Last week, i was in holland on a short vacation and visited the fascinating town of dordrecht. There is a fine church in the centre of the town, so naturally I went inside to look around. Imagine my surprise at finding a massive memorial tablet (about 10 feet by 5 feet), written in English and set into the wall of the south aisle, not far from the main altar.
War with France … Again
The story behind this memorial goes like this. The Revolutionary government in France declared war on Britain in February 1793, fearing that the main European powers were about to ‘gang up’ against them to reinstate the Bourbon kings. Surprisingly, Britain chose to strike the first blow in a war that was to last, in total, some 22 years and span much of the known world.
Early in March, a detachment of 3000 men of the Foot Guards was sent to the Netherlands, under the command of The Duke of York. Their orders were to help the Dutch drive out the French forces that were attempting to take over their country to export their revolutionary ideas. Additional soldiers were sent from Hesse and Hanover to help in the process. There was also a small Royal Navy presence.
It was one of these ships, the 32-gun frigate ‘Syren’, which figures next in this story. It served as the flagship of this naval squadron and was under the command of Captain John Manley. The ships were anchored at the Maese, from where an expedition was mounted against five French forts, which had been erected to bombard Willemstadt, about 30 miles east of Helvoetsluys.
The expedition consisted of three gunboats, under the command of the 22-year old Lieutenant John Western. He must have led his men with great verve and determination, since the French, amazed by the fire-power he directed against them, wildly overestimated the size of the attacking force and fled, leaving all their cannon behind.
On March 21st, Lieutenant Western was in action again, this time bombarding the French camp at the Noord post on the Moordyke. Sadly, his luck ran out and he was killed by a musket-ball which struck him in the head, making him the first British fatal casualty in the war. He must also have made a great impression on his superiors to merit both a full military funeral in Dordrecht and the presence of The Duke of York himself, who ordered the memorial erected which stands there to this day.
The wording reads:
To The Lamented Memory
JOHN WESTERN. Esq
Lieutenant of His Britannic Majesty’s Frigate SYREN
As a Testimony of the gallant services performed by HIM
This MONUMENT is erected
BY ORDER OF
HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE DUKE OF YORK.
After distinguishing himself by his Conduct and Intrepidity
With which he assisted
The Garrison of Williamstadt
(At that Time besieged by the French)
FELL EARLY IN THE CAREER OF GLORY,
Having been unfortunately killed by the Enemy
off the Moordych
On the Twenty-first Day of March, A. D 1793
In the TWENTY-SECOND Year of his Age,
IN THE SERVICE OR HIS COUNTRY,
AND IN DEFENCE Of HOLLAND.
Were deposited near this Place,
ATTENDED BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE DUKE OF YORK,
BY THE OFFICERS AND SEAMEN OF THE ROYAL NAVY,
The Companions of his
THE BRIGADE OF HIS BRITANNIC MAJESTY’S FOOT GUARDS
In Garrison at Dordrecht.
This extravagant funeral and memorial may have been a response to a genuine act of heroism or just an opportunistic piece of propaganda. I’m hoping some reader of this blog will be able to enlighten me on that. Either way, poor Lieutenant Western is still remembered 224 years after his death.
Smuggling is usually associated with the south coast of england, from Kent to Cornwall, where the crossing to the French coastline was shortest. Yet East Anglia was also a popular haunt of these criminal gangs. Norfolk, in particular, offered long stretches of lonely beaches with easy access to the land behind. It was also barely one hundred miles across the sea to the coasts of Holland and Flanders.
The heyday of Norfolk smuggling probably came in the 1770s and 1780s, when high taxes were imposed on ‘luxury’ items like tea, gin, brandy, silks and lace to pay for England’s endless wars with continental Europe and America. It seemed to take a while before the authorities worked out that high taxes on basically cheap items meant huge returns for the smugglers: more than enough to make up for the occasional losses to zealous Revenue agents.
Even when goods — or persons — had been seized, holding them was quite another matter, as this newspaper excerpt shows:
The Norfolk Chronicle, 18th January, 1783
Friday last was committed to the Castle1 by M. F. RISHTON, Esq., Thomas FRANKLYN, of Lynn, fellmonger2, a noted smuggler, charged on the oaths of William SPENCER and Thomas ABBOTT, excise officers, and John BOUTELL, a private of the 11th regiment of dragoons, with having, in the morning of Friday the 31st of last month, aided and assisted by divers other persons unknown, armed with fire-arms and other offensive weapons, rescued at Thornham twelve bags of tea, each containing 26 pounds [in weight], after the same had been lawfully seized by Robert BLISS, supervisor, John BANHAM, and the above officers, and also with having violently assaulted the said Mr BLISS, desperately wounding him, and threatening to murder the other officers.
Another account says, last week the following melancholy accident happened at Lynn, in Norfolk: – One FRANKLYN, a noted smuggler, being pressed by the men on that service, was rescued by one of his men who met them; upon this they pressed the man for setting his master at liberty, and thereupon FRANKLYN, for the better enabling him to set his man at liberty, went home for a bludgeon, and meeting them in the market-place, he knocked down one of them with the bludgeon, and set his man at liberty, and both walked home to FRANKLYN’s house, defying the gang. And about three hours after this, the gang [the pressgang], together with a file of soldiers, came to FRANKLYN’s house to take him, whereupon FRANKLYN fired at them two or three times through the door; upon this, the officers commanded the soldiers to fire, who did, and shot one NICHOLS, a taylor [sic], dead; lodged a ball in the arm of a woman, and grazed the temples of another, and after some resistance took him [presumably Franklyn], and he was on Friday last conveyed to Norwich castle.
Even today, there’s a tendency to think of smugglers as romantic figures, whose only crime was against the government and the Revenue. This is quite false. Smuggling gangs were usually ruthlessly efficient, using bullying to deter juries from bringing in convictions and taking severe revenge on informers. As the extract above shows, they had no hesitation in resorting to violence when it suited them. They were much more like the Mafia than a few local men bringing in the occasional keg of spirits or bag of tea.
That they succeeded for so long has parallels with drug dealers today. In both cases, enough people — especially, the wealthy — wanted to buy what they offered to drive up prices and produce vast profits. At the same time, a general public opposition to anything that acted in restraint of trade made the taxes imposed on the goods being smuggled seem unfair and arbitrary. In Norfolk, getting cheap goods seemed to blind even the most respectable to the actual nature of the trade. Men from Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, to Parson Woodforde happily bought from the smugglers for their personal needs, while decrying the trade in public.
When taxes were reduced to more acceptable levels and enforcement made more effective, much of the trade died out. Perhaps that’s why, with the added glamour of hindsight and Hollywood, those who brought in “…brandy for the parson and baccy for the clerk …” are still regarded as mostly harmless today.
Norwich Castle, which acted as the county gaol. ↩︎
A seller of animal hides or skins, particularly sheepskins. ↩︎
One of the principal reasons for establishing a government-controlled monopoly over the transmission of the mail was the opportunity it would offer for controlling and intercepting anything judged subversive or too critical of government actions. Such was the theory. In practice, it never worked nearly as well as successive governments wished. Direct censorship laws had been ended in Britain by the start of the eighteenth century. Thereafter, governments had to rely on vague statues governing libel or ‘seditious libel’ or on so-called General Warrants.
Even the latter expedient collapsed in 1762, when the government of the day tried to use it to crush The North Briton — a radical political magazine whose principal author was John Wilkes. Demands for freedom of speech were too strong and even a charge of libel against the king saw Wilkes soon released from prison. As a result, various eighteenth-century governments fell back on secret ways of dealing with the spread of information or ideas judged inimical to their wishes. Many of these involved the use of the Post Office.
Espionage, Intelligence and “Dirty Tricks”
Espionage was an important element in the remit of The Postmaster General in the eighteenth century. It sometimes surprises people to know that the Georgian Post Office played such an important range of roles in this area, more or less doing the jobs that Special Branch and the Secret Services (MI5 and MI6) do today. Not just passive interception of documents either. The Post Office was an active participant in transmitting intelligence to and from those who needed it, as well as significant roles in collecting and creating it. It even took some part in various government “dirty tricks” aimed at thwarting or revealing plots and stratagems by hostile parties.
The Private Office
The Private Office used the unparalleled network of postmasters, Country Deputies and other staff employed by the regular post to send a stream of intelligence back to London. This covered everything from crime reports and economic conditions to notes on suspicious persons. As directed by legal warrants, they also opened specific correspondence and copied it before it was sent on. Ship’s captains were encouraged to supply their observations of naval and merchant shipping movements on the high seas and in foreign ports. Lloyds, already the home of marine insurance, used its own port correspondents to collect similar intelligence for commercial use, then shared it with the Post Office. The captains of the Packet Ships, which took official mail overseas, supplied lists of passengers and still more observations. They also supplied a vital link between secret agents in foreign ports and their masters back in London.
The Foreign Private Office or Secret Department
This was the hub for opening and reading official despatches and letters between foreign governments and their British embassies and consulates, so secret that the other GPO departments were unaware of its existence. The office even had a secret entrance in a residential street to avoid any overt link with government activity. Pay came covertly from Post Office revenue ‘diverted’ for the purpose.
The Foreign Secret Office operated continuously, day and night, so that foreign mails and despatches could be opened and copied with minimal risk of the governments concerned perceiving a suspicious delay. Foreign mail was sent to the office, where teams of translators could read the contents and copy out significant passages in English. These copies were passed to the secretary of state, while the originals were returned for delivery as normal. The whole process could take as little as an hour.
Of course, both foreign governments and conspirators were well aware of the possibility of their communications being intercepted and tried to guard against their private messages being read. That gave rise to the third secret part of the Post Office.
The Deciphering Branch
The Deciphering Branch both ‘broke’ foreign and domestic, especially Irish, codes and provided a service to the other branches in reading what they had intercepted, before passing it on to the king and his ministers. Naturally, its activity fluctuated with international tensions. In 1748, the staff included a ‘Chief Decypherer’ and Second, Third and Fourth Decipherers. Their salaries rivalled the annual incomes of a good many wealthy country gentlemen, providing a strong incentive to loyalty and secrecy.
These specialists also used their expertise to reverse the process, producing forged despatches and letters to confuse enemies or be ‘planted’ on foreign diplomats or agents to suit government plans. They even researched ‘invisible inks’ and developed secret methods of writing, engraving copies of foreign seals and procuring special waxes to help in the opening and re-sealing of letters without trace.
So long as the British king remained ruler of the German state of Hanover, a similar set of secret offices was maintained there. Contact between the two sets was always maintained at a high level, giving the king and government the earliest possible warning of foreign intentions throughout Europe. All the Hanoverian kings showed a direct interest in intelligence work, especially George III. Like Winston Churchill during World War II, he demanded to see daily intelligence reports and often the raw intelligence itself, if he could obtain access to it.
Like the staff of Bletchley Park and other intelligence operations in the 1940s, those who operated the Georgian intelligence network in the Post Office showed exemplary loyalty and attention to security. As a result, parliament and public remained mostly ignorant of their existence. There were one or two security breaches over the years, often produced by over-zealous parliamentary committees in search of extravagance or government inefficiency. None produced any long-term problems. As a result, both private correspondents and foreign governments and diplomats went on using the Post Office without much concern.
Winston Churchill called the staff at Bletchley Park, “The geese who laid the golden eggs and never cackled.” Much the same could be said of the mostly forgotten men who staffed the secret, unacknowledged parts of the Post Office in the eighteenth century.
William Savage writes historical fiction set in eighteenth-century Norfolk in the years between 1760 and 1800. This was a period of turmoil — constant wars, the revolutions in America and France and finally the titanic, 22-year struggle with Napoleon. The series featuring Dr Adam Bascom, a young gentleman-physician caught up in the beginning of the Napoleonic wars, takes place in a variety of locations near to the North Norfolk coast. The Ashmole Foxe series is located in Norwich. Mr Foxe is something of a dandy, a bookseller and, unknown to most around him, quickly involved in dealing with anything likely to upset the peace or economic security of his beloved city. You can check out both series here.
During the eighteenth century, england was seen throughout europe as an unusually musical nation, one in which different kinds of music were enjoyed at every level of society. That was why, at one end of the scale, a major composer like Handel chose to make his home in London, and why both Haydn and the young Mozart enjoyed highly successful visits. At the other extreme, pubs and ale houses were very often the venue for all kinds of impromptu bursts of singing or playing of various instruments.
Amongst the ‘accomplishments’ expected of well brought up young ladies, the ability to provide either singing or playing an instrument as part of an evening’s entertainment figured highly. Not surprisingly, all this attachment to music produced its own forms of commerce. Music teachers abounded, as did operatic performances and concerts of all kinds.
In an age before audio recording, music in the home meant performing for one another. Simplified versions of favourite songs and pieces, adapted to the skills of amateur performers of varied ability, made this practical. Here is a typical advertisement for music for home use, as it appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle for 4th January, 1783:
Convivial Songster, New Edition.
This Day is Published, Embellished with an elegant Frontispiece of the Chapel of Venus, an engraved Title page, and a beautiful Vignette. Price 2 shillings and 6 pence, bound in red.
The Convivial Songster ; Containing a select Collection of the best Songs in the English Language, classed under the following Heads, viz.
Humorous, Amorous, Bacchanalian, Satyrical [sic], Songs on the Caprices of Women, Dialectic Songs, Sea Songs, Miscellaneous and Original Songs, with the Music prefixed to each; selected from the best Authors, and the most approved Collections, and expressly intended for the Use of those who will wish to please the Companies where Humour, Mirth, and Wit are understood and applauded. With an Introduction, containing Rules and Instructions for such as wish to become pleasing and good Singers. To which is added a great Number of entirely original Toasts and Sentiments, no where [sic] to be found but in this Work.
N.B. The Tunes themselves form a pleasing Collection, are put in the most familiar Keys, and, to such as play the German Flute, Violin, etc are, from the Scarceness and Goodness of many of them, worth more than the Price of the Book.
You can see the hint that this collection was not aimed at serious musicians in the statement that it was: “…expressly intended for the Use of those who will wish to please the Companies where Humour, Mirth, and Wit are understood and applauded.” You might not be the most accomplished singer or performer, but if you made your audience of friends and relatives laugh, you were bound to be a success.
The Cabinet, Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk William Windham’s Grand Tour display
The grand tour was responsible for a huge growth in the expenditure georgian grandees lavished on the interior decoration of their houses. Many of those who went abroad sent home vast numbers of pictures, statues and other objects, all chosen to display their refined taste and fastidious appreciation of Classical art. Some, unfortunately, lacked both qualities and so wasted their money on purchases of items produced by locals eager to cash-in on their naivety. Others had the taste, but not the deep pockets necessary to support it. Nevertheless, many Georgian houses open to the public today benefit greatly from the period of frantic collecting that characterised much of the century — until Napoleon put a stop to continental travel.
What was going on?
Increasing prosperity drove demand for houses and lifestyles that were more comfortable and elegant. The notion of ‘good taste’ being the hallmark of the gentry stimulated the urge to acquire sophistication through foreign travel, then display concrete signs of it in the decoration of your home. Patrons grew more demanding. Those who served them — the architects, designers and craftsmen — were held in higher esteem and encouraged to become more capable of producing complex designs.
It was tempting to satirise the whole business, as Alexander Pope did. Many of those sent out on these extended ‘educational’ holidays had little real interest in anything save eating, drinking and sowing their wild oats out of sight of parents and family.
Inevitably, what they brought back to justify their trip they had picked up quickly and without discrimination. A whole industry grew up around fleecing the ‘English milords’.
For what has Virro  painted, built and planted?
Only to show how many tastes he wanted.
What brought Sir Visto’s ill-got wealth to waste?
Some demon whispered, “Visto, have a taste.”
Heav’n visits with a taste the wealthy fool,
And needs no rod but Ripley with a Rule.
Moral Essays, Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
Paintings, etchings, sculptures and prints were the purchases most travellers thought of first. A good many of the country’s finest collections of art began with someone making the Grand Tour and bringing back enough art to decorate a whole house. In some cases, Holkham Hall in Norfolk for example, a vast house was built as a ‘display cabinet’ for a Grand Tour collection.
The Cabinet, Felbrigg Hall More of Windham’s Grand Tour art collection
Only the wealthiest could afford Old Masters. Others made do with minor painters, especially when it came to landscapes. William Windham of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk bought a few fine works with marine subjects, but added many modest landscapes in gouache depicting places in Italy he had visited. It’s easy to imagine him boring his friends by displaying these exactly as people used to do with holiday snaps and videos!
As more and more people had been abroad, an interest grew up in paintings and other objects intended as ‘conversation pieces’ to stimulate suitably erudite discussions amongst them.
While architects designed the houses and the major interior elements like plasterwork, fireplaces and staircases, other interior fittings were left to the taste of the owners. Throughout the eighteenth century, English interiors tended to reveal the eclectic tastes of a house’s inhabitants, rather than conform to any set style. There might be Palladian, Rococco, Neoclassical and even Gothic elements combined in the same room. Fashion also played a major role too.
Perhaps what was most constant was a taste for a generally muted, pale colour-scheme for the walls and large windows fitted with crown glass or Bristol glass to maximise the intake of light. Pier mirrors between the windows or on the walls opposite also helped to make rooms better illuminated to show off all the expensive paintings and fittings. The small, mullioned windows of earlier periods were swept away, and the heavy draperies and dark colours of Victorian taste had yet to appear.
From the middle of the century onwards, Chinese wallpaper was so expensive and complex to handle that its possession became extremely desirable. In 1752, William Windham managed to acquire enough ‘India Paper’ to cover the walls of a small dressing room in the latest fashion. What the paper costs him is not recorded, but he had to hire an expert from Norwich to hang it. It took many days at a rate of 3s 6d per day (perhaps £45.00 today), plus 6d (around £6.25) per mile to travel the 20 miles each way. It’s no wonder Windham noted it as “a curs’d deal”. Windham’s Chinese paper was pasted on the wall. Earlier papers tended to be pasted onto canvas, which was then stretched into place — hence the term still used: ‘paper hanging’.
In the Cabinet — a kind of inner sanctum — where he displayed many of the paintings he brought back from his own, four-year Grand Tour, Windham was equally lavish. He covered the walls with silk damask — all but one spot behind an especially massive painting, where 20th-century workman found he had economised and left the wall bare.
Panelling and tapestry were generally thought unfashionable and old-fashioned. Most walls and ceilings were plastered and painted. In the grandest houses, they were embellished with magnificent frescoes. Houghton and Holkham Halls in Norfolk also have many of the mouldings gilded.
At Painted ceilings we devoutly stare
Where sprawl the saints of Verrio and Laguerre.
Fireplaces were generally of marble (or made to look as if they were) as were pillars in the new, Classically-inspired entrance halls. Lord Verney bought a marble fireplace in Italy for £1000.00 (perhaps a quarter of a million today) and paid to have it shipped to England. Even grates and fire-irons were procured in elaborate patterns. One set at Burghley House is made entirely of solid silver!
Furniture and fittings
It didn’t stop there. Vast sums were paid for statues (typically copies of Classical originals), bronzes, ceramics and similar objets d’art.
The range and elegance of furniture expanded throughout the century, becoming steadily more elaborate. Chippendale’s products adorned the finest houses, while his firm supplied pattern books that could be used by local cabinet makers. These offered designs to suit every taste, from pseudo-Greek to pseudo-Chinese. Much was made using rare and exotic woods, such a rosewood, tulip wood, ebony, figured walnut and satinwood. Chinese lacquered items were all the rage, as were other kinds of oriental furniture, much of it painted or Japanned.
Dining tables were adorned with expensive silverware and costly dinner services in fine porcelain. Beds were hung with curtains of silk damask, velvet or complex needlework or tapestry. People wanted matched sets of curtains, upholstered seat covers and fine table-linens. Even the floors must now be covered with Persian or Turkey carpets.
Mechanical novelties and displays of technology also appealed in an age of rapid progress in the sciences. Clocks, barometers, celestial and terrestrial globes joined the statuary and paintings. Music boxes and musical clocks were purchased. Even tea caddies and work boxes might be made of rare woods or inlaid with tortoiseshell or ivory. Felbrigg Hall has commodes and desks of Boule ware, their surfaces inlaid with complex patterns in brass and tortoiseshell.
Even feathers were pressed into use to add additional decorative lustre:
The birds put forth their every hue
To dress a room for Montagu
The peacock sends his heavenly dies
His rainbow and his starry eyes,
The pheasant plumes which round unfold
His mantling neck with downy gold,
The cock his arched tails azure show,
And river blanched the swan his snow—
All tribes besides of Indian name
That glossy shine or vivid flame.
Counting the Cost
The whole cost could be immense, and not just for the peerage and the ultra-rich. Mr Freeman, owner of a fairly modest house at Fawley Court in Oxfordshire, was said to have spent £8,000.00 just on interior adornment (around two million in today’s money).
If today we worry about the vast gulf between the lifestyles of the rich and poor, we should perhaps remember that it has probably always been so. What today is offered to everyone to enjoy by public museums and charitable bodies like The National Trust, was once the ‘bling’ used by the privileged and wealthy ‘haves’ to show off to one another, and proclaim their distance from the wretched ‘have nots’, who laboured to support their extravagance.
Nothing much has changed.
A character lampooned in Juvenal’s Satires of the 1st century AD. ↩
It’s good to see that even our georgian ancestors were not above getting pissed and doing stupid things at christmas parties.
The following piece was published in The Norwich Mercury of January 14th, 1727.
Sherborn, Jan. 9. A Company of merry People getting together this Christmas in our Neighbourhood, amongst other Diversions, they must needs play a Game at Matrimony, and accordingly suffered themselves to be married to one another; Tho’ this was but in jest, and defin’d as a meer Frolick, one of the young Ladies of a good Fortune was the next day demanded by her Husband, and being informed that the marriage was good in Law, the same was consumated. The rest of the married Folks, we hear, have made their Escapes, some for fear of being taken by their Wives, and some to prevent falling into the Hands of their Husbands.
It’s true that precisely what counted as a valid marriage was not at all clear before Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. By stipulating in detail what was required to make a marriage legal and binding, it effectively outlawed all other notions of what might constitute a marriage.
Were they married?
Before the act, the only stipulations were those contained in the canon law of the Church of England. However, the stages it prescribed were seen as ideals rather that firm requirements. It wasn’t essential to be married in church, or to have banns read, or even obtain a licence. It was agreed a clergyman of the established church was necessary, but there were plenty of those about, not all of whom were attached to parishes or even very diligent about their duties. So-called ‘Fleet weddings’ were carried out by ordained clergymen serving time in the Fleet prison and were usually accepted as valid, if entirely irregular.
By canon law, a binding union arose from an exchange of vows, made freely, between a man and a woman. Usually this was given in the present tense, i.e. as something happening right away. However, vows could also be expressed in the future tense, as a statement of intentions. This was thought equally binding, much like a commercial contract; doubly so if followed by sexual intercourse. Hence the legal actions for ‘breach of contract’ between engaged couples much valued by writers of romantic novels and comic operas.
Breach of Promise?
A jilted woman had a right to legal redress precisely because an engagement affected her reputation almost as much as an admission of premarital sex would have. The 18th and 19th centuries were far from being a time of stiff manners and chastity. Many, perhaps even most, engaged couples happily took their engagement as the starting gun on sexual activity together. You only need to do a little genealogical research, and reckon the periods between wedding dates and the birth of the first child, to discover how many of your own ancestors were conceived out of wedlock.
Consummation was seen as the final ‘seal’ on the couple’s shared vows. Without it, the process was incomplete and could be cancelled. The ‘married couples’ in the article who were hiding from one another were probably quite safe, so long as they refrained from sex together. Even if their pretend marriages had turned out to be legal, they could still be annulled by reason of non-consummation. The “young lady of good Fortune” mentioned in the article thus greatly improved the chances of her joke marriage being accepted as legal by agreeing to join her ‘husband’ in having sex the next day.
You can make up your own minds whether her action was caused by gullibility, pressure from the man, or her own willingness to use the cover of even a doubtfully legal marriage to do what she wanted to do anyway. The others seem not to have been so eager to consummate their weddings, though it’s interesting to note the writer implies one party in each case was a good deal more interested in the marriage being legal than the other!
I wonder what the ‘other Diversions’ at that party were?
During the eighteenth century, the lady of the house faced a constant problem in employing good servants. Whether you ran a town household or a country one, servants were becoming hard to find. They were also difficult to keep. Alternative employment was on the increase, as the mills and factories drew in more workers. At the same time, the supply of suitable persons was narrowing.
At one time, the children of tenant farmers could be relied upon. A pamphlet of 1766 noted that small farms had provided:
“… servant girls who had had the opportunity of learning at home how to brew, bake, cook, knit, sew, get up linen, etc., whereas poor peoples’ children have not such advantages”.
Agricultural improvement and enclosures merged smallholdings into larger farms for the sake of efficiency. There were fewer tenant families in any given area. Those there were grew more prosperous and ‘middle class’. Their children — especially the girls — were much less interested in ‘menial’ servant roles.
The rural poor were also less abundant. Enclosures forced families off the land and sent them to seek work in the manufacturing towns. Poor people still existed in large numbers, of course, but these new urban poor were not seen as suitable for employment in genteel households.
The Servant Hierarchy
The social changes were most obvious at the bottom of the servant hierarchy. To secure a place amongst the upper servants — the housekeeper, the butler, the steward, the governess, the cook, the gentleman’s valet and the lady’s maid — was difficult. It required proven skills, experience and good references from previous households. Upper servants were closest to their employers. They needed to be seen as competent and trustworthy. Once established, many remained with the same family for years at a time.
The supply of upper servants seeking new work was always limited. The best moved only when forced to do so, perhaps by the break-up of their existing household. When that happened, their availability would quickly be made known amongst potential employers. Their previous master or mistress might even take an active part in recommending them elsewhere. For the rest, senior positions were earned by long and meritorious service in a single household, not moves between them.
Two trends combined to increase the demand for servants. Household size was increasing. The houses of the aristocracy and gentry had ever more rooms and more complex layouts. The profits of enterprise and empire were increasing the number and wealth of the middle classes. An upper-middle class of merchants, professional men and manufacturers ran households as fine as those of the gentry. The upper classes needed even higher standards of comfort and luxury to stand out.
The middle class generally was more prosperous too. Even quite modest families amongst this rising group now needed several servants to be able to keep up appearances.
The best analogy is with today’s ownership of household appliances. It may sound unkind, but eighteenth-century under-servants were the food processors, cleaners and dishwashers of their time. What once had been thought a luxury soon became a necessity. The mistress of a middle-class household did not expect to undertake menial work herself. She did not wash her own dishes, launder and iron her own clothes, or sweep and clean the rooms in her house. She did not prepare the food. She gave the orders and supervised the results; others did the work. With greater wealth came higher expectations.
Those who took on menial household tasks were the most mobile and least of servants. Most came from poor families. Before entering service, they had no experience of anything useful. Their standards of cleanliness — in themselves and the work they did — were often deplorable. They lacked the basic education to follow written instructions. They arrived without any understanding of the requirements of household discipline — let alone how to behave with proper decorum. It took time and attention to train them. That was assuming they remained long enough. Many rebelled at the drudgery, close supervision and petty restrictions and ran away.
Imagine the huge difference between the furniture and household goods in a wealthy household and what existed in the homes of the poor. Inexperienced maids could cause havoc. Fine items required special care in handling and cleaning. The poor had no idea how vulnerable such things were to mistreatment or careless handling. A new maid would have to be shown how to clean a room without causing damage. She needed to be taught how to light a fire without producing too much smoke. She had probably never blacked a grate or polished metals. Tools like a flat-iron or a mangle would be outside her previous experience. One eighteenth-century mistress bewailed, “the inconveniences of changing housemaids so often”, which was due to the time it took to “make them understand these kinds of things”.
Servants at this basic level were also expected to turn their hands to almost any job required. Maids might join the harvesters on the farm. Male servants would be expected to give a hand with heavy work like shifting furniture or working the mangle on washing day. There were so many tasks to be done. So much labour involved in doing them. Even in the greatest of households, minor aspects of housekeeping would have to get by on minimal attention.
Turnover amongst lower servants was high. It was not uncommon for only a minority of under-servants to remain with a household for more than a year or so. Often it was less. Theft was a common cause of dismissal, as were drunkenness, dirtiness and insubordination. Pregnancy claimed many of the girls. It might be due to the attentions of male members of the family. It was more likely they had succumbed to advances from other servants, local farm labourers or visiting tradespeople.
In the 1740s, Elizabeth Purefoy wrote to a friend,
’Tis not my dairymaid that is with child but my cook maid, and it is reported our parson’s maid is also with kinchen [sic] by the same person who has gone off and shown them a pair of heels for it …”<
Later, her new maid was “apprehended for taking and conveying away strong beer out of the cellar”, and she was reduced to writing around to her friends to seek a maid without “too great assurance” and preferably “forty years old”.
The image of the ladies of the eighteenth-century given in many dramas and books is misleading. They didn’t spend all their time changing their clothes, beautifying themselves and indulging in polite conversation. Running a significant household was a full-time job.
Any leisure away from domestic demands would be seized upon with eagerness. Even then, it had to be fitted in with discussing menus with the cook and making sure the housekeeper was able to cope with the next influx of visitors. Time would be needed to see the maids weren’t destroying your fine ornaments by careless handling or stealing the silver spoons. You might have to deal with a butler drunk on the master’s brandy. Your maid might purloin items of your jewellery or lace, or the footmen using the guest beds to roger the chambermaids.
At least today’s household appliances don’t (yet) have minds and vices of their own!
Mystery books for lovers of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and similar traditional British whodunnits.
Dr Adam Bascom and Mr Ashmole Foxe star in two series of traditional mysteries set in 18th-century Norfolk. You can see all the titles on Amazon.