Letter from Kingsweston

Sir Robert Southwell (1635-1702) was a wealthy diplomat and President of the Royal Society who for a time owned Kingsweston House, a mansion built by John Van Brugh to the north of Bristol. In 1685 his son the Hon. Edward Southwell, was in London with his tutor when he received a letter from his father. I have included the original spelling. They are not errors.

“Dear Neddy,

I think it now so proper to quote you verses out of Persius, or talk of Caesar and Euclide, as to consider the great theatre of Bartholomew Fair, where, I doubt not, but you often resort, and ’twere not amiss if you cou’d convert that tumult into a profitable book. You wou’d certainly see the garboil there to more advantage if Mr Webster (his tutor) and you wou’d read, or cou’d see acted, the play by Ben Jonson, called Bartholomew fair; for then afterwards going to the spot you wou’d note, if things and humours were the same to-day as they were fifty years ago, and take pattern of the observations which a man of sence may raise out of matters that seem even ridiculous. Take then with you the impressions of that play, and in addition thereunto, I should think it not amiss if you then got up into some high window, in order to survey the whole pit at once. I fancy then you will say – Totus mundus agit histrionem, and you wou’d note into how many various shapes humane nature throws itself, in order to buy cheap, and sell dear, for all is but traffick and commerce, some to give, some to take, and al  is by exchange, to make the entertainment compleat.

The main importance of this fair is not so much for merchandise, and the supplying what people really want; but as a sort of Bacchanalia, to gratifie the multitude in their wandring and irregular thoughts. (Note this)

Here you see the rope-dancers gett their living meerly by hazarding of their lives, and why men will pay money and take pleasure to see such dangers, is of seperate and philosophical consideration.

You have others who are acting fools, drunkards, and madmen, but for the same wages which they might get by honest labour, and live with credit besides.

Others,m if born in any monstrous shape, or have children that are such, here they celebrate their misery, and by getting of money forget how odious they are made. When you see the toy-shops, and the strange variety of things, much more impertinent than hobby-horses or gloves of gingerbread, you must know there are customers for all these matter,s and it would be a pleasing sight cou’d you see painted a true figure of all these impertinent minds and their fantastick passions, who come trudging hither, only for such things. ‘Tis out of this credulous croud that the ballad singers attrackt an assembly, who listen and admire, while their confederate pickpockets are diving and fishing for their prey.

‘Tis from those of this number who are more refin’d that the mountebank obtains audience and credit, and it were a good bargain if such customers had nothing for their money but words, but they are best content to pay for druggs, and medecines, which commonly doe them hurt.

There is one corner of Elizium field devoted to the eating of pig, and the surfeits that attend it. he fruits of the season are everywhere scatter’d about, and those who eat imprudently do but hasten to the physitian or the churchyard.

There are various corners of lewdness and impurity…and how many robberies are beforehand committed on houses and high-ways to raise a stock against this licentious occasion! Here it commonly ends i quarrels and bloodshed, so that either the chirurgeon is sent for to plaister up the wounds, or the constable to heal the peace, and truth breaking out among the malefactors, Mr Jusice has sufficient grounds for his mittimus, and Captain Richardson favours them with house-room, and Mr John Ketch conveys them at length to their long and deserved home.

So here, but the by, you may also observe, that some grave men who think they have nothing to doe with the fair, do yet find imployment by it. There is the judge, the divine, the physitian, who all have work by the consequences of this unruly assembly.

I have formerly told you that I look’d upon human nature as a great volume, wherein every man, woman, and child, seem’d to be a distinct leaf, or page, or paragraph, that had something in it of diversity from all the rest, not but that many humours, natures, and inclinations, might fall under the same chapter, or be rang’d under the same common head. Yet still there is such distinction of one from the other, as a discerning mind will find out. And, indeed, it never was otherwise, even in the whole mass of thing,s since the creation; for two things, if they did not differ, would not be two, but the same.

I have told you also, how that in some leaves, and indeed whole chapters of this volume, there is many times so little sense or matter for imitation, that those leaves are to be turned over very fast, and yet the variety and very deformity of shapes they contain, do all help to illustrate nature, and put you into admiration to see the other leaves and chapters how they are replenished, and seem to be the epitome of all that was good and valuable in the rest.

The careful man then adds much prudent counsel before he subscribes himself to his dear Neddy as ever.

Your most affectionate father,

ROBERT SOUTHWELL

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