Fauns, Cobbold, MacGregor, & The End of Romanticism
My address this morning begins with us standing before the sailor’s brothel of Ipswich, known today as Cliff Cottage. We know it was a brothel in the 17th Century because of the lurid carvings that decorate the building. The carvings are of female fauns, and if you have seen them, down near the Cobbold brewery, you will know what I mean, they are very much female. Half goat, and half woman. The building then would have served the “needs” of the sailors of the port, which in the 17th century would have been very busy. It was, at the time, one of the busiest ports in England. With wool and grain being transported across Europe, particularly to the Netherlands, it was a prosperous period for Ipswich. By the turn of the 18th century though, the river Orwell had begun to silt up, and it became increasingly difficult for ships to reach the quayside. In time the port’s activity waned, and with the decline of mercantile activity in Ipswich, there came an increasing need for other work to fill the void. And that work came off the back off the industrial revolution of the 18th Century onwards. Most notably in Ipswich, from the brewery industry.
Picking up on the beer theme from last week, beer throughout most of human history has been universally consumed by the young and old. Although we didn’t understand why, you ran a far greater risk of getting sick when drinking water, as opposed to beer. We now know that it’s because of the unseen viruses and bacteria that can be carried in dirty water. If you don’t have access to clean water, your water needs to be purified. There are lots of ways to purify water, and the simplest way is to simply bring water to the boil. This kills all the potential viruses and bacteria in there. Though we didn’t know this until the end of the 19th Century, nonetheless we did this, inadvertently, in the process of making beer. Depending on how you brew beer, viruses and bacteria are killed, either because you bring the beer to the boil during the brewing process, or simply through the alcohol content itself, the bacteria can’t survive. To brew beer, you require the following: grain (wheat or barley), hops, sugar, and water. The water must be as soft and pure as possible, and that’s what led the Cobbolds to Ipswich. They came here because of the spring in Holywells park. The Cobbolds bought up a lot of land and property. With the decline of shipping the land along the east side of the River Orwell had declined in value a great deal, which allowed the Cobbolds to snatch it all up. They bought the area with the spring we now know as Holywells park, they bought Cliff Cottage, and the neighbouring larger house, known at the time as simply ‘The Cliff’, though in recent years it been known as ‘The Brewery Tap’, the (now closed) pub on the river.
By the time of the Cobbolds, beer was undergoing a cultural transformation. Less and less was it being produced as a staple of everyday life by housewives up and down the country. With more income at people’s disposal, more were willing to pay for a good ale, guaranteed by some brand recognition. So it was that in 1767, the young twenty-two year old John Cobbold inherited the newly established brewery in Ipswich. And when it came to business he was very successful. His success in the brewing industry led him to diversify, as any good business man would, and as his brewing endeavours flourished he turned his attention increasingly to regional banking. Banking at this period had only just begun to open up for everyday folk. Up until the mid-18th Century, it was really only the aristocracy, landowners, and other otherwise very wealthy people who used banks. John Cobbold, being the very successful man he was, also reared a very large family. To his first wife he had fifteen children, the fifteenth being the one, understandably, that finished her off… And then he married again, this time to Elizabeth, the poet. She had a further eight children to add to John’s already impressive list of offspring. During the Cobbold ascendancy, they lived first at ‘The Cliff’ down by the river, then in a manor house up on what was St. Margaret’s Green, next to St. Margaret’s church, and then finally to a purpose-built mansion in Holywells park itself, called Holywells Hall. Holywells, or Holy Wells, referring to the springs, is a name given by Elizabeth Cobbold herself. She even wrote a novel about the springs, in which she invents a whole mythology around them - the spring having healing property, the hermit of the spring, and so forth. You can still go to Holywells Park and see the spring, and the concentric ponds which the spring pours into, and the place where Holywells Hall once stood. Due to woodlice infestation it was pulled down in the 1960s. At the source of the spring in Holywells park, there is picturesque clearing in the woods, with a bench, flowers, a trickling stream from the spring, and a memorial to stillborn babies. In our increasingly secular age, springs have endured as a symbol of spiritual significance.
What is it about springs? Self-renewal, a welling up of life from unknown places, moving water, living water, the water of life. Around the spring in the desert there is an oasis. It quenches thirst, it offers up livelihoods. We build our towns to be near springs. The trees are greenest, the ground wet with life… “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life”. Let us quieten our hearts as we enter into a period of reflection.
Spirit of the living Water, Water of Life, Water of New beginnings, Water of Peace. This week, we have seen a lot of pain. The United States has experienced its worst mass shooting to date. Nevanda, America, and the world, weep in face of such senseless loss. Raw with pain, raw with anger, we cry, surely this was avoidable. Who will bring peace now, who will bring calm, who will bring justice, who will sooth the hearts of the paining? At the same time, closer to home, we have watched in horror as violence unfolded in Catalonia. Violence on the streets. Aggression against peaceful protest. Suffering, grieving, hurting people… We pray, and hope, for peace, for soothing waters to well up in people. Make us peacemakers, those who bring water to the thirsty, those thirsty for peace. When you came in you were given some water. But it’s not just any water. It’s water from the Holywells spring, water of the Holy Wells, Water of life, brought to where hope runs dry. That a little water might become a lot, that a stream might become a river, that peace might flow like a river and love spring forth like a fountain… Waters of new life. To make justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a living stream. Waters of new life. To give us - and our world - a second chance and a new beginning. In a moment we will keep a few minutes of silence, after which I am going to play a piece of music, during which I invite you to come and pour the water into the bowl. A symbolic act. Living water, welling up in paining people, to bring peace, to sooth.
Elizabeth Cobbold was able to live as quite the socialite, writing poems, like the one we heard, talking of how much she loved her time living on the Orwell River, in ‘The Cliff’. She held lavish parties in all her houses, all made possible because of John Cobbold’s success. Success in more ways than one - a loving wife, many many children, success in the brewing industry, success in banking, and a very long life on top of all that; he lived until he was 90. I guess what they say about the health benefit of beer must be true… In 1825 though, when John Cobbold was 79, there was a financial crisis in this country. This financial crisis is very important in the history of this country as it shaped a lot of the thinking which followed. It can be thought of as the first modern day financial crisis, because it was the first crisis that couldn’t be easily understood; it was the first financial crisis that arose which assigning blame for was not at all easy. Up to this point in the early 19th Century, almost all financial disasters were a result of war, countries getting over indebted to fight their battles. As such, people could point to the sin of war as a reason for the financial ruin of countries. In old fashioned ways of thinking, the sin of war led to financial disaster. Sin begot the punishment. The trouble with the financial crisis of 1825 was that it wasn’t at all obvious what that sin was. The trouble was this: everyday people, the riff raff of society like you and me, got a weird idea in their head. They started to believe that if they let people like John Cobbold hold onto their money, they should get some money in return. John Cobbold should pay them for the privilege of keeping their money safe, that bank accounts should acquire interest. As I said, up until the end of the 18th Century/ beginning of the 19th Century, the only people who benefited from banks in this way were governments and the already wealthy. Now the result was that a huge amount of money flowed into banks from a previously untapped place - ordinary people. This huge amount of money now flowing around had to go somewhere, it had to be invested, and often those investments were pretty dodgy.
As a side note then, I have to tell you about Gregor MacGregor, for he epitomises the early 19th Century dodgy investment. So, don’t think of Gregor MacGregor as a cause of these problems, think of him as a symptom of these problems, like Donald Trump, who is a symptom of a more cynical society, not the cause of our more cynical society. Gregor MacGregor then, as his odd name suggests, was a ‘Scot’. A Scottish soldier. He fought, and garnered some distinction during the Napoleonic War. He had some cause to be proud of his contribution, but he was very proud. He was a man of lavish pomp for the rest of his life, always seen wearing a huge amount of medals on his uniform; some medals awarded by the crown, but most awarded to himself. He was an eccentric man who wove yarn after yarn, he was a man who people couldn’t help wanting to believe and support. Being the flamboyant dreamer he was, he liked to take up grand causes. One of the causes he took up was fighting for Venezuelan independence, to gain its independence from Spain. This resulted in him being well-travelled through Latin America, and as a result of that, he hit upon his oddest idea yet - that he should create his own country. He bought a huge piece of land in central America, a piece of land larger than Wales, in what is today Honduras. This piece of land was totally unsuitable, a big marshy swamp, and to this day no one lives there. But that is not what Gregor MacGregor said. He returned to England and declared himself the prince of Poyais. He told stories of a beautiful land with gold and silver pouring out of the ground, a place where any crop would grow, and anyone could live in harmony. An Eden on Earth. And people believed it. He was given a huge amount of money. People invested in his country, they bought land in his country, a few ships even embarked to get to his country to settle there, dying along the way. He invented a whole bureaucratic system around his country, he sold titles to people, he designed the flag for his country, he designed a coat of arms, he designed the military uniform of his country. He had consulates set up in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. Gregor MacGregor seems to have believed his own lies. Eventually though, it became apparent Poyais did not exist. As this dodgy investment came to light, many other dodgy investments came to light also. A panic ensued. There was a rush on the banks. Ordinary people trying to get their money back. A huge amount of banks went bust; regional banks were hit the hardest. The Cobbold bank of Ipswich avoided this fate however, and the reason was the brewery on the Orwell. To save his bank John Cobbold injected brewery money into it. Ordinary people throughout England lost money, but not those who invested with John Cobbold.
At a cultural level then, this had a huge impact upon the way people understood the world. It caused a ripple of cynicism previously unknown. It is not a coincidence that figures of British Romanticism, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron etc., all came to prominence and were well regarded prior to the financial crisis of 1825. Such thinking lost its credibility after that. It’s not surprising also, that within Unitarianism, the transcendentalist movement of Emerson and Thoreau took shape in 19th Century America and not here. 19th Century America was a far more optimistic place. The United States was not really affected by the 1825 crash; they of course had their economic crisis in 19th Century, but there was nothing on the scale of the 1825 crash in America until the 1900s. It comes down to this question then: with what do we measure value? Can the value of something only be determined by market forces? Prior to 1825 the resounding answer would have been yes, of course, there are values in morality, society, and religion, which go above and beyond money or gold. After 1825, that question became much more difficult to answer. Now that markets dominate everything, is a standard of value beyond money even possible? Take art. Does art have value in and of itself, or is it only valuable in as far as we know how much a piece is worth? Galleries in London are filled with art, art which is perceived to have a high economic value. In as far as you want to cry – ‘yes of course there is value in things beyond money!’ - you are echoing the sentiments of British Romanticism, and American Transcendentalism. Any system of thought that wants to claim value beyond money is, as it were, a spiritual ancestor of the British Romantics. Examples of this are: Charles Dickens prizing human kindness above money, Marxism, built ostensibly upon the belief that markets shouldn’t be able to standardize value, or Keynesian economics, the Bloomsburg group, Virginia Woolf, prizing culture over gold. Today, those who hold such lofty idealism, that there might be value beyond money, have been beaten back into small corners of our society. They huddle together in buildings on Sundays, hoping and praying for a different world.
My friends do you not perceive it? Springs are erupting in the desert. Water is pooling in dry places. Such change is upon us.