Scotch Runts in Norfolk

Old drove road to Craik in the Scottish Borders
 (Photo by Walter Baxter,, CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is not a scurrilous attack on certain people born north of the border! The creatures I am writing about were cattle. Large numbers of mostly Galloway bullocks from the generally poor grazing areas of Scotland were driven south to Norfolk every year to be sold by professional drovers. The graziers who bought these “Scotch runts” then fattened them up, partly on grass, but mostly on turnips. Once they had reached a good weight, they would be driven down to Smithfield Market in London, again by professional drovers, and the whole process begun again the next year.

The cattle drovers were skilled men, capable of handling perhaps a hundred beasts on the 300-mile journey. The drovers were trusted with more than conveying the beasts safely, and in good condition, to the cattle fair where they were sold. They handled the sale and were then responsible for conveying the money back to the seller. Since it could amount to a substantial sum, in circumstances where the seller had no direct means of checking what was due, the drovers needed to establish and maintain the trust of those for whom they worked.

Norfolk was a favoured location for these transactions. The typical Norfolk foldcourse system of agriculture included the planting of turnips in the rotation. Along with the rich grazing in the river valleys and the areas around the Norfolk Broads, turnips provided a useful crop for using as cattle feed. They were being grown anyway, so using them to create an extra “crop” in terms of fattened cattle made excellent sense. At its peak, thousands of Scottish cattle were being driven south every year to be sold for fattening in this way. During the Napoleonic wars, in particular, London’s own demands were almost dwarfed by the government’s constant requirement for salt beef to feed its soldiers and sailors. It is recorded that, in 1794, 108,000 cattle were driven to London for slaughter from elsewhere in the country. Around 80% of them came from Scotland.

“They had match’d themselves together with abundance of Discretion; mix’d Fat and Lean like so many Scotch Runts in Smithfield Market, amongst the like number of Lincolnshire-Oxen, that I thought it a lively representation of Pharoah’s Dream, appearing to me as a true Emblem of Plenty and Famine: For one part of them look’d as if they had half eat up the other.” (The London Spy, 1703)

The “Fays Fair” at Horsham St Faiths

Many of the largest droves coming south from Dumfries and Falkirk were destined for the St Faith’s Fair, held at Horsham St Faiths, just north of Norwich, every October. It took the drovers around a month to make the journey from Scotland, driving the cattle by day and penning them in a farmer’s field overnight. This provided a useful extra income for farmers with suitable fields well supplied with grass to help keep the animals going. Even so, the beasts, mostly around 4 – 5 years of age, would lose a significant amount of weight during the journey. All the walking might also take a heavy toll on their hooves, even though they would have been shod before they set out, using two-part special shoes suitable for cloven hooves.

When they arrived, the drovers would need to decide whether the demand from the graziers was enough at that time, or whether it would be better to wait a few more days. Alternatively, the cattle might be moved on to another market not too far away; perhaps the Hempton Fair, held near Fakenham about 20 miles distant a few weeks after the main St Faiths Fair.

Assuming the cattle were shown for sale at St. Faiths, the graziers would be active in assessing how easy each set of beasts would be to fatten to a state suitable to attract London buyers. Indeed, alongside the cattle brought for further grazing, the fair was also an opportunity for graziers to sell those bought the previous year and now ready for slaughter. London butchers would travel to Norfolk to buy the best beasts ahead of their rivals, then contract with local drovers to deliver them safely to the capital — a journey which took about a week.

How much profit could be made on these transactions? One example can be found in the estate accounts of William Windham of Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk, covering the years 1676 and 1677. On the side of “costs” for October 1676, he notes:

For 20 bullocks at St Fayes Fayer: £35.00
For 20 bullocks at Hempton Fayer: £36 10s

Under “profits” for 1677, he notes:

For 20 Scotch steers: £60.00
For 20 Scotch steers sould for: £65.00

He therefore made an overall profit of £53 10s overall, a substantial amount in the late seventeenth century.

Settlement Day

When the drovers returned home, a day would be appointed for them to settle with those who had employed them and hand over the profit made. Here’s a description of such a day, covering the onward journey from Norfolk to Smithfield Market in London. Settlement was made at the Angel Inn in North Walsham in 1780, not too far from the site of St Faiths Fair.

“There was a roomful of graziers who had sent bullocks to Smithfield the previous week. The weekly journey was made alternately by the drover, J. Smith of Erpingham, and his servant. Smith sat with each man’s account and a pair of saddle bags with money and bills lying on the table before him. A farmer would sit at his elbow, examine the salesman’s account, receive his money, drink a glass or two of liquor, throw down sixpence towards the reckoning and return to the market …”

St Faiths Fair had begun around 1100 and lasted until 1872, when the ease and speed of sending cattle directly to London by rail had rendered it almost totally obsolete. It had survived wars and famines, outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and other disasters, fears of invasion, and many cycles between high demand and severe agricultural depression. Nowadays, it, like the great drove roads which criss-crossed the countryside, had left almost no physical traces to show its past importance.

As a child living on the borders of England and Wales, I remember my mother taking me for “country walks” along what were known as the Green Lanes: unmetalled roads with wide grass verges on both sides. Neither she nor I knew then that we were walking along some of the last remnants of the great drove roads. All are now gone, I believe, swallowed up by agricultural fields and out-of-town housing estates. I am grateful I managed to see one or two in time.

Posted in Agriculture, C18th Norfolk | 9 Comments

Poachers in the 18th Century


“The Wounded Poacher”,
Henry Jones Thaddeus, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Much of what we think we know about poachers and poaching in the past derives from the 19th-century. That was when the conflict between the poacher and the game-loving landowner reached its peak, with considerable violence shown on both sides. Poaching is also one of those crimes which has become romanticised. Folk songs like “The Lincolnshire Poacher” preserve the notion of poaching as a kind of sport for the labouring classes in the countryside.

“Oh, ’Twas my delight of a shining night, in the season of the year.”

Thus goes the chorus of the song, with its implications of a daring young fellow pitting his wits against both quarry and gamekeepers — and coming out triumphant in the end.

There’s also a tendency in this romanticised version of events to portray most, if not all, poachers, as poor local men. Fathers desperate to feed themselves and their families. As large-scale capitalist agriculture spread during the 18th century, so this version goes, the commons and woods where ordinary people once grazed a few sheep and shot a few rabbits were fenced off as private property. Deprived of access to wild animals for the pot, the peasants were driven to taking illicitly what they had once enjoyed without hindrance.

I’m sure that did happen. Yet local, small-scale poaching would never have produced the Draconian anti-poaching laws which disfigured the period from around 1810 to the 1830s. The petty ‘crimes’ of local poachers were almost always dealt with as misdemeanours. The poacher would expect a severe lecture from the magistrate, followed by a small fine or a few weeks in prison. Poaching for money, not for the pot, was the problem. Gangs of men who descended on an estate to take large amounts of game to sell. It started in the 18th century, then grew into almost a class war in the 19th. A letter of 1785 reported this type of poaching at a plantation near Holt in Norfolk:

The poachers behaved in a most impudent manner, saying they must have a certain number of pheasants, which some of the party shot, whilst others confined the game keepers …

Gangs of poachers would raid an area, stripping it bare of all the game. What they shot , trapped or netted went to London via middlemen. There, pheasants, partridges, hares, woodcock and deer fetched high prices. A fat pheasant would sell at retail in London for two shillings (around £30 today) and a side of venison for appreciably more. The poachers were not paid as much, but they might still get a shilling or so per pheasant. That was more than enough to make a night’s haul of 50 or more birds a profitable business. As far back as 1723, the so-called Waltham Black Act was passed in response to violent poaching gangs who attacked properties and shot the deer in the area of Waltham Chase. It made poaching at night and in disguise a felony punishable by death.

The Landowners’ Point of View

To the landowners, poaching was theft, pure and simple. They valued the game on their estates highly. Not only for sporting purposes either. Game from the estate supplied their own kitchens and could serve as a ‘cash crop’ when supplies were plentiful. They employed gamekeepers to look after what was there and — in the case of pheasants — to breed birds to complement the local stock. It was not on the scale of breeding undertaken during the 19th century — and today — but it was still an expense from which a return was expected. The local poacher taking a few birds, rabbits or hares for the pot was like the fox: a nuisance to be driven off where possible and put up with otherwise. Many local landowners were also magistrates, so these petty poachers could expect little sympathy if they were brought to court. Nonetheless, records show their punishments were rarely too harsh.

The poaching gangs were another matter altogether. In their case, both sides escalated matters into a widespread “poaching war”. Small battalions of gamekeepers and their assistants, representing the landlords, fought well-armed gangs of poachers. People died on both sides. In time, the conflict acquired a political edge. As the rich resorted to more and more violent measures to protect their game, local labourers regarded the poachers as their champions against the many injustices and humiliations inflicted on them by the gentry. As I noted earlier, this was mostly a 19th-century phenomenon, but its roots stretched back into Georgian times. The start of the enclosure movement and ‘scientific agriculture’ coincided with a growth in the popularity of hunting and shooting parties amongst the elite. Together, they cut off supplies of wild animals to the poor and turned serious poaching into a felony punishable by death or transportation.

The violence was not all on the one side. Gamekeepers and their assistants were as likely to suffer harm from encounters with poaching gangs as the other way around. Norfolk’s Parson Woodforde wrote thus in his diary for 12th December, 1785:

Poor Tom Twaites of Honingham who was beat by Poachers at Mr Townshend’s the other day, is lately dead of the Wounds he then rec’d from them.

Fourteen local men were later listed as wanted in connection with this murder and others were added later. In the end, though, only two men were tried for the crime. One was acquitted and one was convicted and hanged. Getting evidence was problematical, both from fear of the gangs and an unwillingness to testify on behalf of the gentry against neighbours and friends.

On Sunday the 31st ult. [last month] at four o’clock in the morning, a gang of poachers, about fourteen in number, entered the plantations of the Earl of Buckingham, at Blickling. After they had fired thrice, the keeper and his watch, in all fifteen, came up with them, and an engagement ensued, when the poachers threw vollies [sic] of stones, and very much wounded one of the watch. The poachers, at length, finding themselves pressed, threatened fire, and did fire two guns, but, as is supposed, with powder only; soon after, however, they fired with shot, and wounded three of the watch, and then fled.

(Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 20 January 1787)

The Poachers’ Viewpoint

Politics aside, this is harder to establish, since few have left any record of their feelings. Perhaps the best we can do is look at one of the folk songs, “The Poacher’s Fate”, which can be traced back at least as far as 1812. Here is a selection of its verses:

Come all you lads of high renown
Who love to drink strong ale that’s brown
And pull a lofty pheasant down
With powder, shot and gun.

Me and five more a-poaching went
For to get some game was our intent.
Our money being all gone and spent,
And we’d nothing else to do.

But the keeper heard us fire our gun
And to the spot he swiftly run.
He swore before the rising sun
That one of us should die.

And the bravest youth of all our lot
It was his misfortune to be shot;
His memory ne’er shall be forgot
By all his friends below.

He was a brave young youth,
I’m telling you the truth.
But the bullet it went right through his breast
And it felled him to the ground.

A Balanced View?

I can’t resist ending with this letter, printed in the Norfolk Chronicle for Saturday, 11th October, 1783. It shows that some people at least were trying to consider the ‘problem’ of poaching in a rational light.

To the Printer of the Norfolk Chronicle.


At a time when the city is alarmed with many most audacious robberies, and is at very great addition of expence [sic] to preserve the public peace and security, it is a duty peculiarly incumbent upon the inhabitants to join in suppressing such practices as lead to these daring villainies.

Smuggling has been very wisely pointed out by the last Grand Jury at the assizes, and poaching manifestly alluded to as certain sources of these wicked practices: It is therefore very seriously urged upon all the inhabitants, that they unanimously resolve neither to buy, give, or accept of any presents of game that do not come legally qualified, and must therefore be procured from a set of desperate men, who, living in the habits of idleness and injustice one part of the year, are induced to commit acts of violence and plunder to provide for themselves for the other part. — A resolution of this kind, would, from the difficulty of their getting rid of the game, make it less worth their pursuit, and either bring them back to a habit of industry, which will be much better for their comfort and subsistence, or unfortunately, through their own obstinacy, plunge themselves into the commission of crimes which will subject them to certain detection, and the severest sentence and punishment of the law.

Considering the game-laws are so express and extensive as to deprive a very respectable part of the community of the means of fair supply of what nature has made common and bestowed liberally; the country gentlemen, who have monopolized as much as they can these kind of gratifications, ought to be at the trouble to distribute a prescribed quantity of qualifications for each species of game to such neighbours and farmers as they chuse [sic] to confide in; this would provide legal means for a reasonable and open supply, and so operate in endeavouring to destroy the temptation to poaching, prove a more effectual protection to the game itself, by making it the interest such entrusted persons to detect poachers, and render it a greater stigma to people of character to buy game illicitly.

Posted in Crime, Georgian Society, Uncategorized

A Lesser-Known Item for Smuggling: Silk


Man’s waistcoat of French silk, made in England c1750.

Smuggling of goods was a major industry along the lonely coastline of north Norfolk, with its easy access to the Low Countries and northern France. Kipling’s well-known poem neatly summarises the main goods brought in by the smugglers throughout the country, not just in Norfolk.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

What Kipling omitted, however, was another source of trade for the smugglers : silk.

The History of Regulations on Foreign Silk

English silk manufacturers in the 18th century were assiduous in working to protect their businesses from foreign imports. As a result, bans on bringing foreign silk into the country dated back to the very beginning of the eighteenth century. It was all part of the ‘mercantilist’ ideas of the time, which emphasised the importance of exports as a way of producing wealth for the country as a whole.

Parliament banned the use of manufactured fabrics mixed with Asian silks as early as 1700. In 1706, a ban was placed on French ribbons and laces. By 1749, all imports of foreign gold and silver lace were prohibited. Ready-made garments of foreign silk, plus foreign silk fabrics and velvet, were banned in 1765. Those found ignoring these regulations could be fined the enormous amount of £100 (perhaps £25,000 in today’s spending power) and have all the illegal goods seized.

Demand Creates Supply

The trouble with all such prohibitions and punitive customs duties in the eighteenth century was simple. By producing a shortage of desirable goods, and driving up the price of legal imports to excessive levels, the authorities made smuggling highly profitable. The elite members of society wanted fine silk clothes and were not especially careful where they came from — especially if those offered by the ‘free traders’ could be obtained more cheaply than those from legitimate sources.

Smuggling had grown hugely in eighteenth-century Britain as a direct result of the shift in taxation from direct taxes on wealth to indirect taxes on goods. High duties were placed on commodities that could not be satisfied by domestic production, in a effort to finance Britain’s constant wars in the period. As a result, consumers looked to ways to avoid these taxes. Indeed, few seemed to have felt any great scruples in buying contraband goods. Parson Woodforde happily received brandy from the local smuggler. Even Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, ignored his own government’s regulations to fill his cellars at Houghton Hall with contraband wines and spirits.

With silks and fine fabrics, the obvious demand came from the fashion-conscious, those desiring to deck out themselves and their homes with the finest brocades and velvets, and all those who valued French influence on fashion and style as evidence for superior taste. Since many of these customers for contraband were aristocrats and gentry, the authorities often found themselves powerless to intervene, let alone prosecute. The best they could do was try to disrupt the supply by chasing down the smugglers. Like today’s drug dealers, these free traders saw the occasional loss of a cargo or prosecution of some ‘small fry’ as the natural cost of doing business.

Why Silk?

The staples of the free trade were generally high-value, bulk imports, such as tea, tobacco, and brandy. Nevertheless, silks and laces made a welcome addition to the smuggler’s profits. Textiles fitted well into the many opportunities for small-scale smuggling by individuals as well as organised gangs. They could be obtained from many sources, Asian and European. They could be folded and hidden inside boxes and packages. Individual travellers could hide them in their luggage. Officials of The East India Company, many of whom were allowed to make ‘personal imports’, quietly exceeded their legitimate allowances. Official cargoes on East India Company vessels were an ideal source of deliberate pilfering and diversion.

Despite all the efforts of the government and British manufacturers, French and Far Eastern fabrics remained highly fashionable throughout the eighteenth century. Asian silks in particular offered elaborate patterns and bright colours that were typically not available from domestic manufacturers — at least until the burgeoning demand forced them to attempt to catch up.

For example, silk handkerchiefs, a staple of item of dress for men and women, were smuggled in large quantities from Asian sources. Kashmiri shawls started a strong fashion trend, so much so that Norwich manufacturers produced fine woollen shawls using copied patterns. They proved so successful that there was enough demand for ‘Norwich shawls’ to help prop up the city’s declining weaving industry — a decline caused mostly by the shift to bright cotton cloth produced in Lancashire and machine-made woollens from Yorkshire mills.

Posted in Fashion, Georgian Society | 1 Comment

One Hundred Years Ago

Two girls from World War

For just this week, the subject matter of this blog will be only indirectly relevant to the Georgian period. Instead, I want to honour two remarkable young women and the part they and those like them played in Britain’s war effort during the Great War of 1914–1918. They appear in the photo at the head of this post. The one on the left is my grandmother, Dorothy. On the right is her elder sister, Beatrice.

Both worked in a munitions factory between 1915 and the end of the war: the Royal Filling Factory at Rotherwas, just outside the city of Hereford. The factory was built hurriedly in response to the so-called ‘Shell Scandal’ of 1915, when it became clear that offensive efforts by the British Army in France and Belgium were being hampered by a lack of shells for the artillery. The role of the filling factories — and Rotherwas was a large one which served in both world wars — was to take empty shell casings and fill them with high explosive, before fitting a suitable fuse and shipping them off in their tens of thousands to the front.

Forget any idea of lines of machines. All the work was done by hand, almost entirely by a legion of young women like my grandmother and her sister. The explosive — either picric acid, TNT or amatol (a mixture of 60% TNT with 40% ammonium nitrate) — was poured into the casing through a funnel, then pressed down hard using a wooden stick struck with a wooden mallet. It’s a measure of the danger of the task that the girls who did it earned more than a skilled man of the time.

It was hard, unpleasant and dangerous work, undertaken with little in the way of safety or health precautions. Too much pressure, or the least spark, could cause the shell to explode. The chemicals themselves made the skin and hair of the girls most exposed to it turn bright yellow. Prolonged exposure brought on lung damage and premature death. Much has, rightly, been said and written about the bravery and sacrifice of the fighting men in the trenches. Too little honour, by contrast, has been given to these young women, many still in their teens, who also risked their lives daily in the service of their country.

That’s why, in this year marking the centenary of the end of World War I, I have dedicated my latest Georgian mystery book* to the memory of all the women who worked “in the munitions” and to my grandmother and great-aunt in particular. The following dedication heads the book.


*“Black As She’s Painted”: An Ashmole Foxe Georgian Mystery, published today on Amazon.

Posted in Uncategorized, Writing | 6 Comments

Georgian Humour


We English tend to pride ourselves on our sense of humour, so it’s easy to assume that our ancestors laughed at the same things that tickle us. I’m finding this is a mistake. While some jokes are indeed ‘as old as the hills’, other sources of humour in the 18th century would be more likely to make people wince or protest today than laugh. The Georgians were all politeness and polish on the surface. Look below, and you find clear evidence of a coarseness, even a cruelty, in a good deal of their humour.

The 18th century was an unsentimental age. They tended to see the world as it was in their time, rather than indulge in the romanticising and sentimentalising that became the norm by the Victorian period. No Georgian, however pious, would have resorted to hiding the legs of tables lest they provoke lustful thoughts.

Since the Georgians’ world was full of crime, prostitution, violence, deformity, filth and noise, the same can be said of a good deal of their humour, which tended to range from the merely bawdy and lavatorial to the obscene, crude and vicious. It’s clear many of them saw nothing wrong in making jokes about people with handicaps or deformities, about the insane, or on topics such as sexual violence and rape. Remember this was a time when ‘respectable’ people paid to go to the ‘bedlams’ where the insane were locked up, just to look at their ‘antics’ and laugh at their distress and bewilderment.

I’m certainly not going to quote any of the unsavoury stuff in this post, but it’s as well to be aware it existed, if only to set the more acceptable humour in some sort of context. Humour based on racial stereotypes was commonplace too. I can remember from my own youth that jokes against the Irish would not have raised anyone’s eyebrows. Anti-semitic jokes were equally prevalent. Looking though an 18th-century jest book, I found perhaps half of all the jokes listed there mentioned the Irish, and a good many others were aimed at the Scots and the Welsh.

Examples of Georgian Humour

Here are some examples of actual jokes from Georgian times that will probably produce no more than groans today. I have to say I found few of them very funny, though plenty caused me to roll my eyes.

A Country Farmer going [a]cross his Grounds in the Dusk of the Evening, spied a young Fellow and a Lass very busy near a five Bar Gate, in one of his Fields, and calling to them to know what they were about, said the young Man, no Harm, Farmer, we are only going to Prop-a-Gate.

A famous Teacher of Arithmetick [sic], who had long been married without being able to get his Wife with Child : One said to her, Madam, your Husband is an excellent Arithmetician. Yes, replies she, only he can’t multiply.

A Lady’s Age happening to be questioned, she affirmed she was but Forty, and call’d upon a Gentleman that was in Company for his Opinion; Cousin, said she, do you believe I am in the Right, when I say I am but Forty? I ought not to dispute it, Madam, reply’d he, for I have heard you say so these ten Years.

A CLERGYMAN was reading the burial service over an Irish corpse, and having forgot which sex it was, on coming to that part of the ceremony which reads thus, ‘our dear brother or sister,’ the reverend gentleman stopped, and seeing Pat stand by, stepped back, and whispering to him, said, ‘Is it a brother or a sister?’ Pat says, ‘Friend, ’tis neither, ’tis only a relation.’

A country clergyman, meeting a neighbour who never came to church, although an old fellow of above sixty, he gave him some reproof on that account, and asked, if he never read at home? “No”’ replied the clown, “I can’t read.”—“I dare say,” said the parson, “you don’t know who made you?” “Not I, in troth,” cried the countryman. A little boy coming by at the same time, “Who made you, child?” said the parson. “ God, Sir,” answered the boy. “Why, look you there,” quoth the honest clergyman, “are you not ashamed to hear a child of five or six years old tell me who made him, when you, that are so old a man, cannot?” “Ah,” said the countryman, “it is no wonder that he should remember; he was made but t’other day, it is a great while, master, since I was made.”

A MELTING sermon being preached in a country church, all fell a weeping but one man; who being asked why he did not weep with the rest, “Oh!” said he, “I belong to another parish.”

I presume a “melting” sermon means one that is “hot” — a “hell-fire and brimstone” sermon.

A LAWYER being sick, made his last Will, and gave all his estate to fools and madmen: being asked the reason for so doing; “From such,” said he, “I had it, and to such I give it again.”

And that, as they say, is more than enough of that!


Posted in Georgian Society | 4 Comments

Georgian Readers and Their Impact

During the 18th-century, there was an explosion of growth in the number of people spending time reading. Amongst the many reasons for this, two stand out. Firstly, the importance of ‘politeness’ and sociability amongst the middle and upper classes. To be a success in polite society demanded an ability to converse fluently and intelligently on a wide range of subjects. Secondly, the growth of available leisure time amongst the same groups encouraged activities to fill that time. Reading was one of them. It required no physical prowess, cost relatively little and was deemed entirely suitable for young people and women — provided their choice of books was kept under review. However, as we shall see, a good many women refused to let their reading matter be limited by anyone.

The Culture of ‘Politeness’

The Georgians defined the essential nature of the society of their time as one based on politeness and civility. In practice, this meant those who mattered — the middle classes and the upper class elite — were expected to embrace certain basic Enlightenment values. Gone was the reliance on religion alone to provide ethical guidance. Belief in the divine right of certain people to rule had been replaced by notions of rationality in government as much as elsewhere. Superstition and the writings of long-dead Classical authors were being replaced by scientific enquiry and experimentation. Most pervasive of all, upper-class England had become an intensely sociable environment. Clubs proliferated. To be part of society meant a constant round of public and private engagements: dinner parties, balls, concerts, the theatre, assemblies and meetings of every kind. Those who aspired to shine needed the ability to converse in an intelligent, well-informed and persuasive manner on a wide variety of subjects of general interest. While the rich could send their children on The Grand Tour of Europe to provide them with the necessary knowledge and polish, the less wealthy turned to reading as a means of achieving a similar outcome.

As a result, serious reading began to focus on a new range of subjects. Previously the literate classes had sought to better their understanding of topics such as theology, philosophy and law. They now turned to subjects much less likely to provoke disagreement and rancour. One of the hallmarks of politeness was to avoid sectarianism, bigotry and conversations likely to lead to angry quarrels. Civility demanded that any disagreements should be limited to rational discussions, and be capable of an amicable resolution. Then, as now, one of the quickest ways to ruin a pleasant conversation was to introduce politics or religion.

Indeed, foreigners attributed Britain’s growing commercial success in part to the general atmosphere of tolerance which prevailed as much in conducting business as in public assembly rooms and private parties. The British, they explained, were willing to do business with almost anyone, of any race, religion or outlook, so long as that business could be conducted profitably. Jews, for example, played a major role in British commerce throughout the century. There were minor outbreaks of anti-Semitism, but nothing that was allowed to interfere with mercantile interests. At the same time, British merchants traded happily with the Arab world, with the Indian subcontinent, with China and with all the Catholic countries of Europe. Tolerance was good for business.

Of course, life wasn’t composed entirely of serious occasions. It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that reading purely for personal pleasure was a Georgian discovery.

‘Reading for Pleasure’

As the 18th-century progressed more and more people saw reading as one of the great pleasures of life; something to be savoured in private and avidly discussed amongst friends and family.

It’s no coincidence that the growth of the novel was also an 18th-century phenomenon. While novels could be seen as providing a greater insight into other people’s lives and ideas, the primary purpose of reading them was always pleasure: an enjoyable and generally harmless way of passing the time. The puritans and moralists of the day railed against such frivolous activity, but to no avail. They claimed that reading novels would tempt respectable women into infidelity and lasciviousness. No one took any notice. By the end of the century, novels had become the commonest books available in most of the circulating libraries which had grown up all over the country.

Current Affairs

A measure of the impact of reading should not be limited to books. The eighteenth century also saw a massive growth in the number of newspapers, magazines and pamphlets reporting on every topic under the sun. While the discussion of partisan politics in purely social environments was generally frowned upon, people aspiring to ‘politeness’ were nevertheless expected to be well informed on a wide range of matters of current interest.

This increasing interest in current affairs was not without its issues — even dangers. As literacy spread from the upper classes, through the middle classes to the artisans, shopkeepers and local tradesmen, it facilitated the spread of ideas of every kind, not just those that were deemed acceptable to the ruling elite. People were tempted into exploring radical ideas and questioning the status quo. Look at the rapid spread of the writings of Tom Paine, especially when the second part of “The Rights of Man” was made available at only sixpence a copy. While the government of the time did all it could to limit the publication of anything it deemed seditious, it never quite succeeded. Reading opened Pandora’s box, releasing terrors as well as treasures.

One of the side-effects of this interest in polite conversation was to provide new opportunities for women to take part in society outside the home. Not only were many of them participants on an equal level with men in the mass of conversations which took place in both public and private settings; many became the leaders of important salons devoted to the discussion of serious ideas. These ‘bluestockings’ had a significant impact, not only on society in general, but in many cases on the thinking and opinions of some of the most important men in the land. No one was allowed to them what to read or what to discuss, though mostly they adhered to the ‘ban’ on contentious political and religious matters. Towards the end of the century, even this was ignored by writers such as Harriet Martineau and Mary Wolstencraft.

Summing up

I don’t think it is too fanciful to compare the impact of the increased appetite for reading in the eighteenth century to the effect of social media in our own. Both allow information and ideas to flow more freely. Both make it harder for governments to impose any kind of censorship. Both contain a great deal of rubbish, falsehoods and opportunities for confidence tricksters and agitators. At the same time, both increase people’s awareness of the world around them and provide the means for a great deal of pleasurable social contact. The explosion of new ideas which began in the eighteenth century led to reform in the nineteenth, and eventually to the undermining of the previous ruling elite. What our obsession with social media will lead to is anybody’s guess. So far, the one thing that can be said for certain is that the Georgian virtues of reason, politeness and civility seem to have been excluded in favour of emotionalism, dogma and rancorousness. We can only hope that the outcome will somehow still be beneficial in the long term.

Posted in Georgian Society, Leisure | 4 Comments

The Georgian Clergy (Part 2)


This Parish Clerk is keeping a close eye on at least one member of the congregation.

Part one of this series dealt with the distinctions between the various categories of clergy and the sources of their income. In this one, I’m going to try to look more closely at the Sunday-to-Sunday aspects of the Anglican Church and how much attention it paid to its religious duties.

Church Services

Spending time in church in the eighteenth century was very different from doing the same thing today, whether you were a member of the congregation or the person taking the service. Forget ‘audience participation’ or anything like that. When Georgian parsons wrote about ‘reading Evensong’ or ‘reading the service’, they were speaking literally. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662 contained everything needed to conduct services: the prayers, linking admonitions, exactly where to find the lessons for the day in the Old and New Testaments (and precisely which verses to read — those and no others), and the psalms to be read (rarely chanted, save in the grandest churches). In most rural parish churches there would be no music, such as hymns. Aside from giving the prescribed responses at set points (and these would probably be given mostly by the parish clerk, with a few mumbles from elsewhere), the role of the congregation was to sit and listen.

Quite often, the only ‘fresh’ element in a service would be the sermon. Georgian sermons tended to be lengthy affairs, running sometimes to an hour or more (In the more evangelical and dissenting churches, the sermon could last for up to three hours!). That’s because it was seen by many churches and clergymen as the most important part of the service. Is it any wonder that people were often seen to ‘nod off’ during the sermonising — unless the preacher was of the ‘hell-fire and damnation’ variety, roaring and yelling from the pulpit in an attempt to frighten people into righteousness!

Such new Anglican churches as were constructed at this time, as well as nearly all the chapels for the non-conformists and dissenters, featured the pulpit at the expense of the altar or any other such ‘popish’ nonsense. These buildings well deserve the title of ‘preaching boxes’, being plain, rectangular halls, sometimes with galleries, with the focus entirely on the pulpit.

Conditions in Church

These can be summed up in three words. Cold, damp, dark. The majority of English parish churches still dated from the Middle Ages. They had no heating, wooden bench pews (or high-sided box pews) and were made of stone. The only artificial lighting came from a few candles, often tallow candles, which gave a poor enough light when used in houses. Imagine how little illumination they gave in churches, with their grey walls, dark wooden fittings and roof beams maybe twenty to thirty feet above. Add small windows, some still filled with coloured glass, and on a dull day the place must have been singularly unwelcoming. Evensong was sometimes scheduled for one or two in the afternoon in the winter, to economise on candles and allow parishioners to get home before it grew really dark.

Damp meant the walls grew moulds and moss. The whitewashing of interiors may indeed have been more to do with reflecting what little light there was and discouraging the mould than any puritanism about the few surviving mediaeval wall paintings. That the practice sometimes did preserve what the extremists of Oliver Cromwell’s time had left untouched is our gain. Parson Woodforde, in Norfolk, had to pay a man to periodically ’scrape the mould from the (inside) walls’ of the chancel of his church. Indeed, he seems to have been more punctilious than many in discharging his duties as rector in this regard.

According to arcane rules surviving from centuries before, the rector was responsible for the maintenance and repair (or rebuilding) of the chancel (the eastern part of a church containing the altar). All the rest of the building was the responsibility of the parishioners themselves. The surviving records of the visitations made periodically by the official of the diocese called the archdeacon reveal a sorry tale of neglect: cheap patches in place of proper repairs, broken windows boarded up, leaking roofs. The archdeacon could mandate that action should be taken, but his orders were too often ignored. However, before assuming this was yet another instance of a moribund church, it’s as well to consider the most general cause.

Ecclesiastical Poverty

Financing the established church was based on a system of taxes, known as tithes, levied on the produce of the land in each parish. The word comes from ‘tenth’ and refers back to the biblical notion of a tenth of each harvest being offered to God. By the eighteenth century, tithes were generally paid in cash, though some rectors and vicars might be willing to accept a small degree of payment in kind. Like all taxes, those who had to pay them did so with varying degrees of unwillingness; nor were they exempt from efforts to evade or minimise the amounts paid over. It was up to the rector’s representative — or the man himself — to collect the tithe and chase arrears.

One problem arose from a lengthy series of bad harvests during the period. The tithe was not a fixed amount — remember it was a tenth of the value of the harvest — so lean years meant smaller tithes. Another was the effect of centuries of tithes being legally taken away from the parish itself. This process, called impropriation, saw tithe income diverted into other hands: maybe to prove income for the bishop or other senior churchmen; quite often to bodies such as the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge; and sometimes into the pockets of lay landowners. It was all quite legal under the ecclesiastical law of the time, so there was nothing parishioners could do about it. As a result, the official number of ‘poor livings’, where the clergyman was in receipt of “Queen Anne’s Bounty” soared. Queen Anne’s Bounty was a payment established in 1704 by Queen Anne to augment the incomes of the poorer clergy. It used the annual amount of money once paid by the English Church to the Pope. That sum had been seized by Henry VIII and used for his own benefit. Queen Anne, a fervent Anglican, gave it back. In 1736, 47.5% of the clergy livings in England and Wales were receiving payments under this scheme. That gives you a clear idea of how many Anglican clergy were living in something close to genteel poverty.

Not Quite Such a Dark Picture

It would be easy, as many have done, to paint a picture of the Georgian church as being in near-terminal decline. It was certainly not in robust health, but it’s amazing what efforts the majority of the clergy still made to provide regular services and support to their parishioners, despite all their problems.

How many people went to church? It’s hard to say. One usual measure of church attendance — the number of people receiving communion — can be especially misleading, since communion services at this time were held infrequently — weekly communion services were considered a ‘popish’ practice and could be condemned by the bishop. In the middle years of the century, the dioceses of Hereford and York, for example, recorded 62% and 72% of parishes respectively holding only three or four communion services a year.

Most parish churches held at least one Sunday service each week, usually Mattins (morning prayer) or Evensong (evening worship), together with one or two special services on major church festivals like Christmas, which could fall on a weekday. Bad weather might cause occasional cancellations, but this was uncommon. Parishioners sometimes also attended neighbouring churches, either for convenience or variety. If a sermon was not included in the local weekly service, people were drawn to nearby churches where it was — or where there was a ‘star’ preacher. In the families of educated men, it was not uncommon for the head of the household himself to hold Sunday prayers for his family and servants, thus removing the need to attend the parish church.

The emphasis on regular public worship from the nineteenth century onwards may well have created a perception of the ‘failings’ of the eighteenth-century Church which is misleading. The Established Church had not become wholly secular or abandoned any christian ministry; nor did its clergy lack all enthusiasm in parish matters. There were ‘hunting parsons’ who preferred chasing foxes to saving souls; and neglectful rectors who fobbed off their parishioners with occasional services performed by underpaid curates. All large organisations have their ‘bad apples’. However, compared with earlier centuries, there is little evidence of any significant decline in pastoral care or parochial worship. The Anglican Church had been under attack since Cromwell and before and the growing number of Non-conforming and Dissident sects undermined it further during the years in question. It is to those new versions of Christian teaching and worship that I will turn to in part three of this series.

Please Note: I shall be taking a break from blogging for a short while. I need to finish the latest instalment in my historical mystery series and doing both has become too onerous.

Posted in Georgian Society | 3 Comments