Ah, Birmingham. In the eighteenth century, the city seems to have yielded a fair crop of men unable to behave in a gentlemanlike manner.
It is by no means rare to come across ‘Runaway Husband’ advertisements in contemporary newspapers, usually in the form of a plea from the local parish authorities who have suddenly found themselves financially responsible for his abandoned wife and a gaggle of hungry children. However, this ad of 1791 lists no fewer than TWENTY-SEVEN local men who have “absented themselves” from their familial duties. The officers of the local workhouse promise to “chearfully and thankfully” repay anyone who can apprehend the offenders and return them to their “lawful Settlements”.
– Birmingham Gazette, 17th October 1791
The men distinguished in this gallery of rogues range from 21 to 56 years old, and between them they boast a range of skilled trades including gunsmith, brush maker, jeweller, spectacle maker and carpenter (although 4 hail from the city’s flourishing button-making business). But the physical descriptions supplied paint a fairly sorry picture of the state of Birmingham’s husbands.
The aptly-named William Kiss is identifiable by “two or three Scars on his Forehead”. Richard Chiswell is “much pitted with the Small pox” and William Lynam “limps on his right leg”; Charles Fishwick “stoops in the Shoulders, and turns his toes out”; William Cooke “hath a Scar upon his left Cheek” and Thomas Hasluck has “one of his upper fore Teeth out”.
I have to say though, my favourite among them is 22-year-old John Johnson: a man of curled black hair and a pale complexion who no doubt cut a rather dashing figure as he sped across the country wearing his “light drab Coat, flowered Waistcoat, and Corduroy Breeches”. Austen’s nefarious John Willoughby leaps to mind.
– detail from ‘Coxheath Ho!’ by William Henry Bunbury (c.1779)