Monday, 30 November 2015

All That Glitters: James Price and the Death of Alchemy.

It's never easy to admit when you're in the wrong. You might at first try to avoid the issue, then perhaps tell a small untruth in the hope to avoid detection. Then as time goes on and you continue the charade it's harder and harder to come clean, and before you know it you've backed yourself into a corner and admitting the truth is nigh on impossible. It's a situation many will be familiar with, but in 1783 James Price, chemist and alchemist, took matters to tragic extremes.

Price, born as James Higginbotham in 1752, was a remarkable individual. Attending Oxford he obtained a Master of Arts at the age of twenty-five, became a Doctor of Medicine a year later, and in 1781, at the age of twenty-nine, became a member of the Royal Society. 

© National Portrait Gallery, London

It is unclear just when Price's interest in alchemy began, (the somewhat fantastical story that he inherited his fascination and equipment from a mythical Doctor Irish cannot be substantiated) but in 1782 he began work on the project that was to ultimately ruin both his career and his life. 

Working in his laboratory at his home in Stoke, near Guildford, Price's aim was soon clear - the changing of  base metals into precious ones, most of all, the changing of substances into gold and silver. It was a goal shared by many, but unlike his predecessors, Price appeared to have been successful.

On 6th May 1782 Price demonstrated his results to an assembled group of friends. They were hugely impressed, and, buoyed by this success he embarked upon a set of public experiments to further display his findings. 

There were seven demonstrations in total, attended by some of the greatest in the country. During the process a “flux composed of Borax”, a small piece of charcoal and a small piece of nitre were pounded together before with a pestle in full view of those watching, the ingredients also having been examined carefully by the same. This was pressed into a small hessian crucible onto which half an ounce of Mercury was carefully added. It was then that half a grain of “a certain powder, of a deep red colour” was added; indeed it was these very powders that Price claimed were the key to his success. The crucible was placed in the fire of a “moderate red heat”, with “Dr P” keeping a close eye on developments and urging others too to watch every stage of the process. Then:

“In about a quarter of an hour, from the projection of the powder, and the placing of the crucible in the fire, he observed to the company, who on inspection found his observation true, that the mercury though in a red hot crucible, shewed no signs of evaporation, or even of boiling.”

The heat was gradually increased before an iron rod was dipped in – to the astonishment of those watching there were small “globules of a whitish coloured metal.” The best was yet to come however; once the fire was raised further and borax added, the crucible was finally removed and broken open whereupon:

“A globule of yellow metal was found at bottom, and in the scoriae smaller ones, which collected and placed in an accurate balance by Mr Russell, were found to weigh fully ten grains.”

The sample was sealed up with due ceremony to be sent away for testing, but it was clear to all those who had witnessed the experiment that the substance was genuine. Sure enough, the following day Price's assertions were confirmed: he had produced gold. 

The rest of the series of experiments produced similar encouraging results. The final experiment took place on Saturday 25th May, 1782 before an assortment of prestigious personages, including Lords Onslow, King and Palmerstone. This was no less successful than the previous experiments, with both gold and silver produced to the astonishment and excitement of those watching.  

“These last portions of Gold and Silver, as well as a part of the produce of the former experiment have had the honour of being submitted to the inspection of His Majesty, who was pleased to express his royal approbation.”

Price published his findings in “An Account of some Experiments on Mercury, Silver and God, made at Guildford in May 1782 in the laboratory of J. Price.” which became a bestseller.  Aware that people hearing of his work might be duly sceptical, Price added the assurance that:

“One or more of the Company, particularly the Lords King and Palmerstone, were during the whole time of the Experiment close to the furnace and operator; and as requested by him gave the closest attention to every part of the process.”  

There were those amongst his colleagues of the Royal Society however who were not quite so convinced. Among those who were particularly sceptical were Joseph Banks, the president of the Society, and the chemist Joseph Black.Price was asked to do further experiments, this time in their presence and under controlled conditions. Despite his previous success, Price made many excuses, ranging from the fact that his powder had run out, to the fact that producing more would not be economically unsound but also pose a serious threat to his health. 

After much arguing back and forth however, Price had no choice but to submit to the insistence of the Society. He duly retired to Stoke in the January of 1783, where he intimated that he was preparing the powder required for the experiments. 

Finally a date was set for Price's demonstration, and on 3rd August those members of the Society due to observe arrived in Stoke. Some tellings of the story imply that Price had a large audience, but in truth only three arrived to witness the experiment. Price met the men and greeted them cordially, betraying no hint of what was to come. Suddenly he stepped aside, drinking from a flask or glass he had concealed. It was moments later that the men realised something was terribly wrong, but it was too late – beyond helping, Price died before them, choosing death over the shame of admitting that he would not be able to prove his claims. He was thirty-one years old.  

James Price was buried at St John The Evangelist, Stoke, Surrey.

No one knows for certain what led Price to his terrible end. Had it been a hoax from the start that ultimately went too far? Or had Price believed his own claims, only to realise with horror that he had been wrong? There have been claims of mental instability made against Price, although these of course cannot be substantiated. One of the most intriguing explanations rests on the fact that only three men turned up to see Price for that final, fateful experiment. It has been suggested that these men were actually working with Price - either helping him to fake his own death, or, with a decidedly more sinister twist, that they were there with the purpose of convincing him to commit suicide.

Whatever the course of events, it is generally believed that Price's death brought with it the end of alchemy in England. After his suicide, the Royal Society refused to carry out any further investigations into alchemical claims.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Highway Robbery: The Curse of Tupton Hall

Over the summer I bought a small book of Derbyshire ghost stories. Whilst flicking through I came across a tale that caught my attention relating to Tupton Hall near Chesterfield. Today there is a school on the site where the old hall used to stand, but it was once an opulent country estate in the possession of the prosperous Lord family. According to the legend, Mr Lord, a wealthy Chesterfield miller:

Was returning home one evening when he was waylaid and robbed by a masked highwayman. He was convinced that it was the family coachman, and, although the poor man swore his innocence, Mr Lord had him tried, convicted and hanged.”

The kick to the story comes in the ending, as we are told ominously:

Just before his execution, the man swore a curse on the family and predicted that disaster after disaster would follow.”

A fascinating albeit rather standard ghost story to be sure, and I experienced the shiver that the writer intended. As with so many stories however I was left with the desire to know what, if any, truth lay behind it. After some digging and exchange of emails with a very helpful gentleman from the Tupton Local History Society, the following came to light, through a piece in the Derby Mercury, dated Thursday, 27th December, 1739.

We hear from Chesterfield, that on Saturday night last, Mr Lord of Temple Normanton, near the said Town, going from Chesterfield Market, was attack'd by a single Highwayman on his Return Home, who robb'd him of 10l and two Gold Rings; and that about a Quarter of an hour after Mr Tag of the same Place, with his Wife behind him, returning from the said Market, was also robb'd by the same Highwayman; and that a grey mare belonging to -- Pyot Esq; of Highfield near Chesterfield, was taken out of a Stable at the Angel Inn there, the same Night, which was thought (by the Description given) to be the same the highwayman was mounted on; Mr Pyot, upon sending his Servants out to search for her, found her turn'd up, and in the Road Home with Bridle and Saddle on.”

It would seem that this was indeed the Mr Lord mentioned in the tale of the Tupton Curse; Temple Normanton was only about a mile from Tupton, and it is likely that Mr Lord was returning from Chesterfield to Tupton Hall when the attack occurred. The report ends with the information that a man named Dolphin had been taken in under suspicion of being involved in the crime, having been tried at the last Lent Assizes for “stealing one Moydore and 3l. 1s. from Mr Inman of Chesterfield.” Although he was acquitted of the previous crime, the man had now been committed to the Chesterfield House of Correction for questioning over the theft from Mr Lord.

Tupton Hall, c.1800

A series of relations in the Derby Mercury for 1740 adds further details. On 27th March it is related that at the Assizes that lasted the previous Friday, three people were sentenced to death; Samuel Gilbert, for the crime of stealing a black mare, and:

William Dolphin and James Hill for Robbing Mr Lord near Chesterfield on the Highway, of a considerable Sum of Money.”

Richard Thompson and Joseph Baron were also suspected of being involved with the robbery, but were acquitted. Whilst James Hill and Samuel Gilbert were granted a reprieve, William Dolphin was not so fortunate, the sentence standing, and the report ends with the information that:

The Rev. Mr. Christie intends to preach next Sunday about 4 o'Clock in the Afternoon, in the Debtor's Apartment, to the Prisoner under Sentence of Death.”

The Derby Mercury for 3rd April contains the announcement that William Dolphin was to be executed the following Wednesday, and that:

He still persists in denying the Crime for which he is to suffer, and declares himself to be as innocent as the Child unborn.”

A week later on the 10th April the same paper carried the information of William Dolphin's final days and execution. Dolphin; aged thirty-three, unmarried, “well-proportioned, and seemingly of a strong and healthy Constitution,” was apparently extremely diligent in his prayers during his imprisonment, resisted every attempt of the various clergy members and guards who attended him to extract a confession, the prisoner remaining steadfastly silent on the matter other than to say that he was innocent. As the time approached:

After Service he stayed some small time to take Leave of his Relations, then walk'd to the Place of Execution, betwixt two Clergyman, Reading all the Way.”

Dolphin was asked again for a final time if he had committed the crime for which he was to die, or if he knew who had or anyone who had anything to do with the matter, the grave peril of dying with a guilty conscience gravely impressed upon him. They were to be disappointed however as:

To all which he declar'd he was innocent, and knew nothing more of it than by the Noise of the Country.”

 The condemned man then took the time to warn any young people present to take his example as a warning and to avoid bad company, and also to declare that he forgave everyone completely.

Then leaping into the Cart, he stripp'd off his Coat with Seeming Courage, and being ty'd up forgave the Executioner, after which the Cart was drawn away.”

Any further details of William Dolphin's end are omitted, the account ending with the final remark that his body was interred in St. Peter's Churchyard.

Another intriguing piece of information was the revelation that James Hill, Dolphin's supposed accomplice, had sworn that:

... the said Dolphin, chang'd Coats with him, and was the Person that robb'd Mr Lord, and that he (Hill) was ordered by Dolphin to stand behind a Hedge near the Place where the Robbery was committed, that so if any Resistance was made, he might come up to Dolphin's assistance.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, James Hill did not escape punishment entirely: a final account in the Derby Mercury for 6th August relates that both Sam Gilbert and James Hill had been ordered to be transported for fourteen years after their “reprieve.”

The Mr Lord who was the victim of the robbery was in fact William Allwood Lord Esq, son of William Lord and Jane Allwood. A local man, he married Dorothy Gladwin on 26th June, 1738. Dorothy was the daughter of Lemuel Gladwin senior, who was in turn the son of Thomas Gladwin who built Tupton Hall in 1611, and the marriage of Dorothy and William Lord marked the passing of Tupton Hall out of Gladwin hands and into the Lord family. (Lemuel Senior's son had died without children, and so the hall passed through his daughter's line.)

The Reverend James Christie who preached before William Dolphin's execution was also not without scandal attached to his name; in 1741 a poem was published with the title The Polygamist: or, the lustful priest, Giving an account of one James Christie, a clergyman, who is now confin'd in Derby jail, for having two wives. It was not the first time he had been imprisoned for the offence either, having been likewise confined in 1738 when his marital shenanigans caught up with him. 

Tupton Hall - as it was between 1928 and 1938

And what of the curse? There is no mention of it in the newspaper accounts dealing with the case, on the contrary, it was reported that William Dolphin forgave everyone involved, and it would be unlikely that such a juicy detail as a vow of vengeance would have been omitted by the press. There is also no mention of Dolphin having been William Lord's coachman, and this "fact" could likely have been a later addition to the legend. 

It cannot be disputed however that Tupton Hall saw its share of tragedy in the years that followed. The Lord family line eventually died out, and the hall was purchased and turned into a grammar school, only to suffer a severe fire two years later in 1938. 1955 saw not only the suicide by hanging of Charles Oswald Drabble, the school's headmaster, but also, shortly after, the death of Miss Bansall, mathematics and science mistress of Tupton Hall after she fell or threw herself under a train at Chesterfield Station. A further fire in 1974 and more damage caused by a falling tree in 1990 only served to fuel the rumours of the curse set many years before. Despite this, Tupton Hall School is currently one of the largest secondary schools in North East Derbyshire, and one of the largest six forms in the county.  

159 death sentences were passed in Derbyshire between 1735 and 1799. Thirty-five of these were actually carried out, including that of William Dolphin.


I am deeply indebted to Trevor John Armstrong of the Tupton Local History Society, who has provided much of the information above and taken the time to share his findings.

Newspaper quotes Derby Mercury, 27th December 1739, 27th March, 3rd April, 10th April, 6th August. © The British Newspaper Archive