Some Georgian Medicine (from the archives)

Elizabeth PostlethwaiteElizabeth Postlethwaite in 1777
(© Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London)

A little while ago, rummaging in a secondhand bookshop as I often do, I found a small, locally-published book containing extracts from the correspondence of two Norfolk sisters, Elizabeth and Barbara, during the period 1733 to 1751.[1]

They were the daughters of Rev. Mathew Postlethwaite and Elizabeth Rogerson and had been born at the Rectory at Denton, south of Norwich in the direction of Bungay and the Suffolk border. When their mother died in 1730, their father married again, this time to Matilda Gooch[2]. At age 19, Barbara married a clergyman called Samuel Kerrich, vicar of Dersingham near the present Royal Family’s estate at Sandringham on the northwest of the county.

What to us would be a trivial, if probably slow journey of some 40 miles between the two locations proved an almost insuperable distance to these devoted sisters. Both, it seems, were rarely in a state of health good enough to face the rigours of country roads in the 1740s. Barbara was frequently pregnant and suffered several miscarriages; Elizabeth had some unspecified complaint that caused her to cough and experience feelings of great weakness and lassitude.

In these respects, it is probably fair to say that the two were not untypical of mid-eighteenth-century women of the middling sort. It’s easy to dismiss them as suffering mostly from hypochondria. Yet their letters show just how omnipresent death was amongst their families and friends, and how swiftly what began as a minor ailment developed into something far more life-threatening.

‘Official’ Remedies

We would expect them to share information on their states of health, especially during the long periods when they did not meet. They did this frequently and at length. However, what is of greater interest is the advice they exchanged on remedies; advice more likely to come from their friends and acquaintances than any qualified medical professional.

Medical professionals were not excluded entirely, though their advice may sometimes have done more harm than good. Writing to Barbara on 9th August, 1733, Elisabeth remarks that her father had chanced to meet the eminent Norwich physician Sir Benjamin Wrench at the dean’s house. Elisabeth’s constant problems were obviously part of the conversation, for she remarks that Sir Benjamin “… have [sic] thought of something that he is in hopes will be of great service to me.”

Exactly what that was is unclear, but Barbara writes on 29th October of the same year that she is glad Elizabeth has “done with the mercury”. Then she goes on:

… everybody that I have heard speak of it, say it is very lucky for them that take it if they find no hurt from it …”

She goes on to relate part of a humorous article on mercury as medicine for women she found “… in the magazine for August…”, to the effect that the only good it could do would be to “… turn ’em into barometers, that they may know whether it will be proper to go a visiting and when to be in bed …”
Elizabeth also writes from time to time of “being blooded” and “having a blister”, the result of cupping. Neither seem to do her any good, which is hardly surprising.

Home-made Remedies

In August, 1738, Elizabeth sends her sister a ‘Receipt’ for strengthening the blood, which she says she has got from Mrs Townshend:

Take three handfuls of red sage, stamp it in a stone mortar very small, put it into a quart of red port and let it stand 3 or 4 days close covered, then strain it out and bottle it. Take three spoonfuls of it and four spoonfuls of running water in a morning, fasting until the [port[3]]be done. This is good for scurvy and spleen.

In September, 1745, Elizabeth writes that their mother is unwell: “… her stomach [appetite?] is quite gone, that it was a punishment to her to get anything down.” As a result:

She is trying chocolate in a morning and take some mutton broth in an afternoon, for she thinks kitchen physic is best for her.

This didn’t seem to do much good, for Elizabeth returns to her mother’s illness in a letter dated 26th December, 1745:

… she tell me she have quite lost her stomach again, her constitution is quite broke. I doubt, I am afraid, she will never [sic] have her health again[4].

Barbara also took patent remedies for her health, for Elizabeth writes to her on 4th February, 1747:

I am glad you are got well and that you intend to try tar water,[5] I hope that it will keep you so.

Barbara did not reply on this point until March, 1748, when she wrote:

I drank tar water about a week, I like it mighty well, it was very agreeable to my stomach, but my bowels have never been right since that disorder in them. … I have been forced to take tincture of rhubarb twice or thrice o’week, but when my bowels are more settled I shall try it again.

Barbara’s husband was also sick in October, 1747, almost certainly with the malaria that spread easily near to the Fen Country of those parts. She writes:

The Dr[6] have had three fits of a tertian ague and expected another fit last Saturday evening … he have taken the bark[7] 3 or 4 times everyday since that he have had no more of it and he look very well …

“My Ailment is Breeding … ”

It is not be surprising to find that the married sister, Barbara, sometimes seems angry at the strain constant pregnancies places upon her. You need to read between the lines a little here, but it looks as if she may be hoping to rid herself of yet another child[8]. She writes in July, 1748:

Ever since I wrote to you last I have been very poorly, so faint o’mornings I am forced to rest 2 or 3 times before I can get my things on. I drink chocolate every morning and have been blooded, for I find my ailment is breeding. … I wonder I haven’t miscarried yet …

From the rest of the letter it is clear that she has been taking pennyroyal water. This was often used as a purgative and was said to be effective at expelling a dead child from the womb. Her sister Elizabeth was obviously worried, for she replied almost right away that, “… I beg you would be very careful of yourself and prevent if possible miscarrying, you know it is a very great injury, and weakening to your constitution.”[9]

By December, 1748, Barbara’s time is near and we find Elizabeth urging her to be sure to engage the services of a man-midwife. In January, Barbara took to her bed, still feeling ill, but believing the child “alive and well at present”. She was delivered of a boy in February, the only son who would survive the terrors of infancy.

In 1751, the sisters were reunited in Dersingham. Their father had died in 1745, but the household continued at Denton for a period, while their brother tried to persuade the owners of the advowson to allow him to succeed his father in the living. He was unsuccessful and eventually they all moved out. The brother received another living as a consolation prize, the sisters’ step-mother moved to Benacre, and Elizabeth moved to be with her sister again.

Despite her constant ill-health, Elizabeth proved to be much the stronger of the two, living until 1794 and surviving her sister by no less than 32 years.

Elizabeth Postlethwaite in 1777 (© Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London)


  1. Your affectionate and loving sister: the correspondence of Barbara Kerrich and Elizabeth Postlethwaite, 1733 to 1751, Nigel Surry (ed.), Larks Press, Dereham, 2000.`  
  2. She is the ‘mother’ referred to in the correspondence. She was sister to the Bishop of Norwich of the period.  
  3. The original says ‘claret’, but port must be meant.  
  4. She lived until 1760.  
  5. A foul-tasting remedy for colic made from pine tar and water, popularised by Bishop Berkeley at the start of the century.  
  6. She always calls him thus. He was a Doctor of Divinity.  
  7. The bark of the cinchona tree, the source of quinine.  
  8. With all the problems she had and the many childhood illnesses, only two of her children survived infancy to grow up.  
  9. Barbara did not miscarry, but her illness persisted throughout July, August and September. Elizabeth kept urging her to take “Mrs Townshend’s remedy” [mentioned above.  
Posted in Medicine & Science, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

‘Party’ in 18th-century English politics

In our own times, most of us are familiar with partisan, party-based politics. That makes it all too easy for us to transfer our own experience with political parties into the political environment of the 18th-century. From all I have read, it’s clear that such ‘parties’ as existed at that time were very different from anything that we know today. Even the terms ‘Whig’ (liberal) and ‘Tory’ (conservative) used today hardly occurred at that time. When they did, they were not liked. Gibbon, in 1790, described such party labels as “foolish and obsolete odious words”. In many ways, national ideologically-based parties such as we have today had yet to evolve. They are more the product of the nineteenth than the eighteenth century.

There were partisan organisations and interests, of course, but these seem mostly to have been based around two approaches. Many consisted of those who supported or opposed powerful political figures. Others were based more on local interests than national ones. These latter groupings tended to support whoever they saw as most favourable to their interests, shifting allegiances radically if necessary. The nearest to national political viewpoints were derived from events in the 17th-century. The conservative Tories, with their emphasis on allegiance to the monarchy and the established church, were branded ‘Jacobites’ by their opponents, a name referring to those who had supported the ousted King James II and his ideas of absolute monarchy. The generally more liberal Whigs derived their heritage from people who had invited the Dutch William of Orange to invade and replace King James and tended to be seen as ‘republican’ in their ideas. This referred to the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, by which Parliament came to be the supreme authority and the power of the monarch was sharply curtailed.

Norwich offers an excellent opportunity to observe 18th-century politics in action, since many of the records have been preserved. It also possessed an unusually large electorate for the time, as well as one that was both independent and volatile. It’s easiest to understand the pattern of allegiances if we label the parties as broadly either supporters or opponents of the government of the day. In the early part of the century, few elections produced much heat or excitement. By the 1760s and after, more of the Norwich elections were contested, some of them quite heatedly.

In the newspapers of the 1780s and after, the broad political groupings or ‘interests’ in Norwich were identified only by the colours of the ribbons worn by their supporters. The more conservative, generally pro-government interest — the supporters of the king, William Pitt the Younger and his administration — were known as the ‘Orange-and-Purples’. The anti-government party — sometimes, but not always, associated with Charles James Foxe and belief in the supremacy of parliament — were called the ‘Free Blues’ or ‘Blue-and-Whites’.

Another factor also complicated the Norwich political landscape. The city contained an unusually large number of Dissenters: people who rejected the teachings of the Established Church in favour of newer, more radical and evangelical alternatives, such as the Independents (Presbyterians and Unitarians), Baptists, Quakers and Methodists. Dissenters did not always vote in a bloc but were much more likely to be anti-establishment than in favour of the kind of ‘Church and King’ outlook of the Tories. Similarly, they often opposed the local municipal government, which tended to be dominated by rich merchants with a decidedly conservative outlook. In simple terms, the ‘Free Blues’ were attracted by reform and the ‘Orange-and-Purples’ by stability and adherence to the status quo.

Even amending our view of political parties in Georgian times to focus more on local, religious and class-based interests than national or ideological ones, is not quite sufficient. It omits the role of patronage in determining people’s political adherence. Those who worked on the great estates, or the merchants who depended on the local aristocracy and gentry, would be very unlikely to vote against their interests — particularly at a time when all votes had to be registered in person and orally. The election clerk asked each elector to name the candidates they wish to vote for. Anybody standing close by could therefore hear how the vote had been cast.

As a final comment, it’s important to note that many counties and boroughs fell well short of Norwich in terms of political independence and sophistication. In England before the Reform Act of 1832, many parliamentary contests were either decided by a handful of electors. Others were in the gift of some local aristocrat. Norwich had an unusually large and varied group of electors, in part because the franchise was based on two criteria, and in part because Norwich was both a city and county in its own right. The bulk of the franchise went to the freemen of the city: men with trades or professions organised somewhat along the lines of the old guilds. A vote could be earned either by becoming a master of your trade, and thus ‘free’ to operate on your own account within the bounds of the city, or by being the son of a freeman. The franchise was also extended to anyone who owned property in the city worth more than forty shillings annually. The ‘freeman vote’ especially was unusually democratic for the time. A freeman might be a grand merchant, but it might also be a relatively lowly cobbler or carpenter. Only the property-based franchise specifically favoured the wealthy.

Posted in Georgian Society, Politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The 18th-century Apothecary

An 18th-century Apothecary’s Shop
(CC) Wellcome Images

Those of you who have read any of my Georgian murder-mystery books featuring Dr Adam Bascom will know that one of the important series characters is Peter Lassimer, an apothecary. I was therefore fascinated to find an article in a publication from the University of Melbourne, Australia, describing an 18th-century manuscript in their library [See reference at end of post].

The contents were written on the backs of many of the plates of an atlas of anatomy, and lie somewhere between a list of medicines and a set of recipes for prescriptions. While the name of the author is not known, the text was written sometime between about 1727 and 1740 by an apothecary in Hampshire, in the south of England, serving towns such as Portsmouth and Havant.

Apothecaries of the time delivered most of what we would now term primary health care. Physicians were too expensive for all but the wealthy and surgeons specialised in amputations and bone-setting, as well as often being barbers as well. Apothecaries were not allowed to charge a consultation fee, but made all their income from the sale of remedies — some they made up themselves and others they bought in ready made. They also dressed wounds, prescribed remedies and made up prescriptions for physicians and others. Many sold herbs and ‘exotic’ groceries, such as tea.

Printed Materials

There were many pharmacopoeias (lists of medical drugs) available at the time, but not all linked those drugs to specific medical conditions, or showed how to combine them into remedies. As an aid to future prescribing, and keep track of results, some apothecaries kept a prescription book . This might include a record of the medicines supplied to specific patients, the name of any physician involved, the costs, the dosage and the prescription itself.

The Manuscript

This particular manuscript combines elements of a pharmacopoeia and a prescription book by listing actual medical conditions with their associated remedies. Thirty-four specific diseases or groups of diseases are covered, often on the back of the plate from the original anatomical atlas linked to them. The information supplied also includes general comments about the drugs used, plus a list of detailed remedies, a few of which are linked to a named patient and contain the level of detail normally included in a prescription book.

Information such as this offers a fascinating list of remedies available at the time with evidence of their use, which had been found beneficial, and indications of extra information collected by the apothecary himself. Since other medical men are mentioned in conjunction with the prescriptions the apothecary made up for them, we can calculate that around two-thirds of the cases were the apothecary’s own patients and a third patients of various local physicians, surgeons and other apothecaries. There also seems to be a single prescription made up for a herbalist.

Most of the identifiable patients were adults who suffered from the typical ailments of both that time and this. There were women with gynaecological problems, elderly folk beset with respiratory and digestive problems, strokes, heart disease and ‘languor’ (depression). There were also periodic outbreaks of infections and fevers, especially in the winter. As might be expected, patients came primarily from amongst the ‘middling sort’, with a few gentry. Artisans and the poor were unlikely to be able to afford the cost of anything but home remedies or occasional visits to a Cunning Man or Woman.

Overall, the book contains around 1,000 ‘recipes’. Even so, it may be that the manuscript was never fully completed. For example, space was left for text never added and the content as it stands has no remedies for cuts and abrasions, associated infections, sprains, and several more serious injuries.

How typical was all this of actual medical practice of the time? That’s hard to say, given that so few similar items have survived. What is clear is that whoever compiled the book was devoted to his craft and assiduous in keeping and consulting his records. The ailments he was faced with were certainly common everywhere at the time. So were the bulk of the remedies, drugs and herbs he used. But if his practice was, as I suspect, typical of many at the time, his method of record-keeping might well have been almost entirely original.

[Reference] Dorothea Rowse , “The Hampshire apothecary’s book: An 18th century medical manuscript in the Baillieu Library”, University of Melbourne Collections , Issue 3, December 2008.

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Organised Crime in the 18th Century

Fighting a Smuggling Gang

It’s often said that there is nothing new under the sun, and this story from the Stamford Mercury for April 16th, 1772, certainly bears this out. It makes it quite clear that large-scale, organised crime is far from being the invention of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The story concerns the arrest of a man, Edgeley, who is described as the ‘captain’ of an organised group of thieves and smugglers operating along the south coast of England. He, with two of his men, were seized for stealing “a whole wash of wet linen”. At that time, washing clothes and bed linen was undertaken at relatively infrequent intervals, anywhere between monthly and quarterly, simply because of the labour involved. To steal a complete wash therefore implies taking an amount that would fetch a substantial amount of money when sold. Such a theft would incur the death penalty, which may be why one of the accomplices, a man called Brett, decided to turn King’s Evidence.

It was thanks to him that the full story of the activities of the gang came to light. This included murder, piracy and various other crimes. For example, the gang took a boat and disguised themselves as “hovel-men”. These were bands of local fisherman, who would go to the assistance of ships in trouble in return for a share in the salvage value. In East Anglia, they were known as beachmen. A hovel, in this case, is the name of the rowing boat such groups used. The gang’s purpose in this case was either to seize the entire ship with its cargo, or at least carry out a substantial robbery. The ship’s crew however prevented them.

“Another declaration was made, that one night when they went out to a ship, in the characters of hovel-men, to give assistance, the ship’s crew were too numerous and one of the gang was knocked overboard and drowned; the gang consists of twenty, several of whom lived in apparently respectable situations.”

The gang even engaged in counterfeiting, having premises in far-off Birmingham, where they made counterfeit (Spanish) dollars. They used what they made to purchase goods from foreign ships waiting offshore and sell them for sound coinage when they returned.

Posing once again as hovel-men, they regularly offered to ferry ashore passengers arriving by sea:

“In bringing passengers onshore, they were sure, of late, to carry away some part of the baggage: this Harvey, master of the ship, knows who was obliged to pay £70 for the loss of a gentleman’s trunk, which he had assured him was safe.”

What on earth did this “gentleman“ have in his trunk to make it worth £70, I wonder? That’s roughly the equivalent of £14,000 in today’s money!

This was not, however, the worst of their depredations. The article goes on to state how they murdered the whole crew of a Dutch vessel, in order to get hold of a large quantity of beeswax and tallow (for making candles), which they sold nearly a hundred miles away in Winchester. They then scuttled and sank the vessel, though part of it, according to the newspaper, still remained above the water. All in all, their thefts were soon on a near-industrial scale, with the property they plundered being sold all along the south coast of England, from Kent in the east to Land’s End in the extreme west.

Like many of today’s organised criminal gangs, they tried to hide their activities behind a smokescreen of respectability. As the article says:

“An account of their piracies is is sent up to the administration; the magistrates at Dover are at a loss how to act in the affair, since such a number of persons of good credit along the coast seem to be involved; but we hope innocently; some of the magistrates of Bow-Street are to go down, we hear, to investigate the business, which has been of some years standing. Edgeley, the captain, lived in an elegant style at Dover, kept his phaeton, and the best company; his daughter, who is to be pitied, was brought up in every accomplishment, attended all the public assemblies, and in fashions was not exceeded by the first ladies in the town.”

Doesn’t that sound uncannily like a mafia Don or the boss of an international drug cartel to you?

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“The Trouble with Servants …”

It’s easy to look back on the eighteenth century and imagine how wonderful it must have been to have a small army of servants to do all the work — at least if you were a member of the upper classes. Fetching and carrying, cleaning and polishing, cooking and washing and mending; the servants did all the work, while the master and mistress passed their time in whatever way they chose. Well, not quite. As anyone who has been responsible for others will know, it takes more than giving orders to keep things running smoothly.

The hiring, supervision and disciplining of the household servants was the job of the mistress of the house. Some were more successful in the role than others. It helped to have grown up in a grand household and seen it done before, but even that gave no guarantee of competence when your turn came. I have been reading the personal diary of an eighteenth-century lady who had nothing but trouble with her servants, despite being the sister of a baronet, brought up in the substantial mansion of Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

Miss Gertrude Savile

Gertrude Savile (1697-1758) kept a diary for many of her adult years, though only the entries for 1721-22, 1727-31 and 1737-57 have survived. She never married and was dependent on her brother for a significant, period, until a series of small inheritances made her an independent woman with her own household, first in Nottinghamshire and then in London. She had her freedom, but with it came having to deal with her own servants.

It’s important to note that we have only her comments on them and their behaviour. Their view might have been somewhat different! She was not a person who was easily pleased. Nevertheless, the entries she made in her diary suggest these servants were a long way from the meek, obedient drudges common in today’s costume dramas. They bullied her, stole from her, had affairs amongst themselves, and generally did as they wished whenever she was absent from home.

Examples

To avoid endless repetition, I’m going to concentrate on the three of the last four years of the diary, those of 1754, 1755 and 1756. Even so, I’ll be summarising a good deal. Remember that this is a small household, belonging to a single, unmarried woman. For most of the time, she has only four servants: a cook, a personal maid, a housemaid and a footman. Please also note that the spelling has been modernised in all of the quotations that follow. It’s ironic that, in one place in the diary, Gertrude Savile accuses a woman who wrote to her of being unable to write literate English and spell properly. Gertrude’s own spelling is always wayward and from time to time varies between eccentric and downright imaginative!

In January, 1754, she began the year by replacing the housemaid. In March, she sacked the footman, calling him “a stupid, slovenly good for nothing” and accusing him of either stealing or killing one of her favourite dogs. June was a particularly active month in replacing servants. The replacement footman, who presumably came in March, was turned out. She described him as “a sad fellow” who frightened her with “getting into the parlour window”. I have no idea exactly what she meant by this, but she writes that she was afraid to tell him he must go without having a male neighbour present to protect her.

Two days later, she fired the cook, describing her as “lazy and careless” and “as all the rest, a liar and deceitful”. A new footman came at the end of the month, but problems remained. In July, she sacked Martha (“deceitful, cunning, but one remove from an idiot.” ) and Clarissa (“… proved Irish.”) In September, the cook gave notice after three warnings. What these were about is not recorded. However, Gertrude describes the cook as “an uncommon worthless, cheating, strange creature.”

Things go quiet until November, when a new maid comes. Gertrude is now using an agency, Fielding’s, to obtain staff, instead of relying on friends and other contacts. She also, as we shall see, experimented with taking a maid from the Overseers of the Poor. Neither turned out well. By January of the following year, 1755, she has discharged two maids, one for being pregnant and the other, the charity girl, after having discovered that she had been a child prostitute and treated for a venereal disease at the expense of the parish.

In May, she replaced all three maids and vowed she would never take another servant from Fielding’s. One of the maids had problems with her sweetheart; another was described as “a Taffy [Welsh woman], and one of the most silly, ignorant ones that ever came from her country”,;and the third was simply dismissed with no reason given. She also dismissed the footman and took another, who only lasted until July, being described as “idle and careless, but good-natured and respectful to me.” At the same time, she dismissed two of the maids, describing one as “a great strumpet, even in my house with John Beckett [the footman]. A new footman came, John Barlow. He later caused so much trouble that I have devoted a separate post to his circumstances. All went quiet again until November when another maid was sacked for being “good-natured, but stupid.”

1756 opened quietly enough. Then, in February, Gertrude records receiving an anonymous letter about one of the maids and the cook, claiming that they had “abundance of company whenever I was out.” I presume this means (paying?) male company, for the letter apparently also accused the maid of having “a cousin, who often lay in my house and carried out lapfulls of something.” This was followed by the departure of another maid (“a deaf, stupid, lazy, prating, good for nothing.”). All was now quiet until the affair of John Barlow, the footman mentioned above, and the subject of a later posting. It’s interesting that, by this time, Gertrude is offering an increase in wages to those whom she hires, provided they stay at least a year. She also begins to note that their wages now include “no tea”, presumably because the cost and the excise duty make it too expensive.

Although the diary continues through 1757, there are few references to the servants. In fact, the whole nature of the entries changes, leaving out day-to-day comments on household matters in favour of fewer, but much longer, entries describing international and national events. I will, however, pick out one entry from March, 1757, concerning Sarah Howard, since it gives a somewhat kinder picture of Gertrude than has been possible from the early entries. Here it is in full:

“Sarah Howard went. I let her rub on till she gave me warning to go, the day her year was up. She could be very smooth and do her work very well, but the great thing I kept her for was her extraordinary tenderness to all dumb creatures, which I never knew or believed could be in so bad a person as she really was in all other respects. I knew my poor dogs and cats had a great protector in her; that she would not upon any provocation (as almost all servants will) not only not hurt them herself, but would let nobody else [do so]. This was a very great thing with me, whose love to them puts it so much in my servants’ power to make me miserable. There was more that was uncommon in her; she was, though a good deal past her bloom and very fat, not only very handsome, but had one of the sweetest, most composed, serene countenances I ever saw. By her looks, one would think her an angel. She was a Londoner.”


Savile, Gertrude, et al. Secret Comment: The Diaries of Gertrude Savile, 1721-1757. Devon: Kingsbridge History Society; [Nottingham]: Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, 1997.

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The Case of the Amorous Footman

This is a taster for my next article about the problems of managing servants in the 18th-century, with particular reference to the diaries of Gertrude Savile. It focuses on events in July, 1756, and concerns her footman, John Barlow, and the havoc that one male in a household of three females (four, if you count Gertrude herself) can bring about.

We begin on July 6th, when Barlow had a quarrel with one of the maids, Sarah. Afterwards, she went to her mistress and told her a long tale of what had been going on in the household behind her back. Gertrude had obviously been quite taken with Barlow herself, since she records that, in the course of the year, she had given him a livery coat and waistcoat, three “frocks” and two more waistcoats. She had also, she said shown, “forbearance and kindness to him in his sickness.” This seems to have been a series of epileptic fits.

Now, however, she reproaches herself for having kept him on, despite recording that he abused, cursed and threatened her. Why did she do it? Perhaps the catty nature of some of her remarks throughout the record of the incident gives us a clue. Barlow must certainly have had something, since it appears that all three of the maids were under his spell. Even Gertrude herself refers to him at one point, perhaps sarcastically, as “the Adonis John Barlow”. She then writes:

“I was silly enough to think him a sober and modest fellow but he was far otherwise, a scandalous whoremaster; made quite a brothel of my house with one if not two of my maids. There is little doubt of Ann Jennings being his strumpet, old, ugly and demure as she was; she, I suppose, bought his favours. He charmed the housemaid also, so that (I am since convinced) her jealousy was the cause of her letting me know the scandalous affairs long transacted in my little family.”

Even when she was sacking him, Gertrude gave him one of his new “frocks”, his waistcoats and a hat, whether from fear or liking she does not record. What she does say is that he “haunted the house every day” for a time, supposedly to ask her to give him a character, but actually to try to get what he could from the maids. She says that she was so terrified and miserable she had to get the coachman to stay as much of the day as he could and asleep in the house overnight.

More Trouble

This went on for most of the month, until, at the end, she sacked Ann Jennings:

“… a woman more vile than her paramour. She must have bribed the young fellow to make a whore of her. Made? No: she must have been so before. What victuals, beer, wine, candles, soap, coals, everything but what they might by law be hanged for, was given out of my house. I am amazed at my stupidity to let such doings continue, but all my four servants hanging together, and my lameness, made them secure from my detection.”

On the 30th, she sacked the cook, of whom she wrote:

“I thought it was impossible she could be amorously disposed and be such a beast in her dress, though young and pretty. I often in jest said to her, ‘Sure you have no sweetheart; you would not be such a slut if you had’.”

She continued to employ the housemaid who had informed on Barlow, despite being “sick of the same distemper”, after she had dismissed the others. Meanwhile, she replaced both her personal maid and cook, and hired a new footman called William. None of them lasted a year in her service.

Reality versus Hollywood (and Television)

All this took place in London, and I cannot help wondering whether she would have found it such an easy matter to replace her servants had she been living outside the capital. Perhaps, if she had known in advance that she could not easily replace any whom she dismissed, or who left of their own accord, she would have taken greater care to try to keep those whom she found most acceptable. Perhaps not. I know of at least one case in Norfolk in which the mistress of the house had at least as much trouble with servants as did Gertrude; though that case occurred almost a hundred years later. While it’s obvious from the diary that Gertrude Savile was difficult, demanding and often downright bitchy, there is nothing to suggest that her situation was altogether unusual.

As I said in my first post on this subject, too many of our notions about life in grand households during the 18th and 19th centuries come from costume dramas. There everything from the cleanliness and politeness of the servants to their generally good behaviour has been passed through the sanitising and romanticising lens of television and film. Gertrude’s picture of lazy, deceitful, lustful and larcenous servants makes a good corrective. It is also probably somewhat closer to the truth.


Savile, Gertrude, et al. Secret Comment: The Diaries of Gertrude Savile, 1721-1757 . Devon: Kingsbridge History Society; [Nottingham]: Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, 1997.

Posted in Georgian Society | 4 Comments

William Windham and the Fight against France and Napoleon

William Windham III

The story of the Norfolk squire who became the British government’s principal agent engaged in stirring up Royalist opposition to the French revolution and Napoleon.

I’ve mentioned before how often I’m struck by the similarities between events in the 18th-century and those of recent times. I’ve known about this particular set of events for some time, but I hadn’t looked into it in any detail until now. When I did, I was surprised by the similarities between Winston Churchill’s S.O.E (Special Operations Executive) of World War II, which he charged with “setting Europe ablaze”, and the attempts by the government of William Pitt the Younger, during the wars against Revolutionary France and Napoleon, to use French royalists as a kind of Resistance. What made it even more interesting to me, was that one of the main guiding hands behind this effort to incite rebellion and guerrilla warfare was William Windham, a Norfolk squire.

William Windham of Felbrigg Hall

Windham was the third owner of Felbrigg Hall near Cromer to bear that name, but the only one of his family to make a substantial career in politics. He was an MP and, in time, became both a national figure and a cabinet minister. He is rather forgotten today, perhaps because he never made it right to the top. However, in the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th centuries, he played a key role in the British government’s clandestine campaign against the French.

For much of this period, Windham held the post of Secretary at War — roughly the equivalent of today’s Minister of Defence — and was primarily involved in the administration of the war effort. He resigned with Pitt in 1801 and went into opposition, then briefly returned to the cabinet and active politics in the so-called “Ministry of All the Talents” of 1806-7. Throughout his political life, he was a controversial character, vilified by some for ‘changing sides’ to join Pitt, but never really trusted by those who he served in government either.

Indeed, in many ways, Windham was always an ambivalent figure. Maybe it was his chronic indecision, his tendency to philosophise, or his lack of charisma. Many commented on his intelligence and fine gifts as an orator, as well as his tendency to be influenced by more powerful characters like Burke. Yet he could also be cold-hearted and dismissive of others. His main weaknesses seem to have been a lack of emotional insight and a poor understanding of his fellow humans. He had started his political career as something of a liberal in his attitudes. However, as time progressed, he became more and more rigidly conservative and reactionary; a deep-dyed monarchist, who publicly supported bear-baiting, camp-football, bare-knuckle boxing and similar violent ‘sports’ on the grounds that they were traditional and ‘built character’.

Failure as an Organiser of Covert Operations

Lord Malmesbury certainly thought Windham was a bad judge of men, whose enthusiasm could be too easily engaged for fundamentally ill-judged projects, so long as they accorded with his preconceptions. These were too often drawn from the influence of Edmund Burke, which never left him, despite his mentor’s death in 1797. Malmesbury wrote of Windham:

“Windham is uncommonly and classically clever, but has the very fault he attributes to Pitt – no real knowledge of mankind; not from not living in the world, but from not being endowed with those qualities (inferior in themselves) which would enable him to judge of their real designs and character. For this reason, he was the dupe of every emigrant who called on him; and he still persists in the idea of the bellum internecinum [a monarchist rebellion leading to civil war], and the invading of France. Burke spoilt him, and his genius still rules him.”

Windham served as MP for Norwich for many years. Finally, his ardent support for an increasingly unpopular war, and his lack of attention to local views, saw him defeated and forced to turn to a ‘rotten borough’ to retain a seat in parliament. And that was despite spending some £11,000 of his own money, it is claimed, in bribing voters — something like £1.5 – 2 millions in today’s terms!

Windham’s Hatred of Republicanism

At the beginning of his political career, Windham was a Whig and a supporter of Charles James Fox. When the Terror began in France, he seems to have been as horrified as many others in the country. At around the same time, he came under the influence of the arch-conservative Edmund Burke, who had become the most influential opponent of the revolution in France. As noted above, Burke’s influence stayed with Windham for the rest of his life. Though he claimed to remain a Whig in Party terms, he thereafter served as part of Pitt’s Tory administration, becoming an ardent supporter of the exiled Bourbon monarchy and a bitter opponent of Napoleon and everything connected with him.

From this time onwards, Windham was consistent in his support of almost any French émigrés willing to carry the fight against the Directory and Napoleon onto French soil. Most were fantasists, but he seems either not to have realised that; or else been blinded by an urge to destroy all the French revolution stood for. He provided these émigrés with money from secret funds, supported their plans and ideas in cabinet, and ran a number of secret agents charged with stirring up local rebellions. In this he was aligned with the Foreign Secretary of the time, Lord Grenville, and George Canning — a leading Tory politician.

When Napoleon seized power in 1799, Windham, Grenville and Canning were already planning an all-out effort on behalf of the royalists for the following year. Although Napoleon, on coming to power, made overtures of peace to Pitt, these three were able to persuade him to continue the war, albeit somewhat half-heartedly.

Assassination!

Probably the peak of Windham’s activities on behalf of the French royalists came in 1800, when a group of exiled royalists hatched a plot to assassinate Napoleon. People of the time regarding assassination as a terrible crime, so a pamphlet, “Killing no Murder” was circulated to try to justify such a course of action. Even so, the royalist group made a pretence of claiming to want to kidnap Napoleon rather than kill him; while, as we shall see, Windham, on behalf of the British government, made a pretence of refusing direct involvement. The following quotations are taken from Windham’s own diary:

“31st July, 1800. Saw General George [Cadoudal], who … predicts that Buonaparte will be cut off [assassinated] before two months are over; though he professes not to know specifically of any such intention. Seems to think such [a] course of proceeding legitimate, and had thrown out the idea to Pitt, as he had done before to me. Not necessary to say that no countenance was given to it.”

“16th September, 1800. He [Cadoual] talked of the designs to cut off Buonaparte by Assassination; second of the general instability of his government, to which latter opinion I felt inclined to assent. On the other, having before expressed my opinion I did not now say anything.”

“19th September, 1800. [Met Rivière, aide de camp the the comte d’Artois, who produced] wild proposals of carrying off or cutting off Buonaparte, which I pointedly declared a Brit. Ministry could give no countenance to.”

It’s quite clear that these denials cannot be taken at face value. Windham arranged for the Royal Navy to provide transportation for the conspirators to return to France, together with a very substantial amount of money to finance their activities. It seems most probable that his intention throughout was to allow the British government to deny involvement in any assassination, not to prevent it being attempted.

The Fall of Pitt’s Government

The plot, of course, failed and Napoleon’s continued success finally forced the British government into making peace in 1801. Pitt resigned, ostensibly over the king’s refusal to grant emancipation of Irish Catholics, though many thought this no more than a convenient pretext. Windham, vehemently opposed to any peace, resigned as well.

In opposition, Windham continued his attacks on Napoleon and the French government, praying that, “God avert a peace with a Jacobin Republic!” And while Pitt secretly supported the new ministry in negotiating the so-called Peace of Amiens, Grenville and Windham steadfastly opposed both the negotiations and the final agreement. Windham also seems to have orchestrated support, perhaps using Grenville’s money, for various newspapers and other publications which continued to attack the peace and decry any rapprochement with France. He even continued to meet with French royalists and supply them with money for their activities, whether from his own pocket or from other people is not clear.

Final moves

After the collapse of the short-lived peace in 1803, a vigorous campaign of propaganda was put in place against Napoleon, aided and abetted by the opposition in Parliament, which now included not only Grenville and Windham, but also Charles James Fox.

By 1804, Addington’s government had finally had enough and brought a prosecution against William Cobbett, the principal mouth-piece for Grenville and Windham, charging him with seditious libel. He was found guilty and fined the enormous sum of £1500. Then, when Addington fell in 1806 and Grenville became Prime Minister, William Windham returned to the Cabinet. That administration lasted barely a year. By now, however, Windham’s star was on the wane and he left politics for good. He died in 1810, never having seen the final overthrow of the man and the regime in France he had so doggedly opposed.

Was his failure to create a viable opposition uprising in France due to ill luck, poor judgment or simply backing the wrong groups? It certainly wasn’t due to lack of effort on his part, nor lack of funds. Nevertheless, since history is often hard on the losers, Windham has been relegated to the sidelines — even the footnotes — in most historical accounts of the time. I leave it to you to judge how far this is deserved.

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