Well, it’s nearly Christmas again, how time flies when you’re having fun and we certainly have had a busy and fun packed year both rushing around the Georgian era and finalizing our biography of the eighteenth-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott and her family, An Infamous Mistress, which is due out in January (links at the end of this post for pre-order) – we’re so excited and hope that you will enjoy reading it.
We hope that our blog posts so far have been entertaining as well as informative and that you will continue to support us during the next year. We would also like to thank all our wonderful ‘guest writers’ who have written some fascinating blogs for us and we hope to have many more next year, so if you would like us to host a blog post for you please do not hesitate to get in touch.
In case you weren’t aware, Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s long time friend Lady Seymour Worsley will be appearing on BBC 2 at 10pm, Christmas Eve as The Scandalous Lady W. The film is based upon Hallie Rubenhold’s book of the same name. Hallie has also just finished writing the second in a trilogy of historical fiction books, The French Lesson, which includes a fictional but factually based Grace Dalrymple Elliott in revolutionary France and which will be available in March 2016 – we can’t wait to read it as we thoroughly enjoyed the first in the series, Mistress of My Fate; the Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot. We’ll be reviewing it here next year as soon as it is released.
So that we too can enjoy the festivities we will be taking a break from blogging until 5th January when we will be back with more tales from the Georgian era. To keep you busy with some light reading over the festive season we have compiled our 12 most popular blogs posts, all in one place for you. We hope you enjoy them and also that you have a very Happy Christmas and wish you all a wonderful New Year.
We know through our research that those Georgians were prolific letter writers so we thought we would take a look at communication before the advent of telephones, the internet, computers and the like, back to a time when the quill pen was all the rage and when all letters were either hand delivered or sent by mail.
Quill pens pre-date the Georgian era by some considerable time, made mainly from goose feathers, although high-quality ones were made from peacock or even swan feathers by using discarded flight feathers after the bird has moulted.
In 1764, an Act of Parliament was passed that allowed the Postmaster General to set up a local Penny Post in any city or town, similar to the system that already existed in London. In 1784 a new type of postal rate was introduced linking the distance a letter had to travel more important than ever before. The further it had to travel obviously the more expensive it was to send it, not to mention the cost of paper.
Sending two sheets of paper cost twice as much as a single sheet, so those canny Georgians opted for an impressive way of saving money – they adopted a style of writing to fill the entire page, firstly they wrote the way we today, then they turned the paper and wrote in the remaining spaces, commonly referred to as ‘cross hatching’.
Everyone loves stylish shoes and needless to say those lovers of fashion, the Georgians, were no exception. As they are today, they were, as well as being obviously practical they were very much about making a statement despite being somewhat hidden below those wonderful long gowns.
The manufacture of shoes required great skill, no mass production existed in the Georgian Era, and each pair would have been crafted by hand. A shoemaker ‘if he be a good hand, sober and industrious will earn thirty shillings a week’ that equates to about £70 a week today.
For many shoemakers, it was a relatively solitary life, working in their own workshop, for others they would have a large shop in which to exhibit their work.
The work involved in making a pair of shoes required the shoemaker to cut out a leather upper to a pattern. A small weight would then be placed on the skin to keep it from slipping; a hammer was then used to beat down any rough parts which lay on the inside of the shoe. Then using a pair of pincers the leather was stretched. The upper was then joined to the sole of the shoe. The parts were then sewn together and waxed. He would then use an awl to make holes for laces to fit through if required. The best and strongest thread being that made from hemp.
Women were employed to bind shoes of all kinds and sew together those made of silk and satin. Women’s shoes were highly ornate often with curved heels and a strap to keep them in place. The streets, of course, weren’t clean and paved as they are today so it was common for women to wear a ‘clog’ or ‘patten’ over her shoes in order to keep them clean, quite a good idea, if somewhat uncomfortable to walk in!
By the advent of the Regency Era women’s shoes changed in style from heels to the equivalent of today’s ballet pumps, much lighter in substance and fastened with ribbons. These shoes were unusual in so much as they were straight and therefore there was no right or left shoe – would this have made them easier to wear?
With the advent of the Napoleonic Wars, huge quantities of boots and shoes were required and this saw the advent of methods of mass production. Handcrafted boots and shoes continued to be manufactured, but obviously, a premium price would have been paid for them, much as is the case today.
We couldn’t possibly write a blog about shoes and not include a pair worn by the doyenne of fashion, Marie Antoinette, which sold at auction in 2012 for 50,000 euros (£40,600; $65,600) on the anniversary of the French queen’s execution.
Our final offering is one of the usual caricatures courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, this young lady, however, appears to be showing off slightly more than just her new shoes!!
So, you’ve found yourself a suitable young lady to spend some ‘quality’ time with, courtesy of Harris’s List (the annual directory of prostitutes working in London).
You’ve forgotten to call at Mrs Philips, at the Green Canister on Half-moon Street in the Strand for some cumdums (condoms, as we know them to be today) and you didn’t use the ‘totally effective Paris wash ball’ or Powell and Co’s medicated soap before calling on the young lady.
Oh, well never mind you’ll take a chance, everything should be just fine.
But of course, more often than not it simply wasn’t ‘just fine’ and needless to say the result was that you become ‘frenchified’, in other words you acquired a venereal disease – the pox, Covent Garden/Drury Lane Ague, Clap or, Token (the latter originates from the phrase ‘she tipped him the token’ i.e. she was infected and passed it on to him).
So what was the treatment?
Well, you could pay a visit to the ‘Nimgimmer’, a physician or surgeon who claimed to be able to provide you with a cure for the condition, such as Dr John Leake, of Parliament Street, London, who advertised prolifically in the newspapers throughout the mid to late 1700s that he had developed a ‘cure all’ pill and also the ‘Lisbon Diet Drink’.
This ‘cure’ which was more than likely some form of medication containing mercury became extremely popular, to the extent that it was carried on board ships for the sailors to take after a night out! Syphilis was incurable and the best treatment was calomel aka mercury chloride, which had its own problems when used over a long term.
So, those Georgians believed you simply took a pill and the condition was cured – really? Alternately you could try the Cornelian Tub, which was a sweating tub designed to remove the impurities – surely, that would do the trick or Sir Peter Lalonette’s Fumigation machine (to find out more about option click on the highlighted link).
It wasn’t until the mid-1830s that the medical profession finally agreed that syphilis and gonorrhoea were actually two different conditions, so consequently, until that time there was just one general term for the condition i.e. venereal disease. No matter which condition you had acquired there was no cure for your night for passion!
So, you are a grandly dressed Georgian lady, with a fully powdered head of hair, fashionably coiffed but with a few little inhabitants. Scratch, scratch! How would you rid yourself of fleas?
Back in the eighteenth-century fleas were a common problem for all classes and would happily live in beds, inside wigs and on pets, and everyone was prey to them. Bathing of course helped, and there was the tried and tested method of painstakingly searching for and picking off the little critters. The Parisian artist Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), in a couple of his genre paintings, depicted some ladies searching themselves for fleas (and offering the viewer a titillating glimpse of flesh while doing so).
One other way, popular for a short period in the eighteenth-century, was to use a flea-trap which became something of a popular fashion accessory. It consisted of a hollow perforated cylindrical tube, sometimes ornately carved and made of silver or ivory, inside which would be a small rod, tuft of fur or a piece of cloth. This would be smeared with a few drops of blood, to attract the fleas, and also fat, honey resin, designed to make the fleas stick fast to it as they crawled inside, and which was removed as necessary to get rid of them. The flea trap was worn on a ribbon as a necklace, hanging down inside a dress – it could also be placed in a bed to attempt to rid that of fleas. A German doctor named Franz Ernst Brückmann (1697-1753) designed the first flea trap in the early 1700s.
Louth museum in Lincolnshire holds one, although they are unsure of the date of their flea trap. It is made of ivory, with a carved pattern, and measures 7cm in length and 1½cm in width.
The French name for the flea was ‘la puce’, which is supposedly how we have the name for the colour today – it is taken from the colour of a squashed flea or one full of blood, or from the bloodstains left behind by a flea on the bedsheets.
Reputedly, this brownish purple was one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite colours, and it was Louis XVI who jokingly compared it to the colour of a flea and so named it. From Domestic anecdotes of the French nation, during the last thirty years, indicative of the French revolution, written in 1800 by Isaac D’Israeli (author and father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli):
In the summer of 1775, the queen being dressed, in a brown lutestring, the king good humouredly observed, it was “couleur de puce”, the colour of fleas; and instantly every lady would be drest in a lutestring of a flea colour. The mania was caught by the men; and the dyers in vain exhausted themselves to supply the hourly demand. They distinguished between, an old and a young flea, and they subdivided even the shades of the body of this insect; the belly, the back, the thigh, and the head, were all marked by varying shades of this colour. This prevailing tint promised to be the fashion of the winter. The venders of silk, found that it would he pernicious to their trade; they therefore presented new sattins to her majesty, who having chosen one of a grey ash-colour, Monsieur, exclaimed that it was the colour of her majesty’s hair! Immediately the fleas ceased to be favourites, and all were eager to be drest in the colour of her majesty’s hair. Servants were sent off at the moment from Fontainebleau to Paris, to purchase velvets, rateens and cloths of this colour. The current price in the morning had been forty livres per ell, and it rose towards the evening to the price of eighty to ninety livres.
We’ll end with a couple of satirical prints. We think the people in these could do with a flea trap!
During the 18th and early 19th centuries the more affluent in society had plenty of time for reading and although circulating or lending libraries had existed prior to the 1700’s, it wasn’t until then that they really took off as booksellers and other organisations saw them as another way of making money by reaching people who couldn’t afford to buy books outright, but who were willing to pay a relatively low subscription to read them, given that the cost of purchasing a book was fairly prohibitive for many. Circulating libraries popped up in towns and cities across the country.
The largest circulating library carrying over 20,000 books, was the Minerva Press on Leadenhall Street, London, established by William Lane and was famous for creating a market for sentimental and Gothic fiction.
At the other end of the scale were small libraries such as that at Ashbourne, Derbyshire, which was run from about 1795 to 1801 by the librarian Susanna Oakes who can be seen in this portrait
There were two types of ‘public’ library in existence, the subscription library and the circulating library. The difference between them being that members of a subscription library also paid for a share of the library and had a say in which books the library purchased and how the library was run.
Both produced a catalogue of books available and you could purchase a copy of this list for around six pence and make your choice of reading material from it. Some simply provided an A-Z list, others provided a more detailed breakdown by category. Subscription libraries tended to be more expensive to subscribe to.
The tariff for a circulating library would have been similar to this one below, dated 1804 :
One pound, 1 shilling per year
Or 12 shillings for half a year
Or 6 shillings per quarter
Or 2 shillings and 6 pence for a month
These subscriptions allowed you to borrow 2 books at a time if you lived in the town or 4 if you lived in the country. The number of books you could borrow varied from library to library.
Each library had its own rules about which had to be strictly adhered to such as these shown below
One catalogue we came across was that of Marshall’s, of Milsom Street, Bath which offered –
‘upwards of twenty thousand volumes, choicely selected in all the different branches of polite literature.’
In the December of 1796 work began on building a prisoner of war camp at Norman Cross on the border between Huntingdonshire and Leicestershire. Built to house French prisoners of war, it was the first such purpose built camp anywhere in the world.
The site was chosen carefully – it could not be too close to the coast (which would make escape attempts more likely), near enough to London to be reached easily but not too close and in an area in which food and water would be readily available. Norman Cross fitted the bill perfectly.
The numbers of men held in the camp varied, but on average the population was around 5,000, mainly from the lower ranks of soldiers and sailors (occasionally wives were also taken up, if they were captured at their husbands sides on board ships, but they were generally held outside the prison as were some officers and civilians of a slightly higher status who were trusted on their honour not to break their parole). Escape attempts by the rank and file prisoners were a regular occurrence, sometimes successfully.
George Borrow (1803-1881), author and friend to the gypsies, remembered the camp from his youth – his father Captain Thomas Borrow was, around 1811, one of the men guarding the camp and the prisoners along with his regiment, and his family travelled with him. From Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest (1851), a mix of memoir and novel:
At length my father was recalled to his regiment, which at that time was stationed at a place called Norman Cross, in Lincolnshire, or rather Huntingdonshire, at some distance from the old town of Peterborough. For this place he departed, leaving my mother and myself to follow in a few days. Our journey was a singular one. On the second day we reached a marshy and fenny country, which owing to immense quantities of rain which had lately fallen, was completely submerged. At a large town we got on board a kind of passage-boat, crowded with people; it had neither sails nor oars, and those were not the days of steam-vessels; it was a treck-schuyt [trekshuit, a form of barge or narrowboat], and was drawn by horses.
Young as I was, there was much connected with this journey which highly surprised me, and which brought to my remembrance particular scenes described in the book which I now generally carried in my bosom. The country was, as I have already said, submerged—entirely drowned—no land was visible; the trees were growing bolt upright in the flood, whilst farmhouses and cottages were standing insulated; the horses which drew us were up to the knees in water, and, on coming to blind pools and “greedy depths,” were not unfrequently swimming, in which case the boys or urchins who mounted them sometimes stood, sometimes knelt, upon the saddle and pillions. No accident, however, occurred either to the quadrupeds or bipeds, who appeared respectively to be quite au fait in their business, and extricated themselves with the greatest ease from places in which Pharaoh and all his host would have gone to the bottom. Nightfall brought us to Peterborough, and from thence we were not slow in reaching the place of our destination.
And a strange place it was, this Norman Cross, and, at the time of which I am speaking, a sad cross to many a Norman, being what was then styled a French prison, that is, a receptacle for captives made in the French war. It consisted, if I remember right, of some five or six casernes, very long, and immensely high; each standing isolated from the rest, upon a spot of ground which might average ten acres, and which was fenced round with lofty palisades, the whole being compassed about by a towering wall, beneath which, at intervals, on both sides sentinels were stationed, whilst, outside, upon the field, stood commodious wooden barracks, capable of containing two regiments of infantry, intended to serve as guards upon the captives. Such was the station or prison at Norman Cross, where some six thousand French and other foreigners, followers of the grand Corsican, were now immured.
What a strange appearance had those mighty casernes, with their blank blind walls, without windows or grating, and their slanting roofs, out of which, through orifices where the tiles had been removed, would be protruded dozens of grim heads, feasting their prison-sick eyes on the wide expanse of country unfolded from that airy height. Ah! there was much misery in those casernes; and from those roofs, doubtless, many a wistful look was turned in the direction of lovely France. Much had the poor inmates to endure, and much to complain of, to the disgrace of England be it said—of England, in general so kind and bountiful. Rations of carrion meat, and bread from which I have seen the very hounds occasionally turn away, were unworthy entertainment even for the most ruffian enemy, when helpless and a captive; and such, alas! was the fare in those casernes. And then, those visits, or rather ruthless inroads, called in the slang of the place  “straw-plait hunts,” when, in pursuit of a contraband article, which the prisoners, in order to procure themselves a few of the necessaries and comforts of existence, were in the habit of making, p. 24red-coated battalions were marched into the prisons, who, with the bayonet’s point, carried havoc and ruin into every poor convenience which ingenious wretchedness had been endeavouring to raise around it; and then the triumphant exit with the miserable booty; and, worst of all, the accursed bonfire, on the barrack parade, of the plait contraband, beneath the view of the glaring eyeballs from those lofty roofs, amidst the hurrahs of the troops, frequently drowned in the curses poured down from above like a tempest-shower, or in the terrific war-whoop of “Vive l’Empereur!”
Borrow had his first encounter with the gypsies outside Norman Cross. In a paper given by David Nuttall at the Easter Conference of the George Borrow Society, he speculates that the gypsies Borrow met, probably Faden John and Morella Smith, were in the area specifically because of the money-making potential from the prisoner of war camp and carding straw plait ready to sell on for illicit use in the prison where it was turned into plaited objects which then could be sold.
Gambling was rife within the walls of the camp, with some men gambling away both their clothes and their food rations – some even died of starvation because of this. But generally discipline was good and the prisoners crafted various objects to sell to supplement their income. Fanny Chapman, whose diaries are hosted on our sister blog, recalled being given an ivory chess set in 1811 which had been carved by a French prisoner of war at Norman Cross.
As the war ebbed and flowed, so did the number of prisoners – by the summer of 1802, following the Treaty of Amiens, the prison stood empty and the government advertised the buildings for sale. This was swiftly countermanded just months later when it became obvious that, with hostilities resumed, the buildings comprising the camp would once again be needed for their original purpose. A year later, Dutch and French prisoners were being marched from the prison ships in which they had been held to Norman Cross.
After peace had been declared between France and Britain in 1814 the remaining prisoners were free to return home and most, although not all, did so. One Jean (John) Habart married a local girl and settled in Stilton near Peterborough where he worked as a malster and innkeeper and ‘bore an excellent character for honesty and integrity’. He died, aged 63 years, in 1846 when he was discovered, his neck broken, on the ground next to his cart on his return from Peterborough market. The inquest into his death returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ but it seemed to have been suspected that foul play might have been the cause.[i] He was possibly the Jean Hobart captured with two other men on the 26th June 1803 from a French fishing vessel off Calais, who was employed as a baker while in the camp and discharged in 1811.[ii]
Further information on the burials of the 1,770 men who never left Norman Cross can be found here including the details of 41 men who were Trafalgar veterans.
[i] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal (31st January 1846) and Stamford Mercury (6th February 1846).
An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott is available from Pen and Sword Books (click here to order) and all good bookshops.
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