A View of Chiswick House from the South West by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack

The Duchess of Devonshire’s Public Breakfast at Chiswick House, 1802

Today, we’re taking you back in time to a public breakfast given by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire at the end of June 1802, at her villa, Chiswick House. Public it might have been, but entry was only for those ‘of note’ in the fashionable world. You’ll be mingling with around 700 members of London’s high society so, in order to look the part you’ll need to dress in the latest fashions. Gentlemen should wear boots for practicality as the event is mainly outdoors. For ladies, we’d recommend a simple white muslin dress with an understated headdress (maybe one with just a few feathers as decoration). You’ll have to manage in a pair of dainty slippers, but we’re sure the suited and booted gentlemen will be on hand to offer assistance.

A View of Chiswick House from the South West by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack
A View of Chiswick House from the South West by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack; English Heritage, Chiswick House

The breakfast rounded off the ‘fashionable arrangements’ for that particular week, which had started with a grand dinner given by the Prince of Wales on Monday 21st June and continued with a variety of musical evenings, routs and balls on every evening. By the time the weekend dawned, on Saturday 26th June, the haute ton were faced with the choice of attending two public breakfasts, one given by Mr Angerstein at his mansion, the Woodlands at Blackheath, or the Duchess of Devonshire’s gathering. No contest, we’re going to the latter!

Her Grace’s villa has long been deservedly the theme of public panegyric; but if it were always inhabited by as many beautiful women as appeared there on Saturday last, it would be a perfect Elysium.

Breakfast it might have been, but this was polite society and they kept fashionably late hours. The guests did not start arriving until the early afternoon, and they were the crème de la crème of society, headed by no less a person than the duchess’s friend, George, Prince of Wales who arrived dressed in green.

Miniature of George IV when Prince of Wales by George Engleheart, 1801-02.
Miniature of George IV when Prince of Wales by George Engleheart, 1801-02. Royal Collection Trust

We’ll pick you a handful of others from the list of noted attendees. The Duke of Orléans was present (Philippe Égalité’s son) and the Countess Conyngham who would become the Prince of Wales’ mistress some years hence. From a banking family, the countess was a beauty but snootily regarded as somewhat vulgar, due to her ancestry. The Prince’s current mistress, Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey is not mentioned as being in attendance… but a Mrs Fitzherbert is, and she is more than likely Maria Fitzherbert, the prince’s on-again, off-again one true love.

A View of Chiswick House Gardens with the Bagnio and Domed Building Alleys; Pieter Andreas Rysbrack
A View of Chiswick House Gardens with the Bagnio and Domed Building Alleys; Pieter Andreas Rysbrack; English Heritage, Chiswick House

Some of the people present were those we know well; they are present within the pages of the books we have written. The Earl and Countess (later Marquess and Marchioness) of Cholmondeley were there; the earl was, for several years, the lover of our ‘infamous courtesan’, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, and he brought up her daughter, Georgiana Seymour, even though the girl’s father was not the earl but the Prince of Wales. Georgiana would have been almost 20 years of age and although she is not specifically mentioned as attending, it’s totally possible that she was there. If so, then she would have seen the man who, six years later, she would marry: Lord Charles Bentinck, a younger son of the 3rd Duke of Portland.

Other guests are familiar from our former blog posts, ladies such as the Marchioness of Salisbury, the Honourable Mr and Mrs Bouverie and Mrs Crewe.

Large French print of Chiswick with a plan of the gardens
Large French print of Chiswick with a plan of the gardens; Royal Collection Trust.

It was a perfect summer’s day and the guests strolled on the lawns and in the grounds. The Serpentine River provided rowing for any gentlemen who wanted a bit of exercise (aren’t you glad you wore your boots now?), and swings and a see-saw had been set up to provide a bit of fun (the latter reportedly ‘afforded much diversion’ and on the former, the ‘ladies assisted one another in swinging’).

A View of the Back Part of the Cassina, & Part of the Serpentine River, terminated by the Cascade in the Garden of Chiswick House.
A View of the Back Part of the Cassina, & Part of the Serpentine River, terminated by the Cascade in the Garden of Chiswick House. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Amongst this elevated and merry company strolled the Duchess of Devonshire, arm-in-arm with her eldest daughter, fondly known as Little G, Georgiana, Viscountess Morpeth. Just 20 years of age, Lady Morpeth had married a year earlier, to the 5th Earl of Carlisle’s eldest son. Little G had recently become a mother; her son, the future 7th Earl of Carlisle, had been born on the 18th April 1802, so a little over two months before this breakfast. In a sea of white dresses, the Duchess of Devonshire and her daughter managed to be the centre of attention. They both ‘looked remarkably well [and] wore a new sort of bonnet, with a large lace veil over it, serving as both cloak and bonnet. This was one of the handsomest promenade dresses we saw’.

The day was hot, so the veil which doubled as a cloak must have provided a little protection from the sun while not being too heavy. We wonder if it resembled the fashion plate below, which dates to the same period?

Journal des dames et des modes, 14 June 1802
Journal des dames et des modes, 14 June 1802

Around 4 o’clock, the company sat down to their breakfast. The tables, set with bouquets of fresh flowers and piled with refreshments, were scattered over the estate.

In the house covers were laid for 200, viz. in the two salons, the dining and green-rooms, and the dressing-room. In the Temple, &c. 100 were accommodated, and in the two Grand Marquees, and the other tents, about 200 more. Tables were likewise placed under the trees at the entrance of the lawn; the effect was cool and refreshing, the situation being impervious to the rays of the sun… the desert of fruit was very fine, cherries, strawberries, peaches, nectarines, pines, in abundance.

The Pond and the Temple at Chiswick House by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack
The Pond and the Temple at Chiswick House by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack; English Heritage, Chiswick House

By 7 o’clock the guests started to drift away and an hour later most had departed, leaving the clearing up operation by the duchess’ servants to begin.

It had been a great success, but we have to note that two very important names did not appear on the list of guests. Neither the Duke of Devonshire nor his mistress Lady Bess Foster who lived with the couple in a form of ménage à trois, appear to have been present.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Lady Elisabeth Foster, miniature by Jean-Urbain Guérin, 1791.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Lady Elisabeth Foster, miniature by Jean-Urbain Guérin, 1791. The Wallace Collection

NB: The images used of Chiswick House are of an earlier date when the house was owned by the Duke of Devonshire’s ancestor, the Earl of Burlington, but give a good idea of how the house and grounds would have looked.

If you enjoy our blog, you might also enjoy our books.

 

Sources:

Morning Post, 21 June and 28 June 1802

Hot cross bunns, two a penny bunns; Thomas Rowlandson; Cries of London.

One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns!

Easter just wouldn’t be Easter without hot cross buns. These sweet, spiced buns were also popular throughout the Georgian era, known both as cross buns as well as hot cross buns, and traditionally eaten on Good Friday. The well-known song relating to them has its origins in the eighteenth-century.

Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!

One a penny, two a penny,

Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons.

One a penny, two a penny,

Hot cross buns!

This started out as a London street cry, used by the sellers of the buns. The Oxford English Dictionary references a street cry dating to 1733, printed in Poor Robin’s Almanack:

Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs,

With one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns.

Hot Cross Buns; Thomas Rowlandson's Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders.
Hot Cross Buns; Thomas Rowlandson’s Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders. British Library

So, when did the street cry become a ditty? Wikipedia (not always the most reliable, we know!) dates the earliest recorded version of the rhyme to its appearance in The Christmas Box, published in London, 1798. However, we have found mention of a ‘catch’ (a round song; two or more voices singing the same song but beginning at different times) dating from 1767 and printed in the London Chronicle newspaper (2-4 June 1767).

A Catch that won the Prize at the Boarded Bagnio:

One a penny, two a penny, hot cross-buns;

If you’ve no daughters, give them to your sons;

And if you’ve no kind of pretty little elves,

Why then good faith, e’en eat them all yourselves.

DA CAPO

One a penny, two a penny, &c.

(Da capo is an Italian term meaning to repeat from the beginning. The Boarded Bagnio was located in Banister’s Alley, St Giles.)

We’re not sure what exactly was going on at the Boarded Bagnio to merit the hot cross bun rhyme winning a prize, but this version of the popular ditty predates its appearance in The Christmas Box by over three decades and is the earliest reference to it that we can find. Is this the origin of the song?

The Bunboat Woman's Story.
The Bunboat Woman’s Story. © The Trustees of the British Museum

What of the origins of the buns themselves? One writer, in 1777, refers to the custom in Greece to make presents of coloured eggs, and cakes of Easter bread. He continues:

Probably the Cross Buns made at present on Good Friday have been derived from these or such like Cakes of Easter Bread. The Country People in the North make with a knife many little Cross Marks on their Cakes, before they put them into the Oven, &c. – I have no doubt but that this too, trifling as the Remark may appear, is a Relique of Popery. Thus also persons, who cannot write, instead of signing their Names, are bid to make their Mark, which is generally done in the form of a Cross.

We’ve searched for an authentic recipe for the cross buns of the era, but the closest we have found is this from the Morning Chronicle, 23 April 1791:

GOOD FRIDAY ADVERTISEMENTS

A person, well known at Leicester, lately took this mode of informing the public, ‘that his Buns, made of the best Flour, and the genuine spices of the East, would be ready for delivery by six in the morning’. After desiring them to be aware of imposters, he concluded as follows:

GOOD FRIDAY approaches, and hard have I strove,

My highest respect for the Public to prove;

And to make my commodity worth approbation,

Collected the sweets of each spice-breathing nation.

What tho’ some base Gingerbread Weavers, for fun,

In their ribaldry, call me a Cake and a Bun;

In the making of Buns, there’s no rival I fear,

I’ve in mine, no mix’d Butter, nor rot-gut Small Beer –

But there’s everything genuine! Look at their size,

For they’ll melt in your mouth, and swell proud to your eyes.

And so, while I exist, you shall never lay fault on

Your Cross-bun Distributer, fam’d EDIS WATTON.

There was a tradition, probably harking back to the religious connotations with the buns, that stale and mouldy cross buns would cure many childhood ailments. Luckily the child does not seem to have been expected to eat the buns – sometimes several years old – but instead they would be bandaged to their body.

Hot cross bunns, two a penny bunns; Thomas Rowlandson; Cries of London.
Hot cross bunns, two a penny bunns; Thomas Rowlandson; Cries of London. Met Museum

Sources not referenced in the text:

Observations on popular antiquities: including the whole of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares, with addenda to every chapter of that work: as also, an appendix, containing such articles on the subject, as have been omitted by that author. By John Brand, A. B. Of Lincoln College, Oxford. 1777

Take a romp through the long eighteenth-century in this collection of 25 short tales. Meet actresses, whores and high-born ladies, politicians, inventors, royalty and criminals as we travel through the Georgian era in all its glorious and gruesome glory. In roughly chronological order, covering the reign of the four Georges, 1714-1830, set within the framework of the main events of the era and accompanied by over 100 stunning colour images. Available in hardback, April 2019.

All Things Georgian: Tales From the Long Eighteenth-Century

We have some exciting news to share with you, our readers, today. As well as writing our bi-weekly blog posts, we have also been working on our fourth book together… and this one is based on our blog! In fact, we’ve reused the name, and the title of our new book is All Things Georgian: Tales From the Long Eighteenth-Century.

It contains 25 tales that you won’t find on our blog already, all a little longer in length but, as ever, lavishly illustrated, predominantly in colour. In fact, we’ve got over 100 gorgeous colour pictures scattered throughout the text. The tales are all in roughly chronological order, covering the reign of the four Georges, 1714-1830 and set within the framework of the main events of the era.

Take a romp through the long eighteenth-century in this collection of 25 short tales. Meet actresses, whores and high-born ladies, politicians, inventors, royalty and criminals as we travel through the Georgian era in all its glorious and gruesome glory. In roughly chronological order, covering the reign of the four Georges, 1714-1830, set within the framework of the main events of the era and accompanied by over 100 stunning colour images. Available in hardback, April 2019.

So, what stories can you expect to find inside? We bill ourselves as historical super-sleuths and we’ve dug into various archives to discover the weird, the wonderful and the downright strange side of long eighteenth-century.

Take a romp through the long eighteenth-century in this collection of 25 short tales. Marvel at the Queen’s Ass, gaze at the celestial heavens through the eyes of the past and be amazed by the equestrian feats of the Norwich Nymph. Journey to the debauched French court at Versailles, travel to Covent Garden and take your seat in a box at the theatre and, afterwards, join the mile-high club in a new-fangled hot air balloon. Meet actresses, whores and high-born ladies, politicians, inventors, royalty and criminals as we travel through the Georgian era in all its glorious and gruesome glory.

Out in the UK by the end of April, 2019. Click here to discover more.

 

Throwing at cocks and other pastimes: Shrove Tuesday in the Georgian Era

The person, Sir, who I informed you had last year swallowed a fork on Shrove Tuesday, discharged it by the anus the same year, (1715) on the 25th June.

Ahem! Now we’ve got your attention, today being Shrove Tuesday, we’re taking a look at some of the events which occurred on the day in the Georgian era. Often celebrated as a half-holiday with bell-ringing and games, we all know of the custom of pancakes; today pancake races are still often held. But, what about other traditions? And no, fork swallowing wasn’t one of them; that was just an accident which occurred on the day. Mind you, some of the customs were just as awful…

Woman Baking Pancakes, Adriaan de Lelie, c. 1790 – c. 1810
Rijksmuseum

An old custom around the mid-1700s was to throw sticks at cocks on this day… no, we don’t know why either. One theory, given in a letter in the Stamford Mercury of 1768 said that:

Gallieide, or cock-throwing, was first introduced by way of contempt to the French, and to exasperate the minds of the people against that nation: but why should the custom be continued when we are no longer at war with them?

Shrove Tuesday all the year round - a cock wot every one throws at.
Shrove Tuesday all the year round – a cock wot every one throws at. © The Trustees of the British Museum

A cockerel would be tied to a post and then coksteles (weighted sticks) thrown at the bird until, inevitably, it died. In 1763, the mayor and justices of Bath printed an appeal for this practice to end, it being ‘barbarous, and therefore doubtless offensive to Almighty God’. They asked the country folk who lived nearby the city not to bring their cocks to market and sell them for this purpose. Possibly their plea went largely unheeded, as they were forced to repeat their appeal the following year too. In 1753, a riot broke out in Dublin when some soldiers, who were watching the proceedings, expressed their distaste at the practice.  In 1766, at Blackburn in Lancashire, some of the local lads were throwing sticks at a cock in the churchyard, but their aim was off and instead they hit a woman walking past.

The stick flew into her eye, and up into her head, which put her into very great torture, and after languishing some time, she died.

The First Stage of Cruelty by Hogarth
The First Stage of Cruelty by Hogarth via Wikimedia

Mind you, with the custom of throwing at cocks all but forgotten by the end of the eighteenth-century, the Justices of Derby worried instead about the practice of:

…playing at Foot Ball on Shrove Tuesdays; a custom which whilst it has no better recommendation than its antiquity, for its further continuance, is disgraceful to humanity, and civilization; subversive of good order, and Government, and destructive of the morals, properties, and very lives of our inhabitants.

Foot Ball played at Market Place, Barnet by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Foot Ball played at Market Place, Barnet by Robert Dighton, c.1784. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The year before, it seems, one John Sneap had lost his life while indulging in the game on Shrove Tuesday. Rowdy ‘mob football’ games were yet another odd Shrove Tuesday tradition. And so the city of Derby:

… being fully satisfied that many public and private evils have been occasioned by the custom of playing at FOOT BALL in this Borough on Shrove Tuesdays.

We have unanimously resolved, THAT SUCH CUSTOM SHALL FROM HENCEFORTH BE DISCONTINUED.

Some towns in England still continue this tradition. A much more satisfactory custom was gathering for drinks and a feast.

An English Merry-Making, a Hundred Years Ago by William Powell Frith, 1846.
An English Merry-Making, a Hundred Years Ago by William Powell Frith, 1846. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In Bury, on 24 February 1762, 72 people who all lived within a mile of the town met at the Old Hare and Hounds, to drink the health of the royal family. Amongst the crowed were 38 elderly folk, whose ages amounted to ‘upwards of 3040 years’. Adding the combined ages of those gathered to celebrate Shrove Tuesday seems to be of national interest. The following dates to 1759.

At an entertainment given by the Master of the Talbot Inn, at Ripley in Surrey, on Shrove Tuesday last, to twelve of his neighbours, inhabitants of the said parish, and who lived within five hundred yards distance, the age of the whole amounted to one thousand and eighteen years. What is most remarkable, one of the company is the mother of twelve children, the youngest of whom is sixty. She has within the fortnight walked to Guildford and back again (which is twelve miles) in one day. Another has worked as a journeyman with his Master (a shoemaker, who dined with him) forty-nine years. The all enjoyed their senses and not one made use of a crutch.

And, let’s not forget the poor fork swallower. He was reputed to be a Spanish officer who had accidentally gulped down the fork (it was only a small implement) while cleaning the root of his tongue with the end of the handle. And, the account we have read suggests he came to no permanent harm.

Sources:

Derby Mercury, 16 March 1753, 7 March 1766 and 18 February 1796

Manchester Mercury, 6 March 1759 and 2 March 1762

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 10 February 1763 and 23 February 1764

Caledonian Mercury, 12 November 1766

Stamford Mercury, 18 February 1768

Paul, John Dean; Greyhound in a Landscape by John Dean Paul

Tales of faithful dogs from the Georgian era

There are many accounts of dogs seeking help for their owner following an accident. Here we’ve collected a few tales from contemporary newspapers.

In the early evening of a mid-November day in 1767, a man named Gabriel Park was walking to his home at Carntyne, a Glasgow mining area, when he fell into an old and deep abandoned coal pit by the roadside. Luckily it had no water in it, but he had no way of escape. Gabriel’s small pointer dog was with him, and all night it ran around the mouth of the pit, yelping and howling. This noise alerted several colliers who, early the next morning, were walking to their place of work; they came over to see what the commotion was. Gabriel was fair spent by this time, and had barely the strength left to call his name, but his rescuers heard his faint cries for help. They fetched ropes and brought him to safety; although he was in a bad state, Gabriel was expected to survive. And, if the Gabriel Park who was buried at Glasgow in 1794 at the age of 67 is him, then survive he did, thanks to his dog.

Another rescue by a dog also occurred in Scotland, on a similar winter’s evening in 1811. Andrew Frame and John Corbet, from Larkhall, were on their way home in an open cart together with their dog. They had to cross the Clyde, which was swollen, and by a mishap, cart, horse and the two men ended up in the river. John Corbet disappeared under the surface and was drowned, but his companion, Andrew, survived, thanks to the dog who grabbed hold of his master’s clothes and kept his head above the water until they got to the shore. The horse also managed to make it to safety; after getting away from his harness he swam to one side of the river only to find the bank too steep to escape, so made his way to the opposite side where he was able to scramble out.

View of the Clyde, by John Knox.
View of the Clyde (in better weather!) by John Knox; Government Art Collection

When the Comet II paddle steamer collided with another steamer off Kempock Point, Gourock, Scotland, and sank with the loss of 62 of the 80 passengers on board, a lady named Jane Monro was saved when she managed to grab hold of a greyhound who had been onboard, and who kept her afloat. The fate of the greyhound was not recorded (but we hope he was pulled to safety too!).

Paul, John Dean; Greyhound in a Landscape by John Dean Paul
Paul, John Dean; Greyhound in a Landscape by John Dean Paul; Leicestershire County Council Museums Service

Many other accounts relate stories of faithful hounds refusing to leave their dead masters. The following is from early February, 1799.

On Tuesday, an officer’s servant belonging to West Suffolk, was found near the Newmarket turnpike, supposed to have lain in the snow since Saturday. A faithful dog was found lying near his deceased master, buried in the snow by whose barking the body was discovered.

Several years earlier, in 1778, a Southampton man known as French Frank was sent on horseback to Stoke, accompanied by his faithful Newfoundland dog. Somehow met with an accident and both French Frank and the horse ended up tangled together in what was described as ‘the Barge River’ (possibly this means the Trent and Mersey Canal which was completed the year before and that French Frank was heading to Stoke-on-Trent). They both drowned, the bodies discovered due to the Newfoundland, who swam next to French Frank’s body and who could not be coaxed from the water until he was almost exhausted.

A clearly well-to-do gentleman from the London area (for the family had servants) had, in the summer of 1752, been missing for a fortnight. He had a favourite dog who rarely left his side, and this dog had also been absent, returning only for his dinner each day, then quickly vanishing again. Eventually, someone decided that it would be an idea to follow the dog, to see if he could lead them to the missing man. The dog led his owner’s relations to the side of a flooded gravel pit on the road to Marylebone where the dog’s master was found drowned.

Kensington Gravel Pits (1811-1812) by John Linnell
A later depiction of Gravel Pits at Kensington (1811-1812) by John Linnell; The Tate

Guide Dogs

Faithful dogs to guide the blind are nothing new.

In the summer of 1810, a blind man accepted a bet of seven shillings, that he could walk six miles in an hour and a half.  In this undertaking, he would be guided by his faithful dog. The pair started at 8 o’clock in the morning, on the Fulham road, and walked one mile out and then one mile back in until the six miles was completed. There was a huge crowd of people gathered to watch the event and, to their surprise, the whole six miles was completed with fifteen minutes to spare. The spectators, so impressed by the blind man’s feat, hastily started a collection amongst themselves, and in no time at all they’d raised 40 shillings, which was handed over to the blind pedestrian. Let’s hope he treated his pooch to a good meal with some of the proceeds!

Blind girl led by a dog, 1785.
Blind girl led by a dog, 1785. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Things didn’t always go so well, though. In 1776, a blind woman was walking along Newcastle’s Quayside, led by her dog. Unfortunately, the dog got a bit too close to the edge, and the poor woman fell into the water. It was near full tide, and a passing stranger grabbed a boat hook, managed to get hold of her dress, and dragged her back to dry land before any great harm came to her.

Ferry boat with passengers disembarking; Newcastle upon Tyne; Luke Clennell;
Ferry boat with passengers disembarking; Newcastle upon Tyne; Luke Clennell; Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

We found another account of a blind man falling into a river, but this time you couldn’t blame his faithful dog as it was down to foul play.

Sunday night a poor blind man, who was led about the streets by a dog, fell into the Liffey, and was drowned. This was occasioned by some abominable villain cutting the cord with which the poor man was guided by the dog. The animal displayed astonishing affection to the body of his master, when taken out of the river, by licking it over, and signifying great concern at his fate.

Sources:

Derby Mercury, 17 July 1752

The Scots Magazine, 1 November 1767

Newcastle Courant, 11 May 1776

Hampshire Chronicle, 11 May 1778

Cambridge Intelligencer, 9 February 1799

Oxford Journal, 9 October 1802

London Courier and Evening Gazette, 19 July 1810

Globe, 20 December 1811

Morning Chronicle, 26 December 1825

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.

"A remarkable story, beautifully told." A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs.

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.

Georgian ‘Bling’

lwlpr19411 Jewellery
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

How many of us can honestly say that we don’t feel good when wearing a beautiful piece of jewellery. The Georgians were no different, the bolder the better in many cases. So we thought we would take a look at the ‘bling’ of the day.

Meister_der_Erzherzoginnenportraits_001
Archduchess Marie Christine, Duchess of Teschen

There were certain items of jewellery that were designated for certain times of the day. Day wear would consist of a necklace, small understated rings and the most important item which arguably would still be useful today – the chatelaine or chain, known as ‘equipage’ until the 1830’s, as shown below which would be attached to the waist of the dress.

2006BB1910
Courtesy of the British Museum

Today this item seems to have been replaced by the familiar ‘bottomless’ handbag. In the 18th century is would have worn about the waist and would have been used to hold everything you could have possibly needed for the day – scissors, a thimble case, needles, a small purse, seals, a watch, a small booklet to write notes on, a pencil, etc.

Mary-Tween-G.Cummins-2010
Courtesy of The Cavalcade of History and Fashion

Eighteenth-century gents would display their status by wearing shoe buckles and buttons studded with gems such as these.

Man's_shoe_buckles_c._1777-1785
Man’s steel and gilt wire shoe buckles, England, c. 1777–1785 LACMA M.80.92.6a-b.

Evenings required a completely different type of jewellery – diamonds were the order of the day, the bigger and brighter the better, usually set in silver. Diamonds were often mounted in silver, rather than gold, with the aim being to enhance the stone’s colour and would have been an essential part of court life. To be at the height of fashion you would wear Girandole earrings.  These featured  a central bow from which hung three dangling jewels that resembled the chandeliers of the period. For those who chose not to have pierced ears, the Georgian era saw the advent of the clip-on earring.

Girondole earrings

Pink
http://simonteakle.com/georgian-paste-parure-english-circa-1760/

During the French Revolution many women chose to wear a red ribbon as a choker in support of friends and family who had died during the revolution, or as a sign of their own close call with death. For those more affluent then rubies would have been the equivalent, both indicative of the blood shed at executions.

394px-1799-Cruikshank-Paris-ladies-full-winter-dress-caricature
A slightly later period, but indicative of the red choker.

This item from the British Museum was too fascinating not to include.  The description reads:

Heart shaped pendant locket with a lock of hair, traditionally said to be that of Marie Antoinette, set under glass or rock-crystal with an inscribed card and mounted in a gold filigree setting. A small gold padlock is suspended from the base with a key on a chain attached to the suspension loop. The filigree in the form of tight spiral discs forming ‘spectacles’ shapes, placed within the flat wire rim.

  • Inscription Content

    A lock of hair of MARIE ANTOINETTE, Queen of FRANCE given by her to Lady Abercorn by whom it was given to her sister Lady Julia Lockwood, whose daughter Lady Napier gave it to W.S. 1853

  • Inscription Comment

    The inscription is wrongly transcribed in the catalogue of the Hull Grundy Gift: Lady Abercorn is given as Lady Abercrombie.

For more information about this item use the highlighted link to the British Museum web page.

Georgian bling

Moving on to possibly the most macabre items of jewellery, we take a brief look at mourning rings.  In many wills that we have read it seems commonplace for the deceased to leave enough money for some sort of mourning ring to be purchased as a keepsake, usually bearing the name and date of death of the person, and possibly an image of them, or a motto.

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council
Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council
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England, after AD 1794 A gold mourning ring with eye for Mary Dean Courtesy of British Museum

And finally we take a look at an item of jewellery that seems unlikely ever to return to fashion – Lover’s eye brooches or eye miniatures. It is reputed that they became popular in the late 1780’s when the Prince of Wales decided to send Maria Fitzherbert a token of his love for her. The idea that he should wish to do such a thing was frowned upon, so he commissioned Cosway simply to paint only the eye to preserve anonymity.

Online gallieres.com
A left eye miniature traditionally identified as the eye of George, Prince of Wales , courtesy of http://www.onlinegalleries.com

Our post would not be complete without including something light hearted from the Lewis Walpole Library, so if  finances were running low due to gambling debts a lady could always sell her jewels!

selling jewels
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole

A Well-Authenticated Ghost Story from 1822

The following ghost story, in time for Halloween, is taken from The Morning Post, 16th October, 1822.

A WELL-AUTHENTICATED GHOST STORY

(FROM THE EDINBURGH OBSERVER.)

An old woman had for many of the latter years of her life indulged herself in sitting up in bed in such a position that her knees and her chin were constantly next door neighbours.  From this attitude she never departed; so that, for a long time previous to her decease, the tendons and muscles which are used in extending the lower limbs of the body were contracted, and refused their offices.

In this situation she was in the habit of taking exercises by gently see-sawing, or rocking herself backwards and forwards.  She died at last, a fate which all persons, eminent or not, must submit.

Her corpse was watched by some of her female acquaintances and relations, “who, towards the witching time of night,” had their meditations or speculations interrupted by a noise which they fancied was a dreadful peal of thunder.

The first impulse was to cast their widely opened eyes towards the body of the old dame, when, to their utter horror, they beheld her started from the recumbent posture of death, into her usual position, and exercising herself in rocking or see-sawing, as if nothing extraordinary had happened.

This sight was beyond the endurance of any female fortitude, and the whole party rushed out of the room without politeness enough to wish the old body joy on returning to its customary occupation.  On the circumstance being bruited abroad, the undertaker, a man of considerable resolution, ventured into the haunted apartment, and there found the fact as stated by the terrific feminines.

But he presently solved the mystery, by observing that the large weights which he had placed on the corpse to straiten it for burial, had rolled off and fallen on the floor, which was the cause of the noise, and the body being released from its unwonted confinement, had relapsed into the contracted state to which it had so long been habituated.  Some oscillations naturally followed the unexpected recovery of liberty, which made the attendants imagine that they beheld the workings of supernatural powers.

giving up the ghost

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Collection