Tag Archives: London

All About April – Fools and Showers

April showers

These days April is famous for its showers and its fools, and I love this illustration by Cruickshank showing two ladies caught out in the rain while everyone else is either sheltering under an archway or buying a new umbrella from J. Gingham, Umbrella Depot. I’m not sure what the three lads are doing – possibly they are up to some kind of April Fool’s Day prank. As always with these tiny Cruickshank drawings the fun is in the details – behind the pieman with his basket is a shower bath standing outside T. Brass, Ironmonger. And, of course, the scene is set in St Swithin’s Lane. There is a real lane of that name in London, running between Cannon Street and Lombard Street in the City. St Swithin’s Day is July 15th, but the connection with rain was obviously too much for the artist to ignore.

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mare.

For April Fool’s Day in the Georgian era I turned to Observations on Popular Antiquities, Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions by John Brand (1813). They don’t write titles like that any more. Brand considered it to be of Druidical origin (but then he considered a great deal was) and comments that it was observed from ancient times all over the kingdom, and in France. “The wit chiefly consists in sending persons on what are called sleeveless errands, for The History of Eve’s Mother, for Pigeon’s Milk, with similar absurdities. ” He quotes rather a charming little love poem, dated 1798:

To  A Lady, who threatened to make the Author an April Fool

Why strive, dear Girl, to make a Fool,

Of one not wise before;

Yet having ‘scaped from Folly’s School,

Would fain go there no more.

Ah! if I must to school again,

Wilt though my teacher be?

I’m sure no lesson will be vain

Which though canst give to me?

And finally, as we are buffeted here in England with a windy beginning to the month, I’ll leave you with this delightful little watercolour sketch. It isn’t signed or dated, unfortunately.

Windy weather

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Filed under Street life, Traditions, Weather

Walks Through Regency London goes digital

Walks Through Regency London Cover LARGE EBOOK

Walks Through Regency London, previously only available direct from me in paperback, is now in a revised edition on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk as well as all the other Amazon sites. Illustrated with original prints of the period.

Ten  self-guided walks will take you from Mayfair to Southwark and from prisons to palaces to an operating theatre by way of shops, parks and inns in the company of Jane Austen, Beau Brummell, Nelson and Emma, Wellington, the Prince Regent and many more of the famous and infamous of the ‘Long Regency’.

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Filed under Books, High Society, London Parks, Shopping, Walks

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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Miss Austen Buys Fabric

The most frequent item mentioned by Jane Austen when she writes home to Cassandra about her London shopping expeditions is fabric for her own use and for Cassandra and their mother. Ready made gowns were unusual and ladies in modest circumstances, such as the Austens, would buy dress lengths of fabric and either make them up at home or use a local dressmaker.

Mostly ladies would browse at the drapers’ shops and make their choices there, but Ackerman’s Repository of Arts, Science etc, was innovative enough to give samples of real fabrics in the magazine and a page for February 1810 is shown here.
1-Ackermann fabrics
Top left: A royal embossed satin: a splendid and elegant article for robes or pelisses. Sold by Harris, Moody & Co., silk-weavers, Pall-Mall.

Top right: A superfine imperial orange bombazeen, particularly calculated for Ladies’ dresses. It is sold, of every colour, by Messrs. Waithman and Everington, No,104, Fleet-street.

Bottom left: An imitative Angola shawl dress of blended green and amber. Sold by Messrs. Brisco & Powley, No.103, New Bond-street, from 38s to 50s per dress.

Bottom right: An India rib permanent green print. A patent has lately been obtained by Hewson, Higgins & Hett, for printing green on cotton goods. Sundry cotton goods for waistcoats are printed exclusively for Kestevens, York-street, Covent-garden.

On 24th May 1813 Jane wrote, “I went the day before (Friday) to Layton’s as I proposed, & got my Mother’s gown, 7 yds at 6/6.” [ie six shillings and six pence a yard]. Layton’s drapery shop, Bedford House, was at 9, Henrietta Street in Covent Garden, right next door to Henry Austen’s bank at number 10. Henry was on the point of moving to live in he apartments over the bank and Jane reports going next door to inspect the work, “which is all dirt & confusion, but in a very promising way…”

She does not say what kind of fabric she had purchased, presumably the ladies had agreed about that in advance, but in mid-September she was staying with Henry at number 10 and reports, “We did go to Layton & Shear’s before Breakfast. Very pretty English poplins at 4 [shillings and] 3 [pence]. Irish ditto at 6 [shillings] – more pretty certainly – beautiful.” Later in the same letter she writes to Cassandra, “…I am going to treat myself with spending [my superfluous wealth myself. I hope at least I shall find some poplin at Layton & Shears that will tempt me to buy it. If I do, it shall be sent to Chawton, as half will be for you … I shall send 20 yards.”

The invaluable English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century by C.Willet Cunnington describes poplin as being “made of a silk warp and wool or worsted weft, having a fine cord on the surface, and produced in several varieties, brocaded, watered and plain.”

Jane also patronised Christian & Sons at 11, Wigmore Street where she bought dimity (“A stout cotton fabric, plain or twilled, with a raised pattern on one side.”) and Newton’s, just of Leicester Square, for Irish linen.

One of the most up-market fabric shops were Wilding & Kent at Grafton house on the corner of New Bond Street and Grafton Street. On 17 April 1811 Jane and Manon, Eliza Austen’s maidservant, ‘…took our walk to Grafton House, & I have a good deal to say on that subject. I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money; & what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too…’ she told Cassandra. It was a very busy shop and in November 1815 Jane complains of ‘the miseries’ of shopping there and most of her references to it mention an early start and long waits to be served – not that this stopped her going there frequently.

One fashionable drapers, Harding, Howell and Co., is not mentioned by Jane, although she must have known it, for it was located in Pall Mall in the seventeenth century red brick Schomberg House which still stands out in this street of stone and stucco.

According to Ackermann’s Repository, which is where the illustration below appeared, ‘It is fitted up with great taste, and divided by glazed partitions into four departments.’ These were: furs and fans; ‘haberdashery of every description, siHarding, Howel0001lks, muslins, lace, gloves etc.’; jewellery and ornamental items including perfumery and finally, ‘millinery and dresses; so that there is no article of female attire or decoration, but what may here procured in the first style of elegance and fashion.’

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Filed under Fashions, Shopping