Discovering “The Picturesque”

Landscape, Cliffs and Trees null by Rev. William Gilpin 1724-1804

William Gilpin, “Landscape, Cliffs and Trees” (Tate Gallery)

For many decades during the 17th and 18th centuries, young upper-class men (and some women) had undertaken a “Grand Tour” of Europe (principally Italy) to acquire ‘polish’ and gain first-hand experience of the glories of Rome as revealed in its art and architecture. At a time when education in the Greek and Latin Classics was seen as complete in itself, the Grand Tour provided the final ingredient required to produce “politeness”: the capacity to function properly within an upper-class and civilised social environment. To lack this would mean social ostracism and the destruction of future marriage and dynastic prospects.

So far, so good. The road to Rome was filled with young English ‘milords’, eager to have a good time and bring back suitable art to grace their country mansions — and convince their families that they had not spent all their time with Italian courtesans. Unfortunately, as the 18th century progressed, tensions and wars with France, culminating in the Revolution and pan-European conflict, made lengthy visits to Italy too hazardous — and too potentially unpatriotic — to continue as before. Instead, people turned their attention to the remoter parts of England. The burgeoning Romantic Movement endowed places like the Lake District and the Wye Valley with the potential to induce the same awe as the Alps. England’s own ruins — the abandoned monasteries and castles — served as substitutes for Roman aqueducts and temples.

What was lacking was an explicit link between such locations and high art. All the revered masters of landscape painting of the period had chosen continental subjects, many redolent of the influence of the Classical World. How could the ‘correct’ artistic sensibility and taste be nurtured in a countryside as different as England’s? Especially in a place notably lacking in classical ruins, scantily clad nymphs and elegant young Grecian shepherds?

An Artificial World

The landscapes and vistas admired on the Grand Tour were themselves a series of artistic constructs far removed from dull reality. The much-admired landscapes of artists like Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin were fantasies, not realistic representations. Why should the same process not be applied to English landscapes? Why should continental Europe have a monopoly on the subject matter of the newly created study of aesthetics: the definition of what makes a beautiful thing truly beautiful?

Throughout the century, the wealthiest landowners graced their parks with mock classical temples at suitable viewpoints; or added romantic, ivy-clad ruins as and where needed to produce artistic vistas. Under the influence of men like ‘Capability’ Brown, landscape gardening was transformed into a new and very English art form. The Landscape Style in garden design was England’s greatest contribution to European art in that century, and the one which owed least to continental models. Even the French, who imitated it, called it le jardin Anglais and the style was taken up eagerly throughout all of continental Europe.

The essence of landscape design of the time can be expressed thus: if nature has not produced a landscape conforming to the required aesthetic standards, it should be altered and adapted until it did. In the same way that paintings and sculptures acquired during the Grand Tour could be used to make ‘beautiful’ interiors, your park and garden could be landscaped to offer an equally pleasing aesthetic outside. Beginning with William Kent and “Capability” Brown, the boundary between art and landscape was blurred, until each became an idealised version of the other. Just as an artist could use his imagination to make a view more picturesque on the canvas than in real life, so landscape architects should improve on nature’s raw material to evoke the image required.

Defining the Picturesque

We owe much of the definition of the aesthetic of ‘The Picturesque’ to Rev. William Gilpin, Anglican clergyman, artist and author, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, who established themselves as arbiters of taste in this respect. “Capability” Brown had seen the ideal landscape as made up of curved and undulating lines, formed by wide grassy areas, irregular lakes and trees, alone or in clumps. Gilpin, Price and Payne Knight rejected this as tame and unnatural, just as the geometric regularity French gardens like Versailles were unnatural. ‘Natural’ landscapes should be more savage and less domesticated. It was not just a matter of seeking out places calculated to evoke strong emotions in the viewer (awe, fear, wonder, pleasure). In creating art, whether on canvas or in the landscape itself, those emotions should be heightened into expressions of sublime beauty or jaw-dropping terror. Perhaps the ultimate expression on canvas of art as the expression of latent emotion in a scene surfaced in the wild, impressionistic and often violent visions of JMW Turner. The Fighting Temeraire * isn’t simply being towed to the breaker’s yard; she is heading to an awesome, ghostly Götterdämmerung of her own.

Fighting Temeraire

“The Fighting Temeraire” (JMW Turner, 1838) National Gallery

Gilpin’s ideas were then taken up and extended by two squires from the counties bordering on Wales, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight. They knew each other and admired one another’s books. In 1794, Uvedale Price published his “Essay on the Picturesque”, a work he revised over and over until it reached its final form in 1810. In the same year, Payne Knight published a long poem called “The Landscape” and dedicated it to Price.

What both contended, as did Humphrey Repton, was that a truly aesthetic appreciation of nature involved looking at landscape with “a painter’s eye”. The picturesque was, literally, that which was worthy to be the subject of a painting in the fashionable style of the day. Like the paintings of Claude and Poussin, they should confront the viewer with scenes of Classical grandeur, calculated to command rapt attention.

To help you see with this “painter’s eye”, you should turn your back on the scene and view its distorted and recoloured reflection in what was termed a ‘Claude Glass’ or ‘black mirror’: a somewhat concave piece of polished metal with a dark grey surface, which would compress an image of the scene and render it in the brownish, limited palate of colours so familiar from the Old Masters.

Aesthetics and Elitism

The Grand Tour had been an experience for the elite in society, if only from the cost involved and the time it took. Those young men would often be away for several years. Bringing home the expected bounty of acquired art also demanded deep pockets. Completing the tour itself conferred elite status — and significant boasting rights! Entire mansions were constructed to house the booty brought home and display it to awe-struck visitors. The seriously wealthy Coke family at Holkham Hall in north Norfolk filled their newly (and specially) built near-palace with Grand Tour artefacts. The much less wealthy Windhams at Felbrigg Hall a few miles away had to be content with setting aside a single room for the bulk of the art, and allowing some larger paintings to spill over into the remodelled drawing room next door.

How were these socially desirable benefits to be gained while remaining in England?

The new aesthetic of “The Picturesque” offered one answer. To appreciate nature with “a painter’s eye” required time, considerable learning, and the type of connoisseurship only acquired by those with access to private collections of the best landscape art. It was an attribute limited to a wealthy elite; a type of sensibility whose display provided ‘proof’ of elite status and cultural refinement. As with so much in Georgian and Regency times, it was an attribute and an expression of social class. No one who had to earn their livelihood, whether in trade, commerce or industry, would have the free time available to cultivate such a refined aesthetic sense. It marked you out in ways impossible to emulate through mere cash expenditure.

At a time when the landed gentry were under threat from growing middle-class wealth and declining agricultural prices, how comforting it must have been to be able to reassert your superiority via fashionable aesthetic pursuits. After all, such behaviour is still to be found amongst the upper-class cultural pundits of today — and often for similar reasons.

Posted in Fashion, Leisure | 1 Comment

The Georgian Clergy (Part 1)


The Preacher (Thomas Rowlandson)

It’s easy to assume that the whole gamut of Georgian clergymen were like either the oily Mr Collins, in Pride and Prejudice, or Rev. Gilbert White, happily recording his nature observations in Selborne — basically fairly prosperous and on at least acquaintanceship terms with the local gentry. It’s true that clergy of the established, Anglican church were treated as ‘honorary gentlemen’. Most would have attended Oxford or Cambridge universities. Quite a few were younger sons or cousins of landed gentry families. However, this was far from being universal and certainly did not apply to the many Dissenting Ministers, who served in non-conformist chapels. Nor should prosperity be assumed. There were three main categories of Anglican clergy. In a rough descending order of income, these were rectors, vicars and curates. Dissenting Ministers make up a confusing category of their own.

Rectors and Vicars

I’ve put these together, because the distinction, while important, is less than between the other categories. Collectively, parsons from both groups (plus Perpetual Curates) might be referred to as the ‘incumbent’: literally the man who lay down in the living — or, at least, the rectory, vicarage or parsonage attached. Yes, the upper two categories got a free house for life as well; sometimes quite a grand one.

Rectors ‘held’ the living, in the sense that they could retain it for life, had a legal right to the associated income and could not be forced out, save on the most serious disciplinary grounds. They were not deputies, like vicars, who might in theory be dismissed by the rector for whom they deputised. The rector could also lay claim to all the income from the living; the vicar only the part of it allowed him by the rector.

This income came from two sources. Most parishes included a small farm, called ‘glebe land’. This was a hangover from mediaeval days, when parish priests had to grow the bulk of their own food. By Georgian times, few, if any, parsons farmed their glebe personally. Most either came to an arrangement with a local farmer to manage the land for them, in return for a share of the produce, or rented it out. Either way, it should produce spare income as well as provisions for the kitchen.

The bulk of the money associated with the living came from the tithe: a church tax of ten percent, levied on certain lands, produce or property in the parish. It was mostly paid in cash by this time, but sometimes till in kind. Either way, agreeing the tithe (it could vary according to the value of that year’s crops), as well as collecting it, formed part of the incumbent’s tasks — whether he was rector or vicar. It might be the incumbent’s right to demand payment, but he still had to get it — and deal with defaulters and late payers. Generally, it was collected on two fixed days in the year, with those owing money coming to bring it in person — and expecting a good (free) meal and plenty of drink in return!

To sum up, rectors were the clergy who had the right to the whole income of the living and operated only under the supervision and control of the diocesan bishop. Vicars were formally ‘deputies’ to a rector, in cases where the rector was either unable or unwilling to serve the parish himself. This applied mostly where the rectorship was owned by an institution, such as an Oxford or Cambridge college, or by a lay-person. In such cases, the right to collect the full tithe lay with the rector, who would share it with the vicar in an agreed proportion.


The term ‘curate’ can be confusing and difficult to define precisely. Etymologically, it means an ordained person responsible for the ‘cure of souls’ in a parish — i.e. the parish priest. In that sense, the term applied equally to rectors (unless lay ones) and vicars. In practice, it had come to mean a salaried assistant, deputy or locum: i.e. someone paid a stipend or salary directly by the rector/vicar, and not having a right to any part of the tithes. Since the Anglican Church was, and is, full of oddities, some parishes were served by ‘Perpetual Curates’, in full charge and deputy to no one, but still paid a stipend, rather than having a right to any of the tithe. This stipend was usually funded by an endowment or charitable body. However, by later Victorian times, the term fell out of general use and they were classed as vicars.

Most curates were either young, recently-ordained clergymen, waiting to find someone willing to present them to a living, or those without a source of ‘interest’ or patronage, and hence unable ever to gain a living of their own. They eked out a precarious existence on stipends as low as £30 to £50 a year (£6,000 to £10,000), often needing to act as curate to several neighbouring parishes to drum up enough to live on. Generally, the vast bulk of parish duties fell on them — conducting services in bad weather or remote churches, handling burials, christenings and marriages, visiting the sick, teaching the catechism and Sunday School. The rector or vicar would reserve the most important duties — that usually meant those most visible to the local gentry — to themselves. That is, if they did much at all. It wasn’t unknown for some rectors, in particular, to spend more time fox-hunting and hobnobbing with the local squirearchy than undertaking any religious duties; hardly surprising when younger sons often saw the church simply as source of income and entered it without any great religious vocation or interest.


How much the ‘living’ (the right to tithes in full or part from a parish) was worth varied enormously. The income from a rich living could be greater than the income of many of the minor landed gentry. A poor living might pay less than £100 a year (perhaps £15,000 to £20,000 in today’s money) — barely enough to keep up even a modest, middle-class lifestyle. Similarly, the vicar’s share of the tithes could vary from generous to niggardly. That’s why the records show some clergymen swapping livings with one another, trying to move up from poorer to richer when the could.

Another way to increase your income was pluralism. This meant holding more than one living simultaneously, using salaried curates to do the extra work. Officially, it was frowned upon, but it certainly happened — and not as an exception either. Once again, to manage to be a pluralist required sufficient “interest” (i.e. patronage), firstly to be presented to the second living (sometimes even a third), and to persuade the diocesan bishop to accept and confirm the presentation.

The award of livings, like almost everything else in Georgian days, depended on patronage or access to influence. The patron ‘presented’ a clergyman to the living, leaving the diocesan bishop to accept or deny the presentation (unless that living was in the gift of the bishop himself). This system meant the great families made sure of the best livings, since the right of presentation could be bought and sold. They would then use them as a form of assured income for younger sons. Any which were ‘surplus’ to this need would be used to grant patronage where bring most benefit.

Oxford and Cambridge colleges used the livings to which they had the right of presentation to provide a career for favoured fellows or alumni. Landed gentry bestowed what they owned on family members or other favoured individuals. These were ‘jobs for life’. They had to be, since there were no clergy pensions. Unless an elderly clergyman had some other source of income, he had to hang onto his living until he died, perhaps, like Parson Woodforde, paying a succession of curates to do the work when he had become too frail to manage himself.

Theological zealots and reformers saw the 18th-century Anglican church as religiously moribund and riddled with apathy. Parish roles (livings) were viewed primarily as a source of assured income and the ability to purchase, sell and exchange various rights within the Established Church had far more influence on appointments than religious vocation or scholarship. The power of patronage and influence was paramount, as it was with more senior positions too (archdeacons, deans, bishops). Even today, Anglican bishoprics, though formally in the gift of the Queen as head of the church, are actually allocated by the Prime Minister of the day.

Dissenting Ministers

The principal differences between these and Anglican clergy were twofold: social status and security of income. Dissenting Ministers were definitely not treated as gentlemen of any sort, honorary or otherwise, even though their ranks included some of the finest thinkers, scientists and teachers of that, or any other, age. Dissenters were banned from attending the English universities. Their own Academies, though providing excellent education in their own right, were scorned by the establishment. The best that could be allowed them was that they were protestants, which set them above Roman Catholic priests. Very few of the nobility or gentry were dissenters, although some were technically such: a significant group still clung to Roman Catholicism — a religious practice best pursued only domestically, since rabid anti-Papist sentiment was never far below the surface in Georgian times.

As a result, dissent was most prevalent amongst artisans and the lower middle classes, as well as being more common in certain localities than others. Dissenting Ministers were appointed by their congregations and paid by them as well. Their security and income were in the hands of the chapel elders, or whatever group were charged with administering chapel and congregation. Some chapels used no ordained ministers at all, relying on laymen to lead services and act as preachers. Others mixed lay preachers with occasional visits from ordained ministers. In nearly all cases, preaching was what mattered most. A powerful preacher could fill a chapel or command a huge open-air gathering, as John Wesley did. A mediocre one might find himself let go, if there was a chance of getting someone better. Being ordained, in sects where this was possible, guaranteed nothing, since communion services (which still usually required an ordained person to preside) were often either extremely infrequent or absent altogether.

Posted in Georgian Society | 5 Comments

An 18th-century Domestic Fire Engine


The picture above shows the 18th-century Newsham domestic fire engine which today stands in a corridor at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (NT). Fire was a constant threat in Georgian mansions, especially given the number of candles, the flammable fabrics of curtains and wall-hangings, and — above all — the many chimneys and fireplaces. Most homeowners lived in constant fear of a breakout and took elaborate precautions against it. If the house did catch fire, it was up to the family and household servants to tackle it.

Felbrigg Hall still has a long line of 18th-century fire buckets hung on the wall as well as this fire engine — state-of-the-art at the time. The engine is mounted on wheels, so it could be dragged wherever it was needed. In use, it was able to direct a thin, continuous stream of water from a swivelling metal pipe and nozzle mounted on the top. Pumping was by hand, with two people able to stand either side and pump in time with one another, using the handles provided. It doesn’t sound too effective by modern standards, but it was a great deal better than people forming a bucket chain to throw water at the fire!

The Development of the Fire Engine

This type of engine harks back to improvements made by a Dutchman, Jan Van der Heyden, (1637–1712). Besides being a painter, draughtsman, printmaker, Mennonite and inventor, Van der Heyden made significant contributions to improving contemporary firefighting. In 1672, with his brother Nicolaes, who was a hydraulic engineer, he designed a better type of fire hose, making it of flexible leather and coupling it to another hose every 50 feet. He also improved the fire engine designs of the time, reorganised the local volunteer fire brigade in 1685 and wrote and illustrated the first firefighting manual, the Brandspuiten-boek.

Drawing on his work, moveable fire engines like this one were further developed by Richard Newsham, an eighteenth-century button-maker of London, and patented by him in 1718. His engines, like the one at Felbrigg, were designed to be pulled like a cart to the fire. They had two single-acting pumps and a water tank which formed the frame of the machine. This tank could be kept filled by hand, using buckets, or connected to a hose from a suitable water-source, such as a pond or stream. They were the first fire engines able to deliver a continuous stream of water and direct it at a fire.

In literature advertising his engines in 1728, Newsham described his invention as:

“The most useful and convenient engines for quenching fires, which carry a constant stream with great force, and yet, at pleasure, will water gardens like falling rain.”

Newsham’s company went on to build the vast majority of English fire engines during the 18th century. They were also popular in the American colonies. Newsham had the foresight to publicise his designs there as well, boasting that his engines were so popular in Britain even King George II had ordered one to protect his palace. The city of New York bought a Newsham engine in 1731. After the Capitol at Williamsburg, Virginia, had been threatened by fire in 1754, the Council of the colony directed:

“. . . that the Receiver General send to London for a Fire Engine and Four Dozen of Leatheren [sic] Buckets for the use of the Capitol.”

The chosen machine, Richard Newsham’s “new water engine for quenching and extinguishing fires”, is still on display at Colonial Williamsburg, I believe. Over the following years, many American cities imported Newsham engines for their fire companies.

When Newsham died in 1743, he passed his company to his son, Lawrence. After Lawrence’s death, his wife took over and joined forces with her cousin George Ragg. So durable were these machines that Newsham and Ragg pumps were still in use in the late 1930s!

How It Works

The smaller pumps were worked by four men. Up to twelve were needed for the largest versions. Those pumping raised and lowered long handles, called ‘brakes’, to either side of the chassis. To increase the power of the jet, in some models more men operated foot-treadles at the corners. Water was usually provided by a bucket brigade, who emptied water into the hopper at the engine’s rear (hence the long row of buckets hung on the wall above the engine at Felbrigg). Some engines (again like Felbrigg’s) came with a suction fitting, which could draw water directly from a pond, river or any similar body of water.

The Felbrigg engine uses a twin-cylinder, single-acting pump equipped with an air chamber. Because truly reliable hoses were unavailable in the 18th century, most Newsham engines, like the one at Felbrigg, had a metal spout to direct the water spray. An iron lever at the front of the machine allowed the operator to switch the pump between using the integral tank and a suction hose attached to a covered nozzle underneath the handle — but not both at the same time. The square iron brackets on the sides of the tank were for wooden rods to lift the engine over obstacles or help steer it, since the iron wheels are fixed and facing in a straight line.

Other surviving Newsham Engines

What is reputed to be the oldest surviving fire engine in the UK — with a design quite similar to Felbrigg’s, but rather more ornate — was purchased by the Corporation of St Albans in 1733. They were directed to buy “one large pump and one small” at a total cost of £40 (around £75,000 to 80,000 today). The surviving machine later saw service in the house of Alderman Francis Nichol, who died in 1778. By 1832, it was in use in a brewery and was taken to tackle a fire in Hatfield House in that year. Finally, it was presented to the local fire brigade in 1903 and kept at St Albans Fire Station, until it was sold and restored privately in 1963.

The South Molton and District Museum in Devon has a much larger version of an engine of Felbrigg’s type, this one pumped by six or eight men, which was bought for £46 (£80,000 – 90,000) in 1736. It remained in use in the town until 1886. Bray, in Berkshire, has a horse-drawn, ten-man Newsham Fire Engine, which was donated to the parish in 1737 by the Right Honourable Lady Anne Coleraine of Canon Hill. It is said to be able to discharge 773 litres (170 gallons) of water a minute over a distance of 38 metres (41 yards). That’s no mean jet of water, though how long the poor men could keep pumping at that rate is anyone’s guess! It was kept in St Michael’s Church at Bray for more than 200 years and was used to protect the whole parish.


Posted in Tid-bits | 4 Comments

Provincial Libraries in the Eighteenth Century


Former Circulating Library, Milsom Street, Bath

The protagonists in both the series of historical mysteries I have written are members of a new force in eighteenth-century British society: ‘persons of the middling sort’ or members of the professional and mercantile middle classes. Mr Ashmole Foxe is a wealthy bookseller and property owner; Dr Adam Bascom is a physician and younger son of a member of the minor gentry. The middle classes were important at this time for many reasons. Their prosperity was growing, as were their numbers, making them increasingly important in political and economic terms. Indeed, by the end of the century, some of them were far wealthier than many of the lesser landed gentry — and even some of the less affluent nobility. Agricultural land, the principal source of income for the latter two groups, no longer paid as well as it once did, even with the effect of newer patterns of agriculture.

The main difference between these prosperous merchants and professionals and the landed gentry and nobility lay in the fact that they worked for a living. They did not rely on inherited, landed wealth — hard to increase and easily lost. They also lived in — and were broadly tied to — urban settings. That was where their businesses and professional practices lay and they had to pay constant attention to them as the source of their wealth. The gentry and nobility still divided their time between London and their country estates, with occasional visits to fashionable ‘watering places’ such as Bath.

However, like their ‘betters’ and unlike those below them, the middle classes were beginning to have a significant amount of time — and appetite — for leisure activities. Those also needed to be available where many of the middle classes lived, in Britain’s burgeoning provincial towns and manufacturing centres.

Booksellers and Newspapers

Booksellers were well established in many provincial centres by the end of the seventeenth century. Since books were expensive and sales turnover consequently low, most supplemented their trade in other ways. The most common of these was printing and distributing pamphlets. Another was the production of a local newspaper. Norwich had its first newspaper (it was the first outside London too) in 1701. Books were heavily advertised in these newspapers, not least because the newspaper publisher and bookseller were often one and the same. It was therefore possible in some areas for books to be ordered and delivered by the men who travelled outside provincial centres, carrying newspapers and pamphlets to small towns and villages.

It was now a small step from selling books to renting them out. This seems to have been the basis on which many commercial libraries began.

Circulating, Subscription and other Libraries

Nomenclature is confused on the topic of early libraries. You shouldn’t imagine that the neat typology I am setting out here was always reflected in real life. Some libraries would come under more than one of these categories. However, for the purposes of explanation, I will consider them separately.

Circulating libraries came closest to the idea of renting books. They were almost entirely linked to booksellers and set up with a clear commercial purpose: to provide for the many readers, especially those desiring the new category of novels, whose appetite for books would otherwise have soon outrun their budgets. The most basic approach was to borrow a book at a set amount per week, payable when the book was returned. Other circulating libraries, perhaps to help with the cost of continually purchasing new volumes, also charged a small monthly or annual subscription.

Subscription libraries proper were set up by various philanthropic or civic societies formed for that purpose. They tended to cater for more serious tastes in reading and might even have their own premises, offering a reading room in which members could consult volumes without further charge. Subscription levels tended, however, to be quite substantial, which restricted their use to the upper levels of society. In Norwich, both charitable societies, such as the Society of United Friars, and scientific societies, such as the Natural History Society and the Norwich Botanical Society, established such libraries for their members. The debating and philosophical societies, such as the Speculative Society and Tusculan Society, both dating from the 1790s, also had substantial libraries, including many books that would be seen as controversial.

A subset of subscription libraries contains those libraries set up by learned societies or similar organisations as an offshoot or adjunct to their main activities. This might include diocesan libraries, expressly catering to the needs of the clergy; libraries associated with philosophical and scientific societies (as noted above); music libraries and libraries designed for use by members of the medical and legal professions. In all cases, membership was restricted to those who had already been accepted into the relevant group or society. If any additional subscription was charged for access to the library, this was normally set aside to help pay for new books.

Reading Groups

It might surprise you to know that book clubs and reading groups were also around at this time. Most were set up by groups of gentlemen — it was nearly always gentlemen — to help share the cost of books. These groups would meet in a private house, or sometimes a coffeehouse, or even an inn. They might charge an entrance fee, often quite a substantial one, followed by an annual subscription, all of which was used to purchase books to be passed around amongst the members. Meeting to discuss what they had been reading was not universal, but it was quite common. At the end of each year, that year’s books — probably quite dogeared by now — were sold off to help defray the cost of new ones. People also passed books around amongst their friends, of course, but these reading groups were far more formal than that.


As provincial towns grew and prospered, their wealthier citizens and civic fathers began to see the provision of certain leisure facilities as an essential sign their town should now be counted as an important centre of culture and learning, as well as a growing manufacturing or commercial base. It’s probably fair to say that the provision of Assembly Rooms and a purpose-built theatre — both in place in Norwich by the 1750s — were top of their agenda. However, libraries also played no small part in helping to extend the cultural life of the provincial town.

Not surprisingly, not everyone welcomed them. One Scottish clergyman, the Rev Robert Wodrow, responded to the provision of a library in Edinburgh with the claim that:

“All the villainous, profane and obscene books and plays printed in London, [were being] lent out to young boys, servant women of the better sort and gentlemen, and vice and obscenity dreadfully propagated.”

(Libraries and their Users, Paul Kaufman, London: Libraries Association, 1969)

He was probably not alone in his view. By contributing to the spread of knowledge and literacy, libraries helped to initiate social change, breaking the stranglehold on learning which the elite had held for so long. Events soon showed, as in the case of Thomas Paine, that books could be a force for subversion as much as prosperity. The genie was out of the bottle and could not be returned.

Posted in Georgian Society

Aristocratic Naughtiness in the Shrubbery


Stoke Park
Note the thick shrubbery in front of the church!

Our Georgian ancestors were just as interested in celebrity gossip as anyone today. The greatest celebrities of the time were to be found amongst the aristocracy; one of the finest sources of gossip came from court cases concerning ‘Criminal Conversation’ (Crim. Con.): civil cases in which an aggrieved husband sued for compensation from his wife’s lover for loss of ‘conjugal comfort, society, and assistance’. Since the essence of these cases was to prove the dealings between the plaintiff’s wife and the defendant were adulterous, the courts were treated to a mass of detailed evidence to prove the two had been up to no good. A successful case might be the prelude to a divorce, although divorces were both expensive to pursue and difficult to obtain. Many a husband remained content with the public shaming of the two parties that a Crim. Con. case produced.

Newspaper reports of the cases tended to be fairly circumspect in their language, but many pamphlets were produced in which the more salacious details were set out in full — or hidden only by dashes and asterisks. Such was the taste of the public for this kind of document that one London publisher produced a book in 1786, entitled “Trials for Adultery: Or, the History of Divorces”, which ran to seven volumes!

In this post, I’m going to concentrate on just two cases. These are the two which, combined with new trends in landscape architecture, turned the word ‘shrubbery’ into one of the favourite printed euphemisms for locations for aristocratic sexual naughtiness.

The Fashion for Shrubberies

Thanks to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphrey Repton, the fashioning of parks and gardens surrounding aristocratic mansions had changed markedly. Rather than the formal, geometric arrangements found on the continent, British landscape architects favoured a more natural style of pleasing walks and vistas to produce a harmonious blend of open spaces, trees and coverts, which would lead the eye through the landscape towards a suitable feature, such as a folly, often in the shape of a classical temple, or a distant body of water. The shrubbery was an essential element in this process, especially in the work Humphrey Repton. It provided shelter from the sun and wind, a pleasant area in which to walk or a secluded place to read, picnic or — naturally — to indulge in activities you wished to keep away from prying eyes.

Lady Foley and Mrs Arabin

Motion for a new trial on behalf of Lord Peterborough, in the action brought against him Mr. Foley for crim. con. with Lady Ann Foley, came on to be argued. The ground on which Lord Peterborough contended for a new trial was, that the verdict which was for plaintiff, Mr. Foley, with 2,500l [£2,500, maybe be £450–500,000 today] damages, was against evidence. At the trial it had been attempted to be proved, that Mr. Foley was privy to, and conniving at the general incontinency at least of Lady Ann, if not conscious of the present instance of infidelity ; and that he did not use all those means which he ought, to have prevented it. Mr. Mingay argued, that a husband, in such a case, should not be suffered to take advantage of an injury which he might have prevented and compared it to the case of Sir Richard Worsley, in which Lord Mansfield laid down the rule of law so to be. —This rule of law was not denied Mr. Foley’s counsel; but it was strongly contended by them, that there was no evidence whatever of any such fact; and of this opinion was the Court unanimously . . . The rule for a new trial was therefore discharged, and Mr. Foley remains in possession of the verdict.

(Hereford Journal, Thursday 05 May 1785)

The successful case brought against the Earl of Peterborough at Hereford Assizes by Edward Foley hinged almost entirely on evidence from a passerby on what he had seen taking place within a shrubbery on the Foley estate at Stoke Park, Stoke Edith, a few miles from Hereford. So intrigued did the public become with this particular case of aristocratic naughtiness in the shrubbery that the trial was written up in great detail in a publication entitled “The Trial, with the Whole of the Evidence, and the Speeches of the Counsel, &c. In an action at…Hereford…wherein the Hon. Edward Foley was Plaintiff, and the Right Hon. Charles Henry, Earl of Peterborough and Monmouth, Defendant, for Criminal Conversation with Lady Ann Foley… For Adultery”(G. Lister, London, 1786).

The Arabin case took place in 1785 and also centred on evidence involving Mrs Henrietta Arabin’s frolics with a Mr. S—n in a shrubbery in their villa garden. Links to the Foley case became explicit as in this comment:

It is pretty remarkable that Mrs A—b—n’s shrubbery frolic, should have been the exact counterpart of that of Lady Ann Foley. —From the above examples, the nurserymen have been applied to for the purpose of planting with thick growing shrubs several fashionable villas!

(Morning Post, 28 June 1785)

In yet another successful publication on this topic, comes the following statement:

“Fidelity in Wives is all a Joke,
Whilst there is a Coffin,
Shrubbery, or Oak.”

(“Amusements in High Life, or Conjugal Infidelities in 1786”, G. Lister, London, 1786).

I’m not sure about the coffin. That sounds rather uncomfortable to me! Yet another publication included this snide comment, with its reference to both villas (the site of Mrs Arabin’s amours) and estates (alluding to Lady Foley):

A correspondent who has been present lately that the sale of some villas and estates, observes, that the auctioneers dwell much on the excellence of the shrubberies, in their encomiums; and that this circumstance generally weighs more than all the other good properties of the estate. The style is generally thus — dining room, parlour, four-post bedstead shrubberies, &c. &c.

(Morning Post, 7 July 1785)

Shrubberies were planted in many of the pleasure gardens in London and provincial cities; places notorious for the liaisons that took place in their remoter regions. This may have added to the idea linking shrubberies and sex in the public mind. I don’t have to explain the various other salacious comments in which male trees and female shrubberies were linked.

Adulterous goings-on could take place almost anywhere suitably private and tolerably comfortable, but somehow the shrubbery seems to have become indelibly associated in the public mind with an aristocratic contempt for morality and respectability. As a result, it featured heavily in jokes, double entendres and euphemisms. Since the discovery of the guilty couple also usually involved a Peeping Tom, spy or curious passerby, this linked the supposedly hidden misbehaviour of the aristocracy to ordinary people going about their day-to-day life.

What more could a newspaperman ask for?

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Georgian Booksellers in Norwich

Maps.K.Top.27.21.b, plate 17

Those of you who have read my “Ashmole Foxe” series of historical mysteries will know that Mr Foxe is a bookseller in the city of Norwich during the 1760s. Nothing about him is inauthentic to the period, so far as I am able to ascertain, save for his tendency to spend a good deal of his time in solving murder mysteries. To prove the point — and, I hope, interest the rest of you — this post is all about actual booksellers in the city between 1701 and around 1790, with special emphasis on the Chase family, whose activities informed my imagination in creating Mr Ashmole Foxe.

By the start of the 18th century, the ‘middling sort’ — tenant farmers, tradesmen, shopkeepers and the new professionals — were becoming a sizeable group within the society of the time. All had increasing leisure and disposable wealth, which they looked to use in emulation of the gentry. Before this time, there had been few booksellers outside London and the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, but by 1701, several booksellers had set up in Norwich, generally combining their trade with that of printing. It was one of these bookseller/printers, a man called Goddard, who, in that same year, started the first newspaper outside London. He was soon followed by two others, so that, by 1707, there were three newspapers in the city, none of which was particularly successful.

Maybe it was an attempt to cut his costs which persuaded Mr Goddard, in 1710, to put his struggling newspaper in the hands of one of his apprentices, William Chase, a lad of barely 16 with only one year’s experience behind him. It should have been a disaster, but it was not. Indeed, another of the newspapers, the Norwich Post, was also being run by a teenage apprentice, Edward Cave, at around the same time.

William Chase set up on his own account as a bookseller in 1714, becoming a Freeman in 1716. At first he sold Goddard’s newspaper, then began his own, changing the name several times, until it settled down as the Norwich Mercury in 1720. Not only that, he branched out from bookselling into other kinds of publishing and printing, holding book auctions (alone and in conjunction with Goddard) and expanding his second-hand books business to the extent of buying and selling complete libraries. He was obviously both a clever businessman and a natural entrepreneur, soon becoming a wealthy and influential man as a result. When he died, in 1744, his wife, Margaret, continued to operate his businesses until his eldest son, another William, was able to take over.

William Chase II

As the son of a Freeman bookseller, William was able to become a freeman himself in 1749, at which time he assumed full responsibility for the family business. Indeed, he developed the business into one of the largest in the city and certainly the largest bookseller.

While bookselling, printing and publishing remained at the core of Chase’s business, he later branched out into other areas. He sold paper and stationery, patent medicines and even tea, coffee and chocolate. Since this was Norwich (famous for canaries), his advertisements also mentioned: “Canary seed for birds, as good and as cheap as any.” He continued to buy and sell second-hand books, as his father had done, and let his bookshop act as a kind of library, allowing customers to borrow books at a set charge per week. He never set up a formal circulating library, as Ashmole Foxe’s partner, Mrs Crombie, does in my books, but all the rest was there.

In time, Chase dropped the sales of groceries and the like, but added music, popular prints and caricatures, and lottery tickets to the range of goods on offer. As well as casual printing, he printed books, maps and other ephemera, plus the first Norwich Directory. He expanded the book auction business, holding auctions in other Norfolk towns and began to deal in property and auctions for other goods, including china and even livestock. None of these extra services were unique to the Chase family. What was unusual was the sheer range and scale of what William Chase II was able to offer.

By the time he died in 1781, William was a rich man with a wide range of interests in the city, serving on the Common Council for many years and as Guardian of the Poor several times. His interest in these roles seems not to have been especially political; it was probably due to the business benefits that could accrue from being involved with the City Corporation and the contracts it awarded. He made sure to secure work from the Diocese of Norwich and the established church generally. Such ‘highbrow’ official printing, was balanced by the publication of details of forthcoming trials, followed by accounts of the verdicts and subsequent executions at the gaol, including supposed ‘dying speeches’ and confessions on the scaffold.

After his death, the business continued under his heir, yet another William, but never attain to the same heights, though various descendants of the original two Williams continued to play significant roles in bookselling and printing well into the 19th century.

Posted in C18th Norfolk, Georgian Society | 5 Comments

Punch: The 18th Century’s ‘Middling’ Drink


Hogarth’s view of a punch party in 1733
(CC) Welcome Collection

Different choices of alcoholic drink have long been associated with wealth and class, from the finest and most expensive imported wines to the roughest ciders. Georgian times were no different. When gin, brought from Holland by the soldiers of William of Orange, became popular amongst the poor, it did so mostly because it was cheap, especially compared with brandy, which had to be imported. Beer was available freely, but was considered an everyday drink, not suitable for entertaining — and meeting in social venues fast became an essential part of life for the Georgian ‘Middling Sort’. Clubs and societies of all kinds sprouted up everywhere, driven in part by increasing wealth and in part by an increase in available leisure time. The wealthy had long devoted themselves to various ways of socialising with their peers; now the middling sort wanted to do the same — but less expensively.

The Origins of Punch

Punch was an exotic drink — at least at the start — but one that was easy to make and not too expensive. The word itself is of Hindi origin, revealing its links to the exciting world of the Far East, and comes from the word for ‘five’: the original number of ingredients. The basics were a spirit (usually rum or brandy) to provide alcoholic content, various fruits and spices, sugar and something to bulk it out, perhaps cheap wine or fruit juice or even tea.

When the rich drank punch, they naturally used only the most expensive ingredients:

The Regent’s (George IV) Punch

“Pare as thin as possible the rinds of two china oranges, of two lemons, and ove one seville orange, and infuse them for an hour in half a pint of thin, cold syrup; then add to them the juice of the fruit. Make a pint of strong green tea, sweeten it well with fine sugar, and when it is quite cold, add to it the fruit and syrup, with a glass of the best old Jamaica rum, a glass of Brandy, one of Arrack, one of pine-apple syrup, and two bottles of Champagne. Pass the whole through a fine lawn sieve until it is perfectly clear, then bottle and put it into ice until dinner is served. We are indebted for this receipt to a person who made the punch daily for the prince’s table, at Carlton palace, for six months; it has been in our possession for some years and may be relied on.”

Modern Cookery for Private Families, Eliza Acton (1849)

Punch Parties

Just as coffeehouses provided a meeting place for middle-class men, so a few punch taverns or punch houses sprang up in major cities. However, they seem not to have caught on, perhaps because punch is easily prepared at home. Instead, as groups of middle-class ladies began to meet over tea for social purposes, so men started to hold punch parties for similar reasons. Tea was thought of as a polite drink, but perhaps not quite ‘masculine’ enough for the kind of male get-together at which tongues would be loosened and inhibitions set aside. Alcoholic punch served the purpose better and became something of an English male obsession during the middle and end of the eighteenth century. It sat in the middle between the cheapest alcoholic drinks — and the low-class taverns and grog-houses where they would be served — and the expensive wine, port and brandy that marked out the tables of the gentry and peerage. A half-crown bowl of punch (two shillings and sixpence) would serve about eight people, making each serving cost around 3.5 pence (about the same as a cup of Starbuck’s latte today) — compared to beer at a penny per pint.

It also became seen as a quintessentially English drink; a misapprehension that Addison made fun of in the Free-Holder of 5th March, 1716. He reports talking with a boorish country squire, who denigrates everything foreign or associated with overseas trade. They end up sharing a bowl of punch, at which Addison points out the other man’s foolish bigotry thus:

I took this occasion to insinuate the advantage him, that water was the only native of England this occasion: but that the lemons, the brandy , the sugar, and the nutmeg lemons, were all foreigners. This put him into some confusion.

The new socio-political clubs and dinners that arose during the latter part of the eighteenth century, especially during the Napoleonic wars, often used the serving of good punch to mark their ‘elite’ status as important citizens, even if they were not members of the gentry. It was all part of the gradual rise of the middle class into greater prominence and growing political ‘clout’. While these meetings could get rowdy, most were fairly serious affairs for the discussion of economic and political issues important in an age of growing commercialism.

Serving Punch

In line with its modest level of refinement, the bowls for serving punch were generally made of decorated china and earthenware. Lower quality ones certainly existed, as did some made of glass and silver for the gentry, but most were typical middle-class possessions. A ‘China Punch-bowl’, allegedly stolen from the house of one William Lawrence in 1737, was said to be worth worth 5s (£40 – 50 in today’s money). Many are mentioned in the inventories associated with wills at almost all levels of Georgian society, proving how widespread the drinking of punch had become.

To make ye best punch

“Put 1½ a pound of suger in a quart of water, stir it well yn put in a pint of Brandy, a quarter of a pint of Lime Juice, & a nutmeg grated, yn put in yr tosts or Biskets well toasted.”

Katherine Windham’s Boke of Housekeeping, 1707

By the mid-century, some punch pots looked very like large teapots, their different use mostly proved by lettering or pictures on them referring to punch. Why were they used? Perhaps to make an overt link between tea (a polite drink for ladies) and punch as a polite drink for gentlemen. Maybe it also helped the host to control the amount taken by anyone. An open bowl was an invitation to dip in; a lidded pot required someone in charge of pouring the drink out. Perhaps its use also made punch drinking more acceptable in mixed company, since we know both genders drank punch, at least in domestic settings.

It would be easy to extend this post further, but I think this is enough for the moment. I find it odd that research into this fascinating topic is rather limited — a chance for an aspiring Ph.D. student, perhaps?

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