Georgian Booksellers in Norwich

Maps.K.Top.27.21.b, plate 17

Those of you who have read my “Ashmole Foxe” series of historical mysteries will know that Mr Foxe is a bookseller in the city of Norwich during the 1760s. Nothing about him is inauthentic to the period, so far as I am able to ascertain, save for his tendency to spend a good deal of his time in solving murder mysteries. To prove the point — and, I hope, interest the rest of you — this post is all about actual booksellers in the city between 1701 and around 1790, with special emphasis on the Chase family, whose activities informed my imagination in creating Mr Ashmole Foxe.

By the start of the 18th century, the ‘middling sort’ — tenant farmers, tradesmen, shopkeepers and the new professionals — were becoming a sizeable group within the society of the time. All had increasing leisure and disposable wealth, which they looked to use in emulation of the gentry. Before this time, there had been few booksellers outside London and the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, but by 1701, several booksellers had set up in Norwich, generally combining their trade with that of printing. It was one of these bookseller/printers, a man called Goddard, who, in that same year, started the first newspaper outside London. He was soon followed by two others, so that, by 1707, there were three newspapers in the city, none of which was particularly successful.

Maybe it was an attempt to cut his costs which persuaded Mr Goddard, in 1710, to put his struggling newspaper in the hands of one of his apprentices, William Chase, a lad of barely 16 with only one year’s experience behind him. It should have been a disaster, but it was not. Indeed, another of the newspapers, the Norwich Post, was also being run by a teenage apprentice, Edward Cave, at around the same time.

William Chase set up on his own account as a bookseller in 1714, becoming a Freeman in 1716. At first he sold Goddard’s newspaper, then began his own, changing the name several times, until it settled down as the Norwich Mercury in 1720. Not only that, he branched out from bookselling into other kinds of publishing and printing, holding book auctions (alone and in conjunction with Goddard) and expanding his second-hand books business to the extent of buying and selling complete libraries. He was obviously both a clever businessman and a natural entrepreneur, soon becoming a wealthy and influential man as a result. When he died, in 1744, his wife, Margaret, continued to operate his businesses until his eldest son, another William, was able to take over.

William Chase II

As the son of a Freeman bookseller, William was able to become a freeman himself in 1749, at which time he assumed full responsibility for the family business. Indeed, he developed the business into one of the largest in the city and certainly the largest bookseller.

While bookselling, printing and publishing remained at the core of Chase’s business, he later branched out into other areas. He sold paper and stationery, patent medicines and even tea, coffee and chocolate. Since this was Norwich (famous for canaries), his advertisements also mentioned: “Canary seed for birds, as good and as cheap as any.” He continued to buy and sell second-hand books, as his father had done, and let his bookshop act as a kind of library, allowing customers to borrow books at a set charge per week. He never set up a formal circulating library, as Ashmole Foxe’s partner, Mrs Crombie, does in my books, but all the rest was there.

In time, Chase dropped the sales of groceries and the like, but added music, popular prints and caricatures, and lottery tickets to the range of goods on offer. As well as casual printing, he printed books, maps and other ephemera, plus the first Norwich Directory. He expanded the book auction business, holding auctions in other Norfolk towns and began to deal in property and auctions for other goods, including china and even livestock. None of these extra services were unique to the Chase family. What was unusual was the sheer range and scale of what William Chase II was able to offer.

By the time he died in 1781, William was a rich man with a wide range of interests in the city, serving on the Common Council for many years and as Guardian of the Poor several times. His interest in these roles seems not to have been especially political; it was probably due to the business benefits that could accrue from being involved with the City Corporation and the contracts it awarded. He made sure to secure work from the Diocese of Norwich and the established church generally. Such ‘highbrow’ official printing, was balanced by the publication of details of forthcoming trials, followed by accounts of the verdicts and subsequent executions at the gaol, including supposed ‘dying speeches’ and confessions on the scaffold.

After his death, the business continued under his heir, yet another William, but never attain to the same heights, though various descendants of the original two Williams continued to play significant roles in bookselling and printing well into the 19th century.

Posted in C18th Norfolk, Georgian Society | Leave a comment

Punch: The 18th Century’s ‘Middling’ Drink


Hogarth’s view of a punch party in 1733
(CC) Welcome Collection

Different choices of alcoholic drink have long been associated with wealth and class, from the finest and most expensive imported wines to the roughest ciders. Georgian times were no different. When gin, brought from Holland by the soldiers of William of Orange, became popular amongst the poor, it did so mostly because it was cheap, especially compared with brandy, which had to be imported. Beer was available freely, but was considered an everyday drink, not suitable for entertaining — and meeting in social venues fast became an essential part of life for the Georgian ‘Middling Sort’. Clubs and societies of all kinds sprouted up everywhere, driven in part by increasing wealth and in part by an increase in available leisure time. The wealthy had long devoted themselves to various ways of socialising with their peers; now the middling sort wanted to do the same — but less expensively.

The Origins of Punch

Punch was an exotic drink — at least at the start — but one that was easy to make and not too expensive. The word itself is of Hindi origin, revealing its links to the exciting world of the Far East, and comes from the word for ‘five’: the original number of ingredients. The basics were a spirit (usually rum or brandy) to provide alcoholic content, various fruits and spices, sugar and something to bulk it out, perhaps cheap wine or fruit juice or even tea.

When the rich drank punch, they naturally used only the most expensive ingredients:

The Regent’s (George IV) Punch

“Pare as thin as possible the rinds of two china oranges, of two lemons, and ove one seville orange, and infuse them for an hour in half a pint of thin, cold syrup; then add to them the juice of the fruit. Make a pint of strong green tea, sweeten it well with fine sugar, and when it is quite cold, add to it the fruit and syrup, with a glass of the best old Jamaica rum, a glass of Brandy, one of Arrack, one of pine-apple syrup, and two bottles of Champagne. Pass the whole through a fine lawn sieve until it is perfectly clear, then bottle and put it into ice until dinner is served. We are indebted for this receipt to a person who made the punch daily for the prince’s table, at Carlton palace, for six months; it has been in our possession for some years and may be relied on.”

Modern Cookery for Private Families, Eliza Acton (1849)

Punch Parties

Just as coffeehouses provided a meeting place for middle-class men, so a few punch taverns or punch houses sprang up in major cities. However, they seem not to have caught on, perhaps because punch is easily prepared at home. Instead, as groups of middle-class ladies began to meet over tea for social purposes, so men started to hold punch parties for similar reasons. Tea was thought of as a polite drink, but perhaps not quite ‘masculine’ enough for the kind of male get-together at which tongues would be loosened and inhibitions set aside. Alcoholic punch served the purpose better and became something of an English male obsession during the middle and end of the eighteenth century. It sat in the middle between the cheapest alcoholic drinks — and the low-class taverns and grog-houses where they would be served — and the expensive wine, port and brandy that marked out the tables of the gentry and peerage. A half-crown bowl of punch (two shillings and sixpence) would serve about eight people, making each serving cost around 3.5 pence (about the same as a cup of Starbuck’s latte today) — compared to beer at a penny per pint.

It also became seen as a quintessentially English drink; a misapprehension that Addison made fun of in the Free-Holder of 5th March, 1716. He reports talking with a boorish country squire, who denigrates everything foreign or associated with overseas trade. They end up sharing a bowl of punch, at which Addison points out the other man’s foolish bigotry thus:

I took this occasion to insinuate the advantage him, that water was the only native of England this occasion: but that the lemons, the brandy , the sugar, and the nutmeg lemons, were all foreigners. This put him into some confusion.

The new socio-political clubs and dinners that arose during the latter part of the eighteenth century, especially during the Napoleonic wars, often used the serving of good punch to mark their ‘elite’ status as important citizens, even if they were not members of the gentry. It was all part of the gradual rise of the middle class into greater prominence and growing political ‘clout’. While these meetings could get rowdy, most were fairly serious affairs for the discussion of economic and political issues important in an age of growing commercialism.

Serving Punch

In line with its modest level of refinement, the bowls for serving punch were generally made of decorated china and earthenware. Lower quality ones certainly existed, as did some made of glass and silver for the gentry, but most were typical middle-class possessions. A ‘China Punch-bowl’, allegedly stolen from the house of one William Lawrence in 1737, was said to be worth worth 5s (£40 – 50 in today’s money). Many are mentioned in the inventories associated with wills at almost all levels of Georgian society, proving how widespread the drinking of punch had become.

To make ye best punch

“Put 1½ a pound of suger in a quart of water, stir it well yn put in a pint of Brandy, a quarter of a pint of Lime Juice, & a nutmeg grated, yn put in yr tosts or Biskets well toasted.”

Katherine Windham’s Boke of Housekeeping, 1707

By the mid-century, some punch pots looked very like large teapots, their different use mostly proved by lettering or pictures on them referring to punch. Why were they used? Perhaps to make an overt link between tea (a polite drink for ladies) and punch as a polite drink for gentlemen. Maybe it also helped the host to control the amount taken by anyone. An open bowl was an invitation to dip in; a lidded pot required someone in charge of pouring the drink out. Perhaps its use also made punch drinking more acceptable in mixed company, since we know both genders drank punch, at least in domestic settings.

It would be easy to extend this post further, but I think this is enough for the moment. I find it odd that research into this fascinating topic is rather limited — a chance for an aspiring Ph.D. student, perhaps?

Posted in Georgian Society | 1 Comment

The Eccentric Mrs Atkyns


Charlotte Atkyns, née Walpole, deserves a prominent place amongst 18th-century Norfolk eccentrics, despite the fact that she was neither Norfolk born nor — though she was happy to suggest it — related to the well-known Norfolk Walpole family, descendants of Sir Robert Walpole, the first prime minister.

Charlotte was born in Ireland around 1758, the daughter of a William Walpole of Athlone. She became an actress, making her debut in Dublin in January 1776, and playing at various theatres in the city throughout that year. Her first London appearance was at Drury Lane in October 1777, where she had modest success. By 1778, she was appearing at the Theatre Royal, Bristol, and displaying her versatility as a singer as well as an actress. The theatre management announced her in this way in the local newspapers:

“She is a good Singer, an excellent Actress, and it is a matter of dispute with the young Londoners in which character she appears to most advantage, male or female.” [i.e. in “breeches” parts, as in the image above]

In 1778 – 79, she returned to Drury Lane where she added dancing to her repertoire of skills. However, after that season she did not continue on the stage. The reason was simple. In May 1779 she married Edward Atkyns of Ketteringham Hall, near Wyndham in Norfolk, and bore him a son in 1780, though like many actresses who married into the gentry, she does not seem to have been easily accepted by her husband’s peers. The couple spent some time abroad, a fact that was put down to financial difficulties, at least by those who doubted her husband’s wisdom in marrying her. This is what Lady Jerningham wrote in a letter from Lille in 1784:

“A great many people have taken refuge here, to fly from their creditors in England; among the rest a Norwich family and a Mrs Atkins of Ketteringham. She was a player, a friend of Miss Younger. You may remember to have heard of her, and he was always a great simpleton or else he would not have married her.”

Others were more complimentary. A note preserved in the Folger Library and dated 1790, reads:

“Mrs Atkins, late Miss Walpole of Drury Lane Theatre, is perhaps the most [enterprising?] Female Equestrian. This Lady, whose residence is at Lille in Flanders, frequently rides for an airing… to Calais, which is 74 miles and returns the following Day with the greatest ease.”

The French Revolution

During the French Revolution, various tales circulated about Mrs Atkyns and her activities. Some claimed she acted as a spy for counter-revolutionaries; others that her heart was set on freeing Marie Antionette from imprisonment and spiriting her and her son out of the country to safety. Unfortunately, the sources for most of them date from long after the lady’s death and are heavily laced with romanticism.

I’m not going to go into those matters in this blog. They demand fuller treatment, which must be reserved for another occasion. All that matters now is to note that she gained something of a reputation for enthusiastic support of causes dear to her — and for spending her husband’s money on them.

The Norwich Election of 1806

Edward Akyns died young (36) in 1794 and Charlotte lived on alone at Ketteringham Hall. All was quiet until another matter arose into which she threw herself with her typical vigour.

Although women couldn’t vote at the time, a good number of ladies from the gentry and aristocracy took active roles in supporting their chosen ‘side’ in parliament. In 1806, the previous government, dubbed ‘The Ministry of All The Talents’, collapsed and fresh elections were called.

In Norfolk, the election for the two county members was especially fiercely fought. On the Whig side, Thomas Coke and William Windham opposed Colonel John Wodehouse, a man of firm Tory principles, assisted in his ambition by the wealth he had obtained by marrying an heiress. Both sides canvassed hard. However, the Whigs found themselves at a decided disadvantage in terms of feminine support, going so far as to claim that they were victims of a female conspiracy.

Coke had hoped for the support of Lady Townsend, but she preferred to ignore the Norfolk County vote in the hope of getting her son elected at Great Yarmouth. Windham had been both a member of the outgoing cabinet and a vocal supporter of war in the administration of William Pitt the Younger. As a result, he was now unpopular, since he was associated with a war against France of which many people were thoroughly tired. He also found female support decidedly lacking.

“Vote for the Colonel!”

The Whigs were even more irritated when two Tory ladies, a Mrs Bernie and our Mrs Charlotte Atkyns, decided to take a public part in proceedings. They rode around Norwich in a carriage, dressed in the Tory colours of pink and purple, canvassing and calling out “Vote for the Colonel!”

Things turned nasty. The Whigs denounced the two women as Amazons, “brazen-faced widows”, and “saucy and over-bold witches”, who dared:

“To trade and traffic with our fate
In riddles and affairs of state.”

Since both ladies had once been actresses, a good deal of sexual innuendo and general mud was also thrown against them. The Whigs even went so far as to dress two local prostitutes in their own colours and have them ride around Norwich the next day, pouring scorn on the Tory ladies. Coke at least was embarrassed:

“… some of Coke and Windham’s party placed two prostitutes in a barouche and drove them about in imitation of those ladies. Mr Coke said that on hearing of it, he did what he could to prevent it, but found one of his nephews at the head of the mob, which he could not stop.”

Coke and Windham won — just — but it proved a short-lived victory. The two Tory ladies were not to be outdone. They raised a petition, claiming bribery and electoral fraud. Coke and Windham lost the subsequent case, though neither were punished. However, the election result was declared null and void and had to be held again.

Since the two Whigs were said to have spent £33,000 on the previous election and defending the petition, neither had the means to take part in the re-run. Windham was given a seat for a safe “pocket Borough” by one of his supporters. Coke took his brother’s seat. Colonel Wodehouse also refused to stand again. Two Whigs were therefore elected, neither of whom had stood before. You might well say Mrs Atkyns had won in the end, even though no Tory member got elected.

As a postscript, it’s worth noting there was yet another election in 1807. This time, Windham tried to persuade one of the Whigs victorious in 1806 to stand aside for him, but was rebuffed. His personal unpopularity had grown to the point where he had no chance of re-election, either for Norfolk or his short-lived pocket Borough, so he withdrew from politics altogether.

Posted in Norfolk Eccentrics, Politics

Cat Epitaphs


Gravestone of Harry McNeish in Karori Cemetery showing statue of Mrs Chippy (Nigel Cross)

From the middle of the century, epitaphs for pet cats, usually in the form of poems, begin to appear in various newspapers and magazines. Here are some lines from one published anonymously in the London Magazine of 1733, obviously by a poet:

Oppressed with grief, in heavy strains I mourn
The partner of my studies from me torn.
How shall I sing? What numbers shall I choose?
For in my favourite cat I’ve lost my muse . . .
. . . She in the study was my constinate;
There we together many evenings sate.
Whene’er I felt my towering fancy fail,
I stroked her head, her ears, her back and tail;
And, as I stroked, improved my dying song
From the sweet notes of her melodious tongue.
Her purrs and mews so evenly kept time,
She purred in metre and she mewed in rhyme . . .

Another epitaph, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1769, opens like this:

Here lies beneath this verdant hill
Tom, a favourite cat,
Who when alive, did never spill
The blood of mouse or rat.

William Stukeley, antiquarian, wrote this of the death of his cat, Tit:

The creature had a sense far superior to her kind; had such inimitable ways of testifying her love to her master and mistress, that she was as a companion, especially so to me . . . From the admirable endowments of the cat I took a great liking to her, which gave me so much pleasure, without trouble. Her death I grieved for exceedingly .

She was buried in his garden under a mulberry tree, but poor Stukeley could never bring himself to go near it afterwards, or even look at her grave.

This comes from a tombstone at Meaford Hall, Stone, in Staffordshire.

’Tis false that all of pussy’s race
Regard not person but the place,
For here lies one who, could she tell
Her stories by some magic spell,
Would, from the quitted barn and grove,
Her sporting haunts, to show her love,
At sound of footsteps, absent long,
Of those she soothed with purring song,
Leap to their arms in fond embrace,
For love of them, and not for place.

As a final example, here’s the opening of an epitaph from 1775, published in the London Magazine:

Here lies entombed poor honest Blewet.
Poor honest Blewet, pray who’s that?
Some tippling Poet? No, a Cat . . .
It was a loving, lovely creature
Compleat in every grace and feature.

There’s more, but that gives a flavour of the whole.

Why does it seem that literary folk and cats are natural companions? I don’t know, but some of you may have ideas on the topic. If so, please add them via the comments.

Posted in Textiles, Tid-bits | 7 Comments

Georgian Courtship


The Courtship
painting by Louis-Rolland Trinquesse

In modern times, choosing a partner is seen as primarily a matter for the two persons concerned; a decision based on individual feelings of desire, affection and love. Not so in the eighteenth century. That’s not to say that none of these carried any weight in the choice of a wife or husband. They were not, however, the main criteria to be taken into account. Indeed, young men were warned against being tempted into an unfortunate match by such dangerous traits in a woman as beauty or winning ways. Other characteristics were far more important.

In choosing a wife, young men were counselled to look rather for virtue, a sober disposition and prudence, especially given the prevailing notion of ’separate spheres’ — men engaged in the public sphere of business, financial and estate management and politics; women took charge of the private sphere of household management, the raising of children and family relations. In 1708, Katherine Windham of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk counselled her son, Ashe, that:

“… there is no knowing a woman at first, don’t be to[o] confident but take a care. She has everybody’s good word as too her selfe. & hope you will alwaies find it so.”

While a few years earlier, in 1688, Brabazon Aylmer, in his book The Advice of a Father, Or, Counsel to a Child, warned that choice of wife should be made “rather by the ear, than by the eye.” One lady, Eleanor Ernle, in a letter to friend in 1739, records a ‘near miss’ in this way:

“… my young Gentleman had pickt a match at Bath … had not one of those Gentlemen got him out of town, almost by fors [force]: I fear he’ll not Shew himself prudent in his Choyce of wife tho’ he don’t want for a Sheve of good sense.”

The same Eleanor Ernle also noted what she saw as the requirements a woman should look for in a husband, itemising wealth, good manners, fine dress and appearance, refinement, liberality and compassion. How would they decide whether a prospective husband possessed these in sufficient quantity? By using the period of courtship.

Marriage as a Wider Family Contract

It’s important always to bear in mind that marriage, in Georgian times, was more a matter of ensuring provision for the future of an extended family than something of interest only to the two people involved. Given that there was no other basis for producing legitimate heirs, and through them the transmission of family lands and wealth to the next generation, it was inevitable that marital problems were seen as of direct interest to all family members. A good marriage could bring enhanced wealth and status, which would reflect on them as well. A bad or failed marriage might lead to the opposite outcome. Nor could it be undone, save by death of one of the parties, since divorce at the time was both difficult to obtain and terrifyingly expensive as well.

When thinking about the stage of courtship. It is modern thinking that focusses most attention on the growing love and affection between the two people involved. That might instigate the process, but no more than that. Georgian courtship was a process of each party winning the good will and acquiescence, if not always the active support, of a whole group of family members, friends and even neighbours. Outright opposition was always to be avoided, if at all possible.

What was this wider circle of ‘interested parties’ looking for? At bottom, they needed the assurance that the parties involved could — and would — fulfil the duties a marriage would bring. This began with financial security and the ability to produce the required heirs. The wife would be expected to bring some additional sources of wealth, influence or status to enhance what the husband might have already. She would also be expected to be a good manager of his household, including servants and the household budget. He, in turn, must be seen as a good provider, constant in his affections and steady in his financial dealings. Mutual liking and emotional support were highly desirable, of course, but it was often believed that these would grow over the years, rather than being present in full measure at the start of the marriage.

Courtship as a ‘Proving Ground’

It was during courtship that the potential suitability of a marriage was tried and tested — and maybe vetoed — by this wider group of family and friends. To marry without their support was hazardous, to say the least. Not only might it lead to the loss of an expected inheritance, it might well produce family and social ostracism, leaving the newly-married couple without any of the contacts and sources of support and ‘connection’ so necessary at the time. Since these disadvantages would also be visited on the children of such a marriage, it’s little wonder that an elopement or a marriage without family approval would be seen as a disaster on a major scale. Far from being the romantics’ notion of an openly disapproved but secretly envied figure, the Black Sheep of a family would most likely have been entirely cut off from any form of contact.

Katherine Windham had a long-down-out battle with her son Ashe over his marriage choice, reminding him that she had proposed several excellent matches, all of which he had ignored. When he did marry in the end, she clearly disapproved of his choice, complaining that he thought he:

“… had a Catch when everybody thinks you very much lessen yourself … why should you give so much when she does not deserve half so good.”

Sadly, in this case she was proved right. Before long she is complaining that:

“… her behaviour is now known in all the neighbourhood and every body pities you.”

That marriage quickly foundered, with Ashe Windham forbidding his wife to enter his house and them living apart for the rest of their lives.

Romantic notions of courtship and marriage in Georgian times may be all very well in modern novels and films, but they stray a long way from the truth. Courtship and marriage, as we have seen, were as much the business of a wider circle of families and friends — even family lawyers — as they were of the two people involved. The man had to woo them as well as his potential bride, proving his ability to provide the kind of future life they thought necessary before giving their blessing. The woman had to convince her future husband’s wider circle that she would bring much more to a marriage than a pretty face, a fine complexion and a good figure. Her ‘dowry’ went some way beyond the money involved to include her social standing, her family’s wider connections and her likely accomplishments as a mother and governor of her husband’s household.

No wonder some courtships could last months, even years!

Posted in Georgian Society | 2 Comments

Fox-hunting in Georgian Days


Mr. Peter Delme’s Hounds on the Hampshire Downs”, by James Seymour, 1738.

“Fox-hunting as we know it,” the social historian Roy Porter wrote, “was a Georgian invention.” He was, of course, referring to people on horseback, with a pack of specially-bred fox-hounds, chasing a fox across the countryside. Of the famous East Midlands hunts, the Quorn was founded in the 1770s, along with the Pytchley, the Belvoir and the Cottesmore. Foxes were hunted before then, primarily as a form of vermin control, but it was done on foot, with dogs, and probably involved finding a fox’s trail and following it back to its den. Even so, packs of hounds bred to hunt foxes were already known in the late 1600s in England and it was from these that the hounds used by mounted hunters were developed.

Hunting as an Upper-class Sport

It’s important to make the distinction between hunting as a sport and hunting for food. Foxes are obviously inedible. Oscar Wilde famously described the sport as “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable!” In earlier times, hunting wild boar, deer and hares, for example, all began as a means of obtaining fresh meat, especially in the winter after the vast bulk of domesticated animals had been slaughtered, because sufficient food to keep them alive and fed over the hard times was unavailable. Where foxes were hunted, it was because they were seen as vermin to be kept under control. This made them very much a lower-class quarry, where hunting the deer was the preserve of kings and aristocrats.

By Georgian times, wild boar were extinct in Britain and deer had mostly to be kept in fenced deer parks, making hunting them still very much the preserve of the richest in society. Improved agriculture and land enclosure made setting aside large tracts of land in this way beyond the resources even of most of the lower aristocracy and the gentry. Besides, that same improved agriculture, especially the introduction of turnips and forage crops, made it increasingly possible for cattle, pig and sheep-farming to provide year-round supplies of fresh meat.

Paradoxically, this progressive removal of the need to hunt for meat made the activity itself, viewed as a sport, more desirable. For a start, it proclaimed you had what was necessary to stake part in such a “useless” activity; the wealth to afford the highly-bred horses and hounds required and the leisure to indulge yourself in that way. In short, hunting on horseback became a badge of affluence and status, irrespective of the animal being hunted. Given that foxes were plentiful, and killing them could be seen as beneficial to farmers, they became almost the ideal prey — even more so given their wily nature and running ability.

This produced an obvious paradox too. If fox hunts were too successful — and too frequent — the number of foxes in a locality would fall to a level where there would be insufficient to make even a minority of hunts into chases. The inevitable result was a level of protection for foxes, in order to have sufficient to hunt in the winter months, despite the proclaimed purpose of protecting chickens and lambing ewes in the spring. Even in the early 18th century, we find records of payments made for this reason. In the Holkham household accounts on November 20th 1721, for example, there is a record of a payment “to a shepheard for preserving foxes: 13s 6d”. That was a significant amount of money in those days too; perhaps two or three months’ wages for an agricultural labourer.

Better Horses and Hounds

If you owned an extensive estate, as most of the gentry and aristocracy did in Georgian times, developing its usefulness for hunting would increase your status as well. Friends, acquaintances and anyone suitable you wished to impress could be invited to visit to take part in a hunt.

It was also during Georgian times that specialist breeding of thoroughbred horses for racing became a significant and sometimes even profitable business. Similar horses were also required for fox-hunting, with the advantage that there were many more fox hunts than race meetings at which you could show off your beasts. At a time when the vast majority of horses were seen as merely utilitarian creatures, spending your money on rearing and maintaining a stable of animals useful for no purpose other than riding to hounds was yet another means of proclaiming your wealth and status to everyone in the neighbourhood.

The Norfolk Connection

While researching this topic, I discovered that although fox-hunting came to be most associated with the counties of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland, significant advances in the breeding of both hounds and horses can be traced to Georgian Norfolk, especially the great estates of Houghton, Holkham and Raynham.

In the early 1720s, Sir Robert Walpole already kept two packs of hounds specifically for hunting foxes and hares, using them up to six days in the week. The Holkham accounts record that one William Pickford was paid £102 in June 1718 for “keeping ye foxhounds 34 weeks at Beck Hall”. George Townsend at Raynham kept hounds for fox-hunting between 1752 and 1772 and Thomas Coke was styled master of the Norfolk Foxhounds from 1775 to 1797.

Norfolk and Norfolk grandees were at the forefront of hound breeding from the late seventeenth century onwards. In 1767, Lord Townsend of Raynham was drawing hounds’ family trees in his own hand with notes and reminders to himself about his plans for future breeding. The Raynham hound registers and correspondence of the 1760s reveal a widespread network of breeding links all over East Anglia and the Midlands.

A piece of doggerel verse of 1791 records:

… now the dogs were laid on and no merrier sounds
Ever came from the Holkham or Leicestershire hounds
Nor sweeter the cry that our ears could assail
In Pytchley’s thick covers or Belvoir’s stiff vale …
And since Taverham pack can hunt foxes with Meynells
More sport when so e’er he another unkennels.

(Taverham is a village near Norwich)

A Wider Country Pursuit?

So why did what began as the private outdoor recreation of the aristocracy and country squires developed into an important feature of rural society, with a significance out of all proportion to its role as a sport?

I suspect the main reason was the comparative ease with which lesser gentry and even tenant farmers could partake in a sport with obvious aristocratic and high-status overtones. All you needed was a single riding horse sufficiently capable of following the hunt across country. You might not be able to afford anything better — or to follow the hounds that often — but so long as you could ride well enough not to get in the way or make a fool of yourself, you could still take part as a hunt follower. And since, if you were a tenant of a fox-hunting squire, his hounds were going to cross your fields and maybe damage your crops, whether you agreed or not, you might as well take part and curry what favour you could from the elite of the sport in your locality.

Posted in Georgian Society

Georgian Workers in Wood

Cabinet Fine Georgian Cabinet-Making

In the eighteenth century, not all craftsmen were equal. There was a definite hierarchy amongst them, based on a number of different factors: the amount of skill or artistry required to do the work, the nature of the materials used and whether or not the work was laborious and dirty. For example, goldsmiths and silversmiths came at the top of the hierarchy. The amount of skill and artistry required was significant; the materials used were extremely expensive; and although working in metals has a certain amount of dirt associated with it, it was also seen as highly artistic, especially in the design and decoration of the final object.

Even within a particular craft, there could be significant gradations in the esteem given to various aspects of the work. I’m going to take making furniture as an example.

The Hierarchy in Wood-working

Carpenters and Joiners

Mere carpenters made simple wooden objects or did repairs; nothing that demanded particular skill beyond the basics; nothing that contained an artistic element. Roof timbers, wall timbers, floors and things like that. Next in esteem came the joiners. They constructed windows and door frames, doors, window shutters, book presses and shelving, and panelling; not furniture, especially fine pieces, Joinery is skilful work, of course, especially if the customer was the owner of a fine house, but it’s still mostly a matter of cutting and fitted together pieces of wood accurately. At the time, this caused it to be seen as somewhat less skilled and more laborious and dirty than the work of the more esteemed craftsmen in wood. Next in hierarchy were cabinet-makers.

Cabinet-makers and Upholsterers

Cabinet-making developed to handle more skilled and complex work than joiners undertook. For a start, a cabinet-maker worked with the more exotic woods suitable for the finer, lighter and more highly finished furniture required by aristocratic customers, the gentry and the most prosperous of the middle class. This type of fine furniture, making its way from France and Holland, required additional techniques that had not previously been in use; techniques such as veneering in rare woods or tortoiseshell, marquetry or the use of highly decorative metal or similar inlays. The actual construction of the object, especially the precision of the joints, the overall design and highly decorative interior fittings, might also require extremely advanced skills in the cabinet-maker.

Oddly enough, once, say, a chair had been made, those who applied the decoration to it were seen as engaging in more ‘genteel’ activities. Upholsterers, for example, often worked with expensive and luxurious fabrics. They were considered superior to almost any other craftsmen involved in making furnishings, save for the very finest wood-carvers.

Craft Specialisation

As demand for fine furniture increased, even the most famous cabinet-makers had to resort to the very first kinds of ‘mass production’. Those who produced cheaper furniture went even further down this path. In earlier centuries, a cabinet-maker would produce a complete object, from basic frame to final decoration. By the 1760s — and to a still greater extent after then — we find different craftsmen specialising in specific stages of constructing and decorating the more complex kinds of furniture. This led to companies being formed, which could preserve quality while increasing the output of goods for sale. The days of relying on a single, individual master-craftsman, supported by one or two journeymen and a few apprentices were coming rapidly to an end.

The evidence for this in furniture-making comes from inventories showing stocks of certain parts of items being produced and stored separately from the rest. For example, one inventory in 1760 included ‘Ten sets of mahogany table feet … Twenty-six mahogany feet for breakfast tables … Thirty wainscot table feet … Twelve pair of cards-table legs … Six tops for breakfast tables part veneered.’ Another, this time from 1763, is even more suggestive of work on a large scale: ‘222 Marlborough feet for tables and chairs … Thirty-five table legs with turned toes.’

To make this number of individual items must indicate several craftsmen producing similar objects. It made sense. Each table or chair required four legs and their feet, so the making of table legs and feet would have been a repetitive, routine job; while their generally similar design and decoration made them suitable for the production of a large quantity of similar items to be stored, ready-made, for future use. When the number of items ‘in store’ was especially large, it may also have represented items for use in the production of cheaper lines of furniture.

The Introduction of Machinery

By the end of the century, some workshops clearly operated with a high degree of specialisation, employing craftsmen to concentrate on particular aspects of the overall task. This made sense in the ‘mass production’ of cheaper items. However, it was equally applicable to some specialist work, such as inlaying or, in the case of billiard tables, the preparing of a special slate, baize-covered top to ensure the table was absolutely level.

The same steady move towards specialisation and the introduction of a rational division of labour within a workshop could be mirrored throughout many of the craft activities of the 18th-century. By the early nineteenth, the introduction of machinery to undertake more routine tasks caused even greater changes in the status and the training of craftsmen. It wasn’t until the Arts and Crafts Movement of late Victorian times that an emphasis on handmade and craft furniture, as opposed to machine-made items, attracted the interest of wealthy customers; and by then, the finest exponents of furniture design and construction were seen as artists, not ‘mere’ craftsmen.

Posted in Georgian Society | 4 Comments