Barb Drummond

Beyond Bristol History

THE BIG WORLD

OF MR BRIDGES

MICROCOSM

 

 

Barb Drummond

 

 

 

 

 

I am looking for a publisher for this book. 

The following are sample chapters 

 

 

 

THE BIG WORLD OF MR BRIDGE'S MICROCOSM

CONTENTS

1 Introducing the World of Mr Bridges

2 The World before the Little World

3 The Bridges of Waltham Abbey

4 Describing the Beast

5 What's it all about, Henry?

6 Of Waxworks, Puppets, Clockworks and Other Curious Shows

7 Mr Bridges Goes to the Fair

8 On the Road With Mr Bridges and His Amazing Machine

9 Getting a Handel on Music

10 Brydges Magnate

11 A Wandering Frenchman

12 Mr Bridges Educates the Masses

13 The Big World of Gunpowder

14 Horology, Astronomy and Other -ologies

15 Many Came, Many Saw, Few Wrote about it

16 The Best Puffing Show in Town

17 Mr Bridges Builds a Bridge

18 Go West Young Men

19 Several Bridges of South Gloucestershire

20 An Easy Genteel Life

21 Stupefacting Historians

22 Microcosmic Echoes

Appendix - Significant Dates

References

1. Introducing the World of Mr Bridges

The members of Waltham Abbey town council in Essex have a problem. They want to put a blue plaque on the house on High Bridge Street, to commemorate its famous former resident, Henry Bridges. They know he is famous for building a giant musical and astronomical clock, which would be enough to justify the plaque. But he was also a carpenter or builder, and after his death became known as an architect. He toured with his great clock for many years, which makes him a showman, and he gave lectures on it, incorporating the latest advances in astronomy. He claimed his clock stimulated the senses and encouraged learning, so he was also a pioneering educator. He was also a scientist, researcher and instrument maker who kept adding to the beast as new discoveries were made. The clock included a barrel organ, which he probably built. His eldest son became a civil engineer who claimed Henry taught him all he knew, so we can theoretically list him as an early engineer. Just to round him off, he was for a time a single parent. It seems a very large blue plaque will be needed.

Henry Bridges' story is a strange one. It is made up of scores of facts and ideas apparently heading off in different directions, so for years, despite repeated attempts, it seemed impossible to shape it into a book, like trying to turn a hydra into a snake. It was clear there was an incredible story to be told, but the many gaps in the historic record made it more a half finished jigsaw puzzle. Intriguing to look at, but not making a lot of sense.

Henry the man seems equally confusing. To be a clockmaker, especially on such a grand scale, he must have had immense patience, and a passion for detail, a man at ease in his own company. But to show the clock at fairs, he must have enjoyed, even craved, the company of others, from aristocrats to the poor, to be able to promote his show, so was also an extrovert. To have taught himself so much, he must have had a passion for learning, but to survive on the road for so long, he must also have had immense physical strength and endurance. He could be called a Renaissance Man but as the following will show, he was more a creature of his age, a Georgian Man, when England was going through immense economic and social upheavals, so he had to be light on his feet, quick to adapt, doing whatever was needed to survive, an early example of Darwin's survival of the fittest.

It seemed that with every fact unearthed, more questions also appeared. Why did a provincial carpenter make a giant clock, an expensive toy for the wealthy? How did he learn clockmaking and all his other skills? Why did he go on the road? Did he take his family with him? In short, what made this clockmaker tick?

He called his clock The Microcosm, or 'Little World', and there is a wonderfully childlike sensibility in his collection of moving classical scenes, with a seascape including scenes from Waltham Abbey and a carpenters' yard, like a child drawing his home and family, then holding it out for the world to see. But the whole structure, the show he provided and the philosophy that he displayed was far more radical, more wide ranging and extraordinary than it first seems.

The term 'microcosm' is also infuriatingly difficult to pin down. The modern useage of it being a little world representing the larger one works, but its meaning dates back to antiquity, so has evolved over time. Brewer's 'Dictionary of Phrase and Fable' give us a definition based on Paracelsus, "The ancients considered the world as a living being, the sun and moon being its two eyes, the earth its body, the ether its intellect and the sky its wings. When man was looked on as the world in miniature, it was thought that the movements of the world and of man corresponded, and if one could be ascertained, the other could be easily inferred, Hence arose the system of astrology, which professed to interpret the events of a man's life by the corresponding movements of the stars." [1] This is particularly relevant to this story as Henry was born at the time that efforts were being made to separate the science from the superstition in studying the heavens. The term is even used by the editor of Thomas Turner's Diary of the mid 18th century, "Turner has left us in his debt, not only for his comments from the wings on the Seven Years' War, but also for this picturesque presentation of his own very picturesque microcosm" [2]

The story also hints towards family tragedy. The Bridges family had been in the region for many generations, but they vanish soon after Henry's death in 1754. Did the family die out or move elsewhere? Henry seems to have married well, and the clock must have cost a lot to make, and taken a lot of time, so must have been comfortably off, but his children seem to have fallen onto relatively hard times, as Britain's fortunes as a nation were on the rise.

Welcome, reader, to the world in which the little world of Henry Bridges is to be found.

2. The World Before the Little World

In order to understand the story that follows, it is necessary to understand the age that Henry knew. Henry was born in 1697, when England was still largely populated by impoverished agricultural labourers, the country emerging from decades of social, political and economic disruption. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the country lost the church's role in local government, schools, hospitals, care for the poor, land management, and patronage of the arts, especially painting, carving and architecture. With the loss of the masonry yards, the Tudor Age became the age of wooden buildings, which led to a rise in fires, including a very famous one in London.

England's population expanded in the Tudor age, partly as a result of the closure of the monasteries which were largely celibate communities, so soaked up the surplus numbers, especially the poor. People married when accommodation became available, so providing a further brake on population. But as people moved to the cities, these brakes were lost; men earned adult wages at the end of their apprenticeships usually aged twenty-one, so they married earlier, when their wives were more fertile, so births increased in the cities. But counterbalanced by this was the poor hygiene in towns, the streets full of organic waste, poor water supplies and waste removal. Infants were particularly vulnerability, and some couples failed to produce a single adult offspring. In the countryside, with plenty of fresh air and access to fresh food, families fared much better, and supplied a steady flow of people to migrate to the cities where wages were higher and chances for advancement were better.

The Civil War furthered the chaos of the Reformation, and the cold wind of Presbyterianism made 17th century England an incredibly bleak place ¨Churches whitewashed, stained glass and statuary destroyed, with religious festivals and alcohol banned. A king and several bishops had been executed, so what little authority survived was mostly ignored or held in contempt, a situation made worse by a succession of foreign monarchs and their courts Rulers were not meant to just rule, but also to unite their people in a shared culture, to forge a shared history. But for decades, celebrations of royal births and marriages had been shunned, and deaths celebrated instead of mourned by people with differing religious and/or politics to those wearing the crown. The Civil War had pitched friends and relatives against each other, so the most basic social exchanges had become difficult or unworkable. Many people despaired of any improvement, so sought new lives in the colonies, causing further social disruption. In such a vacuum, those left behind needed to re-learn how to make society and government work, to mend bonds, to reinvent all that they had lost.

Crucial to this recovery was the expansion in public socialising, which Chaucer showed so well in his Canterbury Tales, when strangers were brought together and built up a shared history from which social bonds were forged. The Reformation abolished pilgrimages and most religious festivals, so this role shifted to the fairs and assizes, or the many spas, of which there were over 100 nationally, the most famous being Bath, and with seventeen in the capital such as Sadler's Wells and St George's Spa. "The people of the countryside, of the provinces generally ¡­ found in Bath the means of social intercourse with the new aristocracy ; the bureaucracy and the governing class, just as previously the British landowner and provincial had found there the means for the same intercourse with the Roman officialdom; in fact the existence of the governing class in both periods depended upon the establishment of such an intercourse¡­ in both periods the same means were found and in the same place." [1] By creating public places where people could socialise with strangers, where different classes were forced into contact, new shared history could be built on shared experiences, and civic society was rebuilt. This was the origin of the famous English characteristic of politeness, now much mocked, but was an important factor in creating what became the British Empire.

Images of 18th century England, especially by Hogarth, often show the population being noisy, drunken, promiscuous and generally out of control, like schoolchildren running riot in the absence of their teachers. These images were accurate enough, especially as the century progressed, and the cities struggled to cope with soaring population and crime, but it was not the whole story. "The hand holding a calf-bound volume had been twisted and knobbled by gout. The face under the candle light was scarred by small pox. Child after child died before it had left his cradle: women struggled resignedly from one child-birth to the next. The young and hopeful dropped off overnight, a prey to mysterious disorders that the contemporary physician could neither diagnose nor remedy. But these tragedies brought their compensation. Since the accidents of birth and maladies of childhood then accounted for a large proportion of human offspring, few men and women reached maturity who did not possess deep reserves of physical and nervous strength. In the debility of such a man as Horace Walpole there was, he himself admitted, something Herculean." [2]

The lack of healthcare made traveling quacks popular, especially among the poor; they often put on shows of juggling, tumbling and fiddling to attract crowds and 'soften them up' before the banter led to sales. "The popularity of such quacks is attributable to the appalling standards of health and treatment at the time, the prescriptions of the parish surgeon (mostly purges and placebos) were futile in face of such endemic diseases as smallpox, typhoid, diptheria, tuberculosis, malaria (ague) and scarlet fever, to name but a few. These spread rapidly because of overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and malnutrition. Even pneumonia and appendicitis, imperfectly understood, were usually fatal....That great 18th century menace, drink, caused death both directly.. and indirectly, by deflecting money from food purchase. Malnutrition, exposure to cold, and a large infant population facilitated the spread of infections. The popular treatment of inoculation with a small life smallpox dose, introduced by Lady Mary Wortley Montague from Turkey in 1718 ... was a hazardous treatment at a time when all life was precarious, especially for the young." [3]

Even walking the streets of a town held dangers unimaginable to modern urbanites: there were no controls on traffic, with pedestrians being forced to give way to the many carriages, farm carts and chair men. Horses and cattle on the way to market bolted, trampling and/or goring victims. Butchers¡¯ boys and messengers galloped through crowds, and tradesmen such as chimney sweeps carried ladders and pieces of wood, so could injure people in crowds. Shopkeepers and market traders encroached on the limited pedestrian space, doors to cellars were left open for the unwary to fall into. Chamber pots were emptied onto the street, flower pots and loose tiles from ruinous buildings crashed to the unwary heads below. Add to this, the cries of street vendors and frightened animals, the clatter of hooves on cobblestones, the hammering on construction sites, and of local industries which often prevented any warning cries being heard. Most streets were still lined by overhanging Tudor buildings, so were dark by day and had few if any lamps at night, providing an ideal environment for accidents and crime.

The poor quality of drinking water led to a high consumption of alcohol, which added to the confusion, and to fights which could be fatal. The corrupt politics of the age triggered riots over food shortages to turnpike tolls Celebrations could also descend into drunken brawls. Towns and cities were usually built beside rivers, so there was a risk of falling in and drowning, especially when combined with alcohol consumption. Almost every commodity of trade such as wool, wine, grain, sails, was either flammable, or like pottery, glass, alcohol, sugar and lime were produced with furnaces which were prone to catch fire. The lack of manpower for the navy caused the press gangs to be over-active at times, with fights involving swords and guns.

In Scotland, the period also saw massive change: "Probably no period was so quietly eventful in shaping the fortunes and character of the country as the eighteenth century. Others are more distinguished by striking incidents, others are more full of the din and tumult and strife which arrest attention and are treated as crises, although they may neither stir the depths nor affect the course of a people's life; but in that century there was a continuous revolution going on ¨A gradual transformation in manners, customs, opinions, among every class; the rise and progress of agricultural, commercial and intellectual energy that turned waste and barren tracts to fertile fields  stagnant towns to centres of busy trade  a lethargic, slovenly populace to an active, enterprising race ¨C an utterly impoverished country to a prosperous land." [4]

Clerics of the age were meant to be setting an example for their flocks, though practice tended to be easy going, with "Enthusiasm for religion could be left to the Methodists; otherwise it was rather bad form." [5] But even by these standards, there were some spectacular examples of poor moral leadership, such as Mr Porter, rector of Hoathley, Sussex showed by his neighbour Thomas Turner "This morning about 6 o¡¯clock just as my wife was got to bed, we was awakened by Mrs Porter, who pretended she wanted some cream of tartar; but as soon as my wife got out of bed, she vowed she should come down. She found Mr Porter, Mr Fuller and his wife, with a lighted candle, and part of a bottle of wine and a glass. The next thing was to have me down stairs, which being apprized of, I fastened my door. Up stairs they came, and threatened to break it open; so I ordered the boys to open it, when they poured into my room; and, as modesty forbid me to get out of bed, so I refrained but their immodesty permitted them to draw me out of bed, as the common phrase is, topsy-turvey; but, however, at the intercession of Mr Potter, they permitted me to put on my  and, instead of my upper cloaths, they gave me time to put on my wife's petticoats; and in this manner they made me dance, without shoes and stockings, until they had emptied the bottle of wine, and also a bottle of my beer.. About 3 o'clock in the afternoon, they found their way to their respective homes, beginning to be a little serious, and, in my opinion, ashamed of their stupid enterprise and drunken perambulation."[6]

The long battles over religious belief and practice led many to abandon belief in god altogether, as he had failed to provide them with answers, but they were struggling to find alternatives: Many of the great minds such as Lock and Newton, turned to ¡®natural philosophy¡¯, which at the time included what we now call the sciences. The long established notion of an earth-centred universe had been disproved, as had the notion that the earth was made of different matter to the rest of the cosmos, but research in science was hampered by lack of appropriate tools. Planets could not be seen without quality telescopes, microbes could not be viewed without precision microscopes, and time could not be measured without accurate clocks, so scientists needed to work with, or become themselves, instrument makers.

From the start of the 18th century, English clockmaking was recognised to be of the highest standard. Craftsmen such as Thomas Tompion and his apprentice and successor George Graham invented improvements in clock design that survived into the late 20th century. Their importance was sufficient to permit them to be buried in Westminster Abbey, high praise for humble mechanics. Graham in particular was responsible for much of the equipment used by astronomers which led to massive advances in the field and he gave important moral and financial support to John Harrison¡¯s research for the Longtitude prize..

Musicians and composers such as Mozart and Handel were increasingly frustrated with their instruments, so built their own mechanical instruments which could play more notes, faster and at different time signatures than mere mortals. The term that keeps recurring across the decades was 'improvement' whether referring to country estates, the building of new towns, or public behaviour and religious observation.

Entertainments abounded, at the great fairs, in the great coaching inns and pubs, the assembly rooms and theatres. In the open streets and market places, traveling players, jugglers, mountebanks, magicians, freakshows and more, were willing to relieve people of their pennies. But as the century advanced, so did civilised past times. Actors became respectable, magic was stripped from science, and the Age of Enlightenment paved the way for the industrial revolution, with all the social disruption that entailed.

At the start of the 18th century England was a backward agricultural country. By mid century she had fought her way to dominance in the Americas and was making inroads on the rest of the world, a pattern echoed in the 20th century by the USA.. Roger Fry describes "It is a record of cabal and intrigue working through a system of organised corruption and privileged robbery under the leadership of or in opposition to a king of irreproachable domestic virtue. ..We watch her [England] blundering into huge disasters and no less blundering into scarcely sought-for successes. She acquired empires to East and West without clearly knowing what she was about, lost America by sheer bull-doggish inflexibility and tenacity and finally plunged into the vortex of European politics and the long misery of the Napoleonic wars." [7]

Stuart monarchs had raised their income by selling monopolies on trade, including that of printing to London stationers which curbed the publication and spread of information. This was ended in 1698, leading to an explosion in publishing in London and the provinces. Queen Anne passed the world's first copyright act in 1710, protecting the rights of authors, to encourage learning and literacy.

As the race to win the Longtitude prize showed, navigation and astronomy attracted the greatest minds of the age, and in the 1680s and 90s many publications appeared to trying to extract science, especially astronomy from superstition, often by school teachers, and written in English rather than Latin to encourage the widest possible audience. A surprising number of great artists and scientists were self taught, including the man who really marked the revival of English art, Thomas Gainsborough, despite living when there were teachers enough in his field. He was also famously fond of scientific aids such as picture boxes and indoor fireworks to help with his art.