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Archive for the ‘Georgian London’ Category

Landing page to Rowlandson's characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders, intended as a companion to the New Picture of London, with an image of Drayman.

One of the privileges of using technology is our ability to peruse original editions online. We no longer need to travel to major city and university libraries to hunt down sources, or travel to distant states and lands, although viewing Jane Austen’s letters at the Morgan Library exhibit in New York gave me an unexpected thrill and feeling of awe.

Thomas Rowlandson is one of my favorite artists/caricaturists of the Georgian era. I hold him and the French caricaturist, Honoré-Victorin Daumier, in the highest esteem. As soon as I discovered this link I wanted to share it with you, the readers of this blog.

The following link leads directly to Rowlandson’s characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders, intended as a companion to the New Picture of London. Published in London in 1820, the 54 scenes of London street life would have been very familiar to Jane Austen and her family. In fact, to understand the world she lived in, one must view the lives led by all the social orders in her era.

Rowlandson's "Chairs to Mend" detail of man, dog, and potential customer

One reason I love Rowlandson cartoons is the attention he pays to details – the dog reacting to his street cries, the chair mending materials he carries, the old woman in the background holding a chair to mend – with deft lines he recreates a noisy, raucous street scene. This image from the British Library is in the public domain.

Jane, who traveled to Bath and London and other large towns, was no simpering Miss. She must have been exposed (infrequently, perhaps) to scenes such as the one depicted in “Strawberries.”  If she did not view them as an eye witness, she might well have come upon to the many caricatures publicly hanging for sale in print shop windows or printed in publications.

Detail of "Strawberries" from Rowlandson's characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders, intended as a companion to the New Picture of London

Rowlandson incorporates rich story telling into his masterful drawings. The strawberry seller in the front of this detail has packaged her fruit tidily in small baskets, which the customer at right carries away with some satisfaction. The strawberry seller in the background at left sells her fruit loosely, allowing the male customer to bend over and ogle her bosom while grabbing for her berries, a not so subtle jab at the many streetwalkers (both day and night) occupying London at the time.

Jane’s pugnacious sense of humor, evident from her juvenilia and in a more sophisticated fashion in her later novels and letters, makes sense, given her talent, the way in which her family nurtured her budding talent, and the influence satiric novels and cartoons of the day must have had on her. No matter how gently bred a young lady might be (except for the most shielded), there was no escaping the dichotomy between the rules of etiquette for the gently bred and the general licentiousness of the Georgian era.

Rowlandson depicts both worlds masterfully in the hand-colored plates we are privileged to view in this online resource.

Two pages in Rowlandson's characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders, intended as a companion to the New Picture of London, depicting Door-Mats seller and Earthen-ware seller.

I love how Rowlandson draws details of every day life that no longer exists: the maid choosing a new door mat and another maid scrubbing the front stoop, while she is ogled by an old man. In ‘Earthen-Ware,’ a lady of quality inspects the pots and bowls for sale. This is a straightforward depiction of merchants trying to make a sale, one in which I can readily imagine Jane Austen as the customer. This public domain image was taken from this link on the British Library website.

 

Image of a lady selling poodle pups to a couple in Rowlandson's characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders, intended as a companion to the New Picture of London.

One of the sweeter drawings in Rowlandson’s book. Public domain image from the British Library/

One can learn so much from these illustrations about early 19th century London and a life once lived and now lost. Heartbreaking scenes (such as those with the chimney sweepers and coal heavers) are interspersed with a sweet depiction of a young gardener showing his wares to a pretty woman or a funny scene of a woman crying “sweet lavender” while holding a screaming baby. These images help me understand Jane Austen’s London experiences better, while making me appreciate the sheer artistry of the man who created them.

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Inquiring readers, Tony Grant from London Calling has contributed yet another wonderful article. Inspired by my visit to Williamsburg a few weeks ago, he decided to research some of the buildings in more depth.

The Sir Christopher Wren building at the William and Mary College in Virginia is the oldest academic building in the United States. It was built between 1695 and 1700. However its origins began long before that and a long and tortuous path was followed before the construction of the college could be  begun.

1700s view of William & Mary college with Wren building. @All Posters. Click on image to go to the site.

1700s view of William & Mary college with Wren building. @All Posters. Click on image to go to the site.

In 1618 The Virginia Company of London ordered the construction of a university at Henrico, a few miles south of the present day city of Richmond. By 1619 Sir Edwyn Sandys the treasurer of The Virginia Company reported that £1,500 had been collected and also that every bishop in England had been asked to collect money from their parishioners for the construction of the university. In July 1619, workmen were sent  from England to construct the university. In 1622 an Indian uprising destroyed Henrico. In 1624 Virginia became a Royal Colony and the licence of The Virginia Company was revoked. This removed the charter allowing the building of the university. In 1661 The General Assembly authorised the purchase of land for the building of a college. Nothing happened until 1690 when the Church of England clergy in Virginia put forward propositions for the construction of a college. The reverend James Blair was sent to England in 1691 to petition the new King and Queen, Willam and Mary, to grant a charter to establish a college. The King provided £1,985 14s 10d for the construction of a college to be named William and Mary. There was also a 1d tax placed on all tobacco sold to other countries apart from Britain to raise money. In 1693 a tract of land was purchased for £170 from Captain Thomas Ballard. In May 1694 The Royal College of Arms, which is situated beside St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, created a coat of arms for the college. In 1695 the first bricks were laid of the foundation of the college.

Sir Christopher Wren

Sir Christopher Wren

This original building of the college is thought to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren. There is no documentary evidence to prove this but there are some arguments in favour of Wren being the architect. Wren was the King’s chief architect and William and Mary authorised the construction of the college. The Church of England used Wren as their chief architect in London and it was the Church of England ministers in Virginia who instigated the building of the college. Wren was also responsible for many other important buildings throughout Britain. Wren was the architect who virtually rebuilt London after the Great Fire in 1666.

Detail of a Wren window

Detail of a Wren window

Sir Christopher Wren was a scientist and mathematician and became one of England’s most famous architects. He was responsible for designing and building over fifty London churches and he was the builder of St Paul’s cathedral in the city. He was born on October 20th 1632 in East Knoyle, a village in Wiltshire in Southern England. His father was the local rector. His father later moved to Windsor and Christopher went to Westminster School, situated next to Westminster Abbey and then went on to Oxford University. He had a talent for mathematics and also inventing things. In 1657 Wren was appointed as the professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London and four years later he became the professor of astronomy at Oxford.

he Royal College of Arms next to St Pauls where the coat of arms for William and Mary College was created. Image @Tony Grant

The Royal College of Arms next to St Pauls where the coat of arms for the College of William and Mary was created. Image @Tony Grant

In 1662 he was one of the founding members of The Royal Society along with other great mathematicians and scientists. From his interest in physics and mathematics he developed an interest in architecture. In 1664 and 1665 he was commissioned to build the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and also the chapel of Pembroke College Cambridge. Architecture then became his main interest. He visited Paris and became interested in the baroque style. In 1666 The Great Fire of London destroyed much of the old city. This provided a great opportunity for Wren. He drew up designs for a grand new city. However, many of his ideas did not come to fruition because the owners of different parcels of land, in the city, did not want to sell. Wren was able, though, to design fifty-one churches and St Paul’s Cathedral.

Grinling Gibbons

Grinling Gibbons

Returning to the possibility of Wren designing the William and Mary College in Virginia, it is interesting to compare Wren’s known buildings with the college to see what similarities in style there might be. I referred to the efforts to raise the finances to build the college and maybe there was a difficulty here. When you compare what Wren built here in England with William and Mary College there are many discrepancies. William and Mary College looks to be a very downmarket version of Wren’s classic buildings.

Wren Building. @William & Mary's website. Click on image to see the source.

Wren Building. @William & Mary’s website. Click on image to see the source.

There are some similarities in design and proportion though. Whoever did design William and Mary College could at least have had Wren as an inspiration. Wren worked closely with designers such as Grindling Gibbons, the wood carver and John Groves, the plasterer.

Carving design by Grinling Gibbons

Carving design by Grinling Gibbons

They both created the most ornate ceilings, wood panelling and facia stone carvings on Wrens buildings. These people were the most prominent and influential designers of their day. They would have charged a premium price for their talents and skills.From the pictures of William and Mary College these features are not present.

Details of wood work by Grinling Gibbons

Details of wood work by Grinling Gibbons

William and Mary, who the college is named after, provide an insight into the turbulent history after the even more turbulent times of the English Civil War.

William Henry Stuart was born on November 14th 1650 in the Hague in the Netherlands. He was the son of William II of Orange. In 1672 William was appointed Stadholder(chief magistrate)and captain general of the Dutch forces  to resist a French invasion of the Netherlands. In 1677 he married his cousin Mary, the eldest daughter of James, Duke of York who became James II of England. It was a diplomatic and politically inspired marriage intending to repair the rift between England and the Netherlands after the Anglo Dutch Wars. James II was a very unpopular monarch, not least because he was a catholic. The English Parliament tried to oppose James and wanted to reduce his powers. They secretly invited William and Mary to come to England and rule as joint monarchs. William landed at Torbay on 5th November 1688, a very nice Devon coastal resort these days, with an army of 14,000 troops. With local support this increased to 20,000 men. They advanced on London. This was called the Glorious Revolution. James fled to France and William and Mary were crowned as William III and Mary II. Parliament then passed the Bill of Rights which prevented a catholic taking the throne again and parliament also limited the powers of the monarch.

William and Mary

William and Mary

William and Mary did not like each other. William had a dour personality. He was asthmatic, twelve years older and several inches shorter than Mary and he was a homosexual by nature.

Sir Christopher Wren's addition to Hampton Court

Christopher Wren facade

If ever you visit Hampton Court you can walk around the 17th century part of the palace behind the old Tudor part which was designed and built by Sir Christopher Wren as a present for William and Mary. It was  also intended as an enticement to bring William to England as our monarch. William and Mary liked Hampton Court and spent a lot of time there.

Visitors today can process through all the rooms of state. A palace was designed to a specific plan. The first rooms you enter were waiting rooms. Ambassadors from other countries would wait until ushered into the next set of rooms to have an audience with the King. Rooms following on from that would be for the Kings own ministers. Following on to the next set of rooms, the greatest of the aristocracy and personal friends of the King would be admitted. As you process through the rooms further only the monarchs most intimate friends, advisors and family would be permitted.

Baroque interior of the King's apartments, Hampton Court. Click on image for source.

Baroque interior of the King’s apartments, Hampton Court. Click on image for source.

Finally you reach the Kings own personal rooms and, lastly, after all the grand state rooms, a small bedroom, lavishly decorated but very small, almost a closet, the kings own sleeping chamber. It is interesting to note that the room above the king’s bedroom was the room of his own personal manservant who was the only one who had access to the King in the night. His manservant could enter by way of a narrow staircase, which apparently, he often did. We can only surmise!

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Chelsea Buns. Image courtesy @

Chelsea Buns. Image courtesy @Kathleen Corfield, The Ordinary Cook (Click on blog for the British recipe.)

Our crocuses and daffodils are blooming in Richmond, making me realize that Easter and spring and hot cross buns are just around the corner. Back in Jane Austen’s day, the Chelsea bun was the treat of choice.  These sticky sweet buns, filled with raisins and currants and topped with a sugary glaze, were sold by the tens of thousands at the famous Chelsea Bun-House on Pimlico Road near Sloane Square in London (technically Pimlico, not Chelsea), which was frequented by Royalty and the public alike.

During the last century, and early in the present, a pleasant walk across green fields, intersected with hedges and ditches, led the pedestrian from Westminster and Millbank to “The Old Bun House” at Chelsea. This far-famed establishment…stood at the end of Jew’s Row (now Pimlico Road), not far from Grosvenor Row. The building was a one-storeyed structure, with a colonnade projecting over the foot pavement, and was demolished in 1839, after having enjoyed the favour of the public for more than a century and a half. ” – Old and New London: Volume 5, Edward Walford, 1878, British History Online, Chelsea

“I soon turned the corner of a street which took me out of sight of the space on which once stood the gay Ranelagh. … Before me appeared the shop so famed for Chelsea buns, which for above thirty years I have never passed without filling my pockets. In the original of these shops—for even of Chelsea buns there are counterfeits—are preserved mementoes of domestic events in the first half of the past century. The bottle-conjuror is exhibited in a toy of his own age; portraits are also displayed of Duke William and other noted personages; a model of a British soldier, in the stiff costume of the same age; and some grotto-works, serve to indicate the taste of a former owner, and were, perhaps, intended to rival the neighbouring exhibition at Don Saltero’s. These buns have afforded a competency, and even wealth, to four generations of the same family; and it is singular that their delicate flavour, lightness, and richness, have never been successfully imitated.” – Sir Richard Phillips,  “Morning’s Walk from London to Kew,” 1817.

Chelsea Bun-House image from The Mirror, Google eBook

Chelsea Bun-House image from The Mirror, Google eBook

The building was fifty-two feet long, by twenty-one feet wide. The colonnade e xtended over the foot pavement into the street, and afforded a tempting shelter and resting-place to the passenger to stop and refresh himself. Latterly the floor of the colonnade was level with the road, which has probably been considerably raised; as in the old print it is represented as a platform with steps at the three doors for company to alight from their carriages. – The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume 11, 1839

Not all of the bun house’s customers enjoyed the sweet sticky buns, as Dean Swift attests in 1711: “Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town? was it not R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rrare Chelsea buns ? I bought one today in my walk ; it cost me a penny ; it was stale, and I did not like it, as the man said, [R-r-r-r-rnre] Sec.” – (Journal to Stella. May 2, 1711.)

It is not to be wondered at, that the witty Dean did not relish his stale bun ; for, to be good, it should be made with a good deal of butter, be very light, and eat hot. Chelsea Buns formed a frequent cry in the streets of London during the last century, and were as popular as the Bath Buns of the present time. The cry (or rather song) was ” Chelsea Buna, hot Cheheii Buns, rare Chelsea Buns! ” Good Friday was the day in all the year when they were most in request; and the crowds that frequented the Bunhouse on that day, is almost past belief. – Gentleman’s Magazine

The following account was written in The Mirror, April 6, 1839, the year that the original Bun-House was demolished for improvements.

CHELSEA BUN-HOUSE. This Bun-House, whose fame has extended throughout the land, was first established about the beginning of the last century; for, as early as 1712, it is thus mentioned by the celebrated Dean Swift:—”Pray are not the fine buns sold here in our town, as the rare Chelsea buns ? I bought one to-day in my walk,” &c.

The building consists of one story, fifty feet long, and fourteen feet wide. It projects into the high-way in an unsightly manner, in form of a colonade, affording a very agreeable shelter to the passenger in unfavourable weather.

The whole premises are condemned to be pulled down immediately, to make way for the proposed improvements of Chelsea and its neighbourhood, the bill for which is in committee of the House of Commons, under the superintendance of that most active member, Sir Matthew Wood.

It was the fashion formerly for the royal family, and the nobility and gentry, to visit Chelsea Bun-House in the morning. His Majesty King George the Second, Queen Caroline, and the Princesses, frequently honoured the elder Mrs. Hand with their company.

Their late Majesties King George III, and Queen Charlotte, were also much in the habit of frequenting the Bun-House when their children were young, and used to alight and sit to look around and admire the place and passing scene. The Queen presented Mrs. Hand with a silver half-gallon mug, richly enchaced, with five guineas in it, as a mark of her approbation for the attentions bestowed upon her during these visits: this testimonial was kept a long time in the family.

On the morning of Good Friday, the Bunhouse used to present a scene of great bustle; it was opened as early as four o’clock j and the concourse of people was so great, that it was difficult to approach the house; it has been estimated that more than fifty thousand persons have assembled in the neighbourhood before eight in the morning; at length it was found necessary to shut it up partially, in order to prevent the disturbances and excesses of the immense unruly and riotous London mob which congregated on those occasions. Hand-bills were printed, and constables stationed to prevent a recurrence of these scenes.

Whilst Ranelagh was in fashion, the BunHouse was much frequented by the visitors of that celebrated temple of pleasure ; but after the failure of Ranelagh, the business fell off in a great degree, and dwindled into insignificance.

Interior of Chelsea Bun-House. Image from 1839 edition of The Mirror, Google eBook

Interior of Chelsea Bun-House. Image from 1839 edition of The Mirror, Google eBook. The inside of the Bun-House was fitted up as a museum. It might have contained some very curious articles, but the most valuable had long since disappeared.The materials of the building, with the relics of the museum, were sold by auction April 18, 1839, and the whole was immediately cleared away. – Gentleman’s Magazine

Click here to see a color drawing of the Bun-House interior at the British Museum

See another image of the Bun-House at Swann Galleries

INTERIOR Of CHELSEA BUN-HOUSE. The interior was formerly fitted up in a very singular and grotesque style, being furnished with foreign clocks, and many natural and artificial curiosities from abroad ; but most of these articles have disappeared since the decease of Mrs. Hand.

At the upper end of the shop is placed, in a large glass-case, a model of Radcliffe Church, at Bristol, cut out very curiously and elaborately in paste-board ; but the upper towers, pinnacles, &c. resemble more an eastern mosque than a Christian church.

Over the parlour door is placed an equestrian coloured statue, in lead, of William, the great Duke of Cumberland, in the military costume of the year 1745, taken just after the celebrated battle of Culloden: it is eighteen inches in height.

On each side stand two grenadier guards, presenting arms, and in the military dress of the above period, with their high sugarloaf caps, long-flap coats, and broad gerilles, and old-fashioned muskets, presenting a grotesque appearance, when compared with the neat short-cut military trim of the present day. These figures are also cast in lead, and coloured; are near four feet high, and weigh each about two hundred weight.

Underneath, on the wall, is suspended a whole-length portrait, much admired by connoisseurs, of Aurengzebe, Emperor of Persia. This is probably the work of an Italian artist, but his name is unknown.

After the death of Mrs. Hand, the business was carried on by her son, who was an eccentric character, and used to dress in a very peculiar manner,; he dealt largely in butter which he carried about the streets in a basket on his head; hot or cold, wet or dry, throughout the year, the punctual butterman made his appearance at the door, and gained the esteem of every one by his cheerful aspect and entertaining conversation ; for he was rich in village anecdote, and could relate all the vicissitudes of the neighbourhood for more than half a century.

After his decease, his elder brother came into the possession of the business; he had been bred it soldier, and was at that time one of the poor knights of Windsor, and was remarkable for his eccentric manners and costume. He left no family, nor relations, in consequence of which his property reverted to the crown…A writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. LIU. for July 1783, p. 578, speaking of Cross Buns in Passion week, observes, that ” these being, formerly at least, unleavened, may have a retrospect to the unleavened bread of the Jews, in the same manner as Lamb at Easter to the Pascal Lamb. “

Chelsea Bun-House, image @ Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume 11

Chelsea Bun-House, image @ Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume 11. One can see the raised steps leading to three doors where ladies and gentlemen could alight comfortably from their carriages.

 

Apparently when Chelsea Buns were invented there were two rivals who vied for the honor of selling the best buns: the Old Chelsea Bun House or the “Real Old Original Chelsea Bun-house.” On Good Friday, long lines of people waited to purchase the buns. In 1792, the Good Friday line was so long that the Bun-House skipped selling them the following year. A notice stated:

“Royal Bun House, Chelsea, Good Friday.—No Cross Buns. Mrs. Hand respectfully informs her friends and the public, that in consequence of the great concourse of people which assembled before her house at a very early hour, on the morning of Good Friday last, by which her neighbours (with whom she has always lived in friendship and repute) have been much alarmed and annoyed; it having also been intimated, that to encourage or countenance a tumultuous assembly at this particular period might be attended with consequences more serious than have hitherto been apprehended; desirous, therefore, of testifying her regard and obedience to those laws by which she is happily protected, she is determined, though much to her loss, not to sell Cross Buns on that day to any person whatever, but Chelsea buns as usual.”

Forty six years later, the Bun-House closed its doors for good. One has to wonder today if during her many trips to London Jane Austen traveled to the Bun-House on Pimlico Road to purchase a half-dozen of these fresh-baked delicacies.

Pimlico Road in 2012

Google map image of Pimlico Road in 2012 London, near what was once Grosvenor Row.

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Gentle readers, some months back Lucy Warriner expressed an interest in writing about Mary Darby Robinson. This past week she submitted this wonderful post about a fascinating and successful woman who embodied the Georgian Era – wife, mother, actress, mistress, and writer. Enjoy. Mary Darby Robinson (1758–1800) was a woman of considerable talent. She was one of the leading English actresses of her day, and she also published several volumes of poetry and prose. Yet Robinson’s tumultuous love life often rivaled her professional accomplishments. She was unhappily married, and the press maligned her for her affairs with the Prince of Wales and Revolutionary War veteran Banastre Tarleton. Mary Robinson’s autobiography, first published in 1801 as Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself,sheds light on her fascination with the stage, which started at an early age and continued even after she became a full-time writer.

Bristol in the 18th century

Mary Darby, daughter of John Darby and Mary Seys Darby, was born in Bristol, England, on November 27, 1758. Her father pursued whaling in Labrador and America while she, her mother, and her four siblings remained in England. John Darby acquired a mistress, and after young Mary’s parents separated, the family finances were strained. However, John Darby intermittently funded his daughter’s education at schools in Chelsea, Battersea, and London. At Chelsea, teacher Meribah Lorrington fostered Mary’s love of reading and encouraged her when she began to write poetry.

Mrs. Robinson as Melania

As a fifteen-year-old student at Oxford House in Marylebone, Mary was still drafting poems, even planning a great tragedy. This was a fitting development, for she had long shown a flair for the sentimental and dramatic. As a child, she had delighted in sad poetry and music, and she loved “the awful though sublime impression which the church service never failed to make upon [her] feelings” (Robinson, Memoirs 8–9). The recollection of seeing King Lear, the first play she ever attended, remained vivid throughout her life. In time, one of Mary’s teachers at Oxford House noticed her “extraordinary genius for dramatic exhibitions” (Robinson 31). The school dancing instructor, who was also employed at Covent Garden Theatre in London, put Mary and her mother in touch with Thomas Hull, the theatre manager. Hull, too, discerned Mary’s talent, and it was soon decided that her first performance would be opposite acclaimed thespian David Garrick in Lear.

David Garrick as King Lear, London, 1761. Image @UC, Berkeley

Garrick soon began coaching Mary for her debut, and she seems to have been his prize pupil:

Garrick was delighted with everything I did. He would sometimes dance a minuet with me, sometimes request me to sing the favourite ballads of the day; but the circumstance which most pleased him was my tone of voice, which he frequently told me closely resembled that of his favourite Cibber [singer and actress Susannah Cibber, who was a member of Garrick’s Drury Lane troupe from 1753 to 1766]. (Robinson 37)

But while Mary relished the charismatic actor’s tutelage, she was unable to take full advantage of it. In the midst of her training, Mary met Thomas Robinson, an aspiring legal assistant who endeared himself to Mrs. Darby by bringing her books and comforting her when her son contracted smallpox. He turned his attentions to Mary when she, too, developed smallpox. When she was almost sixteen, Mary accepted Robinson’s marriage proposal and gave up the chance to appear in Lear with Garrick. The couple married on April 12, 1774, and remained in London. When Thomas wanted the union to remain secret, the new Mary Robinson discovered that he was an illegitimate child with no prospect of inheritance and a great amount of arrears.

St. Martin in the Fields. Mary’s wedding was not so well attended.

Despite his penury, Thomas Robinson lived extravagantly. He took a mistress, Harriet Wilmot, and associated with debauched spendthrifts Lord Lyttleton and George Robert Fitzgerald, both of whom propositioned Mary. Deeply unhappy, Mary Robinson’s thoughts again turned to the theatre. Encountering accomplished thespian Mrs. Abington at a party, she “thought the heroine of the scenic art was of all human creatures the most to be envied” (Robinson 80). When creditors laid claim to the Robinsons’ possessions, the couple moved to evade them, at one point staying with Thomas’s father in Wales. Mary gave birth to Maria Elizabeth, her first child, in Wales on November 18, 1774.

Frances (Fanny) Abington by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1764-1773

Upon his return to London in 1775, police apprehended Thomas Robinson and confined him in King’s Bench Prison. Mary and Maria joined him there, and their imprisonment lasted little more than a year. While Thomas began an affair with the wife of a fellow inmate, Mary rebuffed further offers to become a kept woman. She devoted herself to raising Maria, transcribing legal documents for Thomas, and writing poetry. Prior to her incarceration, Mary had published Poems by Mrs. Robinson to help offset her husband’s debts. Though it had not sold well, she forwarded a copy to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a devotee of literature who sponsored writers. Mary Robinson soon became the duchess’s protégé.

William Breteton, by Henry Walton, 1780

Once her husband was freed from prison, Robinson resumed acting to provide for the family. Thomas, who had never finished his legal training, was no breadwinner. A chance encounter with Drury Lane actor William Brereton, who introduced her to theatre manager and famed playwright Richard Sheridan, returned Robinson to the theatrical milieu. While pregnant with her second child, Sophia, she read Shakespeare for Sheridan and won his approval. Garrick, Robinson’s old mentor, came out of retirement to coach her for the lead in Romeo and Juliet.

Drury Lane Theatre

In a flurry of nerves, she debuted at Drury Lane Theatre opposite Brereton’s Romeo in December 1776:

When I approached the side-wing my heart throbbed convulsively; I then began to fear that my resolution would fail, and I leaned upon the Nurse’s [the character of Juliet’s nurse] arm, almost fainting. Mr. Sheridan and several other friends encouraged me to proceed; and at length, with trembling limbs and fearful apprehension, I approached the audience. The thundering applause that greeted me nearly overpowered all my faculties. I stood mute and bending with alarm, which did not subside till I had feebly articulated the few sentences of the first short scene, during the whole of which I never once ventured to look at the audience. . . . The second scene being the masquerade, I had time to collect myself. I shall never forget the sensation which rushed upon my bosom when I first looked towards the pit. . . . All eyes were fixed upon me, and the sensation they conveyed was awfully impressive; but the keen, the penetrating eyes of Mr. Garrick, darting their lustre from the centre of the orchestra, were, beyond all others, the objects most conspicuous. As I acquired courage, I found the applause augment; and the night was concluded with peals of clamorous approbation. (Robinson 129–131)

18th century actors on stage

Robinson’s appearance as Juliet led to a four-year acting career in which she starred in forty dramas, at times portraying several characters per week or per play. In February 1777, she followed her turn as Juliet with appearances in Alexander the Great and in Sheridan’s A Trip to Scarborough. The latter play was adapted from another work, and it elicited “a considerable degree of disapprobation” from audience members who had expected an original play (Robinson 132). Nevertheless, Robinson carried the day:

An audience watching a play at Drury Lane Theatre, by Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1785

I was terrified beyond imagination when Mrs. Yates, no longer able to bear the hissing of the audience, quitted the scene, and left me alone to encounter the critic tempest. I stood for some moments as though I had been petrified. Mr. Sheridan, from the side wing, desired me not to quit the boards; the late Duke of Cumberland, from the stage box, bade me take courage: “It is not you, but the play, they hiss,” said his Royal Highness. I curtsied; and that curtsey seemed to electrify the whole house, for a thundering appeal of encouraging applause followed. The comedy was suffered to go on, and is to this hour a stock play at Drury Lane Theatre. (Robinson 132).

It is no wonder that Robinson claimed she “was always received with the most flattering approbation” (Robinson 133).

Mary Robinson in stage costume as Amanda, by Roberts Robins

Indeed, Mary Robinson was a prominent figure in a great age of theater. She observed that her time on the stage marked a period when dramatists and thespians were exceptionally gifted, when public enthusiasm about the theater was high, and when she and three other young actresses—Miss Farren, Miss Walpole, and Miss P. Hopkins—dominated their field. Robinson’s most acclaimed heroines were Juliet, Ophelia in Hamlet, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Palmira in Mahomet. Yet for all her renown, Robinson’s family never completely approved of her career. Her mother “never beheld [her] on the stage but with a painful regret” (Robinson 151). Her brother attended one of her performances but walked out when she took the stage. Robinson was somewhat relieved that her father was always abroad and never saw her perform.

Richard Sheridan, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

In 1778, Robinson took time off from acting to give birth to Sophia and mourn the infant’s passing less than two months later . Sheridan, who had planned for her to star in The School for Scandal, was unfailingly supportive during her bereavement. Robinson considered him her “most esteemed of friends,” and she found his grief over Sophia’s death deeper than her husband’s (Robinson 153). When she was ready to work again, Sheridan helped find Robinson summer employment at Haymarket Theatre. However, a casting dispute with the director resulted in her receiving payment but never taking the stage.

Theatre goers: The laughing audience, Edward Matthew Ward, from an etching by William Hogarth made in 1733

Mary Robinson had returned to acting in 1779 when her life changed drastically. A twenty-one-year-old with many celebrated performances to her name, she was hopeful about her future. Though Thomas remained negligent, the Robinsons’ financial situation was improving. Ever concerned for Mary, Sheridan worried that she would exceed her income and/or have an affair with one of her many wealthy admirers, thereby jeopardizing her acting career. His fears were well founded. King George III and Queen Charlotte requested a performance of The Winter’s Tale, in which Robinson played Perdita. When the royal family attended the play on December 3, 1779, the seventeen-year-old Prince of Wales unashamedly admired her:

Mary Robinson as Perdita

I hurried through the first scene, not without embarrassment, owing to the fixed attention with which the Prince of Wales honoured me. Indeed, some flattering remarks which were made by his Royal Highness met my ear as I stood near his box, and I was overwhelmed with confusion. The Prince’s particular attention was observed by everyone. . . . On the last curtsy, the royal family condescendingly returned a bow to the performers; but just as the curtain was falling, my eyes met those of the Prince of Wales, and with a look that I never shall forget, he gently inclined his head a second time; I felt the compliment, and blushed my gratitude. . . . I met the royal family crossing the stage. I was again honoured with a very marked and low bow from the Prince of Wales. (Robinson 157-158) A few days later, Lord Malden (George Capel Coningsby) delivered Robinson a love letter from the Prince of Wales, who was an associate of his. The prince referred to her as “Perdita” and himself as “Florizel,” in the latter case referring to the prince in A Winter’s Tale who falls in love with Perdita. The press, which chronicled the relationship from its start, appropriated these names for their own use as well. Robinson at first refused to meet her new admirer, entering instead into an impassioned correspondence with him. Malden, who eventually fell in love with Mary himself, remained their reluctant go-between.

Caricature of the Prince of Wales as Florizel and Mary Robinson as Perdita, 1783

Eventually, the couple began meeting in person with third parties present, hoping to conceal the relationship until the prince was a legal adult. The prince guaranteed Robinson 20,000 pounds upon reaching his majority, and she left her husband and retired from acting.

At Vauxhall by Thomas Rowlandson. Mary Robinson stands at the right side on the front row, her husband (with cane) on one side and the Prince of Wales on the other.

Her last performance showcased her roles in The Miniature Picture and The Irish Widow. Robinson wept during the show, aware “that [she] was flying from a happy certainty, perhaps to pursue the phantom disappointment” (Robinson 177).

Caricature of Perdita and Charles James Fox (The Man & Woman of the People). He obtained an annuity for her from George III at the end of her affair with the prince.

Disappointment was, indeed, fast in coming. Before he formally and publicly acknowledged their love, Robinson received word from the prince that they could no longer see one another. He had given no prior indication of a change in his feelings, and all her attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. The press began lampooning Robinson mercilessly. Deeply in debt, she considered acting again but decided against it due to the general enmity against her. An invitation to meet the prince raised Robinson’s hopes, as did his renewed professions of love. But he quickly shunned her again, and their relationship was over by 1781. With the help of politician Charles James Fox, Robinson attempted to claim her promised 20,000 pounds, but in 1783 she instead accepted 500 pounds a year to make up for having abandoned her career.

Banastre Tarleton, miniature by Richard Cosway, 1782

After her disappointment with the prince, Robinson was linked romantically to Fox and Malden. Banastre Tarleton, a hard-living veteran of the American Revolution who moved in the same echelons as Malden, stole Mary away from him on a bet. Though sporadic, this relationship lasted for sixteen years, ending in 1798. As far as the press was concerned, it was the final blow against Robinson’s character. In 1784, at age twenty-four, she contracted rheumatism and developed paralysis that left her unable to walk. It is possible that botched treatment after she miscarried Tarleton’s child caused her condition. Robinson sought treatment in Germany and Flanders and returned to England in 1787.

Mrs Mary Robinson by George Romney

From the time she returned to England, Mary Robinson focused on writing and publishing. She wrote in a variety of genres, and her works were highly sought after due to the notoriety her love life had achieved. Poetry was a continuing interest for Robinson. She participated in the Della Cruscan movement that championed elaborate romantic verse; composed poems for the Morning Post, which also published Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s work; and published seven collections of her own verse between 1791 and 1800. Robinson also wrote eight novels, two of which alluded to her relationship with Tarleton.

Mary Darby Robinson by Thomas Gainsboroughm, 1781

Though they were less popular than her other projects, Robinson penned at least two works for performance. In the late 1780s, she was reputed to be composing an opera. If the rumors were true, no trace of the work survived. But the idea recalls Robinson’s youthful desire to write a tragedy. In 1793, she authored The Nobody, a play focusing on women gamblers. It was not her first foray into playwriting, for she had penned and acted in The Lucky Escape in 1778. Unfortunately, The Nobodymet with derision and only played for three nights before Robinson stopped production.

Mrs. Robinson from an engraving by Smith after Romney

Robinson’s last completed literary effort was A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Insubordination, published in 1799. In it, she asserted women’s right to escape unhappy marriages, defending her own lifestyle in the process. Robinson was at work on her memoirs when she died on December 26, 1800. Maria Robinson edited the existing manuscript and continued the narrative from the point at which her mother began corresponding with the Prince of Wales. Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herselfappeared in 1801, and a volume of verse, The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, appeared in 1806. In 1895, Robinson’s memoirs were republished as Memoirs of Mary Robinson, this time with an introduction and footnotes by J. Fitzgerald Molloy.

Fronticepiece of Mary Robinson’s Memoirs

Mary Robinson’s autobiography provides an intriguing glimpse into eighteenth-century London’s theatrical circles. Though her acclaimed acting career was cut short, Robinson channeled her innate sense of the dramatic into writing. Her poetry and prose have garnered sporadic interest, only attracting scholarly attention over the last several decades. But Robinson’s autobiography has had enduring appeal. Perhaps this is because Mary Robinson was far more than a royal mistress, even though much of her notoriety was based upon this role. Instead of confining herself to the domestic sphere, she was at once a wife, mother, and career woman. By leaving her unfaithful husband and taking lovers, she flouted sexual double standards and affirmed women’s autonomy within marriage. Thus the study of this intelligent, rebellious, and troubled woman—at once an inspiration and a tragic figure—will likely endure for many years to come. About the author of this post: Lucy Warriner is a North Carolina animal lover and dance enthusiast. She is also an ardent admirer of Jane Austen. Bibliography

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Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli, author of Avon Street, has contributed posts for this blog before about the City of Bath as a Character and Law & Order and Jane Austen’s Aunt. He has graciously sent in an article about food preparation in the 18th and 19th centuries. The content will astonish you. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit!

Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart–a very little bit. Ours are all apple-tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard.”

Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse, Emma, 2009

So says the ever-cautious, Mr Woodhouse, in Jane Austen’s Emma as he entertains his guests at supper. Yet Mr Woodhouse’s fears were not entirely in his imagination. At the time it was relatively common for commercially bought pickles and preserves to contain poisonous sulphate of copper to improve their eye-appeal. And even when prepared at home, the copper pans in which they were cooked, unless properly looked after, could also poison the ingredients.

Churning butter

Yet for most people who lived in the country, as Jane Austen did for much of her life, food-safety was not a major concern. Food was prepared and preserved either by the family themselves or by their domestic staff, and cooking and baking was done at home.

Food preparation in the kitchen.

The ingredients were for the most part grown and bought locally, and word travels quickly in small communities. Meat came from local farms or estates, and farmers and landowners had reputations to maintain, as did the local mill for flour, and the local shopkeepers for all that they sold.

Costermonger from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, 1840s.

The situation though, was very different in towns and cities. Here it was the shopkeepers and “costermongers” who sourced, stored, prepared and supplied the produce. And with a wider market at their disposal these tradesmen were often less concerned with quality, as they were with cost. The worst affected were the poor. For the most part they lived from hand-to-mouth and bought food in “pennyworths” or even “half-pennyworths.” Buying in these smaller quantities (enough for the day) meant goods often cost four or five times more than they would have cost had they been bought in regular quantities.

Bread Seller, William Henry Pyne, ca. 1805

Bread itself could be bought as quarter or half loaves and the poor subsisted largely on bread. But even then, bakers used chalk to make the bread whiter, and alum to enable the use of inferior flour, and while alum was not poisonous it inhibited the digestion and decreased the nutritional value of anything else their customers ate.

Rabbit seller, William Henry Pyne, 1805

The wealthier residents in towns and cities could afford a “better” diet, yet this too carried its own dangers. There was of course no refrigeration at the time and little concept of hygiene. In towns and cities most meat was killed locally, but then it had to be stored, sold and transported to the home. As late as 1862 the government estimated that one-fifth of butcher’s meat in England and Wales came from animals which had died of disease or were carrying considerably disease. And at the start of the nineteenth century butcher’s boys would deliver meat to the wealthier homes, carried on their heads, in baskets or trays, open to the heat and dirt of the day.

A butcher’s shop, by James Pollard

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the British population grew, and so did the towns and cities. The nation became more dependent on imported and processed foods. The growing “middle classes” were acquiring a growing taste for tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, and sauces and spices from around the world. The problem that the fictional Mr Woodhouse had been concerned about a few years earlier rapidly became a fact of life as the century progressed.

Coachman, seated, holding a tankard. Mezzotint by Ryley, printed in colours for John Bowles in London Feb. 1st, 1768

The “adulteration” of food and drink became increasingly commonplace. Producers, importers, merchants and sellers were all adding ingredients to increase bulk or “improve” appearance. The making of beer had more to do with chemistry than the brewing process. As Dr Richard Wetherby says, in my novel, Avon Street,

Have you any idea of how they adulterate the beer in the ale houses around Avon Street? It is full of foxglove, henbane, opium and God knows what other concoctions. They use chemicals so that they can water down the beer, keep its taste and appearance, but make it stronger, and still sell it cheaply.”

Cow Keeper’s Shop in London, 1825, George Scharf

Milk too, was often watered down, sometimes by as much as 50%. So common did the adulteration of food become that books on housekeeping routinely carried warnings and tests for detecting added chemicals like plaster of Paris. Mrs Beeton in prefacing a recipe for a popular anchovy paste warned against shop-bought pastes,

In six cases out of ten, the only portion of those preserved delicacies, that contains anything indicative of anchovies, is the paper label pasted on the bottle or pot, on which the word itself is printed.”

Typical coffee house, late 18th century

In 1851 The Lancet, medical journal, commissioned a doctor from the London Royal Free Hospital to examine the adulteration of thirty common foods. The study revealed that China tea contained 45% sand and dirt together with traces of sulphate of iron; lard contained carbonate of soda and caustic lime; coffee included chicory, mangel wurzel (root vegetable) sawdust, and acorns; cocoa and chocolate were coloured with earth and included arrowroot and Venetian lead; sweets (candy) were found to contain chromate of lead, sulphate of mercury and various other noxious flavourings and colourings. Red lead and other chemical colourings were found to be routinely used in foodstuffs such as “Red Leicester Cheese.”

Six pence a pound, fair cherryes

Even after the study was published the merchants, tradespeople and government were slow to respond. It was not until 1860 that the Adulteration Act was passed. Thankfully, technology and innovation helped in the interim. In 1857 a process for the mass production of ice was patented allowing foods to be better preserved and transported. The availability of canned goods also increased. The army had been supplied with canned foods since 1820, but the cans had to be opened with a chisel or a bayonet, until the can-opener was invented in 1858. As technology improved, mass-produced processed foods like soups, sauces, biscuits, chocolate, pickles and egg-powder became more popular and were prepared to more rigorous standards. And though the Adulteration Act was still largely resisted, in 1872 official inspectors were created with the power to test food and impose substantial fines. Quality and safety of food gradually improved, which I am sure would have pleased the fictional Mr Woodhouse.

Old Covent Garden market, 1825, Scharf

More on the topic:

Refrigerated milk cart, 19th c. This design, from the USA, used ice to keep the air temperature cool for the transport of milk. Holes in the compartments allowed air to circulate from where the ice compartments to the milk compartments.

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Fire!

Can there be a more frightening word in Georgian London?  The great fire in 1666 changed the landscape of that city forever. Once a densely packed city riddled with overcrowded, wood-timbered houses and dark, narrow lanes, the fire led the way to a change in building regulations that ushered in brick and stone edifices, wider streets, and public squares. Even with improvements, a fire still presented a horrifically dangerous situation.

Thomas Rowlandson captures the scene with such realism in “Inn Yard on Fire” that one can smell the smoke and fear, and hear the horses neighing, people screaming, furniture breaking, and wagon wheels squealing as guests and staff run around trying to save themselves, their possessions, and each other.

Fire at the Inn, by Thomas Rowlandson

Panic and pandemonium ensue. A man contemplates tossing a mirror from the second story, another pours his ineffectual chamber pot over the flames. A side table has been tossed through the window, while an anxious woman descends a ladder.

People are in various states of dress and undress. Some help others, some are  overcome with panic. A disabled man is carried from danger in a wheel barrow, while a groom tries to calm two terrified horses.

Elements in Rowlandson’s cartoon show a direct association with classical language and Tobias Smollet. The young man saving the girl in distress is reminiscent of Giambologna’s statue of the Rape of the Sabine Women, as well as Peregrine Pickle’s heroic actions towards Emilia.

Rowlandson

Rape of the Sabine Women

Peregrine Pickle saves Emilia. Image @A World History of Art

Once a fire had gained as much ground as depicted in this illustration, there was little chance of saving the building. Rowlandson shows some people carrying out their belongings, while others were barely able to get dressed. By now an alarm had probably been sounded in the community. Bucket brigades, in which people were arrayed in long lines to the nearest well and passed buckets in a continuous motion, could probably put out a minor fire, but not one of this magnitude. In the 1800s, almost 150 years after the great fire, there was still no centralized fire brigade.

In 1680, a property developer named Nicholas Barbon introduced the first fire insurance, which initially insured buildings but not furniture, fittings, or goods.  Insurance companies began to proliferate and formed private fire brigades to protect their customers’ property.

Is this praying elderly couple trapped on the balcony?

In Rowlandson’s cartoon the most the inn keeper can hope for is that the brigade arrives in time to save his structure – if he is insured.  This was easier said than done, for many of London’s streets were not named, since many people could not read, and insured properties were difficult to find.

A couple on the second floor frantically attempt to save their belongings.

In the early 1800s the fire mark was developed. These plaques, sometimes brightly painted, would signal which properties were protected by insurance firms. Each fire brigade had its own unique plaque.

Fire mark on a building

If a fire started, the Fire Brigade was called. They looked for the fire mark and, provided it was the right one, the fire would be dealt with. Often the buildings were left to burn until the right company attended! Many of these insurance companies were to merge, including those of London, which merged in 1833 to form The London Fire Engine Establishment, whose first Fire Chief was James Braidwood. Braidwood had come to London after holding the position of the Chief Officer of Edinburgh Fire brigade. Edinburgh’s authorities had formed the first properly organised brigade in 1824. – History of the UK Fire and Rescue Service

There were quite a few fire brigades operating in London in the early 19th century and competition was keen. The companies hired sailors and watermen as part-time employees. An advantage of serving in this position was that these men were protected from being pressed into service, a not inconsiderable benefit during the Napoleonic wars.

Fighting the fire at the Customs House in February 1814.Image@British Museum

Buildings that had no insurance protection were left to burn, although attempts were made to save the surrounding buildings. Firemarks were essential to identify insured buildings:

Arrival of the fire engine, Thomas Rowlandson

Designs included, for Sun Fire Office: a large sun with a face; the Royal Exchange Assurance: their building; and Phoenix: obviously Phoenix rising from the ashes. Later fire marks were made of tin, copper, or similar material. These are more often called fire plates. They were more an advertising medium as most do not have a policy number stamped upon them. – Fire Marks: The First Logos of Insurance Companies

Illustration from Ackermann’s ”Microcosm of London” (1808) drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin. Firefighters are tackling a fire which has broken out in houses at the Blackfriars Bridge. Teams of men operate hand pumped equipment. Image @Wikipedia

In 1833 companies in London merged to form The London Fire Engine Establishment, the first step to the various fire brigades being taken over by local government.

The Burning of Drury Lane Theatre from Westminster Bridge 1809. Artist unknown.  Image property of the Museum of London.

Equipment was still very basic but in 1721, Richard Newsham patented a ‘new water engine for the quenching and extinguishing of fires’. The pump provided a continuous jet of water with more force than before. This new fire engine became a standard until the early 19th century.

Newsham’s wood pumper, ca. 1731.

The men used the handles to pump the water from a lead-lined trough in the main body of the equipment. The apparatus was quite heavy and difficult to maneuver, but it represented a huge step forward in fire fighting technology. People continually ran back and forth to a water source to fill the trough with water. You could also attach a hose to aim the water to a specific location. During this time, however, hose-making was still in its infancy and many leaked. Water buckets and axes to hack out trapped people and create fire free perimeters were still regarded as standard fire fighting equipment.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 by William Mallord Turner. Such an event must have provided a spectacular yet horrifying scene for onlookers.

Steam powered appliances were first introduced in the 1850s, allowing a greater quantity of water to be guided onto a fire. With the invention of the internal combustion engine, these appliances were replaced in the early 1900s.

James Pollard (British, 1797-1867) London fire engines: The noble protectors of lives and property, 1823. Image @Olympia Art Antiques

This image by James Pollard, and engraved by R. Reeve, shows several insurance brigades hurrying to a fire.

The firemen, of the time, had little training and wore brightly coloured uniforms to distinguish themselves between the different brigades. During large fires they would become very tired through continual pumping of the appliances, and would offer bystanders ‘beer tokens’ in return for their help. – Insurance Firemen and their Equipment

Each company provided different liveries for their men, so that the fire fighters could easily be identified with a particular firm.All insurance firemen wore a large badge on their shoulder to show which insurance company they worked for.

Three uniforms of insurance firemen. All wear a badge

More on the topic:

Cockburn’s theatre on fire, another dramatic caricature by Rowlandson.

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Today U.S. citizens are celebrating July 4th and the independence of our nation from Great Britain. Grand firework displays will play a pivotal role in our national revelry tonight, culminating a day long celebration. Fireworks were not unknown during the Georgian Era, and were used for grand effect in public celebrations. I will point out only a few instances in London.

The picture above is of the firework display held by the Duke of Richmond at Richmond House near the Thames in Whitehall, London [May 1749] and shows both the whole effect of all the fireworks and also, very interestingly, gives individual details [on the side] of the individual fireworks which made up the whole display. – Austenonly

Temple of Peace in Green Park.

Early view of Green Park and the Temple of Peace.

Green Park was readied for a grand fireworks display in 1763 to celebrate the Treaty of Paris, which ended the French and Indian War in North America. The park had attracted firework displays before:

The Green Park was used for a national party in 1746 to celebrate the end of the War of Hanoverian Succession. The royal family arranged a great firework display and commissioned the composer, Handel, to write his Music for the Royal Fireworks. A vast Temple of Peace was built in the park to store the fireworks. But early on a stray rocket hit the temple. Three people died and 10,000 fireworks were destroyed in the fire that followed. – The Green Park

Temple of Peace in Green Park lit up by fire works.

The Treaty of Paris  granted Great Britain control of all land to the east of the Mississippi River, a cause for a grand celebration and a good reason for building a ceremonial temple. (View a print of the scene here.)

Another cause for creating massive firework displays was the long reign of George III. The details of  the Golden Jubilee celebrations are beautifully described at Austenonly.

Fireworks in London in celebration of King George III Golden Jubilee in 1809

Fireworks were quite dangerous, and so were  gas lit fires. In 1814, another grand celebration was planned in St. James Park (which lies close to Green Park) to commemorate 100 years of the Hanoverian royal family. A seven-story pagoda was erected on a Chinese-style bridge spanning the canal in St. James’s Park.

A view of the Chinese pagoda burning. Image @British Library

The splendid gala was organized for the joint August first celebration of the Hanoverian Centenary and the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile. The brilliant and daring tactics of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile were represented by rowboats upon the canal. A disaster occurred when the gas lit pagoda caught fire and burned. Two men were killed and a number injured trying to put out the fire. A number of the Royal swans succumbed to smoke and fire. The crowd unaware that this was an accident took the occurrence to be part of the spectacle and applauded wildly. – The Georgian Index

When the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, famed rope walker, Madame Squi, could finally cross the English Channel in  1816 to perform at Vauxhall Gardens for the first time.

Madame Saqui illuminated by the bursts of fireworks, Vauxhall, 1816. Copyright Museum of London*

‘In the midst of a great burst of fireworks, Bengal lights glimmering faintly in the clouds of smoke, she (Saqui) stands on a rope, sixty feet up, and follows a narrow and difficult path to the end of her journey. Sometimes she is completely hidden from our eyes by the billowing waves, but from the way she walks, so self-assured, one would think an Immortal was walking peacefully towards her celestial home.’ [Lerouge on Madam Saqui at Vauxhall] – Rope Walkers and Equillibrists

Firework displays were no novelty at Vauxhall Gardens, or any of the major gardens where people congregated to walk along grand promenades, dance publicly to music, eat, drink, and enjoy an evening out in the open.

Fireworks display at Vauxhall, 1800s.

There were terrible accidents then as now with fireworks. Here is an account from  an 1858 newspaper** about an accident in central London:

All over the U.S. we will be enjoying various kinds of firework displays. Those in Washington D.C. and the major cities will be the grandest, I am sure. I recall an intimate firework display along a small lake in Vermont one year, in which only a few fireworks were set off. Interestingly, of all the firework displays I have seen, that is the one I tend to recall. Happy Birthday, America! Stay safe.

*Museum of London Prints

**Newspaper Account of Vauxhall accident.

More about Green Park at this link.

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