Cheshire’s Wizard in Stone, Guest Post by Sue Wilkes

We are thrilled to welcome back the author of Regency Cheshire, Sue Wilkes who explores the county during the age of Jane Austen and Walter Scott; Regency Cheshire is now available on Kindle. Here’s a brief look at one of Cheshire’s most famous Regency-era architects.

Thomas Harrison (1744–1829), a Yorkshireman of humble origin, learnt his craft in Italy during the early 1770s.

Harrison’s works brought a restrained classicism to the city. His first major project was the Castle site, home to the civil and crown courts, county gaol, and an army garrison. Prison reformer John Howard, who visited in 1788, likened conditions in the cells (which housed debtors and felons) to the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Harrison’s Chester Castle works. The Propylea Gate is on the very far left. The county gaol, jury rooms and prothonotary’s office are in the building on the left. The Shire Hall with its Doric columns is to the right. The east wing (left) of the Hall was the military barracks; the west wing was the armoury.
Harrison’s Chester Castle works. The Propylea Gate is on the very far left. The county gaol, jury rooms and prothonotary’s office are in the building on the left. The Shire Hall with its Doric columns is to the right. The east wing (left) of the Hall was the military barracks; the west wing was the armoury.

In the summer of 1784, Cheshire magistrates, following a country-wide typhus epidemic the previous year, held a design competition for a new gaol within the castle. Thomas Harrison, now in his early forties, won the 50-guinea prize for his plans. Preliminary work began on site in 1788.

Harrison’s new gaol was laid out in the shape of a half-octagon fanning out from the Shire Hall. When the building was finally completed in 1801, conditions had greatly improved. The gaoler’s house looked out over an exercise yard; the cells, nine ft. by seven ft., were built in two-storey blocks along the inside of the perimeter wall. Robert Southey commented on how comfortably the jailor was housed:

The new jail is considered as a perfect model of prison architecture… The main objects attended to are, that the prisoners be kept apart from each other, and that the cells should always be open to inspection, and well ventilated so as to prevent infectious disorders… The structure of this particular prison is singularly curious, the cells being so constructed that the jailor from his dwelling-house can look into every one…The apartment from whence we were shown the interior of the prison was well, and even elegantly furnished; there were geraniums flowering upon stands, – a pianoforte, and music-books lying open – , and when we looked from the window we saw criminals with irons upon their legs, in solitary dungeons: – one of them, who was intently reading some devotional book, was, we were told, certainly to be executed at the next assizes…

Although Harrison’s design was very beautiful, it wasn’t necessarily secure; five prisoners escaped in the spring of 1802, and another five absconded in November 1807.

Harrison’s beautiful Propylaea Gateway, inspired by the Acropolis in Athens, was the crowning glory of the Castle complex. The gateway, with its Doric porticos and massy columns, is a high point of Greek Revival architecture in England.

Harrison’s new Shire Hall, with a grand façade of a Doric portico in fine ashlar stone, formed a harmonious whole with the prison buildings. Work continued on the Castle site for the rest of the decade; a new Armoury and Barracks (the present day Regimental Museum) for the garrison was added.

Harrison was also asked to revamp the city’s last surviving medieval gate, the Northgate. It housed the city gaol and had a dire reputation. This mouldering pile had a dreadful dungeon thirty feet below street level.

The Northgate was demolished and replaced by Harrison with a ’light, elegant structure of white stone.’ He also designed a new city gaol and House of Correction, built between 1806 and 1808, close to the medieval walls, but these buildings no longer survive.

Chester Grandstand
Chester Grandstand

Harrison was a very busy man in Chester during the Regency era. Thomas repaired the crumbling fabric of Chester Cathedral and refurbished the Exchange. His elegant Commercial News Room on Northgate St was a quiet haven for gentlemen wishing to peruse the daily newspapers.  At Chester’s famous racecourse, the Roodee, he designed the first permanent grandstand to give genteel race-goers some protection from the weather. His skills were also greatly in demand for private homes.

South east view of Chester Cathedral
Southeast view of Chester Cathedral

Harrison’s works form a wonderful legacy for Cheshire architecture. His obituary in the Chester Chronicle (3 April 1829) called him a ‘highly distinguished artist,’ who ‘in his professional character, had few equals.’

Regency Cheshire by Sue WilkesAbout the Author

Sue Wilkes is the author of several history and family history booksA Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England explores life in Austen’s day.

Regency Cheshire is out now on Kindle,  and her latest family history book, Tracing Your Manchester and Salford Ancestors, is available from Pen and Sword.

She blogs at Sue Wilkes and A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England.

‘Manchester Heroes’. Contemporary print showing the Peterloo Massacre, courtesy Library of Congress.

Regency Manchester: Guest Post by Sue Wilkes

We are delighted to welcome back to our blog, author, Sue Wilkes. Sue is the author of several history and genealogy titles. Her latest book is Tracing Your Manchester and Salford Ancestors. As well as being an author, Sue, also hosts two great blogs which you might wish to check out – Sue Wilkes and  A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England.Tracing Your Manchester & Salford Ancestors: a guide for family & local historians by Sue Wilkes.

Late Georgian Manchester was a buzzing hive of industry thanks to its canal and road links. People flocked to work in its textile factories. In about 1816, it took mail-coaches about thirty hours to travel from London to Manchester. But this was no provincial backwater; it had thriving religious and cultural institutions.

Interior of Manchester Collegiate Church. Gallery of Engravings, Vol. II, (Fisher, Son & Co., c.1845).
Interior of Manchester Collegiate Church. Gallery of Engravings, Vol. II, (Fisher, Son & Co., c.1845).

The Collegiate Church (later the Cathedral) was the town’s main place of worship. It was renowned for the mass baptisms and marriages which took place regularly there (because people had to pay extra fees if these ceremonies were carried out in other local churches). But other denominations had recently built their own places of worship. Roman Catholics had two chapels (Rook St, (1774) and Mulberry St (1794)). The Dissenters had had a chapel in Cross St since 1693 (nearly destroyed by a mob in the early 18th century), which had been extended in 1788.

The Methodists had a large chapel in Oldham St (mostly funded by William Brocklehurst), along with several other chapels in the area, including one at Gravel Lane in Salford. At this date Manchester only had a small Jewish population, who worshipped at the Synagogue in Long Millgate; they had a burial ground in Pendleton, near St Thomas’s Chapel.

The Infirmary, Dispensary, Lunatic Hospital and Asylum. J. Aston, A Picture of Manchester, c.1819. Courtesy Google Books.
The Infirmary, Dispensary, Lunatic Hospital and Asylum. J. Aston, A Picture of Manchester, c.1819. Courtesy Google Books.

The famous Literary and Philosophical Society (1781) met regularly at George St. Members had to be elected to the Society, which had a whopping 2-guinea entrance fee, and a guinea yearly membership fee. Its members included the famous scientist John Dalton. A News Room and Library (the Portico) opened in 1805; four years later, the New Exchange opened, where businessmen and merchants met to transact their business dealings.

The town had had a theatre since 1753 (possibly earlier), and stars from the London theatres regularly trod the boards here. The first Theatre Royal (in Spring Gardens) burned down in 1789; the new Theatre Royal opened in Fountain St in 1807, but like many other establishments, it was bedevilled by financial problems. By 1816 the Theatre Royal had ‘elegant saloons’ in the boxes (4s admission), or you could pay one shilling to sit in the gallery.

Regency gentlemen and belles graced the ballroom at the Assembly Rooms in Mosley Street, with its glittering chandeliers and mirrors. Dancers refreshed themselves in the elegant tea-room. Regular concerts were held at the Assembly Rooms.

The Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, believed to be the only surviving structure from the era of Peterloo close to the site of the massacre. © Sue Wilkes.
The Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, believed to be the only surviving structure from the era of Peterloo close to the site of the massacre. © Sue Wilkes.

Manchester was also home to many charities such as schools, Sunday schools, and hospitals. Did you know that Manchester had its own ‘spa’ at the end of the Infirmary Walks? Well-to-do locals could subscribe to the Public Baths supplied by a local spring; it cost half a guinea for a year’s subscription. Bathers could enjoy the Cold Bath, Hot or Vapour Bath, or the ‘Matlock or Buxton’ Bath.

St Ann’s Church, consecrated in 1712. © Sue Wilkes.
St Ann’s Church, consecrated in 1712. © Sue Wilkes.

But Manchester had its darker side. There was a recently built prison in Salford (the New Bailey), which opened in 1790 and replaced the former unsanitary House of Correction at Hunt’s Bank. Weaver Samuel Bamford and the orator Henry Hunt were imprisoned at the New Bailey following their arrest in 1819. They had been attending at a mass meeting at St Peter’s Field to campaign for parliamentary reform. Several people were killed when local magistrates sent yeomanry cavalry into the crowd to arrest Henry Hunt – the infamous ‘Peterloo massacre’.

Header Image:

‘Manchester Heroes’. Contemporary print showing the Peterloo Massacre, courtesy Library of Congress.



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.

Sir Francis Burdett

Once again we are delighted to welcome back our lovely guest Sue Wilkes who has written another fascinating article for us, this time about the social reformer – Sir Francis Burdett. Her latest book, Regency Spies will be available at the end of this month (further information about how to purchase this book is given at the end of the article).

reg spies highrescover1

The leading members of the parliamentary reform movement of the Regency era, like Major Cartwright and Sir Francis Burdett, had no truck with regime change by physical force; they wanted constitutional reform. However, their names were used by the more revolutionary-minded reformers to lend an aura of respectability, and help gain recruits to their cause.

Sir Francis Burdett’s name often appears in spy reports on the reformers’ doings as a possible leader if an uprising took place. The government kept close watch on his activities. However, unlike fellow reformers such as Henry Hunt, who wanted universal male suffrage, the baronet wanted male suffrage for householders (so only those owning property would have the vote).

Courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art

A hot-headed young politician, Burdett (1770–1844) was educated at Westminster School and Oxford. He married Sophia Coutts (of the famous banking family), and first entered parliament in 1796, when he was elected MP for Boroughbridge. A handsome, popular speaker, he was a determined opponent of the government’s suspension of Habeas Corpus during its crackdown on parliamentary reformers.

Although Burdett steered clear of any public involvement with political extremists, it’s hardly surprising that many Radicals and reformers popped in to see him when visiting the capital. Sir Francis met and corresponded with Irish republicans like Arthur O’Connor.

Burdett was a member of the London Corresponding Society (LCS). Most of this society’s members were devoted to constitutional reform. However, the government, and many contemporaries, believed this was just a front for plotting rebellion. In 1798, several members of the LCS were arrested under suspicion of treasonable practices; one was Colonel Despard, who had served with Lord Nelson overseas. Burdett visited Despard in Coldbath-Fields prison, and was shocked by the poor living conditions there. Burdett put pressure on the prison authorities, and succeeded in getting the colonel moved to a better cell.

But despite his efforts on behalf of Despard and other prisoners held without trial, Burdett was unable to get Habeas Corpus lifted. In 1801, Despard and several other political prisoners were freed. The colonel was hanged in 1803 two years later for his part in an alleged plot to attack London – or was he set up by government spies and informers?

Sir Francis Burdett was immensely popular with the London masses. In 1806 Burdett and Lord Cochrane, a Whig, were elected MP’s of the City of Westminster by its fiercely independent-minded voters.

Burdett triumphal car jpeg
Burdett’s election in 1807. ‘An exact representation of the principal banners and triumphal car, which conveyed Sir Frances Burdett to the Crown and Anchor Tavern on Monday June 29th, 1807’.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

In 1810, Burdett published a polemic in Cobbett’s Weekly Register in which he argued that the House of Commons had exceeded its powers after John Gale Jones, a Radical speaker, was jailed in Newgate for writing a handbill. Burdett argued that if MPs became ‘destroyers of the liberties of the people’, then their ‘oppression’ was ‘combined with treachery; they destroy where they are bound to protect’.

A furious House of Commons decided that Burdett’s article was a breach of its privileges. On 7 April, the Serjeant-at-Arms was sent to arrest Sir Francis and take him to the Tower of London. But Burdett barricaded his house, and refused to go. A mob gathered around his town house, and the windows of several leading MPs were broken.

After many arguments about the legality of the arrest warrant (and even whether the Serjeant was entitled to break down the door to arrest the baronet), Burdett was eventually taken forcibly to the Tower of London by twenty to thirty police-officers, and a detachment of cavalry. A riot broke out, and a number of people were killed and injured. Petitions flooded into parliament for Burdett’s release, but he was not freed until the end of that parliamentary session.

burdett riots
The Burdett riots of 1810. Old and New London Vol. VI. (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1890). Author’s collection.

Burdett got into hot water again in 1819, following the Peterloo massacre, in which several people died when the Manchester magistrates sent sabre-wielding troops into the midst of a peaceful reform meeting. Sir Francis wrote an angry attack on the magistrates’ actions, and was fined and jailed again.

A few years after the 1832 Reform Act (somewhat) broadened the electoral franchise, Burdett left the Whigs and joined the Tories. He had no appetite for further reform. Burdett died on 23 January 1844; he was buried at Ramsbury, in Wiltshire.

burdett ramsburyhouse mirroroflit 18feb1826
Sir Francis Burdett’s seat in Ramsbury, Wiltshire. Mirror of Literature, 18 February 1826. Author’s collection

Despite the seeming inconsistency of his later political leanings with those of his early days, Burdett will always be remembered for his fearless, outspoken criticism of government repression during a very dark period for the nation’s liberties.

About The Author

Sue Wilkes is the author of Regency Spies (Pen & Sword, 2015) and A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England (Pen & Sword, 2014).

Sue’s latest book is available to pre-order on Amazon

You can read her blogs at:


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.