An 18th-century Scandal Rag

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A Tea Party 1719-1721
Joseph Van Aken (c.1699‑1749).

Sometimes history springs a surprise on you. I was glancing recently through some eighteenth-century newspapers when I discovered something quite strange. An edition of the “Ipswich Journal” from November 1720 had a lengthy piece of social satire right on the front page, before the first section of news. It would be much like finding “The Times” today had given over its whole front page to an article from “Private Eye”.

The piece is much too long to reproduce here in full, so I’ll skim over the first part, which explains the set-up, and quote just the essentials.

Those Present

The article claims to report a tea-party, including both men and women. This was one of the reasons why tea-drinking became so popular. Coffee houses were generally men-only places. Tea houses welcomed women too and tea could easily be made at home, further increasing its choice as the best beverage for mixed social gatherings. And though tea was expensive and highly taxed, the same leaves could be used several times, whereas coffee grounds cannot be used again.

At this tea-party, various ‘persons’ were present, whose names revealed their presumed role in proceedings. They included ‘Mrs Tittle-Tattle’ and ‘Scandalia’, as well as the highly fashionable ‘Monsieur A-la-mode de France’, whose exaggerated attachment to all things French and his fake French accent are heavily mocked, as in this exchange.

Hereupon a Gentleman of the Company seeing him so Bigotted [sic] to French Modes, ask’d him, if the French Whores were better than English? Oh! O! Sir, said he, much finer by a great deal, dey are not so Proud as de English Whores are, dey will lye-down to any Man for a Livre, and yours ask half a Crown, and pick de Pocket too.

Eventually the fellow is laughed out of the company, having tried to claim hangman’s ropes in France were made of silk and hung people without them suffering slightest pain!

Subjects of Conversation

Nothing else discussed at this tea-party of nearly three hundred years ago would be out of place in any modern tabloid. It included:

… Who thrust their hands under an Hoop-petticoat, as Madam was coming down Stairs? Who kiss’d a young Virgin in the dark, and would have done something more, but was prevented by a sudden coming of a third Person? Who lay with my Neighbour’s Wife, and with much ado escaped being catch’d? and several such stories; all which ‘Scandalia’ learn’d immediately, and spread them about the Town, tho’ the Persons were wholly Innocent on whom they laid the Charge.

The piece, running to a second page, then ends with a lengthy poem on the topic of ladies drinking tea, from which I will quote a single verse.

Let the Wits of the Town,
With their scurvy Lampoon
If they dare, provoke our Passion;
We’ll revenge our own Wrongs
With the power of our Tongues,
And Punish their Reputation.

Posted in Georgian Society | 3 Comments

Vignettes of 18th-century Life

Vignettes

Looking through a single newspaper of the 18th century is usually enough to produce a series of vivid images of what life was really like at the time. Take these, chosen from one page of “The Norfolk Chronicle” for January 6th, 1776.

First London Appearance of Mrs Sarah Siddons

Last night a young lady, whose name is Siddons, made her first appearance at Drury-Lane Theatre, in the character of Portia in the Merchant of Venice. Allowing for her great natural diffidence, it was thought one of the most respectable first essays ever seen on either theatre royal. Her figure is a fine one, her features are beautifully expressive, her action graceful and easy, and her whole deportment that of a gentlewoman; but her forte seems to be that of enforcing the beauties of an author, by an emphatical, tho’ easy art, almost peculiar to herself. Her fears last night prevented her from doing justice to her powers; that at times her voice was rather low; however it is judged from this specimen of her theatrical abilities that having now secured a footing in the first school, she cannot fail to rise to great eminence in her profession. She was received with the warmest applause, by a splendid and numerous audience.

The Sad Fate of a Hunted Fox

Extract of a letter from Carlow, in Ireland, December 23.

Last week a remarkable fox chase happened in the Queen’s County. — The gentlemen of the neighbourhood of Mountmelick unkennelled a fox at the wood, which they ran into the town of Portarlington, and being closely pursued as far as the French Church, in the centre of the said town, he climbed into the belfry, where he sat a considerable time barking at his pursuers, to the no small diversion of a great number of spectators; from which situation he could not be got, till a wag proposed ringing his knel [sic]; accordingly at the toll of the bell he leaped precipitately down, and was killed by the fall.

The Equally Sad Fate of a Highwayman

On Saturday last three highwaymen attacked two gentlemen in a post-chaise, on Hounslow-Heath, with intent to rob them: One of the gentlemen being prepared with arms, stood on his defence, on which one of the robbers snapped his pistol, but it missed fire; the gentleman then fired at the highwayman, and, as he believes, wounded him mortally ; his two companions, who were on each side the chaise, fired at the gentleman, who at this instant happened to jump out of the chaise, received the balls in his clothes, and placing himself in the rear of the chaise, drove them all off. Information of the attack was immediately sent to the Public Office, in Bow Street; and last night an account of a very clandestine burial was brought to that Office, which on inquiry proves to be of the highwayman that was shot. After the accident, his two companions carried him to Uxbridge; to the house of Mrs. Hawke, Widow of the late highwayman of that name: from whence he was conveyed by night in a hearse to an ale-house in Oxford-Street; but the honest publican finding himself imposed on by the undertaker, and believing that the man had been shot in attempting a robbery, insisted on their carrying him away, which they did, and put him in a stable, from which place he was taken last night, and buried at St. Mary-le-bone. His name was Jones. Mrs. Hawke, and the woman that lived with him, and one of his companions, were mourners. These are supposed to be the three highwaymen that have infested the roads near Beaconsfield.

The theatre, a fox hunt and highwaymen. What better encapsulation of middle and upper class18th-century life could you ask for?

 

Posted in Georgian Society | 4 Comments

Georgian Dancing-Masters in Norwich

J-G Noverre_(in_pencil)_(NYPL_b12149384-5247709)

Probably Jean-Georges Noverre
New York Public Library

For the upper and middle classes, the Georgian period was one of intense social activity, both in the home and in public assemblies. Since dancing was an essential part of many gatherings, the ability to dance gracefully became an essential part of the skills of every person aspiring to gain a reputation in polite society.

Towns and cities throughout the country built assembly rooms to accommodate the wealth of public partying, while those who owned large mansions — and even some living in more modest properties — used any suitable spaces to host exclusive private parties and balls.

Dance was also a part of the curriculum at many schools. Not only did it add to pupils’ social graces, it helped improve their deportment and general appearance. Those who taught dancing, however, occupied a more ambivalent position. While the profession was seen as necessary, dancing-masters were often the butt of critical humour, based on their supposed foppish ways, a situation made worse by the fact that many of them were born or trained overseas. They may have been essential to Georgian polite society, but that did not mean that they were treated as anything other than slightly superior servants.

Dance and Theatre

Interludes of dance were often included in theatrical performances of the time, as were complete ballets. It was due to this custom that Norwich’s most famous dancing-masters, the Noverre family, first came to England in 1755, when the actor-manager David Garrick brought Jean-Georges Noverre’s ballet company from France to perform Les Fêtes Chinois at the Drury Lane Theatre.

It proved to be an ill-fated arrangement. War between Britain and France broke out during their visit and London exploded with anti-French riots. At one point, Augustin Noverre, Jean-Georges’ younger brother, was caught up in these disturbances. The story is that a scuffle between the cast and the rioters took place on the stage of the Drury Lane Theatre, both sides using swords, and Augustin Noverre injured someone. As a result, the Noverre family fled to Norwich and were hidden there by descendants of the Hugenot weavers.

A more likely, if less colourful story, claims that the family decided Augustin should remain in England when the rest of them returned to France at the end of the engagement. Augustin then became ballet master at Drury Lane, holding that post until David Garrick retired from the theatre in 1776. After that, Augustin continued as a dancing-master, a profession he had held throughout his time at the theatre.

The Norwich Noverres

There is good evidence that Augustin Noverre stayed in London for most of the rest of the century, combining this with periods practising as dancing-master in Norwich. Other London-based dancing-masters did the same. Unfortunately, accounts of his life conflict, dating his arrival in Norwich at various times after 1776. The only firm evidence we have comes from the advertisement given below, which appeared in the Norwich Mercury of 31st August, 1793 and was aimed at establishing his son Francis as a Norwich dancing-master in his own right. In it, Augustin describes himself as “Mr Noverre of London”, which might either settle the matter or be seen as put there simply to make him sound more fashionable and important.

Mr Noverre of London, wishing to establish his SON in Norwich, and having been greatly encouraged by his Friends to such an undertaking, begs leave to acquaint the Ladies and Gentlemen of this City and County that his son, Mr F Noverre, has just arrived from the Continent (where he has been for some time under the tuition of his uncle Sir George Noverre) and intends opening an Academy for young Ladies and Gentlemen on or before Michaelmas next, of which timely notice will be given by Mr Noverre, whose present address is at Mrs Milligan’s in St Stephen’s. Mr Noverre has not a doubt but that his son’s assiduity in his profession will give perfect satisfaction to any Lady or Gentleman who may honour him with their support.

By 1797, the poor tax records show father and son both residing in Norwich, in a street very close to the Assembly House. The ‘Sir George Noverre’ of the above advertisement is the elder brother, Jean-Georges, mentioned earlier, here given the British version of a title awarded him in France. Jean-Georges had, as noted earlier, returned to live in France and died there in poverty in 1810, ruined by the Revolution.

Augustin’s son, Francis, had been born in Britain and seems to have had a British wife. His family stayed in Norwich and prospered there, becoming closely associated with the Assembly House and the Theatre Royal. Francis himself was a highly respected citizen of Norwich and one of the original directors of the Norwich Union insurance company. The family did so well that they added a large wing to the original Assembly House in 1840. This was to house the balls they held there, as well as the Noverre Academy where which they taught dancing. In the 20th century, this wing became a cinema and is now a gallery, shop and exhibition space, still carrying the Noverre name.

Other Local Dancing-Masters

The Noverres were not the only dancing-masters in Norwich, though they may have been the most famous. There were many. The following three extracts from local newspapers of the time reveal some of the others practising this profession.

Norwich, Feb. 22, 1782

The Public are respectfully informed, that at Mr. BROWNE’S, Dancing master, in St. Michael-at-Plea, A BOARDING and DAY SCHOOL, For Young Ladies, WILL be opened on Tuesday the twenty-sixth of March, under the Direction of Mademoiselle Morel, a Native of’ France, who has been employed in the Education of several young Ladies of Fashion in this Kingdom, and of Mrs. Webb, who was English Teacher at Mrs. Olier’s, Bloomsbury square, six Years, and at Campden-house, Year and a half.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 2 March 1782)

DANCING

MR. GOSNOLD, Dancing-master, having taught Dancing for these thirty Years, in Norwich and many Parts of England, with the greatest Reputation:— He teaches his young Pupils every Tuesday and Thursday at his house in Sir Benjamin Wrenche’s Court, at Thirteen Shillings per Quarter; and as he has an elegant Room, intends opening an EVENING SCHOOL, every Tuesday and Thursday, for the Winter Half Year, for the Reception of grown-up Ladies and Gentlemen, at the above mentioned Price. The School opens Tuesday, September the 30th, at Half part Six each evening.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 20 September 1783)

MR. LALLIET, assistant to Mr. VERON, DANCING MASTER, will attend every Monday at Mrs. Wicksted’s Boarding-School, Yarmouth; at Beccles every Tuesday; and for the accommodation of the young Ladies and Gentlemen of Yarmouth, Mr. Lalliet will attend every Saturday from Ten o’clock in the morning till One and from Three to Six at the Star Tavern upon the Quay.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 24 March 1792)

*Note:* The best, most detailed source of information on the Noverre family is “Mr Noverre’s Academy: A Georgian Dancing Master in Norwich” by Maggie Marsh, published in 2005 by the Norwich Early Dance Group, to which this article is much indebted.

Posted in Fashion, Leisure | 2 Comments

A Private Musical Performance in Norwich

640px-18_century_house_concert

The Georgian era was, in many senses, a public era, in which leisure activities amongst the wealthier segments of society were often social. One aspect of this was the growth of a mass of clubs and societies in towns and cities everywhere. Norwich, being one of the largest provincial cities, was no exception. Forget the ones with dubious or downright salacious proceedings, such as the various Hellfire Clubs, gambling clubs and the like. Many were set up with far more high-minded purposes.

Norwich had possessed a “Music Meeting” at “Mr Freemoult’s long room” since at least 1724, open both to members (presumably amateur players) and “Clubbers” (those who went to listen). Orchestras were also featured attractions at two of the city’s Pleasure Gardens, Quantrell’s and Bunn’s Rural Pavilion. Indeed, by the second half of the century, the city’s musical life resembled that of London, if on a smaller scale, with professional orchestras, competing venues and programmes including music by most of the major composers of the day. While many of the singers were still amateurs, some professionals from London did make the journey to appear in special concerts.

Norwich’s theatres, like The White Swan and The New Theatre (later the Theatre Royal) also had orchestras. When it opened in 1758, The White Swan advertised itself as having “a compleat and regular Band of Musick”, which meant it was composed of professionals and was large enough to play pieces by Sammartini, Stamitz and Pasquali. Like session players today, it’s likely that various professional musicians played in a whole series of bands and orchestras as need arose.

The Anacreontic Society

One of the leading venues for music was the Anacreontic Society of Norwich, founded some time just before 1785 and based on a popular gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London. Its members named their club after the Greek court poet Anacreon, who lived in the 6th century B.C. and was known as “the convivial bard of Greece”. As elsewhere, their singers were amateurs, but the orchestral players and instrumental soloists were professionals, probably from the orchestras at the Theatre Royal and elsewhere. How large their orchestra was we cannot tell, but it was clearly sufficient to perform a Haydn symphony, as seen below.

Here’s an example of one of their evenings, as reported in the Norfolk Chronicle for Saturday 17 December 1785.

ANACREONTIC SOCIETY.

On Wednesday the Anacreontic Society held their seventh meeting, and though it wore a sable aspect, on account of the general mourning, yet the evening was passed with much festivity. The concert, which was throughout excellent, commenced with a grand symphony of Haydn, which was one of the finest we ever remember to have heard; the middle movement in particular is, perhaps, the richest combination of air and harmony that the art can boast of, the modulation of the whole is striking and highly original. Young Cramer executed a charming concerto for the piano forte by Mozart, which has also much merit as a composition—it abounds with fine melody, and the accompanyments are written with great judgment, and produce a fine effect. This young performer possesses abilities of a superior kind; he not only plays with amazing brilliancy of finger, and with all the fascinating graces of expression, but his cadences evince a considerable knowledge of music as a science. . . Mr. Eley, a German, and the leader of the Duke of York’s band, performed a concerto on the clarinet. . . . Pieltain played a French-horn concerto, with all the power and expression that the instrument can admit of. . . . Cramer’s violin never spoke more feelingly than in the piece by Handel, and his own concerto evinced the absolute dominion he has attained over the finger board. . . .

Posted in Leisure | 6 Comments

More about East Anglia’s Georgian Beach Companies

Aldeburgh Lookouts

Beach companies were established all along the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts from the late eighteenth century into the nineteenth. Some of the larger and busier ports, like Yarmouth, had several. Caister had a beach company from at least the 1790s, when it had two boats. Even little Aldeburgh had two companies, each with its own lookout tower and boat shed. In the picture above, you can see how the south tower looks today, with the top of the north tower showing above the roof of the boat shed.

The companies established detailed rules for their management, relations with shareholders and to govern the expectations of those who manned and launched the boats, especially for sharing any gains from salvage. For example, most had a rule that anyone who actually touched a boat going out for salvage work could claim an equal share in any profits made on that trip; sensible enough, in terms of making sure those who helped ashore were paid fully, but often leading to a good deal of rushing into the surf to make sure of getting a hand on some part of the boat.

Most companies were also remarkably enlightened and egalitarian employers for their time. Injured crew members received paid medical assistance and compensation for loss of earnings. If the worst happened, as it did all too often in such dangerous work, death and widow’s benefits were payable. There were also rules covering relations between different beach companies, when more than one boat went to attend a ship in trouble. Indeed, the care taken in drawing up these rules indicates how seriously the beach companies took the business they were in. For example, here are two extracts from the rules for the Caister company:

If any man belonging to the Company shall receive any hurt or injury in the Company’s boats … he shall have a full share of all that is earned … on the occasion of any such injury and also on every other occasion afterwards, during the period of his disability …

and:

If any man shall be drowned, or shall die from any injury while engaged as stated … then, for the twelve months ensuing, his widow and children shall have a full share of all that is earned by the Company during that time …

Boat sheds and lookouts

Each beach company needed its own boats and somewhere to keep them, so they built boat sheds, usually with attached lookout towers to help them spot vessels in distress, manning these lookouts round-the-clock. Getting to a wreck first might make the difference between profit and loss, or between saving lives and picking up bodies. They even co-operated with the new-fangled coastguard, despite the major role those men played in preventing smuggling.

Boats

Yawl

Sailing Yawl

The beach companies favoured big, fast sailing yawls for salvage work, with oars for use where sails were useless or dangerous. They also used smaller, rowed gigs and cobles for inshore work; very necessary when some wrecks could be only a hundred yards or so off the beach. And when, soon after 1800, specially-designed lifeboats were developed, beach companies often bought these too for use in the very worst weather.

The precise relationship between the beach companies and the growing number of local and national associations for providing and supporting volunteer lifeboats varied from place to place.Both drew on the same pool of fishermen for crews and there were many cases where a lifeboat went out crewed by a mixture of beachmen and lifeboatmen. In times of emergency, almost anything was acceptable. If the two groups generally remained distinct, it was because the beach companies had a commercial role that did not involve saving lives. Lifeboats do not generally concern themselves with the salvage of property, which was the major part of the beach companies’ income.

Rowed Coble

Rowed Coble

Getting paid

Salvage was an extremely dangerous and difficult activity that often resulted in no reward. Payment was always strictly by results and failure to be chosen as the salvor or to effect a salvage meant no money, however much work had been put in.

Your boat might even set out and be “pipped at the post” when it reached the vessel in trouble. It was not uncommon for several boats to set out, owned by competing beach companies. Later, steam tugs from the harbour or railway companies added to the competition. Though the principle of “first to arrive, first to get the work” was often claimed by beachmen, this had no basis in law and was never accepted if disputes reached court. The ship’s master could choose any of the boats, or none, to undertake salvage. Some were grateful for any help offered, some tried to hold out for better terms, some refused all aid and relied on their own efforts at the pumps or the change in tide to get them off the shoal without incurring any expense.

Even if the captain accepted the terms offered, he might try to go back on the agreement once the danger had passed, or even slip away in the night to avoid paying. Beach companies frequently ended up before the courts with claims for non-payment or to try to demand payment after the job had gone to someone else, who arrived later but offered a cheaper deal. Salvage could bring large profits, but it was a cut-throat business. Insurers were always on the lookout for opportunities to lessen their liabilities, and as technology advanced, competitors like steam tugs were quite ready to use price reductions to break into the salvage market.

Photo credits: Yawl photo by Hayley Green, Coble by Les Hull, both of http://www.geograph.co.uk.

Posted in Commerce | 2 Comments

Opera Mania

Nicola_Grimaldi_detto_Nicolino_con_Lucia_Facchinelli,_detta_«La_Becheretta»,_che_interpretò_La_Salustia

Castrato Nicolo Grimaldi (a.k.a. as Nicolino) performing the role of Marciano together with soprano Lucia Facchinelli (a.k.a. «La Becheretta») singing the title role of Salustia in Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s opera La Salustia (Teatro San Bartolommeo, Neapel, Winter 1731)

Just as the operas of composers like Handel soon became an important part of London’s musical scene, similar music could be heard in Norwich, often performed by the same famous singers. Here you might hear many of the operatic arias so popular at the time, if not the opera itself complete.

Amongst the songs and instrumental pieces (the Norwich cathedral organist clearly found many ways to supplement his stipend), you could also sometimes listen to famous Italian opera stars from London, especially during the summer months when the London opera houses were shut. Those 100 miles between the two cities were no barrier to their desire to increase their earnings and bolster their ‘super star’ status.

Just how much the ‘opera mania’ gripped England at the time may be judged by this satirical letter to the editor of Mist’s Weekly Journal in 1726:

28 May 1726

Good Sir,

I am young, and a very fashionable Lady, therefore think my self in the unfortunatest circumstances imaginable, and don’t believe I shall be able, with a good air, to appear either in an Assembly, Drawing-Room, Park, Kensington Gardens again this Season.

The case is thus; you know what impatience the town has been in for the arrival of the celebrated Faustina, that is, the well-dress’d, well-bred part of it; for as for the readers, writers, prudes, demures or stupids, we can tell nothing about them, since, poor creatures, they seldom fall into our company; but, as I was saying, Mr. Mist, charming Faustina sang last Thursday, and I would not have fail’d the Opera for my next Birth-Day gown, when, as if fortune had a mind utterly to disgrace me, (will you believe me?) I could not get in, though I had my ticket in my hand; the fellow who opens the door, had the impudence to tell me, there was no room, which I found true, to my great disappointment, but went away in hopes to repair the loss on Saturday, and, comforted my self pretty tolerably till then; but, dear Sir, I met with no better success, and was again dismiss’d with half a thousand more: I am quite out of Countenance about it; and tho’ I am resolved to pin both my tickets to my breast, to convince the world of my taste and good intentions, I don’t think I shall be able to venture in publick this month: I need not tell you, that the opera is become the very touchstone of sense and breeding, and no one can pretend to either who don’t frequent it, without making themselves ridiculous; for my part, I have taken my bed upon it, and hear most of the others are in as bad a way: Some of the men, I am told, had courage enough to go to Rosamond’s Pond on purpose to get rid of themselves, not being able to support such a misfortune, but fate has design’d ’em for greater uses; perhaps to make a considerable figure in case of a war, or to shine at the opera house for years to come.

I beg you will, in the name of us all, make our Excuses to Madam Faustina, and tell her how mortified we are that we had’nt the happiness to hear her; and if you can prevail with Mr. Hed—r to let us in at his convenient back door, we should be infinitely obliged, since it will enable us to hear Faustina, which certainly must be the wisest thing on earth, for very good reasons. If I don’t die with vexation before I hear of you, believe me to be, with all fashionable reality,

Sir, Your most humble

Most faithful servant,

MARIA IMPATIENCE.

P.S. I desire you’d mention that there was abundance of Ladies who go in gratis, that is, by the interest they have with fine gentlemen. These figure it at every expensive place at the same rate. I only tell you this, that Faustina may know she’s more obliged to us since the tribute we pay her fine voice comes out of our own pockets; and let such Ladies, who have neither spouses nor fortunes able to support them thro’ their expences, when they are censuring or ridiculing others, remember that they are obliged to the very husbands, and brothers, of the others, for half a guinea.

I won’t enter into the returns those Ladies must make upon being frequently presented, &c.

Whether the good people of Norwich were quite so obsessed by opera as this suggests, the local newspapers show many performances, such as this one.

AT the Theatre Royal, his Majefty’s Servants, on Monday, April the 28th, 1783, will be presented an Opera, call’d The CASTLE of ANDALUSIA. Now performing at Covent-Garden Theatre with universal Applause. Written by Mr. O’Keefe, Author of the Son-in-Law, Agreeable Surprise, &c. — The Music by many capital Composers.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 19 April 1783

Many of the operas listed in the paper are labelled as Comic Operas, which may suggest that provincial tastes were not quite as refined as those in the capital! Note that this one has a female librettist.

THEATRE-ROYAL. BY – his Majesty’s Servants, this present Evening, Saturday, August 12, 1786, will be performed a Comic Opera (never acted here), call’d, The PERUVIAN. Written by a LADY.—Composed by Mr. HOOK.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 12 August 1786.

 

Posted in Leisure, Theatre | 2 Comments

The East Anglian Beach Companies

Shipwreck

It seems many people have almost forgotten about the beachmen of East Anglia and the companies they formed, yet for more than a hundred years in the 18th and early 19th centuries, they were a common feature of most seafaring communities.

These groups of local sailors and fishermen did important and often dangerous work, through which they saved many hundreds of lives. All were volunteers, though it’s fair to add that the work could be fairly profitable. Money obtained from salvage rights or from ships’ masters paying to avoid a wreck — even from individual passengers wishing to make sure of being rescued — was shared out among the members of the company. That included those who stayed ashore, helping to launch and recover the boats or get survivors ashore to allow a boat to return to a ship in distress.

Today, any signs that remain of this important part of our maritime past are often attributed to other, better known groups or ignored altogether. If you go to Aldeburgh in Suffolk, for example you will see two, separate watch-towers built by rival companies, for it was an intensely competitive business and ships’ masters often tried to negotiate the best deal before agreeing to be rescued.

A Dangerous Coastline

We have to start with geography and trade. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, roads were primitive and the canals and railways only at their beginning. Transporting goods meant using either slow, ponderous wagons or lines of packhorses. As a result, the bulk of heavy items were carried by thousands of small, wooden sailing ships plying their trade all around our coasts.

These coastal vessels were specially constructed for the purpose. They were small, to allow entry to the greatest number of harbours, and many were flat-bottomed, so they could be beached for loading and unloading in places where no harbour existed. In Cromer, for example, coal ships were grounded on the beach as the tide ebbed, the desired amount of coal was unloaded, and the ship reflected on the next tide.

East Anglia’s coasts are edged by a complex pattern of sands and shoals, which make safe navigation a challenge even today. These are seas with strong currents and tides, prone to terrific winter gales, often easterlies blowing onshore, and consequent storm surges. For ships sailing north or south, it is one long lee shore, broken only by the vast estuary we know as The Wash. That too is a major shipping hazard. If a sailing ship was driven into The Wash on an easterly gale, there was no way out. It’s also a mass of shifting sand banks and shoals. The only hope was to drop anchor and hope the anchor cables would hold until the storm died down and the ship could be worked out to sea again. All too often, they did not.

The east coast was also especially busy with ships carrying coal from Newcastle, timber and iron from Scandinavia and the Baltic, and manufactured goods to and from almost everywhere — especially London. Such a combination of busy sea-lanes and treacherous conditions inevitably produced a steady procession of wrecks: some from mistakes made by captains and crews, some from poorly maintained vessels, and some from the sheer force of the wind and the waves. When gales blew at storm or hurricane force, visibility was zero and the seas a confused tumult of towering waves, it little wonder scores of vessels ran aground on the shoals, their sails shredded, their masts broken and the water pouring in faster than any pumps could clear it.

In November 1807, 144 bodies were washed ashore along the coast after a single gale. In 1836 it was reported that 23 vessels had been driven onto Yarmouth beach in one November storm. If your vessel was taking on water, or had lost its sails, dragged its anchors or developed a dangerous list from a shifted cargo, you had little option but to try to put the ship ashore wherever you could.

The Beachmen

Into this mix of profit and danger came the beachmen. The North Sea fisheries were mostly seasonal. Herring was the main catch, taken from small drifters, but that was almost entirely in the hands of Scottish crews. Each autumn the fish migrated southwards to feed off the sandbanks and shoals that trapped so many ships. The Scottish boats followed the herring southwards as far a Great Yarmouth, where the season ended.

Local fisheries were generally small, with boats heading out into the North sea in search of cod, haddock and turbot, or staying close to shore and putting down pots for crabs and lobsters. None of this work was likely to produce a large profit, so local men needed additional work to supplement their income. They found it in serving the needs of passing commercial shipping. They took out stores or pilots, acted as pilots themselves, searched for the lost anchors lost in every gale and helped tired crews work their ships against the weather and tides.

Naturally, they also took advantage of the salvage opportunities produced by every storm. This was heavy work, unsuitable for individuals or very small groups, so the beach companies arose to allow larger groups of locals to combine for the salvage of ships and cargoes. Tough, resourceful men saw an opportunity and took it. During their heyday, they provided an essential service to a vital transport network. They may have looked to make money through their actions, but they were also first and foremost seafarers. They were not going to stay safe ashore when their fellow seafarers were being wrecked and drowned — not if they could do something to try to save them.

Like today’s volunteer lifeboatmen, the beach companies went out in the most dreadful conditions and risked their lives to save others.  Instances did occur when the lack of a chance of profit caused some beachmen to hang back, but they were rare. Besides, communication between ship and shore was so primitive then beach companies usually had to send a boat out first to a ship in trouble to know whether anything could be salvaged, or whether they could only seek to take off those still alive … which more than once included the ship’s cat!

The End of the Beach Companies

From the middle part of the nineteenth century onwards, a slow collapse of both the herring fishery and the local fisheries through over-fishing left insufficient skilled seamen with knowledge of local conditions to supply the beach companies (or even the lifeboats) with crews. As cargo ships grew larger, salvage opportunities for the beachmen in their wooden yawls fell away. Companies amalgamated to make the best of limited manpower, but nothing could help them compete with harbour and railway companies with deep pockets and steam tugs with time on their hands. Some beach companies even turned to giving pleasure trips to the growing numbers of holidaymakers, but the end was in sight. The last yawls were built at the very start of the twentieth century and the last beach company was wound up in the late 1920s.

The beachmen played an important part in the modest beginnings of today’s salvage business, helping to save many valuable ships and cargoes. Life-saving boats and crews didn’t begin with the establishment of volunteer-funded lifeboat organisations like the RNLI. For more than a century, the beach companies either supplied a lifeboat service in the many places where no voluntary one existed, or supplemented those that did. They surely deserve to be remembered for their bravery and achievements, as well as the important part they played in sustaining national trade.

The next time you put your hand in your pocket to support your local lifeboat, or spend a summer day on an east coast beach, remember those in Georgian and Victorian who risked all to save ships and souls in the worst of sea and weather conditions, relying on little beyond their own skill and muscles.

In the second article in this short series, I’ll explore Georgian and Regency beach company organisation in East Anglia in greater detail.

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