Coxheath Camp, Kent, September 1778
As Britain braced itself for the expected French invasion, the atmosphere became febrile. Only six months earlier France had joined the American rebels in their increasingly successful two-year-old War of Independence against the British, opening up a new front in Europe. Now, French and Spanish warships dominated the Channel, increasing insecurity. Britain’s forces of just 50,000 men, 28,000 of them mainly untrained militia, fell ‘very short of what is reckoned necessary for the defence of England alone,’ warned the London Chronicle. And their arms and supplies, provided by corrupt Government contractors, remained notoriously sub-standard despite regular public outcries about ‘harpy Agents grinding the faces of their species’.
Well might baritone Mr. Lowe, a kind of male Vera Lynn of the time, seek to lift morale with spirited patriotic songs belted out during the interval at Sadler’s Wells musical productions. Audiences wildly applauded the rather McGonagallish chorus:
For should the Monsieurs dare to land on our shore
We quickly would make them for quarter to roar
And beg pardon and promise to do so no more.
But the reality was that the country, as it would 162 years later during other nervous September days, stood alone against the world, and its defences were inadequate to the task.
As in 1940, the Battle of Britain was thought certain to take place in Kent. To protect London from the threatened advance of the monsieurs, a vast military camp of 15,000 men, three miles long, seven miles in circumference, was built on an empty heath two miles south of Maidstone. Regular regiments and volunteers from Cornwall to Yorkshire were stationed in this tented city, which soon attracted so many sightseers and hangers-on, women especially, that a London-Coxheath coach service was started (seven shillings, half price outside, and luggage at a halfpenny per pound for the seven-hour journey).
‘It is impossible to stop laughing at the prodigious number of women of all sorts and sizes and of all ages who flock from all parts to see the camp,’ wrote one subaltern to a friend. Typical of the many female domestic servants who played truant from work to visit this fashionable destination was Amy Lyon, a young feisty chambermaid employed by Mr. Budd, a surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. On return to her duties, she was instantly dismissed but later won fame and fortune as Lord Nelson’s Emma Hamilton. At the other end of the social spectrum Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, led a gang of aristocratic groupies nicknamed ‘the beauteous Amazons’ who rode around in low phaetons drawn by ponies during morning exercises, cheering up the men and showing off their fetching military-style riding attire and jaunty cockades. Local women, both low prostitutes and respectable matrons with an eye to the main chance, invaded in loaded caravans. ‘Bedawbed’ courtesans from Covent Garden arrived in one-horse gigs ‘stowed together as close as bale goods for an East India voyage’. Middle-class adventuresses claimed loose acquaintanceship with young officers in order to gatecrash the glittering, candle-lit soirees held nightly in the rows of marquees to the sound of hautboys, clarinets, and kettle-drums.
Virtually everyone was on the make. The spivs who supplied two waggons of bread daily from specially built giant ovens at Mr. Shephard’s Wharf in Maidstone had so adulterated the product that it was commonly regarded as not even fit to give to hogs. Profiteering was rife. The Star Inn charged a scandalous one shilling per head for ‘very indifferent tea, coarse sugar and common milk,’ compared to eight pence at the public booths. Landlords cashed in, extorting exorbitant rents for houses in adjacent villages used as field hospitals and for mansions used as living quarters by wealthy officers tired of life under canvass. Farmers exploited the naïve provincial militiamen. ‘I gave seven shillings for two fowls no bigger than blackbirds and half a crown for a pint of peas,’ complained one in his diary. At the same time the crafty Kentish rustics, playing shrewdly on the boredom induced by waiting for the fight with the French, used the military to help gather the hops early in that exceptionally hot summer. They got their comeuppance later, however, when some soldiers began stealing chickens, sheep and also geese, roasting some and using others for sentry duty, as they famously did in Ancient Rome.
Among the many chancers intent on milking the Coxheath cash cow was a budding entrepreneur who was quicker than most to seize the commercial opportunities of the encampment. He was an obscure stationer from the burgeoning Piccadilly district of the capital, who gave up his business there to seek his fortune amid the preparations for war. One of the first acts of this promotional genius was to set up shop by the stop where the London coach disgorged its passengers. Newspaper notices advertising the thrice weekly service helpfully mentioned this fact. ‘Fly continues going … at Seven to MR. BISH’s Stationer, nearly opposite the center of the Camp.’ It was a modest start for Thomas Bish who, helped by his son also called Thomas, was to become a national figure known everywhere as ‘Lucky Bish’ as he revolutionised advertising and promotion.
Twenty years earlier Dr. Johnson wrote, ‘The trade of advertising is now so near to perfection that it is not easy to propose any improvement.’ For once, the great man was wrong. Newspaper advertisements then differed little in style from the first known one published in the weekly news book, Mercurius Britannicus in February 1625. It promised:
Here is this present day published an excellent discourse concerning the match between our most Gracious and Mightie Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and the Lady Henrietta Marie daughter to Henry the Fourth, late King of France. … With the lively picture of the Prince and Lady cut in Brasse.
For about 150 years advertisements followed this pattern. They were mainly simple announcements for books, plays, prints, lotteries, wines, teas, patent medicines, luxury items, wax candles, pickles, turtles, hair oil, locks, furniture, millinery, shipping movements, auctions and oddities, such as viper wines to cure impotence. Few would have passed the present-day Advertising Standards Commission ‘truthful, fair and honest’ test. Life pills ‘discovered by the Rev. C. Carrington, Vicar of Berkeley and Deputy Lieutenant of Gloucestershire’ promised to cure everything, even cancer of the bowel. Mr. Piper of 238 High Street, Exeter, announced his intention of killing a specially fattened Russian bear for its grease ‘to make hair grow on heads that were absolutely bald’. Locks were claimed to be unbreakable: ‘one hundred guineas reward to any locksmith who can unpick them’.
But as the industrial revolution gathered pace, creating a nascent consumer society and celebrity culture, sophistication grew and brand names were established and marketed. Mass-produced fans, snuff boxes, playing cards, porcelain figures and ceramic tiles decorated with portraits of famous actresses sold in their thousands. One of the first to advertise systematically in newspapers was the potter Josiah Wedgwood, who also pioneered marketing innovations such as inertia selling (sending unsolicited goods) and travelling salesmen. He was followed by Robert Warren, manufacturer of ‘original matchless’ boot polish, Alexander Rowland, purveyor of celebrated Macassar Oil for the hair, Samuel Solomon, quack doctor and inventor of the Cordial Balm of Gilead, who spent £5,000 a year on ads, and George Packwood, inventor of razor strops and proprietary paste. In 1795, George sold 10,000 of his products through a single outlet, using sixty separate ads in nearly thirty different newspapers with such immortal lines as:
In the compting-house the smart City blade,
Before he is dressed for the shop
The razor can flourish, what gives him the aid?
Why Packwood’s ingenious Strop
Even bear’s grease moved from the freak show era, when the animals were sometimes kept in barbers’ shops as sales gimmicks, into the mainstream in the form of an animal fat-based hair dressing manufactured by James Atkinson.
What distinguished the Bishes from the rest of these self-publicists was their strategy of integrating newspapers, journals, direct mail, posters, handbills, street processions, promotional carts, imaginative graphics and spin doctoring into cleverly targeted nationwide marketing operations. Father, then son, used writers, illustrators and advertising agents in a fresh and imaginative way to create a brand by systematic, regular and persistent use of all media then available. For nearly forty years the Bish name was repeated constantly in newspaper advertisements, establishing a format that has been copied constantly through a kind of collective folk memory of every successful brand ever since.
For the ambitious twenty-seven-year-old Thomas, networking hard at Coxheath, all this was for the future. No likeness of him survives, save for a sketch with the punning title The City Chance-Seller (of lottery tickets) dated 1815, the year of his death. It shows a tall, ruggedly handsome man, dressed in fashionable top hat and greatcoat. The confident, slightly arrogant, expression suggests he would have found no difficulty in crossing the class divide. Its rigidity is glimpsed in the newspaper column Camp Intelligence syndicated on 3 September; reports of deserting privates and corporals punished with 1,000 lashes of the cat-o’-nine-tails (virtually a death sentence) sit oddly with details of elegant regimental balls and suppers given by officers for their ladies and ‘most of the Nobility on the Heath.’ Bish was a cheerful and sociable guest at these events, where he exploited his position as main supplier of the reams of stationery, books and other materials required in order to cultivate useful contacts. Lieutenant General William Keppel, Commander-in-Chief of the encamped forces, commissioned him to produce and supply a map of the complex camp for use by both militia and the regular regiments stationed there, as required by Act of Parliament. Measuring twenty-four by fourteen inches, this beautifully coloured and accurate little aid for finding the way round the miles of tents on the sprawling heath, clearly shows the disposition of forces, their strengths and their facings. In its simplicity and linear graphic design, it is not unlike Harry Beck’s groundbreaking London underground map of the 1930s, or the classic standardized road signage systems developed by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir in 1964 still used today. There is a copy in the British Library and at least three others in various county archives, which suggests it was a treasured souvenir handed down through the generations. Although the detail was almost certainly measured and drawn by a numerate soldier, it has the stamp of Bish’s nascent communications skills all over it, skills he was to exploit brilliantly when James Branscomb, stockjobber, City dignitary and twenty years his senior, took him under his wing as a junior business partner.
At that time it was common for stockjobbers, who dealt with stocks and shares on behalf of brokers, to run the state lottery which had been around since 1694. Not only did it raise money for continuing government spending, like feeding the navy, but it also funded specific projects from providing London’s first clean drinking water to founding the British Museum. Everyone played it, from the daughters of King George III to poor female domestic servants. Poor people often won, though as now their sudden unexpected wealth did not always guarantee happiness. Mr. Alder, who made a meagre living as a cooper and publican, won £20,000 in a 1767 draw, a huge sum then (more than £1 million in today’s money). He gave most of it away to neighbours and local charities in the Berkshire town of Abingdon (now part of Oxfordshire) where he lived, but was so pressurised by greedy supplicants demanding money that the good-hearted man suffered a nervous breakdown. The draws, held over forty days before excited crowds at London’s Guildhall, were pure theatre. Two huge rotating drums six feet in diameter (one containing ticket counterfoils, the other prize tickets and blanks) were spun faster and faster until finally stopped for two Bluecoat boys from Christ’s Hospital to pull out, simultaneously, a ticket number and its fate. Dramatically, amid cheers or boos, a clerk yelled out the result, which could be a cash prize worth up to £3 million today. The Morning Chronicle of 28 January 1794 listed lucky winners as ‘Mr. Taylor the Hatter on Tower Hill, a £20,000 prize. Also £10,000 by Mr. Hackelton of the Borough. They are both retired from business. £20,000 to a merchant in Ireland, £10,000 to a gentleman who frequents the Bank, £5,000 to Thomas Johnes MP for Radnor, and £5,000 to Miss Edmonds near Epsom, Surrey.’ Among more famous winners was the novelist and dramatist Mary Russell Mitford, who won £20,000 with a ticket her father bought her as a present on her tenth birthday. She squandered it all, as have so many big winners since.
Arrangements for organising the game were bureaucratic and cumbersome, but the principle was the same as in the UK National Lottery today; the government awarded the license to the contractor it believed would raise the most money for the public purse. The difference was that, whereas now a license runs for seven years, as does Camelot’s from February 2009, then it was for a few months only to cover each individual lottery. The procedure was that the Chancellor of the Exchequer annually announced details of the prizes, number of tickets and dates of the two or three State lotteries to be held during the year and invited bids to run it. The bidders, mainly stockjobbers, submitted in sealed envelopes their offer price per ticket. The highest offer won the contract, although there were usually hours of acrimonious wrangling over details as Ministers, desperate for cash to fight the French, squeezed the maximum amount possible for their coffers. On at least one occasion they threatened to nationalise the game and run it themselves if the contractors did not offer enough. Sometimes, consortiums were formed. In 1799, the bidders who met William Pitt at Number Ten Downing Street with their proposals were Bish, Branscomb, Richardson, Cooper, Beardmore, £13.10s. 6d; Hazard, Capel, Stephenson £13. 15s. 4d; Cope, Curtis, Goldsmid, Salomon £14. 0s. 5d; and Shewell, Towgood, Ellis, Grenville £14. 1s. 5d, who won. Tickets may seem expensive at this price, but each was usually split into sixteen shares which allowed low-paid workers such as servants and office clerks the chance to club together to purchase a stake.
The real winners were the lottery operators, whose average annual salary was £10,000 (£300,000 today). So it was scarcely surprising that once the invasion scare subsided and the camp scaled down, Bish opted for a smart career move and joined dozens of other hopefuls in the lottery business. He almost certainly met his mentor Branscomb during the endless social whirl that was Coxheath, as it was fashionable for City men to do their patriotic duty and visit the troops. The two set up three offices in London at No. 187 Fleet Street, No. 4 Cornhill and No. 11 Holborn. They were increasingly successful in winning contracts to run both the English and Irish lotteries, making regular trips to Dublin and successfully lobbying for a fast coach service to whisk draw results from there to London via a wherry. They also ran the occasional tontine, a bizarre life insurance gamble, invented by Neapolitan banker Lorenzo Tonti, where the shares to a loan increase in value as subscribers die off until the last survivor inherits everything.
Competition was intense since the Grafton Government changed the rules a decade earlier to allow huge cash sums to be paid out as prizes. It was also testosterone-fuelled; out of thirty-six entrepreneurs listed in 1796 as being authorised to run lotteries only one was a woman, Sarah Shower of No. 71 New Bond Street. All were skilled in publicity. One found an old woman in the country called Goodluck and paid her £50 a year to use her name. Pope located his business on the Royal Exchange close to the Bank of England, branded it ‘The Fortunate Lottery Office’ and won a good market share. William Nicholson, then the dominant lottery broker, regularly published the names of lucky winners such as ‘Nathaniel Crozer, a Smithfield Shoemaker’, and ‘Joseph Welsh, Organist of Newbury, Berks’, an obvious marketing ploy which inexplicably Bish never used, boasting it was his ‘invariable rule’. His explanation that naming winners ‘might be unpleasant’ does not ring true. So he simply described the recipient of the largest prize ever won in the old State lottery, £50,000 (£2.5 million today), as ‘a Gentleman from Hampshire’.
Bish, tempted by money to indulge his wide boy side, did not make an auspicious start. In addition to the official draw there were complex schemes called ‘insurances’ which allowed the poor to bet a shilling on a specific number coming up on a specific day, and winning a pound if it did. Betting on numbers in this way was as illegal then as it is today. Yet Bish, even after he became a licensed lottery house keeper in 1790, took these side bets in parallel to the legitimate business he ran with Branscomb. For years he got away with it but, eventually, he was found out, prosecuted on the evidence of a client Duggan McCarty, found guilty on three charges and fined £50 on each charge. For Bish, a churchwarden for the parish of St. Mary Woolchurch Haw, as well as for the even more respectable Branscomb, philanthropist, governor of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and future lay sheriff of London, this was deeply embarrassing. Yet he compounded the offence by not paying up and, as a result, on 12 December 1793 was brought to court before Lord Chief Justice Kenyon at the Guildhall where the jury, after a long debate, convicted him of non-payment.
With extraordinary foolishness, Bish continued issuing insurances, only to fall into the clutches of an unpleasant extortioner, Robert Jacques, who acted with a crooked lawyer called Wilkinson. Blackmailing lottery men in the late eighteenth century was common sport. One sharp crook, realising the chance of winning a prize was much less than advertised, threatened to expose the true value of the tickets. Late one Saturday night he placarded London with huge posters so that churchgoers could see them on Sunday. The posters displayed full-sized drawings of Bluecoat boys. The caption read, ‘Unless the young gentlemen are very active, they will not have sufficient time to draw the thousands of blanks out of the wheel.’ Ticket sales fell dramatically, causing the draw to be delayed three times. Eventually, the lottery operators bought off the extortioner with a hefty life pension.
In Jacques’s scam, lottery office keepers were targeted according to their income and repeatedly forced to pay up on a sliding scale for each offence (£50 for rich William Nicholson down to £10 for a Mr. Newton) or face exposure and a possible £500 fine and three months’ imprisonment. For a surprisingly long time Bish paid the Danegeld at £30 and £40 a time before coming to his senses and taking a stand not only for himself but also for his colleagues, who were increasingly seeing him as their spokesman. He collected as many of the blackmail letters as were available and produced them at the King’s Bench Court where Jacques was tried on 11 July 1794. For the defence serjeant Kirby, complaining bitterly about being given only ten minutes’ notice of his brief, attacked Bish’s credibility as a witness, contending, ‘He is not worthy of credit, both on account of the illegal nature of his business, as dealing in insurances, and his having so repeatedly compromised where he should have pursued at law.’ Kenyon, however, directed that his testimony was ‘just and satisfactory’ and the jury, without hesitation, found Jacques guilty of perjury.
Three years later Bish again appeared before Kenyon, this time in a civil case involving a dispute over a forged £25 Bill of Exchange which he had accepted in payment for some lottery tickets. The Morning Chronicle reported, ‘he brought his books with him into Court, by which it appeared his business was so extensive that he paid £9000 into his banker’s hands on the very day when this transaction happened.’ Kenyon, despite being notoriously anti-gambling, seemed to have liked the lottery keeper, as he commented, ‘How was it possible for a man in great trade to know the precise pedigree of every Bill that came into his hands? If the law was otherwise, there would be an end of the great Paper credit of this country.’ He said no fraud could be attributed to Bish, who won the case and was awarded damages, an important outcome that helped the 1797 campaign by bankers and merchants to get the newfangled banknotes more widely accepted.
That same year Thomas Bish, assisted by his teenaged son, felt confident enough to go it alone, taking over Branscomb’s office at No. 4 Cornhill, expanding into No. 9 Charing Cross in 1801 and setting up permanent offices in Manchester and Edinburgh. Soon they had branches or agents in every main town in Britain and Ireland. There were goldsmiths in Norwich, silversmiths in Bradford, printers in Chester, hatters in Maidstone, booksellers in Aberdeen and Inverness, druggists in Tunbridge, chemists in Axbridge, perfumers in Woodbridge, the Post Office in Ilminster, and the Waggon Office in Monmouth … all doing a roaring trade in selling tickets, despite the known hazard that parcels of tickets were sometimes stolen from the mail coaches on their long journeys to London.
As well as developing a sophisticated retail chain, the consummate spin doctor began developing the marketing initiatives which were to make him the dominant lottery broker. Lottery puffs began appearing in news columns. In the True Briton of 13 July 1797, a psychologically clever paragraph warning that buyers should hurry to buy tickets in the Irish lottery as prices ‘are sure to rise’ appears among items about an unfortunate soap-boiler called Tansley who fell into one of his copper vessels and was scalded to death ‘on the spot’, a complaint by the Committee of Wine Merchants to William Pitt on a £300,000 deficiency in wine duties, a pantomime review and crime reports. At the same time Bish was winning blanket media coverage of prizewinning tickets he had sold; news of a £20,000 win in the March 1798 draw appeared in the Sun, The Times, Morning Post, Star, St. James’s Chronicle, Morning Herald, Oracle and Public Advertiser, True Briton, and the Observer. And the ads themselves began snappier with claims such as ‘Sixty Thousand Pounds may be gained by a single ticket’ and ‘a thousand winning tickets in one draw’ grabbing the reader’s attention. Novelties were introduced; players were offered any numbers they fancied, there were prizes for first drawn tickets and prizes for tickets drawn ending in a particular numeral.
Typographical innovation played its part, too. Bish hijacked the eye-catching loud and bold ‘fat-faced’ typefaces, which the pioneering London type designer Robert Thorne had developed for posters, using them as early as 1810 in handbills and newspaper advertisements. Although the parliamentary printer, Thomas Hansard, later denounced these early display faces as ‘typographical monstrosities’, they quickly caught on; Drury Lane Theatre used them in playbills, the publishers of ‘penny dreadfuls’ liked the exaggerated letters, and the bookseller and campaigning journalist William Hone deployed them to dramatic effect in the infamous political satires which landed him in prison. Another early convert, using them most imaginatively in his catalogues, was the flamboyant cockney auctioneer George Robins, whom Dickens lampooned. They have since been widely featured in print promotions and can be seen today in every newspaper or magazine, advertising virtually everything from Ryanair flights to banking services.
Bish could not, by himself, have succeeded in pushing through these new ideas; he needed what marketers now call ‘a strategic partner’, and found one in a tall, good-looking printer from Bristol called Frederick Gye. ‘I know of a gentleman who amassed a considerable fortune (so as to be able to keep his carriage) by printing nothing but lottery placards and handbills of a colossal size,’ wrote the essayist William Hazlitt. He almost certainly meant Gye, whose entrepreneurial spirit led him later into many business ventures with Bish’s son, including selling tea and wine and running the famous London pleasure ground of Vauxhall Gardens. Both were also to become controversial Members of Parliament. On the eve before one draw, Bish (who was by then running his father’s business) gave him a batch of unsold lottery tickets and Gye, rather suspiciously, won a prize of £30,000.
In 1806, however, Gye was just another jobbing printer working with a G. Balne from offices off Broad Street in the City of London, winning some government contracts for printing state lottery tickets and posters, with Carter’s Directory listing all prizewinning numbers drawn in London. The introduction of the controversial typefaces that year marked the start of a creative partnership between Bish and Gye which encompassed not only other visual innovations, mainly in handbills as newspaper advertisements had yet to carry illustrations, but also improved copywriting. As the specialist divisions of today’s advertising agencies, split into designers, copywriters, account handlers, and art directors did not exist, ideas flowed from all kinds of unlikely sources. The publisher Henry Vizetelly recalls in his memoirs, written in extreme old age in 1893, how his father James, a printer with an original mind, was one of them. ‘He gave Gye some clever ideas for lottery posters which took Bish’s fancies and led to extensive printing,’ he wrote. In return Gye gave his father, who worked with Robert Branston, a famous wood engraver, ‘a present of several hundreds of pounds.’ That was how the system worked.
Bish Senior also became involved in other money-making schemes. The French Revolution had swept away the securities markets of Amsterdam and Paris, boosting London whose sharp dealers were quick to step into the breach. They set up the London Stock Exchange, which formally came into being as the first regulated exchange in March 1801, taking over from the loose securities markets that had existed before. Within months it moved from the old chaotic dealing room under a coffee shop in Sweeting’s Alley to a new building in Capel Court in the heart of the City. The lottery entrepreneur became one of its first members. In the early days, the stockjobbers were a rough crowd much amused by violently bashing top hats down over people’s mouths and then rolling them round the dealing room. Just after Christmas 1805 a man called Daws, clerk to the broker William Haynes was expelled ‘for injuring Joseph Munyard’s coat by vitriol’. Six weeks later Bish himself was physically harassed by two fellow brokers, the brothers William and Charles Thompson, who prevented him from working. He complained to the Exchange committee who let them off with a reprimand and a warning ‘to preserve peace and order’. They were also however capable, under Bish’s tutelage, of sophisticated press management. In its first year of existence the Exchange set up an enquiry into the 1801 lottery which, it was felt, had been manipulated by some members (not Bish). Its proceedings were leaked in an unhelpful manner to the Oracle, a morning newspaper unsympathetic to the fledgling Exchange. Immediately a letter was drafted and sent to the other editors who all printed it the following day. The template, which still survives in the Stock Exchange archives, reads, ‘To the Editor of …. In Consequence of a partial misrepresented Statement of the Report of the Stock Exchange Committee having appeared in one of the morning papers (Oracle, 8 December 1801) of this day, the Committee feel it incumbent on them to request that you will not copy the same into your paper as they conceive it to have been inserted for malicious purposes.’ No modern ‘rebuttal unit’ could have done better.
Early in the new century Bish had every reason to feel quietly confident, both personally and professionally. He had deflected, through political contacts, a potential knock-out blow by the reformer William Cobbett that the government should nationalise the lucky draw and run it at a fraction of the cost; his son Thomas had made a good match, marrying Mary, second daughter of John Collier from Newport, Shropshire, in August 1800; their bold move in breaking away from Branscomb was paying off in lucrative government contracts, the stock-jobbing business was prospering, their willingness to innovate meant they were beginning to pull away from the competition; and, most crucially, he was determined to stay on the right side of the law. For the next few years not only did he pioneer the marketing and advertising techniques we rely on today but he played a major role in resolving some of the most sensational financial scandals ever to hit the City of London.