The Lure of the Exotic

In September 1740 George Anson set sail on what would become a round the world voyage. The intention behind this major expedition was to attack, and even capture, Spanish possessions in the South Atlantic. The squadron, led by Commodore Anson's "Centurion", consisted of eight ships and 1854 men. Only 188 of the crew returned. With such a loss of life the voyage could be seen as a disaster, but on the way Anson captured a Spanish treasure ship "Covadonga". In the 18th century, and into the 19th, officers and crew kept a proportion of their takings from captured enemy vessels. As a result Anson earned around £91,000. The seamen received a proportionately smaller amount, but even so it their rewards were equivalent to £20 or a year's wages.

Though George's voyage had been studied and written about over the years, including in a bestselling book immediately after his return, no one has previously noticed that Thomas set sail with his brother on the Centurion. He had no the intention of going with him in pursuit of the Spanish. He was, in effect, hitching a lift as the first part of his own voyage round the Mediterranean. Thomas parted from George and the Centurion at Cape Finisterre and continued his journey on a succession of other Royal Navy ships.

This expedition began only seven months after the death of Lord Scarbrough, who had shot himself on January 29th 1740 (New Style). Considering the overwhelming sense of guilt that anyone would feel after such an experience it seems reasonable to suggest that this voyage may have been influenced by Scarbrough's death. Could it have been a way of escaping the weight of guilt? It was far more than a holiday in the modern sense. Was it usual for a tourist to travel round the Mediterranean in navy ships - and at a time of war?

Anson was in Italy in the 1720s and in Asia Minor in1734 but there may have been other equally adventurousunrecorded journeys. Fortunately a sketchy record of the 1740/1 trip survives.

There is a small leather pocket book in the Staffordshire Record Office which contains the barest of notes of his journey. (1) This is one of the very few documents in Thomas Anson's own handwriting. By chance there are also letters from the merchant Francis Congreve, a member of a Staffordshire family, who met Thomas in Cairo. Thomas's own notes give only dates of arrival at various ports, apart from some partly cryptic instruction on the first page.

"Mr M to answer my Bills I draw upon him

Mr Lascelles Demd to be discharged at my Return if not disc'g by Mr Mytton.

Mr Mill(?) has orders to pay 75(£?) yearly of demd by a certain person purs.(?)"(1)

Mr Mytton must be his long term friend James Mytton, with whom he travelled to Spa in the 1720s and who was still visiting Shugborough in the 1750s. He had probably been given responsibility for Thomas's business while he was away.

Mr Lascelles could be Henry Lascelles (1690-1753), one of an extensive Yorkshire family, who made a fortune through Barbados plantations and the slave trade. "To be discharged" suggests a loan from Thomas to Mr Lascelles that Thomas intended to cancel.

"Mr Mill?" is very hard to read and most likely is another reference to Mr Mytton. But who is the "certain person" who is to be paid £75 a year - a considerable amount of money in 1740, worth £8,600 today?

It sounds like there is someone Thomas is unwilling to name for whom he has responsibility, and an on-going one? Could there have been a woman (or man) involved? Could there have been an early unsuitable marriage? Blackmail? This is pure conjecture, but there is something odd here, and the air of mystery darkens if there is a connection between the voyage and the death of Lord Scarbrough.

One could ask who was supposed to see this note? The diary was, presumably, one he took with him, so the note seems to have been written as reminder to himself or as a sketch for a letter to his agents at home.

The only substantial piece of writing in the diary is less mysterious and suggests a practical purpose for the journey. It may be copied from a book or from notes from a gardener. It consists of instructions for the preservation of plants:

"Many sorts of Roots of Plants may with very little trouble be so ordered as to grow again when brought over & set tho' after a long voyage, particularly those that are Bulbous, tuberous & Fleshy. Such as ye Roots of Tulips, of Lillies, Crocus's. Onions, Garlicks, Squills, anemones, Potatos, yawns etc. These & all like Roots may be sent as early & safely as seeds if taken up out of ye Ground, & laid to dry till ye Ships come away & then only put in very dry Moss, Coton or Sand. Seeds to be well dry'd before put up & afterwards kept dry." (2)

This is the earliest evidence of what must have become one of Thomas's principal interests - gardening and botany. Though the landscape of Shugborough may be more memorable for its buildings, those follies were probably only a small part of an integrated landscape in which exotic planting was just as important. Later Thomas's library would have a fine collection of books on foreign plants and several of his friends in later life, including Benjamin Stillingfleet and Thomas Pennant, were botanists.

Other travellers to the Middle East in the years just before this came back, like Dr Pocock, with ancient relics and artefacts, including a mummy. Presumably Anson came back with seeds and roots. This peaceful purpose contrasts dramatically with the motive for George Anson's voyage. It is certainly strange that Thomas should have set off to look for exotic blooms at a time when travel in the region was extremely dangerous and English trade in the Levant was suffering as a result.

The details of the journey are minimal.

On September 13th 1740 he "came into Spithead from Torbay", presumably on board the Centurion. The fleet gathered there and sailed on September 18th.

On 29th September Thomas:

"parted with Capt Anson about ten of ye Morning. 44 ½ Cape Finisterre being Se by E abt 45 leagues."

He travelled on a series of Royal Navy ships,but there were pauses on land, including four days at Lisbon, sailing from there on October 7th, and 5 days on Gibraltar.

On November 20th Thomas "went on board the Roseby" which took him to Alexandria and up the Nile to Cairo where he arrived on December 5th.

Francis Congreve wrote from Cairo to his brother William in Minorca on 2nd January 1741. Thomas had left Cairo on 5th December according to his notes, though Congreve dated a letter to his brother, which he gave to Thomas to deliver, the 8th December.

"As the whole time of Mr Anson's stay here has been nothing but hurry I am sure his goodness will excuse any deficit or omission on my part in not abandoning myself entirely to his services which his merit deserved had he made a longer stay or I been more leisure." (3)

Congreve was unable to act as a guide to a possibly unexpected guest:

"I am sorry I could not, from the hurry of business which a ship from home always brings with her, attend him constantly in visiting of Curiositys of the Place."

It is great pity that Thomas made no notes at all about the curiosities he saw. He could hardly have avoided the pyramids.

Congreve later wrote to his brother, eager for news from Minorca.

"I have not received any of your favours, my last was at 8 Dec by Mr Anson, who is gone to Aleppo, & promised to deliver my letter& a small bundle of Coffee for you to Capt Vincent of the St Albans Man of War who no doubt calls at Port Mahon with the Turkey Convoy."

The coffee that Thomas took to Minorca took a long time to arrive as it was only on July 4th 1741 that Congreve was able to write to his brother:

"I am glad you had rec'd the Coffee by Mr Anson."

On 28th January Congreve wrote to his brother:

"I had a very civil letter from Mr Anson in Cyprus, whence he was to depart the next day to Aleppo."

Thomas's log notes that he arrived at Cyprus, via Alexandria and Rosetta on December 25th. He stayed there until January 8th when he made a two week voyage to Scanderon, (Iskanderun, once Alexandretta) on the Turkish coast, from where he was to make an overland journey to Aleppo. It is hard to know why it should have taken two weeks to travel from Cyprus to Iskanderun, but there are no intervening ports of call in the log.

He set out for Aleppo from "Scanderon" and arrived on January 26th for a three week stay. Aleppo was one of the three principal bases of the Levant Company, with Smyrna and Constantinople. It was one of the largest and most ancient cities in the Ottoman Empire, with a wealth of spectacular buildings and a population mixed races and faiths. Thomas returned to England, after delivering the package of coffeeto Minorca, in the Spring of 1741.

Though there was a British community involved with Levant trade in Turkey it was not a common destination for tourists. Beyond the major trade centres travel could be dangerous. Stuart and Revett ran into serious, life-threatening, trouble exploring Athens in the early 1750s. European travellers in Turkish lands were rare and liable to be taken for spies. Thomas Anson was a very rare tourist in 1734 on the trip which took him to Smyrna and Tenedos, and probably other unknown destinations. During the later 1730s a few adventurous, or simply reckless, travellers had followed him, notably Lord Sandwich, two years before Anson's Egyptian trip, Francis Dashwood and more serious historians or early archaeologists like Dr Pococke.

John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, had travelled in the Levant between 1738 and 1739, returning to England at the age of only 21. His journey was far more than a young man's grand tour. Most gentlemen went no further than Italy to get their experience of the world. Sandwich was an extraordinary adventurer, and a he was always a man of great energy and enthusiasm. After 1748, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he would become Thomas's brother George Anson's closest collaborator in the development of the Royal Navy.

He was, therefore, an enormously important figure in George Anson's career after the Commodore, and Admiral to be, returned from his circumnavigation. It is intriguing that his association with Thomas predates his association with George.

Thomas's travels in Italy had qualified him for membership of the Society of Dilettanti. His more exotic journeys allowed him to be a member of two other clubs, the Egyptian Society and the Divan Club, of both of which he was an active member.

Sandwich started the short-lived Egyptian Society in 1741. On 11th December he and his three other founder members, Dr Pococke. Dr Perry and the Danish explorer Capt. Norden, invited the antiquarian William Stukeley to join them in the new society. (4) The four founders had all travelled to Egypt. Stukeley was not well travelled, but he was a man with a passion for antiquity, constantly developing his theories about ancient civilisations, their religious beliefs and their archaeological remains.

Stukeley was particularly interested in the Druids, or his interpretation of Ancient British culture, an interest he shared with Dr Pococke. Other members drawn into the Egyptian Society included the Duke of Montagu and Martin Folkes.(5)

Folkes had known Pococke (who later described Thomas Wright's Irish buildings)at least as early as May 1734 when they had met in Italy. Pococke's cousin, Jeremiah Milles, later to be Egyptian Society secretary, was there with him. (Both became senior clergymen in Ireland). It is a possibility that Thomas Anson was also in Italy about that time as he was in Smyrna in September 1734, and he was certain to have visited Italy on the voyage out just as he was expected to visit the Armenian merchant's friends in Livorno on his journey home.

William Stukeley had certainly known Folkes for a long time. In 1720 he had written disapprovingly of Folkes and William Jones invitation to a meeting of an "Infidel Club." Presumably that group, if it ever existed, was a meeting of free thinkers of a general kind. Such clubs, sometimes informal gatherings, others, like John Byrom's Cabala Club with organised meetings, tend to merge into one another and share many of the same members in the 1720s to 1740s. The Egyptian Society seems to have gradually merged with the Divan Club.

The Egyptian Society began while Thomas was away on his expedition. Lord Sandwich was elected as Sheik, and the secretary, known as Reis Effendi was Jeremiah Milles until replaced by his cousin Dr Pococke. Thomas Anson was proposed for membership to the Society on 2nd April 1742, "as having been in Egypt". His signature is in the minute book in the British Library. (5)

In fact, while there is no evidence that Thomas had any interest in the Society of Dilettanti he is recorded as attending meetings of both the Egyptian Society and the Divan Club.

The Egyptian Club may have enjoyed exotic titles for its officers and perhaps an element of dressing up (which the Divan Club certainly did indulge in) but there was also a serious interest in antiquities. In view of Thomas's own interest in medals in his later life it is interesting that medals formed a particular interest in the Egyptian Society, with Martin Folkes being given a responsibility for inspecting Egyptian medals and part of the business of the Society was the engraving and printing of a catalogue of them. Dr Pocock "shewed the design of a copper plate for the series of Egyptian medals" at the meeting on 2nd April 1742 at which Thomas Anson was proposed for membership.

A feature of Egyptian Club meetings was a symbolic sistrum, the rattle held in representations of Isis, and this was to reappear a few years later in the Drawing Room at Shugborough. One of the roundels in the plaster ceiling shows Isis with her sistrum, undoubtedly referring to Thomas's Egyptian voyage, just another roundel shows Confucius as allusion to George Anson's visit to China on his circumnavigation.

The last meeting of the Club was 16th April 1743 by which time the Divan Club was already active.

The Divan Club was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, who had also been one of the founder members of the Society of Dilettanti. He had travelled to Smyrna and Constantinople in 1738-9.

Membership was limited to people who had travelled "in the Sultan's dominions", the area ruled by Turkey, which would therefore be open to a wider range of travellers than the Egyptian Society.

Dashwood had his portrait painted by Knapton in fancy dress, as "Il faquir Dashwood Pasha" in about 1745.

The presence of Sir Francis Dashwood and the element of fancy dress might suggest that the Divan Club was another excuse for a party, and getting drunk, as Horace Walpole had suggested was the principal purpose of the Society of Dilettanti. There might have been an element of that, but it does appear that the members had a serious interest in travel.

Thomas did not sign up to the Divan Club until two years after the end of the Egyptian Society. He was elected on 1st March 1745 and attended seven meetings, acting once as "Reis effendi" or secretary.

His brother George Anson was also a member at the very end of the Club's existence. He was proposed by Lord Sandwich and elected to the Divan Club 31st January 1746. He only attended three meetings

Among other members were Richard Owen Cambridge (whose father had been a "Turkey merchant") who remained a friend until Thomas's death, and a "Mr Wright" who may have been the architect Thomas Wright, though it is hard to imagine that Wright would have been very keen to travel as far as the Sultan's Dominions. He suffered from sea sickness and his journeys by sea had been fairly disastrous.

Whether or not this Mr Wright was Thomas Wright there is a possibility that Thomas Anson could have known Wright through these clubs in the mid 1740s. Wright was certainly influenced by William Stukeley's obsessions with the Druids as the keepers of ancient wisdom and his early career in London was dominated by the Earl of Pembroke and Roger Gale, colleagues of Stukeley in his expeditions to Stonehenge and Avebury. It is perfectly possible that Anson might have heard of Wright or met him through Stukeley at the Egyptian Society. What would his feelings have been if he had known that Wright's patron had been Lord Scarbrough, for whose death Thomas had a disturbing responsibility?

Both the Egyptian Society and Divan Club were short lived, but they did bring together people who had an interest in both the contemporary world of the Ottoman Empire and ancient Egypt.

The last meeting of the Divan Club was held on 25 May 1746. Only three members attended. One of the last to join was Lord Coke, later Earl of Leicester, from whom Thomas Anson was to buy extensive estates in Norfolk after 1750, but Leicester's letters to Anson in 1750 do not imply they had met before.


(1) Staffordshire Record Office. Anson Papers. D615/P(S)/2/4

(2) Ibid

(3) Congreve letters - Staffs Record Office D1057/M/G/

(4) Stuart Piggott: William Stukeley. An eighteenth-century antiquary (Revised Edition) (Thames & Hudson 1985)

(5) The most detailed source for the Egyptian Society and Divan Club is by Rachel Finnegan: The Divan Club 1744-46 (EJOS IX, 2006, No 9 1-86 ISSN 0928-6802) available on: