I think it would be fun, in many ways, to live in the eighteenth century. It seems to have been the sort of time when you could get away with anything. A word that crops up again and again in writing of the day is “bottom” which, in the sense it is used there, has vanished from our vocabulary. I suppose the best modern equivalent would be “balls”. It essentially means a kind of swashbuckling courage.
My favourite story, which I think sums the term up perfectly, concerns Joseph Manton. Manton (1760-1835) was basically the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of gunsmiths, although his brother John was no slouch, (the two were bitter professional rivals). Joseph Manton’s London-made guns are, these days, highly collectable, and back in the day they were the best a man could get.
That’s who Joe Manton was. Now, the incident that illustrated his bottom, so to speak, took place when he was travelling by coach across Hounslow Heath. In the eighteenth century, Hounslow Heath was a notorious haunt of highwaymen and footpads, much like today. Even the legendary Dick Turpin is said to have hung out here from time to time, and his ghost supposedly haunts Heathrow Terminal 1 (but then, it’s said to haunt an awful lot of places).
Back to my point. Manton was travelling by coach across Hounslow Heath – did I mention that? Great. Anyway, Manton was held up by a highwayman who demanded, as they tend to, that he hand over his money and valuables. Rather than adhering to the standard practice of complying with the gentleman of the road’s demands and possibly soiling himself a little, Manton was furious to see that the gun pointing at him was, in fact, one from his own foundry.
His response was, according to my source here, “Damn it, you rascal, I’m Joe Manton and that’s one of my pistols you’ve got! How dare you try to rob me!”
The highwayman was also a nonconformist, and rather than shoot Manton in the head as was the style, replied, “Oh, so you’re Joe Manton, are you? Well, you charged me ten guineas for this pistol, which was a damned swindle, though I admit it’s a damned good barker.”
The compromise reached was that the highwayman would rob Manton, but only of ten guineas. Nonetheless, Manton was so furious at losing the price of a pistol and set about building a customised double-barreled shotgun called “the Highwayman’s Master”. Next time someone tried to rob him, he decided to shoot first and ask questions later.