Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Employment, Gardening, Gentlemen, Historical Romance, Uncategorized

The Road to Waterloo – Week Eight. The Tricolour Floats Throughout the Empire – and Is Lady Roseberry To Be Turned Naked Into the Streets?

Londoners would have been cheered to know just how Napoleon was struggling to produce a new constitution and hold the government together. On Saturday 22nd April he finally published the new document, breaking with the European-wide ambitions of his previous two Imperial constitutions by making it clear that this version was designed to “increase the prosperity of France by the strengthening of public liberty.” The new constitution was to be approved by a public plebiscite – always supposing the various disputing factions ever showed enough interest to vote. But at least the Emperor was cheered up on the 18th to receive the news that the Duke of Angoulême had capitulated. Grouchy wrote from Avignon, “Sire, I have the honour to announce to Your Majesty [that]… the tricolour flag floats throughout the territory of the Empire.”
The Monday newspapers carried reports that 200,000 Russian troops were marching towards the Rhine in support of the Allies but were not expected to be in position until May. “The same number of Prussians will very shortly be upon the French frontiers and it is asserted that 80,000 of them are already on the borders of the Rhine.”


At home there were reports in the papers of the inquests on seven American prisoners of war shot attempting to escape from Dartmoor prisoner of war camp, a bleak institution high on the moors. The print above is from Ackermann’s Repository in 1810 when the prison was newly built. The smaller enclosure to the right is the barracks for the troops guarding the prisoners.
The court and fashionable news included the scandalous information that the Consistory Court had “pronounced a sentence of divorce in favour of Lord Roseberry, on the grounds of adultery between Lady Roseberry and Sir H. St. J. Mildmay.” The case was so splendidly lurid that I think I will have to devote an entire post to it later. When the bill of divorce reached the Committee stage in the House of Commons in June, the question of Lady Roseberry’s allowance from her husband arose:
According to Hansard, “Mr. M. A. Taylor rose and said, he did not think the sum proposed in this clause sufficient to provide Lady Roseberry with the common necessaries of life. He was one of those who could not accede to…an opinion…that after a woman has committed an act of adultery, she ought to be turned naked into the streets, without the means of sustaining existence…He would appeal to the feelings of the House, whether it was; possible for Lady Roseberry, after the splendour in which she had been accustomed to live, to support herself upon the miserable pittance of 300l. per annum. It might be said, that this limited income must be considered as a part of the punishment of her crime.”
On Monday the Morning Post writes of receiving a report “of a petition of peace with Bonaparte been clandestinely circulated for signatures in the City of London. We cannot believe this rumour or that any considerable number of citizens would put a their name to so degrading a paper.”
In the House of Commons Mr. Bathurst proposed an Aliens Act to protect against subversive French aliens. It was rejected as unnecessary – apparently the House shared the Morning Post’s opinion of the loyalty of British citizens.
A proclamation from King Louis XVIII to all French citizens was widely reported. He promised to welcome back “into his arms” all who had previously supported Napoleon and warned that “already does Europe advance to dethrone him. She advances Frenchman! Her innumerable phalanxes will soon pass your frontiers…”
Under the heading “Pugilism”, the Morning Chronicle stated on Wednesday that “for years we have not had to report a fight so determined and so desperate Road to a fightas that which brought together by amateurs yesterday on Hounslow Heath, between Harry Harmer, of first rate science, and Shelton the navigator.” The vast crowd watched 28 brutal rounds lasting 26 minutes ending in the defeat of Shelton following “a dreadful blow to the side of the head.”

The print Road to A Fight by Henry Alken (1821) shows the sporting gentlemen all rushing to the ringside.
To end on a rather more sophisticated note, the papers were enthusiastic about the Marchioness of Landsdowne’s Rout. “Landsdowne House was opened on Thursday night to nearly the whole of the Fashionable world. That magnificent mansion appeared in all the blaze of meridian splendour; its interior embellishments never appeared to greater advantage. All the beautiful apartments notwithstanding their majestic proportions, were filled with beauty and elegance… At midnight the scene was at its zenith; at one o’clock a few began to retire, and about three the party broke up.”
Guests included five ambassadors and what reads like all the nobility in residence in London. The print is from Ackermann’s Repository for May 1811 and is captioned, “Landsdowne House, Berkley Square.Landsdowne House


Filed under Uncategorized

Jane Austen by Candlelight – or was it a lamp?

In September 1813 Jane Austen was staying with her brother Henry at his Henrietta Street address in Covent Garden, along with their brother Edward, his daughter Fanny and two of Fanny’s younger sisters. On the 16th Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra, ‘We are now all four of us young Ladies sitting around the Circular Table in the inner room writing our Letters, while the two Brothers are having a comfortable coze in the room adjoining.’1-Barretts bill minor crop

It is a charming picture, but how were the four ladies illuminating their work? Probably not with smelly tallow dip candles, unless they were in an economical mood. Those were made from mutton fat, usually contained bits of meat, smelled strongly and, in homes with any pretence to gentility, were Candle advert cropconfined to the service areas.

There was an “economy” candle available – tallow with a wick that had been dipped in wax which must have reduced the smell a little and, according to The Candle & Soap Company’s advert of August 1802 shown left, (The Statesman newspaper), would not “Gutter except from bad handling or carrying about.”

However, we know that the Austens bought pure wax candles from Penlington’s, a tallow chandlers at the sign of the Crown and Beehive, Charles   Street (now Wellington Street), a short walk from the Covent Garden piazza and Henrietta Street. It evidently produced superior candles, for the family would order from them by mail: on 1 November 1800 Jane tells Cassandra, who has just passed through London on her way to Kent, that their mother was ‘rather vexed’ because Cassandra did not call at Penlington’s but that she had sent a written order, ‘which does just as well.’

I don’t have a bill from Penlington’s, but the one shown at the top is from the very smart shop, Barrett & Beaumont, Wax Chandlers to Their Majesties – you can see the royal coat of arms to the left and the Prince of Wales’s feathers on the right, denoting the royal warrents.  The bill, for two pounds eight shillings and six pence is for twelve candles – I think it says “sperm” for spermaceti (ie whale oil) and three “Wax Moons”, which are a mystery to me.Candle magnifier

A single candle, or even a branch of candles, does not produce a very bright light, so for detailed work there were methods of focusing and concentrating the light. One method was to place a glass globe filled with water in front of the flame and this photograph (right) shows a device for giving a group of sewers stronger light from just one candle. (Birmingham Museums Reserve Collection).

Argaud lampThe first lamp designed on scientific principles was the Argand lamp, patented in 1780. It used a wick drawing on a reservoir of whale (spermaceti) or vegetable oil and they were made in very handsome designs in silver or in Sheffield plate. The photograph (left) is of one at Soho House, Birmingham, the home of Matthew Boulton, the manufacturer. This particular pattern is silver plate, of about 1800.

Soho House also contains another lamp by Matthew Boulton & Plate Company, this time of c.1820 (shown below). It is a neat little bedside lamp made to burn colza (rape seed) oil. With our frequent power cuts out here in the country I rather covet this little lamp.colza lampIf anyone knows what a “wax moon” might be, I’d love to hear from you!


Filed under Shopping, Uncategorized

New Blog!

Bear with me while I set this blog up!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized