Beyond the religious divide: Rubens and Mayerne in London St Martin’s Lane (Covent Garden)

By Jaap Harskamp / you can find more articles by his hand here

Peter Paul Rubens was a painter with a Baroque brush. He was admired by his contemporaries as the creator of dramatically charged and sensual scenes. As a person, by contrast, he established a reputation for tact and discretion. His genius opened doors to European monarchs and statesmen. He offered the perfect profile as a covert diplomat, his art providing cover for politically sensitive activities.

In 1629 he was sent to London by Philip IV on a (nearly) ten month mission to pave the way for a peace treaty between Spain and Britain. Charles I took this opportunity to conclude the details of a substantial commission for the ceiling paintings at Banqueting House, Whitehall Palace, in memory of his father James I. The nine canvases were produced at Rubens’s factory-like studio in Antwerp and eventually installed in 1637. For his diplomatic efforts and artistic skills, he was knighted by both monarchs.

Although eager to return to Antwerp, his long stay in London was productive from a creative point of view. Having brought his brushes with him, he accepted a number of commissions, including a three-quarter length painting of Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, whose collection of classical sculpture was accommodated in a mansion on the Strand. 

Another and more intimate work shows the wife (Deborah Kip) and children of Middelburg-born Balthazar Gerbier, probably painted at York House where the latter was employed as keeper of and agent for the outstanding picture collection of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. 

Mingling with London’s diplomats, it was inevitable that Catholic painter Rubens would meet Protestant physician and polymath Theodore de Mayerne. It turned out to be a happy meeting of minds – in spite of religious differences. 

On his penultimate day in London, Rubens paid an unauthorised call to the Chelsea residence of Albert Joachimi, Ambassador of the United Provinces in London. During this visit he made an unsuccessful plea for a truce in hostilities between the Netherlands and Spain. It seems likely that this meeting between two opponents was facilitated by Mayerne who, that same year, had married Joachimi’s daughter Elisabeth in Fulham.

Theodore de Mayerne was born at Geneva on 28 September 1573 and was named after his god-father, the reformer Theodore Beza. He studied medicine at Montpellier, before being appointed physician to Henry IV. When his Protestant background barred his career advancement, he moved to London in 1611. 

Having settled at St Martin’s Lane, he was appointed Physician-in-Ordinary to the Stuart court. He kept a record of the many afflictions and final illness of James I (a cadaverous appearance, weak legs, swollen feet, arthritis in the joints, sore lips, and bad breath, the King repelled those close to him by hiccupping and belching). Charles I kept Mayerne in his post requesting a report from him on measures to prevent a plague epidemic. During the turmoil of civil war, Mayerne balanced himself between Parliamentarians and Royalists and he survived Oliver Cromwell’s rule unharmed. 

At a time that the profession of physician in England was barely developed, Mayerne was part of a European medical clerisy, a group of elite practitioners who, writing and conversing in Latin, pushed medicine away from preachers and quacks. Cholera does not attend church, the plague has no pulpit. Disease is the great equaliser.

Mayerne was among the first to apply chemistry to the compounding of medicines. He experimented with drugs that were not recommended in the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis compiled in 1618 by fellows of the Royal College of Physicians. His clinical reputation kept them from taking action against his ‘unorthodox’ approach of prescribing chemical remedies. 

Mayerne’s interest in the structure and properties of substances extended into other domains of activity. He applied scientific methodologies to the study of artistic techniques (and pondered how painting could benefit from the development of chemical knowledge). The British Library holds the splendid ‘Mayerne manuscript’ (MS 2052, acquired by Hans Sloane, and catalogued as Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum atrium). Dated between 1620 and 1646, the manuscript contains notes on the making of pigments, oils, and varnishes; the preparation of surfaces for painting; and the repair and conservation of works of art. 

Mayerne was in personal contact with Dutch and Flemish artists who had made London their home and involved them in his research. He interviewed Anthony van Dyck and it has been suggested that his research into the properties of pigments helped fellow Swiss immigrant Jean Petitot to reach the perfection of his colouring in enamel. Considering all this, it is not suprising that Mayerne was keen to meet great Rubens during his London mission. The British Museum holds a sketch in black chalk which Rubens later used for his Mayerne portrait (executed in Antwerp in 1631). 

Like a number of medical men in history, Mayerne was also interested in the art of cooking (to the Romans, the word ‘curare’ signified to dress a dinner as well as to cure a disease). Mayerne’s 1658 cookery-book bears title Archimagirus Anglo-Gallicus[The Anglo-French chef].

As he was regularly invited to gatherings organised by the Lord Mayor, he named his first recipe ‘A City of London Pie’. This gastronomic tour de force contains the following ingredients ‘eight marrow bones, eighteen sparrows, one pound of potatoes, a quarter of a pound of eringoes, two ounces of lettuce stalks, forty chestnuts, half a pound of dates, a peck of oysters, a quarter of a pound of preserved citron, three artichokes, twelve eggs, two sliced lemons, a handful of pickled barberries, a quarter of an ounce of whole pepper, half an ounce of sliced nutmeg, half an ounce of whole cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of whole cloves, half an ounce of mace, and a quarter of a pound of currants. When baked, the pie should be liquored with white wine, butter and sugar’.

It is hardly surprising that, in late life, obesity made him immobile. Ironically, the cause of his death in March 1655 was attributed to consuming bad wine at the Canary House tavern in the Strand.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune : Palace of Westminster (Westminster)

The Renaissance held music in high regard. It played a prominent part in religious, court and civic life. The interchange of ideas in Europe through ever closer economic and political contact brought about the creation of new musical genres, the development of instruments, and the advancement of specialist printing. 

By about 1500, Franco-Flemish composers dominated the domain. Most prominent among them was Josquin des Prez who, like fellow artists at the time, travelled widely between nations. The intensity of international encounters led to stylistic developments that have been appreciated as being truly European. 

By the beginning of the sixteenth century Antwerp had developed into a hub of musical activity. The most important initiatives were undertaken by the church. Antwerp Cathedral employed twelve choristers who lived in a private house where they received instruction from a singing master. At the beginning of the century this office was held by Jacob Obrecht who was famous for his polyphonic compositions. The composer’s prolific output consists of some twenty-six masses, thirty-two motets, and thirty secular pieces, not all texted. Antwerp also employed a company of fiddlers for both secular and ecclesiastical performances. 

Composers from all over Europe chose Antwerp as their home, amongst them a number of English musicians. Peter Philips had moved to the Continent as a Catholic refugee. In 1593, he travelled from the Southern Netherlands to Amsterdam to see and heare an excellent man of his faculties’. The man he referred to was organist and composer JanPietersz Sweelinck, known as the ‘Orpheus of Amsterdam’. The latter had converted to Calvinism in 1578, but he was not unsympathetic to his old faith. Philips was one of many Catholic musicians who had left England. A prolific composer of Latin sacred choral music, he was made organist to the Chapel of Archduke Albrecht in Antwerp. 

Another refugee was Hereford-born John Bull. Appointed chief musician to Prince Henry in 1611, he furtively disappeared to Flanders after the death of his patron in November 1612. Bull later explained his flight because of the accusation of Catholic sympathies made against him. He moved to Brussels where he was briefly employed as one of the organists in the Chapel of Archduke Albrecht VII, sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands. From September 1615, he held the post of organist of Antwerp Cathedral. In December 1617 he acted as city organist at ‘s Hertogenbosch. Bull’s later reputation rests mainly on his keyboard music. The composition of God Save the Queen has been attributed to him. 

Antwerp acquired a reputation for its printing skills. Originally, all music was notated by hand. Manuscripts were costly and owned exclusively by religious orders, courts, or wealthy households. That all changed in 1501 when Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci published Harmonice musices odhecaton, the first significant anthology of (100) polyphonic secular songs. The availability of notation in print boosted the development of instrumental music for both soloists and ensembles, and engendered the creation of new genres. 

In Flanders, Tielman Susato was the first printer to gain esteem for producing music books. Nothing is known about the date or place of his birth – he may have been Dutch or German. Details about his activities begin in 1529 when he was working as a calligrapher for Antwerp Cathedral. He also played the trumpet and was listed as a ‘town player’ in the city. In 1541, he created the first music printing company in the Low Countries which he combined with selling musical instruments from his home. During his prolific publishing career he was responsible for twenty-five books of chansons, three books of masses, and nineteen books of motets. 

The indefatigable Christopher Plantin was also active in printing music and produced some of the finest choir-books of his day. From the 1570s onwards, the Bellerus and Phalesius families were leading printing houses within the domain. The whole contemporary repertoire was made available by Antwerp presses: vernacular song books and psalms as well as polyphonic secular and religious music. Composers from all over Europe had their work printed in this, the most musical of all cities at the time.

Flourishing musical life in Antwerp and Brussels did not go unnoticed at the English court. In fact, a number of outstanding Flemish musicians were invited to cross the Channel. Henry VIII had received a thorough musical education and was a dedicated patron of the arts. He was accomplished at the lute, organ, and virginals and, apparently, could sing as well. Henry recruited the best musicians to join his court. There are a number of Flemish musicians amongst the many Europeans that were attracted to join the music scene in and around London. 

Dyricke Gérarde [Derrick Gerarde] arrived in England in 1544. Little is known of his life, but almost his entire musical output is contained in manuscript in the British Library. These manuscripts constitute one of the largest collections of polyphony by a single composer to have survived from the Elizabethan era. His achievement however was overshadowed by the reputation of a Flemish composer who had arrived in London some two decades previously. 

Lutenist Philip van Wilder was first recorded as a resident in London in 1522. By 1529 he was a member of the Privy Chamber, the select group of musicians who played to the king in private. During the second quarter of the sixteenth century Van Wilder oversaw secular music-making at the court, a position that brought him close to Henry VIII. He taught playing the lute to Princess (later Queen) Mary and subsequently to Prince Edward (later Edward VI). 

At the time of Henry VIII’s death in 1547 Van Wilder was Keeper of the Instruments and effectively head of the instrumental musical establishment at Westminster, a post later known as Master of the King’s Music. The upkeep of the Royal instruments at Westminster was a heavy duty. The scope of that task becomes clear from the inventory of Henry’s possessions at his death, listing thirteen organs, nineteen other keyboard instruments (virginals and clavichords), and several hundred smaller wind and string instruments including viols, lutes, and recorders. 

Van Wilder continued to enjoy Royal favour during the reign of Edward VI. He was granted a coat of arms and crest and, in 1551, authorised to recruit boy singers for the Chapel Royal from anywhere in England. Three years after his death in February 1554 an anonymous tribute was paid to the musician and printed by Richard Tottel in his collection of Songes and Sonettes (1557), commonly known as ‘Tottel’s Miscellany’, containing the following line:

Laye downe your lutes and let your gitterns rest.

Phillips is dead whose like you can not finde,

Of musicke much exceeding all the rest.

Renaissance court and civic life teaches our age the salutary lesson that a nationalist message is one of isolationism. The appeal to nativist emotions conceals the yearning for an ideal world that never was. The cultural strength of a country manifests itself in the openness of its borders, in the assimilation of alien concepts, in the embracing of external influences. It takes a cosmopolitan mind to be a veritable patriot.

FAKE NEWS FROM FORMOSA: Ironmonger Row (Islington)

When in 1737 Samuel Johnson left Lichfield for London to start his career as a writer, he faced years of financial hardship before finally achieving fame in the early 1750s. One of many competing hacks and authors in the jungle that was Grub Street, he would later tell James Boswell that he vividly remembered one immigrant character with whom he spent many hours in pubs and coffeehouses. 

The person who had made such a memorable impression on him was living at the time in Ironmonger Row, Old Street, Islington, and went by the unusual name of George Psalmanazar.

Johnson met Psalmanazar when the latter was preparing his Memoirs of ** **, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar. The book was published in 1764, a year after his death. Without ever revealing his real name, the author relates that he was born around 1679 in southern France. Descendant of an ancient but ‘decayed’ family, his father had abandoned wife and child. George was educated at a Franciscan free school, then attended a Jesuit college, and finally studied with Dominicans at an unspecified university. 

As a student he showed a talent for linguistics. He settled in Avignon as a tutor, but left the town under a (sexual) cloud and travelled to Germany and the Netherlands. It was during that time that he started to cultivate multiple identities. He first pretended to be an impoverished Irish Catholic student on pilgrimage to Rome. Fluent in Latin and trained in theology, he tricked both clergymen and lay people into financial support. 

Having refined his skills of deception, he gradually developed the grand ‘fraud’ for which he is remembered to this day. During a spell as a soldier in the Low Countries, he assumed the name of Psalmanazar (derived from the Old Testament Assyrian King Shalmaneser who led his forces into Palestine). 

Having been confronted at school with Jesuit travel accounts from East Asia, he first changed his identity from Irish to Japanese. He subsequently presented himself as a person of Formosan origin (Formosa was the Portuguese name for Taiwan). 

By 1703 he had arrived in London from Rotterdam where he soon became a figure of interest. He claimed to have been abducted from Formosa by a malevolent French Jesuit priest for his refusal to become a Catholic. Psalmanazar declared himself to be a heathen who had been converted to the Anglican Church. 

In 1704 he published An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. The book was an instant success. It included lurid details of slaughter (the annual sacrifice of 18,000 boys under the age of nine) and cannibalism (the right of a man to eat his unfaithful wife), as well as a description of the Formosan language, a diagram of the alphabet, and translations of the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments. His detailed descriptions of local customs, geography, economy, flora and fauna, were entirely fictitious – but the book made him a celebrity. He lectured at universities and spoke before the Royal Society. The Bishop of London sent him to Christ Church College, Oxford, to teach young students to speak the Formosan language so that they could be sent out as missionaries. 

To the Church of England, the rescue of a heathen alien from the clutches of evil French Jesuits and his subsequent conversion by the Bishop of London was a story of triumph. In enlightened circles, Psalmanazar’s claims were received with suspicion and disbelief (especially his description of Formosa as being under the control of Japan). When confronted by travellers who had visited the island, he argued (correctly) that European explorers had only reached coastal areas. They had never made the effort to push into the mountainous interior to encounter the island’s real culture. 

To the query why he was a blue-eyed European man, he replied that upper class Formosans lived underground developing a different pigment of skin. The Royal Society quickly established that his claims were false, but kept quiet. Members ignored rather than denounced his presence, partly because Psalmanazar had put himself forward as an opponent of rationalist freethinkers (i.e. members of the Society) in defence of those who adhered to revealed religion. The spreader of fake history was siding with the forces of socio-religious orthodoxy. 

It was not until about 1710 that the author was condemned as a fraudster and hoaxer. The ‘Formosan craze’ was over, but the labels stuck doing injustice to a talented writer. The fact that the contents of his book had been taken literally by a majority of (Anglican) readers proved to be a death blow to Psalmanazar’s reputation. Once it was clear that the story was a fabrication, both clergy and critics realised they had been fooled. The literary elite lacked the generosity to acknowledge that his travel account was a fine piece of fiction, the creative product of a fertile and versatile imagination. 

This work set a precedent for Jonathan Swift’s satirical travelogue. It opened up the pathway for an author such as Théophile Gautier who wrote extensively about the Orient without knowing the region (he first visited Egypt three years before his death). 

Psalmanazar convinced many of his readers of the charm of armchair travel. In À rebours, Joris-Karl Huysmans presents us with the character of Jean des Esseintes who dreams up vivid details of a trip to London without ever leaving his Paris apartment. Psalmanazar‘s Memoirs is a literary masterclass. Samuel Johnson recognised and respected that.

Jaap Harskamp, PhD at Amsterdam University (Comparative Literature), Researcher at European University Institute (Florence), Curator Dutch & Flemish Collections at British Library (retired), Researcher at Cambridge UL. His work has been published by the Wellcome Institute, British Library, and Brill. He writes a regular blog for the New York Almanack at www.newyorkalmanack.com/author/jharskamp/

Holbein at the Steelyard: Cannon Street (City of London)

During the high and late Middle Ages the majority of strangers in London were individual members of a multi-national merchant class. In 1303, Edward I had signed the Carta Mercatoria (Charter of the Merchants), an agreement in which rights were granted to foreign merchants in return for dues and levies. Under its terms overseas traders were free to come and go, import and export. They were exempted from tolls and allowed to enforce contracts or settle disputes. Free trading was inevitably accompanied by freedom of movement. 

Although attempts were made to regulate migration, many strangers settled in London and were able to run their enterprises without too many obstacles. In 1334, in exchange for financial assistance, Edward III replaced the general accord of rights to foreign merchants with a charter specifically tailored the needs of the powerful Hanseatic League. In its heyday, some seventy cities were regular members of this trading block (an early European Union) and around one hundred more acted as passive associates without decision-making power. Representatives met on a regular basis to strike trading agreements or resolve issues of common (often political) interest. Many of contemporary notions of commerce, economic association, free trade, were formulated during the League’s existence.

Its London branch occupied a walled area on the north bank of the Thames, just south of London Bridge, now known as Cannon Street. Called the Steelyard or ‘Stalhof’, it was in effect a separate community, independent of the City of London, and governed by its own code of laws. The name referred to either the great steel beam used for weighing goods, or to the extensive courtyard where products were traded from stalls. The yard was not dissolved until the German cities of Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg sold their common property in 1853.

Hans Holbein the younger was born in 1497/8 in Augsburg. His father had settled in that city in 1494 and both his sons Ambrosius and Hans were employed in his workshop where he produced large altarpieces. By 1515 Hans and his brother appear to have migrated to Basel. This date is established by the survival of a copy of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, in which the margins are illustrated in pen and ink by the young Holbein. Hans was active in the city not only as a painter of portraits and religious imagery, but also as a designer of woodcuts, engravings, and stained glass. Holbein’s earliest surviving dated paintings are the portraits of Jacob Meyer, ‘burgomeister’ of Basel, and that of his wife, both painted in 1516. He was appointed town painter in 1518/19. He may have painted relatively few portraits at the time, but the images he produced of his friend Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 were prove of his prodigious talent. 

The lure of a lucrative Royal post tempted Holbein to travel to England in 1526. Erasmus had many close contacts there and they helped him to find patronage. His arrival effectively brought Renaissance painting from the Continent to England. He was commissioned to paint a series of portraits, including those of clergyman William Warham (patron of Erasmus), astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer (depicted as an instrument maker surrounded by rulers, compasses, and sundials), and that of his own patron, Thomas More. 

Holbein’s first visit to England lasted only two years. He left London in 1528 for Basel, but the violent upheavals of the Reformation encouraged a swift return to in 1531/2. He stayed in London until his death in 1543. These were turbulent years in England too, both politically and socially. During Holbein’s second spell in England, Thomas More resigned from office. Unable to depend on More’s influence to obtain commissions, he found employment amongst fellow countrymen, the German business community in London. Holbein created eight portraits of Steelyard merchants. 

The first of those was a portrait commissioned by Georg Giese, titled ‘Der Kaufmann Georg Gisze’ (1532). This detailed composition may have been intended as a show piece to elicit further Steelyard commissions. A plaque depicted over the sitter’s head identifies him as a person and states his age. He is holding a letter he had received from his brother, written in Middle Low German. Holbein’s next portrait was probably that of Hans of Antwerp, dated 26 July 1532. This sitter resided in London from 1515 to as late as 1547 and was married to an English woman. He was employed as a jeweller by Thomas Cromwell and associated with the London Steelyard, combining the activities of goldsmith and merchant. 

Holbein’s talent became widely recognised and appreciated. As a dedicated patron of the arts, Henry VIII appoint him as court painter in 1536. Thereafter, he devoted most of his time to Royal commissions. He is known to have been living in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft in Aldgate in 1541 and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever worked at Whitehall Palace. In addition to his role as painter to Henry VIII, Holbein created the portraits of many of the King’s courtiers, as well as those of other prominent figures living in London. A number of painted portraits survive, mostly unsigned. In addition, the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle holds over eighty of preparatory portrait drawings. Holbein’s portraits and drawings provide an unrivalled depiction of the Tudor court and includes a striking image of Henry VIII. 

During Holbein’s stay in London the nature of immigration was changing. The Steelyard community had been a class of powerful merchants, influential but aloof, rich but reclusive. Members were welcomed in high society, but did not mix with Londoners in their day to day business. In the course of the century, immigration moved on from a transient presence of rich merchants to the permanent settlement of an artisan class whose members descended from the Low Countries in particular. This change brought about economic benefits to London and the Southeast, but the presence of a large number of strangers also created tension and outbreaks of anti-alien violence. As far as immigration is concerned, Holbein’s portraits represent an earlier period and a more static state of affairs in the capital.

A Fickle Friend: Lime Street (City of London)

The so-called album amicorum is a book of ‘autographs’ collected by wandering scholars as they roamed between universities. The craze started in the middle of the sixteenth century. A typical album page contains a poem or prose text in Latin or Greek (sometimes in Hebrew) and a formal greeting to the owner of the book. As part of the salutation there may be a heraldic shield or an emblematic picture. The best known example is the album of Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius. He started his collection in 1574 and continued doing so until his death in 1598. More than 130 of his contemporaries are represented. The cosmopolitan list of friends includes William Camden, Gerhard Mercator, Christopher Plantin, Philip Galle, Justus Lipsius, John Dee, Jean Bodin, and many others. The album represents a European community of learned friends.

Geographer and map-maker Abraham Ortelius was born in Antwerp. His ground-breaking Theatrum orbis terrarum first appeared in 1570 and continued to be published until 1612. It is considered the first atlas as we know it: a collection of uniform map sheets with additional text bound together to form a book. Ortelius supplied a useful source list to his work (the ‘Catalogus auctorum’ identifying the names of contemporary cartographers, and an ‘Index tabularum’, or a list of regions and place names). The original 1570 Latin edition consists of seventy maps on fifty-three sheets. The work cemented Ortelius’s reputation as a leading cartographer and made Flanders a centre of map-making activity, replacing Italy. After its initial release, Ortelius regularly expanded the atlas, re-issuing it in various formats until his death in 1598. In 1612, it had been expanded to 167 plans. By then, the accuracy of the work was called into question by more recent atlases produced in Amsterdam by the Blaeu family and Jodocus Hondius. Astonishingly, during four decades, thirty-one editions were printed in seven different languages.

Many signatories to Ortelius’s book of friends were part of the Lime Street community. A minor road leading from Fenchurch Street to Leadenhall Street, Lime Street was already mentioned in the twelfth century. John Stow (who himself resided in the street) suggests that the name was derived from the making or selling of lime in the area (for use in building and construction). The trade of lime-burners was perpetuated in the London district of Limehouse. The street is now best known as home to the insurer Lloyd’s of London. Lime Street however had a scientific reputation before it became a centre of finance and commerce. Since the 1570s it had been the focus of the European Republic Letters from where many local and refugee intellectuals exchanged ideas and information with their counterparts on the Continent.

In 1581, Antwerp-born merchant and historian Emanuel van Meteren was appointed Consul for ‘the Traders of the Low Countries in London’. Emanuel, a nephew of Abraham Ortelius, was an influential figure who was close to William the Silent, Prince of Orange. He was granted personal access to Henry Hudson’s (now lost) journals, charts, and logbooks which he used for his History of the Netherlands, a unique chronicle of the events of his time. Living among refugees from the Low Countries on Lime Street, he handled the correspondence to and from a number of local scientists in spite of politico-religious upheavals, making sure they received letters, books, maps, plant samples, tarantulas, caterpillars, or rhino horns, that were sent to them from colleagues living all over Europe.


Another outstanding member of this intellectual community was Flemish physician and botanist Mathias L’Obel. Better known under the Latinised name of Lobelius, he was court physician to the Prince of Orange in Delft where he served until his patron’s murder in 1584. In 1590 he was employed as superintendent of the well-stocked Hackney garden owned by the diplomat Edward, Lord Zouche, before being appointed in 1607 as ‘botanographer’ (responsible for describing plants) to the court of James I. It has been calculated that the earliest records of more than eighty English wild plants stand to his credit. He probably introduced the tulip to the country.


A major role in the group was played by Antwerp-born silk merchant Jacob Cool, known as Jacobus Colius Ortelianus (he was the nephew of Abraham Ortelius). His parents belonged to the Dutch-Walloon refugee community in London. He followed in his father’s footsteps as a cloth merchant, but his interests in cartography, poetry, numismatics, and botany came to dominate his life. His scientific pursuits formed the basis for his friendships with scholars such as William Camden, Van Meteren, Carolus Clusius, and Mathias de L’Obel (his father-in-law). He was in continuous contact with Abraham Ortelius in Antwerp through occasional visits and a regular correspondence. The latter send parcels of books and maps to his nephew (and sun flower seeds – a trendy urban garden flower at the time). Scientific contacts between London and Antwerp were close and constructive. Abraham himself resided in London for a time around 1576. Ortelius had been a collector of books and maps for his scholarly purposes. Jacob Cool inherited the collection, part of which he later donated to the library of Pembroke College, Cambridge, including the Liber amicorum. His correspondence was kept at the archives of the Dutch Church, Austin Friars. In an act of vandalism, the letters were sold at public auction in 1955. Today, they are spread throughout various libraries (the Royal Library at The Hague holds the largest number: 164 of the total of 376 letters).

Members of the Republic of Letters conducted research within the parameters of an accepted code of conduct in order to promote the flow of information and the acknowledgment of contributions of other researchers to one’s own studies (Ortelius’s Theatrum set a splendid example in that sense). Herbalist John Gerard’s botanical menagerie in Holborn was set outside of Lime Street, but it flourished because of the specimens and knowledge made available to him by the magnanimity of refugees from the Continent. He proved to be a fickle friend. By shamelessly plagiarising their research, and publishing Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) under his own name, he undermined the conventions of co-operation and dismissed his former scientific allies – most notably Lobelius who had greatly assisted him in his work. Gerard betrayed the spirit of the Lime Street community and abused the intellectual generosity governing relationships within the European Republic of Letters. He was the Boris Johnson of botany (himself an expert in the shape of bananas).

PISSING IN THE WIND: Great Queen Street (Covent Garden)

The Atlantic slave trade began in the mid-1400s and lasted into the nineteenth century. By the 1600s the Dutch contested the English and French for control of the trade, but England emerged as the dominant slave dealing nation. As the Empire expanded, slaves were sent across the seas to work on plantations in the Caribbean or the Americas. Small numbers were ferried into the ports of London, Liverpool, and Bristol. To hire African staff became a status symbol. Samuel Pepys employed a ‘blackmore’ cook, Dr Johnson engaged Jamaica-born manservant Francis Barber, and Royal Academy sculptor Joseph Nollekens recruited a female servant nicknamed Miss Bronze. 

In London, the number of black people increased sharply when slave soldiers who fought on the side of the British in the American Revolutionary War (Black Loyalists) arrived in the capital. These soldiers were deprived of pensions and forced into beggary. The high visibility of deprived black people in London is evidenced by William Hogarth’s 1738 engraving ‘Four Times a Day: Noon’. In 1801 Maria Edgeworth published her second novel Belinda. The story caused controversy as it features the marriage between an Englishwoman and a manumitted Jamaican slave. 

By the end of the eighteenth century the number of baptisms of black people was increasing. After conversion, Africans were given an English Christian name (John Baptist was a popular one). Notices of mixed marriages also grew. In 1773, a correspondent wrote to the LondonChronicle begging the public to save the ‘natural beauty of Britons’ from contamination. Simultaneously, the brutal nature of the slave trade gave rise to the abolitionist movement. The first protests were uttered by members of the Society of Friends. In 1783, a number of Quakers established the London Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade, Britain’s first anti-slavery society. 

Thomas Clarkson was educated at St Paul’s School, City of London, and St John’s, Cambridge. In 1785, he won the College’s annual essay prize on the topic Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare – is it lawful to enslave those who do not consent? Quaker bookseller James Phillips immediately published a translation of the Latin treatise as An Essay of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African. For Clarkson, it was the start of a lifetime of pamphleteering. The Essay led to the creation of an informal committee to lobby MPs (nine of the original twelve members were Quakers) which succeeded in recruiting William Wilberforce. 

Clarkson was asked to investigate proceedings in the ports of London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and supply abolitionists with factual information concerning the slave trade. His findings formed the substance of the twelve propositions which Wilberforce put to Parliament in his historic speech on 13 May 1789. The push for abolition found public support. William Cowper’s poem ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ (1788) struck a chord and was followed by another poem entitled ‘Pity for Poor Africans’. During the campaign Josiah Wedgwood was commissioned (1790) to create a seal that could be used to spread the message. It had a picture of a kneeling black man in chains with round the edge the words ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’. The jasperware plaque was turned into a campaigner’s badge. 

The ‘literary’ fight against slavery made an impression upon contemporaries. Olaudah Equiano was a former slave who, by the 1780s, lived as a free man in London where he joined the campaign against the trade. In March 1788 he sent personal letter ‘on behalf of my African brethren’ to Queen Charlotte. In the following year he published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, his autobiography. It tells of his kidnap in Nigeria, his being sold into slavery, his journey to the West Indies, his life as a slave, and the struggle to buy his freedom. Renamed Gustavus Vassa (the name he used throughout most of his life), he travelled to England in 1754, was converted to Christianity, and baptised at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. Equiano’s autobiography was a commercial success. Between 1789 and 1794, nine editions were published and the book was translated into many languages. Equiano’s autobiography was almost instantaneously translated into Dutch as Merkwaardige levensgevallen van Olaudah Equiano of Gustavus Vassus, den Afrikaan, published in 1790 by Pieter Holsteyn in Rotterdam (two years before the German translation; a French rendering did not appear until 2002). 

In 1807 the Slave Trade Act was passed prohibiting the practice in the British Empire. William Wordsworth celebrated the event by dedicating a sonnet to Thomas (‘Clarkson! it was an obstinate hill to climb’). A year later, Clarkson published a two-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade. The Act did not abolish slavery itself. In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was formed which eventually led to the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act a decade later. Clarkson presided over the opening session of the grand anti-slavery convention in the Freemasons Hall at Great Queen Street on 12 June 1840 (recorded in a painting by Benjamin Haydon). 

[More Dutch advertisements for slaves in the East Indies]

The voice of English abolitionists was heard in the Netherlands. Involvement in slave trafficking had started early and the Dutch were amongst the last to abandon the trade. After Denmark in 1803, Britain in 1834, and France in 1848, slavery was finally made illegal in the East Indies in 1862, and in Surinam and the Antilles a year later. The moral push towards abolition had been made much earlier. In 1822, Amsterdam publisher C.A. Spin simultaneously issued two translations of anti-slavery documents. One is Clarkson’s De kreet der Afrikanen tegen hunne Europeesche verdrukkers; the other title is Aanspraak aan de volken van Europa over den slavenhandel by Josiah Forster, a leading Quaker abolitionist. There was, it seemed, British-inspired pressure in the Netherlands to abolish slavery. Why then took it so long for the Dutch government to act and allow the pro-slavery lobby to protect its economic stake in the practice?

History is made by people. No single person determines the course of development, yet one cannot exclude the ‘subjective factor’ in historical discourse. Individual audacity – or lack of it – is part of the social struggle. Mid-twentieth century historians argued that slave emancipation in England owed little to the efforts of abolitionists. Slavery had become an obsolete economic system which collapsed because it was no longer fit for purpose. This interpretation is untenable. At times of crisis or major socio-economic transformation, strategic leadership is of crucial importance. The campaign by a vocal anti-slavery lobby did have an impact and the relentless efforts made by Clarkson and his Quaker friends paid off. The Dutch movement lacked decisive governance able to assail vested interests. Abolitionism never attracted more than a few hundred activists who were good-willing academics or God-fearing ministers. Crusaders, not enforcers; preachers, not protesters, they were pissing in the wind.

Wedgwood jasperware plaque ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’ (1790).

Painter, Poet, Pimp | Bow Street (Covent Garden)

The death of Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II marked the end of a period of state control and repression. The overthrow of the Interregnum unleashed an explosion of energy. London came to life again. Print and ballad sellers, singers, actors, fiddlers, contortionists, and whores, they all returned to their former trades and crafts. They were joined by hawkers who flocked into London to supply its inhabitants with food and necessities. The calamity of the Great Fire had robbed the city of countless shops and half of its public markets. With the Restoration in full swing, the buzzing London streets were mirrored in prints and drawings leading to renewed interest in a traditional pictorial genre.

Pictures of street hawkers, with their trade shouts recorded in captions of poetry or prose, are known as ‘Cries’. They appeared first in print in Paris about 1500. Fifty years later, these images were established as a stylistic category across Europe. The Cries of London is one of the older genres in English art. The first ensembles appeared at the start of the 1600s. The attraction of the genre was not surprising. Between 1520 and 1600, after a period of social unrest and instability, the number of vagabonds had increased sharply. The dissolution of monasteries and the disbanding of armies back from recent wars contributed to the multiplication of homeless people. London was a city of vagrants. Life was lived in the street. Men, women, and children competed with each other to make a living, and sell whatever they could lay their hands on. The ‘Cries’ are an expression of this London.

Around 1660, Marcellus Laroon moved from the Netherlands to Yorkshire. The son of exiled Huguenot painter Marcel Lauron, he was educated and trained at The Hague. After a rich marriage to Elizabeth Keene, a builder’s daughter of Little Sutton near Chiswick, the couple settled at no. 4 Bow Street, Covent Garden. From there, he was able to observe his ‘pittoresque’ subjects as they passed on their way to London’s busiest fruit and vegetable market. Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life was originally published in 1687 by Pierce Tempest, and reprinted in 1688, 1689, and 1709. The seventy-four plates depict the cries and costumes (a ‘grammar’ of contemporary costume) of street peddlers. Below the frame, the hawker’s cry appears in English, French, and Italian, underlining the wide commercial appeal of these prints. Laroon showed his characters exactly as he had seen them (including their deformities), simpletons, charlatans, religious fanatics, industrious workers, drunken drifters, and promiscuous women. Laroon’s ensemble of prints would forever change the genre in British art. Early depictions of hawkers were type characters of men and women representing their trade. Laroon’s vendors are individuals, a class of people with their own energy and spark.

Charles II’s ’merry’ reign witnessed a change from puritanical restraint to uninhibited libertinism. It created an atmosphere in which the business prospects of brothel keepers flourished again. Madam [Mother] Elizabeth Creswell began her career as a prostitute in London during the 1650s. A stunning beauty, and living in grand style, she attracted the company of politicians, courtiers, and celebrities. A decade later, she was established as the prosperous owner of bordellos in Camberwell, Clerkenwell, and Moorfields. Later in life she regretted her sins, dressed soberly, and found religion. Laroon left two images of Madam Creswell (plates 51 and 52) which are linked. They tell a moral tale about harlotry: one plate shows a young woman, attractive, spirited, and well dressed; the other, an aged bawd, wrinkled, and tired of immorality.

London’s first warm bath in the Oriental fashion was built in 1679. Lined and floored with luxurious marble, it was located at Pentecost (Pincock) Lane. John Strype described the facility as being much in use and ‘resorted unto for Sweating, being found very good for aches, etc. and approved by our Physicians’. It proved so popular that the name of the location was changed to (Royal) Bagnio Court, later to Bagnio Street, and then (in 1843) Bath Street. In 1885, for reasons unknown, the street was renamed Roman Bath Street. A dead end road for those researching the history of migration – there is no Roman connection.

The word bagnio originally pointed to a Turkish-style public bathhouse, but in the course of the eighteenth century it acquired a darker connotation as is made clear by William Hogarth in ‘The Bagnio’, the fifth canvas in the series of six satirical paintings known as ‘Marriage-à-la-mode’ (1743/5). The tale is set in the Turk’s Head Bagnio in Bow Street. By then, the bagnio had become the equivalent of a massage parlour or brothel. During the first decades of the eighteenth century Covent Garden had become the capital’s hedonistic heart, an area where life was turned into a carnival. Its main establishments were the Shakespeare’s Head tavern and the Bedford Coffee House where, at some time or another, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Foote, Tobias Smollett, or Henry Fielding would enjoy a drink or two and meet fellow artists. Covent Garden was an inspiration to them, an incubator of creativity.

Its shadowy side was outlined by Henry Fielding in Jonathan Wild (1743) where he points to ‘eating-houses in Covent Garden, where female flesh is deliciously dressed and served up to the greedy appetites of young gentlemen’. One of those youngsters was James Boswell who liked to pick up young girls (Journal 1762/3) in the area. He paid a heavy penalty. Boswell suffered from at least twenty bouts of the syphilis (which was treated with mercury pills and plaster, camphor liniments, or even some minor surgery), and probably died as a result of it.

There is a remarkable record of Covent Garden’s carnal pleasures which we owe to a Dublin linen draper named Samuel Derrick. In 1751 he decided to give up his profession, move to London, and settle in Covent Garden to commit himself to literature and the stage. A lover of wine and women, he was a mediocre poet, and a poor actor. Debts started to haunt him. Enter Jack Harris (properly known as John Harrison), chief waiter at the Shakespeare’s Head and self-proclaimed ‘Pimp-General of All England’. Harris kept a handwritten and detailed record of over four hundred names of the capital’s ‘votaries of Venus’, giving names and addresses of the women concerned, with physical characteristics, biographical notes, specialised services, and charges. Pimp and (failed) poet agreed on publication. Derrick turned Harris’s ledger into an entertaining chronicle of women walking Covent Garden’s Piazza. Its success was overwhelming.

The annual List of Covent Garden Ladies appeared from 1757 to 1795 and sold over a quarter of a million copies during that period. In 1757, the List was on sale in the Shakespeare’s Head tavern and in the nearby brothel ran by ‘Mother’ Jane Douglas. Later, the list was made more widely available. Such was the public anticipation that its publisher H. Ranger of Temple Bar, Fleet Street, started advertising a full range of Harris’s Lists in the newspapers. As ‘ranger’ was a slang word for philanderer at the time, it was clear that the publisher’s name was a pseudonym. It proved to be a sensible precaution as Jack Harris was arrested in 1758. Derrick continued to edit the List until his death, when he passed the proceeds of his final edition to his former mistress, the courtesan and brothel-keeper, Charlotte Hayes. The authors of the List after 1769 are unknown. The work was discontinued in 1795 after a group of social critics demanded the prosecution of those responsible for its publication. The moral spirit of the age was changing.

Dr Marten’s Poxy Book (Hatton Garden (Camden)

In June 1660, Charles II left the Low Countries, departing from Scheveningen beach. Many Royalists who had been exiled for over a decade made their way back to London, together with the various delegations that had visited the king in the Dutch Republic. Cromwell’s former flagship Naseby, that was sent to transport the king back home, was renamed Royal Charles for the occasion. The days of Royalist despair were over. Their joyful departure was painted by Johannes Lingelbach. Adriaan Vlacq (who had spent part of his career in London) published a richly illustrated folio account of Charles’s stay in the Low Countries in an English, Dutch, and French edition. Charles entered London on 29 May 1660 to reclaim the throne. He was thirty years old. 

Charles gathered an unconventional set of people around him and the subsequent revival of drama showed a marked orientation towards licence. Playwrights such as Buckingham, Rochester, George Etherege, or Charles Sedley were known libertines who, by challenging traditional visions of marriage and family life, fashioned an alternative socio-cultural model. Restoration court culture was both explicit and political. In his play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery (1684) John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, linked Charles’s sexual debauchery to his absolutist political ambitions: ‘My pintle shall my only sceptre be [and] with my prick I’ll govern all the land’. In poetry traditional standards were under attack too. The unrivalled leader of poetic ribaldry was the Earl of Rochester. In his lyrics he embodied all that the Puritan mind found intolerable. 

In 1678, Dutch author Adrianus van Beverland had anonymously published his Peccatus originale. With quotations taken from the Bible, the author claims that the only sin of Adam and Eve was their ‘conversatio carnalis’. The original sin simply was the erotic stimulus present in every human being. The book infuriated the authorities. When in 1679 a second revised edition appeared with the author’s name on the title page, Van Beverland was banned from the country. He fled to England and lived for years under the patronage of Leiden-born philologist Isaac Vossius who, in 1670, had been invited to Cambridge as protégé of John Pearson, Master of Trinity College. His name remains linked to the publication of ‘scandalous’ books of which the Peccatus remains the most notorious one. 

Van Beverland was the most libertine writer of his era. His presence coincided with a flourishing of erotic literature in the Dutch Republic – part and parcel of the rise of the radical Enlightenment – during (roughly) the last three decades of the seventeenth century. In spite of a reputation for tolerance, the Republic was one of the first nations to issue a separate decree to censure lascivious books. The ban did not stop Dutch erotic literature finding its way to the English market. De Haagsche lichtmis (1679) was translated as The London Bully, or The Prodigal Son (1683); and D’openhertige juffrouw (1680) as The London Jilt, or The Politic Whore (1683; a second corrected edition appeared in 1684). 

Erotic literature was intermixed with other genres and subgenres. Bodies were represented by metaphor or suggestion. Medical treatises vacillated between lectures about venereal disease and lurid tales of sexual behaviour. On one page the author recommends mercury as a cure for syphilis, on the next he points at red-haired women for having ‘dangerous’ passions. The author in this case is surgeon John Marten who, residing in Hatton Garden, Camden, published his first extant work in 1706.  It concerns a ‘translation’ from the Latin of Treatise of the Safe, Internal Use of Cantharides, a study originally published in 1698 by Joannes Groenevelt (a Deventer-born physician who had settled in London in 1675). The latter had made the use of cantharides (or Spanish fly) widely known in England. Martin almost doubled the size of the original by adding numerous tales of a lascivious nature. The work became known as Dr Marten’s ‘poxy book’. 

In 1741 Thomas Stretser, writing under the French-sounding pseudonym Roger Pheuquewell, produced one of the more striking books to emerge from this period of oddities, entitled A New Description of Merryland. Using the scientific language of geography, he compares the female anatomy to a foreign coastline and sexual activity to a journey of discovery. In the same year he shrewdly published a detailed critique of his own work entitled Merryland Displayed in which he explained the origin of the idea. While reading a passage on the Low Countries in Patrick Gordon’s Geographical Grammar, he had been struck by the similarities between the Dutch coastline and the shape of the female anatomy. Those parts of the country that are ‘best inhabited are generally the moistest; and Naturalists tell us, this Moisture contributes much to its Fruitfulness; where it is dry, it seldom proves fruitful, nor agreeable to the Tiller …’.

Between the 1720s and the 1770s a range of risqué pamphlets were published that maintained an appearance of respectability by choosing a Latin word in preference to an English one and a metaphor rather than a bald description such as The Electrical Eel; or, Gymnotus Electricus, and the Torpedo; a Poem (ca. 1777), etc. Such works were published either anonymously or the authors used suggestive pseudonyms (Philogynes Clitorides, Paddy Strong Cock, or Timothy Touchit). During that period the London erotic market was dominated by the activities of a single bookseller and publisher, a man nicknamed the ‘Unspeakable Curll’. 

Edmund Curll had arrived in London from the West of England in 1698/9 and was apprenticed to the bookseller Richard Smith before setting up his own business in the Strand. He soon was in trouble with the authorities for publishing A Treatise of the Use of Flogging in Venereal Affairs (1718), was a translation by George Sewell of a Latin text that had been around since at least 1639. The book had been written for the instruction of physicians, but Curll added a sexually orientated frontispiece, and ensured that the title-page would clarify for the reader what the book’s genre was: ‘Printed for E. Curll, in Fleet-Street …where may be had, The Cases of Impotency; and Eunuchism and Onanism Display’d’. Curll always looked for juicy titles. Books were commodities, the rapping more important than the content. He was quick to discover that a ‘succès de scandale’ can be extremely lucrative. Controversy creates attention and notoriety. In literature, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Jaap Harskamp is a contributor to the New York History Blog at Jaap Harskamp, Author at The New York History Blog

Canaries and Other Migrants

Birds represent crucial aspects of Christian teaching. The dove signifies the Holy Spirit as well as marking peace and purity; the eagle, like the phoenix, is a symbol of the Resurrection; the pelican stands for the passion of Jesus and the Eucharist; the peacock symbolises immortality; the lark refers to humility; the blackbird represents sin and temptation. One can go on. The robin, owl, partridge, swallow, raven, stork, goose, goldfinch, woodpecker, even the sparrow, are invested with meaning – but not the canary. And yet, the songbird is unique. It is is our only feathered friend that participated in the Reformation.

In origin, the canary was a Catholic bird. When Spanish sailors first reached the Canary Islands in the fifteenth century, they were charmed by its song. They caught the creatures and shipped them home. Having conquered and claimed the Islands in 1500, the Spanish trade in canaries boomed. Soon they were being bred on the mainland and sold to Italian and Swiss admirers, with monasteries holding a monopoly on the business. The monks only sold male birds and there was no canary-breeding beyond the cloister walls. Italian bird traders eventually broke that possessorship by getting their hands on female birds and beginning the process of selective breeding (with a wider colour range). The birds spread outwards from Italy on trading routes into Europe. The canary was warmly received and coolly caged in France and Flanders – and became associated with the history of Protestant migration from these regions.

In 1564, Queen Elizabeth had allowed a number of Flemish families to settle in Norwich. The process began when local authorities approached Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, for assistance in establishing an alien community to arrest the decay of the town precipitated by the decline of its worsted manufacture. The arrival of ‘strangers’ marked the city’s revival. It set a precedent. Upon reports in 1567 that the Duke of Alva was heading towards the Southern Netherlands with a large army, vast numbers of people fled from town and country. This was the most serious uprooting that early modern Europe had experienced. By the early 1570s some 10,000 refugees were estimated to have moved across the Channel. This, the first major influx of refugees during the reign of Eliabeth coincided with a period of social and economic instability in England. Protestant immigrants from the Low Countries were welcomed because of their religion and economic utility, yet at the same time an increasing number of aliens in the country was feared as a possible ‘fifth column’ in the struggle with the Catholic Church. From the beginning asylum has been accompanied by varying degrees of xenophobia and resentment.

Norwich housed the largest provincial immigrant community of the late sixteenth century. The newcomers grew flowers and vegetables unknown before in England; Jasper Andries and Jacob Janson, refugees from Antwerp, started a business making tiles and pottery; Anthony Solen introduced the craft of printing in 1570 for which he was presented with the freedom of the city (the Solen Press is still active in Norwich). Refugees did not just bring their individual skills, but they also introduced new pastimes and hobbies. In Flanders, canary-breeding had become a passion which was exported to Norwich (the ‘Norwich canary’ became a popular breed). In 1902, Norwich City football club was formed. Its players were soon nicknamed ‘the canaries’ with matching club match and team colours of yellow shirts, green shorts, and yellow socks.

During the reign of Elisabeth I, Flemish and Frenchimmigrants had already been involved in establishing the English silk industry. With the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 large numbers of skilled Huguenot weavers crossed the Channel, most of them settling in the hamlets of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. They set up their looms there and manufactured large quantities of lustrings, velvets, brocades, satins, and silks that could previously only be procured from Lyons and Tours. Powerful mercers and master weavers inhabited grand premises in the Old Artillery Ground, Spitalfields, controlling the journeymen weavers who worked from more modest homes in neighbouring streets. They instructed local Londoners to produce these goods themselves and many pupils soon equaled or rivaled their teachers. For generations to come, Spitalfields would be associated with silk.

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Since 1681 Huguenot refugees were allowed to obtain a patent of denisation, which brought with it the right to own property. Naturalisation guaranteed a range of additional rights, but was only possible by a private Act of Parliament. Few were able to choose that option because of forbidding costs. In March 1709 the Whig government passed the Foreign Protestants Naturalisation Act, stating that any alien who swore allegiance to Church and government would be naturalised and enjoy all the rights held by English-born citizens (for the cost of a shilling). Opposition to the Act was strong. The canto Canary-birds Naturaliz’d in Utopia was published in 1709 by the Booksellers of London and Westminster with the intention of manipulating public opinion against the government. The poem’s title refers to the canaries that Huguenot silk weavers kept in cages besides their looms to entertain them while they were at work. Because of continuous protest, the Act was largely repealed by the Tories in 1711. To this day, Tories stoke the fear of foreigners. Ideally, they want to create an environment so hostile that even migratory birds, unless they have received permission from the Home Office, would refrain from shitting on British soil.

[Canary called Boris]

Fag End Patriotism – Commercial Road (Whitechapel)

Linguist Luis de Torres accompanied Columbus on his first voyage to America as an interpreter. A Jew at the time of the Inquisition, he was forced to convert to Catholicism before setting sail in August 1492. The voyage coincided with the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. Legend has it that he settled in Cuba, learned the use of tobacco, and brought the weed to Europe. Since then, Jews have been associated with the tobacco trade.

The early market was a virtual Spanish monopoly. That changed in 1612 when colonist John Rolfe in Virginia successfully planted some seeds of Nicotiana tabacum which he had obtained from Trinidad. The Anglo-American tobacco industry was born, but planting and cultivation proved to be labour intensive activities and the settlers required more manpower. Jamestown’s trading problems were solved when a Dutch trading ship dropped anchor in the estuary of Chesapeake Bay in 1619. The colonists were offered twenty ‘negars’ (the term used by Rolfe for African slaves) who were set to work in the tobacco fields. Slavery became essential to the colony’s tobacco-based economy. European cravings for a good smoke created the slave trade.

The ambivalent attitude towards the new social phenomenon of smoking is summarised by the actions of James I. He attacked the habit as a ‘barbarous custom’ in his Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604), but was the first to put taxes on a weed he despised. Mixed feelings were expressed by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). He enthusiastically praised the medicinal qualities of the weed: ‘Tobacco, divine, rare, super-excellent tobacco … a sovereign remedy to all diseases’; but in the same paragraph he expresses disgust with the common ‘plague’ of smoking for pleasure: ‘hellish devilish and damnd tobacco, the ruine and overthrow of body and soule’. Panacea or pest – this contrasting view was manifest in all nations where the tobacco craze took hold.

Whilst tobacco was widely consumed and praised for its curative powers across Europe, it was banned in Russia under strict legislation imposed by the Romanov’s. Although the ban did not exclude tobacco entirely from the country – foreigners (Dutch and English merchants in particular) imported it for their own use and rampant smuggling of American tobacco was sponsored by the English authorities – it did restrict the product’s circulation. Those who transgressed the law were punished with beatings, the slitting of nostrils, or threats of death. Peter the Great reversed the ban in 1698, allowing the import of Virginia tobacco from England, thus creating a lucrative Royal monopoly at the same time. Smoking was legalised by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Opposition from religious and medical critics remained strong. The use of tobacco was condemned as sinful, as a cause of impotence, or as an impetus to criminal behaviour (murder according to Leo Tolstoy in his 1890 essay ‘Why Do People Stupefy Themselves?’).

The Russian ban on tobacco opened up a niche for Jewish entrepreneurs who were exluded from most other domains of commercial enterprise. They stepped in to supply the underground demand for tobacco, exploring new territories for the plant’s cultivation, and developing their own variations. They benefitted from the fact that smoking in Jewish law was treated with tolerance (but not without ambiguity). Many rabbis hailed tobacco’s benefits to health, as it was a means of aiding blood circulation, helping digestion, and being a curative for many afflictions. Some questioned whether a blessing ought to be recited upon smoking, since the pleasure derived from it resembled that of eating or drinking. Others opposed the habit.

In the course of the nineteenth century, Russians and Ukrainians changed from the use of snuff or cigars to the inhalation of cigarette smoke. Compared to other European nations, they consumed tobacco of high nicotine content. Russia became a major tobacco producer and Jews were involved in its production, distribution, and consumption. Elderly Jewish women used snuff; younger women joined the men smoking cigarettes. So prevalent was the habit that efforts were made to prohibit smoking and snuffing in places of worship. In 1861, merchant Leyba Shereshevsky founded a tobacco factory in Grodno, Belarus. It became one of the biggest enterprises in the Russian Empire and a major artery in the city’s industrial production. Modern, mechanised, and efficient, the company was in Jewish hands and employed a pre-dominantly Jewish work force. Russia became (and remains) a heavy smoker.

Once the pogroms were set into murderous motion, production was taken out of Jewish hand (the ransacking of tobacco stores was a frequently reported occurrence in the explosion of anti-semitic violence). Some of those connected with the industry escaped to London where they build new cigarette empires. Julius Wix, Abraham Melinsky, Jacob Millhoff, and Major Drapkin, all arrived in the capital during the 1880s and established themselves in the Commercial Road area. These entrepreneurs ran their firms in close proximity to each other and at times in partnership, producing exotic oriental brands such as Kensitas, De Reszke, Mahalla, Pera, Mek-Bul, Yenidje, and others. They also introduced various legendary tobacco card series (originally used in America since the mid-1870s as ‘stiffeners’ to firm up the package) which were widely collected by cartophiles and are still on offer as popular items on eBay. With increasing commercial success the factory owners settled away from Whitechapel in the (then) leafy suburbs of West Hampstead, Kilburn, or Cricklewood.

The most successful of Jewish refugee cigarette manufacturers was Louis Rothman who was born in Kiev in 1869, then a part of the Russian Empire. As a youngster, he gained experience of the trade whilst apprenticed to his uncle who was in control of the largest cigarette manufacturer in South Russia. He moved to London in 1887 where he earned a living as a cigarette maker in Whitechapel and then used his savings to set up his own business, selling hand-rolled cigarettes from a small kiosk in Fleet Street (reputed to have been the smallest shop in the City of London). Around the same time he married Jane Weiner, who was also a Russian immigrant. Rothman became a naturalised British subject in 1896. From 1900 he relocated to 5a Pall Mall. His leading brand became Pall Mall cigarettes, containing a blend of South Carolina tobacco and Virginia leaf. In 1913, he merged interest with the company controlled by Marcus Weinberg, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, creating the Yenidje Tobacco Company. The partners clashed and in 1917 Rothman bought out full control of the venture. Sydney Rothman entered into partnership with his father from the early 1920s and helped to push the firm’s success to new levels. In 1922, they started to sell cigarettes by mail order through the Rothman’s Direct-to-Smoker service. Rothman & Co became a public company in 1929 and was the largest mail-order cigarette manufacturer in Britain by 1932. The business was acquired by British American Tobacco in 1999 and to this day Rothmans remains one of its leading brands. Ironically, Louis Rothman died of lung cancer in 1926 at his home at no. 225 Walm Lane, Cricklewood.

Under the Bolsheviks, the crusade against the weed was renewed. Lenin’s first real campaign was an attempt to introduce anti-tobacco legislation. The Commissar of Public Health, Nikolai Alexandrovich Semashko, established an ambitious ‘kick the habit’ program that may have failed at the time, but was a precursor – both in content and presentation – to later battles in the war on smoking. For the time being, the march of the smoker could not be halted. New to the First World War was the fact that governments classified the industry as essential to the war effort and authorised the inclusion of tobacco and rolling papers in the troops’s rations. The state acted as supplier. Members of the public were encouraged to help out. Supplying a soldier with ciggies (although known as ‘coffin nails’) was promoted as an act of patriotism. There were no smoke-free zone in the lines of battle. Enveloped in fumes, all life in the trenches was extinguished. Dead bodies and fag ends – just that. The Second World War further boosted business. Over one billion Rothmans cigarettes were supplied to the British armed forces during the conflict. After two world wars, the tobacco industry emerged as the sole victor.