The Unsolved Mystery of Elizabeth Canning

Today in Guildhall Library our Principal Librarian, Dr Peter Ross, gave the first in a series of lunch time talks we’re holding as part of English Tourism Week. This talk featured the unusual story of Elizabeth Canning, discussed in further depth below. If this piques your interest, we have another five talks over the next week, with topics covering the plague, Jack Sheppard, Shakespeare, Victorian ‘lad’s mags’ and Agnes Marshall’s ice creams. Further details are listed at the end of this post.

Amongst Guildhall Library’s more unusual holdings are some rare pamphlets in the remarkable collection of material relating to a genuine mid-eighteenth century crime mystery – the disappearance of Elizabeth Canning.


On 1 January 1753 Elizabeth Canning, a poorly educated maidservant, disappeared on her way home from visiting relatives and reappeared on 29 January 1753 at her mother’s house near St Mary Aldermanbury. According to her story, she had been abducted by two men in Moorfields, who dragged her to a house on the Hertford Road. There, an old woman solicited her to become a prostitute. When she refused, Canning was held prisoner for nearly a month, until she escaped through a window.

On 1 February a posse took Canning to Enfield, where, at the house of Mary Wells, Canning repeated her story, with notable inconsistencies. She picked a local Romany woman, a Miss Mary Squires as the one who had imprisoned her. Wells and Squires were arrested. The trial took place on 21 February 1753 at the Old Bailey.


Mary Squires said that she had been travelling in Dorset during Canning’s supposed imprisonment, and three witnesses supported her alibi. More witnesses had come to give evidence on her behalf, but the mob, incensed against the “Gypsy”, prevented them entering the courtroom. They were both found guilty and Wells was sentenced to branding on the thumb and six months in prison, whilst Squires was to be hanged.

Chief magistrate and Lord Mayor of London, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, however, was dissatisfied with the verdict. He opened his own enquiry, which resulted in several more witnesses supporting Squire’s alibi. Gascoyne appealed to the King who granted first a stay in execution and then a pardon in May of 1753. Canning was then indicted for perjury on 9 June 1753.


The resulting press frenzy was extraordinary. The two camps were called the Canningites and Egyptians (for “Gypsy”). Henry Fielding wrote the pro-Canning A Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning (Guildhall Library A 8.6 no. 5 in 10) and two of his enemies wrote replies. Allan Ramsay wrote A Letter to the Right Honourable the Earl of — Concerning the Affair of Elizabeth Canning (Guildhall Library Pam. 3226)  Gascoyne wrote An Address to the Liverymen of the City of London, from Sir Crisp Gascoyne (Guildhall Library Large pam. 580)  Gascoyne was physically attacked in his coach, and he received death threats.

Canning’s trial began at the Old Bailey on 29 April 1754 and there followed seven full days of evidence. She was eventually found guilty of corrupt and wilful perjury and sentenced to one month of imprisonment and seven years of transportation.


Canning was transported to Wethersfield, Connecticut where she eventually married John Treat, a great-nephew of a Governor of Connecticut and had five children. She died 1773 at the age of 38. During her later years in America, she never explained what had happened to her during her missing month.

John Trehern’s The Canning Enigma provides an exciting modern description of the real events, whilst Josephine Tey’s novel The Franchise Affair updates the story to a home counties town in the 1940s. Tey’s novel regularly appears in listings of the top 100 crime novels and was made into a film in 1951. 

Peter Ross, Principal Librarian


English Tourism Week talks at Guildhall Library
As part of English Tourism Week, Guildhall Library is holding a series of talks that take you beneath the surface of its collection and provide an insight into London through the ages. With a free mini-cupcake and the chance to win a great prize, what more could you ask for?
Each talk is free, requires no booking, and runs from 1-1.30pm

Monday 31st March 2014, The Bills of Mortality – Tissick, Tympany and Plague in 1665 
Each week in the 17th century, the Parish Clerks recorded the number of burials in the City and the causes of death. In doing so they have left us a remarkable and unrivalled record of disease.

Tuesday 1st April 2014, The Prison-Breaker triumphant – Newgate Prison 1724
Discover how, with his extraordinary escape from Newgate Prison on the night of 15 October 1724, Jack Sheppard, a 22-year-old burglar, became the most famous prison-breaker of all.

Wednesday 2nd April 2014, Shakespeare’s First Folio
The world would have lost 18 of Shakespeare’s plays had his friends not published the first collected edition in 1623. Discover the history of this remarkable book and find out why Guildhall Library’s copy is amongst the finest to survive.

Thursday 3rd April 2014, Buying under-the-counter ‘lads mags’ in Victorian London 
Our early Victorian ancestors may not have been as prim and proper as we imagine. Discover the contents of the soft-porn ‘lads mags’ they could buy in London’s Holywell and Wych streets.

Friday 4th April, 2014 Mrs Marshall: the queen of Victorian ice-cream 
Entrepreneur Agnes Marshall built up a highly successful kitchen equipment and cookery school business in late Victorian London. She specialised in creating extravagant ice-cream recipes and ice-cream machines that, today, influence the extraordinary creations of Heston Blumenthal.

18th and 19th century fight club: the beginnings of British boxing

Every so often, during the course of my work, I come across books that enthuse me with the passion of the age in which they were written, and it was with fascination that I embarked on research into the beginnings of British pugilism. Eighteenth century Britain was rocked by political instability and was a society of extremes of poverty and wealth; amusements ranged from gin drinking, animal baiting, gang warfare, general rioting, and the pillory to public executions. Boxing displays first came into public fashion in Britain around 1720.

Notable early boxers:

James Fig 1719-1734 was acknowledged as “Father of the Ring” as much distinguished as a cudgel and back-sword player than as a pugilist. Gentlemen sought him out to exercise with him. Captain Godfrey author of A Treatise on the Useful Science of Defence (1747) says of him ‘I have purchased my knowledge with many a broken head, and bruises in every part of me. I chose mostly to go to Fig and exercise with him: partly as I knew him to be the ablest master, and partly, as he was of a rugged temper, and would spare no man, high or low, who took up a stick against him.’ Fig’s popularity induced him to open a boxing academy in 1719 known as “Fig’s Amphitheatre,” in Tottenham Court Road.


Jack Broughton champion 1734-1750 is regarded as the founder of the modern art of self-defence. Henry Downes Miles in his work Pugilistica: being one hundred and forty-four years of the history of British boxing (1880), describes him:
“There was a neatness and quickness in his style which far distanced his competitors, and drew crowds to witness his exhibitions. He appears first to have introduced stopping and barring blows, then hitting and getting away; before him it appears to have been toe-to-toe work or downright hammering; at any rate, his method appears to have had the novelty of a discovery with his spectators and his antagonists. He stopped the blows aimed at any part of him with such skill, and hit his man away with so much ease, that he astonished and daunted his opponents…”

Daniel Mendoza One of the most elegant and scientific boxers recorded in the annals of pugilism, was born in 1763 of Jewish parents in the Whitechapel area. A reporter (Pugilistica 1880) describes a fight between Mendoza and Humphries in Stilton in 1789: “The first blow was struck by Humphries at the face of his antagonist, which Mendoza stopping with great adroitness, returned and knocked Humphries down. The second and third rounds terminated in precisely the same manner.

Astonishment at the confidence and quickness of Mendoza was expressed by every spectator…” Mendoza became a professor in the art of self-defence and he was highly successful as a pugilist professor exhibiting his talents to admiring and applauding audiences all over the country. Miles (Pugilistica 1880) said of him: “No man of his time united the theory of sparring with the practice of boxing so successfully as Daniel Mendoza; and hence, the “School of Mendoza” marks a period in the history of pugilism.”


Bill Richmond 1804-1818 was born of enslaved Georgia-born black parents in 1763 on Staten Island, New York. One of the British officers in New York City took him under his wing and sent him to school in Yorkshire, later apprenticing him to a cabinet maker in York. In York Richmond attracted attention out in the street because he prided himself on dressing smartly and cleanly after work, but he beat all the men who challenged him to fight including a York brothel-keeper, who had called him a ‘black devil’ when he saw him walking down the street with a white female companion.


Richmond turned professional boxer when he moved to London around 1804 and went on to a series of victories in 1805: notably over the Jewish boxer Youssop in six rounds at Blackheath on 21 May; and Jack Holmes, ‘the Coachman’, in twenty-six rounds at Cricklewood Green, near Kilburn Wells, on 8 July. However, Richmond was defeated by the future heavyweight champion Tom Cribb in a ninety-minute fight at Hailsham, Sussex.

The Science of Boxing

box4Among the diehard fans the art of boxing was regarded as a science. T. Hughes has plenty of advice for the aspiring pugilist. In his work The art and practice of self-defence; or, Scientific mode of boxing: Got up under the superintendence of a celebrated pugilist 1820, he warns against dropping, gougeing and shifting:

Dropping. ‘This is reckoned an unmanly shift…either done by falling on your breech, your knee, or your back, when your adversary strikes, or when you have struck at him, and wish to avoid the return. Every thing in boxing may be said to be allowable, except striking below the waistband of the breeches, scratching, gougeing, biting or tearing the hair, which are mean and unmanly practices; but one who drops cannot be considered a manly boxer, except it be to avoid his adversary’s closing in upon him, when he has reason to suspect such an intention, and distrusts his own strength.’

Gougeing ‘Is unmanly and barbarous, and introduced into the new school by a farrier, to take ungenerous advantage. This gougeing, is screwing your knuckles into the eyes of your adversary, and when practised at all, is generally done in closing, if you get his head under your arm…Gougeing, however, was more than once practiced both by Mendoza and Humphries, on each other, at the time of their contest at Stilton.’

Shifting ‘This mode is not accounted honourable by many, as the signification of the word is synonimous with running away. Shifting is nothing less in fact than running from your adversary whenever he attempts to hit you, or come near you, or when you have struck him, and is done with a view of tiring him out. It is rarely practised by good boxers…’

box5Recommendation before the fight:
‘On the morning of fighting, eat only one slice of bread, well toasted, without butter, or a hard biscuit, with a pint of red wine mulled, and table-spoonful of brandy…’

box6Defence of Pugilism Boxing, of course, had its opponents, but it was well equipped to defend itself from attacks, even with the pen. One of the most erudite pugilists of his day, Tom Reynolds born 1792 in the county of Armagh came to London early in life. He had received a good education, possessed a strong mind, and could write as good a letter as any of the “scribes” of the time:

“I must acknowledge the gentlemen of the Press are favourable to the cause of pugilism; and it is not surprising when we consider that the persons conducting it are men, in general, possessing a liberal education, and blessed with a greater share of brains than the average of the community. Yet there is no rule without an exception; for two or three of the London journalists, imitated by a few country flats, occasionally give us a ‘facer;’ though I am confident it is not from conviction, but because they think a little opposition to generally received opinions may suit their pockets better than the tide, where the brightness of their genius would not make them conspicuous. One of these worthies speaks of us as monsters that brutalise the country; another describes our poor little twenty-four foot ring as the only place in the three kingdoms where rogues and blacklegs spring up like mushrooms; a third says a pair of boxing-gloves debase the mind, and recommends the use of the foils as a preferable exercise; and a fourth, after a most violent philippic against the Ring, blames Government for not immediately putting an end to pugilism, and recommends, as a substitute, that Government should take into their wise consideration the propriety of giving greater encouragement to dancing assemblies. This idea is ridiculous. Certainly, if the editor does fill up his leisure hours as a hop-merchant, I do not blame him for putting in a good word for the shop, but what the devil has dancing to do with fighting? Can two men decide a mill by ‘tripping on the light fantastic toe’? The French dance every night in the week, and all day on Sunday, and what are they better for that? Are they better men? Can they boast nobler feelings than Britons? They certainly make graceful bows, and there is no doubt dancing has an effect on the heels, for Wellington has often scratched his head, and given them a left-handed blessing, for their quickness in giving leg-bail… The dancing Frenchman would shudder with horror at the sight of two London porters giving each other a black eye or a bloody nose and say ‘twas a brutal practice’; yet the same fellow, in his own country, would take snuff, grin like a monkey, and cry ‘bravo!’ at seeing two poor devils boring holes in each other’s hide with a yard of steel. So much for the consistency of the ‘Grande Nation,’ and the sense of the men who recommend dancing as a substitute for pugilism.”

Isabelle Chevallot
Assistant Librarian, Guildhall Library

Twelfth Night Cake

Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruikshank

You may know that Christmas pudding and Christmas cake are part of a tradition that dates back to at least the early Victorian period, think of Dickens’s references to plum pudding in A Christmas Carol, but you may not have realised that both pudding and cake have a far more ancient ancestor – the Twelfth Night Cake. Twelfth Night is the evening of the 5th of January, the day before Epiphany, the feast celebrating the arrival of the Magi. Traditionally, it is the day on which Christmas decorations are taken down and the day to wassail your apple trees (drink a toast of cider to the trees, and pour cider over their roots).

In Britain, the Twelfth Night Cake was a large rich cake, often with a domed top, iced and decorated with ribbons, paper, tinsel and even sugar figures. A dried bean and a dried pea would be hidden in the cake and the man who found the bean would be the King; the woman who found the pea, Queen. If a woman found the bean, she got to choose the King. If a man found the pea, he got to choose the Queen. Servants were included in the division of the cake and if they got to be Kings or Queens even their masters had to obey. Just as Christmas inherited the traditions of Twelfth Night, Twelfth Night, in turn, had acquired all the role-reversals of the Roman Saturnalia (which was roughly the 17th of December.) The Romans had a tradition of placing a bean inside a cake at Saturnalia, and whoever found it became the master of ceremonies.

In one of his first diary entries Samuel Pepys recorded recorded a party in London on Epiphany night, 6 January 1659/1660: “…to my cousin Stradwick, where, after a good supper, there being there my father, mothers, brothers, and sister, my cousin Scott and his wife, Mr. Drawwater and his wife, and her brother, Mr. Stradwick, we had a brave cake brought us, and in the choosing, Pall was Queen and Mr. Stradwick was King. After that my wife and I bid adieu and came home, it being still a great frost.” (The Diary of Samuel Pepys: a new and complete transcription / edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews. Vol.1, 1660).tn2In the Victorian era the custom was to buy a set of printed Twelfth Night Characters to accompany your cake. These were small humorous illustrations with a few lines of verse beneath printed on cards or on a sheet ready to be cut out. They were sold in small packets and, according to Hone’s Every-Day Book, “Twelfth-night characters sold by the pastry cooks, are either commonplace or gross—when genteel they are inane. When humorous, they are vulgar”. The Illustrations shown here are from a set of Twelfth Night Characters published in The Illustrated London News on 1st January 1848.

Hone explains how the characters were used; each of the characters was folded and put into a hat or ‘reticule’ and passed around the party guests. The guests would draw a character, read out the verse and then have to stay in character until midnight.  The verses were meant to be amusing, but prints from the period show some guests taking offence, as if the host had intended some slight on the genuine characters of his guests. (William Hone, The Every-Day Book, 1830 pp. 49-62).

Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruikshank published by Thomas Tegg in 1807

The following recipe for an enormous Twelfth Night Cake comes from Guildhall Library’s copy of John Mollard’s The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined (4th edition 1808).  Mollard was proprietor of the London Tavern in Bishopsgate Street.  In an age before chemical raising agents, cakes relied on yeast or beaten eggs to give them a lift, which doubtless also gave these cakes their classic domed top.

Twelfth Night Cake

Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the centre, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yeast and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron. When the sponge is risen, mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain.

The tradition of the Twelfth Night cake appears to have virtually died out towards the end of the 19th century. Its decorative role shifted to the Christmas cake, whilst the hidden bean or pea transformed into the silver sixpence in the Christmas pudding.  However, in other countries, various cakes are still produced to celebrate Epiphany, King Cake in the southern states of the US, Roscón de Reyes in Spain and some, like the Galette des Rois in France, still contain a ‘fève’ or bean and come with a paper crown for the elected King or Queen.

Peter Ross, Principal Librarian

Early travel books: Gresham Collection

Guildhall Library holds a wonderful collection of travel books which are part of the Gresham College Library Collection. In the nineteenth century Mrs. Laetitia Hollier presented her late husband’s library, which included rare and valuable works on architecture, astronomy and mathematics as well as bibles and many books of travel to Gresham College. This collection was retained at Gresham College until 1958 when it was deposited here at Guildhall Library.

These travel books primarily date from the first half of the nineteenth century, but also include some works from the late eighteenth century and contain fascinating first-hand accounts of expeditions both overland and by sea. The authors were intrepid travellers and were often emissaries, army, navy and medical personnel or employed by wealthy patrons and on behalf of foreign potentates. 

Often featuring sociological and anthropological surveys of the countries and their people, the volumes may also include ecological and natural history reports, maps, select dictionaries and vocabularies of the indigenous population and even sheet music with accompanying local songs. 

Some ambitious works covered the world, but most concentrated on a specific country or region and were often written as a diary, journal, reports or letters. Considering the dangers and difficulties of charting what was often unknown territory, these works represent amazing feats of courage, determination, skill and survival.  Some follow the trading routes, especially to Turkey and through Central Asia to the Far East. Others include travels through Russia, Lapland, Greenland and expeditions to the North Pole. 

Prints from two books in this collection are shown below with extracts from the volumes.

“Towards the evening we entered the mountain and the Andes, by a glen of a steep ascent, up which we rode, and which carried us deep into it, that we lost all view of any ground except what was close around us, like small funnels; and we continued to wind, during an hour and a half, out of one steep funnel into another, until one of them became a little larger than the rest, and in it we found Villavicencia, where we halted for the night. This town serves to illustrate what has been observed, of the liberality with which the name is bestowed in South America: it consists of two huts in which we did not find any inhabitants, and a corral…

            Our resting place was in the open air, where a fire was lighted up and supper cooked to which an uninterrupted ride of thirteen hours had insured a welcome reception… Owing to a peculiar introduction and accident of light, the rising sun was here most magnificently beautiful, although the prospect did not extend beyond the sides of the funnel and the sky above it. The effect was rather that of a night scene, and of some forest on fire before us, than of the break of day and a rising sun. The Plate is from a sketch made of Villavicencia after we had left it. The travellers are getting up at the dawn of the day, and the peons lighting the fire for taking matés. A man is going to saddle the mule left in the corral all night, and to fetch the others from their pasture ground.”

Image and extract from:
Travels into Chile, over the Andes, in the years 1820 and 1821: with some sketches of the productions and agriculture; mines and metallurgy; inhabitants, history, and other features, of America; particularly of Chile, and Arauco by Peter Schmidtmeyer (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, 1824), pp. 204-205.
Guildhall Library Reference: Gresham 70

Castle of Morzouk

“Morzouk is a walled town, containing about 2500 inhabitants… The houses are generally built in little narrow streets; but there are many open spaces, entirely void of buildings, and covered with sand, on which the camels of the traders remain. Many palms grow in the town, and some houses have small square enclosures, in which are cultivated a few red peppers and onions. The street of entrance is a broad space of at least a hundred yards, leading to the wall that surrounds the castle, and is extremely pretty: here the horsemen have full scope to display their abilities when they skirmish before the Sultan. The castle itself is an immense mud building, rising to the height of eighty or ninety feet, with little battlements on the walls (a fancy of the present Sultan’s): and at a distance really looks warlike.”

Image and extract from:
A narrative of travels in Northern Africa, in the years 1818, 19, and 20: accompanied by geographical notices of Soudan and of the course of the Niger by Captain G. F. Lyon (John Murray, 1821), pp. 97-98.
Guildhall Library Reference: Gresham 304

A list of travel books in this collection can be viewed on our catalogue:

All the books in the Gresham College Library Collection can be consulted at Guildhall Library – as these are classed as rare items you will need to sign in and show one form of identification.

Rosie Eddisford
Assistant Librarian

Shoreditch, 1937

As part of our weekly Twitter feature on Guildhall Library’s Collections – which utilises the hash tag #GLCol – we recently ran a week-long series of tweets based on the 1937 Official Guide to the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch. This Guide was issued back in the day ‘under the Auspices of Shoreditch Borough Council’ – now part of the London Borough of Hackney – and offers many interesting insights into life in 1930’s Shoreditch.

This sixth edition of the Guide includes data on Shoreditch (population: 97,042), its buildings, thoroughfares and places of note. The preface describes Shoreditch as a ‘combination of historical old parishes and a progressive modern borough’, and its connections with early theatre and Shakespeare are also discussed. A number of lovely old street photographs are peppered throughout the Guide, such as the one depicting High Street below – apparently this street was widened ‘about half a century ago’ at the rather staggering cost of £121,816.


The vast majority of the Guide is actually composed of advertisements for local businesses, with furniture trades and their suppliers predominating. This is hardly surprising given the area’s reputation as a hub of furniture production. There is also a separate section detailing ‘The Furniture Trade of Shoreditch’. Lacquer artists make an appearance too, in what is one my favourite adverts in the Guide:


It was the borough’s role in furniture production that is still represented today in Hoxton’s Geffrye Museum, which itself gets a significant mention in the Guide. The institution has a fascinating background as the site of almshouses erected in 1715. The Museum opened in 1914, and is described as containing exhibits of ‘all such things as went into the making of the homes of Bygone Londoners’.

Recent acquisitions included a Queen Anne oak staircase from Lower Clapton Road, presented by Hackney Borough Council, and an entire room from the recently demolished Pewterers’ Hall. The Guide also notes that the museum had a lecture hall in the ‘South Wing’, which seated 200 and was used on Thursday nights for adults, and three mornings and three afternoons per week for local school children.


Shoreditch Borough Council was understandably very proud of its early adoption and promotion of electricity – its motto, shown on the cover of the Guide, emphatically stated ‘More Light, More Power’. The third section of the guide is dedicated to ‘Electricity supply’. Today, the electricity sub-station it refers to on Coronet Street has been restored and is a thriving circus school, Circus Space. The Electricity Offices and Showrooms, where people once came to be dazzled by the latest innovations in consumer electrics, are now a bar and restaurant, called the Electricity Showrooms.
019These new uses for old buildings also reflect the changing face of modern Shoreditch, which is perhaps now best known for its shopping, restaurants, street art and nightlife. Even back in 1937 it was already being described as ‘a comprehensive shopping centre’. But there have been some significant changes – Thursdays were ‘Early Closing’ day, with Shoreditch shops and traders shutting up shop at 1pm!

026Some things stay the same however…You can just make out Syd’s Coffee Stall in bottom right-hand corner of the photograph of St Leonard’s Church (of ‘the bells of St Leonard’s’ fame, shown above). Syd’s has been on that site since 1919 – for so long in fact that the road’s yellow lines have even been painted around it! Drop by today and the original owner’s descendants can show you a board displaying memorabilia and old photographs…

You can also drop by Guildhall Library and view the Official Guide for yourself. We hold the 1926, 1929, 1932 and 1962 editions as well.

Anne-Marie Nankivell
Library Assistant

Oh, The Grand Old Duke of York…

Duke of York

Having come across it quite by chance, I could not resist sharing this entertaining anecdote:

‘Several of the Princes, sons to George III, became members of Brookes’s soon after coming of age. The two eldest were of course great favourites with every body; but this partiality was not so much the consequence of their high rank as of their great good-nature and affability, their convivial habits, and their uniformly genteel deportment…In short, two finer-looking young men than the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York were not to be seen in a day’s march…

It being customary for the young bucks of those days to sit late, or rather early, over the bottle, it was very common, whilst “serpenting home to bed,” to meet with odd adventures; and no less so, to seek them…

The Duke of York, Colonel St. Leger, Tom Stepney, and two others, one morning, about three o’clock, came reeling along Pall-Mall highly-charged with the juice of the grape, and ripe for a row. Meeting with nothing worthy of their attention, they entered St James’s street, and soon arrived at Brookes’s, where they kicked and knocked most loudly for admission, but in vain; for, nine-tenths of the members were then out of town, and of course the family and servants had for hours been wrapped in the mantle of Somnus. Our heroes, however, were resolved on effecting an entrance, and would soon have made one for themselves, if some of the inmates, roused by the dreadful noise, and apprehension of fire, had not run down-stairs and opened the outer door.

001Whilst all possible haste was exerted to effect this on the inside, it was proposed by one of the gentry outside, to rush in pell-mell, and knock down the waiters and every thing else that should impede their progress. No sooner said than done: when they arrived in the inner hall, they commenced the destructions of chairs, tables, and chandeliers, and kicked up such a horrible din as might awake the dead.

Every male and female servant in the establishment now came running towards the hall from all quarters, in a state of demi-nudity, anxious to assist in protecting the house, or to escape from the supposed house-breakers. During this melee there was no light; and the uproar made by the maid-servants, who, in the confusion, rushed into the arms of our heroes, and expected nothing short of immediate violence and murder, was tremendous.

At length, one of the waiters ran for a loaded blunderbuss, which having cocked, and rested on an angle of the bannisters, he would have discharged among the intruders. From doing this, however, he was most providentially deterred by the housekeeper, who with no other covering than her chemise and flannel-petticoat, was fast approaching with a light, which no sooner flashed upon the faces of these midnight disturbers, than she exclaimed,

“For Heaven’s sake, Tom, don’t fire! It is only the Duke of York!”… ‘

Excerpt from Charles Marsh’s The Clubs of London; with anecdotes of their members, sketches of character and conversation, Volume One, 1828, p.87.

Image of Prince Frederick,  Duke of York at George IV’s coronation, 1821, from George the Fourth in the abbey of St. Peter, West-minster: including the names of the archbishops, bishops, peers, knights, and principal officers who assisted in that ceremony, John Whittaker and Sir George Nayler, 1823.

Isabelle Chevallot
Assistant Librarian

Guildhall Library’s catalogue – containing this and other gems – is available online:


Peculiar personages from history

James Caulfield’s entertaining work: Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons, from the revolution in 1688 to the end of the reign of George II: Collected from the most authentic accounts extant, 1819, does not disappoint. It is filled with a number of curious characters including: Blind Granny, an old blind soak with the party trick of licking her blind eye with her tongue, Blind Jack, who earned a living entertaining Londoners playing the flageolet through his nostril, and Mary Toft, a woman who claimed she had given birth to rabbits.

Blind granny2

Described by Caulfield as a ‘miserable, wretched drunken object, who blind of one eye, used to annoy the passengers in the streets of London, while sober, with licking her blind eye with her tongue, which was of a most enormous length and thickness; indeed, it was of a such a prodigious size, that her mouth could not contain it, and she could never close her lips, or to use a common expression, keep her tongue within her teeth.’

“He [Blind Jack] conceived a notion that, by performing on the instrument in a different way to that generally practiced, he should render himself more noticed by the public, and be able to lay larger contributions on their pockets.

Blind Jack1

The manner of Blind Jack’s playing the flageolet was by way of obtruding the mouthpiece of the instrument up one of his nostrils, and, by long custom, he could produce as much wind as most others with lips into the pipe; but the continued contortion and gesticulation of his muscles and countenance, rendered him an object of derision and disgust, as much as that of charity and commiseration.”

Mary Toft

Mary Tofts pretended rabbit breeder2

England was bewildered in 1726 by Mary Toft’s claims to have given birth to rabbits. Her doctor, Mr Howard, a well-regarded man who had practised medicine for over thirty years, backed up her claims, saying that he had personally helped her deliver at least eighteen rabbits. When King George I heard of this he was so intrigued that he sent his anatomist Mr St. Andre to investigate, and he returned convinced that Mary Toft had indeed given birth to rabbits, and recommended that she be awarded a royal pension.

Sir Richard Manningham, Fellow of the Royal Society and of London’s College of Physicians was sent to investigate. Manningham soon got to the bottom of the matter and got a porter to confess to supplying Mary Toft’s sister-in-law with a rabbit. Still Mary Toft refused to confess to the fraud and it was only when Manningham threatened to perform painful surgery on her to investigate whether her body was different from other women that she admitted to the deception. Mary admitted that she had manually inserted dead rabbits into her vagina after a miscarriage, subsequently allowing them to be removed as if she had given birth to them. Manningham published his account An Exact Diary of what was observ’d during a Close Attendance upon Mary Toft, the pretended Rabbit-Breeder of Godalming in 1726.

full spread mary Toft

Cunicularii or the wise men of Godliman in consultation by William Hogarth, 1726, in ‘Mary Toft Rabbet Breeder, 1725-7’: Bay H 4.1 85

By Isabelle Chevallot, Assistant Librarian assisted by Lauren Davis, on work experience with the Lord Mayor’s Cultural Scheme.