This month’s object is a painting from the Museum of Cambridge: it depicts the famous carrier Thomas Hobson, whose method of business brought the expression ‘Hobson’s Choice’ into the language, and who was a great benefactor of the town of Cambridge.
Hobson may have been born in Buntingford, Hertfordshire, or Holbeach in Lincolnshire (where he is known to have owned land): his year of birth is believed to be 1545, and by 1561 his father was known to be a resident of Cambridge, where he carried on his trade of carrier. He seems to have been prosperous: he was a treasurer of the town corporation at the time of his death in 1568, and left his son (according to Cooper’s Annals of Cambridge, vol. 3) ‘the teame wayre that he now goeth with that is to say the carte & eighte horses & all the harneyes and other things thereunto belonginge with the nagge’, as well as some land at Grantchester.
Thomas the son prospered, as described below by Joseph Addison in no. 509 of the Spectator (14 October 1712) – though he is called Tobias, not Thomas, in this account:
‘ … I shall conclude this Discourse with an Explanation of a Proverb, which by vulgar Errour is taken and used when a Man is reduced to an Extremity, whereas the Propriety of the Maxim is to use it when you would say, there is Plenty, but you must make such a Choice, as not to hurt another who is to come after you.
‘Mr. Tobias Hobson, from whom we have the Expression, was a very honourable Man, for I shall ever call the Man so who gets an Estate honestly. Mr. Tobias Hobson was a Carrier, and being a Man of great Abilities and Invention, and one that saw where there might good Profit arise, though the duller Men overlooked it; this ingenious Man was the first in this Island who let out Hackney-Horses. He lived in Cambridge, and observing that the Scholars rid hard, his manner was to keep a large Stable of Horses, with Boots, Bridles, and Whips to furnish the Gentlemen at once, without going from College to College to borrow, as they have done since the Death of this worthy Man: I say, Mr. Hobson kept a Stable of forty good Cattle, always ready and fit for travelling; but when a Man came for a Horse, he was led into the Stable, where there was great Choice, but he obliged him to take the Horse which stood next to the Stable-Door; so that every Customer was alike well served according to his Chance, and every Horse ridden with the same Justice: From whence it became a Proverb, when what ought to be your Election was forced upon you, to say, Hobson’s Choice. This memorable Man stands drawn in Fresco at an Inn (which he used) in Bishopsgate-street, with an hundred Pound Bag under his Arm, with this Inscription upon the said Bag, The fruitful Mother of an Hundred more.‘
Cooper has a great deal of information about Hobson:
‘Died, January 1, 1631 [Old Style 1630], Thomas Hobson, of Cambridge, the celebrated University carrier, who had the honour of two epitaphs written upon him by Milton. He was born in or about 1514; his father was a carrier… After his father’s death, he continued the business of a carrier with great success; a considerable profit was then made by carrying letters, which the University of Cambridge licensed persons to do, before and after the introduction of the post-office system.
‘The old man for many years passed monthly with his team between his own home in Cambridge, and the Bull Inn in Bishopsgate-street and back again, conveying both packages and human beings. He is also said to have been the first person in the kingdom who let horses for hire… If the horse he offered to his customer was objected to, he curtly replied, “This or none;” and “Hobson’s choice—this or none,” became a proverb, which it is to this day.
‘Hobson grew rich by his business: in 1604, he contributed £50 to the loan to King James I. In 1626, he gave a large Bible to the church of St. Benedict, in which parish he resided. He became possessed of several manors, and, in 1628, gave to the University and town the site of the Spinning House [for the detention of prostitutes, or women deemed by the university to be prostitutes], or ‘Hobson’s Workhouse’.
‘In 1630, Hobson’s visits to London were suspended by order of the authorities, on account of the plague being in London; and it was during this cessation from business that he died. … Hobson was twice married. By his first wife he had eight children, and he survived his second wife. He bequeathed considerable property to his family; money to the corporation, and the profits of certain pasture-land (now the site of Downing College) towards the maintenance and heightening of the conduit in Cambridge.’
It is this last bequest (though he also left money to the poor of Cambridge, Chesterton, Waterbeach, Cottenham, and Buntingford) for which Hobson is best remembered. For 250 years, Hobson’s Conduit, running from springs at Nine Wells near Shelford,
provided the principal supply of drinking water for the centre of the city, and its runnels can still be seen (and occasionally driven into by the incautious) on both sides of Trumpington Street,
while another (covered) stream flows under Lensfield Road and down St Andrew’s Street, terminating in the pond in Emmanuel College garden (it used to go as far as the swimming pond in Christ’s, Milton’s college).
The fountain which used to stand as a free water supply in the centre of the market square (as shown in this Le Keux engraving of 1841) was removed to the corner of Trumpington Street and Lensfield Road in the 1850s; four pinnacles from it were rescued and now live in the courtyard of the Museum of Cambridge.
When the plague cordon was lifted in April 1631, and students returned, several of them wrote epitaphs (demonstrating rather more their wit than their sorrow) on Hobson. Milton composed two, of which this is the more touching:
‘On the University Carrier, Who sickened in the time of his vacancy, being forbid to go to London, by reason of the Plague.
Here lies old Hobson; Death hath broke his girt, / And here, alas, hath laid him in the dirt; /Or else the ways being foul, twenty to one, / He’s here stuck in a slough, and overthrown. / T’was such a shifter, that if truth were known, / Death was half glad when he had got him down; / For he had any time this ten years full, / Dodg’d with him betwixt Cambridge and the Bull. / And surely death could never have prevail’d, / Had not his weekly course of carriage fail’d; / But lately finding him so long at home, / And thinking now his journey’s end was come, / And that he had ta’en up his latest inn, / In the kind office of a chamberlin / Show’d him his room where he must lodge that night, / Pull’d off his boots, and took away the light: / If any ask for him, it shall be said, / Hobson has supp’d, and’s newly gone to bed.’
According to Cooper, ‘He was buried in the chancel of Benedict’s church, but no monument or inscription marks the spot.’