Tag Archives: Byron

Discovering Sir Walter Scott – Or, Confessions of an Historical Author

I had better start this post with a confession – I have never read anything by Sir Walter Scott, the Regency’s favourite author and the man who almost single-handed created the historical novel genre as we understand it today. And that is bad of me, because for someone who writes historical novels and who specialises in the Regency, I should have done. And I will read some, just as soon as I’ve met my current deadline.

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We were driving back from a touring holiday in Scotland in August when I looked at the map and saw Abbotsford marked, dredged in my memory, came up with Scott and suggested we visit.
My husband grumbled that he knew nothing about Scott (he’s a zoologist, so he has an excuse), so I had better fill him in while we were driving there. All I could come up with was that Scott was blamed for the excesses of the “tartan and shortbread” Scottish tourist industry, had been hugely prolific, wildly popular with the reading public and had got himself into vast debt. We had encountered him on numerous occasions when researching for Following the Great North Road (available for Kindle) because he was a constant traveller between Scotland and London, considering the Swan at Ferrybridge to be the best inn on the Great North Road.
He was also kicked in the head by his horse while drilling with the Edinburgh Light Horse at Portobello just outside Edinburgh (and also on the GNR) and finished The Lay of the Last Minstrel while confined to bed recovering.
None of this amounted to much of an introduction, let alone an explanation of why Scott was so popular at the time and still has such a grip that Abbotsford has become a literary shrine.

AbbotsfordThe visit to the house was preceded by an excellent exhibition in the visitor centre, so we studied that and got the basic facts straight. Scott was born in 1771 in Edinburgh to a very respectable professional family. (Lawyers, medics, professors). He spent his first four years in Roxburghshire while recovering from the polio that left his left leg permanently affected and this encounter with Borders history apparently fired his precocious imagination.
He returned to Edinburgh for his education, became a rather unsuccessful Advocate and then was appointed Sherriff-Depute of Selkirkshire in 1799. He was already writing poetry and was obsessed with Scottish history and legends, so this new post was ideal, giving him the opportunity to travel widely.
He wrote his vast Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders (1802), followed by epic poems The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808) and The Lady of the Lake (1810) which proved hugely popular with a reading public whose tastes were embracing the romantic and who were fascinated by wild and rugged landscapes. But poetry was not enough for him, and besides, Byron was beginning to encroach on his territory. He turned to fiction with Waverley (1814), Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) and Ivanhoe (1820). He was also writing essays, lyrics, short stories, historical and biographical work and highly-regarded critiques of contemporary fiction – he reviewed both Emma and Frankenstein, for example.
Despite being staggeringly prolific in his writing, Scott was still holding the Sherriff-Depute post and needed a base for his travels that would also accommodate his family. In 1812 he bought Newarthaugh, a farmhouse “on a bare haugh and bleak bank by the side of the Tweed.” It was small for a man with a wife and four childrgardensen, but he started by making only small changes to the house, which he renamed Abbotsford, instead buying land to increase the estate from 110 acres to 1,400.

The house grew in stages almost haphazardly. “I have always had a private dislike to a regular shape of a house…when the cottage enlarges itself and grows out of circumstance, which is the case at Abbotsford, the outs and the inns [sic] afford, without, so much variety and depth of shade, and, within, give such an odd variety of snug accommodation that they far exceed in my estimation the cut-lugged bandbox with four rooms on a floor and two stories rising regularly above the other!”
Money was no object – it was pouring in from his writing – and Scott could afford architects and builders, artists and craftsmen.

Hall He also collected voraciously, acquiring books for his wonderful working library, which survives intact, and curios and historical pieces. There are too many to do more than just mention a few – a cast of the skull of Robert the Bruce, the original keys to Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth prison, the gaol door and some of its stonework, oak panelling from Dunfermline Abbey and a piece of oatcake from Culloden battlefield are amongst the wealth of historic, curious and just plain odd items. The great hall, is shown left, Scott’s study is  below, right, and the library, below left.
Scott could afford to indulge himself with his building and collecting until disaster struck in 1826. His publishers, Archibald Constable of Edinburgh, went bankrupt and Scottstudy2 was financially involved through a partnership. There was no limited liability in those days and Scott himself was bankrupted. But in an extraordinary move the creditors allowed him to write himself out of debt. Abbotsford was put in trust and the Scott family permitted to remain there while he worked – “My own right hand shall pay the debt.” From then on he worked relentlessly, despite the death of his wife and his own failing health. By the time he died in September 1832 the debt was virtually cleared.

libraryScott is often “blamed” for the outbreak of tartan-itis that culminated in Queen Victoria’s obsessive use of the pattern at Balmoral and the proliferation of tartan tourist goods today, but this stemmed from his efforts to help George IV. George, who was not such a fool as he is often portrayed, wanted to heal the rifts between England and Scotland that led to the Jacobite rebellions. He wanted to throw himself into Scottish history and completely bought into Scott’s romantic vision of the Scottish past. When he visited in 1822 the Edinburgh city council commissioned Scott to stage manage the event and he created a wonderful show, including assisting the king to dress in tartan, which had been outlawed since the 1745 rebellion.
Despite the fact that George managed to create the most ludicrous version of Highland dress that a portly middle-aged man could ever have worn (shown here in a detail of the portrait by Wilkie), this was an important gesture and enthusiasm for tartan as a potent symbol of national identity surged.GIVWilkie
Four years before the royal visit, in 1818, Scott had used the then Prince Regent’s enthusiasm for his work to petition him to allow a search for the “Honours of Scotland” – the Scottish crown jewels.
In 1707, the Act of Union between England and Scotland decreed that they must always remain in Scotland. But there were fears that they might become a symbol of Scottish independence, so they were put into a strongbox in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle which was then locked, barred with double doors, and the key conveniently ‘lost’.
George agreed to Scott’s request and the room was broken into, the chest opened and the crown, sword of state and sceptre – the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe – were found safely inside. They still remain in Scotland today, on display in Edinburgh Castle.
Abbotsford House remains essentially as Scott left it, although with some 1850s extensions at the side. But his study, the library and the wildly eccentric great hall feel as though he has only just walked out to stroll beside his beloved River Tweed for some more inspiration.

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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.

Doncaster_0001
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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Going to the Zoo – Upstairs

PolitoIn Sense and Sensibility one of John Dashwood’s feeble excuses for not calling promptly on his half-sisters was that he had to take his young son Harry to see the wild beasts at Exeter Change on the Strand.
I was prompted to find out more when I bought a print from Ackermann’s Repository which shows the interior of “Polito’s Royal Menagerie” in 1812 and then found a copper token issued by one of the earlier owners, Mr Pidcock. “The collection of divers beasts and birds [was] only exceeded in rarity by those of the Royal Menagerie in the Tower,” according to The Picture of London for 1807, but what neither the guide book nor the Ackermann’s article appear to find worthy of comment was that this little zoo was on the first floor of a building otherwise occupied by shops and offices. The collection included at various times adult elephants, two rhinoceroses, a pair of kangaroos, a “gigantic male ostrich”, a Bengal tigExeter Change 2er and a pair of lions. How any of these were coaxed or carried up a flight of stairs is not explained.
Exeter Change was built in around 1676 as a not very successful collection of small shops specialising in millinery, drapery and hosiery, but by the late 18th century many were let as offices. An animal dealer, Thomas Clark, began a menagerie on the first floor in 1770, advertising that the animals could be viewed “in complete safety.” In 1793 Gilbert Pidock, who had been using it as a winter headquarters for his travelling show, bought the menagerie and on his death in 1810 it was acquired by an Italian, Stephen Polito, and renamed The Royal Menagerie.
Edward Cross worked for Polito and his daughter married Polito’s brother. When Polito died in 1814 Cross took over the menagerie. He tried on two occasions to sell the collection to the Zoological Society of London and moved it to the Royal Mews on the site of The National Gallery when Exeter Change was demolished in 1829. He eventually managed to sell some animals to the new London Zoo and moved the rest to the Surrey Zoological Gardens, which he created.
The Morning Chronicle for 17 May 1808 reported that, “The grandest spectacle in the universe is now prepared at PidcoUntitled-1 copyck’s Royal Menagerie, Exeter Change, Strand, where a most uncommon collection of foreign beasts and birds, many of them never before seen alive in Europe, are ready to entertain the wondering spectators. This affords an excellent opportunity for Ladies and Gentlemen to treat themselves with a view of some of the most beautiful and rare animals in creation. Amongst innumerable others are five noble African lions, tigers, nylghaws, beavers, kangaroos, grand cassowary, emus, ostriches etc. Indeed such a numerous assemblage of living birds and beasts may not be found for a century. This wonderful collection is divided into three apartments, at one shilling each person, or the three rooms for two shillings and sixpence each person.”Untitled-2 copy
Of course the conditions were utterly unsuited to keeping wild animals and complaints were made even in the early 19th century. In 1796 Pidcock had three elephants in one room. The most horrifying example of the cruelty was the fate of Chunee the elephant who weighted 5 tonnes and who became so irritable – understandably in view of a rotten and untreated tusk – that in 1826 it was decided he must be destroyed. When the first attempt to kill him by shooting failed, soldiers were brought from Somerset House further along the Strand. They also failed to destroy the poor creature, now maddened by pain and a cannon was ordered. Thankfully the keeper managed to kill Chunee before it arrived. The carcase was dissected by the Royal College of Surgeons.
Numerous copper tokens were issued for the menagerie. These were produced for many businesses in the late 18th century to supplement the poor supply of small coinage. The one I own shows an elephant with the words “Pidcock’s Exhibition” on one side and a bird and “Exeter Change, Strand London” on the other. Other designs showed lions, beavers and a rhino.
Celebrity visitors included Lord Byron, who was amused by Chunee taking his money and then courteously returning it. He also saw a hippopotamus there which, he said, reminded him of Lord Liverpool.

Exeter ChangeAs the Ackermann’s print shows, this was very much a family entertainment. In my next post I’ll visit Bullock’s Museum where the public could view a wide range of exotic species, but, probably fortunately for the animals concerned, all stuffed.

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