The Tradition of Well Dressing

The tradition of well dressing is an annual event that takes places predominantly in villages throughout Derbyshire, but it is now also spreading to other parts of the country.

There are various ideas as to its origin varying from offering thanks to gods for a reliable water supply, to celebrating the purity of water to celebrating the waters constancy during a prolonged drought. It seems unlikely that the true origin will ever been established, but whatever its origin it is still very much alive and well today.

The village of Tissington, Derbyshire and its well-dressing or well-flowering as it was previously known, was one of the first that we came across in the Georgina era. This article in the Derby Mercury of 26 November 1823 sheds a little more light on the event.

Courtesy of

Tissington ‘Well flowering’, Tissington, Nov 15th, 1823


Sir, – Having a few days ago read in the Derby Mercury, some account relative to the above; I am induced with all deference to Mr. Rhodes, as the author, to submit to your notice a few particulars, therein omitted, which, tho’ trifling in themselves, will not, it is presumed, prove altogether uninteresting they form part of a letter, written by a youth at school, to his parents: –

During my residence in this village, I have been gratified by one of the most pleasing sights I ever beheld. I should much wish you to be present upon a similar occasion. I will, however, in the meantime, endeavour to give you something like a description of the festival to which I have alluded.

Holy Thursday, the time referred to, is observed here with an almost enthusiastic respect, amounting, in some instances, to a degree of veneration.

Tideswell Well Dressing

Perhaps, no part of the world is more peculiarly favoured by providence in the gift of good water than this village; and the above-mentioned day appears to have been fixed upon, by an almost immemorial custom, to make merry and return united thanks for the same, in the following impressive manner.

While the younger branches of the community are busily engaged in gathering flowers, moss etc. during the first part of the week, some few, of rather mature years, occupy themselves in preparing the Springs, or, as they are here called ‘Wells’, tho’ not exceeding in depth a foot and a half, to receive their annual decorations.

Arches, or other fancy shapes, are accordingly formed out of a strong plank, upon which, fine clay, worked to the consistence of stiff mortar, is spread, and the embroidering part, if I may be allowed the expression, commences.

A Well Dressing in the making (Hollinsclough, 2006). Courtesy of
A Well Dressing in the making (Hollinsclough, 2006). Courtesy of

Various tasteful devices are now sketched on the clay, upon which, short ellipt flowers, of diverse sorts and colours, among which, the blood daisy, from its rich velvet hue, is held in greatest esteem, are stuck thereon, so extremely close and regular that not the least atom of the ground-work can be seen; each Spring also a flower printed Motto, in allusion to the ascension of our Saviour. For instance

I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God’

St John, chapter 20, verse 17.

On the principal Well, May 16th 1822:

The joyous day at length arrives, ushered in by the ringing of bells, and smiling faces; the decorations are speedily erected over the wells, while garlands, bough etc. disposed in the most fantastic and fairy-like manner, embellish the whole.

And now, labourer, stand thou still ‘tis a holyday for all; the poorest peasant has contrived, out of his hard earnings, to brew a ‘peck of malt’ to treat the passing guest; all doors are thrown open, and all comers experience the English Farmer’s hearty welcome.

‘Around the glossy board in sparkling pride,

The oft fill’d Tankard reels’.

One particular which tho’ last not least, is, that an appropriate sermon is preached; after which the music and signers go around, accompanied by hundreds of visitors from many miles and sing a psalm at each Spring.

With regard to the origin of the above, I have not been able to gather any certain information; prevailing opinion however, dates its rise from the Druids; be that as it may, the custom, as practised at Tissington, far exceeds in beauty and chastity of style everything that is generally conceived of Village rusticity.

Holymoorside well dressing celebrating Jane Austen, and with Chatsworth House in the background.
Holymoorside well dressing celebrating Jane Austen, and with Chatsworth House in the background. Via Chatsworth House twitter @ChatsworthHouse.

Featured Image

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Jane Austen and the ‘Infamous Mistress’ Connection

Today is a little different. We’re delighted to have been asked to guest blog for fellow Pen and Sword Books author Sue Wilkes and so, without further ado, we’d like to direct you to her excellent website (by clicking here) where you’ll find us speculating upon a link between Grace Dalrymple Elliott and Jane Austen.

Amongst other books, Sue is the author of A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England and Regency Spies, both of which we highly recommend.

We’re sure you will love her site, if you haven’t visited it before, and hope you enjoy our blog post.

The Faith of Georgian England

Once again we are thrilled to welcome our guest, the lovely Regan Walker, author of a Christmas story, ‘ The Holly & The Thistle‘ (full details of how to purchase her book are given below).

Today Regan has looked at faith in Georgian England; we hope you enjoy it and find it informative, we certainly have.

Beneath the form and ritual of religious life in Georgian England, one is tempted to ask, where were the hearts and minds of the people? I took on this task and found it daunting. It seemed the only evidence I could provide of what was in their hearts was to look at the actions that resulted from their faith (or the lack of it). I approach this issue hoping to shed light on what was happening to the church in England at the time that influenced the people, both rich and poor, in matters of faith.

 The 18th Century

The early 18th century was an age of reason. The churches in England, such as they were, lacked vitality, perhaps in part due to the action of the government. I speak in general terms, of course, as there have always been exceptions. But from what I’ve read, there was little enthusiasm for spiritual matters, perhaps as a reaction to the excesses of the 17th century. People were content with things as they were, and those few who attended church did so out of habit and social custom. The aristocracy was expected to provide a good example by attending church and some did, but perhaps only a few times a year on major church holidays. There were parishes where the poor had no church at all and wanted for spiritual leadership.

In the middle of the century, a change swept England. It began with a few who desired to grow closer to God. In 1729, a small group of men at Oxford began gathering under the direction of a man named John Wesley to observe the fasts and festivals of the church, take Communion, and visit the sick and prisoners. Wesley had made his love of God the central focus of his life. His efforts, and those of others, led to what became known as The Great Awakening, a movement that also swept Europe and the American colonies. It was to have great consequence.

The “Awakening” produced powerful preachers who encouraged a personal faith in God and a need for salvation. Pulling away from the ritual and ceremony that brought people to church out of habit, the “Awakening” made Christianity intensely personal by fostering a deep sense of spiritual conviction and redemption, and by encouraging introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality.

(c) John Wesleys House & The Museum of Methodism; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) John Wesleys House & The Museum of Methodism; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Wesley, his brother, Charles, and George Whitefield—all ordained in the Anglican Church of England—had been missionaries in America. In 1738, they returned home disillusioned and discouraged. They began attending prayer meetings on Aldersgate Street in London, searching for answers. And they found them. During that time, all three had conversion experiences.

As John Wesley wrote,

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins.” (Journal of John Wesley, May 24, 1738.)

A year later, John Wesley and George Whitefield began preaching the gospel outdoors to large gatherings. Wesley considered the whole of England his parish, preaching to as many as 20,000 at one time in London. Thousands who had previously thought little of religion were converted. Although not his intention, Wesley’s message led to a new movement that would ultimately separate from the Church of England, called the Methodists.

From the very start, the Methodists were concerned with personal holiness and emphasized the need for salvation and forgiveness of sin. Those who criticized them, such as the Duchess of Buckingham, complained of being held accountable for sin “as the common wretches”. Wesley’s mission was to England’s poor, the unlearned and the neglected. He had little time for the aristocratic rich, finding them idle, trivial, extravagant and lacking in social responsibility.

One of the converts at this time, however, was the Countess of Huntingdon, who for the next forty years was deeply involved with the leaders of the Methodist movement. The countess was born into aristocracy as Selina Shirley, both sides of her family being descended from royalty. Selina married Theophilus Hastings, the Earl of Huntingdon, in 1728. The countess found the social life of the aristocracy empty. After she converted to the Christian faith in 1739, she was determined to use her energies and wealth for the cause of the gospel. Within a short time she was identifying herself with the Wesley brothers and other Methodist preachers in the Church of England. This reflected great courage on her part because these itinerant preachers were despised by most of the aristocracy.

Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington (c) National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington
(c) National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

To reach her friends, the countess brought the leading preachers of the day into her home. A number of noble and influential people came to faith in this way. All of them were most likely members of the Church of England. When her husband died in 1746, the countess threw herself into her work with even greater zeal. By the time of her death, she had built sixty-four chapels, or “preaching places”, including one in Bath.

It is interesting to note that in 1748, John Newton, the slave ship captain and later author of the hymn Amazing Grace, was converted to Christianity during a storm at sea. Afterward, he became an enthusiastic disciple of George Whitefield and then an Evangelical lay preacher. In 1757, he applied to be an ordained priest in the Church of England, though it took seven years for that to happen, owing to his lack of credentials. Meanwhile, in his frustration, he also applied to the Methodists, Presbyterians and Independents, which suggests he could have found a spiritual home with any of them. Newton’s new found faith in God made a distinct difference in his life and the hymn for which he is famous testifies to this change (“I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see”).

The Clapham Group:

At the end of the 18th century, a group of wealthy Evangelicals came together, most of them living in the village of Clapham southwest of London. They were members of the Anglican Church but also Evangelicals. Their aim was to end slavery and cruel sports and to support prison reform and foreign missions.

The Clapham Group had some illustrious members including William Wilberforce, friend of both John Newton and Prime Minister William Pitt, and the statesman who successfully ended the slave trade; Charles Simeon, rector at Cambridge; Granville Sharp, a lawyer and founder of the St. George’s Bay Company, a forerunner of the Sierra Leone Company; Zachary Macaulay, estate manager and Governor of Sierra Leone (a homeland for emancipated slaves); John Shore, Lord Teignmouth, formerly Governor-General of India; James Stephen, lawyer, Wilberforce’s brother-in-law and author of the Slave Trade Act of 1807; Charles Grant, Chairman of the East India Company; and Hannah More, poet and playwright, who produced tracts for the group.

WHM146809 Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), 1794 (oil on canvas) by Hickel, Anton (1745-98) oil on canvas © Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK German, out of copyright
WHM146809 Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), 1794 (oil on canvas) by Hickel, Anton (1745-98)
© Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK

What motivated them? William Wilberforce’s views here are helpful. In his book, “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity,” published in 1798, he speaks of a “true Christian” as one discharging a debt of gratitude to God for the grace he has received. Likely his views mirrored those of his fellow Clapham Group members when he said,

They are not their own: their bodily and mental faculties, their natural and acquired endowments, their substance, their authority, their time, their influence, all these they consider. . . to be consecrated to the honor of God and employed in His service.

The Clapham Group certainly put their faith into action. One of their primary concerns was foreign missions, taking seriously Christ’s command to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Among their achievements were the following: the Religious Tract Society founded in 1799; the Society for Missions to Africa and the East (now the Church Missionary Society) founded in 1799; and the British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in 1804. The latter circulated Bibles in England and abroad (likely the King James version). With funding from the Clapham Group, Hannah More established twelve schools by 1800 where reading, the Bible and the catechism were taught to local children.

The Regency:

Against this background, we emerge into Regency England (1811-1820). During this period, the religious landscape consisted of the Anglican Church, which occupied the predominant ground, and those considered “Dissenters,” a general term that included non-conformist Protestants, Presbyterians (identified with the Scots), Baptists, Jews, Roman Catholics and Quakers.

The Protestants moved toward the Methodist and Evangelical belief in a personal God and the need for salvation. The Roman Catholics, governed by the Pope in Rome, though discriminated against, were too strong to be suppressed and persisted, eventually regaining the ability to become Members of Parliament and hold public office with The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. (Ironically, the Prince Regent opposed Catholic Emancipation even though Maria Fitzherbert, a twice-widowed Roman Catholic, was arguably the love of his life.)

There were many incentives to being a part of the Church of England because it was government controlled: Only Anglicans could attend Oxford or receive degrees from Cambridge. Except for the Jews and Quakers (the latter obtaining freedom of worship in 1813), all marriages and baptisms had to take place in the Anglican Church and the ceremony had to be conducted by an Anglican minister. All citizens, no matter their faith, paid taxes to maintain the parish churches, and non-Anglicans were prevented from taking many government and military posts.

According to Henry Wakeman in An Introduction to the History of the Church of England, by the time George III died in 1820, despite all that occurred in the 18th century, with a few exceptions, the Church of England was not materially different than it was when George III came to the throne in 1760.

The bishops were still amiable scholars who lived in dignified ease apart from their clergy, attended the king’s levee regularly, voted steadily in Parliament for the party of the minister who had appointed them, entertained the country gentry when Parliament was not sitting, wrote learned books on points of classical scholarship, and occasionally were seen driving in state through the muddy country roads on their way to the chief towns of their dioceses to hold a confirmation. Of spiritual leadership they had but little idea. (Wakeman at 457)

Jane Austen:

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Jane Austen wrote about the world of the Anglican clergy, which she knew well, her father being the Reverend George Austen, a pastor who encouraged his daughter in her love of reading and writing. (In addition to her novels, Jane Austen composed evening prayers for her father’s services.) Two of her brothers were members of the Anglican clergy.

It was a culture in which faith often influenced one’s livelihood. Some of Austen’s characters (i.e., Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram) were clergy in need of parsonages. It was an acceptable occupation for a younger son. Large landowners and peers owned many of the church appointments and could appoint them.

Of the Anglican clergy, Wakeman said (at 459, 461),

The bulk of the English clergy then as ever were educated, refined, generous, God-fearing men, who lived lives of simple piety and plain duty, respected by their people for the friendly help and wise counsel and open purse which were ever at the disposal of the poor. 

A few of them hunted, shot, fished and drank or gambled during the week like their friends in the army or at the bar, and mumbled through a perfunctory service in church on Sundays unterrified by the thought of archdeacon or bishop. Some of them, where there was no residence in the parish, lived an idle and often vicious life at a neighbouring town, and only visited their parishes when they rode over on Sundays to conduct the necessary services. 

[With few exceptions] the clergy held and taught a negative and cold Protestantism deadening to the imagination, studiously repressive to the emotions, and based on principles which found little sanction either in reason or in history. The laity willingly accepted it, as it made so little demand upon their conscience, so little claim upon their life.

Wakeman also recognized the indifference of the Church of England to the “tearing away” of the followers of Whitefield and Wesley:

An earnest revival of personal religion had deeply affected some sections of English society. Yet…the Church of England reared her impassive front…sublime in her apathy, unchanged and apparently unchangeable….

Unlike some Anglicans, who may have attended church merely out of duty or habit, Jane Austen was more than a nominal church member. From the prayers she wrote, she seems to have been a devout believer who accepted the Anglican faith as it was, though she disliked hypocrisy and that may be reflected in some of her clergyman characters.

Austen also had views on the Evangelicals. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, written on January 24, 1809, she admitted, “I do not like the Evangelicals.” Like many Anglicans, she likely felt faith was to be unemotional and demonstrated in observances of certain services, prayers and moral teachings. The demonstrative preaching and strong message of the Evangelicals, particularly their enthusiasm and fervor, might not appeal to a girl raised in an Anglican minister’s home. Then, too, she had experience with certain Evangelicals, notably her cousin Edward Cooper, who she said in a letter to her sister, wrote “cruel letters of comfort”.

However, as Austen grew older, there is some indication of a softening in her thinking. On November 18, 1814, in a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, Austen wrote,

“I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason & Feeling, must be happiest & safest.” 

Perhaps as Austen viewed the decadence of the Regency period (particularly the social life in London), the indulgences of the monarch, George the Prince Regent, and the lackluster faith of some who adhered to the Church of England only out of habit, she found value in the sincerity of those who espoused a more evangelical message. It was, after all, the Evangelicals led by William Wilberforce, allied with the Quakers, who became the champions of the anti-slavery movement, resulting in the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. Among Jane Austen’s favorite writers were those who were passionately anti-slavery, such as William Cowper, Doctor Johnson and Thomas Clarkson.

Austen was critical of the Prince Regent, too, and understandably so. Unlike his parents, George III and Queen Charlotte, the Prince Regent lived a decadent life, indulging in his personal pleasure and devoid of any evidence of a personal faith, though he was nominally the head of the Church of England. As a result of the tax burden from the wars in France and the Prince’s opulent lifestyle that was crushing the poor and working classes, the resentment for the Prince grew more strident as time went on. Jane Austen disliked him intensely, principally because of his treatment of his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick (as seen in Jane’s letter to Martha Lloyd of February 16, 1813).

Lasting Change

However, in at least some parts of the Church of England during the Regency era, spiritual change was afoot. In such instances, the Church of England looked more like the Protestant Evangelicals. For example, Charles Simeon, rector of Trinity Church, Cambridge from 1782 to 1836, and a member of the Clapham group, was a great Bible expositor, who taught a risen Savior and salvation through grace, sounding very much like Wesley and Whitefield decades earlier. That was no mean feat given the opposition he faced at Cambridge. The universities were bastions of the established Church of England and seedbeds of rationalism, neither of which made them sympathetic to a rector of strong religious faith.

Charles Simeon, former Dean, engraved by William Say after a drawing by John Jackson, 1822 (KCAC/1/4/Simeon/1). King’s College, Cambridge.

Because of their stance on moral issues, the Evangelicals of the day were viewed by some as troublemakers who didn’t want anyone to have any fun. Notwithstanding such views, there were those in the aristocracy, including William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who became Evangelicals though they never left the Anglican Church. And such faith produced change. Upon his conversion, the Duke gave up his long time mistress.

Scientific Discovery and the Industrial Revolution:

Other factors influenced people’s view of God, particularly in the 19th century. New ideas in politics, philosophy, science and art all vied for people’s attention. Two in particular, the scientific discoveries of the time and the Industrial Revolution, may have had dramatic effect on the people’s faith.

In 1781, while investigating what he and others believed to be a comet, William Herschel, an astronomer, discovered a new planet he named  “George’s star,” after King George III. (In 1850, after Herschel’s death, the name would be changed to Uranus.) This was the first planet discovered since ancient times. Herschel, a devout Christian, strongly believed that God’s universe was characterized by order and planning. His discovery of that order led him to conclude, “The undevout astronomer must be mad.”

Herschel’s discoveries caused his fellow scientists and theologians to reconsider their prior views of God and the possibility there were other creations in the universe. Not all views expressed were those of believers; however, one who is illustrative of the prevailing attitude was Thomas Dick, a Scottish minister and science teacher. In his book The Sidereal Heavens, published in 1840, he said of Herschel’s discovery,

To consider creation, therefore, in all its departments, as extending throughout regions of space illimitable to mortal view, and filled with intelligent existence, is nothing more than what comports with the idea of HIM who inhabiteth immensity, and whose perfections are boundless and past finding out.

Dick’s statement is indicative of the view during the early 19th-century when science was dominated by clergymen, men dedicated to their scientific work but still committed to their faith in God. Scientific discoveries were seen as entirely consistent with a belief in a Creator.

The other factor is the Industrial Revolution, which transformed English society and would certainly cause people to question the established order of things, including the church.

During the 18th century, England’s population nearly doubled. The industry most important in the rise of England as an industrial nation was cotton textiles. A series of inventions led to machines that replaced human laborers. The effect of machines replacing workers, particularly in the textile industry, was keenly felt in some parts of England. The lives of the working class were disrupted and many people relocated from the countryside to the towns.

In 1801, at the time of the first census, only about 20% of the population lived in towns. By 1851, the figure had risen to over 50%. New social relationships emerged with the growing working and middle classes. During this time of upheaval and relocation, though some individuals, like Charles Simeon, exercised great spiritual influence, the church as a whole failed to grapple with the problems that resulted from the huge surge in population and the growth of industrial towns. Still, perhaps the problems that led people to move to the larger cities resulted in their hearing the message of the great preachers of the day. Having heard, they might have been spurred to examine their faith.

One can only hope.

ReganWalker -Holly & the Thistle
A chance meeting at Berry’s wine shop, a misunderstanding and Christmastide all come together to allow the most handsome Scot in London to give Lady Emily Picton the best Christmas gift ever: a marriage not of convenience, but of love.






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May Day festivities in the Georgian Era

Traditionally, on May Day, people danced around a maypole erected for the purpose, and although this custom was becoming less popular in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century, it was still adhered to by some.

Johann Peter Neeff (1753-1796)
Johann Peter Neeff (1753-1796)

(Derby Mercury, 22nd May 1772)

We hear from Quarndon in Leicestershire, that the young People of that Village, on Old May Day last, erected a lofty Maypole richly adorned with Garlands, &c. which drew together a great Number of the younger Sort to dance round it, and celebrate with Festivity the Return of the Summer Season. Amongst the rest was a Body of young Fellows from Loughbro’, who formed a Plot to carry off the Maypole; which they executed at Night, and removed it to the Middle of the Market-Place at Loughbro’, a Monument of Pride to the Loughbro’ Lads, but which may be the Cause of Mischief and Bloodshed; for the Heroes of Quarndon vow Revenge and are forming Alliances with the Neighbours of Barrow and Sheepshead, and give out they will soon march in a Body to retake their favourite Maypole: In the mean Time the Loughbro’ Youths keep a good Look out, and are determined to preserve Possession of their Spoils.

Dominique Joseph Vanderburch (1722-1785) (
Dominique Joseph Vanderburch (1722-1785) (

Male and female couples danced around the maypole, holding and entwining lengths of brightly coloured ribbons, having first set out at dawn to gather garlands and boughs with which to decorate it.

On Monday last at Cheriton, near Alresford, the usual pastime of Maying commenced, where a Maypole was erected in commemoration of the day, and in the afternoon the sons and daughters of May, dressed in a very appropriate manner for the occasion, accompanied by a band of music, proceeded to a commodious bower, composed of green boughs, garlands of flowers, &c. erected for dancing; it was attended by upwards of 50 couple of the most respectable people in the neighbourhood, till the evening. This festive amusement was repeated the next day, with the same order, and, if possible, with greater spirit, as many more genteel couples were added to the gay circle, and the dancing was kept up to a late hour, when, after playing the national air of “God save the King,” the company separated with the greatest harmony and good humour.

(Hampshire Chronicle, 8th May 1815)

The Milkmaid's Garland, or Humours of May Day, Francis Hayman, c.1741 (held in the V&A)
The Milkmaid’s Garland, or Humours of May Day, Francis Hayman, c.1741 (held in the V&A)

Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on the evening of the 9th November 1800, from their family home in Steventon in Hampshire, giving her the local news and the fate of their village maypole.

We have had a dreadful storm of wind in the forepart of this day . . . One large Elm out of two on the left hand side, as you enter what I call the Elm walk was likewise blown down, the Maypole bearing the weathercock was broke in two, and what I regret more than all the rest is that all three Elms which grew in Hall’s meadow and gave such ornament to it are gone.

The American author Washington Irving (1783-1859) recounted his memories of May Day in the early nineteenth-century whilst he was visiting England.

Still I look forward with some interest to the promised shadow of old May-day, even though it be but a shadow; and I feel more and more pleased with the whimsical, yet harmless hobby of my host… I shall never forget the delight I felt on first seeing a May-pole. It was on the banks of the Dee, close by the picturesque old bridge that stretches across the river from the quaint little city of Chester. I had already been carried back into former days by the antiquities of that venerable place; the examination of which is equal to turning over the pages of a black-letter volume, or gazing on the pictures of Froissart. The May-pole on the margin of that poetic stream completed the illusion. My fancy adorned it with wreathes of flowers, and peopled the green bank with all the dancing revelry of May-day. The mere sight of this May-pole gave a glow to my feelings, and spread a charm over the country for the rest of the day; and as I traversed a part of the fair plain of Cheshire, and the beautiful borders of Wales, and looked from among swelling hills down a long green valley, through which “the Deva wound its wizard stream,” my imagination turned all into a perfect Arcadia.

Held by the Elmbridge Museum, artist unknown
Held by the Elmbridge Museum, artist unknown

Sources used not referenced above:

British Library, letter from Jane Austen, 9th November 1800.

The Works of Washington Irving, volume 1, Philadelphia, 1840


A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England

High res jpeg cover

We are delighted to introduce the lovely Sue Wilkes as our latest Guest writer.  Sue’s latest book ‘A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England’ in which she takes an  intimate look at daily life in Austen’s day for the middle and upper classes has just been released by Pen and Sword Books.   To find out more about her book you should gallop post-haste to her blog Austen blog but in the meantime she has penned an article for us on fashionable hours to dine in the Georgian period.

We now hand over to Sue.

While I was researching my book A Visitor’s Guide To Jane Austen’s England I was struck by the way that social customs can change within a person’s lifetime. The time of day when Georgian ladies and gentlemen dined was dictated by class, by how fashionable they were, and whether they lived in the town or country. But dinnertime became later and later in Jane Austen’s day.

For example, when Mary Hamilton (later Mrs John Dickenson) stayed at Bulstrode Hall, the Duchess of Portland’s Buckinghamshire residence, in 1783 her hostess breakfasted at 9.30 in the morning. Dinner was served at 4.30 in the afternoon, and supper about 10.30 in the evening. At the more humble Austen family home of Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, Jane dined at 3.30 p.m. in the 1790’s.

3. steventon parsonage
Steventon Rectory, Jane Austen’s early home.

Although the haut ton did not dine until at least 5 or 6 o’clock, some hostesses still kept very unfashionable hours. When Lady Newdigate stayed at Stansted Park in 1795, she commented that: ‘The hours of ye family are what ye polite world w’d not conform to viz. Breakfast at 8½, dine at 3½, supper at 9 and go to bed at 10, but Everybody is at Liberty to order their own Breakfast, Dinner or Supper into their own Rooms and no questions ask’d’.

dinner caricature 1788
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It’s clear from Jane Austen’s letters that as the years passed her dinner hour gradually changed. While staying with the Bridges family at Goodnestone Farm in 1805, Jane mentions dining at 4 p.m. so that they could go walking afterwards. Three years later, when the Austen ladies were living in Southampton, Jane noted in a letter: ‘we never dine now till five’.

During a visit to her brother Henry’s new residence in Henrietta St, London, Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra (15 September 1813) that after five o’clock, shortly after her arrival, the family enjoyed ‘a most comfortable dinner of soup, fish, bouilée, partridges, and an apple tart’.

john bull in his glory LC
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 By the year of Austen’s death (1817) Sir Richard Phillips lamented the change in manners in his Morning’s Walk from London to Kew: ‘the dinner hour of four and five among the great, or would-be great, having shifted to the unhealthy hours of eight or nine, the promenade after dinner [in the parks] in the dinner full-dress, is consequently lost’.

Sue’s Amazon page:
Sue’s new book A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England (Pen & Sword, 2014) is out now.


Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838)

Whilst searching for clues provided for us in old documents by the heroine of  one of our books, we inadvertently stumbled across the artist Rolinda Sharples (1793– 1838). Our heroine says that she had a self portrait painted by ‘the best female artist in Bristol’, around 1815. This led us to the conclusion that there could only be two possible candidates for that position – either Rolinda or her mother. So this of course led us to research Rolinda’s life a little more, to see if we could make any connection. Unfortunately for us there doesn’t appear to be any  record of her commissions, which leaves us unable to prove conclusively that we have found the correct artist. However, the Sharples family life was so interesting that we decided to carry out some further research, hence their place on our blog.

Rolinda was part of an amazing family of artists headed by her father James, who established themselves in England, travelled to America set up an incredibly successful practice there and then returned to England.

Portrait of the Artist by Rolinda Sharples, 1814; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Portrait of the Artist by Rolinda Sharples, 1814; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

We begin Rolinda’s story with the birth of her father, James. James Sharples was born  into a minor landed gentry family from Lancashire. He was the son of George Sharples and was  baptized on 27th May 1748 at St Anne’s Church, Woodplumpton, Lancashire. The Sharples family were deeply divided between Catholicism and Puritanism, James’s side of the family being Catholic. His father was George Sharples and his mother was Ann Harrison, a widow when she married George. Her previous husband had been Richard Talbot of Lancashire, and from this marriage James had a half-sister named Elizabeth (1738-1803) who became a nun in the order of the Holy Sepulchre in Liege. With a fortune of £285 which she donated to the order in return for 17 florins a year for life she took the name of Sister Mary Hellen Aloysia.  She returned with the order as sub-prioress in the 1790’s when it returned to England and became the order of the Holy Cross. Besides his half-sister James had two full siblings, an older brother Henry (1740-1804 who became a successful timber merchant in Liverpool, and a sister Margaret who joined her half-sisters order. Margaret, who was admitted with no fortune at the age of 16 years and 8 months took the name of Sister Mary Felix Joseph and died in 1783.

Some sources say that James was sent to a Jesuit College in France to train for the priesthood, but quickly ‘opted out’ in favour of returning to England to become an artist where he became a pupil of George Romney. He was at the Jesuit College in Bruges in 1770 when his uncle William Harrison wrote to him.  James wanted money to return home, but was criticized by his uncle instead for being of a ‘fickle and unsettled disposition’.  James’ benefactor at the time was Lord Stourton, a Catholic relation of the Duke of Norfolk whose son was also at the Jesuit College at Bruges.  The Sharples family back in Woodplumpton had fallen on hard times; George had died in 1761 and his widow Ann who had carried on in business trading in cloth had been declared bankrupt once.  By 1774 he was exhibiting his work with the Liverpool Society of Artists.

By 1779 he had moved to Cambridge, then, in 1781 he moved again, this time to Bristol where he taught drawing – clearly his wanderlust was beginning to appear! We know that he was in Bristol at this time as a notice was placed in the Bristol Journal, ‘Mr Sharples from Bath, Portrait Painter in oils and crayons, begs leave to inform the nobility that he has removed from Hartwells to Mrs Jeffery’s , milliner, 28 Clare Street , where upwards of one hundred specimens of known characters may be seen.’ In 1783 he gave his address as 45 Gerrard Street in London.

James was to marry twice before meeting his final wife and co-artist Ellen. His first two wives who both died young may have shared his recusant faith, and so records on them are not forthcoming. With his first wife he produced a son George, then, with his second wife, he fathered another son, Felix Thomas. Both of these sons became artists and possibly one of his former wives was a celebrated needlewoman. In 1783 a ‘Mrs Sharpless … Needle Worker exhibited a piece at the Society of Artists, giving her address as 45 Gerrard Street and being described as ‘Embroideress to Her Majesty’.  After the death of his second wife James went to live with his older brother Henry in Liverpool, renting a house on Everton Hill.

Whilst living in Bristol a ‘pupil and young lady of fashion’ caught his eye and became his third wife, she being Ellen Wallas (often shown as Wallace). Some reports say that Ellen was a Quaker, however, if she were a Quaker and James a Catholic it seems curious that they should have chosen to marry at St Mary’s Church, Lancaster on 5th January 1787. The proof of their marriage lies in the marriage register itself with Ellen’s signature – Ellen in fact, signed her name Wallas and not Wallace. The other curious piece of information is that there is a record in the baptism register of St Peter’s Church, Bolton Le Moors, for a child – James Sharples son of James and Ellen dated 22nd May 1785, i.e. prior to their marriage, so we can only draw the conclusion that James was born out of wedlock, although most sources give his birth date as c.1788.

Mrs Ellen Sharples (1769–1849) by Rolinda Sharples, 1814; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Mrs Ellen Sharples (1769–1849) by Rolinda Sharples, 1814; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The parish register for the 1st October 1793 at Bath Easton, near Bath shows the baptism of Rolinda Sharples, daughter of James and Helen (known as Ellen) Sharples, (some websites inaccurately say that she was born in America). The reality is however, that shortly after the birth, at the instigation of Robert Cary, a London merchant the family packed their bags and set off for America.

Their passage to America was somewhat arduous and early on their ship was captured by a French privateer and the family was interned at Brest for seven months. Later, in 1803 when James (junior) reported news of war with France, Ellen briefly recalls the terrible ordeal in her diary:

War! how dreadful the sound, whichever way contemplated misery precedes,
accompanies, and follows in its train. Our family have experienced; severely
experienced much of its misery, and much did we witness during our seven months
captivity in France, too heart rending to red [sic].

After their release, they continued their journey across the ocean and arrived in America to begin a new life. Records of arrivals in America show that James arrived in New York early 1796, his name being recorded as James Sharpless which, he decided was easier for Americans to understand.

James set about gaining commissions, with his most famous commission being that of a portrait of George Washington, the original being drawn in 1796. Sharples was literally a pastel portrait painter, almost the only serious artist using this medium in the USA at the time. His colours were kept in small glass vessels and applied with a brush; he made a collection of portraits for himself merely requesting a sitting for a portrait to add to his pictures. This was probably an ingenious plan to obtain patronage, for duplicates were generally ordered. He finished a portrait in about two hours and charged fifteen dollars for the profile and twenty for the full face.

George Washington by James Sharples. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
George Washington by James Sharples.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The whole family engaged in artistic work and became copyists to James. Ellen appears to have been an amazingly independent woman and was one of the first professional female artists in America. With this in mind Ellen paid particular attention to her daughter’s education and development as an artist in her own right. Ellen held very progressive views on the education and independence of women. By 1803 Ellen had begun to encourage Rolinda to take an interest in art and taught her drawing and encouraged her by paying her small amounts for her work. By the time she was 13 Rolinda was a fully fledged member of the family business. She painted small scale pastel portrait of famous people and then copied them and sold them for a profit. Full accounts of the family life still remain in the form of Ellen’s diary, family papers, accounts, details of them building up a family business.

One story about the family tells how they travelled in a stagecoach near Middletown, Connecticut. The horses took fright and dashed off with Rolinda as the only occupant. Although she escaped injury James decided that it wasn’t a safe way to travel so built a large caravan drawn by one horse which they travelled about in from then on – quite the gypsy traveller!

In 1801 the family returned home, living in Bath, Bristol and London for some years.  A planned return to America in 1806 was hampered by fears of war with France, and only James Jr and Felix took passage.  James senior, his wife Ellen and daughter Rolinda finally sailed for America in 1809.

The Hot Wells, Bristol; British School, 1800; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
The Hot Wells, Bristol; British School, 1800; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Tragically, on February 6th 1811 whilst in New York, James died, aged 59, according to the New York Evening Post, leaving an estate worth some thirty-five thousand dollars. After burying James at the catholic cemetery Ellen returned to Bristol taking Rolinda with her; the two boys James and Felix remained in America. George, James’s son from his first marriage did not appear to be with the family, but was mentioned in his father’s will.

Felix Thomas worked mainly in Suffolk County, as a pastellist. He was described as being extremely fond of his food and drink. Rumour has it that whilst working in Yardley at the home of the Winder family, Felix made a hasty departure in 1812, never to be heard of again. Various rumours suggested that he fell victim to small-pox, that he drowned in a shipwreck and that he committed suicide. However, the reality was that he joined the army. American records show him as having joined Gayle’s 61st Regiment, Virginia Militia, in 1812 reaching the rank of Corporal. He died in the 1830’s of natural causes and was buried at Yeatman Plantation Cemetery, Matthews County.


Rolinda, by this time was moving on from painting small portraits and earned her living painting portraits in oil and more ambitious genre and contemporary history paintings that depicted groups. In 1814, Rolinda painted a self-portrait, and in 1815 she completed a double portrait entitled ‘The Artist and Her Mother’.

The Artist and Her Mother by Rolinda Sharples, 1816; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
The Artist and Her Mother by Rolinda Sharples, 1816; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Rolinda was elected an honorary member of the Society of British Artists in 1827 and was one of the first female artists to paint multi-figure compositions.  Her major works include ‘The Cloak Room, Clifton, Assembly Rooms’, ‘Racing on the Downs’ and ‘The Trial of Colonel Brereton’. Her works were exhibited at Bristol, Leeds, Carlisle and Birmingham.

The Cloak-Room, Clifton Assembly Rooms by Rolinda Sharples, 1818; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
The Cloak-Room, Clifton Assembly Rooms by Rolinda Sharples, 1818; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

One of her most famous paintings was that of ‘The Trial of Colonel Brereton‘ painted after The Bristol Reform Riots of 1831. The riots were a protest at the House of Lords preventing the Reform Bill from passing through Parliament. Lieutenant Colonel Brereton was court-martialled in January 1832 for sending his squadron away on the Saturday night in the midst of the chaos. Some people thought that Brereton could have done more to save the city from destruction if he had acted earlier and more decisively. For others, however, Brereton had been trying to hold his troops back from violence against the rioters. Many people thought that he was being made a scapegoat for the failure of the city magistrates to support him and give him orders to cope with the rioting. Tragically, Brereton shot himself four days after the trial began. Rolinda not only sketched during the trial, but also as some of those attending to sit for her. A slight element of artistic licence here – the lady seated at the bottom centre of the painting was none other than her mother, positioned in such a way as to appear to be overseeing the proceedings – very clever!

The Trial of Colonel Brereton by Rolinda Sharples, 1834; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
The Trial of Colonel Brereton by Rolinda Sharples, 1834; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

For the last few years of her life she lived with her mother in the Hotwells district of Bristol and died of breast cancer in 1838. There remains a plaque at Rolinda’s old house on Canynge Road in Clifton which reads “Ellen Sharples (1769-1849) and Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838) mother and daughter artists lived here 1821-1832”.

A year and a half after Rolinda’s demise James junior was also to die of pneumonia leaving just Ellen who spent her remaining years accompanied by her servant Maria Johnson at St Vincent’s Parade, Clifton, until her her death aged,80. She was to die leaving no heirs leaving no heirs so she decided to donate over 90 pictures to The Museum at Bristol, as well as her own and Rolinda’s and James Junior’s.

Jane Austen has been described as a ‘provincial novelist’ and Rolinda as a ‘provincial artist’. There appears to be a wide gap of public awareness between the two women, what’s your view of this?

Further information about  about Ellen Sharples and here