London grew by leaps and bounds during the 18th century, becoming the largest city in Europe with a population of over one million people. Formal squares sprung up in the tony West End, where it became de rigeur for the upper classes to rent a “First rate” townhouse and spend the Season in “Town.” These Palladian-influenced townhouses, though a vast improvement over the helter-skelter, hodgepodge buildings of medieval London, were not huge by today’s standards. Four stories high and at least over 900 square feet in size, town dwellings were much smaller than a family’s country house counterpart.
Successful parties and dances were deemed to be crushes and squeezes when over a hundred invited guests attempted to circulate in townhouses no more than two rooms wide. As with theatre or stadium traffic today, it would often take an hour for a carriage to queue up before it reached the front door and could disgorge its passengers. The guests would then be announced by the butler (in stentorious tones, no doubt) as they entered inside. Jane Austen described a crush in the Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath as Mrs. Allen and Catherine Morland made their way around the rooms, and such a situation was frequently mentioned in Georgette Heyer’s novels. The illustration by George Cruikshank below visually sums up the experience:
“The inconveniences of a crowded drawing room”, a famous May 6th 1818 caricature by George Cruikshank. Shows a crowded royal “drawing room” reception (in a London palace). The woman at the left (whose train is being stepped on) is wearing the old-fashioned hooped “court dress” (abolished 1820), while the man in the door is wearing formal breeches (many of the other men are wearing military uniforms). The moustache of the man on the right had connotations of foreign (Continental) and/or military dandyism at the time. – Wikimedia
Even Carlton House was not immune to crushes, where George IV as Prince Regent entertained his guests on a massive scale. On one occasion he opened the lavish banqueting room to the public. The prince regent had acquired a 4,000-piece Grand Service made of silver gilt, which included 140 dishes, 288 silver plates and a variety of cutlery from goldsmith, Rundell, Bridge, and Rundell at a cost of £60,000 (more than £3million in today’s money). Heavily in debt, this profligate prince held a banquet on June 19, 1811 for 2,000 people at Carlton House to celebrate his elevation to Prince Regent, though he excluded the queen, his wife, and Princess Charlotte, his daughter. His mother chose not to attend.
The guests were invited to arrive at 9 pm for a dinner which did not commence until 2 am, and they found the most extraordinary thing they had ever seen. Along the length of the building was a table, 200 ft long, with a stream running down the middle of it. Not only was this babbling brook lined with banks of moss and aquatic flowers, but it even had real fish swimming in it.
Beyond the main building, extra rooms and marquees had been erected to cope with the numbers while covered walks through the gardens were lined with rose-filled trellises and mirrors. The tradesmen’s bills for temporary fittings alone came to £2,585 (more than £130,000 today).
‘Nothing was ever half so magnificent,’ wrote one guest, Thomas Moore. ‘It was, in reality, all that they try to imitate in the gorgeous scenery of the theatre.’
The source of the artificial river was a fountain in the Gothic Conservatory. Above this fountain, in a feather-backed mahogany chair, sat the Prince Regent himself, dressed in the uniform of a Field Marshal. George III had always refused to give his son the rank of Field Marshal, but now the heir to the throne was also Regent, he bestowed it on himself anyway.
Behind the Prince, an enormous display of gold and silver plate had been piled high, just in case anyone needed reminding of his wealth and status. But because the Prince had yet to buy much of the Grand Service, even he was still a little short of silver for a party of this magnitude.*
To accommodate such an enormous number of guests, the prince had to borrow seven tons of gold and silver plate for the occasion. Sixty servants waited on the guests, some of whom stayed until 5:30 AM. The prince opened the palace to the public for three days afterwards. Instead of diminishing, the crowds arrived in increasing numbers, creating chaos.
‘The condescension of the Prince in extending the permission to view the arrangements for the late fete at Carlton House has nearly been attended with fatal consequences,’ reported one newspaper.
‘Wednesday being the last day of the public being admitted, many persons took their station at the gates so early as seven o’clock. By twelve, the line of carriages reached down St James’s Street, as far as Piccadilly, and the crowd of pedestrians halfway up the Haymarket.
At three o’clock the crowd had so much increased that the Guards were forced to give way; several ladies were unfortunately thrown down and trampled upon; and we regret to learn that some were seriously hurt, among whom were Miss Shum of Bedford Square, and a young lady, daughter of a gentleman at the British Museum.
‘Another young lady presented a shocking spectacle; she had been trodden on till her face was quite black from strangulation, and every part of her body bruised to such a degree as to leave little hopes of her recovery.’
The crush led to acute embarrassment as people lost their clothes – or control of their bladders. As the Rev G.N. Wright observed, those ‘fortunate enough to escape personal injury, suffered in their dress; and few of them could leave Carlton House until they had obtained fresh garments’.*
The prince’s brother climbed a wall and told the crowd that there would be no further public admission, and the crowd dispersed, but not before leaving an indelible impression. Prinny continued to add to his Grand Service and held another grand fete in the Duke of Wellington’s honor five years later.
More links on this topic
- *Article about the Buckingham Palace fete: Mail Online (Banquet image from this site)