Opera at London’s Covent Garden & the Clifton suspension bridge; an argument at supper time + sleep + snow; Penyprikke, edward lear & some faint clicks – and francis drake sets sail

Sunday 7th December 1732 saw the Royal Opera House open at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London with a performance of William Congreve’s ‘The Way of the World’. Four years previous John Rich, the actor-manager of the Duke’s Company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, had commissioned ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ from John Gay. That had been a major success and had provided Rich with the necessary capital to build a new theatre. This was designed by Edward Shepherd, a prominent London-based English architect and was built on the site of a medieval convent garden, part of which had been developed by Inigo Jones in the 1630s with a piazza and a church. Rich named his new building ‘The Theatre Royal’. At its opening on this day he was carried in processional triumph by his actors into the theatre for its’ first production. Less than two years later, in 1734, he presented its first ballet, Pygmalion. That caused a stir when Marie Sallé – a French dancer and choreographer known for her expressive, dramatic performances rather than a series of “leaps and frolics” typical of ballet of her time – discarded her corset and danced in diaphanous robes!

 Thursday 8th December 1864 saw the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the River Avon’s Gorge near Bristol opened.
The Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser of Saturday 10th December 1864 told its readers that: ‘This bridge, the first subscription towards which was given by Alderman Vick of Bristol, December, 1753, was opened on Thursday by Earls Ducie and Cook, the Lord Lieutenants of Glo’ster and Somerset. It is the longest and loftiest single span in the kingdom. The whole city kept a holiday, and the weather, at first threatening, cleared up just as the immense procession formed by the Yeomanry, the Volunteers, the Mayor and Corporation, and several trades and friendly societies reached the bridge so that the opening ceremony was performed under a glorious sunshine. At night the bridge was illuminated with four electric lights, four lime and two magnesium lights, with a great effect. All passed off well without accident.’
The Cork Examiner of Friday 9th had said that: ‘the first subscription towards this bridge was given by Alderman Vick of Bristol in December 1853, and that it was opened today by Earl Ducie and Cock, the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucester and Somerset.’ The date quoted was 100 years out and the ‘Cook had gone to Cock’. The moral here is ‘don’t always believe what you read’!
Fortunately the Dundee Advertiser of Monday 12th December refers to the previous Thursday’s opening and then adds that The Times had given the following interesting story as to how the idea of the bridge originated. I quote it here in its’ totality:
‘In the year 1753 there died in Bristol one Alderman Vick, and as this Alderman had experienced the difficulty of getting across the Avon from Gloucestershire to Somersetshire at any point between the Severn and the city of Bristol, he bequeathed to the Society of Merchant Venturers the sum of £1,000, directing that such sum should be placed out at interest until it should accumulate and increase to £10,000 when it was to be applied to the building of a stone bridge across the Avon from Clifton Down in the county of Gloucester, to Leigh Down, in the county of Somerset. This was the origin of the bridge which has been thirty years in building, though how Mr Vick could ever imagined that it was possible to get a stone bridge across such a chasm and in such a situation for £10,000 it is difficult to conceive. For nearly 80 years the thousand pounds left by Mr Vick was allowed to accumulate; and in the year 1830, when the railway system was beginning to make itself felt, the citizens of Bristol began to think of the old legacy, and the possibility of applying it to the purpose for which it was left. At that time the money had increased to £8,000, and it was resolved to use the amount as the nucleus of whatever sum might be required to construct the bridge. An Act of Parliament was obtained, and plans were advertised for. The first estimate given for a stone bridge was £90,000, or, in fact, about half what it must really have cost; so stone was given up for iron, and Telford, the builder of the Menai bridge, and the late Mr Brunel, competed for the honour of giving a design for a suspension bridge and, as might have been anticipated, Brunel gained the day. Mr Brunel ‘s estimate was £57,000, and it was, perhaps, characteristic of the estimates of that great engineer that when £45,000 had been spent only the two towers had been built, and the money was gone. His design was a chain bridge of a single span of 700 feet, two chains passing over two towers, and being anchored deep in the limestone rocks behind them. In 1843 all the money, as we have said, was gone, and the scheme stood still for want of funds; and, though many propositions, more or less good or bad, were made to the trustees under the old Act of Parliament, the bridge would very likely have been incomplete to this day, had not the removal of Hungerford become necessary. Mr Brunel, as it happened, had been the engineer of Hungerford and when, therefore, the chains had to be pulled down and to give place to a railway, nothing was more natural that Mr Hawkshaw should wish to have them applied to the completion of the greatest and most original of all Mr Brunel’s bridge designs, except Saltash. For such a purpose the money was soon forthcoming. A new company, under a new Act, and presided over by Captain Huish, was started, with a capital of £35,000. The chains of Hungerford Bridge were purchased for £5,000; the stone towers built by Mr Brunel for the old company, £2,000. Two years ago the work of slinging those chains began, and on Thursday the bridge was opened: finished. Taking it as a whole, either with regard to the picturesqueness of the situation, or its lofty height and immense span, there is really no bridge like it for beauty in the world, save perhaps, that erected by the engineer of the bridge across the Niagara (Mr Roebling) at St John’s, New Brunswick’.

For this Saturday 9th December 1775 James Boswell records in his diary that: ‘At supper my wife and I had a dispute about some trifle. She did not yield readily enough, and my passion rose to a pitch that I could not quite command. I started up and threw an egg in the fire and some beer after it. My inclination was to break and destroy everything. But I checked it. How curious is it that the thinking principle can speculate in the very instant of anger. My wife soon made up our difference. But I begged of her to be more attentive again’.
On Sunday 9th December 1888 Leo Tolstoy had just two words in his diary: ‘Slept sinfully.’
Thursday 9th December 1906 – For this whole year Edith Holden, living in the small village of Olton in Warwickshire, kept a diary that was published posthumously in 1977 as ‘The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’. She writes for this day ‘We woke up to a storm of whirling snowflakes this morning – the first snow this winter. The storm was soon over however and it was followed by bright sunshine and a sharp frost at night.’ Copies of the diary are available on the Internet.
It will be interesting to see, and record, what this year’s 9th December weather delivers.

Wednesday 10th December 1343 – The Northamptonshire Record Society’s 2014 ‘Past & Present’ magazine tells the story that: ‘On this night John le Neubonde of Yardley Hastings went to play a game called ‘penyprikke’ with John Wylk in the house of Roger de Eston. An argument arose and John Wylk struck John de Neubonde with a knife. He survived until the following day when he died from his injuries.’ A sworn account was delivered the following Friday but the ‘suspect had fled and the jurors did not know his whereabouts, but they appraised the value of his knife at 1d. The clerk recorded that the victim had been feloniously slain.’ For anyone who wants to go into this further the above comes from the National Archives (TNA), JUST 2/113,m,1.
What intrigued me was – what the heck is a ‘pennyprikke’? So I went ‘digging’. There is mention in the Exeter Cathedral Church records that, in the 15th century, the Dean and Chapter bitterly complained of the conduct of the Exeter boys who played ‘unlawfull games as the toppe, queke, penny pryke and most ate tenys’ in the cloisters, whereby they were ‘defowled & the glas windows all to-brost’.
Longleat House records hold details of moneys received and spent ‘to the use of the Earl of Hertford by John Thynne and others between February 1540 and October 1543.’ There is an entry for 10th October 1542 recording ‘Losses “at the bowlles”, “att peny pryke”, “at cardes”, “at shottyng” to the Bishop of Rochester among others.’ (I love the specific mention of the Bishop.)
That still did not answer the ‘penyprikke’ question so I passed the challenge to some ‘like-minded’ friends of mine. None could find a direct definition of this one as a game but Stuart did come across a couple of definitions. In Middle English ‘a pryke’ is another name for a ‘willow wand’, as in a piece of willow a bit thicker than a man’s thumb, which is then used as a difficult archery target. This sort of target features in some of the early Robin Hood ballads, amongst other things, with the idea of splitting a willow wand with an arrow. We therefore suggest that ‘Penny Pryke’ might be literally ‘betting a penny on the outcome of such an archery contest’. This could certainly explain why John le Neubonde and John Wylk fell out with each other – especially if money was involved. It would also explain why the Exeter boys got into trouble as they would be both illicitly gambling and also be in danger of putting an arrow through the window glass in the cloisters.

Tuesday 11th December 1866 Edward Lear writes to Lady Waldegrave: “I have never been so utterly weary of six months as those of these last: never seeing anything but the dreadful brick houses – latterly suffering from cold, smoke – darkness – ach! Horror! – verily England may be a blessed place for the wealthy. But it is an accursed place for those who have known liberty and seen God’s daylight in other countries. By degrees, however (if I don’t leave it by the sudden collapse of mortality), I hope to quit it altogether, even if I turn Mussulman and settle in Timbuctoo.”

On Thursday 12th December 1901, Guglielmo Marconi and his assistant George Kemp were at Signal Hill in St John’s Newfoundland (now part of Canada) when they heard the faint clicks of Morse Code for the letter “s” that had been transmitted from Poldhu in Cornwall, without wires, across the Atlantic Ocean. This achievement, the first reception of transatlantic radio signals, led to considerable advances in both science and technology. It demonstrated that radio transmission was not bounded by the horizon. Their equipment was nothing like modern ‘tools’ – Marconi and Kemp were working with a telephone receiver and a wire antenna kept aloft by a kite! They knew it had worked but it was not clear how/why it did work.
However, there was a significant knock-on effect to their discovery. It prompted Arthur Kennelly (the son of an Irish naval officer who was born in India, immigrated to the US and became principle assistant in Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratory) and Oliver Heaviside (nephew of Sir Charles Wheatstone inventor of an early telegraph system) to independently suggest in 1902 the existence of a layer of ionized air in the upper atmosphere. There is, and it is now called the ionosphere and it is this that made the ‘whole thing work’. Marconi’s experiment also gave the new technology of “wireless telegraphy” a global dimension that eventually made radio one of the major forms of communication in the twentieth century.

Friday 13th December 1577 was the day Francis Drake set off from Plymouth to sail round the world in ‘The Pelican’. In all there were 5 ships in his fleet. As well as the Pelican there was the Elizabeth, the Marigold, the Swan, and the Christopher. Drake’s mission was to open trade links with new nations and discover new shipping routes and, in the process, weaken the Spanish dominance of South America. He was successful in the challenge, acquiring treasure from Spanish ships and claiming land on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. In June 1578, he landed at Port San Julian, in modern day Argentina.  It was here that a fellow officer and friend, Thomas Doughty, was executed after standing trial for mutiny and sedition. While at Port San Julian the Christopher – then known as the Benedict – and the Swan were no longer needed and were broken up; their crews being transferred to the remaining three ships. Also at this time the Pelican was renamed the “Golden Hinde“ in honour of Sir Christopher Hatton, a patron of the voyage whose coat of arms featured a golden female deer – also known as a ‘hinde’.


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