right to be happy.

At the first thought, it certainly gave me a shock to fancy a roar of boisterous merriment, in a place where it was hardly possible to imagine any other feelings to exist than those of sorrow and anxiety; but, on a little more reflection, there was nothing very unprincipled in men, one half of whom had been the victims of villany, one quartet the victims of malignity, and, perhaps, not the whole of the remaining fourth justly imprisoned by angry creditors in hope to obtain their debts; it was not absolutely criminal to prefer forgetting their afflictions in the temporary gaiety of innocent frolic, to the dull, leaden, sottish oblivion, produced by porter and cigars.

I was sitting in my own apartment, buried in my own reflections, melancholy, but not despairing at the darkness of my own prospects, and the unprotected condition of my wife and children, when a sudden tumultuous and hearty laugh below brought me to the window. In spite of my own sorrows, I laughed out heartily myself when I saw the occasion. Before me were three men marching in solemn procession, the one in the centre a tall, young, reckless, bushy-haired, light-hearted Irishman, a with a rusty cocked-hat under his arm, a bunch of flowers in his bosom, his curtain rings round his neck for a gold chain, a mopstick for a white wand, tipped with an empty strawberry pottle, bows of ribbons on his shoulders, and a great hole in his elbow, of which he seemed perfectly unconscious; on his right was another person in burlesque solemnity, with a sash, and real white wand; two others, fantastically dressed, came immediately behind, and the whole followed by characters of all descriptions, some with flags, some with staffs, and all in perfect merriment and mock gravity, adapted to some masquerade. I asked what it meant, and was told, it was a procession of burgesses, headed by the Lord High Sheriff, and Lord Mayor, of the King’s Bench Prison, going in state to open the poll, in order to elect two members to protect their rights in the House of Commons!

I returned to my room, and laughed and wept by turns. Here were a set of creatures who must have known afflictions, who must have been in want and in sorrow, struggling (with a spiked wall before their eyes) to bury remembrance in the humour of a farce! flying from themselves and their thoughts, to smother reflection, though, in the interval between one roar of laughter and another, the busy fiend would flash upon “their inward eye,” their past follies and their present pains! Yet, what is the world but a prison of larger dimensions? We gaze after the eagle in his flight, and are bound by gravitation to the earth we tread on; we sail forth in pursuit of new worlds, and after a year or two return to the spot we started from; we weary our imaginations with hopes of something new, and find, after a long life, we can only embellish what we see; so that while our hopes are endless, and imagination unbounded, our faculties and being are limited, and whether it be six thousand feet, or six thousand miles, a limit still marks the prison!

I bore in pain that day the merriment and noise so uncongenial to an aching heart; but the next, an irresistible desire, induced me to go out, and, as I approached the unfortunate, but merry crowd, to the last day of my life shall ever remember the impression I received;—baronets and bankers; authors and merchants; painters and poets; dandies of rank in silk and velvet, and dandies of no rank in rags and tatters; idiotism and insanity; poverty and affliction, all mingled in indiscriminate merriment, with a spiked wall, twenty feet high, above their heads! I saw in an instant the capacity there existed in this scene of being made morally instructive and interesting to the public, by the help of an episode in assistance. I told Mr [Chambers], the banker, who stood by me, I would paint it, and asked him if he believed there ever were such characters, such expressions, and such heads, on human shoulders, assembled in one group before?

Day by day the subject matured in my mind, and, as soon as I was restored to my family and pursuits, I returned and sketched all the heads of the leading actors in this extraordinary scene;—began the picture directly, and have finished it in four months.

Haydon goes on to detail the characters in his painting, then reflects on his own misfortunes.2 In his conclusion he states: “Art is to me its own great reward; and I only desire that I, and I those whom I am bound to foster, may be protected from want, and daily fear, and all the miseries of debt, I while I devote myself to its cultivation.”

His pecuniary worries were temporarily alleviated, at least: his painting of the mock election was exhibited in January 1828 at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, and was bought by none other than George IV, for 500 guineas (more than £40,000 today).


The complete text can be found online here.


The full story of the mock election itself can be found in Paul O’Keeffe’s 2011 biography of Haydon, A Genius for Failure

Eyewitness to Armistice, 1918

When Old Bunts picked up Hendrick

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They seem very badly off for clothes. Some have jumpers and some haven’t – any old sort of thing does for caps and even trousers. Only one man had a pair of leather boots on that could be called boots and that was the captain, who had the Iron Cross on…

This week I have something very personal to share, in the week of Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday.

Both sides of my family must count among the lucky ones in that few relatives suffered seriously in either of the world wars. But of course, that doesn’t change the impact these events had on everyone.

When my mother died three years ago, it fell to me to go through the many documents and family photos she had accumulated. Among her papers I found two remarkable treasures – I shall save the other one for another time (although it, too, relates to 1918), but here I’m honoured to share an Armistice diary which as far as I can tell was written by my grandfather (he was certainly present at the events the diary describes). Until I came across it, this diary was unknown to me, and indeed to my mother’s sister.

The diary is only short, covering just a couple of weeks – but it nevertheless offers a fascinating eyewitness account, from the Firth of Forth, of the surrender of the High Seas Fleet of the German Navy at the end of World War One.

My grandfather, George Marcus Butcher (known as Mark), was born in Essex in 1898; sadly he died a few years before I was born, so I never knew him. I knew he had spent his youth as an electrical engineer in the merchant navy, a career he then continued with on land for the rest of his working life. But I didn’t know about his brief stint in the Royal Navy. (He left in the spring of 1919.)

Mark’s naval service record reveals that he joined up on 31 May 1918 (the record refers to ‘hostilities’, but these are not specified). He is listed as serving on HMS Vernon – in fact a ‘stone frigate’ or shore establishment, in this case for training the Torpedo Branch, in Portsmouth; and also on HMS Victory II. This, too, was a training establishment – the name was used for what also became known as ‘HMS Crystal Palace’, in the London park, but it too was used to describe training facilities at Portsmouth, so I suspect this is where Mark continued to train.

From 8 October 1918, Mark was then based at HMS Columbine, this time the Torpedo Branch training facility at Port Edgar in the Firth of Forth in Scotland, and more specifically on HMS Whitley, a destroyer. I assume that his diary recounts his experiences on board the Whitley (originally called the Whitby but then renamed because of a typo!). The Whitley had only been launched that April, and was officially commissioned only three days after my grandfather went to Columbine, so it was basically a brand new ship.

Now I’ll let him speak for himself.1 Mark’s descriptions of the German sailors are particularly interesting.

11 November

Armistice signed by the enemy and our ship lying in pens along with about half the 13th Flotilla. Great event of day: signal from C in C [i.e. Commander in Chief], ‘Splice the Main Brace’. Responded to with gusto by the boys. I enjoyed wine and felt as if I could push a hole in ship’s side. Some fun caused by blowing sirens and firing Very’s lights and rockets [Very lights were a type of flare]. Ours the quietest ship in flotilla. I managed to get one blow out of the siren before Engines turned off steam. The ‘White Hat’ also played his part in taking our only two Very’s lights aft before we started. Had to content ourselves with ringing our bell as hard as we could go. One ship had a model Kaiser strung up at the yardarm which was set on fire later.

12 November

All over and carry on as usual. Hands painting ship. Ship company inspected by doctor.

18 November

Under sailing orders but still a bit foggy. However we go out on striking force. See no signs of convoy but carry on patrol till about 3am Tuesday when we drop hook by May Island.

19 & 20 November

Fog continues but get signal to remain under 5 minutes’ notice. We are to escort Hun fleet across.

21 November

Get under way at 3.30am. Join up with flotilla piped action stations at 6.45, belayed and piped again at 7am. Sighted the Hun ships about 7.50. Big ships come first. Our own big ships escort them. We carry on and pick up our place in rear of their destroyers. Arrive off May Island about 3pm. The whole lot being in Largo Bay ready to go, some to Scapa and a few destroyers too up the Firth. (One of our aeroplanes had a smash and fell in the drink…). Party told off to inspect a German destroyer, with instructions not to speak to or take anything from the Hun crew. I am not one of the party and am rather disappointed. Suppose I shall have to make the most of it (picked up by the Seymour).

22 November

Same old fog but clearing off a little. Boarding party mustered, no arms carried. They set off in motorboat with the Skipper, Engineers, […], White Hat, 1 E.R.A. [Engine Room Artificer, a skilled senior member of the lower deck], J. Holloway, Joe Moriarty and A. Grainger, 2 stokers, Bungy Williams and two or three more seamen.

Waiting for their return. They return at last after being away about three hours. The boat they went on was the V46 [a German torpedo boat launched in 1914, and which had taken part in the Battle of Jutland] – from what they say about it, it must be a regular pig sty. The decks all covered with some sort of tar and no bright work showing anywhere except the after wheelhouse. The mess decks so small that you have to walk in sideways and if you are anything above 5’8” you have to stoop. Each man has his own scran [food] locked up in his locker. They seem very badly off for clothes. Some have jumpers and some haven’t – any old sort of thing does for caps and even trousers. Only one man had a pair of leather boots on that could be called boots and that was the captain, who had the Iron Cross on. He also wore one gold ring with crown and eagle above and informed our skipper that he was a Commandant. I suppose he meant Commander. The men had (at least those that had anything on at all) wooden sandals with just a bit of thin leather over the top and a strap to keep them on. Two of them had private sea boots (a bit the worse for wear).

No sign of any ammunition or shells of any description. The sights and range finders were also removed, and the fish tubes empty and with back doors taken off. One of our stokers cracked old ships with one of the crew – they had been in the Merchant Service together. Of course there was not much notice taken about the order forbidding our men to speak to the Huns and some who got in conversation with ’em say that in Germany a suit of clothes cost £25 and a pair of boots £5. The reason why they look so dirty they say is because they cannot get soap or anything in that line and a pound of soap costs as much as 40 shillings in Germany. Our chaps did not get much in the way of curios as our skipper had his long nose stuck into everything and wherever they went he followed. However the total bag between ’em was a couple of cap tallys and as the Germans are only allowed one each I expect somebody found his tally… We got more by staying aboard as some of the wreckage from the V30 that got blown up. Old Bunts got a cat o’ninetail marked ‘Hendrick’ and several others got odds and ends. One got a pair of wooden sandals.

23 November

We are running short of provisions and feed on biscuits and beef with some rice. We are only allowed 7oz of biscuits so shall not be sorry when we get in harbour again and get some supplies.

24 November

Steam up at 7.30am up hook at 8.00 with about 50 flunkeys and mess men from the boats lying near. We are to go into the pens for oil and provisions. Some buzz that we are going somewhere.

25 November

We returned yesterday with the supplies about 6pm and dropped anchor, the other boats sending for their own stores. All ready this morning for anything that comes along. It’s a fine morning and we anticipate having it a bit easy.

Get a steaming signal after a visit by Cap. D. We leave at 11.30 for Scapa escorting the ‘Lion’ and the German battleships.

With thanks to Stephen Dent for additional research and advice.


The text, which is my copyright, has only been lightly edited for spelling and punctuation.

John Johnson's fuse, 1605

Remember, remember…

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He was pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife: a friend, at the same time, of all in the service with him who were men of honour and good life.

Remember, remember the fifth of November… We probably all know the bones of the story of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a group of Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up King James I in Parliament, the first of them to be caught being Guy Fawkes, who we remember in one incendiary way or another to this day.

The date set me wondering whether any of Mr Fawkes’s own words have come down through history. The answer is ‘yes and no’, and reflects one of the many challenges in looking for ‘first-hand’ sources from history. In essence, we have various contemporary reports of the man, some claiming to quote him, although the accuracy is hard to determine. But perhaps at least they give us glimpses of the real man who was caught with those barrels of gunpowder.

Guy Fawkes was born in York in 1570; his family were ostensibly worshippers in the still relatively new Church of England, although his mother’s family were Catholics; and after Guy’s father Edward died, she remarried the more overtly Catholic Denis Bainbridge. In the 1590s, young Guy went to fight for the Catholic side of Spain against the Dutch (part of the Eighty Years’ War).

By 1603, Guy was styling himself as Guido to sound more European, and went to the court of Philip III of Spain to garner support for a Catholic rebellion in England. And here’s where we have our first glimpse of him, through a document now in the state papers of Spain.1 It’s not written by him, but claims to quote his sentiments against James I, who was of course new to the throne of England, having sat previously on that of Scotland:

What the gentleman who came from England confided to me to report by word of mouth to his Majesty [i.e. Philip] is the following.

First he says that the king is a heretic and has demonstrated that he is one as it appears for on his journey through England he granted pardon to many wrongdoers and others then in prison for debt when he ordered them to be freed from their prisons, but not to any Catholic…

A Scottish Catholic peer told a Jesuit in Brussels that he heard on that journey the king tell his Scottish friends that he hoped in a short time to have all of the papist sect driven out of England.

Many have heard him say at table that the pope is Anti-Christ which he wished to prove to anyone who believed the opposite.

He allows himself to be ruled by Sir George Home, his favourite, who has always been one of the greatest heretics in all of Scotland.

Philip wasn’t willing to help, and Fawkes then fell in with the fledgling plot to kill James led by Robert Catesby – the five main plotters first met in a London pub, the Duck and Drake, on 20th May 1604. Fawkes’s role was to become the lighter of the fuse, before fleeing across the Thames and heading for France.

We do have a glowing description2 of Guy from a schoolfriend, Oswald Tesimond, who himself became a Jesuit priest in October 1603:

He was a man of considerable experience as well as knowledge. Thanks to his prowess he had acquired considerable fame and name among the soldiers. He was also something decidedly rare among soldiery, although it was immediately evident to all – a very devout man, of exemplary life and commendable reticence. He went often to the sacraments. He was pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife: a friend, at the same time, of all in the service with him who were men of honour and good life. In a word, he was man liked by everyone and loyal to his friends.

Fawkes, of course, never lit that fuse. Thanks to an anonymous tip-off sent to Lord Monteagle, the cellars were searched on the night of 4th/5th November, and he was caught. He gave his name as John Johnson, perhaps as an epitome of generic Englishness given his relatively exotic real name, and now we find him again in the records, in this case the Calendar of State Papers Domestic for the reign of James I.3 Here are the parts where he is referenced…

Nov. 5 [Tower]

First examination of Guy Faukes, under the assumed name of John Johnson. Particulars of his past life; served Thos. Percy; details of the intended Plot; refuses to reveal the names of the conspirators…

Examination of Gideon Gibbins, porter. He and 2 others carried 3,000 billets to the vaults under the Parliament House, which Johnson (Guy Faukes) piled up.

Nov. 6 [Tower]

Examination of John Johnson (Guy Faukes) as to the storing of powder, &c. in the Parliament cellar,—his connections abroad,—whether Mr. Percy would have allowed the Earl of Northumberland to perish, &c. He refuses to inculpate any person, saying, “youe would have me discover my frendes: the giving warning to one overthrew us all;” signed “John Johnson.”

Nov. 7 [Tower]

Examination of Guy Faukes. The conspiracy began eighteen months before; was confined to five persons at first, then to two; and afterwards five more were added, who all swore secrecy; he refuses, on account of his oath, to accuse any; they intended to place the Princess Elizabeth on the throne, and marry her to an English Catholic. Signed at the foot of each page “Guido Faukes.” [See below.]

… Information, that Faukes lodged two months ago, with Mrs. Herbert, now Mrs. Woodhouse, at the back of St. Clement’s church. Percy, the two Wrights, Winter, Catesby, and others had secret correspondence with him there. She disliked it, suspecting him to be a priest; he was tall, with brown hair and auburn beard, and had plenty of money.

Nov. 8 [Tower]

Sir Wm. Waad [Sir William Wade (1546–1623) was Lieutenant of the Tower of London] to Salisbury. Faukes is in a “most stubborn and perverse humour, as dogged as if he were possessed.” He promised to give a full account of the Plot, but now refuses…

Interrogatories [by Sir Edward Coke, the government’s prosecuting counsel], for the further examination of Guy Faukes, founded upon his deposition of Nov. 7. Indorsed with other queries relating to the Plot;—what foreign aid was expected; what were the designs of the conspirators as to the Princess Mary, whom, as English born, they intended to make Queen…

Deposition of Guy Faukes. Thos. Winter first proposed a conspiracy to him; Catesby, Percy, and John Wright were next taken into the scheme, then Chris. Wright, afterwards Sir Everard Digby, Amb. Rokewood, Francis Tresham, John Grant, Rob. Keyes, and many others. Details of the Plot, the same as in the examinations…

Names of the first five conspirators, and of seven more afterwards admitted; taken from the above examination of Faukes, by Levinus Munck. [An MP and Salisbury’s secretary.]

Nov. 9 [Tower]

Sir Wm. Waad to Salisbury [Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and main discoverer of the plot]. Has persuaded Faukes to disclose “all the secrets of his heart” to his Lordship only, “but not to be set down in writing.” Undertakes to procure his acknowledgment and signature to his confession, by degrees. Advises Salisbury to speak with him alone.

Declaration of Guy Faukes [made to Salisbury]. Further details of the Plot. It was communicated to Hugh Owen, the Jesuit, in Flanders. The conspirators met at the back of St. Clement’s Inn… (On the 10th, this declaration was acknowledged before the Lords Commissioners, and is signed in a tremulous hand “Guido.” The signature is supposed to have been extorted by the rack, and the prisoner to have fainted before completing it.)

That “tremulous hand” is heartbreaking testament to Fawkes’s torture on the rack. King James himself (who was allegedly impressed by Fawkes’s “Roman resolution”) had issued this instruction: “The gentler tortours are to be first usid unto him, et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur, and so God speede youre goode worke.” (The Latin means “and so by degrees proceeding to the deepest”.) A note in the State Papers from December adds:

Faukes confessed nothing the first racking, but did so when told “he must come to it againe and againe, from daye to daye, till he should have delivered his whole knowledge.”

Guy Fawkes was executed on 31st January 1606, and if you want the gory details, by all means look them up for yourself.

The state records do give more extensive details of his declarations and confessions, and other 17th century documents – such as ‘A True Copy of the Declaration of Guido Fawkes’ in the King’s Book, which allegedly gives James’s own speech about the plot – elaborate on their text.4 One of the documents signed by Fawkes can be seen at The National Archives website, along with the transcription. I’m sure the substance of it is what Guy revealed about the stages and personnel of the conspiracy – but should we regard a third-person account extracted under torture as his own words? I’d rather not.


It was tracked down by Albert J. Loomie and published in 1971 as an appendix to his Guy Fawkes in Spain.


This was originally written in Italian, in Tesimond’s own account of the Gunpowder Plot.


Available online here.


A 1679 version is reprinted here (from a 1904 transcription).

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