The Georgian Surveyor. The equipment that Capability Brown could have used

The Georgian period was a good time for to be a surveyor.

Me, using my graphometer.

Me, using my graphometer.

At home estates needed mapping to ensure that you could fend off land-grabbers, so you needed to know where your boundaries were.

Surveying was needed so that you knew what your income would be from your land, as produce and as rents.

Tied in with this was the need to know how much to pay the church as tithes, or 10% of your produce. Tithes would not be abolished in England and Wales until 1839, when they were converted to tithe rentcharges.  Rentcharges were finally abolished in 1936.

Surveyors were also required in the colonies for the new lands that were to being claimed and had to be mapped.

But there were more pleasurable requirements for surveyors; if you had the money. Old habitations were being either remodelled or completely rebuilt, in the new classical style. In the early part of the Georgian period you may be setting out formal gardens, but later any person of taste would want the latest fashion of landscape gardens. There was also going to be a walled garden to grow your food. All of this would require the services of a surveyor.

To measure land you could use a Gunter’s Chain, designed and introduced in 1620 by the English clergyman and mathematician, Edmund Gunter (1581–1626

The chain is 22 yards long and consists of 100 links, sub-divided into tens that are marked with brass tags. My chain has marked tags that run from the handle to one, two, three, four, five and then decrease to the next handle so you can use it from either end.

Links, handles and tags on a Gunter's Chain.

Links, handles and tags on a Gunter’s Chain.

Ten square chains equal an acre, which was the common land area measurement.

There are eighty chains to a mile.

Reid's table of measurements.

Reid’s table of measurements. All now obsolete in the UK.

It is hardly surprising that a cricket pitch is twenty two yards long. The only flat and mown grass was at the estate lands and every estate would own chains. It is also very difficult to fiddle chain measurements to create a home-team advantage.

The chain could be used to measure fields or even whole estates, by plotting out triangles to ensure the correct angles were maintained. Very few mathematical calculations would be needed.

You could use a ‘Plane Table’ to plot the land. This is a small table set on a tripod and levelled. The tripod is set over a mark on the ground using a plumb line. Paper is fixed to the table and north marked from a compass.

The surveyor uses an ‘Alidade’ made of wood or brass. He lines the alidade with the object that he wishes to put on the plan and then draws a line along the alidades edge. Using the same method, the surveyor proceeds to include any object that he wants on the plan. The next part is a very time consuming process. The surveyor and his assistant have to measure the distances from the plane table to the objects using the chain. Once the lines are measured and recorded it is quite a simple task to draw a plan or map. Again, very few calculations are required.

A plane table and chains work very easily on flat and accessible ground, but if the ground is very uneven the chain measurements will be inaccurate. This is where a Circumferentor or a Graphometer are useful. The Circumferentor is a circle of brass, with 360 degrees marked around the edge and had a sight that rotates around the middle. A compass is often included. They were expensive to make, so many people used the Graphometer instead, as it was only 180 degrees, similar to a protractor. It also had a rotating sight and a compass. I have a Graphometer for the same reason.

My graphometer

My graphometer on its tripod viewed from above.

The Graphometer would be set up over a mark using a plumb line. The alidade is sited onto the objects to be included in the survey and the angles are recorded in a book. The Graphometer is then moved a measured distance and set up again over a mark. The same objects are sighted again and the angles recorded. You now have a base line of a known measurement and two angles. It is fairly straightforward to draw this to scale, and then a protractor and compass, to put in the angles. Once again very little calculation is required.

I have a reproduction copy of John Love’s, ‘Geodaesia, or the Art of Surveying and Measuring Land made easie’, third edition, printed for W Taylor, 1720.

This is very useful as it not only includes a description of the surveying and drawing equipment that you will need, but also gives exercises in drawing and surveying.


Useful surveying tips in Reid’s book, Geodaesia.

Even more useful nowadays, bit includes all the tables that you are likely to need for your work. I tried buying a book of Log Tables, but they are not available in the high street shops any more. Most shop assistants didn’t even know what they are.

Log Tables in Reid's book.

Log Tables in Reid’s book.

To draw out a straight line on the ground for building foundations, walls, roads, avenues of trees or gardens you can use ranging poles. The surveyor stands at the start point, having placed a visible pole at the far end of the line. He pushes a pole in the ground at the start point by standing behind the pole and lining it up with the end pole. He then directs assistants to place poles between the two; much as the Romans had done.

In his book ‘The Scots Gard’ner’ of 1683, John Reid suggests that you use a ‘Surveyors Cross’ to help you line up with buildings more easily. He suggests that instead of buying an expensive one that you make your own from two pieces of wood set at right angles to each other with sights at the ends. It is a very similar idea to the Roman ‘Groma’ that used lead weighted strings as sights. I have made my own wooden cross, but it is rather large.

My home-made Surveyors Cross.

My home-made Surveyors Cross.

Professional surveyors could have used a more portable brass cross. I saw an egg-shaped one for sale that was of Georgian date, but it was extremely expensive.

A Surveyors Cross. This one also allows you to sight 45 degrees.

A Surveyors Cross. This one also allows you to sight 45 degrees.

Drawing equipment usually included rulers, protractor, compasses and dividers, line drawers for ink lines, parallel rulers and pens.

Drawing set. The Sector and rulers are in the bottom layer of the box.

Drawing set. The Sector and rulers are in the bottom layer of the box.

A sector for calculations was often included. This was a primitive form of slide rule that used dividers to measure off the calculations. If your dividers were damaged the answers could be quite wrong. I am struggling to use a sector competently.

Parallel Ruler and an ivory Sector.

Parallel Ruler and an ivory Sector.

© M. J. Brown. 2015

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Mascall’s ‘Hare Pipe’ Trap

I was preparing some items to take to Aston Court to give my talk, ‘Those Tempestuous Tudors.’ The talk is about the use of plants during the Tudor period, but it includes poisons and a few other gruesome gardening subjects. I thought a trap would also be a useful addition. With a limited amount of time available, I consulted my copy of Leonard Mascall ‘s

‘A Booke of Engines and traps to take Polcats, Buzardes, Rattes, Mice and all other kindes of Vermine and beasts whatsoever, most profitable for all Warriners, and such as delight in this kinde of sport and pastime’.

It was printed in 1590, a year after his death. Mascall did not invent these traps, he only describes what is already available, as many early writers did, whatever their subject.

My book is a photocopy of the original. The pictures can be vague and the descriptions no better. I decided to make the ‘Hare Pipe’. It looked quite easy to construct, the picture and instructions seemed very clear and it would not need any special equipment.

The victim puts its head or foot through the noose, the more it struggles, the more the teeth on the pipe drive into the flesh. Not very pleasant, but nor are most other traps.

Mascalls Book

Mascall says that the pipe is made of elder, presumably as the pith can easily be removed to make a pipe.He also says that you can make the pipe from metal if you want to catch dogs and foxes. I fetched a saw and cut several lengths of elder form a tree in my garden. I chose a piece that had plenty of pith in the middle and went back to my garden seat.

Elder stick

I found my sheath knife, which must be 40 years old or so, and began to slice off the bark. The knife may look rusty, but it is very sharp.


I flattened two sides of the stick and began to cut a point. Then, very carefully, I cut back into the stick to start forming the two teeth. This was fiddly, but safe enough as I kept my fingers well out of harm’s way. I used to be a butcher’s boy many years ago and I have a very healthy respect for sharp knives.

Once the teeth were cut I cut off the send. Holding the knife edge against the wood at the length that I wanted I rolled the wood several times to give a good ring before whittling off the surplus wood.

Cutting off end

I found some wire and a long nail that I used to push the pith out of the stem. Mascall’s drawing shows the string knotted on the outside of the pipe, so I drilled a hole with the point of my knife and cleaned the edges of the hole.

The next part was fiddly. I pushed the noose string through the hole and tied several knots to form a big lump of string. I fed the other end of the string back down the pipe, using the wire to push it through. I tied a peg onto the end and the trap was finished. One thing that I should say is that the ‘Hare Pipe’ will never be used; it is only for show at my displays and talks.


P. S. Mascall also mentions using hellebores to poison mice. Hellebore roots or seeds can be mixed with barley meal and some honey and made into small cakes. Herbals from the ancient Greeks and Victorian gardening books both suggest a mouse poison made from hellebores.

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Scaring the Birds

Birds have always been a problem for gardeners. Many old gardening books describe the damage that birds caused to the Pleasure Gardens, but the biggest problem was the damage caused in the productive fruit and vegetable gardens.

Since at least the medieval period children have been given simple wooden scarers and told to go off and make a lot of noise.

At my displays i encourage children to use my bird scarers- and they can make quite a racket!

SAM_9465 - Copy

The so-called football racket is far older than many people imagine- it is shown in a medieval painting of a leper. A wooden rattle is much more affordable than a metal bell.

The renowned diarist, John Evelyn, wrote a book about gardening. In it he included pictures of the tools that a good garden would need. He included a a rope hung a series of scarers made of four feathers stuck in clay or a potato maybe. I use a potato, but that may be an extravagant waste of good food!

Bird Scarer

The scarecrow may be thought of as fairly recent invention, but the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours suggests otherwise. One painting shows a scarecrow dressed as an English archer, enough to scare the French peasants and the birds!

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Another method to catch birds is the use of bait to entice them to a net and certain doom. The birds would not go to waste; they would be eaten. Bird lime, similar to using a very strong glue, may also be applied to posts or branches to catch birds that sit on them.

It certainly adds a different point of view to the song words’

‘Feed the birds, tuppence a bag…’


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The Witches Flying Broomstick

A Besom Broom.

A Besom Broom.

As it is Halloween, I have decided to put up a suitable post.
Witches are meant to fly on their brooms, but why brooms? Every woman would have hada besom broom to sweep the house.

If the tales were written now, the witch would have to have a vacuum cleaner of some sort. The broom head was often made of birch branches, and the plant that still has the common name of Broom, Planta genista.

Broom, Planta genista

Broom, Planta genista, the plant named after the item that it was most used to make.

But does the broomstick fly, or not, and if so, how?

Surprisingly recipes for flying ointments do survive. The recipes include the fat of unbaptised children and several other unsavoury ingredients, but the ones that really matter are plant based.

Henbane, Hyoscyamus niger, is usually the main active ingredient. Monkshood, Aconitum napellus, is another one. Both are toxic and overdose can result in death. Aconitum was the poison used in the ‘Curry Murder’of 2009 when Lakhvir Kaur Singh killed the man who had jilted her, Lakhvinder Cheema, by poisoning the curry that she had made for him.

Henbane - Hyoscyamus niger

Henbane – Hyoscyamus niger.

Henbane is very much suitable for a flying ointment, as proven during a Channel 4 series some years ago. Under medical supervision, people were given natural plant based drugs to see how they would be affected. Those taking Henbane reported sensations of flying.

The witch who wanted to take her broom out for a trip to the local sabbath would make up the flying ointment. Any animal fat, such as the skimmings from the broth, would make a good base for the ingredients. The witch could then either rub the mixture onto her body or onto the stick of the broom. Woman in early periods did not wear underwear, so the hallucinogenic properties would be quickly absorbed into the body. The witch would then feel as if she was flying.

I should point out that it is definitely not advisable to try this yourself. The plants are poisonous and as already mentioned, have killed people in the past.

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‘Death in the Garden’

Unlike many garden historians I have worked professionally in both gardening and history, and as a result it is the social history of the gardens and the uses of the plants that prove so fascinating to me. ‘Death

Many talks are accompanied with a display that the audience can look at, handle and smell after the talk. For me this is the opportunity to expand on the things that there isn’t time for in a general talk. It is also the moment when I get to hear stories from people who have used plants as medicines when they were younger or their experiences working in gardening. Many of these stories get worked into my talks.

Death in the Garden’ is one of my most popular talks. During the tea break a lady came up to tell me about when she had eaten deadly nightshade berries as a child. Around the age of four she had been at a wedding reception, boring enough for many people, but for children usually more so. She had wandered outside and discovered some very tempting, shiny, cherry-like berries.Belladonna@historicgardener

She tasted one. It proved to be quite sweet; so she ate some more. Having eaten her fill, she returned to the reception. Luckily somebody saw the bright purple stains around here mouth and asked what she had been eating. She was rushed off to hospital and had her stomach pumped. She lived to tell the tale, unlike some American foragers who had made a lovely fruit pie – and didn’t. Gerard the herbalist recounted a similar tale of three lads of Wisbech who ate deadly nightshade berries. Two of them died. Gerard wisely says that you should dig up any deadly nightshade that you find near your house.


I have also spoken about the mandrake, the mysterious plant that most people only know of through Harry Potter, and mistakenly think that the plant is an invention of J. K. Rowling; but the Bible beat her to it.

The usual story is that if pulled from the ground the plant will scream. If you hear it scream you will die, so to avoid this fate you must carefully loosen the roots, tie the plant to a very hungry dog. Standing some distance away you show some food to the dog. The dog rushes towards you to get the food, pulls up the root and promptly dies. They don’t really care much about animals in earlier times. The now very expensive mandrake root could then be used as a painkiller and sedative.

Following my talks I have spoken to several old ploughmen who used to lead the plough horses. If the horse was lame they would give it ‘English Mandrake’ to ease the pain, enabling the horse to continue working. This explains another titbit passed on by Gerard. He says that some people dug up English mandrake, which they carved into a man-like shape and replanted until it had grown again. It would later be dug up and sold as real mandrake. So not quite the con it appears to be – except for the cost.

I am currently working on a new talk, ‘Making a Splash’, about the history of the use of water and fountains in gardens into which I am trying to incorporate video and sound to bring the presentation to life.


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Silens Messor Mower Restoration. Cont.

I have mostly completed the restoration of my Greens ‘Silens Messor’ lawn mower. It has an 8 inch cut.

The chain is still not fully flexible, even after a couple of months of soaking in diesel, but it is mostly free and clean.

The metal has been painted with red lead and then given painted in ‘Ransome’s Green’, partly because it seems to have been painted that colour in the past, but also because I couldn’t find a match for the Gold-Green colour that it seems to have been painted in the past. The red is Hammerite smooth paint.

Greens Silens Messor Mowerge

My mostly restored mower

Paint on mower before restoration

There are at least tow different green paints that have been used on the mower in the past.

I could not undo the bolts to dismantle the cog side of the mower body, so that was painted in one piece. There is also a cog and ratchet inside of the roller. I have no idea why they are there as they seem to serve no useful purpose.

The poor machine appears to have been treated badly and then repaired in a very botched manner as the back plate has been welded back together at some point and a large piece has been broken off and lost. The plates that secure the blades in place do not match either.

Plate to secure blades

Plate to secure blades of the mower

plate to secure blades

The plates that secure the blades do not match.

The mower no longer works and will be used for static displays.

My special thanks go to Robert Manton, who gave me the mower to restore so that I can use it for my historic garden displays, see

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I was recently given an old hand mower by my friend, Robert Manton, who no longer has the time to restore it.

Both of the handles have writing on them:

One has: GREENS Patent No 373955 6

The other handle: LEEDS AND LONDON.

The blade measures about 9 inches or so.

I found some notes about a similar mower on the ‘Old Lawnmower Club‘ web site. The model shown at the bottom of their page is very to my mower, so I have some idea of what I am trying to achieve. The red plate between the handles, just above the back roller is missing from my machine. The chain drive wheel is painted red, although mine is green.

The mower certainly needs a lot of work:-

My mower, as it was given to me.

  • One side of the wooden grass collecting box is in two pieces and the corrugated metal between the two sides is torn
  • The chain is rusted solid and most of the machine needs to be dismantled and cleaned.
  • I need a few replacement bolts to fix the handles back onto the mower body.
  • The front roller refuses to rotate.
  • A metal plate is missing.
  • The plate near the blade has a large chunk missing.

Certainly something to keep me busy whilst the weather is so wet and chilly.

The handles were easy enough to clean. I used a rag soaked with WD40 to remove the general grime and then rubbed them down lightly with wire wool. The handles still have traces of a light green paint.

I used a wire brush to remove the rust from the back roller and rubbed my rag over to clean it. The roller is an open cylinder. The inside seems to have been painted a dark red, whilst some of the fittings inside it are green.


Close up of my mower

The blades and back roller moved a little before i started work. The front roller refuses to budge.

I sprayed the chain with WD40 several times as I was working, but a few links are still not moving. I need to remove the chain and soak it in oil or diesel for a few days. The gear wheel next to the back roller that drives the chain was easy to clean and is painted green.

I wire brushed the blades to get the rust off. They still show signs of red paint. I managed to get them rotate, which is a start. Sharpening them is another matter. the bottom plate looks in bad condition too. 

I rubbed the wooden hand grips smooth with wire wool. I now need to buy some Linseed oil to soak them. Very easy to do.


Side view of the mower.

The mower still has some of the original paint.

I shall post more as the restoration proceeds!

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