Category Archives: Women

Ophelia’s Maiden Strewments in an English church

In Hamlet the priest says of the burial of Ophelia –

Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warranty: her death was doubtful;
And, but that great command o’ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her;
Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

Samuel Johnson in his Notes to Shakespeare (1765) wrote: “I have been informed by an anonymous correspondent, that crants is the German word for garlands, and I suppose it was retained by us from the Saxons. To carry garlands before the bier of a maiden, and to hang them over her grave, is still the practice in rural parishes.”

I had no idea that such things might survive, but I recently visited the church of St Stephen in Fylingdales, North Yorkshire and found some there, hanging ghostly in a glass enclosure. (Photographs above and below. Unfortunately the glass enclosure made it impossible to avoid some reflections.)

A maiden garland was made by the friends of a virgin and carried at her funeral procession, or placed on the bier. It was then hung in the church over her usual seat until it finally disintegrated. The frame was made of willow and it was covered in yards of ribbon – one of the Fylingdales examples contains over 100 feet (30.5 metres). Strips of dress fabric were also used – perhaps from the deceased’s best gowns. In 1747 the Gentleman’s Magazine described how The lower rim, or circlet, was a broad hoop of wood, whereunto were fix’d, at the sides thereof, part of two other hoops, crossing each other at the top at right angles, which formed the upper part, being about one third longer than the width; these hoops were wholly covered with artificial flowers of paper, dy’d horn, or silk, and more or less beauteous, according to the skill or ingenuity of the performer. In the vacancy of the inside, from the top, hung white paper, cut in the form of gloves, whereon was wrote the deceased’s name, age, etc. together with long slips of various-colour’d paper, or ribbons. These were many times intermix’d with gilded or painted empty shells of blown eggs, as farther ornaments; or, it may be, as emblems of the bubbles or bitterness of this life; whilst other garlands had only a solitary hour-glass hanging therein, as a more significant symbol of mortality.’

 The oldest surviving garland is at St Mary’s church in Beverley, Yorkshire and dates to 1680. The Fylingdales examples are all early-mid 19th century – the last one is for Jane Levitt who died  aged 20 in 1859.

In June 1790 John Byng, Viscount Torrington, a great traveller on horseback, called at the church in Tideswell, Derbyshire. After dinner, I enter’d the church, which, without, is beautiful; (quite a model); and within, of excellent architecture… They here continue to hang up maiden garlands, which, however laudable, as of tendency to virtue, will soon be laugh’d out of practice.’ Certainly many clerics disapproved of the garland as unfitting  – possibly suspecting pagan survivals or ‘Popish’ practices – and forbade or discouraged them. In some cases they were removed for practical reasons. In 1749 the parish register of Hope in the Peak District records that the church wardens were paid to clear away all the garlands from the beams of the church because they were blocking the daylight from the clerestory windows.

However, they continued to be made and the custom still survives in one parish – St Mary the Virgin, Abbots Ann, Hampshire. Not only does that church have the largest surviving collection but, in theory, they can still be awarded to people of either sex who die unmarried – provided the recipient was born, baptised and confirmed in the parish, continued to live there and was of unblemished reputation. Their earliest example dates from 1740 and the most recent 1973.

Old St Stephen’s church in Fylingdales is still consecrated but was replaced in 1870 by a new church. It is preserved by the Churches Conservation Trust and is open to the public.

This modern example of a maiden garland made for demonstration purposes at Fylingdales shows how the colours might have looked on an original.

 

 

 

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A Fishy Business – Billingsgate Market

The New Family Cookery or Town and Country Housekeepers’ Guide by Duncan MacDonald (1812) begins its General Directions for Marketing with fish and with Billingsgate Market:

The comment in the penultimate paragraph is ironic, considering Billingsgate’s colourful reputation! When I was researching for my book Regency Slang Revealed I discovered that to talk Billingsgate meant to use particularly coarse and foul language.

Billingsgate Market was sited at the foot of Lower Thames Street from at least the 10th century until it was moved to the new market site on the Isle of Dogs in 1982. The first set of toll regulations covering it dates from 1016 and by the time of Elizabeth I it was dealing in corn, malt, salt and vegetables, although fish was always the main reason for its existence at the highest point where fish could be unloaded straight from the boats before London Bridge. It can be seen in Horwood’s map of London (c1800) below with the deep indentation of the dock taking a bite out of the waterfront and London Bridge on the left. This dock vanished with the Victorian rebuilding of the market in 1850. That building proved inadequate and was replaced with the present handsome structure by Sir Horace Jones, opened in 1877. It was refurbished after the closure and is now used for various commercial purposes. During the 1988 work extensive remains of the late 12th century/early 13th century waterfront were revealed.

The engraving from a print of 1820 shows the view of the dock from the river. At this date there was no covered market building, simply stalls and tables set out around the dock. In the days before a ready supply of ice dealers would come into Billingsgate from places within about twenty five miles – an outer ring that included Windsor, St Albans and Romford – and fish was sold in lots by the Dutch auction method where the price falls until a buyer is found. Many of the fish were caught in the Thames and in 1828 a Parliamentary Committee took evidence that in 1798 there were 400 fishermen, each owning a boat and employing one boy, who made a good living between Deptford and London catching roach, plaice, smelts, flounders, shad, eels, dudgeon, dace and dabs. One witness stated that in 1810 3,000 Thames salmon were landed in the season. By the time of the Commission,eighteen years later, the fishery had been destroyed by the massive pollution of the river from water closets and  the waste from gas works and factories that went straight into the river.

It was the fishwives of Billingsgate who became its most notorious feature. They were tough women, as they needed to be to thrive in such a hard, competitive business, and they did not shrink from either physical violence or colourful language. In Bailey’s English Dictionary (1736) a “Billingsgate” is defined as “a scolding, impudent slut.” Addison referred to the “debate” that arose among “the ladies of the British fishery” and Ned Ward describes them scolding and chattering among their heaps of fish, “ready enough to knock down the auctioneer who did not knock down a lot to them.”

The women of Billingsgate were an inevitable attraction to young bucks and gentlemen slumming, as the two prints below show. The top one is a drawing by Henry Alken for the Tom and Jerry series – “Billingsgate: Tom and Bob taking a Survey after a Night’s Spree.”  Below that is “A Frolic: High Life or a Visit to Billingsgate” from The London Spy.

Here two sporting gentlemen stand out in the crowd of working people as they watch a fight that has broken out between two bare-breasted fishwives. Another has just been knocked to the ground. Amongst the details note the woman sitting on a basket smoking a clay pipe, another (far left) taking a swig from a bottle and the porter’s hat on the man in the centre foreground with its long ‘skirt’ to protect the neck.

This print below is not dated, but as there is the funnel of a steam boat in the background amongst the masts it is probably 1820s.

Here a determined-looking lady in a riding habit, her veil thrown back and her whip under her arm, is negotiating the sale of a large fish head. Behind her is a smartly-dressed woman, perhaps a merchant’s wife, and an elderly gentleman in spectacles is talking to another fish seller on the far right. There are two men in livery, perhaps accompanying the lady in the riding habit. The man standing behind the seated fishwife is a sailor, judging by his tarred pigtail, and the porter walking towards us is wearing one of the black hats whose ‘tail’ can just be glimpsed over his shoulders. It is all fairly orderly and respectable, despite the crowd (and the smell, no doubt) but a hint to the other activities in the area may be the couple in the window!

 

 

 

 

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Keeping a Diary – and a lady who didn’t

I recently deposited my late father’s 40+ years-worth of diaries with the Great Diary Project , an incredible undertaking to preserve diaries of all kinds.  It made me think about keeping a diary – and how many good resolutions there must be to do just that which are never fulfilled. Which reminded me that I own a ladies’ memorandum book for 1822 –  and the owner didn’t use it either.

The book is beautifully bound in plain red Morocco leather with a tab to keep the covers closed and measures just over 4.5 x 3.25 inches.

But even though it contains no fascinating insights into the daily life of a lady in 1822 it is a lovely item in its own right, and it does contain two handwritten recipes and a mass of other useful printed material including “New Songs and Melodies”, instructions for country dances and quadrilles, the price of stamps and “Enigmas, Charades and Rebuses.”

The diary belonged to “Elizabeth Plant. Greatwood Lodge.” I did not have much confidence that I could find her – but an on-line transcript of a deed appointing Thomas Plant “Farmer of Greatwood Lodge in the parish of Eccleshall in the county of Staffordshire” as a trustee in 1879 gave me the parish. Greatwood Lodge is still there, a red-brick farmhouse that was perhaps quite new in Elizabeth’s time, and still a farm.

The frontispiece has a fashion plate and a view of a fine country house in Suffolk

As the frontispiece says the diaries were sold by a Bury St Edmund’s bookseller and throughout East Anglia the choice of a Suffolk house was probably for marketing purposes. Perhaps Elizabeth received it as a gift from a friend or relative.

I wonder if she took the picture of the walking dress to her local dressmaker, or even attempted it herself – and did she and her friends try out the country dances the book contained?

Amongst the poems I particularly like this cynical view off London – perhaps intended to convince the country-dwelling owners of the diary that they were in the right place:

The only things that Elizabeth wrote in her diary were two recipes, one for gingerbread and one for “toufy” or toffee, both on the accounts page for January. The  gingerbread sounds tasty!

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The Foundling Hospital

Although the prints in this post are much earlier, the Foundling Hospital would have been well known – and in fact a fashionable place to visit – right through the 19th century. It was founded in 1742 by the man in the portrait below, Captain Thomas Coram, master mariner and shipwright, who was appalled by the plight of the homeless children he saw on the streets of London when he came there to live.

thomas-coram

Coram worked hard for almost twenty years to alleviate the plight of orphaned children, or those abandoned by their parents “to die on a dunghill” before he secured sufficient support from ladies of “Nobility and Distinction” to provide a permanent home for them and a charter from George II in 1739.

After an unsatisfactory beginning in Hatton Garden a large plot – 56 acres – was bought in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, then open fields close to the road to Hampstead and Highgate villages. Work began on a grand hospital to the designs of Theodore Jacobsen and the first children – the boys – moved into the east wing in 1742. The west wing, for the girls, was ready by 1745.

foundling-hospital

The image above is a detail from “A View of the Foundling Hospital” published soon after the building was finished. Such magnificence might seem a waste of money that could have been better spent, but it was essential to attract the patronage of as many fashionable and wealthy people as possible and this fine and eminently respectable building became not only a place to visit but also one of worship in its chapel. Hogarth, and then other major artists, contributed paintings which were also an attraction to visitors who, once they were inside, could be solicited for donations.

Handel was another major benefactor. He donated an organ in 1750, gave concerts there, trained the choir and raised over £7,000 by performances of his Messiah.

The children were, at first, accepted as and when there was room on a first-come, first-taken basis but this proved unworkable because the numbers seeking admission were simply too great. Instead it became a lottery with mothers drawing a ball from a bag. White gave the child immediate admittance, providing they passed a medical exam, red put them on a waiting list and black was rejection. Amongst the most harrowing objects to see in all of London are in the collection of tokens mothers left with their child in the faint hope that one day they could come back to claim them. You can find out more about them at the Foundation’s website.

Once the children reached the age of fourteen they were apprenticed, joined the army or were found positions as domestic servants. Only  tiny handful were ever reunited with their mothers.

In 1926 the hospital moved to Redhill and then to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, where its buildings are now Ashlyns school. A smaller building was put up on part of the site and it retains one of the staircases and many of the furnishing and paintings from the original. Even part of the perimeter wall and gates can still be seen – have a look on StreetView at the junction of Guilford Street and Guilford Place, looking north, and you will recognize the centre front feature in the print above, although without its ironwork.

 

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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 Regency Print Room – DIY Decoration and Early Scrapbooking

On a recent visit to Blickling Hall in North Norfolk I was delighted to see an example of one of my favourite kinds of Regency interior – the Print Room.

Blickling 1

These were usually small rooms with painted walls on which the homeowner would paste prints, surrounding them with fancy borders made to resemble picture frames and perhaps with tromp l’oeil ribbons and cords to ‘hang’ them from.

Print rooms were attractive projects to undertake for a number of reasons, especially since the selection and arrangement of the prints themselves served to demonstrate your personal taste and discrimination, to be admired by friends and visitors. It was a form of satisfying collecting to track down and assemble the prints and, very importantly, it was a craft skill that was perfectly acceptable for ladies to carry out, involving nothing more than a pair of sharp scissors, a ruler, a pot of flour paste and a footman with a step ladder.

Illustrated books were popular conversation pieces, to be handed round and discussed in the evening and many would have been sacrificed for their prints of classical antiquity, foreign lands or plant and animal life. Gentlemen on the Grand Tour might buy prints on their travels and come home with them for their mothers or sisters to use to create a large-scale souvenir of the journey.

Contemporary journals, such as Ackerman’s Repository always contained prints of fashionable ladies of the day or of interesting scenes, and print shops abounded in London and the larger towns.

The prints used in the more formal print rooms seen by visitors were usually black and white or sepia and not the hand-painted coloured types.

Rudolph Ackermann was the foremost artistic supplier to the well-off amateur as well as to professional artists. He was born in Saxony in 1764 and opened his shop at 101, Strand in 1797. His portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, a mark of how successful and influential he became. He sold paints and colours, other supplies for artists, illustrated books, journals and prints.

He even sold prints of his own shop – excellent publicity, of course. This one shows customers browsing through the prints and hints at the size of his stock. As well as buying the actual prints, anyone creating a print room could also buy borders in lengths to cut to fit, and the other decorative details to create the impression of a collection of hanging pictures.

ackermanns 2

The two photos from Blickling show how the entire room was designed as whole, with a border around the doors and windows to match the ‘frames’ on the pictures. The detail shows one wall with prints mainly from the Grand Tour – the large one in the centre at the top is the Pantheon in Rome – and also shows the variety of ribbon bows available.Blickling 2

Ladies might also decorate the inside of closets or their dressing rooms – places that were private and not on display to visitors – in more of a ‘scrapbook’ style, building up the decoration as they found something that appealed. An extreme example of the desire to cover any available surface is the interior of the lid of this 18th century chest that I own – it has amateur drawings and watercolours, a print of the Battle of Vittoria, newspaper cuttings and even Moses with the Ten Commandments.

chest

I’m sure Regency ladies would have loved the modern craze for scrapbooking!

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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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