It’s good to see that even our georgian ancestors were not above getting pissed and doing stupid things at christmas parties.
The following piece was published in The Norwich Mercury of January 14th, 1727.
Sherborn, Jan. 9. A Company of merry People getting together this Christmas in our Neighbourhood, amongst other Diversions, they must needs play a Game at Matrimony, and accordingly suffered themselves to be married to one another; Tho’ this was but in jest, and defin’d as a meer Frolick, one of the young Ladies of a good Fortune was the next day demanded by her Husband, and being informed that the marriage was good in Law, the same was consumated. The rest of the married Folks, we hear, have made their Escapes, some for fear of being taken by their Wives, and some to prevent falling into the Hands of their Husbands.
It’s true that precisely what counted as a valid marriage was not at all clear before Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. By stipulating in detail what was required to make a marriage legal and binding, it effectively outlawed all other notions of what might constitute a marriage.
Were they married?
Before the act, the only stipulations were those contained in the canon law of the Church of England. However, the stages it prescribed were seen as ideals rather that firm requirements. It wasn’t essential to be married in church, or to have banns read, or even obtain a licence. It was agreed a clergyman of the established church was necessary, but there were plenty of those about, not all of whom were attached to parishes or even very diligent about their duties. So-called ‘Fleet weddings’ were carried out by ordained clergymen serving time in the Fleet prison and were usually accepted as valid, if entirely irregular.
By canon law, a binding union arose from an exchange of vows, made freely, between a man and a woman. Usually this was given in the present tense, i.e. as something happening right away. However, vows could also be expressed in the future tense, as a statement of intentions. This was thought equally binding, much like a commercial contract; doubly so if followed by sexual intercourse. Hence the legal actions for ‘breach of contract’ between engaged couples much valued by writers of romantic novels and comic operas.
Breach of Promise?
A jilted woman had a right to legal redress precisely because an engagement affected her reputation almost as much as an admission of premarital sex would have. The 18th and 19th centuries were far from being a time of stiff manners and chastity. Many, perhaps even most, engaged couples happily took their engagement as the starting gun on sexual activity together. You only need to do a little genealogical research, and reckon the periods between wedding dates and the birth of the first child, to discover how many of your own ancestors were conceived out of wedlock.
Consummation was seen as the final ‘seal’ on the couple’s shared vows. Without it, the process was incomplete and could be cancelled. The ‘married couples’ in the article who were hiding from one another were probably quite safe, so long as they refrained from sex together. Even if their pretend marriages had turned out to be legal, they could still be annulled by reason of non-consummation. The “young lady of good Fortune” mentioned in the article thus greatly improved the chances of her joke marriage being accepted as legal by agreeing to join her ‘husband’ in having sex the next day.
You can make up your own minds whether her action was caused by gullibility, pressure from the man, or her own willingness to use the cover of even a doubtfully legal marriage to do what she wanted to do anyway. The others seem not to have been so eager to consummate their weddings, though it’s interesting to note the writer implies one party in each case was a good deal more interested in the marriage being legal than the other!
I wonder what the ‘other Diversions’ at that party were?
During the eighteenth century, the lady of the house faced a constant problem in employing good servants. Whether you ran a town household or a country one, servants were becoming hard to find. They were also difficult to keep. Alternative employment was on the increase, as the mills and factories drew in more workers. At the same time, the supply of suitable persons was narrowing.
At one time, the children of tenant farmers could be relied upon. A pamphlet of 1766 noted that small farms had provided:
“… servant girls who had had the opportunity of learning at home how to brew, bake, cook, knit, sew, get up linen, etc., whereas poor peoples’ children have not such advantages”.
Agricultural improvement and enclosures merged smallholdings into larger farms for the sake of efficiency. There were fewer tenant families in any given area. Those there were grew more prosperous and ‘middle class’. Their children — especially the girls — were much less interested in ‘menial’ servant roles.
The rural poor were also less abundant. Enclosures forced families off the land and sent them to seek work in the manufacturing towns. Poor people still existed in large numbers, of course, but these new urban poor were not seen as suitable for employment in genteel households.
The Servant Hierarchy
The social changes were most obvious at the bottom of the servant hierarchy. To secure a place amongst the upper servants — the housekeeper, the butler, the steward, the governess, the cook, the gentleman’s valet and the lady’s maid — was difficult. It required proven skills, experience and good references from previous households. Upper servants were closest to their employers. They needed to be seen as competent and trustworthy. Once established, many remained with the same family for years at a time.
The supply of upper servants seeking new work was always limited. The best moved only when forced to do so, perhaps by the break-up of their existing household. When that happened, their availability would quickly be made known amongst potential employers. Their previous master or mistress might even take an active part in recommending them elsewhere. For the rest, senior positions were earned by long and meritorious service in a single household, not moves between them.
Two trends combined to increase the demand for servants. Household size was increasing. The houses of the aristocracy and gentry had ever more rooms and more complex layouts. The profits of enterprise and empire were increasing the number and wealth of the middle classes. An upper-middle class of merchants, professional men and manufacturers ran households as fine as those of the gentry. The upper classes needed even higher standards of comfort and luxury to stand out.
The middle class generally was more prosperous too. Even quite modest families amongst this rising group now needed several servants to be able to keep up appearances.
The best analogy is with today’s ownership of household appliances. It may sound unkind, but eighteenth-century under-servants were the food processors, cleaners and dishwashers of their time. What once had been thought a luxury soon became a necessity. The mistress of a middle-class household did not expect to undertake menial work herself. She did not wash her own dishes, launder and iron her own clothes, or sweep and clean the rooms in her house. She did not prepare the food. She gave the orders and supervised the results; others did the work. With greater wealth came higher expectations.
Those who took on menial household tasks were the most mobile and least of servants. Most came from poor families. Before entering service, they had no experience of anything useful. Their standards of cleanliness — in themselves and the work they did — were often deplorable. They lacked the basic education to follow written instructions. They arrived without any understanding of the requirements of household discipline — let alone how to behave with proper decorum. It took time and attention to train them. That was assuming they remained long enough. Many rebelled at the drudgery, close supervision and petty restrictions and ran away.
Imagine the huge difference between the furniture and household goods in a wealthy household and what existed in the homes of the poor. Inexperienced maids could cause havoc. Fine items required special care in handling and cleaning. The poor had no idea how vulnerable such things were to mistreatment or careless handling. A new maid would have to be shown how to clean a room without causing damage. She needed to be taught how to light a fire without producing too much smoke. She had probably never blacked a grate or polished metals. Tools like a flat-iron or a mangle would be outside her previous experience. One eighteenth-century mistress bewailed, “the inconveniences of changing housemaids so often”, which was due to the time it took to “make them understand these kinds of things”.
Servants at this basic level were also expected to turn their hands to almost any job required. Maids might join the harvesters on the farm. Male servants would be expected to give a hand with heavy work like shifting furniture or working the mangle on washing day. There were so many tasks to be done. So much labour involved in doing them. Even in the greatest of households, minor aspects of housekeeping would have to get by on minimal attention.
Turnover amongst lower servants was high. It was not uncommon for only a minority of under-servants to remain with a household for more than a year or so. Often it was less. Theft was a common cause of dismissal, as were drunkenness, dirtiness and insubordination. Pregnancy claimed many of the girls. It might be due to the attentions of male members of the family. It was more likely they had succumbed to advances from other servants, local farm labourers or visiting tradespeople.
In the 1740s, Elizabeth Purefoy wrote to a friend,
’Tis not my dairymaid that is with child but my cook maid, and it is reported our parson’s maid is also with kinchen [sic] by the same person who has gone off and shown them a pair of heels for it …”<
Later, her new maid was “apprehended for taking and conveying away strong beer out of the cellar”, and she was reduced to writing around to her friends to seek a maid without “too great assurance” and preferably “forty years old”.
The image of the ladies of the eighteenth-century given in many dramas and books is misleading. They didn’t spend all their time changing their clothes, beautifying themselves and indulging in polite conversation. Running a significant household was a full-time job.
Any leisure away from domestic demands would be seized upon with eagerness. Even then, it had to be fitted in with discussing menus with the cook and making sure the housekeeper was able to cope with the next influx of visitors. Time would be needed to see the maids weren’t destroying your fine ornaments by careless handling or stealing the silver spoons. You might have to deal with a butler drunk on the master’s brandy. Your maid might purloin items of your jewellery or lace, or the footmen using the guest beds to roger the chambermaids.
At least today’s household appliances don’t (yet) have minds and vices of their own!
One of the particular joys of reading through eighteenth-century newspapers is finding advertisements for various ‘quack’ remedies and patent medicines.
This one, from The Norfolk Chronicle for 17th March, 1781, really wins the prize! What about the introduction? “The Whole Man from his Birth is a Disease”. Won’t that cheer you up? Still, imagine being freed from depression caused by “Ebriosity” (presumably drinking too much) and “horrid Thoughts”, as well as “Decay of Nature, Barrenness, and debilitated Cases” (whatever they are, they sound very nasty!).
That is without the additional benefit of being freed from “Gleets and Seminal Weaknesses” brought on by “a secret Venery” (to you and I, chronic inflammation and discharge caused by gonorrhea and caused by indulging in secret nooky).
The Whole Man from his Birth is a Disease
Nervous Disorders, Lowness and Depression of Spirits from Ebriosity, or otherwise, Palpitations of the Heart, Giddiness in the Head, horrid Thoughts, Startings in the Sleep, Dimness of Sight, Pains in the Back and Head, trembling of the Hands, Decay of Nature, Barrenness, and debilitated Cases effectually cured by FREEMAN’S Grand Restorer of Human Nature, Commonly called Forthergil’s CHYMICAL NERVOUS DROPS.
Even those of either Sex, who through Ignorance have polluted themselves by a secret Venery, and brought on Gleets and Seminal Weaknesses, may have their Constitutions strengthened by a proper Use of this Remedy, which Hundreds, both old and young, who were emaciated, can testify.
It may be had in Bottles of Half a Guinea, Seven Shillings, and Three Shillings and Sixpence each, at the Author’s House, No.1, New Buildings, Middle Row, Holborn, London, and Mr BOOTH, Bookseller, in the Marketplace, Norwich.
Three shillings and sixpence (17½p), perhaps £20 in today’s currency, is quite a stiff price though. The ingredients, whatever they were, doubtless cost less than a tenth part of this.
Note also that it’s being sold by a bookseller. This was very common and is something I have my 1760s character Mrs Crombie suggest to Mr Ashmole Foxe in the second book of that series, “Dark Threads of Vengeance”.
It’s hard to imagine a time when there was no police or detective force, no system for public prosecution and no official means to investigate crimes and collect evidence to bring the criminals to justice. But that’s just as it was in Georgian England. How did the authorities maintain law and order? Most of the burden fell on local magistrates, backed up by higher courts for more serious crimes. The Justices of the Peace did the work of administering both criminal and civil justice, as well as carrying out or supervising what passed for local government administration.
Keeping the peace meant exactly what it said: ensuring everyone could live free from fear, disturbance and dispute, as far as was possible. Since offending was believed to be caused by innate ‘criminal tendencies’, justice and prevention could both be tackled imposing severe punishments. For petty crimes, physical punishment, applied in public, caused shame as well as pain. For more serious crimes, criminals who had been transported or hanged were not able to offend again.
Throughout most of 18th century, the onus for securing justice lay with the injured party, or their friends and family. The most that was done officially was offer rewards for bringing criminals to justice. Once someone was apprehended , the next stage was to present him or her before the magistrate and lodge a formal complaint. If the person had fled, a complaint might still be presented. Subject to the agreement of the magistrate, local constables would then be instructed to seek out and arrest the accused and bring him or her before the court to answer the charge.
The magistrate reviewed the evidence — in the form of written depositions by witnesses — and, if he upheld the complaint, either dealt with it there and then or referred it to a higher court. Justice might not have been thorough by today’s standards, but it was certainly handed down a good deal more swiftly!
Who were the Justices of the Peace?
Being a JP was an onerous and sometimes unpleasant task, especially during the turbulent years of the end of the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth centuries. For the early part of the century, most JPs were chosen from the gentry. As the demands role increased, it proved harder to find enough men willing to accept the job. As a result, appointment was widened to include clergymen, members of the professions and people from mercantile families, especially in urban areas. Sometimes people held the office of a JP as a consequence of another office. In most Norfolk boroughs, for example, the mayor would be a JP, as would several of the aldermen or councillors.
As well as providing access to civil and criminal justice, local justices were responsible for keeping the peace, with the assistance of the militia or yeomanry if necessary. They generally acted in pairs, but sometimes on their own. In either case, no jury was summoned. Since each Hundred (a unit of local government dating from mediaeval times) required two magistrates, these were bound to include some who would prove incompetent, idle, or self-interested, with predictable results.
Dispensing Local Justice
Magistrates conducted preliminary hearings on all criminal cases to decide whether the evidence supported a trial. They could hear minor cases on their own or in pairs (sometimes holding the court in the magistrate’s home in rural areas), and impose summary punishments for offences like assault, drunkenness, minor poaching and other misdemeanours.
Local magistrates’ courts could not impose the more severe penalties. More serious cases would be referred to the Quarter Sessions or the Assize, depending on the severity of the offence. Cases warranting death, and there were many at the time, had to go to a higher court. Even so, JPs could sentence offenders to imprisonment, whipping, standing in the stocks or the payment of fines. They also deal with civil cases for matters such as debt, applications for damages, breach of craft regulations, disputes about boundaries and the use of common land. Many JPs also formed part of the labyrinthine network of government agents and spies that monitored individuals or groups suspected of sedition.
The Administrative Burden
The vast bulk of the duties of a magistrate or Justice of the Peace were administrative. They were called upon to make or confirm decisions relating to the supervision of local officials and many other aspects of the government of the hundreds and civil parishes. It would take far too long to go through these in detail, so I hope the summary list below will convey the main point: that a conscientious JP could easily become overwhelmed by the tasks laid upon him.
A monument in St Peter Mancroft Church, Norwich, to Thomas Starling, mayor in 1767, makes exactly this point: “…which office he discharged with Vigilance, Activity and Integrity, at a time when the Exertions of Magistracy were particularly required.” The Rev. Robert Forby of Fincham wrote this in a letter to a friend in 1803:
“Till you have experienced the heavy drudgery of an acting Justice, Deputy Lieutenant and Commissioner of the Land Tax, one of two on whom the burden of a large district lies, you will not readily conceive of the fatigue they cause to the mind … I return at five o’clock to a solitary dinner, which I abhor, with my head full of parish rates, surveyor’s accounts, vagrants, runaway husbands, assaults, petty larcenies, militia lists and substitutes, tax duplicates and distress warrants, some or all of these jumbled together in horrid confusion.”
A Summary of a JP’s Tasks
Supervising local constables. These were Chief Constables for hundreds and Petty Constables for parishes, mostly chosen for ability to deal with drunks and rough-houses on their own rather than intelligence. There would also be Watchmen in towns and cities, more to raise the alarm on night-time fires than deal with criminals. Many were elderly men, quite unsuited to chasing or apprehending anyone.
Supervising the work and accounts of Churchwardens and Parish Councils and confirming their decisions regarding settlement, vagrancy and begging, bastardy and adultery cases. These bodies were generally responsible for checking on new arrivals to the parish and watching over the morals of local inhabitants.
Supervising the work and accounts of the Overseers of the Poor. These handled the collection and spending of the Poor Rate to relieve those in greatest need. They were also responsible for the parish workhouse for elderly, homeless paupers and abandoned, pregnant women. Trying to deal with the plight of the poor alone was heavy burden, especially since the JP might be caught between the demands of common humanity to alleviate suffering and the determination of parish ratepayers not to pay for a single person more than was absolutely necessary.
Tasks that would now fall to local authorities, such as the upkeep and repair of gaols, roads and bridges; the collection of certain taxes; the regulation of weights and measures, investigating claims of adulteration of goods; controlling food prices, fixing wages and regulating apprenticeships; licensing alehouses and theatrical performances; and swearing in recruits to the militia.
Hearing petitions was another important part of a magistrate’s role. Any individual or group could petition the local magistrates to right a wrong, deal with anti-social behaviour or take action against any suspected of causing harm to their neighbours (including claims of ‘witchcraft’ or laying ‘curses’ or ‘love charms’). The JP, if he believed action was justified, might impose an order or a penalty himself or pass the case to Quarter Sessions.
If the magistrate failed to take action, the result might be civil disobedience and ”disturbing the peace”. In April 1796, one Norfolk miller, suspected by the mob of profiteering as the price of grain rose, had to take refuge in the Guildhall while the mayor, as magistrate, read the Riot Act to the crowd. This was no mere saying. The Riot Act of 1715 prescribed particular wording to be read aloud, commanding those breaching the peace to disperse and return home within the hour. If they did not, individuals could be arrested and punished, or the militia could be called in to disperse the mob by force, lethal if necessary.
Magistrates themselves also came in for derision or even threats at times. In 1800, a James Kinghorn wrote of the Norwich magistrates facing yet another food riot:
“They were quite frightened, as they commonly are in any real danger. They can swagger in their gowns to dine and talk about trivial things and they can hang a poor thief … but when activity is required and courage is wanted they are as bad as a parcel of old women.”
In 1766, the Norfolk Chronicle published the text of a letter sent to a Mr Poole, one of the city’s JPs:
“Mr Pool, this is to latt you know and the rest of you Justes of the Pase that if bakers and butchers and market do not sell their commovits at a reasnabell rate, your fine house will be set on fire all on one night … [curse] all you grand Rogues.”
Administration “on the Cheap”
There’s no doubt local magistrates were seen as part of ‘the establishment’ and were relied upon by the government to act as such, especially in situations of a political nature. Faced with fears of subversion, revolutionary ideas and Irish uprisings, especially in the period after the American and French Revolutions, the government constantly urged local magistrates to greater efforts and zeal in suppressing groups suspected of planning revolution. Without a national network of police, local JPs formed the principal bulwark against the spread of insurrection. Even so, they would have been woefully ill-equipped to deal with serious outbreaks of rebellion or terrorism, despite their power to call in the armed forces.
A final point to bear in mind is that all this the work was unpaid. It’s sobering to think that much of our modern-day local government welfare provisions and systems depended at the start on a sense of civic duty of amongst local gentry. Perhaps it might serve to put the constant pressure for savings in local government expenditure into some kind of perspective.
I will be using the words ‘magistrate’ and ‘Justice of the Peace (JP)’ interchangeably. Justice of the Peace was the formal title of the local magistrate, so they’re the same thing. ↩
In Georgian England, chimney sweeps took boys from orphanages and homeless children from the streets as indentured servants and apprentices. What they looked for were small boys, usually between five and ten years of age, to clamber up narrow chimney flues and clean out the deposits of soot. Newer kinds of house design, taller buildings and regulations against house fires had resulted in flues twisting and turning as they avoided living spaces and becoming ever narrower as they rose higher.
Pushing brushes up from below proved impossible with the technology available, so children were expected to climb up inside the chimney, brushing and scraping the flue with hand-held brushes and metal scrapers. The underfed, stunted ones were preferred as better able to fit narrow, twisting flues. Feeding a child well and encouraging sturdy growth would soon make him useless.
Faced with such confined spaces, many of the boys were reluctant to wriggle too far in case they got stuck. If that happened, the master sweep or his assistant would ‘encourage’ them upwards with pokes and prods. If they were too high to reach in this way, a small fire was lit in the fireplace beneath them to force them onwards. That’s where the saying “to light a fire under someone” is said to have originated. The boy’s job wasn’t complete until he had put his head out of the top of the chimney and come back down carrying a bag of soot. This was sold to farmers for use as a fertiliser.
The master chimney sweep was supposed to teach such boys his trade and be responsible for their feeding, clothing, and housing. Some may have done, but the general treatment of ‘climbing boys’ as they were known was terrible. It was dangerous and filthy work and many suffered injuries and deformities as a result. Eye inflammation and respiratory illnesses were common, as was ‘chimney sweep’s cancer’ caused by irritation of the skin by coal tar soot.
Here’s a contemporary account of conditions from “A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweepers in London & Westminster” (London, 1785).
“We may figure to ourselves, the boy called from the bag of soot on which he slept, oftentimes walking a mile or two to his work. We seldom behold his nocturnal toils, and combats with the literal powers of darkness; but in the day we frequently see him, blasted with chilling cold, wet to the skin, without shoes, or with only the fragments of them; without stockings; his coat and breeches in tatters, and his shirt in smutty rags; sometimes with sores bleeding, or with limbs twisted or contracted, whilst his misery is rendered more pungent by his task-master, who has no feeling of his sorrows!–You who have the hearts of men, and who have opportunities of seeing human misery, will contemplate the condition of these poor beings, and judge if this picture bears a genuine likeness.”
Attempts to Ban the Practice
Still the practice went on. In the 1760s, Jonas Hanway, a wealthy London merchant and philanthropist, campaigned to improve working conditions for sweeps’ boys and an Act of Parliament in 1788 specified a minimum age of eight for these so-called apprentices. The Chimney Sweeps Act of 1834 outlawed the apprenticing of any child under the age of ten to a chimney sweep. In addition, no child was to be employed in cleaning chimneys under the age of fourteen. This was raised to sixteen in 1840. It all sounds positive, but none of these regulations were ever enforced.
Justices and Overseers of the Poor, desperate to find work for growing numbers of abandoned or orphaned children, were a prime source of fresh victims. This is part of a deed of apprenticeship for a boy of 9 from the borders of Herefordshire and Worcestershire in 1800. It’s good to see the boy was to be washed once a week and not forced to go up any chimney actually on fire!
“Between John Woodyatt of Netherley and William Jauncey (Chwdns) and William Jauncey and Henry Dangerfield (Overseers of the Poor) and Joseph Lloyd, Chimney Sweep, of Dymock.
… do put and bind Joseph M, a poor boy of this parish, being of the age of 9 years or thereabouts, to be apprenticed to the said Joseph Lloyd to learn the Trade, Art, Business and Mystery of a Chimney Sweeper … and with him to serve during the term of seven years … his secrets keep, and his lawful commands everywhere gladly do and perform. He shall not haunt ale houses nor gaming houses, nor absent himself from the service of his master day or night …
Whereas it is necessary for the boys employed in climbing to have a dress particularly suited to that purpose, the said Joseph Lloyd is covenanted to find such suitable dress, and over and above one whole and complete suit of clothing, with suitable linen, stockings, hat and shoes… and further that the said Joseph Lloyd shall once in every week cause the said apprentice to be thoroughly washed and cleansed from soot and dirt … nor shall Joseph Lloyd require or force the said apprentice to climb or go up any chimney which shall be actually on fire …. but shall in all things treat him with as much Humanity and Care as the nature of the employment of a Chimney Sweep will admit of …”
Note the weasel words at the end, “… treat him with as much Humanity and Care as the nature of the employment of a Chimney Sweep will admit of …” These men knew using boys in this way was bound to cause misery, pain and hardship.
It was not until Charles Kingsley published his sentimental tale involving a boy chimney sweep, “The Water Babies”, in 1863 that the public’s conscience was stirred. Even then, an Act passed the following year did not eradicate the problem. Not until 1875 were master chimney sweeps forced to obtain a licence to operate and the police tasked with ensuring all relevant legislation was enforced.
Young Englishmen on the Grand Tour Courtesy of The National Trust
During the 17th and 18th centuries, rich young Englishmen finished their education by going on The Grand Tour — an extended cultural and collecting trip through continental Europe. You can think of it as a ‘finishing school’ for the sons of the gentry.
In its heyday, completing a Grand Tour was essential to enter the upper ranks of British society. Rome and the historic cities of Italy were the principal draws. To be able to display ‘good taste’, an educated Georgian gentleman needed more than book learning. He had to show a thorough understanding of the classical principles of order and harmony.
To point him in the right direction — and try to keep him in order — he would be accompanied by a tutor. This was an older man, well-educated and knowledgeable in what was to be seen.
Politeness and Polish
‘Politeness’ was the hallmark of upper-class Georgian society, so acquiring it was important. The word meant far more than good manners. It included possessing the requisite knowledge and ‘polish’ to take a full part in polite conversation. By visiting the famous monuments and art works of antiquity, young men would be able to converse on suitable subjects. They would also gain a proper sense of what was best in matters of art, architecture and design. This was a world in which sound personal relationships brought patronage and promotion. If you could not maintain the right links and friendships, your future would be blighted. The great and mighty would bestow their favour elsewhere and your prospects of a suitable marriage would be sharply reduced.
Signs of Superiority
It’s worth remembering that, at root, ‘distinction’ means being set apart in some way — obviously not part of the common herd. At one time, aristocracy and gentry could set themselves apart by displays of martial prowess, like jousting. They also relied on the traditional belief of the church that God made them what they were. Like the Victorians, they thought “God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate” as the hymn has it. There was also a large enough financial gulf between them and the merchant classes for it to seem unbridgeable.
Fast forward to the eighteenth century. Few chances — or need — for the upper classes to show martial prowess. On the battlefield, a yokel with a musket would always be more deadly than a gentleman with a sword. The ‘middling sort’ were gaining wealth and with it confidence and influence.
Leisure: a New Source of Distinction
Inherited wealth wasn’t reliable any more. Agricultural markets fluctuated, taking rents up and down with them. Many a manufacturer or merchant had more money than the poorer members of the upper classes. What else did the upper classes have that others did not?
They had leisure.
The gentry owned land; they did not work for a living. They had time to do other things instead — like gain an expensive education in the Classics. Latin and Ancient Greek had no usefulness for business. They were used to display intellectual and cultural superiority. The same was true of other ‘academic’ subjects, from pure mathematics and philosophy to antiquarianism.
Young gentlemen acquired polish by foreign travel. They polished their fluency in French and maybe some other European languages. They learned to converse on the Classical principles of structure and balance in art and architecture. All were ‘useless’ for business or earning a living. All showed you belonged amongst the elite of society. From the Georgian urge to display distinction sprang the snobbish Victorian gentleman’s sneering contempt of ‘trade’.
Politeness was never a perfect tool. Most of the richest aristocrats actually made the bulk of their money — at arm’s length, naturally — from things like coal mining, canals or even slate. Appearance was what counted. You must look and sound as if you never needed to spare a thought for anything save developing and expressing your refinement. In an ordered and formal society, rules exist to keep the unwanted out, not to bind insiders beyond what was necessary.
The practice of ‘doing the Grand Tour’ flourished for around a century. Then the Napoleonic War intervened. The war made such travel impractical and undesirable. Too much continental, especially French, influence could be seen as unpatriotic. Worse, it began to be thought unmanly and effete. As the influence of evangelical forms of Christianity grew, the Catholic continent was seen as a place of loose morals. The canard that Catholics can do whatever they like, then wipe away the sin via confession, has long gripped the Protestant mind!
Of course, not every young man came home with greater refinement. For some, it was an opportunity to sow their wild oats well away from parental oversight. For others, the most lasting benefits were the friendships they made with fellow Grand Tourists along the way. For a few, it proved a chance to indulge, then perfect vices they didn’t know they had before they went. And, like tourists ever since, for most it provided an opportunity to gather all kinds of souvenirs.
The second William Windham of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk is a good example. He was away for four years and sowed his wild oats to the extent of costing his father £2000 to get him out of an engagement contracted in Geneva. He climbed in the Alps and indulged in rowdy amateur dramatics with other young men making the same trip. The friendships he formed then lasted the rest of his life. He increased his dedication to fashionable neo-classical taste to the extent of a major remodelling of Felbrigg Hall after his father’s death. He added books in French, Italian and German to his library, along with volumes of architectural drawings and plans. He also filled the walls of several rooms, plus the staircase hall, with the paintings he acquired along the way. Not the greatest art, but the best he could afford. It’s still there today.
The Mania for Collecting Art
Most of the ‘Grand Tourists’ brought back wagon-loads of artworks to embellish their houses. People at home wondered if anything would remain in the countries they passed through, since they bought so much. Collecting became a mania. Grand houses were built to hold the collections and serve as physical signs of their owners’ knowledge of the canons of refined taste.
Georgian gentlemen might gamble and drink their wealth away. They might keep multiple mistresses and molest the servants. What mattered was to do such things in private, behind a rampart of exquisite manners, high fashion and fine houses. It’s that keeping up of appearances which has left us today with a priceless legacy of art, architecture and landscape design to enjoy.
I thought it would be useful to review and explain the basics of the three most common and widespread alternatives to orthodox Christianity in the 18th century—at least amongst the educated classes. All three attempted to find entirely rational explanations for the world as it was seen to be. All denied the need for supernatural explanations or entities. All are still very much with us, though sometimes under other names.
In my previous post on this topic, I set out the background to the Georgian and Regency struggle with the tenets of orthodox Christian teaching, many of which were already being challenged by the discoveries of science. Now we’re down to the details of the solutions various groups of thinkers found.
In the absence of ‘Big Bang’ theory, quantum mechanics and particle physics, 18th-century people struggled with the question of how the universe came into existence. The Bible provided one answer, albeit both a supernatural and an irrational one. It claimed a personal God had created everything and continued to use his supernatural powers to intervene in minute ways to regulate his creation.
To many, this picture was unbelievable and even blasphemous. How could you make sense of an omnipotent, perfect god who created a universe he needed to tinker with constantly? Wouldn’t a human clockmaker whose clocks needed constant regulation and repair be accused of producing shoddy goods? In the orthodox view of things, wasn’t God marked out in the same way as a poor workman?
Even setting aside such thorny matters as the reason for evil in the world, the orthodox, biblical picture did not fit with the newly discovered laws of nature. If a personal God laid down these laws, why would he act supernaturally, which must overturn them? Why didn’t they automatically produce what the scriptures claim God wants? How could a perfect Creator produce such an obviously imperfect universe? To be told “God moves in a mysterious way” seemed to be no more than avoiding the question.
The deists squared this circle by assuming a universe needed a Creator, whether a personal or an impersonal one, but rejecting the rest. The nature of this creator was unknown, and probably could never be known. Once He, She, or It had created the universe and established its laws, the Creator withdrew, leaving the mechanism to run by itself. Since many of the Founding Fathers of United States were deists, this is the viewpoint enshrined, by implication, in the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution.
The Creator of the deists required neither worship nor any other contact with human beings. Nor was He, She, or It going to intervene on anyone’s behalf via supernatural means. The laws of nature were just that: unalterable, unchangeable laws by which everything worked, laid down since creation itself.
Pantheism took the supremacy of the laws of nature one step further. It argued that if the Laws of Nature govern everything, there is no need to assume any kind of Creator. Nature is its own creator and has set its own laws. What Nature does is what there is—and nothing else. To explore Nature and its ‘laws’ is to ‘know’ God.
If the laws of physics, chemistry and quantum mechanics govern all, and the Big Bang happened because it must under those laws, that is pantheism, pure and simple. In fact, experimental and theoretical science is almost inevitably pantheistic, since it assumes an ordered universe which can—in time—be understood via the unalterable mechanisms built into it.
Pantheism in the 18th century revered Nature and all its works. Unlike deism, it wasn’t a cold, detached view of a fixed and totally materialistic world. No one knew whether all the ‘laws’ of Nature had been discovered. Some might even concern emotions and thoughts, as well as material things. By assuming and seeking out elements to existence beyond the world of the senses, you could find space for an outlook close to the spirituality of orthodox religions. What such elements cannot be is supernatural: i.e. outside of Nature itself and its laws.
In the 18th century atheism—as in parts of the US today—was a term of abuse, centred on the hoary—and demonstrably false—claim that belief in God is essential to prevent moral anarchy. Given the vast range of evils committed by believers in every religion, it would be hard to find anything extra which unbelief might cause someone to do!
However, setting this aside there is a better way to understand what genuine atheism represented to the Georgians. Atheism is, at root, less a denial of the existence of God than a denial of any need or place for gods, goddesses or the supernatural within the universe. In that sense, it was rather rare until Darwin, in the mid–19th century, revealed a mechanism whereby random mutations, subjected to selection by means of adaptation to the environment, could account for both a multiplicity of living and extinct species and an exquisitely ordered relationship between each organism and its place in the natural world. This destroyed the old argument that the obvious design neatness of living creatures demanded creation by an intellect. The inanimate world had never needed an explanation for its structures, so now there was a complete method of describing the universe and its origins without the need for any divine being.
Cold Reason confronts the Comforts of Faith
If the question of the existence and relevance of gods remained unresolved, that was more to do with mankind’s need for a comforting belief in a universe allied to human values than anything else. Even in the 18th century, to set aside any ‘personal’ link between an individual and the universe demanded strength of mind. With no god to ask to intervene on your behalf, the world looks to some to be a cold and threatening place.
Faith had another huge advantage: it could be used to bolster and justify the political status-quo. Non-belief was natural for the educated and those interested in the new sciences. However, the rising forces of evangelical Christianity were useful allies for the ruling elite. Evangelicals wanted to renew belief in the orthodoxies of faith. Not entirely co-incidentally, that process would also ratify the claims of the elite to superiority and power as the ‘natural’ rulers decreed by God. The later, Victorian hymn neatly summed up this viewpoint:
“The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.”
If the heart of much 18th and 19th-century evangelical Christian social and political thinking was empathetic, the head was quickly taken over by the forces of the status quo. “We, the rich elite, are at the top because God says so. To question this is to question the wise decrees of God.”
It was an ideal creed for any burgeoning imperial power. It trumpeted socially conservative values, virtually outlawed any rational argument and reinforced hierarchies as God’s way of arranging society. In doing so, it also stayed implacably opposed to Darwin and all alternative scientific or rational explanations of the way the world works. The answer to everything lay in the Bible—or at least those parts each sect chose to recall. In some parts of the world, religion remains like that to this day.
Standing Still …
One reason I find the Georgian period so fascinating is the way it highlights problems we are still facing. Even a most cursory look at the news will reveal that wars of religion are just as prevalent now as they were then. Many of today’s terrorists still claim to be acting in the name of their God, just as Victorian imperialists did. Nor have we resolved the ongoing clash between the discoveries of science and the teachings of religions derived from cultures last flourishing 1500 or more years ago.
Ah well …
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