References in Uttoxeter grocers’ bills to ‘Calais sand’ made us question our paleography recently, as we could not at first understand why a bill for rice, candles, and treacle should also include such an item. Google Books and a Georgian scholar came to our rescue.
Robert Nares (1753-1829) was a clergyman with a love of Elizabethan literature, who in 1822 published the first edition of A Glossary; or Collection of Words, Phrases, Names, and Allusions to Customs Proverbs etc which have been thought to require illustration, in the works of English authors. The entry for Calais sand reveals that it the phrase has two meanings, one martial and the other domestic. Duelling was forbidden in England but permitted on the continent, and Calais sand was proverbially the nearest portion of continental land to the English coast. It was therefore the closest location for legitimate duelling. Some eager combatants held that the import of sand from Calais to England permitted duelling without crossing the channel, so long as the duel was conducted literally on the sand. Nares thought this ludicrous, but cited several instances of Calais sand being referenced in relation to duelling including by the playwright and Shakespearean contemporary Thomas Tomkis. Fortunately, he also observed a more mundane use for imported sand, as a household scouring agent. In this way, sand was used to keep kitchen pots clean; it is likely it was also used in writing, shaken over freshly-written documents to dry the ink and prevent blotting.
Nares’ book was republished throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, suggesting that his digest of definitions and quotes substantially outlived the man. Google books has given it a potential twenty-first century readership: the Staffordshire Poor Law Biographies project is just one beneficiary.