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Aaron Hill, poet, dramatist, projector online

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burg Lottery, which formed the subject of Parliamentary inquiry in
1723. He printed the tickets and kept them in the York Buildings
House. Parliament resolved that it was an infamous and fraudulent
undertaking. See Cobbett's Parliamentary Hist, of Eng., VIII, 62 f.
The St. James's Journal, March 9, 1723, notes that Mr. Case Billings-
ley has retired from Holland to remoter parts.

5 2 The government had had much trouble over these estates. When
the thirteen Commissioners (among the six for Scotland was Sir
Eichard Steele) tried to take possession,, they became involved in
difficulties: claims made by creditors of the estates were used as
blinds in the interest of the families of the rebels; many of the
factors, nominated by the creditors and appointed by the Court of
County Sessions, were in reality agents of the banished owners;
claimants sprang up, with conveyances apparently executed before
the rebellion in favor of minors; the Commissioners and the Lords
of Sessions constantly disagreed. In 1717, the government passed a
statute vesting the estates in the Commissioners to be sold at auction,
and by 1719-1720 they were ready for sale. But there was little
money in Scotland. In financial difficulties the age turned naturally
to a joint-stock company for relief. Hence the opportunity of Mr.
Case Billingsley.

hill's projects 61

added the next month; the ten-pound shares were soon
selling at 305, and 10 per cent, dividends were promised.
The purchase of estates, begun on October 6, 1719, con-
tinued into the following year, to the total amount of 308,-
913 pounds. When the South Sea Company secured its
writ against the York Buildings Company and others (Au-
gust 18, 1720), the stock fell from 300 to 200, and two days
later had no buyers. The Commentator of September 5
jocularly explained that the company had not "broken in
upon the true intent and meaning of their charter, who in
the power of raising Thames water three story high, had,
no question, a power to raise a bubble to 300 per cent. For
bubble making in itself is a kind of water-work in its
original." But the same paper, a week later,^^ removed
the company from the list of bubbles, with apologies, hav-
ing learned that on the threat of government proceedings
it had returned to regular methods of raising money by

To follow in detail the history of the company for the
next five years, until Hill comes into the story, is unneces-
sary.^^ Their financial transactions in London were as un-
sound as their management of the estates in Scotland was
inefficient. One board of managers after another, infected
with the evil principles of the Bubble year, gambled with
the capital. Money was raised in all possible ways — by
calls on the proprietors, transfers of nominal stock, and
even lotteries f^ and the only result was an annual shortage

53 No. 73.

54 A very interesting account, fully supplied Tvith all the technical
details of high finance in the eighteenth century, is that by David
Murray, The YorJc Buildings Company: a Chapter in Seoteh History,
Glasgow, 1883. Much of the material used here is taken from this

55 Lotteries, all partial failures, were drawn in August, 1721,
February, 1722, and in 1723. To give a deceitful appearance of
value to the stock, seven half-yearly dividends were declared between
1721 and 1724, and paid out of the capital.


of four thousand pounds. Their Scotch estates, in Aber-
deen, Perth, Forfar, Berwick, Stirling, and elsewhere, were
almost totally uncultivated, and full of swamp and waste
land ; drainage was unknown ; fertilizing nearly so ; agricul-
tural implements were primitive — wooden ploughs, for
example, and wooden mallets for breaking clods; and the
chief crops were bere and oats. Rentals were paid in kind,
— in hens, butter, peas, meal, geese, and wool. Add to these
primitive conditions on the estates the incredibly bad
roads,^*' the unpopularity of the company (which inherited
the prejudice against the Commissioners), and the debts
upon all the estates (which the company also inherited),
and it is evident that the chances of profit, even with the
best of management, were small.

In spite of its difficulties, this task of managing extensive
estates all over Scotland and Northumbria — not to mention
that other duty of furnishing water to the inhabitants of
the West End — did not afford sufficient outlet for the
energies of the governor and his six assistants.^^ In 1727,
Colonel Samuel Horsey, then governor, made a proposal
for importing timber, masts, marble, and "other commodi-
ties of the natural growth of Scotland."^® The idea was
not entirely new. Captain Edward Burt, writing about

56 It took eight days to travel the 170 miles between Edinburgh and

5T An effort was made to improve the water-works: in 1725 a real
fire-engine was installed — a very noisy and smoky one, according to a
contemporary account — which proved too expensive, and was replaced
after three years by horse-power. The account of the engine, The
YorTc Buildings Dragon, is reprinted in the appendix of T. Wright's
England under the Souse of Hanover, 1848.

58 Colonel Horsey was waiting for the confirmation of his appoint-
ment by the Proprietors as governor of South Carolina. For two
years or more (1725-1727), there is a record of delays, petitions, and
memorials for and against the right of the Proprietors to appoint a
governor. Col. Hist. Soc. of South Carolina, I, 172.

hill's projects 63

1729, says:^" "I remember to have heard, a good while ago,
that in the time when Prince George of Denmark was lord-
high-admiral of England, some Scots gentlemen represented
to him that Scotland could furnish the navy with as good
timber for masts and other uses as either Sweden or
Norway could do,"" and at a much more reasonable rate."
Two surveyors were sent up at that time, and, after a
narrow escape from hanging at the hands of a Highland
chieftain who cared nothing for credentials from Prince
George, they did survey the woods ; but nothing further was

The real author of Colonel Horsey 's proposal was Hill,
who had found a place for Scotch timber in his poem to
Harley in 1714. Even before the governor submitted the
plan to the company, he had evidently come to some agree-
ment wdth Hill: "Mr. Hill has finished his affair," wrote
Savage to Mallet, on August 15, 1726,*^^ "and by disposing
of it to a company, has secured a hundred thousand pounds
for himself. On Friday was s'ennight he set out in his
own coach and six to Scotland, with his wife, and his
mother-in-law accompanied him in her chariot." The coach
and six may be accepted on Savage's authority, but it is
impossible that anyone — least of all Hill — could secure a
hundred thousand pounds from the York Buildings Com-
pany. Another letter,*'- in October, refers to Hill's arrival
at Berwick, his intended tour, and halt at Inverness. The
appearance of his coach probably made a sensation in Inver-
se Letters, 5th ed., II, 152. Burt was a surveyor and engineer,
engaged in laying out roads in the Highlands — a work begun by
Marshall Wade about 1726.

60 The Tar Company of Sweden had practically a monopoly of ship
supplies. Parliament, about 1704, tried with little success to encour-
age the making of tar, hemp, etc., in the Colonies. Cnnningham,
Ch-owth of English Industry, etc.. Part I, 485 f.

61 Quoted in G. C. Macaulay's Thomson, 18, note 1.

62 Thomson to Hill, October 20, 1726.


ness, where the tiny carts, drawn by diminutive horses, had
wheels formed of three pieces of plank. "The description
of these puny vehicles," wrote Captain Burt, "brings to
my memory how I was entertained with the surprise and
amusement of the common people in this town, when, in the
year 1725, a chariot with six monstrous great horses arrived
here by way of the seacoast. An elephant, publicly exposed
in one of the streets of London, could not have excited
greater admiration. One asked w^hat the chariot was;
another, who had seen the gentleman alight, told the first,
with a sneer at his ignorance, it was a great cart to carry
people in and such like.'"'^

During his visit of several months,^* Hill did more than
merely inspect the timber. " Is it not true, ' ' wrote a gentle-
man at Edinburgh in 1728,''5 "that Aaron Hill, Esq., with
the advice, concurrence, and assistance not only of the com-
pany, but likewise of Messieurs John Essington and James
Crisp of Wansworth, sent by a ship to Inverness all utensils
for cutting and clearing of wood, with copper kettles and
other things needful for boiling and extracting the salt out
of the ashes, and came himself last year to our woods in the
north, and having examined the same, did burn a consider-
able quantity of wood, in order to make Russian potash ;
and upon his failing to perform the same, gave out, con-
trary to all expectation, that our wood wanted salt. . . . By
this imaginary project was there not a very considerable
sum sunk?"

G3 Letters, I, 77.

04 Hill was back in Lonidon in March, 1727 ; a letter from Thom-
son of March 4 refers to his return {Col. of 1751).

'^^ ' ' Letter from a gentleman at Edinburgh to his friend at Lon-
don," B.M. 8223. d. 7. The Londoner had sent to his friend the
Daily Post of November 21, 1727, which contained abstracts of the
proceedings of the two general courts of the company, held in August
and November, 1727, and had asked his opinion of the company.

hill's projects 65

Though the potash experiment failed, Hill was so de-
lighted with the woods that he wrote to Colonel Horsey
recommending the acquisition of the timber, and on his re-
turn to London urged it on him as a certain source of
wealth. It was then that Horsey proposed it to the com-
pany. "But as Hill's name, it was thought, would not be
acceptable to the shareholders, Thomas Fordyce and Mr.
Adam, the Company's agents in Scotland, were put for-
ward as the proposers.'"^® According to the abstract of
the governor's report to the general courts of the company,
held in August and November, 1727,^" the woods were
capable of supplying the entire demand of the kingdom for
great and small timber, even to masts for the first-rate ships
of the navy; a hundred shiploads a year for twenty years
might be taken from the famous Abernethy woods alone;
and these woods were conveniently situated near the most
navigable river in Scotland — the Spey. Best of all, the
Admiralty was willing to buy from the company the masts
and yards for the navy.*'* The result of these representa-
tions was that in January, 1728, sixty thousand fir trees
were purchased.''^ To secure funds, the court determined

se Murray, YorTc Buildings Co., 57.

67 B.M. 8223. d. 44.

68 " As their Act of Parliament made no reference to importing
mastg and marble, the company solicited, and by a due expenditure in
gratuities and presents obtained (August 21, 1728) a royal licence 'to
trade in goods, wares, and merchandise of the growth and produce of
that part of the kingdom.' " Murray, YorJ: Buildings Co., 58. See
also Maepherson, III. 145, under the year 1728 : "A premium is also
enacted for the importation of masts, yards, and bowsprits from
Scotland, where . . . there are in sundry parts great store of pine
and fir trees."

69 The trees were purchased at the rate of 2/4 a tree ; Francis
Place, who surveyed the woods in April, 1733, said that 20,000 trees
worth that price had been cut down, that 10,000 more still standing
were of the same value, but the remaining 30,000 were worth no more



to revive 200,000 pounds of a nominal stock of 600,000
pounds, which had been annihilated by an earlier order
of the court in 1725 ; and the proposers of the scheme were
to have the privilege of taking this up at 10 per cent., to be
paid for as fast as money was needed in the trade. The
apportionment caused squabbling: Hill demanded 16,000
pounds; but "after claiming personally and 'through one
Mrs. Blunt,' he agreed to take 8,000, in discharge of which
he got 6,800 pounds stock of the company."^" This trans-
action is noticed by the questioning gentleman at Edinburgh
already quoted : " Is it not true that 200,000 pounds stock
was transferred by the eompany to one or two at London,
and that he or they sold so much thereof as repaid what
Mr. Hill's friends had advanced for satisfying the com-
pany's exigencies mentioned in the above-named second
general court, and likewise for raising money to carry on
the project of trees for masts?"

After this settlement, Hill set out once more for Scotland,
probably in the spring of 1728, and was received with high
honors. The Duke and Duchess of Gordon "distinguished
him with great civilities, ' ' and the magistrates of Inverness
presented him with the freedom of the city "at an elegant
entertainment made by them on that occasion. "^^ On
August 18, he wrote to his wife "from the Golden Groves
of Abernethy"^- that he had everything settled to his satis-
faction; "the shore of the Spey, for a mile or two together
along our meadow, is all covered with masts, from fifty to
seventy feet long, which they are daily bringing out of the
wood, with ten carriages and above a hundred horses ; and
[they] bring down from forty to fifty trees a day, one day

than /6 a tree (Murray, 57, quoted from the House of Commons

70 Murray, Yoric Buildings Co., 63.

71 Gibber's Lives, V, 265.

72 Worlcs, 1754, I, 47 f.

hill's projects 67

with another. In the middle of the river lie at anchor a
little float of our rafts, which are just putting off for Find-
horn harbor; and it is one of the pleasantest sights possible
to obser\'e the little armies of men, women, and children,
who pour down from the Highlands, to stare at what we
have been doing. Colonel Horsey came hither, on Wednes-
day last, and is in such raptures at what he sees and hears,
that he scarce knows whether he walks on his head or his
heels. "'^ The Highlanders had good reason to stare at
Hill's operations, for they were without precedent in that
region. The former owners of the woods had been ac-
customed to float their timber down in single logs or lots
loosely huddled together, attended by men in a currach — a
small wicker basket covered with ox-hides.''* Kafting was
unknown until Hill introduced it. ''When the trees were
by his order chained together into floats, the ignorant High-
landers refused to venture themselves on them down the
river Spey, till he first went himself, to make them sensible
there was no danger. . . . He found a great obstacle in the
rocks, by which the river seemed impassible ; but on these he
ordered fires to be made, when by the lowness of the river
they were most exposed, and then had quantities of water
thrown upon them ; which method being repeated, with the
help of proper tools they were broken in pieces and thrown
down, which made the passage easy for the floats.""^ The

'3 The base of the timber operations was at Culnakyle, twenty-five
miles up the Spey from Garmouth; tTie logs were floated down to
Garmouth, and then conveyed by rafts to Findhorn, a little distance
down the coast ; there the ships loaded. The building of a new harbor
was projected, because that of Findhorn was not safe, and the passage
from Garmouth was hazardous. William Stephens, who was appointed
agent for the company in December, 1728, and arrived at Culnakyle in
April, 1729, corroborates several of the details in Hill's letter. See
The Castle Builder, or the History of William Stephens, etc., 1759,
60 f.

~i Murray, YorJc Buildings Co., 60.

75 Gibber's Lives, Y, 265.


country people soon learned this new means of transport,
and floated down the river with their butter, cheese, skins,
and bark.

Towards the end of September, Hill was still in the High-
lands. "Nothing should have prevailed with me to have
spent so much time here," he wrote to his wife,'^^ "but the
glorious prospect of the company's certain advantage, and
the fear I had, if anything should be left unregulated, that
the silly malice of some wicked spirits in Exchange Alley
would have made an ill use of it, to the stock's disad-
vantage." On the first of October, he set out on his re-
turn,'^^ "having left everything in the north on the happiest
and most flourishing foot in the world. "'^^ An unex-
pectedly long stay in the neighborhood of York, where his
wife then was, "had like to have proved of unhappy con-
sequence, by giving room for some, who imagined (as they
wished) that he would not return, to be guilty of a breach
of trust that aimed at the destruction of a great part of
what he was worth; but they were disappointed. "'''' Just
what this breach of trust was is not explained.

How, meanwhile, was the enterprise regarded by others?
Burt, an experienced engineer, doubted whether it would
pay to remove the wood over bogs, precipices, and rocky
rivers.^" At the very time when Horsey was pictured by

76 Sept. 20, 1728. Worlcs, 1754, I, 50.

77 Letter to Ms wife from Dundee, October 8, Worlcs, 1754, I, 51,

78 Hill left memorials of his visit on various window panes. Burt
observed ' ' at the first stage on this side Berwick, a good deal of
scribbling upon a window"; among the lines were those of Hill on
the weather in Scotland. "By the two initial letters of a name, I
soon concluded it was your neighbor, Mr. Aaron Hill, but wondered
at his manner of taking leave of this country, after he had been so
exceedingly complaisant to it, when here, as to compare its subter-
raneous riches with those of Mexico." Letters, I, 181.

70 Gibber 's Lives, V, 265.
»o Letters, I, 283.

hill's projects 69

Hill in a state of delirious rapture, a significant advertise-
ment appeared in Mist's Weekly Journal^^ of a company to
be formed for furnishing naval stores from the plantations,
"there being no likelihood of the York Builders doing it
from Scotland," but this positive statement may have
represented merely the wish of a rival projector. While
Hill was yet in the country, the doubting Edinburgh gentle-
man expressed views at variance with Hill's:^ the harbor
at Garmouth, he is told by a friend living on Spey-side, is
dry at low tide and only six or seven feet deep at high tide,
and is open to storms ; after heavy rains, the current of the
river is so rapid that trees cannot be stopped from rushing
into the ocean ; it required seven weeks to bring down sixty
small trees to Garmouth, though over a score of men worked
daily; "there is not one tree in their wood of proper
dimensions for a bowsprit to a first-rate," and as for the
harbor, it is indeed secure — "so secure that no ship that
can stow trees can reach it, for sands, and shingles. ' ' This
was probably among certain "lying papers" that Mrs. Hill
told her husband about ; he thanked her and added that the
directors had sent him a dozen or more "such monstrous
mixtures of folly, falsehood, and impudence; the magis-
trates of Edinburgh have thought fit to make a public
example of some who distributed them in this country."*^
They may really have been malicious and at least partly
false, for a specimen cargo that was cut and sent to London
was reported, by the master mast-maker at Deptford, to be
of excellent quality. But it was a fact that there were no
trees fit for masts for first-rates; Hill unquestionably saw
taller trees on Speyside than were really there.

Though William Stephens, the agent sent to Abernethy

81 August 24, 1728.

82 B.M. 8223. d. 44. 1-7.

83 WorTcs, 1754, I, 50.


at the end of 1728, developed the plank and deal board
trade with some success, yet in four years the charges ex-
ceeded the returns by nearly 28,000 pounds. "Well might
the Reverend Mr. John Grant, the parish minister, say
of them : 'the most profuse and profligate set that ever were
heard of in this corner. . . . This was said to be a stock-
jobbing business. Their extravagancies of every kind
ruined themselves and corrupted others. Their beginning
was great indeed, with 120 working horses, waggons, elegant
temporary wooden houses, saw-mills, iron-mills, and every
kind of implement and apparatus of the best and most ex-
pensive sorts. They used to display their vanity by bon-
fires, tar-barrels, and opening hogsheads of brandy to the
country people, by which five of them died in one night.
They had a commissary for provisions and forage at a hand-
some salary, and in the end went off in debt to the pro-
prietors of the country. But yet their coming . . . was
beneficial in many respects, for besides the knowledge and
skill which was acquired from them, they made many useful
and lasting improvements.^* They made roads through the
woods. They erected proper saw-mills. They invented the
construction of the raft as it is at present, and cut a passage
through a rock in Spey, without which floating to any
extent could never be attempted.' "®^ The death knell of
the timber project was sounded in July, 1730, when the
general court of the company, after considering Hill's claim
to a part of the 200,000 pounds stock at 10 per cent, "as a
reward for the timber scheme," resolved "that the timber
scheme had not in any point answered the expectations of

84 Hill tells his wife (Worls, 1754, I, 53) that "Adam and Eve
in the wilderness lay in just such houses as the Highlanders — only I
believe they were not altogether so dirty. ' '

85 Murray, York Buildings Co., 61 ; quoted from Old Stat. Acct.,
XIII, 133.

hill's projects 71

the company, from the character given by the proposers, and
that they had no title to the stock. ' '«''

A brief summary of the later career of the company — too
interesting to be entirely passed over — will explain why
Hill, who still had some share in the stock, was by turns
hopeful of profit and dismally conscious of loss.^^ From
timber the company turned to iron ; by 1732, the debit on
the enterprise was nearly 7,000 pounds. Their coal works
and salt-pans at Tranent were equally unsuccessful; and
their glass works resulted in a loss of over 4,000 pounds.
They next tried lead and copper mining, and leased the
mines at a ruinous rental from Sir Archibald Grant and
others, who were interested in the "Charitable Corporation
for the Relief of the Industrious Poor," which lent small
sums upon pledges. Their interest for several years had
taken the form of treating themselves as industrious poor,
and borrowing the money of their Corporation on sham

86 Ibid., 63, note.

87 See letter to Victor, April 9, 1733 (Victor's Hist, of the Theatres,
II, 192): Hill states that he has 8,000 pounds in York Buildings
Company bonds, though he could make only 3,000 if he were to sell
them. In July, 1738, Colonel Horsey was appointed governor of South
Carolina (Col. Hist. Soc. of South Carolina, II, 269). He had been
turned out of the York Buildings Company in 1733, and sued by the
company in 1735. Hill's letter to his daughter, of June 23, 1737
(WorJcs, 1754, I, 335), refers to the South Carolina appointment as
possible: "As soon as it is confirmed, . . . then Mr. Stanlake may go
to him. and insist on an assignment from his salary for regular pay-
ment (not of the debt, for that he can't yet do) but of the current
yearly interest. And let him, if he can, include the interest on my
long arrears; for from 1729 to this day, I have received but 100
pounds upon the vrhole, instead of 75 pounds yearly, from the colonel."
In a letter to Popple, September 15, 1740 {Worhs, 1753, II, 67) is
another reference to Horsey: "What a lottery wheel is this world!
we have seen it in the melancholy fate of our poor friend Col. Horsey.
After twenty years unwearied pursuit of one flattering and favorite
prospect, he had no sooner possessed it . . . than he died. ' '


pledges, for purposes of speculation. When on the verge
of ruin, they decided to lease their mines to the York Build-
ings Company, in the hope that the transaction would cause
a rise in York stock, by which they could profit. The
Corporation finally collapsed; there was a Parliamentary
inquiry ; and of course the York Builders reaped no benefit
from the notoriety. The mines, developed with enthusiasm,
were abandoned in 1740, having proved ruinous to share-
holders, but beneficial to the country. On the whole, Scot-
land profited considerably from the operations of the com-
pany, but no one else did. The details of bond issues and
reissues, of petitions of creditors, and of Parliamentary
inquiries, up to the year 1740, when the company finally

Online LibraryDorothy BrewsterAaron Hill, poet, dramatist, projector → online text (page 6 of 24)