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Joseph Beckwith   Work

First of all he is apprenticed as an engraver and printer, which to my mind implies engraving with the end purpose of producing an illustration for a book or a newspaper, rather than engraving metal objects.  And this is reinforced in that he is listed in Underhill’s 1817 Triennial Directory of London, Westminster & Southwark and ten miles distant in the book trades section, as an engraver.  To be honest though, what I have taken this from is an Exeter Working Paper in Book History which extracted all the names and ordered them alphabetically.  Now, like me,  they may not have necessarily known whether Joseph Beckwith was an engraver of metal objects or an engraver of pictures for books.  If he worked as the latter, he lived during what was apparently the heyday of engraving of illustrations for books and newspapers - the 1820s-1840s.  The engraving at left is by Beckwith after Topham and is dated 1850-60, so this could be his work, based on the painting by his daughter’s husband Francis Topham, or it may be another Beckwith.  Maybe it is just my ignorance though, and someone trained in the art of engraving could engrave either illustrations or artwork on precious metals.  I have tried to find some reference to his employer Edward Edwards, but as it is a relatively common name I am not sure about his profession either. 

Joseph Beckwith had two, maybe even three,  different careers and an active interest in politics as well.  A busy man.  

You would have expected Joseph to follow in his father’s steps as a silversmith, but apparently not so.   On December 1, 1790 at the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to one Edward Edwards of Goswell St. “as an engraver and printer on payment of £7 14s of the charity of the Goldsmith’s Company.  Freedom unrecorded.  Only mark entered as smallworker 7 February 1807.”  (London Goldsmiths 1697-1837: Their Marks and Lives from the Original Registers at Goldsmiths' Hall and Other Sources)  The same work describes him as a silver turner, whereas his brother George is a goldsmith and brother Robert a silversmith.  This apparently straightforward reference throws up a couple of questions for me. 

However, Joseph obviously did do some work in silver, because of the discovery online by Priscilla Henderson of an actual example of Joseph’s work.  It is in silver, and also reinforce that other comment, “only mark entered as smallworker”, for a smallworker was someone who made little things - in this case, a medallion.

The auctioneer’s catalogue describes the rather beautiful medallion thus: “A George III silver prize medallion,by Joseph Beckwith, London 1805, no town mark oval form with applied reeded border, the obverse engraved with bees around a beehive beneath the motto "Learn of us," the reverse "The reward of merit" above and below "Newmarkett (sic) 1805," also engraved with script initials to centre, length 5.5cm.”  The medallion clearly has a hallmark - so this is most probably his mark “as a smallmaker”  Whatever the case I assume it means that he made the item as well as actually engraving it.  Also the 1811 Holden’s London and Country Directory lists his occupation as silversmith.  So far we have not found any art or illustrations, bearing his name.  I found at least one simply labelled “Beckwith”, but since we know one of his sons became a notable engraver, and since the work was undated, this could well be the work of his son.


The Goldsmiths Company - History - The London livery company’s website with a beautifully illustrated timeline


Printing Methods - a history and brief description of techniques used for engraving, by Steve Bartrick


Wikipedia - on engraving


The Coffee Houses of London by Thomas Macaulay - Witten in 1848 - about an earlier period - the late 17th century


Victorian London - This excellent site has a section on Coffee shops with contemporary accounts - just go to Food and Drink and then Coffee Houses


Views of London: Coffee Houses - this section from a blog about all sorts of things, is excellent, with illustrations and contemporary account

The second thing to remark about the apprenticeship is that it was “of the charity of the Goldsmith’s Company”.  As it was the Goldsmith’s Company who paid for his apprenticeship, one assumes that he was being trained to work metal in some way.  I guess it also shows that his family was not wealthy, as his apprenticeship was a charity case.


The last thing to remark is “freedom unrecorded”.  I believe that freedom of the city was given to people who finished their apprenticeships, and that it allowed them to practice their trade and also to vote. I did think at first that either he never finished his apprenticeship or the Freedom record had been lost, but eventually it turned up and he received his Freedom by Patrimony in 1802.

Maybe, he began as a silversmith, but moved into engraving with his brother Robert, previously mentioned, being the silversmith.  Robert had the same address as Joseph at one point - so maybe he made the objects and Joseph engraved them.  The final piece of evidence, is that he is never described in the censuses or in later directories as anything other than engraver.  So I am inclined to think that, although he was capable of making small, simple objects, his main skill was in engraving them, and the beautiful beehive on the medallion and the rather lovely skewer on the left are testament to his skill.

There is one small recorded incident that casts further light on Joseph’s character.  On 16th September, 1824 one George Oliver - aged 13 was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing a £5 note from Joseph’s workshop.  He was his errand boy - and, moreover, as we later discovered, his nephew.  Having stolen the money, the child changed it in The Nagg’s Head - a nearby pub, which he frequently visited, and with the money bought an ass and various bits of equipment for the ass.   He said he had found the note on the floor of the shop.  The verdict was guilty, and he was condemned to death (with a recommendation of mercy from the Prosecutor).  and indeed it was transmuted to transportation - but how dreadful - he was only 13 - and his nephew!   The trial transcript sort of implies that the charge was brought by the police, who found him riding the ass and were suspicious.  But maybe the charge was brought by Joseph.  If he did, was he not aware of what could happen to him?  Did he not care?  I find this all very disturbing, although times are very different now.  You can read the transcript at the wonderful Old Bailey site - click here.  And whilst we are on the Old Bailey, it seems that Joseph served as a juror there in 1830 (although I suppose it could be a different Joseph Beckwith).  Maybe one got to be a juror, just by being a Freeman.

Joseph’s second and, very possibly, simultaneous career, was as a coffee shop keeper.  Coffee shops were the thing in London from the middle of the seventeenth century on.  There were literally thousands of them.  They were hotbeds of intellectual and social life, with many institutions such as Lloyds of London and the Baltic Exchange, beginning their lives as coffee shops.  Some were literary, some were scientific, some were commercial and some were political but in all of them fortunes were made and lost, revolutions were planned and great literary works fomented.  


Well this is the high end of the coffee shop trade, and the one you read about.  At the other end of the scale (probably the majority) they were probably just cheap eating places where working men could eat, and even sleep.  The excerpts below show the more likely reality:

“What is chiefly remarkable in these popular resorts is their Protean variety and their wonderful adaptation to the circumstances of the neighbourhood. While some are handsomely furnished saloons, where French café is served in china, where the customers smoke cigars and play critically at chess, first dropping a shilling for admission, others are little better than mere barns, where you see the navvy and the hodman importing their own provisions, and paying their one penny for a pint of the liquid, which, so that it be stingingly hot, satisfies them well. In some districts you find the coffee-house a single room, and that but thinly frequented; in others you shall remark that it overflows several floors of the house, threatening even the attics. In the neighbourhoods of large industrial establishments, you find them usurping all the available premises and driving other tradesmen aways; and if you enter of these at any of the intervals between working hours, you shall see an interesting spectacle. Pushing open the door, which turns noiselessly on its hingers, you are at once in the presence of two or three hundred of the hard-working ranks, all as quiet at least as a class of young school-mates in the presence of the master, and all eating, drinking, reading, or sleeping, in an atmosphere which, be it winter or summer - for the season makes little difference - would send the thermometer up to eighty or beyond. Coffee, hot and hot, of an honest piquant brew - for the workmen won't stand any trifling in this respect - is served at a penny the cup, or three half-pence the pint; while two thick slices of bread and butter go to the penny, and eggs, rashers of bacon, chops, kidneys and cold beef and ham are dispensed, when called for, at rates proportionately reasonable. At the same time, while the outer man is fed thus cheaply, the mind is regaled still more cheaply, as every man who is awake has some publication or other, or  at least a portion of one in his hand, and is devouring the news of the day - the last cruel murder, the last prize fight, the coming content for the belt, the exciting romance, the comic story, or the jokes from "Punch." Few of the readers have a whole publication, unless it be an old one - the subdivision of the newspapers and periodicals into sections of four pages being found more economical by the proprietor, who is thus enabled to restrict his outlay in the literary department.”     Leisure Hour, 1863

“So with the coffee-shops. The one I enter, to invest my fourpence in a breakfast of coffee and bread and butter, has been open all night likewise; but the sole occupants now are a dirty waiter, in a pitiable state of drowsiness, and half a dozen homeless wretches who have earned the privilege of sitting down at the filthy tables by the purchase of a cup of coffee, and, with their heads on their hands, are snatching furtive naps, cut short-too short, alas! - by the pokes and 'Wake up, there!' of the waiter. It is apparently his condigne to allow no sleeping.”     Gaslight and Daylight by  George Augustus Sala 1859

We have found several directory entries for Joseph’s coffee house - the Clarendon Coffee Rooms at 77 Shoe Lane, indeed he lived there in the later part of his life.  Shoe Lane runs down to Fleet Street, and due to the blitz and road widening works (as in the photo at left) not much of it is as it would have been in Joseph’s time.  Since I have never found any other mention of the shop I am assuming that it was more like one of the low end establishments described above.  

Joseph seems to have continued working well into his old age.   He died in the coffee shop and a few years earlier, at the last census at the age of 74 he is still describing himself as an engraver and coffee house keeper.  An indomitable and energetic old man it seems to me.  It would be nice to find out more about the coffee house - maybe one day ..  The last two pictures are of Shoe Lane.

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