Of Bankers and Beer


The early part of the 18th century saw the beginning of the modern brewing industry, especially in London. Beer production took place in larger breweries using the forerunners of modern industrial methods. Aside from centralised orders by government for the military, sales were more and more linked to inns, pubs and taverns “tied” to the brewers by direct ownership or loans that would require the borrower to sell only that brewer’s product.

This new approach to brewing could generate enormous profits in good years, and equally significant losses at other times. It also demanded abundant capital resources. To get the capital needed, brewers looked for investment by wealthy individuals with spare cash. These people might ether deposit their money with the brewery in return for interest payments (the usual rate was five percent), or become partners in the firm. In either case, they were investors, not men interested in getting directly involved. Since brewing was seen as a stable industry and money invested there produced good, long-term returns, many family members of the original investors deposited their spare capital in the same way. Finally, many pubs ran “savings clubs” for their customers, either to finance major significant expenses, or to provide money for medical bills or to cover periods of unemployment. This money too was deposited with the brewers.

Short-term Surpluses

A brewer’s income was regular. In contrast, the outgoings for raw materials, such as malt and hops, bought in bulk, fell due at set times of the year. This meant that, in the periods before paying the accounts of the maltsters and the hop growers, there could be significant accumulations of spare cash in brewing businesses. Rather than allow this to languish unused, the brewers got into the habit of investing it in government bonds, or making short-term loans to entrepreneurs.

You can see how easily this would turn into regular banking. The brewers received deposits, on which they paid interest, and used some of these deposits, together with their own resources, to invest in the open market, make loans or arrange mortgages. Brewing was also highly profitable, but offered limited options for direct investment of surplus funds. Brewers were also likely to be the wealthiest people in a locality, save where there happened to be another, more dominant industry, such as cloth in Norwich. Where better to deposit your spare funds and savings than in whatever was the most stable and flourishing local enterprise? It was a very short step from there to providing a range of other banking services, such as honouring bills of exchange. In time, some dropped the brewing business altogether and became full-time bankers.

Major merchant dynasties, like the Gurneys, became involved in a wide range of activities, in part because of the need for ‘surplus’ younger sons to make their own way in the world. When the family was close-knit, especially those bound by a shared religious tradition like Quakerism, the obvious way to raise capital for new entrepreneurial activities was from your relatives. The Gurneys began with dealing in wool, before branching into investments in brewing and, from there, banking. Part of their strength lay in the large number of family members who invested their personal wealth in the dynasty’s enterprises, and could be relied on to stay loyal generation by generation. Part lay in the influence of family members, who filled score of positions in local and national government . The term ‘Beer Baron’ was no empty title. Brewing families wielded enormous wealth and influence and were prominent in philanthropy. They were the Warren Buffets and Bill Gates of their time.

The Quaker Bankers

Amongst these early brewers, you find once well-known names, such as Whitbread and Truman, Greenall, Cobbold and Worthington. You also find families who had more or less left brewing behind by the century’s end. The route from brewer to banker became a familiar one.

Two families of leading Quakers followed that path: the London Barclays and the Norwich Gurneys. Both were partners in The Anchor Brewery in Southwark, London, as well as bankers in London and Norfolk. Both had large, extended families, many of them wealthy enough to need a safe place to deposit their spare capital. As Quakers, the men were barred from the universities and the professions. Instead, like many of their denomination, they used their reputation for honest dealing to pursue successful business careers. Brewing was not considered an improper trade for a Quaker, unlike distilling or making weapons. Where some families like the Cadburys and Frys turned to chocolate, others turned to beer.

Members of the Society of Friends had a culture of mutual reliance and established strong networks of mutual support. From the start, the Barclays and Gurneys were closely linked. There was so much intermarriage between them that their family trees must have resembled knitting! It was almost inevitable that they should merge their banks in the next century to form the basis of the global financial behemoth we know today as Barclays Bank. The Baring family — one of Britain’s largest and most famous firms of merchant bankers until one rogue trader caused it to collapse — also had strong links with Norfolk, intermarrying with local gentry families like the Windhams of Felbrigg. One branch of the Baring family became Earls of Cromer.

It’s common knowledge that much of the wealth of Scotland, in commerce and land, lies in the hands of some half dozen grand families. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to work out how much of the wealth of eighteenth-century Norfolk was also held by a few, interlinked families — and whether the same is true today?


Posted in Commerce

A Frightening and Inexplicable World


The Quack Doctor: Pieter van der Borcht

One of the hardest mental exercises for any writer of historical novels is to forget much of what you know about how this world of ours works. It’s true that the Georgian period marked the very beginning of a scientific approach to understanding, based on experimentation, measurement and collecting of evidence. However, such ideas were still restricted to the educated elite. For the vast majority of ordinary people, little had changed since mediaeval times. Medicine was stuck in the study of Galen and the belief that disease was due to an imbalance of humours. Germs and infection had yet to be linked. If the primitive, largely useless medical tools of the day failed, you either got well on your own, lived maimed and crippled, or died. Too often, it was the last.

Faced with so many terrors and misfortunes, people sought an explanation of their causes, which might offer ways to lessen or avoid them. “Why me?” is the universal cry of those in distress. “What do I do now?” is equally common. Even for the faithful, being told it’s God’s will brings little comfort.

Ordinary people in Georgian times turned to three sources to answer questions about the misfortunes they encountered. One was religion. “Why me?” and “What now?” could also be answered via two different kinds of understanding: magical practices and other supernatural sources, such as curses, charms and superstitions.

The Power of Tradition and Folk-Memory

What we now dismiss as quaint superstitions — if we recall them at all — were matters of vital importance in Georgian times, especially in the countryside. To ignore or overlook the proper rituals and actions associated with key events in the agricultural year was to invite disaster. Even if you had no firm explanation for such beliefs, save that things had always been done that way, to ignore tradition was to behave with arrogance towards the natural world and the spirits which lurked there. Such pride would bring punishment. Folk tales abound in stories of careless or arrogant humans suffering bad luck — or worse — as a result of not doing things as they should be done. That, of course, meant doing them as they had always been done.

A range of rituals were used to secure good fortune and a bountiful harvest. We still can’t control the weather, but we do know pretty well what to do to ensure sufficient fertility for the crops; and how to destroy pests that might ruin the harvest. Such scientific ideas about crop yield were in their infancy in the 18th century. Destroying pests was based on good husbandry and hard labour. More modern ideas in both areas had reached only the wealthiest landowners and their agents. The ordinary farmer or farm-worker either hoped things would turn out well, or turned to age-old traditions that promised answers used many times before.

Folk Medicine

Much the same applied in cases of sickness. Professionals, like physicians, apothecaries and surgeons charged fees beyond the ability of the poor to pay. Folk remedies, written in household manuals and cookery books, cost nothing. Many were memorised or written out for use when needed. Even the mistresses of grand houses did the same, especially with herbal remedies. After all, they did as much good as the bleedings and cuppings of the physicians, or the opium and cocaine based medicines sold by the apothecaries.

Where literacy was limited, much of this traditional knowledge was kept by the Cunning Folk on behalf of the local community. The Cunning Man or Woman would have learned their lore from their parents or grandparents. Knowledge was handed down orally. Those who possessed it guarded it jealously. It was the source of their income and standing in the community. They spread the idea that to write it down might lessen its potency. They also claimed that esoteric knowledge in the hands of ‘ordinary’ persons was dangerous. In this, of course, they were no different to the medical professionals.

How to Survive

To understand the world of the ordinary Georgians, we must set aside our preconceptions and imagine a society in which health, wealth and life itself were all at the mercy of unknown and inexplicable forces; in which the best you could do was turn to those who claimed to possess the means to tilt the odds in your favour. Quacks were everywhere. Just as today, those who were most plausible were not always the most reputable. To the common folk of the eighteenth century, lacking in education and the time to devote to anything other than life’s basics, the quacks offered quick and easy solutions. The ‘scientific’ professionals moved in lofty circles and spoke using terminology few outside those circles understood. Is it any wonder it took many decades for scientific methodologies to become the norm?

Even today, a surprising number of people still prefer to rely on ‘the wisdom of the ages’, expressed as spiritual or religious beliefs, over rational or scientific knowledge. Billions are made via the sales of ‘Alternative Medicine’, much of which has never been rigorously tested. The only difference is that today’s ‘folk’ ideas are dressed in the expensive designer clothes provided by marketing professionals.

Posted in Georgian Society | 2 Comments

The Terrors of the 18th-century German Ocean

Old Photograph Herring Fishing Fleet Anstruther East Neuk Of Fife Scotland

The Herring Fleet setting out from Scotland

Our correspondent at Corton has favoured us with the following melancholy account of the damage the shipping sustained by the high winds, on Tuesday and Wednesday last, near that place: ­­ The Millbank, of Lynn, John RITETRIE, master, to the westward, with wheat, said to be totally lost; crew all saved. ­­ The Anstruther, of Dunbar, Robert TAYLOR, master, in ballast, from London to Lynn; crew saved, and it is thought the ship will [be]. ­­ The Francis, of Yarmouth, a Hull trader; all saved, and the ship likely to be so. ­­ The John and Betsey, of Burnham, Robert HOOKE, master, from London, in ballast; crew saved, and it is supposed the ship will. ­­ A large light brig, from Sunderland, name unknown; ship quite spoiled, but the crew saved. ­­ The Unity, of Burlington, John ESARD, master, to London, with cord; ship, master, and three men lost, one man and one boy saved. ­­ A large Swedish ship lost on the Newtop; the crew, consisting of 22, saved by a boat from Yarmouth, at the most imminent hazard. ­­ The Sophia Magdalen, Jacob AKERMAN, master, bound to Newcastle, for coals for Lisbon, went on shore on Thursday morning last. The five first mentioned ships are all on shore between Yarmouth Piers and Corton. ­­ The Unity went ashore on Thursday morning on Lowestoft Beach.

The Norfolk Chronicle, March 1782

Shipwrecks represent a national nightmare we have forgotten. A constant toll of lives and wrecked families upon which Britain’s eighteenth-century prosperity depended. In the North Sea alone, then called the German Ocean, hundreds of sailing ships were lost every year and thousands of men, and sometimes women and children, drowned.

The eighteenth-century North Sea was thronged with small, wooden-hulled sailing ships. Few carried more than eighty to one hundred tons of freight; many were simple fishing smacks and coastal barges. All were at the mercy of tide, wind and waves, in a shallow sea filled with hidden reefs and sandbanks.

Norfolk’s Shores could be a Killing Ground

The bulk of this maritime traffic sailed north and south, trying to stay close enough to land to navigate with ease and run for shelter if things turned nasty. The east coast of England and Scotland are ‘lee shores’ — coastlines to which the prevailing wind and the tides are likely to drag you. With only sails to provide motive power, the only way to try to keep your ship away from being driven ashore in an easterly gale was to throw out anchors and try to hold yourself in one place out to sea. If the anchor cables broke, or the anchors dragged in the sandy bottom, even these frail safety features could not save you.

Nor are there any safe havens to run to between Harwich and the Humber. Norfolk rivers are generally too small to provide wide, deep estuaries. Nearly all of them face east, directly into the most feared wind direction. Many are hemmed in by sandbanks and reefs. The bulk of the shoreline consists of shingle, backed by marshes, here and there relieved by low cliffs. If a storm produced a major tidal surge — and many did in such turbulent and shallow waters — your ship would be driven onto the sandbanks or smashed again the shore.

Those Most at Risk

Colliers and fishing vessels, especially the annual herring fleet, faced the greatest dangers. Coal was too heavy and bulky to transport far over the terrible roads of the time. The North Sea is — or was — rich in fish, especially herring, which migrate there annually to spawn.

The huge estuary called The Wash was the most dangerous part of the coast. It’s another lee shore, only this time a yawning dead-end. Getting in was easy. Getting out again next to impossible. It’s also shallow, riddled with sandbanks and prone to violent tides. Yet every ship bringing coal to London from the mines of Yorkshire and the north-east had to pass its gaping maw. The much feared easterly gale, blowing directly into the mouth of The Wash, might leave scores of colliers wrecked in a single night. For a time, sailings were suspended during the dangerous winter months. But such was London’s insatiable demand for coal that, towards the latter part of the century, the ships sailed throughout the year, regardless of the danger.

The herring fleet, consisting of hundreds of smacks and other small fishing vessels, set out each year from the north of Scotland and followed the herrings south. Along the way, they put in at various ports, where the fisherman’s wives would set themselves up on the shore to gut and salt the herrings as they were brought in. Great Yarmouth was the final port on their journey. They would arrive there in autumn, right at the end of the season. Once they had finished with that final catch, the entire flotilla sailed home again, only to set out the next year. All kinds of fishing vessels were at risk from the North Sea’s unpredictable weather, but the addition of the huge herring fleet would add to the slaughter if storms arose without warning.

Counting the Cost

Nowadays, a single shipwreck makes global headlines. On one night in the 1760s, more than 140 ships were reported lost off the coast of Norfolk alone. Small they might be, but such a toll added up to hundreds of sailors drowned or crippled. At a time when the population was much smaller than today, and there was nothing to provide an income to their widows and children, it is hard to imagine what this constant culling of working men did to the small local communities. Most sailors never learned to swim, since the ability would only prolong the agony before you drowned. The waters of the North sea are cold at all times and frigid in winter. Once in the water, even clinging to some wreckage, you would not last long before exposure loosened your grip and you went down to your death. Best to get it over with quickly. Even ships wrecked close to shore often lost all or most of their sailors, despite the efforts on those on shore to make a rescue. With only muscle-power, ropes and flimsy open boats, potential rescuers were all too often reduced to standing on the shore and watching those who had been wrecked giving in to the sea.


Posted in C18th Norfolk, Commerce, Travel

More on ‘Wise Men’, Conjurors and ‘Cunning Women’


“The Witch of the Woodlands”
Illustration from an 18th century chapbook

I have written before about ‘wise men’ (and women): local herbalists, magicians and clairvoyants, who were often those the ordinary people would ask to cure their illnesses, remove supposed curses and instances of being ‘overlooked’ [effected by the evil eye], bring good luck and foretell the future. In the latest book in my Ashmole Foxe series of mysteries, Foxe is helped by just such a ‘wise woman’, who gives him advice and encouragement when both are needed.

I thought I would take a look through the local newspapers of the time to see if I could find out more about the activities of such ‘conjurors’, as they are often termed at the time. (As an aside, I assume this term refers to their supposed use of spells or ‘conjurations’, not any ability to produce rabbits out of hats!) Here is a selection of what I found, beginning with an undoubted, if only partial, success.

A Success

The house of Mr. Cole, farmer, of Ketton, Rutland, having been robbed of property to a considerable amount; a relation of Mr. Cole’s, advised him, if the thief was not found out, nor the property returned in a few days, to apply to a conjuror (or wise man) who would discover the robber, and also oblige them to restore the effects. Mr. Cole promised his friend to make the application at the end of three days, in case he heard nothing of the money. His intent got wind; and had such an influence on those who committed the robbery, that thirty-one guineas, a 20l. [£20] and a 10l. bank of England notes, and a 10l. Stamford bank (being artfully left in the passage) which is within 18l. 4s. [£18 4 shillings] of the whole sum was returned to him.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 16 January 1790

Two Failures

There were failures as well. I love the snide remark on the conjuror’s abilities at the end of the first excerpt.

Oxford, Dec. 7. Thursday morning, between five and six o’clock, the Bath coach was robbed in going up the hill on the other side [of] Bottley, about a mile and a half from this city, by a single highwayman, well mounted, who took from Mr. Jonas, the celebrated conjuror, his watch and about four guineas in money. It seems more than probable, that either the suddenness of the demand, or the bitter imprecations of the highwayman, might so much alarm Mr. Jonas as totally to deprive him of his wonderful art of conveyance, or we can scarce suppose he would have suffered the robber to pocket the watch and money, and carry it off.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 14 December 1776

The report of this last case is somewhat confusing, so I’ll set down the basics. A woman from the Norfolk village of Hetherset had some cheeses stolen and consulted a wise woman to help discover the thief. The wise woman gave an ambiguous answer, stating the thief had a mark on her nose. This was obviously reported around the village and the village shoemaker, Chamberlain, who seems to have been on poor terms with a couple called Bailey, said something that the Baileys took to be an accusation that Mrs Bailey was the thief. Hence the court case claiming slander.

This action was brought to obtain a compensation for the injury sustained by the character of Mrs Bailey from the slander of the defendant. [a Mr. Chamberlain, a shoemaker] —The facts were these: A Mrs. Witten, of Hetherset, having lost seven cheeses, caused an enquiry to be made of a cunning woman to discover the thief. This cunning woman, by the aid of magic, or some other mode of detecting culprits, unknown even in Bow-street, found out that the offending person had a mark on her nose. Now it happened, unfortunately, for Mrs. Bailey that, under this description, her nose betrayed her guilt; the defendant, at least, (who is a shoe-maker, at Hetherset) entertained no doubt on this point, and roundly taxed her with the robbery. He told her that “he knew very well by the subscription that was given of her that she was the woman who had stolen the cheese,” and said, that “the guilt was lodged on her, and she could not get off it.” These words, however, were, by one of the witnesses denied to have been spoken at the time alledged [sic]; and from this witness it appeared, that all which the defendant had said was, “I don’t say who stole the cheeses, but if the d—d old woman will say ’twas a woman with a mark on her nose, I can’t help it.” Some provoking language appeared also have been used by Bailey to the defendant previous to these words being by the latter, and the case being but weakly supported, the Jury, with the recommendation of the Judge, gave verdict for the defendant.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 12 August 1797

It’s interesting that, although the general tenor of these pieces is sceptical, you get the sense that consulting ‘conjurors’ and ‘Cunning Men’ (and women) was not viewed as out of the ordinary. It’s the attempt to discover what’s hidden that is the source of the disbelief. I could find no suggestion that visiting a ‘Cunning Woman’ (or man) for medical help was viewed with suspicion. After all, as the ‘alternative practitioners’ of their day, at a time when ‘conventional’ medicine had almost nothing useful to offer, they probably offered as much assistance as anyone — and at much less cost as well.


Posted in Georgian Society | 2 Comments

Georgian Agricultural Labour: “Learning about Capitalism”



The ‘new’ agriculture required capital in ways that were unexpected. Capital to buy better livestock to improve your own. Capital to purchase marl and lime to add to the fertility of your land. Capital to bring marginal land into full production and capital to buy machinery, if you were in the forefront of progress. Sending your crops for sale in the most profitable markets also took the money to pay for transportation in advance of getting paid for the sale itself. You might also wish to take on more land, if it was available, since the cost of farming it might be only a little more than your current costs, while the value of the produce would be much greater.

The problem with subsistence farming is that it rarely produces a surplus for sale in the market. Why should it? If you can feed your own family, why struggle to produce more? And while subsistence farming demands little or no capital in itself, it generates none either. The great landowners — and almost all the land was in their ownership — might possess huge acreages, but the income in rent had often proved meagre at best. Enclosing the land, carving out separate farms of a sensible size and letting them to tenants with capital of their own to invest made good sense. It also allowed the landowner to charge higher rents. Even so, living from land ownership was never especially profitable. Like the crops themselves, rental income was at the mercy of fluctuating markets, uncertain weather and the efforts of the tenants themselves. In tough times, unpaid rents undermined the income from land ownership. Those landowners who grew rich from their ancestral acres were the ones who mined the mineral wealth from under the soil, not the crops on the surface.

Who wanted to do day labour anyway?

Many, many people. The countryside was awash with poor labourers trying to scratch a living, women eager for whatever work they could do and children sent out as young as four or five to bring home a few pence from scaring birds off the crops. To survive on day labour took a family effort. If there was no work locally, families took to the roads to seek out work elsewhere, despite the dangers of being judged ‘vagrants’ and punished accordingly. Strangers seeking work could expect no welcome. The local poor needed no competition to depress wages even further. The wealthy were determined not to pay higher Poor Rates to support families who were not even local.

Yet still they came. Demand for farm labour might be seasonal and erratic, but it was predictable on a larger scale. Harvesting, hop picking and threshing took place at roughly the same time each year. Knowing this, hoards of families descended on the areas most likely to offer work in the fields. Welsh women walked to Kent for the hop-picking. Irish labourers poured into England at harvest time. Most were so desperate they would work for starvation wages, thus ensuring wages were driven down for everyone.

Leaving the Land

Was it any wonder so many families headed for the new urban manufacturing centres? Living and working conditions might be no better — they might well be worse — but at least the work was regular.

Did nobody care about the plight of the poor, whether rural or urban? Very few. I’ve already mentioned the general belief that poverty was your own fault for not working harder and living more frugally. A large pool of labour was also deemed necessary to hold wages down. Clear-eyed people, like the influential writer Arthur Young in the 1780s, pointed out that even the poor would not work the hours they did, nor endure the appalling conditions and dangers, if dire necessity did not make them do so.

People then did the work machines do now, and were treated in the same way. You don’t feel compassion for a machine which operates 24 hours a day. You want to get the greatest amount of output possible for what it is costing you to run it. That’s how most Georgian capitalists felt about their workers.

Times, however, were changing. By the end of the century, social reformers and those with a strong religious outlook were already questioning the prevailing attitudes. Some built model workers’ housing in the belief that happier, healthier employees would be more productive and reliable. Others noted the working hours lost to alcohol — the cheapest way to numb the pain of poverty — and reasoned that paying higher wages and providing basic social care would pay off in terms of reduced absences and less down-time caused by accidents.

On the land, changes came more slowly. The introduction of machinery increased the demand for skilled workers, but caused a far greater loss in unskilled jobs. Poverty remained widespread, diffuse and easily overlooked. Romantics, like Oliver Goldsmith writing ‘The Deserted Village’, too easily looked back to a golden age of happy, healthy peasants; an age which never was. Working on the land, as opposed to owning and exploiting it, never produced better than a meagre subsistence. If it had, the ploughs and the seed drills would have been taken over by the rich long before.


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

Plus Ça Change: The Georgian Government’s Response to Radicalism

Defending Britain from sedition and the “swinish multitudes”


The Norfolk Chronicle, 30th June, 1792

On May 21, 1792, King George III issued a proclamation in which he warned his subjects against the influence of “divers wicked and seditious writings”. It’s clear the principal writing he and his government had in mind was Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man. Part II of this work was even more radical in its ideas than Part I. It was also deliberately published in a cheap edition, thus making it widely available to artisans as well as people of the middling sort. It’s quite likely that William Pitt’s government had used its spies to learn the nature of this fresh content even before copies were printed.

If the radicals had hoped for an upwelling of support in response to Paine’s writing, they were to be disappointed. Paine fled to France to avoid prosecution, but was still tried for sedition and sentenced to death in absentia. The royal proclamation, however, produced a spontaneous outpouring of support for the current English Constitution. Scores of loyalist associations were formed and hundreds of loyal addresses sent to the king. Effigies of Tom Paine were publicly burned in towns and villages throughout the country. The British public, it was clear, had no taste for French-style revolution.

Pitt’s use of spies and informers

Throughout the summer of 1792, Pitt’s government worked hard at suppression. They infiltrated radical groups and societies with secret agents and collected intelligence from informers and local officials. The king’s proclamation had included an order that local magistrates should send information on seditious activities to the central government. All this intelligence-gathering was now supplemented by an intense propaganda campaign to counter the effects of “seditious and wicked works” (such as The Rights of Man) on what was held to be an impressionable populace. Large amounts of financial support was provided for the loyalist associations.

These associations busily wrote and published pamphlets denouncing the radicals, while loyalist newspapers reported rumours of plots and claimed domestic radicals were all colluding with foreign revolutionaries. The “Project Fear” this created will be sadly familiar to many of us today. Indeed, it’s arguable that the most effective counter to the ideas of radicals and reformers was not legislative action or legal prosecution, but the atmosphere of fear produced by government propaganda.

The fear reached something of a climax in December, 1792, when several newspapers contained news of a supposed (but entirely false) insurrection. This was followed by a rumour that there was an army of traitors on their way to London. The authorities responded with a series of swift, harsh actions. They called out the militia and convened a sitting of Parliament. Coaches and carriages were stopped and searched for “traitors,” who were taken to the Tower of London by the thousands (though most soon escaped). Though it all ended in anticlimax, since no “army of traitors” arrived and there was no real evidence to allow any prosecutions, these rumours and alarms further whipped up fears in the populace at large.

Was this Intense Loyalism Real?

Given the constant government involvement in encouraging “popular” expressions of loyalty, it’s hard to be certain how much anti-radical sentiment was genuine and how much was deliberately generated. There’s plenty of evidence of official interference. For example, in November 1792, Lord Grenville was writing to Pitt to ask for advice on the best way to form counter-associations against the radicals. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that even Pitt’s government, willing though it was to resort to measures of dubious legality and questionable ethics, could have manufactured such a strong anti-radical response on its own.

Nevertheless, these events let the government seize the opportunity to crush fledgling movements towards reform. Surviving documents show that most so-called radical or revolutionary groupings at the time did not advocate anything like a wholesale revolution. What they wanted were reforms on the lines of a universal adult (male) franchise, an end to “placemen” (government “jobs for the boys”) and government sinecures. They also demanded more regular parliamentary elections, preferably annually. By now, however, even such modest measures could be portrayed as the slippery slope towards extremism and bloody revolution. The ruling elite were determined to retain the status quo. It seemed the bulk of the populace was happy to support them.

Fear of Immigrants

This is another topic from that time which will seem all too familiar to modern ears. Pitt’s government spies reported that large numbers of immigrants were fleeing France and entering England with little or no control or documentation. They also claimed significant purchases of arms were being made by known French sympathisers in preparation for some kind of uprising. At the same time, many English people believed a French invasion was imminent, preceded by a French-inspired and supported insurrection.

Was this true? It’s certain that large numbers of French refugees were fleeing to England to escape ‘The Terror’. It was also correct no one knew precisely how many there were or where they had gone after they arrived. At first, when the revolution in France turned violent, English people had welcomed refugees and done their best to help them. But as numbers grew and the atmosphere of fear intensified, all that changed. Parliament passed the Aliens Act, requiring all ports to keep a full account of immigrants entering the country. Those who arrived were not allowed to travel without passports or bring arms or ammunition with them. The Act also gave the Secretary of State powers to deport suspicious aliens and restrict the movement of foreigners within the country to certain districts. There they had to submit to registration and were required to give up their weapons. It wasn’t quite internment, but it came very close. At around the same time, the Alien Office, outwardly established to monitor and enforce the act, became the ‘cover’ for a surprisingly sophisticated system of internal espionage — a Georgian version of MI5.

“The English Robespierre”

There can be no doubt of William Pitt’s determination to see off any attempts to change the constitution or produce a popular uprising. From 1792 onwards, his government used a range of increasingly draconian measures to suppress opposition of any kind — so much so that John Gale Jones, at a meeting of a liberal debating society in 1795, described Pitt as the “English Robespierre”. If this was going too far, there’s no doubt Pitt and his ministers, supported by the king, conducted a sustained assault on traditional freedoms of association and speech, as well as introducing powers of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, at least for a period.

The history of the domestic crisis that followed France’s declaration of war on Britain in 1793 and the series of French military victories in continental Europe will be the subject of later posts in this series.


Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

The Georgians and Whist


Partnership in Whist is an Emblem of Partnership in Trade… It shows how much depends upon good Partnership; and I will venture to say, that a good Whist-Player will make both a good Partner and a good Merchant.

The Polite Gamester; or, The Humours of Whist, 1753

A social revolution swept through Britain in the early-modern period. Its first signs could be seen under Elizabeth I, then its progress during the following century was slow, interrupted by civil war and religious strife. Not until the protestant succession was established by the defeat of James II was rapid progress resumed. During the Georgian and Regency periods, this revolution accelerated to its peak and became the accepted pattern of life in Britain. I am, of course, referring to the rise of the middle class, the ‘middling sort’.

The rapid growth of Britain’s trade and manufacturing in the 18th century brought those whose fortunes depended on them into prominence. No longer was all wealth based on the inherited ownership of land. Merchants and professional men could, through hard work, diligence and personal endeavour, amass fortunes that in many cases exceeded those of the lesser landed gentry. And with wealth came the ability to live in style and indulge in suitable leisure activities. In choosing such activities, they looked to what was most popular amongst the fashionable elite. Gambling came high on the list, especially activities like playing cards, which did not require elaborate training or expensive equipment.

Sensible Gambling?

Members of the landed elite were notorious for their addiction to gambling. Some played for the highest stakes, winning or losing fortunes in the course of a single evening. What allowed for this behaviour was family land ownership. Profligate sons could apply to their elders to bail them out of trouble. When those same elders got into debt, they could nearly always raise another mortgage on their estates. Since many of these estates were left to the next generation in entail — a legal device allowing use of the income without personal ownership of the property — risks were limited to bequeathing an estate encumbered with large mortgages.

The middling sort also liked to gamble, if only to emulate the gentry. However, the risks to them were different. Most had no great assets to fall back on to support loans, while their standing in the market was heavily dependent on maintaining a reputation for sobriety, prudence and stability — especially financial stability. Trading or making a living as a professional are themselves risky endeavours. A physician with a reputation for hard living and reckless gambling would soon have no patients. A merchant who gambled his profits away could expect to end in the debtor’s prison.

What was needed was an acceptable, sensible form of gambling, in which stakes were modest and an enjoyable evening would end without anyone facing ruin. Playing cards was ideal and Whist the ideal game.

The Attractions of Whist

As a game, Whist is easy to learn, yet offers the chance to exercise skill in making best use of the cards in your hand. Stakes were generally modest. Winning or losing was cumulative, not based on a single turn of a card or throw of a dice. Above all, Whist is a sociable game, played by pairs of players pitted against each other, with abundant opportunity for conversation and mutual support.

Merchants and professionals, then as now, relied on building up a wide network of friends and acquaintances. Such networks were essential to support trade, attract new business and discover in advance what opportunities or threats lay ahead. What the golf course once was fifty years ago as a place for doing business, the Whist table was two hundred years earlier.

Add to this the Georgian preoccupation with displaying ‘politeness’ — a mix of clubbability, good manners and conversational skill — and you have the perfect environment for evenings combining the modest excitement of ‘sensible’ gambling with abundant opportunities for polishing friendships, cultivating contacts and displaying the virtues of a ‘good partner’ at the Whist table. Whist could also be played in mixed groups, making it an excellent activity to indulge in after dinner at one of the many private parties or public assemblies.

Don’t overlook Whist or dismiss it as a simple card game for long evenings. In Georgian times, skill at the card table was as much valued amongst the middling sort as skill on the dance-floor and the ability to shine in conversation. Even many of the lesser gentry enjoyed a game of Whist and valued the opportunities it might provide. Making contacts to negotiate a marriage to revitalise the family’s finances via the dowry given to a wealthy merchant’s daughter. Finding a suitable patron for a younger son forced to make his own way in the world via trade or the professions. An evening of Whist was a microcosm of Georgian life: decorous, good natured, sociable, competitive and respectable.

Note: I am greatly indebted to the following book for much of my background reading for this article.

Mullin, Janet E. 2015. A Sixpence at Whist: Gaming and the English Middle Classes, 1680-1830. Boydell Press.

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