The Account Book of a Georgian Man-About-Town, 1824-29

Today, I’d like to welcome back Mr RM Healey, who has recently written a guest post for All Things Georgian, about The Boyle Family and their Court Guides. Today, he is back to share some information from the account book of a Georgian, ‘Man About Town’. So with that, I’ll hand you over to him to tell you more:

Account books of the Georgian period are not exactly rare. Plenty can be found in County Record Offices, second-hand bookshops and auction rooms. Unfortunately, most are rather dull. Many simply record the day-to-day dealings of businessmen and farmers and from a socio-historical view remain too business-like to interest readers wishing to gain an idea of the everyday life of the average man-in-the street.

How refreshingly different is the one I am writing about here, which was acquired many years ago in a second hand bookshop. Along with the bald statements recording  sums of money received from various sources– mainly his father– are the very interesting records of outgoings by this ( alas) anonymous gentleman in the final years of the Georgian period.

Although the name of the man does not appear in the document, names and places are peppered throughout it, so at some point it may be possible to identify him.

What we do know is that he appears to be associated with both with the East Riding of Yorkshire and with South Lincolnshire. For instance, he goes to tea twice in Kirk Ella, a village west of Hull, and pays visits to nearby Goole and Hull.

Later he goes on expeditions to places not too far away, such as Donington in Leicestershire, and Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. Having said that, he also attends a ‘Ball’ at Peterborough, from where he may have gone to another ball in Holbeach, which is only a few  miles away. When he records an  ‘expedition‘ to some of these places, we don’t feel that  he is visiting friends or relations there, or he would surely have mentioned as much.

The bulk of the items on which he spends money suggest that he is young, that is to say, under forty. For instance, he appears to spend as much on personal grooming as he does on food. The regular monthly outlay of 6d. on ‘Hair cutting‘  over a five year period would seem to indicate that he regarded a close attention to his personal appearance as important.

Expenditure on gloves, ‘ribbands’, shoe-polishing, razors, lavender water, a new neckerchief and silk hat, a waistcoat and cravats, a new ribband and a new glass for his watch, in addition to payments to washerwomen, reinforce this theory. A single payment for new straps to his ‘skaits’ might also suggest that he is young enough to skate regularly; otherwise why would he need to replace the straps ?

Ice skating, which was brought to Britain by the Dutch in the late seventeenth century, was a popular pastime throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, and in the cold east side of England ponds and lake were often frozen over in winter.

January scene skating early 1820s. January by William Belch c.1820. Wikimedia

Our young man made payments for rent and ‘board’ to different people even though we know that he received money from his father. Of course, this does not mean that he didn’t live at home with his parents for some of the time.

He had an account with a wine merchant, which suggests maturity of a kind. On the other hand, his regular (many times a month) expenditure on  such snacks as oranges, walnuts ( arguably the most popular nut in Georgian times), gingerbread, a gooseberry tart or two and other pastries, suggests that in his fondness for ‘fast food’ he was no different in this respect from other young men of his time, or indeed our own.

Soda Water and Ginger Beer. Wellcome Library

Also, his liking for ginger beer, which he drank regularly,  could be another sign that he had a north of England upbringing. The beverage was, and perhaps still is, more popular in the northern counties than in the south. In 1817, it was sold in powdered form ( presumably as a mixture of ginger powder, sugar and bicarbonate of soda) at the bookshop and stationer run by J. Cragg in Hull. ‘ Soda Water powder ‘( sodium bicarbonate again) was sold at the same shop. Incidentally, it would be good to know if he bought his favourite pastries from bakers and confectioners to eat in the street or in his digs, or whether he patronised eating houses. It is a shame that we know so little about the extent to which the practice of consuming snacks in eateries established for this purpose, such as the premises depicted in caricatures of the time.

Reading, or at least the purchase of books or magazines, does not seem to occupy much of much of our young man’s time, unless of course magazines and newspapers were classed under ‘sundries’, which was a frequent heading in the account book.

The purchase of only three books– A History of Barbados, Cowper’s Poems, and Walter Scott’s Waverley is recorded over the five year period. Of course, he may have belonged to a circulating library, though no such expenditure features in the accounts.

If we compare the diaries of other young men, where the purchase of books features regularly, it is perhaps safe to assume that our well turned out man was not a scholar and certainly not a radical thinker. In fact, the regular payment of  two shillings  to a ‘Mechanics Institute‘, the organisation set up in Edinburgh in 1821 by the educationalist George Birkbeck to teach scientific and technological principles to young working men,  strongly indicates that he was more interested in pursuing a vocational, rather than an academic  education.

But what else do we know about his values? Expenditure on comestibles and self-grooming items tell us only so much. Perhaps we should look to the other expenditure in the account book. He was, for instance, a subscriber to the Society for the Support and Encouragement of Sunday Schools, which had been going since 1785, and the Missionary Society for Propagating the Gospel in Heathen and unenlightened Countries, which was instigated ten years later. He was a churchgoer, though not a regular one. He recorded a donation to a collection box. He also gave 6d to a ‘poor woman’.

Courtesy of R M Healey. Click to enlarge

But arguably the most intriguing item of expenditure he records is the 1s. 6d he gave to the ‘Jewish Society’ in 1826. This doesn’t suggest that he was Jewish or that he was sympathetic to the Jewish community in Britain. The Royal Kalendar for 1827 lists no such society, but it does mention the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, which was established in 1809. In 1827 its leading lights included William Wilberforce, and such prominent City of London figures as Matthew Wood and Sir Thomas Baring. This would suggest that our young man, like many others of his time, feared that if the clamour for Catholic Emancipation succeeded, the lifting of restrictions on Jews, which, for instance, prevented them from being elected to Parliament, might easily follow. But as it turned out, despite the efforts of William Huskisson in 1829 to present a petition of 2,000 from Liverpool urging the abolitions of restrictions on Jews, these disabilities remained. Benjamin Disraeli could only enter Parliament because he had converted to Christianity when a young man.

Finally, though apparently conventional and even conservative in his outlook, our young man about town took his pleasures seriously. He paid frequent (at least once a month) visits to the theatre, to a ‘theatre mechanical’ and also attended a ‘choral concert‘.

One of his favourite vices was card games, at which he doesn’t appear to have been too successful. He bought a new card case for two shillings and a set of cards, but at the beginning of 1827 he played three times and lost a total of five shillings. At the end of May 1827 he recorded losing 4s. 6d. and in March 1829 3s. No losses are recorded in the rest of the account book, which ends in June 1829.

Further reading

Cragg’s Guide to Hull ( Hull, J. Cragg 1817)

The Royal Kalendar for 1827( London 1827)

Jon Stobart, Sugar and Spice: Grocers and Groceries in Provincial England, 1650 – 1830 (Oxford 2013)