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Posts Tagged ‘Safe as Houses’

Update: New Photos! Inquiring readers: Tony Grant (London Calling), who lives in England, has graciously reviewed the third (and final) episode of Amanda Vickery’s At Home With the Georgians: Safe as Houses, and pulled images for us to view.

In the first episode, A Man’s Place, we were introduced, by the delectable, Amanda Vickery, to the Georgian concept of owning your own house, no longer an elite aspiration but now a desire and need of the,”middling,” classes too. Then in the second episode , A Woman’s Touch, we were shown how decorating the interiors of these homes began a revolution in society. It introduced us to the concept of taste, affordability through mass production, advertising and in essence the beginning of the modern world. Now, in this the third and final episode Amanda Vickery introduces us to the concept of safety, security and personal space and through our homes, the invention of the family and individuality. The ideas we have today of what modern man and woman are, of how we see ourselves and what our personal needs are, the Georgians began.

Amanda Vickery surveys London at night

The opening shots of this programme show Amanda in shadowy profile on the rooftops of nigh time London contemplating the scene as indeed Batman does over Gotham City in those nightmarish films. Both contemplate the evils that lurk, the crimes that could happen, and the monsters that might perpetrate these horrors. We often think of Batman and Gotham City as a sort of Gothic nightmare but as this programme unfolds we might consider that Batman surveys the same fears and possibilities of crime the Georgians did in their cities, towns, villages and homes. This is what Amanda is introducing us to, the Georgian preoccupation with crime, especially against the householder.

Amanda Vickery outside the fortified Georgian house

The Georgians had their homes with beautiful interiors but “the Georgian idle was hedged with nightmares.” Dangers were without and within the home. Privacy and security were their greatest challenge. Walk past any Georgian terraced house and it is easy to notice the similarities between the exterior of a Georgian house and a castle. There are wrought iron palisades with sharp-pointed spearheads along the front of most Georgian houses.

Georgian House defenses, The Royal Crescent

Between the fence and the house exterior wall there is often a deep drop down to a basement floor where the servants live and work. This is like a moat, a further protection. There are often steps up to a massive front door, often studded with iron nail heads but always very sturdy. This is like a castle gate or portcullis. On the door often there are heavy brass knockers resembling a lion or Greek Goddess. This is perhaps the Greek gods of antiquity providing protection or a sign of aggressive protection by the lion. The door furniture inside the Georgian front door is very impressive. Amanda enjoys having a go with numerous bolts, top and bottom, massive locks that need hefty looking keys and that take some strength to wield and bars that have to be eased into place, slotting into iron slots.

Georgian door knockers, to keep evil at bay, perhaps

In Georgian times there were no insurance policies to cover crime and theft. There was not much of a police force. A town or district might have a night watchman who patrolled for part of the night along a few given roads. There was no official curfew although most people were locked up and in bed by 11 o’clock. Stories of horrors were rife in the cities. Journalists, as nowadays, loved a good story and would stoke the fuels of fear and neuroses.

Locking up at night

Amanda explains how this need to protect the home, which was seen as sacrosanct, by society and the law, was taken very seriously. A man’s home was his castle. The judiciary was keen to create laws to protect the householder. In Georgian times the number of crimes that could carry the death penalty increased from 50 to 200. It became known as The Bloody Code. Breaking and entry into a man’s home whether anything was taken or not, carried the death penalty. Mere theft on the street might not.

On a dark night, the light from the nightwatchman's lantern is so ineffective that he fails to see the burglars behind him. Image-detail of a Rowlandson caricature.

No fortress is totally impregnable. There were always weaknesses The roofs or as they were known, “the leads,” were a way into houses. Roof tiles can be removed and sky lights were weak.

Skylight, a possible thieves entrance

Some dire and extreme measures were taken to protect homes. Servants might sleep across doorways with a blunderbuss beside them. The interior doors to each room were locked. At nighttime a Georgian house became like a prison with the inmates locked into their cells. The owners of large estates might set mantraps within their grounds. This was a vicious spring-loaded contraption with a set of iron-serrated jaws that could sever a man’s leg and at least smash the shinbone. These were chained to stakes anchored in the ground so the poor unfortunate caught by one of these was trapped like a hunted animal.

For the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the Georgians were rather prone to neuroses and imaginings of all sorts. They believed in poltergeists, ghosts and all sorts of nocturnal occult beasts. Their homes had to be protected from these sorts of intruders. The chimney was open to the sky so this was a way for evil spirits to invade their homes and it had to be protected. A tender scene in the programme shows Amanda discussing with an expert in the field of the occult some of the personal objects the Georgians would hide in what they thought were vulnerable places where these spirits of the night might get in. Recesses up chimneys and cavities within walls and under the stairs were filled with items, often over generations. The occupants thought they would deter things of the occult. A little child’s shoe might for instance attract a poltergeist and distract it from attacking the child itself. So these things were seen as spoilers or like lightning conductors that misdirected an evil force.

Amanda Vickery showed many documents from her iPad

The way a Georgian household was formed also had its dangers. The patriarch of the house, the owner, perceived dangers from the very people in side his house. Who could he trust? Mr Fenner of Salisbury Court in Spitalfields had a family of nine. These were not a wife and seven children, he had a wife, but he had three lodgers, three servants and one apprentice. This was classed as his family. It was very hierarchical. Mr Fenner was the lord or King of the household, his wife was second in charge and then everybody else had their place, with the apprentice at the bottom of the pile. A house was a microcosm of Georgian society. Amanda tells us that we know about the Fenners only because there was a fire in Salisbury Court. It was taken to court and the apprentice and the Fenner’s cat were the suspects. The cat may have been seen as the embodiment of a witch.

A garrett. Image @Tony Grant

Houses were designed to enforce this hierarchy or sort of apartheid. The poor servants lived in the basement and in the garret at the top of the house. Large houses incorporated separate staircases; separate living rooms, essentially separate houses within the whole structure of a mansion or large house. New laws helped enshrine the separation and bolster the security of the owner. There was a law against the theft by a servant and theft by a lodger.

A secretaire

Servants were not only considered to give lip service but eye service too. A householder could not guarantee the thoughts and schemes of the people under him. All sorts of inventions were created to keep things secret and personal so prying eyes and fingers could not steal and find out things they should not. Right into the very heart of the Georgian household, secrecy and personal security was a concern and could never be guaranteed but it was strived for, vigorously.

Examining the compartments of a secretaire

One piece of furniture Amanda shows us is a secretaire, a French invention. It is a writing desk with secret compartments to keep notes and letters safe. It has draws and sections accessible by servant to fill the ink well or replace the quill but the written thoughts of the owner are in compartments not accessible to any old so and so.

Examining ladies pockets

Even clothing was designed to keep personal items safe. Women had large pockets attached to a belt fastened around their waist underneath two or three layers of outer garments. A slit in their outer dress allowed them to slip their hands into these copious and deep pockets within their clothing.

House holders, created strict rules for their servants and lodgers. No part of a house belonged to an employee or lodger. Apartheid had to be maintained and a strict ladder of authority had to be maintained. Amanda in her inimitable way finds the exceptions when this hierarchical structure could have been broken and all could have been destroyed. One, Benjamin Smith, a Leicestershire solicitor and a widower had a sexual relationship with a servant he called Newbat (her surname).  He wrote about this in detail  in his diaries. “He was lonely and had a cold bed,” Amanda described. He couldn’t help himself. This liaison threatened to destroy his whole world. Newbat began to control him with her sexual wiles. Eventually Benjamin found a new wife and Newbat was given her marching orders.

Benjamin Smith and Newbat

Oh dear me, the weaknesses of men!!!!!

This brings us to the most poignant and I think the most important part of this third episode. Amanda discusses what individuality and personal freedom really mean and how it developed in Georgian times. We all might, if we are lucky, consider that personal space, time to ourselves, privacy, when we need it, as very important even essential to us as individuals. It was not certain that you would have this sort of freedom if you were a Georgian.

The Georgians believed that you should have somewhere private. The King James Bible decreed that individuals should have a room set aside for personal private prayer twice a day. Large houses had small rooms built into them called closets. These rooms at first were specifically for prayer but very quickly they became used for private moments of all sorts. A place to keep personal objects, paintings, or even pornography. It could be place where a woman or man might have clandestine affairs.

Anne Dormer entrapped in her marriage

Amanda , as always, has uncovered the sad painful examples through her thorough reading and research into Georgian diaries. Anne Dormer and Robert Dormer lived in a beautiful Jacobean Mansion. They were in the top two percent of the wealthy of the country. Robert was intensely jealous. He stalked his wife’s every movement. When she walked in the grounds of the estate he would count her steps and watch her from a window. If she paused to look at anything he would question her intensely about it. She had no privacy. Her home was worse than a prison. The experience took its toll on her health. She could only be free when her husband died.

Servants shared rooms

Amanda discusses the apt question, “What about the serving classes who owned no property, had no closets, shared bedrooms, and had no personal space or time? What of them?” Servants all owned what was called a locking box. Within this they kept their personal items, the items, which gave them an identity. Their house, their room, their home was reduced to a small box. Amanda poignantly relates how some of these boxes were wallpapered inside. That tells you volumes. We are shown some of Hogarth’s pictures portraying the life of Moll Flanders. In the final scene when Moll is dying you can see in the picture that another maid or prostitute has broken into Moll’s locking box. At the end of her life even her most intimate personal possessions are now no longer private, no longer hers. She has lost everything.

Hogarth, A Harlot's Progress, Plate 5. Image @Tate Britain

So what happens if the wealthy, the householder, falls from grace and loses everything. In many towns, wealthy, Christian minded, merchants, would build what were called alms houses. These were small, quite comfortable houses, which provided some security and enabled families to stay together and offered some aspects of comfort and privacy. With this charitable act not all was lost. However towards the end of the 18th century a new form of provision was created for those who had fallen on hard times. This was the workhouse. A pitiless, regimented institution that stripped people of all privacy and independence. Almost anything was preferable to the workhouse.

A workhouse

The buildings of many Victorian workhouses remain today in towns and cities throughout England. They are put to other uses now. They were solidly built and once converted and modernised actually make great office space or trendy apartments. I wouldn’t like to live in one because of the memories and the history.

Geffrey Alms Houses (museum), Shoreditch

There are times in this series that I could cry for these very real people who Amanda reveals to us through their diaries. Amanda Vickery more than once pauses, a lump in her throat, as she finds it difficult to continue because of the rawness of some of the lives she has uncovered.

Geffrey Alms Houses, Shoreditch

Over these three episodes Amanda Vickery takes us through a journey showing how the creation of the modern household was invented. The concept of family was different in Georgian times but we can see how it developed and how we have got to where we are now from this Georgian starting point. The concept of personal freedom and personal space was in it’s infancy, struggling for acceptance. Amanda has described to us in this series the start of the modern world. The programmes are good at showing how marriage and relationships between men and women were changing and developing. I think it is worthwhile watching. I hope Amanda creates more programmes of this sort. They are thought-provoking. They make us ask questions about our world and ourselves.

Amanda Vickery and the actors who helped the Georgian Era come alive

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