Hieroglyphicks of the City Fathers: London’s Aldermen in the 17th Century

Aldermen of the City of London Corporation represented as Chinese and as monsters in procession to Westminster to protest against the Treaty of Paris, 1763. Etching, ~1763. Wellcome Library reference no. 31512i.

By Dr. William Schupbach / 07.25.2016

The Corporation of London is the local government which controls the square mile known as the City of London. It includes the financial industries based in that small area in the eastern half of the London metropolis. The Corporation has a long history with many vicissitudes. It has not always seen eye-to-eye with the government of Great Britain, based in in the western half of the metropolis, in Westminster.  An example of such an occasion in 1763 is shown in the caricature above, “An exact representation of a certain wise body without a head in the East going to pay a visit to a certain great body in the West”. In a rather cryptic way, it shows a procession of powerful City fathers (aldermen; by profession merchants, bankers, lawyers and manufacturers) from the Square Mile moving westwards on horseback along Fleet Street to the City of Westminster.

The purpose of the procession was to protest against the British government’s intention to give away more to the European powers than suited the interests of the Corporation. The people are shown as Chinese because the riders are proceeding from the East, while the hats and appurtenances of the riders refer to their respective professions. Evidently the draftsman (the Chelsea porcelain painter Jefferyes Harnett O’Neale) enjoyed dressing up this event in fairly obscure clothing, and thought that potential purchasers would enjoy it too.

Three officers in the City of London Corporation holding different types of sticks (“characteresticks”): Lord Mayor Crosby, John Wilkes and Frederick Bull. Engraving, 1772. Wellcome Library reference no. 584784i.

A second English caricature (above) also has cryptic features. It carries the heading “Charac–teresticks”, while below is the motto “Domine dirige nos” (Lord, direct us – the motto of the City of London) with the word “Libertas” (on the cap of liberty).  The three figures were identified by Dorothy George in the British Museum’s catalogue(no. 4938), and the print was dated to 1772.

At the top, the Lord Mayor of London, Brass Crosby, wears a crown in the form of a fortified city (representing London), he rests on a scroll inscribed “thanks & prayers of the poor” and he holds a scourge inscribed “for monopoly”. He campaigned against those who tried to corner the market for wheat and drive up prices. In the background are the Tower of London (in which he was incarcerated in 1771) and a personification of justice. On the left, the alderman John Wilkes, portrayed as Hercules, holds a scroll which is inscribed “Hercules labours overcome” and with references to some of Wilkes’s radical causes such as freedom of the press. He holds the club of Hercules in one hand and a sheriff’s staff in the other. On the right, a bull wearing an alderman’s chain rests a hoof on a pillar of fortitude; he also holds a sheriff’s staff in the crook of his right foreleg. He is identified as a third City Father, Frederick Bull, who was elected sheriff of the City with Wilkes in 1771. All three figures are wreathed with laurels, indicating a reward for virtue.

What joins these figures together, apparently, is the fact that they all represent “Characteresticks”. But what are “Characteresticks”?  The British Museum catalogue does not say. Where the meaning of an item is not clear, the cataloguer can provide a transcription of the lettering, which is helpful, but fails to explain.

In this case however we do have a hint at an explanation.  The engraving was published in the ‘Oxford Magazine’ for 1772, and it is there accompanied by a mysterious letter as follows:

“Sir, An odd conceit entered my brain, that I could represent three very worthy characters, in some measure hieroglyphically, and I have attempted to carry my whim into execution. How far I have succeeded in affording any entertainment to your readers, time only can discover. I have sent you the enclosed drawing, which I beg you will get engraved, and you will oblige your very humble servant, S.L.”The person who signs with the initials S.L. is unidentified, though we can now identify him (or her) as the artist of our caricature. But what did S.L. mean by saying that the sketch represented the three personalities “hieroglyphically”?

“Hieroglyphic” was a fairly common word at the time throughout Europe. Unlike today, it normally had nothing to do with pictograms carved on ancient Egyptian walls or tablets. In England in 1577, the scholar John Dee (1527-1608) described his allegorical woodcut of the naval defenses of the British Isles with the Greek inscription “Hieroglyphikon Brytanikon” (the British Hieroglyph). In the Netherlands, the art-expert Gerard de Lairesse (1640-1711) referred to “occult significations, either in bass-relief by fables, hieroglyphics, or emblematick figures”, indicating that hieroglyphs were secret symbols appearing in paintings that carried a meaning different from their outward appearance. In Messina in Sicily, a collector named Giuseppe Cuneo (fl. 1694) called allegorical engravings of figures representing subjects such as the four cardinal virtues and the eight beatitudes “Geroglificie figure diverse” (Various hieroglyphic figures). [1] Several prints are called “Hieroglyphics”, such as this one (below) issued around 1800, representing various professions through the tools of their respective trades:

Composite heads: a florist, a writer, a musician and a barber made of various instruments. Aquatint, ca. 1800. Wellcome Library no. 573255i.

So how does the subject of our caricature represent “Characteresticks” hieroglyphically? S.L. was teasing us by not telling us what it was all about. My guess is that he aimed to represent the three City aldermen through the “sticks” which each of them carries as part of his official “character” or role. The Lord Mayor holds a scourge for flogging miscreants, Wilkes holds a club for beating Government controls, while the bull holding his sheriff’s staff indicates the status of Frederick Bull.

A few points might be mentioned in support of this interpretation.  In his well-written letter, S.L. spelt “hieroglyphically” without a k, though many people of his time did use the spelling “hieroglyphick”. “Water is the proper hieroglyphick of easy prattle”, as Samuel Johnson wrote in the ‘Idler’ in 1758. Therefore when S.L. spells “Characteresticks” with a k (and with an e instead of the first i of “Characteristics”) we may be sure that it is not there by mistake. Second, the importance of the rods of office carried by the City Fathers is amply illustrated in the recent study by Michael Hall [2] of the gold sceptre carried by the Lord Mayor in procession.  This magnificent “stick” made of gold, rock crystal, and precious stones, is thought to date from around 1420, and has ever since made an appearance at the “Silent Ceremony” in the Guildhall each November, when the outgoing Lord Mayor hands it to the succeeding Lord Mayor.

Detail of: Nathaniel Newnham taking the oaths of office as Lord Mayor of London in 1782. Stipple engraving by Benjamin Smith, 1801, after William Miller. Wellcome Library no. 2848107i. Image credit: William Schupbach.

It is shown being carried in a print of the new Lord Mayor taking the oaths of office in 1782: the gold hand-held “stick” of office is the feature that distinguishes the Lord Mayor, between the sword (in procession, left) and the mace (resting upright on the floor, right).

Perhaps others will have other interpretations?  At all events the present essay may help to explain why the creators of the Wellcome Library catalogue (and other catalogues) are often reduced to transcribing incomprehensible verbiage instead of offering an explanation of the document catalogued.  All offers of help are welcomed. But here’s a warning: there are plenty of harder nuts to crack than those discussed above.  The caricatures forming the series Het groote tafereel der dwaasheid (Amsterdam, 1720), fascinating though they are, still contain many details that have never been satisfactorily explained. An example is shown below.

The burghers of the Dutch Republic are celebrating the death of Pope Clement XI. Etching, c.1720. Wellcome Library reference no. 42557i.

Suggestions for correcting and improving the catalogue can be sent to the us by clicking on the link “Comments or corrections for this record?”, which is found at the foot of each record in the Library catalogue. Thanks to all who have contributed from their expertise in the past.


  1. “John Dee, General and rare memorials pertayning to the perfect arte of navigation, London 1577, titlepage. Gerard de Lairesse, Groot schilderboek, Amsterdam 1712, vol. 2 p. 268 “verborgene betekenissen … het zy in basrelevé door fabels, hierogliphen of zinbetekende figuuren” translated by J.F. Fritsch in 1738 as “occult significations, either in bass-relief by fables, hieroglyphics, or emblematick figures” in The art of painting, London 1738, p. 555 (cited by Tijana Žakula, Reforming Dutch art: Gerard de Lairesse on beauty, morals and class, Amsterdam 2015, p. 118). Joseph (Giuseppe) Cuneo” in ‘Personifications of Philosophical, Theological and Historical Subjects’.
  2. Michael Hall, ‘The crystal sceptre of the City of London’, The Burlington Magazine, December 2015.pp 827-831. Caroline Barron, ‘Letter: The crystal sceptre of the City of London’, The Burlington Magazine, May 2016. p368.

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