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Archive for the ‘Georgian London’ Category

Gentle readers, some months back Lucy Warriner expressed an interest in writing about Mary Darby Robinson. This past week she submitted this wonderful post about a fascinating and successful woman who embodied the Georgian Era – wife, mother, actress, mistress, and writer. Enjoy. Mary Darby Robinson (1758–1800) was a woman of considerable talent. She was one of the leading English actresses of her day, and she also published several volumes of poetry and prose. Yet Robinson’s tumultuous love life often rivaled her professional accomplishments. She was unhappily married, and the press maligned her for her affairs with the Prince of Wales and Revolutionary War veteran Banastre Tarleton. Mary Robinson’s autobiography, first published in 1801 as Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself,sheds light on her fascination with the stage, which started at an early age and continued even after she became a full-time writer.

Bristol in the 18th century

Mary Darby, daughter of John Darby and Mary Seys Darby, was born in Bristol, England, on November 27, 1758. Her father pursued whaling in Labrador and America while she, her mother, and her four siblings remained in England. John Darby acquired a mistress, and after young Mary’s parents separated, the family finances were strained. However, John Darby intermittently funded his daughter’s education at schools in Chelsea, Battersea, and London. At Chelsea, teacher Meribah Lorrington fostered Mary’s love of reading and encouraged her when she began to write poetry.

Mrs. Robinson as Melania

As a fifteen-year-old student at Oxford House in Marylebone, Mary was still drafting poems, even planning a great tragedy. This was a fitting development, for she had long shown a flair for the sentimental and dramatic. As a child, she had delighted in sad poetry and music, and she loved “the awful though sublime impression which the church service never failed to make upon [her] feelings” (Robinson, Memoirs 8–9). The recollection of seeing King Lear, the first play she ever attended, remained vivid throughout her life. In time, one of Mary’s teachers at Oxford House noticed her “extraordinary genius for dramatic exhibitions” (Robinson 31). The school dancing instructor, who was also employed at Covent Garden Theatre in London, put Mary and her mother in touch with Thomas Hull, the theatre manager. Hull, too, discerned Mary’s talent, and it was soon decided that her first performance would be opposite acclaimed thespian David Garrick in Lear.

David Garrick as King Lear, London, 1761. Image @UC, Berkeley

Garrick soon began coaching Mary for her debut, and she seems to have been his prize pupil:

Garrick was delighted with everything I did. He would sometimes dance a minuet with me, sometimes request me to sing the favourite ballads of the day; but the circumstance which most pleased him was my tone of voice, which he frequently told me closely resembled that of his favourite Cibber [singer and actress Susannah Cibber, who was a member of Garrick’s Drury Lane troupe from 1753 to 1766]. (Robinson 37)

But while Mary relished the charismatic actor’s tutelage, she was unable to take full advantage of it. In the midst of her training, Mary met Thomas Robinson, an aspiring legal assistant who endeared himself to Mrs. Darby by bringing her books and comforting her when her son contracted smallpox. He turned his attentions to Mary when she, too, developed smallpox. When she was almost sixteen, Mary accepted Robinson’s marriage proposal and gave up the chance to appear in Lear with Garrick. The couple married on April 12, 1774, and remained in London. When Thomas wanted the union to remain secret, the new Mary Robinson discovered that he was an illegitimate child with no prospect of inheritance and a great amount of arrears.

St. Martin in the Fields. Mary’s wedding was not so well attended.

Despite his penury, Thomas Robinson lived extravagantly. He took a mistress, Harriet Wilmot, and associated with debauched spendthrifts Lord Lyttleton and George Robert Fitzgerald, both of whom propositioned Mary. Deeply unhappy, Mary Robinson’s thoughts again turned to the theatre. Encountering accomplished thespian Mrs. Abington at a party, she “thought the heroine of the scenic art was of all human creatures the most to be envied” (Robinson 80). When creditors laid claim to the Robinsons’ possessions, the couple moved to evade them, at one point staying with Thomas’s father in Wales. Mary gave birth to Maria Elizabeth, her first child, in Wales on November 18, 1774.

Frances (Fanny) Abington by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1764-1773

Upon his return to London in 1775, police apprehended Thomas Robinson and confined him in King’s Bench Prison. Mary and Maria joined him there, and their imprisonment lasted little more than a year. While Thomas began an affair with the wife of a fellow inmate, Mary rebuffed further offers to become a kept woman. She devoted herself to raising Maria, transcribing legal documents for Thomas, and writing poetry. Prior to her incarceration, Mary had published Poems by Mrs. Robinson to help offset her husband’s debts. Though it had not sold well, she forwarded a copy to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a devotee of literature who sponsored writers. Mary Robinson soon became the duchess’s protégé.

William Breteton, by Henry Walton, 1780

Once her husband was freed from prison, Robinson resumed acting to provide for the family. Thomas, who had never finished his legal training, was no breadwinner. A chance encounter with Drury Lane actor William Brereton, who introduced her to theatre manager and famed playwright Richard Sheridan, returned Robinson to the theatrical milieu. While pregnant with her second child, Sophia, she read Shakespeare for Sheridan and won his approval. Garrick, Robinson’s old mentor, came out of retirement to coach her for the lead in Romeo and Juliet.

Drury Lane Theatre

In a flurry of nerves, she debuted at Drury Lane Theatre opposite Brereton’s Romeo in December 1776:

When I approached the side-wing my heart throbbed convulsively; I then began to fear that my resolution would fail, and I leaned upon the Nurse’s [the character of Juliet’s nurse] arm, almost fainting. Mr. Sheridan and several other friends encouraged me to proceed; and at length, with trembling limbs and fearful apprehension, I approached the audience. The thundering applause that greeted me nearly overpowered all my faculties. I stood mute and bending with alarm, which did not subside till I had feebly articulated the few sentences of the first short scene, during the whole of which I never once ventured to look at the audience. . . . The second scene being the masquerade, I had time to collect myself. I shall never forget the sensation which rushed upon my bosom when I first looked towards the pit. . . . All eyes were fixed upon me, and the sensation they conveyed was awfully impressive; but the keen, the penetrating eyes of Mr. Garrick, darting their lustre from the centre of the orchestra, were, beyond all others, the objects most conspicuous. As I acquired courage, I found the applause augment; and the night was concluded with peals of clamorous approbation. (Robinson 129–131)

18th century actors on stage

Robinson’s appearance as Juliet led to a four-year acting career in which she starred in forty dramas, at times portraying several characters per week or per play. In February 1777, she followed her turn as Juliet with appearances in Alexander the Great and in Sheridan’s A Trip to Scarborough. The latter play was adapted from another work, and it elicited “a considerable degree of disapprobation” from audience members who had expected an original play (Robinson 132). Nevertheless, Robinson carried the day:

An audience watching a play at Drury Lane Theatre, by Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1785

I was terrified beyond imagination when Mrs. Yates, no longer able to bear the hissing of the audience, quitted the scene, and left me alone to encounter the critic tempest. I stood for some moments as though I had been petrified. Mr. Sheridan, from the side wing, desired me not to quit the boards; the late Duke of Cumberland, from the stage box, bade me take courage: “It is not you, but the play, they hiss,” said his Royal Highness. I curtsied; and that curtsey seemed to electrify the whole house, for a thundering appeal of encouraging applause followed. The comedy was suffered to go on, and is to this hour a stock play at Drury Lane Theatre. (Robinson 132).

It is no wonder that Robinson claimed she “was always received with the most flattering approbation” (Robinson 133).

Mary Robinson in stage costume as Amanda, by Roberts Robins

Indeed, Mary Robinson was a prominent figure in a great age of theater. She observed that her time on the stage marked a period when dramatists and thespians were exceptionally gifted, when public enthusiasm about the theater was high, and when she and three other young actresses—Miss Farren, Miss Walpole, and Miss P. Hopkins—dominated their field. Robinson’s most acclaimed heroines were Juliet, Ophelia in Hamlet, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Palmira in Mahomet. Yet for all her renown, Robinson’s family never completely approved of her career. Her mother “never beheld [her] on the stage but with a painful regret” (Robinson 151). Her brother attended one of her performances but walked out when she took the stage. Robinson was somewhat relieved that her father was always abroad and never saw her perform.

Richard Sheridan, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

In 1778, Robinson took time off from acting to give birth to Sophia and mourn the infant’s passing less than two months later . Sheridan, who had planned for her to star in The School for Scandal, was unfailingly supportive during her bereavement. Robinson considered him her “most esteemed of friends,” and she found his grief over Sophia’s death deeper than her husband’s (Robinson 153). When she was ready to work again, Sheridan helped find Robinson summer employment at Haymarket Theatre. However, a casting dispute with the director resulted in her receiving payment but never taking the stage.

Theatre goers: The laughing audience, Edward Matthew Ward, from an etching by William Hogarth made in 1733

Mary Robinson had returned to acting in 1779 when her life changed drastically. A twenty-one-year-old with many celebrated performances to her name, she was hopeful about her future. Though Thomas remained negligent, the Robinsons’ financial situation was improving. Ever concerned for Mary, Sheridan worried that she would exceed her income and/or have an affair with one of her many wealthy admirers, thereby jeopardizing her acting career. His fears were well founded. King George III and Queen Charlotte requested a performance of The Winter’s Tale, in which Robinson played Perdita. When the royal family attended the play on December 3, 1779, the seventeen-year-old Prince of Wales unashamedly admired her:

Mary Robinson as Perdita

I hurried through the first scene, not without embarrassment, owing to the fixed attention with which the Prince of Wales honoured me. Indeed, some flattering remarks which were made by his Royal Highness met my ear as I stood near his box, and I was overwhelmed with confusion. The Prince’s particular attention was observed by everyone. . . . On the last curtsy, the royal family condescendingly returned a bow to the performers; but just as the curtain was falling, my eyes met those of the Prince of Wales, and with a look that I never shall forget, he gently inclined his head a second time; I felt the compliment, and blushed my gratitude. . . . I met the royal family crossing the stage. I was again honoured with a very marked and low bow from the Prince of Wales. (Robinson 157-158) A few days later, Lord Malden (George Capel Coningsby) delivered Robinson a love letter from the Prince of Wales, who was an associate of his. The prince referred to her as “Perdita” and himself as “Florizel,” in the latter case referring to the prince in A Winter’s Tale who falls in love with Perdita. The press, which chronicled the relationship from its start, appropriated these names for their own use as well. Robinson at first refused to meet her new admirer, entering instead into an impassioned correspondence with him. Malden, who eventually fell in love with Mary himself, remained their reluctant go-between.

Caricature of the Prince of Wales as Florizel and Mary Robinson as Perdita, 1783

Eventually, the couple began meeting in person with third parties present, hoping to conceal the relationship until the prince was a legal adult. The prince guaranteed Robinson 20,000 pounds upon reaching his majority, and she left her husband and retired from acting.

At Vauxhall by Thomas Rowlandson. Mary Robinson stands at the right side on the front row, her husband (with cane) on one side and the Prince of Wales on the other.

Her last performance showcased her roles in The Miniature Picture and The Irish Widow. Robinson wept during the show, aware “that [she] was flying from a happy certainty, perhaps to pursue the phantom disappointment” (Robinson 177).

Caricature of Perdita and Charles James Fox (The Man & Woman of the People). He obtained an annuity for her from George III at the end of her affair with the prince.

Disappointment was, indeed, fast in coming. Before he formally and publicly acknowledged their love, Robinson received word from the prince that they could no longer see one another. He had given no prior indication of a change in his feelings, and all her attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. The press began lampooning Robinson mercilessly. Deeply in debt, she considered acting again but decided against it due to the general enmity against her. An invitation to meet the prince raised Robinson’s hopes, as did his renewed professions of love. But he quickly shunned her again, and their relationship was over by 1781. With the help of politician Charles James Fox, Robinson attempted to claim her promised 20,000 pounds, but in 1783 she instead accepted 500 pounds a year to make up for having abandoned her career.

Banastre Tarleton, miniature by Richard Cosway, 1782

After her disappointment with the prince, Robinson was linked romantically to Fox and Malden. Banastre Tarleton, a hard-living veteran of the American Revolution who moved in the same echelons as Malden, stole Mary away from him on a bet. Though sporadic, this relationship lasted for sixteen years, ending in 1798. As far as the press was concerned, it was the final blow against Robinson’s character. In 1784, at age twenty-four, she contracted rheumatism and developed paralysis that left her unable to walk. It is possible that botched treatment after she miscarried Tarleton’s child caused her condition. Robinson sought treatment in Germany and Flanders and returned to England in 1787.

Mrs Mary Robinson by George Romney

From the time she returned to England, Mary Robinson focused on writing and publishing. She wrote in a variety of genres, and her works were highly sought after due to the notoriety her love life had achieved. Poetry was a continuing interest for Robinson. She participated in the Della Cruscan movement that championed elaborate romantic verse; composed poems for the Morning Post, which also published Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s work; and published seven collections of her own verse between 1791 and 1800. Robinson also wrote eight novels, two of which alluded to her relationship with Tarleton.

Mary Darby Robinson by Thomas Gainsboroughm, 1781

Though they were less popular than her other projects, Robinson penned at least two works for performance. In the late 1780s, she was reputed to be composing an opera. If the rumors were true, no trace of the work survived. But the idea recalls Robinson’s youthful desire to write a tragedy. In 1793, she authored The Nobody, a play focusing on women gamblers. It was not her first foray into playwriting, for she had penned and acted in The Lucky Escape in 1778. Unfortunately, The Nobodymet with derision and only played for three nights before Robinson stopped production.

Mrs. Robinson from an engraving by Smith after Romney

Robinson’s last completed literary effort was A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Insubordination, published in 1799. In it, she asserted women’s right to escape unhappy marriages, defending her own lifestyle in the process. Robinson was at work on her memoirs when she died on December 26, 1800. Maria Robinson edited the existing manuscript and continued the narrative from the point at which her mother began corresponding with the Prince of Wales. Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herselfappeared in 1801, and a volume of verse, The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, appeared in 1806. In 1895, Robinson’s memoirs were republished as Memoirs of Mary Robinson, this time with an introduction and footnotes by J. Fitzgerald Molloy.

Fronticepiece of Mary Robinson’s Memoirs

Mary Robinson’s autobiography provides an intriguing glimpse into eighteenth-century London’s theatrical circles. Though her acclaimed acting career was cut short, Robinson channeled her innate sense of the dramatic into writing. Her poetry and prose have garnered sporadic interest, only attracting scholarly attention over the last several decades. But Robinson’s autobiography has had enduring appeal. Perhaps this is because Mary Robinson was far more than a royal mistress, even though much of her notoriety was based upon this role. Instead of confining herself to the domestic sphere, she was at once a wife, mother, and career woman. By leaving her unfaithful husband and taking lovers, she flouted sexual double standards and affirmed women’s autonomy within marriage. Thus the study of this intelligent, rebellious, and troubled woman—at once an inspiration and a tragic figure—will likely endure for many years to come. About the author of this post: Lucy Warriner is a North Carolina animal lover and dance enthusiast. She is also an ardent admirer of Jane Austen. Bibliography

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Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli, author of Avon Street, has contributed posts for this blog before about the City of Bath as a Character and Law & Order and Jane Austen’s Aunt. He has graciously sent in an article about food preparation in the 18th and 19th centuries. The content will astonish you. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit.

Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart–a very little bit. Ours are all apple-tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard.”

Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse, Emma, 2009

So says the ever-cautious, Mr Woodhouse, in Jane Austen’s Emma as he entertains his guests at supper. Yet Mr Woodhouse’s fears were not entirely in his imagination. At the time it was relatively common for commercially bought pickles and preserves to contain poisonous sulphate of copper to improve their eye-appeal. And even when prepared at home, the copper pans in which they were cooked, unless properly looked after, could also poison the ingredients.

Churning butter

Yet for most people who lived in the country, as Jane Austen did for much of her life, food-safety was not a major concern. Food was prepared and preserved either by the family themselves or by their domestic staff, and cooking and baking was done at home.

Food preparation in the kitchen.

The ingredients were for the most part grown and bought locally, and word travels quickly in small communities. Meat came from local farms or estates, and farmers and landowners had reputations to maintain, as did the local mill for flour, and the local shopkeepers for all that they sold.

Costermonger from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, 1840s.

The situation though, was very different in towns and cities. Here it was the shopkeepers and “costermongers” who sourced, stored, prepared and supplied the produce. And with a wider market at their disposal these tradesmen were often less concerned with quality, as they were with cost. The worst affected were the poor. For the most part they lived from hand-to-mouth and bought food in “pennyworths” or even “half-pennyworths.” Buying in these smaller quantities (enough for the day) meant goods often cost four or five times more than they would have cost had they been bought in regular quantities.

Bread Seller, William Henry Pyne, ca. 1805

Bread itself could be bought as quarter or half loaves and the poor subsisted largely on bread. But even then, bakers used chalk to make the bread whiter, and alum to enable the use of inferior flour, and while alum was not poisonous it inhibited the digestion and decreased the nutritional value of anything else their customers ate.

Rabbit seller, William Henry Pyne, 1805

The wealthier residents in towns and cities could afford a “better” diet, yet this too carried its own dangers. There was of course no refrigeration at the time and little concept of hygiene. In towns and cities most meat was killed locally, but then it had to be stored, sold and transported to the home. As late as 1862 the government estimated that one-fifth of butcher’s meat in England and Wales came from animals which had died of disease or were carrying considerably disease. And at the start of the nineteenth century butcher’s boys would deliver meat to the wealthier homes, carried on their heads, in baskets or trays, open to the heat and dirt of the day.

A butcher’s shop, by James Pollard

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the British population grew, and so did the towns and cities. The nation became more dependent on imported and processed foods. The growing “middle classes” were acquiring a growing taste for tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, and sauces and spices from around the world. The problem that the fictional Mr Woodhouse had been concerned about a few years earlier rapidly became a fact of life as the century progressed.

Coachman, seated, holding a tankard. Mezzotint by Ryley, printed in colours for John Bowles in London Feb. 1st, 1768

The “adulteration” of food and drink became increasingly commonplace. Producers, importers, merchants and sellers were all adding ingredients to increase bulk or “improve” appearance. The making of beer had more to do with chemistry than the brewing process. As Dr Richard Wetherby says, in my novel, Avon Street,

Have you any idea of how they adulterate the beer in the ale houses around Avon Street? It is full of foxglove, henbane, opium and God knows what other concoctions. They use chemicals so that they can water down the beer, keep its taste and appearance, but make it stronger, and still sell it cheaply.”

Cow Keeper’s Shop in London, 1825, George Scharf

Milk too, was often watered down, sometimes by as much as 50%. So common did the adulteration of food become that books on housekeeping routinely carried warnings and tests for detecting added chemicals like plaster of Paris. Mrs Beeton in prefacing a recipe for a popular anchovy paste warned against shop-bought pastes,

In six cases out of ten, the only portion of those preserved delicacies, that contains anything indicative of anchovies, is the paper label pasted on the bottle or pot, on which the word itself is printed.”

Typical coffee house, late 18th century

In 1851 The Lancet, medical journal, commissioned a doctor from the London Royal Free Hospital to examine the adulteration of thirty common foods. The study revealed that China tea contained 45% sand and dirt together with traces of sulphate of iron; lard contained carbonate of soda and caustic lime; coffee included chicory, mangel wurzel (root vegetable) sawdust, and acorns; cocoa and chocolate were coloured with earth and included arrowroot and Venetian lead; sweets (candy) were found to contain chromate of lead, sulphate of mercury and various other noxious flavourings and colourings. Red lead and other chemical colourings were found to be routinely used in foodstuffs such as “Red Leicester Cheese.”

Six pence a pound, fair cherryes

Even after the study was published the merchants, tradespeople and government were slow to respond. It was not until 1860 that the Adulteration Act was passed. Thankfully, technology and innovation helped in the interim. In 1857 a process for the mass production of ice was patented allowing foods to be better preserved and transported. The availability of canned goods also increased. The army had been supplied with canned foods since 1820, but the cans had to be opened with a chisel or a bayonet, until the can-opener was invented in 1858. As technology improved, mass-produced processed foods like soups, sauces, biscuits, chocolate, pickles and egg-powder became more popular and were prepared to more rigorous standards. And though the Adulteration Act was still largely resisted, in 1872 official inspectors were created with the power to test food and impose substantial fines. Quality and safety of food gradually improved, which I am sure would have pleased the fictional Mr Woodhouse.

Old Covent Garden market, 1825, Scharf

More on the topic:

Refrigerated milk cart, 19th c. This design, from the USA, used ice to keep the air temperature cool for the transport of milk. Holes in the compartments allowed air to circulate from where the ice compartments to the milk compartments.

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Fire!

Can there be a more frightening word in Georgian London?  The great fire in 1666 changed the landscape of that city forever. Once a densely packed city riddled with overcrowded, wood-timbered houses and dark, narrow lanes, the fire led the way to a change in building regulations that ushered in brick and stone edifices, wider streets, and public squares. Even with improvements, a fire still presented a horrifically dangerous situation.

Thomas Rowlandson captures the scene with such realism in “Inn Yard on Fire” that one can smell the smoke and fear, and hear the horses neighing, people screaming, furniture breaking, and wagon wheels squealing as guests and staff run around trying to save themselves, their possessions, and each other.

Fire at the Inn, by Thomas Rowlandson

Panic and pandemonium ensue. A man contemplates tossing a mirror from the second story, another pours his ineffectual chamber pot over the flames. A side table has been tossed through the window, while an anxious woman descends a ladder.

People are in various states of dress and undress. Some help others, some are  overcome with panic. A disabled man is carried from danger in a wheel barrow, while a groom tries to calm two terrified horses.

Elements in Rowlandson’s cartoon show a direct association with classical language and Tobias Smollet. The young man saving the girl in distress is reminiscent of Giambologna’s statue of the Rape of the Sabine Women, as well as Peregrine Pickle’s heroic actions towards Emilia.

Rowlandson

Rape of the Sabine Women

Peregrine Pickle saves Emilia. Image @A World History of Art

Once a fire had gained as much ground as depicted in this illustration, there was little chance of saving the building. Rowlandson shows some people carrying out their belongings, while others were barely able to get dressed. By now an alarm had probably been sounded in the community. Bucket brigades, in which people were arrayed in long lines to the nearest well and passed buckets in a continuous motion, could probably put out a minor fire, but not one of this magnitude. In the 1800s, almost 150 years after the great fire, there was still no centralized fire brigade.

In 1680, a property developer named Nicholas Barbon introduced the first fire insurance, which initially insured buildings but not furniture, fittings, or goods.  Insurance companies began to proliferate and formed private fire brigades to protect their customers’ property.

Is this praying elderly couple trapped on the balcony?

In Rowlandson’s cartoon the most the inn keeper can hope for is that the brigade arrives in time to save his structure – if he is insured.  This was easier said than done, for many of London’s streets were not named, since many people could not read, and insured properties were difficult to find.

A couple on the second floor frantically attempt to save their belongings.

In the early 1800s the fire mark was developed. These plaques, sometimes brightly painted, would signal which properties were protected by insurance firms. Each fire brigade had its own unique plaque.

Fire mark on a building

If a fire started, the Fire Brigade was called. They looked for the fire mark and, provided it was the right one, the fire would be dealt with. Often the buildings were left to burn until the right company attended! Many of these insurance companies were to merge, including those of London, which merged in 1833 to form The London Fire Engine Establishment, whose first Fire Chief was James Braidwood. Braidwood had come to London after holding the position of the Chief Officer of Edinburgh Fire brigade. Edinburgh’s authorities had formed the first properly organised brigade in 1824. – History of the UK Fire and Rescue Service

There were quite a few fire brigades operating in London in the early 19th century and competition was keen. The companies hired sailors and watermen as part-time employees. An advantage of serving in this position was that these men were protected from being pressed into service, a not inconsiderable benefit during the Napoleonic wars.

Fighting the fire at the Customs House in February 1814.Image@British Museum

Buildings that had no insurance protection were left to burn, although attempts were made to save the surrounding buildings. Firemarks were essential to identify insured buildings:

Arrival of the fire engine, Thomas Rowlandson

Designs included, for Sun Fire Office: a large sun with a face; the Royal Exchange Assurance: their building; and Phoenix: obviously Phoenix rising from the ashes. Later fire marks were made of tin, copper, or similar material. These are more often called fire plates. They were more an advertising medium as most do not have a policy number stamped upon them. – Fire Marks: The First Logos of Insurance Companies

Illustration from Ackermann’s ”Microcosm of London” (1808) drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin. Firefighters are tackling a fire which has broken out in houses at the Blackfriars Bridge. Teams of men operate hand pumped equipment. Image @Wikipedia

In 1833 companies in London merged to form The London Fire Engine Establishment, the first step to the various fire brigades being taken over by local government.

The Burning of Drury Lane Theatre from Westminster Bridge 1809. Artist unknown.  Image property of the Museum of London.

Equipment was still very basic but in 1721, Richard Newsham patented a ‘new water engine for the quenching and extinguishing of fires’. The pump provided a continuous jet of water with more force than before. This new fire engine became a standard until the early 19th century.

Newsham’s wood pumper, ca. 1731.

The men used the handles to pump the water from a lead-lined trough in the main body of the equipment. The apparatus was quite heavy and difficult to maneuver, but it represented a huge step forward in fire fighting technology. People continually ran back and forth to a water source to fill the trough with water. You could also attach a hose to aim the water to a specific location. During this time, however, hose-making was still in its infancy and many leaked. Water buckets and axes to hack out trapped people and create fire free perimeters were still regarded as standard fire fighting equipment.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 by William Mallord Turner. Such an event must have provided a spectacular yet horrifying scene for onlookers.

Steam powered appliances were first introduced in the 1850s, allowing a greater quantity of water to be guided onto a fire. With the invention of the internal combustion engine, these appliances were replaced in the early 1900s.

James Pollard (British, 1797-1867) London fire engines: The noble protectors of lives and property, 1823. Image @Olympia Art Antiques

This image by James Pollard, and engraved by R. Reeve, shows several insurance brigades hurrying to a fire.

The firemen, of the time, had little training and wore brightly coloured uniforms to distinguish themselves between the different brigades. During large fires they would become very tired through continual pumping of the appliances, and would offer bystanders ‘beer tokens’ in return for their help. – Insurance Firemen and their Equipment

Each company provided different liveries for their men, so that the fire fighters could easily be identified with a particular firm.All insurance firemen wore a large badge on their shoulder to show which insurance company they worked for.

Three uniforms of insurance firemen. All wear a badge

More on the topic:

Cockburn’s theatre on fire, another dramatic caricature by Rowlandson.

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Today U.S. citizens are celebrating July 4th and the independence of our nation from Great Britain. Grand firework displays will play a pivotal role in our national revelry tonight, culminating a day long celebration. Fireworks were not unknown during the Georgian Era, and were used for grand effect in public celebrations. I will point out only a few instances in London.

The picture above is of the firework display held by the Duke of Richmond at Richmond House near the Thames in Whitehall, London [May 1749] and shows both the whole effect of all the fireworks and also, very interestingly, gives individual details [on the side] of the individual fireworks which made up the whole display. – Austenonly

Temple of Peace in Green Park.

Early view of Green Park and the Temple of Peace.

Green Park was readied for a grand fireworks display in 1763 to celebrate the Treaty of Paris, which ended the French and Indian War in North America. The park had attracted firework displays before:

The Green Park was used for a national party in 1746 to celebrate the end of the War of Hanoverian Succession. The royal family arranged a great firework display and commissioned the composer, Handel, to write his Music for the Royal Fireworks. A vast Temple of Peace was built in the park to store the fireworks. But early on a stray rocket hit the temple. Three people died and 10,000 fireworks were destroyed in the fire that followed. – The Green Park

Temple of Peace in Green Park lit up by fire works.

The Treaty of Paris  granted Great Britain control of all land to the east of the Mississippi River, a cause for a grand celebration and a good reason for building a ceremonial temple. (View a print of the scene here.)

Another cause for creating massive firework displays was the long reign of George III. The details of  the Golden Jubilee celebrations are beautifully described at Austenonly.

Fireworks in London in celebration of King George III Golden Jubilee in 1809

Fireworks were quite dangerous, and so were  gas lit fires. In 1814, another grand celebration was planned in St. James Park (which lies close to Green Park) to commemorate 100 years of the Hanoverian royal family. A seven-story pagoda was erected on a Chinese-style bridge spanning the canal in St. James’s Park.

A view of the Chinese pagoda burning. Image @British Library

The splendid gala was organized for the joint August first celebration of the Hanoverian Centenary and the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile. The brilliant and daring tactics of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile were represented by rowboats upon the canal. A disaster occurred when the gas lit pagoda caught fire and burned. Two men were killed and a number injured trying to put out the fire. A number of the Royal swans succumbed to smoke and fire. The crowd unaware that this was an accident took the occurrence to be part of the spectacle and applauded wildly. – The Georgian Index

When the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, famed rope walker, Madame Squi, could finally cross the English Channel in  1816 to perform at Vauxhall Gardens for the first time.

Madame Saqui illuminated by the bursts of fireworks, Vauxhall, 1816. Copyright Museum of London*

‘In the midst of a great burst of fireworks, Bengal lights glimmering faintly in the clouds of smoke, she (Saqui) stands on a rope, sixty feet up, and follows a narrow and difficult path to the end of her journey. Sometimes she is completely hidden from our eyes by the billowing waves, but from the way she walks, so self-assured, one would think an Immortal was walking peacefully towards her celestial home.’ [Lerouge on Madam Saqui at Vauxhall] – Rope Walkers and Equillibrists

Firework displays were no novelty at Vauxhall Gardens, or any of the major gardens where people congregated to walk along grand promenades, dance publicly to music, eat, drink, and enjoy an evening out in the open.

Fireworks display at Vauxhall, 1800s.

There were terrible accidents then as now with fireworks. Here is an account from  an 1858 newspaper** about an accident in central London:

All over the U.S. we will be enjoying various kinds of firework displays. Those in Washington D.C. and the major cities will be the grandest, I am sure. I recall an intimate firework display along a small lake in Vermont one year, in which only a few fireworks were set off. Interestingly, of all the firework displays I have seen, that is the one I tend to recall. Happy Birthday, America! Stay safe.

*Museum of London Prints

**Newspaper Account of Vauxhall accident.

More about Green Park at this link.

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Sadler’s Wells Aquatic Theatre, 1813. copyright The V&A Museum. Click on image to view details.

Sadler’s Wells was a performing arts area located in Clerkenwell in the outskirts of London. Named after Richard Sadler, who opened a musick house there in the late 17th century, the region boasted well water thought to have medicinal qualities.

Sadler was prompted to claim that drinking the water from the wells would be effective against “dropsy, jaundice, scurvy, green sickness and other distempers to which females are liable – ulcers, fits of the mother, virgin’s fever and hypochondriacal distemper.” -Wikipedia

Six theatres have stood at this site since Sadler built his first theatre. A second theatre,  Sadler’s Wells, was constructed in 1765, which attracted summer theatre goers (the Theatre Royal offered performances only in the fall and winter.)

Interior of the theatre in 1810. One can see the water-filled tank on the stage.

In the early 19th century, Sadler’s Wells began to offer aquatic spectacles. The construction of a large tank (90x24x3 ft)  in 1804 by Charles Dibdin covered the entire area of the stage. It was flooded with water that was pumped from the nearby New River at the cost of 30 pounds per annum. This renovation allowed for the theatre to be used for naval melodramas, a popular theme, one imagines, in the days of the Napoleonic Wars and tales of Admiral Nelson’s heroism. The Siege of Gilbraltar, an ambitious spectacle, deployed 117 model ships created by the Woolwich Dockyard shipwrights and riggers, who used a scale of one inch to a foot in exact imitation of the slightest details, including the rigging. Children were cast as drowning Spanish sailors, and could be seen struggling in the waves.

Scenic artist at work, 1790. Image @British Museum

A beautiful drop scene that filled up all the area of the proscenium showed the English fleet drawn up in battle against France and Spain. The enormous painting was used to entertain the audience during a delay while preparations were made behind stage. In order to alleviate 20 minutes of boredom between scenes, the stage slowly rose to nearly the roof of the theatre in full view. A second water tank was built on the theatre’s roof to simulate waterfalls. (With the lack of temperature control in the 19th century and windows in the main area, one can imagine that the theatre’s interior developed a powerful moldy smell in the heat of summer!)

Audience watching a play at Drury Lane, Rowlandson, 1785

The behavior of the theatre goers at Sadler’s Wells left much to be desired. As early as 1711 it was observed that members of the audience were publicly drunk, and their behavior boorish and loutish. Karl Philipp Moritz, a German traveler in England in 1782, described in his travel diary the audience in a typical British play house. Not only was the crowd rowdy between scenes and before the performance (making a “noise and uproar”), but there was a constant pelting of orange peels, for oranges were “tolerably cheap”.

Besides this perpetual pelting from the gallery, which renders and English play-house so uncomfortable, there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is drawn up…I sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with those of the upper one. Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to display his costly stone buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat. – Karl Philipp Moritz

Another view of the theatre. Fishing seems to have been a popular pasttime as well.

If the Sadler’s Wells theatre audience had a particularly rowdy reputation compared to theatres in central London, one can only imagine how truly awful the experience was. The theatre slowly lost its lustre during the first half of the 19th century, for it was located in the rural outskirts of London. Without street lights and an organized police force, travel at night was dangerous, and patrons of the theatre were provided escorts as they traveled back to central London.

 Pinero’s play Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ (1898), portrays Sadler’s Wells as outmoded by the new fashion for realism. The theatre declined until, by 1875, plans to turn it into a bath house were proposed and, for a while, the new craze of roller skating was catered to, as the theatre was converted into a roller-skating rink and later a prize fight arena. The theatre was condemned as a dangerous structure in 1878. – Wikipedia

Anglers at Sadler’s Wells.

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