The eighteenth century was one of technological innovations. Popular interest in science, new inventions and technologies, had never been so strong, and saw the rising popularity of public science lectures, which often included demonstrations and live experiments. We can only imagine the wonder on people’s faces as they saw what must have seemed like magical phenomena take place in front of their very eyes.
One of the most popular subjects in public demonstrations were ‘automata’. Part of the new vogue for scientific instruments, and technological advances in the manufacture of things like clockwork mechanisms, these were often machines made to resemble animals or human figures, contrived so as to appear animated and almost lifelike. Strange machines such as ‘talking’ mechanical birds and robot-like human figures weren’t uncommon.
In 1775, for example, audiences in Westminster were invited to the see the ‘Incomparable Automaton Figures which represent the Grand Sultan and Sultana, which play different pieces of music in unison; and also a favourite solo’. Visitors to the New Promenade Rooms in London in 1801 could see ‘Maillardet’s Automaton’ – also known as the ‘Juvenile Artist’ that drew pictures in front of enthralled visitors’ very eyes. More than 200 years later it is still on display, now in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
(Henri Maillardet, ‘The Juvenile Artist’ – image from Wikipedia)
One of the most famous automatons of the age, though, was the ‘Turk’ an automatic chess-playing machine. Here, a lifesized dummy of an elaborately-dressed Turkish man stood with his arm resting on a large cabinet, on which was placed the chessboard. People were invited to make a move, at which point the ‘Turk’s’ arm would magically move, accompanied by music, and sometimes changes of expression. It even said ‘check’ in French at the opportune moment.
All was not what it seemed however; the ‘Turk’ was a hoax. Concealed in the large cabinet below the dummy was a human operator, who used a system of levers and pulleys, to contrive the moves, and beat the punters.
Nevertheless, the deceit proved compelling, and the machine toured Europe, still being popular in the mid 19th century, before being destroyed by fire in Philadelphia in 1854. As the ‘Turk’ was consumed by fire, a witness claimed to hear a sepulchral voice repeating the fateful words… ‘echec! Echec!
From the late 1600s until well into the nineteenth, one particular premises, a former coffee house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, was a must-see on the list for visitors. Famous for its ‘cabinets of curiosities’, the ‘museum’ was known colloquially by the name of its proprietor. Thus, ‘Don Saltero’s’ was a fixture of the London landscape for over two centuries. But who was the mysterious ‘Don Saltero’, and what sorts of things could visitors marvel at?
(A print of Don Saltero’s Coffee House, signed by some of its famous visitors, including Hans Sloane: Image copyright of New York Public Library)
As contemporaries remarked, the name Don Saltero had exotic Spanish connotations. But the owner and proprietor was certainly not Spanish – he was an English barber, tooth-drawer and sometime servant to the prominent physician Sir Hans Sloane. His name was the less-exotic James Salter!
By 1715, the premises of ‘James Salter the Coffeeman’ had become a notable place of resort for the literati, and prominent figures of the day. Alongside his coffee and punch-making skills, it was reported that he could shave, bleed, pull teeth and stumps, and play the fiddle as well as any man in England. But it was his growing collection of curios that began to draw the great and the good from Georgian society to Cheyne Walk.
Salter’s collection began when Sloane started to donate a few curios of his own for Salter to display in his shop. In fact the adorning of barber and apothecary shops was nothing new. As Patrick Wallis’s study of London apothecary premises has shown, visitors might encounter anything from holy relics to stuffed crocodiles, and the display of such items served to cement the worldly and slightly mysterious image of the medical practitioner in the customer’s mind.
(Image from Daily Telegraph)
Amongst the treasures in the Wellcome Library is the 35th edition of ‘A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Don Saltero’s Coffee House in Chelsea’ – a complete list of the contents of Saltero’s museum, down to individual shelves, cupboards and cases. It gives us a fascinating insight into what visitors would have encountered in the home of the self-styled ‘gimcrack whim collector’, and also what sorts of things were considered as prime curiosities.
(Author’s photograph of original document in Wellcome Library – copyright belongs to them)
Many items were small objet d’art – curious pieces of pottery from far-flung places, or unusually exquisite or highly crafted pieces. Glass Case number 1, for example, contained ‘a cup and saucer, a drinking cup with a foot, a jar and snuff box, all made of cherry stones’. There were all manner of other types of cups and jars in the case, a crystal bottle and tobacco stopper. Tiny instruments, such as the ‘exceeding curious pair of steel scissors’ weighing just 1 and a quarter grains, or the ‘travelling clock, which is 36 hours going down’.
Adorning the walls were a wide variety of prints and portraits. These included images of unusual animals, like the Brazilian Toucan, or the flying squirrel, as well as prints of historical documents such as the signed death warrant of Charles I, and portraits of famous artists, such as ‘a print of the famous Corelli’. Hanging from the ceiling were all manner of mummified animals, fish and birds, along with replica boats, giant shells and ‘the King of Morocco’s tobacco pipe’.
Animal and human curiosities formed another important part of the collection, offering visitors the chance to feast their eyes on the skeletons or stuffed figures of strange and exotic animals. Mummy’s hands, or saint’s relics were particularly prized, and probably pretty standard fare in other types of museum. But Saltero’s had other treasures such as ‘the head of the spatula bird’, ‘a curious horse-shoe fish’, ‘the pizzle of a racoon’, ‘a lizard 20 inches long’ and even (for Georgian Harry Potter fans!) ‘the ‘basilisk, supposed to kill with his eyes’!
Items that seemed to defy nature were particularly prized. Amongst these were the ‘handkerchief made of the asbestos rock, which fire can’t consume’, and the ‘piece of rotten wood not to be consumed by fire’. ‘Several pieces of the holy cross’ were on display in one room, along with other ‘relicks from Jerusalem’, and even ‘the Pope’s candle’. If all that weren’t enough, one cabinet claimed ‘the flaming sword of William the Conqueror’.
In other cases, exhibits tended more towards things that literally seemed ‘fantastic’: Item number 24 was ‘A curious sword set with polished steel, presented by the king of Lilliput to Capt. Gulliver’. Anticipating Tolkien’s Middle Earth by two centuries, astonished visitors could also gaze upon ‘An elf’s arrow’.
Some items, though, defy easy categorisation. Nuns for example, seem to feature fairly prominently! Saltero’s collections included ‘a pair of nun’s stockings’, ‘a nun’s pincushion’ and various other objects made by nun’s. Religious figures such as nun’s perhaps excited interest since they were inaccessible, even exotic figures, who were shut away from society. Likewise, items with connections to royalty gave people a glimpse into another sort of closed world. William III’s coronation shoes gave a taste of the occasion for those who weren’t invited, while those interested in the size of Elizabeth I’s feet could gaze with wonder at one of her stirrups. Quite why ‘a piece of Queen Catherine’s skin’ was on display, or how it was obtained, is unfortunately not recorded!
(Cheyne Walk looking East – image copyright of Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea http://www.rbkc.gov.uk)
Saltero’s was a feature of the London landscape for over 100 years – long after Salter himself died in 1728. By 1799 the collection had begun to be dispersed and sold. Neverthless, the tavern continued to be known as Don Saltero’s well into the nineteenth century. In 1866, John Timbs’ Club Life of London noted that the last few gimcracks were left until about 1825, when we were informed on the premised they were thrown away!’. But, even then, ‘the house is now a tavern with the sign of “The Don Saltero’s Coffee House”’. Long after his death, the spirit of Saltero, and his exotic collections of curios, continued to reign over Cheyne Walk.
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!
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 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.
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.