Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Thames Mudlarking — A Georgian Fob Story (Pt3)

What are our finds have if they aren't food for the imagination? Even the most trivial have something  small to tell us but best of all are those things that suggest an entire story. Even if the imagined tale is not what actually happened, it doesn't really matter. It is your yarn and that's all that is important.

Of course when you discover something and make it into something it is not then that's a problem. Imagination can and will make a silk ear out of a sow's purse but finds are only ever what they are and the facts must be established before you let imagination out of its pen. 

A watch would be have been 
attached to the top  hook
It wasn't so difficult to pinpoint with absolute certainty what this chain was. Though I hadn't much of a clue at the riverside, a quick scroll through a few of pages of Internet content gave me plenty of leads. I first thought it to be a lady's chatelaine — a chain suspended from the skirt from which were hung the keys to the house. 

Close. But not quite right. Turns out it once belonged to a gentleman and was part of his fob set. 

Fob watch, fob seal, key fob, fob chain. We're all familiar with those terms but I wonder how many know why they're called that. The 'fob' was actually a very small pocket stitched into a man's breeches and everything that tucked into it or dangled out of it had the word 'fob' appended. 

This pocket was very small indeed and the expensive watch a gentleman owned was stuffed inside. The tight fit made it very difficult to extract the watch so a chain was attached and it was pulled from the fob with it. Of course, this purely functional chain became more and more elaborate and soon fashionable dandies were hanging seals and watch winders and keys from the bottom.

The only trouble with this was that gleaming pendants hung below the waistcoat where they advertised just how rich a man was likely to be and therefore how much his concealed and costly watch was likely to be worth.

George III by Thomas Gainsborough.  Seals and watch keys on plain view

Of course such a visible and ostentatious display of bling made him a target for pickpockets. A sly lift of the waistcoat, a swift snatch at the pendants, a smooth upward tug — that was all it took to relieve a man of the lot. 

I have Georgian fob seals, watch keys, and a couple of watch casings too. They turn up from time to time, don't they? But how often have you come across one still attached to a short length of chain by a hook? Not often I'll bet. But if these items were lost rather than disposed of then many should be because surely the chain would break first, not the hook.

Am I suggesting that all these trinkets were jettisoned by pickpockets and highwaymen but not actually lost by their owners? No. But I am suggesting that more than just a few were and especially those made of base metals because they had no scrap value. Sure, a thief could prize the hard stone intaglio from a gilt brass seal and get something for it, but again, it carries incriminating evidence in the form of the victim's crest. 

If it ain't of solid noble metal or a carries diamond, emerald or ruby, then good riddance, chop, chop.

Georgian England was a not a disposable society. Things were not chucked in the midden till they were quite beyond useful function. (think leaden pot mends) Pennies to fix, pounds to replace. If it had been broken by the owner then it would have been sent for repair.

But there's not just a break in the chain, but three missing hooks too. And further, one of the two that remain was distorted by violent force. What's more, the monogrammed cartouche of the open-work plate, broken and distorted by what looks suspiciously like undue pressure between thumb and forefinger, also has three deep parallel scratches on its reverse made either carelessly or in haste by a sharp object or implement...

I think there's evidence enough to suggest shady goings on!

In Poultry, by Cheapside, London. It's late afternoon, on Friday 19th of October, the Year of our Lord one-thousand seven-hundred and eighty-one. Washington assisted by the French will this day defeat Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, when the American Revolution will be effectively, over. 

   Shopping that fateful day for a well-hung cock pheasant and quite unaware that things will never be  the same for him ever again — Our Hero, Josiah Purswell — feels another truffling about in his silks, turns on his heels, only to find himself attached at the waist by his chain to a wall-eyed ruffian sporting a battered beaver tricorn in process of snatching his watch. 

   The thief is rumbled but thinks the prize valuable enough to risk a scuffle for. Knocking him down he yanks it from the fob but the prone Purswell fights back, battering him about the head with the bird, knocking off his hat and causing a colourful cloud of downy feathers to swirl around clogging his nostrils. Snatching up his hat the thief flees up Old Jewry sneezing, his victim back on his feet and in hot pursuit...

   The rascal might be the bastard whelp of a Covent Garden 'lady' but he's as fly as a Newgate Market butcher's dog from a lifelong career spent dodging. Purswell's thick-head from the previous night's excess of Madeira Sack at Boodle's coupled with the onset of gout in his left foot big toe put him at something of a disadvantage. Through St Olaves Churchyard, up Ironmonger Lane and west along Gresham Street he keeps sight of his assailant but there's an acute corner to turn into Milk Street where his wig slips across his left eye at the crucial moment. Into a dark and dank blind alley green with worts and ferns growing out the cracks in the mortar slips the thief, where he evades his hapless pursuant. 

   Resting a while in a shaded doorway he pulls out his folding knife. Scratching the back of the chain's monogrammed plate with its sharp point and holding it to his nose to check for the odour of brass, the miscreant finds that it's not what he'd hoped for. One chain is broken already but he can't tear the watch away from the two remaining. Unwinding the knurled collar of the hook he removes the captive timepiece, pockets it, then grasping the plate between thumb and forefinger yanks off each of the 18-carat baubles dangling beneath, one by one. 

   Checking his back, he hops over a brick wall into a yard and from there saunters through the city streets as casually as he can under the circumstances. Taking a circuitous time wasting route but in a generally southerly direction toward the river, he's hell bound on reaching Trig Lane undetected at dusk and there a wharf and its proprietor who's 'professornal' blind eye can be relied upon and who he knows 'wery well'. Luckily for him the tide had turned just an hour before his arrival and so the barges have all departed downstream assisted by the tide bound for Mersea Island to fetch cargoes of oysters.

   He looks about, finds the coast is clear, when he casts the worthless handful of evidence just as far as he possibly can into the Thames' concealing waters...

   Somewhat dishevelled and browbeaten, Perswell having given up the chase by nightfall bids a cab and returns to his Pall Mall pad. He's thinking he'll call on a Grub Street hack 'acquaintance' come morning to whom he'll tell his tale and try for a mention in the Daily Universal Register — hopefully securing some form of justice. Unshaken but cautious always, the pickpocket makes furtive progress across the bridge to Southwark, pockets laden with Perswell's loss. Heading to a consort's impoverished but spick and span apartment at Jacobs Island and within spitting distance of her creature comforts, he pauses. 

   Though she's always well pleased with a haul of silver coin, she just can't be trusted to hold fast her excitable nature, or her tongue, in the sight of gold. And so, he slopes back wearily to his grimy nest in St Giles rookery.

   The proprietor of our Trig Lane wharf, though, exercises due diligence. He always has (and always will...) take careful, detailed note of the evening, its characters, and its curious affairs. By his calculations whatever it was he'd witnessed tossed in the air fell short of intentions. So he'll go down stairs to the barge bed come midnight's low ebb and add what's discovered to his little mahogany boxfull of 'circumstantials' with date and time and name of culprit written down in black ink on a little card label attached with a short length of hemp netting twine...

   There's a lantern to light, and a pretty thing to find by it. He won't sleep till he has.

Ah, I could carry on all day long with this!

And you're believing my yarn now, aren't you?  But you do know what other meaning the word 'fob' has, don't you? 

To 'fob off' means to appease a person with falsehoods or dispose of fake goods by trickery. But I suppose that is exactly what a tale is, in essence. A fabrication of words that creates a picture so convincing that another takes it to be true and buys into it. 

Of course the chain may simply have passed out of fashion as all fashionable things must when whoever 'JP' was broke it up and threw it away in disgust...

But that's no kind of a Georgian fob story, is it?

We still have fob pockets, though we don't really know what to do with them. You have one stitched into your favourite pair of jeans. It's that silly little affair in the right hand pocket that you fear to drop anything into for fear of not being able to get it out again. The reason it is there is because the first pair of Levis was made at a time when men still had their watches on chains rather than on a wrist strap. 

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