Norfolk Fends off Napoleon

Caricature of Napoleon hearing the news of Trafalgar
by Gilray

Fears of a French invasion were not new to late-eighteenth century Englishmen. There had been at least three credible invasion threats between 1744 and 1783, and various steps to counter invasion had been taken. How likely Norfolk was as a main target for invasion is debatable. However, the sea crossing from northern France Belgium the French-dominated Netherlands was certainly short enough for a serious French raid (barely 100 nautical miles).

Britain’s own army was unlikely to be any match for the French on land, either in numbers, training or experience. A visceral dislike of the whole notion of a substantial standing army had long prevented parliament from either authorising or paying for such a force. It smacked too much of dictatorship and the hated major-generals of Cromwell’s days. Any defence must therefore call upon a citizen militia—untrained amateurs neither willing to serve and led by equally amateur officers from amongst the local gentry.

Norfolk’s largest port, Yarmouth, had shore batteries–serious ones using 24- and 36-pounder guns–but it was a naval base and the navy were expected to look after their own. Elsewhere, apathy towards defence was widespread at the start, even amongst some of the landed gentry1 who might be expected to lead the way. Had the French actually made it past the Royal Navy before 1801, they would probably have met little effective resistance.

Britain is Let Off the Hook

Fortunately for Britain, the French gave the overall command to a troublesome young general, Napoleon. He saw little opportunity for glory or gain in the projected invasion and too many chances for a failure that would ruin him. He quickly lost such interest as he had, preferring to sail off to Egypt and attempt to carve out a personal empire in the east. Norfolk’s own hero, Nelson, quickly put a stop to that, leaving Napoleon to hurry back to France to protect himself from all the plotting going on in his absence.

After seizing absolute power, dealing with England by invasion was nowhere on Napoleon’s list of priorities. Rather, he wanted peace to consolidate his position and for France to absorb its conquests in Europe. The British government also wanted to escape from an expensive and unpopular war. The Treaty of Amiens in 1801 was the result. It appeared to put a stop to invasion fears altogether.

A New Invasion Panic

The Treaty proved short-lived and by 1803 invasion was back on the agenda. This time, the British government took more serious notice, perhaps because the population at large caught invasion fever; perhaps because Napoleon was now known to be a general of genius. For Britain to rely almost totally on the Royal Navy for defence didn’t look such a good option. It was stretched very thinly, defending the Empire and the global trade routes on which Britain and its ruling elite depended.

In Norwich, a meeting of magistrates and deputy-lieutenants of the county, held on July 9, 1803, took action. They approved and adopted the plan recommended by the Government for establishing a system of communication throughout the county and for rendering the body of the people instrumental in the general defence and preservation of property in case of invasion.2 You can see the minds of the local magnates working here!

Militia units were brought up to strength and drilled and, in the general enthusiasm for volunteering, we learn that “… The male part of the Norwich Company (theatrical) have agreed to enrol themselves to learn the use of arms.” How far a bunch of provincial actors might have furthered the defence of the realm was, fortunately, never put to the test.

More substantially, a certain Messers Marsh and Sons, Norwich and Cambridge carriers, agreed to put at the service of the government in case of invasion no less than 100 horses, 24 boats, and 12 wagons, together with the people needed to use them: 24 drivers, six watermen and nine boys, plus an unspecified number of blacksmiths (with equipment), two wheel wrights and two harness-makers. Plenty of local people must have come forward too, because a note for December 1803 records the forming of 22 troops of Yeoman Cavalry, grouped into three regiments.

Guard Duties

Various militia regiments now took turns at guarding major shore installations, like those at Yarmouth, generally serving for 14 days before being relieved by another unit. Nor were all the units local. The Shropshire militia were present at Yarmouth and elsewhere for long periods. As an inland county, Shropshire presumably had few local areas that needed to be secured against invasion threats.

In Holt, some three miles from the coast, local records show that His Majesty’s Regiment of Pembroke Militia was stationed there in 1796. The soldiers did what soldiers everywhere have done, before and since, and two young Welshmen, both from Haverfordwest, were married to local girls in Holt parish church in the same week. Both at once applied to establish settlement in Holt, presumably so they, their wives and children would be entitled to parish relief, if the need arose.

Wherever they came from, the Eastern Military District, covering East Anglia and coastal counties northwards, had no less than 32,000 men under arms by June 1804, all, according to its new commander Major-General Money, “fully equipped and efficient.”

Invasion fears peaked again in August 1805, when Major-General Money put his forces on full alert, following “… official intelligence of preparations along the enemy’s coast.” Nothing happened, which may indicate official intelligence reports were no more reliable then than in recent years. The tension slackened and, on November 7, 1805, news of the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death reached Norwich, ending invasion fears for a while, but causing deep sadness too.

Coastal Defences

I have already noted that gun batteries were located at Yarmouth. Where else guns were located is less clear. Small gun emplacements all along the coast of East Anglia were projected in 1794, but it is not clear how many, if any, were established. In 1803, the commander of the Eastern Military

District, Sir James Craig, commissioned a Major Bryce to report on the defences needed at possible invasion sites. Bryce clearly didn’t believe in fixed batteries, especially in areas as unlikely as the site of an invasion as the North Norfolk Coast. His main recommendation was for a troop of mobile artillery to be stationed at Holt. If this did not find favour, small batteries could be placed at Cromer, mainly to train local volunteers, as well as at Holkham Bay, Blakeney, Wells and Burnham.

Holt never received its artillery troop, but it seems some guns were provided at the coastal sites. The volunteers at Cromer had access to canon as The Times of October 31, 1803, records:

… on Tuesday, the town of Cromer was up in arms on the circumstance off two strange sail appearing off the battery [probably located at the end of Jetty Street]. The guns were immediatelyarmed by Volunteers … before the ship sent a boat on shore. They proved to be an English privateer and a Russian galliot …

If you visit Burnham Overy Staithe you can still see a granary of this period overlooking the simple quay that apparently has two small gun embrasures built into it. It is now holiday accommodation.

Canon and Local Volunteers Don’t Mix!

Given the following report, any guns there were could not have been in very good condition. In August 1803:

The brass ordnance belonging to the city [Norwich] were tested by some of the regular artillery … Four of the guns burst.

A similar occurrence may be indicated by a canon of about this date, now set on end in the green outside the church at Wiveton, which shows the ball wedged in the end of the muzzle and a large piece of the metal

missing where the charge must have caused the barrel to explode. Putting canon into the hands of local volunteers was clearly a hazardous business.

On February 4, 1804, local volunteers were practising when disaster struck:

The Cromer Sea Fencibles were practicing with canister and grape shot upon the beach, when a ball struck Capt. Tremlett, R. N., on the foot, and shattered the leg of Mr. John Smith, so as to render immediate amputation necessary. A public subscription, amounting to £500, was made for Mr. Smith.

This was a substantial amount of money, so it is to be hoped it helped him cope with the loss of his leg.

Raising the Alarm

Communications were not forgotten. Flagstaffs were set up, for example at Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall, where a red flag would be flown on the appearance of enemy vessels along the coast. On August 24, 1803, Charles Mackie reports:

Telegraphs, signal flags or tar barrels are being stationed on all the churches and lofty edifices on the coast, in order to give, in a chain of communication, the earliest intelligence, either by night or day, of the event of the enemy’s landing.

Near Felbrigg Hall, on the summit of Beacon Hill, the highest point in North Norfolk, is an area known as the Roman Camp. It isn’t Roman, and never was; that name was, it seems, added in the nineteenth century to attract more tourists. It was, however, a site for a beacon in mediaeval times

and again at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588. In Faden’s map of Norfolk in 1797 it was described as “Old Beacon or Watch Tower,” which implies it was no longer used. In the invasion scare of 1803–5, it seems to have been returned to use as a signal station and the banks seen there today probably date from this time.

Standing Down

We shall never know how effective these preparations to resist Napoleon’s invasion would have been. From the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, or even a little before, official interest in anti- invasion efforts was already in decline. Payments for clothing for the Norwich Volunteer Infantry volunteers was stopped in July 1805. Some attempt was made to interest the volunteers to enlist in the regular militia, but it is not clear how effective they were. The reply of their colonel was distinctly lukewarm.

Then, on May 1, 1813, an order was given that their equipment was to be taken away for use elsewhere by regular army units:

The commanding officers of the Norfolk Regiments of Local Militia and the Norfolk and Norwich Volunteers have received orders to send the accoutrements of their respective regiments to the nearest ports for the use of the German levies against the common enemy.

The arms were duly sent to Yarmouth and it was all over. The news of the Battle of Waterloo was received in Norwich on June 23, 1815, being greeted with the firing of canons (seemingly without mishap this time), the ringing of the church bells, a bonfire and the singing of “God Save the King” and “Rule Britannia.” Napoleon was beaten and, even if it hadn’t directly beaten him, Norfolk was at least on the winning side.

 NOTE: All the action in my Dr Adam Bascom mystery books takes place in this period.


  1. Norfolk was a stronghold of the Whigs. At the start of the period, many were well-disposed towards revolution in France, though actual events caused some to support Pitt’s government as time went on.
  2. All quotes are from The Annals of Norfolk by Charles Mackie, 1901, unless otherwise noted.
Posted in C18th Norfolk, Military | 1 Comment

Uses and Abuses of the Press Gang

The Press Gang, Caricature, 1780

The purpose of the Impress Service, as the Press Gang was called officially, was to secure the men needed to keep the Royal Navy’s ships at proper fighting strength. Given the conditions on board, and the chances of dying from disease or being killed or maimed in battle, not enough men were ever willing to volunteer for naval service. The Press Gangs were thus a kind of enforced conscription to meet the demand for men to make up for the constant losses.

Not just any men though. The navy wanted experienced seamen, able from the beginning to tell one part of the complicated rigging of a man-of-war from another; even better if they could climb aloft and be trusted to fasten or unfasten the right ropes in the teeth of an Atlantic gale. There wasn’t either the time or the inclination to train the numbers needed from scratch. Mere ‘landsmen’ were only useful for hauling on ropes and carrying heavy burdens. Most of these could be supplied anyway from the prisons and conscripted prisoners of war. The ferocious discipline to be found on naval ships was required in large part by the fact that a significant number of any crew would probably be convicted felons, reluctant prisoners of war or Irish rebels.

How the Press Gangs Worked

A group of seamen, usually led by a lieutenant, would arrive at a coastal town or fishing village and demand a certain number of skilled men for the navy’s needs. Not surprisingly, the local magistrates were reluctant to assist by supplying men voluntarily. The loss of skilled seamen could badly affect local trade, while the removal of a family’s breadwinner threw people into poverty and thus dependence on the Poor Law assistance paid for by local ratepayers.

In these cases, the Gangs took what they wanted by force or trickery. Even then it wasn’t easy. Men seized would stoutly deny any knowledge of the sea or seafaring and their families and neighbours would back them up. It was also possible for certain men to obtain certificates of exemption from being pressed, but it was far from unknown for Press Gangs to ignore them.

Signs of a Sailor

The Press Gangs therefore tended to make their choice based on supposed signs that would give a sailor away, no matter how much he argued otherwise.

For example, when the Press Gang seized one John Teede, he protested vigorously that he had never been to sea in his life, had no knowledge of sailing or anything else nautical, and would brand any who claimed otherwise as bare-faced liars. The officer in charge, convinced “he had the look of a sailor”, at once ordered his men to strip Teede. Sadly for poor Teede, he had succumbed, like many before and since, to the temptation to get tattooed. Symbols and messages of love and the sea covered both his arms from shoulder
to wrist. Needless to say, it sealed his fate.

An allegedly excellent indication of a sailor was to be bow-legged. Climbing masts and being confined to the limited space on board a sailing ship — to say nothing of the terrible diet — meant that many sailors’ legs became deformed in this way. Unfortunately, the same could be said of men who sat for hours, cross-legged, while pursuing the trade of being a tailor. More than one tailor protested in vain as the Press Gang dragged him off in the belief that they had found a reluctant seaman.

Another way to thwart the Press Gang was to offer up a suitable victim in place of a local man. This was most likely to be some innocent stranger, who had somehow caused suspicion amongst the locals; not too difficult in tightly-knit villages unused to outsiders.

At Cromer in Norfolk in 1780, a tall, heavily-bearded man was seen to walk along the beach and over the fields, “writing in a book he carried.” This naturally alarmed the townspeople, who accosted him, with the parson at their head, and demanded —none too politely I expect —that he explain himself and his conduct. The man took offence at this treatment and flatly refused to do so. At this point, all agreed he was an extremely dubious character, most likely a spy making plans of the coast. An ideal candidate therefore to be disposed of through being pressed.

The man was held while a message was sent to the lieutenant in charge of a Press Gang at Great Yarmouth, informing him that they had taken a spy, who must therefore possess significant knowledge of seamanship. The lieutenant quickly arrived and had the suspect dragged back with him to Yarmouth. Fortunately for the stranger, the mention of spying ensured he was taken before the mayor of Great Yarmouth before being pressed into the navy — just in case he actually was a spy. In the ensuing questioning, the poor fellow managed to convince the mayor he was actually an agriculturist sent over from Russia to study the English method of growing turnips.

Official Abuses of the System

The temptation to use the Press Gang as a way of paying off old scores even affected some of the highest in the land. After all, what could be easier for the Lords of the Admiralty than to use their control of the Impress Service to punish any group or place which incurred their displeasure?

When the towns of Dover and Brighton upset the Admiralty by responding to the navy’s need for recruits in ways which were deemed lacking in proper respect, the Admiralty’s animus against the towns saw a concerted series of visits by the Impress Service to seize as many local sailors as possible; until the subsequent outcry caused the Admiralty to stop the process. In the early part of the 19th century, the Admiralty also ordered a Capt. Culverhouse, in charge of the Liverpool section of the service, “to take all opportunities of impressing seafaring men belonging to the Isle of Man,” as a punishment for the “extreme ill-conduct of the people of that Island to His Majesty’s Officers of the Impress Service.”

It wasn’t only the Admiralty which could use the Press Gangs to settle scores either. When a riot occurred at King’s Lynn in 1755, mud and stones were thrown at the magistrates who arrived to do what they could to put an end to it. Naturally angered by being subjected to such indignity, they swiftly contacted the Press Gang and supplied them with the names of the 60 people most involved in the rioting. All were seized and taken to Spithead to be forcibly added to naval ships’ crews.

Far from incurring any resentment from the townspeople, the magistrates’ action caused general rejoicing, since it was said that those now pressed into the navy consisted mostly of “’vagrants, gipsies, those living at the charge of the parish [recipients of Poor Law relief], the maimed, the halt and sundry idiots.” In short, “the sweepings of the borough.”

I can’t help feeling it’s a good job no similar way of dealing with demonstrators and local welfare claimants exists today!

Posted in Keeping the Peace, Military | 2 Comments

Georgian Ghosts

The “Brown Lady” of Raynham Hall, Norfolk, supposedly photographed in 1936.

With Halloween approaching, I thought it might be interesting to look at the rise of the ghost story in Georgian England. The nineteenth century marked the summit of popular interest in ghosts and spirits, thanks to the advent of photography. The prevalence of double exposures as a means of faking ghostly images fuelled the craze. However, the interest in reports of ghosts began earlier, as better printing methods helped produce pictures with more detail and the ability to show ghosts as transparent.


The intelligentsia of the time, affected by Enlightenment thought, naturally ridiculed the whole idea of visitors from beyond the grave. Their scepticism was vindicated by several notorious cases of deception, perhaps the most famous being the Cock Lane Ghost in 1762. In 1759, a widower called William Kent, along with his sister-in-law Fanny Lynes, now his mistress, rented a room in Cock Lane. They moved out when their landlord borrowed money from Kent, then failed to repay it. Not very long afterwards, Fanny Lynes seemingly fell victim to smallpox and died.

Three years later, in 1762, the landlord, Richard Parsons, claimed he and his 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, said the ghost of Lynes was haunting the house in Cock Lane. The ghost both scratched at the furniture, earning it the nickname of “Scratching Fanny”, and proclaimed that William Kent had caused her death by poisoning her with arsenic.

The case caused a public sensation. Seances were held to communicate with the ghost and even Dr Johnson got involved in efforts to find out what was going on. It was soon established that the events were part of a hoax, in which Elizabeth Parsons played the part of the wandering spirit. Her father was pilloried and gaoled as a result. As Dr Johnson himself said later:

“It is wonderful that 5,000 years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.”

Useful Spirits

Despite all the scorn from educated persons, some of the most famous of them were not averse to using ghosts for their own purposes. Horace Walpole’s “blockbuster” book, “The Castle of Otranto”, makes heavy use of haunted corridors and characters who step out of portraits on the wall — just as Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Ruddigore” did in the nineteenth century.

Criminals soon latched onto the possibilities made available to them by belief in ghosts. Highway robbers covered themselves with white sheets to frighten their victims into handing over their valuables. Thieves pretended to be ghostly apparitions to make people run from their houses, leaving them free to take whatever they wanted.

You might have imagined that religious people and the clergy would vigorously deny the existence of ghosts and spirits. After all, belief in spirits was only a short step away from paganism. Many protestant clergy did, either dismissing ghosts altogether as imaginary or branding them “Catholic superstitions”. However, others amongst the nonconformists and evangelicals were more equivocal in their statements, perhaps wanting to bolster belief in the supernatural as a way of discrediting the atheism stemming from the French Revolution.

Norfolk Ghosts

Belief in ghosts and their kin was also fanned by the printers of pamphlets. Sensations sold more copies; a fact not lost on today’s tabloids. Even the National Trust has a website which uses ghost stories to encourage visitors to its properties. In Norfolk, the ghost of Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII, is said to reappear at Blickling Hall on the anniversary of her execution. The 18th-century squire of Felbrigg Hall , William Windham III, who died after being injured in a fire in 1809, is said to visit his magnificent library to keep an eye on his beloved books. Several staff members and volunteers claim to have seen him seated at the library table, or relaxing in one of the chairs, while reading a book.

A story from Potter Heigham in the Norfolk Broads relates how a love potion was used by an 18th-century noblewoman to snare a wealthy husband. Lady Carew obtained a potion from a local witch to persuade a wealthy bachelor, Sir Godfrey Haslitt of Bastwick, to marry her daughter Evelyn. Messing with witchcraft soon brought its inevitable reward, when, at midnight on the day of her wedding, a ghostly skeleton seized the new bride and dragged her into a coach drawn by four black horses. The coach then sped off, pursued by some of the wedding guests. Sadly, when the coach reached the bridge at Potter Heigham, it burst into flames and plunged into the water, carrying the bride with it. Repetitions of this event were supposedly seen by many over the years, and some claim the sound of ghostly horses’ hooves and the screech of wheels can still be heard at the bridge at midnight every May 31st.

Norfolk is, of course, also the home of Black Shuck, a huge, black demonic spectral hound, which is said to wander along paths close to the coast to carry unwary travellers off to hell. It was that tale which is known to have inspired Conan Doyle to write the tale of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. In reality, it seems most likely that stories of Black Shuck were spread about by smugglers to dissuade people from intruding on their nocturnal activities.

Posted in C18th Norfolk | 4 Comments

“If You Want A Job Done Properly …”

Edinburgh Castle (Photo: David Monniaux (CC BY-SA 3.0))

Turning once again to the pages of the Ipswich Journal for April 15th, 1721, we find this fascinating report of a criminal trial held in Edinburgh, at which one James Campbell of Burbank, “late of the Stores in Edinburgh Castle”, was indicted:

… for Rape, administering Poison, and being privy to, and aiding in the Barbarous Murder committed on the Body of Margaret Hall, by Nichol Musket of Boghal, her Husband, who was executed for it some time since.

Evidence was brought forward against Campbell, backed up by Musket’s confession, that he had been paid fifty pounds [around £100,000 in today’s purchasing power] by Musket to help him get a divorce from his wife.

The hapless Campbell began by hatching a plot to give Musket the incontrovertible evidence of adultery he thought would get him the divorce he wanted. He got Margaret Hall drunk to the stage where she passed out, then put her into bed (and presumably raped her), calling in her husband and other witnesses to witness this act of “adultery” on his wife’s part.

When this supposed instance of finding the poor woman in flagrant delicate failed to achieve the required divorce, he tried to kill Margaret by giving her poison. Quite why she would accept anything at his hand, and why she didn’t bring a charge of rape against him, isn’t made clear. However, this too failed and the woman survived.

At that point, Nichol Musket had clearly had enough of Campbell’s incompetence and killed his wife himself.

According to the article, Campbell made “a very good Defence”. Quite how he did so is not explained. What “good defence” could you make against overwhelming evidence of rape and attempted murder? Nevertheless, the court found that, since Campbell had not actually murdered the woman successfully, he should only be sentenced to transportation, with the threat of “perpetual imprisonment” should he ever return to Scotland.

As already noted, the murderous husband had already been executed, so poor Margaret’s death was at least partially atoned for. Such was eighteenth-century justice.

Posted in Crime

“Great Cry and Little Wooll …”

Former Theatre Royal Dublin (photo: Marcia Stubbeman (CC))

One of the joys of looking through editions of early eighteenth-century newspapers is finding the unexpected. Only last week, I was browsing through the pages of the Ipswich Journal for April 15th, 1721, when I came across this gem: the verse prologue attached to a performance of Shakespeare given at the Theatre Royal in Dublin on April 1st of that year, and written by no less a person than Dr. Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), the author of Gulliver’s Travels.

On the 1st of this Month the gentlemen of the Theatre Royal in Dublin acted the Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, for the benefit of the Weavers; when a new Prologue and Epilogue was spoke … suitable to the Occasion, which were receiv’d with great Applause there, as written by the celebrated Dr. Swift, we here present our Readers with the Prologue,as follows:

It’s too long to reproduce in full here, but I’ll give you some excerpts.

Great Cry and Little Wooll— is now become,
The Plague and Proverb of the Weaver’s Loom.
No Wooll to Work on, neither Weft nor Warp,
Their Pockets empty, and their Stomachs sharp.
Provok’d in loud Complaints, to you they cry,
Ladies, relieve the Weavers, or they Die.
Forsake your Silks for Stuffs, nor think it strange
To shift your Cloaths, since you delight in Change.
One thing with Freedom I’ll presume to tell,
The Men will like You ev’ry Bit as well.

Thus it continues, stressing the beauty and utility of woollen clothing and even trying to convince people that silk or calico (cotton now being imported from India) are inferior thanks to the dubious sources of their fibres.

Our Wooll from Lambs of Innocence proceeds,
Silk comes from Maggots,
are Weeds.
Hence ’tis by sad Experience that we find,
Ladies in Silks to Vapours much inclin’d,
And what are they but Maggots in the Mind?

The prologue ends with a burst of heartfelt praise directed at women who choose to dress themselves in wool, thus providing much-needed work for the weavers.

How Sweet and Innocent’s the Country Maid,
With small Expence in Native Wooll Array’d!
Who Copies from the Fields her Homely Green,
While by her Shepherd with Delight She’s seen:
Shou’d our Fair Ladies dress like her in Wooll,
How much more Lovely, and how Beautiful,
Without their Indian Drapery they’d prove,
And Wooll wou’d help to warm us into Love,
Then like the Famous Argonauts of Greece,
We’d all contend to gain the Golden-Fleece.

The article ends by reporting that, in addition to the ticket money raised by the performance and given to the weavers, a further £200.00 was collected for them “at the Church Doors”. Since that equates to some £450,000 in today’s purchasing power, it suggests that having Dean Swift as your advertising copywriter was a shrewd move on someone’s behalf.

Posted in Theatre, Tid-bits | 2 Comments

Georgian Household Goods

Photo CC Tyssil

Much of what we can see today of the contents of a Georgian house is based on the largest and grandest properties of the time, since those are the ones preserved. It’s also inevitable that much of what was there originally had been lost or replaced during the ensuing centuries. Many interiors therefore owe as much to the taste of the Victorians as to that of their original owners.

One way we can get some notion of what Georgian houses originally contained is by looking at various listings for sale in contemporary newspapers. In certain cases, everything in a property was sold. Perhaps there was no heir and the property had to be liquidated and the value given to the Exchequer. Perhaps some heir had no need of the house or its contents and preferred to have the monetary value instead.

Either way, the sale listing in the local newspaper gives us a precious insight into what less grand and prestigious Goergian houses would contain.

I say less grand, because the houses of the artisans and labouring poor would have contained nothing beyond essentials. Even these would have been of little worth. The growing middle classes, however, had some wealth to spend on home decoration, as well as the desire to emulate their wealthier neighbours in the extent and opulence of their furnishings and fittings. Here’s one listing from the Norfolk Chronicle of 1781.

To be Sold by Auction, by James GARTHON, of Norwich, On Tuesday, June the 5th, Inst.

All the Household Furniture etc of Mr Edward MANN, at the Goat in Strumpshaw, Norfolk, consisting of Four-post Bedstands, Feather-beds, Mahogany and Oak Tables, Chairs, a handsome Brass Jack in a Mahogany Glass Case, and Eight-day Clock, a large Landscape in an elegant carved and gilt Frame, several capital Prints, fram’d and glaz’d, a good Assortment of China, Glass, and Earthen Ware, with sundry other Articles.

Note: The Goods to be viewed on the Morning before the Sale begins, which will be precisely at Ten o’Clock.

Both oak (probably more ultilitarian) and mahogany (highly fashionable) furniture, as well as purely ornamental items, such as the clock and the landscape and prints. The jack was a clockwork device for turning a piece of meat which was roasting on front of a fire. This one must have been especially precious to have its own mahogany and glass case for storage.

Here’s a listing of the contents of a substantial farmhouse, from the same date. It was going to take five days to complete the sale of everything, including all the farm stock and animals:

To be sold by Auction, by James BIRD, At the Dwelling-house and Farm of Mr Francis HICKS, at Breckles, near Watton, in Norfolk, on Tuesday, the twenty-seventh Day of March, Instant, and the Five following Days, (Sundays excepted) All the Farming Stock, Husbandry Utensils, Household Furniture, and Effects of the said Francis HICKS, consisting of a Dairy of Cows, several cart-horses, a Five Year old Hunter, several good Road Horses, Colts, Fillies, Sheep, Hogs, Waggons, Carts, Ploughs, and Harrows, large Iron Roll, and other Implements of Husbandry, two Post-chaises and Harness, Four-post Mahogany and other Bedsteads, with Damask Chintz, Check, Worsted, and other Hangings, fine Goose Feather-beds and Mattresses [sic], double and single Chest of Drawers, Jamb Glasses, in gilt and carved Frames, square, oval Mahogany, Dining, and other Tables, Plate, China, Linen, Books, Mahogany Bureau and Bookcase, Wilton and Other Carpets, Mahogany Chairs, with Horse Hair and Worsted Damask Seats, a very good Eight-day Clock, Festoon and other Window Curtains, three Dozen of Ivory Handle Knives and Forks, Dairy and Brewing Utensils, etc, etc-The Whole to be viewed on Monday before the Sale, and each Day’s Sale will begin at Ten o’Clock in the Morning.

Note: Catalogues to be had at the George, at Watton, the White Hart, at Hingham, the Swan, at East Harling, the Bell, at Thetford, the Crown, at Swaffham, the Crown, at Stoke, and the Place of Sale.

Again, mahogany furniture is picked out, together with luxury items like the clock, the Wilton carpet and the knives and forks with ivory handles.

One final example:

To be Sold by Auction, by Richard BACON, on Tuesday the 23rd of this Instant January, and the following Days, The Neat and Elegant Furniture at the Dwelling house of Mr William COYE, Dyer, near White friars-bridge, Norwich; comprizing [sic] very good Beds and Furniture, and exceeding good Chamber Organ with Seven Barrels, which plays upwards of Forty Tunes, a very handsome inlaid Cabinet, some Plate, China, Glass, Kitchen Furniture, and Brewing Utensils. Also a small but choice Collection of Prints, fram’d and glaz’d.—The Goods may be viewed on the Premises previous to the Day of Sale. Catalogues to be had of the Auctioneer, of Mr J. WRIGHT, Appraiser, and at the Place of Sale.

This time the owner had a mechanical barrel-organ which could play more than forty tunes — a definite luxury! I wonder how loud it was and what his neighbours thought of the music.

Posted in Georgian Society

A Personal View of the Gordon Riots

Laetitia Hawkins (1760–1835) was the daughter of a wealthy London lawyer and magistrate. She never married, living with her bachelor brother in Twickenham after both her parents had died. Some while ago, I discovered a book, published in 1926, which contains edited extracts from a three-volume work she wrote and published between 1822 and 1824, entitled ”Anecdotes”. Her father was a long-time friend of some of the leading figures of the mid-18th century, including Dr Johnson, David Garrick and the composer Handel. As a result, she knew most of them as a child and, in her old age, collected both her own reminiscences of meetings with them and those of her father .

She was also in London to witness, first-hand, some of the events of the infamous anti-Popery “Gordon Riots” of 1780. The rioting arose following an Act of 1778, which removed some of the restrictions hitherto placed on Roman Catholics in public and private life. Angry Protestants, led by Lord George Gordon, formed a Protestant Association, hoping to overturn this law. When they failed to obtain their objective by legitimate means, the leaders stirred up rioting in London to force the government’s hand. Their action seems to have taken the authorities completely by surprise, as Laetitia Hawkins’s recollections show. For several days, the mobs roamed around central London, looting and burning at will and causing something like panic amongst its wealthier inhabitants. Not until the King, on his own initiative, called in the army was order restored. Gordon was tried and convicted for his part in events. He died in Newgate Prison in the 1793.

Since Laetitia Hawkins’s father was a leading magistrate and resident in Westminster, he was quickly involved in trying to defend certain VIPs and their houses from the violence of the mob. What follows gives a series of “snapshots” of the rioting in Laetitia’s own words.

The Rioting Starts

“My recollection of the ‘No Popery’ riots of June 1780 is particularly vivid. While returning with my mother from a morning call in South London, our carriage passed a large assembly gathered round the Obelisk in St. George’s Fields, which we took for a beanfeast. We reached our house without molestation, and had dressed for a dinner at Mr Langton’s, when my brother Henry came in, hot from Westminster, with very exciting news. The Hall had been invaded by an immense mob, while others blocked every approach to the House of Lords. […] We still had no idea of personal danger, and we were preparing to enter our carriage when the coachman came in to tell us that a lady who lived in our neighbourhood had been stopped by a mob near Charing Cross and compelled to huzza for ‘Lord George Gordon and no Popery!’ We therefore remained at home…”

The ‘Hall’ mentioned was Westminster Hall, where the Parliament sat before the present Houses of Parliament was built.

A Night of Destruction

It seems that Sir John Hawkins, Laetitia’s father, had been at the Guildhall in connection with his duties as a magistrate when the rioting broke out. He was at once called by the Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, to go to his house in Bloomsbury Square, where the mob was preparing to make an attack. Since Sir John knew that the constables he had with him were insufficient to hold off the mob, he persuaded Lord Mansfield to call for a detachment of the Guards. However, Mansfield insisted that they should be kept out of sight of his house. They were therefore too far away to prevent the mob ransacking and burning his home.

“In vain did the Commanding Officer protest against so absurd a disposition. Lord Mansfield proved obdurate, with the result that his house was sacked and destroyed in an incredibly short space of time. One of the young ladies of his family stayed there until she saw her grand pianoforte thrown onto a bonfire made of the books and furniture, together with a large silver tankard containing guineas!”

After that, Laetitia’s father received a request to go to Charing Cross to Northumberland House, meeting along the way a large group of rioters, who had just destroyed Newgate Prison and were ringing the stolen prison bell in triumph. This time, the owner, the Duke of Northumberland, followed Sir John’s advice. A hastily summoned detachment of soldiers were drawn up in the courtyard, facing the Strand, and the gates to the house thrown the open so that they could be seen by the rioters. That house was saved.

Personal Danger

When Sir John finally returned to his home the next morning, he was told by the parish curate that his own house was now doomed. Its street door had been marked with the figure 8, which was supposed to portend its destruction.

“We, therefore, set to work removing our furniture, clothes, books and pictures to a neighbour’s house, kindly placed at our disposal, and left our own stripped of everything but bedsteads and fixtures. We then drove to Clapton, where some friends had offered an asylum, passing en route the Hampshire Militia, which was marching along the New Road with a train of artillery. That night I counted seven conflagrations lighting up the sky of London; it was an appalling site! On the morrow, we learnt that vigorous measures had been taken to restore order with the aid of military force. Thus were the rioters brought under control …”

It seems that Laetitia Hawkins’s house was not in fact destroyed. However the family soon left it to move elsewhere within Westminster, before finally returning to their roots in Twickenham.

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