A Tale of Two Cities (or a City and a Town)

Written by John Cooke, Mineral Enthusiast and Part-Time Curator

Sorry to be so Dickensian but the reality will be revealed later, like any novel the ending cannot be exposed too early.

I have been researching the life of White Watson and his geological tablets (sections of rock set within a marble slab) for a paper I would like to present in the future. These sections – of which approximately 100 were made – are a representation of the strata of particular areas but are mainly associated with his home county of Derbyshire. Only 25 of these masterpieces can be located at present and to find one would be any collector’s dream. The chance of one being revealed at a car-boot sale remains remote, but more about this later…

When the tablets (see below for an example) were sold, they were accompanied by an explanatory pamphlet that listed the various strata, their thicknesses and general characteristics. As with so many things the tablets and pamphlets parted company over the course of time and very few remain together after the period of 200 years since they were made (he produced them from 1785 until 1831). As previously mentioned, 25 of these tablets are known but far less of the pamphlets have survived.

One of White Watson’s original geological tablets in Derby Museum and Art Gallery. This one depicts a section of a mountain in Derbyshire. © John Cooke.

So, the first reveal I can make in this Dickens saga is that some years ago I bought a box of geological and other books, unseen, from an auction house in Nottingham. I had tendered the bid remotely, so I was in the hands of the gods. I collected the box the following day and had an immediate “rummage” to see if I had bought a pile of torn Beanos and Dandys. To my absolute astonishment at the bottom of the box was an original copy of White Watson’s Delineation of the Strata of Derbyshire. The journey home was taken in a state of euphoria. It was not until a while later that I eventually discovered a further “star” tucked away in the back of another geology book; it was an original White Watson pamphlet that had once accompanied a geological tablet from 1791 (see below). I did contact the auctioneer on the basis of “if there is a pamphlet there may be a tablet” but the auctioneer would not allow any contact with the consignee due to confidentiality issues. If I was an angler, it would represent the biggest fish ever that got away.

An original copy of a White Watson pamphlet associated with a geological tablet. © John Cooke.

So, no, this is not that story! Even though I still believe in car-boot revelations and the old adage “seek and ye shall find”. Back to the city and one town. I was researching these pamphlets and got completely side-tracked by another observation… White Watson had used a printer by the name of Joseph Gales of Sheffield until 1794, after which the printing evidently moved to Bakewell (this is where the one city and one town come from but stay with me, there is more to come). As with any coffee break during research, there is a short interlude and investigation on the internet which in this case revealed a whole new story. The original printer, Joseph Gales, moved to Sheffield in 1784 and started a publishing business, also at that time he became a committed Unitarian. This resulted in Gales joining the campaign to end the political disabilities of dissenters. He began publishing his own radical newspaper and the first edition of the Sheffield Register appeared on the 9th June 1787. He published radical works by political and social reformers such as Joseph Priestley (of oxygen fame and another Unitarian), Paine (author of “Rights of Man”) and many others. His radical paper was selling 2000 copies per week, unheard of for a provincial paper. Amongst these reformers were supporters of the French Revolution. William Pitt, the Prime Minister and his government were now quite concerned about their activities. A number of the reformers’ members were arrested, and some found guilty of sedition, subsequently enduring between 7 and 14 years at His Majesty’s pleasure in Australia. Gales was charged with conspiracy but fearing an unfair trial decided to flee to Germany on the 27th June 1794. From Germany he emigrated to the United States where he settled in North Carolina and from 1799 began publishing the Raleigh Register.

Joseph Priestley began to feel the heat of a hostile government and likewise fled to the U.S. So, there is the reason White Watson was not using Joseph Gales as his printer in 1794 – Gales had taken evasive action in order to keep his head securely on his shoulders.

So, dear reader, I hope you will forgive the Dickens references and who knows, it may not be beyond the realms of possibility that Dickens drew upon some of these events as inspiration for his storyline and characters in A Tale of Two Cities. I know I should not do this, but I wrote this piece on the approach to Christmas so should the subtitle be A Christmas Carol? I will make the apology now. Have a care when your mind wanders where it will take you!


One thought on “A Tale of Two Cities (or a City and a Town)

  1. Intriguing story. i have been aware of White Watson’s work since being on the staff of Sheffield Museum in the sixties. it may be of interest (to you and to him) that folklorist Paul Smith (of Uk and Newfoundland) has made extensive studies of English printers as background to his research on traditional drama.

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