7 October 2012

A Young Man in Town, Master Bisset

A fashionable man from c. 1780. James
Bisset describes a similar mode of dress
on the day he arrived in Birmingham.















James Bisset first arrived in Birmingham in 1776 as a young 16 year old ready to join his elder brother who had been working in the town already.* James had been expecting to find a ''black and dismal town, smoky and unhealthy', but was delighted to discover that it had many fine streets, good brick buildings and one of the most handsome churches he had ever seen.'* He describes his attire on the day that he arrived in the town:

"I was dressed [...] in white kerseymere vest & small clothes, a light blue coat, white silk stockings a pair of light pumps with silver buckles, a light stock with a stock buckle set with Bristol stone, a ruffled shirt & frill of lace worked by my sisters of which I had six others in my dressing trunk (exclusive of half a dozen other shirts with plain muslin ruffles which were then generally worn by every person the least genteel). My hat was a small cock & pinch."*

'kerseymere vest' was one made of a fine woolen cloth with a fancy twill weave, twill being a pattern of diagonal parallel ribs (tweed is one form of twill pattern).
Although not mentioned, James would have been wearing knee breaches (like the ones above) with his 'white silk stockings' which both men and women wore. The buckles on his shoes could have possibly been made in Birmingham as there were a large number of buckle makers in the town.
A 'stock' was a band of linen folded or swathed around the neck, and the buckle held the fabric in place. The 'Bristol stones' set into James's 'stock buckle' were a kind of soft diamond-like crystal found in limestone only found in the Clifton area of Bristol.
The 'cock & pitch' or cock-and-pitch hat was as can be seen in the image, a three cornered hat, pinched at each corner.

We can see from his description that James was styled as a fashionable young gentleman, but his future was not certain; he had no fortune and had to make his way in the changeable world of business and industry that Birmingham offered. He was apprenticed to a japanner (Bellamy's) and painted landscapes, flowers and fruit, and other decoration onto snuff boxes and waiters, working 12 hours a day. Not all of his fellow apprentices achieved as great a success in life as Bisset, and James really worked hard for all he accomplished.*
* References on request
Books and articles used:
Leonore Davidoff & Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes
Maxine Berg, Inventors of the World of Goods

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