Sir William Curtis (born January 25, 1752,) son of a British baker, became Member of Parliament for the City of London in 1790, holding the seat for 28 years. He was also Lord Mayor of London 1795-6.
Among many other products, the family made ships’ biscuits. After inheriting the business, expanding it and making a whole pile of money, satirists came to call him Sir Billy Biscuit. Sir Billy was nearly illiterate. (BBC)
The famous expression – “the three Rs—reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic”- is credited to Curtis.
He proposed it as a toast at a dinner given by the Board of Education in the days when folks were pleading for increased educational advantages for the poor. It was received with great applause and drunk amid much merriment.
But, though recognized as a jest at the time, it was afterwards taken up in earnest by Curtis’s detractors, who have handed his name down to posterity as a blundering ignoramus. (Walsh, 1893)
He chose the phrase simply as a joke. (Walsh, 1893) However, for decades, the definition of literacy was limited to the acquisition of reading, writing and arithmetic, usually referred to as the 3Rs. (UNESCO)
“(T)he three R’s,’reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic,’… belong to universal culture. They are the foundation of all education. We are speaking of the superstructure.” (Christian Union, September 4, 1878)
Curtis was not just an unexpected forward thinking, yet jokester, toaster; part of his wealth came from operations linked to the quip about his sea biscuit name …
Curtis was one of the principal financiers for the ‘Butterworth Squadron,’ a British commercial fleet of three vessels, the Butterworth, the Jackal, and the Prince Lee Boo.
These ships sailed for the Pacific Ocean from London via Cape Horn in late 1791 on a sealing and whaling expedition, following the Nootka Sound Convention, opening the Pacific Northwest Coast to British traders.
The Butterworth squadron first wintered at the Hawaiian Islands in February 1793, when control of the Islands was divided between Kamehameha who controlled Hawai‘i and much of Maui, and Kahekili who controlled the islands west of Maui including O‘ahu and Kauai.
They traded in weapons with both Kamehameha and Kahekili, but strongly favored the latter. The ship’s captain entered into a contract with Kahekili giving him title to the island of O‘ahu together with four islands to windward in return for weapons and military assistance, suppressing a revolt on Kauai.
It was during this period of alliance with Kahekili that the Butterworth squadron became the first European vessels that entered the inner Honolulu Harbor. (The contract to title to the Islands would have ended upon Kahekili’s death in 1794.) (Payne)
The first European entry of Honolulu Harbor is credited to Captain Brown of the British schooner Jackal, accompanied by Captain Gordon in the sloop tender Prince Lee Boo.
They called the harbor “Fair Haven” which may be a rough translation of the Hawaiian name Honolulu (it was also sometimes called Brown’s Harbor.)
Sir Billy Biscuit was a generous and hospitable man and in later years he became known as the “Father of the City”. When he died on January 18, 1829 every shop in Ramsgate closed in his honour and an immense crowd followed his funeral cortege. He’d had quite an effect on the place. (BBC)
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