Was Melancholy THE English Malady of the 18th Century?

Photo: Immanuel Giel

“Mine, you are to know, is a white Melancholy, or rather Leucocholy… which though it seldom laughs or dances, nor ever amounts to what one calls Joy or Pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of a state … But there is another sort, black indeed, which I have now and then felt, that has something in it like Tertullian’s rule of faith, ‘Credo quia impossible est’ [I believe it because it is impossible]; for it believes, nay, is sure of everything that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and on the other hand excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes, and everything that is pleasurable; from this the Lord deliver us!”

Thomas Gray the Poet, writing to his friend Richard West in 1742.

“I begin to Emerge from a deep pit of Melancholy, Melancholy without any real reason for it, a Disease which God keep you from & all good men.”

William Blake, Letters to Cumberland: 2nd July, 1800.

“These are the dark November days, when the English hang themselves!”

Voltaire (1694 – 1778).

The title of this post was suggested by a famous 18th century treatise, “The English Malady”, published by George Cheyne in 1733. In the preface, Cheyne wrote:

“The Title I have chosen for this Treatise, is a Reproach universally thrown on this Island by Foreigners, and all our Neighbours on the Continent, by whom Nervous Distempers, Spleen, Vapours, and Lowness of Spirits, are, in Derision, call’d the ENGLISH MALADY. And I wish there were not so good grounds for this Reflection. The Moisture of our Air, the Variableness of our Weather, (from our Situation amidst the Ocean) the Rankness and Fertility of our Soil, the Richness and Heaviness of our Food, the Wealth and Abundance of the Inhabitants (from their universal Trade), the Inactivity and sedentary Occupations of the better Sort (among whom this Evil mostly rages) and the Humour of living in great, populous, and consequently unhealthy Towns, have brought forth a Class and Set of Distempers, with atrocious and frightful Symptoms, scarce known to our Ancestors, and never rising to such fatal Heights, nor afflicting such Numbers in any other known Nation. These nervous Disorders being computed to make almost one third of the Complaints of the People of Condition in England.”

In Georgian times, violent clashes of ideology were everywhere. The inherent scepticism of melancholia—its sense of understanding the limits imposed by human fallibility; its awareness of death and impermanence—offered a gentler response to the problems of the time than bloody revolution. Perhaps that’s why there was never an English Revolution to follow the one in France: the English were insufficiently idealistic in temperament, preferring to rely on tradition and custom rather than philosophical theorising. Even today, we English are deeply sceptical of abstractions. Our nostalgia for times past is rarely compatible with what David Hume saw as the “corrupt philosophical speculation about liberty” which led to revolution.

Nevertheless, there does seem to be a quintessentially English attraction to a certain kind of wistful nostalgia that easily slips into melancholy. As far back as John Dowland, English musicians tended to write music that looks back to paradise lost, not forward to some new Jerusalem. The ‘dying fall’ in melody is extremely common in English music of all kinds.

As we shall see in a later posting, melancholy was especially prevalent amongst the educated upper class of the time, as well as those most noted for their artistic skills.

Posted in Georgian Society, Medicine & Science, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Electioneering and Corruption in Georgian England

Voting in parliamentary elections in Georgian England was neither democratic nor free from undue influence. By modern standards, the whole system could be labelled as corrupt and biased. The presence of so-called ‘Rotten Boroughs’ — elections decided by a handful of voters, often instructed which way to vote by some local bigwig — prevented almost any election from being truly representative of the views of the people as a whole.

The number of those who were entitled to cast a vote was tiny by modern standards. Inclusion in the franchise varied according to local custom and history, but it was always restricted to adult men, and generally those who were far wealthier than the vast majority at the time. Norwich was known to have a particularly wide franchise, consisting of some 3000 voters. However, since the population of the city was around 40,000, even this group was hardly very representative, amounting to only 7.5% of the population.

Even so, politicians in the eighteenth century were more alert to public opinion than we might believe. At the most basic level, riots could break out whenever some cause stirred up the common people sufficiently. The “Wilkes and Liberty” riots of the 1760s and the “Gordon Riots” of the 1780s are examples. Those who held power were also expected to take a paternal interest in the welfare of the nation as a whole. It was no true substitute for democracy, but it was better than nothing.

Setting aside ‘structural’ sources of bias and corruption in elections of the time, what other factors might effect the result? I can think of three: bribery (in one form or another), electioneering and publicity, and patronage. ‘Managing’ elections, using combinations of these factors, is as common now as it was then — but usually less blatant.

Electioneering & Bribery

The first duty of those involved in managing the election hopes of any candidate is ‘getting the vote out’. It was especially important in a ‘freeman’ borough and county like Norwich. Around 3000 men might have been eligible to cast their votes, but what mattered was how many did so. Several factors complicated this. Counties returned two MPs, elected at the same time, so each voter had two votes ‘Straights’, ‘Splitters’ and ‘Plumpers’ | Pen and Pension, which could be shared between election interests or both given to one side. It was also possible to utilise one vote and discard the other. Although all voting had to be done in person and in Norwich itself, there was no requirement for voters to be resident in the city. Norwich had a significant number of ‘out-voters’ — enough to swing the election at times. In the 1796 election, the Quaker Bartlett Gurney won a clear majority of votes from local residents and William Windham only managed to win by ensuring a large number of out-voters arrived to support his cause.

The popular myth is that elections at this time were heavily influenced by bribery. This does not seem to be true, especially in Norwich. Windham refused to countenance the practice and there is no evidence anyone else offered cash inducements either. Indeed, in the few reported cases of potential bribery, the voters themselves indignantly refused what was offered.

On the other hand, non-monetary inducements were fairly commonplace. Out-voters expected to have their expenses paid for travelling to Norwich and often their subsistence costs as well. A good deal of wining-and-dining took place to win over undecided voters. Even the awarding of orders for printing election pamphlets, buying ribbons for supporters to wear, and the provision of the many other services deemed necessary to support a campaign could be viewed as an indirect form of influence in a city where the ‘masters’ in the various trades were also the voters.

Finances

Contested elections at the time were extremely expensive affairs. In quiet times, it was not unusual for pro-and anti-government interests to agree to put up only a single candidate each for of the seats. In that way, the balance of power in parliament was maintained, since each interest gained a single seat and no voting was required.

When an election was contested, the amount required to run a campaign could be considerable. In Norwich, the 1786 election cost around £8000 (a modern equivalent would be some £1.5 to £1.8 million). In 1802, the pro-government ‘slate’ of Windham and Frere spent that much on their own. Much of this expenditure was born by the supporters of each side. Candidates were also expected to spend heavily from their own resources. Windham’s diaries show he spent between £1,500 and £2,500 (£250,000 to £400,000) each time he faced a contested election, much of it on paying for out-voters to attend, since his local popularity with voters slumped towards the end of the century, due to his strident support of war with France.

In times of instability, or when by-elections became more frequent, the trouble and expense of fighting frequent elections could drive people out of politics altogether. Windham finally lost his Norwich seat in 1802 and had to accept a seat from a ‘Rotten Borough’ to stay in parliament and the government. When the so-called ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ fell in 1806, he had had enough and retired altogether.

Were eighteenth-century English elections fair? In modern terms, the answer has to be an emphatic “no”. The electorate was tiny and totally unrepresentative. Too many seats were in the gift of aristocratic landowners or municipal corporations. On the other hand, England was seen as a beacon of democracy in a Europe dominated by hereditary monarchies and dictators like Napoleon. It’s also true that party interests had far less influence on voting in the House of Commons than they do today. Georgian-period MPs could, and did, frequently act independently of any influences save their own views and consciences. No government of the time could rely on its supporters to vote consistently along party lines. It’s a shame today’s MPs don’t follow their example.

Posted in C18th Norfolk, Georgian Society, Politics

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.

Posted in Medicine & Science | 2 Comments

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?

Posted in Crime | 1 Comment

“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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