Friday, 13 April 2018

A slaver's memorial; Sir Fisher Tench (1673-1736) St Mary the Virgin, Leyton

The Tench memorial commemorates an era when human trafficking was a respectable career choice

On Tuesday the 9th November 1736 the immensely wealthy London merchant Sir Fisher Tench was buried with great ceremony in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Leyton. The popular almanac The Political State of Great Britain printed for T Cooper at the Globe in Paternoster Row gives a unusually detailed account of the obsequies:

The late Sir Fisher Tench, Bart, having given very particular Funeral directions for his Interment on Tuesday the 9th of November.  About Three in the Afternoon his Corpse was carried through his fine Gardens and Grounds adjoining (as directed in his Will) to Low Layton Church in the following Manner First Six Conductors in Black Gowns and Scarves with Staffs. Then six poor Boys leading as many poor Girls all cloathed in dark Grey with Black Hatbands and Gloves; these had five shillings a Piece given them, also a Bible with a Common-Prayer Book which they carried under their Arms. Then six old Men leading as many old Women who were cloathed as the Boys and Girls; to each of these were given ten Shillings and a Book entitled The Whole Duty of Man which they carried under their Arms.  Then the Clerk and two Clergymen. Then came the Corpse of the Deceased in a Coffin with Black Velvet with a gilt Plate (expressing that he died October 31 Aged 63) borne by six poor Men, covered with a Pall of Black Velvet.  Sir Nathaniel Tench Bart, his only son followed as chief Mourner.  Then fourteen Servants of the Deceased seven Men and seven Women walked two and two in deep Mourning. Then ten Tradesmen who served the Deceased walked two and two in Black Cloaks, Hatbands and Gloves, and they closed the Procession;  and the Corpse was interred a little after Four in the Family Vault on the west Side of the Church yard and Tomorrow a Funeral Sermon will be preached at Low Leyton Church.

18th century funeral procession

Sir Fisher left instructions and 10 Guineas in his will for the preaching of a funeral sermon based on Ecclesiastes 2.4; ‘I made me great Works, I builded me Houses, I planted me Vineyards, I made me Gardens and Orchards and I planted Trees…’ (The London Magazine of November 1736 commented "Words exceedingly applicable to the house and gardens of that gentleman at Low Layton, which are reckoned among the most elegant in the country; & at the same time most beautifully set forth the vanity of all sublunary enjoyments.") As well as the day after the funeral, the sermon was to be preached on the following Sunday ‘by the Rev Mr Capoon but he not coming down as was expected a Clergyman in the Neighbourhood did the Duty of the Day but the Sermon was not then preached though there was a very numerous Congregation assembled to hear the same…’ observed The Political State.  In the months following the funeral his son raised the now grade II listed Portland stone memorial over the family vault that dominates the view of the churchyard from the street.
 
Sir Fisher was a hugely successful city merchant who transformed himself into a country gentleman. He was born in 1673, the son of Nathaniel Tench, Governor of the Bank of England from 1699 to 1701. Sir Fisher was an Assistant in the Royal African Company (prime movers in the triangular trade of shipping manufactured goods to Africa, slaves to the Caribbean and sugar to Europe), a Director of the South Sea Company (again heavily involved in slaving as well as causing the speculative mania known as the South Sea Bubble which ruined hundreds of investors in 1720) and owned a plantation in Virginia (worked, of course, by slaves). He had political as well as business interests and was High Sheriff of Essex in 1711 and became an MP for Southwark in 1713. In 1715 he was made a Baronet. He built the most magnificent mansion in Leyton in the 1700’s, known simply as the Great House. The Reverend John Stype, vicar of Leyton, a friend of Sir Fisher’s and probably the clergyman who directed his funeral, described The Great House in his updated edition of John Stow’s Survey as a “modern erection is the magnificent and beautiful seat of Sir Fisher Tench, Bart., adorned with large and most delightful gardens, plantations, walks, groves, mounts, summerhouses, and pleasant canals, stored with fish and fowl, and curious vistoes for prospect." Edwin Gunn wrote a more detailed description in his monograph on the property for the Survey of London in 1904, ironically just a year or so before it was finally demolished. Gunn gently disparages the idea that the house was designed by Sir Christopher Wren; “In common with most other buildings of the period not assigned by direct documentary evidence to other authorship, the design of the Great House has been attributed to Sir Christopher Wren…… In the present instance….while many admirable points are displayed in the treatment, a certain lack of the dominant "idea" with which Wren was able to infuse even the least important of his works, militates strongly against the assumption of direct connection between that great designer and the building as executed.” He also notes that “tradition has been very active in relation to the Great House. It is useless to repeat all the idle stories in local circulation, most of which are too absurd to need refutation, as for example one which jointly attributes the authorship to Inigo Jones and the ownership to Queen Elizabeth's Earl of Essex.” One tradition which he does not pooh-pooh is the claim that the cupola on the bell tower of St Mary’s “may indeed well have come from the Great House, since it is unusual to find a house of this type without some feature of the kind.”


Whilst always claiming never to believe them Gunn deigns to repeat every scrap of local lore relating to the Great House. This includes stories of Sir Fisher imprisoning highwaymen in the cellars of the mansion and hanging them from the trees in his magnificent garden (“probably….an elaborated traditional version descriptive of his shrieval duties” he speculates). If lifelong involvement in slave trading and slave owning, helping to create the South Sea bubble and gossip of hanging highwaymen wasn’t enough, his sullied reputation suffered further blows as one of the managers of the Charitable Corporation, a semi-philanthropic concern, which lent small sums to poor persons on pledges at legal interest to avoid them turning to pawn brokers and money lenders. Sir Fisher’s second son William became the Corporation’s cashier and was implicated when a scandal broke involving the broker George Robinson. The crooked broker extracted money from the three directors of the company, ostensibly to lend to the worthy poor but in reality to cover the director’s heavy losses on the stock market (said losses all having been incurred following the advice of George Robinson, of course). William died unexpectedly in 1731 and so escaped having to account for his actions to the select committee to investigate the scandal set up by Parliament in 1732 and chaired by Samuel Sandys. Sandys, to the surprise of many, exonerated Sir Fisher of all blame saying that he was ‘not justly to be censured’ for his dealings with the Corporation.  John Perceval, the Earl of Egmont, probably reflected widely held opinion when he  commented in his diaries that although Sir Fisher left the Corporation when he found evidence of irregularities he ‘suffered his son to remain cashier till his death who was guilty of frauds’, and that he must have known ‘of his son’s roguery, because he affirmed in a gentleman’s hearing that his son’s employment as cashier was worth him £600 a year, though his salary was but £150; and further that Robinson gave his son £100 a year, which could not be but that he might abet Robinson in his rogueries’. Following the scandal and William’s death Sir Fisher retired from public life and was dead himself after just four years of retirement at Leyton. He was succeeded as Baronet by his surviving son Nathaniel but not for long; within a year bachelor Nathaniel was dead himself and with him the short lived baronetage of Low Leyton.

Standing close by the Tench family vault was once a simple headstone with black lettering commemorating the death of an early member of Leyton’s black community. The burial register records the bare facts relating to “George Pompey a Black Servant to Sir Fisher Tench” including the date of his burial September 3 1735. The headstone has either been lost or the inscription weathered away to invisibility but The Political State’s article on Sir Fisher’s funeral records his servant’s epitaph:
     Here lyeth interred the Body of
George Pompey
Late Negro Servant to
Sir Fisher Tench, of this Parish, Bart
During upwards of 20 Years Service,
Was most diligent and faithful
And though born a Heathen
Lived and died truly a Christian
Conscious of Innocence of Life
Met Death with an undaunted Courage
And if concerned
‘Twas only to part with so good a Master
An Example worthy of all Servants to imitate
He departed this Life the 31st of August 1735
In the 32d Year of his Age

Household slaves started their careers young

 
The epitaph contains the only details we have of George Pompey’s short life. Whether he was born into slavery or a kidnapped African we don’t know. He may have come from the Virginia plantation but equally he may have been acquired by the family in some other way – black servants were fashionable signifiers of wealth in Georgian London. To have been a house servant almost certainly meant that he had been chosen for the role as a child as we can see here, George can only have been 12 when he came to work for the Tenchs if he was to fit in 20 years of service in a lifespan of just 32 years. The position of black servants in England was ambiguous; they were politely referred to as servants implying that they were free agents but most of them were slaves in reality, unable to live as free men and totally dependent upon their masters. Household slaves in England and in the colonies were often give classical names drawn from Shakespeare or other sources, and Pompey was a particularly popular choice. Like the family hound, the most prized quality of a black, was their loyalty. Piety was another prized quality. Could Sir Fisher really have believed that the dying black man’s only concern was the prospect of death parting him from his master? And that he really was ‘so good a master’?   
 




Friday, 6 April 2018

The Lost Memorials of London: The Bosanquet memorial, St Mary the Virgin, Leyton

Remarkably little of the work of the celebrated architect and collector Sir John Soane remains intact. The memorial he built for friend and patron Samuel Bosanquet in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin in Leyton survived 150 years, far longer than much of his work. In my 1965 copy of “The Buildings of Essex”, Nikolas Pevsner, who describes the memorial as being “of typically Soanian Neo-Greek detail”, seems apparently unaware that it had been demolished 8 years previously. Ptolemy Dean in Sir John Soane in London rates the lost memorial as better than the De Loutherbourg monument in St Nicholas’ Chiswick and ‘second only to Soane’s own tomb’ in St Pancras Gardens. He describes the fate of the monument as ‘one of the saddest of any of Soane’s works’ and notes that the ‘minutes of the Churchyard Committee, although incomplete, record the renovation and levelling of a number of the tombs during 1957… A photograph of the Bosanquet tomb is annotated “tomb demolished 1957-1958 as a result of damage by Hooligans.”  The work was carried out by the local firm T.R. Hurry & Sons. Soane’s Portland stone base survives, along with the original stone railing plinth. Above this a new granite slab was cut with the original inscription wording by Messers Hurry. The fate of Soane’s substantial displaced stone copings and scroll stones remains unknown.’  A grainy monochrome photograph taken in 1953 by Dorothy Stroud, one time assistant curator of the John Soane Museum, and a clay model of the memorial by Soane is all that is left of the once impressive tomb.    
 
In this old postcard of St Mary's the Bosanquet monument can just about be made out to the left of the tower
Clay model of the memorial by Sir John
and now in the museum at Lincoln's Inn Fields
Samuel Bosanquet (1744-1806) lived in Forest House in Leyton and came from a Huguenot family with strong trading links to the Middle East.  He was Deputy Governor of the Levant Company and was also a Director of the Bank of England and eventually its Governor during the period 1791-1793. Sir John Soane had first become acquainted with a Bosanquet in Naples during his 1778-1780 Grand Tour of Europe. There he stayed with Richard ‘the rake’ Bosanquet, a first cousin of Samuels, who had been a Director of the East India Compnay before giving it up to lead a life of leisure and pleasure in Southern Europe. Richard eventually squandered his fortune in luxurious living and rash speculation in stocks. He died in 1809 having never married but having fathered, according to his will “Captain Johnson my reputed son” who in turn had “by the child of a convict of Botany Bay, the mother already mistress to another man, two children. To my executors £2,000 to be laid out in the Equitable Insurance Office for paying to each of those children at age 21 the sum that they think equivalent for £1,000.a child.” Sir John remained on friendly terms with Richard the rake until his death in Falmouth and through him came to know the rest of the family. He carried out various commissions for Samuel, including work at Forest House, and after his death seemed, as Dean outs it, 'genuinely moved to produce something worthy' of his friend whose portrait still hangs in the breakfast room at Lincoln's Inn Fields.   

Samuel Bosanquet

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

'The Worm at the Core; On the Role of Death in Life' Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski (Penguin £9.99)




And yesterday I saw you kissing tiny flowers,
But all that lives is born to die
And so I say to you that nothing really matters,
And all you do is stand and cry
Led Zeppelin ‘That’s the way’

‘Live every day as though it will be your last,’ always struck me as an absurd piece of advice. If today was your last day of life would you bother going to work? Pay the mortgage or the gas bill? Clean the house? Feed the kids? Change your underpants? Or would you spend the day getting drunk, having sex, revenging yourself on your enemies (without fear of the consequences) or blubbing inconsolably about your imminent demise? All that 'live for the moment' stuff is just nonsense - if we took it seriously we would find ourselves jobless, divorced and broke in a matter of days. If everybody lived for the moment civilisation would fall down around our ears within a week.  The only way we, humanity, can bring stability and predictability to our world is by contriving to ignore the fact that we are going to die and carrying on as though we are going to live, if not for ever, then at least for a century or two.  American psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski are fascinated by the human ability to stare death in the face and simply not see it, though they seem, on the whole, to think that our capacity to ignore our inevitable demise is rather a bad thing and something we should strive to get over.

The three psychologists shared a common passion for Ernest Becker the American social anthropologist who, when dying of colon cancer, had observed that most other people seemed blithely unaware that one day their precarious existence would be snuffed out by death. He theorised that society, civilisation, is an elaborate defence mechanism to shield us from the devastating knowledge that we are mortal. Only by pretending that we live forever are we able to get up in the morning and face the day. Becker’s views were not so different the Greek philosopher Epicurus who had come to similar conclusions two thousand years ago, so there is nothing new in these ideas. Greenberg, Solomon and Pyszczynski have spent their careers building on the notions of Epicurus and Becker and have come up with a scientifically testable hypothesis they call ‘Terror Management Theory’ which states the basic psychological conflict between our instinct for self preservation and our knowledge of the inevitability of death results in a state of terror which is then managed by embracing cultural values that provide life with enduring meaning and value.  The sudden revelation that ‘all that lives is born to die’ threatened our burgeoning consciousness and even the survival of the species:  
  
The awareness of death arose as a byproduct of early humans' burgeoning self-awareness, and it would have undermined consciousness as a viable form of mental organization—hurling our terrified and demoralized ancestors into the psychological abyss and onto the evolutionary scrap heap of extinct lifeforms— in the absence of simultaneous adaptations to transcend death. But our ancestors ingeniously conspired to “Just Say No” to reality by creating a supernatural universe that afforded a sense of control over life and death, enabling them to bound over the “yawning chasm” and cross the cognitive Rubicon that triggered humankind’s evolutionary explosion.

Consciousness of the ephemerality of human existence came early to the species - Neandertal's bury their dead

Having posited an awareness of death as an early feature of developing human consciousness the authors discuss how social and cultural norms protect us from the full implications of that knowledge. They cite research which shows that judges were prompted to set a bail figure nine times higher for an alleged prostitute after being made to think about their own deaths.  Even subtle reminders about death make us more likely to be patriotic – in one study Germans interviewed in front of a shop showed no particular preference for things German, but those interviewed in front of a cemetery preferred German food, German cars, and even German holidays to foreign alternatives. As well as making us more judgemental towards those who do not share our values and more patriotic the authors argue that “over the course of human history, the terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics and science. It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in New York.”  

This is an interesting and readable book. I don’t have any argument with the contention that our mortality underpins every aspect of our existence or dispute that humans are very good at ignoring the prospect of their own demise. It also seems self evident that the fear of death plays a significant part in religion and that art, at least for the artist, represents an opportunity for a type of ersatz immortality if their work proves popular enough. All this seems self evident and not particularly contentious. The authors go much further than this though and see the repressed fear of death as being the driving force behind much of our psychology and our social and cultural life. Death looms as large in their view of human motivation as sex does to orthodox Freudians, and for the same reasons is, in the final analysis, not completely convincing.