Colonel Francis Maceroni, 1788-1846: On the Road Again

When London roads are paved with wood,
Long live Maceroni.
We’ll go in for something good
Saved out of our coal money.

The doggerel was chanted by the good people of London on the subject of recent advances in street coverage, and yes, it was wood.  Wooden blocks were as a kind of cheap and sturdy paver for the otherwise dirt lined streets of London.  Problem was that, unlike, say, bricks or Belgian blocks, they could be burned – and it was cheaper to heat the house with public wooden blocks than private coal. The Maceroni in in question in his book Hints to Paviers (sic) 1827, which, while recognizing macadam though fine for the country road, found it less successful in the more traveled city, and lays out the benefits of wooden pavers already used successfully on the continent.

He was the son of an Italian father and British mother, born in Manchester.  The father and his brothers family had fought with the French army in America before settling as a merchant in England.   Republican values ran in the family as we shall see.  At the age of thirteen, he was sent to Rome under the care of his uncle.

What is a fifteen year old man of means going to do in Rome in 1802? A lot more than I was able to do in 1973, I can tell you that much.  He  managed to get to the “ball of St. Peters , embracing the Cross, and I even lifted my fee off  the ball, holding the cross.”  Theoretically he was supposed to be learning the banking business under the Torlonia family. That was too dull for words and his employer quickly found him better employed as a sort of factotum for visiting British dignitaries e.g Lord and Lady Elgin (we are talking the age of the Grand Tour here)

He preferred Naples to Rome, and went there on foot in 1804.  There he could indulge his interest in geology, particularly Vesuvius, which he climbed many times, even, he says, during the 1808 eruption (the  falling “stones and lightning” of which were  according to his companion General Louis Pierre Aimé Chastel, “worse than Austerlitz!”).  A man of many interests and enthusiasm as his memoirs show. He founded a swimming school for women (he also believed in universal suffrage), proposed drainage projects for the silted areas of the mephitic lower Tiber, studied medicine for a while,  dabbled in the area of hot air ballooning, for which Maceroni saw a great future.

On a more genteel level, he introduced  Naples to the manly pursuits of archery and of cricket, for which he had to carve the bats and make the balls himself – perhaps no surprise that interest died out on his departure.

He impressed others besides the sportifs.   Joachim Murat, brother-in-law to Napoleon, King of Naples for brief shining moment, made him his aide-de-camp (rank of Colonel) with the responsibility to act as as liason to the army back in France and the government in Britain.

That strange man came a cropper with invasion of Austria and Maceroni claims it was he who convinced Metternich, Wellington and Talleyrand to let him live in exile.  The deal fell apart when the Bourbon were restored and Murat landed at the Calabrian port of Pizzo, proclaiming to a bewildered populace, once his subjects, that he had returned.  The spell was broken when an old crone hit him for having lost her son in battle, and the king was soon captured and  executed (bold to the end, he refused the blindfold) .  For all his trouble, Maceroni himself was jailed by the restored Bourbons. (He must have had some real connection to Bonaparte.  When the old despot had some bad teeth pulled on St Helena, he passed them on to a favored few, one of whom was Maceroni. Story is that he was involved in a plot to get Napoleon off the island until he fellow up and died.)

What does an old soldier do after the wars?  Maceroni did some writing to raise British awareness of Simon Bolivar and the cause of liberation.  This was followed by a meeting with  Sir Gregor MacGregor after which Maceroni gathered some two thousand men and was off to South America to bolster the the quest to liberate Colombia.  It came to no good end, and he has nothing good to say of Sir Gregor – understandably so, if the recent biography of him is anything to go by.

Finished with fighting, he tried business, founding something called the  “Atlantic and Pacific Junction and South American Mining and Trading Company”.  Hard to know what that was all about. It collapsed along with any number of other businesses in the panic of 1825.

That same year he was back in Manchester and fell in with Sir Goldsworthy Gurney who was toying with the concept of the steam powered carriage.   Whether it didn’t work out or he lost interest is hard to know.  Next thing we hear of him is a short gig with the Sultan of Ottoman empire, using his expertise to help the locals against the Russians.  A wasted year – he never even got paid.

Back to the steam carriage business.  In 1831 joined John Squire, a carpenter  also  late of the Gurney enterprise and together they  built the steam automobile.  By repute, it was effective and safe – no small consideration in the early days of steam boilers.   They ran a shuttle service between Paddington and Edgware with speeds of up to 13 miles per hour: “There was no smoke because the fuel was coke. There was no escape of steam and the noise did not exceed that made by common cart when rapidly driven.”

Passengers seemed to like it and those who saw it pass were exhilarated, astonished, petrified, or given to applause.  A new world was dawning.

In the end, however, and despite strong editorial push from Maceroni (“The boiler is of a such a construction as to render injurious accidents impossible; and the machinery is of so compact and simple a nature, that the carriage has actually run 1,700 miles without a single shilling being required for repairs! “),  it didn’t work out.  Never mind the safety record, the speed, the novelty, the economics,  the steam carriage ran into one significant hurdle – the Horse Drawn carriage cartel.  All those Pickwick drivers  had enough pull in government to require a special toll tax, as well as general fear mongering.

No wonder his next move was to try to stick it to the man.  The great issue of 1832 was the Great Reform Bill, an attempt to shake up parliament and liberalize representation to better reflect recent changes in Britain.  The old guard, notably Lord Wellington, were opposed.  Maceroni the populist wasn’t to be cowed.  Concerned with the possibility of Wellington’s soldiers marching through the streets of London, he published a short book entitled  Defensive instructions for the people: containing the new and improved combination of arms, called foot lancers; miscellaneous instructions on the subject of small arms and ammunition, street and house fighting, and field fortification.

‘It is essential for a free people to be armed. To hope that liberty and justice can be preserved with all the means of power and coercion, existing in the hands of the governing minority, is an infantine delusion! In the United States, every man has his rifle, and knows well how to use it. An armed people cannot be subdued by any faction. They require no paid army to protect them; and none can coerce them. Arm, then, oh, British people, and you will be safe!’

(It got some bad reviews….)

Meanwhile, the steam carriage that was proving such a drain of his finances got a brief second chance in Europe where his new partner (Squires having thrown in the towel), a shadowy Italian businessman called Colonel  d’Asda paraded the thing along the boulevards of Paris and Brussels, exciting great interest and finally selling it and the patents before  disappearing for good.

It was effectively Maceroni last shot at greatness.  Hereafter he turns up in various publications and periodicals commenting on all manner of subjects and offering all sorts of improving ideas.   He discusses the use of sky rockets as adjuncts to light houses in inclement weather , and expansion of utility.  A paddle steamer, better than those on offer. He writes about practical fishing in ‘On Eels and Eel lines’ (with a side note on the sunken galleys at lake Nemi).   He has improved methods of setting enemy war ships on fire.  He and Sir Anthony Carlyle contrived a heavier than air machine (he being the unnamed “Scientific Friend” mentioned in the write up).  For the less adventurous, he offers the would-be ice skaters of the world the following safety tip:

“The skating season being now approaching, I am anxious to inform the ladies , that they may learn to skate, without the possibility of falling but the assistance of a little invention of mine of a very simple and cheap construction.  I do not know that I can call it and “invention: it is mere the application to a new purpose of a wicker go-cart without wheels. This contrivance, which we may aptly call a  skating-parachute, i s of wicker-work, in the shape of a bell, of  about five feet diameter at the bore and only 12, 14 or 15 inches that top, according to the size of the lady, who will have to get her shoulders &c through it. …The superior rim is well wadded with horsehair cover with cloth. Being passed over the lady’s head , it is suspended by traces over the shoulders. The legs and arms being perfectly free, the fair learn to skate may trip and slip, but she cannot fall.”

(Just so there should be misunderstanding, he felt compelled to add: “This is no joke, for I put it in successful test at Groombridge, in Kent, in 1816. However, I do not suppose that the ladies will avail themselves of the suggestion.”)

His declining years were not easy.    He turns up in various memoirs as an interesting and entertaining person, better for a draught of laudanum and something to drink,  but full of stories and anecdotes of his  long and eventful life. We are fortunate that he actually put it all down.  Or at least a good deal of it.  Complaints are that it is a little too inclusive, and perhaps exaggerated in the details. Moreover, volume one devotes good deal of space dedicated to the Napoleonic wars in general and Murat in particular which, however interesting, do not really feature Maceroni, but he feels will set the record straight (“The real history of the events I am reciting is not known in England”, italics his).  Well, Napoleonia sold as well then as World War Two books do now, so there was a commercial element as well.

The volume two ends with several pages outlining his immediate financial distress and making the cases against the individuals responsible for it.  There is attached an synopsis of what a third volume of memoirs might include should there be sufficient interest in the two published.  Unfortunately, it never  happened.*

Oh, and those wooden pavers?  One of his still living descendents recalls a few of them still being around even as late as his youth.  Slippery for bicycles was the verdict.


The slippery pavers are attested to in  Andrew Malleson’s Discovering the Family of Miles Malleson, which I stumbled on while researching this entry.  It contains an excellent account, full of detail and illustration,  on his ancestor.  And of Miles Malleson, for that matter.

Various spelling of the name crop up, for those inclined to dig further:  Macerone, Macironi, Maceroni, Macirone.

*(It was, however, advertised as three volumes.)


3 thoughts on “Colonel Francis Maceroni, 1788-1846: On the Road Again

  1. Pingback: Street Fighting Man (ual) | Underground Histories

  2. This is really wonderful to read. I was visiting with my grandmother today and it turns out that Francis Maceroni was her great-great grandfather. So neat to find out that one of my ancestors was such an imlortant part of history.

  3. This is really wonderful to read. I was visiting with my grandmother today and it turns out that Francis Maceroni was her great-great grandfather. So neat to find out that one of my ancestors was such an important part of history.

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