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

The (Forgotten) Georgian Origins of Pantomime


Advertisement in The Norfolk Chronicle, 20th July, 1793, for a pantomime at the city’s Vauxhall Gardens. Note all the special effects and illusions.

Today, pantomimes are flashy, high audience-participation entertainments for families and children, performed in the run-up to Christmas. Most follow more-or-less traditional storylines: Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Robinson Crusoe. The principal male character is always played by an attractive young woman. The principal female comic character is played by a middle-aged or elderly man in unconvincing drag. Whenever possible, the producer tries to get at least one famous name onto the bill.

Pantomimes began in England in Georgian times. They were not for children; they could be performed throughout the year; the storyline need not be traditional or a fairytale; and most had no dialogue, only music — songs interspersed with recitatives — dance, tumbling and mime.

Yet even from its inception, the pantomime was designed to be an exciting spectacle based on non-stop entertainment; a light-hearted, comic performance given after the main item on the programme had ended.

The Beginnings of Pantomime

John Rich, a dancer, acrobat and mime artist, invented the English pantomime in the 1720s. At that time, he was managing a theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London and needed a new kind of entertainment to bring in the crowds. What he put together, drawing from his own performing background, was separate a item on the playbill. His first efforts combined a story drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a harlequinade in the form of an energetic and acrobatic series of chase scenes, featuring characters from the Italian Commedia dell’arte: Harlequin, the young magician; Columbine, his lady-love; the girl’s over-protective father, Pantaloon; and his bumbling servant, the Clown Pulchinello. Singing and other forms of popular music were added, along with stage machinery and conjuring tricks. There was no dialogue and the story was told in mime. In short order, this comedic mélange made up the first pantomimes in the new English style.

Rich’s creation proved to be a fabulous success. Audiences loved the blend of slapstick comedy, high-speed chases, acrobatic displays, stage illusions and magic tricks. For over 150 years, the character of Harlequin appeared in almost every pantomime, along with comic chase scenes between Harlequin, Columbine, her father and the clown — all providing opportunities for memorable music, slapstick fun and general tomfoolery. It was agility combined with simple fun — a blend of spectacle, comedy, music, ballet and acrobatics that was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It wasn’t long before nearly every evening in the theatre ended with a pantomime to send the audience away in a good mood.

The Nay-Sayers

The critics naturally attacked the new pantomimes, deriding them as a “foreign entertainment” which was bound to cause the death of serious theatre. Other theatre managers tried to dismiss Rich’s innovation as frivolous rubbish, popular only through its novelty.

David Garrick, perhaps the greatest 18th-century actor-manager, greatly disliked pantomimes and tried to limit their performance to set times of the year, notably around Christmas. Nevertheless, he was far too canny to ignore the popularity of the pantomime with audiences and the commercial potential this offered. “If they won’t come to Lear and Hamlet”, he said, “I must give them Harlequin”.

Bring on the Clown

The next major step in the development of the pantomime came at the end of the 18th century, when Joseph Grimaldi took the character of the Clown and made it the star of the show. He it was who invented many of the gags and prat-falls that are still an essential part of pantomime today: the ‘butter slide’ (today’s banana skin), the nonsense songs, the objects which come alive, the fights with figures of authority and the tormenting of other characters. He also allowed the clown to speak for the first time, and the other characters followed.

Grimaldi abandoned the traditional costume of Pulchinello in favour of something much closer to modern-day circus clowns: a white face and red cheeks; enormously baggy trousers; a huge, painted grinning mouth; and an enormous repertoire of grimaces and other facial expressions. He also introduced cross-dressing, playing comic female characters in a number of pantomimes.

The Most Elastic Form

Pantomime, since its inception, has survived mainly through constant adaptation and novelty. The only items that have remained static have been the basic plot elements: good triumphing over evil and young love defeating the forces of parental disapproval and respectability. The stories drawn from classical mythology were soon replaced by more familiar tales. “Robinson Crusoe” was created in 1781, with Clown, Harlequin and Pantaloon translated to a desert Island. “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp” dates from 1788, followed by “Babes in the Wood”. “Cinderella” joined them in 1804.

Pantomime also spawned other forms of popular entertainment. ‘Mr Punch’, in Punch and Judy shows, takes his name from the clown Pulcinello, along with the dog, the strings of sausages and the fights with the policeman. Acrobatic acts, magicians, singers and comedians formed the central elements in Victorian Music Hall. The clowns invaded the circus, and a long list of slapstick comedies appeared on stage, film and television, from the manic chases in the Keystone Cops to Benny Hill, and from Steptoe to ’Ello, ’ello and Monty Python.

Like so much else today, it all began with the Georgians.

Posted in Theatre | 2 Comments

Georgian Agricultural Labour: “Men as Machines”


During the eighteenth century, England’s agricultural lands and economy changed from yeoman and peasant subsistence farming to something not too different from what is with us today: professional, commercial, market-oriented production, relying on sufficient inputs of capital to sustain ever-increasing levels of productivity. Just as now, ‘progressive’ farmers were turning more and more to ‘genetic modification’ (via the new technique of selective breeding) and the growing use of what was, for the time, expensive, ‘high-tech’ machinery.

It’s quite likely that the country would never have been able to support a rapidly increasing — and increasingly urban — population without the changes which took place. Nor could there have been the expansion of the middle class and the steady improvement in living standards, at least for the better off. Of course, there were losers as well as winners. The greatest losers were the rural poor: those who had once been peasants with access to common lands. They were now landless day-labourers, existing on poorly paid work, which was both seasonal and open to unexpected competitive pressures. The greatest winners were the moneyed elite. Plus ça change …

The rural labouring poor were essential, but that did not make them valued. A Swedish visitor to England in 1748 noted the prevalence of day-labour, especially in those parts of the country where enclosures had proceeded fastest.

In this place, it is the custom that a farmer does not keep many servants, but always employs day-labourers, for which reason in every village there live a great many poor, who wore themselves out to work for pence.

(Account of his Visit to England, P. Kalm, tr. J. Lucas, London, 1892)

Amongst those who thought and wrote about social conditions in England, such as Gregory King at the end of the previous century, the view was already common that the ‘labouring poor’ made no positive contribution to the country’s wealth at all, since their earnings were so meagre they could not support themselves most of the time. At regular intervals and in old age, almost all became dependent on poor relief. Taken as a whole, so the argument went, they and their families spent more time receiving parish support than contributing to the economy as a whole. Add to that the prevailing view amongst landowners, tenant farmers and almost everyone who had to pay rates to support the meagre handouts given under the Poor Law that poverty was self-inflicted — the result of idleness and feckless living.

What was going on?

Many writers and historians, especially those with a left-leaning view of social history, have placed the blame firmly on the shoulders of the ruling elites and the wealthier elements in the society of the time. There’s definitely a degree of truth in that, but it’s far from being the whole story. What it ignores is the novelty of the situation. The so-called Agricultural Revolution of these years was entirely unprecedented in scope and impact. I suspect few people understood the likely outcome of what seemed plain common sense: fresh ways of organising and delivering food production; ways that offered massive improvements in crop yields, animal husbandry and the supply chain from farm to market to final consumer.

Let’s return for a moment to my earlier comment that the new style of eighteenth-century closely resembled today’s agriculture, but without the use of machinery. Lacking suitable machines, manpower — and woman and child power — had to be used instead. Even when primitive versions of suitable machinery were invented, their take-up was slow. Not until mid-Victorian times were items like seed drills in common use. Why bother with machinery when there were people ready and eager to do the work?

Men (and Women) as Machines

The trouble with agricultural work is that it is intermittent and highly seasonal, depending on varying crop yields and even more varying weather. Harvest time requires all available resources, yet may occur on almost any days over a period of a month or more. Today’s high-tech farmer uses contractors with vast machines to hoover up his crop in a matter of hours. He doesn’t own the machines himself. If he did, all that capital outlay would lie idle for maybe 350 days a year or more.

Now translate the same problem to Georgian times. The farmer needs large numbers of labourers for short periods. He doesn’t want to employ them at other times. That would be money wasted, even if he could afford it. Instead, he hires them as and when he needs them, paying them by the day, and lays them off as soon as he can. It’s simple business sense. It’s not his problem if they have no work at other times.

Those few skilled agricultural workers needed all year — shepherds, stockmen, wagoners and perhaps ploughmen — would be hired via the annual hiring fairs, contracting their labour at a set rate for the 12 months to come. They had some job security. The day labourers had none.

Posted in Agriculture, C18th Norfolk, Georgian Society

Georgian Mercantilism


The English Merchant Ship ‘Malabar’
William Clark

Mercantilism was the main economic idea underpinning British government policy on trade from the 16th to the 18th centuries. As such, it defined the nature, direction and systems used in commerce, especially overseas trading. It also lay behind Britain’s almost casual acquisition of colonies in the same time period. Huge, government-backed trading empires, like the East India Company, were the standard bearers of an accelerating drive to monopolise the most profitable markets for British goods, while blocking attempts by other countries to swing a greater share of trading wealth towards themselves.

Mercantilism is based on an economic theory that the total amount of wealth available at any one time is fixed. It is up to each country, therefore, to get and retain as large a share of that total as possible. Since export trade generates wealth, just as importing spends it, to accumulate more wealth requires weighting the balance between imports and exports in favour of exports. Imperialism looked to be a good way of ensuring a steady flow of exports, especially of high-value manufactured goods, while providing a correspondingly cheap source of the necessary raw materials. Other profitable trade imbalances were encouraged by protectionism: limiting imports of foreign goods which might compete with home-based manufacturing by imposing tariffs or trade embargoes.

Bullion is King

The method used in mercantilism to measure a country’s wealth and success is the amount of gold and silver bullion it has in its treasury. A country which has more bullion than another must be wealthier, more powerful and more secure; with greater freedom to impose its will on other, less successful states. Once again, the best way to ensue a strong holding of gold and silver bullion was to maximise exports and limit imports, thus creating a constant net inflow of foreign bullion to maintain or swell the country’s existing stocks. At a time when national currencies were linked to physical holdings of bullion, this seemed plain common sense. The richer you were, the more freedom you had to pursue further expansion, whether through conquest or seizure of lands and resources.

Mercantile Investment

However, mercantilism was about more than accumulating stocks of bullion. By themselves, such stocks were of little practical use. It was what you did with the favourable balance of trade — the strong net inflow of wealth — which mattered most. What the great Georgian merchants wanted was freedom to use their wealth to create *more* wealth; to be able to invest their money how and where they wished, not have the government take it in taxes and duties, then use it in unproductive ways such as warfare or buying political alliances.

Mercantilist thinkers, starting in the 17th century with Sir William Petty, scientist, economist and inventor, were concerned with maximising employment and improving labour productivity. Using their capital in this way would, they argued, produce still greater wealth. Purchasers of goods created income for merchants and manufacturers, along with a source of livelihood for the poor. The miser who saved his money, and the government which wasted it on political patronage and overseas adventures, produced nothing for anyone.

Free Trade

In many ways, free trade, as championed by 18th-century thinkers like Adam Smith, seems to be the antithesis of the protectionist approach of the mercantilists. Yet even Adam Smith was not opposed to regulation or protectionism *per se*; his concern was how much should be used and under what circumstances. Too much regulation gave the government excessive power — and offered too many opportunities for rogue individuals to abuse it for personal gain. Some was needed, but it should always be kept to a minimum. Left alone, the naturally competing demands of a market economy would settle into a balanced state. Protecting employment and investing capital to increase wealth are neither unworthy nor unreasonable aims. Most of the good things of life — the arts, medicine, education, the sciences, enough leisure time and civilised living conditions — depend on creating a sufficient surplus of disposable wealth over essential expenditures. The free traders felt this was such an obvious goal for everyone involved in business there was no need for clumsy regulations to make it happen.

Our Georgian forefathers wanted to have their cake and eat it too; to be able to trade freely themselves *and* defend employment at home. In that sense, they had the same outlook as most people today. Where they differed from us most was in their definition of what kinds of trade were ethically acceptable.

Ethical Profits — or Just Easy Ones?

The slave trade to us is an abomination, yet a good many of the grand Georgian mansions and their exquisite contents we so admire were paid for, directly or indirectly, from the profits of that trade. The same goes for the sugar produced by the slaves. To us, there was too often gross exploitation of conquered peoples via imperial rule. Generally speaking, the Georgians saw opportunities for profit first and any ethical considerations some way behind. In the eyes of most churchmen of the time, God had given mankind the earth to use for its benefit. If that meant the powerful and technologically advanced called the shots, that was simply the natural order, just as the most powerful animal predators could not be expected to concern themselves with the feelings of their prey.

Is Mercantilism Discredited?

Only by theorists. Mercantilism as policy is alive and in robust health today. The current fuss about “trade wars” and the impositions of tariffs against “foreign dumping of goods” would seem completely normal to any 18th century merchant. Several modern countries are praised, even envied, for running trade surpluses, and there are few governments which do not make increasing net exports a major policy goal. Yet an economic policy that helps employment at home must either induce other countries to limit their exports or accept lower levels of employment in *their* economies. Free trade — a complete lack of protectionism — may be more efficient than protectionism, but of itself it does nothing to increase trading volumes or deal with the obvious problems of work being exported as goods are imported.

The Georgian merchants with their openly mercantile policies were trying to cope with exactly the same problems of unequal distribution of wealth as we are today — and without our supposed advantages of two-and-a-half further centuries of economic theorising and historical perspective. Maybe it’s time we viewed their efforts with more understanding and fewer automatic and superficial judgements.

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William Savage, Georgian Musician

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Boy Chorister of the Chapel Royal
Richard Buckner, 1873 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Recently, entirely by chance, I discovered the existence of my Georgian namesake, William Savage, who turned out to be a distinguished musician, noted singer, capable composer and long-term friend of the great George Frederick Handel himself. Indeed, William Savage took solo roles in many performances of Handel’s choral and operatic works under the composer’s personal direction.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me say that this William Savage is, to the best of my belief, not directly related to me in any way. Savage is not that uncommon a surname and occurs in several distinct, regional clusters. It’s possible that, in the sufficiently remote past, the Georgian William’s ancestors and mine were linked, but there’s nothing to prove it. All this William and I can be proved to share is the same name.

His Life

William Savage was born in 1720 and died in 1789. He seems to have spent nearly all of his life in London, initially as a singer, then as choirmaster, composer and admired teacher of singing and music theory. He was also an eager collector of music manuscripts, many of which remain in public and academic collections.

Savage’s family, like many others, lost a considerable amount in the financial collapse known as the South Sea Bubble. However, his own natural musical talent was noted early and he became a pupil of Dr. Pepusch and the Italian musician/composer Geminiani, with a view to making music his profession. At the time, this would have meant securing suitable employment in the musical activities of the Anglican church. He became organist of Finchley Church, Middlesex, in 1741 and a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (a professional member of the choir in the Royal chapel in St. James) in 1744. His eminence as a church musician was assured when, in 1747, he was appointed Almoner (a minor church official, originally in charge of distributing money to the deserving poor, but latterly mainly an honorific title), Vicar Choral (another term for a professional cathedral cathedral choir member) and Master of the Choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a post he was to hold for almost 30 years. Ill health forced him to resign as Master of the Choristers in 1773 and as a Vicar Choral in 1777. He left London and lived at Tenterden, in Kent, for some four years after that to recover his health. Finally, in 1781 he returned to London as a music teacher and died in 1789.

He married a reputedly beautiful and definitely wealthy young woman (she had a fortune of £19,000 (some £3.5 million in today’s terms). It seems to have been a happy marriage, producing the children who survived. The elder of the two sons entered the church. The younger went to work for the East India Company, got involved in some sort of scandal and had to leave England for the West Indies, where he died a few years later.

His Musical Activities

Dr Burney claimed that the young Savage sang as a boy treble in the choir of the Chapel Royal in St. James, London, but there seems to be some doubt of this. What is agreed, however, is that he first came to public notice singing treble in a number of Handel’s popular Italian operas in the 1730s. This close association with the great George Frederick Handel continued for many years. After his voice had broken, William Savage sang bass in many of Handel’s operas and oratorios. He obviously must have had a fine voice and excellent musicianship to persuade Handel to use him so many times.

As a composer, Savage’s output was predominantly geared towards the Anglican church. He wrote a good number of anthems, together with various settings of the services and similar music. He also wrote more than a dozen secular songs, several duets and number of ‘catches’: the pieces for group singing which were so popular at the time. The list of his principal pupils reads like a roll-call of the most eminent English church musicians of the day.

Why has he been nearly forgotten? Perhaps because his performances were as a singer and left nothing behind but memories. Perhaps because he largely confined his compositions to church music at a time when the Anglican church was even more than usually moribund. Perhaps because the main chronicler of music at the time, Dr. Charles Burney, revealed a clear antipathy to Savage, damning him with faint praise and snide innuendos. Perhaps only for the same reason as the many pupils he taught: because English music was at one of its lowest points and the public wisely looked to foreign composers for pieces of real distinction.

Jane Savage

Before leaving William Savage, I have to mention his only daughter, Jane, who was arguably the most successful and interesting of his three children — at least until she married and gave up a musical career.

Jane was born in either 1752 or 1753 and lived until 1824. She obviously inherited her father’s musical talent, becoming a noted player of the harpsichord and a composer in her own right. Her published works appeared mostly in the 1780s and included several bravura pieces for both harpsichord and piano. Since the printed scores gave her address as the house her father was living in at the time, we can assume she lived with him.

Unfortunately, first her mother Mary, née Bolt, died in 1788, followed by her father in 1789. Left alone, Jane married a Mr Rolleston, described as “a respectable merchant of Mincing Lane”. Whether she continued her musical career is not clear, but she certainly published no more pieces under her married name. I suspect she gave herself up to domesticity, despite her music’s popularity at the time. For a respectable married woman to follow a career of any kind was far from usual in those days. One can only hope the trade-off of any career for the security of marriage proved to be a good one.

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