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.

Touching the Past: Why History Is Important?

I was talking to a colleague recently about what first got us fired up about history. I’ve loved history since childhood, and it was probably inevitable that it would end up as a career. As an undergraduate, though, I vividly remember a turning point – a brilliant lecture I attended on life in the South Wales coalfields, which began with an image of a miners’ protest in the early 20th century. The lecturer began with a simple question: ‘what was it like to be there?’ He went on to talk about the men, the town and environment, the sights and smells and the conditions they lived in, bringing it all vividly to life.

But why does history matter? What is the ‘point’ of history? What is the value of humanities in a modern society? Depressingly, these are questions that historians increasingly have to face, and face them we do. A recent post by Laura Sangha gives a great response to just these sorts of questions.

Despite abundant evidence of the public appetite for ‘popular’ history, academic historians are under constant pressure to defend our discipline in the face of threats to funding, the need to recruit students and bring in research income. Sometimes it is easy not only to lose touch with why history matters, but what it was that got us enthused about it in the first place. For me, though, a chance encounter in an antiquarian bookshop in London last week has gone a long way towards bringing back the excitement I first felt when I first became interested in the past, and the people who inhabited it.

I wasn’t even to go in to the shop. But, with a little time to kill before lunch, I wandered in, and asked the owner if he had a section on health and medicine. He looked apologetic and said he had a few on some shelves at the back of the shop, but “mostly vintage stuff’”. What he actually had were two bookcases full of treasures; all manner of 17th and 18th-century medical and surgical treatises, histories of the body, anatomical works, medical lectures, books of remedies and pharmacopoeia…for a historian of medicine, a little shop of dreams!

One, in particular, caught my eye – an original 1667 copy of John Tanner’s Hidden Treasures of the Art of Physick. I pondered for a little while about whether to buy it…I’ve long worried about buying these old books (especially from places like Ebay) and whether it is right to own something that should ideally be in a museum. But, before long, it was coming home with me!

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Unwrapping the book from its packaging at home gave me time to look at it in detail, but also to reflect on the incredible journey that it’s had. More than that it reminded me of exactly why I fell in love with history in the first place. Here, on my desk, next to me now in fact, is a tangible artefact – a survivor from another world.

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(Thomas Wyck – ‘Old St Paul in Ruins’, Image from Wikimedia Commons)

It rolled off the press in Clerkenwell, London one day in 1667, in a city still in shock after the dual calamities of the plague and the Great Fire of the previous year. What would an imaginary visitor to London that year have seen? Everywhere were burnt-out buildings, piles of rubble and devastated streets still in the process of being cleared. In January that year Samuel Pepys noted that there were still ‘smoking remains of the late fire’ with ‘the ways mighty bad and dirty’. Even as late as the 28th of February Pepys was still having trouble sleeping because of ‘great terrors about the fire’, and observed ‘smoke still remaining of the late fire’ in the City. On the skyline was the devastated, but still recognisable, symbol of old London – the first St Paul’s Cathedral, whilst the once noted sea of church spires across London was diminished. Clerkenwell itself, however, largely escaped the fire. It was a fairly upmarket area, containing some affluent houses and businesses. Clerkenwell green was a fashionable area, home to some of the nobility.

What, then, of the book’s author and publishers? John Tanner who, according to the blurb, was a ‘student of physick and astrology’ wrote it. In fact, Tanner was a practising physician who resided in Kings Street, Westminster. In other sources he was referred to as a ‘dr in physic’ and a ‘medicus’, possibly even a member of the Royal College of Physicians in February 1675. When he died in 1711, Tanner had done pretty well for himself, leaving gold, silver and money, together with valuable goods, to his children. In his house, according to his inventory, were a ‘Physick room, Chirurgery room and still house’, the last used to distil waters for medicinal use. Tanner was the author of ‘my’ book, but he likely never touched it.

Someone who potentially had more to do with the physical book, however, was its publisher John Streater, a prolific producer of medical texts and brother of Aaron Streater, a noted physician and ‘divine’. Streater often worked in tandem with the bookseller George Sawbridge ‘at his House on clerken-well-Green’. Sawbridge was an eminent bookseller and publisher of medical books by luminaries such as Nicholas Culpeper. According to Elias Ashmole, Sawbridge had been a friend of the ‘English Merlin’ (or the ‘Juggling Wizard and Imposter’, depending on your source!) William Lilly. When he died, Sawbridge was worth around £40,000 – a colossal amount of money in the seventeenth century. It’s not too much of a leap of imagination to picture Sawbridge in his shop, surrounded by shelves and shelves of leather and calf-bound volumes, handing the book over to its first owner.

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Who owned it? It’s impossible to say, but let’s speculate. A book like Tanner’s Treasury was meant for a general readership. It’s aim was to help the ‘diligent reader’ attain a good understanding of physick and the body, synthesising a range of different authors. Its medical content might have made it appealing as an easy reference work for a medical practitioner, but far more likely is that it found its way into the library of a local gentleman…perhaps even one of the Clerkenwell nobility who lived hard by. Medical texts were common inclusions amongst the libraries of gentlemen; medicine was one of the accepted intellectual pursuits of elite men. In fact there is only one signature inside the book, which is now, sadly illegible. Only the word ‘boak’ (book) and the date 1726 are now discernible, but show that it was still being used, or at least referred to, at that date. There is also only one slightly unclear annotation, which appears to say ‘used above [unclear] but are fare’. I’ve included the image below.

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This copy of Tanner’s Treasury has had a long journey to this point. It has been passed down – perhaps gifted, bequeathed, sold, resold, lent, scores of times. At some point it ended up in a Birmingham library, and was potentially read by countless scholars, before its journey took it back to where it began – a London bookseller, where an interested party (me!) couldn’t leave it on the shelf. Rest assured that it’s found a good home, and will be carefully looked after.

To me, things like this little book are the reasons I love doing what I do. To be sure, the contents are important, giving us a window into the medical worldview of the time, and the sorts of individuals practising, writing and publishing medicine. The remedies are fascinating (and indeed one of my academic research interests). But there’s more to it than that. The book itself lets us literally touch the past and make contact with an object that was actually there. The people who wrote, sold, bought and passed it on have long gone, but we can still hold and appreciate something that was once important to them. It’s a line of direct contact back through the centuries. For all the academic theorising about grand narratives, discourses, theories and the rest, it’s nice to be reminded now and again of the simple, visceral thrill of letting a source fire up your imagination of what it was like in the past.

And that is why I think history is important.