I Sold That! The Chicken in Trousers Manuscript

October 17, 2018

I Sold That! The Chicken in Trousers Manuscript

One of the delights of being a bookseller is that occasionally something you work on strikes a chord with the general public and goes a little viral. Recently I sold what may go down in history as the "Chicken in Trousers Manuscript"  a wonderful mathematical workbook by an 18th-century boy named Richard Beale, who seems to have spent as much time doodling as completing his homework. It was a real pleasure to link the manuscript with the rest of the family's papers at the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading, which was then able to purchase it with the help of a generous donor.

I wasn't online much last week, and was pleasantly surprised when the Museum got in touch about all the press attention their tweets generated, including some love from JK Rowling! The day-to-day work that booksellers do in researching stock and placing it with the right clients is often hidden, so I was thrilled that the Museum kindly gave me permission to highlight my association with the notebook. Read on for my cataloguing and some of my favourite doodles.

The present volume is advanced mathematical workbook begun in May, 1784 by a young man named Richard Beale, and embellished with his drawings depicting country life, in particular hunting dogs and hares.

The workbook is heavily used, with 102 of its 104 pages filled with mathematical work laid out in the usual fashion for notebooks of this type. Subject headings are followed by short explanations of the method, then examples and worked problems. The topics covered here are mainly practical in nature, calculating methods that would have been useful for traders, builders, and the owners of farms and country houses. They include “measuring by the foot square as glaziors [glassworkers] and masons flatworke”; “measuring by the square of 100 feet, as floring partitioning, roofing, tyling &c”; converting quantities of commodities for “bartering”; calculating interest; and working with decimals.

A number of the trigonometric examples at the rear of the volume are accompanied by precise illustrations of buildings and sailing ships, some using grey wash, and these may have been executed by a tutor.

Richard has filled the notebook with charmingly naïve drawings, and his primary preoccupation while he was working seems to have been outdoor pursuits. 23 pages feature illustrations of dogs chasing rabbits, reminiscent of contemporary hunting imagery he might have seen in books and paintings, and that may also have been inspired by activities at his uncle's estate. Some scenes are elaborate and imaginative, occasionally spreading across the whole width of a page and crossing through the worked problems.

In one scene pack of hounds is followed by a hunter with a walking stick, in others a lurcher pursues a hare in the grounds of a country house, and a watchdog is chained by a doghouse under a tree.

There is one instance of a dog chasing a squirrel, and a small drawing depicts a fox under a tree with its tail wrapped around the trunk.

Horses, flowers, and chickens, a man in profile, and a tiny unidentified crest also make appearances, and there are some calligraphic designs incorporating birds.

A few of the sketches are harder to parse — one unusual example may be the head of an animal peering from a hole in the ground (and, of course, the "chicken in trousers" above).

The workbook also includes numerous pen trials [that's a bookseller term for what are essentially elegant doodles] and calligraphic flourishes, with some designs produced with a compass on the rear endpapers. And at some point a younger child gained access to the volume, adding a small number of pencil marks.

Given the manuscript’s date and its sophisticated but practical contents, it is safe to assume that Richard was a well-off member of the merchant class receiving an education in line with his future career. Indeed, it seems highly likely that he was Richard Beale Jr. of River Hall Farm at Biddenden in Kent, who was born in 1771, making him 12 or 13 when this workbook was used. Richard was the son of Seaman Cooke Beale, a harbourmaster in the City of London, and may have been educated with the view to joining the family firm or a similar enterprise. It’s also possible that his education was paid for by his uncle, Richard Beale Sr., in anticipation of his inheritance.

The Beale family had obtained its wealth in textile manufacturing during the 17th century, and owned a great deal of property around Biddenden; Richard Beale Sr. was the owner of River Hill Farm and, with no children of his own, bequeathed it to his nephew on his death in 1814. Like many 18th-century children, Richard may have lived for a period in a different household than his own, perhaps at the farm with his uncle. Both men’s pocket diaries — 41 in all, covering the years between 1791 and 1834 (two years before Beale Jr.’s death) — are now held at the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading. They contain meticulous records of farm life, including daily and seasonal tasks, detailed accounts, correspondence, and medical recipes, and it’s plausible that Richard’s uncle had a direct hand in inculcating this habit. Certainly, many of the practical mathematical techniques in the workbook would have been useful to the owner of a large working estate. On his death Richard left significant wealth to his children, and, regardless of whether he ever extracted a cube root again, he certainly fulfilled the hopes that his family had placed on his education.