Edward Cocker according to Cocker

By Sir Francis Meynell, RDI
Date Added: 17/07/2009


I begin with a quotation - and a great deal of what I say this after-noon will be in quotation marks - from TOM BROWN AT OXFORD, the Tom Brown whose schooldays are doubtless well known (perhaps too well known) to you.

This is how it runs: 'So you ought to be, according to Cocker, spending all your time in sickrooms.' 'According to who?' 'According to Cocker.' 'Who is Cocker?' 'Oh, I don't know. Some old fellow who wrote the rules of arithmetic, I believe.'

But by a delightful irony, Edward Cocker was only in the scantiest way an arithmetician, and his fame, thus immortalised in a false phrase, is nevertheless deserved, not by writing the rules of arithmetic, but, in a word, by writing. Though it is not as familiar today as it used to be (a Victorian Chancellor of the Exchequer used it to defend his figures), the phrase 'according to Cocker' meaning exact and unquestionable, is accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary. Who, then, was Cocker?

Edward Cocker was born in 1631 and died in 1676. Pepys employed him to engrave on the diarist's 'new sliding rule with silver plates'. He records 'I find the fellow by his discourse very ingenious (a word of praise) and among other things a great admirer and well-read in our English poets, and undertakes to judge them all, and that not impertinently.' He was writer, writing-master, engraver and producer of no fewer than 25 books of his own writing and engraving - in several of which the simpler elements of arithmetic appear, in second place. What, then, has given him his false, as distinct from his real fame?

It is a fascinating story as told by Sir Ambrose Heal in his grand book 'The English Writing-Masters and their Copy-books', a great, but alas a rare and expensive book. I hope I shall not spoil it in my summary.

Cocker was a superlative master of writing and of 'striking' – the name given to freehand flourishes and calligraphic figures written, literally, in freehand, that is, with the hand not resting on the paper. He was distinguished by both the quality and the quantity of his work. Rival writing masters - and how extreme were these rivalries I shall later show - had more than envy to inspire them; copy-books were an alternative to lessons. So one of them writes that 'the rolling-press groaned under a superfoetation of such books as had almost rendered the art contemptible'; and another calls Cocker 'a voluminous Author who, led on by Lucre, let in an inundation of Copy-books'. I give you in Cocker's own elegant terms the wording of his first title-page to:


Wherein Faire Writing to the Life's exprest
In sundry copies, cloth'd with Art's rich Vest.
By which with Practice thou mayst gain Perfection,
As th'Heaven-raught Author did without direction.

Invented, Written, and Engraved, by

Such as would learne to write
Allor any of the most curious Hands practised in England
Or Hands used by other Nations, and the Art of
Arithmetick in Whole Numbers, Fractions, or Decimalls, or
Logarithms, may be commendably taught, with Expedition.


Dwelling in Paul's Church Yard betwix the Signee of the
Sugar Loafe and the Naked Boy, right over against Paul's Chaine,
Where you may have choice of Copy-bookes made by the same Author.
Such as desire to learne privately, may be attended at their Lodgings.
Also you may have anything fairely written, by the said E.C.


But now for Edward Cocker the arithmetician. Ambrose Heal has himself counted 65 editions within 100 years of the book called COCKER'S ARITHMETIC. The Dictionary of National Biography estimated that there were at least 112. The hub of the matter is that it was published by one John Hawkins in 1678 - and this was two years after Cocker's death. There are, it is true, such things as posthumous publications. And why should we assume that the book was fudged off on Cocker? There is a rich answer to that question. There had already been published a book called THE YOUNG CLERK'S TUTOR

Whereby ingenious youths may soon be made
For clerkship fit, or Management of Trade.

On the title-page of this book appeared, prominently but ambiguously, Cocker's name. 'A close investigation', says Sir Ambrose Heal, 'leads one to suspect that the preface, modestly signed J.H., betrays the hand of John Hawkins as that of the real author of the book, and that he had used Cocker's name to conjure with. It seems therefore that the same questionable method may have been repeated by Hawkins with regard to the ARITHMETIC'.

A name to conjure with. Yes, indeed. A forged name to conjure with Cocker's success as writing-master caused the forgery of his name on the YOUNG TUTOR. The success - it ran into 15 editions - of the YOUNG TUTOR made even more attractive a false ascription of the ARITHMETIC. It did more. In 1685, nine years after Cocker's death, Hawkins was at it again with COCKER'S DECIMAL ARITHMETIC. Nineteen years later came COCKER'S ENGLISH D~CTIONARY, bearing Hawkins's name as editor, 28 years after Cocker's death. And H.B. Wheatley makes the delightful suggestion that if Hawkins had only lived longer Hawkins would have found COCKER' S COMPLEAT DANCING-MASTER and COCKER'S COMPLEAT COOKERY-BOOK among the papers of the deceased. But the fun doesn't stop there. Hawkins himself had died twelve years before the DICTIONARY was published, so that its ascription to Cocker and to Hawkins was a double fraud. As a publisher I do not wish to denigrate my brethren even of another epoch - but one is compelled to note that all these books were published by one little group of London Bridge booksellers. They had a good name for their series, and by Cocker they would stick to them.

What is the chief characteristic of Cocker the penman? It is gaiety. In Sir Ambrose Heal's words, 'he refused to take the job seriously and delighted to embroider his copy-books with fantastic creatures, exotic birds, dragons, dancing bears, angels, fauns, sea monsters, grotesque masks, warriors and delightful ships, all woven into an absurd medley of ornament round his pages. For sheer command of hand his knots and flourishes are wonderful pieces of exuberant penmanship'. (Mr George Walker, who delighted one of our meetings with his executions of flourishes, must please extend his art zoologically!) In this Cocker was reverting, against all the tendencies of the time, to an earlier flamboyant fashion.

And it was not only in his penmanship that Cocker showed his gaiety. His instructions are full of endearing couplets, endearing and also exact; as this on the italic hand

On oval wheels should fair Italian run
Smooth as the whirling Chariot of the Sun.

Where did Cocker stand as a penman? He belonged to an age when writing was still a matter of many different hands - hands commended by the politeness of the varied occasion even more than suited to varying taste. (Martin Billingsley lists in 1618 five hands for differing degrees of formality. He, by the way, is early in the discourtesies between penmen. He refers to his competitors as 'lame penmen' and 'botchers'.) But in the thirty years between Cocker's first and his last copy-books there was one occasion which came to predominate over all others - the occasion of commerce. And Cocker was the transitionalist penman; he gradually conformed to this paramount demand for wide simple clarity in his letters if not in his framework decorations. Indeed I suppose that it was the necessary curtailment of fun in the hand of commerce that prompted him to retain and develop his extra-literal exuberance; a needed compensation.

The other influence on the style of writing - other to the occasions of commerce - was the new use of the 'rolling-press', that is, of intaglio engraving. The first copy-book to be reproduced by this method was published in Bologna in 1571. The first in England was Billingsley's in 1605. The tool of the copper-engraver produced an extraordinarily brilliant line, and masters (and their pupils) were led to employ a correspondingly fine pen. Many penmen were their own engravers; and it was inevitable that they should seek to write a hand with the pen that could fully exploit the wonderful finesse of their brains. The method of reproduction predominated over the thing to be reproduced. Copperplate engraving largely made what came to be regarded as the copperplate hand, just as the quill pen largely made, and the broad nibbed steel pen still largely makes - at least makes possible - the italic hand.

Before the rolling-press, before engraving, the copy-books were printed letterpress, with an actual coarsening of the original. Fine lines were impossible.

But to go back to the commercial reason. In l648 Oliver Cromwell determined to reduce the marine power of the Dutch and increase the mercantile power of the English. His means was the Mercantile Act which provided that every cargo carried to England must be carried in an English ship. As our commerce expanded, the English style of writing also spread, at home and abroad. Commercial clerkship became an important career. Mr Stanley Morison says, 'It would be an exaggeration to claim that the English national script, still termed copy-book or copperplate, possesses an attractive personality. It is colourless, thoroughly unromantic and dull. These, how- ever, were precisely the qualities which commended it to those who wrote our invoices, and to those abroad who received them'.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the copybook or copperplate style was paramount, without 'sprigges', without' striking', and with the exaggerated slant that made for speed. George Bickham in 1754, referring back to Cocker's day, has this to say: 'Our fore-fathers practised a small running secretary hand; they practised many others as well. And it was as great a rarity to meet with a person who had not been so taught as it is now to meet one that is. To talk then of round hand, and persuade the practice of it, was the same thing, as it would be now to introduce a new character unknown to the generality of mankind. But at length the excellency and usefulness of the round hand prevailing with many eminent pen-men, to show the delicacy of it, and its natural tendency to facilitate and despatch business being considered, it is universally received and practised by all degrees of men, in all employments, the law only excepted.'

All degrees of men. The italic hand, more elegant, more courtly, easier, the 1oval wheels' of Cocker, survived for a long time, chiefly as a hand for ladies - not then engaged in commerce. Bickham himself published in 1739 A COMPLEAT SET OF ITALIAN COPIES FOR THE USE OF THE LADIES OF GREAT BRITAIN. In this he followed the precept of Billingsley, a hundred years before him; for Billingsley, who taught Charles I his beautiful italic hand, says of what he calls Roman (we italic) 'a hand of great account and of much use in this Realme ... it is conceived to be the easiest hand that is written with the pen ... Therefore it is usually taught to women, forasmuch as they, having not the patience to take any great pains, besides phantasticall and humoursome, must be taught that which they instantly learn'. But with the new copperplate hands dominating the country, and Europe, towards the end of the 18th century, even the ladies were catered for as if they indeed had become possessed of the 'patience to take great pains'.

I must now develop that second part of my theme which concerns- the dramatic rivalries among the penmen. For this I must leave Cocker; it was not his wont; it was not 'according to Cocker' to lambaste his brother writers. (I wish I could use the term 'brother and sister' writers; 'but I find that there were only four professional women writing masters among the 450 penmen in Sir Ambrose Heal's list.)

In those ampler days the teachers did not have one common enemy. By no means. They had each other. Partly the battle was between styles, between the severe and those with the 'esprit gai'. But even more it was between personalities, and for glory, and for the lucre that glory brought.

Isaac D'Israeli, born in 1761, the father of Benjamin, has a chapter in his CURIOSITIES OF LITERATURE on the history of writing masters. He pokes enormous fun at the pretentions of the masters, and that fun-poking is in itself a sad sign of the changed times. Listen to him on the man he calls 'the late Tomkins': 'a recent instance of one of these egregious caligraphers may be told of the late Tomkins. This vainest of writing masters dreamed through life that penmanship was one of the fine arts, and that a writing master should be seated with his peers in the Academy. He bequeathed to the British Museum his opus magnum, a copy of Macklin's Bible profusely embelished with the most beautiful and varied decorations of his pen; and as he conceived that both the workman and the work would alike be darling objects with posterity, he left something immortal with the legacy, his fine bust by Chantrey, unaccompanied by which they were not to accept the immortal gift! When Tomkins applied to have his bust, our great sculptor abated the usual price, and, courteously kind to the feelings of the man, said that he considered Tomkins as an artist! It was the proudest day in the life of our writing-master.

'But an eminent artist and wit now living, once looking on this fine bust, declared that this man died for want of a dinner. Our penman had long felt that he stood degraded in the scale of genius by not being received at the Academy, at least among the class of engravers. The next approach to academic honour he conceived would be appearing as a guest at their annual dinner. These invitations are as limited as they are select, and all the Academy persisted in regarding Tomkins as a writing-master! Many a year passed. Every intrigue was practised, every remonstrance was urged, every stratagem of courtesy was tried; but never ceasing to deplore the failure of his hopes, it preyed on his spirits, and the luckless calligrapher went down to his grave - without dining at the Academy.' But I must turn again to the rivalries ...

There are two formal and famous jousts of the pen, and D'Israeli records them both. The first was between Bales and Johnson, in 1595. Johnson, young and arrogant, had persistently provoked Bales by libels on his skill. And Bales therefore issued a challenge 'to all Englishmen and strangers to write for a gold pen of £20 value, ... best, straightest and fastest ... in a slow set hand, a mean facile hand and a fast running hand, and to write truest and speediest, most secretary and clerk-like, from a man's mouth, reading or pronouncing either English or Latin'. Johnson by way of accepting the challenge, posted all the city with contumelious phrases against Bales, taunting him particularly with the poverty that had allegedly made him suggest a pen worth £20 instead of the £1000 Johnson says he was willing to wager. Imagine, £1,000 in those days! On Michaelmas Day the trial opened before five judges 'before a multitude like a stage play, and shouts and tumults'. At first it was level pegging. Bales won the test for the manner of teaching scholars, the test for writing from dictation in English and Latin. Johnson won the Roman hand, Bales the bastard secretary and set text, Johnson the Court hand. So in pure writing it was two all. But Bales had a card up his sleeve; he produced suddenly his 'masterpiece, secretary and roman hand four ways varied'. The challenger was out-written and Bales was awarded the pen. Did that silence Johnson? Certainly not. Again Johnson placarded the city. Bales, he said, had got the pen from the judges by pretending that his sick wife longed for a sight of it. The judges, he declared, having thus lost the pen to Bales in any case, had therefore felt obliged to give a verdict that suited the occasion, to follow the pen with the verdict rather than the verdict with the pen. Bales disproved the libel and adopted the pen as his shop sign. Alas, I can show no specimen of Bales's or Johnson's hand.

We shall glance now at one more contest, one as late as the reign of Queen Anne. It was set between Mr German and Mr More. But there were no printed libels, no shouts, no tumults. Decorum was so far honoured that Mr German insisted that Mr More should set the copy. This he did, neatly enough, with a pun on his own name:

As more, and More, our understanding clears,
So more and More our ignorance appears.

Copies of this text in various hands were submitted for judgment: the umpires found themselves wholly unable to choose between the merits of the parties. At length one of them discovered that Mr German had omitted in one copy the dot of an i. That won the pen for Mr More.

More, in his ESSAY ON THE INVENTION OF WRITING has the following passage which is quoted for ridicule by Isaac D'Israeli; but I confess to finding it fine in thought and statement: 'Art with me is of no party. A noble emulation I would cherish, while it proceeded neither from nor to malevolence. Bales had his Johnson, Norman his Mason, Ayres his Matlock and his Shelley; yet Art the while was no sufferer. The busybody who officiously employs himself in creating misunderstandings between artists, may be compared to a turnstile, which stands in every man’s way, yet hinders nobody; and he is the slanderer who gives ear to the slander'.

Bales had his Johnson. We have heard that history. 'Ayres his Matlock and his Shelley'. I can say no more of this contest - not a formal competition, but a bout of criticism - than that it concerned Mr Shelley's partiality for 'sprigged' letters when the fashion was against them. But Matlock was also against Cocker. He writes of the 'misleading labyrinth of the confused examples of Mr Cocker'. Snell, another master, declaims against 'our late Authors who have made Owls, Apes, Monsters and sprig'd Letters ... in the hopes, by amusing the ignorant, to gain the Reputation of Masters'.

I take my leave with a discovery, at any rate an assertion - and he was a singularly accurate man - of Isaac D'Israeli's. 'There is a strange phrase', he says, 'connected with the art of the calligrapher, which I think may be found in most if not in all modern languages, "To write like an angel". Ladies have frequently been compared with angels; they are beautiful as angels, and sing and dance like angels; but however intelligible these comparisons are, we do not so easily connect penmanship with the other celestial accomplishments. This fanciful phrase "to write like an angel" has a very human origin. Among those very learned Greeks who emigrated to Italy and afterwards into France, in the reign of Francis I, was one Angelo Vergecio, whose beautiful calligraphy excited the admiration of the learned. His name, Angelo, became synonymous for beautiful writing and gave birth to the vulgar proverb, to write like an angel: to write like Angelo.'

La belle ecriture
demande un esprit
gai pour son