Episode 2 – Connections 6 – 10
This blog piece continues the story which I started in Episode 1. If you haven’t read the first instalment, then this continuation might not make all that much sense to you. I suggest that you start at the beginning by clicking here to get the story so far.
The first episode ended with connection number 5, the story of Mr Samuel Pratt, antique dealer, 47 New Bond Street, London. This second episode begins with connection number 6:
6. Mr Joshua Simmons, antique dealer, 52 Great Queen Street, London
Mr Joshua Simmons (1817-1877) was in business in a much smaller way than Mr Pratt, and at a much less fashionable address in the Covent Garden area. I know almost nothing about him and in fact only discovered his existence while researching this piece, so I can’t say with any degree of certainty if indeed he helped to source antiques (genuine only) for Mr Pratt to sell on to the Earl of Eglinton and his aristocratic pals for use in the Eglinton Tournament. But it seems like a good possibility, and credible enough for me to make the conjecture.
It’s possible that Mr Pratt bought from Mr Simmons, but it is quite inconceivable that the Earl of Eglinton would have consented to deal directly with him, because Mr Simmons was a Jew. And the Earl of Eglinton didn’t like Jews.
Although a comparatively small-time dealer, Mr Simmons was well connected in his own community, which was small and close-knit in those days several decades before the successive waves of mass immigration of Jews to Britain fleeing from Russian pogroms and Nazi persecutors. As a third-generation British-born member of the Great Synagogue at Duke’s Place in the City of London, the oldest Ashkenasi Jewish congregation in Britain, Mr Simmons would have worshipped alongside the immensely wealthy banker Mr Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879). And he would certainly have celebrated a few years later in 1847 when Mr de Rothschild became the first professing Jew ever to be elected as a Member of Parliament.
After Mr de Rothschild was elected, he was unfortunately disbarred from taking his seat in the House of Commons. This was because he refused to utter the Parliamentary oath of allegiance which obliged him to swear “upon the true faith of a Christian”. In order to correct this difficulty, a measure known as the Jewish Disabilities Bill was introduced into Parliament in 1848. This would have allowed for changes to the wording of the oath to permit non-Christians to swear or affirm their allegiance. The bill passed all its stages in the House of Commons, and was then debated in the House of Lords, where one of its opponents was none other than the Earl of Eglinton. On 25 May 1848, he stood up and delivered:
7. An antisemitic speech
The brand new, splendidly neo-Gothic House of Lords chamber, opened just a few months before, resounded to an especially horrible debate. Below is part of what Eglinton said, as recorded in Hansard. You can read an account of the whole debate here.
“However excellent might be the lives and characters of the persons professing the Jewish religion, however peaceable and generous they might be in their social relations, and however useful they might be in their private capacity, he [the Earl of Eglinton] did not think that it was for the good of this country that those who were aliens to it — that those who were always looking forward to a return to the land of which they had been deprived by the judgment of Heaven, and who called themselves a chosen race and a separate people — should participate in the duties of legislation in a Christian country.”
As a result of Eglinton’s speech and many others of a similar nature (and some very much nastier), the 1848 Jewish Disabilities Bill was defeated in the House of Lords. It was not until 1858, ten years later, that legislation was finally passed which allowed Jewish members to sit in Parliament.
I don’t suppose for a moment that Joshua Simmons himself ever entertained the idea of standing for Parliament. I picture him as a straightforward, upstanding British citizen with great respect for government institutions and perhaps even a reverence for the aristocracy. But at the same time I imagine that he must have felt slighted, insulted and humiliated when his co-religionist was prevented by prejudice and discrimination from taking up his elected place in the House of Commons.
But none of this prevented Mr Simmons from continuing his antique dealing business in a moderately successful way. He was also a family man. His eldest son Simon became in 1886 the father of a daughter called Catherine. Sadly Catherine died in childbirth in 1914 at the age of just 27, leaving behind a healthy son. In 1948, a century after the Jewish Disabilities Bill was rejected by the House of Lords, this son, another Simon, begat a son called Roger.
That’s me, and that’s why I’m interested in Joshua Simmons. He was my great-great-grandfather.
In 1819, when Joshua Simmons was about two years old, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) published his novel Ivanhoe: A Romance. I can’t say whether Joshua was a reader of historical fiction, but he might well have been familiar with the book because Scott was by far the most popular novelist prior to Charles Dickens, and his works became instant best-sellers. If he had read the book, then his favourite character would assuredly be:
8. Rebecca of York
Rebecca is probably the most interesting female character in all of Scott’s works, a twelfth-century Jewess who is not merely beautiful but is also highly educated, intelligent and feisty.
“Rebecca, daughter of Isaac the Jew … is the novel’s real female centre … and one of the first positive representations of a Jewish woman in English literature. Exotic and lustrously beautiful, she is also an educated, canny protagonist.
“Rebecca arranges for Ivanhoe to be given a horse and armour for the joust, and nurses him afterwards, when he’s been wounded. He fights as her champion in the concluding trial by combat against Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, who wanted her as a mistress. But although she loves Ivanhoe, she refuses to betray her faith for the sake of marriage.
“Scott … wanted to contest historic British anti-Semitism. Rebecca – intellectual equal to any man – challenges Ivanhoe, arguing that the code of chivalry is just a pointless excuse for perpetual war.”
Although described by Scott with a huge dollop of exoticism, Rebecca represents herself in argument with Ivanhoe as essentially English. However (spoiler alert!) at the end of novel she doesn’t get her man: Ivanhoe chooses to marry the vapid Saxon Rowena, and Rebecca and her father move to Spain where Jews receive greater toleration and where she can devote herself to the study of medicine.
The fate of Rebecca has been much criticised by readers of Ivanhoe, who think she would make a much better partner for the hero than Rowena, but I find the ending quite satisfactory. Previous virtuous Jewish heroines (Jessica in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Abgail in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta) have had to be redeemed (up to a point) by conversion to Christianity. Rebecca might lose her man, but she gloriously retains her integrity and her faith.
“Rebecca alone of all Scott’s protagonists recognizes prejudice and religious bigotry for what it is; it is her empathy, compassion, forbearance and tolerance which make her a true nineteenth-century heroine.” 
One person who was certainly a keen reader of Ivanhoe was the Earl of Eglinton, who learned from this one novel most of what he knew about chivalry and mediaeval tournaments, and based much of his plan for the Eglinton extravaganza upon Scott’s fanciful story of the tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouch. It is apparent, however, that Eglinton learned nothing whatsoever from the other main theme of the novel: its author’s energetic and outspoken attack on persecution and intolerance of Jews.
Having shoe-horned into this piece a number of more or less spurious connections between the Eglinton Jug, my ancestors and the thorny issue of antisemitism, I have just two more links to make. Of these, the second (outrageous!) is with Brexit, but the first (adorable!) is with:
9. A golden retriever puppy.
Before continuing, let me assure readers that I’m not including this section merely as an excuse to put a delightful puppy photo into my blog in a desperate attempt to increase its readership. No, the connection is a genuine one.
The puppy in question was our beloved family pet for almost fifteen years from 1997 to 2013. We called her Phoebe, a name which she responded to more often than not, but the official Kennel Club name which appeared in her pedigree was Weirston Maitai.
Maitai is apparently a type of alcoholic cocktail, and the seven other puppies from the same litter were also given the names of cocktails. No idea why. Weirston was the name of the kennel where Phoebe was bred, and is also the reason why she deserves a place in this blog. Because Weirston kennels were located on the Eglinton Estate, Kilwinning, Ayrshire, where the Eglinton Tournament took place. So I know where Eglinton is. I’ve been there!
These days, the estate is a council-run country park, at the centre of which stand the much-reduced ruins of Eglinton Castle, once one of the very grandest houses in Scotland. “Built between 1797 and 1802 in Gothic castellated style dominated by a central 100-foot (30 m) large round keep and four 70-foot (21 m) outer towers”, the castle was built by the Tournament Earl’s father on the site of several much older and much less showy houses.
Unfortunately the amounts of cash squandered on organising the Tournament were so vast that the family’s fortunes never fully recovered, and the castle went into a slow decline until it was abandoned in 1925 and its roof removed. The final insult came during the Second World War when the army used the ruins for gunnery practice. What little remained was “rationalised” in 1973 into the picturesque neo-Gothic ruin which remains today – sufficiently picturesque, I’m sure, to have appealed the Earl’s mediaevalist sentimentality, were it not for the fact that this was all that was left of his own family seat, brought low due to his own extravagance and folly. How very sad! But at the same time, how very amusing!
The mention of extravagance and folly brings me inexorably to my final link:
Before starting to write this section, I checked the statistics for my blog and made the surprising discovery that since I began writing it in November 2016, my words have been read by people in 82 countries of the world, from Macedonia to San Tomé & Principe, from Kazakhstan to Cambodia. Consequently I have to assume that not every single one of my readers will be quite as preoccupied as I and my anxious peer group are with the proposed withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Community, commonly known as Brexit.
While I have no idea of the extent to which Brexit is reported in the media in other countries, I think it likely that the majority of viewers in the majority of countries will have been exposed in recent weeks to at least one television news report broadcast directly from the Central Lobby of the Palace of Westminster, the home of the Houses of Parliament in central London.
What you will see is the TV news anchor person standing in a large octagonal space against a backdrop of tan-coloured stonework intricately carved with Gothic tracery. You might or might not have a detailed understanding of the content of the news report. You might or might not, whether you are in the Brexit or the Remain camp, feel that British government and politics has been a resounding failure for the past several years. But if you let your gaze wander towards the background of the TV talking head, then I’m betting you’ll be struck by some remarkable similarities between the inside of the Central Lobby and the outside of the Eglinton Jug.
Yes! The connection is unmistakeable! But why should this be? Read on.
My conclusion to this piece requires me to risk trying my readers’ patience with a series of small, carefully-selected chunks of secondary-school level history. Ready?
In 1832, in the face of fierce opposition especially in the House of Lords, Earl Grey’s Whig Government passed the Great Reform Act, the first major step towards universal suffrage. At a stroke, more than 300,000 middle-class men were enfranchised and given their first direct stake in British government and politics. My great-great-grandfather Joshua Simmons wouldn’t have been among them because he was only 15 years of age, but his father Joseph might well have seen his name included in the newly expanded electoral roll.
Also in 1832, the novelist Sir Walter Scott died. Such was the level of popular mourning at his passing that a public collection was organised to raise funds for the construction of a fitting monument to him. After an architectural competition, the winning design was that of George Meikle Kemp, a fantastically ornate 200-feet-high Gothic sandstone rocket ship which still dominates the Edinburgh skyline and remains one of the biggest monuments to a literary figure anywhere in the world. The first stone was laid on 15 August 1840 and the Monument was inaugurated on 15 August 1846. The cost was £16,154. On the lower tier of the south-east buttress, among 64 statues on the Monument representing historical and fictional characters, is a figure carved by the sculptor George Clark Stanton of Rebecca of York, heroine of Ivanhoe, “poised in a graceful attitude, pensively musing, as she toys with the long hair that rolls down upon her shoulders”.
In 1834, the mediaeval Palace of Westminster was mostly destroyed in a spectacular fire. In the competition which was subsequently held to choose a design for its replacement, there was a vigorous and well-publicised tussle between two opposing schools of thought: those in favour of rebuilding in the neo-Classical style (think Buckingham Palace, British Museum) and those in favour of rebuilding in the Gothic Revival style (think Strawberry Hill House, Brighton Pavilion). In the event, to great popular acclaim, the gothicists beat the classicists, and the design chosen for the new Palace was that submitted by A W N Pugin and Charles Barry. You know the result (think Big Ben).
The first stone of the new building was laid on 27 April 1840, and the House of Lords chamber was opened in 1847 just in time for the Earl of Eglinton to stand up and make his speech arguing that Jews shouldn’t be allowed to sit as Members of Parliament. Construction was substantially complete by about 1860.
In 1837, King William IV died and was succeeded by the nineteen-year-old Queen Victoria. Planning for her Coronation began early in the following year and posed a number of difficulties for the Whig party government, then led by Lord Melbourne. For political reasons, they didn’t want to spend as much as had been spent on the lavish coronation for George IV in 1821, but neither did they wish to appear parsimonious as they had for the cut-price coronation of William IV in 1831. The compromise was to set a budget between the two extremes. Most of the money was allocated to a grand procession through the streets of London, which was attended by at least 400,000 spectators. However, economies had to be made in other areas, and some traditional rituals had to be cut.
“The government’s decision to dispense with certain traditions, including the exclusive banquet at Westminster Hall and medieval rituals such as having a monarchical champion throwing down a gauntlet, was seen by the Tory aristocracy as a snub”.
One high Tory aristocrat in particular was upset by the loss of what he considered to be the best bits of the Coronation. The Earl of Eglinton decided to show those populist reforming Whigs a thing or two by staging his own lavish mediaeval pageant and tournament on his estate in Scotland. He trawled the pages of Ivanhoe for historical detail, appointed Samuel Pratt as his procurement director, opened up his cheque book, and boy-oh-boy, he showed ‘em.
Here’s a summary of some key moments in the above sequence of events:
- Passing of Great Reform Act (enormous public enfranchisement) – 7 June 1832
- Death of Sir Walter Scott (enormous public grief) – 21 September 1832
- Queen Victoria’s Coronation (enormous public joy and celebration) – 28 June 1838
- Eglinton Tournament (enormous public participation and amusement) – 28-30 August 1839
- Palace of Westminster foundation stone laid (enormous public interest) – 27 April 1840
- Scott Monument foundation stone laid (enormous public subscriptions) – 15 August 1840
- Design of Eglinton Jug registered by Mr Ridgway (enormous public sales potential) – 1 September 1840
In these circumstances, should it be any surprise that the design of the Eglinton Jug so closely reflects neo-Gothic taste in general and Pugin’s scheme for the Central Lobby of the Palace of Westminster in particular?
For just a few shillings, and in a range of sizes and colours, Ridgway’s made available to the newly-enfranchised British middle class male householders and their families the opportunity to purchase a fine Jug, the output of top-quality, world-leading Staffordshire industrial production. A Jug in the very best of good taste, redolent of mediaeval chivalry, neo-Gothic design and patriotic fervour, and replete with allusions to the greatest and most topical cultural, literary and political issues of the day. A merchandising masterpiece, equal or superior in its commercial potential to any bandwagon-jumping commemorative gewgaw produced in modern times.
Little wonder, then, that 179 years later a blogger with nothing better to do can find more than 5,000 words to write about an old brown jug.