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.

Posted in Georgian Society, Politics | 2 Comments

Melancholy and the Romantic Movement

First Edition of Gray’s “Elegy”

How did the concept of melancholy came to be seen as especially associated with Romanticism and creativity in the arts?

In the 18th century, the concept of sensibility—a refined feeling of emotion and delicacy of perception—was synonymous with social refinement and good breeding. However, it was soon recognised that there was a fine line between a good supply of delicate feeling and various forms of mental disarrangement. The Romantics’ emphasis on “sentiment” demanded reflection on the tragic aspects of human life; an awareness which, if prolonged, could itself lead to feelings of gloom and depression.

The melancholic was seen as brooding and restless; fearful of the future and pessimistic about the possibility of improvement. She may also see life as essentially hollow and devoid of purpose. And, in the melancholic’s constant longing for something inexpressible and unattainable, many would find the seeds of that creative yearning generally associated with great artists of every kind.

Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil’d melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might.
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.


Melancholy became almost an inevitable by-product of the romantic outlook, with its emphasis on extremes of emotion. ‘The Sublime’ in landscape, for example, was often associated with places that were dangerous, like mountain gorges, or productive of solitude. Romantic love comes tightly yoked to the pains of love rejected or lost. Violent sensitivity can produce negative emotions as easily as positive ones. Indeed, as idealists and visionaries—at least in their own eyes—romantics were condemned to the loneliness produced by the solitude of their position. They saw the world as out of step with them; the world saw exactly the opposite. Death alone could free them from a life in which sorrow and loss were constant themes.

Romantic melancholy seems to stem, in part, from the attempt to find some correspondence between reality and the kind of idealised life the romantics espoused. They felt joy in those fleeting moments when their vision seemed to be within their grasp,  but despondency and despair when it was born in upon them that what they sought was impossible to maintain. The radical political beliefs of some, coupled with their turbulent characters,  meant they felt fundamentally at odds with the society of the day. Unable or unwilling to adjust themselves to society’s norms, they expressed their feelings of frustration in melancholy.

The Melancholy Genius

The eighteenth-century upper classes in England prided themselves on their refined tastes and artistic sensibility. It was to refine and educate such taste that they undertook “The Grand Tour” of Italy and other European nations deemed to possess a greater degree of artistic outlooks and achievement that dull, old, foggy England. There was also the possibility of indulging in life-styles and practices abroad that would cause scandal at home.

Horace Walpole is perhaps a good example of this type of melancholy. He was intensely self-centred and more than a little conceited about the refinement of his taste. He was also given to periods of ‘nervous disorder’. Were these brought on by his exquisite artistic sensibility? Were they due to being a secresly homosexual man who could not exercise his sexual preference openly in the high society of the time? Or were they yet more examples of his self-absorption and the lack of any significant outlet for his prodigious talents? Maybe it was all of these — or none of them. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Dr Samuel Johnson suffered from melancholy for almost all of his life and believed he had inherited the condition. In 1773, on their tour of Scotland, Boswell reports Johnson saying:

I inherited a vile melancholy from my father, which has made me mad all my life, at least not sober.

Dr Johnson often described his melancholy as madness, even when he associated it with aspects of his body rather than his mind. In his diary for 30th March, 1777, he wrote, “I discover nothing but a barren waste of time with some disorders of body, and disturbances of the mind very near to madness.” We can see he was describing depression, but no distinction was made at the time between a general sense of artistic ennui and full-blown clinical depression.

Boswell preferred to call melancholy “hypochondria”, applying it both to himself and to Johnson. “Spleen” would have been used by some to describe the same condition. In his Dictionary, Dr Johnson defined “hypochondriacal” as “Melancholy; disordered in the imagination”.

To consider just some of those well-known people who suffered from “melancholy” under one or more of the labels of the time is to produce a listing of 18th-century artistic and philosophical achievement: John Bunyan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Thomas Gray, Robert Burns, George Romney, Oliver Goldsmith, David Hume, and Joseph Wright – and so on.

Depressive states seem to hold a fascination for the creative imagination, with melancholy exerting a particular appeal in the eighteenth century. Perhaps Aristotle explains it best. He claimed that showing a tragic view of the human condition on stage had a cathartic effect, as well as revealing just how little separated us from those arbitrarily chosen by fate to experience suffering. To produce a strong emotional response inspire in your audience thus came to be seen as the principal measure of artistic success.

There is also the element of reflection common amongst melancholics: that contemplation of their past which might, amongst the religious, result in repentance and renewal, but amongst those with a more scientific and rational outlook tended to lead to disillusionment with life in general. Several poets of the 18th century produced works characterised by gloomy meditations on death. Examples include Thomas Gray, writer of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, Thomas Parnell, who wrote “Night-Piece on Death”, Robert Blair and Edward Young. The religious culture of the eighteenth century produced an emphasis on private devotion and reflection. That too could encourage melancholy ideas about the pointlessness of life in the face of inevitable death and dissolution.

The final instalment in this series will look at the notion, proposed at the time, that melancholy was especially associated with the rich; rather like the various multiply initialled ‘syndromes’ linked to today’s top media personalities.

Posted in Georgian Society, Medicine & Science

Fears of Terrorism and the ‘Swinish Multitude’

Cruikshank’s View of the French Revolutionaries

My series of mysteries featuring Dr Adam Bascom are all set in the early years of the struggle between Britain and revolutionary, later Napoleonic, France. Several feature the British government’s real concerns about spying, infiltration and subversion by the French. I think it makes for a good story, but is it genuine history?

It is.

For a start, France had declared war on Britain. The revolutionary government in Paris had also vowed to help foment potential republican revolutions against all other European monarchies. Britain was woefully unprepared for war, especially land warfare, so any invasion by the French — if they could get past the Royal Navy — was quite likely to succeed against the bare handful of regulars and a mass of ill-trained, poorly armed militia. After a rocky start, the French armies had recently won several stunning victories. They were well on the way to becoming seasoned veterans.

The revolution in France had been driven from below, led by middle-class lawyers and intellectuals who were adept at using the urban poor as ’storm troops’ to overwhelm opposition from the upper elite. While Britain’s aristocracy had not descended to the same levels of arrogance and sense of entitlement as those in France, there was no doubt that a home-based urge towards republican reform did exist in the England of the time. There’s plenty of evidence of that. When the revolution began in France it was widely supported on this side of the Channel. Not until Robespierre and The Terror did opinion sway firmly in the opposite direction. Even then, significant groups remained who had a strong interest in producing constitutional reform. To do so, they would need to weaken the grip of the monarchy and the great landowners on the levers of power. The Opposition in parliament wanted several reforms. The many radical artisans’ societies which sprang up, such as the London Corresponding Society and its offshoots in Norwich and Sheffield, wanted many more. They appeared to profess ideological, if not political, allegiance to the types of reform now sweeping through Europe, carried by the armies of France.

The British Government’s Response

At first, it was clumsy. Parliament passed a number of draconian legislative acts aimed at repressing the parliamentary opposition and the spreading radical groups. Maybe they knew from the start that few juries were willing to convict any one charged under these laws. They were rarely used. Events proved they would even more rarely lead to convictions. However, their existence on the statute book definitely had some deterrent effect. Faced with the threat of harsh punishment for ‘seditious libel’ or simply organising a political meeting, the radical groups and their leaders either gave up or went underground. It also became clear that public opinion was not sufficiently engaged by the radicals’ ideas to produce the type of demonstrations which had begun the revolution in France. The bulk of the people remained loyal to the monarchy and highly suspicious of republican ideas. Taken together, the new laws and the lack of public response to republicanism were enough to quell most radical activities and mute any significant demands for reform.

What finally tipped the balance in favour of the status quo was an intense government campaign aimed at counteracting effects from “divers wicked and seditious writings”, such as Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man”. This campaign blended torrents of outrageous propaganda with secret financial support for conservative groups. Loyalist associations in most larger cities and towns were established and their marches and other activities subsidised. Spies and government informers were used to infiltrate the radical societies. Intelligence was collected from magistrates, local officials and many others and ‘subversives’ targeted. Letters were opened and scanned for any signs of espionage or treasonous intentions.

Fear of Immigrants

When the revolution began, many French refugees fled for safety to England. At first, they were welcomed. Later, as their numbers grew, sympathy turned to suspicion. Were these truly innocent refugees? How many might be agents provacteurs, spies or revolutionaries hell-bent on sabotage. Were they exploiting the English radicals to further the aims of the French government? Were they plotting with dissident Irish nationalists to stir up rebellion? Were those who expressed support for them harbouring secret notions of treason?

Following a direct threat of invasion, the climate of opinion shifted decisively against the refugees and immigrants. Fears of the large number of undocumented French still arriving caused Parliament to pass the Aliens Act. This required all ports to keep a detailed account of the identities and purposes of all immigrants entering the country. The Secretary of State was now allowed to expel any aliens he deemed suspicious. Those who did enter were not allowed to bring even personal weapons or to travel without passports. Even those foreigners already within the country had to live in specified areas, submit to registration and give up their arms.

How real was the threat?

It was almost certainly wildly overstated. Much of the intelligence supplied to the government was either dubious or false, since informers and agents were paid for the amount of ‘evidence’ they produced, giving them an incentive to exaggerate — even invent — their reports. The real climate of fear, caused by threats of invasion and insurrection, also afforded the government a chance to crush even modest moves in favour of reform. All such attempts could be represented as the slippery slope that must lead inevitably to extremism. In reality, a French-style revolution in Georgian England was never a serious proposition. However, the fact that it took until the 1830s for tentative steps to be taken towards the most necessary constitutional reforms shows the lasting impact of the invasion fears of the 1790s.

I’m not going to make comparisons with events in our own times. Readers can make up their own minds on such matters. However, what is clear is that the media and Hollywood-induced picture of late-Georgian England, based in large part on Jane Austen’s novels, is far from the reality of the time. Austen’s heroines move on a stage which purposely omits anything which might clash with a picture of upper-class polite society going about its daily business. In my books, Dr Bascom is no less a member of the upper class. I have however tried to set him more clearly in the reality of a period wracked with anxieties and fears for its very survival.

Posted in Politics | 6 Comments

Melancholy and Madness

Engraving by Hogarth

In the eighteenth century, melancholia was thought of not as a curable mental affliction, but as one of the primary forms of madness.

Melancholia means ‘black bile’, one of the four bodily humours recognised by the Hippocratic and Galenic systems of medicine that prevailed in Britain and elsewhere well into the 18th century. It was an excess of this ‘black bile’ which was thought to cause the malady. Aristotle thought black bile might ‘ferment’ to produce the anger and depression seen as characteristic of the malady.

Whatever the differences between writers on their views of how the disease was caused, all agreed that it led to symptoms of intense mental pain, depression and a general sense of failure and gloom, which could cause people to become insane and kill themselves.

The magisterial book on all forms and concepts of the disease was written in England:

The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up” Robert Burton, first published in 1621.

Treating Melancholy

There were probably as many treatments offered as there were physicians interested in the disorder, from locking people up to enemas and special dietary regimes. Burton’s own suggestions for treatment have a distinctly modern ring to them. He believed that melancholy could be dealt with by following a healthy diet, getting sufficient sleep, listening to music, and engaging in “meaningful” types of work. He also promoted talking about the problem with a friend.

Other approaches were more brutal. Amongst these, sea bathing (‘thalassotherapy’) became quite prevalent. Not our pleasant kind of splashing about in the sea, but a strict and violent form of immersion designed to induce first shock (from being plunged into cold water) then fear (by being held under until almost drowning). The purpose was, apparently, to cause the brain to ‘re-arrange’ itself into a better and more harmonious state. Others made the patient sit on a stool which whirled them around until they became dizzy and disoriented.

Benjamin Franklin even devised a primitive form of electro-convulsive therapy, using an electrostatic generator (a machine which produces electricity by rubbing material against a glass ball or cylinder turned by a crank) with a Leyden jar to stored the energy produced. On the whole, he considered his results disappointing, though he did note the propensity for electric shocks to the brain to destroy memory—something later proponents of electro-convulsive therapy seem to have missed for many decades.

Here’s an even more violent ‘cure’ for “hypochondria” (an alternative term for melancholy at the time) from Dr Benjamin Rush, an American doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. His answer was mercury, taken orally!

“Mercury acts in this disease, 1, by abstracting morbid excitement from the brain to the mouth. 2, by removing visceral obstructions. And, 3, by changing the cause of our patient’s complaints and fixing them wholly upon his sore mouth. The salivation will do still more service if it excite some degree of resentment against the patient’s physician or friends.”

The idea that giving you violent diarrhoea, a sore mouth and inciting your resentment against others could help lift your depression is little short of idiocy! Cure by heavy metal poisoning!

The plain fact was that medical knowledge of the time was more or less helpless in the face of most mental illnesses, so we should not be too critical. Even today, clinical depression is not treatable easily.

Non-medical Melancholy

While it’s clear that melancholy (in its artistic sense) is not the same as depression, it could be hard to avoid moving from the one into the other. Depression generally destroys motivation and induces lethargy and a pervasive sense of the hopelessness of any endeavour. Melancholy’s intensity of introspection and reflection produced in some a powerful driving force towards artistic achievement. In others, it slipped into an aesthetic flaccidness and self-indulgence.

Too often, melancholy became mostly an affectation, since its milder characteristics made the condition seem desirable, especially to the emerging Romantic Movement. There was a distinct appeal in maintaining the posture of a dignified, wistful and gloomy aloofness. It also became associated with the idea of possessing both a full amount — even an excess — of sensitivity to sentiment (itself highly regarded as an attribute of a cultured mind) and a creative mind. We will explore more of both of these aspects in a following posting.

Posted in Georgian Society, Medicine & Science | 1 Comment

Competing Pleasure Gardens

The most famous pleasure gardens of the eighteenth century were undoubtedly those in London. However, other towns and cities established similar gardens, amongst which Norwich had, perhaps, the most and some of the longest-lasting. At one time, five main gardens were competing for business in a city whose population at the time was perhaps little more than 30,000 people.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the rivalry between them could be fierce, especially on days when a large turn-out of people might be expected, such as on the king’s birthday.

All of them provided walks and areas for seeing and being seen. Most provided places to eat and drink, often with accompanying music. However, what drew the crowds was the prospect of some definite spectacle, such as the ascent of a balloon or a major firework display. Newspaper advertisements would then be used to announce the event and the presence of especially noted performers stressed

In 1781, two of the Norwich gardens, Bunn’s and Quantrell’s could be found listing competing attractions in the Norfolk Chronicle for the evening of of June 4th.

At BUNN’s Pantheon, On Monday, June 4, 1781, (being his Majesty’s Birth-day) will be performed a Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music. First violin Mr REEVE. The Vocal Parts by Mr KEYMER (for the Night only) and Mr BUNN.

Act.1. By Desire, “An Invitation to Comus’s Court, “ Mr KEYMER.—A Song, Mr KEYMER.

Act 2. “The Wandering Sailor, “Mr BUNN.— A Song called “The Camp,” Mr KEYMER.

After the Concert will be exhibited in the Temple of Curiosity, Several Miscellaneous Miniature Paintings, designed and painted by Mr BUNN; in which will be introduced some well-known Prospects, and a curious Representation of the Neptune Society returning from their Annual Water-Frolic.

To conclude with an elegant Display of Fire-works, by Sig. Baptista PEDRALIO, in a Variety of Designs, in Brilliant, Chinese, Rayonant, Gold, Blue, Red, and Yellow Fires, particularly a curious Sun-Piece, forming a brilliant Glory to the Letters G.R.

Note: Admittance One Shilling.

Not a bad evening for one shilling (about £10 in today’s terms). A concert, an art exhibition and a firework display. Quantrells’, however, promised more.

On Monday, June the 4th (being his Majesty’s Birth-day), QUANTRELL’s Gardens will be most elegantly illuminated in the Evening, and a Concert of Instrumental Music, and a grand Collection of Fireworks will be exhibited by Sig. Antonio BATALUS. The evening to conclude with a capital Firework, called Harlequin from the Globe, With a Dance of Furies; And Sig. Antonio BATALUS will fly across the Garden with Fire from different Parts of his Body.

To finish with a great Eruption of Mount Aetna, etc.

Note: Admittance One Shilling. — Sixpence to be returned in Liquor, etc etc.

No art exhibition and instrumental rather than vocal music; perhaps no singers of the same ability of Messers Keymer and Bunn were available. However, this seems more than made up for by the prospect of seeing Signor Batalus flying across the garden with different parts of his body on fire and — no less — the eruption of Mount Aetna.

Best of all, after paying your shilling, you got half of it back in liquor!

Note that both of the displays of fireworkswere to be presented by Italians. They and the French dominated the early use of fireworks throughout Europe, sometimes producing spectacles of truly vast size. The technique was not so much to have actual fireworks much larger than usual, but to erect wooden frameworks decorated with statues and pictures, then set off a large number of relatively small actual fireworks all over them to produce the necessary effect of size and splendour.

By this time in the eighteenth century, such showmen were skilled at constructing elaborate, richly decorated ‘scenery’ representing temples or palaces, with translucent areas illuminated from the inside. The exterior would be decorated with plaster statuary, gilding, floral and other decorations. The fireworks proper were displayed on these erections and the effects accomplished by the repetition of many small fireworks set off all over this façade, while skyrockets were sent up above. Where possible, the grand set piece would be situated by a body of water to reflect and enhance the whole display.

Posted in C18th Norfolk, Georgian Society, Leisure | 2 Comments

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.


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