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!

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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Warehouses and Shopping in Georgian England

In recent years there has been a growing interest in the vibrant consumer culture of eighteenth-century Britain. Amanda Vickery has explored gendered consumption, and in particular the types of goods desired and bought by Georgian men and women. Jon Stobart, has looked at shopping and ‘politeness’, and the ways through which newly-desirable goods were marketed using polite language. Other historians (including me!) have also looked at how certain types of goods, and the materials they were constructed from, became fashionable and desirable in their own right.

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(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

In many ways the eighteenth century was a golden age for shopping. In large towns across Britain, streets were being redeveloped to cater specifically for shoppers and browsers. Pavements were widened, to allow polite shoppers a fighting chance of avoiding a cascade of mud and filth from passing coaches. Streets were widened, shop fronts became bigger and their displays more ornate.

Also, for perhaps the first time, shopping became a social activity in and of itself, complete with rituals that modern shoppers would recognise, from teashops within larger stores, to the culture of browsing, with obsequious shop assistants on hand to help the customer negotiate the myriad goods on offer. Something so base as money or price was second to polite conversation, and the art of choice.

It is easy to picture Georgian shops as small, poky places, and indeed many were. But, in large towns and cities, the floor and display space of shops was growing, with increasing emphasis upon the appearance and order of the interior. Images from eighteenth-century trade cards often show large spaces, filled with goods, neatly arranged and displayed.

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(Image from Ambrose Heal, London Tradesman’s Cards…)

One type of retail space, however, was entirely new to the eighteenth century. Whilst small shops had long diversified in the types of products they sold, the Georgian ‘warehouse’ was a new innovation, where large numbers of goods could be sold within one, big, retailing space. Whilst not comparable in size, these were the ‘big sheds’ of the Georgian age, where customers could view a wide range of goods, often brought in bulk from producers across the country.

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Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory – Image from Wikipedia

In many ways this actually fitted in with broader changes to working environments. Bigger was definitely viewed as better. In manufacture, for example, large-scale ‘manufactories’ exemplified both the successful individual, and the modern, industrialising (and industrious) society. Places such as Matthew Boulton’s Soho manufactory and Josiah Wedgewood’s Etruria ceramics works became places of resort in their own right. They were popular stops on the Grand Tour, giving polite, erudite visitors the chance to browse and buy, as well as to marvel at the new technologies on offer.

What, then, were these retail warehouses actually like, and what did they sell?

It is interesting to note that the earliest references to ‘warehouses’ in retail suggest, at best, modest premises, and often referred to places where quack medicines could be bought. In 1722, for example, an advertisement for a product to kill vermin (‘The True Antidote Against Bugs’!) could be purchased from the ‘Printing Office and Picture Warehouse’ in Bow, London. On closer inspection, the grand-sounding ‘Hungary Water Warehouse’ of 1724 was actually a comb-maker’s shop in Ludgate Hill. Likewise the ‘Dorchester Beer warehouse’, was located (unsurprisingly) in a pub in Cheapside.

At some point in the early 18th century, the term ‘warehouse’ began to be deployed as an advertising technique, perhaps to play up the size and scale of the business. By the late 1720s all manner of goods had began to justify their own warehouses. In 1729, Ann Young’s Snuff Warehouse promised ‘persons of quality’ that they would have ‘the greatest choice of any shop in England’.

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(Image from Ambrose Heal, London Tradesman’s Cards…)

Abraham Henderson’s ‘Sturgeon Warehouse’ in Ludgate Hill sold the ‘best Hamborough Sturgeon’, and customers were assured that Henderson, himself, was on hand to serve them daily from 8 in the morning until 6 at night. Everything from tea, to candles, linen, carpets and saddles was beginning to justify its own, dedicated warehouse. In 1743, even the London hair merchant John Delaporte ‘beg[ged] leave to inform his customers, in his best eighteenth-century polite terms, that he had opened a new warehouse in St Martin’s Lane, and hoped for the ‘continuance of their friendship’.

In the later part of the eighteenth century, however, it seems that both the use and terminology of the warehouse began to shift. From being a single-purpose entity, the warehouse gradually expanded to house a range of goods. A number of multipurpose warehouses emerged across the country, catering for a wide range of fashionable and ‘polite’ items. In one sense these resembled the modern department store, insofar as they brought together popular brands under one roof, attracting those with the ready money who, perhaps, could not make the trip to the sources of goods, such as Sheffield or Birmingham.

The popularity of ‘toys’ was one of the drivers of this change, as was the growing desire to decorate the home. In the eighteenth-century, ‘toy’ referred to any one of the innumerable decorative objects that were becoming available, from small jewellery and equipage to utilitarian items like watches and spectacles. Toy retailers were located in fashionable towns across Britain, and toy warehouses were the go-to place to pick up a fashionable trinket.

In 1786, for example, the wonderfully-named Fillagree Pearce advertised his ‘Perfumery and Toy Warehouse’ in which could be found everything from bottle stands and card boxes to chimney ornaments and fire screens. More than this, ‘every article necessary for the use of ladies who are employed in so elegant an amusement’ as knitting and sewing, were catered for ‘on the lowest terms’.

Bromstead’s Toy Warehouse was located in Jermyn Street in London (one of my favourite streets in London), and sold a wide range of small steel goods and articles, as well as being an agent for the ‘Female Elixir’, which promised to ‘procure natural evacuations’!

In London, and also in larger resort towns like Bath, could be found large premises like the ‘Birmingham and Sheffield Warehouse’. These premises were dedicated to the elegant and decorative metalwares like those produced by Matthew Boulton, or the exquisite chinaware, ormolu and chintzware of Josiah Wedgewood. Here the prospective shopper could peruse the huge range of exotic goods on offer, without the uncomfortable prospect of a long journey to the Midlands. Premises like these commonly sold a range of smaller, personal items, including jewellery and even razors, all advertised in the gentile language of Georgian retail.

Dealing with the demands of the polite shopper required a special calibre of shop assistant. Applicants for a vacancy in the ‘Toy Warehouse near Bishopsgate church’ in 1796 were required to be of ‘an obliging disposition, and whose character will bear the minutest enquiry for honesty and sobriety’.

Like so many aspects of life that we consider ‘modern’, warehouse shopping was an important feature of Georgian consumption. As towns expanded, so did the range of goods available and the types of premises available to view them in. With more disposable income than their predecessors, Georgian middling sorts could engage in the new vogue for shopping, filling their homes with the fashionable trinkets of the day. It’s also interesting to see how the term ‘warehouse’ altered through time, and is still a feature of the language of shopping today.