The (Forgotten) Georgian Origins of Pantomime

Pantomime

Advertisement in The Norfolk Chronicle, 20th July, 1793, for a pantomime at the city’s Vauxhall Gardens. Note all the special effects and illusions.

Today, pantomimes are flashy, high audience-participation entertainments for families and children, performed in the run-up to Christmas. Most follow more-or-less traditional storylines: Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Robinson Crusoe. The principal male character is always played by an attractive young woman. The principal female comic character is played by a middle-aged or elderly man in unconvincing drag. Whenever possible, the producer tries to get at least one famous name onto the bill.

Pantomimes began in England in Georgian times. They were not for children; they could be performed throughout the year; the storyline need not be traditional or a fairytale; and most had no dialogue, only music — songs interspersed with recitatives — dance, tumbling and mime.

Yet even from its inception, the pantomime was designed to be an exciting spectacle based on non-stop entertainment; a light-hearted, comic performance given after the main item on the programme had ended.

The Beginnings of Pantomime

John Rich, a dancer, acrobat and mime artist, invented the English pantomime in the 1720s. At that time, he was managing a theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London and needed a new kind of entertainment to bring in the crowds. What he put together, drawing from his own performing background, was separate a item on the playbill. His first efforts combined a story drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a harlequinade in the form of an energetic and acrobatic series of chase scenes, featuring characters from the Italian Commedia dell’arte: Harlequin, the young magician; Columbine, his lady-love; the girl’s over-protective father, Pantaloon; and his bumbling servant, the Clown Pulchinello. Singing and other forms of popular music were added, along with stage machinery and conjuring tricks. There was no dialogue and the story was told in mime. In short order, this comedic mélange made up the first pantomimes in the new English style.

Rich’s creation proved to be a fabulous success. Audiences loved the blend of slapstick comedy, high-speed chases, acrobatic displays, stage illusions and magic tricks. For over 150 years, the character of Harlequin appeared in almost every pantomime, along with comic chase scenes between Harlequin, Columbine, her father and the clown — all providing opportunities for memorable music, slapstick fun and general tomfoolery. It was agility combined with simple fun — a blend of spectacle, comedy, music, ballet and acrobatics that was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It wasn’t long before nearly every evening in the theatre ended with a pantomime to send the audience away in a good mood.

The Nay-Sayers

The critics naturally attacked the new pantomimes, deriding them as a “foreign entertainment” which was bound to cause the death of serious theatre. Other theatre managers tried to dismiss Rich’s innovation as frivolous rubbish, popular only through its novelty.

David Garrick, perhaps the greatest 18th-century actor-manager, greatly disliked pantomimes and tried to limit their performance to set times of the year, notably around Christmas. Nevertheless, he was far too canny to ignore the popularity of the pantomime with audiences and the commercial potential this offered. “If they won’t come to Lear and Hamlet”, he said, “I must give them Harlequin”.

Bring on the Clown

The next major step in the development of the pantomime came at the end of the 18th century, when Joseph Grimaldi took the character of the Clown and made it the star of the show. He it was who invented many of the gags and prat-falls that are still an essential part of pantomime today: the ‘butter slide’ (today’s banana skin), the nonsense songs, the objects which come alive, the fights with figures of authority and the tormenting of other characters. He also allowed the clown to speak for the first time, and the other characters followed.

Grimaldi abandoned the traditional costume of Pulchinello in favour of something much closer to modern-day circus clowns: a white face and red cheeks; enormously baggy trousers; a huge, painted grinning mouth; and an enormous repertoire of grimaces and other facial expressions. He also introduced cross-dressing, playing comic female characters in a number of pantomimes.

The Most Elastic Form

Pantomime, since its inception, has survived mainly through constant adaptation and novelty. The only items that have remained static have been the basic plot elements: good triumphing over evil and young love defeating the forces of parental disapproval and respectability. The stories drawn from classical mythology were soon replaced by more familiar tales. “Robinson Crusoe” was created in 1781, with Clown, Harlequin and Pantaloon translated to a desert Island. “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp” dates from 1788, followed by “Babes in the Wood”. “Cinderella” joined them in 1804.

Pantomime also spawned other forms of popular entertainment. ‘Mr Punch’, in Punch and Judy shows, takes his name from the clown Pulcinello, along with the dog, the strings of sausages and the fights with the policeman. Acrobatic acts, magicians, singers and comedians formed the central elements in Victorian Music Hall. The clowns invaded the circus, and a long list of slapstick comedies appeared on stage, film and television, from the manic chases in the Keystone Cops to Benny Hill, and from Steptoe to ’Ello, ’ello and Monty Python.

Like so much else today, it all began with the Georgians.

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Georgian Agricultural Labour: “Men as Machines”

Three_farm_labourers_waiting_to_be_hired_for_work.

During the eighteenth century, England’s agricultural lands and economy changed from yeoman and peasant subsistence farming to something not too different from what is with us today: professional, commercial, market-oriented production, relying on sufficient inputs of capital to sustain ever-increasing levels of productivity. Just as now, ‘progressive’ farmers were turning more and more to ‘genetic modification’ (via the new technique of selective breeding) and the growing use of what was, for the time, expensive, ‘high-tech’ machinery.

It’s quite likely that the country would never have been able to support a rapidly increasing — and increasingly urban — population without the changes which took place. Nor could there have been the expansion of the middle class and the steady improvement in living standards, at least for the better off. Of course, there were losers as well as winners. The greatest losers were the rural poor: those who had once been peasants with access to common lands. They were now landless day-labourers, existing on poorly paid work, which was both seasonal and open to unexpected competitive pressures. The greatest winners were the moneyed elite. Plus ça change …

The rural labouring poor were essential, but that did not make them valued. A Swedish visitor to England in 1748 noted the prevalence of day-labour, especially in those parts of the country where enclosures had proceeded fastest.

In this place, it is the custom that a farmer does not keep many servants, but always employs day-labourers, for which reason in every village there live a great many poor, who wore themselves out to work for pence.

(Account of his Visit to England, P. Kalm, tr. J. Lucas, London, 1892)

Amongst those who thought and wrote about social conditions in England, such as Gregory King at the end of the previous century, the view was already common that the ‘labouring poor’ made no positive contribution to the country’s wealth at all, since their earnings were so meagre they could not support themselves most of the time. At regular intervals and in old age, almost all became dependent on poor relief. Taken as a whole, so the argument went, they and their families spent more time receiving parish support than contributing to the economy as a whole. Add to that the prevailing view amongst landowners, tenant farmers and almost everyone who had to pay rates to support the meagre handouts given under the Poor Law that poverty was self-inflicted — the result of idleness and feckless living.

What was going on?

Many writers and historians, especially those with a left-leaning view of social history, have placed the blame firmly on the shoulders of the ruling elites and the wealthier elements in the society of the time. There’s definitely a degree of truth in that, but it’s far from being the whole story. What it ignores is the novelty of the situation. The so-called Agricultural Revolution of these years was entirely unprecedented in scope and impact. I suspect few people understood the likely outcome of what seemed plain common sense: fresh ways of organising and delivering food production; ways that offered massive improvements in crop yields, animal husbandry and the supply chain from farm to market to final consumer.

Let’s return for a moment to my earlier comment that the new style of eighteenth-century closely resembled today’s agriculture, but without the use of machinery. Lacking suitable machines, manpower — and woman and child power — had to be used instead. Even when primitive versions of suitable machinery were invented, their take-up was slow. Not until mid-Victorian times were items like seed drills in common use. Why bother with machinery when there were people ready and eager to do the work?

Men (and Women) as Machines

The trouble with agricultural work is that it is intermittent and highly seasonal, depending on varying crop yields and even more varying weather. Harvest time requires all available resources, yet may occur on almost any days over a period of a month or more. Today’s high-tech farmer uses contractors with vast machines to hoover up his crop in a matter of hours. He doesn’t own the machines himself. If he did, all that capital outlay would lie idle for maybe 350 days a year or more.

Now translate the same problem to Georgian times. The farmer needs large numbers of labourers for short periods. He doesn’t want to employ them at other times. That would be money wasted, even if he could afford it. Instead, he hires them as and when he needs them, paying them by the day, and lays them off as soon as he can. It’s simple business sense. It’s not his problem if they have no work at other times.

Those few skilled agricultural workers needed all year — shepherds, stockmen, wagoners and perhaps ploughmen — would be hired via the annual hiring fairs, contracting their labour at a set rate for the 12 months to come. They had some job security. The day labourers had none.

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Georgian Mercantilism

William_Clark_-_The_English_Merchant_Ship_'Malabar'_-_Google_Art_Project

The English Merchant Ship ‘Malabar’
William Clark

Mercantilism was the main economic idea underpinning British government policy on trade from the 16th to the 18th centuries. As such, it defined the nature, direction and systems used in commerce, especially overseas trading. It also lay behind Britain’s almost casual acquisition of colonies in the same time period. Huge, government-backed trading empires, like the East India Company, were the standard bearers of an accelerating drive to monopolise the most profitable markets for British goods, while blocking attempts by other countries to swing a greater share of trading wealth towards themselves.

Mercantilism is based on an economic theory that the total amount of wealth available at any one time is fixed. It is up to each country, therefore, to get and retain as large a share of that total as possible. Since export trade generates wealth, just as importing spends it, to accumulate more wealth requires weighting the balance between imports and exports in favour of exports. Imperialism looked to be a good way of ensuring a steady flow of exports, especially of high-value manufactured goods, while providing a correspondingly cheap source of the necessary raw materials. Other profitable trade imbalances were encouraged by protectionism: limiting imports of foreign goods which might compete with home-based manufacturing by imposing tariffs or trade embargoes.

Bullion is King

The method used in mercantilism to measure a country’s wealth and success is the amount of gold and silver bullion it has in its treasury. A country which has more bullion than another must be wealthier, more powerful and more secure; with greater freedom to impose its will on other, less successful states. Once again, the best way to ensue a strong holding of gold and silver bullion was to maximise exports and limit imports, thus creating a constant net inflow of foreign bullion to maintain or swell the country’s existing stocks. At a time when national currencies were linked to physical holdings of bullion, this seemed plain common sense. The richer you were, the more freedom you had to pursue further expansion, whether through conquest or seizure of lands and resources.

Mercantile Investment

However, mercantilism was about more than accumulating stocks of bullion. By themselves, such stocks were of little practical use. It was what you did with the favourable balance of trade — the strong net inflow of wealth — which mattered most. What the great Georgian merchants wanted was freedom to use their wealth to create *more* wealth; to be able to invest their money how and where they wished, not have the government take it in taxes and duties, then use it in unproductive ways such as warfare or buying political alliances.

Mercantilist thinkers, starting in the 17th century with Sir William Petty, scientist, economist and inventor, were concerned with maximising employment and improving labour productivity. Using their capital in this way would, they argued, produce still greater wealth. Purchasers of goods created income for merchants and manufacturers, along with a source of livelihood for the poor. The miser who saved his money, and the government which wasted it on political patronage and overseas adventures, produced nothing for anyone.

Free Trade

In many ways, free trade, as championed by 18th-century thinkers like Adam Smith, seems to be the antithesis of the protectionist approach of the mercantilists. Yet even Adam Smith was not opposed to regulation or protectionism *per se*; his concern was how much should be used and under what circumstances. Too much regulation gave the government excessive power — and offered too many opportunities for rogue individuals to abuse it for personal gain. Some was needed, but it should always be kept to a minimum. Left alone, the naturally competing demands of a market economy would settle into a balanced state. Protecting employment and investing capital to increase wealth are neither unworthy nor unreasonable aims. Most of the good things of life — the arts, medicine, education, the sciences, enough leisure time and civilised living conditions — depend on creating a sufficient surplus of disposable wealth over essential expenditures. The free traders felt this was such an obvious goal for everyone involved in business there was no need for clumsy regulations to make it happen.

Our Georgian forefathers wanted to have their cake and eat it too; to be able to trade freely themselves *and* defend employment at home. In that sense, they had the same outlook as most people today. Where they differed from us most was in their definition of what kinds of trade were ethically acceptable.

Ethical Profits — or Just Easy Ones?

The slave trade to us is an abomination, yet a good many of the grand Georgian mansions and their exquisite contents we so admire were paid for, directly or indirectly, from the profits of that trade. The same goes for the sugar produced by the slaves. To us, there was too often gross exploitation of conquered peoples via imperial rule. Generally speaking, the Georgians saw opportunities for profit first and any ethical considerations some way behind. In the eyes of most churchmen of the time, God had given mankind the earth to use for its benefit. If that meant the powerful and technologically advanced called the shots, that was simply the natural order, just as the most powerful animal predators could not be expected to concern themselves with the feelings of their prey.

Is Mercantilism Discredited?

Only by theorists. Mercantilism as policy is alive and in robust health today. The current fuss about “trade wars” and the impositions of tariffs against “foreign dumping of goods” would seem completely normal to any 18th century merchant. Several modern countries are praised, even envied, for running trade surpluses, and there are few governments which do not make increasing net exports a major policy goal. Yet an economic policy that helps employment at home must either induce other countries to limit their exports or accept lower levels of employment in *their* economies. Free trade — a complete lack of protectionism — may be more efficient than protectionism, but of itself it does nothing to increase trading volumes or deal with the obvious problems of work being exported as goods are imported.

The Georgian merchants with their openly mercantile policies were trying to cope with exactly the same problems of unequal distribution of wealth as we are today — and without our supposed advantages of two-and-a-half further centuries of economic theorising and historical perspective. Maybe it’s time we viewed their efforts with more understanding and fewer automatic and superficial judgements.

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William Savage, Georgian Musician

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Boy Chorister of the Chapel Royal
Richard Buckner, 1873 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Recently, entirely by chance, I discovered the existence of my Georgian namesake, William Savage, who turned out to be a distinguished musician, noted singer, capable composer and long-term friend of the great George Frederick Handel himself. Indeed, William Savage took solo roles in many performances of Handel’s choral and operatic works under the composer’s personal direction.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me say that this William Savage is, to the best of my belief, not directly related to me in any way. Savage is not that uncommon a surname and occurs in several distinct, regional clusters. It’s possible that, in the sufficiently remote past, the Georgian William’s ancestors and mine were linked, but there’s nothing to prove it. All this William and I can be proved to share is the same name.

His Life

William Savage was born in 1720 and died in 1789. He seems to have spent nearly all of his life in London, initially as a singer, then as choirmaster, composer and admired teacher of singing and music theory. He was also an eager collector of music manuscripts, many of which remain in public and academic collections.

Savage’s family, like many others, lost a considerable amount in the financial collapse known as the South Sea Bubble. However, his own natural musical talent was noted early and he became a pupil of Dr. Pepusch and the Italian musician/composer Geminiani, with a view to making music his profession. At the time, this would have meant securing suitable employment in the musical activities of the Anglican church. He became organist of Finchley Church, Middlesex, in 1741 and a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (a professional member of the choir in the Royal chapel in St. James) in 1744. His eminence as a church musician was assured when, in 1747, he was appointed Almoner (a minor church official, originally in charge of distributing money to the deserving poor, but latterly mainly an honorific title), Vicar Choral (another term for a professional cathedral cathedral choir member) and Master of the Choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a post he was to hold for almost 30 years. Ill health forced him to resign as Master of the Choristers in 1773 and as a Vicar Choral in 1777. He left London and lived at Tenterden, in Kent, for some four years after that to recover his health. Finally, in 1781 he returned to London as a music teacher and died in 1789.

He married a reputedly beautiful and definitely wealthy young woman (she had a fortune of £19,000 (some £3.5 million in today’s terms). It seems to have been a happy marriage, producing the children who survived. The elder of the two sons entered the church. The younger went to work for the East India Company, got involved in some sort of scandal and had to leave England for the West Indies, where he died a few years later.

His Musical Activities

Dr Burney claimed that the young Savage sang as a boy treble in the choir of the Chapel Royal in St. James, London, but there seems to be some doubt of this. What is agreed, however, is that he first came to public notice singing treble in a number of Handel’s popular Italian operas in the 1730s. This close association with the great George Frederick Handel continued for many years. After his voice had broken, William Savage sang bass in many of Handel’s operas and oratorios. He obviously must have had a fine voice and excellent musicianship to persuade Handel to use him so many times.

As a composer, Savage’s output was predominantly geared towards the Anglican church. He wrote a good number of anthems, together with various settings of the services and similar music. He also wrote more than a dozen secular songs, several duets and number of ‘catches’: the pieces for group singing which were so popular at the time. The list of his principal pupils reads like a roll-call of the most eminent English church musicians of the day.

Why has he been nearly forgotten? Perhaps because his performances were as a singer and left nothing behind but memories. Perhaps because he largely confined his compositions to church music at a time when the Anglican church was even more than usually moribund. Perhaps because the main chronicler of music at the time, Dr. Charles Burney, revealed a clear antipathy to Savage, damning him with faint praise and snide innuendos. Perhaps only for the same reason as the many pupils he taught: because English music was at one of its lowest points and the public wisely looked to foreign composers for pieces of real distinction.

Jane Savage

Before leaving William Savage, I have to mention his only daughter, Jane, who was arguably the most successful and interesting of his three children — at least until she married and gave up a musical career.

Jane was born in either 1752 or 1753 and lived until 1824. She obviously inherited her father’s musical talent, becoming a noted player of the harpsichord and a composer in her own right. Her published works appeared mostly in the 1780s and included several bravura pieces for both harpsichord and piano. Since the printed scores gave her address as the house her father was living in at the time, we can assume she lived with him.

Unfortunately, first her mother Mary, née Bolt, died in 1788, followed by her father in 1789. Left alone, Jane married a Mr Rolleston, described as “a respectable merchant of Mincing Lane”. Whether she continued her musical career is not clear, but she certainly published no more pieces under her married name. I suspect she gave herself up to domesticity, despite her music’s popularity at the time. For a respectable married woman to follow a career of any kind was far from usual in those days. One can only hope the trade-off of any career for the security of marriage proved to be a good one.

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Discovering “The Picturesque”

Landscape, Cliffs and Trees null by Rev. William Gilpin 1724-1804

William Gilpin, “Landscape, Cliffs and Trees” (Tate Gallery)

For many decades during the 17th and 18th centuries, young upper-class men (and some women) had undertaken a “Grand Tour” of Europe (principally Italy) to acquire ‘polish’ and gain first-hand experience of the glories of Rome as revealed in its art and architecture. At a time when education in the Greek and Latin Classics was seen as complete in itself, the Grand Tour provided the final ingredient required to produce “politeness”: the capacity to function properly within an upper-class and civilised social environment. To lack this would mean social ostracism and the destruction of future marriage and dynastic prospects.

So far, so good. The road to Rome was filled with young English ‘milords’, eager to have a good time and bring back suitable art to grace their country mansions — and convince their families that they had not spent all their time with Italian courtesans. Unfortunately, as the 18th century progressed, tensions and wars with France, culminating in the Revolution and pan-European conflict, made lengthy visits to Italy too hazardous — and too potentially unpatriotic — to continue as before. Instead, people turned their attention to the remoter parts of England. The burgeoning Romantic Movement endowed places like the Lake District and the Wye Valley with the potential to induce the same awe as the Alps. England’s own ruins — the abandoned monasteries and castles — served as substitutes for Roman aqueducts and temples.

What was lacking was an explicit link between such locations and high art. All the revered masters of landscape painting of the period had chosen continental subjects, many redolent of the influence of the Classical World. How could the ‘correct’ artistic sensibility and taste be nurtured in a countryside as different as England’s? Especially in a place notably lacking in classical ruins, scantily clad nymphs and elegant young Grecian shepherds?

An Artificial World

The landscapes and vistas admired on the Grand Tour were themselves a series of artistic constructs far removed from dull reality. The much-admired landscapes of artists like Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin were fantasies, not realistic representations. Why should the same process not be applied to English landscapes? Why should continental Europe have a monopoly on the subject matter of the newly created study of aesthetics: the definition of what makes a beautiful thing truly beautiful?

Throughout the century, the wealthiest landowners graced their parks with mock classical temples at suitable viewpoints; or added romantic, ivy-clad ruins as and where needed to produce artistic vistas. Under the influence of men like ‘Capability’ Brown, landscape gardening was transformed into a new and very English art form. The Landscape Style in garden design was England’s greatest contribution to European art in that century, and the one which owed least to continental models. Even the French, who imitated it, called it le jardin Anglais and the style was taken up eagerly throughout all of continental Europe.

The essence of landscape design of the time can be expressed thus: if nature has not produced a landscape conforming to the required aesthetic standards, it should be altered and adapted until it did. In the same way that paintings and sculptures acquired during the Grand Tour could be used to make ‘beautiful’ interiors, your park and garden could be landscaped to offer an equally pleasing aesthetic outside. Beginning with William Kent and “Capability” Brown, the boundary between art and landscape was blurred, until each became an idealised version of the other. Just as an artist could use his imagination to make a view more picturesque on the canvas than in real life, so landscape architects should improve on nature’s raw material to evoke the image required.

Defining the Picturesque

We owe much of the definition of the aesthetic of ‘The Picturesque’ to Rev. William Gilpin, Anglican clergyman, artist and author, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, who established themselves as arbiters of taste in this respect. “Capability” Brown had seen the ideal landscape as made up of curved and undulating lines, formed by wide grassy areas, irregular lakes and trees, alone or in clumps. Gilpin, Price and Payne Knight rejected this as tame and unnatural, just as the geometric regularity French gardens like Versailles were unnatural. ‘Natural’ landscapes should be more savage and less domesticated. It was not just a matter of seeking out places calculated to evoke strong emotions in the viewer (awe, fear, wonder, pleasure). In creating art, whether on canvas or in the landscape itself, those emotions should be heightened into expressions of sublime beauty or jaw-dropping terror. Perhaps the ultimate expression on canvas of art as the expression of latent emotion in a scene surfaced in the wild, impressionistic and often violent visions of JMW Turner. The Fighting Temeraire * isn’t simply being towed to the breaker’s yard; she is heading to an awesome, ghostly Götterdämmerung of her own.

Fighting Temeraire

“The Fighting Temeraire” (JMW Turner, 1838) National Gallery

Gilpin’s ideas were then taken up and extended by two squires from the counties bordering on Wales, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight. They knew each other and admired one another’s books. In 1794, Uvedale Price published his “Essay on the Picturesque”, a work he revised over and over until it reached its final form in 1810. In the same year, Payne Knight published a long poem called “The Landscape” and dedicated it to Price.

What both contended, as did Humphrey Repton, was that a truly aesthetic appreciation of nature involved looking at landscape with “a painter’s eye”. The picturesque was, literally, that which was worthy to be the subject of a painting in the fashionable style of the day. Like the paintings of Claude and Poussin, they should confront the viewer with scenes of Classical grandeur, calculated to command rapt attention.

To help you see with this “painter’s eye”, you should turn your back on the scene and view its distorted and recoloured reflection in what was termed a ‘Claude Glass’ or ‘black mirror’: a somewhat concave piece of polished metal with a dark grey surface, which would compress an image of the scene and render it in the brownish, limited palate of colours so familiar from the Old Masters.

Aesthetics and Elitism

The Grand Tour had been an experience for the elite in society, if only from the cost involved and the time it took. Those young men would often be away for several years. Bringing home the expected bounty of acquired art also demanded deep pockets. Completing the tour itself conferred elite status — and significant boasting rights! Entire mansions were constructed to house the booty brought home and display it to awe-struck visitors. The seriously wealthy Coke family at Holkham Hall in north Norfolk filled their newly (and specially) built near-palace with Grand Tour artefacts. The much less wealthy Windhams at Felbrigg Hall a few miles away had to be content with setting aside a single room for the bulk of the art, and allowing some larger paintings to spill over into the remodelled drawing room next door.

How were these socially desirable benefits to be gained while remaining in England?

The new aesthetic of “The Picturesque” offered one answer. To appreciate nature with “a painter’s eye” required time, considerable learning, and the type of connoisseurship only acquired by those with access to private collections of the best landscape art. It was an attribute limited to a wealthy elite; a type of sensibility whose display provided ‘proof’ of elite status and cultural refinement. As with so much in Georgian and Regency times, it was an attribute and an expression of social class. No one who had to earn their livelihood, whether in trade, commerce or industry, would have the free time available to cultivate such a refined aesthetic sense. It marked you out in ways impossible to emulate through mere cash expenditure.

At a time when the landed gentry were under threat from growing middle-class wealth and declining agricultural prices, how comforting it must have been to be able to reassert your superiority via fashionable aesthetic pursuits. After all, such behaviour is still to be found amongst the upper-class cultural pundits of today — and often for similar reasons.

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The Georgian Clergy (Part 1)

Thomas_Rowlandson_-_The_Preacher

The Preacher (Thomas Rowlandson)

It’s easy to assume that the whole gamut of Georgian clergymen were like either the oily Mr Collins, in Pride and Prejudice, or Rev. Gilbert White, happily recording his nature observations in Selborne — basically fairly prosperous and on at least acquaintanceship terms with the local gentry. It’s true that clergy of the established, Anglican church were treated as ‘honorary gentlemen’. Most would have attended Oxford or Cambridge universities. Quite a few were younger sons or cousins of landed gentry families. However, this was far from being universal and certainly did not apply to the many Dissenting Ministers, who served in non-conformist chapels. Nor should prosperity be assumed. There were three main categories of Anglican clergy. In a rough descending order of income, these were rectors, vicars and curates. Dissenting Ministers make up a confusing category of their own.

Rectors and Vicars

I’ve put these together, because the distinction, while important, is less than between the other categories. Collectively, parsons from both groups (plus Perpetual Curates) might be referred to as the ‘incumbent’: literally the man who lay down in the living — or, at least, the rectory, vicarage or parsonage attached. Yes, the upper two categories got a free house for life as well; sometimes quite a grand one.

Rectors ‘held’ the living, in the sense that they could retain it for life, had a legal right to the associated income and could not be forced out, save on the most serious disciplinary grounds. They were not deputies, like vicars, who might in theory be dismissed by the rector for whom they deputised. The rector could also lay claim to all the income from the living; the vicar only the part of it allowed him by the rector.

This income came from two sources. Most parishes included a small farm, called ‘glebe land’. This was a hangover from mediaeval days, when parish priests had to grow the bulk of their own food. By Georgian times, few, if any, parsons farmed their glebe personally. Most either came to an arrangement with a local farmer to manage the land for them, in return for a share of the produce, or rented it out. Either way, it should produce spare income as well as provisions for the kitchen.

The bulk of the money associated with the living came from the tithe: a church tax of ten percent, levied on certain lands, produce or property in the parish. It was mostly paid in cash by this time, but sometimes till in kind. Either way, agreeing the tithe (it could vary according to the value of that year’s crops), as well as collecting it, formed part of the incumbent’s tasks — whether he was rector or vicar. It might be the incumbent’s right to demand payment, but he still had to get it — and deal with defaulters and late payers. Generally, it was collected on two fixed days in the year, with those owing money coming to bring it in person — and expecting a good (free) meal and plenty of drink in return!

To sum up, rectors were the clergy who had the right to the whole income of the living and operated only under the supervision and control of the diocesan bishop. Vicars were formally ‘deputies’ to a rector, in cases where the rector was either unable or unwilling to serve the parish himself. This applied mostly where the rectorship was owned by an institution, such as an Oxford or Cambridge college, or by a lay-person. In such cases, the right to collect the full tithe lay with the rector, who would share it with the vicar in an agreed proportion.

Curates

The term ‘curate’ can be confusing and difficult to define precisely. Etymologically, it means an ordained person responsible for the ‘cure of souls’ in a parish — i.e. the parish priest. In that sense, the term applied equally to rectors (unless lay ones) and vicars. In practice, it had come to mean a salaried assistant, deputy or locum: i.e. someone paid a stipend or salary directly by the rector/vicar, and not having a right to any part of the tithes. Since the Anglican Church was, and is, full of oddities, some parishes were served by ‘Perpetual Curates’, in full charge and deputy to no one, but still paid a stipend, rather than having a right to any of the tithe. This stipend was usually funded by an endowment or charitable body. However, by later Victorian times, the term fell out of general use and they were classed as vicars.

Most curates were either young, recently-ordained clergymen, waiting to find someone willing to present them to a living, or those without a source of ‘interest’ or patronage, and hence unable ever to gain a living of their own. They eked out a precarious existence on stipends as low as £30 to £50 a year (£6,000 to £10,000), often needing to act as curate to several neighbouring parishes to drum up enough to live on. Generally, the vast bulk of parish duties fell on them — conducting services in bad weather or remote churches, handling burials, christenings and marriages, visiting the sick, teaching the catechism and Sunday School. The rector or vicar would reserve the most important duties — that usually meant those most visible to the local gentry — to themselves. That is, if they did much at all. It wasn’t unknown for some rectors, in particular, to spend more time fox-hunting and hobnobbing with the local squirearchy than undertaking any religious duties; hardly surprising when younger sons often saw the church simply as source of income and entered it without any great religious vocation or interest.

Livings

How much the ‘living’ (the right to tithes in full or part from a parish) was worth varied enormously. The income from a rich living could be greater than the income of many of the minor landed gentry. A poor living might pay less than £100 a year (perhaps £15,000 to £20,000 in today’s money) — barely enough to keep up even a modest, middle-class lifestyle. Similarly, the vicar’s share of the tithes could vary from generous to niggardly. That’s why the records show some clergymen swapping livings with one another, trying to move up from poorer to richer when the could.

Another way to increase your income was pluralism. This meant holding more than one living simultaneously, using salaried curates to do the extra work. Officially, it was frowned upon, but it certainly happened — and not as an exception either. Once again, to manage to be a pluralist required sufficient “interest” (i.e. patronage), firstly to be presented to the second living (sometimes even a third), and to persuade the diocesan bishop to accept and confirm the presentation.

The award of livings, like almost everything else in Georgian days, depended on patronage or access to influence. The patron ‘presented’ a clergyman to the living, leaving the diocesan bishop to accept or deny the presentation (unless that living was in the gift of the bishop himself). This system meant the great families made sure of the best livings, since the right of presentation could be bought and sold. They would then use them as a form of assured income for younger sons. Any which were ‘surplus’ to this need would be used to grant patronage where bring most benefit.

Oxford and Cambridge colleges used the livings to which they had the right of presentation to provide a career for favoured fellows or alumni. Landed gentry bestowed what they owned on family members or other favoured individuals. These were ‘jobs for life’. They had to be, since there were no clergy pensions. Unless an elderly clergyman had some other source of income, he had to hang onto his living until he died, perhaps, like Parson Woodforde, paying a succession of curates to do the work when he had become too frail to manage himself.

Theological zealots and reformers saw the 18th-century Anglican church as religiously moribund and riddled with apathy. Parish roles (livings) were viewed primarily as a source of assured income and the ability to purchase, sell and exchange various rights within the Established Church had far more influence on appointments than religious vocation or scholarship. The power of patronage and influence was paramount, as it was with more senior positions too (archdeacons, deans, bishops). Even today, Anglican bishoprics, though formally in the gift of the Queen as head of the church, are actually allocated by the Prime Minister of the day.

Dissenting Ministers

The principal differences between these and Anglican clergy were twofold: social status and security of income. Dissenting Ministers were definitely not treated as gentlemen of any sort, honorary or otherwise, even though their ranks included some of the finest thinkers, scientists and teachers of that, or any other, age. Dissenters were banned from attending the English universities. Their own Academies, though providing excellent education in their own right, were scorned by the establishment. The best that could be allowed them was that they were protestants, which set them above Roman Catholic priests. Very few of the nobility or gentry were dissenters, although some were technically such: a significant group still clung to Roman Catholicism — a religious practice best pursued only domestically, since rabid anti-Papist sentiment was never far below the surface in Georgian times.

As a result, dissent was most prevalent amongst artisans and the lower middle classes, as well as being more common in certain localities than others. Dissenting Ministers were appointed by their congregations and paid by them as well. Their security and income were in the hands of the chapel elders, or whatever group were charged with administering chapel and congregation. Some chapels used no ordained ministers at all, relying on laymen to lead services and act as preachers. Others mixed lay preachers with occasional visits from ordained ministers. In nearly all cases, preaching was what mattered most. A powerful preacher could fill a chapel or command a huge open-air gathering, as John Wesley did. A mediocre one might find himself let go, if there was a chance of getting someone better. Being ordained, in sects where this was possible, guaranteed nothing, since communion services (which still usually required an ordained person to preside) were often either extremely infrequent or absent altogether.

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An 18th-century Domestic Fire Engine

Felbrigg_fire_engine

The picture above shows the 18th-century Newsham domestic fire engine which today stands in a corridor at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (NT). Fire was a constant threat in Georgian mansions, especially given the number of candles, the flammable fabrics of curtains and wall-hangings, and — above all — the many chimneys and fireplaces. Most homeowners lived in constant fear of a breakout and took elaborate precautions against it. If the house did catch fire, it was up to the family and household servants to tackle it.

Felbrigg Hall still has a long line of 18th-century fire buckets hung on the wall as well as this fire engine — state-of-the-art at the time. The engine is mounted on wheels, so it could be dragged wherever it was needed. In use, it was able to direct a thin, continuous stream of water from a swivelling metal pipe and nozzle mounted on the top. Pumping was by hand, with two people able to stand either side and pump in time with one another, using the handles provided. It doesn’t sound too effective by modern standards, but it was a great deal better than people forming a bucket chain to throw water at the fire!

The Development of the Fire Engine

This type of engine harks back to improvements made by a Dutchman, Jan Van der Heyden, (1637–1712). Besides being a painter, draughtsman, printmaker, Mennonite and inventor, Van der Heyden made significant contributions to improving contemporary firefighting. In 1672, with his brother Nicolaes, who was a hydraulic engineer, he designed a better type of fire hose, making it of flexible leather and coupling it to another hose every 50 feet. He also improved the fire engine designs of the time, reorganised the local volunteer fire brigade in 1685 and wrote and illustrated the first firefighting manual, the Brandspuiten-boek.

Drawing on his work, moveable fire engines like this one were further developed by Richard Newsham, an eighteenth-century button-maker of London, and patented by him in 1718. His engines, like the one at Felbrigg, were designed to be pulled like a cart to the fire. They had two single-acting pumps and a water tank which formed the frame of the machine. This tank could be kept filled by hand, using buckets, or connected to a hose from a suitable water-source, such as a pond or stream. They were the first fire engines able to deliver a continuous stream of water and direct it at a fire.

In literature advertising his engines in 1728, Newsham described his invention as:

“The most useful and convenient engines for quenching fires, which carry a constant stream with great force, and yet, at pleasure, will water gardens like falling rain.”

Newsham’s company went on to build the vast majority of English fire engines during the 18th century. They were also popular in the American colonies. Newsham had the foresight to publicise his designs there as well, boasting that his engines were so popular in Britain even King George II had ordered one to protect his palace. The city of New York bought a Newsham engine in 1731. After the Capitol at Williamsburg, Virginia, had been threatened by fire in 1754, the Council of the colony directed:

“. . . that the Receiver General send to London for a Fire Engine and Four Dozen of Leatheren [sic] Buckets for the use of the Capitol.”

The chosen machine, Richard Newsham’s “new water engine for quenching and extinguishing fires”, is still on display at Colonial Williamsburg, I believe. Over the following years, many American cities imported Newsham engines for their fire companies.

When Newsham died in 1743, he passed his company to his son, Lawrence. After Lawrence’s death, his wife took over and joined forces with her cousin George Ragg. So durable were these machines that Newsham and Ragg pumps were still in use in the late 1930s!

How It Works

The smaller pumps were worked by four men. Up to twelve were needed for the largest versions. Those pumping raised and lowered long handles, called ‘brakes’, to either side of the chassis. To increase the power of the jet, in some models more men operated foot-treadles at the corners. Water was usually provided by a bucket brigade, who emptied water into the hopper at the engine’s rear (hence the long row of buckets hung on the wall above the engine at Felbrigg). Some engines (again like Felbrigg’s) came with a suction fitting, which could draw water directly from a pond, river or any similar body of water.

The Felbrigg engine uses a twin-cylinder, single-acting pump equipped with an air chamber. Because truly reliable hoses were unavailable in the 18th century, most Newsham engines, like the one at Felbrigg, had a metal spout to direct the water spray. An iron lever at the front of the machine allowed the operator to switch the pump between using the integral tank and a suction hose attached to a covered nozzle underneath the handle — but not both at the same time. The square iron brackets on the sides of the tank were for wooden rods to lift the engine over obstacles or help steer it, since the iron wheels are fixed and facing in a straight line.

Other surviving Newsham Engines

What is reputed to be the oldest surviving fire engine in the UK — with a design quite similar to Felbrigg’s, but rather more ornate — was purchased by the Corporation of St Albans in 1733. They were directed to buy “one large pump and one small” at a total cost of £40 (around £75,000 to 80,000 today). The surviving machine later saw service in the house of Alderman Francis Nichol, who died in 1778. By 1832, it was in use in a brewery and was taken to tackle a fire in Hatfield House in that year. Finally, it was presented to the local fire brigade in 1903 and kept at St Albans Fire Station, until it was sold and restored privately in 1963.

The South Molton and District Museum in Devon has a much larger version of an engine of Felbrigg’s type, this one pumped by six or eight men, which was bought for £46 (£80,000 – 90,000) in 1736. It remained in use in the town until 1886. Bray, in Berkshire, has a horse-drawn, ten-man Newsham Fire Engine, which was donated to the parish in 1737 by the Right Honourable Lady Anne Coleraine of Canon Hill. It is said to be able to discharge 773 litres (170 gallons) of water a minute over a distance of 38 metres (41 yards). That’s no mean jet of water, though how long the poor men could keep pumping at that rate is anyone’s guess! It was kept in St Michael’s Church at Bray for more than 200 years and was used to protect the whole parish.

 

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