Sir Humphrey Mackworth, ‘a genius richer than thy mines below’

March 20, 2021 1 Comment

The earth, thy great exchequer, ready lies is the title of a superb new collection of stories by the Welsh writer Jo Lloyd, who won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2019.  The nine pieces are very different one from another, in subject, setting and register.  But they all share at least two things. One is a concentrated precision of language that continually holds the reader in suspension, without seeming in the least ‘poetic’.  The other is a theme: the lostness of most of the characters.

James, a Scottish fisherman in ‘My Bonny’, is literally lost, at sea; his death reverberates through the lives of his wife and descendants.  Megan, a stray migrant in the big city, is taken in, then abandoned by her flat-sharers.  Martha populates her Welsh village with an imagined gentry family, handsome and fashionable in their mansion; ridiculed, she retreats and wastes away.  Two elderly, querulous Victorian ladies brave mountain passes and bandits in the Balkans in search of rare butterflies, until one suffers a stroke, putting a sudden end to their reason for living.

The last story in the book, ‘The earth, thy great exchequer, ready lies’, is one of the most striking.  There seems to be no loss incurred here, at least to begin with, but the narrative becomes more and more ominous and anxious as you read on.

It concerns an early industrialist, identified only by his initials, ‘HM’, who is on a journey on horseback to inspect an upland lead mine he owns.  HM is based on an historical person, Sir Humphrey Mackworth.  As it happens, Mackworth plays an important role in Swansea copper, the recent history of Swansea and the global copper history, written by Chris Evans and Louise Miskell.

Esgair Hir

Mackworth was born to a wealthy family in Shropshire in 1657, graduated from the University of Oxford, and became a lawyer.  In 1683 he was knighted (in reward for what is unclear), and in 1686 made a fortunate or well-planned marriage to Mary Evans of Neath, the heiress of land leased out for coal extraction in the Neath valley. He moved to live with her in Neath (from 1715 he lived at his new home, The Gnoll).  Mackworth wrote in his diary, ‘it was not convenient to hide my talent in a napkin’, and immediately set about exploiting his new wealth, using his coal to start smelting lead and copper at Melincryddan.  Both Mary and the estate’s manager died in 1696, and Mackworth was free to expand and diversify.  In 1698 he bought the lease of lead and silver mines at Esgair Hir and elsewhere in Cardiganshire, and set up a joint-stock company, the Company of Mine Adventurers, to raise new funds.  He opened an office in London, issued a prospectus to attract investors, and set up a lottery scheme to boost interest.  Lead mined at Esgair Hir and copper from Cornwall were transported to Neath to be smelted, in an integrated operation that exploited new technologies, like sail-operated wooden waggons.

Mackworth had a keen business mind. He was also a swindler. In 1709 his Company, dubiously funded from the start, went bankrupt. He was investigated by a committee of Parliament, which found him ‘guilty of many notorious and scandalous frauds.’ This verdict did nothing to damage to his career. He set up a new firm, the Company of Mineral Manufacturers (this too went bust). In 1701 he had bribed his way into the House of Commons, and he sat as an MP, on and off, till 1713. He nurtured a reputation for godliness and philanthropy: in 1699 he co-founded the SPCK, and set up charity schools for his workers’ children.

Sir Humphrey Mackworth, reborn, would fit in very snugly in the public culture of 2021.  One his twenty-first century talents was self-advertisement.  He was alive to the need to burnish his reputation, and paid Thomas Yalden, a minor poet (Samuel Johnson: ‘his poems are not always exactly polished’) to write a long ode for him.  It was entitled A poem on the mines late of Sir Carbery Price, dedicated to Sir Humphry Mackworth, and was published in 1701 as a ‘second edition’ (the ‘first edition’ may have been fictitious, since no copy survives), after Mackworth had acquired the Cardiganshire mines from Sir Carbery Pryce.

Yalden’s twin themes are nature’s generosity in yielding ores of metal, and Mackworth’s greatness in exploiting them.  He begins

What spatious veins inrich the British soil,
The various oars, and skilful miners toil:
How rip’ning metals lie conceal’d in earth,
And teeming nature forms the wond’rous birth,
My useful verse, the first, transmits to fame
In numbers tun’d, and no unhallow’d flame.

O generous Mackworth!  Cou’d the Muse impart
A labour worthy thy auspicious art …

The following stanzas describe how the mountains of Wales give birth to their metallic riches (the word ‘womb’ appears repeatedly), how the heroic miner retrieves the ore (‘night’s gloomy realms, his pointed steel invades’), how the ‘fam’d inventions’ of Mackworth (‘thy speedy sails and useful engines’) treat the ore, to be spread around the world as finished metal, and how ‘Cambrian oar’ is destined to replace foreign-sourced ore (an early form of import-substitution).  Yalden ends his poem

The earth thy great exchequer ready lies,
Which all defects of failing funds supplies:
You shall a nation’s pressing wants relieve,
Nor war can lavish more than you can give.

This, Mackworth, fixes thy immortal name,
The Muses’ darling, and the boast of fame:
No greater virtues on record shall stand,
Than thus with arts to grace, with wealth inrich the land.

In Jo Lloyd’s ‘HM’ we meet a more interior Humphrey than the public Mackworth (pioneer, fixer, cheat, hypocrite).  Her account of his journey starts with his horse, ominously called Cassandra, who gives him an accusing look, as if ‘to recite the charges against him’.  He’s accompanied by Shiers, his saturnine accountant, and Tall John, an inscrutable ruffian.  The three splash and slither across the pathless Cambrian Mountains.  As they travel, HM begins to feel unsettled, by his failure to read Tall John, by a worry that his benefactions to humanity aren’t recognised, above all, that his mines will fail. 

The riders reach one of the mines and spy some of the workers, who have ‘the yellow skin of subterranean creatures’.  Suddenly HM feels self-conscious, and ‘tries to adopt a deputy-governorial posture’.  His rise to self-made wealth flashes through his mind, only to sharpen his awareness of current troubles.  The workmen have heard rumours of lay-offs: can he reassure them?  He replies evasively, ‘Nothing runs faster than false rumour’ (a recollection of his schoolboy Virgil).  They seem unconvinced, and grow restive.  Frightened, HM spurs Cassandra, and almost falls off her back as she speeds away. Tall John catches up and HM commands him to lead the way: ‘you know the path’.  Tall John replies ‘We all follow the path we have chosen’, and  ‘leers, showing all five teeth’.

HM’s mind wanders again into the past, and how he was misled, as he imagines, into the heady conspiracies and lies of the Company of Mine Adventurers.  The reality of the mines turned out to be different: profitless labouring, meagre ores, financial difficulty.  The long journey back continues.  Siers’s horse, made lame, is shot, and Shiers leaves on foot.  HM recalls a childhood humiliation.  Tall John makes more gnomic replies and goes missing in the mist.  Now completely lost and reliant on Cassandra’s instincts to get them home, HM falls into a final reverie, this time about the far future, when a paradisal version of his version of capitalism, free of subterranean workers, lawsuits and bankruptcies, rules the world.  The final thoughts of the story, though, are Cassandra’s.

The real Humphrey Mackworth, unenlightened by any horseback journeys in the Cambrian Mountains, failed to change his life in his remaining years.  He continued to politick for the Tories, litigate against his enemies, and quarrel with his family.  His brother, angered by Mackworth’s treatment of one of his sons, wrote that he had ‘made his name stink in Shropshire, by taking the very bread out of his children’s mouths, and throwing it to the dogs’.  Despite his own record, he sat on House of Commons committees on fraud and bankruptcy. 

Mackworth died in 1727, deep in debt. His ghost should be thankful that Jo Lloyd, through her brilliantly imagined ‘HM’, has given him the humanity he seems to have lacked in life.

Jo Lloyd, The earth, thy great exchequer, ready lies, London: Swift Press, 2021.

Don Dale-Jones, ‘Dreams of Potosi: an account of a late seventeenth century poem on the mining of precious metals in south Wales’, New Welsh Review, vol. 3, no. 3, 1990-91, p.58-62.

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