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The Free Thinker
The Free Thinker

GEMS FROM THE ARCHIVE: A monthly column by DR MARTIN BLAKE, of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, looking at interesting artefacts from its museum

In the early 18th century, social and intellectual life in London revolved around coffee houses.

A page from The Spy
A page from The Spy

For an entrance fee of one penny, you could (if you were male) not only drink coffee, but also discuss with like-minded colleagues the artistic, literary and political developments of the day.

You could also read a range of news sheets, the forerunners of today’s newspapers, containing articles, letters and essays on topical matters. No wonder the coffee houses were popularly known as Penny Universities.

By this time, it was possible for newsprint to be published quickly and cheaply. The news sheets were typically a single thin, narrow sheet, double-sided, reflecting the tastes and prejudices of a small group of people, or even just one.

The best-known were The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian, all names revived in more recent times, and each of them the brain-child of two men, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

The Spy
The Spy

But many news sheets were short-lived, their names barely remembered today. Early members of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society brought many of these back for discussion, and they are still held in its archives, with titles like The Lover, The Busy Body, The Entertainer, The Lay Monk and The Honest Gentleman.

Maurice Johnson, who founded the Society in 1710 to export coffee-house culture to the provinces, sent a copy of The Spy dated Wednesday, November 16, 1720, with his own comments on events in London.

Much of the edition consists of a satire lamenting the drudgery involved in being a hack journalist for one of these publications, constantly adopting different guises to maintain the pretence that articles are submitted by a range of contributors.

The writer is paid a pittance for composing poems which his master, Currillo, then passes off as the work of famous authors who, for valid reasons, of course, cannot be named – “when alas! I have spun the whole ditty out of my own poetical noddle in about four days.”

But his work goes beyond creating spurious poetry. “In a few weeks I have been distinguished by 20 different titles […] nay, I have abandoned my manhood and changed my sex, I have personated, in title page, a lady of quality, a chambermaid, Mrs M-nley, the Dutchess of — I remember yesterday the cruel Currillo rapt at my door; ‘Snap’, says he, ‘you must be a director today, for I must have a South Sea scheme by four o’clock, and by tomorrow night must have it answered by a cook-maid.’”

A higher tone is adopted by The Free-Thinker, which below its title has a lofty quotation from the Roman poet Virgil. Much of its edition of Friday, February 19, 1719, consists of an account, reliable or otherwise, by an anonymous contributor of his fundraising efforts on behalf of inmates of the Marshalsea, a notorious prison in Southwark most of whose prisoners were poor debtors.

He claims to have received 45 pounds, with which he was able to free 24 prisoners. (The amount required to redeem them would have included their gaol-fees; prisoners were forced to pay for their own board and lodging, however squalid.)

A further 20 pounds from a Society of Merchants enabled him to free another seven. There follows an editorial note condemning the inhumanity of those who consign fellow human beings to suffer in such appalling conditions, facing certain sickness and possible death. “Though their malice be defeated, the guilt of it still sits heavy on their souls.”

The early 18th century saw a startling increase in the amount of information available to ordinary people thanks to advances in technology, but as today this carried dangers – how to tell genuine news from fake? The satirical tone of The Spy might suggest that educated people at least could exercise a healthy scepticism. But the purpose of the news-sheets was to stimulate discussion as well as to pass on news. They reflect the spirit of a vibrant time, the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. We can proudly reflect that the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society played its part in the advances of that age.

• Spalding Gentlemen’s Society welcomes anyone aged 18 or over to become a member. Its museum in Broad Street is open to visitors from 1pm to 5pm on Saturday, April 7, with activities for children and adults. See the Society’s website sgsoc.org or visit our Facebook page for more information.

Weather permitting, there will be a walking tour starting from the museum to explore early 18th century Spalding (£5 for adults, children free). Places are limited, so to book please email visits@sgsoc.org

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