The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking: a review

Have you ever wanted to dress like a gorgeous Georgian? Well, now help is at hand in the form of the The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking by Lauren Stowell and Abby Cox. It is released here in the UK on 13th December 2017, just in time for Christmas.

The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking.
The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking.

Lauren and Abby are owners of the historical footwear online store, American Duchess who ship worldwide and sell the most amazing shoes. They have now used their research and experience to complete your outfit and enable you to make the most amazing dresses (and accessories) to go with those fantastic shoes.

The American Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking

Divided into four chapters, this book takes you step-by-step through making four gowns representing four different eras of the eighteenth-century plus all the accessories you could need to go with them. If, like us, your dressmaking skills are a little rusty or even rudimentary, don’t be put off. The book is written in a friendly style with basic details such as the different types of stitches covered as well as more detailed instructions, and all with a multitude of helpful diagrams and images so it doesn’t seem as daunting as you’d think.

There are instructions for making four gowns in the book. © American Duchess
There are instructions for making four gowns in the book. © American Duchess

And, even for a non-sewer, the book is still an entertaining and informative read if you are interested in the period. It’s interspersed with sumptuous pictures and lots of amusing asides (for instance, discover why one of Madame Pompadour’s maids inspired the name for the new short sacque gown being worn by her mistress, ‘pet en l’air’).

Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, 1763-4 by François-Hubert Drouais. The National Gallery
Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame,
1763-4 by François-Hubert Drouais. The National Gallery

The book begins with a simple English gown from the 1740s complete with neckerchief, apron, mitts and hat. Then we go onto a much more extravagant ruffled and flounced dress, a sacque gown dating from the 1760s-1770s inspired by Francis Cote’s A Portrait of a Lady, plus underpinnings and accessories.

Portrait of a Lady, 1768 by Francis Cotes. The Tate
Portrait of a Lady, 1768 by Francis Cotes. The Tate

An Italian gown in printed cotton which follows the style of the 1770s-1790s and accommodates a ‘false rump’ is the third project. Again, you are given instructions for everything from the false rump to a silk covered ‘brain hat’, described as ‘fluffy, puffy and never stuffy’.

At the end of each section, you are shown how to wear your gown with style.
At the end of each section, you are shown how to wear your gown with style.

The last gown to be featured is the 1790s round gown, a much different silhouette from the preceding dresses.

Plate 034, N. Heideloff, February 1, 1795, Thomas J. Weston Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the images given as inspiration for the 1790s round gown in the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmkaing.
Plate 034, N. Heideloff, February 1, 1795, Thomas J. Weston Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the images given as inspiration for the 1790s round gown in the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking.

To build confidence, we’d recommend starting with some of the simpler projects: now the weather has turned cold we’re looking with extreme interest at the 1790s giant (faux) fur muff… that’s a fashion that needs to be brought back, right?

The American Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking

This is a book that will be a permanent fixture on our bookshelf. It is a brilliant reference book on the fashions of the eighteenth-century and the history of dressmaking of the period and, as such, invaluable for anyone who writes about the era and wants to understand more about the clothes women wore. And, if you are an eighteenth-century re-enactor or lucky enough to be attending a Georgian dinner, ball or festival where it is requisite to look the part, then this wonderful guide will ensure that you stand out from the crowd in the latest fashions.

The Family of the Duke of Penthièvre in 1768 by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier the Elder, 1768, Château de Versailles.
The Family of the Duke of Penthièvre in 1768 by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier the Elder, 1768, Château de Versailles.

Now, where are our needles? That fur muff is not going to make itself and it’s beginning to snow outside!

We received a copy of this book in return for an unbiased review on our blog.


Cuper’s Gardens, Lambeth’s pleasure ground

Cuper’s Gardens were described as a ‘scene of low dissipation… noted for its fireworks, and the great resort of the profligate of both sexes’. Opened in the late 17th century, they were pleasure gardens (and later a tea garden) in Lambeth on the Thames shoreline and named after Abraham Boydell Cuper, the original proprietor of the land which he leased from Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel (Cuper was the earl’s gardener). In the early days, the site was also known as Cupid’s Gardens.

Last Monday in the Evening, a Gentleman dropt down dead at Cupid’s Gardens, just as he was going to drink a Glass of Wine, having the Glass in his Hand.

Stamford Mercury, 21st May 1724

The ‘Georgian Heroine’ of our latest book, Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, was born in the early 1760s and grew up in a house on Narrow Wall in Lambeth, close by Cuper’s Gardens, but this was after its days as a pleasure ground. Instead, Charlotte knew the land as a scene of industry, the once ornate grounds dominated by a vinegar and ‘mimicked wine’ factory owned by Mark Beaufoy who was a great friend to the Williams family. No doubt Charlotte heard the tales of the great entertainments which had taken place at Cuper’s Gardens, though.

Here are pleasant Walks and Places of great Report, particularly Cuper’s Garden, Spring-Garden, and Lambeth Wells, where they drink the purging Waters. Here, in the fine Season of the Year, a Multitude of young people from London divert themselves; and there is every Evening Musick, Dancing, &c.

The guests to the gardens even included royalty, for Frederick, Prince of Wales was known to occasionally frequent them. (Frederick, the heir to the throne, predeceased his father, King George II whom he was famously at loggerheads with.)

Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his sisters by Philippe Mercier; National Portrait Gallery, London.
Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his sisters by Philippe Mercier; National Portrait Gallery, London.

From 1738 until 1740 Cuper’s Gardens were owned by a man named Ephraim Evans who improved them by installing a bandstand from which he offered concerts in the evening; after his death his widow, Nem became the proprietor. Nem Evans was described as ‘a woman of discretion’ and ‘a well-looking comely person’ and she played the hostess behind the bar during the musical entertainments. Under her direction, the gardens continued their heyday, for a time at least.

We hear that at Cuper’s Gardens last Night, among several favourite Pieces of Musick, Mr Handell’s Fire Musick, with the Fireworks, as originally perform’d in the Opera of Atalanta, was received with great Applause by a numerous Audience.

London Daily Post, 10th July 1741

Map showing Cuper's Gardes, 1746. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Map showing Cuper’s Gardens, 1746. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

There is every Evening a very great Resort of Company at Cuper’s Gardens. The extraordinary Fireworks, which are almost every Night different, are allow’d to excel all that ever were before exhibited in this Kingdom.

Daily Advertiser, 3rd June 1743

View of the Savoy, Somerset House and the Water Entrance to Cuper's Garden (bottom right). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
View of the Savoy, Somerset House and the Water Entrance to Cuper’s Garden (bottom right). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

On Monday next will be opened CUPER-GARDENS, kept by the Widow Evans; where there are great Alterations and Decorations in an elegant manner, and hopes the Continuance of the Favours of her Friends and Acquaintance, who may depend upon good Entertainment of all sorts, with a good Band of Musick, and Fireworks, with great Improvements; and the Bowling Green is in good Order.

General Advertiser, 4th May 1744

On the 1st May 1749, the gardens opened for the summer season with a recreation of the temple and fireworks which had been seen at Green Park to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle.

A Perspective View of the Building for the Fireworks in the Green Park, Taken from the Reservoir, 1749. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection.
A Perspective View of the Building for the Fireworks in the Green Park, Taken from the Reservoir, 1749. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection.

The extravagant fireworks came at something of a cost, however, and accidents did occur.

On Monday Morning, as four Men were preparing the Fire-works to be exhibited in the Evening at Cuper’s Gardens, the Powder by some Accident took fire, and two or three of the Men were much hurt by the Explosion.

Remembrancer, 2nd June 1750

The Licensing Act came into effect in 1752 and Nem Evans was refused a licence for Cuper’s Gardens on the grounds – which she disputed – that the gardens were no longer ‘respectable’. In the summer of 1753, she reopened them as a tea garden and held occasional private evening entertainments for subscribers.

I dined the other day with a lady of quality, who told me she was going that evening to see the ‘finest fireworks!’ at Marybone. I said fireworks was a very odd refreshment for this sultry weather; that, indeed, Cuper’s-gardens had been once famous for this summer entertainment; but then his fireworks were so well understood, and conducted with so superior an understanding, that they never made their appearance to the company till they had been well cooled, by being drawn through a long canal of water, with the same kind of refinement that the Eastern people smoke their tobacco through the same medium.”—Warburton to Hurd, July 9th, 1753.

By the time of Nem Evans’ death in July 1760, the gardens had closed for good. She was buried alongside her husband in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Newington and changes were soon afoot in her former pleasure ground.

It is said a new Street is going to be made from one End of Cuper’s Gardens to the other, and that each House will have a pretty Garden behind it.

St James’s Chronicle, 17th June 1761

Entrance to Cuper's Gardens, North Lambeth, c. 1750. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Entrance to Cuper’s Gardens, North Lambeth, c. 1750. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

They have for some time been cutting down the Trees in Cuper’s Gardens, in order to build a handsome Street upon that Spot.

Public Advertiser, 11th March 1762

In the 1740s, Mark Beaufoy had established a vinegar and ‘mimicked wines’ distillery near his three-storey house at Cuper’s Bridge Lambeth and, following the closure of the adjoining pleasure ground, he took on the lease, expanding his business.

Beaufoy's Distillery in Cuper's Gardens, c.1798
Beaufoy’s Distillery in Cuper’s Gardens, c.1798

There is a magnificence of business, in this ocean of sweets and sours, that cannot fail exciting the greatest admiration: whether we consider the number of vessels or their size. The boasted tun at Heydelberg does not surpass them. On first entering the yard, two rise before you, covered at the top with a thatched dome; between them is a circular turret, including a winding staircase, which brings you to their summits, which are above 24ft in diameter. One of these conservatories is full of sweet wine and contains 58,109 gallons; or 1,815 barrels of Winchester measure. Its superb associate is full of vinegar, to the amount of 56,799 gallons, or 1,774 barrels, of the same standard as the former.

Besides these, is an avenue of lesser vessels… After quitting this Brobdignagian scene, we pass to the acres covered with common barrels: we cannot diminish our ideas so suddenly, but at first we imagined we could quaff them off as easily as Gulliver did the little hogsheads of the kingdom of Lilliput.

Beaufoy's Vinegar Works, Cuper's Gardens, Lambeth by Charles Tomkins, c.1800.
Beaufoy’s Vinegar Works, Cuper’s Gardens, Lambeth by Charles Tomkins, c.1800.

In 1813, part of Cuper’s Gardens was bought for the construction of Waterloo Bridge Road and the Beaufoys relocated to land off Walnut Tree Walk.

We’ll leave you with a little premonition of the future, which was displayed in Cuper’s Gardens.

Mr Moore’s undertaking to make carriages go without horses, having engrossed a large share of public attention, a Correspondent assures us, that something of the same nature was done several years ago by Mr Arthur, the comedian, who constructed a chariot, which went of itself several times up and down the Mall in St James’s Park; and that a person at Trowbridge also contrived a waggon to go without horses, which was shewn to many hundreds of people in Cuper’s-gardens, and for some little time afforded great satisfaction; but one of the springs breaking, the whole machine became disordered, and the mob at length broke it all to pieces.

Kentish Gazette, 12th April 1769

A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs is available now in the UK and coming soon worldwide and is available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and all good bookshops.

Featured image: View of Beaufoy’s Distillery, formerly Cuper’s Gardens; the site of the Waterloo Bridge Road; a large warehouse on the left with barrels piled up outside, 1809. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sources not referenced above:

Will of Nem Evans, widow of Lambeth, PROB 11/857/434, National Archives

A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800: Eagan to Garrett, Philip H. Highfill, Kalman A. Burnim, Edward A. Langhans, SIU Press, 1978

Le guide des etrangers: on le compagnon necessaire & instructif à l’etranger & au naturel du pays en faisant le tour des villes des Londres et de Westminstre. Joseph Pote, 1740

Handbook of London: past and present, Volume 1, Peter Cunningham, J. Murray, 1849

Beaufoys of Lambeth by David Thomas and Hugh Marks, Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society

London: Being an Accurate History and Description of the British Metropolis and Its Neighbourhood, to Thirty Miles Extent, from an Actual Perambulation, Volume 4, David Hughson, 1807

Cuper’s Gardens, John Cresswell, Vauxhall History online archive

London; or, An abridgement of the celebrated Pennant’s description of the British capital and its environs, John Wallis, 1790

The Orangery in Georgian Scotland

We are absolutely thrilled to be welcoming back the author Regan Walker whose latest book has just been released – A Secret Scottish Christmas and today she’s written a guest blog about orangeries.

A Secret Scottish Christmas by Regan Walker

Whether you call them orangeries, hothouses, greenhouses or conservatories, buildings in which plants were allowed to grow in an environment sheltered from the weather were much in vogue in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the warm air of these glassed buildings, one could grow flowers (oleander, hibiscus, lily of the valley and camellias, among others), vegetables (kale would have been popular in Scotland), oranges and other citrus as well as other fruits (cherries, peaches, plums, pomegranates and figs). Perhaps most favoured of all were the exotic pineapples.

Orangery at Dyrham Park in South Gloucestershire, England
Orangery at Dyrham Park in South Gloucestershire, England

The name “orangery” reflects the original use of the building as a place where citrus trees were often wintered in tubs under cover, surviving through harsh frosts and snow, as they do in my story, A Secret Scottish Christmas. It is there the heroine often takes her morning runs.

The Romans are credited with the first greenhouses to grow fruits and vegetables, but the Italians are given credit for the orangery during the Renaissance when glassmaking techniques enabled sufficiently large expanses of clear glass to be produced. Though some in Scotland imported citrus trees from Spain, at least one of my sources said it was from Italy the Scots imported small budded orange trees.


Originally built to protect Queen Anne’s citrus trees from the harmful winter weather, orangeries in Britain became status symbols among the wealthy in Scotland as well as England. Early orangeries were built as extensions to the house, heated by charcoal braziers. But, as time went on, it became the fashion to have a separate “greenhouse” and, after 1816 when hot water heating came into being, the heating source might be outside the building.

Orangery at Heveningham Hall in Suffolk built about 1760
Orangery at Heveningham Hall in Suffolk built about 1760, designed by the architect Samuel Wyatt

Growing Pineapples in a “Pinery”

Discovered by Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1493, pineapples became a rare delicacy in Europe and were associated with power, wealth, and hospitality. In Britain, the practice of bringing pineapples to the dining table was not just for the aristocracy but extended to the gentry. The list of gentlemen engaged in this horticultural activity includes such notables of Georgian society as the poets William Cowper and Alexander Pope and the architect Lord Burlington.

Pineapple by Theodorus Netscher, 1720
Pineapple by Theodorus Netscher, 1720

The pineapple was a testament to the owner’s wealth and to his gardener’s skill and experience. Producing a crop of tropical fruit in Scotland before the advent of the hot water heating system in 1816 was a remarkable achievement. Several varieties were grown, but the one most common in Scotland was the Queen pine.

Dunmore pineapple building
Dunmore pineapple building

The Dunmore Pineapple, a folly ranked “as the most bizarre building in Scotland”, is located in Stirlingshire, Scotland. Dunmore Park, the ancestral home of the Earls of Dunmore, includes a building containing a hothouse constructed in 1761 by John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore. There, among other plants, he grew pineapples.

The south-facing ground floor was originally covered with glass windows. Heat was provided by a furnace-driven system that circulated hot air through cavities in the wall. The smoke from the furnace was expelled through four chimneys cleverly disguised as Grecian urns.

Sir James Justice, an 18th-century Scottish horticulturalist and gardener, developed an incredibly efficient glasshouse on his estate at Crichton, combining the bark pits for succession and fruiting plants under one roof. In a letter to Philip Miller and other members of the Royal Society in 1728, he proudly announced,

I have eight of the Ananas in fine fruit.

Glasshouse cultivation was an important part of 18th-century horticulture and many of the inventions we now take for granted were developed or refined during this period, such as the use of angled glazing, spirit thermometers and the furnace-heated greenhouses called hothouses.

Pineapples growing in pits
Pineapples growing in pits

Young pineapple plants were often grown in “tan pits” lined with pebbles at the bottom followed by a layer of manure and then topped with a layer of tanners’ bark into which the pots were plunged. The tanners’ bark, oak bark soaked in water and used in leather tanning, was the most important as it fermented slowly, steadily producing a constant temperature for two to three months. It remained in use until the end of the 19th century.

Three developments changed pineapple cultivation: hot water heating in 1816 (allowing the stove and its fumes to be located outside the orangery), sheet glass in 1833, and the abolition of the glass tax in 1845. With these, glasshouses for pineapple cultivation became very large structures.

Enjoy your trip through the orangery at the Stephen estate in Arbroath, Scotland in A Secret Scottish Christmas!

Spies and Scots and Shipmasters, oh my!

A Secret Scottish Christmas by Regan Walker

Scotland 1819

Twin brothers Nash and Robbie Powell of Powell & Sons Shipping, London, sail with their fellow Agents of the Crown to Scotland for a secret celebration of Christmastide, a holiday long frowned upon by the Scottish Kirk. But more than Christmas is being kept secret. The two brothers have accepted an assignment from the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth to ferret out a fugitive fomenting rebellion among the Scots.

Aileen Stephen, the only daughter of an Aberdeen shipbuilder, had to be clever, devious and determined to gain her place in the family business. She succeeded to become a designer of highly coveted ships. One night, a man’s handsome face appears to her in a dream. When two men having that same face arrive on a ship full of Londoners, Ailie wonders what her second sight is telling her. Is the face she saw a portender of the future, a harbinger of danger, or both? And which of the two Englishmen is the one in her dream?

Older than Nash by a mere five minutes, Robbie has always been protective of his twin. When he realizes Nash is attracted to the sister of their Scottish host, he thinks to help matters along. But Nash wants no help from his brother, not where Ailie Stephen is concerned because Robbie is attracted to the girl himself!

Two brothers vie for the affection of the Scottish lass but only one stirs her passion. Which one will it be? And what will she do when she learns they are spies?

Discover more on the links below:

Regan’s website

Amazon links to buy Regan’s book:

To buy in the US, click here

To buy in the UK, click here

To buy in Canada, click here

To buy in Australia, click here

Regan’s Facebook page

Pinterest Storyboard for the book

Find on Goodreads


An Account of British Horticulture, drawn up for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia by Patrick Neill, 1817

The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

The Science of Horticulture including A Practical System for the Management of Fruit Trees by Joseph Hayward, 1818

Gardener’s Magazine by J.C. Loudon, 1839

Hardwood Orangeries

Glasshouses: A History in Pictures – The Telegraph

Dunmore Park – Wikimedia

A Taste for the Exotic: Pineapple Cultivation in Britain – Building Conservation

18th century orangery – Jane Austen’s World

A Scottish Pineapple – JK Gillon

A Taste for Pineapple – The World of Heyerwood

Vintage Christmas Flowers – Growing with Plants



The Bonassus.

The Bonassus

According to a book by John Barrow of 1749, the Bonassus was

a kind of wild ox, as high as a bull and bigger than a common ox. His flesh is very good. His horns are an astringent.

For a travelling fair owner, Earl James and Sons, the creature was far, far more than that very plain description. In the early 1820s Earl James acquired this amazing beast and described it in the following glowing terms:

This huge, terrific and extraordinary animal, which has, for the last eighteen months, occupied the attention of the naturalist, the historian and the whole of the cognoscenti and literati of the age and more particularly the inhabitants and visitors of the greatest metropolis in the world, who, from his hitherto unknown and unparalleled nature, has been the subject of editorial observations in the London newspapers. This most wonderful and interesting beast has been visited in London by upwards of 200,000 persons. In this wonderful phenomenon of nature is combined all the terrific grandeur of the animal creation: having the head of the elephant, the fore part of the bison, the mane and hind part of the lion, the eye on the cheekbone, and an ear similar to that of a human. He stands six feet high and weighs two tons! His consumption of daily food exceeds that of the elephant; he is not a carnivorous animal, but is particularly fond of fruit and vegetable; of the latter, he is most partial to onions and frequently consumes a bushel and a half at a meal.

The Bonassus.
The Bonassus. New York Public Library.

Needless to say, there was great excitement whenever a new animal was brought to the country and this one was no exception. This extract below is from a letter written by a Mrs Winifred Lloyd to her friend Mr Price at the Parsonage House somewhere in Monmouthshire, which was published in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 16 May 1822.

She began her letter by telling her friend that she and her children were having a wonderful time seeing everything London had to offer and added the following postscript which was published by the newspaper replete with her own unique spelling of words.

I forgot to say that we had seen Mr. Martin’s expedition, we went from the Bullock’s to the Bonassus, as it is but a step from wan to the other. The man says tis a perfect picter, and so it is, for sartain, and ought to be painted. It is like a bull, only quite different, and cums from the Appellation Mountings. My Humphry (son) thought it must have been catcht in a pound and I wundered the child could make such a natural idear, but he is a sweet boy, and very foreward in his larning. He was elely delited at the site you may be sure but Betty being tiresome shut her eyes all the time she was seeing it. But, saving his push now and then, the anymil is no ways veracious and eats nothing but vegetables. The man showed us some outlandish sort of pees that it lives upon, but he gave it two hole pales of rare carrots besides. It must be a handsome customer to the green grocer and a pretty penny I warrant it costs for vittles’.

An old Friend with a new Face or the Baron in Disguise Caroline kneeling in front of Bartolommeo Bergami, disguised as a bison, figure of a Beefeater and figure of a man with his hands in the air. Brighton Museums.
An old Friend with a new Face or the Baron in Disguise
Caroline kneeling in front of Bartolommeo Bergami, disguised as a bison, the figure of a Beefeater and figure of a man with his hands in the air. Brighton Museums.

However, not everyone was quite so enamoured with the creature, as this letter reprinted in the John Bull of January 1824 confirms.

‘Gentlemen, I am sorry to trouble you but I am so annoy’d by next door neighbour the Bonassus and with beasts, that cannot live in my house, for the stench of the beast is so great and there is only a slight petition betwixt the houses and the beast are continually breaking through in my different rooms and I am always losing my lodgers in consequence of the beast first a monkey made its way in my bedroom, next the jackall came into the yard and this last week the people in my second floor have been alarmed in the dead of night by the monkey breaking through into the closet and are going to leave in consequence, this being the third lodgers I have lost on account of the beast and I have been letting my second floor at half the rent – and those men of Mr James are bawling the whole day against my window and continually taking people’s attention from window – and I am quite pestered with rats and I am confidence they came from the Exhibition and in short the injury and nuisance is so great as almost impossible to describe, but to be so annoy’d by such an imposter I think is very hard – Gentlemen your inquiry will oblige. Your servant T.W. And if I mention anything to Mr. James he only abuses me with the most uncouth language’.

A claim for compensation if ever there was one!

Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs: A Georgian Heroine

We’re celebrating the release of our third biography, A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs which is out now in the UK (and coming soon worldwide) and can be found at Pen & Sword, Amazon and all good bookshops.

It has been an immense pleasure to research Charlotte’s life even if, at times, she has frustrated us beyond measure. Her almost pathological desire to remain anonymous in her lifetime tested our abilities to the limit, but we rarely admit defeat and eventually we managed to piece together Charlotte’s story. And what a story it is!

If we had written her life as a novel, we’d probably have been accused of being too far-fetched but – amazingly – Charlotte’s story is all true, in parts tragically so but she triumphed over her adversities, continually adapted to her circumstances and succeeded in the most audacious ways possible.

Three eldest princesses by Thomas Gainsborough. Royal Collection Trust
Three eldest princesses by Thomas Gainsborough. Royal Collection Trust. Charlotte came to the attention of the royal princesses.

We are also delighted to have finally given Charlotte ownership of her voice which, while it was heard during her lifetime across the country and in establishments ranging from the Houses of Parliament to royal palaces, was always heard anonymously, or at least so discreetly that the public at large were unaware of Charlotte’s identity. Because of this, she has been overlooked by history and her achievements remain largely unrecorded and, in some cases, wrongly ascribed to other women of her generation. Now we can finally put the record straight with the release of A Georgian Heroine.

 Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs lived an incredible life, one which proved that fact is often much stranger than fiction. As a young woman she endured a tortured existence at the hands of a male tormentor, but emerged from that to reinvent herself as a playwright and author; a political pamphleteer and a spy, working for the British Government and later singlehandedly organising George III’s jubilee celebrations. Trapped in France during the revolutionary years of 1792-95, she published an anonymous account of her adventures. However, was everything as it seemed? The extraordinary Mrs Biggs lived life upon her own terms in an age when it was a man’s world, using politicians as her mouthpiece in the Houses of Parliament and corresponding with the greatest men of the day. Throughout it all though, she held on to the ideal of her one youthful true love, a man who abandoned her to her fate and spent his entire adult life in India. Who was this amazing lady?

In A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, we delve into her life to reveal her accomplishments and lay bare Mrs Biggs’ continued re-invention of herself. This is the bizarre but true story of an astounding woman persevering in a man’s world.

Featured image: Hotwells and Rownham Ferry by William Williams; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives. Charlotte lived in Bristol in later life.

Two murders in a Derbyshire village 1815 and 1819

The first murder took place about a couple of miles from the murderer’s home of Litton, a pretty village in the middle of the Peak district, a mere stone’s throw from the beautiful Chatsworth House. The murderer, one Anthony Lingard was one of the several children born to Anthony Lingard senior and his wife Elizabeth.

Anthony Lingard, the younger, reputed to be aged 21 but who was in fact 25, was charged with the murder, by strangulation, of one Hannah Oliver, a widow aged 48. Hannah was the keeper of the turnpike gate at Wardlow Mires, in the parish of Tideswell.

Wardlow Mires, Derbyshire
Wardlow Mires, Derbyshire

According to the evidence given, Lingard committed the robbery and subsequent murder on the night of 15th January 1815. Having killed Hannah, he left her house taking with him several pounds and a pair of new, red, women’s shoes. He immediately went to see a young woman, Rebecca Nall, in the village who was pregnant with his child and offered her some money and a pair of new shoes if she would agree to say someone else was the father of her unborn child. Rumour of the murder spread quickly, and mention of the shoes convinced the young woman that Anthony had committed the crime. She tried to return them to him but he merely said that it was nothing to do with him and that he had got the shoes in exchange for a pair of stockings form a travelling packman.

In court, no-one believed his story and judge summed up the evidence for the jury, who took a matter of minutes to conclude that he was guilty. The judge, Mr Justice Bayley, then proceeded to pass the death sentence upon Anthony.

Anthony resigned himself to his fate and forgave the girl who gave evidence against him, before being taken to the drop in front of the county gaol, Derby. After a short time occupied in prayer, he was launched into eternity. He met his fate with a firmness and seemed very calm at the end, which was on 28th March, 1815.

Before the judge left town, he directed that the body should be hung in chains in the most convenient place near the spot where the murder was committed, instead of being dissected and anatomised.

The treasurer’s accounts for Derbyshire 1815-16, show that the punishment of gibbeting cost a considerable amount of money. The expenses for apprehending Lingard amounted to £31 5 shillings and 5 pence, but the expenses incurred in the gibbeting reached a total of £85 4 shilling and 1 penny, and this was in addition to the ten guineas charged by the gaoler for conveying the body from Derby to Wardlow.

Subsequent toll -keepers apparently complained about the noise of his bones creaking in the wind, so after some considerable time, his remains were cut down and buried. There remain even today rumours of ghosts and people avoid that area after dark.

The body of Hannah Oliver neé Richardson, widow of Joseph Oliver was buried at the parish church in neighbouring Stoney Middleton.

Burial of Hannah Oliver January 17th 1815 at Stoney Middleton
Burial of Hannah Oliver January 17th, 1815 at Stoney Middleton

Some four years later Hannah Bocking, another local girl from the village of Litton, aged just sixteen, was also to meet the same fate as Anthony Lingard.

Hannah was tried for the poisoning of her friend, Jane Grant, who had angered her as Jane had succeeded in securing a job and Hannah had not.  She purchased arsenic on the basis that she had rats she needed to kill some ten weeks prior to committing the crime. She added the arsenic into a cake which, under the guise of civility, she offered to her victim. The excruciating torment in which Jane Grant died seemed to awaken no remorse in the guilty mind of Hannah.

During the long imprisonment which preceded the trial, Hannah showed no contrition. She showed no emotion when the sentence was passed and simply accepted her fate. During the night preceding her execution she slept soundly, and when the time arrived she ascended the platform with a steady step.

At the trial, Hannah implicated other members of her family, including her sister. It was not until the sentence of death was passed that Hannah retracted this and claimed sole responsibility for her actions. She was hanged at Derby on 22nd March, 1819. After hanging the usual time her body was taken down to be delivered to the surgeons for dissection. Great anxiety was expressed by her friends who wished to have the consolation of interring her body, however, the law at this time would not permit it.

St John the Baptist, Tideswell
St John the Baptist, Tideswell

Her victim, Jane Grant was buried at the neighbouring church in Tideswell, her entry unmistakably noted by the vicar denoting how she died – by arsenic poisoning and who it was that took her young life.

Burial of Jane daughter of Jane Grant of Litton
Burial of Jane daughter of Jane Grant of Litton, which took place September 19th, some considerable time after her death.

Sources used

Parish Registers for Tideswell & Litton.

Parish Registers for Stoney Middleton

Nottingham Gazette, and Political, Literary, Agricultural & Commercial Register for the  Midland Counties. 31 March 1815

Derby Mercury 09 January 1878

Northampton Mercury 28 January 1815

The execution and confession of Hannah Bocking, aged 16, of Litton

Bristol Mirror 03 April 1819 

Derby Mercury 25 March 1819

Give us our Daily Bread

Bread, a staple of part of the diet today as much as it was in the Georgian era. Hardly something controversial or so you would think.

Kitchen Interior with Still Life by Samuel Smith; Bury Art Museum
Kitchen Interior with Still Life by Samuel Smith; Bury Art Museum

In 1757 the weight of a penny loaf was set to reflect the local cost of wheat. Parliament tried to get people to eat lower quality bread by creating the ‘Household Bread’ Act, which stated that half of all bread sold must contain a high proportion of coarse grain – this proved extremely unpopular. Bakers, on the other hand, began to adulterate the basic bread mixture with the addition of less wholesome ingredients such as alum, which they used to make bread appear whiter.

In order to prevent such bad practice it was decided that bakers convicted of adulterating their bread, or of having in their possession any mixture or ingredients with an intention to adulterate the purity of meal, flour or bread, should forfeit a sum not exceeding ten shilling, nor less than two shillings and by the same statute, that the magistrate before whom any such conviction should be made, could cause the offender’s name and place of abode to be published in or near the county, city or place where the offence was committed.

Last Wednesday Thomas Smithers, baker near the butcher row in East Smithfield, was convicted before John Fielding Esq; in the penalty of five shillings for having in his possession a quantity of undissolved alum and a quantity of dissolved alum, with an intention to mix and adulterate the purity of the product. The penalty of 5 shilling was repaid to Mr Fielding, for the use of Magdalen House.

Substitutes for bread by James Gillray. courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art
Substitutes for bread by James Gillray. courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art

There was an interesting article on this subject, in the Hampshire Chronicle dated 27th July 1795 regarding the Prince of Wales who, as we know, was a lover of food; was he trying to improve his diet or simply trying to cut down on the spending?

The Prince of Wales has ordered brown bread to be introduced at his own table at Brighton and forbidden the use of any other amongst his household. At Brighton camp, the officers have been given orders that they had resolved on the use of brown bread only, at their tables, under forfeiture of one month’s pay from each who shall break this resolution. The allowance of bread to each man at the above camp has been reduced from a pound and a half to one pound per day. The deficiency of bread has been made up for with meat and vegetables.

Bread was a continual source of angst for the government of the day. Towards the end of the century, there were successive bad wheat harvests resulting in the price of wheat doubling and with it pushing up the price of bread. This ultimately caused food riots up and down the country. The country turned against King George III attacking his carriage when he went to open Parliament, so again it was debated to work out what grain could be used as an alternative product.

Breakfast Still Life; Pieter Claesz; Roebuck Collection
Breakfast Still Life; Pieter Claesz; Roebuck Collection

The debate in the House of Commons went something like this:

The speaker of the House of Commons, Henry Addington, proposed that where families made use of vegetables in their diet the consumption of bread should be restrained to a quartern loaf (i.e. one weighing four pounds) a head per week. The harvest was looking better for this year so it was anticipated that the scarcity of bread would diminish.

However, he felt that bread made from full grain, bran as well as flour would be more nutritious. His wish was to remove the prejudice against brown bread. There was, of course, an objection to this proposal, that being that mixed bread was likely to be subject to adulteration than white bread. His opinion was that this notion was incorrect and that was easier to detect ingredients in brown rather than in white.

Lord Hawkesbury agreed to a certain extent but felt that such advantage might be over-rated, because swine and other creatures, whose flesh constituted part of human food, were fed by the very part of the meal, which was separated from the white flour, and thus possibly, the very article of bread itself might become scarcer if the practice of making white bread was totally discontinued; for a certain class of persons would be compelled to consume more bread than they do now if they had less animal food.  In a word, he thought there was sufficient to make it a matter of recommendation, but not of compulsion, to make bread of the whole meal.

Still life with Bread by Ceruti 1750
Still life with Bread by Ceruti 1750

After much debate, the Speaker strongly recommended Lord Sheffield was fully persuaded of the necessity of making a compulsory law to enforce the use of only one kind of bread. Mr Wilberforce agreed and gave notice that he would bring in a Bill. The report was agreed to and ordered to be printed.

So, in 1800, the ‘Making of Bread’ Act, also known as the ‘Brown Bread Act’ or the ‘Poison Act’ came into effect which prohibited millers from producing flour other than wholemeal. For many people, bread formed almost half of their diet and this Act proved so unpopular and difficult to enforce that on November 6th, 1801 it was repealed.

Featured Image

Still Life with Bread and Wine, Henri Horace Roland de la Porte (c.1724–1793), York Museums Trust