Georgian Chimney Sweeps


(CC) Wikimedia Commons

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.

Nightmare Conditions

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.

Posted in Commerce, Georgian Society | 2 Comments

The Purposes of the Grand Tour

A Grand Tour Group of Five Gentlemen in Rome by attributed to John Brown (Edinburgh 1752 - Leith 1787)

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.

Eventual Decline

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.

Maybe politeness had its uses after all.

Posted in Fashion, Leisure, Travel | 5 Comments

Georgian Deism and Other ‘-isms’


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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Posted in Georgian Society, Leisure | 6 Comments

Georgian “Madness” and Melancholy


Dr. Philippe Pinel at the Salpêtrière, 1795
by Tony Robert-Fleury

In the eighteenth century, “madness” was used as a catch-all description for just about any type of mental illness, from depression to full-blown psychosis and mania. The causes were much debated, not just by medical men either. Some saw madness as a physical problem (an imbalance of the humours), others as a psychological problem (a response to grief or stress), a moral problem (a breakdown in behaviour caused by licentious excess, drink or drugs), or even a spiritual one (brought on by excessive religious zeal or occasioned by demonic possession).

Depressive or Genius?

Depression, or melancholia, was especially common amongst the better educated. Indeed, foreigners sometimes referred to it as ’The English Disease’. Yet, following Aristotle, it could also be viewed as conferring a mark of special genius or imaginative power.

The name comes from the idea that it was caused by an excess of black bile in the body. In the Aristotelian view, such an excess produced a tendency towards suspicion and fear of others, coupled with a general darkness of outlook and misanthropic view of the world. Yet melancholics were also credited with strong intellectual powers, acute perception, a powerful critical faculty and great expressiveness in communication. Indeed, you could hardly be accepted as a great artist or poet unless you were also somewhat melancholic in your personality.

Could Madness be Cured?

Everyone weighed into the debate, from professional medical men through ‘empirics’ (non-qualified practitioners) to clergymen like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. They disagreed over treatments and causes and whether madness should be seen as an incurable descent into irrationality, or an understandable, and curable, response to some overwhelming stimulus or life event. Did madness somehow reduce you to an animal-like state or was it a disease like any other?

Certainly few, if any, of the treatments available for most of the century were likely to do much good, save via a placebo effect. It is also clear that those judged mad amongst the lower classes were much more likely to be incarcerated than their social superiors. At the same time, private asylums could be notably profitable businesses. What went on in them varied from the luxurious to the horrific. Still, the fact that enough people were prepared to pay highly to make certain ‘mad-doctors’ rich shows how common mental illnesses were amongst the better-off. It is also true that it took little effort to have a troublesome or unwanted family member confined for life under the guise of being mad — so long as you could pay the fees demanded. The romantic novel’s stereotype of the mad wife in the attic was not always very far from the truth.

Much has been written on the evils and cruelty of certain eighteenth and nineteenth-century practices in madhouses and asylums, but the reality was, I believe, far more complex, with every kind of response from vicious disdain to empathy and genuine kindness. It’s a vast topic, and one I intend to return to more than once. However, to start on a lighter note, here’s a list of supposed causes of madness amongst those confined in London’s Bedlam Hospital in 1810[1]. The numbers indicate the number judged to have been driven mad by each item:

Causes of Madness

It is clear that, in the eighteenth century, mental illness was most usually seen as essentially similar to physical illness, at least to the extent that both could be traced to an actual event or a tangible bodily dysfunction. The table below shows that clearly. There are no mentions of invisible psychological factors, such as neuroses. Their time had yet to come. The only inner, intangible causes listed are emotions such as pride, jealousy, fear or love.

What this seems to reflect is a view that madness is as madness does. Diagnosis was based on observable behaviour. A person was judged mad if he or she acted in ways commonly held to indicate insanity. Madness was not, in itself, unnatural, let alone culpable. Thus the mad person was only in need of custodial treatment if his or her behaviour became socially outrageous or was otherwise unacceptable. The ‘village idiot’ might be taunted and mocked, but no one thought he or she should be locked away. Rich eccentrics often flourished and were typically viewed with a good degree of indulgence.

Cause Number of Cases
Misfortunes, troubles, disappointments, grief 206
Religion and Methodism 90
Love 74
Jealousy 9
Pride 8
Study 15
Fright 51
Drink and intoxication 58
Fevers 110
Childbed 79
Obstruction 10
Family and heredity 115
Contusions and fractures of the skull 12
Venereal 14
Smallpox 7
Ulcers and scabs dried up 5

I love the idea that someone thought more people had been driven mad by Religion and Methodism than by drink, venereal disease and head injuries put together! Childbed presumably refers to what we would term post-natal depression, still sadly common today. It’s interesting too that Heredity was seen as producing only half the number of cases of insanity as Misfortunes and griefs. Doesn’t that argue for a refreshing doubt about the commonplace notion that mental illness is usually congenital?

Fright makes some kind of sense, I suppose, at least if it refers to overwhelming and irrational phobias. But what about Love being apparently some seven times more likely to drive you insane than Jealousy? How would fevers make your sanity collapse? And what on earth was meant by Obstruction? People driven mad by constant constipation?

Much food for thought here — so long as the Study doesn’t drive you over the edge!

  1. Quoted in Madmen: A Social History of Madhouses, Mad-Doctors and Lunatics, Roy Porter, Tempus, Stroud, 2006.  ↩
Posted in Medicine & Science | 7 Comments

Georgian Travel: Bad Weather and Bad Roads


Here is a final group of examples of travel problems from the diaries of Mary Hardy. Most relate to coping with bad weather, especially in winter, but bad roads were just as great a difficulty in many parts of the country. Some so-called roads in the period were more like wandering tracks, not marked by neat verges or metalled surfaces. People, horses and vehicles might choose various paths around obstacles or patches of mud and deep ruts.

The result would be a network of trackways, all going approximately in the same direction. When cattle drovers and their herds passed along them, these ‘roads’ would be widened still more. Until enclosure became near-universal, hedges by roadsides were even less frequent than they are today in places like Norfolk, where the agriculture is mostly arable.

Clay_SoilsThe roads in Norfolk, especially north Norfolk, were judged to be much better than many in the 18th century. This was mostly due to the geology: extremely sandy soils above a bedrock of chalk and flint. The ground drains very quickly. In those parts of the country plagued by heavy clay soils, like the midlands and areas close to London, roads in winter might become virtually impassable through mud. Problems continued in the summer too, with reports of sun-baked ruts several feet deep! After journeys from 1724 to 1726, Daniel Defoe wrote:

… the soil of all the midland part of England, even from sea to sea, is of a deep stiff clay, or marly kind, and it carries a breadth of near 50 miles at least, in some places much more nor is it possible to go from London to any part of Britain, north, without crossing this clayey dirty part … the roads had been plow’d so deep, and materials have been in some places so difficult to be had for repair of the roads, that all the surveyors’ rates have been able to do nothing—nay, the whole country has not been able to repair them.

Diary Entries

In Mary Hardy’s diary for February 1784, she reports a Letheringsett man returning from Wells-next-the-sea fell into a lime pit in a snowstorm and lost his life, as much from exposure as the fall itself. Something else to remember is that roads may have been reasonably busy during the day, but far fewer people travelled by night, especially in bad weather. Such lights as were available—basically candles in boxes, with perhaps a reflector—would have given only a feeble glimmer. If you became stuck, or fell and were injured, you were unlikely to get help quickly. Add cold and wet and the potential for dying from exposure rose alarmingly.

Also in December 1784, on Christmas Eve, Mary’s husband went in their chaise to see his brother and sister, who lived about 10 miles away. He left around 6:00 am. The chaise “broke down” on the way home and he had to return to where his family lived and borrow a cart. He got home again “after 8 [pm]”.

On February 2, 1784, one of the Hardy’s delivery wagons went out into a snowy morning landscape, heading for two inns half a dozen miles distant. It got lost in the snow drifts and finally made it back around ten in the evening.

Feb 10 1784 “Sharp frost, storms of snow. Cornwell went to Cromer lost himself upon Holt Heath, the snow being so very deep.” [Mary wrote that the snow drifts were 14 to 15 feet – 4 to 5 metres – deep in places]

Feb 18, 1807 “A very terible [sic] morning With Wind and.. snow. Mr Hardy and I and sister Raven sett out for Sprowston [near Norwich] morng [sic] 7 in Love’s post chaise, had a terrible journey, the snow being very much drifted and wind very high and stormy. Baited [fed horses] at Aylsham and got to Sprowston ½ past 2. The man could not return that night but slept there.

It wasn’t just snow and ice that caused bad accidents. In June, 1796, after days of rain, a cart belonging to a Mrs Booty, a rival brewer based a few miles away at Binham, tried to cross the ford of the river (the bridge may have been too narrow or the cart too heavy). The flow was too strong and the cart was overturned, then pulled under the bridge. One of the horses drowned and the man on the cart was thrown into the river. Mary notes he was “providentily [sic] sav’d”.

Norfolk has abundant marshes and fens in some areas, of course, and the neighbouring counties of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire even more. Draining was primitive or non-existent, so heavy rain might block some roads and river-crossings for lengthy periods. Increased flows could also damage or destroy bridges and block fords. Our modern experience of major floods can be bad enough; imagine the chaos caused by flooding when few roads had any real surface or drainage, and fields and water-meadows were expected to fill with water through most of the winter months.


With the roads so bad and slow in many places, it wasn’t unusual for people to take passage on a coastal ship for long journeys north or south along the east coast. In good weather, it could be a useful means of travel. In bad storms, it could be lethal, particularly considering the effects of high tides and storm surges.

The North Sea (or German Ocean as it was called before World War I) is shallow, turbulent and prone to violent storm surges when conditions are right. This was probably why fewer people in the 18th century were drawn to living close to the coast. It was simply too wild and dangerous. There are reports of 18th century storms in which hundreds of small ships perished, along with all their crews, so that miles of shoreline were strewn afterwards with flotsam of all kinds. Defoe remarked that almost every fence or hedge in Norfolk’s coastal areas was made-up mostly from the timbers of wrecked ships.

The Norfolk Chronicle of 7 November 1789 reported:

For the sake of humanity, we wish it were in our power to contradict, or at least to soften, the dreadful consequences of the storm from the north-east, which happened this day se’nnight [a week ago].

The article then goes on to list 28 ships lost in that single storm, with more severely damaged or washed up on shore. When this happened, sailors and any passengers ran a high risk of being drowned.

In 1770, thirty vessels were lost on Lowestoft Sands and all aboard them drowned. On October 31, 1789, 40 vessels were driven ashore between Yarmouth and Southwold and 120 bodies washed up with them. On the night of 18 February, 1807, no fewer than 144 bodies were washed up at Yarmouth alone.

Despite all the hazards, the threats from robbers and the uncertainties of wind, weather and mishap, people did travel in Georgian times, many both widely and often. I suspect they were a great deal more stoical about the problems they faced than we are today. They knew well that life is uncertain and dangers frequent.

I wonder what they would make of the tantrums of modern commuters when delays are caused by leaves on the line?


Bird, Margaret, ed. The Diary of Mary Hardy 1773–1809 (4 vols.). United Kingdom: Burnham Press, 2013.

Cozens-Hardy, Basil. The History of Letheringsett in the County of Norfolk. Norwich: Jarrold & Sons Ltd, 1960.

Bentham, Hervey. Once Upon a Tide. London, Harrap, 1971.

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Posted in Travel | 8 Comments

The Georgian Letter-writing Boom


Frontispiece to the novelist Samuel Richardson’s (1689–1761) book of letter-writing templates (1741).

People had written letters to family and friends long before the eighteenth century. The famous Paston letters are only one example. However, both the Georgian and Regency periods saw a vast increase in the amount of correspondence of all kinds. Letter-writing became commonplace from aristocrats down to skilled artisans and  local traders. Some wrote to stay in touch with family or friends; some to ask for favours or handouts; some to send in their accounts or press for payment. The Georgians travelled widely, not just because of improved roads and carriages, but because they could make the necessary arrangements by letter in advance. Businessmen, gentry and aristocrats could run their estates and businesses from a distance. Business could continue while partaking of the waters in Bath or the delights of the capital.

Historians gain great benefit from this upwelling of the urge to write. Many levels of society had rarely set pen to paper before. In time, the letter became so natural that novels, like Richardson’s Clarissa, were written in the form of correspondence.

What caused this change in society’s means of communication— a change comparable to that caused by the Internet and social media in our own day? These are my own answers.

A Universal Means of Communication

The Post Office was not a Georgian invention, as the postage stamp was a Victorian one. There had been royal postal carriers since the time of Queen Elizabeth I. The rich used messengers or paid coachmen or carriers to take their letters. What changed was the opening up of a regular postal service to anyone with the means to pay the charges involved — initially levied per sheet of paper sent, save via the Penny Post in London.

The earliest organised postal system existed purely for the use of the royal household. In time, those close to the king began to make use of it, but this was always a matter of ‘grace and favour’. Indeed, King Charles I tried to remove the privilege entirely in 1637, alarmed by the potential for conspiracies.

During the Civil War, king and parliament tussled for control of the infant Post Office. In fact, we really owe the existence of a postal service available to all to Oliver Cromwell. He had experienced how essential good communications were to command or government. In 1653, he established a permanent Post Office under a Postmaster General. Two years later, he gave it a monopoly on the transmission of letters. In 1657, he instituted a single General Post Office covering the whole of the British Isles.

Don’t give Cromwell too much credit for foresightedness. His decision owed as much to considerations of cash and security as anything else. The post office generated significant profits for the exchequer. Keeping the mail in government hands also made the interception and investigation of suspect correspondence easier. Indeed, for many years, genuine conspirators were reluctant to use the official mail for precisely that reason.

The Growth of Trade

The new Post Office both facilitated trade and benefited from it. You cannot trade successfully at a distance — especially overseas — without a means for customers, suppliers and financiers to communicate easily.

Britain’s trading activities, and hence its growing empire, took place over huge distances. The European continent may have been our ‘backyard’, but it was never the limit of our commercial ambitions. Nor was it the principal arena for our trade. As the Industrial Revolution made its slow and hesitant way over Britain in the 1700s, the concentration of manufacturing, financial and long-distance transportation it brought could not have existed without the means to communicate reliably. The old Royal Mail of mediaeval days had concentrated on links between London and major cities and centres. Now the network was expanded and broadened, by adding cross-country links of every kind, as well as regular links to overseas ‘hubs’ via the packet ships.

For a time, the means of carrying goods lagged behind. Only when the network of turnpike roads, canals and finally the railways appeared, would delivery become as swift and reliable as placing orders or sending out the mass of correspondence any business generates.

A Growing Involvement in Politics

Just as with today’s ‘Internet revolution’, a major impact of improved person-to-person communication was political. Letters and pamphlets let political ideas and information travel at speeds undreamt of before. Governments could — and did — tamper with letters. They spied internally and internationally. Control of the mail made both easier. It also helped  the flow of intelligence between ministers, Britain’s military centre at the Admiralty and field commanders.

Of course, the government was well aware of the risks. Regular, reliable mail facilitated conspiracies and made it hard to suppress unwanted revelations. Wikileaks stands at the head of a long line of letter-writers and pamphleteers, all eager to expose official mistakes, ‘dirty tricks’ and illegal actions to public scrutiny. Then, as now, official bodies did their best to limit or remove such unwanted publicity; then, as now, they usually failed.

The Social Impact

To my mind, the ease of sending and receiving personal letters had its greatest impact of all in the social sphere. The rise of literacy and education was as much a product of improved communications as any abstract belief in the value of learning. Subsistence agriculture and local trading demands no ability to read or write. Operating in a regional or national market economy cannot be done without it.

As the eighteenth century progressed, the urge to become literate spread downwards from the gentry to the middling sort and below. Only the person working solely with his or her hands could ply a trade and remain functionally illiterate. As literacy became the mark of rising above the ‘dregs of society’, many a labourer spent much of his or her scant spare time learning to read and write. As they progressed, they read read aloud to those who were still illiterate. Those without the confidence or ability to compose a suitable letter bought books of letters ready to copy out[1].

Letters soliciting favours or money from patrons were especially useful in a society dominated more by whom you knew than what you could offer on your own account. Army and naval commissions depended heavily on ‘pull’ (influence), as did many other lucrative appointments and sinecures. Even the clergy in the established church wrote to powerful landowners to ask for better livings or seek support in rising through the church hierarchy. The Rev. Lucius Hibbins pestered the Duke of Newcastle on at least thirty occasions asking for clerical preferment, money or a pension. Sylas Neville, the Norfolk doctor, existed for a large part of his life on handouts obtained by letter-writing. Just about every person of wealth, power or influence had to endure a welter of begging letters, much as we endure cold calling and Internet spam and advertising today.

Maybe the greatest impact of all came upon women of the middling sort. Many were no longer tied all day to domestic chores or needlework. They now had the leisure to read and write letters, and demanded the literacy to do so.  By the end of the eighteenth century, untold numbers of women were writing to friends and family, sending and receiving love letters — and even composing classic works of English literature. Once that genie was out of the bottle, as the saying goes, there was no way it could ever be put back in.

Letter-writing seems so obvious to us that it’s far too easy to take it for granted. We pride ourselves on the impact of technological advance of electronic communications in our own day. Let us not miss the fact that, to a great extent, it has all happened before.

  1. The Newest and most Compleat Polite Familiar Letter-writer, by John Tavernier (1760), contained advice on everything from the paper to the used to the form of address ‘to persons of distinction’. The New and Complete British Letter-writer; or young Secretary’s Instructor in Polite Modern Letter-writing, by David Fordyce (editions from c.1751 onwards to 1790), included ‘The Petitioner’s Instructor’. This had templates for everything from pleading for mercy when under sentence of death to being admitted to local almshouses in old age.  ↩

williamsavageWilliam Savage writes historical fiction set in eighteenth-century Norfolk in the years between 1760 and 1800. This was a period of turmoil — constant wars, the revolutions in America and France and finally the titanic, 22-year struggle with Napoleon. The series featuring Dr Adam Bascom, a young gentleman-physician caught up in the beginning of the Napoleonic wars, takes place in a variety of locations near to the North Norfolk coast. The Ashmole Foxe series is located in Norwich. Mr Foxe is something of a dandy, a bookseller and, unknown to most around him, quickly involved in dealing with anything likely to upset the peace or economic security of his beloved city. You can check out both series here.

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The Georgian Apothecary


An Apothecary’s Shop
(CC) Welcome Images

Medicine in georgian times was categorised largely by the social class of the practitioner and the scale of fees they charged. Some doctors did tend to focus on one or two main approaches to treatment — sea bathing, for example. Some took appointments that carried with them a limitation on the range of patients, like those who supervised the poor wretches confined in Bedlams or asylums. However, for the most part, all tackled illnesses of the same kind, approaching it via their own area of expertise, and there was little love lost between them.

Apothecaries were not the elite of the profession. Far from it. At the top of the heap were the physicians. Some trained by costly apprenticeships with noted doctors. Most were university men, who completed some kind of medical degree in Scotland or overseas, since English universities did not offer them for most of the century. This made them acceptable socially, like lawyers and clergymen — ‘honorary gentlemen’. All were noted for charging steep fees and dealing mostly with the wealthy, though a few might take on a wider range of patients, especially in rural areas, since buying in to a practice was expensive and setting up your own a long-term risk.

A physician might also become a man-midwife. Childbirth was a hazardous business and local midwives were not always trusted by the upper classes. This too was more a matter of upper-class snobbery than skill. Many midwives came from the lower classes and spent much of their time with the poor. The rich did not want them dealing with the birth of their children.

Surgeons or barber-surgeons carried out operations and amputations, sometimes with a physician present for the most hazardous ones. Some would be ex-military men, for dealing with battle wounds was their province. Their training was based on a practical apprenticeship, though this was often haphazard. Because they worked with their hands, they were considered artisans.

Apothecaries: Retailers or Professional Men?

Apothecaries were classed as tradesmen. For many years, the law saw them as retailers, not medical professionals. Not until a ruling by the House of Lords in 1704, were apothecaries accepted as part of the medical profession and legally allowed to prescribe and dispense medicines. Even then, they were forbidden from charging fees for their services. They had to obtain their whole income from the sale of medicines, bandages and the like, plus general shop items. Like some chemists today, the apothecary’s shop would not just be a dispensary,. They also sold patent medicines, perfumes, spices, herbs and even confectionery.

Adam Smith wrote:

Apothecaries’ profit is become a by-word … the whole drugs which the best employed apothecary in a large market town will sell in a year, may not perhaps cost him above 30 or 40 pounds. Though he should sell this therefore for a three or four hundred percent profit, this may frequently be no more than the reasonable wages of his labour, charged, in the only way in which he can charge them, upon the price of his drugs.

Dr Erasmus Darwin however, more cynically, advised a young man to remember “… at first a parcel of blue and red glasses at the windows might gain part of the retail business on market days … I remember Mr Green of Litchfield once told me his retail business, by means of his show shop, and many coloured windows, produced him £100 a year.”

Apothecaries in London had started out as part of the Grocers’ Company. Only in 1617 was the Society of Apothecaries created by royal charter. It was slow to spread its influence outside the capital, but gradually the standards set by the Society for admission were accepted more widely. These required apothecaries to undertake a lengthy apprenticeship with a final examination, though there were still no legal rules for claiming the title of apothecary before 1815.

Apothecaries as General Practitioners

Over time, apothecaries took on more and more work in dealing directly with patients, not just compounding and dispensing medicines. Some were little more than quacks or men with a sharp eye for high profits. Still, they were the doctors most likely to visit the middling sort and even the poor, riding around a large area with their medicines and tools in knapsacks.

As the poet Crabbe wrote:

Helpers of men they’re called and we confess
Theirs the deep study, theirs the lucky guess,
We own that numbers join with care and skill
A temperate judgement, a devoted will.
Men who suppress their feeling, but who feel
The painful symptoms they delight to heal.
…To the Physician of the soul and these
Turn the distressed for safety, hope and ease.

This is perhaps a rosy view of the group. Others were much less complementary. Lady Eleanor Butler called the apothecary in her locality “a dirty little village quack”.

A manuscript in the library of the University of Melbourne, created in Hampshire, England, between about 1727 and 1740 shows that some apothecaries were certainly men of science, worthy of being set alongside any other kind of doctor.

This unknown owner of an anatomy atlas used the reverse of many of the plates to record a cross between a pharmacopoeia and a prescription book. Unlike most contemporaries, who started from the remedy, he used medical conditions as a basis for his notes, giving a page or more to each of 34 different groups of diseases. After some general comments about drug treatment, he gives a list of remedies, some linked to named patients, with the level of detail typical of a prescription book. The end result was a kind of aide memoire or handbook, linking standard information from the printed book to his own observations and experience.

This is surely not the work of some “dirty little village quack”.

Druggists and Chemists

As apothecaries transitioned into being full-blown doctors, so the necessary work of dispensing attracted its own specialists. Pharmacists (also called chemists or druggists at the time) began to develop a separate area of work, based on the preparation and supply of medicines. Since this put them in competition with the apothecaries, who were also still involved in the same area, tensions rose. The apothecaries attempted to restrict the chemists’ and druggists’ activities in 1748 with a proposed new law to control the supply of medicines to their own advantage, but it failed to make it onto the statute book.

Later in the 1800s, proposals were made to unite apothecaries, surgeon-apothecaries, midwives and dispensing chemists under one examining body. The chemists opposed this and won the argument, so the Apothecaries Act of 1815 did not give apothecaries sole control over making-up medicines. Perhaps as a result, the apothecaries eventually merged with the physicians, leaving the dispensing chemists and pharmacists as a separate profession.

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