Part 2 out of 5
and stock rose rapidly. On the 12th of April, five days after the bill
had become law, the directors opened their books for a subscription of
a million, at the rate of 300 pounds for every 100 pounds capital.
Such was the concourse of persons, of all ranks, that this first
subscription was found to amount to above two millions of original
stock. It was to be paid at five payments, of 60 pounds each for every
100 pounds. In a few days the stock advanced to three hundred and
forty, and the subscriptions were sold for double the price of the
first payment. To raise the stock still higher, it was declared, in a
general court of directors, on the 21st of April, that the midsummer
dividend should be ten per cent., and that all subscriptions should be
entitled to the same. These resolutions answering the end designed,
the directors, to improve the infatuation of the monied men, opened
their books for a second subscription of a million, at four hundred
per cent. Such was the frantic eagerness of people of every class to
speculate in these funds, that in the course of a few hours no less
than a million and a half was subscribed at that rate.
In the mean time, innumerable joint-stock companies started up
everywhere. They soon received the name of Bubbles, the most
appropriate that imagination could devise. The populace are often most
happy in the nicknames they employ. None could be more apt than that
of Bubbles. Some of them lasted for a week, or a fortnight, and were
no more heard of, while others could not even live out that short span
of existence. Every evening produced new schemes, and every morning
new projects. The highest of the aristocracy were as eager in this hot
pursuit of gain as the most plodding jobber in Cornhill. The Prince of
Wales became governor of one company, and is said to have cleared
40,000 pounds by his speculations. [Coxe's Walpole, Correspondence
between Mr. Secretary Craggs and Earl Stanhope.] The Duke of
Bridgewater started a scheme for the improvement of London and
Westminster, and the Duke of Chandos another. There were nearly a
hundred different projects, each more extravagant and deceptive than
the other. To use the words of the "Political State," they were "set
on foot and promoted by crafty knaves, then pursued by multitudes of
covetous fools, and at last appeared to be, in effect, what their
vulgar appellation denoted them to be -- bubbles and mere
cheats." It was computed that near one million and a half sterling was
won and lost by these unwarrantable practices, to the impoverishment
of many a fool, and the enriching of many a rogue.
Some of these schemes were plausible enough, and, had they been
undertaken at a time when the public mind was unexcited, might have
been pursued with advantage to all concerned. But they were
established merely with the view of raising the shares in the market.
The projectors took the first opportunity of a rise to sell out, and
next morning the scheme was at an end. Maitland, in his History of
London, gravely informs us, that one of the projects which received
great encouragement, was for the establishment of a company "to make
deal-boards out of saw-dust." This is, no doubt, intended as a joke;
but there is abundance of evidence to show that dozens of schemes
hardly a whir more reasonable, lived their little day, ruining
hundreds ere they fell. One of them was for a wheel for perpetual
motion -- capital, one million; another was "for encouraging the breed
of horses in England, and improving of glebe and church lands, and
repairing and rebuilding parsonage and vicarage houses." Why the
clergy, who were so mainly interested in the latter clause, should
have taken so much interest in the first, is only to be explained on
the supposition that the scheme was projected by a knot of the
foxhunting parsons, once so common in England. The shares of this
company were rapidly subscribed for. But the most absurd and
preposterous of all, and which showed, more completely than any other,
the utter madness of the people, was one, started by an unknown
adventurer, entitled "company for carrying on an undertaking of great
advantage, but nobody to know what it is." Were not the fact stated by
scores of credible witnesses, it would be impossible to believe that
any person could have been duped by such a project. The man of genius
who essayed this bold and successful inroad upon public credulity,
merely stated in his prospectus that the required capital was half a
million, in five thousand shares of 100 pounds each, deposit 2 pounds
per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, would be entitled to
100 pounds per annum per share. How this immense profit was to be
obtained, he did not condescend to inform them at that time, but
promised, that in a month full particulars should be duly announced,
and a call made for the remaining 98 pounds of the subscription. Next
morning, at nine o'clock, this great man opened an office in Cornhill.
Crowds of people beset his door, and when he shut up at three o'clock,
he found that no less than one thousand shares had been subscribed
for, and the deposits paid. He was thus, in five hours, the winner of
2,000 pounds. He was philosopher enough to be contented with his
venture, and set off the same evening for the Continent. He was never
heard of again.
Well might Swift exclaim, comparing Change Alley to a gulf in the
Subscribers here by thousands float,
And jostle one another down,
Each paddling in his leaky boat,
And here they fish for gold, and drown.
Now buried in the depths below,
Now mounted up to heaven again,
They reel and stagger to and fro,
At their wit's end, like drunken men
Meantime, secure on Garraway cliffs,
A savage race, by shipwrecks fed,
Lie waiting for the foundered skiffs,
And strip the bodies of the dead.
Another fraud that was very successful, was that of the "Globe
Permits," as they were called. They were nothing more than square
pieces of playing cards, on which was the impression of a seal, in
wax, bearing the sign of the Globe Tavern, in the neighbourhood of
Exchange Alley, with the inscription of "Sail Cloth Permits." The
possessors enjoyed no other advantage from them than permission to
subscribe, at some future time, to a new sail-cloth manufactory,
projected by one who was then known to be a man of fortune, but who
was afterwards involved in the peculation and punishment of the South
Sea directors. These permits sold for as much as sixty guineas in the
Persons of distinction, of both sexes, were deeply engaged in all
these bubbles, those of the male sex going to taverns and
coffee-houses to meet their brokers, and the ladies resorting for the
same purpose to the shops of milliners and haberdashers. But it did
not follow that all these people believed in the feasibility of the
schemes to which they subscribed; it was enough for their purpose that
their shares would, by stock-jobbing arts, be soon raised to a
premium, when they got rid of them with all expedition to the really
credulous. So great was the confusion of the crowd in the alley, that
shares in the same bubble were known to have been sold at the same
instant ten per cent. higher at one end of the alley than at the
other. Sensible men beheld the extraordinary infatuation of the people
with sorrow and alarm. There were some, both in and out of Parliament,
who foresaw clearly the ruin that was impending. Mr. Walpole did not
cease his gloomy forebodings. His fears were shared by all the
thinking few, and impressed most forcibly upon the government. On the
11th of June, the day the Parliament rose, the King published a
proclamation, declaring that all these unlawful projects should be
deemed public nuisances, and prosecuted accordingly, and forbidding
any broker, under a penalty of five hundred pounds, from buying or
selling any shares in them. Notwithstanding this proclamation, roguish
speculators still carried them on, and the deluded people still
encouraged them. On the 12th of July, an order of the Lords Justices
assembled in privy council was published, dismissing all the petitions
that had been presented for patents and charters, and dissolving all
the bubble companies. The following copy of their lordships' order,
containing a list of all these nefarious projects, will not be deemed
uninteresting at the present day, when there is but too much tendency
in the public mind to indulge in similar practices :-
"At the Council Chamber, Whitehall, the 12th day of July, 1720.
Present, their Excellencies the Lords Justices in Council.
"Their Excellencies, the Lords Justices in council, taking into
consideration the many inconveniences arising to the public from
several projects set on foot for raising of joint stock for various
purposes, and that a great many of his Majesty's subjects have been
drawn in to part with their money on pretence of assurances that their
petitions for patents and charters, to enable them to carry on the
same, would be granted: to prevent such impositions, their
Excellencies, this day, ordered the said several petitions, together
with such reports from the Board of Trade, and from his Majesty's
Attorney and Solicitor General, as had been obtained thereon, to be
laid before them, and after mature consideration thereof, were
pleased, by advice of his Majesty's Privy Council, to order that the
said petitions be dismissed, which are as follow :--
"1. Petition of several persons, praying letters patent for
carrying on a fishing trade, by the name of the Grand Fishery of Great
"2. Petition of the Company of the Royal Fishery of England,
praying letters patent for such further powers as will effectually
contribute to carry on the said fishery.
"3. Petition of George James, on behalf of himself and divers
persons of distinction concerned in a national fishery; praying
letters patent of incorporation to enable them to carry on the same.
"4. Petition of several merchants, traders, and others, whose
names are thereunto subscribed, praying to be incorporated for
reviving and carrying on a whale fishery to Greenland and elsewhere.
"5. Petition of Sir John Lambert, and others thereto subscribing,
on behalf of themselves and a great number of merchants, praying to be
incorporated for carrying on a Greenland trade, and particularly a
whale fishery in Davis's Straits.
"6. Another petition for a Greenland trade.
"7. Petition of several merchants, gentlemen, and citizens,
praying to be incorporated, for buying and building of ships to let or
"8. Petition of Samuel Antrim and others, praying for letters
patent for sowing hemp and flax.
"9. Petition of several merchants, masters of ships, sail-makers,
and manufacturers of sail-cloth, praying a charter of incorporation,
to enable them to carry on and promote the said manufactory by a joint
"10. Petition of Thomas Boyd, and several hundred merchants,
owners and masters of ships, sailmakers, weavers, and other traders,
praying a charter of incorporation, empowering them to borrow money
for purchasing lands, in order to the manufacturing sail-cloth and
"11. Petition on behalf of several persons interested in a patent
granted by the late King William and Queen Mary, for the making of
linen and sail-cloth, praying that no charter may be granted to any
persons whatsoever for making sail-cloth, but that the privilege now
enjoyed by them may be confirmed, and likewise an additional power to
carry on the cotton and cotton-silk manufactures.
"12. Petition of several citizens, merchants, and traders in
London, and others, subscribers to a British stock, for a general
insurance from fire in any part of England, praying to be incorporated
for carrying on the said undertaking.
"13. Petition of several of his Majesty's loyal snbjects of the
city of London, and other parts of Great Britain, praying to be
incorporated, for carrying on a general insurance from losses by fire
within the kingdom of England.
"14. Petition of Thomas Burges, and others his Majesty's subjects
thereto subscribing, in behalf of themselves and others, subscribers
to a fund of 1,200,000 pounds, for carrying on a trade to his
Majesty's German dominions, praying to be incorporated, by the name of
the Harburg Company.
"15. Petition of Edward Jones, a dealer in timber, on behalf of
himself and others, praying to be incorporated for the importation of
timber from Germany.
"16. Petition of several merchants of London, praying a charter of
incorporation for carrying on a salt-work.
"17. Petition of Captain Macphedris, of London, merchant, on
behalf of himself and several merchants, clothiers, hatters, dyers,
and other traders, praying a charter of incorporation, empowering them
to raise a sufficient sum of money to purchase lands for planting and
rearing a wood called madder, for the use of dyers.
"18. Petition of Joseph Galendo, of London, snuff-maker, praying a
patent for his invention to prepare and cure Virginia tobacco for
snuff in Virginia, and making it into the same in all his Majesty's
LIST OF BUBBLES.
The following Bubble Companies were by the same order declared to
be illegal, and abolished accordingly :--
1. For the importation of Swedish iron.
2. For supplying London with sea-coal. Capital, three millions.
3. For building and rebuilding houses throughout all England. Capital,
4. For making of muslin.
5. For carrying on and improving the British alum works.
6. For effectually settling the island of Blanco and Sal Tartagus.
7. For supplying the town of Deal with fresh water.
8. For the importation of Flanders lace.
9. For improvement of lands in Great Britain. Capital, four millions.
10. For encouraging the breed of horses in England, and improving of
glebe and church lands, and for repairing and rebuilding parsonage and
11. For making of iron and steel in Great Britain.
12. For improving the land in the county of Flint. Capital, one
13. For purchasing lands to build on. Capital, two millions.
14. For trading in hair.
15. For erecting salt-works in Holy Island. Capital, two millions.
16. For buying and selling estates, and lending money on mortgage.
17. For carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to
know what it is.
18. For paving the streets of London. Capital, two millions.
19. For furnishing funerals to any part of Great Britain.
20. For buying and selling lands and lending money at interest.
Capital, five millions.
21. For carrying on the Royal Fishery of Great Britain. Capital, ten
22. For assuring of seamen's wages.
23. For erecting loan-offices for the assistance and encouragement of
the industrious. Capital, two millions.
24. For purchasing and improving leasable lands. Capital, four
25. For importing pitch and tar, and other naval stores, from North
Britain and America.
26. For the clothing, felt, and pantile trade.
27. For purchasing and improving a manor and royalty in Essex.
28. For insuring of horses. Capital, two millions.
29. For exporting the woollen manufacture, and importing copper,
brass, and iron. Capital, four millions.
30. For a grand dispensary. Capital, three millions.
31. For erecting mills and purchasing lead mines. Capital, two
32. For improving the art of making soap.
33. For a settlement on the island of Santa Cruz.
34. For sinking pits and smelting lead ore in Derbyshire.
35. For making glass bottles and other glass.
36. For a wheel for perpetual motion. Capital, one million.
37. For improving of gardens.
38. For insuring and increasing children's fortunes.
39. For entering and loading goods at the custom-house, and for
negotiating business for merchants.
40. For carrying on a woollen manufacture in the north of England.
41. For importing walnut-trees from Virginia. Capital, two millions.
42. For making Manchester stuffs of thread and cotton.
43. For making Joppa and Castile soap.
44. For improving the wrought-iron and steel manufactures of this
kingdom. Capital, four millions.
45. For dealing in lace, Hollands, cambrics, lawns, &c. Capital, two
46. For trading in and improving certain commodities of the produce of
this kingdom, &c. Capital, three millions.
47. For supplying the London markets with cattle.
48. For making looking-glasses, coach glasses, &c. Capital, two
49. For working the tin and lead mines in Cornwall and Derbyshire.
50. For making rape-oil.
51. For importing beaver fur. Capital, two millions.
52. For making pasteboard and packing-paper.
53. For importing of oils and other materials used in the woollen
54. For improving and increasing the silk manufactures.
55. For lending money on stock, annuities, tallies, &c.
56. For paying pensions to widows and others, at a small discount.
Capital, two millions.
57. For improving malt liquors. Capital, four millions.
58. For a grand American fishery.
59. For purchasing and improving the fenny lands in Lincolnshire.
Capital, two millions.
60. For improving the paper manufacture of Great Britain.
61. The Bottomry Company.
62. For drying malt by hot air.
63. For carrying on a trade in the river Oronooko.
64. For the more effectual making of baize, in Colchester and other
parts of Great Britain.
65. For buying of naval stores, supplying the victualling, and paying
the wages of the workmen.
66. For employing poor artificers, and furnishing merchants and others
67. For improvement of tillage and the breed of cattle.
68. Another for the improvement of our breed of horses.
69. Another for a horse-insurance.
70. For carrying on the corn trade of Great Britain.
71. For insuring to all masters and mistresses the losses they may
sustain by servants. Capital, three millions.
72. For erecting houses or hospitals, for taking in and maintaining
illegitimate children. Capital, two millions.
73. For bleaching coarse sugars, without the use of fire or loss of
74. For building turnpikes and wharfs in Great Britain.
75. For insuring from thefts and robberies.
76. For extracting silver from lead.
77. For making China and Delft ware. Capital, one million.
78. For importing tobacco, and exporting it again to Sweden and the
north of Europe. Capital, four millions.
79. For making iron with pit coal.
80. For furnishing the cities of London and Westminster with hay and
straw. Capital, three millions.
81. For a sail and packing cloth manufactory in Ireland.
82. For taking up ballast.
83. For buying and fitting out ships to suppress pirates.
84. For the importation of timber from Wales. Capital, two millions.
85. For rock-salt.
86. For the transmutation of quicksilver into a malleable fine metal.
Besides these bubbles, many others sprang up daily, in spite of
the condemnation of the Government and the ridicule of the still sane
portion of the public. The print-shops teemed with caricatures, and
the newspapers with epigrams and satires, upon the prevalent folly. An
ingenious card-maker published a pack of South Sea playing-cards,
which are now extremely rare, each card containing, besides the usual
figures, of a very small size, in one corner, a caricature of a bubble
company, with appropriate verses underneath. One of the most famous
bubbles was "Puckle's Machine Company," for discharging round and
square cannon-balls and bullets, and making a total revolution in the
art of war. Its pretensions to public favour were thus summed up, on
the eight of spades :--
A rare invention to destroy the crowd
Of fools at home, instead of fools abroad.
Fear not, my friends, this terrible machine,
They're only wounded who have shares therein.
The nine of hearts was a caricature of the English Copper and Brass
Company, with the following epigram :--
The headlong fool that wants to be a swopper
Of gold and silver coin for English copper,
May, in Change Alley, prove himself an ass,
And give rich metal for adulterate brass.
The eight of diamonds celebrated the Company for the Colonization of
Acadia, with this doggrel :--
He that is rich and wants to fool away
A good round sum in North America,
Let him subscribe himself a headlong sharer,
And asses' ears shall honour him or bearer.
And in a similar style every card of the pack exposed some knavish
scheme, and ridiculed the persons who were its dupes. It was computed
that the total amount of the sums proposed for carrying on these
projects was upwards of three hundred millions sterling, a sum so
immense that it exceeded the value of all the lands in England at
twenty years' purchase.
It is time, however, to return to the great South Sea gulf, that
swallowed the fortunes of so many thousands of the avaricious and the
credulous. On the 29th of May, the stock had risen as high as five
hundred, and about two-thirds of the government annuitants had
exchanged the securities of the state for those of the South Sea
Company. During the whole of the month of May the stock continued to
rise, and on the 28th it was quoted at five hundred and fifty. In four
days after this it took a prodigious leap, rising suddenly from five
hundred and fifty to eight hundred and ninety. It was now the general
opinion that the stock could rise no higher, and many persons took
that opportunity of selling out, with a view of realising their
profits. Many noblemen and persons in the train of the King, and about
to accompany him to Hanover, were also anxious to sell out. So many
sellers, and so few buyers, appeared in the Alley on the 3rd of June,
that the stock fell at once from eight hundred and ninety to six
hundred and forty. The directors were alarmed, and gave their agents
orders to buy. Their efforts succeeded. Towards evening confidence was
restored, and the stock advanced to seven hundred and fifty. It
continued at this price, with some slight fluctuation, until the
company closed their books on the 22nd of June.
It would be needless and uninteresting to detail the various arts
employed by the directors to keep up the price of stock. It will be
sufficient to state that it finally rose to one thousand per cent. It
was quoted at this price in the commencement of August. The bubble was
then full-blown, and began to quiver and shake, preparatory to its
Many of the government annuitants expressed dissatisfaction
against the directors. They accused them of partiality in making out
the lists for shares in each subscription. Further uneasiness was
occasioned by its being generally known that Sir John Blunt, the
chairman, and some others, had sold out. During the whole of the month
of August the stock fell, and on the 2nd of September it was quoted at
seven hundred only.
The state of things now became alarming. To prevent, if possible,
the utter extinction of public confidence in their proceedings, the
directors summoned a general court of the whole corporation, to
meet in Merchant Tailors' Hall, on the 8th of September. By nine
o'clock in the morning, the room was filled to suffocation; Cheapside
was blocked up by a crowd unable to gain admittance, and the greatest
excitement prevailed. The directors and their friends mustered in
great numbers. Sir John Fellowes, the sub-governor, was called to the
chair. He acquainted the assembly with the cause of their meeting,
read to them the several resolutions of the court of directors, and
gave them an account of their proceedings; of the taking in the
redeemable and unredeemable funds, and of the subscriptions in money.
Mr. Secretary Craggs then made a short speech, wherein he commended
the conduct of the directors, and urged that nothing could more
effectually contribute to the bringing this scheme to perfection than
union among themselves. He concluded with a motion for thanking the
court of directors for their prudent and skilful management, and for
desiring them to proceed in such manner as they should think most
proper for the interest and advantage of the corporation. Mr.
Hungerford, who had rendered himself very conspicuous in the House of
Commons for his zeal in behalf of the South Sea Company, and who was
shrewdly suspected to have been a considerable gainer by knowing the
right time to sell out, was very magniloquent on this occasion. He
said that he had seen the rise and fall, the decay and resurrection of
many communities of this nature, but that, in his opinion, none had
ever performed such wonderful things in so short a time as the South
Sea Company. They had done more than the crown, the pulpit, or the
bench could do. They had reconciled all parties in one common
interest; they had laid asleep, if not wholly extinguished, all the
domestic jars and animosities of the nation. By the rise of their
stock, monied men had vastly increased their fortunes;
country-gentlemen had seen the value of their lands doubled and
trebled in their hands. They had at the same time done good to the
Church, not a few of the reverend clergy having got great sums by the
project. In short, they had enriched the whole nation, and he hoped
they had not forgotten themselves. There was some hissing at the
latter part of this speech, which for the extravagance of its eulogy
was not far removed from satire; but the directors and their friends,
and all the winners in the room, applauded vehemently. The Duke of
Portland spoke in a similar strain, and expressed his great wonder why
anybody should be dissatisfied: of course, he was a winner by his
speculations, and in a condition similar to that of the fat alderman
in Joe Miller's Jests, who, whenever he had eaten a good dinner,
folded his hands upon his paunch, and expressed his doubts whether
there could be a hungry man in the world.
Several resolutions were passed at this meeting, but they had no
effect upon the public. Upon the very same evening the stock fell to
six hundred and forty, and on the morrow to five hundred and forty.
Day after day it continued to fall, until it was as low as four
hundred. In a letter dated September 13th, from Mr. Broderick, M.P. to
Lord Chancellor Middleton, and published in Coxo's Walpole, the former
says,--"Various are the conjectures why the South Sea directors have
suffered the cloud to break so early. I made no doubt but they would
do so when they found it to their advantage. They have stretched
credit so far beyond what it would bear, that specie proves
insufficient to support it. Their most considerable men have drawn
out, securing themselves by the losses of the deluded, thoughtless
numbers, whose understandings have been overruled by avarice and the
hope of making mountains out of mole-hills. Thousands of families will
be reduced to beggary. The consternation is inexpressible-- the rage
beyond description, and the case altogether so desperate that I do not
see any plan or scheme so much as thought of for averting the blow, so
that I cannot pretend to guess what is next to be done." Ten days
afterwards, the stock still falling, he writes,--"The Company have
yet come to no determination, for they are in such a wood that they
know not which way to turn. By several gentlemen lately come to town,
I perceive the very name of a South-Sea-man grows abominable in every
country. A great many goldsmiths are already run off, and more will
daily. I question whether one-third, nay, one-fourth, of them can
stand it. From the very beginning, I founded my judgment of the whole
affair upon the unquestionable maxim, that ten millions (which is more
than our running cash) could not circulate two hundred millions,
beyond which our paper credit extended. That, therefore, whenever that
should become doubtful, be the cause what it would, our noble state
machine must inevitably fall to the ground."
On the 12th of September, at the earnest solicitation of Mr.
Secretary Craggs, several conferences were held between the directors
of the South Sea and the directors of the Bank. A report which was
circulated, that the latter had agreed to circulate six millions of
the South Sea Company's bonds, caused the stock to rise to six hundred
and seventy; but in the afternoon, as soon as the report was known to
be groundless, the stock fell again to five hundred and eighty; the
next day to five hundred and seventy, and so gradually to four
hundred. [Gay (the poet), in that disastrous year, had a present from
young Craggs of some South Sea stock, and once supposed himself to be
master of twenty thousand pounds. His friends persuaded him to sell
his share, but he dreamed of dignity and splendour, and could not bear
to obstruct his own fortune. He was then importuned to sell as much as
would purchase a hundred a year for life, "which," says Fenton, "will
make you sure of a clean shirt and a shoulder of mutton every day."
This counsel was rejected; the profit and principal were lost, and Gay
sunk under the calamity so low that his life became in
danger.--Johnson's Lives of the Poets.]
The ministry were seriously alarmed at the aspect of affairs. The
directors could not appear in the streets without being insulted;
dangerous riots were every moment apprehended. Despatches were sent
off to the King at Hanover, praying his immediate return. Mr. Walpole,
who was staying at his country-seat, was sent for, that he might
employ his known influence with the directors of the Bank of England
to induce them to accept the proposal made by the South Sea Company
for circulating a number of their bonds.
The Bank was very unwilling to mix itself up with the affairs of
the Company; it dreaded being involved in calamities which it could
not relieve, and received all overtures with visible reluctance. But
the universal voice of the nation called upon it to come to the
rescue. Every person of note in commercial politics was called in to
advise in the emergency. A rough draft of a contract drawn up by Mr.
Walpole was ultimately adopted as the basis of further negotiations,
and the public alarm abated a little.
On the following day, the 20th of September, a general court of
the South Sea Company was held at Merchant Tailors' Hall, in which
resolutions were carried, empowering the directors to agree with the
Bank of England, or any other persons, to circulate the Company's
bonds, or make any other agreement with the Bank which they should
think proper. One of the speakers, a Mr. Pulteney, said it was most
surprising to see the extraordinary panic which had seized upon the
people. Men were running to and fro in alarm and terror, their
imaginations filled with some great calamity, the form and dimensions
of which nobody knew.
"Black it stood as night--
Fierce as ten furies--terrible as hell."
At a general court of the Bank of England held two days
afterwards, the governor informed them of the several meetings that
had been held on the affairs of the South Sea Company, adding that the
directors had not yet thought fit to come to any decision upon the
matter. A resolution was then proposed, and carried without a
dissentient voice, empowering the directors to agree with those of the
South Sea to circulate their bonds, to what sum, and upon what terms,
and for what time, they might think proper.
Thus both parties were at liberty to act as they might judge best
for the public interest. Books were opened at the Bank for a
subscription of three millions for the support of public credit, on
the usual terms of 15 pounds per cent. deposit, per cent. premium, and
5 pounds per cent. interest. So great was the concourse of people in
the early part of the morning, all eagerly bringing their money, that
it was thought the subscription would be filled that day; but before
noon, the tide turned. In spite of all that could be done to prevent
it, the South Sea Company's stock fell rapidly. Their bonds were in
such discredit, that a run commenced upon the most eminent goldsmiths
and bankers, some of whom having lent out great sums upon South Sea
stock were obliged to shut up their shops and abscond. The Sword-blade
Company, who had hitherto been the chief cashiers of the South Sea
Company, stopped payment. This being looked upon as but the beginning
of evil, occasioned a great run upon the Bank, who were now obliged to
pay out money much faster than they had received it upon the
subscription in the morning. The day succeeding was a holiday (the
29th of September), and the Bank had a little breathing time. They
bore up against the storm; but their former rivals, the South Sea
Company, were wrecked upon it. Their stock fell to one hundred and
fifty, and gradually, after various fluctuations, to one hundred and
The Bank, finding they were not able to restore public confidence,
and stem the tide of ruin, without running the risk of being swept
away with those they intended to save, declined to carry out the
agreement into which they had partially entered. They were under no
obligation whatever to continue; for the so called Bank contract was
nothing more than the rough draught of an agreement, in which blanks
had been left for several important particulars, and which contained
no penalty for their secession. "And thus," to use the words of the
Parliamentary History, "were seen, in the space of eight months, the
rise, progress, and fall of that mighty fabric, which, being wound up
by mysterious springs to a wonderful height, had fixed the eyes and
expectations of all Europe, but whose foundation, being fraud,
illusion, credulity, and infatuation, fell to the ground as soon as
the artful management of its directors was discovered."
In the hey-day of its blood, during the progress of this dangerous
delusion, the manners of the nation became sensibly corrupted. The
Parliamentary inquiry, set on foot to discover the delinquents,
disclosed scenes of infamy, disgraceful alike to the morals of the
offenders and the intellects of the people among whom they had arisen.
It is a deeply interesting study to investigate all the evils
that were the result. Nations, like individuals, cannot become
desperate gamblers with impunity. Punishment is sure to overtake them
sooner or later. A celebrated writer [Smollett.] is quite wrong, when
he says, "that such an era as this is the most unfavourable for a
historian; that no reader of sentiment and imagination can be
entertained or interested by a detail of transactions such as these,
which admit of no warmth, no colouring, no embellishment; a detail of
which only serves to exhibit an inanimate picture of tasteless vice
and mean degeneracy." On the contrary, and Smollett might have
discovered it, if he had been in the humour--the subject is capable of
inspiring as much interest as even a novelist can desire. Is there no
warmth in the despair of a plundered people?--no life and animation
in the picture which might be drawn of the woes of hundreds of
impoverished and ruined families? of the wealthy of yesterday become
the beggars of to-day? of the powerful and influential changed into
exiles and outcasts, and the voice of self-reproach and imprecation
resounding from every corner of the land? Is it a dull or
uninstructive picture to see a whole people shaking suddenly off the
trammels of reason, and running wild after a golden vision, refusing
obstinately to believe that it is not real, till, like a deluded hind
running after an ignis fatuus, they are plunged into a quagmire? But
in this false spirit has history too often been written. The intrigues
of unworthy courtiers to gain the favour of still more unworthy kings;
or the records of murderous battles and sieges have been dilated on,
and told over and over again, with all the eloquence of style and all
the charms of fancy; while the circumstances which have most deeply
affected the morals and welfare of the people, have been passed over
with but slight notice as dry and dull, and capable of neither warmth
During the progress of this famous bubble, England presented a
singular spectacle. The public mind was in a state of unwholesome
fermentation. Men were no longer satisfied with the slow but sure
profits of cautious industry. The hope of boundless wealth for the
morrow made them heedless and extravagant for to-day. A luxury, till
then unheard-of, was introduced, bringing in its train a corresponding
laxity of morals. The overbearing insolence of ignorant men, who had
arisen to sudden wealth by successful gambling, made men of true
gentility of mind and manners, blush that gold should have power to
raise the unworthy in the scale of society. The haughtiness of some of
these "cyphering cits," as they were termed by Sir Richard Steele, was
remembered against them in the day of their adversity. In the
Parliamentary inquiry, many of the directors suffered more for their
insolence than for their peculation. One of them, who, in the
full-blown pride of an ignorant rich man, had said that he would feed
his horse upon gold, was reduced almost to bread and water for
himself; every haughty look, every overbearing speech, was set down,
and repaid them a hundredfold in poverty and humiliation.
The state of matters all over the country was so alarming, that
George I shortened his intended stay in Hanover, and returned in all
haste to England. He arrived on the 11th of November, and Parliament
was summoned to meet on the 8th of December. In the mean time, public
meetings were held in every considerable town of the empire, at which
petitions were adopted, praying the vengeance of the Legislature upon
the South Sea directors, who, by their fraudulent practices, had
brought the nation to the brink of ruin. Nobody seemed to imagine that
the nation itself was as culpable as the South Sea Company. Nobody
blamed the credulity and avarice of the people,--the degrading lust of
gain, which had swallowed up every nobler quality in the national
character, or the infatuation which had made the multitude run their
heads with such frantic eagerness into the net held out for them by
scheming projectors. These things were never mentioned. The people
were a simple, honest, hard-working people, ruined by a gang of
robbers, who were to be hanged, drawn, and quartered without mercy.
This was the almost unanimous feeling of the country. The two
Houses of Parliament were not more reasonable. Before the guilt of the
South Sea directors was known, punishment was the only cry. The King,
in his speech from the throne, expressed his hope that they would
remember that all their prudence, temper, and resolution were
necessary to find out and apply the proper remedy for their
misfortunes. In the debate on the answer to the address, several
speakers indulged in the most violent invectives against the directors
of the South Sea project. The Lord Molesworth was particularly
vehement. "It had been said by some, that there was no law to punish
the directors of the South Sea Company, who were justly looked upon as
the authors of the present misfortunes of the state. In his opinion
they ought, upon this occasion, to follow the example of the ancient
Romans, who, having no law against parricide, because their
legislators supposed no son could be so unnaturally wicked as to
embrue his hands in his father's blood, made a law to punish this
heinous crime as soon as it was committed. They adjudged the guilty
wretch to be sown in a sack, and thrown alive into the Tyber. He
looked upon the contrivers and executors of the villanous South Sea
scheme as the parricides of their country, and should be satisfied to
see them tied in like manner in sacks, and thrown into the Thames."
Other members spoke with as much want of temper and discretion. Mr.
Walpole was more moderate. He recommended that their first care should
be to restore public credit. "If the city of London were on fire, all
wise men would aid in extinguishing the flames, and preventing the
spread of the conflagration before they inquired after the
incendiaries. Public credit had received a dangerous wound, and lay
bleeding, and they ought to apply a speedy remedy to it. It was time
enough to punish the assassin afterwards." On the 9th of December an
address, in answer to his Majesty's speech, was agreed upon, after an
amendment, which was carried without a division, that words should be
added expressive of the determination of the House not only to seek a
remedy for the national distresses, but to punish the authors of them.
The inquiry proceeded rapidly. The directors were ordered to lay
before the House a full account of all their proceedings. Resolutions
were passed to the effect that the calamity was mainly owing to the
vile arts of stockjobbers, and that nothing could tend more to the
re-establishment of public credit than a law to prevent this infamous
practice. Mr. Walpole then rose, and said, that "as he had previously
hinted, he had spent some time upon a scheme for restoring public
credit, but that, the execution of it depending upon a position which
had been laid down as fundamental, he thought it proper, before he
opened out his scheme, to be informed whether he might rely upon that
foundation. It was, whether the subscription of public debts and
encumbrances, money subscriptions, and other contracts, made with the
South Sea Company should remain in the present state?" This question
occasioned an animated debate. It was finally agreed, by a majority of
259 against 117, that all these contracts should remain in their
present state, unless altered for the relief of the proprietors by a
general court of the South Sea Company, or set aside by due course of
law. On the following day Mr. Walpole laid before a committee of the
whole House his scheme for the restoration of public credit, which
was, in substance, to ingraft nine millions of South Sea stock into
the Bank of England, and the same sum into the East India Company,
upon certain conditions. The plan was favourably received by the
House. After some few objections, it was ordered that proposals should
be received from the two great corporations. They were both unwilling
to lend their aid, and the plan met with a warm but fruitless
opposition at the general courts summoned for the purpose of
deliberating upon it. They, however, ultimately agreed upon the terms
on which they would consent to circulate the South Sea bonds, and
their report, being presented to the committee, a bill was brought in,
under the superintendence of Mr. Walpole, and safely carried through
both Houses of Parliament.
A bill was at the same time brought in, for restraining the South
Sea directors, governor, sub-governor, treasurer, cashier, and clerks
from leaving the kingdom for a twelvemonth, and for discovering their
estates and effects, and preventing them from transporting or
alienating the same. All the most influential members of the House
supported the bill. Mr. Shippen, seeing Mr. Secretary Craggs in his
place, and believing the injurious rumours that were afloat of that
minister's conduct in the South Sea business, determined to touch him
to the quick. He said, he was glad to see a British House of Commons
resuming its pristine vigour and spirit, and acting with so much
unanimity for the public good. It was necessary to secure the persons
and estates of the South Sea directors and their officers; "but," he
added, looking fixedly at Mr. Craggs as he spoke, "there were other
men in high station, whom, in time, he would not be afraid to name,
who were no less guilty than the directors." Mr. Craggs arose in great
wrath, and said, that if the innuendo were directed against him, he
was ready to give satisfaction to any man who questioned him, either
in the House or out of it. Loud cries of order immediately arose on
every side. In the midst of the uproar Lord Molesworth got up, and
expressed his wonder at the boldness of Mr. Craggs in challenging the
whole House of Commons. He, Lord Molesworth, though somewhat old, past
sixty, would answer Mr. Craggs whatever he had to say in the House,
and he trusted there were plenty of young men beside him, who would
not be afraid to look Mr. Craggs in the face, out of the House. The
cries of order again resounded from every side; the members arose
simultaneously; everybody seemed to be vociferating at once. The
Speaker in vain called order. The confusion lasted several minutes,
during which Lord Molesworth and Mr. Craggs were almost the only
members who kept their seats. At last the call for Mr. Craggs became
so violent that he thought proper to submit to the universal feeling
of the House, and explain his unparliamentary expression. He said,
that by giving satisfaction to the impugners of his conduct in that
House, he did not mean that he would fight, but that he would explain
his conduct. Here the matter ended, and the House proceeded to debate
in what manner they should conduct their inquiry into the affairs of
the South Sea Company, whether in a grand or a select committee.
Ultimately, a Secret Committee of thirteen was appointed, with power
to send for persons, papers, and records.
The Lords were as zealous and as hasty as the Commons. The Bishop
of Rochester said the scheme had been like a pestilence. The Duke of
Wharton said the House ought to show no respect of persons; that, for
his part, he would give up the dearest friend he had, if he had been
engaged in the project. The nation had been plundered in a most
shameful and flagrant manner, and he would go as far as anybody in the
punishment of the offenders. Lord Stanhope said, that every farthing
possessed by the criminals, whether directors or not directors, ought
to be confiscated, to make good the public losses.
During all this time the public excitement was extreme. We learn,
front Coxe's Walpole, that the very name of a South Sea director was
thought to be synonymous with every species of fraud and villany.
Petitions from counties, cities, and boroughs, in all parts of the
kingdom, were presented, crying for the justice due to an injured
nation and the punishment of the villanous peculators. Those moderate
men, who would not go to extreme lengths, even in the punishment of
the guilty, were accused of being accomplices, were exposed to
repeated insults and virulent invectives, and devoted, both in
anonymous letters and public writings, to the speedy vengeance of an
injured people. The accusations against Mr. Aislabie, Chancellor of
the Exchequer, and Mr. Craggs, another member of the ministry, were so
loud, that the House of Lords resolved to proceed at once into the
investigation concerning them. It was ordered, on the 21st of January,
that all brokers concerned in the South Sea scheme should lay before
the House an account of the stock or subscriptions bought or sold by
them for any of the officers of the Treasury or Exchequer, or in trust
for any of them, since Michaelmas 1719. When this account was
delivered, it appeared that large quantities of stock had been
transferred to the use of Mr. Aislabie. Five of the South Sea
directors, ineluding Mr. Edward Gibbon, the grandfather of the
celebrated historian, were ordered into the custody of the black rod.
Upon a motion made by Earl Stanhope, it was unanimously resolved, that
the taking in or giving credit for stock without a valuable
consideration actually paid or sufficiently secured; or the purchasing
stock by any director or agent of the South Sea Company, for the use
or benefit of any member of the administration, or any member of
either House of Parliament, during such time as the South Sea Bill was
yet pending in Parliament, was a notorious and dangerous corruption.
Another resolution was passed a few days afterwards, to the effect
that several of the directors and officers of the Company having, in a
clandestine manner, sold their own stock to the Company, had been
guilty of a notorious fraud and breach of trust, and had thereby
mainly caused the unhappy turn of affairs that had so much affected
public credit. Mr. Aislabie resigned his office as Chancellor of the
Exchequer, and absented himself from Parliament until the formal
inquiry into his individual guilt was brought under the consideration
of the Legislature.
In the mean time, Knight, the treasurer of the Company, and who
was intrusted with all the dangerous secrets of the dishonest
directors, packed up his books and documents, and made his escape from
the country. He embarked in disguise, in a small boat on the river,
and proceeding to a vessel hired for the purpose, was safely conveyed
to Calais. The Committee of Secrecy informed the House of the
circumstance, when it was resolved unanimously that two addresses
should be presented to the King; the first praying that he would issue
a proclamation, offering a reward for the apprehension of Knight; and
the second, that he would give immediate orders to stop the ports, and
to take effectual care of the coasts, to prevent the said Knight, or
any other officers of the South Sea Company, from escaping out of the
kingdom. The ink was hardly dry upon these addresses before they were
carried to the King by Mr. Methuen, deputed by the House for that
purpose. The same evening a royal proclamation was issued, offering a
reward of two thousand pounds for the apprehension of Knight. The
Commons ordered the doors of the House to be locked, and the keys to
be placed upon the table. General Ross, one of the members of the
Committee of Secrecy, acquainted them that they had already discovered
a train of the deepest villany and fraud that Hell had ever contrived
to ruin a nation, which in due time they would lay before the House.
In the mean time, in order to a further discovery, the Committee
thought it highly necessary to secure the persons of some of the
directors and principal South Sea officers, and to seize their papers.
A motion to this effect having been made, was carried unanimously. Sir
Robert Chaplin, Sir Theodore Janssen, Mr. Sawbridge, and Mr. F. Eyles,
members of the House, and directors of the South Sea Company, were
summoned to appear in their places, and answer for their corrupt
practices. Sir Theodore Janssen and Mr. Sawbridge answered to their
names, and endeavoured to exculpate themselves. The House heard them
patiently, and then ordered them to withdraw. A motion was then made,
and carried nemine contradicente, that they had been guilty of a
notorious breach of trust--had occasioned much loss to great numbers
of his Majesty's subjects, and had highly prejudiced the public
credit. It was then ordered that, for their offence, they should be
expelled the House, and taken into the custody of the
sergeant-at-arms. Sir Robert Chaplin and Mr. Eyles, attending in their
places four days afterwards, were also expelled the House. It was
resolved at the same time to address the King, to give directions to
his ministers at foreign courts to make application for Knight, that
he might be delivered up to the English authorities, in ease he took
refuge in any of their dominions. The King at once agreed, and
messengers were despatched to all parts of the Continent the same
Among the directors taken into custody, was Sir John Blunt, the man
whom popular opinion has generally accused of having been the original
author and father of the scheme. This man, we are informed by Pope, in
his epistle to Allen, Lord Bathurst, was a dissenter, of a most
religious deportment, and professed to be a great believer. He
constantly declaimed against the luxury and corruption of the age, the
partiality of parliaments, and the misery of party spirit. He was
particularly eloquent against avarice in great and noble persons. He
was originally a scrivener, and afterwards became, not only a
director, but the most active manager of the South Sea Company.
Whether it was during his career in this capacity that he first began
to declaim against the avarice of the great, we are not informed. He
certainly must have seen enough of it to justify his severest
anathema; but if the preacher had himself been free from the vice he
condemned, his declamations would have had a better effect. He was
brought up in custody to the bar of the House of Lords, and underwent
a long examination. He refused to answer several important questions.
He said he had been examined already by a committee of the House of
Commons, and as he did not remember his answers, and might contradict
himself, he refused to answer before another tribunal. This
declaration, in itself an indirect proof of guilt, occasioned some
commotion in the House. He was again asked peremptorily whether he had
ever sold any portion of the stock to any member of the
administration, or any member of either House of Parliament, to
facilitate the passing of the hill. He again declined to answer. He
was anxious, he said, to treat the House with all possible respect,
but he thought it hard to be compelled to accuse himself. After
several ineffectual attempts to refresh his memory, he was directed to
withdraw. A violent discussion ensued between the friends and
opponents of the ministry. It was asserted that the administration
were no strangers to the convenient taciturnity of Sir John Blunt. The
Duke of Wharton made a reflection upon the Earl Stanhope, which the
latter warmly resented. He spoke under great excitement, and with such
vehemence as to cause a sudden determination of blood to the head. He
felt himself so ill that he was obliged to leave the House and retire
to his chamber. He was cupped immediately, and also let blood on the
following morning, but with slight relief. The fatal result was not
anticipated. Towards evening he became drowsy, and turning himself on
his face, expired. The sudden death of this statesman caused great
grief to the nation. George I was exceedingly affected, and shut
himself up for some hours in his closet, inconsolable for his loss.
Knight, the treasurer of the company, was apprehended at
Tirlemont, near Liege, by one of the secretaries of Mr. Leathes, the
British resident at Brussels, and lodged in the citadel of Antwerp.
Repeated applications were made to the court of Austria to deliver him
up, but in vain. Knight threw himself upon the protection of the
states of Brabant, and demanded to be tried in that country. It was a
privilege granted to the states of Brabant by one of the articles of
the Joyeuse Entree, that every criminal apprehended in that country
should be tried in that country. The states insisted on their
privilege, and refused to deliver Knight to the British authorities.
The latter did not cease their solicitations; but in the mean time,
Knight escaped from the citadel.
On the 16th of February the Committee of Secrecy made their first
report to the House. They stated that their inquiry had been attended
with numerous difficulties and embarrassments; every one they had
examined had endeavoured, as far as in him lay, to defeat the ends of
justice. In some of the books produced before them, false and
fictitious entries had been made; in others, there were entries of
money, with blanks for the name of the stockholders. There were
frequent erasures and alterations, and in some of the books leaves
were torn out. They also found that some books of great importance had
been destroyed altogether, and that some had been taken away or
secreted. At the very entrance into their inquiry, they had observed
that the matters referred to them were of great variety and extent.
Many persons had been intrusted with various parts in the execution of
the law, and under colour thereof had acted in an unwarrantable
manner, in disposing of the properties of many thousands of persons,
amounting to many millions of money. They discovered that, before the
South Sea Act was passed, there was an entry in the Company's books of
the sum of 1,259,325 pounds, upon account of stock stated to have been
sold to the amount of 574,500 pounds. This stock was all fictitious,
and had been disposed of with a view to promote the passing of the
bill. It was noted as sold at various days, and at various prices,
from 150 to 325 per cent. Being surprised to see so large an account
disposed of, at a time when the Company were not empowered to increase
their capital, the committee determined to investigate most carefully
the whole transaction. The governor, sub-governor, and several
directors were brought before them, and examined rigidly. They found
that, at the time these entries were made, the Company was not in
possession of such a quantity of stock, having in their own right only
a small quantity, not exceeding thirty thousand pounds at the utmost.
Pursuing the inquiry, they found that this amount of stock, was to be
esteemed as taken in or holden by the Company, for the benefit of the
pretended purchasers, although no mutual agreement was made for its
delivery or acceptance at any certain time. No money was paid down,
nor any deposit or security whatever given to the Company by the
supposed purchasers; so that if the stock had fallen, as might have
been expected, had the act not passed, they would have sustained no
loss. If, on the contrary, the price of stock advanced (as it actually
did by the success of the scheme), the difference by the advanced
price was to be made good to them. Accordingly, after the passing of
the act, the account of stock was made up and adjusted with Mr.
Knight, and the pretended purchasers were paid the difference out of
the Company's cash. This fictitious stock, which had been chiefly at
the disposal of Sir John Blunt, Mr. Gibbon, and Mr. Knight, was
distributed among several members of the government and their
connexions, by way of bribe, to facilitate the passing of the bill. To
the Earl of Sunderland was assigned 50,000 pounds of this stock; to
the Duchess of Kendal 10,000 pounds; to the Countess of Platen 10,000
pounds; to her two nieces 10,000 pounds; to Mr. Secretary Craggs
30,000 pounds; to Mr. Charles Stanhope (one of the Secretaries of the
Treasury) 10,000 pounds; to the Swordblade Company 50,000 pounds. It
also appeared that Mr. Stanhope had received the enormous sum of
250,000 pounds as the difference in the price of some stock, through
the hands of Turner, Caswall, and Co., but that his name had been
partly erased from their books, and altered to Stangape. Aislabie, the
Chancellor of the Exchequer, had made profits still more abominable.
He had an account with the same firm, who were also South Sea
directors, to the amount of 794,451 pounds. He had, besides, advised
the Company to make their second subscription one million and a half,
instead of a million, by their own authority, and without any warrant.
The third subscription had been conducted in a manner as disgraceful.
Mr. Aislabie's name was down for 70,000 pounds; Mr. Craggs, senior,
for 659,000 pounds; the Earl of Sunderland's for 160,000 pounds; and
Mr. Stanhope for 47,000 pounds. This report was succeeded by six
others, less important. At the end of the last, the committee declared
that the absence of Knight, who had been principally intrusted,
prevented them from carrying on their inquiries.
The first report was ordered to be printed, and taken into
consideration on the next day but one succeeding. After a very angry
and animated debate, a series of resolutions were agreed to,
condemnatory of the conduct of the directors, of the members of the
Parliament and of the administration concerned with them; and
declaring that they ought, each and all, to make satisfaction out of
their own estates for the injury they had done the public. Their
practices were declared to be corrupt, infamous, and dangerous; and a
bill was ordered to be brought in for the relief of the unhappy
Mr. Charles Stanhope was the first person brought to account for his
share in these transactions. He urged in his defence that, for some
years past, he had lodged all the money he was possessed of in Mr.
Knight's hands, and whatever stock Mr. Knight had taken in for him, he
had paid a valuable consideration for it. As to the stock that had
been bought for him by Turner, Caswall, and Co. he knew nothing about
it. Whatever had been done in that matter was done without his
authority, and he could not be responsible for it. Turner and Co. took
the latter charge upon themselves, but it was notorious to every
unbiassed and unprejudiced person that Mr. Stanhope was a gainer of
the 250,000 pounds which lay in the hands of that firm to his credit.
He was, however, acquitted by a majority of three only. The greatest
exertions were made to screen him. Lord Stanhope, the son of the Earl
of Chesterfield, went round to the wavering members, using all the
eloquence he was possessed of to induce them either to vote for the
acquittal or to absent themselves from the house. Many weak-headed
country-gentlemen were led astray by his persuasions, and the result
was as already stated. The acquittal caused the greatest discontent
throughout the country. Mobs of a menacing character assembled in
different parts of London; fears of riots were generally entertained,
especially as the examination of a still greater delinquent was
expected by many to have a similar termination. Mr. Aislabie, whose
high office and deep responsibilities should have kept him honest,
even had native principle been insufficient, was very justly regarded
as perhaps the greatest criminal of all. His case was entered into
on the day succeeding the acquittal of Mr. Starthope. Great excitement
prevailed, and the lobbies and avenues of the house were beset by
crowds, impatient to know the result. The debate lasted the whole day.
Mr. Aislabie found few friends: his guilt was so apparent and so
heinous that nobody had courage to stand up in his favour. It was
finally resolved, without a dissentient voice, that Mr. Aislabie had
encouraged and promoted the destructive execution of the South Sea
scheme with a view to his own exorbitant profit, and had combined with
the directors in their pernicious practices to the ruin of the public
trade and credit of the kingdom: that he should for his offences be
ignominiously expelled from the House of Commons, and committed a
close prisoner to the Tower of London; that he should be restrained
from going out of the kingdom for a whole year, or till the end of the
next session of Parliament; and that he should make out a correct
account of all his estate, in order that it might be applied to the
relief of those who had suffered by his malpractices.
This verdict caused the greatest joy. Though it was delivered at
half-past twelve at night, it soon spread over the city. Several
persons illuminated their houses in token of their joy. On the
following day, when Mr. Aislabie was conveyed to the Tower, the mob
assembled on Tower-hill with the intention of hooting and pelting him.
Not succeeding in this, they kindled a large bonfire, and danced
around it in the exuberance of their delight. Several bonfires were
made in other places; London presented the appearance of a holiday,
and people congratulated one another as if they had just escaped from
some great calamity. The rage upon the acquittal of Mr. Stanhope had
grown to such a height that none could tell where it would have ended,
had Mr. Aislabie met with the like indulgence.
To increase the public satisfaction, Sir George Caswall, of the
firm of Turner, Caswall, & Co. was expelled the House on the following
day, and ordered to refund the sum of 250,000 pounds.
That part of the report of the Committee of Secrecy which related
to the Earl of Sunderland was next taken into consideration. Every
effort was made to clear his Lordship from the imputation. As the case
against him rested chiefly on the evidence extorted from Sir John
Blunt, great pains were taken to make it appear that Sir John's word
was not to be believed, especially in a matter affecting the honour of
a peer and privy councillor. All the friends of the ministry rallied
around the Earl, it being generally reported that a verdict of guilty
against him would bring a Tory ministry into power. He was eventually
acquitted, by a majority of 233 against 172; but the country was
convinced of his guilt. The greatest indignation was everywhere
expressed, and menacing mobs again assembled in London. Happily no
disturbances took place.
This was the day on which Mr. Craggs, the elder, expired. The
morrow had been appointed for the consideration of his case. It was
very generally believed that he had poisoned himself. It appeared,
however, that grief for the loss of his son, one of the Secretaries of
the Treasury, who had died five weeks previously of the small-pox,
preyed much on his mind. For this son, dearly beloved, he had been
amassing vast heaps of riches: he had been getting money, but not
honestly; and he for whose sake he had bartered his honour and sullied
his fame, was now no more. The dread of further exposure increased his
trouble of mind, and ultimately brought on an apoplectic fit, in which
he expired. He left a fortune of a million and a half, which was
afterwards confiscated for the benefit of the sufferers by the unhappy
delusion he had been so mainly instrumental in raising.
One by one the case of every director of the Company was taken
into consideration. A sum amounting to two millions and fourteen
thousand pounds was confiscated from their estates towards repairing
the mischief they had done, each man being allowed a certain residue,
in proportion to his conduct and circumstances, with which he might
begin the world anew. Sir John Blunt was only allowed 5,000 pounds out
of his fortune of upwards of 183,000 pounds; Sir John Fellows was
allowed 10,000 pounds out of 243,000 pounds; Sir Theodore Janssen,
50,000 pounds out of 243,000 pounds; Mr. Edward Gibbon, 10,000
pounds out of 106,000 pounds.; Sir John Lambert, 5000 pounds out of
72,000 pounds. Others, less deeply involved, were treated with greater
liberality. Gibbon, the historian, whose grandfather was the Mr.
Edward Gibbon so severely mulcted, has given, in the Memoirs of his
Life and Writings, an interesting account of the proceedings in
Parliament at this time. He owns that he is not an unprejudiced
witness; but, as all the writers from which it is possible to extract
any notice of the proceedings of these disastrous years, were
prejudiced on the other side, the statements of the great historian
become of additional value. If only on the principle of audi alteram
partem, his opinion is entitled to consideration. "In the year 1716,"
he says, "my grandfather was elected one of the directors of the South
Sea Company, and his books exhibited the proof that before his
acceptance of that fatal office, he had acquired an independent
fortune of 60,000 pounds. But his fortune was overwhelmed in the
shipwreck of the year twenty, and the labours of thirty years were
blasted in a single day. Of the use or abuse of the South Sea scheme,
of the guilt or innocence of my grandfather and his brother directors,
I am neither a competent nor a disinterested judge. Yet the equity of
modern times must condemn the violent and arbitrary proceedings, which
would have disgraced the cause of justice, and rendered injustice
still more odious. No sooner had the nation awakened from its golden
dream, than a popular, and even a Parliamentary clamour, demanded its
victims; but it was acknowledged on all sides, that the directors,
however guilty, could not be touched by any known laws of the land.
The intemperate notions of Lord Molesworth were not literally acted
on; but a bill of pains and penalties was introduced -- a retro-active
statute, to punish the offences which did not exist at the time they
were committed. The Legislature restrained the persons of the
directors, imposed an exorbitant security for their appearance, and
marked their character with a previous note of ignominy. They were
compelled to deliver, upon oath, the strict value of their estates,
and were disabled from making any transfer or alienation of any part
of their property. Against a bill of pains and penalties, it is the
common right of every subject to be heard by his counsel at the bar.
They prayed to be heard. Their prayer was refused, and their
oppressors, who required no evidence, would listen to no defence. It
had been at first proposed, that one eighth of their respective
estates should be allowed for the future support of the directors; but
it was speciously urged, that in the various shades of opulence and
guilt, such a proportion would be too light for many, and for some
might possibly be too heavy. The character and conduct of each man
were separately weighed; but, instead of the calm solemnity of a
judicial inquiry, the fortune and honour of thirty-three Englishmen
were made the topics of hasty conversation, the sport of a lawless
majority; and the basest member of the committee, by a malicious word,
or a silent vote, might indulge his general spleen or personal
animosity. Injury was aggravated by insult, and insult was embittered
by pleasantry. Allowances of 20 pounds or 1 shilling were facetiously
moved. A vague report that a director had formerly been concerned in
another project, by which some unknown persons had lost their money,
was admitted as a proof of his actual guilt. One man was ruined
because he had dropped a foolish speech, that his horses should feed
upon gold; another, because he was grown so proud, that one day, at
the Treasury, he had refused a civil answer to persons much above him.
All were condemned, absent and unheard, in arbitrary fines and
forfeitures, which swept away the greatest part of their substance.
Such bold oppression can scarcely be shielded by the omnipotence of
Parliament. My grandfather could not expect to be treated with more
lenity than his companions. His Tory principles and connexions
rendered him obnoxious to the ruling powers. His name was reported in
a suspicious secret. His well-known abilities could not plead the
excuse of ignorance or error. In the first proceedings against the
South Sea directors, Mr. Gibbon was one of the first taken into
custody, and in the final sentence the measure of his fine proclaimed
him eminently guilty. The total estimate, which he delivered on oath
to the House of Commons, amounted to 106,543 pounds 5 shillings 6
pence, exclusive of antecedent settlements. Two different allowances
of 15,000 pounds and of 10,000 pounds were moved for Mr. Gibbon; but,
on the question being put, it was carried without a division for the
smaller sum. On these ruins, with the skill and credit of which
Parliament had not been able to despoil him, my grandfather, at a
mature age, erected the edifice of a new fortune. The labours of
sixteen years were amply rewarded; and I have reason to believe that
the second structure was not much inferior to the first."
The next consideration of the Legislature, after the punishment of
the directors, was to restore public credit. The scheme of Walpole had
been found insufficient, and had fallen into disrepute. A computation
was made of the whole capital stock of the South Sea Company at the
end of the year 1720. It was found to amount to thirty-seven millions
eight hundred thousand pounds, of which the stock allotted to all the
proprietors only amounted to twenty-four millions five hundred
thousand pounds. The remainder of thirteen millions three hundred
thousand pounds belonged to the Company in their corporate capacity,
and was the profit they had made by the national delusion. Upwards of
eight millions of this were taken from the Company, and divided among
the proprietors and subscribers generally, making a dividend of about
33 pounds 6 shillings 8 pence per cent. This was a great relief. It
was further ordered, that such persons as had borrowed money from the
South Sea Company upon stock actually transferred and pledged at the
time of borrowing to or for the use of the Company, should be free
from all demands, upon payment of ten per cent. of the sums so
borrowed. They had lent about eleven millions in this manner, at a
time when prices were unnaturally raised; and they now received back
one million one hundred thousand, when prices had sunk to their
But it was a long time before public credit was thoroughly
restored. Enterprise, like Icarus, had soared too high, and melted the
wax of her wings; like Icarus, she had fallen into a sea, and learned,
while floundering in its waves, that her proper element was the solid
ground. She has never since attempted so high a flight.
In times of great commercial prosperity there has been a tendency
to over-speculation on several occasions since then. The success of
one project generally produces others of a similar kind. Popular
imitativeness will always, in a trading nation, seize hold of such
successes, and drag a community too anxious for profits into an abyss
from which extrication is difficult. Bubble companies, of a kind
similar to those engendered by the South Sea project, lived their
little day in the famous year of the panic, 1825. On that occasion, as
in 1720, knavery gathered a rich harvest from cupidity, but both
suffered when the day of reckoning came. The schemes of the year 1836
threatened, at one time, results as disastrous; but they were happily
averted before it was too late. The South Sea project thus remains,
and, it is to be hoped, always will remain, the greatest example in
British history, of the infatuation of the people for commercial
gambling. From the bitter experience of that period, posterity may
learn how dangerous it is to let speculation riot unrestrained, and to
hope for enormous profits from inadequate causes. Degrading as were
the circumstances, there is wisdom to be gained from the lesson which
Quis furor o cives! -- Lucan.
The tulip,--so named, it is said, from a Turkish word, signifying
a turban,-- was introduced into western Europe about the middle of the
sixteenth century. Conrad Gesner, who claims the merit of having
brought it into repute,--little dreaming of the extraordinary
commotion it was to make in the world,--says that he first saw it in
the year 1559, in a garden at Augsburg, belonging to the learned
Counsellor Herwart, a man very famous in his day for his collection of
rare exotics. The bulbs were sent to this gentleman by a friend at
Constantinople, where the flower had long been a favourite. In the
course of ten or eleven years after this period, tulips were much
sought after by the wealthy, especially in Holland and Germany. Rich
people at Amsterdam sent for the bulbs direct to Constantinople, and
paid the most extravagant prices for them. The first roots planted in
England were brought from Vienna in 1600. Until the year 1634 the
tulip annually increased in reputation, until it was deemed a proof of
bad taste in any man of fortune to be without a collection of them.
Many learned men, including Pompeius de Angelis and the celebrated
Lipsius of Leyden, the author of the treatise "De Constantia," were
passionately fond of tulips. The rage for possessing them soon caught
the middle classes of society, and merchants and shopkeepers, even of
moderate means, began to vie with each other in the rarity of these
flowers and the preposterous prices .they paid for them. A trader at
Harlaem was known to pay one-half of his fortune for a single
root--not with the design of selling it again at a profit, but to keep
in his own conservatory for the admiration of his acquaintance.
One would suppose that there must have been some great virtue in
this flower to have made it so valuable in the eyes of so prudent a
people as the Dutch; but it has neither the beauty nor the perfume of
the rose--hardly the beauty of the "sweet, sweet-pea;" neither is it
as enduring as either. Cowley, it is true, is loud in its praise. He
"The tulip next appeared, all over gay,
But wanton, full of pride, and full of play;
The world can't show a dye but here has place;
Nay, by new mixtures, she can change her face;
Purple and gold are both beneath her care-
The richest needlework she loves to wear;
Her only study is to please the eye,
And to outshine the rest in finery."
This, though not very poetical, is the description of a poet.
Beckmann, in his History of Inventions, paints it with more fidelity,
and in prose more pleasing than Cowley's poetry. He says, "There are
few plants which acquire, through accident, weakness, or disease, so
many variegations as the tulip. When uncultivated, and in its natural
state, it is almost of one colour, has large leaves, and an
extraordinarily long stem. When it has been weakened by cultivation,
it becomes more agreeable in the eyes of the florist. The petals are
then paler, smaller, and more diversified in hue; and the leaves
acquire a softer green colour. Thus this masterpiece of culture, the
more beautiful it turns, grows so much the weaker, so that, with the
greatest skill and most careful attention, it can scarcely be
transplanted, or even kept alive."
Many persons grow insensibly attached to that which gives them a
great deal of trouble, as a mother often loves her sick and
ever-ailing child better than her more healthy offspring. Upon the
same principle we must account for the unmerited encomia lavished upon
these fragile blossoms. In 1634, the rage among the Dutch to possess
them was so great that the ordinary industry of the country was
neglected, and the population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in
the tulip trade. As the mania increased, prices augmented, until, in
the year 1635, many persons were known to invest a fortune of 100,000
florins in the purchase of forty roots. It then became necessary to
sell them by their weight in perits, a small weight less than a grain.
A tulip of the species called Admiral Liefken, weighing 400 perits,
was worth 4400 florins; an Admiral Von der Eyk, weighing 446 perits,
was worth 1260 florins; a shilder of 106 perits was worth 1615
florins; a viceroy of 400 perits, 3000 florins, and, most precious of
all, a Semper Augustus, weighing 200 perits, was thought to be very
cheap at 5500 florins. The latter was much sought after, and even an
inferior bulb might command a price of 2000 florins. It is related
that, at one time, early in 1636, there were only two roots of this
description to be had in all Holland, and those not of the best. One
was in the possession of a dealer in Amsterdam, and the other in
Harlaem. So anxious were the speculators to obtain them that one
person offered the fee-simple of twelve acres of building ground for
the Harlaem tulip. That of Amsterdam was bought for 4600 florins, a
new carriage, two grey horses, and a complete suit of harness.
Munting, an industrious author of that day, who wrote a folio volume
of one thousand pages upon the tulipomania, has preserved the
following list of the various articles, and their value, which were
delivered for one single root of the rare species called the viceroy:--
Two lasts of wheat.............. 448
Four lasts of rye............... 558
Four fat oxen................... 480
Eight fat swine................. 240
Twelve fat sheep................ 120
Two hogsheads of wine........... 70
Four tuns of beer............... 32
Two tons of butter.............. 192
One thousand lbs. of cheese..... 120
A complete bed.................. 100
A suit of clothes............... 80
A silver drinking cup........... 60
People who had been absent from Holland, and whose chance it was
to return when this folly was at its maximum, were sometimes led into
awkward dilemmas by their ignorance. There is an amusing instance of
the kind related in Blainville's Travels. A wealthy merchant, who
prided himself not a little on his rare tulips, received upon one
occasion a very valuable consignment of merchandise from the Levant.
Intelligence of its arrival was brought him by a sailor, who presented
himself for that purpose at the counting-house, among bales of goods
of every description. The merchant, to reward him for his news,
munificently made him a present of a fine red herring for his
breakfast. The sailor had, it appears, a great partiality for onions,
and seeing a bulb very like an onion lying upon the counter of this
liberal trader, and thinking it, no doubt, very much out of its place
among silks and velvets, he slily seized an opportunity and slipped it
into his pocket, as a relish for his herring. He got clear off with
his prize, and proceeded to the quay to eat his breakfast. Hardly was
his back turned when the merchant missed his valuable Semper Augustus,
worth three thousand florins, or about 280 pounds sterling. The whole
establishment was instantly in an uproar; search was everywhere made
for the precious root, but it was not to be found. Great was the
merchant's distress of mind. The search was renewed, but again without
success. At last some one thought of the sailor.
The unhappy merchant sprang into the street at the bare suggestion.
His alarmed household followed him. The sailor, simple soul! had not
thought of concealment. He was found quietly sitting on a coil of
ropes, masticating the last morsel of his "onion." Little did he dream
that he had been eating a breakfast whose cost might have regaled a
whole ship's crew for a twelvemonth; or, as the plundered merchant
himself expressed it, "might have sumptuously feasted the Prince of
Orange and the whole court of the Stadtholder." Anthony caused pearls
to be dissolved in wine to drink the health of Cleopatra; Sir Richard
Whittington was as foolishly magnificent in an entertainment to King
Henry V; and Sir Thomas Gresham drank a diamond, dissolved in wine, to
the health of Queen Elizabeth, when she opened the Royal Exchange: but
the breakfast of this roguish Dutchman was as splendid as either. He
had an advantage, too, over his wasteful predecessors: their gems did
not improve the taste or the wholesomeness of their wine, while his
tulip was quite delicious with his red herring. The most unfortunate
part of the business for him was, that he remained in prison for some
months, on a charge of felony, preferred against him by the merchant.
Another story is told of an English traveller, which is scarcely
less ludicrous. This gentleman, an amateur botanist, happened to see a
tulip-root lying in the conservatory of a wealthy Dutchman. Being
ignorant of its quality, he took out his penknife, and peeled off its
coats, with the view of making experiments upon it. When it was by
this means reduced to half its original size, he cut it into two equal
sections, making all the time many learned remarks on the singular
appearances of the unknown bulb. Suddenly the owner pounced upon him,
and, with fury in his eyes, asked him if he knew what he had been
doing? "Peeling a most extraordinary onion," replied the philosopher.
"Hundert tausend duyvel," said the Dutchman; "it's an Admiral Van der
E. yck." "Thank you," replied the traveller, taking out his note-book
to make a memorandum of the same; "are these admirals common in your
country?" "Death and the devil," said the Dutchman, seizing the
astonished man of science by the collar; "come before the
syndic, and you shall see." In spite of his remonstrances, the
traveller was led through the streets, followed by a mob of persons.
When brought into the presence of the magistrate, he learned, to his
consternation, that the root upon which he had been experimentalizing
was worth four thousand florins; and, notwithstanding all he could
urge in extenuation, he was lodged in prison until he found securities
for the payment of this sum.
The demand for tulips of a rare species increased so much in the
year 1636, that regular marts for their sale were established on the
Stock Exchange of Amsterdam, in Rotterdam, Harlaem, Leyden, Alkmar,
Hoorn, and other towns. Symptoms of gambling now became, for the first
time, apparent. The stockjobbers, ever on the alert for a new
speculation, dealt largely in tulips, making use of all the means they
so well knew how to employ, to cause fluctuations in prices. At first,
as in all these gambling mania, confidence was at its height, and
everybody gained. The tulip-jobbers speculated in the rise and fall of
the tulip stocks, and made large profits by buying when prices fell,
and selling out when they rose. Many individuals grew suddenly rich. A
golden bait hung temptingly out before the people, and, one after the
other, they rushed to the tulip marts, like flies around a honeypot.
Every one imagined that the passion for tulips would last for ever,
and that the wealthy from every part of the world would send to
Holland, and pay whatever prices were asked for them. The riches of
Europe would be concentrated on the shores of the Zuyder Zee, and
poverty banished from the favoured clime of Holland. Nobles, citizens,
farmers, mechanics, seamen, footmen, maidservants, even chimney-sweeps
and old clotheswomen, dabbled in tulips. People of all grades
converted their property into cash, and invested it in flowers. Houses
and lands were offered for sale at ruinously low prices, or assigned
in payment of bargains made at the tulip-mart. Foreigners became
smitten with the same frenzy, and money poured into Holland from all
directions. The prices of the necessaries of life rose again by
degrees; houses and lands, horses and carriages, and luxuries of every
sort, rose in value with them, and for some months Holland seemed the
very antechamber of Plutus. The operations of the trade became so
extensive and so intricate, that it was found necessary to draw up a
code of laws for the guidance of the dealers. Notaries and clerks were
also appointed, who devoted themselves exclusively to the interests of
the trade. The designation of public notary was hardly known in some
towns, that of tulip notary usurping its place. In the smaller towns,
where there was no exchange, the principal tavern was usually selected
as the "showplace," where high and low traded in tulips, and confirmed
their bargains over sumptuous entertainments. These dinners were
sometimes attended by two or three hundred persons, and large vases of
tulips, in full bloom, were placed at regular intervals upon the
tables and sideboards, for their gratification during the repast.
At last, however, the more prudent began to see that this folly
could not last for ever. Rich people no longer bought the flowers to
keep them in their gardens, but to sell them again at cent. per cent.
profit. It was seen that somebody must lose fearfully in the end. As
this conviction spread, prices fell, and never rose again. Confidence
was destroyed, and a universal panic seized upon the dealers. A had
agreed to purchase ten Sempers Augustines from B, at four thousand
florins each, at six weeks after the signing of the contract. B was
ready with the flowers at the appointed time; but the price had fallen
to three or four hundred florins, and A refused either to pay the
difference or receive the tulips. Defaulters were announced day after
day in all the towns of Holland. Hundreds who, a few months
previously, had begun to doubt that there was such a thing as poverty
in the land, suddenly found themselves the possessors of a few bulbs,
which nobody would buy, even though they offered them at one quarter
of the sums they had paid for them. The cry of distress resounded
everywhere, and each man accused his neighbour. The few who had
contrived to enrich themselves hid their wealth from the knowledge of
their fellow-citizens, and invested it in the English or other funds.
Many who, for a brief season, had emerged from the humbler walks of
life, were cast back into their original obscurity. Substantial
merchants were reduced almost to beggary, and many a representative of
a noble line saw the fortunes of his house ruined beyond redemption.
When the first alarm subsided, the tulip-holders in the several
towns held public meetings to devise what measures were best to be
taken to restore public credit. It was generally agreed, that deputies
should be sent from all parts to Amsterdam, to consult with the
government upon some remedy for the evil. The Government at first
refused to interfere, but advised the tulip-holders to agree to some
plan among themselves. Several meetings were held for this purpose;
but no measure could be devised likely to give satisfaction to the
deluded people, or repair even a slight portion of the mischief that
had been done. The language of complaint and reproach was in
everybody's mouth, and all the meetings were of the most stormy
character. At last, however, after much bickering and ill-will, it was
agreed, at Amsterdam, by the assembled deputies, that all contracts
made in the height of the mania, or prior to the month of November
1636, should be declared null and void, and that, in those made after
that date, purchasers should be freed from their engagements, on
paying ten per cent. to the vendor. This decision gave no
satisfaction. The vendors who had their tulips on hand were, of
course, discontented, and those who had pledged themselves to
purchase, thought themselves hardly treated. Tulips which had, at one
time, been worth six thousand florins, were now to be procured for
five hundred; so that the composition of ten per cent. was one hundred
florins more than the actual value. Actions for breach of contract
were threatened in all the courts of the country; but the latter
refused to take cognizance of gambling transactions.
The matter was finally referred to the Provincial Council at the
Hague, and it was confidently expected that the wisdom of this body
would invent some measure by which credit should be restored.
Expectation was on the stretch for its decision, but it never came.
The members continued to deliberate week after week, and at last,
after thinking about it for three months, declared that they could
offer no final decision until they had more information. They advised,
however, that, in the mean time, every vendor should, in the presence
of witnesses, offer the tulips in natura to the purchaser for the sums
agreed upon. If the latter refused to take them, they might be put up
for sale by public auction, and the original contractor held
responsible for the difference between the actual and the stipulated
price. This was exactly the plan recommended by the deputies, and
which was already shown to be of no avail. There was no court in
Holland which would enforce payment. The question was raised in
Amsterdam, but the judges unanimously refused to interfere, on the
ground that debts contracted in gambling were no debts in law.
Thus the matter rested. To find a remedy was beyond the power of
the government. Those who were unlucky enough to have had stores of
tulips on hand at the time of the sudden reaction were left to bear
their ruin as philosophically as they could; those who had made
profits were allowed to keep them; but the commerce of the country
suffered a severe shock, from which it was many years ere it
The example of the Dutch was imitated to some extent in England.
In the year 1636 tulips were publicly sold in the Exchange of London,
and the jobbers exerted themselves to the utmost to raise them to the
fictitious value they had acquired in Amsterdam. In Paris also the
jobbers strove to create a tulipomania. In both cities they only
partially succeeded. However, the force of example brought the flowers
into great favour, and amongst a certain class of people tulips have
ever since been prized more highly than any other flowers of the
field. The Dutch are still notorious for their partiality to them, and
continue to pay higher prices for them than any other people. As the
rich Englishman boasts of his fine race-horses or his old pictures, so
does the wealthy Dutchman vaunt him of his tulips.
In England, in our day, strange as it may appear, a tulip will
produce more money than an oak. If one could be found, rara in tetris,
and black as the black swan alluded to by Juvenal, its price would
equal that of a dozen acres of standing corn. In Scotland, towards the
close of the seventeenth century, the highest price for tulips,
according to the authority of a writer in the supplement to the third
edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica," was ten guineas. Their value
appears to have diminished from that time till the year 1769, when the
two most valuable species in England were the Don Quevedo and the
Valentinier, the former of which was worth two guineas and the latter
two guineas and a half. These prices appear to have been the minimum.
In the year 1800, a common price was fifteen guineas for a single
bulb. In 1835, so foolish were the fanciers, that a bulb of the
species called the Miss Fanny Kemble was sold by public auction in
London for seventy-five pounds. Still more astonishing was the price
of a tulip in the possession of a gardener in the King's Road,
Chelsea. In his catalogues, it was labelled at two hundred guineas!
Thus a flower, which for beauty and perfume was surpassed by the
abundant roses of the garden,--a nosegay of which might be purchased
for a penny,--was priced at a sum which would have provided an
industrious labourer and his family with food, and clothes, and
lodging for six years! Should chickweed and groundsel ever come into
fashion, the wealthy would, no doubt, vie with each other in adorning
their gardens with them, and paying the most extravagant prices for
them. In so doing, they would hardly be more foolish than the admirers
of tulips. The common prices for these flowers at the present time
vary from five to fifteen guineas, according to the rarity of the
A fouth o' auld knick-knackets,
Rusty airn caps and jinglin' jackets,
Wad haud the Lothians three, in tackets,
A towmond guid;
An' parritch pats, and auld saut backets,
Afore the flood.
The love for relics is one which will never be eradicated as long
as feeling and affection are denizens of the heart. It is a love which
is most easily excited in the best and kindliest natures, and which
few are callous enough to scoff at. Who would not treasure the lock of
hair that once adorned the brow of the faithful wife, now cold in
death, or that hung down the neck of a beloved infant, now sleeping
under the sward? Not one. They are home-relics, whose sacred worth is
intelligible to all; spoils rescued from the devouring grave, which,
to the affectionate, are beyond all price. How dear to a forlorn
survivor the book over whose pages he has pored with one departed!
How much greater its value, if that hand, now cold, had written a
thought, an opinion, or a name, upon the leaf! Besides these sweet,
domestic relics, there are others, which no one can condemn; relics
sanctified by that admiration of greatness and goodness which is akin
to love; such as the copy of Montaigne's Florio, with the name of
Shakspeare upon the leaf, written by the poet of all time himself; the
chair preserved at Antwerp, in which Rubens sat when he painted the
immortal "Descent from the Cross;" or the telescope, preserved in the
Museum of Florence, which aided Galileo in his sublime discoveries.
Who would not look with veneration upon the undoubted arrow of William
Tell--the swords of Wallace or of Hampden--or the Bible whose leaves
were turned by some stern old father of the faith?
Thus the principle of reliquism is hallowed and enshrined by love.
But from this germ of purity how numerous the progeny of errors and
superstitions! Men, in their admiration of the great, and of all that
appertained to them, have forgotten that goodness is a component part
of true greatness, and have made fools of themselves for the jaw-bone
of a saint, the toe-nail of an apostle, the handkerchief a king blew
his nose in, or the rope that hanged a criminal. Desiring to rescue
some slight token from the graves of their predecessors, they have
confounded the famous and the infamous, the renowned and the
notorious. Great saints, great sinners; great philosophers, great
quacks; great conquerors, great murderers; great ministers, great
thieves; each and all have had their admirers, ready to ransack earth,
from the equator to either pole, to find a relic of them.
The reliquism of modern times dates its origin from the centuries
immediately preceding the Crusades. The first pilgrims to the Holy
Land brought back to Europe thousands of apocryphal relics, in the
purchase of which they had expended all their store. The greatest
favourite was the wood of the true cross, which, like the oil of the
widow, never diminished. It is generally asserted, in the traditions
of the Romish Church, that the Empress Helen, the mother of
Constantine the Great, first discovered the veritable "true cross" in
her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Emperor Theodosius made a present of
the greater part of it to St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, by whom it was
studded with precious stones, and deposited in the principal church of
that city. It was carried away by the Huns, by whom it was burnt,
after they had extracted the valuable jewels it contained. Fragments,
purporting to have been cut from it were, in the eleventh and twelfth
centuries, to be found in almost every church in Europe, and would, if
collected together in one place, have been almost sufficient to have
built a cathedral. Happy was the sinner who could get a sight of one
of them; happier he who possessed one! To obtain them the greatest
dangers were cheerfully braved. They were thought to preserve from all
evils, and to cure the most inveterate diseases. Annual pilgrimages
were made to the shrines that contained them, and considerable
revenues collected from the devotees.
Next in renown were those precious relics, the tears of the
Saviour. By whom and in what manner they were preserved, the pilgrims
did not often inquire. Their genuineness was vouched by the Christians
of the Holy Land, and that was sufficient. Tears of the Virgin Mary,
and tears of St. Peter, were also to be had, carefully enclosed in
little caskets, which the pious might wear in their bosoms. After the
tears the next most precious relics were drops of the blood of Jesus
and the martyrs. Hair and toe-nails were also in great repute, and
were sold at extravagant prices. Thousands of pilgrims annually
visited Palestine in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, to purchase
pretended relics for the home market. The majority of them had no
other means of subsistence than the profits thus obtained. Many a
nail, cut from the filthy foot of some unscrupulous ecclesiastic, was
sold at a diamond's price, within six months after its severance from
its parent toe, upon the supposition that it had once belonged to a
saint. Peter's toes were uncommonly prolific, for there were nails
enough in Europe, at the time of the Council of Clermont, to have
filled a sack, all of which were devoutly believed to have grown on
the sacred feet of that great apostle. Some of them are still shown in
the cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle. The pious come from a distance of a
hundred German miles to feast their eyes upon them.
At Port Royal, in Paris, is kept with great care a thorn, which
the priests of that seminary assert to be one of the identical thorns
that bound the holy head of the Son of God. How it came there, and by
whom it was preserved, has never been explained. This is the famous
thorn, celebrated in the long dissensions of the Jansenists and the
Molenists, and which worked the miraculous cure upon Mademoiselle
Perrier: by merely kissing it, she was cured of a disease of the eyes
of long standing. [Voltaire, Siecle de Louis XIV.]
What traveller is unacquainted with the Santa Scala, or Holy
Stairs, at Rome? They were brought from Jerusalem along with the true
cross, by the Empress Helen, and were taken from the house which,
according to popular tradition, was inhabited by Pontius Pilate. They
are said to be the steps which Jesus ascended and descended when
brought into the presence of the Roman governor. They are held in the
greatest veneration at Rome: it is sacrilegious to walk upon them. The
knees of the faithful must alone touch them in ascending or
descending, and that only after they have reverentially kissed them.
Europe still swarms with these religious relics. There is hardly a
Roman Catholic church in Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, or Belgium,
without one or more of them. Even the poorly endowed churches of the
villages boast the possession of miraculous thigh-bones of the
innumerable saints of the Romish calendar. Aix-la-Chapelle is proud of
the veritable chasse, or thigh-bone of Charlemagne, which cures
lameness. Halle has a thighbone of the Virgin Mary; Spain has seven or
eight, all said to be undoubted relics. Brussels at one time
preserved, and perhaps does now, the teeth of St. Gudule. The
faithful, who suffered from the tooth-ache, had only to pray, look at
them, and be cured. Some of these holy bones have been buried in
different parts of the Continent. After a certain lapse of time, water
is said to ooze from them, which soon forms a spring, and cures all
the diseases of the faithful. At a church in Halle, there is a famous
thigh-bone, which cures barrenness in women. Of this bone, which is
under the special superintendence of the Virgin, a pleasant story is
related by the incredulous. There resided at Ghent a couple who were
blessed with all the riches of this world, but whose happiness was
sore troubled by the want of children. Great was the grief of the
lady, who was both beautiful and loving, and many her lamentations to
her husband. The latter, annoyed by her unceasing sorrow, advised her
to make a pilgrimage to the celebrated chasse of the Virgin. She went,
was absent a week, and returned with a face all radiant with joy and
pleasure. Her lamentations ceased, and, in nine months afterwards, she
brought forth a son. But, oh! the instability of human joys! The babe,
so long desired and so greatly beloved, survived but a few months. Two
years passed over the heads of the disconsolate couple, and no second
child appeared to cheer their fire-side. A third year passed away with
the same result, and the lady once more began to weep. "Cheer up, my
love," said her husband, "and go to the holy chasse, at Halle; perhaps
the Virgin will again listen to your prayers." The lady took courage
at the thought, wiped away her tears, and proceeded on the morrow
towards Halle. She was absent only three days, and returned home sad,
weeping, and sorrow-stricken. "What is the matter?" said her husband;
"is the Virgin unwilling to listen to your prayers?" "The Virgin is
willing enough," said the disconsolate wife, "and will do what she can
for me; but I shall never have any more children! The priest! the
priest!--He is gone from Halle, and nobody knows where to find him!"
It is curious to remark the avidity manifested in all ages, and in
all countries, to obtain possession of some relic of any persons who
have been much spoken of, even for their crimes. When William
Longbeard, leader of the populace of London, in the reign of Richard
I, was hanged at Smithfield, the utmost eagerness was shown to obtain
a hair from his head, or a shred from his garments. Women came from
Essex, Kent, Suffolk, Sussex, and all the surrounding counties, to
collect the mould at the foot of his gallows. A hair of his beard was
believed to preserve from evil spirits, and a piece of his clothes
from aches and pains.
In more modern days, a similar avidity was shown to obtain a relic
of the luckless Masaniello, the fisherman of Naples. After he had been
raised by mob favour to a height of power more despotic than monarch
ever wielded, he was shot by the same populace in the streets, as if
he had been a mad dog. His headless trunk was dragged through the mire
for several hours, and cast at night-fall into the city ditch. On the
morrow the tide of popular feeling turned once more in his favour. His
corpse was sought, arrayed in royal robes, and buried magnificently by
torch-light in the cathedral, ten thousand armed men, and as many
mourners, attending at the ceremony. The fisherman's dress which he
had worn was rent into shreds by the crowd, to be preserved as relics;
the door of his hut was pulled off its hinges by a mob of women, and
eagerly cut up into small pieces, to be made into images, caskets, and
other mementos. The scanty furniture of his poor abode became of more
value than the adornments of a palace; the ground he had walked upon
was considered sacred, and, being collected in small phials, was sold
at its weight in gold, and worn in the bosom as an amulet.
Almost as extraordinary was the frenzy manifested by the populace
of Paris on the execution of the atrocious Marchioness de
Brinvilliers. There were grounds for the popular wonder in the case of
Masaniello, who was unstained with personal crimes. But the career of
Madame de Brinvilliers was of a nature to excite no other feelings
than disgust and abhorrence. She was convicted of poisoning several
persons, and sentenced to be burned in the Place de Greve, and to have
her ashes scattered to the winds. On the day of her execution, the
populace, struck by her gracefulness and beauty, inveighed against the
severity of her sentence. Their pity soon increased to admiration,
and, ere evening, she was considered a saint. Her ashes were
industriously collected, even the charred wood, which had aided to
consume her, was eagerly purchased by the populace. Her ashes were
thought to preserve from witchcraft.
In England many persons have a singular love for the relics of
thieves and murderers, or other great criminals. The ropes with which
they have been hanged are very often bought by collectors at a guinea
per foot. Great sums were paid for the rope which hanged Dr. Dodd, and
for those more recently which did justice upon Mr. Fauntleroy for
forgery, and on Thurtell for the murder of Mr. Weare. The murder of
Maria Marten, by Corder, in the year 1828, excited the greatest
interest all over the country. People came from Wales and Scotland,
and even from Ireland, to visit the barn where the body of the
murdered woman was buried. Every one of them was anxious to carry away
some memorial of his visit. Pieces of the barn-door, tiles from the
roof, and, above all, the clothes of the poor victim, were eagerly
sought after. A lock of her hair was sold for two guineas, and the
purchaser thought himself fortunate in getting it so cheaply.
So great was the concourse of people to visit the house in
Camberwell Lane, where Greenacre murdered Hannah Brown, in 1837, that
it was found necessary to station a strong detachment of police on the
spot. The crowd was so eager to obtain a relic of the house of this
atrocious criminal, that the police were obliged to employ force to
prevent the tables and chairs, and even the doors, from being carried
In earlier times, a singular superstition was attached to the hand of
a criminal who had suffered execution. It was thought that by merely
rubbing the dead hand on the body, the patient afflicted with the
king's evil would be instantly cured. The executioner at Newgate,
sixty or seventy years ago, derived no inconsiderable revenue from
this foolish practice. The possession of the hand was thought to be of
still greater efficacy in the cure of diseases and the prevention of
misfortunes. In the time of Charles II as much as ten guineas was
thought a small price for one of these disgusting relics.
When the maniac, Thom, or Courtenay, was shot, in the spring of
1838, the relic-hunters were immediately in motion to obtain a memento
of so extraordinary an individual. His long, black beard and hair,
which were cut off by the surgeons, fell into the hands of his
disciples, by whom they are treasured with the utmost reverence. A
lock of his hair commands a great price, not only amongst his
followers, but among the more wealthy inhabitants of Canterbury and
its neighbourhood. The tree against which he fell when he was shot,
has already been stripped of all its bark by the curious, and bids
fair to be entirely demolished within a twelvemonth. A letter, with
his signature to it, is paid for in gold coins; and his favourite
horse promises to become as celebrated as his master. Parties of
ladies and gentlemen have come to Boughton from a distance of a
hundred and fifty miles, to visit the scene of that fatal affray, and
stroke on the back the horse of the "mad Knight of Malta." If a strict
watch had not been kept over his grave for months, the body would have
been disinterred, and the bones carried away as memorials.
Among the Chinese no relics are more valued than the boots which
have been worn by an upright magistrate. In Davis's interesting
Description of the Empire of China, we are informed, that whenever a
judge of unusual integrity resigns his situation, the people all
congregate to do him honour. If he leaves the city where he has
presided, the crowd accompany him from his residence to the gates,
where his boots are drawn off with great ceremony, to be preserved in
the hall of justice. Their place is immediately supplied by a new
pair, which, in their turn, are drawn off to make room for others
before he has worn them five minutes, it being considered sufficient
to consecrate them that he should have merely drawn them on.
Among the most favourite relics of modern times, in Europe, are
Shakspeare's mulberry-tree, Napoleon's willow, and the table at
Waterloo, on which the Emperor wrote his despatches. Snuffboxes of
Shakspeare's mulberry-tree, are comparatively rare, though there are
doubtless more of them in the market than were ever made of the wood
planted by the great bard. Many a piece of alien wood passes under
this name. The same may be said of Napoleon's table at Waterloo. The
original has long since been destroyed, and a round dozen of
counterfeits along with it. Many preserve the simple stick of wood;
others have them cut into brooches and every variety of ornament; but
by far the greater number prefer them as snuff-boxes. In France they
are made into bonbonnieres, and are much esteemed by the many
thousands whose cheeks still glow, and whose eyes still sparkle at the
name of Napoleon.
Bullets from the field of Waterloo, and buttons from the coats of
the soldiers who fell in the fight, are still favourite relics in
Europe. But the same ingenuity which found new tables after the old
one was destroyed, has cast new bullets for the curious. Many a one
who thinks himself the possessor of a bullet which aided in giving
peace to the world on that memorable day, is the owner of a dump,
first extracted from the ore a dozen years afterwards. Let all lovers
of genuine relics look well to their money before they part with it to
the ciceroni that swarm in the village of Waterloo.
Few travellers stop at the lonely isle of St. Helena, without
cutting a twig from the willow that droops over the grave of Napoleon.
Many of them have since been planted in different parts of Europe, and
have grown into trees as large as their parent. Relic-hunters, who are
unable to procure a twig of the original, are content with one from
these. Several of them are growing in the neighbourhood of London,
more prized by their cultivators than any other tree in their gardens.
But in relics, as in everything else, there is the use and the abuse.
The undoubted relics of great men, or great events, will always
possess attractions for the thinking and refined. There are few who
would not join with Cowley in the extravagant wish introduced in his
lines "written while sitting in a chair made of the remains of the
ship in which Sir Francis Drake sailed round the world:"--
And I myself, who now love quiet too,
Almost as much as any chair can do,
Would yet a journey take
An old wheel of that chariot to see,
Which Phaeton so rashly brake.
As epidemic terror of the end of the world has several times
spread over the nations. The most remarkable was that which seized
Christendom about the middle of the tenth century. Numbers of fanatics
appeared in France, Germany, and Italy at that time, preaching that
the thousand years prophesied in the Apocalypse as the term of the
world's duration, were about to expire, and that the Son of Man would
appear in the clouds to judge the godly and the ungodly. The delusion
appears to have been discouraged by the church, but it nevertheless
spread rapidly among the people. [See Gibbon and Voltaire for further
notice of this subject.]
The scene of the last judgment was expected to be at Jerusalem. In
the year 999, the number of pilgrims proceeding eastward, to await the
coming of the Lord in that city, was so great that they were compared
to a desolating army. Most of them sold their goods and possessions
before they quitted Europe, and lived upon the proceeds in the Holy
Land. Buildings of every sort were suffered to fall into ruins. It was
thought useless to repair them, when the end of the world was so near.
Many noble edifices were deliberately pulled down. Even churches,
usually so well maintained, shared the general neglect. Knights,
citizens, and serfs, travelled eastwards in company, taking with them
their wives and children, singing psalms as they went, and looking
with fearful eyes upon the sky, which they expected each minute to
open, to let the Son of God descend in his glory.
During the thousandth year the number of pilgrims increased. Most
of them were smitten with terror as with a plague. Every phenomenon of
nature filled them with alarm. A thunder-storm sent them all upon
their knees in mid-march. It was the opinion that thunder was the
voice of God, announcing the day of judgment. Numbers expected the
earth to open, and give up its dead at the sound. Every meteor in the
sky seen at Jerusalem brought the whole Christian population into the
streets to weep and pray. The pilgrims on the road were in the same
Lorsque, pendant la nuit, un globe de lumiere
S'echappa quelquefois de la voute des cieux,
Et traca dans sa chute un long sillon de feux,