Many of us were brought up on romantic tales of pirates sailing in various exotic parts of the world, whether through “Treasure Island” or “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Yet the business of being a pirate could be just as profitable, and just as violent, in the cold waters of the North Sea.
Here, from the pages of the Norfolk Chronicle, is part of the tale of one notorious pirate in 1782–3. The piece gets confusing as it keeps referring to “the captain”, but rarely says which one is meant, but I think the overall sense is clear enough. Note that the ‘good guy’ — Captain Steward — is himself described as commanding a privateer. “Set a thief to catch a thief”, perhaps? Or “our ships are privateers, yours are pirates.”
Yarmouth, Feb 1.
On Thursday, about twelve o’clock, the DREADNOUGHT, Privateer, Captain Timothy STEWARD, Commander, of 14 carriage guns, and 50 men, went to sea, and after being at sea about an hour, she saw a large brigantine from Shields, laden with coals, bound to London, who mounted four carriage guns, which was taken this morning about six o’clock, after an engagement of two hours, off Cromer, and ransomed for four hundred guineas; the master was wounded, the mate killed, and all the remainder of the crew wounded, except two little boys. Within half an hour after another large vessel, laden with coals, passed our roads, which was also taken this morning, soon after the above, and ransomed for five hundred guineas. The Captains of the above vessels say, they were taken by that notorious villain FALL, who had on board his ship at that time thirteen Ransomers; they supposed that FALL has taken near thirty sail of ships from the North . It is surprizing that this villain had not one Frenchman on board.
Captain STEWARD, his Officers and friends, who were on board, directly sailed down to a Scotch privateer in the Roads, and would have had the Captain [presumably this means the captain of the Scotch privateer] gone in quest with him directly after this audacious pirate, but the Captain refused; he [now we seem to be talking about Capt. Steward] then directly sailed down to the RANGER privateer, but the crew refused, as their Captain was not on board, and the ship not in proper order for action. Captain STEWARD had 20 Gentlemen on board, friends, who sailed out of the port with him, and who offered as volunteers to go in pursuit of FALL immediately, if any of the ships in view would join the chase; but all refused. The FLY sloop of war was in the roads, but had fifteen ships under her convoy for Portsmouth.
Pirate or Privateer?
It depended very much from which side you were looking. Generally speaking, the British ships which preyed on French and Dutch vessels in the area are described as privateers. The enemy’s ships, or those who attacked British vessels, regardless of their own origin, tend to be described as pirates. It made little difference to the treatment given to their victims.
Properly speaking, a privateer had a government commission to carry out commerce raiding against the enemy — a kind of privatised naval warfare — where a pirate was simply in it for the money and would attack anyone. However, sometimes even Captain Fall was given the dignity of being termed a privateer. Note the huge profits likely to come to him from the value of his ‘catch’.
The Sans Pear [sic], a French privateer, Capt. FALL, is arrived at Helvoetfluys, with 100 English prisoners, and 14 ransomers, valued at 5,400 guineas. The same privateer has also taken the Ranger privateer, Captain Magnus BRIGHTWELL, of Wells, (formerly the Lady Washington) of 12 guns and 45 men; and on the third inst. she fell in with the Eagle privateer of 16 guns and 160 men, which she sunk, after an obstinate engagement, that lasted with great fury on both sides for three hours and an half.
What’s most striking is that English sailors were apparently happy to act as French privateers. I guess a pirate was a pirate, regardless of the flag under which they happened to be sailing.
Another account says, Monday last, 11 fellows, armed with pistols etc landed out of a large boat at Runton, near Cromer, and greatly terrified the inhabitants; but assistance being called from Cromer, they were all secured. The account they give of themselves is, that they belong to a large smuggling vessel, which they were obliged to quit in order to save their lives; but it is supposed they belong to the noted Daniel FALL, two of them being lately wounded, one of whom is shot through the knee, and the boat they landed from being thirty feet long, is thought they either came to plunder, or surprize [sic] some unarmed vessel. William WINDHAM, Esq., of Felbrigg, sent for Captain BRACEY, on the impress service in this city, who accompanied by his gang, safely conducted them to town, when they were examined before Roger KERRISON, Esq., who committed them to Norwich Castle. They all prove to be Englishmen.
Captain Fall was active for quite a long time, it seems.
It is reported that FALL has again made his appearance in the North Sea, in a big privateer of 18 guns, from Dunkirk, and has already captured six prizes; his cruize [sic] is to continue six weeks, should not our cruizers [privateers] be so fortunate as to fall in with his.
i.e. They were captured and then ransomed by the pirates. ↩
This indicates the huge number of ships sailing up and down the east coast of England at the time. Most were small, of course, but there were a good many of them, mostly carrying coal and other goods to the Port of London. ↩
A Scene from “The Farmer’s Return” by David Garrick. c 1766 Johan Zoffany (1733 – 1810)
The theatre critic is a fixture in today’s newspapers and it turns out that such people have a long history behind them. Even in Georgian times, people turned to their newspapers to discover what was on at the local theatre, and whether it was worth attending — at least in terms of the play and the acting.
Here are several examples, all taken from the pages of The Norfolk Chronicle and referring to performances at the various theatres in Norwich itself.
5th May 1781
For the benefit of Mr and Mrs BANNISTER.
At the Theatre-Royal, by his Majesty’s Servants, on Wednesday May 9, will be reviv’d a Comedy called A New Way to Pay Old Debts.
Note: This Comedy, which has lately been revived at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and repeated since with distinguished Applause, is the Production of that ingenious Gentleman Mr Philip MASSINGER, and is thus spoken of by the Critics: — “The Plot is good and well conducted; the Language dramatic and nervous, and the Characters, particularly that of Sir Giles Overreach, highly and judiciously drawn.”
11th Jan 1783
We hear Mrs COWLEY’s much admired comedy of “Which is the Man?” will be performed at our theatre this evening, with that most excellent and laughable farce of “The Agreeable Surprise,” which was acted here for the first time on Monday last, and received with the greatest marks of approbation.
Mrs SHARPE, who made her first appearance on this stage in the character of Euphrasia, the Grecian daughter, is a very pleasing performer. Though she has not the advantages of a fine person, she is sufficiently graceful in manner and address, and is pointedly correct in the emphasis. Without an approach to the strut and rant of the stage, she has feeling and dignity to express the most violent exclamation, and, to fill the most complicated situation. At the same time she is capable of the tender pathos. Her Juliet is chaste and pathetic.
Mr WEST’s comic ballet of the Drunken Swiss is a species of figure- dancing never exhibited on this stage till Monday last. Miss VALOIS has equal merit in the piece. They were received with very great applause. The Agreeable Surprise is one of the most Agreeable farces we were ever Surprised with. The Son-in-law, by the same author, is getting up. 
Sometimes, however, the ‘criticism’ could get a little too rough.
On Monday last was committed to the above gaol, Thomas SAUNDERS, a private soldier in the 9th regiment of foot, for throwing a glass bottle on the stage at the Theatre on Saturday night last.
Theatrical comment might also prove a useful way to attack a rival publication. However, in this case, it does look as if something had gone awry. Not just a rude comment in a rival newspaper, but also an “illiberal, malicious and Ill-judged” handbill.
Theatre Royal, Norwich, March 21, 1783.
The Performers of the Theatre-Royal, fired with an honest Indignation against the illiberal and ill-founded Attack in last Saturday’s Norwich Mercury, upon the Proprietors of the above Theatre, hold it their indispensible [sic] Duty, in the most unequivocal and public Manner to declare, they, so far from having experienced the least Injustice, Inconvenience, or Discontent by the Interference of those Gentlemen, in the getting up, or casting of any Piece, or in the other internal Regulations of the Theatre, they have, on the contrary, in every Instance, received Proofs of their Judgment, Attentions, Liberality, and Respect.
22nd March 1783
Fired with an honest indignation at the Hand-bill impudently and officiously obtruded  on the Public Notice by those Ladies and Gentlemen of the Green Room whose Names are on it; and conceiving ourselves as much interested in the Censure Miss LAURA has thrown on the Mode of conducting this Theatre; We the Scene-Shifters, Lamp-Lighters, Bill- Stickers, Trumpeter, Hair Dressers, Stage-Sweepers, Door-Keepers, Fidlers [sic] and Carpenters, in our own Right, and for the Scenery, Machinery, Trap-Doors, and Orchestre [sic], do Protest against the illiberal, malicious, and ill-judged Paper and its Contents; it having been irreverently issued without our Advice or Privity [sic].
For Us All,
Jeffery DUNSTAN X His Mark
The theatre wasn’t the only entertainment in Norwich by any means; nor was it always the most popular, to judge by this plaintive appeal. I wonder if the “correspondent” was genuine or a pseudonym for the theatre manager?
4th Jan 1783
A correspondent, who is an admirer of the Drama and a constant attendant on the Theatre, recommends it to the principal inhabitants of this city “not to give or receive public visits on a play-night,” as is the case in most other towns in the kingdom: for, how can the proprietors afford to give new scenery, dresses, etc, unless the receipts of the house are adequate; or, can a performer play with so much spirit to empty benches ? — Do not give entertainments, card-parties, routs, balls, etc, on play-nights, and you’ll find more satisfaction in the Theatre.
I would count this as “damned with faint praise!” ↩
Being rehearsed prior to some future performance. ↩
Why don’t journalists write like this any more? I’m always being deluged with marketing material, which is definitely “impudently and officiously obtruded” on me. ↩
Either the journalist or the writer of the handbill — or both. ↩
One of the benefits of reading through eighteenth-century newspapers is the way they reveal what actually happened, as opposed to what ought to have happened, according to the letter of the law or the grand overviews of later historians.
No one can go very far in reading about Georgian England without coming up against the so-called “Bloody Code”: the set of draconian laws by which you could be hung or transported for stealing a few shillings’ worth of goods. I’m not denying that happened. Yet contemporary newspapers suggest that local courts were capable of taking a far more nuanced and thoughtful approach, at least in certain circumstances.
Take this item in The Norfolk Chronicle for 11th January, 1783. Elizabeth Pulley’s haul on this occasion would have been more than enough to attract a sentence of death or transportation. Yet she is said to have been imprisoned four times before, and to have served a year’s hard labour in a local gaol.
Monday last was committed to the Castle by Thomas BEEVOR, Esq., Elizabeth PULLEY, an old offender, charged with breaking into the shop of Mrs Elizabeth MINNS, of Hethersett, in the night of the 24th of December last, stealing from thence two cheese, four pieces of Bacon, several half pints of butter, a quarter of a stone of raisons [sic], half a stone of flour, and two rolls of worstead, the property of the said Mrs MINNS, which she has confessed. – The above offender has been in the Castle four times, and convicted of a burglary at the assizes in 1781 in the same town, and sentenced to hard labour one year in the Aylsham bridewell.
Then there’s this item from the same newspaper for 18th January, 1783.
Thursday last ended the Sessions for the county of Norfolk at the castle, when Thomas WHITEMAN, for stealing four ducks, was sentenced to be imprisoned a fortnight. – John HOUSEHAM, for stealing corn, etc to remain till the assizes. – James WRIGHT, for fowl stealing, to be kept four months in Wymondham bridewell, and to be whipped publicly every month. – Edward REYNOLDS, a notorious poacher, who had been several times in the castle before, was fined 50 pounds, and to be kept to hard labour twelve months in Aylsham bridewell, if not able to pay the fine, or whipped. – A publican was fined 20 pounds for encouraging horse-racing. – John GOODERHAM, for fowl stealing, to be publicly whipped in Wymondham market. – Several others for divers misdemeanours were dealt with according to law.
If I read this aright, most of these thieves were to suffer no more than imprisonment or whipping, despite one being described as “a notorious poacher”. In the same issue, there is another reference to an “old offender”.
Thursday night was committed to the city gaol by Starling DAY, Esq., Mayor, Sarah ALDEN, an old offender, charged with stealing from Robert HOWLETT, of Ditchingham, five guineas in gold.
Five guineas was a very substantial amount of money, so it’s hardly surprising the woman was put in gaol, presumably to wait for a suitable court to try her offence. However, even being “an old offender” didn’t seem to get in the way of a fair trial, since we read the following in the issue for 23rd August of the same year.
The two following were acquitted:– Sarah ALDEN, for picking the pockets of Robert HOWLETT, of Ditchingham, husbandman, of five guineas; and Mary STRETCH, for robbing Isaac CANNEL.
I’ll end with a sad little piece that shows crime really didn’t pay sometimes.
Last week James HOWES, of Wymondham, worstead weaver, and an old offender, chopping off the bough of a tree in order to add to a bundle of wood which he had stolen, missed his stroke and cut his thigh in so terrible a manner that he immediately died.
It’s easy to assume that the treatment options open to people in Georgian times were prescribed by income and social class. This is incorrect. Naturally, in such a laissez faire era, the richer you were, the more choices were open to you at any given time. But that didn’t mean the wealthy always got the best treatment, while the poor made do with folk nostrums and self-help. It was much more complex than that. There were situations in which the poor were treated by some of the most famous doctors of the day, either pro bono, paid for by charities or under the Poor Law. Equally, some of the highest in the land resorted to folk remedies and local horse doctors.
Let’s be clear. None of the options, from the best scientific ideas of the time to the grossest ‘snake oil’, had any clear advantage in terms of efficacy. In broad terms, nothing worked all of the time. Everything failed as often as it succeeded. ‘Scientific’ medicine had no obvious advantage in terms of effecting cures until the second half of the nineteenth century. Many people in the eighteenth century held the rational belief that all doctors would kill you, but some charged more for the privilege than others!
It was foolish to surrender yourself entirely to the ideas and ministrations of any practitioner, orthodox or not. Since any treatment might well prove ineffective, the wisest course was to keep your options open; to ‘shop around’ in a search for something that could prove better. Even the wealthiest people sometimes rejected expensive physicians in favour of folk-healers, and orthodox treatments for nostrums peddled by fashionable quacks.
A Medical Free-for-All
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain, there were virtually no legal or formal controls on medical practice. The professionals of the Royal Colleges had mostly failed in their attempts to enforce a ‘closed shop’ in favour of their members, even in the capital itself. Since their main motivation was financial, not medical, that was hardly surprising. On paper, the hierarchy of university-trained physician, apprenticeship-trained surgeon and practically-trained apothecary looked neat. It rarely worked like that, especially outside London.
In rural areas, who counted as a doctor, even amongst the wealthy, depended on who happened to be available, qualified or not. Country physicians might earn less than a tenth of the fees of their city colleagues, especially the London ones. Even to achieve that would involve taking on every case that was offered, including treating the very poorest at the charge of local charities or the Overseers of the Poor. Apothecaries increasingly left their shops and set out on horseback to take their medicines and advice to people in their own homes. It was far from unknown for people in need to turn to the local ‘horse doctor’. One traveller needing medical help was told:
…that there was no one who could do it, but a Man that lived three miles off, who was a good Physician, bled every Man, and Calf, in the neighbourhood, and was a pretty good Surgeon, for he had been originally a Sowgelder.
Quacks of all kinds abounded, many offering the most outrageous claims for their expertise and success — most often involving royalty safely located in foreign parts!
DR. BRODUM, Physician and Oculist, from No. 9, Albion-street, Black-friars-bridge, London where he has practiced the Art of Physic for many years with the greatest success, which can be testitied by letters in his possession from the first nobility belonging to the Royal Family; and is sufficiently proved by the extraordinary cures that appear in the London and country papers; far greater demonstration of his professional ability than can produced by any parade of language. … The Doctor to be consulted every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Mr. Bracey’s Looking Glass Warehouse, near Gurney’s Bank, Norwich; and every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, at Mrs. Hunn’s, No. 18, King-street, Yarmouth.
Advice (Gratis) to the Poor, to the number of Thirty. (Norfolk Chronicle, November, 1793)
Even ‘wise women’ and local rituals might be tried, along with various magical chants and incantations. What mattered was not where the cure originated, but whether it worked.
Often the most trusted source for medical advice was simple personal recommendation. Georgian letters are full of helpful tips for dealing with illness, as well as reports on the progress of cures the writer has been trying. One correspondent, faced with his whole family sick with some disease he could not recognise, turned to an unconventional source on the basis of local reports.
Hee being by profession a Horse-Smithe and keeps a shop in our Town. Butt hee having practised upon many others about us, before we made use of him, the success his Phisicke hath had in our Family, hath much encreased his fame, and really I think nott without desart; for he gives you as rationall an Accompte for what hee doth, as any Phisitian that I ever yett mette withall.
Amongst recipes for nostrums, there could well be little notice taken of the species of the sufferer:
The following receipt is said to have produced the happiest consequences in curing the bite of a mad dog, without using the salt water. Take of rue, garlick, Venice treacle, and the scrapings of pewter, each four ounces; put them into seven pints of spring water, and simmer all over a slow fire, till it comes to one pint. Strain it, and give three spoonfuls every three hours to a man or woman, keeping them warm in bed. What remains after the straining is to be applied to the wound as a salve. – For a horse or cow, use double the quantity of ingredients, and give fifteen spoonfuls as above. – For a hog, sheep, or dog, give five spoonfuls. (Norfolk Chronicle, February, 1782)
Caroline Powys, an Oxfordshire lady in the mid–1700s, was careful to turn only to medical men she knew socially. This included both physicians and apothecaries. On one occasion, when her son-in-law was ill, she made sure the apothecary best known to her undertook the treatment, even though that meant him travelling from Oxfordshire to Southampton. “We thought,” she wrote, “Mr Powys taking the apothecary who he had a high opinion of was the best thing we could do.”
Patent Medicines, Nostrums and Quacks
A wide range of shopkeepers, from booksellers to grocers, sold patent medicines, including many containing powerful narcotics and opiates. The newspapers of the day were full of advertisements for them, most claiming to cure a bewildering range of unrelated conditions.
Here are just two from one edition of the Norfolk Chronicle (Saturday, April 5, 1783):
Another very extraordinary CURE, Perfected with the GUTTA SALUTARIS, or ROYAL ANTI VENEREAL, DIURETIC, VEGETABLE DROPS, A Safe and speedy Cure for all Scorbutic and Venereal Complaints, Ulcerated and Swelled Legs, Bilious Disorders, in the Urinary Passages, &ce. … Likewise Dr. FREEMAN’S GRAND RESTORER or HUMAN NATURE, for Nervous and Debilitated Cases, commonly called FOTHERGEL’S CHYMICAL NERVOUS CORDIAL DROPS, in bottles 10s. 6d., 7s. and 3s. 6d. each. Of the above J. Croufe may also had the following Medicines of the late Sir JOHN HILL :
I. Essence of Water Dock, for the cure of the scurvy, leprosy, and all other disorders. This excellent medicine has at all times been allowed be the most certain, perfect; and lifting cure, for all scorbutic cases, notwithstanding they be ever so inveterate, price 3s. a bottle.
II. Tincture of Centaury. Being fine stomachic cordial and enlivening medicine; it gives a healthy appetite and sound digestion, it strengthens weak stomachs, and never fails to cure loathings, reachings [retchings], and sickness after meals, price 3s. a bottle.
III. Pectoral Honey, for coughs, colds, and consumptions, price 3s. a bottle.
Everyone did it. Eighteenth-century diaries and household books were full of various ‘receipts’ for treating common illnesses. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a staunch believer in self-medication. Indeed, he was so sure of his ability that he often acted as physician to various members of his flock. Horace Walpole similarly saw physicians as useless. “I would not see a physician at the worst,” he wrote, “but have quacked myself as boldly, as Quacks treat others.”
Here’s Mrs Powys again, describing what she calls Mrs Floyd’s remedy for a cold or hoarseness:
two oz of Kidney suet of a weather Sheep shred very fine, put it into a pint of Cold Milk, let it boil a good while, then strain it thr’o a Lawn Sieve, take a few large spoonfulls now & then stirring it, always take some going to Bed.
Newspapers were a constant source of medical advice for whatever illnesses were the most prevalent at the time. In 1757, Thomas Turner, a grocer from Sussex, noted:
Read part of The Universal Magazine for June, wherein I find the following receipt recommended (in an extract from Dr Lind’s Essay on the most effectual means of preserving health of the seamen in the Royal Navy) as a specific against all epidemical and bilious fevers and also against endemic disorders.
He then goes on to copy the receipt carefully into his diary for the day.
Those who could might also keep a copy of a suitable ‘home doctoring’ book to hand, such as William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1772). Buchan’s book also contained stern warnings against certain folk remedies:
Many attempt to cure a cold, by getting drunk. But this, to say no worse of it, is a very hazardous and fool-hardy experiment.
I’ve known people who are still trying that ‘cure’ today!
A Free Market Attitude
The Georgian attitude to medicine was much like their attitude to life in general. Given that the most common outcome of all medical treatments available at the time was failure, it was up to the person suffering the sickness, or their family and friends, to stay in control. To keep trying alternatives until one worked or the patient died. In medicine, as in the world generally, all that mattered was success. To hand yourself over fully to one particular course of treatment, or one practitioner, was to ensure that, if that failed, disaster must follow. Self-help meant more than trying different treatments, or none. It meant you still had options, right up to the last. It was as much a duty to yourself or your loved ones as anything else. You paid, so you retained the power to dismiss, refuse or accept what you were paying for.
Doctors were typically treated with respect, but their authority was not accepted in every case. The doctor and patient relationship was at least as dynamic and fluid as it is today — maybe more so, given that our Georgian forebears were as yet free of the modern belief in the power of science to produce miracle cures.
Theriac, a medical concoction originally formulated by the Greeks in the 1st century AD and widely adopted in the ancient world as an alexipharmic, or antidote, to all kinds of poisons. ↩
This post is a follow-up to my recent article on the heyday of smugglers along the Norfolk Coast in the 1780s. Looking through the local newspapers of the time shows graphically how violent and desperate the smuggling gangs could be.
To so daring a pitch are the enemy’s privateers arrived, that on Monday last, a lugsail boat, armed with two carriage and four swivel guns, captured a brigantine, laden with coals, in sight of Yarmouth; and though the privateer, and her prize, were several hours in sight of the FLY sloop of war, then in Yarmouth roads, it was judged extremely hazardous (as the lugger was manned with a desperate set of smugglers) to attempt retaking the brig!!!
Then there’s the case of the wonderfully named Captain Haggis.
On Friday night last arrived the ARGUS cutter, Captain HAGGIS, from a cruise, and brought in with him a large lugsail boat with 20 half ankers of geneva [gin], which he seized below Baudsey cliff, with sundry other contraband Goods; but before he had brought them off, upwards of twenty smuggling riders came down and fell upon Captain HAGGIS, and three of his People, and beat them with Sticks, etc, in an unmerciful manner, and threatened their lives; but, by the prudent Conduct of Capt. HAGGIS, in expostulating with them on the bad consequences that would follow such inhuman behaviour, the smugglers made off with the Goods, except the above 20 casks. Capt. HAGGIS was bruised very much about his head and body, and one of his people received a deep cut in his head.
(The Norfolk Chronicle, 27th May, 1780.)
It didn’t always go the smugglers way either.
Last Friday, Messrs. BROCK, CARTER, MASON and other excise officers, seized about 1500 gallons of foreign brandy, rum, and geneva, at Huntingfield, and lodged in the excise office at Halesworth; the smugglers collected their forces together, and attacked the officers, as they were conveying the goods to Halesworth, but were obliged to retreat precipitately.
(The Norfolk Chronicle, 8th July, 1780.)
However, for the authorities, trying to apprehend the smugglers was often a hazardous business in its own right.
Saturday last a large smuggling cutter lay hovering off Cromer, for several hours, being confined by the wind, the custom-house officers went off to make a seizure, with a party of solders, and in making an attempt to board her the boat overset, and several of them were drowned.
(The Norfolk Chronicle, 8th February, 1783.)
So sometimes, they had no option but to stand aside.
We hear from Thornham, that on Sunday morning last, about nine o’clock, a large smuggling cutter brought up at anchor off there, and immediately the smugglers, who were assembled to the number of about 200, began to unload her, which they continued till after two in the afternoon, and carried the goods off unmolested, the officers not having assistance enough to oppose them.
(The Norfolk Chronicle, 27th September, 1783.)
However, the authorities could always wield the bigger stick and counter by calling in the cavalry!
On Monday a troop of the 15th regt. of Light Dragoons, commanded by Gen. ELLIOTT, marched into Lynn, for winter quarters, in order to assist the Revenue Officers against the smugglers, who are arrived to the most daring height ever remembered.
Declaration by Norfolk Labourers Photo Nigel Jones CC
In 1793, the tensions caused by the revolution in france finally exploded into a pan-european conflict. In some ways, it was nothing new. Wars were endemic to most parts of the European continent. Britain and France had been fighting one another sporadically for more than 500 years before. This time, however, war between the two countries was to be on a far greater scale — though no one could have foreseen it would last for 22 years.
It’s natural for historians to lay much of the emphasis on the political and military aspects of the fighting. I want to consider another side to the Napoleonic War. The war’s effects most often impacted the ordinary people of England in the workplace and the kitchen. Britain was moving rapidly from being a subsistence to a market economy. More and more people bought the bulk their food instead of growing it. Instead of working on the land, many now gained employment and income in factories, mills and the growing towns of the industrialising North. The effects of the war, exacerbated by a series of poor harvests, were felt in all these areas and caused a good deal of unrest and discontent. It wasn’t until after 1803, when invasion seemed almost certain, that British people succumbed to a wave of patriotism. Not until after the great victory of Trafalgar in October 1805 did they show a real determination to see off ‘Old Boney’ for good.
Recession and Unemployment
In the counties of East Anglia, with a long history of close trade and family ties with what are now Holland, Belgium and the countries of Scandinavia, the effect of the war on business was felt with particular severity. It was — and still is — one of the primary grain-producing areas of the country, so agricultural reform and improvement arrived there early and in full measure.
Local people, surrounded by fields of grain, did not react well to high prices. The trouble lay partly with the insatiable demands of London, and partly with exports to other European countries suffering grain shortages of their own. Many did not understand the nature of a market economy. Efforts by local magistrates to limit rises in the cost of basic foods like bread did little to help. Few were effective anyway. Instead, local mobs resorted to seizing grain stores and flour mills and selling the produce themselves at what they thought were more appropriate prices. Despite receiving the money afterwards, the merchants and millers were far from amused!
In 1792, there was an especially violent riot in Great Yarmouth because of the price of corn. The local authorities managed to suppress the riot and do so without calling in the army. The Mayor, Edmund Lacon, was knighted as a reward. Yet this was far from the only example of local unrest due to high food prices, particularly for grain — and hence bread. Millers were accused of holding back supplies to increase the price, or depriving local people because the price in London was higher. Many dealers sold grain and flour to the military authorities, especially the navy, instead of sending it the nearest market town.
These food riots were usually short-lived affairs, but the bread riots of 1795 and into 1796 were different. Outbreaks of disorder caused by high bread prices spread throughout Britain. Wheat yields in 1795 were extremely low, due to bad weather as well as the war. There had also been a poor harvest in 1794, followed by an extremely cold winter, which stopped farmers from working on the land. The spring of 1795 again produced bad weather, so that supplies to the markets were reduced. The war against revolutionary France had so disrupted European and Atlantic trade that it prevented the import of sufficient grain to make up the shortfall. What followed was a full-blown crisis, as food prices soared. Some areas seemed on the brink of famine.
Fear of a British Revolution
The riots, combined with unrest over the war, might have offered a fertile ground for the republican and revolutionary movements then active. In fact, most were strong on rhetoric and protest, but weak when it came to action. Still, with recent events in France in mind, and with unrest in Ireland almost a constant, they were enough to provoke Pitt’s government into taking Draconian action. The leaders of such groups were arrested and meetings banned. Virtually any organisation thought to be seditious, or antagonistic to the current form of government, were targeted. The crisis was weathered, but not without resorting to methods of dubious legality in constitutional terms.
There’s little evidence the French were behind any of this, save in the broadest sense of offering moral support. Even the Irish, desperate for French help to stage an armed rebellion, found themselves let down. In England, the Corresponding Societies and other revolutionary groups looked back more often to the English Civil War for their inspiration than to events in France. ‘Conservative’ thinkers argued that Britain had already had its revolution in 1688 and needed no other. Radicals claimed that the spirit of that ‘Glorious Revolution’ had been watered down by the king and his Tory ministers. Just as today, politicians split on party lines: the Tories were for stability and the status quo; the Whigs — especially the faction around Charles James Fox — for significant change.
It’s interesting to reflect how little things have changed over some 250 years. Both sides used ‘scare tactics’ to win over support. The Tories, with Edmund Burke as their champion, decried all that came across the English Channel as likely to ruin Britain’s future prospects in the world. The Foxite Whigs pointed to the need to reform Britain’s constitution and believed continental models could indicate something of how to do it.
In the end, of course, Britain went its own way via the great Reform Act — but not until after more than sixty years of acrimonious, and often pointless, argument.
I wrote a short while ago about music-making in the Georgian home. Here’s a fascinating advertisement for the kind of music available for home music-making in 1783. Note the list of song types, in which “Songs on the Caprices of Women” is given its own category!
Singing or playing an instrument were important ’accomplishments’ for young women to acquire. Young men too might use any skills in such areas to impress potential brides — and their mothers — with their suitability.
It’s also worth noting the price of this collection. Two shillings and sixpence — perhaps £25.00 in today’s terms — would put the collection well beyond the reach of anyone save the more prosperous merchants, the gentry and the aristocracy. The music of the poor, played in taverns and at variuos gatherings, would have been picked up by listening and played by ear. Even many churches of the time lacked any music at all, especially in rural areas. When the congregations did sing, it was usually simple psalms. An organ was a great possession, probably only available as a gift from a wealthy patron. Otherwise, singing would have been unaccompanied, or assisted by whatever instruments happened to be available.
Convivial Songster, New Edition.
This Day is Published, Embellished with an elegant Frontispiece of the Chapel of Venus, an engraved Title page, and a beautiful Vignette. Price 2 shillings and 6 pence, bound in red, The Convivial Songster; Containing a select Collection of the best Songs in the English Language, classed under the following Heads, viz. Humorous, Amorous, Bacchanalian, Satyrical, Songs on the Caprices of Women, Dialectic Songs, Sea Songs, Miscellaneous and Original Songs, with the Music prefixed to each; selected from the best Authors, and the most approved Collections, and expressly intended for the Use of those who will wish to please the Companies where Humour, Mirth, and Wit are understood and applauded. With an Introduction, containing Rules and Instructions for such as wish to become pleasing and good Singers. To which is added a great Number of entirely original Toasts and Sentiments, no where [sic] to be found but in this Work.
N.B. The Tunes themselves form a pleasing Collection, are put in the most familiar Keys, and, to such as play the German Flute, Violin, etc are, from the Scarceness and Goodness of many of them, worth more than the Price of the Book.
Mystery books for lovers of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and similar traditional British whodunnits.
Dr Adam Bascom and Mr Ashmole Foxe star in two series of traditional mysteries set in 18th-century Norfolk. You can see all the titles on Amazon.