Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Earl of Wittering Goes to the Seaside Part 2 – Where to go?

A week after the first suggestion that they should spend the summer at a seaside resort the Witterings gather in the Egyptian (soon to be Chinese if the countess has her way) drawing room before dinner to decide where to go.

‘Brighton,’ says Viscount Ditherstone decisively. Wherever Prinny favours is bound to be lively and he might be able to get an invitation to the Pavilion. (Photo below) Besides, he has heard that all the Cyprians decamp to Brighton during the summer, so there is sure to be some high-class lightskirts to… er… admire.

Brighton pavilion

‘Certainly not,’ two firm female voices announce in concert. For once his wife and his mother are in accord. ‘One hears the most disgraceful things about the company there,’ his wife Almira adds with a significant look in the direction of her daughter.

‘Weymouth is highly respectable, as is Hastings,’ she suggests. ‘And dear Princess Charlotte visited Southend on several occasions (Print below). I have heard it is most select.’

Southend

‘The scenery is nothing out of the ordinary in any of those places.’ The countess is eager to draw scenes of wild seas and craggy cliffs. ‘The Isle of Wight or Scarborough, now, those are said to have fine Romantic views.’

‘Scarborough? Full of northern merchants, I’ll be bound,’ the Earl snorts. ‘You’ll be suggesting Blackpool next! And the Isle of Wight involves a sea crossing.’

‘Fossils and geology though,’ young Arthur pipes up. ‘The Isle of Wight, that is. And interesting sands and cliffs and the Needles for Grandmama.’

‘A good Assembly Room, a theatre and shops are essential.’ Miss Emily, seventeen, has heard about the troops stationed along the Channel coast. So many officers in scarlet coats. Why, it must be a patriotic duty to flirt with such heroes. But she knows better than to mention the fact.

‘Weymouth,’ the Earl decides with unusual firmness. Respectable, lively and good enough for the royal family. ‘You’ll have all the views a person could want, my dear and there are bound to be rocks for young Arthur. And it is as far as I’m prepared to drive, so let that be an end to it. Porrett!’

Weymouth bay from Weymouth and Melcombe Regis New Guide-cropped

His secretary, lurking discretely in a corner where he can sigh over Miss Emily’s perfect profile, jumps like a scalded cat. ‘My lord!’

‘Weymouth it is. Sort out accommodation. We will travel at the beginning of June and stay until the end of August.’

‘My lord, I will attend to it with all dispatch.’

Where will Porrett find them to stay? Will Porrett be allowed to come too? You can follow their summer adventures here over the next few months and read about the vibrant world of the early English seaside holiday  in  The Georgian Seaside: the English resorts before the railways came.The Georgian Seaside Cover_MEDIUM WEB

 

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Georgian Comet-Mania and the Man Who Began It

Last month I set out to research the Bath Road and stayed for a few days in Bath. Although I hadn’t intended finding out about the astronomer Sir William Herschel I found he was hard to miss and soon realised that his would have been a name on everyone’s lips in Georgian London – the instigator of a Georgian “comet craze.”

Looking at the comet.

“Looking at the comet.”

Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel was born in 1738 in Hanover, Germany which was, at the time, also ruled by the King of England, George II. His father was an army musician and he followed in his footsteps, joining the band of the Hanoverian Guards. When  the French occupied the state in 1757, he came to England, embarked on a career in music and in 1766 he was appointed organist of a fashionable chapel in Bath.

His music seems to have been accompanied by an interest in mathematics which led him to the science of optics and the construction of telescopes and from there to the study of the night sky.

Before long William was determined to study the distant celestial bodies, and as this meant he needed telescopes with large, exceedingly expensive, mirrors he began to produce his own from discs of copper, tin, and antimony. What he wanted proved beyond the local foundries so he started to cast his own in 1781 in the scullery of his house. His early efforts resulted in floods of molten metal across the floor – the cracked flagstones are still visible in the photograph below– and almost poisoned himself with the toxic fumes. Eventually he was making telescopes which were superior to those at the Greenwich Observatory.

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His sister Caroline, a plain little woman whose growth had been stunted and face pockmarked by childhood illnesses, escaped a life of domestic drudgery at home in Hanover when William invited her to live with him in Bath in 1772. Like William she was an accomplished musician and gave public performances.

Soon she was drawn into her brother’s astronomical work, sitting outside in their garden (shown below) for hours at night taking notes as he studied the sky.

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Herschel’s fame began to spread but he became nationally known when, in 1781, he saw something that he recognised as highly unusual – he had discovered a planet. He called it after the king, but the astronomical establishment insisted on Uranus – the first new planet to have been discovered since ancient times.

William was awarded the Copley Medal, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, given a royal pension of £200 which enabled him to devote himself entirely to science and was appointed as astronomer to

Caroline Hershel

George III. The Herschels moved to Datchet, near Windsor Castle because the royal family insisted on having ‘their’ astronomer on hand to give demonstrations.

He gave his sister her own telescopes and, as well as recording his observations, she began her own work, studying nebulae and the deep sky, searching for comets and making her own highly significant contributions to the science. Eventually they moved to Observatory House Slough in 1786 (demolished with a fine disregard for history in 1960) which sat right by the Bath Road. A vast shopping centre now covers the site.

In 1789 he constructed in the garden a vast telescope (left) with a focal length of 12 metres (40 feet).herschel-40-foot-telescope-e1426015573941 Herschel was knighted in 1816 and died in 1822 while Caroline lived to be 98, dying much honoured by the scientific community in 1848. She held the record for the number of comets discovered by a woman (eight) until 1987. (She is caricatured, right)

With the flood of new astronomical sightings the public interest was caught and  “Comet-mania” swept the country. Gentlemen could purchase a cometarium to study them, an expensive little instrument. “A Catalogue of Optical, Mathematical & Philosophical Instruments made and sold by W & S Jones 135, next Furnival’s Inn, Holborn London” lists them: “Cometariums for exemplifying the motion of comets from £1 11s 6d to £5. 5s.” cometarium

Comets became a source of popular entertainment, speculation, wild theories – and proved irresistible to the cartoonists.

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy at 19 New King Street, Bath preserves William and Caroline’s Bath home, right down to the cracked paving slabs and the garden where they did so much of their early work. (Their dining room is shown below with a full-size replica of one of the telescopes Herschel used in the room beyond.)

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The Earl of Wittering Plans His Summer

This May morning in 1816 the Gatwick family gather around the breakfast table in the Small Dining Room of their vast Mayfair mansion. It is obvious that the head of the family, the Earl of Wittering, has something on his mind, although the Countess of Wittering supposes it is only his bowels troubling him again. Like most of the upper classes of his age his diet – heavy on meat and alcohol, low on fruit and vegetables – means that his lordship frequently feels liverish, or to put it more bluntly, he’s appallingly constipated. She makes a mental note to send off another order to Savory & Moore, chemists (by Royal Appointment) in New Bond Street. (Shown below) Thomas Field Savory is making his fortune after acquiring the patent for internationally best-selling laxative, Seidlitz powders but, naturally, she does not mention such a subject at the meal table.

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The Countess would much rather finish her toast and return to her sitting room where she is putting the final touches to a highly imaginative, and exceedingly dramatic, sketch of an Alpine pass. What she would really like would be to paint the sea. Ever since she read Edmund Burke’s tract On the Sublime and the Beautiful and learned that the ocean was “an object of no small terror” she has been fascinated by it.

On either side of the breakfast table sit the Earl’s heir, the Viscount Ditherstone (coughing, as is his irritating habit at breakfast) and his wife, flanked by their children, seventeen year old Emily and twelve year old Arthur. Ditherstone, ever tactless, enquires if there is anything on his father’s mind.

Porrett, the earl’s secretary has, it transpires, been making enquiries about his lordship’s intentions for the summer so that he can begin to put in place the arrangements and, for once, Lord Wittering is undecided. Normally, after the London Season the family embark on a lengthy round of summer visits to the far-flung branches of the family, their travels greatly eased by the splendid condition of the network of turnpike roads across the country. The tour would always culminate in two weeks spent toadying to his elderly, terrifying and exceedingly wealthy aunts. But the aunts had died that winter, their money left, as he had always desired, to their godson, Master Gatwick, the future earl. Now his lordship wonders if he really wants to spend three months travelling about before he can retire to his country estate for the autumn and set about slaughtering anything with fur, feathers or fins. What he would like to do is recover his health in a spa, as his father would have done, but Bath is hopelessly dull these days, quite out of fashion.

“Perhaps we should take a house at a seaside resort,” ventures his daughter-in-law. “I am sure the pure air would be a benefit to Ditherstone’s lungs.” Ever since she read that amusing novel Emma she has not been able to forget the phrase, The truth is, that in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be. And was it not the case that the great Mr Wordsworth was only able to write his beautiful verses “Upon Westminster Bridge” The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air… because he was amazed to find, for once, the atmosphere free of polluting smoke?

Ditherstone himself perks up. He rather fancies a dip or two in the briny. He’s heard exciting stories about the ladies bathing and what they might, or might not wear, to say nothing of amorous encounters in bathing rooms. And all kinds of dashers visit the seaside, so his bachelor friends tell him.

“Oh, Grandpapa,” Emily breathes. “I would love to go to the seaside.” She bats her eyelashes. “The south coast, they say, is so warm and quite delightful.” And, facing the enemy France, as it does, it is stuffed with troops. All those officers in scarlet coats. Oh, the opportunities for flirtation. (Below: tourists admire the militia parading at Cromer in Norfolk)

Cromer militia

Young Arthur extracts his nose from a scientific journal – he is showing an alarming tendency (in his grandfather’s opinion) towards natural philosophy and not manly sports. “The south coast, it said in a paper I was reading the other day, has much of interest to the fossilist and the mineralogist. I would like to go.”

The Earl glowers down the table. He doesn’t like change. On the other The Georgian Seaside Cover_MEDIUM WEBhand the sea-water cure sounds as though it would be helpful for what ails him. His wife keeps leaving prints of craggy cliffs and tossing waves about, so he supposes it would keep her happy and the rest of the family seemed keen enough. He would think on it.

What will the earl decide? Will the Gatwicks go to the seaside and, if so, to which resort? You can follow their summer adventures here over the next few months and read about the vibrant world of the early English seaside holiday (definitely not a Victorian invention!) in  The Georgian Seaside: the English resorts before the railways came.

Meanwhile, now the smog has gone, you can find Savory & Moore’s shop for yourself in Walk 2, Walking Jane vis1Band admire Wordsworth’s view in Walk 6, of Walking Jane Austen’s London

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So What Was Wrong With Ranelagh?

Roque map

Above: Ranelagh Gardens in Roque’s map of London 1741. The Rotunda is the black circular feature and it can be located exactly with modern maps because the outline of the buildings of the main wings of the Royal Hospital have not changed.

Last week, with friends, I attempted to visit the site of Ranelagh Gardens next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea – only to find them off-limits with the marquees of the Chelsea Flower Show being erected there. A helpful Chelsea Pensioner directed us to the lovely scale model of the Hospital and the Gardens that shows them in their heyday and that whetted my interest to discover why they closed so much earlier than their rival, Vauxhall.

Vauxhall Gardens and Ranelagh Gardens were the most famous of the London pleasure gardens and the two whose name many people can still remember. The Ranelagh Gardens today – simply a small park – is of about the right size and in the same position, and so the name lives on.

The first clear reference to the Vauxhall Gardens, or New Spring Gardens as they were at first, was in John Evelyn’s diary on 2 July 1660 – ‘I went to see the new Spring-garden at Lambeth a pretty contriv’d plantation.’ “New” because the old Spring Gardens, dating to the reign of Elizabeth I, were at the eastern end of St James’s Park. Admiralty Arch now sits in the middle of the area.

By the 1690s these early pleasure grounds were being referred to as “Vauxhall” from the proximity of the old manor of Vauxhall. The name comes from the house of the 13th century Falkes de Breuté – Falkes Hall became Fauxhall, Fox Hall and Vauxhall.

In 1729 an ambitious young tradesman from Bermondsey called Jonathan Tyers obtained a sub-lease on “Vauxhall Spring-Gardens” and set about creating the Vauxhall Gardens that became London’s premier attraction until its sad decline during Victoria’s reign. It closed on 25 July 1859, 199 years from Evelyn’s visit.

Pleasure gardens of various sizes and degrees of sophistication were dotted throughout London and its surrounding area in the 18th century. Many were as simple as a landscaped garden or a bowling green next to a good public house. Marylebone Gardens, the main competition to Vauxhall after Ranelagh, was located next to the Rose of Normandy Tavern (in the area bounded today by Marylebone High Street, Marylebone Road, Weymouth Street and Harley Street) and began as a bowling green and gaming house. The fact that Dick Turpin visited in the 1720s may well be reflected in the fact that Gay used it as a haunt of his highwayman Macheath in the Beggar’s Opera (1728). This reflects the early tone of the place and, even after 1738 when the new proprietor of the tavern, Samuel Arnold, improved things – introducing a sixpence entrance fee, shelters, music and fireworks and increasing its size to eight acres – it never entirely shook off its early reputation and became notorious for gambling and card sharping. It closed in 1778.

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Above: Canaletto. The Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh (c1751)

Ranelagh Gardens were set up in 1741 in direct competition to Vauxhall and opened in April 1742. The proprietors, a syndicate of businessmen, had clearly studied Vauxhall, learned from its problems with the weather, and set out to rival, if not surpass it.

The site was promising, located in the village of Chelsea with direct river access. The centrepiece, from the beginning, was a vast Rotunda, an epic space modelled on the Pantheon in Rome. It measured 185 feet (56.4 metres) in diameter and, with the landscaping, cost £16,000. It became a tourist attraction even while it was being built and at night it looked like a giant lantern, blazing light across the gardens. It was immediately obvious to Tyers at Vauxhall that this was the major competition and he responded by buying up the  field that the Ranelagh proprietors had wanted to buy to expand into.

The Ranelagh lessee, William Crispe, was declared bankrupt in 1744, which must have pleased Tyers, but an issue of shares rescued the project and at first it was a huge success, a fact reflected in falling takings at Vauxhall. So what went wrong? The sad truth was, Ranelagh was just not naughty enough.

Horace Walpole was initially enthusiastic. Shortly after it opened he wrote “It has totally beat Vauxhall… You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or Duke of Cumberland.” Yet the novelty soon waned. In June that year Catherine Talbot wrote to a friend that “…it is quite vexatious at present to see all the pomp and splendour of a Roman amphitheatre devoted to no better use than a twelvepenny entertainment of cold ham and chicken.” It probably didn’t help that the structure in the centre of the Rotunda, intended for the musicians, proved to have dreadful acoustics. Nor were the grounds very exciting, with a well-lit (probably too well-lit) circular walk which soon became monotonous.

There was no strong drink available and no gambling. The admission fee of half a crown kept away the riff-raff, as was intended, but it also created a far less exciting ambiance than at Vauxhall. It was favoured by the older, staider visitor but with the Hospital grounds on one side and the field strategically purchased by Tyers on the other, there was little scope for development and change.

To get to Vauxhall one needed to ‘take boat’ and cross the river. As my fellow author Sophie Weston pointed out to me, at night this must have seemed almost transgressive, an exciting, slightly clandestine, beginning to the evening’s adventures. Once there the walks were a mixture of secluded and well-lit, with plenty of opportunity for promenading – or for getting up to something rather naughtier. Tyers learned from Ranelagh’s strengths and weaknesses and adapted constantly, giving his customers a diet of novelty with an edgy frisson, yet within a safe and familiar setting.

Over at Ranelagh you could enjoy your tea and coffee, a safe and brightly lit gardens and the impressive Rotunda – but these were no attraction for the fashionable or the younger sets, despite the addition of a Chinese Pavilion. Ranelagh found it hard to weather the problems of the 1780s with riots in London and the rather more sober mind-set towards frivolous activities engendered by the war with France. Vauxhall survived this period, but Ranelagh gave up the struggle and finally closed in 1803, after sixty one years of operation. The Rotunda (largely built of wood) was demolished in 1805. The organ was moved to All Saints Church in Evesham, but even that was replaced later. Ranelagh has vanished.

Below: Ranelagh House and Gardens with the Rotunda (1745) T. Bowles after J. Maurer

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