The Perfect Regency Hero? Defender of the Common Man? The Saviour of the Scillies ? Pioneering Plant Collector? Or Sexual Predator? Who was Augustus Smith?

During a recent holiday on the Isles of Scilly I visited Tresco Abbey Gardens and discovered that they had been created by a man whose name was familiar from my childhood. Augustus Smith (1804-72) was the hero who defended the commoners rights in my home town of Berkhamstead when Lord Brownlow attempted to enclose the common land. Lord Brownlow erected steel fences, so Augustus Smith brought in a trainload of navvies who uprooted the barriers, rolled them up and dumped them on his lordship’s front lawn. Berkhamstead Common remains unenclosed to this day.

Then I read the quote under the picture of Augustus above – an image where he looks every bit the handsome and sensitive young Regency gentleman. Given that, amongst other things, I write Regency romance, I couldn’t help feeling that Lady Sophia Tower’s description of Augustus Smith sounded almost too good to be true:

A man of good presence, above the middle height, lithe in figure, firm in step, upright in carriage, with well-cut, handsome features closely shaven (it was the English fashion then) and an eye cold, grey, observant; he looked as if he had been accustomed to command, or was born to be a ruler, whilst his gentlemanly address was prepossessing, conversation with him quickly added to the good impression he first made; nature had well moulded him, education and refinement aided him to please and to reform others.”

So, who was this paragon? Augustus was born in 1804 to a wealthy banker, raised in Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire and educated at Harrow and Oxford. He soon developed an interest in social reform and in education and these passions were allowed free rein when, in 1834, he acquired the lease of the Isles of Scilly from the Duchy of Cornwall. The islanders had suffered dreadfully from the neglect of generations of absentee landlords and were without education, support or resources. Agriculture was at a subsistence level and the only industry was the burning of kelp to create soda ash, although by the time Smith took over it has been almost overtaken by industrial processes on the mainland. A niche business supplying the very fine white beach sand for sanding wet ink was also foundering with the use of blotting paper. Most families existed on fishing and scavenging from shipwrecks.

Smith descended like an incoming monarch – his word became law on the islands, regardless of what the islanders had to say. He made education compulsory up to the age of thirteen, built a church and a pier, renovated dwellings and built himself a magnificent house on the island of Tresco next to the ruins of the 12th century abbey.

Harbour on St Mary’s with the church that Augustus Smith had built (copyright A J Hilton)

Undoubtedly he raised the living standards of the islanders, but he also created considerable controversy by what the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls his “mix of liberalism and authoritarianism….In public life his reputation was for over-persistent and often footling controversy.” Many applauded his approach, but John Stuart Mill described it as “detestable”.

Tresco & Smith’s Abbey (copyright A J Hilton)

He began work on the fabulous gardens on Tresco in 1834, importing plants from all over the world to create what is now an internationally famous collection.

The Abbey Gardens on Tresco (copyright A J Hilton)

Smith certainly expected high standards from everyone else, but I wondered about his own character. He never married, but he had two children by islander Mary Pender who was twenty years younger than Smith and whose first child was born when she was seventeen. He is also reputed to have fathered children on his domestic servants. How consensual were those relationships, given that Mary was a shop girl and the servants probably had no other employment prospects? How do you say No to the King of the Islands?

So, not the perfect hero, certainly deeply flawed, but also the man who rescued the Isles of Scilly when their inhabitants were virtually starving. The image below (unknown artist or date) seems to show a man who had no doubts about his own rightness!

After my last visit to The Isles of Scilly I wrote a trio of books linked by the shipwreck of an East Indiaman: you can find the Danger and Desire series here.

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Smithfield – Horror, Slaughter, Revelry, Fire, the Oldest Hospital in London and Pocahontas

Smithfield 1682 from William Morgan’s map

I am keeping my fingers crossed that I will be able to stay in one of the Landmark Trust’s properties in Cloth Fair, Smithfield, this summer. You can see Cloth Fair running off from the north-east side of Smithfield, just below Long Lane, in this map of 1682. The little street gets it name from Bartholomew Fair, founded by royal charter in 1133 for the benefit of the adjacent St Bartholomew’s Hospital. It became the greatest cloth fair in England and the Corporation of London held a cattle fair at the same time. Eventually it became one of the highlights of London life, running for three days in August and, by the 17th century, an entertainment, rather than a market. I wrote about it here in all its rowdy glory. By 1855 it was finally suppressed and Smithfield Market was built in the area at the top of Smithfield, covering the sheep pens and the open space to the east of them that you can see in the 1682 map.

Smithfield was originally the Smooth Field, an area for grazing horses outside the City walls. – you can see the Town Ditch in the lower right hand corner of the map above. It became a weekly horse market by 1173 and then sheep, pigs and cattle were added. Such a large open space outside the walls was convenient for tournaments and also for executions, allowing a large crowd to gather. The gallows was moved to Tyburn in the early 15th century but burnings of heretics and of women accused of witchcraft continued. Whereas a man might be beheaded or hanged, horrifyingly, women were also burned to death there for a number of offences termed treasonous, including forging currency and killing their husbands (seen as petty treason against authority). In 1652 the diarist John Evelyn recorded witnessing the burning of a woman for poisoning her husband.

The area was a rough one, notorious for duelling and less formalised fighting, but gradually the City authorities began to bring it under control. The area was paved and a cattle market established. The print below shows St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1750 with the gatehouse and the church of St Bartholomew the Less and, in front, loose cattle, sheep and horses.

The view is of the south-east edge of Smithfield and the gate can still be seen today, although all the houses and shops on either side have been replaced.

By the time of Horwood’s map of London in the early 19th century (below) there were proper pens set out, but the market was still a chaotic, stinking, noisy and dangerous place, despite the development of the area all around with shops and houses. Animals were driven through the streets, even on Sundays, and beasts were slaughtered so that the gutters ran with blood or were blocked with entrails. In Oliver Twist Dickens wrote, “The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle… the unwashed, unshaven, squalid and dirty figures running to and fro… rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene…”

Where that central diamond of pens was is now the “Rotunda garden” a patch of green sitting on top of the circular entrance to the underground carpark and the rectangular northern area is the London Central Meat Market built between 1851 and 1899. To the west is the Poultry Market, rebuilt in 1963 after a fire. The Museum of London is planning to take over the entire range of market buildings – what will happen to the current lively weekly market, I have no idea.

Probably the only parts of Smithfield that the pre-Victorian visitor would recognize today are the churches of St Bartholomew the Great and Lesser. In 1123 Rahere, an Augustinian, founded a priory and its church, St Bartholomew’s the Great, was built in stages, completed in 1240 with a long nave that was demolished in the 1540s after the Reformation. The choir was left as the parish church and the monastic buildings sold off. Now, the half-timbered entrance just to the south of Cloth Fair stands on the site of the original west door.

St Bartholomew the Less was a chapel for the priory, built in about 1154. Although ancient, it has had a chequered history. The print below shows the interior as remodeled by Charles Dance the Younger in 1789: the box pews have been replaced. It was heavily restored after bomb damage in the Second World War.

St Bartholomew the Less, looking towards the altar. From Wilkinson’s Londina Illustra (1834)

Rahere’s priory had a chequered life after the Dissolution. The crypt of St Bartholomew the Great became a coal store, the Lady Chapel was converted into houses plus a printer’s business where Benjamin Franklin was employed in 1725, the surrounding area held a blacksmith’s forge, a hop store, a carpenter’s workshop and stables. The Victorians restored it in 1864-56 and 1884-96 and it is difficult to imagine the state it must once have been in.

Despite the Dissolution of the Monasteries Rahere’s great work, his hospital, survives to this day. It almost closed after the Dissolution through lack of funds, but somehow kept going until Sir Richard Gresham persuaded Henry VIII to re-found it in 1544 and it has been continuously rebuilt and developed since. Known as “Bart’s” it remains on site as a specialist cancer and cardiology hospital.

One curious feature of Smithfield is the Golden Boy of Pye Corner. On the map above you can see where Giltspur Street enters at the southern end of Smithfield and to the west is an angle known as Pie, or Pye, Corner. This is where the flames of the Great Fire of London (1666) finally flickered and died out. The fact that it began in Pudding Lane and ended in Pie Corner was taken to be a warning that it had been caused by Londoner’s sinful gluttony. Actually the name derives from the Magpie Inn that once stood here and has nothing to do with pastry!

Pie Corner in 1804 with the church of St Sepulchre’s behind.

Just south of Pie Corner, on the northern corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, stood The Fortune of War inn. it was demolished in 1910 but had a particularly lurid history. The photograph below shows it just before demolition.

As well as being a ‘receiving house’, appointed by the Royal Humane Society as the location to bring bodies of those drowned in the Thames, it was also the chief hang-out for resurrectionists, or body-snatchers, providing bodies to the surgeons of Bart’s Hospital. It seems that many of the drowned found their way into the dissecting rooms along with corpses stolen from churchyards.

In the photograph you can see the small statue of a chubby child – The Golden Boy of Pye Corner. He was rescued when the pub was demolished and is now on the corner of the new building on the site. His inscription reads:

This Boy is in Memory put up for the late Fire of London
Occasion’d by the Sin of Gluttony.

And finally, the church of St Sepulchre’s, which can be seen in the background of the print of Pie Corner, was another of Rahere’s foundations and contains the tomb of Captain John Smith, one of the founders of Jamestown and of the State of Virginia, and famous for his relationship with Pocahontas of the Powhatan tribe.

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‘Happily Adapted to Grace’: The Regency Lady Performs

My most recent novel has a pianoforte teacher as its heroine and this prompted me to look through my collection of Regency prints to find those showing musical instruments. I have reproduced some of them here, ranging in date from 1798 to the 1820s and from the clumsy, but charming, style of The Ladies’ Monthly Museum to the beautifully detailed prints from Ackermann’s Repository.

Young lady wearing ‘The Fatima robe’ , October 1798, from an unidentified journal.

The first is a very charming print of a rather young lady playing, I believe, a harpsichord. She looks informal and yet elegant, which reflects the strictures of ‘A Lady of Distinction’, author of The Mirror of the Graces (1811). This gave advice on ‘The English Lady’s Costume’ and also ‘Female Accomplishments, Politeness and Manners.’

On the subject of playing musical instruments it is clear that no opportunity must be lost to display the performer in the best possible light.

“Let their attitude at the piano, or the harp, be easy and graceful. I strongly exhort them to avoid a stiff, awkward, elbowing position at either; but they must observe an elegant flow of figure at both.”

Playing an instrument and singing were basic accomplishments for any young lady and she was expected to help provide the entertainment at family gatherings and social occasions. Not only was this (hopefully) pleasant for the listeners, but it demonstrated her taste and allowed her to be viewed at her best by potential suitors. The ‘Lady of Distinction’ makes this display function exceedingly clear. She considered the harp showed “a fine figure to advantage. The contour of the whole form, the turn and polish of a beautiful hand and arm, the richly-slippered and well-made foot on the pedal stops, the gentle motion of a lovely neck, and above all, the sweetly-tempered expression of an intelligent countenance; these are shown at a glance, when the fair performer is seated unaffectedly, yet gracefully, at the harp.”

Lady with harp. Unidentified print

A pianoforte or harpsichord, “is not so happily adapted to grace. From the shape of the instrument the performer must sit directly in front of a line of keys; and her own posture being correspondingly erect and square, it is hardly possible that it should not appear rather inelegant.” The performer is urged to hold her head elegantly and to move her hands gracefully over the keyboard.

Ladies’ Monthly Museum

The lady about to play the harpsichord (above) turns gracefully (or, at least, as gracefully as anyone ever does in these early Ladies’ Monthly Museum prints!) to display her gown and figure. Quite how her friend will manage to look elegant shaking the vast tambourine is not clear.

A harp and a keyboard instrument are shown in this print from a ladies’ memorandum book of 1809:

The Lady of Distinction also considers that “Similar beauty of position may be seen in a lady’s management of a lute, a guittar [sic], a mandolin or a lyre,” and fashion prints also illustrate those. In the next image, from The Lady’s Monthly Museum of 1800, the elegance is somewhat lost in the awkwardness of the drawing.

More successful is this charming scene from a memorandum book of 1819.

And Ackermann’s Repository has this from 1819. The guitar-player has a wonderful gauze overskirt and a very soulful expression.

And finally a very flowing print and a very elegant instrument from the Lady’s Magazine – I love the paw feet!

My piano teacher heroine in The Earl’s Reluctant Proposal can be found here.

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The Story of a Square 10: Portman Square

“This square is esteemed the next in beauty, as it is in extent, to Grosvenor-square. It is built with more regularity than the latter: but the very uniformity of the houses, and the small projection of the cornices, are not favourable to grandeur and picturesque effect.”

This modified rapture comes from the beginning of the article in Ackermann’s Repository of August 1813 accompanying this print of the north side of Portman Square.

The square was begun in 1764 as a speculative development by John Berkely Portman, MP, for whom it is named. It rapidly became one of the most fashionable addresses in London and ‘The residence of luxurious opulence,’ according to Priscilla Wakefield, the Quaker philanthropist and writer of children’s non-fiction books.

Amongst its residents was Lord Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, closely associated with Lord Liverpool’s repressive government. The portrait below is after the original by Lawrence. Shelley wrote of him in The Mask of Anarchy,

‘I met Murder in the way –

He had a mask like Castlereagh.’

At the time of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 a furious mob attacked his house and smashed the windows.

Considerably more liberal was Mrs Elizabeth Montagu who lived in the house built for her 1777-82 on the north-west corner, now replaced by the massive block of the Radisson Blu hotel. Mrs Montagu was an intellectual – a ‘blue stocking’ – and philanthropist.

Elizabeth Montagu. Print after the portrait by Joshua Reynolds.

Every May Day she gave a roast beef and plum pudding dinner to chimney sweeps and their apprentices, the unfortunate ‘climbing boys’.

As the Ackermann article reports, these were children “doomed to a trade at once dangerous, disagreeable, and proverbially contemptible, the chimney-sweepers.”

May Day appears to have particular significance for chimney sweeps. In Brand’s “Observations on Popular Antiquities…Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions.” (1813) he notes “The young chimney-sweepers, some of whom are fantastically dressed in girls’ clothes, with a great profusion of brick dust by way of paint, gilt paper etc, making a noise with their shovels and brushes, are now the most striking objects in the celebration of May Day in the streets of London.” The little lad holding his brush in the centre foreground of this print by Cruickshank certainly seems cheerful enough.

At Mrs Montague’s feast tables were set out in the gardens and “servants in livery [waited on] the sooty guests, with the greatest formality and attention.” Great crowds watched the gathering, “highly diverted with the many insolent airs assumed on the joyful occasion by the gentlemen of the brush, who, bedizened in their May-day paraphernalia, would rush through the crowd of spectators with all the arrogance of foreign princes.”  

The reality of their everyday lives is more honestly seen in another Cruickshank print which shows how a boy trapped and suffocated in a chimney was removed. (The Chimney-Sweeper’s Friend, and Climbing-Boy’s Album. Arranged by James Montgomery. Illustrations by George Cruickshank (1824)).

In the south-west corner was the residence of Monsieur Otto, negotiator for the French of the Peace of Amiens, signed 27 March 1802. He displayed illuminations in the square to mark the event and they can be seen in a print in the British Museum collection.

Ackermann’s also records that the residence of the Ottoman ambassador to the British court was on the west side of the square and, “Whilst the ambassador continued here, this square was the resort of all the beauty and fashion of this district of the metropolis.”

The square has suffered from bombing and redevelopment but number 20, Home House designed by Robert Adam, survives. In the print of the square above it is the tallest block.

Orchard Street leads southwards out of the square in the south-east corner. This is where Jane Austen’s aunt Mrs Hancock and her cousin Eliza were living in August 1788 when Jane dined with them during her first recorded visit to London.

Going east from the same corner was Edwards Street, now included in Wigmore Street, the location of Society caterer Parmentier.

From the north east corner Baker Street runs north. In the guide book The Picture of London, Baker Street was described as “perhaps the handsomest street in London.” It can no longer be said to be of much interest, except to record that it led to the Hindoostanee Coffee House in Baker Street, the site of the first Indian restaurant in London. It was opened in 1810 by Sake Dean Mohammed who became famous in Margate for his lavish bath house. The coffee house was less successful and closed within the year. You can read more about him here.

The area around Portman Square forms Walk Two in my Walking Jane Austen’s London.

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Secrets Worth Knowing, The Bleeding Nun and the Fatal Marriage – Drama in a Provincial Playhouse

This rather undistinguished-looking building is Hull’s third theatre, and second Theatre Royal, in Humber Street, built in 1810 to replace the original of 1769, situated in Finkle Street.

The Finkle Street building had a ‘piazza’ at the front and separate entrances for each section of the house. Inside, the  boxes were fenced off from the pit, and linked by a gallery

The season ran from October to January, which was longer than most, but no summer season was attempted because most of the likely customers moved out of town and, as the then manager Tate Wilkinson recalled,  ‘seafaring persons, who are keen supporters are abroad’. The actors were mainly provincials but occasionally London stars would appear. In 1786 Mrs. Siddons took to the boards in Hull for a week, but the cost of promoting her season was so great that from the gross receipts of £450 the profit was only £130.

In 1803 John Wilkinson succeeded his father as manager and was soon in financial difficulty.  There were complaints of the narrowness of the street and the dangers of fire and the stage was too shallow for the elaborate melodramas then in fashion. Critics called the theatre ‘dirty, ill-lighted, and incommodious’.

The oldest playbills I have are for November 1803, the period of these complaints. By 1808 John Wilkinson was planning a new theatre.

The prices range from 3 shillings for a box to one shilling in the upper gallery. A place in the pit (the area immediately in front of the stage) costs one shilling. In 1809 there were riots at Covent Garden Theatre when the price of pit tickets was raised to half that – 6 pence – so this seems expensive. For the same money you could buy 20 pounds of potatoes. The note about the admission of servants probably refers to the habit of theatre-goers of sending their servants along to occupy seats until such time as they decided to arrive.

The tragedy, Isabella, or, the Fatal Marriage was an immensely popular work by Thomas Southerne, first performed in 1694. Isabella, mourning her dead husband Biron, is ravished and marries Villeroy. Then Biron reappears, is murdered and Isabella kills herself. To cheer the audience up after that is The Agreeable Surprise, a farce by John O’Keefe. The image below is from a later edition illustrated by Cruickshank and shows the dairy maid Buttercup with the character of Lingo in the centre.

The next evening many of the same actors were appearing in a comedy followed by a one-act farce.

John Bull was a five act comedy by John Colman the Younger. Here’s the opening few lines. I feel sorry for the poor pig with the measles.

ACT THE FIRST.

SCENE I.

A Public House on a Heath: over the Door the Sign of the Red Cow;——and the Name of “Dennis Brulgruddery.”

Enter Dennis Brulgruddery and Danfrom the House. Dan opening the outward Shutters of the House.

Dennis. A pretty blustratious night we have had! and the sun peeps through the fog this morning, like the copper pot in my kitchen.—Devil a traveller do I see coming to the Red Cow.

Dan. Na, measter!—nowt do pass by here, I do think, but the carrion crows.

Dennis. Dan;—think you, will I be ruin’d?

Dan. Ees; past all condemption. We be the undonestest family in all Cornwall. Your ale be as dead as my grandmother; mistress do set by the fire, and sputter like an apple a-roasting; the pigs ha’ gotten the measles; I be grown thinner nor an old sixpence; and thee hast drank up all the spirity liquors.

Dennis. By my soul, I believe my setting up the Red Cow, a week ago, was a bit of a Bull!—but that’s no odds. Haven’t I been married these three months?—and who did I marry?

Dan. Why, a waddling woman, wi’ a mulberry feace.

The farce, The Spoil’d Child was a popular piece that crops up in several of the big London theatres.

My next playbill is for December 1804, the next season and, irritatingly, it does not give prices for tickets – I was hoping to see if Mr Wilkinson was reducing them in the face of criticism. It is, however, a benefit performance in aid of Mrs Wilkinson, one of the actors and, I assume, John’s wife.

The comic opera is followed by a song by Thomas Arne, performed by Mrs Wilkinson with another of the cast on the trumpet.

The soldier tir’d
of war’s alarms
for swears the clang of hostile arms
and scorns the spear and shield

But if the brazen trumpet sound
he burns with conquest to be crown’d
and dares again the field

The Duenna was written by Richard Brisley Sheridan in 1794. The pantomime, Raymond & Agnes seems to derive from a Gothick tale of haunting by a bleeding nun in a German castle. I can’t find any of the script unfortunately, but the song, The Bleeding Nun, begins:

On each fifth day of each fifth year

The Bleeding Nun she doth appear

And slowly walks the castle round with steps that mark the trembling ground…

The Theatre Royal was renowned for its pantomimes and, in true pantomime tradition, often included local references.

In February 1804 the double bill was a comedy (Lovers’ Vows; Or, the Natural Son) “to which will be added a Melo Drame” [sic] A Tale of Mystery. The second act was enlivened by a garland dance.

To quote British History On-Line:

“The new theatre was completed by 1810 to the designs of Charles Mountain, the younger. It contained three tiers of boxes, two galleries, and a pit, with accommodation for 1,700. The stage was 54 feet deep. There was a domed ceiling over the pit and orchestra, connected to the sides of the building by a circle of groined arches, and an elliptical ceiling over the proscenium. The house was decorated in pink, yellow, white, and grey, and the boxes were lined with scarlet cloth. The cost of building aggravated Wilkinson’s financial difficulties, and summer seasons in 1810, 1812, and 1813 were expensive failures. He retired from the management in 1814 but his successors fared no better. When a fire destroyed the theatre in 1859 it was noted that ‘latterly the managements have changed almost yearly’ and that ‘the prestige of the property has lamentably decreased’.”

I have one more playbill, for 1812, one of those disastrous seasons.

As well as the comedy there are five comic songs – all with mentions of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, as if to add lustre to the programme – and a musical farce: The Farmer; Or, The Macaroni Staymaker.  The name of the stay (or corset) maker is Jemmy Jumps and for an explanation of stays, corsets and jumps, please see the post immediately preceding this one. Unfortunately I cannot locate any of the script of that one – I would love to see some corset jokes!

 

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Lace Up Tight – In Corsets, Stays or Jumps?

I was puzzling the other day over whether it would be more correct for my heroine to be wearing a corset or stays – or what exactly jumps were – so I did a little research.

To begin with Stays: the Oxford English Dictionary has “Stays (also a pair of stays). A laced under-bodice, stiffened by the insertion of strips of whalebone (sometimes of metal or wood) worn by women (sometimes by men) to give shape and support to the figure: = CORSET.”

The word is used in the sense of ‘staying’ something – securing it or holding it firm.

The earliest use given is 1608 and the use of the plural “is due to the fact that stays were originally (as they still are usually) made in two pieces laced together.” Presumably in the same way that we speak of a pair of drawers, which used to consist of two separate legs tied at the waist.

As for the Corset, the OED goes back to 1299 for the first use of the word, although that was a medieval outer garment. The earliest example they give for it as an undergarment is in The Times for 1795 – “Corsettes about six inches long [presumably this means the depth top to bottom], and a slight buffon tucker of two inches high, are now the only defensive paraphernalia of our fashionable Belles.” From the spelling and the timing it would appear that this term comes via the French and relates to the light, often uncorsetted, Empire fashions of the Revolution. They also quote a patent application of 1796 for “An improvement in the making of stays and corsettes.”

And finally Jumps. A jump was man’s short coat (17th & 18thc) also used generally, in the plural, for clothes, especially in country areas. But also a “kind of under (or undress) bodice worn by women, esp. during the 18th century, and in rural use in the 19th; usually fitted to the bust, and often used instead of stays. From c.1740 usually as plural jumps (a pair of jumps).” Oxford English Dictionary.

They seem to have been laced at the front, often had shoulder straps and were only lightly boned, if at all. This made them particularly suitable for women performing manual work and for nursing mothers.

A pair of jumps can be seen here c. 1770. The jumps are on the far left, with a corset hanging next to them.

For those British ladies not following extreme French fashion, the ‘long stay’ was the most used until about 1810. It is well illustrated in the satirical drawing at the top of the page: Gilray, Progress of the Toilet: The Stays published in February 1810. It laces right up the back (with one lace), covers the hips and is made to cup and support the bust. Unusually for this early date the lady is wearing knee-length drawers.

The fabric for long stays was jean (a strong twilled cotton) or buckram (a stiff cotton or linen soaked in a size such as wheat starch).

At this period, before the mass production of metal eyelets, the lace holes were simply strengthened with buttonhole stitch and would not take the strain of ferociously tight lacing. Shape therefore depended a great deal on the original cut of the garment and on its stout cloth and boning.

Many styles of stays were invented, experimenting with various fabrics for more flexibility, support and comfort and some stay-makers advertised more than fifteen varieties.

The extreme compression of the long stay gave rise to various health concerns, to say nothing of discomfort, and from about 1810 the short stay came into fashion, along with the ‘Divorce Corset’ designed to push the breasts apart.

Even with the short corset, there were critics. C. Willett Cunnington quotes one (unfortunately without attribution) as ranting in 1811: “…in eight women out of ten, the hips squeezed into a circumference little more than the waist; and the bosom shoved up to the chin, making a sort of fleshy shelf disgusting to the beholders and certainly most incommodious to the wearer.”

By September 1813 Jane Austen was writing to her sister Cassandra with the latest fashion news from London. “I learnt from Mrs Tickar’s young Lady [presumably her lady’s maid], to my high amusement, that the stays are now not made to force the Bosom up at all: that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion.”

The short stays were much more like a modern bra and did nothing to restrain the stomach or hips. A French pair from 1810 are shown above in a print designed to show how easy they were to put on.

This pair, for which I do not have a source, are laced up at the front.

The advertisements in La Belle Assemblee show how stays were promoted, with makers striving to differentiate their products.

In February 1809: “The much approved entire new Cotton and Brace Corset, invented and made only by Misses Linckmyers, No.12, Frith-street, Soho-square….entirely obviate every inconvenience frequently attending long stays…”

In April the same year these two adverts appeared:

Mrs Barclay is also operating in Frith Street, a short distance from the Misses Linckmyers. Not only are her corsets ‘fashionable’, but they are also ‘cheap’ and the increasing desire for comfort can be seen in the reference to ‘the simple vest’.

After all that my heroine is definitely opting for a short corset, if not a nice comfy pair of jumps!

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The Story of a Square 9: Soho Square

Soho Square was built in the 1680s by Richard Frith who had obtained a license indirectly from the landowner, the Earl of St Albans. The area had been farmland that had become a popular location for hunting and the most likely origin of the area’s name is that ‘So-Ho!’ was a hunting cry. By the 1670s building in the area was gaining momentum and it was popular with significant courtiers and aristocrats.

The Square had forty one houses by 1691 of which the most significant was Monmouth House on the south side, London home of Charles II’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth. The print of c. 1700 below looks south across the Square towards Monmouth House with its forecourt behind railings. Monmouth was executed after his failed rebellion against his uncle, King James II, in 1685. The house was eventually demolished in 1783. In John Evelyn’s Diary he records spending the winter of 1690 ‘at Soho, in the great Square.’

The Square was also known as King Square after Charles II. In 1720 John Strype wrote that the Square ‘hath very good Buildings on all Sides, especially the East and South, which are well inhabited by Nobility and Gentry.’ He described the garden in the centre as ‘a very large and open place, enclosed with a high Pallisado Pale, the Square within neatly kept, with Walks and Grass-plots, and in the midst is the Effigy of King Charles the Second, neatly cut in Stone to the Life, standing on a pedestal.’ It stood in a basin of water with figures representing the rivers Thames, Trent, Humber and Severn. The sculptor was Caius Gabriel Cibber. Stow’s view below looks north.

Soho or King’s Square, for ‘Stow’s Survey of London’, pub. 1754 by Nicholls, Sutton (fl.1700-40); hand coloured copper engraving; (out of copyright)

In 1748 a new wall and railings were erected. By 1839 the statues was ‘in a most wretchedly mutilated state’ and in the 1870s it was removed and sold, the last owner being  W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan fame. A half-timbered tool shed was erected in its place. The statue was returned in 1938, but without its basin. The view is looking south to where Monmouth House once stood.

The most fashionable residents abandoned Soho Square in the 1770s and moved westwards towards Mayfair but the area remained respectable and desirable and many merchants and country gentlemen had houses there, with various foreign diplomatic missions as neighbours.

By the beginning of the 19th century the residents were mainly professional men such as lawyers, doctors, architects and auctioneers. On the corner with Greek Street is what is now the House of St Barnabas, a Grade I Listed house built between 1744-7 and leased in 1754 to Richard Beckford, an immensely wealthy Jamaican plantation owner. It is now a charity for the homeless – one wonders what the slave-owning Mr Beckford would have made of that.

In 1816 Trotter’s, or the Soho Bazaar, was opened at what is now 4-6, Soho Square.  John Trotter was an army contractor and had built numbers 4, 5 and 6 as a warehouse. Having made a vast fortune from the war he turned his warehouse into a bazaar, or indoor market, to offer an outlet for craftwork created by the widows and daughters of army officers. They could rent a counter or stall at a cost of 3d per day per foot and sold jewellery, millinery, baskets, gloves, lace, potted plants and books. There was also a druggist in the bazaar, as a charming children’s book entitled A Visit to the Bazaar (1818) shows. The little book was intended to explain the origins of such goods along with moral lessons and instructions on how to make some of them.

The highly successful venture was patronised by the royal family and lasted until 1885.

If you leave the Square today and go around to Dean Street you can peer through the iron gates at the back of the original warehouse.

The print of 1812 shows the south-west corner of the Square. Frith Street enters to the left and the entrance to Carlyle Street can be seen top right. A mixed herd of cattle and sheep are being driven towards Greek Street, perhaps heading for one of the butchers serving the numerous eating houses in the district.

Soho is a fascinating area to explore. You can find it in Walk 5 in my Walking Jane Austen’s London and Walks 5 and 6 in Walks Through Regency London and discover its treasures, even at this difficult time, with the help of StreetView.

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Living In History

I nearly always blog about the ‘long’ Regency, the era in which almost all my books are set, but like most of us who are passionate about history, any opportunity to get closer to it fires the imagination. One of the best ways of doing that is living in an historic building. Some people are lucky enough to own one, but for the rest of us the Landmark Trust provides brilliant opportunities to live in eras ranging from the Middle Ages to the mid 20th century.

This month I have stayed in three West County Landmarks – two castles (nothing says Social Distancing like a castle), one medieval and one Tudor, and a Listed mid-century house and I thought I’d share them with you.

The first is Stogursey Castle near Bridgwater in Somerset, that just happened to be built by my husband’s distant great grandfather, William de Curci. Stoke de Curci was corrupted into Stogursey, hence the unusual name..

The castle itself is a ruin of curtain walls surrounding the central space where the keep used to stand.

The castle gradually fell into disrepair after the Wars of the Roses but the gatehouse, was  converted into a cottage in the 17th century. One side incorporates the base of a tower and the rest fits into the section where the gate itself would be. It was repaired in the 19th century and then fell into almost terminal decline until rescued by the Trust who discovered a bridge of about 1300 in the process.

We were enchanted to have a sitting room with arrow-slit windows.

The best view was just after sunrise and the only disappointment was that we couldn’t raise a drawbridge. Several walkers came and knocked, clearly under the impression that we could sell them tickets to get inside!

From Stogursey we went to Anderton House, near Barnstable, and couldn’t have found a greater contrast. The house was commissioned in 1969 and is one of the few houses of the period to have Grade II* Listed status.

The view was wonderful and we enjoyed the simple. pared-back design. In the centre, between the living room and kitchen/dining room was a small, open study space (the white wall behind the sofa), as specified by the original owner, who liked to work in the heart of things. I even managed to write a chapter there on a rainy day.

From our 20th century comforts we travelled on to the South Devon coast and Kingswear Castle, opposite Dartmouth Castle. Kingswear Castle was completed in 1502, a Tudor fortlet to defend a significant harbour.  The position is dramatic, the steps (inside and out) guarantee toned calf muscles by the end of the stay and the views are amazing. Here’s the castle from the opposite bank –

And here is the view across the River Dart to Dartmouth Castle in the early morning.

Stogursey Castle gave me the opportunity to soak up general atmosphere but Kingswear has far more practical experiences. The castle was, when it was built, absolutely state of the art. It possessed the first gun ports that allowed cannon to be trained in a wide sweep of fire and these gun ports remain on the lowest level in the gun battery (picture below). They are low in the walls because the guns were on wooden sledges, not on wheels, and were dragged into position. Above some of them you can see the small apertures that may have been sighting holes for the gunners. Even with the primitive cannon of the time the pair of forts between them could cover the width of the river.

Then artillery design improved and the range rapidly increased to the point where Dartmouth Castle alone could fire right across the estuary and Kingswear became more or less redundant after fifty years. It was manned during times of emergency and saw some action during the Civil War, but then there was a fire and it was allowed to fall into decay. In 1855 a wealthy young man, Charles Hayne Seale Hayne (yes, that is the correct name), bought it and turned it into his summer residence. He later became an MP and held office in Gladstone’s government. After his death it had several owners, was occupied by the Marines during the 2nd World War and was rescued again in 1957 by the MP for Torquay as his constituency home. In 1987 he sold it to the Landmark Trust.

Living in the castle now, one has the benefit of a modern kitchen and comfortable sitting room and bedroom, but there are constant reminders of the original purpose of the castle. There is modern plumbing in a bathroom on the roof, in the position where a firing platform would have allowed defenders to shoot at attackers on the landward side – the slope is so steep that the top of the castle is virtually at the level where today one parks the car. This meant that I could conveniently arrange the contents of my washbag in the sockets that carried the beams supporting the platform and could brush my teeth imagining the gunfire and shouts echoing overhead.

The position of the bathroom meant that one had regular experience of living with a stone spiral staircase spanning four floors. It was tough enough in modern clothing and not carrying anything, but negotiating it at night gave me a vivid sense of what it must have been like for defenders, probably in some kind of armour or chainmail, hurrying up and down during an attack. [The image below has been copied from the Landmark Trust website] It also made me wish that the Landmark Trust had seen fit to reinstall the garderobe which was discovered in the alcove that Seale Hayne had used as a wine cupboard and into which a later occupant had installed a large window. It is now in the bedroom.

 

 

Finally, to top off Kingswear’s historical experience, there is the 2nd World War blockhouse.

I look back on ten days experience of the Middle Ages, the early 16thc, the English Civil War, the 2nd World War and the 1970s with my imagination stimulated and ideas jostling for attention – and of course, in expeditions out from our Landmarks I discovered treasures that fitted ‘my’ period perfectly – a very early steam engine and a delicious little Regency ‘Gothic’ house in Totnes, which is surely going to have a place in a future book.

 

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The Ghost of a Georgian Prison

I was in Devon recently and, crossing Dartmoor, stopped outside Princetown to look at the gloomy bulk of Dartmoor prison. It isn’t easy to stop and look at the place, let alone take photographs, for obvious security reasons, but these were taken from a legitimate parking space beyond the town.

It is often assumed, possibly because of its looming presence in Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, that it is a Victorian  prison and, as a prison for convicted criminals, it is certainly that. The first arrived in 1850, transferred from the rotting prison hulks on the Thames, and the buildings we can see today were built by, and for, those men and their successors.

However, the first stones were laid on the site in March 1806 on land owned by the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent). There was no village there, merely farms and an inn. The government had realized that the prison hulks at Portsmouth and other harbours could no longer cope with the flood of prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars. Prisoners were dying in large numbers from disease and it became clear that a new land-based prison was necessary. Britain was at war with France from 1793 to 1815 and it is estimated that over 100,000 prisoners, mainly naval, were landed in England during that period.

Officers were easy to deal with. By definition they were ‘gentlemen’ and could therefore be relied upon to keep their word of honour. If they gave their parole, a promise in writing not to escape, they were allowed to live in lodgings in one of the numerous parole towns, mainly near the coast. There were eleven in Hampshire alone.

Ordinary soldiers and sailors and non-commissioned officers were not trusted and had to be confined. Norman Cross prison near Peterborough had been established as early as 1797, but that was not enough and the hulks had proved an inadequate, lethal, alternative.

The new prison at what became known as Princetown, built at a cost or £200,000, received its first prisoners on 22nd May 1809. In September 1810 Ackermann’s Repository published a plan of Dartmoor Prison & English Barracks.

The vast majority of the structures seen in the plan were demolished from 1850 onwards as ‘modern’ cell blocks were built, but, extraordinarily, the basic shape and some features remain in the present prison. If you look at the satellite view of the prison you will see the circular shape has been retained, that the old barracks have gone, but Barrack Road still runs through the site and the entrance gates and the outlet for the aqueduct remain. It is even possible to trace the shape of the entrance yards and the line of the wall that cuts across the circle is still visible. Even the layout of the blocks, radiating outwards, preserves the footprint of the original structures. Presumably one was demolished and rebuilt at a time.

The Repository provides a helpful key. Starting from the bottom of the picture, outside the gates, is Aqueduct to supply prison with water and Pond of water. Opposite is The Grand entrance; with the inscription ‘Parcere subjectis’ cut in the stone arch. [‘Spare the vanquished’ ie be kind to the prisoners!]. If you use Streetview you can read the inscription, still in place, and behind it see a second gate with a bell over it, as seen in the print.

On either side of the main entrance were the Agent’s and Surgeon’s houses with clerks’ houses making up the rest of the little Agent’s square for market, etc. – a reminder that prisoners were allowed to craft items from straw, bone and wood and sell them to the public. This wonderfully intricate box was shown on the Antiques Roadshow in 2020 and valued at £4-6000. It was not only innocent workboxes and ship models that the prisoners sold. An embarrassed and indignant  local member of the Society For the Suppression of Vice posted two of his purchases to the London Headquarters. They appear, from the difficulty he had in wrapping them and his euphemism-laden remarks, to have been sex toys carved from bone.

Once through the next set of gates one was in the Detached space for prisoners to receive their allowance from [the cooking-house], also public market. the cooking-house and bath were at the bottom left of that space. The large building to the left of the space was the hospital with the Matron’s house and dispensary facing it. On the other side was the Petty-officers’ prison, a reminder that most of the prisoners were sailors.

Through the next set of gates one is in the Prison yard with five prison blocks radiating around it. In the outer circle are four Sheds for drying clothes. A large pond was fed from the aqueduct head outside the gates and what are presumably drainage ditches serving privies run around from low sheds at the end of each prison block. These appear to be open, which must have been both smelly and insanitary, although presumably they were flushed from the pond.  On the outside of the military way (coloured green) and walls are the North and South Guard rooms. The detached enclosed area was a Barracks for 500 men.

The Repository positively gushes with admiration for the new prison and its management: Here, under the humane arrangement and control of the Transport Board, ably seconded by the resident agent, Isaac Cotgrave, Esq. an old post-captain, every comfort is administered to alleviate the prisoners’ unhappy lot, as far as the nature of circumstances will allow. Unbiassed by motives foreign to their duty, and the innate liberality and feeling of their hearts, these gentlemen (some of whom are well acquainted with French prisons, and have personally experienced what they are) pursue an undeviating system of philanthropy, honourable to themselves, and beneficial to the objects of their care and exertions.

Efforts were made to maintain hygiene. Every morning, bedding is immediately exposed to the air, and the rooms properly ventilated… The hospital is kept in the most exact state of cleanliness and order…medicines, wine, etc are furnished unsparingly.

The prisoners, who were clothed in yellow uniforms with occasional blue stripes, elected representatives to discuss grievances with the Agent and to inspect the rations issued. A daily market was held so that the prisoners could sell their work and buy additional food and many trifling luxuries.

Whether or not conditions were ever so good in reality, things rapidly went downhill as the prison grew more and more crowded. It was full by the end of 1809 but prisoners still kept arriving. War broke out with America in 1812 and  from April 1813 until April 1815 about 6,500 American sailors were held at Dartmoor, some of which were American seamen who were serving on British ships. It is estimated that about 1,000 of the prisoners were black.

Recurrent outbreaks of typhoid, pneumonia and smallpox swept through the prison population. 271 American died and over 11,000 Frenchmen. When the  Treaty of Ghent between the Americans and British was signed in December 1814, the American prisoners expected immediate release, but the British government refused to let them go on parole or take any steps until the treaty was ratified by the Senate on 17 February 1815. On April 16 the men’s impatience finally snapped and they rioted. Guards opened fire and 60 were injured and seven killed. After an enquiry jointly by the US and British, the survivors and bereaved families received pensions.

The prison stayed in use until the end of the war when the survivors were repatriated. The last Frenchman left in early 1816.

The Repository had noted that, it is said to be in contemplation to convert this vast, and then useless building, into a receptacle for convicts, whose labour on the moor will prove highly important and beneficial to the nation, and an incredible saving in the expense incurred both at home and in transportation. In the event the prison closed in 1816 and only reopened in 1850.

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Perambulations Through Late Georgian London or, All the Best Sights in One Week. Day Seven

It is Sunday, the final day of the week-long itinerary laid down by Mr Whittock in his Modern Picture of London.

Attend divine service in the morning, at the Foundling Hospital;

I have blogged about the founding of the Hospital here. Attending services at various charitable institutions was fashionable and was encouraged by the patrons as a means of attracting financial support. The children would be trained as a choir to enhance the experience and the high-point of the year was the performance of Handel’s Messiah which he had donated to the Hospital. The print from The Microcosm of London (c. 1810) shows a service in the magnificent chapel.

then ride in the omnibus to the Edgware Road.

I am not clear why Mr Whittock suggests this. It would be a long walk to reach Hyde Park and the Edgware Road would hold no sights of any interest.

Promenade in Hyde Park.

On a fine day this would have been a very respectable activity for the Sabbath. Families would be out strolling or driving over the very considerable expanse of parkland or beside the Serpentine or the Long Water in the adjacent Kensington Gardens. This print of 1804 shows ‘The Entrance to Hyde Park on a Sunday’ and gives an impression of just how popular it would have been, although I suspect that behaviour by the 1830s would have been more sedate.

Dine at home

 in the evening, attend divine service at the Magdalen Hospital.

The Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes, to give it its full title, was established in 1758 to reform women below the age of thirty who had become sex workers. They were given religious education and taught laundry work and needlework. It moved to purpose-built premises on Great Surrey Street (now Blackfriars Road) in Southwark in 1772. This was quite close to the other philanthropic institutions our tourists visited on Monday.

Its octagonal chapel became a fashionable place of worship. Unlike the Foundling Hospital where the children in their uniforms were very visible, the inmates’ choir was hidden behind a screen, which cannot have done much for their self-esteem. Perhaps the intention was to prevent male visitors from preying on the young women.

In the 1860s the establishment moved to Streatham, eventually becoming an Approved School in 1934. Incredibly the phrase “for the reception of Penitent Prostitutes” was not removed from its official name until 1938.

The week has now terminated, and the stranger that has visited all the places, in the order laid down for him, will have seen every part of the metropolis, and all the principal objects. He will find that ample time has been allowed for a cursory view of most of the curiosities.

I hope you have enjoyed exploring Georgian London as it teetered on the  edge of the Victorian age, even if, as Mr Whittock says, we have only had time for a ‘cursory view’ of many of the sights.

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