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Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Wicked Publican

G. K. Chesterton wrote his Song Against Grocers at a time when it was normal for grocers to adulterate all the stuff they sold.

God made the wicked Grocer
For a mystery and a sign,
That men might shun the awful shops
And go to inns to dine;

Today, I would like to indicate that sometimes, inns weren't such a good place to go, either. This is a sample chapter from a book I am working on (working title: Not Your Usual Villains).

Some of the other chapters  include Women in Trousers, Drewery's case, the Archdeacon was a curate's egg, Dight's Light Horse, The Cato Street Conspirators, The Escape of the Boy Brown, The Composer Who Ran, Turning the Earth Inside Out, Off They All Ran, The Licensed Thief and The First Anzac Day. A couple of those chapters cover material to be found in entries in this blog.

Anyhow, here is one tale with a caveat: being dragged from the ms, it contains many more footnotes than I expect to see in the final version.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I became interested in a public house called the ‘Sheer Hulk’ when I saw it mentioned by Alexander Harris. Now first, a word about Harris: the consensus is that he was probably a real person, but he left few traces in the colony, and he prefaced the book he published this way:

ADVERTISEMENT: IT is almost unnecessary to state that, though published anonymously, the truth of the accounts given in this little work may be fully depended upon; and the Author can substantiate all the great facts by an exact reference to the names, dates, and places. Of course this would be unwillingly done, on account of the ill-feeling that it would inevitably engender. He has carefully endeavoured to avoid the possibility of the identification of the parties whose actions are the subject of his remarks. His object has been rather to draw attention to a system than to interest by the detail of his mere private adventures. [1]

Not only did he disguise situations, he also muddled them. The reader [of the whole book] will have recently encountered the case of Archdeacon Scott prosecuting the Broadbears, while in Harris’ telling, it was the Broadbears’ employer, Mr Walker, who was prosecuted. In brief, then, Harris may not be a reliable witness in this passage:

We went into two houses, the one called “The Black Dog,” a licensed house, the other close beside it, an old dilapidated place, properly enough called “The Sheer Hulk,” which had been deprived of its licence on account of the practices and characters admitted by its landlord; it was, however, still occupied, and as the occupier was no longer under the apprehension of losing his licence, the scenes displayed nightly were of tenfold worse character than ever. [2]

It turns out that both houses existed, though the ‘Sheer Hulk’ pub was more interesting. It appeared in the public records in July 1818, when three successive issues of The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser listed the liquor licences for Sydney, Parramatta, Liverpool and Windsor.

There were 14 beer and spirit licences in Cambridge Street, Cumberland Street, Gloucester Street and Harrington Street, and so part of ‘The Rocks’. The ‘Black Dog’ was not there, yet, but the area included Samuel Hulbert’s ‘Sheer Hulk’ in Cambridge Street, where its neighbours included the ‘Governor King’. The ‘Punch Bowl’ and the ‘Turk’s Head’ (all spirits licences) plus ‘Chequers’, with a beer licence. [3]

In 1823, Hulbert moved premises:

NOTICE.— Mr. Samuel Hulbert, of the Sign of the Sheer Hulk, Cambridge-street, Rocks, begs to acquaint his Friends and the Public, that he is about to REMOVE to his House, No. 14, Prince-street, Rocks, opposite the Sign of the Edinburgh Castle, where he hopes for a Continuance of their Custom. [4]

Hulbert now leaves our tale, though he appears to have  died “after a lingering illness” in 1829. By September 1823, William Foster appeared to have control of the ‘Sheer Hulk’ [5] There were coroner’s inquests held there in 1825 and 1826 (it was normal practice to conduct inquests in public houses at that time), and in 1828, the ‘Sheer Hulk’ saw some drama.

ON the morning of Saturday last, from private information given our Chief Constable, he proceeded well armed, to the Sheer Hulk Public House, on the Rocks, and succeeded in capturing the unfortunate Lookay alias Edwards, for whom a reward of Fifty pounds (and a ticket of leave, should the person, be a prisoner) was offered. He was conducted before the Superintendent of Police, who refused to hear what he had to say in his defence; he will be brought up for examination again to day. [6]

Clearly, as Harris indicated, the house lost its licence at some point, because in 1830, it was offered for sale in this way:

TO be Let or Sold, all that well-known old established Public-house, the Sheer Hulk No. 30, Cambridge-street; this House was for many Years licensed, and has recently been put into thorough repair, and is an excellent situation for business. Application to be made to Mrs. BRUNTON Prince-street. April 16, 1830. [7]

There were apparently no takers, and in June, the ‘Sheer Hulk’ was offered at auction:

MR. BODENHAM respectfully announces, that he has received instructions to sell those valuable promises, known by the sign of the Sheer Hulk, and containing 5 rooms, now ready for immediate occupation, and in which a large fortune was accumulated by the recent Proprietor. The property is surrounded by a large population of Mechanics, from which cause there can be no doubt but an excellent livelihood, if not an independence may be secured. [8]

In July 1830, a list of Sydney publicans, licensed for the “ensuing year” was published. It included the following in our target area:
Essex Lane. — George Johnson, Ship Inn. Joseph le Burn, Sheer Hulk.
Cambridge-street . — Jasper Tunn, Whale Fishery. Daniel Rogers, Bird in Hand. Daniel Hill, Black Dog. [9]
Now comes a curious story that is best told in the words of the victim, Alexander Monaghan, who appears twice in one issue of the Sydney Monitor before disappearing. Did he die in gaol? Did Davis (or Davy) drop the law suit? Our only sources are an editorial, quoted below, written in response to this letter to the Editor of the Sydney Monitor, and written from gaol on 28 August 1830:
As you are famed for taking up the cause of the unfortunate, I beg to lay before you my distressed case:—
I am about sixty-four years of age. I came to the Colony in the Dromedary along with Governor Macquarie, a private in the 73d. and was made a veteran on the departure of the Regt. for Ceylon. On the 25th March, four years ago, I received from Commissary Wemyss £6. 0s. 2d. being my quarter's pension, and placed it for safety in the hands of one George Davy or Davis, who kept the Sheer Hulk on the Rocks. But the sign was down at that time. I stayed with him four or five days — one day and one night of which I took more liquor than did me good. On the third or fourth day (the 28th) I wished to settle, but he put me off. On the next day he presented my bill. It amounted to £9. I told him he had robbed me, for that it was impossible my board and lodging, including the liquor I had drunk, could come to more than one third of that sum. He told me he would broomstick me out of the house. I went off to my master, Mr. Ikin, of Liverpool, who told me I had been served right for my folly; so I never took further notice of Davy's cheating. Davy now keeps a green stall on the Brickfieldshill. The books of the Sydney Bench for years back, on inspection, will shew him to have been a very unfortunate man, supposing him to have conducted himself with propriety at all times. After I had been with Mr. Ikin for about five months, I received a summons from Davy to attend the Court of Requests at Sydney. Mr. Ikin told me, that as I resided at Liverpool, the summons was good for nothing. He sent me up the Country with some cattle, and I never heard any more of the summons till about six months after, when I was told, that an execution was out against me; but it was never served on me. I left Mr. lkin in 1828, and went to live at Jem Core's at Prospect, where I remained about twelve months. In the course of that twelve months, Davy one day came into the house with a cord in his hand and a stick, and told me to come along with him to gaol. We went to Parramatta, and called for a pot of beer at Lacey's at the toll-bar. It was the races. A parcel of native lads remonstrated with Davy on taking an old man like me to gaol, and they got between him and me, and I went home the same day. Davy never shewed me any writ for his capturing me.
On the 25th June last, I drew my quarter's pension, and on the 26th, Davy and a bailiff took me again at the toll-bar at Lacey's, where I had formerly been rescued. I refused to walk, but offered to go if they would provide me a conveyance. They took hold of me, one of one side, and the other of the other, and forced me along half down the hill, and then let me fall on my face. It was a dead fall and hurt me. They then took hold of my feet, and dragged me on my back, without my hat, nearly as far as the bridge, my old head bumping against the ground all the time, and my arms flying back. My head was much cut, as the military surgeon in this place saw after I came in. The bailiff then lifted up his staff, which had a great knob at the end of it and said, " you d--d old scoundrel, if you don't walk, I'll knock your brains out." To which Davy replied, " Aye do, and we'll throw him under the bridge." I began to be much frightened, and promised to do my best at walking. Davy seeing I was cowed, then went his way, and I went on with the bailiff, as far as the first public house, kept by one Wright, since dead. There the bailiff gave me a glass of grog. We then went on, and at last turned off to the left, opposite Mr. Squires's, and put up at a settler's for the night. I found next morning my shoulder was hurt by means of the dragging. I kept my bed on Sunday. On Monday I could not eat my breakfast, but I got up, and went with the bailiff to Sydney, but never broke my fast. I remained at Davy's house on the Brickfield Hill about two hours. I suspected that from their whispering and manner, the execution was wrong, and that they had gone to the office to fetch a new one. I have been told since, that they could not take me again lawfully on a new execution; and that this second capture by the bailiff was illegal. But I say the first was illegal, not only as to justice, but also not being served in Liverpool. On entering the gaol, I found my arm very bad, and at last I asked the surgeon to look at it. I do not expect to have the use of it any more.
One possibility, of course, is that Monaghan did not exist, but the following editorial describes his appearance, so there really was somebody of this name in gaol in Sydney in 1830.
We call the attention of the Commissioner of the Court of Requests to a letter in the 1st column of our last page, signed Alexander Monaghan. If the statements therein made be true, we never read any thing more villainous from beginning to end. We have seen [the] old Veteran, and he bears the character of a quiet harmless old man. It is to be regretted that his late master Mr. Ikin, should have conceived, that because the old man resided in Liverpool, the service on him of the summons in person in Sydney, was invalid. Had Monaghan defended the case in person, and proved to the Commissioner the facts he alleges in his letter, we are satisfied the verdict would have been in his favour, and that a balance would have been found coming to him. This however is only one of a thousand instances, which have come to our knowledge, of the ruin of poor people from their ignorance of the forms of law, and of their strong aversion from paying that attention to lawyer's letters and writs, which they ought to pay. If the people of this Country detested a public house, as much as they do a lawyer's office, it would be well. But men naturally neglect that, which they are averse from. They are in this respect like cowards in a field of battle, who turn their backs, when the shewing of a good front, would save them from what they dread. The conduct of Davy, the Bailiff, on the last execution, by which they have maimed the grey-haired Veteran for the remainder of his miserable existence, if true, is most atrocious; and it is a pity, but he and the rascally bailiff should be trounced for it by an action for damages, in the Supreme Court at Monaghan's suit. [11]
The problem is that there is no evidence that Alexander Monaghan existed: somebody of that name gained a land grant in the Illawarra in 1832, but by then, our chap would have been something like 66. I would offer the Scots verdict of “not proven”, on the basis that there is no evidence of a licensee named Davis or Davy, either.

Joseph Leburn held the licence at the ‘Sheer Hulk’ for a number of years before Daniel Rogers took it over, and we drift out of our period of interest. 

Then again, Davis or Davy may have been real and run the place without being the licensee. Alexander Harris usually described the places and people he wrote about, but he was quite open about the ‘Sheer Hulk’. Harris returned later in his book to the ‘Sheer Hulk’, and this appears to confirm that Davy or Davis may have been real:
Our next movement was to a house on the rocks much frequented by boatmen, and known as “The Sheer Hulk,” already mentioned. It was kept at this time by a man of the name of D——, a convict free by servitude (so convicts are designated whose term of sentence has expired), as a lodging house for sailors … There is no doubt nevertheless that such a nest would have been rooted out long before but for the handsome “sweeteners” (bribes) which old D——'s profits enabled him to give the constables. [12]

There was certainly a villain, but was it Davis/Davy, or was it whoever created the letter that appeared in the Monitor? We will probably never know, now, but if Davis/Davy existed, he may well have been the George Davy who was charged with selling spirits without a license in 1832, fined £30, with 7s. 6d. costs, and given three days to pay, the alternative being four months in gaol. (The details will be found in the Sydney Herald, 9 April 1832, 2.)

[1] Alexander Harris, Settlers and Convicts, London, 1847.
[2] Alexander Harris, Settlers and Convicts, London, 1847, ch. 1.
[3] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 18 July 1818, 2,
[4] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 27 March 1823, 4,
[5] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 4 September 1823, 2,
[6] The Monitor (Sydney), 14 January 1828, 7,
[7] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 17 April 1830, 4,
[8] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 1 June 1830, 4,
[9] The Australian (Sydney), 7 July 1830, 1,
[10] The Sydney Monitor, 1 September 1830, 4,
[11] The Sydney Monitor, 1 September 1830, 3,
[12] Alexander Harris, Settlers and Convicts, London, 1847, ch. 6.

Monday, 21 March 2016


At the start of Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens has Eugene Wrayburn refer to "our friend who long lived on rice-pudding and isinglass", the implication being that this was a poor diet. We are left in some doubt, however, for Dickens never mentions either rice puddings or isinglass again, and the only other people mentioning it are either quoting it or explaining what it meant.

In Oklahoma!, isinglass is the stuff of which curtains are made, so it must surely be bad for the digestion.

Isinglass, the OED tells us, gets its name from the great sturgeon Acipenser huso, which was called the huso or huse in Mediaeval Latin, and a hausen in German. Aside from being a source of caviar, this fish was the source of what the Dutch called the huisenblas, from the German hausenblase, which we call isinglass. 

The German hausenblase, we are told, literally means "sturgeon's bladder", and reminds us that isinglass was a whitish semi-transparent form of gelatin, obtained from the swim-bladders of sturgeons and freshwater fish, used first for making jellies and clarifying liquors.

Most isinglass was used to clarify wines and beers, in a process called "fineing", which took suspended particles out tannin and other foreign material out in a precipitate which was left behind when the liquor was cleared away, and the OED tells us that the word was used as far back as 1528, which raises an interesting question: why is William Murdock usually given the credit for inventing isinglass, when he was born in 1754 and died in 1839, long after the word was first recorded?

Murdock is actually better known for owning a wooden hat, which he turned on a lathe, and this ingenious piece of work supposedly won him a job with James Watt and Matthew Boulton; he invented the 'sun and planet gear' that is usually credited to Watt, and he invented coal gas, but if you dig down into the gaps, up comes the claim that Murdock invented isinglass.

In fact, what he invented was 'English isinglass', or "isinglass made of British fish", according to a judge who presided in a case brought against the users of William Murdock's isinglass in 1809.

To understand what was going on, Napoleon was causing all sorts of warlike activity across Europe, and so supplies of the best Russian isinglass were hard to come by, as battlefields kept springing up in the way of merchants.
William Murdock

So in 1795, William Murdock developed a substitute, based on cod skin and stale beer. Chemically, it was identical to isinglass, but the Solicitor-General decided some years later that it was adulterating English ale, and charged two brewers with the offence of adding both fish material and stale beer to their beer. Murdock pointed out that the isinglass actually settled out and so could not be an additive.

At the same time, the friendly judge, already familiar with the English isinglass was less than impressed, and when the famous Humphry Davy gave evidence, the case died. Oddly, another product, 'Irish moss', can also be used in the same way, as vegetarian beer drinkers like to point out. One is left suspecting that some kind of legal and political power play was involved, and certainly the Solicitor-General played one or two distinctly dirty tricks before he lost the case.

Along the way, though, isinglass had also come into its own as a clear or translucent sheeting, a sort of window material, but isinglass is an organic chemical, and poor at withstanding heat, and as early as 1688, mica was known as isinglass stone, and used in place of the protein sheets.

This raises the question, though, when Rodgers and Hammerstein have Curly, their hero sing in Oklahoma! of "isinglass curtains you can roll right down — in case there's a change in the weather", what sort of isinglass does he mean — the mica mineral type, or the gelatin fishguts type?

Given that the curtains could "roll right down", that probably means they were gelatin, though it may not have been gelatin from fish guts by then, but could equally have been derived from hides and hoofs of slaughtered cattle.

Nowadays, mica is no longer used in capacitors, and stoves with mica windows are rare indeed, so that leaves only the protein form of isinglass as a product still in use, at least among home wine makers, where it can be added to wine to clear it. But as William Murdock knew well, this is not really an additive, for the wine must then be drawn off into a fresh barrel or bottles.

Does this wine taste fishy to you?