Living Conditions for the Georgian Rural Poor


Robert Burn’s Cottage

Most of us assume that the rural poor in the 18th-century lived in cottages. But what is a cottage? Is it simply a small dwelling house, maybe with a single room? Is it a small house that stands by itself, rather than being attached to others in a row? How have the poor come to live in such buildings? It’s most unlikely that they owned them, so what form of legal agreement allowed them to live there?

From what I’ve been able to discover, most cottagers in the seventeenth century and early eighteenth held their cottages under the manorial form of leasing called copyhold. Essentially, this meant little more than an agreed tradition of occupation. You might call it ‘customary tenure’ — holding the cottage from the Lord of the Manor by right of inheritance. This manorial form of tenure was based on a “copy” of the proceedings of the manorial court which certified ownership. When ownership was to be confirmed, or transferred from father to son, a jury would hear evidence from those who had lived in the manor lands longest. The court’s agreement would be based on verbal proof that the cottage had been lived in by the same people for as long as anyone could remember.

The Decline of Manorial Courts and Holdings

During the eighteenth century, this essentially mediaeval form of leasing was falling out of use — a process accelerated by the enclosure of the common fields, which steadily undermined the importance and legitimacy of manorial courts. As the poor ceased to be subsistence farmers and were forced to earn their living as agricultural labourers, so the owners of the land and the buildings upon it sought to determine tenancies and rents by commercial principles. Lords of the Manor and copyholders were replaced by landlords and their tenants.

This led to a harsher and more antagonistic relationship between the building’s owner and the tenant. Landholdings were increasingly clustered together to form larger farms, forcing the landless poor into the villages. The larger farms demanded wealthier tenant farmers with the capital needed to support the new, more intensive agricultural methods. The professional land agents who increasingly ran the estates of the gentry for them saw their success measured by the level of rental income they could achieve.

The poor labourer’s cottage was of little use to farmer or land agent. Of course, landlords should have had an interest in maintaining the houses they owned in reasonable order, if only to support their capital value. Providing reasonable living accommodation for the most skilled and valued farmworkers was also an obvious need. Unfortunately, cottagers rarely included such skilled employees. They provided minimal rental income, they prevented farms being organised into larger units, which allowed rents to increase and the capital value of the land to rise, and they could not farm according to the new, ‘scientific’ methods being introduced on large landholdings. Most were unskilled, scraping a living as casual manual labour at peak times and living off parish relief for the rest.

‘Cottagers’ or ‘Paupers’?

It’s probably fair to say that the better-off Georgians had little interest in the domestic lives of the poor. Our chocolate-box image of a country cottage is an extremely modern affair. Cottagers and paupers were often linked together in the minds of writers of the time. Nathaniel Kent, writing in 1775, spoke of “The shattered hovels which half the poor of this kingdom are obliged to put up with, [are] truly affecting to a heart fraught with humanity. Those who condescend to visit these miserable tenements, can testify, that neither health nor decency can be preserved within them”.

Sentiment was one thing; action quite another. Distinguishing between ‘cottages’ and ‘hovels’ mirrored the contemporary distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. The industrious poor struggled to maintain a sufficient income to live in a cottage built of brick or stone, though sometimes still of wooden beams with wattle and daub; a fairly sturdy, weatherproof building in any case. True paupers, those who lacked the industry to better themselves in any way (at least that is what the better-off assumed), lived in ramshackle huts or hovels: poorly-built, leaking, cold and miserable shelters lacking in almost all comfort and often built on waste ground.

In Norfolk, true cottages might be reasonably furnished, at least by the standards of the poor of the time. Some inventories remain, showing tables, chairs, cupboards, beds with blankets and curtains, proper sheets and tableware, as well as the tools necessary to the owner’s trade. These goods might be basic and of low quality, but they did provide some basis for a sensible form of living. For example, by the middle of the century most cottagers in Norfolk could afford to drink tea – even if they had to get it from the smugglers! Paupers had nothing.

The Decline of Rural Employment

It seems clear that the quality of dwellings for the poor was closely linked to local employment patterns. Landless casual labourers were the most likely to be true paupers, living like squatters wherever space might be found free from interference. Those with greater skills — and probably a greater ability to do something to maintain the fabric of their cottages on their own — would live in better homes and possess more household goods. The principal key was regular employment. The so-called agricultural revolution of the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth increased the productivity of the land, but at the cost of providing less chance of regular employment to unskilled labourers.

It’s not surprising that many of these rural paupers made their way into the new industrial towns seeking work in the factories. The dreadful industrial slums in which they were forced to live were probably no worse — though certainly no better – than the hovels in the rural areas they had come from. Meanwhile, skilled farmworkers, especially those living and working on grand estates in Norfolk, gradually experienced an improvement in their living conditions, stemming in part from a paternalistic concern amongst great landowners to be seen as good landlords. However, it generally took some shortage of local skilled labour to provoke these landowners into displaying their concern.

Posted in Agriculture, C18th Norfolk | Leave a comment

The Georgian Ship’s Cat


Replica of Capt. Cook’s HM Bark “Endeavour”
complete with ship’s cat

Cats have been taken aboard ship since at least Viking times and possibly well before that. It was not unusual for ships to be infested with rats and mice, causing obvious problems to on-board supplies of food. The ship’s cat was a hard-working and essential member of the crew, highly valued for the benefits it brought. However, on long voyages and with little to do other than work, it was not surprising that sailors began to value the ship’s cat for other reasons than its ability to keep down the rodent population.

Mousers and Companions

Going anywhere by sailing ship in the eighteenth century was a hazardous business; even more so on a long voyage much of which would be out of sight of land. Everyone in the group, from the captain downwards, must have been constantly aware that disaster could strike at any moment. Tides, winds and waves were not the only dangers, though they might frequently conspire to force a sailing ship onto dangerous shoals or rocks. There must have been many times when the crew felt helpless in the powerful grip of storms and adverse winds.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that sailors were, in general, a superstitious bunch. Anything that might help them to predict or avert bad weather and give them a measure of control over unfavourable situations was important. It’s easy for us today to sneer at their ignorance, but I imagine that very few of us have ever experienced a severe storm at sea on a wooden hulled ship.

Cats also had a reputation for being magical creatures — the companions of witches and wizards and even associates of Satan himself. In other circumstances, black cats tended to be seen as harbingers of evil, but amongst British and Irish sailors, having a black cat cross your path denoted good luck. Having a black cat on board your ship would be even better. Sailor’s wives often kept black cats at home, pampering them in the hope that they would use their magical powers to protect their husbands and bring them home safely from a long voyage. Conversely, to harm a cat aboard a ship — or, still worse, to throw one overboard – would inevitably cause disaster to the vessel and bring many years of bad luck to the person who carried out such a dastardly crime.

We all know about pirates and their pet parrots, thanks to Long John Silver’s parrot, “Captain Flint”, in Treasure Island. They also kept cats, giving them the run of the ship and often treating them as pets. The luckiest kind of cat to own was one with extra toes on its feet, since this was believed to make them better mousers and help them deal with the difficulty of moving about on a pitching deck.

Cats as Weather Forecasters

Sailors used to watch out for odd feline behaviour and thought it was caused by approaching storms of wind or rain. When the ship’s cat ran about wildly, it was because she “had a gale of wind in her tail.” Another superstition stated, “Against times of snow or hail, or boist’rous windy storms; she [the cat] frisks about and wags her tail, And many tricks performs”. And a saying of 1710 had it that, “While rain descends, the pensive cat gives o’er her frolicks and pursues her tail no more.” Licking its fur the wrong way was also taken as a sign of approaching rain.

Some of these superstitions, clearly persist for a very long time. When I was a child in the 1950s, we always had cats, and if one of them sat and washed behind its ears, by licking its front paw and wiping the damp paw over its head, I was told this was an infallible sign of rain. And if the cat ran madly from room to room, as cats sometimes do, this was described as “having the wind in its tail”.


Trim: Matthew Flinders cat
Statue in Sydney, NSW

“Trim”: An Exploring Cat

It wasn’t just the common sailors who showed concern about their cats either. Matthew Flinders, the circumnavigator of Australia, had a favourite cat called Trim. Trim had been born in 1799 on board a ship bound from the Cape of Good Hope to Botany Bay. At one point, the kitten fell overboard but managed to make its way back to the ship and climb up a rope to safety. Flinders and the crew were greatly impressed by this and Trim became a favourite.

The cat went with Flinders on his voyages of circumnavigation in 1801 – 1803 and survived a shipwreck in the latter year. Flinders was even bringing Trim back to England, until he was seized by the French in Mauritius and accused of spying. Trim shared his prison cell until one day he suddenly disappeared. Flinders harboured the darkest suspicions about his cat’s fate, and wrote a touching biographical tribute to the cat, whom he had seen as a faithful and affectionate friend.

A Lucky Spanish Cat

One officer in the Royal Navy even remembered a poor ship’s cat in the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The huge 140-gun Spanish warship Santissima Trinidad, severely damaged during the battle, was seen to be sinking during the terrible storm that followed. At once, the British warship sent out longboats to take off those of the crew on board who were still alive. As the last of these longboats was pulling away from the ship, the lieutenant in charge noticed a cat which ran out onto the muzzle of one of the lower deck guns and clung there, meowing pitifully. At once the longboat was ordered back to rescue the cat. The lieutenant’s report on his return stated that, “Everything alive was taken out, down to the ship’s cat.”

Posted in Tid-bits | 7 Comments

A Georgian (Non)Christmas?

I think it’s fairly well known that many of our present-day Christmas customs were invented in the 19th century, mostly in England by Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria and her family. These have been ‘supplemented’ by some European ones (like Christmas outdoor markets) and many more American ones.

It’s also common knowledge that mediaeval and Elizabethan Christmases were fairly riotous affairs; and that the Puritans banned Christmas under Cromwell for that reason.

I don’t want to repeat what’s already been written by others about the Georgian Christmas celebrations, which seemed to focus on special meals, generally taken with family and friends, and decorations based on evergreens; plus small gifts for family and servants. What interested me was to discover what actually appeared in my favourite primary sources: local newspapers. Did they mention balls, routs, assemblies, theatre performances, pantomimes or anything else festive specifically linked to Christmas? I did a careful search of East Anglian newspapers, decade by decade, and looked at what I found.

For 1700 to 1750

Nothing. Nix. Nada. Not a word.

The only mentions of Christmas — and they were very few — used it as a convenient date for things like taking possession of a house or demanding payment on debts. Nothing festive at all.

For 1750 to 1799

Mentions of Christmas-specific activities were still few and most came from the very last years of the century, strengthening the idea that Christmas celebrations started to grow in popularity in Regency times, then picked up under Queen Victoria. We know George III’s Queen, Caroline Charlotte, first imported the idea of a decorated fir tree from her native Germany (NOT Prince Albert, as usually stated), but Christmas then was still not much more than an excuse for a good meal and some private, family giving of small gifts. The only other custom involved giving monetary ‘tips’ to servants and those shopkeepers with whom you did the most regular trade — though some tradesmen did the reverse and rewarded loyal customers with small gifts and giveaways.

Fun Reading for Children at Christmas?

For the Instruction and Entertainment of Young
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In the CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS will be published
the following :

1. THE HOLIDAY SPY, Price 1d.
2. The Entertaining Traveller, Price, 2d.
3. Virtue and Vice, Price, 3d.
4. Juvenile Biography, Price, 3d.
5. The Adventures of Master Headstrong, and Miss Patient, Price 3d.

(The Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday, 23 December, 1780)

Christmas Gift Delivery

Note there is no suggestion any people will travel, which might be something to think about today. It also strikes me as odd that presents go to London, but only lamb is mentioned as returning. Was there no lamb in Norfolk?

SWAFFHAM, December 7, 1779,
For CONVENIENCY of delivering GAME, PRESENTS, &c. in LONDON against CHRISTMAS and NEW-YEAR DAYS next.

A MACHINE will set out from Mr. WILLIAM TIFFIN’s, grocer in Swaffham, on Wednesday the 22nd and 29th instant, at Six o’clock in the evening, to be at the Four Swans, Bishopsgate-street, very early on Christmas and New-year eves.

(Ipswich Journal, Saturday, 18 December, 1779)

Lynn and London Post-Coaches,
(By way WISBEACH, St Ives, &c.)

SET out from the STAR INN, LYNN, on Friday the 24th and 31st days of December 1790, at Ten o’clock in the forenoon, for the conveyance of presents, &c, to be at the GEORGE and BLUE BOAR INN, HOLBORN, early on Christmas and New Year’s Days respectively.
And from the said and GEORGE and BLUE BOAR, on the Same mornings at the above hour, for the conveyance of lamb, &c. to be at the Star Inn, Lynn, early on the above mornings.
To those country gentlemen whose friends reside in the upper part of the town, the proprietors wish to remark, that as no other coach from this neighbourhood, goes so high up as Holborn, the saving in porterage will be considerable, which when aided by a speedy and careful delivery, they hope will merit their attention.

(The Norfolk Chronicle, 23 December, 1790)

Christmas Charity

We hear that Joseph Windham, Esq. Sheriff for the county of Norfolk, has ordered a dinner on Christmas day, of plumb [sic] pudding and roast beef, with a quart of strong beer, for each prisoner confined in the county gaol at Norwich.

(Ipswich Journal, Saturday, December 23, 1797)

A Last Minute Present?

This Day is published, price One Shilling,
Or 1s. 6d. with Clasps or Straps,

(Neatly bound in red leather, with pockets for notes ; embellished with Two Ladies in the most elegant Full Dresses of the Year; likewise a beautiful Engraving from Darwin’s admired Poem of Eliza — taking her last Farewell of her Babes : both plates designed by Mr. Stothard, and exquisitely engraved by Skelton)

The SECOND EDITION of RACKHAM’s SUFFOLK LADIES MEMORANDUM BOOK; or, Polite Pocket Museum for the Year 1794. The contents of this publication are fully inserted in this paper, NOV. 23, 1795.
Bury : Printed and sold by J. Rackham ; sold also by all the booksellers in the counties of Suffolk, Norfolk, and Essex.

(Ipswich Journal, Saturday, 21 December, 1793)

I wish all my readers a happy holiday and a healthy and prosperous New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Tall Stories Georgian-style


Bust of Baron Munchausen
From “Masterpieces from the Works of Gustave Doré.” New York: Cassell & Company, Limited, 1887.

It’s long been noted that groups of men tend to indulge in boastful talk amongst themselves, each person trying to outdo the others or cap their stories. Maybe this is simply natural competitiveness amongst males, maybe it is more, but the tendency is common. That’s what a ‘tall story’ was in the eighteenth century: using an alternative meaning of the word ’tall’, now rather forgotten, which mean ‘grand’ or ‘lofty’ — a story told perhaps in ‘high-flown’ language and meant to impress.

Others there be, whose parts stand not so much towards tall words and lofty notions, but consist of scattering up and down, and besprinkling all their sermons with plenty of Greek and Latin. (John Eachard, The Grounds & Occasions of the Contempt of the Clergy, 1670)

In contrast, talk in mixed company was not so boastful or grand. Women were not so likely to be impressed by boastfulness, perhaps, and many would lack the education to join in ‘competitions’ based on capping one another’s Latin or Greek quotations. Here, ‘small talk’ was preferable.

A sort of chit-chat, or small-talk, which is the general run of conversation in most mixed companies. (Earl of Chesterfield, Letters, 1761)

‘Serious’ Tall Tales

In many ways, the essence of a tall story is that it should contain exaggeration, not downright lies. Indeed, it ought to be impossible to tell where plain truth ends and exaggeration and elaboration takes over. As a result, eighteenth century accounts of many activities contain statements that would make almost any modern reader raise his or her eyebrows in disbelief.

Was it so at the time? Perhaps not. Some very serious scholars, such as Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), recorded stories which must verge on meeting the criteria for a ‘tall tale’. Take his handwritten record of this tale of an escape by prisoners from Botany Bay in Australia. He records that, on the night of March 28th, 1791, James Martin and eight other prisoners, after being transported from England, escaped from Botany Bay in the governor’s six-oared boat, subsequently travelling along the east and north coasts of Australia, arriving after a journey of 3000 miles in the Dutch colony of Kupang, in West Timor. Eventually being unmasked for what they were, the men were sent back to England to finish their prison sentences, a journey which four of them failed to survive.

Not surprisingly, this famous escape attracted many myths and fictions around the escapees and their feat of survival. Bentham, a noted critic of convict transportation, must have welcomed the contrast between the prisoners’ epic tale of survival and their fate on the return to England.


Of course, the commonest meaning of a ’tall tale’ includes a strong element of humour along with exaggeration and downright creativity. Eighteenth-century newspapers often included such stories, made even funnier by being told, as it were, with a straight face.

An extraordinary instance of sagacity in Rats.

A gentleman in Holland, famous for curious fowls, having observed that a particular hen, which used to produce an egg daily, had omitted for some days, and being desirous of learning the cause, particularly as the hen made the cackling usual after laying, placed himself so that he could plainly observe whatever might pass at the nest, and was greatly surprized [sic] at the appearance of two Rats, immediately after the hen’s quitting it, which conveyed away the egg; this they effected by one of the rats lying on its back, while the other rolled the egg on to its belly, then closing its feet round it, held it securely, while the other dragged it away by the tail, with its mouth. The above is asserted as a truth by person, on whose veracity we can depend. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 9 April 1791)

The most famous purveyor of such tales was undoubtedly a real-life German army captain, Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Baron von Münchhausen (1720-97). During his retirement, he entertained his friends with preposterous stories about his time in the Russian army fighting the Turks. His most famous tale was of being caught between a crocodile and lion, both intent on devouring him. As the lion sprang, the baron fell down, so that the lion flew over his prone body and straight into the crocodile’s outstretched jaws, choking the crocodile in the process. Thus the baron was rid of both threats at once!

The original book of his adventures, published in the late 18th-century, may even have contained some of von Münchhausen’s own stories. However, over time, newer editions added more adventures, mostly invented or stolen from other literary works.

Amazing Feats

Finally, how far can we credit tales of stupendous feats by eighteenth-century people — feats which we believe were not achieved until our own times? For example, was Sir Roger Bannister truly the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes, or did several eighteenth-century men achieve this record long before him?

For example, on 9th May, 1770, James Parrott, a London costermonger, took on a wager of fifteen guineas that he could not run a mile in under four and a half minutes. Elaborate preparations were made to ensure accurate timing. Using the ordinary streets from Goswell Street to Old Street in the City of London, he won his wager.

1770 May 9th, James Parrott, a coster-monger, ran the length of Old St, viz. from the Charterhouse- wall in Goswell Street, to Shoreditch Church gates, (which is a measured mile) in four minutes. (The Sporting Magazine, 1794)

He wasn’t the only one. The Oxford Journal of 22nd December 1787, reported that a man named Powell, a plater from Birmingham, was wagered one thousand guineas that he could not run a mile within four minutes. According to the paper, Powell ran a trial in four minutes, three seconds, saying: “He ran entirely naked, and it is universally believed, that he will win the wager.’”

Whether he won his wager or not, we never hear, The Sporting Magazine for 1796 stated that a man called Weller, one of three brothers, “undertook for a wager of three guineas to run one mile on the Banbury road, in four minutes, which he performed two seconds within the time.” That is, Weller ran a mile in three minutes, fifty eight seconds.

There you have it. If today’s tabloids survive on amazing — and often unbelievable — reports and ‘fake news’ it was much the same 250 years ago. “Believe it or not” was as common a start to a report then as it is today.

Posted in Uncategorized

Dangerous Driving in Georgian Norfolk

Norwich Market Place
Thomas Rowlandson

Today’s traffic may seem horrific, especially at busy times, but at least the cars, however badly driven, have *brakes*. Pending ‘driverless cars’, they also lack minds of their own, unlike horses. In Georgian times, the press of horses, carts, carriages and wagons could be just as frenetic, few having any brakes. The drivers too could be wild and thoughtless, to say nothing of being drunk at almost any hour of the day. To add to it all, poorly-trained horses, inexpert drivers and riders and the tendency of horses to take fright and bolt for no apparent reason, must have rendered town life in the eighteenth century at least as dangerous as it is today.

Here are some excerpts from the local paper to illustrate the point.

Wild Wagoners

It seems that Norfolk in Georgian times was as much inclined to ‘do different’ as it is today, even when this caused danger to those involved. Here’s the Norfolk Chronicle complaining about the dangerous way farm hands in the county drove the heavy wagons of the time.

It happens frequently to persons who travel this county, that their terror is excited, not so much at seeing waggoners [sic] riding on so dangerous a place as the shafts, as their jumping off immediately on any person of genteel appearance meeting them; and subjecting themselves of course from haste to those accidents, which we have frequent occasion to relate and to lament. We believe not all the counties in this kingdom produce so many accidents in this way as Norfolk and Suffolk; the reason we apprehend is, from the different modes of driving. The Norfolk and Suffolk drivers using a short whip and constantly driving by the thiller [see below], are induced to mount the shafts; while drivers in other counties drive with long whips, and from the heads of their teams, and when ease or fancy induce them to ride, it is as natural for them to mount either the leader, or the next to him, as the drivers before-mentioned do the shafts. Where the danger is ten-fold, humanity induces us to wish that farmers would enforce this method, which from the superior excellence of drivers accustomed to it, is well known be the best. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 19 November 1791)

The thiller or thill-horse is the horse that goes between and supports the thills or shafts of a cart, i.e. the rearmost horse in a wagon-team. These wagoners are walking beside the rearmost horse, it seems, taking a rest by hopping up onto the shafts, since they cannot sit on the horse that is between them. The recommended method is to walk beside the lead-horse, then either ride it or the next in line before the shafts.

If you slipped off the shafts, or fell when getting up or down, it was almost certain that the wheels of the wagon would go over you, few recovering from such injuries, given the primitive medicine of the time.

Bolting horses

One night last week as the coachman of Bartlett Gurney, Esq. of this city, was driving his carriage (empty) in trying to pass another which stood at the gate of Alderman Weston’s brewery, near Black Friar’s Bridge; the street being very narrow, one of the wheels caught upon a bench, and the driver was suddenly thrown from his box between the two carriages, the wheel of the chariot passing over the flap of his hat. The horses set off full speed through Bridge-street, Gilden-gate, round Botolph into Pitt-street, Southgate and Muspole streets, rounded St. George’s church into St. Clement’s, over Fye-bridge, and were stopped on Tombland. We are happy to add, the coachman is not materially hurt, and the horses and carriage were still more fortunate. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 8 January 1791)

I wonder what “not materially hurt” means?

One day last week an accident happened to Mr. Waters, farmer at Dagenham, in Essex: Having business a few miles from home, mounted a young spirited horse, but had not rode above a mile and a half when the beast took fright, threw him, and at the same time struck him so violent a blow on the head, that he died on the spot. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 27 June 1778)

In my latest book charting the career of Dr. Adam Bascom, “A Tincture of Secrets and Lies”, he too suffers a fall from his horse which brings him close to death. It was all too common. Because people rode a good deal, it did not mean all of them rode well.

Other Mishaps

On Tuesday last, while the carriage of S. Day, Esq. was standing at Miss Flamwell’s door, with a child in it, a hackney coach driving furiously past, overturned the same, by which accident the child was greatly hurt.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 9 April 1791)

There were other hazards too. Not potholes, like today, but piles of muck!

On Wednesday evening Mr Suffield’s carriage was nearly overturned in going to Catton, owing to a quantity of muck being left in the middle of Coslany-street. Such dangerous nuisances are too frequent in this city, and cry loudly for redress.— It is certainly no small reproach to the police [watchmen] of this extensive city, that the necessary and salutary office of scavenger, should not be filled by a responsible character; and we sincerely hope, that the inhabitants of the market, the shambles, and fish-market will unite in preventing those pestilential nuisances, which have lately abounded in those quarters. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 9 April 1791)

Perhaps today’s roads and traffic aren’t quite so bad after all!

Posted in C18th Norfolk | 1 Comment

“Cunning Folk”: Witchcraft, Healing and Superstition


“Wise Woman”
(CC) Midnightblueowl

It’s easy to forget that “Cunning Folk” had been a normal part of society from the Middle Ages and continued right through until the start of the 20th century. They included men and women, some practising as healers, some as what we would today call fortune-tellers and others as white witches or wizards.

In the 18th century, orthodox medical practitioners, whether they were physicians, apothecaries or surgeons, were frequently beyond the financial reach of ordinary people. In such cases, the sick turned to the local wise-woman or wise-man, from whom they could expect to receive anything from herbal remedies to amulets and charms against their illness. Love-charms were also a profitable line of business for many of these Cunning Folk, as were charms against witchcraft and the evil eye. Robert Southey wrote this in 1807:

A Cunning-Man, or a Cunning-Woman, as they are termed, is to be found near every town, and though the laws are occasionally put in force against them, still it is a gainful trade. (Robert Southey, Letters from England, London, 1807, p. 295.)

Who Were They?

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the majority of Cunning Men seem to have been artisans or tradesmen, as far as we can tell from the sparse evidence. Their other jobs were extremely diverse: stocking-makers, stone-dressers, butchers, blacksmiths, weavers, wheelwrights and shoemakers. Others were more educated: herbalists, schoolmasters, tenant farmers, a parish clerk, a dentist and an apothecary. Cunning Women either had no other form of employment or it was simply not reported. Of the few cases where it was, herbalists and midwives were the most common.

Was The Business Legal?

Not surprisingly, Cunning Folk were viewed with great suspicion by the authorities, both religious and secular. Prosecution was possible under the Witchcraft Act of 1736 (9 Geo. II., c.5), which covered all who pretended “to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or conjuration, or undertake to tell fortunes”. Yet, at least in the eighteenth century, the law was rarely used against Cunning Folk and and few steps were take to suppress their activities. During the early nineteenth century, however, attitudes began to change and the law was eventually strengthened, perhaps because of the growing influence of the Evangelical movement in the church. While the witch-hunts of the 17th century were generally past, the newspaper extracts below show that Cunning Folk, especially those who cast horoscopes or claimed to be able to foretell the future, were never entirely free from risk.

In an age, and in a country where every idea of superstition is reprobated, we are much surprised to find even a shadow of the ignorance & credulity of the last century remain. A poor man and an old woman in the parish of Reedham, whose knowledge of the world being superior to the narrow conceptions of their neighbours, had acquired to them the character of being of possest [sic] of “the second sight,” were absolutely under the necessity of complying with the usual test of witchcraft, swimming: Tuesday the 7th instant was the day appointed, when a number of people assembled at Reedham Ferry; but the man only went through the operation, the woman being excused on account of proper vouchers appearing to prove — she could not swim. In Lancashire this mode of punishing Satan always proves fatal; for if the victims sink they are drowned, if they float [they are] taken out and burned.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 18 July 1778)

We could not suppose in an age when miracles and witchcraft are equally exploded; at a time when we are boasting of our enlightened understandings and superior judgment compared with our fathers and grandfathers — one could scarcely suppose, I say, that the Roman augurs and soothsayers were outdone by the fortune-tellers of this city; yet it is true that the proficients in astrology, and the pupils of the learned Sibly, abound within our walls. The happy effects of their practice may be anticipated by the conduct of Mary Adams alias Burgess, committed last week for setting fire to the barn, &c. of Mr. Burgess, of Bawburgh, whose nativity [horoscope] cast by one of these conjurors was found in the pocket of the unhappy wretch, promising that she should overcome her enemies if she had patience. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 8 January 1791)

Practising Folk-Magic

Folk-Magic is almost as vague a term as Cunning Folk, but it included both the laying and removal of curses, finding items that had been lost and love-charms and forecasts of marriage. As a time when sickness and misfortune could arise seemingly without warning or cause, Cunning Folk were also in constant demand to ward off the effects of the evil-eye. Equally, they might provide charms aimed at bringing about some desired outcome — or simply to provide general good luck.

Here’s an example from the Norwich Assizes of 1797, where a couple tried to bring a case for slander, based on the reported words of a Cunning Woman.

A Mrs Whiffen, of Hetherset, having lost seven cheeses, caused an enquiry to be made of a cunning woman to discover the thief. This cunning woman, by the aid of magic, or some other mode of detecting culprits, unknown even in Bow-Street, found out that the offending person had a mark on her nose. Now it happened, unfortunately, for Mrs Bailey that, under this description, her nose betrayed symptoms of her guilt; the defendant [Mrs Wiffen’s husband brought the case], at least, (who is a shoe-maker, at Hetherset) entertained no doubt on this point, and roundly taxed her with the robbery. He told her that “he knew very well by the subscription that was given of her that she was the woman who had stolen the cheese,” and said, that “the guilt was lodged on her, and she could not get it off.” (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 12 August 1797)

The judge, finding that the two families were already at daggers drawn before this event, dismissed the case.

It would be a mistake to assume that all folk-wisdom was of this magical kind. Many housewives collected and preserved traditional herbal remedies against common illnesses and ways to deal with nuisances such as insect infestations or having the day’s milking curdle. Remember, people at that time had no knowledge of bacteria. If a vessel appeared clean, but the milk curdled when put into it, it was not entirely irrational to assume some evil outside agency was at work. If a local woman proved particularly careful at recording such useful remedies, then made them available to her neighbours, she might well gain a reputation as a wise woman and earn suitable rewards, whether in cash or kind.

Quack Healers and Sorcerers

One of the principal characters in my latest mystery book, “A Tincture of Secrets and Lies”, is a Quack Healer. They were very common at the time, going from town to town and fair to fair, selling their own patent remedies and nostrums. Many used conjuring tricks to help draw a crowd, dressing themselves in sorcerer’s robes and displaying gruesome objects as charms. It was all part of the entertainment for, like all snake-oil salesman, they knew that showmanship was an essential ingredient in their business.

Not all Cunning Folk were honest either. Here’s a salutary tale, rather reminiscent of many of today’s financial scams perpetrated on the elderly.

A huckster-woman (far beyond the meridian of life) of this city, long the solitary tenant of a cellar, about a fortnight ago, consulted a cunning woman, alias a fortune teller, respecting the good things that the Fates may have in store for her, during the remnant of her pilgrimage through life: — When, among others, the cunning woman told her, if she had any money, and would suffer her only to count it, by lodging it ten days in a certain place, which she should point out, it would increase to double the sum! — This stale trick the credulous creature eagerly swallowed, and soon produced a bag containing ninety pounds, the hard-earned fruits of long and patient toil. — The better to confirm the charm, the deluded woman was persuaded to turn her back upon her duplex friend until she counted it — and still to make “assurance doubly sure,” she actually was prevailed upon to take an oath not to peep into the bag to the expiration of the tenth day. — This done, the bag was carefully lodged, by the hands of the supernatural agent, in a dark retreat, to produce the promised crop; but, alas! it is hardly necessary to add, that, when the tenth day came, and the poor creature eagerly opened the hidden treasure, she found the idol of her soul, her precious gold and silver, transformed into beggarly button-tops and Birmingham halfpence. The shock, it is feared, will prove fatal to her. (Chester Chronicle, Friday 28 March 1794)

Herbalists and Healers

18th-century medicine was largely unregulated and it was not uncommon for people to set themselves up as “doctors” without any specific medical qualifications. Orthodox practitioners struggled to stamp out this practice, but it continued well into the 19th century.

Amongst these unqualified medical practitioners were many Cunning Folk, offering everything from herbal remedies and folk-medicine cures to midwifery. Nor was it only the poor who consulted such people. Some gained local reputations for their skills and would be consulted by people from any level of society. Indeed, since physicians — the most expensive of the orthodox practitioners — often offered little other than bleeding, cupping and purging, and apothecaries mostly sold “cures” based on laudanum and violent purges, it was likely that the cures provided by such unqualified practitioners would be at least as effective, if not more so.

Indeed, the people of the time clearly discriminated between different classes of Quacks or “Bubblers”, as this extract shows:

We have Bubblers in Physick also. For when I see a Pretended Physician pass on haughty Looks, talk much, little to the Purpose, ride the Country round, like a Scotch Peddler, never out of his Way, nor in; to impose upon his Patients by the Artifice of Lying, and Impudence to support his Ignorance; him I may justly call a Bubbler in Physick, because he deceives the World by Arguments of Words only, but in reality wants Skill in his Profession. Of these there are two Sorts, one called Quacks, both Graduate, and Non graduate, who understand something of Physick, as to the Practice thereof, but know nothing of the regular Method when and where proper to give it. These venture at All, let the Patient Dye or Live, so they get the Money. The others sort are call’d Mountebanks, who Practice Physick only upon the Foundation of Lying, Ignorance, and Impudence. (Ipswich Journal, Saturday 17 December 1720)

The value and activities of Cunning Folk is much too large a subject for a single blog post, but I hope that I have given at least an overview of their activities in the 18th-century. In many ways, they foreshadow today’s New Age and Alternative Medicine, both in the remedies they offered and in the dislike, even scorn, their modern counterparts engender in the scientific community and amongst orthodox practitioners. Even so, the tenacity with which they remain a significant part of society shows that they meet a demand today, just as they did 200 years ago and more.

Posted in Georgian Society, Medicine & Science | 9 Comments

The Murderous Georgian Rector of Wiveton

Martha Reay

Mezzotint by Valentine Green, after Nathaniel Dance
© National Portrait Gallery, London (Used by permission)

At around 11:15 pm on April 7, 1779, the audience began to leave the Covent Garden Theatre after a performance of a popular comic opera called “Love in a Village”. It was a warm night for early spring, and the crowds outside made it hard for the theatre-goers to reach their waiting carriages. A Mr. John McNamara, walking nearby, saw two ladies struggling to get through the throng of people and went to help them, becoming the closest witness to the sensational murder.

The two women were Martha Ray (or Reay), long-time mistress of the Earl of Sandwich and mother of five of his surviving children, and her friend, the singer Caterina Galli. Caterina entered the carriage first, while Martha waited to follow her. Just then, a young man, dressed entirely in black, darted forward. What happened next was related at the trial by a nearby fruit seller, Mary Anderson:

“Just as the play broke up I saw two ladies and a gentleman coming out of the playhouse; a gentleman in black followed them … When the carriage came up, the gentleman handed the other lady into the carriage; the lady that was shot stood behind. Before the gentleman could come back to hand her into the carriage the gentleman in black came up, laid hold of her by the gown, and pulled out of his pocket two pistols; he shot the right hand pistol at her, and the other at himself. She fell with her hand so (describing it as being on her forehead) and died before she could be got to the first lamp; I believe she died immediately, for her head hung directly. At first I was frightened at the report of the pistol, and ran away. He fired another pistol, and dropped immediately. They fell feet to feet. He beat himself violently over the head with his pistols, and desired somebody would kill him.”

Martha Ray was dead, aged just 35. Her murderer, Rev. James Hackman, was nine years her junior and the newly-appointed rector of Wiveton, near Blakeney in North Norfolk. Not surprisingly, the event caused a public sensation.

Hackman’s Trial

Hackman was arrested by a constable, alerted by the sound of shots, and put in prison to be sent to trial at the Old Bailey on April 16. In his defence, he claimed his intention had been to kill himself in front of Martha Ray, but when he arrived, he had suffered temporary insanity and had acted “in a momentary phrensy [sic]”. The judge clearly did not believe him, drawing attention to a letter found in Hackman’s pocket, addressed to his brother-in-law Frederick, which, he said, showed “a coolness and deliberation which no ways accorded with the ideas of insanity”. The jury did not believe Hackman either, perhaps because the prosecution had made much of the fact that he had taken two pistols to the scene, one to kill Martha and one for himself. The Reverend James Hackman was therefore convicted and duly hanged at Tyburn on April 19.

Why was Martha Killed?

The brief trial report leaves more questions open than answered. All the public interest also led to confusion, as various writers published their own versions of the events, notably Sir Herbert Croft, who, in 1780, wrote a heavily romanticised and fictionalised account of the supposed relationship between James Hackman and Martha Ray. The book, called Love and Madness, a Story too true, in a series of letters between Parties whose names could perhaps be mentioned were they less known or less lamented, was a huge success and passed through seven editions. In fact, these letters between Hackman and Ray were all invented to support Croft’s view that it was a love affair gone wrong and Martha Ray bore some of the blame for her death.

The reality was likely more prosaic. We know now what can happen when an obsessive stalker, in this case Hackman, fixates on a victim. It is far from unusual for a torrent of unwanted messages and attentions to turn to violence in the end. The most likely explanation comes from Hackman’s actions. He had tried to form a relationship with Martha, who rejected him. He had proposed marriage and been turned down. He had followed her around London and had been seen watching her during the performance that evening. All are known today to be characteristic actions of an infatuated stalker.

James Hackman and his Victim

James Hackman was born in 1752. He started out as an apprentice mercer, then joined the army, taking up an ensign’s commission in the 68th Regiment of Foot, which his parents bought him in 1772. In 1776 he was promoted to lieutenant, but soon resigned his commission to seek ordination in the Church of England. In April 1779, he was a newly minted cleric, having been ordained deacon on February 24, 1779, priest four days later, and appointed to the living of Wiveton in Norfolk on March 1.

Martha Ray seems to have been an unlikely “femme fatale.” The daughter of a London corset maker, she caught the Earl’s eye when she was about 17, becoming his openly acknowledged mistress and bearing him nine children, of whom five survived. A contemporary description of her goes:

“… not what we would call elegant, but which would pass under the denomination of pretty; her height was about five feet five inches; she was fresh-coloured, and had a perpetual smile on her countenance, which rendered her agreeable to every beholder.”

It is not certain exactly how and where the two of them met, but it was probably in or about 1772, while Hackman was still in the army and running a recruiting party in the neighbourhood of the Earl of Sandwich’s house at Hinchingbrooke in Huntingdon.

Whenever and wherever Hackman encountered Martha, he fell madly in love. He constantly tried to persuade her to return his ardour, eventually proposing marriage. We cannot know if she encouraged him at first, nor whether her rejection of him was based on love for the Earl or a more material choice between being the mistress of a rich man and the wife of a clergyman. What is certain is that he had her most recent letter rejecting his marriage proposals in his pocket the night he shot her dead.

Did The Reverend James Hackman really set out that day in 1779 to kill Martha Ray? Was his claim that he only wanted to kill himself in front of her anything more than an attempt to clear himself? Did she encourage him in any way? We will never know. The appetite of the press for scandal, then as now, and the unscrupulous actions of authors seeking to cash in on public curiosity, mudded the water enough to make any final conclusion impossible.

What remains is a remarkably modern story of obsession, despair and a young man tormented by feelings he was finally unable to contain; and clear evidence that the media were no different in the eighteenth century than they are today. The lure of a good story, however untrue in its details, will always trump the facts in the public’s memory. The protagonists have, over time, been presented as victims of love, practitioners of debauchery and callous attention-seekers. Each age reinterprets their lives to suit its own preconceptions. Ours is no different.



Old Bailey Proceedings Online, April 1779, trial of JAMES HACKMAN.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, James Hackman


Wiveton is pronounced ‘Wiv-et-un’.

Posted in C18th Norfolk, Crime, Georgian Society | 2 Comments