Thomas Ribright: The Electrifying Optician of 18th-century London.

Over the years I’m occasionally asked about historical heroes and villains and, in particular, who my ‘history hero’ would be. People are often surprised at my answer. My choice is neither famous nor celebrated…in fact it’s a good bet you’ve never heard of him. But, when I stumbled across a report about him in an 18th-century newspaper, I knew he was the guy for me.

Our tale is a cautionary one, involving a very modern form of antisocial behaviour, malice and nuisance, but also retribution. Depending on how you look at it, this is a Georgian story of instant karma…of what might be categorised on a Youtube clip as ‘instant justice’.

It takes place in London in 1789, the heart of Georgian polite society and culture. London was in many ways the Georgian city, with its vibrant social scene of parties, events and balls, its elegant shops, neat pavements for promenading, and huge range of newly desirable goods on offer, from the latest homewares and decorations to fashion and jewellery. Once the polite customer was suitably shopped out, they could repair to one of the many local tea and coffee houses for a restorative libation!

Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 08.31.22
‘Miseries of Human Life’ – Image from Lewis Walpole Digital Collection

Amongst the many shops lining the Poultry in Cheapside, London, a thriving commercial area near London Bridge, was the ‘mathematical, optical and philosophical instrument’ business, belonging to Thomas Ribright. Scientific instruments were very much the ‘coming thing’ in the second half of the eighteenth century. For a true Beau Monde, knowing your telescope from your orrery (and preferably owning a couple of each) was the mark of the aesthete and the person of taste. Cities like London and Bath regularly hosted public demonstrations of scientific instruments to rapt audiences, who delighted in the latest ‘magick’ discovery.

Ribright
Trade card of Thomas Ribright – John Johnson Collection

Ribright was an optician by trade, describing himself on his elaborate trade card as ‘Optician to the Prince of Wales’. In 1749 he had patented his own form of spectacles, along with other instruments. By the 1750s he was a regular advertiser in the London newspapers, selling a range of optical devices. His ‘Brazil pebble spectacles’, for example, were available in ‘fine Venetian green glass’. Nestled in amongst advertisements for ‘Bears Fat’, country dancing instruction and razor straps, an entry in the Gazette and New Daily Advertiser in 1765 shows that he was an agent for a range of different and new-invented instruments, such as the ‘New and Correct Globes’.

In the summer of 1789, however, a very modern type of nuisance plagued the residents of the Poultry, in the form of a young grocer, Peter Wheeler (a shady character known locally as ‘Lord Fig’ for his habit of affecting airs and graces). Wheeler was an early exponent of what, in 1970s Cardiff, we used to call ‘Knock Knock Ginger’ – ringing doorbells and running away. [Disclaimer: The young Dr Withey was far too well-behaved a child ever to have considered doing anything remotely like this, and does not advocate such a vile practice in any way, shape or form. I might have left fake notes for my neighbours’ milkman once or twice, but that’s another story]. Wheeler added his own twist by ringing the bells violently in the middle of the night, which, as Mr Ribright reported in a letter to the Times in 1789, greatly alarmed his family. After suffering this menace night after night, Thomas Ribright had enough. “I resolved, if possible, to punish the disturber of my rest.” At this point, Wheeler was messing with the wrong guy.

One particular night, Wheeler once again made his way to the Poultry after nightfall, preparing himself for another evening of terrorising the poor optician’s family. Perhaps trying a couple of other houses first, he arrived at the threshold of Ribright’s shop, perhaps chuckling quietly to himself, reached out his hand for the bell. Perhaps he noticed his shoe catching on a strange patch of metal filings on the doorstep but, in any case, his hand reached out for the bell…

This night, however, something was different. Before going any further, let’s take a look at a 1780 advertisement of Thomas Ribright, giving a clue to one of his other skills:

“16th November, 1780

ELECTRICITY having of late been found of particular Use in the Cure of RHEUMATIC, PARALYTIC and HYPOCHONDRIAC complaints

Also for the removal of SPASMS, CONTRACTIONS, DEAFNESS and complaints incident to the TEETH,

RIBRIGHT AND SMITH

Optical, Philosophical and Mathematical Instrument Makers, Beg leave to Inform the Nobility, Gentry and Public in general, that they have fitted up a Compleat Apparatus, for performing the Operation by Shock, Spark or passing the Electric Matter through the human frame, locally or generally.”

Thomas Ribright was therefore a specialist in ‘medical electricity’, and his shop was bristling with the latest models. Being electrocuted back to health was becoming popular towards the end of the eighteenth century. The ‘patient’ would be attached to the machine, which would be fired up, giving them a shock, ranging from mild to intense. Suitably ‘electrified’, the patient would leave the shop a shilling lighter and hopefully cured, though perhaps with their hair standing a little on end. Such was the fascination of this procedure that this could sometimes even draw a crowd.

Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 08.36.27
18th-Century electrical machine – although bigger than Mr Ribright’s! Image from Wikimedia Commons

And so back to the Poultry. Determined to have his revenge on the troublemaker, Mr Ribright had set up an elaborate trap. First he “pasted some tin filings upon the pavement before my door”, to act as a conductor. Next he “made a communication between the handle of the bell and an electrical machine, and charged a large jar to be ready for his reception”. His timing was perfect.

A few moments after, as I suspected, [he] made an attempt as usual; but instead of accomplishing what he intended, he received the full contents of the jar”.

So, as the young offender touched the bell, there was a loud crack, and he received a full charge from Mr Ribright’s electrical machine, propelling him loudly and swiftly back into the street, where he was seen staggering around. When Mr Ribright opened the door to his shop he was treated to the gratifying sight of his tormentor “leaning against one of the supporters of the door and exclaiming What! You shoot people eh?…damn ye”.

 A small crowd had by now gathered, lauging and pointing and, it was reported, applauded Mr Ribright for his efforts, as the (literally) shocked ‘Lord Fig’ was led away by the local constable to await his fate.

And so, for his ingenuity, innovation and dispensation of ‘instant justice’, THAT is why Thomas Ribright is my history hero.

18th-Century Barbers at the Old Bailey.

As my project on the health and medical history of facial hair rolls ever Belforward, I’ve recently turned my attention to barbers and their role in shaping and managing facial hair through time. Amongst the many questions I’m looking at are how they were trained, what their shops were like, and how much they charged. Further posts will follow on those matters!

As I’ve said many times before on this blog, one of the joys of being an historian are the stories that you come across accidentally while you’re looking for something else. So it has proved to be with barbers, who seem to crop up in a dizzying array of sources and contexts. Recently I’ve been looking through the records of the Old Bailey, to check for unwitting testimony about shop practices or activities. There is actually a lot that can be gleaned from witness testimonies and the details they can provide. But, along the way, I’ve seen lots of evidence to suggest that barbers were often the targets for thieves.

Whilst a barbershop might not immediately spring to mind as a tempting target, lots of barbering goods were actually desirable, and easy to put out through the fence.

In some cases basic things like shop linen and cloths could be targeted. In 1732, Catherine Sanders of St Dunstan’s parish, was indicted for stealing a haul of shop linen, including ‘shaving cloths’ to the value of 7s and 6d. These were the cloths put around the customer’s neck, both to catch the soap, and sometimes for the barber to wipe his razor on. Given that the average London labourer’s wage was around 20-30 pence per day, the value of these goods was virtually a week’s wages. It’s easy to see why some were tempted into crime by the promise of a fast buck. Being caught risked a high price though. In January 1735, Mary Collings was arrested after stealing three shaving cloths from the London barber William Day. She was sentenced to transportation.

Barbers Shop.jpg

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Razors, and especially high end, silver tipped, models, were another favourite. At the beginning of the eighteenth century razors were relatively hard to come by. They did not appear in advertising much before the mid eighteenth century, and tended to be bought by barbers from specialist artisan makers, and cutlers. They could be relatively expensive items too, meaning that purloined examples could be easily sold. July 1682 saw John Scroby lift a ‘case of silver tipt razors’ from the barber shop of William Thomson…valued at the substantial sum of eight pounds! When he was caught he denied having any razors on his person. On being searched, and the items found, he claimed to have been given them…but, conveniently, he couldn’t remember who by. The following year saw eleven silver tipped razors stolen from Richard Plat’s Barbican shop, and quickly pawned by the thief. In fact, razors feature commonly amongst lists of stolen goods in Old Bailey cases.

Barber shop 2

Looking glasses – mirrors – were an expensive, luxury item. As historian Margaret Ezell has pointed out, modern mirrors, understood as a reflective coating over a glass surface, did not come into being until the end of the seventh century. Before then a ‘looking glass’ was likely to be a polished metal surface, and also not necessarily flat, giving a potentially distorted or unclear reflection.[1] Even small glass mirrors were prohibitively expensive; Pepys’ gift of a small looking glass for his wife cost the equivalent value of over one hundred pounds in modern currency. It’s not surprising to find looking glasses on early modern thieves’ wish lists therefore. David Cooke and his accomplice Jonathan Robinson, knew what they were looking for when they broke into Edward Burrows’ barber shop in 1716, making off with razors, a parcel of hair (valued at £5) and a ‘lookeing glass’ worth 30 shillings.

1280px-Barber's_shaving_bowl,_Netherlands,_1701-1750_Wellcome_L0057195

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Even the most basic items could prove tempting for opportunists. In Bridewell Hospital in June 1716, Margaret Morgan decided it would be a good idea to try and steal ‘a shaveing bason, two razors and a towel’. On catching her in possession due to her not ‘giving any good account of herself otherwise’ her victim, the barber Thomas Ward of Little Britain, had her charged. Even the most basic items of barbering equipment, such as the hone used to maintain the razor’s edge, could prove too tempting for some thieves.

Occasionally things took an almost comic turn. In April 1729, Sam Salmon took to his heels with his pockets stuffed with 43 washballs, the property of the barber William Barnard. Washballs were small, compacted balls of soap powder and other ingredients, used to create the lather to shave. Caught in the act by Barnard’s neighbours, he was pursued up the street, the washballs doubtless spilling out of his pockets as he ran. His failure to get ‘clean’ away cost him a voyage on a transportation ship.

NPG 4313; John Sheppard attributed to Sir James Thornhill

(Notorious 18th-century criminal Jack Sheppard…not sure if he ever stole from barbers, but just in case! – Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most lucrative item of all for thieves, however, were wigs, and the parcels of hair used to make them. Edward Kent stole four wigs, two razors and five ounces of human hair, after convincing the barber and peruke maker Moses Freeman that he wished to learn the trade of wigmaker. Among the haul of Cornelius Barret in 1686 were a ten-shilling periwig and a ‘bever hat’. One Robert Milksop pinched a periwig valued at 30 shillings from the box being carried by Thomas Parks, as the two men passed each other in Cheapside. In 1692, a criminal known only as “B.J.” broke into the house of Bryant Brandon, and made off with three razors, but also ‘twenty two pounds in weight’ – valued at an eyewatering 100 pounds. The case against “B.J.” was difficult to prove, so he escaped with a branding for his trouble.

What-is-This-my-Son-Tom-1774
Image Wikipedia – creative commons

Perhaps my favourite case of all, however, concerns the theft of a range of goods including books, a hammer and a flower tub, as well as twelve razors by a Fulham schoolmaster, Ephraim Mansell. The case actually revolved around the razors, and whether Mansell had borrowed them (as he claimed), or stolen them. The name of the victim? Mr Blunt.

[1] Margaret Ezell, ‘Looking Glass Histories’, Journal of British Studies, 43:3 (2004), 323.