Aqila and Prisila

I have mentioned before the excitement of spotting something new in the display cases at the Fitzwilliam Museum (either because of a change-around, or simply because I’d never observed it before). The other day I noticed this ceramic dish showing two smartly dressed Restoration gentlemen with swords, holding up between them in an implausible manner what seems to be a pair of children. Further investigation revealed a really tragic story …

The dish, C.1640-1928, from the Glaisher bequest. The underside has been very carefully mended with a series of rivets.

Aqila and Prisila [sic] Herring were named (presumably) for the biblical couple, Aquila and Priscilla: ‘After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth; And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them. And because he was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought: for by their occupation they were tentmakers’ (Acts 18:1–3). (I’m guessing that the names were both thought to be female because of the ‘-a’ ending of Aquila.)

In this engraving by J. Sadeler after Jodocus Winghe (late 1500s), St Paul is visiting the industrious Aquila and Priscilla in their tent-making workshop. The family dog seems to like him – and note the child helping to wind the wool. (Credit: Wellcome Images)

Aquila and Priscilla were born on 19 May 1680 in the village of Isle (or Ile) Brewers in Somerset, seven miles from Taunton, and with a present-day population of 150. (Its church of All Saints was built in 1861 (replacing an older building) at the expense of Joseph Wolff, its vicar, whose extraordinary life ended there in 1862: he is buried in the churchyard.) They were conjoined twins, apparently ‘united by a skin or membrane down one side of each’, but apart from this seemed to be ‘two perfect female children’, who survived birth only to be snatched from their parents by the men depicted on the bowl, Captain Henry Walrond and Sir Edward Phelips, who put the little girls on display for profit until their deaths, probably at some time in their third year.

This account of the twins from ‘Mr A.P.’ was sent to the Royal Society in 1681. (The birth date is presumably an error.)

The inscription around the edge of the bowl summarises the situation: ‘BEHOLD:TO:PARSONS:THAT: ARE:RECONSILD:TO:ROB: THE:PARENTS:AND:TO:KEEP:THE:CHILD’. (A dish in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff shows broadly the same image, but changes/corrects ‘PARSONS’ to ‘PERSONS’ and adds the date, ‘In 1680’.)

Both pieces come from the pottery at Brislington (then near, now in, Bristol), of which the proprietor at this period was Sarah Bennett, widow (I think) of Robert Bennett, ‘gallypotmaker’, and – possibly not insignificantly in this context – a Quaker. The birth of the twins was evidently of considerable local interest (see Mr A.P.’s reference to hundreds of visitors): a chapbook or broadsheet was produced on the subject,

The broadside ‘A True Relation of a Monstrous Female-Child’, with the crude woodcut showing the twins conjoined down the back. (Credit: the British Library)

and this relatively crude pottery plate may have been made as a memento or souvenir.

A dish showing the twins, with the date 1680: the significance of the initials ‘IO’ and ‘SD’ is not known. (Credit: the Museum of Somerset, Taunton)

According to the broadsheet, ‘The groaning Mother was disburthened of the Monstrous Birth, whose frightful Apparition so amazed the several Assistants and Spectators, that starting back all pale, they knew not what to think, but long time stood doubtful in their wonder, e’re they durst approach, supposing it more dreadful than it was, but after a more curious View, they found it was a humain Creature, and bore the Stamp (though in an unusual Form) of woman, so that taking heart, they animated each other so far, as to take it in their Arms, whilst in a double voice it cried aloud …’.

The subsequent history of the scandal (very well summarised more recently here) was published in 1891 in Examples of Early English Pottery, Named, Dated and Inscribed,  by John Eliot Hodgkin, who owned the dish at the time (it was sold to a London dealer in 1912, and then purchased in 1913 for £120 by (inevitably) Dr J.W.L. Glaisher). Hodgkin owes his information to Dr Hugh Norris of South Petherton in Somerset, another collector, who had written about the case in the Western Antiquary of 1887.

Norris relates that the Revd Andrew Paschall, vicar of Chedzoy in Somerset, enthusiast for a universal language  and correspondent of John Aubrey, who seems to have been a believer in portents, wrote to an influential patron in the lead-up to Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685, asking him to convey to James II that ‘In May, 1680, here was that monstrous birth at Ile Brewers … which at that time was taken much notice of, two female children joined in their bodies from the breast downwards … May the 29th I saw them well and likely to live’. (One might ask how many years before an event the so-called portents of it can take place?) But the interest generated locally by the birth may have sparked the dastardly idea of two local ‘gentlemen’ to take the twins away from their parents and put them on show at fairs for their own profit.

Captain Henry Walrond seems from the record to have been an out-and-out scoundrel from an otherwise ‘reputable’ family (albeit major slave-owners in Barbados), whose seat was Walrond’s Hall near Isle Brewers. (It seems no longer to exist, but there is an industrial estate in the park.) According to John Whiting (1656–1722), the writer of Persecution Expos’d (1715), an autobiographical indictment of the treatment of Quakers by local authorities, Walrond was a leading perpetrator of violent and brutal attacks, ‘a persecuting Justice of the Peace, so called, though one of the greatest disturbers of it’: he had a particular animus against Quakers, ‘but after he took up this work of persecution … nothing prospered with him’. (Whiting’s animus against Walrond is of course extreme.)

Walrond had a gang of hangers-on, the family of his son-in-law, named Broom (hence the reference on the dishes to ‘HEARE IS GAIN O THE BROOM’), who seem to have ‘helped to devour his estate as they had done others … and to recover his stinking state, he and Sir Edward Phillips took away a twin child, or children (that grew together), from a poor woman to make a show of them for money, and kept them till they died, to their great shame and dishonour in the country, for which they were prosecuted in the Crown Office, but might, I suppose, overcame right’. However, as Whiting saw it, ‘a Divine Nemesis’ eventually overtook Walrond: ‘And his house dropt through ready to fall about his ears, and rotted a good chest of Linnen of great value, and at last died miserable poor, as well as miserable otherwise, and after his death was said to walk at noonday’. (Hodgkin states that this latter belief ‘has not yet died out in the immediate neighbourhood’: one can imagine what M.R. James might have done with it.)

Sir Edward Phillips is Sir Edward Phelips (1638–99), of Montacute House in Somerset, a descendant of the lawyer Sir Edward Phelips (c. 1555–1614), Speaker of the House of Commons and chief prosecutor of the Gunpowder Plotters. This Sir Edward was a Justice of the Peace and an extremely high Tory who opposed the repeal of the Test Act, and was a partner of Walrond in many attacks on Quakers. Since the Phelips family was very wealthy, it is not clear why he took part in the abduction of the twins – did he feel he owed Walrond a favour? (It is of course possible that the Herring family were Quakers – though the twins were baptised? – on the basis of the admittedly rather tenuous links with Whiting and the Brislington potters, and this could have been an overt justification of the actions of this most unpleasant pair.)

An English Quaker meeting, with a woman speaking, by Egbert van Heemskerck the Elder in the 1670s. (Source: private collection)

I haven’t yet been able to find out anything about the prosecution of Walrond and Phelips for the abduction – except of course that they were acquitted. Nor is it clear when the twins died, or of what. It is possible – she said grudgingly – that Walrond and his crew treated them as well as they could, given that it was in their own best interest to keep them alive.

There is a great deal more which could be written about conjoined twins in history (not least an account of the first(?) successful(?) surgical separation, carried out in 1689) on conjoined Swiss twins Elizabet and Catherina.

Johannes Fatio (1649–91), of Basel, paediatrician who performed the first known modern separation of conjoined twins. He was later tortured and executed during political in-fighting in the city.

But of course the people who barely get a look-in during this sad story are the Herrings. The father was a labourer, ‘free from all aspersions of Vice or exorbitances’ (and therefore the monstrous birth could not be attributed to any sin of his), and there were five older children in the family: their lives, let alone their feelings when their daughters/siblings were snatched away from them, are almost incidental to the sensational narrative.

Caroline

This entry was posted in Art, Biography, Cambridge, History, Literature, Museums and Galleries, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Aqila and Prisila

  1. Pingback: Small But Perfectly Formed | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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