The ‘Music Scene’ in Georgian Norwich

Beggars Opera

Advertisement from The Norwich Gazette, April 1728

At the start of the 18th century, Norwich was the largest British city after London, and it remained a major civic, cultural and manufacturing centre throughout the 1700s. Perhaps because it had achieved the trappings of a major urban centre so early, it retained many of them at a surprisingly high level throughout this time. It was the first provincial city to have its own newspaper (The Norwich Post of 1701). By the start of the century, it had several thriving coffeehouses, six booksellers and the beginnings of a ‘social scene’.

Norwich’s location may well have helped it develop in this way. It was too far from the capital to be overwhelmed by London’s preeminence (some 100 miles, though the roads to the south were surprisingly good for the time); close enough to attract some of the artists, playwrights and musicians north; wealthy enough to provide a suitable clientele of gentry and landowners, substantial merchants, members of the growing professional classes and even manufacturers and successful tradespeople. Their families too, since wealth brought leisure and the need for suitable social venues and diversions.

Suitable Venues

I will set aside purely church music in this post. That is not to say it was not important in the musical life of the city—it was—but in writing of a ‘music scene’, I am using the term in the modern way: as a convenient description for public musical performances of all kinds put on for pleasure and profit. Where the churches played a major part in this type of local music was by providing professional and semi-professional singers and instrumentalists, especially at the start of the century. The same is true of the City Corporation, which employed a band of musicians (the City Waits) to enliven official events and processions. These City Waits also staged their own concerts from time to time, at least until they were eclipsed by larger, more skilled ensembles.

What Norwich also had in good numbers was secular venues. I shall be writing later about the early theatres in the city—those that preceded The Theatre Royal and its palatial proportions. Most of these venues were associated with inns and taverns and had developed from the kinds of all-purpose barns once used by travelling players. Several were soon fitted out as proper theatres, with a stage, a pit and one or more galleries of seats. Some even boasted boxes for the better off and the gentry. All were eminently suitable for small-scale musical performances of every kind, even though most were on the small side for larger groups. As a Mrs Bedingfield wrote to a friend after an evening at The White Swans’s theatre:

The house was too small for the actors; but a trap-door opened and four of the company fell in—one a particular man who was high sheriff last year, fell upon a pretty woman, and liked his situation so well, that they could not get him out.

One of the unintended consequences of the government’s attempt to control the theatre through a system of Royal licences was the inclusion of substantial musical elements as part of what we now think of as serious theatre. An advertisement placed in The Norwich
for December 9 – 16, 1710, reads:

At the Queen’s Arms on Monday next will be acted a Trajedy call’d Mackbeth, with all the Witches, Songs and Dances as they were originally perform’d at the Theatre Royal in London. Beginning at Five a Clock. Vivat Regina.

Although the requirement for a licence for formal theatres performing as such was never strictly enforced, it was common for the many ‘unofficial theatres’ which grew up to claim their patrons were paying for musical performances, and perhaps refreshments, with some ‘free’ theatre thrown in!

Thus we hear of concerts and operatic recitals taking place at The Queen’sArms, The White Swan, The Red Lion, The Angel, and The
Duke of Norfolk’s Palace, near the Chapel Fields. Indeed, theatrical companies like The Norwich Comedians regularly turned their talents to ‘shows’ like The Beggar’s Opera as well as purely spoken entertainments.

The Music Societies

By 1724, Norwich had its first Music Society holding subscription concerts. Such clubs and societies swiftly grew in numbers, adding venues like The Maid’s Head Inn and including “good wine and a hearty welcome” to all music lovers (at least, those wealthy enough to pay the subscription or entrance fee).

Amongst the songs and instrumental pieces (the cathedral organist clearly found many ways to supplement his stipend), you could listen to some of the most famous Italian opera stars from London, especially during the summer months when the London opera houses were shut. Those 100 miles between the two cities were no barrier to their desire to increase their earnings and bolster their ‘super star’ status.

Some of these societies also allowed women to attend their meetings and sit together in a special part of the gallery. One wit of 1739 expressed amazement at the close attention paid by the female component of the audience.

Our Concert real we may justly say,
Has wrought superior Miracles today,
Such fond Attention on the Music hung,
That One and Twenty Ladies—held their Tongue!


Another growing source of musical entertainment in the city were the concerts put on by those who taught singing or gave lessons on various instruments. The Dancing-masters active at that time also promoted evenings of entertainment to show off their talent and the progress of their pupils—both adults and children.

NHD at King's Lynn

Reconstruction of 18th century dancing at King’s Lynn Assembly Hall

Skills in musical performance or singing were a major part of the ‘accomplishments’ necessary to fit daughters to find a suitable husband at the time. The fashionable dances were complex to perform and hard to learn. Yet to be suitably polished in the art of dancing, whether at balls or assemblies, was vital for young people of both sexes. Some of the Dancing-masters even fitted up their own rooms for teaching and performances.

That first meeting of a Music Society in Norwich in 1724 was held in “Mr Freemoult’s Long Room by Black-Friers-Bridge”. Slightly earlier, a benefit concert for a Mr Dahuron was held in “Mr Boseley’s dancing room”. Such venues were more or less totally eclipsed by the city’s own Assembly Room from 1750.

Larger Scale Performances

There were several possible venues for large-scale works demanding scores or hundreds of performers. These included the great church of St. Peter Mancroft in the Market Place, St. Andrews Hall and the cathedral itself. Many such concerts were organised in support of charitable causes, such as the newly established Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Attendance could then provide for your social and entertainment needs, while adding a comfortable feeling of philanthropy as well.


Advertisement for Thomas Arne’s “Musical Entertainment” Thomas & Sally

Concerts might also be used to raise money to support promising local musicians. James Hook took lessons from the cathedral organist and was composing songs and playing public concerts on the keyboard by the time he was eight. At age ten, in 1757, a concert was held to give him additional musical training, followed by others for the same purpose in 1759 and 1760. As a result, he was launched on a career as first a music teacher, then organist and resident composer in London’s Vauxhall Gardens.

Once larger-scale music making was seen to be successful, Norwich, like several other provincial cities, organised its own Music Festivals on a grand scale in 1788 and 1790. The performances were held in September in St. Peter Mancroft, St. Andrews Hall and the cathedral. Parson Woodforde noted in his diary for 25th September, 1788:

The Concert was very fine indeed, and Madame Mara, the famous Singer, sung delightfully. I never heard so fine a voice—Her Notes so high. The Kettle Drums from Westminster Abbey sounded charmingly, beat by a Mr. Ashbridge. Near 100 performers in the Orchestra.

As well as Handel’s instrumental works and oratorios like Judas Maccabeus and Messiah, the programmes over those years included operatic pieces, various concerti and songs. Composers mentioned in the programmes ranged from Handel (of course) and Haydn, through Purcell, Cimarosa and Pleyel, to Ditterdorf and J. C. Bach. Enthusiasm seemed to have waned, however, for this particular festival was not repeated after 1790.

This post has merely dipped the smallest of toes into the huge lake of information about music in Norwich during these years. Norwich’s pleasure Gardens (more of them than in any other city outside London) and theatres all had an extensive range of music available, from excerpts from grand opera, through many comic and ballad operas, as well as songs, dances and glees.

Concerts were also held in many other Norfolk towns, often to coincide with local holidays or events like the horse-racing in Holt or the Quarter Sessions. King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth, Thetford, Holt, Fakenham, Dereham and others can be shown from newspaper advertisements to have offered music-making on a fairly regular basis. To this list must be added the ballad and comic operas, songs, operatic arias, instrumental musical interludes and dancing that formed a significant part of most theatrical performances of the time.

I hope to be able to return to look at some or all of these topics too in future postings.

A Note to Readers

I shall be taking a short break from writing new blog posts while I complete final revisions on the latest book in my series of historical murder mysteries featuring Dr Adam Bascom. “A Shortcut to Murder” picks up from the point where ‘The Code for Killing” ended and sees the good doctor back in his more usual haunts around Aylsham and the coastal villages of north Norfolk. It will, I hope, be available on Kindle well before Christmas.

To learn about all my books currently available, please click here.

Posted in Leisure

Privateers off England’s East Coast

pirate ship docking under moon light

Privateers and pirates were a constant scourge to the many hundreds of ships which sailed along the east coast of England, many of them heading to or from the Norfolk ports. If you aren’t quite sure of the difference between a pirate and a privateer it can be summoned up like this.

A privateer was privately-owned ship ‘licensed’ by a government or monarch to attack enemy merchant shipping; and carried a commission or document, known as “Letters of Marque”, to prove it. This commission empowered the holder to undertake all hostile action permissible at sea by the usages of war. That included attacking vessels from the countries specified in the document during wartime. Such ships might be seized and either ransomed or taken back to a friendly port as prizes. They and the goods they carried could then be sold, and the proceeds divided between the privateer’s sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew under the terms of prize law. A percentage share also went to the state which issued the letters of marque.

CaptainKiddLetterofMarquePrivateering was essentially private-enterprise warfare—a way of supplementing a state’s naval resources by utilising civilian ships and crews as well. It also served as an early form of commerce-raiding. By encouraging privateering, a state hoped to disrupt the enemy’s trade through the capture of the ships, captains and crews necessary for it to carry on maritime commerce. If captured, the crew and officers of the privateer were thus treated as prisoners of war. They would be held until ransomed, exchanged or released on the cessation of hostilities.

A pirate was a ‘common criminal’ who preyed on any ship too weak to resist, stealing anything of value. As a result, captured pirates would be subject to the full weight of the criminal law. Some would be executed and others transported. The most experienced and useful sailors amongst them might well be ‘pressed’ into service in the navy.

The East Coast Trade

Throughout the eighteenth century, what we now call the North Sea (then known as the German Ocean) was crowded with shipping of many kinds. Most of these merchantmen were small. In Norfolk, only Great Yarmouth could berth large vessels, with King’s Lynn taking some of middle sizes—at least the ones that could navigate the shoals and sandbanks of The Wash. For the rest, primarily Wells and Blakeney, the silted-up channels through the salt-marshes, ensured only small vessels could make it. Cromer had no port, so any ships calling there (some colliers did) had flat bottoms, so they could rest on the beach when the tide went out, then be lifted off again at the next tide.

The trade along these coasts was mostly domestic: coal from the north-east being taken to many places along the way, but primarily London. Norfolk wheat going south to London and good malting barley going anywhere beer or whiskey was made, including Holland and Germany. Anything heavy could be carried. Sending heavy goods by road was slow, difficult and expensive. Passengers were also taken on many ships, especially the ‘packet boats’ carrying the mail to continental countries.

Strategic Goods

Disruption of any of this trade would be a nuisance, but the true prize for ships from hostile countries was the timber trade. War, politics and economics were as closely linked at that time as they are today. Much of the timber used by the Royal Navy came from the Baltic and Scandinavia. Virtually all the masts and spars did. An anonymous work called The Memoire of a Person Interested in Baltic Commerce (I7I6) claimed that all of the hemp in the world (for ships’ ropes) and the best masts came from a region stretching from the Gulf of Bothnia to the coasts of Prussia.[1] Constant damage by storms as well as enemy action ensured ropes, masts and spars were always in demand. Sweden also exported a good deal of the iron ore required for everything from nails to cannonballs. Stop or hinder that supply and you could cause significant disruption to the means of waging naval warfare. The campaigns by the Royal Navy against Denmark during the Napoleonic wars had as much to do with trade as depriving the French of an allied fleet.

Woollens were Britain’s major export to help pay for what it needed from these countries. Norfolk, especially Norwich, was one of the main producers of the fine worsteds and similar cloths which sold well in countries like Russia and Scandinavia. A great many yards of dyed ‘Norwich Stuffs’ were sent across the North Sea during this time. Once again, disrupting this trade would cause economic problems for the nation as a whole, as well as considerable unrest in the area which produced them. Norfolk merchants were as keenly interested in protecting and expanding their trade as any others. Britain’s almost-continuous warfare with various continental powers during the 18th century was never popular in East Anglia.

Of course, the activities of French and other privateers was not confined to the North Sea. Britain’s merchant shipping and trading links were increasingly biassed towards the Atlantic and eastwards to India. Nearly every French Atlantic port served as a base for privateers at one time or another in the 18th century. Their vessels roamed throughout the western approaches, the English Channel and the North Sea. During the Revolutionary War, the Americans also fitted out privateers to disrupt British trade, not just in the waters off the east coast of America, but in European waters as well.

The British Response

Privateering peaked early in the 18th century, then fell away for a time. However, it revived strongly during the American War of Independence and Britain’s long war against the French between 1793 and 1815. During this time, the Board of Admiralty organised a growing number of naval vessels to escort convoys of merchant ships. This ‘convoy system’ became the principal counter to enemy privateering and commerce raiding.

By the ‘Convoy Acts’ of 1797 and 1803, it was made compulsory for ships engaging in foreign trade to join convoys, with a few exceptions, such as East Indiamen. During the same period, the growth of the marine insurance industry, based first in Lloyds’ coffeehouse in London, helped indemnify shipowners against their losses. Such insurers too brought pressure to bear on merchants and captains to make sure their ships joined protective convoys. In many ways, this combination of convoys and marine insurance was the deciding factor in the increasingly successful defence of British trade during the period leading up to 1815[2]. Naval escort ships were based in Norfolk ports, especially Great Yarmouth, and convoys assembled there to be escorted on their way.

  1. “Memoir of a Person Interested in Baltic Commerce,” in Guillaume de Lamberty, Memoires pour servir a’ l’histoire du XVIII sie’cle, contenant les negociations, traitez, et autres documens authe’nticques concernant les affaires d’e’tat (The Hague and Amsterdam, I700–1718), IX, 663.  ↩
  2. For a thorough treatment of the convoy system and other forms of defence of British trade in the period, see The Defence of British Trade, 1689–1818, Patrick Crowhurst, William Dawson, Folkestone, 1977.  ↩

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Posted in Military | 1 Comment

The Georgian View of Democracy

Joseph Priestley and Tom Paine caricatured by Cruickshank

One of the greatest differences between political life in Georgian times and today was who was allowed to have a vote, both nationally and locally. In most modern, Western societies the most basic assumption is the primacy of democracy in political matters. It may therefore come as a shock to learn that almost no one in 18th century Britain would have considered such an idea sensible—and that includes just about all the ‘radicals’ of the time.

Why is this? How did it come about that demands for reform of the franchise and representation in parliament automatically excluded large numbers of adults from any direct representation at all? Even the Levellers of the 17th century, often wrongly seen as the equivalent of today’s extreme Left, never went beyond demanding the franchise should include all ratepayers: males who earned or owned enough to be subject to payment of the Poor Rate in their parish. If we want to understand our forebears’ outlook on their society, we need to get a few things straight.

The Basics

In the 18th century, there was no secret ballot. Votes were cast openly and personally, and duly recorded and published afterwards. How you voted would be public knowledge. If you hadn’t voted as you were expected—or had pledged—to do, you couldn’t hide it. That’s why there was such an emphasis on being a “free agent”—at least in theory. If you depended on someone else for your livelihood, it was believed you could never vote freely, for fear of loss as a result.

What was Your Stake in the Country and Society?

Did you have anything at stake when you voted? By this, people meant property or some other source of wealth or livelihood that might be at risk if things went the wrong way. Not only was it believed that those with nothing to lose would vote heedlessly or frivolously, it was seen as fundamentally unfair for anyone with no stake in society to be able to vote on the same basis as others who had much to lose.

The implication of both these assumptions was clear, as stated by ‘Regulus’, writing in a radical journal, the Political Register, in 1768. He explained that the following should be excluded from “the People” who should determine the country’s rulers.

… The illiterate rabble, who have neither capacity for judging of matters of government, nor property to be concerned for.

Sir William Blackstone, the pre-eminent constitutional authority of the time, wrote thus in his Commentaries, defending the need for a property qualification on the grounds that it would exclude:

… Such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own. [Such “indigent people” must be] under the immediate domination of others [and so] suspected to have no will of their own …

That would include nearly all those employed by another. With no security of employment, legal protections or employment rights, employees were treated legally as ‘servants’ to a ‘master’ (their employer). They would have to vote as he told them, since everyone in that situation would fear for their jobs if they did not. You did not work for an impersonal company either. You worked for a specific individual, even if that individual was the king.

Sufficient Education

Voting was also considered to be a serious matter, to be undertaken thoughtfully, with a proper understanding of the issues at stake. Emotional decisions were seen as unacceptable, since they laid the system open to glib, ambitious demagogues. Ignorance must therefore be a total barrier to inclusion in the political process. The education needed to make sensible political decisions was assumed to be that accorded to the rich and some of the middling sort; not simply literacy, but sufficient education and leisure to be able to grasp the subtleties of political and ethical arguments. Even the 1805 editor of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, thought literacy unnecessary for the ‘lower orders’.

To follow industry and learn to live on their income and be attentive to their duty, constitute the principal part of education in all the inferior ranks.

Implicit (or Virtual) Representation

The Georgians actually took this matter seriously, at least in theory. They believed it was implicit in every election that elected members should represent the whole, the national interest, not just the interests of the small group who had elected them. To do this they must be free to vote independently, unconfined by party or other interests. The radicals were especially insistent on this point. There should, they proclaimed, be no “placemen” (MPs holding government or royal appointments) or “pensioners” (MPs receiving government salaries) in parliament. The very idea of “three-line whips” or enforceable party discipline would have appalled them. As it was, 18th century parties were more like shifting groups of like-minded friends than political machines.

In Georgian times therefore, British MPs were free to vote any way they wanted and to change party allegiance at any time without implications. The US system retains this idea, since it follows a written constitution produced by 18th-century gentlemen of English extraction. Even today, political parties in the USA cannot enforce party discipline in voting as they can in Britain. Each elected member of both houses of Congress has to be persuaded to support the party line.

William Windham, MP for Norwich, for much of the latter part of the 18th century, started out as an opponent of the government, especially over their response to problems in the American colonies. He was known to be a supported of Charles James Fox, which would make him, in modern terms, a left-winger in the generally more left-wing Whig Party. But when the French Revolution came long, he was convinced by the apocalyptic arguments of Edmund Burke and swapped sides, even going so far as to serve in the cabinet under the arch-Tory, William Pitt the Younger. Yet he still stood in elections as a Whig, albeit a pro-government one, and was re-elected several times on that basis.


Even if you disagree with everything the Georgians believed on the matter of restricting the franchise, you have to accept it was logically derived from the general assumptions of the day. If kings and nobles were to be replaced as sole rulers by a group more representative of the country as it stood at the time, it was unthinkable that this should include people who had never been thought of as capable of anything save manual labour and following orders.

Parliament may have won its supremacy by civil war and a “glorious revolution”, but it ought still to be made up only of those judged fittest to rule by the accepted standards of the time. To that was added the logical conclusion that those who elected the parliament’s members, or took part in local government, ought to be the worthiest to undertake such tasks. That’s why even the radicals shared much the same viewpoint as the conservatives on the franchise, though on precious little else. So long as the fight was to stop monarch and aristocrats from taking back all the power they had lost, there could be no place in politics for the poor, the weak or the politically uninformed.

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Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

The Uses—and Drawbacks—of ‘Dibbling’ Grain


Broadcasting seed
“The Sower” by J.F.Millet




In most of the 18th century, before the introduction of the mechanical seed-drill, there were only two ways of sowing crops. Wheat and barley, turnips and beans were either broadcast (scattered on the land) or ‘dibbled’ into separate holes. Broadcasting was always the more common and the only one possible on heavier, clay lands in a large parts of England, it was simple and well understood, and people had sowed seeds this way for thousands of years.

It did have drawbacks. It was wasteful of seed, unless it was done skilfully. It created haphazard patterns. Too many seeds might fall in one area and none in another. Since the seed lay on the surface, much of it could be eaten by birds before there was time to provide a covering of earth. Even what did grow might well be choked by weeds and the only way to remove weeds was by hand—a daunting prospect with many acres to cover.

How Dibbling Worked

In the simplest form of dibbling, a man took a pointed metal stake in each hand and walked backwards in a straight line, pushing the sticks into the soil on both sides of him to make long rows of holes. As he did so, others, following behind, dropped seeds into each hole. It was usual for this second group to be made up of women and children, thus providing much-needed employment and extra income to local labourers’ families. Finally, a rake or even bundles of brushwood would be run over the surface of the soil to fill the holes in.

Dibbling only worked on light soils. On heavy soils, the hole was likely to fill with water and cause the seed to rot. The soils of East Anglia were predominantly light and sandy, so dibbling quickly became the preferred way of sowing. It made weeding easier too, since a hoe could be used between the straight rows of growing plants. It also used less seed, although, , as the old rhyme tells us, it was still wasteful by modern standards. Four seeds had to be sowed for every one that survived.

“One to rot and one to grow,
One for the Devil and one for the crow.”

Other Problems

It wasn’t only the birds and the weeds which caused problems. The labourers, and their wives and children, were often suspected of holding seed back for themselves. One writer of the time wrote that “… innovation was required to circumvent labourers’ incompetence and dishonesty.” Even the adoption of the threshing machine was said to be aided because it avoided pilfering of corn by “labourers and other vermin”!

Jethro Tull in 1733 was still more vitriolic.

… the Thing that is most detrimental to perpetual Crops of Wheat, is the Deceit and Idleness of the Weeders … their Tongues are much nimbler than their Hands; and unless the Owner, or some Person who faithfully represents him, (and is hard to be found) works constantly amongst them, they’ll get their Heads together half a Dozen in a Cluster, regarding their Prattle more than the Weeds; a great part of their Time they spend in Play, except a few of them who bring their own Work with them, some their Sewing, some their Knitting, and these must be paid for doing their own Work upon my Land: This Wrong I have seen done both to myself and my Neighbours; and it has put me upon endeavouring to find a Way of disappointing the Weeders… [1]

Arthur Young, writing in 1804, made a similar observation.

Mr Burton, of Langley, remarked, that good as this practice was in some respects for the poor, there are inconveniences flowing from it. Girls, old enough for [domestic] service are kept at home by it. Gleaning is their employment in harvest, which gives them idle habits in the fields, then dibbling follows; and the girls lying about under the hedges with men, produces the natural consequences on their manners; bastardy flourishes, and maidservants are uncommonly scarce.

Mr Johnson, of Thurning, makes the same observation on the ill effects of dibbling as Mr Burton. The great [i.e. older] girls do not drop [the seeds into the holes] so well as children, nor is the work so well done as formerly: they now drop between the forefinger and the thumb, which is much inferior to doing it between the fore and the middle finger.

Innovation, might well improve agricultural efficiency, but nothing , it seemed, would prevent human nature from interfering to counteract many of the benefits!

  1. Jethro Tull, Horse-Hoeing Husbandry, 1733, Notes. p 226.  ↩
Posted in Agriculture | 1 Comment

An 18th-century Clergyman Loses his Maidenhead



I cannot resist quoting this letter in full so that you can make up your own minds how much is genuine excitement at the prospect of a night of sex (at last?) and how much is pure exaggeration and a mannered sense of fun.

The letter was written by Rev. William Nevar to Ashe Windham (1673–1749) of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, probably late in the 1690s or just after, when Windham would have been in his early 20s. Nevar was older. He had been Windham’s tutor, so my guess would be he was perhaps around 40 or so at the time of writing. His name crops up as curate of Wye Church in Kent in 1712, which would fit in with this supposition. Windham had been travelling abroad on an Italian Grand Tour from 1693–6, so the letter likely dates after that time.

In 1699, Humphrey Prideaux described Ashe Windham as:

… a young gentleman of a very considerable estate in this country, but, having had an Italian education, is all over Italiz’d, that is an Italian as to religion, I mean a downright atheist; an Italian in politics, that is a Commonwealthsman; and an Italian I doubt in his morals, for he cannot be persuaded to marry. He is … of a tolerable good understanding and an estate of £4,000 per annum.

With reference to his ‘Italian’ morals, Windham had an illegitimate daughter in 1689, of whom little seems to be known. At the time of her birth he must still have been at Eton, since he did not go up to Cambridge until 1691. His eventual marriage, which took place in 1709 when he was 36, was far from happy. He married ‘on the rebound’ after his first choice of fiancée, Hester Duckworth, died suddenly from smallpox.

Tensions in the marriage surfaced early on.  Even the birth of a son and heir in 1717 made things no better. The two fell out irrevocably over how the boy should be raised and parted soon after. Windham then suffered some kind of breakdown in 1721 and withdrew from the world, spending his time pursuing various ‘cures’ at Bath and elsewhere or staying in London, leaving Felbrigg in the care of Patrick St. Clair, his ‘man of business’. He died in 1749.

At least this letter hints at happier times. Spelling is original.


I date this letter from the happiest day of my life, a Levitical Conjurer transformed me this morning from an Insipid, Unrelishing Batchelour into a Loving Passionate Husband, but in the midst of all the raptures of approaching Joys, some of my thoughts must fly to Felbrigg, and though I am called away 17 times in a minute to new exquisite dainties, yet I cannot resist the inticing temptation of conversing with you, and acquainting you, with tears in my Eyes, that I am going to lose my Maidenhead; but you’ll think perhaps of the old Saying, that some for Joy do cry, and some for Sorrow sing. Colonel Finch, who honours us with his merry company, tells me of the dismall dangers I am to run before the next Sun shines upon me, but the Spouse Of my bosom being of a meek, forgiving temper, I hope she will be merciful, and not suffer a young beginner to dye in the Experiment. I commend myself to your best prayers in this dreadful Juncture, and wishing you speedily such a happy night, as I have now in prospect.

I remain
Your most humble and
Most obedient Servant
W. Nevar

Source: Simms, Nicholas ed. The Footfall’s Echo: An Anthology from Norfolk’s Past. Orlando Publishing, Briston, Norfolk, 1989.

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Posted in Georgian Society | 1 Comment

The Cost of 18th-century Lighting

candlelit room

This is by way of being an addendum to my last post about lighting in Georgian times. That explained how dim Georgian lighting must have been, compared to the levels of illumination we take for granted today. I also need to explain how expensive lighting would have been in those days.

The Cheapest Kinds

rushlightholderRushlights were the cheapest form of lighting. Each was made by repeatedly dipping the ‘pith’ from inside a rush in melted animal fat (tallow), slowly building up the layers until you had something like a thin candle. Then you placed it in a special kind of holder, which often held it at an angle of around 45º. Finally, you lit the rush ‘wick’. The light output would have been little better than a single modern match. It was also smelly, the fat spat and dripped and the flame guttered. However, if you could afford no better, it provided some light. Since the holder exposed both ends of the ‘candle’, you might—in an emergency—increase the illumination by lighting both the top and the bottom. However, ‘burning the candle at both ends’ was going to exhaust it rapidly, hence the use of the expression for people who sit up too late and live too fast. How long would a rushlight burn? Maybe 15–20 minutes at the most.

Of course, making lights in this way required a good amount of tallow. Poor people wouldn’t be able to eat meat as often as their wealthier neighbours, so they must soon exhaust their own supply of this commodity. Then they had to buy more from the tallow chandler, probably stuff of the cheapest kind.

If you could afford a little more

The next best candles were far better made, with proper wicks. However, they still used tallow as the ‘fuel’. In wealthy houses, they might be made in-house and used for everyday purposes. Certainly they would be the only form of lighting given to the servants. A servant’s agreed terms of employment might include a daily ration of one or two candles, mostly to allow them to find their way to bed and undress when they got there. The more senior the servant, the larger the allowance.

Even the best tallow candles still smelled unpleasant. Tallow from pigs was avoided, since it produced black smoke and the strongest smell. Beef or mutton fat was much better, often mixed together.

All tallow candles were of an unpleasant brownish colour and needed constant attention once they were lit. The only way to lessen their tendency to sputter and smoke was to trim the wick every few minutes. Again, they lasted quite a short time, so you needed to restrict their use or face some large bills. In 1791, the Norfolk Chronicle reported the average price of all tallow for candles was 2s 6d (two shillings and six pence: 12.5p) for 8 pounds weight. By 1792, that price had risen to 3s 1d (16.25p). What were called ‘good dregs’(!) were only 6s – 7s for a hundredweight (112 pounds in Britain, approximately 50kg), while best ‘Russia tallow’ for candles was 47s – 49s for the same amount. Whether you would want any candles made with dregs, however ‘good’, is doubtful.

tallow candle dipping

Dipping tallow candles

In museums and certain preserved homes of the period you can see metal cylinders used as candle-moulds for tallow candles. However, the quality of a tallow candle depended most on the fat used. The better and more refined the fat, the firmer and less smelly the candle. That’s why the skills of making the longest-lasting, least smelly kinds was valuable, as was the knowledge of rendering (refining) the fat correctly to remove the most impurities. Both were vital trade secrets to the many tallow chandlers of the time.

The government started taxing candles in 1709, further increasing their cost. They even tried to place legal restrictions on homemade rushlights. These would only be free from tax if they were “not for sale, of small size, and only dipped once in, or once drawn through, grease…” The candle tax was raised regularly, as such taxes tend to be, so that Adam Smith, writing in 1776, noted:

“As all those four commodities [salt, leather, soap and candles] that are real necessaries of life, such heavy taxes upon them must increase somewhat the expense of the sober and industrious poor, and must consequently raise more or less the wages of their labour.”

Mary Johnson, in her book on household management of 1775, suggested a family of the middling sort would need to buy some two and a half pounds of [probably tallow] candles per week on average. More in the winter, of course, when days in Britain are short; fewer in the summer. The cost of this she estimated as 1s 3d: i.e. about sixpence per pound of candles. To pay for that amount of lighting would be well beyond the reach of labourers or poorer artisans. They would need to economise on light and cost by using rushlights whenever they could.

What the rich used

homemade beeswax candlesBeeswax candles were the best and longest lasting kind, but only the rich could afford to use them, especially after they were taxed at eight times the rate of tallow[1]. Even the most prosperous gentry used as few of these wax candles as possible, save on grand occasions when they wanted to impress. Lighting a candle was tantamount to burning money. Our expression that ‘the game’s not worth the candle’ comes from the observation that playing a card game that was dull, or for very low stakes, would not be worth the cost of the candles needed to be able to see your hand. Even the perk of having the wax candle-ends was highly desirable. They were typically reserved for the senior servants, who would sell them.

Even so, some of the truly rich used wax candles with abandon. A grand dinner, a ball or an assembly might cost far more in candles than you paid for food and drink. The yearly wage for a housemaid at the time was some £3.00, but in the 1760s, the Duke of Newcastle paid £25.00 every month for wax candles to light his London house. On one occasion in 1731, the first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, had 130 candles lit in the hallway at his grand mansion, Houghton Hall in Norfolk, with another 50 in the saloon. The amazed guests counted them to be sure! The overall cost for his single night of extravagance was £15.00, yet that was a comparatively meagre compared with others. In 1712, the Duchess of Montague was supposed to have paid £200.00 for candles for an assembly lasting one night; and it was claimed the Duke of Bedford illuminated an event of his with 1,000 wax candles, at a cost of £603.00!

Naturally, lesser mortals were content with far less lighting in their homes. However, the precise amount could still be a subject of contention. The Overseer working for William Byrd, who lived near Williamsburg in the American Colonies during the 1770s, complained of his candle allowance. Byrd replied thus:

Then as to your being often forct, like mad people, to sit in the dark without a candle, I have this to say, that orders have been given from the beginning, to furnish you with one every night, and if those orders have at any time been disobeyd, upon the least complaint from you, that grievance too would have been redresst. But I understand the candles are not big enough for you. I am sorry we have not wax or at least mould candles to light you in your lucubrations[2]. Had your Dear Friend Mr. Stevens supplyd us with more tallow, perhaps we might have been better able to light up the House with bigger candles. In the mean time, if such as you have by the judgment of two good men would burn an hour and a half, that is full long enough to read by candle-light, which is not good for the eyes, and after that meditation and devotion might fill up the rest of winters evening.[3]

After 1750, candle-making technology gradually improved—but at a price. The use of spermaceti wax candles (a wax and oil retrieved from matter in the heads of sperm whales), or the first oil-lamps, became a reliable indication of the prosperity of the householder. Spermaceti wax candles sold for around four pence per pound weight more than corresponding moulded tallow candles. That extra cost would quickly mount up, especially with the candle-tax added. Still, for those who could afford them, spermaceti wax candles were popular because they had no foul odour, did not soften in summer temperatures, and burned evenly.

  1. In 1709, a duty of four pence per pound was placed on beeswax candles and one halfpenny on tallow candles.  ↩
  2. ‘lucubrations’: writing or study.  ↩
  3. Marion Tinling, ed., The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover, Virginia, 1684–1776 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977), Volume 2, p. 573.  ↩
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Let There be Light!


Astronomer by candlelight
Gerrit Dou (1613-75)
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Indoor Lighting in Georgian England

Sometimes it’s the simplest aspects of life in the past which are hardest to understand, other than in the most superficial ways. Take the hours of darkness. We all know that Georgian and Regency houses were lit primarily with candles, but how bright or dark was it inside a room? When you ventured outside, the light of the moon or stars was never going to be more than an occasional, and unreliable, way to see where you were going—and who might be lurking in your path.

For most of the 18th century, there were few reasonable alternatives to candlelight. As early as 1735, Dr John Clayton of Wigan revealed to the members of the Royal Society in London how he had manufactured what he called “the spirit of coal” (coal gas), captured it in an animal bladder and amused his friends by releasing it and setting it alight. However, it was another 60 years or so before gas lighting was sufficiently perfected to be usable, even as street lighting.

Oil lamps first became available in the middle of the century, but the early ones were fiddly and extremely inefficient. The first really practical oil lamp, the Argand lamp, was invented and patented in France in 1780 by Aimé Argand. It was brighter and needed much less frequent trimming of the wick than previous models. Even so, the actual light output was little more than 60–90 lux, barely a tenth of the light given off by a 40-watt incandescent electric bulb.

Poor people had to rely on rush-lights dipped in animal fat, which were about as useful as a match in providing light. The middling sort used smokey, smelly tallow candles for every day. These also gave a very poor illumination. Richer ones might be able to afford a few candles made from beeswax for special occasions. These were brighter, lasted longer and smelled much better, but they were still much less effective than any modern candle. Candles made from spermaceti (whale oil) and purified animal fats (stearin) were not generally available until the middle of the 19th century. Petroleum wax candles were still later to appear. Only the seriously rich could therefore afford anything like adequate household lighting, and then only in the one or two rooms they were currently using. Everyone went to bed carrying a single candle to light the way and to undress by. Servants were lucky to get that.

How much light could be made available?

Basically, very little by our standards today—at least without a vast number of candles being lit at ruinous expense. Of course, we are used to illumination at almost daylight levels any time we want. People in Georgian times were not, so they were probably far more accustomed to seeing in poor light. I don’t mean they saw more than we might under the same conditions; they didn’t expect any better and made the best of what they had. People’s eyes do adjust fairly well to poor light, but anyone who was short-sighted or had some other eye problem most likely struggled after dark.

A standard measure of illumination, still used in the USA, is the foot-candle. This is the amount of light falling on an object placed one foot away from a modest-sized modern candle. In our terms, it represents about 10 lux, or 1/50th of the light output of a 40-watt incandescent bulb. However, as distance from the light-source increases, illumination declines in proportion to that distance. The output of the light-source stays the same, but the light that falls on the object lessens rapidly. Move the object closer to the light and the reverse happens.

Double candle-stick rest

Double candlestick rest
Felbrigg Hall (NT)

This is a fancy way of saying that if you have only a single candle and hold it as close as you dare to your book, you will probably be able to see to read fairly well. Put the candle on a table next to you, with the book just a few feet from the flame, and you may struggle unless the print is large (which was one reason why many early printed books have largish type on big pages). Dine with only a few candles on a large table and you’ll find it hard to see what you’re eating, let alone a diner at the other end of the table. Walk to the other side of even a modestly proportioned room, and you may not be able to see even your outstretched hand with much clarity.

Making the most of the light you could provide

Chandeliers were both ornamental and a (relatively safe) way of bringing together a great many candles in a given space. The cut and faceted glass added sparkle and helped reflect the light out into the room.

Mirror-glass in the 18th century was expensive and difficult to make; so much so that mirrors were often used and reused in updated frames until the silvering on the reverse decayed too much. Yet go into most large Georgian houses today and you’ll be struck by the wealth of mirrors in all the main rooms. These were not a sign of vanity, but a simple necessity to make the most of the output from every candle used. Reflected light may not be as bright as the original source, but it is a long way better than nothing. Light was too precious to be wasted.

Candle magnifier

Candle ‘magnifier’
Felbrigg Hall (NT)

In the same way, you may see wall-mounted candle-holders with shiny back-pieces or shaped and polished reflectors. For really close, detailed work, one or more candles could be placed in a glass bowl like a fishbowl, where the curved glass would focus the maximum amount of light at a suitable distance for sewing, say. Another way was to place a glass bowl filled with water in front of the light source. The convex bowl and the water within would both magnify and focus the light to a modest, but significant effect. Sit several ladies doing their embroidery around either of these and you have—“a sewing circle”.

Fire! Fire!

Fire was an ever-present hazard. A single dropped candle, or one placed too close to curtains or bed-hangings, could cause a blaze that would destroy the whole house. Outside the largest towns, there were no firemen provided by your insurance company. Fire-fighting was based on self-help.

fire engine

18th-century Fire-engine
Felbrigg Hall (NT)

At Felbrigg Hall, a long line of leather and metal fire-buckets are hung near the servants’ hall ready for use. The house also has a primitive, 18th-century fire engine, which was hand pumped. If a fire did break out, neighbours might come running to add their efforts and whatever fire extinguishing devices they had to yours. But with no piped water supply, attempts to quell the flames would generally come down to a line of people forming a bucket-chain from the nearest lake or pond. Filling buckets from a well would be too slow to be of any use at all! Even so, neither the buckets nor the fire engine could have been effective against anything but the feeblest blaze.

Space to move about

Poor lighting and fear of fire also helps explain why Georgian houses contained so little furniture. Inventories of the time hint at nearly bare rooms by later standards. What furniture people possessed was often placed primarily around the walls. Even dining and other tables might be made to fold and be stacked out of the way when not in use. If Georgian rooms had been as cluttered as later Victorian ones, the occupants of the house would have spent much of their time bumping into the furnishings as soon as the sun went down. More effective oil lamps, followed by gas lighting, are to blame for that pervasive Victorian clutter!

Across a crowded room …

So, when you write how your romantic Regency hero sees his future love one evening across the room and is instantly smitten by her matchless beauty, remember that, in reality, he might well have found it quite hard to make out any of her features at all, even with his quizzing-glass. That is, unless they were in a grand house on a special, festive occasion, and the rich host had called for as many candles as possible and damn the expense!

For most normal, everyday circumstances, our Georgian forebears lived in quite small, rather bare rooms. Dining and other evening social activities would also be small-scale, even intimate, as much due to the poor light as anything else. Four people playing whist at a small table was possible. Eight people sitting around a table would have found it easy to hear what anyone was saying, but probably quite hard to see facial expressions clearly, save for those of their immediate neighbours. It is a clear sign of the importance of social contacts in 18th-century England, that people of the middling sort and above still engaged in as much social activity as they did.

Even getting to your friends’ house could be fraught with danger on a dark night. As I will show in the next post on this topic, to go out after dark was an adventure in itself.

Do you enjoy historical fiction?

Book-Cover-4-SmallThe Ashmole Foxe mystery, “DARK THREADS OF VENGEANCE”, might well be for you. Set in Norwich in the 1760s, it begins with a mysterious murder, before plunging, through clashes within a dysfunctional family which threaten business collapse and a banking crisis, to an unexpected denouement by the edge of the River Wensum in the shadow of Norwich’s massive cathedral.

Check it out here.

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