Category Archives: courtship & marriage

A Ceremony Never Omitted Among the Vulgar

letter-on-balcony

“It is the ceremony…never omitted among the vulgar, to draw lots, which they term Valentines, on the eve before Valentine Day. The names of a select number of one sex are, by an equal number of the other, put into some vessel; and after that, everyone draws a name, for the present called their Valentine, and is look’d upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.” (Bourne Antiquitates Vulgares 1725)

lottery

By “the vulgar” Bourne means the common people, but Valentine’s Day customs appear to have appealed to all levels of society – and nations. In this French fan of the end of the 18th century young women have lots drawn by cherubs for the name of their lovers, each of which has a list of their virtues attached – one young man has none (hence the weeping female in the centre!), one has one virtue and so forth. The luckiest young lady – whose name is Clemence – scoops the jackpot and her lover will be handsome, brave, honourable, true… I found the fan at auction at the same time as I was writing The Piratical Miss Ravenhurst – the heroine of which is called Clemence. Naturally, the hero has to find the same fan in a shop and buy it for her.

John Brand in his Observations on Popular Antiquities (1813) quotes examples of names being drawn for Valentines and also of various ways of divining who your lover will be – for example taking five bay leaves, pining one to each corner of your pillow and one to the middle the night before the 14th and you would then dream of your beloved. The  sending of written Valentines or cards appears to have developed as the postal service improved at the end of the 18th century and the unimaginative male could turn to The Young Man’s Valentine Writer (1792) and copy out one of the sickly-sweet verses it contained.

small-kiss-biggerWhether you picked your bay leaves, sent a card or received a delightful verse – happy Valentine’s Day!

(The little detail of the kissing couple and the naughty young lady at the top of this post are from the French series of prints Modes et Manieres)

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A Tenant For Life – the Georgian Husband

The two illustrations of courtship and the unwanted baby below are details from a fan dated 1797 entitled The Lady’s Advisor, Physician & Moralist which takes a sharp look at everything from spinsters with cats to the unwelcome effects of jealousy.

fan courtship

The image of the courting couple above is captioned  “Look upon or listen to or an object which is agreeable to your mind & if you have the least sensibility you will most probably be over head & ears in pickle.” They are going to end up married out of an illusion of love, at least on her side, according to the cynical writer.

However they ended up in wedlock, most Georgian husbands probably liked to think of themselves as ‘the Cove of the Ken’ – the master of the household, according to the slang dictionaries – but that might not be how their wives, or other men (including their fathers in law), saw them.  Wives acquired a ‘tenant for life’, and he might acquire a ‘petticoat hold’ on her fortune or, if he had a generous father-in-law he might receive ‘hand-basket portions’ or gifts from him.

But what if she has a lover, thus rendering him a cuckold? If he’s an old man with a young wife she might well have a ‘court of assistants’ who ensure that he is wearing ‘the bull’s feather’ and ‘horn mad’ with jealousy. Or she might be a nag – a ‘buttock and tongue’ – and the poor man lives ‘under the cat’s foot’ ‘in Queen Street’. He might then turn to drink, although if she is tolerant she might accompany him to the alehouse which makes him a ‘freeholder’ although if she marches down there to drag him out he will have been ‘arrested by the white sarjeant.’

He could, of course, be very happy with his ‘comfortable importance’, his ‘lawful blanket’ or his ‘rib’ but he might be ‘flying the kite’ with his mistress and if that leads to rows he might ‘divide the house’ with his wife, giving her the outside while he keeps the inside – and the front door key. Certainly someone turning up with a baby to lay at his feet would result in a serious rift, as in the scene below, captioned ‘The Unwelcome Present.’ the husband, looks very shifty as the old lady presents him with his child – and his wife is giving him a decidedly frosty look. Or perhaps she is simply appalled at what he is wearing.

baby

Of course the Georgian husband might be delighted with the arrival of babies – brats, chips, squeakers or bantlings – and I will leave you with this picture of domestic bliss – the happy father pulling his two youngest children in a ‘shay’ up Highgate Hill on a pleasure outing accompanied by his lovely wife and his son. Doesn’t he look happy with his lot in life?

Highgate

The Highgate Hill print is from a book of satirical verse, Takings, or the Life of a Collegian by R. Dagley (1821).

Lots more slang and cant may be found in Regency Slang Revealed

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The Earl of Wittering Goes to the Seaside: Part 11 Porrett Saves the Day!

The Georgian SeasideThe Earl of Wittering, his wife, son and daughter in law and grandchildren are all at the theatre, accompanied reluctantly, by Porrett the Earl’s secretary who is in the throes of a violent, whispered quarrel with his granddaughter, Emily.

‘I love you, Frederick!’ says Emily, her declaration covered in the shrieks from the stage where the melodrama put on by the touring company is reaching its climax with bodies strewn in all directions.

theatre

‘You cannot,’ he whispers miserably. ‘Look at the play – it was a wild success in Chichester.’

‘I don’t care if that is Mrs Siddons out there,’ Emily snaps. ‘Do you mean you do not love me?’

Poor Porrett – to do the honourable thing is to lie. ‘Of course I love you,’ he admits miserably. He cannot lie to his beloved even though, as a gentleman, he should. ‘And it can never be. Your grandfather is the Earl, my employer…’

‘Do not be so feeble,’ Emily says, almost in tears. ‘Tell them all how you feel, ask for my hand!’

‘No,’ says Porrett, resolute in his anguish. ‘I cannot.’ The villain stabs the hero on stage and then falls on his own sword. Porrett knows how he feels. ‘You deserve better.’

Emily makes a sound like a furious kitten and turns her shoulder to him. In the interval her father, the Viscount Ditherstone, announces his intention of taking out a pleasure boat and having a family picnic further along the coast.

‘The fishermen expect high winds tomorrow, my lord,’ Porrett, points out. ‘It might be safer to leave it for another day.’

‘Oh, don’t be such a coward,’ says Emily, nose (somewhat pink) in the air. ‘Papa knows all about sailing, don’t you Papa?’

The Viscount, who has spent two days being seasick on a friend’s yacht ten years ago, smirks ‘No need, for you to concern yourself, Porrett. My father will want you to do some work, I’ll be bound. You needn’t be nervous about getting your feet wet.’

Porrett is still smarting from Emily’s disdain the next morning and indeed, the weather looks set fair as everyone except himself and the Earl set out with picnic hampers to hire a small sailing boat. His last-minute plea to Emily to stay behind was met with a reproachful look and a muttered accusation of not having the courage to stand up to Papa for her sake.

But by midday, as he looks out of the window yet again instead of taking the Earl’s dictation , he sees the black clouds boiling up from the west. The wind is beginning to snap the flags along the promenade. ‘My lord, I have the gravest apprehension about the safety of the sailing party. I should hire a boat and go after them.’

The two men run to the harbour and Porrett hails a pair of fishermen who are just tying up. At first they refuse to take him out, but the sight of the banknotes the Earl is brandishing changes their mind. With Porrett clinging grimly to the mast they set sail. By the time they reach the stretch of coast the Viscount intended to land at for the picnic they see no sign of the boat – but then Porrett spots a slim figure on the shore waving a handkerchief. Emily! And, ‘There’s the boat, sir!’ cries a fisherman and, sure enough, mastless, the little sailing boat with a green-faced Viscount clinging to the thwarts, is just before them. They grapple it and haul him aboard – when he attempted to take the party off again in the face of the rising wind, he was washed out to sea, the mast snapped and the ladies and young Arthur were left stranded on the beach, trapped between the cliffs and the rising tide.shore

Porrett does not hesitate, he leaps into the fishing smack’s rowing boat, casts off and rows for shore. It is rough, dangerous and he is exhausted, but he makes it to land, runs onto the beach, helps the Viscountess and young  Arthur in, then takes Emily in his arms, kisses her passionately and wades into the sea to set her gently into the little craft. He feels he could swim back, he is so elated, but he rows back to the smack and is disconcerted when the Viscountess throws her arms around his neck and kisses him, declaring that he is their saviour, their Galahad, their knight in shining armour. Emily just sits and gazes at him with tears in her eyes. When they reach the jetty the Earl, with a look on his face that promises retribution later for his feckless son and heir, hurries his womenfolk and grandson back to the lodgings. Porrett is left to trudge, wet and exhausted, behind.

He is disconcerted to discover a note commanding him to attend the ball at the Assembly Rooms that evening, wishing instead that he could just put his feet up and nurse his broken heart in decent privacy. But an order is an order. He comes down to join the family in the drawing room and, to his amazement, the Earl embraces him warmly, hails him as a hero and announces that he has secured him an influential post in the Home Office. ‘You’ll need it to keep my little Emily in the manner to which she has become accustomed,’ he announces. ‘I’ve had my eye on the pair of you and you, young Porrett, have the makings of a great man about you. More than my clodpole of a son,’ he murmurs in the stunned secretary’s ear. ‘Well, get on and ask her, don’t stand there like a looby.’

So Porrett finds his voice and, in front of the entire family, goes down on one knee and begs Emily for the honour of her hand in marriage. And Emily, throws her arms around him the moment he stands up (almost knocking him flat), bursts into tears and declares that no-one was ever such a hero as he is.

So off they go to the ball. You can see them just slipping off to the terrace (which leads to the gardens) in the far left of the picture. Sometimes Porrett is not quite such a saint as the Earl believes him to be…

ballroom

Pleasure boats were an essential part of the Georgian seaside holiday, but accidents were not at all uncommon, including one Margate party who were tossed around at sea for more than 24 hours before being rescued – no mobile phones, no life jackets…

You can find out more about the perils of the seaside, the Assembly Rooms, the theatres and their travelling companies of players, or, in fact any aspect of the life of the coastal resorts before the railways came in The Georgian Seaside.

 

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A Most Scandalous Lady

When I was researching Knightsbridge for my last post I came to Kingston House (shown below in a Victorian print) and read about its extraordinary first owner, Elizabeth Chudleigh. I write historical romances, but I would never dare attempt a plot with anything like the story of her romantic life – no-one would believe it for a moment!

Kingston House

Elizabeth (c1720-1788) was the daughter of Colonel Sir Thomas Chudleigh who had a number of influential friends, including the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Perhaps it was due to his good offices that she became a maid of honour to the Princess of Wales, wife of Frederick, Prince of Wales and mother to George III.

At court she met and became engaged to the Duke of Hamilton who promptly departed on the Grand Tour. While he was away Elizabeth met Captain Augustus John Hervey, a son of the Earl of Bristol who fell passionately in love with her. At first Elizabeth did not return his feelings,  but her aunt who favoured the match intercepted the duke’s letters from the continent and eventually Elizabeth, piqued at his apparent neglect, secretly married Hervey in 1744.

Incredibly the couple managed to keep their marriage a secret from the court and their families, even though it soon became apparent that it was not a success. Elizabeth was unfaithful to Hervey, and he probably was to her, and they effectively parted in 1749.

The Duke of Hamilton returned to England from his Grand Tour, still assuming they were engaged and pressed for a marriage date, only to be astounded by Elizabeth’s refusal. However much she might have wanted to marry a duke, she was not, at this point, ready to commit bigamy. Hamilton finally gave up and married one of the beautiful Gunnings sisters.

NPG D1106; Elizabeth Chudleigh, Countess of Bristol after Unknown artist

Elizabeth’s family were furious with her for apparently refusing a duke on a whim, and she left the country for to the court of Frederick the Great where she was very popular. On her return to London the vivacious “Miss Chudleigh” was equally in demand, and enjoyed a very lively social life as the portrait of her in the role of Iphegeia at a masque suggests! (Unknown artist 1749)

“… it has been asserted this lady appeared [at a masquerade] in a shape of flesh-coloured silk so nicely and closely fitted to her body as to produce a perfect review of the unadorned mother of mankind, and that this fair representative of frailty, … had contrived a method of giving as evident tokens of modesty, by binding her loins with a partial covering, or zone, of fig-leaves.” (The Life and Memoirs of Elizabeth Chudleigh. 1788)

But Elizabeth was still stuck with her secret husband and it is said that she eventually tore the leaf out of the church register where the marriage was recorded and bribed the clerk to say nothing. At which point her husband unexpectedly became Earl of Bristol so she bribed the clerk again and returned the page to the register!
At this crucial point she fell in love with the Duke of Kingston and became his mistress. Kingston and Bristol agreed between them that Bristol would relinquish all claims to Elizabeth and a marriage was performed on March 6th 1769 between the Duke of Kingston and Elizabeth – despite her first husband being very much alive and no divorce having taken place.
For years they lived as man and wife at Kingston House. Elizabeth became a leader of fashion, but in 1773 the duke died and she travelled to Italy. While she was away a Mrs Craddock, a witness to the true marriage, turned up at her solicitors and proceeded to blackmail the “Duchess”. When no money was forthcoming Mrs Craddock went to the Duke of Kingston’s family and all hell broke loose.

L0023717 Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, attending her tria

[Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, attending her trial. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org. Etching 1776 by John Hamilton Mortimer. Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ ]

Proceedings were brought and Elizabeth returned home to face trial for bigamy. The case began on April 15th 1776 and she was, unsurprisingly, found guilty. At the time the penalty for bigamy was transportation or imprisonment, but Elizabeth claimed the privileges of a peeress and was discharged without sentence.
But her “in-laws” were still in hot pursuit of the property she had acquired from the duke on his death and she knew she had to leave the country. She kept her planned flight a secret, even going to the lengths of inviting a large number of people to a dinner party on the night in question. They arrived to find Kingston House empty.
Elizabeth lived in Calais for a while, then moved to Paris under the protection of the king’s brother. She was residing there when her lawyers told her that a suit concerning an estate she had bought with the duke’s money had been found against her. She flew into such a furious fit of temper that she burst a blood vessel and died on August 26th, 1796. Perhaps a fitting end to such a tumultuous life!

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A Flutter of Fans – A Very British Romance?

mid 18thcWatching the first episode of Lucy Worsley’s fascinating A Very British Romance last night I was inspired to look at my collection of 18th and early 19th century fans to see how they treat romantic love.

Fans were not only a practical necessity at hot and over-crowded balls and receptions, but they were also items of high fashion, conversation pieces and even sources of satire. And, of course, what better aid to romance for a strictly-chaperoned young lady who could deploy an entire range of flirtatious gestures with her fan – peeping over the top of it; hiding, then revealing her face; gesturing an invitation or snapping it shut sharply in rejection.

mid 18thcThe earliest – perhaps 1770s – is a simple fan with widely spaced black and white sticks. The leaf is painted on one side only in black, white and grey, with tiny silver sequins sewn through the pattern. The man and woman in the centre have delicate touches of pink on their cheeks, hands and on her bosom. This is a very informal outdoor scene. She is playing a guitar and perhaps singing a romantic song. He is sitting with his legs astride the bank, and raising a small bird to his lips, apparently to kiss its beak. A love bird? From their intense exchange of looks it is quite clear that hers are the lips they would both wish he was kissing.

parkThe most modern (c1818?) is also outdoors. It is a detailed hand-painted and gilded scene set in the parkland surrounding a large country house. The young lady in the centre is gathering flowers which she is collecting in the bonnet which she has casually hung from a bush – perhaps an indication that she would like to shed a few more items of clothing if the right circumstances arose. parkOn the other hand, a lamb, a symbol of innocence, is sitting by her side. A young man, his gun over his shoulder and his ammunition pouch at his side, strides off on the other side of the lake with his dog at his heels. He is off hunting – but what or who? He is certainly very aware of the young lady and I would hazard a guess that she is just as aware of him. No doubt she set out early to compose herself into just this charming and innocent pose for his benefit.

lotteryNow for a fan which I found in circumstances which I can only call romantic, if not downright spooky. I was writing The Piratical Miss Ravenhurst, the last of my Scandalous Ravenhurst series. My heroine was called Clemence – not the most common of English names. I was halfway through the book when I visited an antiques auction and spotted the handle of a fan poking out of a mixed lot of odds and ends. It had no loop on it – an almost infallible sign of an early fan – so I took a quick look and put it back before anyone else saw me taking an interest! In the event I got the whole lot for under £20 and when I had a good look at the fan I could tell it was not only late 18th century, but also French. The scene shows six young women in a lottery for love. The cupids draw a description of the virtues the lover of each will possess, described in very difficult old French in verses around the edge. (I have to thank fellow author Joanna Maitland for the translations!)  Poor Isis is in a hurry to receive her prediction – but her lover will have no virtues whatsoever. The next girl, “Aglaé, le coeur palpitant” – “her heart beating” – is destined for a lover who is articulate, but weak in spirit. Each girl in turn is told of a lover with two, then three, then four virtues. The final young woman is Clémence – my heroine’s name! And not only is her lover going to be handsome but he will surpass her hopes in every way.

Enfin il n’en reste plus qu’en
Il est pour la belle Clémence
Son sort est beau, mais peu commun
Il surpasse son espérence
Dons du Coeur, et dons l’esprit
Vertu, courage et bonne mine
Son amant les a réunit
Elle a gagné le quine.

maximsTo counter all that intense romance I’ll end with a rather more cynical view of life and love with a fan produced in 1797. It was doubtless intended to be a conversation piece. The central text, shown on a fan held up by a fat little Cupid, explains that this is:

“The LADY’S ADVISER, PHYSICIAN & MORALIST: Or, Half an Hours Entertainment at the Expense of Nobody”

It has six scenes around the edge. The four not visible in this view show how to “Catch The Spleen” – devote yourself to cats rather than people and seek out unpleasantness; “How to Avoid It” – enjoy life with a virtuous disposition, honour and moderation; “How to Plague Every-Body” – be dissatisfied with everything, declare war against the whole world and finally “How to Please Most Folks” – “Be just to your Enemy, Sincere to Your Friend, Constant to Your Mistress.”

On the left above is “How To Fall Violently In Love”: “Look upon or listen to an object which is agreeable to your mind & if you have the least sensibility you will most probably be completely over head and ears in pickle.”

On the right is “A Gentle Cure For It”. The young couple are  married now and have been interrupted at the breakfast table by a woman with a child in a basket. The scene has the caption “The Unwelcome Present” and from the expression on the man’s face, and his body language, one assumes this child is a bye-blow of his. The text reads:

“Look upon the Changeableness & natural inconstancy of Mankind, and you will find a Certain remedy, for the cure of your delusion.” Really rather a scandalous scene for a lady’s fan!

maxims

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The Road to Waterloo Week 11: Voter Apathy Hits Napoleon, London Debates Marrying Actresses and Spring Bonnets Are in the News

Despite everything that was happening politically, and the threat of war, Paris remained at the cutting edge of fashion as these delightful bonnets from Le Journal des Dames et des Modes show. (see also the end of this post)

Paris bonnets 1

This was not a good week for Napoleon. Having sent out his new constitution for a plebiscite it was greeted with profound apathy. Organisation for the vote was poor verging on chaotic. In one Breton village the mayor noted day after day in his diary, “No votes… rang the bell, nobody came.” In the end only 20% of the electorate voted. In Paris it was 13%.
Paris was jam-packed with troops, so perhaps the civilian population thought there was no point in voting and that they were living in a military dictatorship.
Napoleon did have support from a group called the Fédéres, a movement harking back to the days of the Revolution – “Terror advances us, death follows us; conquer or die,” ran the blood-chilling motto of one group. They were strongest in areas which had seen foreign invasion, such as Alsace Lorraine, and this week their influence reached Paris. Napoleon promptly harnessed their fervour to dig earth ramparts and fortifications to defend the capital.
Mrs MountainOn Sunday the London papers described the farewell performance of Mrs Mountain (shown left), not a name a glamorous actress would take today! Mrs Rosoman Mountain (c1768-1841) was the daughter of circus performers named Wilkinson and she made her debut in musical pieces at Covent Garden, then toured the provinces at the end of the century, returning to London in 1800. In that year she sang Polly in the Beggar’s Opera at Drury Lane, beginning a career there as one of the top London performers until ill-health curtailed her appearances.
“Mrs Mountain who has for so long and so deservedly been a great favourite of the public, took her farewell of the Stage last Thursday night, at the King’s Theatre. In the course of the evening Mrs Mountain delivered, or rather attempted to deliver, an Address of respectful gratitude to the public, for the long and warm patronage which she has experienced – her feelings during the recital powerfully affecting her utterance. This Address, as well as the whole of the entertainments, were received with the warmest applause, and she retired, or rather was borne off the stage, amidst the fullest testimony that the occasion admitted, of public respect and esteem. The pressure was so great that much of the iron railing in the passage to the Pit was broken away, and many persons were in imminent danger for some time, but happily no serious accident occurred.” (The Examiner)
On the subject of actresses, on Monday the Morning Chronicle carried an advertisement:
“Green-Room Wives! At the British Forum, removed to the Athenaeum Assembly Rooms, Duke’s-court, Bow-street, facing Covent Garden Theatre, on Tuesday next, the following interesting Question will be discussed, viz: “Is it any Degradation for a Nobleman or Gentleman of rank to marry an Actress? Doors open at seven. Chair taken at eight precisely. Admittance one shilling. Early attendance is earnestly requested, as a Gentleman of distinguished classical attainments has undertaken to open the debate.” In the scene below the audience is leaving Covent Garden theatre and Bow Street is crowded with their carriages.
1822 Covent GardenThe Monday papers also reported that “A little miserable Dwarf was exposed before the Queen and Princesses, the Prince Regent, the Dukes of York and Clarence etc on Friday. His name is Simon Paap, a native of Zandvoort, near Haarlem in Holland. He is 26 years of age, weighs only 27 pounds and is 28 inches in height.” (Morning Chronicle) The “little miserable dwarf” was actually a highly successful performer and I will blog about his London visit at more length in another post.
The country may have been bracing itself for war, but fashionable ladies were still agog to hear about the Paris modes. On Wednesday the Morning Post reported on Paris millinery. Here is another plate from Le Journal des Dames et des Modes, which would have been available in London. Other journals, and London milliners, plagarised it freely!

Paris bonnets 2“Rose is the prevailing colour, and we still see roses in many hats. Fashionable milliners sometimes put at different distances up the bonnet bands of gauze, or ribbands, broadly plaited. The fashion of striped ribbons in one breadth, or in large squares, continues. The edges of these ribbons are almost always white, and the stripes are rose coloured, lilac or green. The white straw bonnets are less common than those of yellow straw. Last year a yellow straw bonnet always has a border of frizzed straw. This year the edging is either of ribbon or a half veil of lace.”
On Saturday the Morning Post’s Fashionable World column informed readers that the next ball at Almack’s would be on Thursday the 18th, and that, “The Duke of Wellington having given a Ball [ie a rout] at Brussels, he will next (it is hoped), give a grand route to the enemy.”
The big Society event of the week, however, appears to have been,“The Hon. Mrs Knox’s Ball. In Upper Grosvenor-street on Thursday night, the above Lady gave a superb Ball and Supper, to a host of fashionables. The mansion is fitted up in all the splendour of modern taste; it was on the above evening lighted up with unrivalled brilliancy. Precisely at eleven o’clock the dancing commenced. There were groups waltzing together in the one drawing room; and two sets, of twenty-five couples each, at the commencement of the country dances, in the other. At two in the morning the company sat down to a sumptuous cold collation, arranged with nouvelle elegance, in several rooms. Dancing re-commenced at three in the morning and concluded at six o’clock.” The guest list included two royal dukes, six duchesses, “the Foreign Ministers”, two marchionesses and endless other nobility.
Fashionable London was certainly managing to divert itself from the threat looming on the continent.

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Travelling The Great North Road With The Georgians

The Great North Road – the ancient route from London to Edinburgh – must have seen the foot prints, hoof prints or wheel tracks of virtually every Georgian of note. Part of the fun of tracing the historic route under today’s roads and motorways for my book Following the Great North Road: a guide for the modern traveller was bumping into Georgian characters at every bend in the road. Here I will take a dozen, almost at random, and travel north with them from London.
The great clown Joseph Grimaldi was an early commuter and would travel from his home in the village of Highgate to the London theatres. Just south of Islington on the first stage out of the city the road passes Sadler’s Wells theatre and Grimaldi often appeared there. One night in 1807, on his way back home, he was stopped by footpads on Highgate Hill, but when he showed them his watch, engraved with him in costume, they recognised him and let him go. (The print on Archway early 1the left shows the foot of Highgate Hill).
Beyond Highgate lies Finchley Common, one of the most notorious haunts of highwaymen on the entire Great North Road. Amongst the infamous men who haunted it were Jack Shepherd who led a life of dangerous celebrity and was caught on the Common in 1724 after his fifth, and final, breakout from Newgate prison. He was hanged in November at Tyburn. Dick Turpin, whose violent exploits were romanticised by the Victorians, also haunted the Common. The so-called Turpin’s Oak tree stood just before the road reaches the modern North Circular Road and was said to be peppered with musket balls from hold-ups. The enclosure of the common began in 1816 and put an end to the dangers. We meet Turpin all along the road north, at least in the imagination of the Victorians who thrilled to Alfred Noyes’s Ballard of Dick Turpin. dickturpin
Charles Dickens was a frequent traveller along the Great North Road, right from his early days as a young journalist, and he writes feelingly about the discomforts of stage coach travel. (You can find more of Dickens’ travels in my book Stagecoach Travel. )
He certainly described the towns he passed through with an acid pen – poor Eaton Socon, 55 miles north of the capital was, in his opinion, so dull and backward that he called it Eaton Slocombe.
Another 40 or so miles north stands the oddly-named Ram Jam Inn, named, so the story goes, for the mysterious liquor that the landlord, returning from India, sold there. It was pointed out to travellers as the lodging of Molyneux, the black bare knuckle boxing champion, on the night before he met the equally great Tom Cribb at Thistleton Gap nearby on 28th September 1811. Cribb, who was the winner, stayed at the Blue Bull (99 miles), which was a small inn further north.    (The image at the foot of this post is the final one in Henry Alken’s series ‘The Road to a Fight. 1821)
Sir Walter Scott was a regular traveller from his Scottish home to London and he used the Great North Road in his novels. He described Gonerby Hill, a long and difficult hill 112 miles north of London, in Heart of Midlothian (1818) where Jeanie Deans walks from Edinburgh to London and encounters thieves and murderers at its foot. Harrison Ainsworth mentions it in his novel Rookwood (1838) where Dick Turpin crests the hill only to be faced, prophetically, with a gibbet holding two mouldering corpses.
Newark, 125 miles north of London, has a dramatic castle and a fine market square surrounded by coaching inns. Lord Byron often stayed at the Clinton Arms, then called the Kingston Arms, and mentions it in a letter of 1807. His first publisher, Ridge, had offices at number 39 on the corner of the market and Bridge Street and you can still see the handsome door-case and the knocker Byron would have used.
The Prince Regent travelled the Great North Road, and would visit Doncaster races. The racecourse is still there, 161 miles from London, and so are the handsome Georgian houses of South Parade, including the one where the Regent lodged. The print below shows the grandstand on Doncaster racecourse in 1804.

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Daniel Defoe was another Great North Road “regular”, viewing it with an eye even more jaundiced than Dickens’. The village of Croft on the River Tees (237 miles north of London) was a flourishing little Georgian spa, long since decayed into a village. On the north bank of the river is one of those features that provided scope for local legends and stories to entertain bored coach passengers. The road follows the bend of the river over the tributary River Skerne and in a pasture to the right are two deep pools known as Hell’s Kettles. Unfortunately they are no longer visible from the road so the modern traveller cannot peer into their depths and see the impious farmer and his plough team who were swallowed up for working on St Barnabas’s Day. Daniel Defoe would have none of it, observing, “’Tis evident they are nothing but old coal-pits, filled with water by the River Tees.”
In an earlier post I wrote about the Regent’s Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon, who enjoyed regular holidays at the Wheatsheaf Inn in Rushyford, 250 miles from London. The inn is now the Eden Arms and the once pretty little brook-side spot has a large roundabout in the middle of it. In his reckless youth the Chancellor was one of the numerous young men who chose the Great North Road as his route to elope to the Scottish border. We meet him again in Newcastle in 1772, armed with a ladder and assisting pretty Bessy Surtees to climb down from a window in her father’s fine half-timbered house on the corner of Sandhill and the steep hill called Side. The house and window are still there.SONY DSC
The road is into Northumberland now and passes through the town of Alnwick (308 miles north). Its ancient castle was drastically ‘modernised’ in the later 18th century by the first Duke of Northumberland, a man who married well and who changed his name to Percy from Smithson on acquiring the castle through his wife. He asked George III for the Order of the Garter, pointing out that he would be the first Percy to have been refused it. The king, who apparently did not take to the ex-apothecary, retorted, “You forget, you are the first Smithson who ever asked for it.”
Thirty miles further north and the road enters Berwick on Tweed and the eloping couples were almost on safe Scottish ground. Finally, 341 miles from London the road enters Scotland at Lamberton Bar. The famous toll house, which used to have a notice in the window reading, “Ginger beer sold here and marriages performed on the most reasonable terms”, is no longer there, alas.
East Linton (370½ miles), where the road crosses the River Tyne on a red sandstone bridge, was the birthplace in 1761 of John Rennie, the pioneering engineer and builder of London Bridge.
Only three miles from Holyrood House in Edinburgh the Great North Road enters Portobello, now a coastal suburb, but once a salt-producing fishing village with a flourishing china industry. The sands were excellent for exercising cavalry horses and it was here that the quartermaster of the Edinburgh Light Horse, Sir Walter Scott, was kicked in the head during a drill. Enforced bed-rest allowed him to finish the Lay of the Last Minstrel.
The traveller now entered Edinburgh, although if they were expecting a comfortable hotel, or even a coaching inn, they were disappointed. Until James Dun opened the first Edinburgh hotel in the New Town in 1774 accommodation was very rough indeed. Perhaps we should end with an image of Dr Johnson, whose unflattering views on Scotland are well known. He put up at the White Horse in Boyd’s Close and Boswell visited him there to find him in a towering rage because the waiter had sweetened his lemonade using his fingers, not the tongs, to add the sugar.

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