Caught by the River

The World of Thomas Turner #3

Mathew Clayton | 29th April 2019

A new instalment of Mathew Clayton’s monthly column exploring the daily life of a Sussex village in the middle of the 18th century, as recorded in the diary of Thomas Turner. With original illustrations by the author and artist Peter Chrisp.

‘There is an abiding aroma of antiquity about the Southdown Country…For among the South Downs are dotted little villages and hamlets…so far off the beaten track that there is literally no highway through them and the village street wanders hillwards and like Elijah’s servant, ‘goes no whither’ shading off into mere cart and sheep tracks on the gradient of the Downs’.

The Reliquary: a quarterly journal devoted to the study of early Pagan and Christian Antiquities of Great Britain, 1902.

Thomas spent most of his time in and around his home village of East Hoathly in ‘Southdown Country’, it was off the beaten track but that didn’t mean that he was ignorant of the wider world. He was a voracious reader, his tastes ranged from the plays of Shakespeare to contemporary novels like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa from philosophical tracts like John Locke’s An essay concerning human understanding to practical volumes such as A Mechanical account of poisons.

On Thursday 23 March, 1758 he reflected on his love of reading in his customary self-depreciating style…

‘I believe by a too eager thirst after knowledge I have oftentimes, to gratify that insatiable humour, been at too great an expense in buying books and spending rather too much time in reading, for it seems to be the only diversion that I have any appetite for. Reading and study (might I be allowed the phrase) would in a manner be both meat and drink to me, were my circumstances independent’.

Books were a social experience, evenings with his wife or friends where often spent reading to each other. And whilst Thomas’s tastes were wide ranging, it would be wrong to characterise them as cutting edge. He read a lot of rather boring looking sermons and regularly returned to – the Heat magazine of its day – Burke’s Peerage. He was slightly defeated by Lawrence Sterne’s modernist masterpiece, ‘In the even Mr Tipper* read to me part of a – I know not what to call it but Tristram Shandy.’

It is unclear how Turner came to love books so much, he was the son of a shopkeeper so in all likelihood he was self-educated. He never explicitly talks about the importance of education but in 1755 he set up a village school – a rare thing at the time.

His knowledge of world affairs also benefited by a chance of geography — just outside East Hoathly was Halland House. It was owned at the time of Turner’s diary by Thomas Pelham- Holles, more commonly known as the Duke of Newcastle: a Whig politician who exerted considerable influence in running of the country for over four decades. During the period that Turner wrote the diary he was Prime Minister. This was the Georgian age when Britain was ruled by the German house of Hanover. It started with George I (1714 – 1727), who was the 52nd in line to the throne and only ascended due to the 1703 Act of Settlement that decreed all monarchs had to be Protestant. He never wanted to be king, didn’t learn the language and was widely unpopular. His son George II (1727 – 1760) was born in Germany and also spoke English poorly, didn’t get on with the Duke of Newcastle, and during one argument his poor command of the language led the Duke to believe he had been challenged to a duel. Halland was one of many residences owned by Newcastle; he only visited Sussex intermittently but when he did there was often some form of celebration – with guests from the local nobility and members of the government (at the time these two groups were indistinguishable) joining him for feasting and drinking.

There were also public days when the local community were invited to visit, a bonfire was lit and food and beer distributed. On one occasion Thomas visited simply to view some large turtles.

Saturday 8 December 1759
‘About 5.30 walked down to Halland (previous to my invitation yesterday) there being a rejoicing on account that Admiral Hawke hath dispersed fleet which was preparing to invade this nation. The engagement happened near Belle Isle. The advantage gained by our fleet was but small, only burning two French ships, sunk two and took one, and at the same time we had the misfortune to lose two which ran ashore in the night, and, as they could not be got off, the Admiral destroyed them. This engagement is looked on as a great advantage, on account it has entirely disconcerted their schemes so that in all probability their thoughts of invading these nations must be laid by for some time. There was a fire of 8 hundred faggots, a discharge of canon and a considerable quantity of beer given away amongst the populace, and we had a supper of a cold sirloin of roast beef and bread and cheese… We drank a great many loyal healths (and even too many). I came home about 11.15 after staying in Mr Porter’s wood near an hour and a half, the liquor operating so much in the head that it rendered my legs useless’.

(N.B. this Belle Isle lies off the coast of Brittany, and is not to be confused with Belle Isle near Detroit familiar to fans of American songstress Anna Burch, who wrote about a night spent making out there on her 2018 album Quit the Curse.)

Friday 30 June 1758
‘I think I have a very great dread upon my spirits about tonight’s entertainment, for as I drink anything strong so seldom, I am thoroughly sensible a very little will make me drunk. Oh, a melancholy thing to deprive oneself of reason and even to render ourselves beasts! But what can I do in this affair? If I stay at home, I shall be stigmatized with the name of being a poor singular fellow; so I must be guilty of an indecency to please the multitude.

About 5.20 I went down to Halland where, after casting up a large account of wood, faggots etc for Mr Coates I entered the list of drinkers… We drank health and success to his Majesty and the royal family, the King of Prussia, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, Lord Anson, His Grace the Duke of Newcastle and his Duchess, Lord Abergavenny, Admiral Boscawen, Mr Pelham of Stanmer, the Earl of Ancram, the Earl of Ashburnham, Lord Gage, Marshall Keith and several more loyal healths. But at about 10.10 finding myself to begin to be in liquor, and finding it impossible to sit there without drinking of bumpers as fast as could be poured out, I deserted and came safe home, but to my shame do I mention it, very much in liquor’.

Saturday 1 July 1758
‘Terrible bad with the headache… very bad all day, though no more than I deserve’.

Between 1756-1763 Britain was engaged in the 7 Year War, a global struggle that involved all major European countries and was fought across five continents. But mainly Britain was fighting the French which is probably the reason for Thomas following observations…

Thursday 3 August 1758
‘In the even the Duke of Newcastle came to Halland… What seems very surprising to me in the Duke of Newcastle is that he countenances so many Frenchmen, there being ten of his servants, cooks etc which was down here of that nation.’

Sunday 5 August 1759
I spent most part of the day in going to and from Halland, there being a public day, where there was to dine with his Grace the Duke of Newcastle, the Earls of Ashburnham and Northampton, Lord Viscount Gage, the Lord Abergavenny and two judges of the assize and a great number of gentlemen there being, I think, upwards of forty coaches, chariots etc. I came home at seven, not thoroughly sober. I think it is a scene that loudly calls for the detestation of all serious and considerating people to see the Sabbath profaned and turned into a day of luxury and debauchery, there being no less than ten cooks, four of which are French, and perhaps fifty more, as busy as if it had been a rejoicing day. There was such huzzaing that made the foundations (almost) of the house to shake and all this by the order and the approbation of almost the next man to the King’.

When the Duke of Newcastle wasn’t in residence, Halland was looked after by a steward, Mr Coates, who appears at many of the same parties that Thomas attended and regularly appears in the diary. Coates left the job in 1766, and remarkably, the correspondence of his successor and overseer Abraham Baley has survived. In it he takes a rather sour view of his predecessor, claiming that Coates charged for a gardener when there wasn’t one and, ‘he has strip’d the orchard of every apple in it and gave them away to his servants who hawk’d them about the country for sale. All this was done so quick that I could not possibly have any intelligence of it, nor could I indeed have supposed it possible that any man living could have attempted (to give it no other name) so strange an act’.

Sadly the era of bumpers drunk as fast as could be poured was not to last. The Duke died on November 17 1768, his brother inherited, he already had a house at Stanmer Park just outside Brighton and decided, I think for tax purposes, to dismantle Halland. He didn’t sell the land. On May 29, 1769 and the four following days a great sale of furniture and effects was held. Listed in the catalogue is one lot that reflects the great parties that until so recently had rung through this great Elizabethan home; a set of 23 punch bowls sold for £1.

*Thomas had many friends but few left historical records behind – Mr Tipper is an exception. He ran a brewery in Newhaven, remembered for its strong dark ‘Old Stingo’ beer. In Charles Dickens novel Martin Chuzzlewit, the character Mrs Gamp, ‘took a pint of the celebrated staggering ale, old Brighton Tipper’. I love the idea of a staggering ale! Tipper was one of the driving forces behind the building of a new bridge across the Ouse, this is commemorated on his grave which also has this wonderful epitaph which I think explains why he got on with Thomas so well…

Reader, with kind regard this grave survey
Nor needless pass where Tipper’s ashes lay
Honest he was, ingenious, blunt and kind
And dared do what few do, speak his mind
Philosophy and History he knew
Was versed in Physick and Surgery too
The best Old Stingo he brewed and sold
Nor did one knavish thing to get his Gold
He played through life a varied comic part
And knew immortal Hudibras by heart
Reader, in real truth such was the man
Be better, wiser, laugh more if you can

(‘Hudibras’ was a mock-heroic poem written by Samuel Butler published in 1663 that poked fun at Puritans)