Tag Archives: Walking Jane Austen’s London

The Story of a Square 3: Lincoln’s Inn Fields

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Lincoln’s Inn Fields is the largest square in London and records exist concerning it from the 14th century when it really was a field – or rather, two – Purse Field and Cup Field. They adjoined the west wall of the grounds of Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, and were the natural playground for the legal students’ ball games. The survival of this vast open space in the middle of the city, surviving Stuart property developers and massive Victorian road improvements and slum clearance, is due to an early example of NIMBYism.

In the Middle Ages, and well into the 17th century, there was nothing resembling a civilized park – the fields were leased out as pasture and, occasionally, used as places of execution. In 1586 the Babington Plot conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered there, Catholic martyrs were burned in the 1580s and Lord Russell was beheaded in about the centre in 1683 for his involvement in the Rye House Plot.

As London expanded outwards developers began to cast an eye over such a tempting expanse of open ground and the first attempt to build a house there was in 1613. This was successfully resisted by the Society of Lincoln’s Inn – lawyers powerful enough to influence the government on the subject. It was clear that improving the open space would assist in preserving this asset, so the Society and the neighboring parishes petitioned Charles I in 1617 that “for their general Commoditie and health [the fields should be] converted into walks after the manner of Morefeildes.” The proposal appealed to the King and the Privy Council supported the scheme “as a means to frustrate the covetous and greedy endeavors of such persons as dailye seeke to fill up that small remainder of Ayre in these parts with unnecessary and unprofitable Buildings.” Resistance to developers seems to be as strong then as it it now.

Neither development nor improvement as an ordered public space happened immediately, but in the 1630s the leaseholder of the fields petitioned the King to allow the building of 32 houses. After some wrangling the permission was granted but the developer agreed that the centre of the area was  “for ever and hereafter to be open and unbuilt.” The houses were built by 1641 and the area became a fashionable place to live despite the Fields themselves being a dangerous place with fights and robberies (and the odd execution) commonplace.

In 1716 John Gay wrote  in Trivia that, despite the square being railed, it was unwise to venture in at night. The beggar that the benevolent pedestrian had given coins to during the day would turn his crutch into a weapon at night “and fell thee to the ground” and the linkboy offering to guide him through the area will lead him into the clutches of robbers and “quench the flaming brand and share the booty with the pilfering band.”

Nell Gwynne had lodgings here, and another of Charles II’s mistresses, the Duchess of Portland, had a house. Numerous aristocrats, politicians and high-ranking lawyers lived around the Fields in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries but the person whose name is nowadays most closely associated with the square is the architect Sir John Soane. His house is now one of the most atmospheric and eccentric museums in London and is located in the middle of the north side. The print at the top of this post, from Ackermann’s Repository, shows the view from the north-west corner in 1810 and you can get more or less the same view today by standing at the point where Gate Street and Remnant Street enter the Fields. (The Remnant name reflects the fact that this was once the end of Great Queen Street before the Victorians drove Kingsway through the tangle of medieval streets to the west of the Fields.)

The tall buildings to the right of the print occupy the site of what is now the Royal College of Surgeons which contains the extraordinary Hunterian Museum, a fascinating, if gruesome place to visit for anyone interested in the history of surgery and anatomy.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields is included in Walk 7 of Walking Jane Austen’s London (an excellent stocking-filler for any history buff’s Christmas stocking!) As well as the two museums there are still a number of fine 18th century houses and the gardens themselves to enjoy – open to the public since 1894.

 

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The Earl of Wittering Plans His Summer

This May morning in 1816 the Gatwick family gather around the breakfast table in the Small Dining Room of their vast Mayfair mansion. It is obvious that the head of the family, the Earl of Wittering, has something on his mind, although the Countess of Wittering supposes it is only his bowels troubling him again. Like most of the upper classes of his age his diet – heavy on meat and alcohol, low on fruit and vegetables – means that his lordship frequently feels liverish, or to put it more bluntly, he’s appallingly constipated. She makes a mental note to send off another order to Savory & Moore, chemists (by Royal Appointment) in New Bond Street. (Shown below) Thomas Field Savory is making his fortune after acquiring the patent for internationally best-selling laxative, Seidlitz powders but, naturally, she does not mention such a subject at the meal table.

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The Countess would much rather finish her toast and return to her sitting room where she is putting the final touches to a highly imaginative, and exceedingly dramatic, sketch of an Alpine pass. What she would really like would be to paint the sea. Ever since she read Edmund Burke’s tract On the Sublime and the Beautiful and learned that the ocean was “an object of no small terror” she has been fascinated by it.

On either side of the breakfast table sit the Earl’s heir, the Viscount Ditherstone (coughing, as is his irritating habit at breakfast) and his wife, flanked by their children, seventeen year old Emily and twelve year old Arthur. Ditherstone, ever tactless, enquires if there is anything on his father’s mind.

Porrett, the earl’s secretary has, it transpires, been making enquiries about his lordship’s intentions for the summer so that he can begin to put in place the arrangements and, for once, Lord Wittering is undecided. Normally, after the London Season the family embark on a lengthy round of summer visits to the far-flung branches of the family, their travels greatly eased by the splendid condition of the network of turnpike roads across the country. The tour would always culminate in two weeks spent toadying to his elderly, terrifying and exceedingly wealthy aunts. But the aunts had died that winter, their money left, as he had always desired, to their godson, Master Gatwick, the future earl. Now his lordship wonders if he really wants to spend three months travelling about before he can retire to his country estate for the autumn and set about slaughtering anything with fur, feathers or fins. What he would like to do is recover his health in a spa, as his father would have done, but Bath is hopelessly dull these days, quite out of fashion.

“Perhaps we should take a house at a seaside resort,” ventures his daughter-in-law. “I am sure the pure air would be a benefit to Ditherstone’s lungs.” Ever since she read that amusing novel Emma she has not been able to forget the phrase, The truth is, that in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be. And was it not the case that the great Mr Wordsworth was only able to write his beautiful verses “Upon Westminster Bridge” The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air… because he was amazed to find, for once, the atmosphere free of polluting smoke?

Ditherstone himself perks up. He rather fancies a dip or two in the briny. He’s heard exciting stories about the ladies bathing and what they might, or might not wear, to say nothing of amorous encounters in bathing rooms. And all kinds of dashers visit the seaside, so his bachelor friends tell him.

“Oh, Grandpapa,” Emily breathes. “I would love to go to the seaside.” She bats her eyelashes. “The south coast, they say, is so warm and quite delightful.” And, facing the enemy France, as it does, it is stuffed with troops. All those officers in scarlet coats. Oh, the opportunities for flirtation. (Below: tourists admire the militia parading at Cromer in Norfolk)

Cromer militia

Young Arthur extracts his nose from a scientific journal – he is showing an alarming tendency (in his grandfather’s opinion) towards natural philosophy and not manly sports. “The south coast, it said in a paper I was reading the other day, has much of interest to the fossilist and the mineralogist. I would like to go.”

The Earl glowers down the table. He doesn’t like change. On the other The Georgian Seaside Cover_MEDIUM WEBhand the sea-water cure sounds as though it would be helpful for what ails him. His wife keeps leaving prints of craggy cliffs and tossing waves about, so he supposes it would keep her happy and the rest of the family seemed keen enough. He would think on it.

What will the earl decide? Will the Gatwicks go to the seaside and, if so, to which resort? You can follow their summer adventures here over the next few months and read about the vibrant world of the early English seaside holiday (definitely not a Victorian invention!) in  The Georgian Seaside: the English resorts before the railways came.

Meanwhile, now the smog has gone, you can find Savory & Moore’s shop for yourself in Walk 2, Walking Jane vis1Band admire Wordsworth’s view in Walk 6, of Walking Jane Austen’s London

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Curricle Crashes and Dennet Disasters – The Dangers of the Regency Road

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In April 1811 Jane Austen was staying with her brother Henry and his wife Eliza at their home 64, Sloane Street and working on the proofs of Sense and Sensibility. Not that this prevented her from getting out and about in London and occasionally borrowing Henry’s carriage: ‘The Driving about, the Carriage being open, was very pleasant. I liked my solitary elegance very much, & was ready to laugh all the time, at my being where I was – I could not but feel that I had naturally small right to be parading about London in a Barouche,’ she wrote on a later visit.
But delightful as travel by coach might be, horse-drawn vehicles were dangerous and accidents were numerous, even if most were minor. In a letter home on 25 April 1811 Jane blames an inciHyde Park pike0001dent at the gates for giving her sister-in-law Eliza a chest cold. ‘The Horses actually gibbed on this side of Hyde Park Gate – a load of fresh gravel made it a formidable Hill to them, & they refused the collar; I believe there was a sore shoulder to irritate. Eliza was frightened, & we got out & were detained in the Eveng. air several minutes.’ You can follow Jane’s London travels in Walking Jane Austen’s London.
The wonderful Henry Alken snr. excelled at drawing horses, but he had a mischievous side and produced numerous prints of carriage accidents. [His Return From the Races is at the top of this post]. These are light-hearted, often mocking the young sporting gentlemen of his day and their ‘boy-racer’ equipages, but the potential for an accident to cause death or serious injury was very real. In one hideous stage coach crash in 1833 the Quicksilver coach overturned as it was leaving Brighton. Passengers were flung out into the gardens along the Steine and impaled on the spiked railings. Alken’s third plate in his Trip to Brighton series shows a stagecoach crash as a result of young bucks bribing the coachmen to let them take the reins and race. Discover more of the dangers of travel by stage or mail coach in Stagecoach Travel.accident

Alken’s ‘comic’ drawings show people thrown onto the rough stones of the road, against milestones or walls, at risk of trampling by the horses or of being injured by the splintering wood and sharp metal fittings of their carriages. One has to assume that like cartoon characters walking off a cliff they all bounce back safely with only their dignity ruffled. Real life would not have been so forgiving.  In this post I am sharing some of the Alken carriage disasters from my own collection.

In  Learning to Drive Tandem (1825) learning to driveAlken shows a young gentleman who has got one of his pair turned around and one wheel off the road. The vehicle is a cocking cart used to transport fighting cocks and below the seat is a compartment ventilated by slats and a small image of a fighting cock on the armrest. In The Remains of a Stanhope (1827) the crash has already occurred, showing just how fragile these vehicles could be. A carpenter has been summoned and the owner is drawling somewhat optimistically, “I say my clever feller, have you an idea you can make this thing capable of progression?”

Stanhope

One of my favourite images is this one of a Dennet gig with the horses spooked by a passing stagecoach. The passengers’ faces as they watch the driver struggling with his team are priceless. Dennet accident sat

Several prints of the time show accidents at toll gates. Either the horses bolted or the driver wasn’t paying attention or perhaps they thought the gate keeper would fling the gate wide as they approached. This one is captioned “I wonder whether he is a good jumper!”

accident at toll gate Young men crashing their vehicles was obviously commonplace, and then as now, showing off to the ladies was also part of the joy of owning a sporting vehicle. Alken was not above titillating his audience with a glimpse of petticoat or a shapely leg, even when the owner of the leg was about to get seriously hurt. In “Up and down or the endeavour to discover which way your Horse is inclined to come down backwards or forwards” (1817) the driver takes no notice at all of his fair passenger vanishing over the back of his fancy carriage. There are some nice details in this print – the two-headed goose on the side panel is presumably a reference to the driver not knowing which way he is going and the luxurious sheepskin foot rug is clearly visible. backwardsIn the same series is an awful warning about the dangers of not choosing your horses with care. Captioned “Trying a new match you discover that they are not only alike in colour weight & action but in disposition.” One young man is heading out over the back of the carriage while his companion is poised to leap for safety amidst flying greatcoats, hats and seat cushions.

Bolting

 

 

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Filed under Accidents & emergencies, Gentlemen, Regency caricatures, Transport and travel, Travel

Writing Historical Fiction – The Westminster Way: a free all day event

On  Saturday 11th October I’ll be at the City of Westminster Archives Centre, 10 St Ann’s Street, London SW1P 2DE for a *free* all day event –

Writing Historical Fiction…
…the Westminster Way!

  10:00am- 4:00pm

10:00am- 10:45pm Tour: Westminster Archives search room

11:15am- 1:00pm Walk: A walk around Georgian Westminster

2:00pm- 4:00pm Talk: Resources for Writing Historical Fiction

 

Piccadilly

To get your free ticket simply call the Archives Centre on 020 7641 5180

Archive staff will talk you through how to explore the wealth of riches in their collection and will have fascinating items on display for you to take a close-up look. On my walk we will pass from some of the worst slums in London to the centre of power and privilege, join Wordsworth on Westminster Bridge, see where the semaphore towers sending signals to Nelson’s fleet have been replaced by modern wireless aerials, view the Prince of Wales’ Bomb and locate the site of Astley’s Ampitheatre before returning past where Charles II’s ostriches lived, down Cockpit Steps incockpit the wake of Hogarth and back to the Archives Centre.

In the afternoon I’ll be giving an illustrated talk about how the Archives can help you dig deep into the past for your historical writing.

Illustrations:

Top of the page: one of the vivid prints from the Archive Centre collection

Above: The Royal Cockpit by Hogarth

 

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Walking Jane Austen’s London – the Cover!

Image  Here is the cover for Walking Jane Austen’s London to be publshed 23 July.  I’m delighted with it – it has prints from my collection at the bottom and a present-day photograph at the top to emphasise the past-into-present theme of the     eight walks.

You can pre-order the book now at Amazon.co.uk http://tinyurl.com/dxz3ps4 and Amazon.com http://tinyurl.com/d8d9kvt

I’ll be talking about Jane Austen’s London, and the book,  at Berkhamsted Library, Hertfordshire on 19th March as part of Hertfordshire LitFest. More details of the whole LitFest programe, including how to buy tickets, is at  http://tinyurl.com/c35cu2r

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