Tag Archives: Henry Austen

A Georgian Facelift

Georgian domestic architecture still impresses us today with its elegant formality, symmetry and fine detailing. Even modest terraces of Georgian houses command good prices and once inside we expect to find high ceilings and a regular ‘rational’ floor plan.

Here is the Square in the centre of the Shropshire town of Shrewsbury – all apparently Georgian with the exception of the medieval market hall just visible on the right and the modern clock tower looming over the rooftops.

But very often all is not as it seems when we view one of these handsome frontages and that was brought home to me when I saw this house, also in Shrewsbury.

The imposing frontage on the corner of Belmont and Belmont Bank dates from 1750, but it has been slapped onto the front of a half-timbered house that is at least a century older. The old house has had new sash windows inserted and the weight of a new front top floor is being carried on the roof beams of the old house. From the front it looks completely Georgian, although the strange brickwork on the side to disguise the jetties of the timber-framed house seems rather odd. But the game is given away the moment one sees it from the side, and as most of the traffic approaching it must have come from that direction it seems a strange economy not to replace both faces. Possibly this would have been structurally impossible, given the way the timber-framed house was constructed – the side face could not be cut back and the frontage was already right onto the pavement, so extending out to cover it was not a possibility.

One wonders just how many of the ‘Georgian’ houses we admire are simply refaced. I have seen some in Bury St Edmunds where the attractive Adam-style fanlights over the door reveal timber beams from the old structure behind them and there are certainly parts of London where entire streets retain early buildings hidden behind more ‘modern’ facades. Jermyn Street in the St James area, for example, appears Georgian and Victorian, but most of those frontages conceal the original 17th century houses. The shopfronts of Paxton & Whitfield (cheesemongers since the mid 18th century) and the historic perfumery firm of Floris are two examples. In Soho many frontages, such as those of Frith Street and Compton Street, conceal buildings of the early 17th century. You can be guided through St James and Soho in Walks through Regency London.

And it wasn’t only the Georgians who saved money by remodelling the exterior of houses, the Victorians did it too. When I was researching for Walking Jane Austen’s London I located two of Henry Austen’s London homes where Jane had stayed. One, in Sloane Street, has no Blue Plaque on at all, the other has one saying that the house, in Hans Square, is ‘on the site of’ Henry’s house. But in fact both of these are simply the Georgian ‘new-builds’ that Henry leased, remodelled and refaced in the late 19th century. Just after the war a researcher managed to gain entry to both and wrote a little book which I managed to track down in the British Library. It describes how the properties were refaced, additional floors added and in the case of the Hans Square House, the front door was moved. It is possible to glimpse the back of the Sloane Street house and see the octagonal room that Jane describes in a letter to her sister Cassandra as the scene of a party that Henry and his wife Eliza threw.

In the images the Sloane Street house is the one with the scaffolding (being remodelled yet again!). Here a new top floor has been added and the whole refaced in 1897. The Hans Square house was refaced in red brick, had a new top floor and the front door shifted in 1884.

 

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A Stroll In St James’s Park

DSCN2018 soldierThe sun is shining – just the afternoon for a stroll in St James’s Park. The other day I started off at St James’s Palace where the scarlet-coated guardsmen were fending off the advances of crowds of camera-wielding tourists and then walked down narrow Marlborough Road between the Palace and Marlborough House. This access to the park did not exist until the 1850s and effectively cuts off Marlborough House and the Queen’s Chapel on one side from the Palace on the other.

The Queen’s Chapel, although a Chapel Royal is not The Chapel Royal which is within the Palace and which is where Prince George was christened recently. The Queen’s Chapel was designed by Inigo Jones in the 1620s for Queen Henrietta Maria, the Roman Catholic wife of Charles I, although since the 1690s it has been used as a Protestant place of worship.DSCN2019

Crossing the Mall, with its view of BuckinghamPalace to the right, I dodged the Royal Parks gardeners getting ready for the post-picnic lunch clear-up in the Park and entered through the gorgeous wrought iron gates.

St James’s Park is the oldest royal park and dates back to Tudor times. Elizabeth I hunted deer here but by the time of James I there was a physic garden, a menagerie (including crocodiles) and an aviary, which is recalled in the name of Birdcage Walk on the northern edge of the park.

Charles II had considerable work done to create the central canal by joining up several ponds and marshy areas, planting trees and stocking it with deer. It is from this date that the pall mall alley was laid out. The Russian ambassador presented Charles with a pair of pelicans in 1664 and there are still pelicans amongst the exotic birds on the lake today. Occasionally one creates havoc by pouncing on a passing pigeon and swallowing it whole.

At the eastern end of the park was SpringGardens, a pleasure garden dating from the 17th century. All that remains of it now are two stubs of roads cut across by the Mall and with Admiralty Arch sitting in the middle. By Jane Austen’s day they were notable for various indoor places of entertainment, art galleries and so on. The Picture of London (1807) recommends Wigley’s Royal Promenade rooms here. They were open 10am to 10pm, admission one shilling. The visitor could ‘meet’ two invisible girls who spoke or sang on demand, or listen to a performance on the panharmonium, a mechanical orchestra.DSCN0397

The Society of Painters In Water Colours exhibited at Spring Gardens. On 24 May 1813 Jane wrote of a visit with her brother Henry and reported that she was well-pleased with what she saw, especially, ‘with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley…exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.’ Deirdre le Faye identifies this picture as the charming Portrait of a Lady by J F-M Huet-Villiers.

However pleasant it was in broad daylight, Miss Austen would have been cautious about walking in the park after dusk without a male escort for it was a notorious haunt of prostitutes of both sexes. Even though the park was locked at night it was thought that almost 7,000 keys were in  private possession, so it might just as well have been open. James Boswell records various encounters with prostitutes there but it was also a dangerous place for a man by himself, for gangs of blackmailers operated under cover of its shrubberies. One man, his breeches undone, would leap out at the victim, crying that he had been attacked, while his confederates threatened to fetch the watch and swear they had witnessed an indecent assault. At a time when homosexual acts were criminalised and could lead to the gallows, many men paid up rather than risk not being believed.

The Globe newspaper for January 7th 1809 reports, We were in hopes that the conviction of Cannon and his companion Wilkinson, for extorting money from Mr Butterworth the silversmith, in St James’s Park, would have put a stop to the depredations of those execrable wretches who are making a miserable existence by the diabolical practices of threatening respectable persons with a most detestable crime. But they regret to have to report yet another instance had just come to light.

In August 1814 the park was the site of a series of extravagant celebrations: first for the centenary of Hanoverian rule, then the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile and finally the peace celebrations following Napoleon’s exile to Elba. The architect Nash designed an exotic seven-storey pagoda, which unfortunately caught fire during a firework display. Ironically this was organised by Congreve, the inventor of the military rockets which went on to cause almost as much alarm and confusion amongst British troops as amongst the enemy at the Battle of Quatre Bras the following year. There was also a bridge, which lasted rather longer, until 1825, although in a half-burnt condition and made perilous by the remains of the hooks that had held the Catherine wheels.St J Park0001

Festivities were also held on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, which had a miniature navy afloat on it, and at the temple of Concord in Green Park, both events open freely to the public. The organisers at St James’s Park, however, decided to charge half a guinea and erected barriers and toll gates. Despite the charge the event was hugely popular and the gates had to be closed. Despite the crowds none of the public were killed during the fire, although two unfortunate workmen died.

After the event the park was left in a dreadful state and it was not until 1827 that the government found the money to renovate it. Nash was chosen for the job and he remodelled the canal into a sinuous lake, added a duck island, a new bridge, widened the Mall and replanted the trees, shrubberies and flowerbeds.

The park now is much as Nash left it, although the bridge is a replacement and the view includes the London Eye. FroStrand0002m the modern bridge there is an excellent view of DSCN0389-001Buckingham Palace. Jane Austen knew it as the Queen’s House and it only took on its present appearance when George IV began its enlargement to fit his concept of a fitting palace. The black and white print of skaters shows the Queen’s House with the park before Nash’s remodelling.

Often I will walk from the bridge to Horse Guards Parade, this time I went down to Bird Cage Walk and along to Westminster Abbey to catch a bus up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square – I’ll be talking about exploring London by bus in my next post.

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The Unsanitary Business of Sanitation – or, Would You Swim in This River?

What, you might ask, has a diagram of Joseph Bramah’s flushing Valve Closet of 1778 got to do with a rather strange boat on the Thames? Well, it is all to do with unexpected consequences.

Someone asked me the other day if Henry Austen’s London houses had flushing water closets and if, therefore, Jane Austen would have been familiar with them. I have no evidence for Henry’s loos, although his wife Eliza was a bit of a social climber so she may well have wanted one installed.

But Jane would surely have come across them, for they were becoming common in upper class homes from the 1780s, although they certainly were not cheap. The enterprising Joseph Bramah opened a showroom at 124, Piccadilly in the 1780s and charged 8 guineas for his ‘patent apparatus’. On top of that one had to buy valves, a cistern and pipework which could bring the cost up to £11 or more. Even so, by 1797 he claimed to have sold over 6,000 closets. He had rivals of course – seven more patents for flushing water closets were taken out by 1800.

ImageThe illustration shows the Brahmah water closet out of its case, which would probably be made of mahogany, with a comfortable seat.

Even some hotels had water closets. The Pulteney Hotel, on the corner of Piccadilly and Bolton Street, was one of the best hotels of the day and when the Russian Grand Duchess Catherine stayed there she reported with approval on, ‘certains arrangements de commodité.’

We shudder at the thought of living without a flushing toilet but those early ones had  disadvantages that the humble privy with its pail, kept reasonably odour-free with the regular addition of dry soil or ashes and emptied regularly, did not. Of course, the horrors of unemptied cesspits, often actually in the cellars of houses and seeping into wells and watercourses, make the various problems with flushing water closets look trivial, but even so, the early models were difficult to clean and had very poor systems for stopping gasses coming back into the house – the u-bend had yet to appear.

But these were all technical issues that were overcome with improvements in design as the 19th century progressed. Much more serious was the effect of increasing numbers of water closets all flushing into drainage systems that were only intended to carry rainwater away to the Thames – and that is where this strange boat comes in. The Thames in the 18th and early 19th century might have had its problems, especially around the outlets of drains serving butchery areas, tanneries or the big markets, but then as now it was tidal and clean enough for a healthy population of fish, including the occasional salmon. And it was clean enough to enjoy boating trips on and to swim in – which is what the boat was for.

ImageThis print is from Ackermann’s Repository for June 1819 and shows the Royal Waterloo Bath. “This very elegant floating bath is stationed near the north end of the Waterloo-bridge, and has recently been built and completed…at very considerable expense. It contains a plunging-bath, 24 feet long by 8 feet wide, and two private baths, 10 feet long by 8 feet wide. The depth may be regulated at pleasure by machinery, which raises and depresses the bottom as required… To each of the baths are attached small dressing-rooms, commodiously fitted up, with proper persons to attend upon visitors. These baths are so constructed, that the water, being a running stream, is changed every two minutes. The terms of bathing…are extremely moderate… In the plunging-bath: one shilling; For the season: £1 11 shilings and 6 pence; In the private baths: 1 shilling and six pence; For the season: 2 guineas”

The article goes on to compare London’s paucity of bathing establishments with Paris’s numerous vapour, Turkish, Chinese and Tuscan baths. “Yet …we have a noble river filled with the purest and most wholesome waters in the world. The want of baths in London has led to the incommodious and indecorous practice of public exposure in the Thames.” By which I assume they mean nude bathing. Apparently, by letting the bottom of the boat down to increase the waterflow through it, glimpses of the swimmers – all men and all nude, of course – could be glimpsed from passing boats. It became a titilating extra ‘sight’ for the ladies taking pleasure boats on the Thames!

The proprietors and their customers must have felt the water was clean enough for swimming, although I doubt we would fancy a dip – what with all the drains running into it and the fast flow being restricted as more bridges were built across the river. But it was of perfect purity compared with what the river became once the fashion for water closets caught on in middle class homes.

Privies would be cleaned domestically, and the contents tipped onto the vegetable garden, or emptied by the night-soil men who carted the contents out to the numerous market gardens that surrounded London. The water closets, in contrast, simply flushed their contents into the same drains that carried the rainwater to the Thames, pouring thousands of gallons of untreated sewage straight into the river. The private problem of keeping the home free from waste was simply transferred to the public arena and became everybody’s problem – especially as much domestic drinking water came from the Thames via  huge waterworks such as the one at London Bridge which took 4 million gallons a day to supply its 10,000 customers.

The situation got rapidly worse, until the unusually hot summer of 1858 when the stench from the polluted river was so appalling that people fainted, cholera was rife and Parliament was closed. Finally there was the will to get something done and eventually Joseph Bazalgette’s amazing sewerage system was installed and the Thames could begin its long journey back to cleanliness.

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Jane Austen Travels by Stagecoach

Advert header for the Regent coach 1822
In 1796 20 year old Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, “As to our mode of travelling to Town, I want to go in a Stage Coach, but Frank [their brother] will not let me.” In her book Journey by Stages Stella Margetson states that Jane did not get her wish until August 1814 and I have been unable to find anything to the contrary in her letters.
As I am researching for a book on stagecoach travel at the moment I was glad of another excuse to dig into the Letters and remind myself what Jane wrote to her sister after arriving by stagecoach to stay with brother Henry in Hans Place on the 22nd August 1814.
“I had a very good Journey, not crouded [sic], two of the three taken up at Bentley [a village 7.5 miles form Chawton] being Children, the others of a reasonable size; & they were all very quiet & civil.”
This was a very important point for a lady travelling alone in the tight confines of the inside of the coach. With three passengers each side on a seat that was only 41 inches wide, knee to knee with those opposite, large or offensive fellow travellers would be exceedingly unpleasant.
“We were late in London, from being a great Load & changing Coaches at Farnham, it was nearly 4 I believe when we reached Sloane St, Henry himself met me, & soon as my Trunk & Basket would be routed out from all the other Trunks & Baskets in the World, we were on our way to Hans Place in the Luxury of a nice cool dirty Hackney Coach.”
From this it sounds as though Jane was dropped off at the top of Sloane Street where it meets Knightsbridge, before the stage continued on its way past the Hyde Park Corner turnpike and into London. The Hackney coach journey down to Hans Place would not have been a long one and she managed to retrieve all her luggage: an important consideration, especially when the journey involves a change of coach, as travellers’ guide books of the period warn.
stage crop
The next part of her description of the journey is not easy to interpret: “There were 4 in the Kitchen part of Yalden – & I was told 15 at top, among them Percy Benn…We took up a young Gibson at Holybourn; & in short everybody either did come up by Yalden yesterday, or wanted to come up.”
According to Deirdre le Faye, editor of the Letters, Mr Yalden was the owner of a private stage coach which he drove from Alton in Hampshire on one day and then back to Hampshire the next, although this does not quite accord with them having to change stages at Farnham. But what does Jane mean by the “Kitchen”? I wonder if she is making an “upstairs downstairs” joke with the inside passengers “downstairs” being in the “kitchen”. Or did the inside passengers gather in the kitchen of whichever establishment Yalden’s coach started from?
Fifteen passengers on top was a very large number and must have contributed to the chaos sorting out the luggage. Normally three of the outside passengers sat facing forward, three facing backwards and one next to the driver – seven in total. To have squeezed on another eight, they must have been jammed together in the luggage space between the front and rear facing passengers. This was potentially dangerous, for it could unbalance the coach, but Mr Yalden’s appears to have been quite a slow one, so perhaps there was not much risk.
The route after Bentley and Farnham is not given, but I would suspect the coach would have continued to Kingston upon Thames, crossed the Thames at Kew and then turned east for Knightsbridge. These days it is a journey of about fifty five miles. A fast coach would average ten miles an hour, Mr Yaldon’s probably six or seven, so Jane would have had to set out by at least seven in the morning. No wonder she was pleased to see Henry and his nice cool Hackney carriage, however dirty!
If anyone has an alternative explanation for what Jane meant by “the Kitchen part” I’d be fascinated to hear it.

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Henry at Whites! Oh, what a Henry!

Club interior for JASt James’s Street was the heart of fashionable masculine London during the late Georgian and Regency period. Here gentlemen had their lodgings, kept their mistresses, bought their clothes and gambled in hells and clubs. It was not an exclusively male preserve, for modistes had their shops there and ladies could even buy ready-made corsets from Mrs Clark, whose shop was at no.56, and who advertised in 1807 ‘…a large assortment of corsets of every size, and superior make, so that ladies may immediately suit themselves without the inconvenience of being measured.’

SONY DSC However, it for the clubs that St James’s Street is famous and you can still view the exterior of many of them – getting inside is another matter! Membership has always been exclusive: who you knew mattered, breeding mattered – but money mattered less. Politics might influence which clubs a gentleman felt most at home in, although White’s, the most exclusive of them all, was non-political.

Boodles attracted the country set and hunting squires, the Four in Hand, sporting gentlemen. The Travellers’ Club was favoured by diplomats, Watier’s, in Piccadilly, by lovers of fine food and the Roxburghe was the haunt of bibliophiles. If you wanted high-stakes gaming, then Brookes’s and, after 1827, Crockford’s were the clubs for you.

Today, if you walk down St James’s Street from the top of the hill at Piccadilly you almost immediately come to Crockfords on your right and White’s on your left. White’s possessed the famous Beau (or Bow) Window where the elite would sit to view, and pass judgment on, the passing scene. It still has a bow, but, given that there have been some changes to the exterior during the 19th century, it may not be the famous one.
Henry Austen, Jane’s banker brother,  had some very respectable connections, but he was not a club man. However, he must have had connection with those who were. In 1814, after the first defeat of Napoleon, threw a great ball that cost £10,000. Guests included King George III, the Prince Regent, the Emperor of Russia – and Henry Austen. ‘Henry at Whites! Oh! What a Henry.’ Jane could hardly contain herself at the news.

A little further down on the same side of the road is Boodles club. It moved here to no.28 in 1783 to premises originally occupied by the Savoir Vivre, a notorious hell.

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To reach Brooks’s, you need to cross the road. Do take advantage of one of the traffic islands in this busy, very wide, street – they were originally introduced in the early nineteenth century to make life safer for the slightly inebriated clubmen making their way from one establishment to another. Brook’s is on the corner of Park Place and was one of Byron’s clubs. A stronghold of the Whigs, it moved here in 1778. this is the one London club I have been inside and the Great Subscription Room, illustrated here, looks just as it did then (although there were no Regency bucks engaged in gambling, much to my disappointment!).

In one corner of the Great Subscription Room a tense game is underway with a large pot of winnings in the centreJust a little further down was Arthur’s (not a great success) and the Cocoa Tree coffee house. The Cocoa Tree was not a formal club, but provided another sanctuary for like-minded gentlemen, such as Byron, who frequently visited.

Finally, to see the location of one of the gaming ‘hells’ where almost anyone who had the money to bet was admitted, cross the road again and walk down to the narrow entrance just before Berry Bros. & Rudd. This leads to Pickering Place, now a charming little courtyard, but once the home of some notorious hells, the reputed location of the last duel in London and, later in the 19th century, the home of the Texas legation.

Top: a club interior. The young man in breeches and carrying a riding whip and hat is being reproved for being improperly dressed.

Second: the bow window outside White’s Club (looking up towards Piccadilly)

Third: The handsome frontage of Boodles’s Club

Bottom: one corner of the Great Subscription Room at Brooks’s Club (1808). A high-stakes game is underway with a large pot of money to be won in the hollowed-out table centre.

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