Forthergil’s Chymical Nervous Drops


Surely a Remedy Worth Having!

One of the particular joys of reading through eighteenth-century newspapers is finding advertisements for various ‘quack’ remedies and patent medicines.

This one, from The Norfolk Chronicle for 17th March, 1781, really wins the prize! What about the introduction? “The Whole Man from his Birth is a Disease”. Won’t that cheer you up? Still, imagine being freed from depression caused by “Ebriosity” (presumably drinking too much) and “horrid Thoughts”, as well as “Decay of Nature, Barrenness, and debilitated Cases” (whatever they are, they sound very nasty!).

That is without the additional benefit of being freed from “Gleets and Seminal Weaknesses” brought on by “a secret Venery” (to you and I, chronic inflammation and discharge caused by gonorrhea and caused by indulging in secret nooky).

The Whole Man from his Birth is a Disease

Nervous Disorders, Lowness and Depression of Spirits from Ebriosity, or otherwise, Palpitations of the Heart, Giddiness in the Head, horrid Thoughts, Startings in the Sleep, Dimness of Sight, Pains in the Back and Head, trembling of the Hands, Decay of Nature, Barrenness, and debilitated Cases effectually cured by FREEMAN’S Grand Restorer of Human Nature, Commonly called Forthergil’s CHYMICAL NERVOUS DROPS.

Even those of either Sex, who through Ignorance have polluted themselves by a secret Venery, and brought on Gleets and Seminal Weaknesses, may have their Constitutions strengthened by a proper Use of this Remedy, which Hundreds, both old and young, who were emaciated, can testify.

It may be had in Bottles of Half a Guinea, Seven Shillings, and Three Shillings and Sixpence each, at the Author’s House, No.1, New Buildings, Middle Row, Holborn, London, and Mr BOOTH, Bookseller, in the Market­place, Norwich.

Three shillings and sixpence (17½p), perhaps £20 in today’s currency, is quite a stiff price though. The ingredients, whatever they were, doubtless cost less than a tenth part of this.

Note also that it’s being sold by a bookseller. This was very common and is something I have my 1760s character Mrs Crombie suggest to Mr Ashmole Foxe in the second book of that series, “Dark Threads of Vengeance”.

Posted in Medicine & Science | 2 Comments

Justices of the Peace in Georgian Norfolk


It’s hard to imagine a time when there was no police or detective force, no system for public prosecution and no official means to investigate crimes and collect evidence to bring the criminals to justice. But that’s just as it was in Georgian England. How did the authorities maintain law and order? Most of the burden fell on local magistrates[1], backed up by higher courts for more serious crimes. The Justices of the Peace did the work of administering both criminal and civil justice, as well as carrying out or supervising what passed for local government administration.

Keeping the peace meant exactly what it said: ensuring everyone could live free from fear, disturbance and dispute, as far as was possible. Since offending was believed to be caused by innate ‘criminal tendencies’, justice and prevention could both be tackled imposing severe punishments. For petty crimes, physical punishment, applied in public, caused shame as well as pain. For more serious crimes, criminals who had been transported or hanged were not able to offend again.

Throughout most of 18th century, the onus for securing justice lay with the injured party, or their friends and family. The most that was done officially was offer rewards for bringing criminals to justice. Once someone was apprehended , the next stage was to present him or her before the magistrate and lodge a formal complaint. If the person had fled, a complaint might still be presented. Subject to the agreement of the magistrate, local constables would then be instructed to seek out and arrest the accused and bring him or her before the court to answer the charge.

The magistrate reviewed the evidence — in the form of written depositions by witnesses — and, if he upheld the complaint, either dealt with it there and then or referred it to a higher court. Justice might not have been thorough by today’s standards, but it was certainly handed down a good deal more swiftly!

Who were the Justices of the Peace?

Being a JP was an onerous and sometimes unpleasant task, especially during the turbulent years of the end of the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth centuries. For the early part of the century, most JPs were chosen from the gentry. As the demands role increased, it proved harder to find enough men willing to accept the job. As a result, appointment was widened to include clergymen, members of the professions and people from mercantile families, especially in urban areas. Sometimes people held the office of a JP as a consequence of another office. In most Norfolk boroughs, for example, the mayor would be a JP, as would several of the aldermen or councillors.

As well as providing access to civil and criminal justice, local justices were responsible for keeping the peace, with the assistance of the militia or yeomanry if necessary. They generally acted in pairs, but sometimes on their own. In either case, no jury was summoned. Since each Hundred (a unit of local government dating from mediaeval times) required two magistrates, these were bound to include some who would prove incompetent, idle, or self-interested, with predictable results.

Dispensing Local Justice

Magistrates conducted preliminary hearings on all criminal cases to decide whether the evidence supported a trial. They could hear minor cases on their own or in pairs (sometimes holding the court in the magistrate’s home in rural areas), and impose summary punishments for offences like assault, drunkenness, minor poaching and other misdemeanours.

Local magistrates’ courts could not impose the more severe penalties. More serious cases would be referred to the Quarter Sessions or the Assize, depending on the severity of the offence. Cases warranting death, and there were many at the time, had to go to a higher court. Even so, JPs could sentence offenders to imprisonment, whipping, standing in the stocks or the payment of fines. They also deal with civil cases for matters such as debt, applications for damages, breach of craft regulations, disputes about boundaries and the use of common land. Many JPs also formed part of the labyrinthine network of government agents and spies that monitored individuals or groups suspected of sedition.

The Administrative Burden

The vast bulk of the duties of a magistrate or Justice of the Peace were administrative. They were called upon to make or confirm decisions relating to the supervision of local officials and many other aspects of the government of the hundreds and civil parishes. It would take far too long to go through these in detail, so I hope the summary list below will convey the main point: that a conscientious JP could easily become overwhelmed by the tasks laid upon him.

A monument in St Peter Mancroft Church, Norwich, to Thomas Starling, mayor in 1767, makes exactly this point: “…which office he discharged with Vigilance, Activity and Integrity, at a time when the Exertions of Magistracy were particularly required.” The Rev. Robert Forby of Fincham wrote this in a letter to a friend in 1803:

“Till you have experienced the heavy drudgery of an acting Justice, Deputy Lieutenant and Commissioner of the Land Tax, one of two on whom the burden of a large district lies, you will not readily conceive of the fatigue they cause to the mind … I return at five o’clock to a solitary dinner, which I abhor, with my head full of parish rates, surveyor’s accounts, vagrants, runaway husbands, assaults, petty larcenies, militia lists and substitutes, tax duplicates and distress warrants, some or all of these jumbled together in horrid confusion.”

A Summary of a JP’s Tasks

  • Supervising local constables. These were Chief Constables for hundreds and Petty Constables for parishes, mostly chosen for ability to deal with drunks and rough-houses on their own rather than intelligence. There would also be Watchmen in towns and cities, more to raise the alarm on night-time fires than deal with criminals. Many were elderly men, quite unsuited to chasing or apprehending anyone.
  • Supervising the work and accounts of Churchwardens and Parish Councils and confirming their decisions regarding settlement, vagrancy and begging, bastardy and adultery cases. These bodies were generally responsible for checking on new arrivals to the parish and watching over the morals of local inhabitants.
  • Supervising the work and accounts of the Overseers of the Poor. These handled the collection and spending of the Poor Rate to relieve those in greatest need. They were also responsible for the parish workhouse for elderly, homeless paupers and abandoned, pregnant women. Trying to deal with the plight of the poor alone was heavy burden, especially since the JP might be caught between the demands of common humanity to alleviate suffering and the determination of parish ratepayers not to pay for a single person more than was absolutely necessary.
  • Tasks that would now fall to local authorities, such as the upkeep and repair of gaols, roads and bridges; the collection of certain taxes; the regulation of weights and measures, investigating claims of adulteration of goods; controlling food prices, fixing wages and regulating apprenticeships; licensing alehouses and theatrical performances; and swearing in recruits to the militia.

Local Grievances

Hearing petitions was another important part of a magistrate’s role. Any individual or group could petition the local magistrates to right a wrong, deal with anti-social behaviour or take action against any suspected of causing harm to their neighbours (including claims of ‘witchcraft’ or laying ‘curses’ or ‘love charms’). The JP, if he believed action was justified, might impose an order or a penalty himself or pass the case to Quarter Sessions.

If the magistrate failed to take action, the result might be civil disobedience and ”disturbing the peace”. In April 1796, one Norfolk miller, suspected by the mob of profiteering as the price of grain rose, had to take refuge in the Guildhall while the mayor, as magistrate, read the Riot Act to the crowd. This was no mere saying. The Riot Act of 1715 prescribed particular wording to be read aloud, commanding those breaching the peace to disperse and return home within the hour. If they did not, individuals could be arrested and punished, or the militia could be called in to disperse the mob by force, lethal if necessary.

Magistrates themselves also came in for derision or even threats at times. In 1800, a James Kinghorn wrote of the Norwich magistrates facing yet another food riot:

“They were quite frightened, as they commonly are in any real danger. They can swagger in their gowns to dine and talk about trivial things and they can hang a poor thief … but when activity is required and courage is wanted they are as bad as a parcel of old women.”

In 1766, the Norfolk Chronicle published the text of a letter sent to a Mr Poole, one of the city’s JPs:

“Mr Pool, this is to latt you know and the rest of you Justes of the Pase that if bakers and butchers and market do not sell their commovits at a reasnabell rate, your fine house will be set on fire all on one night … [curse] all you grand Rogues.”

Administration “on the Cheap”

There’s no doubt local magistrates were seen as part of ‘the establishment’ and were relied upon by the government to act as such, especially in situations of a political nature. Faced with fears of subversion, revolutionary ideas and Irish uprisings, especially in the period after the American and French Revolutions, the government constantly urged local magistrates to greater efforts and zeal in suppressing groups suspected of planning revolution. Without a national network of police, local JPs formed the principal bulwark against the spread of insurrection. Even so, they would have been woefully ill-equipped to deal with serious outbreaks of rebellion or terrorism, despite their power to call in the armed forces.

A final point to bear in mind is that all this the work was unpaid. It’s sobering to think that much of our modern-day local government welfare provisions and systems depended at the start on a sense of civic duty of amongst local gentry. Perhaps it might serve to put the constant pressure for savings in local government expenditure into some kind of perspective.

  1. I will be using the words ‘magistrate’ and ‘Justice of the Peace (JP)’ interchangeably. Justice of the Peace was the formal title of the local magistrate, so they’re the same thing.  ↩
Posted in C18th Norfolk, Crime, Keeping the Peace

Georgian Chimney Sweeps


(CC) Wikimedia Commons

In Georgian England, chimney sweeps took boys from orphanages and homeless children from the streets as indentured servants and apprentices. What they looked for were small boys, usually between five and ten years of age, to clamber up narrow chimney flues and clean out the deposits of soot. Newer kinds of house design, taller buildings and regulations against house fires had resulted in flues twisting and turning as they avoided living spaces and becoming ever narrower as they rose higher.

Pushing brushes up from below proved impossible with the technology available, so children were expected to climb up inside the chimney, brushing and scraping the flue with hand-held brushes and metal scrapers. The underfed, stunted ones were preferred as better able to fit narrow, twisting flues. Feeding a child well and encouraging sturdy growth would soon make him useless.

Faced with such confined spaces, many of the boys were reluctant to wriggle too far in case they got stuck. If that happened, the master sweep or his assistant would ‘encourage’ them upwards with pokes and prods. If they were too high to reach in this way, a small fire was lit in the fireplace beneath them to force them onwards. That’s where the saying “to light a fire under someone” is said to have originated. The boy’s job wasn’t complete until he had put his head out of the top of the chimney and come back down carrying a bag of soot. This was sold to farmers for use as a fertiliser.

Nightmare Conditions

The master chimney sweep was supposed to teach such boys his trade and be responsible for their feeding, clothing, and housing. Some may have done, but the general treatment of ‘climbing boys’ as they were known was terrible. It was dangerous and filthy work and many suffered injuries and deformities as a result. Eye inflammation and respiratory illnesses were common, as was ‘chimney sweep’s cancer’ caused by irritation of the skin by coal tar soot.

Here’s a contemporary account of conditions from “A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweepers in London & Westminster” (London, 1785).

“We may figure to ourselves, the boy called from the bag of soot on which he slept, oftentimes walking a mile or two to his work. We seldom behold his nocturnal toils, and combats with the literal powers of darkness; but in the day we frequently see him, blasted with chilling cold, wet to the skin, without shoes, or with only the fragments of them; without stockings; his coat and breeches in tatters, and his shirt in smutty rags; sometimes with sores bleeding, or with limbs twisted or contracted, whilst his misery is rendered more pungent by his task-master, who has no feeling of his sorrows!–You who have the hearts of men, and who have opportunities of seeing human misery, will contemplate the condition of these poor beings, and judge if this picture bears a genuine likeness.”

Attempts to Ban the Practice

Still the practice went on. In the 1760s, Jonas Hanway, a wealthy London merchant and philanthropist, campaigned to improve working conditions for sweeps’ boys and an Act of Parliament in 1788 specified a minimum age of eight for these so-called apprentices. The Chimney Sweeps Act of 1834 outlawed the apprenticing of any child under the age of ten to a chimney sweep. In addition, no child was to be employed in cleaning chimneys under the age of fourteen. This was raised to sixteen in 1840. It all sounds positive, but none of these regulations were ever enforced.

Justices and Overseers of the Poor, desperate to find work for growing numbers of abandoned or orphaned children, were a prime source of fresh victims. This is part of a deed of apprenticeship for a boy of 9 from the borders of Herefordshire and Worcestershire in 1800. It’s good to see the boy was to be washed once a week and not forced to go up any chimney actually on fire!

“Between John Woodyatt of Netherley and William Jauncey (Chwdns) and William Jauncey and Henry Dangerfield (Overseers of the Poor) and Joseph Lloyd, Chimney Sweep, of Dymock.

… do put and bind Joseph M, a poor boy of this parish, being of the age of 9 years or thereabouts, to be apprenticed to the said Joseph Lloyd to learn the Trade, Art, Business and Mystery of a Chimney Sweeper … and with him to serve during the term of seven years … his secrets keep, and his lawful commands everywhere gladly do and perform. He shall not haunt ale houses nor gaming houses, nor absent himself from the service of his master day or night …

Whereas it is necessary for the boys employed in climbing to have a dress particularly suited to that purpose, the said Joseph Lloyd is covenanted to find such suitable dress, and over and above one whole and complete suit of clothing, with suitable linen, stockings, hat and shoes… and further that the said Joseph Lloyd shall once in every week cause the said apprentice to be thoroughly washed and cleansed from soot and dirt … nor shall Joseph Lloyd require or force the said apprentice to climb or go up any chimney which shall be actually on fire …. but shall in all things treat him with as much Humanity and Care as the nature of the employment of a Chimney Sweep will admit of …”

Note the weasel words at the end, “… treat him with as much Humanity and Care as the nature of the employment of a Chimney Sweep will admit of …” These men knew using boys in this way was bound to cause misery, pain and hardship.

It was not until Charles Kingsley published his sentimental tale involving a boy chimney sweep, “The Water Babies”, in 1863 that the public’s conscience was stirred. Even then, an Act passed the following year did not eradicate the problem. Not until 1875 were master chimney sweeps forced to obtain a licence to operate and the police tasked with ensuring all relevant legislation was enforced.

Posted in Commerce, Georgian Society | 3 Comments

The Purposes of the Grand Tour

A Grand Tour Group of Five Gentlemen in Rome by attributed to John Brown (Edinburgh 1752 - Leith 1787)

Young Englishmen on the Grand Tour
Courtesy of The National Trust

During the 17th and 18th centuries, rich young Englishmen finished their education by going on The Grand Tour — an extended cultural and collecting trip through continental Europe. You can think of it as a ‘finishing school’ for the sons of the gentry.

In its heyday, completing a Grand Tour was essential to enter the upper ranks of British society. Rome and the historic cities of Italy were the principal draws. To be able to display ‘good taste’, an educated Georgian gentleman needed more than book learning. He had to show a thorough understanding of the classical principles of order and harmony.

To point him in the right direction — and try to keep him in order — he would be accompanied by a tutor. This was an older man, well-educated and knowledgeable in what was to be seen.

Politeness and Polish

‘Politeness’ was the hallmark of upper-class Georgian society, so acquiring it was important. The word meant far more than good manners. It included possessing the requisite knowledge and ‘polish’ to take a full part in polite conversation. By visiting the famous monuments and art works of antiquity, young men would be able to converse on suitable subjects. They would also gain a proper sense of what was best in matters of art, architecture and design. This was a world in which sound personal relationships brought patronage and promotion. If you could not maintain the right links and friendships, your future would be blighted. The great and mighty would bestow their favour elsewhere and your prospects of a suitable marriage would be sharply reduced.

Signs of Superiority

It’s worth remembering that, at root, ‘distinction’ means being set apart in some way — obviously not part of the common herd. At one time, aristocracy and gentry could set themselves apart by displays of martial prowess, like jousting. They also relied on the traditional belief of the church that God made them what they were. Like the Victorians, they thought “God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate” as the hymn has it. There was also a large enough financial gulf between them and the merchant classes for it to seem unbridgeable.

Fast forward to the eighteenth century. Few chances — or need — for the upper classes to show martial prowess. On the battlefield, a yokel with a musket would always be more deadly than a gentleman with a sword. The ‘middling sort’ were gaining wealth and with it confidence and influence.

Leisure: a New Source of Distinction

Inherited wealth wasn’t reliable any more. Agricultural markets fluctuated, taking rents up and down with them. Many a manufacturer or merchant had more money than the poorer members of the upper classes. What else did the upper classes have that others did not?

They had leisure.

The gentry owned land; they did not work for a living. They had time to do other things instead — like gain an expensive education in the Classics. Latin and Ancient Greek had no usefulness for business. They were used to display intellectual and cultural superiority. The same was true of other ‘academic’ subjects, from pure mathematics and philosophy to antiquarianism.

Young gentlemen acquired polish by foreign travel. They polished their fluency in French and maybe some other European languages. They learned to converse on the Classical principles of structure and balance in art and architecture. All were ‘useless’ for business or earning a living. All showed you belonged amongst the elite of society. From the Georgian urge to display distinction sprang the snobbish Victorian gentleman’s sneering contempt of ‘trade’.

Politeness was never a perfect tool. Most of the richest aristocrats actually made the bulk of their money — at arm’s length, naturally — from things like coal mining, canals or even slate. Appearance was what counted. You must look and sound as if you never needed to spare a thought for anything save developing and expressing your refinement. In an ordered and formal society, rules exist to keep the unwanted out, not to bind insiders beyond what was necessary.

Eventual Decline

The practice of ‘doing the Grand Tour’ flourished for around a century. Then the Napoleonic War intervened. The war made such travel impractical and undesirable. Too much continental, especially French, influence could be seen as unpatriotic. Worse, it began to be thought unmanly and effete. As the influence of evangelical forms of Christianity grew, the Catholic continent was seen as a place of loose morals. The canard that Catholics can do whatever they like, then wipe away the sin via confession, has long gripped the Protestant mind!

Of course, not every young man came home with greater refinement. For some, it was an opportunity to sow their wild oats well away from parental oversight. For others, the most lasting benefits were the friendships they made with fellow Grand Tourists along the way. For a few, it proved a chance to indulge, then perfect vices they didn’t know they had before they went. And, like tourists ever since, for most it provided an opportunity to gather all kinds of souvenirs.

The second William Windham of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk is a good example. He was away for four years and sowed his wild oats to the extent of costing his father £2000 to get him out of an engagement contracted in Geneva. He climbed in the Alps and indulged in rowdy amateur dramatics with other young men making the same trip. The friendships he formed then lasted the rest of his life. He increased his dedication to fashionable neo-classical taste to the extent of a major remodelling of Felbrigg Hall after his father’s death. He added books in French, Italian and German to his library, along with volumes of architectural drawings and plans. He also filled the walls of several rooms, plus the staircase hall, with the paintings he acquired along the way. Not the greatest art, but the best he could afford. It’s still there today.

The Mania for Collecting Art

Most of the ‘Grand Tourists’ brought back wagon-loads of artworks to embellish their houses. People at home wondered if anything would remain in the countries they passed through, since they bought so much. Collecting became a mania. Grand houses were built to hold the collections and serve as physical signs of their owners’ knowledge of the canons of refined taste.

Georgian gentlemen might gamble and drink their wealth away. They might keep multiple mistresses and molest the servants. What mattered was to do such things in private, behind a rampart of exquisite manners, high fashion and fine houses. It’s that keeping up of appearances which has left us today with a priceless legacy of art, architecture and landscape design to enjoy.

Maybe politeness had its uses after all.

Posted in Fashion, Leisure, Travel | 5 Comments

Georgian Deism and Other ‘-isms’


I thought it would be useful to review and explain the basics of the three most common and widespread alternatives to orthodox Christianity in the 18th century—at least amongst the educated classes. All three attempted to find entirely rational explanations for the world as it was seen to be. All denied the need for supernatural explanations or entities. All are still very much with us, though sometimes under other names.

In my previous post on this topic, I set out the background to the Georgian and Regency struggle with the tenets of orthodox Christian teaching, many of which were already being challenged by the discoveries of science. Now we’re down to the details of the solutions various groups of thinkers found.


In the absence of ‘Big Bang’ theory, quantum mechanics and particle physics, 18th-century people struggled with the question of how the universe came into existence. The Bible provided one answer, albeit both a supernatural and an irrational one. It claimed a personal God had created everything and continued to use his supernatural powers to intervene in minute ways to regulate his creation.

To many, this picture was unbelievable and even blasphemous. How could you make sense of an omnipotent, perfect god who created a universe he needed to tinker with constantly? Wouldn’t a human clockmaker whose clocks needed constant regulation and repair be accused of producing shoddy goods? In the orthodox view of things, wasn’t God marked out in the same way as a poor workman?

Even setting aside such thorny matters as the reason for evil in the world, the orthodox, biblical picture did not fit with the newly discovered laws of nature. If a personal God laid down these laws, why would he act supernaturally, which must overturn them? Why didn’t they automatically produce what the scriptures claim God wants? How could a perfect Creator produce such an obviously imperfect universe? To be told “God moves in a mysterious way” seemed to be no more than avoiding the question.

The deists squared this circle by assuming a universe needed a Creator, whether a personal or an impersonal one, but rejecting the rest. The nature of this creator was unknown, and probably could never be known. Once He, She, or It had created the universe and established its laws, the Creator withdrew, leaving the mechanism to run by itself. Since many of the Founding Fathers of United States were deists, this is the viewpoint enshrined, by implication, in the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution.

The Creator of the deists required neither worship nor any other contact with human beings. Nor was He, She, or It going to intervene on anyone’s behalf via supernatural means. The laws of nature were just that: unalterable, unchangeable laws by which everything worked, laid down since creation itself.


Pantheism took the supremacy of the laws of nature one step further. It argued that if the Laws of Nature govern everything, there is no need to assume any kind of Creator. Nature is its own creator and has set its own laws. What Nature does is what there is—and nothing else. To explore Nature and its ‘laws’ is to ‘know’ God.

If the laws of physics, chemistry and quantum mechanics govern all, and the Big Bang happened because it must under those laws, that is pantheism, pure and simple. In fact, experimental and theoretical science is almost inevitably pantheistic, since it assumes an ordered universe which can—in time—be understood via the unalterable mechanisms built into it.

Pantheism in the 18th century revered Nature and all its works. Unlike deism, it wasn’t a cold, detached view of a fixed and totally materialistic world. No one knew whether all the ‘laws’ of Nature had been discovered. Some might even concern emotions and thoughts, as well as material things. By assuming and seeking out elements to existence beyond the world of the senses, you could find space for an outlook close to the spirituality of orthodox religions. What such elements cannot be is supernatural: i.e. outside of Nature itself and its laws.


In the 18th century atheism—as in parts of the US today—was a term of abuse, centred on the hoary—and demonstrably false—claim that belief in God is essential to prevent moral anarchy. Given the vast range of evils committed by believers in every religion, it would be hard to find anything extra which unbelief might cause someone to do!

However, setting this aside there is a better way to understand what genuine atheism represented to the Georgians. Atheism is, at root, less a denial of the existence of God than a denial of any need or place for gods, goddesses or the supernatural within the universe. In that sense, it was rather rare until Darwin, in the mid–19th century, revealed a mechanism whereby random mutations, subjected to selection by means of adaptation to the environment, could account for both a multiplicity of living and extinct species and an exquisitely ordered relationship between each organism and its place in the natural world. This destroyed the old argument that the obvious design neatness of living creatures demanded creation by an intellect. The inanimate world had never needed an explanation for its structures, so now there was a complete method of describing the universe and its origins without the need for any divine being.

Cold Reason confronts the Comforts of Faith

If the question of the existence and relevance of gods remained unresolved, that was more to do with mankind’s need for a comforting belief in a universe allied to human values than anything else. Even in the 18th century, to set aside any ‘personal’ link between an individual and the universe demanded strength of mind. With no god to ask to intervene on your behalf, the world looks to some to be a cold and threatening place.

Faith had another huge advantage: it could be used to bolster and justify the political status-quo. Non-belief was natural for the educated and those interested in the new sciences. However, the rising forces of evangelical Christianity were useful allies for the ruling elite. Evangelicals wanted to renew belief in the orthodoxies of faith. Not entirely co-incidentally, that process would also ratify the claims of the elite to superiority and power as the ‘natural’ rulers decreed by God. The later, Victorian hymn neatly summed up this viewpoint:

“The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly

And ordered their estate.”

If the heart of much 18th and 19th-century evangelical Christian social and political thinking was empathetic, the head was quickly taken over by the forces of the status quo. “We, the rich elite, are at the top because God says so. To question this is to question the wise decrees of God.”

It was an ideal creed for any burgeoning imperial power. It trumpeted socially conservative values, virtually outlawed any rational argument and reinforced hierarchies as God’s way of arranging society. In doing so, it also stayed implacably opposed to Darwin and all alternative scientific or rational explanations of the way the world works. The answer to everything lay in the Bible—or at least those parts each sect chose to recall. In some parts of the world, religion remains like that to this day.

Standing Still …

One reason I find the Georgian period so fascinating is the way it highlights problems we are still facing. Even a most cursory look at the news will reveal that wars of religion are just as prevalent now as they were then. Many of today’s terrorists still claim to be acting in the name of their God, just as Victorian imperialists did. Nor have we resolved the ongoing clash between the discoveries of science and the teachings of religions derived from cultures last flourishing 1500 or more years ago.

Ah well …

Do you enjoy historical fiction?

A new Ashmole Foxe mystery, “DARK THREADS OF VENGEANCE”, is now available. Set in Norwich in the 1760s, it begins with a mysterious murder, before plunging, through clashes within a dysfunctional family which threaten business collapse and a banking crisis, to an unexpected denouement by the edge of the River Wensum in the shadow of Norwich’s massive cathedral.

Check it out here.

Posted in Georgian Society, Leisure | 6 Comments

Georgian “Madness” and Melancholy


Dr. Philippe Pinel at the Salpêtrière, 1795
by Tony Robert-Fleury

In the eighteenth century, “madness” was used as a catch-all description for just about any type of mental illness, from depression to full-blown psychosis and mania. The causes were much debated, not just by medical men either. Some saw madness as a physical problem (an imbalance of the humours), others as a psychological problem (a response to grief or stress), a moral problem (a breakdown in behaviour caused by licentious excess, drink or drugs), or even a spiritual one (brought on by excessive religious zeal or occasioned by demonic possession).

Depressive or Genius?

Depression, or melancholia, was especially common amongst the better educated. Indeed, foreigners sometimes referred to it as ’The English Disease’. Yet, following Aristotle, it could also be viewed as conferring a mark of special genius or imaginative power.

The name comes from the idea that it was caused by an excess of black bile in the body. In the Aristotelian view, such an excess produced a tendency towards suspicion and fear of others, coupled with a general darkness of outlook and misanthropic view of the world. Yet melancholics were also credited with strong intellectual powers, acute perception, a powerful critical faculty and great expressiveness in communication. Indeed, you could hardly be accepted as a great artist or poet unless you were also somewhat melancholic in your personality.

Could Madness be Cured?

Everyone weighed into the debate, from professional medical men through ‘empirics’ (non-qualified practitioners) to clergymen like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. They disagreed over treatments and causes and whether madness should be seen as an incurable descent into irrationality, or an understandable, and curable, response to some overwhelming stimulus or life event. Did madness somehow reduce you to an animal-like state or was it a disease like any other?

Certainly few, if any, of the treatments available for most of the century were likely to do much good, save via a placebo effect. It is also clear that those judged mad amongst the lower classes were much more likely to be incarcerated than their social superiors. At the same time, private asylums could be notably profitable businesses. What went on in them varied from the luxurious to the horrific. Still, the fact that enough people were prepared to pay highly to make certain ‘mad-doctors’ rich shows how common mental illnesses were amongst the better-off. It is also true that it took little effort to have a troublesome or unwanted family member confined for life under the guise of being mad — so long as you could pay the fees demanded. The romantic novel’s stereotype of the mad wife in the attic was not always very far from the truth.

Much has been written on the evils and cruelty of certain eighteenth and nineteenth-century practices in madhouses and asylums, but the reality was, I believe, far more complex, with every kind of response from vicious disdain to empathy and genuine kindness. It’s a vast topic, and one I intend to return to more than once. However, to start on a lighter note, here’s a list of supposed causes of madness amongst those confined in London’s Bedlam Hospital in 1810[1]. The numbers indicate the number judged to have been driven mad by each item:

Causes of Madness

It is clear that, in the eighteenth century, mental illness was most usually seen as essentially similar to physical illness, at least to the extent that both could be traced to an actual event or a tangible bodily dysfunction. The table below shows that clearly. There are no mentions of invisible psychological factors, such as neuroses. Their time had yet to come. The only inner, intangible causes listed are emotions such as pride, jealousy, fear or love.

What this seems to reflect is a view that madness is as madness does. Diagnosis was based on observable behaviour. A person was judged mad if he or she acted in ways commonly held to indicate insanity. Madness was not, in itself, unnatural, let alone culpable. Thus the mad person was only in need of custodial treatment if his or her behaviour became socially outrageous or was otherwise unacceptable. The ‘village idiot’ might be taunted and mocked, but no one thought he or she should be locked away. Rich eccentrics often flourished and were typically viewed with a good degree of indulgence.

Cause Number of Cases
Misfortunes, troubles, disappointments, grief 206
Religion and Methodism 90
Love 74
Jealousy 9
Pride 8
Study 15
Fright 51
Drink and intoxication 58
Fevers 110
Childbed 79
Obstruction 10
Family and heredity 115
Contusions and fractures of the skull 12
Venereal 14
Smallpox 7
Ulcers and scabs dried up 5

I love the idea that someone thought more people had been driven mad by Religion and Methodism than by drink, venereal disease and head injuries put together! Childbed presumably refers to what we would term post-natal depression, still sadly common today. It’s interesting too that Heredity was seen as producing only half the number of cases of insanity as Misfortunes and griefs. Doesn’t that argue for a refreshing doubt about the commonplace notion that mental illness is usually congenital?

Fright makes some kind of sense, I suppose, at least if it refers to overwhelming and irrational phobias. But what about Love being apparently some seven times more likely to drive you insane than Jealousy? How would fevers make your sanity collapse? And what on earth was meant by Obstruction? People driven mad by constant constipation?

Much food for thought here — so long as the Study doesn’t drive you over the edge!

  1. Quoted in Madmen: A Social History of Madhouses, Mad-Doctors and Lunatics, Roy Porter, Tempus, Stroud, 2006.  ↩
Posted in Medicine & Science | 7 Comments

Georgian Travel: Bad Weather and Bad Roads


Here is a final group of examples of travel problems from the diaries of Mary Hardy. Most relate to coping with bad weather, especially in winter, but bad roads were just as great a difficulty in many parts of the country. Some so-called roads in the period were more like wandering tracks, not marked by neat verges or metalled surfaces. People, horses and vehicles might choose various paths around obstacles or patches of mud and deep ruts.

The result would be a network of trackways, all going approximately in the same direction. When cattle drovers and their herds passed along them, these ‘roads’ would be widened still more. Until enclosure became near-universal, hedges by roadsides were even less frequent than they are today in places like Norfolk, where the agriculture is mostly arable.

Clay_SoilsThe roads in Norfolk, especially north Norfolk, were judged to be much better than many in the 18th century. This was mostly due to the geology: extremely sandy soils above a bedrock of chalk and flint. The ground drains very quickly. In those parts of the country plagued by heavy clay soils, like the midlands and areas close to London, roads in winter might become virtually impassable through mud. Problems continued in the summer too, with reports of sun-baked ruts several feet deep! After journeys from 1724 to 1726, Daniel Defoe wrote:

… the soil of all the midland part of England, even from sea to sea, is of a deep stiff clay, or marly kind, and it carries a breadth of near 50 miles at least, in some places much more nor is it possible to go from London to any part of Britain, north, without crossing this clayey dirty part … the roads had been plow’d so deep, and materials have been in some places so difficult to be had for repair of the roads, that all the surveyors’ rates have been able to do nothing—nay, the whole country has not been able to repair them.

Diary Entries

In Mary Hardy’s diary for February 1784, she reports a Letheringsett man returning from Wells-next-the-sea fell into a lime pit in a snowstorm and lost his life, as much from exposure as the fall itself. Something else to remember is that roads may have been reasonably busy during the day, but far fewer people travelled by night, especially in bad weather. Such lights as were available—basically candles in boxes, with perhaps a reflector—would have given only a feeble glimmer. If you became stuck, or fell and were injured, you were unlikely to get help quickly. Add cold and wet and the potential for dying from exposure rose alarmingly.

Also in December 1784, on Christmas Eve, Mary’s husband went in their chaise to see his brother and sister, who lived about 10 miles away. He left around 6:00 am. The chaise “broke down” on the way home and he had to return to where his family lived and borrow a cart. He got home again “after 8 [pm]”.

On February 2, 1784, one of the Hardy’s delivery wagons went out into a snowy morning landscape, heading for two inns half a dozen miles distant. It got lost in the snow drifts and finally made it back around ten in the evening.

Feb 10 1784 “Sharp frost, storms of snow. Cornwell went to Cromer lost himself upon Holt Heath, the snow being so very deep.” [Mary wrote that the snow drifts were 14 to 15 feet – 4 to 5 metres – deep in places]

Feb 18, 1807 “A very terible [sic] morning With Wind and.. snow. Mr Hardy and I and sister Raven sett out for Sprowston [near Norwich] morng [sic] 7 in Love’s post chaise, had a terrible journey, the snow being very much drifted and wind very high and stormy. Baited [fed horses] at Aylsham and got to Sprowston ½ past 2. The man could not return that night but slept there.

It wasn’t just snow and ice that caused bad accidents. In June, 1796, after days of rain, a cart belonging to a Mrs Booty, a rival brewer based a few miles away at Binham, tried to cross the ford of the river (the bridge may have been too narrow or the cart too heavy). The flow was too strong and the cart was overturned, then pulled under the bridge. One of the horses drowned and the man on the cart was thrown into the river. Mary notes he was “providentily [sic] sav’d”.

Norfolk has abundant marshes and fens in some areas, of course, and the neighbouring counties of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire even more. Draining was primitive or non-existent, so heavy rain might block some roads and river-crossings for lengthy periods. Increased flows could also damage or destroy bridges and block fords. Our modern experience of major floods can be bad enough; imagine the chaos caused by flooding when few roads had any real surface or drainage, and fields and water-meadows were expected to fill with water through most of the winter months.


With the roads so bad and slow in many places, it wasn’t unusual for people to take passage on a coastal ship for long journeys north or south along the east coast. In good weather, it could be a useful means of travel. In bad storms, it could be lethal, particularly considering the effects of high tides and storm surges.

The North Sea (or German Ocean as it was called before World War I) is shallow, turbulent and prone to violent storm surges when conditions are right. This was probably why fewer people in the 18th century were drawn to living close to the coast. It was simply too wild and dangerous. There are reports of 18th century storms in which hundreds of small ships perished, along with all their crews, so that miles of shoreline were strewn afterwards with flotsam of all kinds. Defoe remarked that almost every fence or hedge in Norfolk’s coastal areas was made-up mostly from the timbers of wrecked ships.

The Norfolk Chronicle of 7 November 1789 reported:

For the sake of humanity, we wish it were in our power to contradict, or at least to soften, the dreadful consequences of the storm from the north-east, which happened this day se’nnight [a week ago].

The article then goes on to list 28 ships lost in that single storm, with more severely damaged or washed up on shore. When this happened, sailors and any passengers ran a high risk of being drowned.

In 1770, thirty vessels were lost on Lowestoft Sands and all aboard them drowned. On October 31, 1789, 40 vessels were driven ashore between Yarmouth and Southwold and 120 bodies washed up with them. On the night of 18 February, 1807, no fewer than 144 bodies were washed up at Yarmouth alone.

Despite all the hazards, the threats from robbers and the uncertainties of wind, weather and mishap, people did travel in Georgian times, many both widely and often. I suspect they were a great deal more stoical about the problems they faced than we are today. They knew well that life is uncertain and dangers frequent.

I wonder what they would make of the tantrums of modern commuters when delays are caused by leaves on the line?


Bird, Margaret, ed. The Diary of Mary Hardy 1773–1809 (4 vols.). United Kingdom: Burnham Press, 2013.

Cozens-Hardy, Basil. The History of Letheringsett in the County of Norfolk. Norwich: Jarrold & Sons Ltd, 1960.

Bentham, Hervey. Once Upon a Tide. London, Harrap, 1971.

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Posted in Travel | 8 Comments