rebel not taken


For those with an historical bent, my own ancestry can be traced back to a long line of downtrodden peasants, hawkers, bare knuckle boxers, convicts, rag and bone men and all-round riff-raff - the heroic sort that has always scratched a dodgy living on the outside edge of society.

Like my forbear Alexander Osborne, one of the nonconformist rebels who fought against the King's men in the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion.  A West Country farm labourer, Alexander Osborne joined the ill equipped 'pitchfork' army rounded up by the wayward Duke of Monmouth, who hatched a plot to capture Bristol with a rabble of untrained yokels and then march on London to claim the throne. Not a good idea.

They came second in the Battle of Sedgemoor and it was a good job Alexander Osborne escaped after the final whistle, because those unfortunate  wretches captured were dragged up before the infamous ‘hanging’ Judge Jeffreys at the “Bloody Assizes”. Their brutal punishment was either to be sold as slaves to the colonies or sent to the gallows, after which their corpses were quartered, boiled in salt, dipped it pitch and then exhibited as a fearful lesson to all who contemplated defiance to the King.

This explains how my lucky ancestor Alexander Osborne is listed in the annals of history as ‘rebel and not taken’. 

As for those miscreants who were ‘taken’, two names might ring a bell: Dr Peter Blood - found guilty of aiding the wounded Monmouth rebels and transported to the West Indies, where he started his second career as a pirate and became the model for Captain Blood of Pirates of the Caribbean. And the young Daniel Defoe, who, whilst hiding in a churchyard to avoid capture, noticed the name Robinson Crusoe carved on a gravestone.

Luckily for the future of the English novel Daniel Defoe was in receipt of The General Pardon in 1686.

And there's another 'Art' link. After the defeat at Sedgemoor, the charismatic, Duke of Monmouth (King Charles ɪɪ’s bastard son) was captured hiding in a ditch disguised in the clothes of a shepherd. He was duly charged with treason and beheaded seven days later on Tower Hill. It took eight blows of the axe from Jack Ketch (a butcher and part time headsman) to sever his bonce, finishing off the job with a butcher’s knife.

After this well attended public exhibition, it was realised a terrible mistake had taken place. The son of a former king, albeit illegitimate, had been executed without his portrait being painted. So a Yeoman Warder was sent to retrieve his head after the body was exhumed and the Surgeon General was commissioned to sew it back on. The portrait was duly banged out in double quick time and has hung in the Royal Portrait Gallery to this day.

These are Alexander Osborne’s direct descendents:


Descendents of Alexander Osborne were variously listed in censuses as ‘worker in the field’, ‘scavenging haulier’, ‘horse dealer’, ‘pauper’ and ‘yarn spinner in sail cloth factory’. Children’s occupations included ‘plough boy’ and ‘Gentleman’s errand boy’.

Many were given ‘assisted passages’ to Australia in Victorian times. 

My Great Grandfather migrated from the West Country to Notting Hill in the 19th century (called Notting Dale then). An unplanned shanty town developed in the Dale known as the ‘Piggeries and Potteries’. This area was to develop a reputation for being rough with Pottery Lane being nicknamed ‘Cut-throat Lane’ by the locals. Charles Dickens called the Potteries ‘a plague spot scarcely equalled for its insalubrity by any other in London.’

In 1893 the Daily News published an article denouncing the conditions in the Dale with the author stating that he had never seen ‘anything more degraded and abandoned than life in these wretched places.’ The Kensington Vestry put these conditions down to the evil habits of the people who were ‘largely made up of loafers, cab-runners, beggars, tramps, thieves and prostitutes.’

Growing up in the turbulent post-war decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s provided rich material for an artist. The Osbornes, mostly rag-and-bone men and ne’er-do-wells, crossed paths with serial  murderer John Christie of 10 Rillington Place, frequented slum landlord Peter Rachman’s illicit gambling dens in North Kensington, were drinking mates of gangster Joe Cannon, and socialised with assorted ‘actresses’.

Those decades were also a time of radical social change with the pubs and streets morphing into a cultural melting pot and photographers and writers lighting up the pockmarked bombsites and dark corners of Notting Hill.

Actors and musicians mixed freely with ‘faces’ from the ‘underworld’ and class barriers and bourgeois conventions were being broken down and deconstructed.

During the 1950’s, Fascist Oswald Mosley was ‘recruiting’ from his headquarters next to a fish and chip shop in Princedale Road. The race riots were breaking out all over Notting Hill Gate and fly on the wall photographer Roger Mayne was documenting local Teddy Boys and children (including Osbornes) running wild in decaying Southam Street and Portland Road (1956-61). Roger Mayne’s pictures of the street life in Notting Hill appeared on numerous Penguin covers during the sixties, most famously Colin MacInnes’ novel Absolute Beginners and George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He also photographed, and was influenced by, many of the painters in the Cornish art colony of St Ives, who, coincidentally, I was to work with and befriend 50 years later.

The film director Ken Russell, who lived on Portobello Road during that time, was another artist with a keen eye for the eccentric, and in the mid 50’s he took a series of photographs depicting the fledgling youth culture of the streets that proved to be a still life trailer for his later surreal movies.

During these interesting times, the Osbornes continued their picaresque journey through history with a genetically mixed cocktail of insouciant contempt for authority and feckless hedonism. An existential way of confronting the world that proved to be a recurring and dominant leitmotif in my work.


 Bob Osborne 2012


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