Georgian Courtship


The Courtship
painting by Louis-Rolland Trinquesse

In modern times, choosing a partner is seen as primarily a matter for the two persons concerned; a decision based on individual feelings of desire, affection and love. Not so in the eighteenth century. That’s not to say that none of these carried any weight in the choice of a wife or husband. They were not, however, the main criteria to be taken into account. Indeed, young men were warned against being tempted into an unfortunate match by such dangerous traits in a woman as beauty or winning ways. Other characteristics were far more important.

In choosing a wife, young men were counselled to look rather for virtue, a sober disposition and prudence, especially given the prevailing notion of ’separate spheres’ — men engaged in the public sphere of business, financial and estate management and politics; women took charge of the private sphere of household management, the raising of children and family relations. In 1708, Katherine Windham of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk counselled her son, Ashe, that:

“… there is no knowing a woman at first, don’t be to[o] confident but take a care. She has everybody’s good word as too her selfe. & hope you will alwaies find it so.”

While a few years earlier, in 1688, Brabazon Aylmer, in his book The Advice of a Father, Or, Counsel to a Child, warned that choice of wife should be made “rather by the ear, than by the eye.” One lady, Eleanor Ernle, in a letter to friend in 1739, records a ‘near miss’ in this way:

“… my young Gentleman had pickt a match at Bath … had not one of those Gentlemen got him out of town, almost by fors [force]: I fear he’ll not Shew himself prudent in his Choyce of wife tho’ he don’t want for a Sheve of good sense.”

The same Eleanor Ernle also noted what she saw as the requirements a woman should look for in a husband, itemising wealth, good manners, fine dress and appearance, refinement, liberality and compassion. How would they decide whether a prospective husband possessed these in sufficient quantity? By using the period of courtship.

Marriage as a Wider Family Contract

It’s important always to bear in mind that marriage, in Georgian times, was more a matter of ensuring provision for the future of an extended family than something of interest only to the two people involved. Given that there was no other basis for producing legitimate heirs, and through them the transmission of family lands and wealth to the next generation, it was inevitable that marital problems were seen as of direct interest to all family members. A good marriage could bring enhanced wealth and status, which would reflect on them as well. A bad or failed marriage might lead to the opposite outcome. Nor could it be undone, save by death of one of the parties, since divorce at the time was both difficult to obtain and terrifyingly expensive as well.

When thinking about the stage of courtship. It is modern thinking that focusses most attention on the growing love and affection between the two people involved. That might instigate the process, but no more than that. Georgian courtship was a process of each party winning the good will and acquiescence, if not always the active support, of a whole group of family members, friends and even neighbours. Outright opposition was always to be avoided, if at all possible.

What was this wider circle of ‘interested parties’ looking for? At bottom, they needed the assurance that the parties involved could — and would — fulfil the duties a marriage would bring. This began with financial security and the ability to produce the required heirs. The wife would be expected to bring some additional sources of wealth, influence or status to enhance what the husband might have already. She would also be expected to be a good manager of his household, including servants and the household budget. He, in turn, must be seen as a good provider, constant in his affections and steady in his financial dealings. Mutual liking and emotional support were highly desirable, of course, but it was often believed that these would grow over the years, rather than being present in full measure at the start of the marriage.

Courtship as a ‘Proving Ground’

It was during courtship that the potential suitability of a marriage was tried and tested — and maybe vetoed — by this wider group of family and friends. To marry without their support was hazardous, to say the least. Not only might it lead to the loss of an expected inheritance, it might well produce family and social ostracism, leaving the newly-married couple without any of the contacts and sources of support and ‘connection’ so necessary at the time. Since these disadvantages would also be visited on the children of such a marriage, it’s little wonder that an elopement or a marriage without family approval would be seen as a disaster on a major scale. Far from being the romantics’ notion of an openly disapproved but secretly envied figure, the Black Sheep of a family would most likely have been entirely cut off from any form of contact.

Katherine Windham had a long-down-out battle with her son Ashe over his marriage choice, reminding him that she had proposed several excellent matches, all of which he had ignored. When he did marry in the end, she clearly disapproved of his choice, complaining that he thought he:

“… had a Catch when everybody thinks you very much lessen yourself … why should you give so much when she does not deserve half so good.”

Sadly, in this case she was proved right. Before long she is complaining that:

“… her behaviour is now known in all the neighbourhood and every body pities you.”

That marriage quickly foundered, with Ashe Windham forbidding his wife to enter his house and them living apart for the rest of their lives.

Romantic notions of courtship and marriage in Georgian times may be all very well in modern novels and films, but they stray a long way from the truth. Courtship and marriage, as we have seen, were as much the business of a wider circle of families and friends — even family lawyers — as they were of the two people involved. The man had to woo them as well as his potential bride, proving his ability to provide the kind of future life they thought necessary before giving their blessing. The woman had to convince her future husband’s wider circle that she would bring much more to a marriage than a pretty face, a fine complexion and a good figure. Her ‘dowry’ went some way beyond the money involved to include her social standing, her family’s wider connections and her likely accomplishments as a mother and governor of her husband’s household.

No wonder some courtships could last months, even years!

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Fox-hunting in Georgian Days


Mr. Peter Delme’s Hounds on the Hampshire Downs”, by James Seymour, 1738.

“Fox-hunting as we know it,” the social historian Roy Porter wrote, “was a Georgian invention.” He was, of course, referring to people on horseback, with a pack of specially-bred fox-hounds, chasing a fox across the countryside. Of the famous East Midlands hunts, the Quorn was founded in the 1770s, along with the Pytchley, the Belvoir and the Cottesmore. Foxes were hunted before then, primarily as a form of vermin control, but it was done on foot, with dogs, and probably involved finding a fox’s trail and following it back to its den. Even so, packs of hounds bred to hunt foxes were already known in the late 1600s in England and it was from these that the hounds used by mounted hunters were developed.

Hunting as an Upper-class Sport

It’s important to make the distinction between hunting as a sport and hunting for food. Foxes are obviously inedible. Oscar Wilde famously described the sport as “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable!” In earlier times, hunting wild boar, deer and hares, for example, all began as a means of obtaining fresh meat, especially in the winter after the vast bulk of domesticated animals had been slaughtered, because sufficient food to keep them alive and fed over the hard times was unavailable. Where foxes were hunted, it was because they were seen as vermin to be kept under control. This made them very much a lower-class quarry, where hunting the deer was the preserve of kings and aristocrats.

By Georgian times, wild boar were extinct in Britain and deer had mostly to be kept in fenced deer parks, making hunting them still very much the preserve of the richest in society. Improved agriculture and land enclosure made setting aside large tracts of land in this way beyond the resources even of most of the lower aristocracy and the gentry. Besides, that same improved agriculture, especially the introduction of turnips and forage crops, made it increasingly possible for cattle, pig and sheep-farming to provide year-round supplies of fresh meat.

Paradoxically, this progressive removal of the need to hunt for meat made the activity itself, viewed as a sport, more desirable. For a start, it proclaimed you had what was necessary to stake part in such a “useless” activity; the wealth to afford the highly-bred horses and hounds required and the leisure to indulge yourself in that way. In short, hunting on horseback became a badge of affluence and status, irrespective of the animal being hunted. Given that foxes were plentiful, and killing them could be seen as beneficial to farmers, they became almost the ideal prey — even more so given their wily nature and running ability.

This produced an obvious paradox too. If fox hunts were too successful — and too frequent — the number of foxes in a locality would fall to a level where there would be insufficient to make even a minority of hunts into chases. The inevitable result was a level of protection for foxes, in order to have sufficient to hunt in the winter months, despite the proclaimed purpose of protecting chickens and lambing ewes in the spring. Even in the early 18th century, we find records of payments made for this reason. In the Holkham household accounts on November 20th 1721, for example, there is a record of a payment “to a shepheard for preserving foxes: 13s 6d”. That was a significant amount of money in those days too; perhaps two or three months’ wages for an agricultural labourer.

Better Horses and Hounds

If you owned an extensive estate, as most of the gentry and aristocracy did in Georgian times, developing its usefulness for hunting would increase your status as well. Friends, acquaintances and anyone suitable you wished to impress could be invited to visit to take part in a hunt.

It was also during Georgian times that specialist breeding of thoroughbred horses for racing became a significant and sometimes even profitable business. Similar horses were also required for fox-hunting, with the advantage that there were many more fox hunts than race meetings at which you could show off your beasts. At a time when the vast majority of horses were seen as merely utilitarian creatures, spending your money on rearing and maintaining a stable of animals useful for no purpose other than riding to hounds was yet another means of proclaiming your wealth and status to everyone in the neighbourhood.

The Norfolk Connection

While researching this topic, I discovered that although fox-hunting came to be most associated with the counties of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland, significant advances in the breeding of both hounds and horses can be traced to Georgian Norfolk, especially the great estates of Houghton, Holkham and Raynham.

In the early 1720s, Sir Robert Walpole already kept two packs of hounds specifically for hunting foxes and hares, using them up to six days in the week. The Holkham accounts record that one William Pickford was paid £102 in June 1718 for “keeping ye foxhounds 34 weeks at Beck Hall”. George Townsend at Raynham kept hounds for fox-hunting between 1752 and 1772 and Thomas Coke was styled master of the Norfolk Foxhounds from 1775 to 1797.

Norfolk and Norfolk grandees were at the forefront of hound breeding from the late seventeenth century onwards. In 1767, Lord Townsend of Raynham was drawing hounds’ family trees in his own hand with notes and reminders to himself about his plans for future breeding. The Raynham hound registers and correspondence of the 1760s reveal a widespread network of breeding links all over East Anglia and the Midlands.

A piece of doggerel verse of 1791 records:

… now the dogs were laid on and no merrier sounds
Ever came from the Holkham or Leicestershire hounds
Nor sweeter the cry that our ears could assail
In Pytchley’s thick covers or Belvoir’s stiff vale …
And since Taverham pack can hunt foxes with Meynells
More sport when so e’er he another unkennels.

(Taverham is a village near Norwich)

A Wider Country Pursuit?

So why did what began as the private outdoor recreation of the aristocracy and country squires developed into an important feature of rural society, with a significance out of all proportion to its role as a sport?

I suspect the main reason was the comparative ease with which lesser gentry and even tenant farmers could partake in a sport with obvious aristocratic and high-status overtones. All you needed was a single riding horse sufficiently capable of following the hunt across country. You might not be able to afford anything better — or to follow the hounds that often — but so long as you could ride well enough not to get in the way or make a fool of yourself, you could still take part as a hunt follower. And since, if you were a tenant of a fox-hunting squire, his hounds were going to cross your fields and maybe damage your crops, whether you agreed or not, you might as well take part and curry what favour you could from the elite of the sport in your locality.

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Georgian Workers in Wood

Cabinet Fine Georgian Cabinet-Making

In the eighteenth century, not all craftsmen were equal. There was a definite hierarchy amongst them, based on a number of different factors: the amount of skill or artistry required to do the work, the nature of the materials used and whether or not the work was laborious and dirty. For example, goldsmiths and silversmiths came at the top of the hierarchy. The amount of skill and artistry required was significant; the materials used were extremely expensive; and although working in metals has a certain amount of dirt associated with it, it was also seen as highly artistic, especially in the design and decoration of the final object.

Even within a particular craft, there could be significant gradations in the esteem given to various aspects of the work. I’m going to take making furniture as an example.

The Hierarchy in Wood-working

Carpenters and Joiners

Mere carpenters made simple wooden objects or did repairs; nothing that demanded particular skill beyond the basics; nothing that contained an artistic element. Roof timbers, wall timbers, floors and things like that. Next in esteem came the joiners. They constructed windows and door frames, doors, window shutters, book presses and shelving, and panelling; not furniture, especially fine pieces, Joinery is skilful work, of course, especially if the customer was the owner of a fine house, but it’s still mostly a matter of cutting and fitted together pieces of wood accurately. At the time, this caused it to be seen as somewhat less skilled and more laborious and dirty than the work of the more esteemed craftsmen in wood. Next in hierarchy were cabinet-makers.

Cabinet-makers and Upholsterers

Cabinet-making developed to handle more skilled and complex work than joiners undertook. For a start, a cabinet-maker worked with the more exotic woods suitable for the finer, lighter and more highly finished furniture required by aristocratic customers, the gentry and the most prosperous of the middle class. This type of fine furniture, making its way from France and Holland, required additional techniques that had not previously been in use; techniques such as veneering in rare woods or tortoiseshell, marquetry or the use of highly decorative metal or similar inlays. The actual construction of the object, especially the precision of the joints, the overall design and highly decorative interior fittings, might also require extremely advanced skills in the cabinet-maker.

Oddly enough, once, say, a chair had been made, those who applied the decoration to it were seen as engaging in more ‘genteel’ activities. Upholsterers, for example, often worked with expensive and luxurious fabrics. They were considered superior to almost any other craftsmen involved in making furnishings, save for the very finest wood-carvers.

Craft Specialisation

As demand for fine furniture increased, even the most famous cabinet-makers had to resort to the very first kinds of ‘mass production’. Those who produced cheaper furniture went even further down this path. In earlier centuries, a cabinet-maker would produce a complete object, from basic frame to final decoration. By the 1760s — and to a still greater extent after then — we find different craftsmen specialising in specific stages of constructing and decorating the more complex kinds of furniture. This led to companies being formed, which could preserve quality while increasing the output of goods for sale. The days of relying on a single, individual master-craftsman, supported by one or two journeymen and a few apprentices were coming rapidly to an end.

The evidence for this in furniture-making comes from inventories showing stocks of certain parts of items being produced and stored separately from the rest. For example, one inventory in 1760 included ‘Ten sets of mahogany table feet … Twenty-six mahogany feet for breakfast tables … Thirty wainscot table feet … Twelve pair of cards-table legs … Six tops for breakfast tables part veneered.’ Another, this time from 1763, is even more suggestive of work on a large scale: ‘222 Marlborough feet for tables and chairs … Thirty-five table legs with turned toes.’

To make this number of individual items must indicate several craftsmen producing similar objects. It made sense. Each table or chair required four legs and their feet, so the making of table legs and feet would have been a repetitive, routine job; while their generally similar design and decoration made them suitable for the production of a large quantity of similar items to be stored, ready-made, for future use. When the number of items ‘in store’ was especially large, it may also have represented items for use in the production of cheaper lines of furniture.

The Introduction of Machinery

By the end of the century, some workshops clearly operated with a high degree of specialisation, employing craftsmen to concentrate on particular aspects of the overall task. This made sense in the ‘mass production’ of cheaper items. However, it was equally applicable to some specialist work, such as inlaying or, in the case of billiard tables, the preparing of a special slate, baize-covered top to ensure the table was absolutely level.

The same steady move towards specialisation and the introduction of a rational division of labour within a workshop could be mirrored throughout many of the craft activities of the 18th-century. By the early nineteenth, the introduction of machinery to undertake more routine tasks caused even greater changes in the status and the training of craftsmen. It wasn’t until the Arts and Crafts Movement of late Victorian times that an emphasis on handmade and craft furniture, as opposed to machine-made items, attracted the interest of wealthy customers; and by then, the finest exponents of furniture design and construction were seen as artists, not ‘mere’ craftsmen.

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Norfolk “Navigations”


The River Bure at Aylsham, looking towards the Georgian Mill
The head of the Aylsham Navigation was on the left, behind the trees.

Britain’s economy and population grew rapidly during the eighteenth century, accelerating as the century progressed. There was a tendency both for population and industry to become clustered in specific locations; firstly around suitable supplies of water for waterpower, then close to coalfields as steam engines began to take over.

All this put a tremendous strain on a transport system that was already inadequate. Eighteenth-century roads were notoriously bad and goods could take many days, or even weeks, to reach their destination. Carrying heavy items by road was next to impossible, especially when those items had to be shifted in considerable bulk: such as coal, lime, bricks, marl, grain and similar substances.

Transport by Water

Transporting heavy goods by water was nothing new. Many parts of Britain are convenient to the coast and there was a flourishing traffic of small sailing ships everywhere that a suitable harbour could be found. Certainly inland rivers were also suitable for the carrying of goods, such as the Thames, the Trent, the Severn, the Mersey, the Forth and the Clyde. Smaller rivers too shared in the traffic — at least where they were navigable over a sufficient distance.

By the seventeenth century, drawing on the expertise of the Dutch, there were several instances where already navigable rivers were made still more suitable for the carriage of goods by the use of cuts, locks and even inclined planes. In 1600, there were perhaps around 600 to 700 miles of navigable waterways in England. Daniel Defoe, journeying around the country in the 1720s, found this had already increased to nearly 1200 miles.

Navigations vs Canals

The distinction between a navigation and a canal is straightforward. A canal is a completely artificial waterway, like the canal the Duke of Bridgwater had constructed in 1759 to carry coal from his mines in Worsley to Manchester. The peak of canal building was not reached until the 1780s and 1790s and continued until the start of the railway age in the 1830s. Navigations tend to be earlier than this.

A navigation denotes a natural waterway, usually a river, which has been improved to make it easier for use by boats of a size sufficient to make it economic. This improvement usually included dredging, building locks to help ensure a constant depth of water (especially where watermills used the existing flow) and constructing ‘cuts’ to allow the boats to bypass especially tight curves or meandering stretches in the natural river.

The Norfolk Navigations

A great deal of the county of Norfolk lies within fairly easy reach of the coast, so that coastal shipping bore the brunt of the need to transport heavy cargoes. In the west of the county, the river Great Ouse drains a good deal of the fen country and runs into the sea at King’s Lynn. There had already been a good deal of straightening of the course of this river and its tributaries, as well as building artificial waterways, in order to facilitate drainage of the land. It did not take much extra work to allow boats to travel inland via Wisbech and Ely, eventually as far as Thetford and Bedford. In this way, the port of King’s Lynn grew to be a major interchange between goods coming in by sea, such as coal and timber, and goods for transfer to the coastal trade, especially grain.

The river Yare, running inland from Great Yarmouth, helped bring agricultural produce to that port and carry coal inland. The centre of Norwich itself could be reached via the river Wensum, which is a tributary of the Yare. The Norfolk wherry, a shallow-draught barge-like boat with a large sail, was developed specifically to carry goods inland from the ports. It had excellent cargo-carrying capacity and could be sailed by one man, should the need arise.


This house in Aylsham was once “The Anchor”
— a pub serving men using the Navigation

To the north of Norwich, the river Bure ran from beyond Aylsham down to Coltishall on the Broads and from there to Great Yarmouth. A navigation to improve this river for the carrying of goods was approved by act of Parliament in 1773, though it took until 1779 for the work to be completed, thanks to continual problems with financing and unsatisfactory contractors. The Aylsham navigation began at a purpose-built series of staithes (wharves) on the edge of the town and ran to Coltishall, where the river Bure becomes tidal. From there, access was available to many of the villages on the northern Broads – each with its own staithe — and thence to Great Yarmouth itself. It would be nice to report that it was a great financial success, but that was not the case. The profits were always meagre, mostly due to the need for constant dredging and repairs to the locks. Still, the navigation staggered on, surviving the railways, until 1912, when a huge flood on the river altered its course and wrecked several of the locks.

To the south of Norwich, the Waveney navigation linked Beccles, Bungay and Lowestoft along the border with Suffolk. Eventually, in 1832, the Haddiscoe New Cut linked the Yare and Waveney navigations, allowing direct access by water between Norwich and Lowestoft.

A Unique Topography

A cursory glance at a map of Norfolk shows how all these navigations (as well as the county’s single canal joining North Walsham to the Bure) exist entirely separately, each constructed purely to carry goods between specific inland areas and a suitable coastal port. Unlike the network of canals that grew up in the Midlands and the North of England, these Norfolk waterways served agriculture, not the growing factory towns of the Industrial Revolution. Coal might be carried inland, but it was East Anglian barley, malt and wheat that was carried down to the coast for transportation to London and markets across the North Sea which generated most wealth.

In time, of course, the railways took over this trade, but a great number of fine Georgian buildings in towns like King’s Lynn, Aylsham and Norwich itself still bear witness to the prosperity that the eighteenth century brought to the county, much of it by water. The cloth industry moved northwards to Yorkshire and abundant local supplies of coal, but agriculture remained — as it does to this day — to provide an underlying foundation for the area’s economy.

Posted in C18th Norfolk | 3 Comments

The Eighteenth-Century Attorney


Caricature by Thomas Rowlandson

“He did not care to speak ill of anyone behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.”

(A comment on an absent friend by Dr Johnson in 1770, as reported by Boswell)

The term ‘attorney’ in the eighteenth century could mean a number of things. Essentially, it meant a person who acted for or deputised for another, either in carrying out business or in some kind of legal action. This loose meaning survives today when somebody grants another ‘power of attorney’: meaning that the person thus appointed may act in every way that the person appointing them could. Now, as then, no legal training or standing is required. The basis for giving another person power of attorney is simply one of trust.

The ‘Man of Business’

If you imagine yourself back in the eighteenth century, a time when travel was difficult and slow, sending a letter might take days, and there was no form of electronic communication. It isn’t difficult to see that being able to appoint someone to act on your behalf might quickly become a necessity. Add to that the unwillingness of many of the gentry and nobility to involve themselves in the detail of the many business transactions arising from their estates and wealth and you have the perfect conditions for the formation of a profession, based on acting as the ‘man of business’ for several wealthy clients.

Entry to this profession was usually by serving an apprenticeship as an articled clerk to an existing, well-reputed attorney. You gained the knowledge and experience required — and proved your competence — by doing the work.

The ‘Attorney-at Law’

This term signified that the person in question had some degree of legal training, though not necessarily gained via one of London’s Inns of Court (the preserve of the barristers).

“You fusty, musty, dusty, rusty, filthy, stinking old Lawyer.”

Ignoramus: Or, The English Lawyer” – A Comedy (London, 1736)”.

Given the increasing overlap between carrying out business functions and ensuring proper legal documentation and compliance, most country towns would require at least one legal practice; many, especially in towns some distance from the county town or a similar large conurbation, might have several.

“Well, let them say what they will … the profession of the law is a glorious one, it gives a man such opportunities to be a villain.”

“The Pettyfogger” (A play in London, 1797)

A Road to Wealth and Status

In all these ways, eighteenth-century attorneys amassed considerable wealth. Sadly, lawyer in the eighteenth century were no better liked than they are today. The role offered too many obvious opportunities for corruption and private gain. Lord Shelburne, writing at the time, advised the wealthy to: . . . keep down the professions, whose employment is to rob every country, and if left to themselves, naturally produce upstart manner and yet a total want of principle.

In his view, attorneys prospered only because the wealthy found it too irksome or complicated to undertake business matters themselves. Many people suspected the complexity and slow progress of legal matters had more to do with the amount of fees that could be charged than anything else Lawyers could, it was believed, extract a plentiful ‘crop’ from even the simplest case, and were habitually portrayed as corrupt, confusing their clients by talking in jargon and making themselves rich by through constant use of the obscurities and technicalities of the law.

A fox may steal your hens, sir,
A whore your health and pence, sir,
Your daughter rob your chest, sir,
Your wife may steal your rest, sir,
A thief your goods and plate.

But all this is but picking,
With rest, pence, chest, and chicken;
It ever was decreed, sir,
If lawyers hand is fee’d, sir,
He steals your whole estate.

(John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, 1728)

Such jibes at the legal profession have never gone away and jokes at the expenses of venal lawyers are widespread today. Still, this constant criticism of lawyers as crooks and mountebanks did bear some fruit. The attorneys, probably the most violently satirised of all lawyers in the eighteenth century, were the first to set up ad hoc system of self-regulation in the form of the Society of Gentlemen Practisers.

Summing Up

Many in the eighteenth-century were in no doubt the real power-brokers in the land were the lawyers. They knew people’s secrets and handled their business, while cloaking their activities in impenetrable jargon and esoteric legal terminology, all back up by the general public’s fear of becoming entangled in the Law.

“I have found by Experience – and, to use a common Expression, Woeful Experience it is! – that as soon as a Man initiates a Law-Suit, he becomes the Slave of those whom he employs; and the only Resource he has … is to exchange them [his lawyers] for other Tyrants.”

(“The Necessity of Limiting the Powers of the Practitioners in the Several Courts of Justice … In a Letter to … His Majesty’s Solicitor-General”
— A public letter of complaint by a dissatisfied litigant, 1774).

In fact, while corrupt practitioners undoubtedly existed, the constant legal disputes over property rights throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were caused mostly by the prestige and influence that was derived from land as a source of wealth, rather than industry or business. Fear of the law easily metamorphosed into fear and distrust of its servants, so that the rich and venal lawyer became the bogeyman for generations of merchants, traders and landowners of all types.

Posted in Commerce, Georgian Society

Eighteenth-Century Literary Cats



Statue of Hodge, Dr Johnson’s cat (with oyster!), in Gough Square, London
Photo: Elliot Brown, CC2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The eighteenth century is often counted as the beginning of the modern era. Many attitudes and customs, associated with the Middle Ages, were replaced by approaches that we recognise as closely akin to our modern ways of doing things. I’m going to focus on one of these — a change in attitude towards domestic animals as pets — with particular reference to cats and their association with significant figures in the literary world.

Cats had long been valued as working animals, dealing with the rodent population and therefore living in close contact with human beings. However, they were often associated with witches and could be feared. Perhaps it was because belief in witchcraft was slowly draining away, or because greater prosperity meant that people had more time to devote to turning an animal into a pet, but there’s no doubt that by the end of the 18th-century it was becoming quite usual to see a cat as a well-loved companion, as well as a useful animal in its own right.

Daniel Defoe, in his book “A Journal of the Plague Year”, said that there was hardly a home in London that did not have at least one cat. Many had five or six. And while some people at the time feared that cats might even carry the plague, we now know that their prowess in keeping down the rat population may have acted to limit the infection. It also seems to be around this time that the close association of love of cats with literary activities began in earnest.

Famous Literary Cats

Isaac Newton kept a cat in his rooms in Cambridge and fed it from his own dinner tray. Samuel Johnson’s cat, Hodge, is also well known. Here’s what Boswell wrote:

“I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, less the servers having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature . . . I recollect him [Hodge] one day scrambling up Dr Johnston’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend, smiling and half whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled his tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “why yes, sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this” and then, as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

The writer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham was also very fond of cats. He had one whom he called Rev John Langborn. Later, he conferred upon the cat the degree of Doctor of Divinity, so that he became the Rev Dr John Langborn. Eventually, the cat was knighted, and spent the rest of his days as Sir John. Here’s what Bentham wrote about him:

“I had a remarkably intellectual cat, who never failed to attend one of us when we went round the garden. He grew quite a tyrant, insisting on being fed, and being noticed. His moral qualities were most despotic — his intellect extraordinary; but he was a universal nuisance.”

Even the famous magician and quack, Katterfelto, had a black cat who was a vital part of his show of sleight of hand and natural curiosities; and Thomas Jefferson, the third US president, arranged for a pair of cats to be brought to him from Paris in 1790. Horace Walpole was another cat lover. The poet Thomas Gray composed a well-known poem on the death of one of Walpole’s cats, who was drowned in a goldfish bowl while trying to catch its inhabitants.

By the end of the century, it was generally agreed that cruelty to any animal was unacceptable. In fact, such cruelty was made illegal as early as 1648 in the US state of Massachusetts. The poet Christopher Smart, who declared himself “possessed of a cat surpassing in beauty” and called Jeoffrey, suggested that a pet cat could become “an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon”. Indeed, it might well be said that by the beginning of the nineteenth century our society was well on its way to developing into a culture that sees no higher purpose for electronic communication than to share photographs of cute cats.

Posted in Tid-bits | 3 Comments

John Money: Despair and Rescue

The perilous situation of major money

Contemporary engraving of Major Money in the sea.

We left Major John Money, the balloonist, on Saturday, July 23rd, 1785, up to his waist in water and convinced it was only a matter of time before his balloon sank and he would be drowned.

At first, he seemed tantalisingly close to rescue. He saw several ships and some smaller boats. One ship had followed his balloon for almost 2 hours, then gave up as it became fully dark. To make matters still worse, the sky clouded over and the darkness became ever more complete. In his own words, “Though he had not once lost his recollection, and had indeed possessed perfect presence of mind all the while, he now considered himself as a loss, and lamented that it was not his fate to die at once . . .”

Still, he had not given up all hope and continued to work on the balloon to try to keep what little gas remained so that there should be some buoyancy. His spirits were also raised when the clouds dispersed and the moon rose. Not only did this allow him to work on the balloon more easily, it “removed one source of additional horror which darkness itself always produces.”

However, he still seemed no nearer being saved:

For full five melancholy hours did the Major remain in this horrid situation, during the whole of which he had not once seen a vessel so near him as to be heard by his calling, and but in two instances did he even endeavour to be heard by them.

A Determined Captain

Then came what must have felt like a miracle:

About this time, nearly half-past eleven, though he had not for a long time seen any vessel even at the greatest distance, happening to turn his head on one side, he saw a boat very near him; he called to it, and to his inexpressible joy he was answered by the persons in it, who said immediately, “how many are there of you?” and soon after came up with him.

He was at this time so greatly fatigued, and his strength so much exhausted, that he was scarce able to get into the boat, and believes he could not have done it had he not been assisted by the people who came with it. The balloon was towed along with the boat, and the vessel to which it belonged being very near, he was soon put on board.

The ship turned out to be a Revenue cutter from Harwich, the HMS Argus, under the command of Captain William Haggis. They had been out looking for smugglers and had seen his balloon some time ago. Indeed, it turned out that they were the ship that had followed him for several hours, even sending out a boat to investigate more closely. Unfortunately, those in the boat decided that there was nobody aboard the balloon and returned to their ship with that message. Captain Haggis, however, decided to see for himself, and it was to this determination that John Money owed his life. According to the ship’s log, his rescue took place at exactly 11:30 PM, eighteen miles off the coast northwest of Southwold.

Back to Land

I’ll let Major Money close this story, as he was reported by the Norfolk Chronicle:

The cutter arrived at Lowestoft about eight in the morning, being Sunday the 24th, where the Major landed; he took a chaise at this place, and arrived at his house at Crown Point, near Norwich, at two o’clock, by which the anxiety not only of his immediate friends and connections was removed, but that of many thousand others who were spectators of his departure, and who had become very apprehensive for his safety.

The balloon received very little harm, except at the lower end of it, which the Major intentionally cut before it fell into the sea; the boat [balloon gondola] was however very much injured; they were both brought to Crown Point soon after the Major’s arrival.


Posted in C18th Norfolk, Tid-bits | 4 Comments