The Hurlyburly of Daily Life
Exemplified in One Year of the Eighteenth Century

by Jack Lindsay

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Muller, London; 1959; 343 pages

February 2002

At Strathbogie in North Scotland 1200 weight of bad half-pence were seized. They had been sent by sea London, as a bill inside the boxes showed, and were thought to belong to a gang who frequented fairs and markets around, "putting off this bad money, to the great hardship of the poor people, who are necessitated to take it in change, or go home without selling their goods."

Close history is more than small coin

Jack Lindsay's 1764 is close history that you might read in headlines or the neighborhood news, hear as gossip about government officials, or as rumor of the famous wits and infamous criminals. The human motivations are quite like today's. Details from 1764 in Britain are close enough to be readily recognizable, yet far enough into that undiscovered country that we often have a frisson of surprise.

We easily feel a superior mirth at quaint early-modern touches, as in the one above from 2 May 1764. Imagine counterfeiting not gold sovereigns but half-pennies, twelve-hundred pounds by weight of them! What a lot of trouble for such small coin. — But we may sympathize with a time when a half-penny was, if no great sum, at least a piece of cash that most people could not afford to despise. And this may lead us to reflect on the economic forces — natural or mal-managed? — that have led to the extinction of British farthings and half-pence and old pennies and even gold sovereigns, American two-cent pieces and silver half-dimes and gold eagles, large coin after small, in the course of centuries of inflation.

The currency continues to cheapen. Are we wiser?

Culture in rich detail

Jack Lindsay is a thoughtful polymath, not a chronicler. His 1764 is an evocative diary of things public and private in that year, but also a slice of cultural history.

By taking in detail the events of a single year, 1764, this book attempts to show at close range the forces of deep change at work in the 18th century: the forces that turned Britain into the first great industrial nation and thus underlie the whole of modern society.

Lindsay suggests that "In the 1760's we meet the decisive turning-point of the century." In his Introduction he sets out some of the historical developments coming to a crux, such as enclosures of the commons and the shift away from landed control of resources to mercantile control. "A century of violent clashes, which had slowly torn England, first of the world, away from what we may conveniently call the feudal system in its final form of absolute monarchy..." The American Revolution is scarcely on the horizon, but as Lindsay says, "the stubborn resistances to the new way of life" would in a few years provoke it.

Robbers & wrecks & a tree-uprooting machine

1764 is a fascinating journey through Britain. Lindsay follows every month's chapter with several pages of comments largely in his own voice, and additionally has side look-ins at themes from Children to Science to John Wesley's Social Ideas. The book is illustrated with a couple of dozen engravings; I particularly like the architectural Fleet Ditch mid-century and the stage and sellers and visitors at Bartholomew Fair.

Lindsay provides a year's cornucopia of nifty vignettes and tidbits, great fun to read. A few of the many brief ones that caught my eye:

The driver of a brick-cart, found guilty of a load exceeding 750 bricks, forfeited one of his horses to the informer.

A tree-uprooting machine was tried out at Tottenham; but even with the assistance of ten men it failed to bend an elm without damaging itself.

Mary White, alias Scamp, the tinker's wife, was gaoled at Worcester for defrauding a woman of money and goods under pretence of discovering hidden treasure.

The Bath stage was robbed by a highwayman between Knightsbridge and Hyde-Park-corner; the man made off towards Kensington.

The master of the Peggy mistook the light of a lime-kiln for Tynemouth Light, ran in for the harbour, and was driven on to the rocks.

Some themes and people are followed more or less throughout the year. In the background is the ongoing political struggle of John Wilkes against arbitrary action by the government. Horace Walpole, King George III, William Pitt, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith and other representative types turn up recurrently. Odd or commonplace accidents, murders and thefts and executions and highway robbery commanded frequent contemporary attention.

John Wesley's preaching

John Wesley's diary is mined for numerous instances of his Methodist preaching to gatherings across the realm. On 21 March 1764,

Wesley rode for two and a half hours from Evesham, and stopped at a small village. The woman of the house was badly bruised and beaten. He said nothing to her husband, but "spoke strongly to her concerning the hand of God, and his design in all afflictions. It seemed to be a word in season. She appeared to be not only thankful, but deeply affected".

He went on to Birmingham, with a large gathering in what had been a playhouse. "Happy would it be, if all the playhouses in the kingdom were converted to so good a use." Afterward, the mob collected and threw mud and stones at the worshippers going out. "But it is probable they will soon be calmed, as some of them are in gaol already."

And on 31 March,

Wesley preached at Rotherham. "It was well only serious people were present," for an ass walked gravely in at the gate and stood still at the door with lifted head in a posture of deep attention. "Might not the dumb beast reprove many who have far less decency, and not much more understanding?"

Theatre, riots, & other entertainments

Despite Wesley and an array of spiritual and political reformers, people gave a lot of attention to amusements, from cock-fighting to theater. John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728) was performed at Covent-garden in March 1764. The Earl of Sandwich had a nickname from the play, and poet Thomas Gray used this tie-in for political satire. The perennial Beggar's Opera was performed again at Drury-lane in September. Often the London spectators were active themselves:

The audiences were growing less rowdy, though in January last year the Half-Price riots went beyond all previous records. Bottles might still be thrown on the stage and catcalls were common, while claques of clappermen and hired puffers were much used. Only last year Garrick had bravely excluded the lounging gallants from the stage itself.

The Theatre Royal at Bristol, designed and built wholly by Bristol men, was well under way despite furious opposition from the Quakers and Methodists who in a city of slave-traders declared that a theatre would totally demoralise what had previously been "industrious and virtuous".

Selling a wife for an ox

While out in the countryside, on 22 November 1764,

At Ipswich a man, chatting with a grazier at Parham fair, offered him his wife for an ox from his drove; both the grazier and the wife accepted the proposition. So they met next day and the wife was handed over with a halter round her neck; the husband got his ox and sold it for six guineas.

"It is said the wife has since returned to her husband, and that they have been married near ten years."

Lindsay says "The belief that a man could sell his wife thus haltered went on well into the 19th century, and many examples are recorded." (Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge begins with one.) — I misdoubt that the grazier's ox was likewise returned; and I wonder if some couples even repeated this lucrative trade from time to time in well-separated country fairs.

Reform academic publishing?

Of course virtue, or the semblance of it, may be sold in subtler ways. Those who follow even casually the ups and downs of the publishing trade shan't be surprised by the following. Many literate readers have marveled that academic jargon triumphs over plain, clear writing. Or wondered why so many books, even scholarly ones, or works obviously the beloved labor of years, seem to have been cloistered away from any sight of a proofreader. Ups and downs? Sometimes it seems more like tempests on the bookshelves, or even spirals of sense and senselessness to shame a child's broken spinning-top.

Despite all, care for quality may attempt to regain the ascendant. Thus, on 28 November 1764:

Eyre of London opposed Basket in the renewal of the lease of the University Press at Oxford. Basket lived on "a Genteel Private Fortune", and neither understood nor gave any attention to the business of printing: Eyre stated in his memorial. Thus the press has fallen into complete confusion; everything was left to Basket's servants, who boozed and printed off nothing but prayer-books for foreign sale. They were "a set of Idle Drunken Men, and the House appeared more like an Ale House than a Printing Room". All pretence of scholarship had been given up.


© 2002 Robert Wilfred Franson


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