The three Rs? They are “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic”.

Sir William Curtis (1752-1829) called the foundations of a basic education, reading, writing and arithmetic, the 3 Rs around 1825, when he was well over 70. Was he aware of the irony of his words? Was he funny or illiterate?

Sir Billy Biscuit’s origins were modest. Born in East London, William was the son of a manufacturer of sea biscuits, a ship’s staple known as hardtack in the US consisting of very hard unsalted bread. Business boomed during the Napoleonic wars, and so William became a very wealthy merchant. He founded a bank and then entered politics to become Lord Mayor of London and MP of the City of London, where he defended the interests of the mercantile community in parliament. He befriended King George IV and was made a Baronet in 1802.

Though he was a keen business man and politician, he was said to be almost illiterate. Yet Sir William was also an amateur cellist and owner of fine musical instruments. Surely a musician will have been able to read?

A satirical book plate making fun of him bears the Latin words for “We conquer by degrees” — and a sheep’s head!