Posts Tagged ‘Georgian era’


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.


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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Bootmaker, 1845


He wore green trousers and a red jacket and his hat was leather with a narrow brim and a purple band all around the crown. He was sitting on a wooden stool, hammering away at a pair of boots that he was making, with the tools of his trade all laid out beside him: the lap-stone, the stirrup, the whet-board, the pincers and the nippers. As he worked he sang a little song to himself, to go with the rhythm of the hammering:

A Gentle Craft that hath the Art,
To steal soon into a Lady’s Heart.
Here you may see what Guile can do,
The Crown doth stoop to th’ Maker of a Shoe.

The Other End of the Rainbow, David Gardiner


16th Century Shoemaker Shop


In the Middle Ages, tradesmen formed guilds that protected their trades. Those who worked with fine leather were known as Cordwainers,  named after the very finest leather that was imported from Cordoba, Spain. In later years, those who processed leather formed their own guild, but  shoemakers retained the name of Cordwainer. Cobblers were distinct from Cordwainers, for they only repaired shoes, but over the years, this distinction began to weaken.  – Cordwainers: History.


18th Century Shoe Shop


At the time, the shoemaking trade consisted of division according to the type of shoes made: men’s, women’s, and shoes for workers, such as night-soil men and slaughterhouse men. There were different operations performed by different persons: cutting leathers, sewing uppers, and joining heel and sole. And there were production sites, such as shop masters and cellar, garret and stall masters. Shoe masters employed many people in large operations that hired many workers (there were only 600 or 700 of these), but over 30,000 individuals worked as journeymen, countryworkers, apprentices and cheap garret masters.*


Shoe Seller, 1840


By the 18th century, most boot and shoemakers barely made a subsistence wage. The majority of individuals who made shoes worked for very low wages, about 9s or 10 s a week. Many could barely afford their own lodging, and if they did, the accommodations were mean and poor.  The wages, while low for men, were even lower for women – who worked in shoe closing and shoe binding – and for children.*


Blind bootlace seller, Mayhew


The life of a shoemaker was a hard scrabble life, for their trade depended on leather, the purchase of which required money or credit. Some shoemakers were known to stretch their goods by reducing the thickness of the leather used for heels and soles. Others, desperate to feed their families, would steal food or clothing and be jailed or, worse, hung after they were caught.*  -*London Hanged: crime and civil society in the eighteenth century, Peter Linebaugh


19th century shoe cobbler


Yet the shoemaking business was not totally abysmal:


Shoes over the 18th Century**


Shoemaking flourished in the 18th century, and boot- and shoe-makers were the most numerous of all Salisbury craftsmen throughout the 19th century and until the First World War. It was said that in the later 19th century ‘in hundreds of houses the shoe-binders, the closers and finishers were busy week in week out’. The business with the longest history is Moore Brothers, whose origins can be found in William Moore, boot and shoemaker in 1822 and 1830, and Henry Rowe, established in Catherine Street in 1842, who had moved by 1867 to Silver Street. By 1875 these premises were occupied by Rowe, Moore and Moore, a firm which subsequently became James and William Moore Brothers. The firm moved to its present premises in the New Canal at the end of the 19th century.  – Salisbury Economic History Since 1621


Yellow silk shoes with buckles, French, c. 1760's. @Bata Shoe Museum


Early in the Georgian era the fashion for high heels (as much as 3″) made it difficult for cobblers to make “paired lasts” for left and right shoes. The “last” of the shoe is footprint of the shoe, which can be straight or without a left or right side. Many of the 18th and 19th century shoes and boots were produced on straight lasts. As the person wore the shoes, they “molded” to the foot, creating a left side and right side over time. –  The Bootmaker


1810-1820 woven straw shoes


After the French Revolution, shoe heels began to disappear, symbolizing that everyone was born on the same level. Delicate silk uppers began to be replaced by more affordable, sturdier leathers.


1891 silk shoe made with straight lasts***.


But the shoes continued to be made with straight lasts, a technique that continued into the 20th century.


Vintage shoe lasts


As late as 1850 most shoes were made on absolutely straight lasts, there being no difference between the right and the left shoe. Breaking in a new pair of shoes was not easy. There were but two widths to a size; a basic last was used to produce what was known as a “slim” shoe. When it was necessary to make a “fat” or “stout” shoe the shoemaker placed over the cone of the last a pad of leather to create the additional foot room needed. – Fashion Through Time, History of Your Shoes


Shoemaker's shop, 1849


Tools used by bootmakers and cobblers included: awls for punching holes in leather; hot burnishers that rubbed soles and heels to a shine; sole knives that shaped soles; stretching pliers which stretched the leather upppers; marking wheels to mark where the needle should go throught the sole, and size sticks to measure the foot. “By 1750 shoemakers were making shoes in different sizes for anyone who wanted to buy them. Before that they only made shoes on special order.” – Tradesmen/shoemaker.



Pattens went out of fashion in the early 19th century. Jane Austen recalled their noise on cobblestones in Bath. It was common for women to trip while wearing this awkward device.


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When Fanny Price first arrived at Mansfield Park, her cousins  found her ignorant on many things. “Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together.”  The girls  were referring to dissected geography puzzles, now known as jigsaw puzzles, that had first made their appearance in Europe in the 18th century and were popularized and widely used in England and America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mansfield Park makes one of the earliest references to this educational way of teaching of geography. While Fanny Price’s cousins teased her for not being familiar with these expensive new schoolroom toys, the truth was that her Portsmouth parents could not afford them.

At the turn of the 18th century,  British companies began to make toys that are still favorites today: toy soldiers, farmyards, wooden building blocks, steam engines, and kaleidoscopes. The toymaking industry began to boom, making mass-produced toys cheap enough to afford. By the start of the Regency Period,  people had become accustomed to purchasing them and they became educational in nature as well, such as puzzles. Many sources claim that John Spilsbury, a teacher in England, created the first jigsaw puzzle in  1767.  He glued a map of England and Wales  to a  flat thin piece of mahogany board and used a fine saw (fretsaw) to cut along the borders of the counties, which made up the separate pieces.  The “dissected map” became instantly successful.

18th century Dutch dissected puzzle

18th century Dutch dissected puzzle

While it is popularly thought that Spilsbury created the first dissected puzzle, the Dutch dissected puzzle in this image was made ca. 1750 (Cartographic dept. Univ. Library of Amsterdam), predating Spilsbury’s invention by seventeen years. If you will notice, only the borders of this early map of Europe interlock but not the central parts. ( Theo de Boer.) The Dutch puzzle might well be one of the earliest jigsaw puzzles made in the world, but there is evidence that several countries in Europe, including France, were teaching geography in this “entertaining manner.” As an interesting aside, so many new geographical features were discovered during this period of scientific discovery and exploration, that maps quickly became outmoded as new ones were drawn.

Before long, pictorial puzzles became popular, teaching such subjects as history, alphabets, botany, biblical scenes, and zoology. Soon the puzzles began to be made for their entertainment value as well. Click here to view two fine examples of early puzzles, including an alphabet puzzle.

Colorful_british_pub_picturEarly puzzles did not come with an image that helped people to solve them, and a careless movement could ruin hours of painstaking work.The treadly saw, first used in 1880, could cut out more intricate shapes, and thus the jigsaw puzzle was born. The interlocking pieces held firmly together and the game took off in popularity. Paperboard began to replace wood and the pieces became more varied and intricate. The game was portable, became more affordable with the passing years, and could entertain families for hours at a time. By the early 19th century, America in particular experienced a puzzle craze that lasted for decades and still exists today.

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convenient-marriageThe plot of the Convenient Marriage is different in so many ways from the typical Georgette Heyer novel. One is the tenderness with which the Earl of Rule treats his very young and captivating bride, and the second is that the couple has already tasted the delights of the marital bed and found the results not displeasing. The earl was all set to marry the eldest Winwood sister in an arranged marriage when her youngest sister Horatia “sacrifices” herself on the altar of sibling loyalty. Horatia’s older sister, Lizzie, is the Beauty of the family and in love with an impoverished soldier. Needless to say her family insists that she drop her soldier and marry the earl to save the family fortune. To help her sister out of her misery, Horatia sneaks off to see Rule and reasons (quite logically) that if the earl isn’t in love with her sister he might just as well marry her. The legal contract between the two families would not be altered with the switch in brides and he will still be assured that the future mother of his heir will have the appropriate pedigree. Struck by the simplicity of her argument and charmed with her slight stutter and forthrightness, the earl agrees to wed Horatia instead. Up to this point the book resembles more a 1930’s drawing room comedy than the typical historical romance novel we have come to expect from Georgette Heyer.  One of her earlier books (1936) and set in the Georgian Era, the writing does not yet possess her command of the genre as she shows in later years, yet her descriptive style was already fully developed. In this instance, Heyer describes Georgian clothing with as much expertise as her knowledge of  Regency garb:

It was naturally impossible for Horatia to visit a milliner without purchasing something on her own account, so when the flowers had been selected, she tried on a number of hats, and bought finally an enormous confection composed chiefly of stiff muslin in Trianon grey, which was labeled not without reason, “Grandes Pretentions.” There was a collet monte gauze scarf in the same delectable shade of grey, so she bought that as well. A cap a la glaneuse caught her eye as she was about to leave the shop, but she decided not to add that to her purchases, Lady Louisa having had the presence of mind to declare that it made her look rather prim.

The couple marry, they honeymoon, they return to London and live … not so happily after. It turns out that Horatia has fallen in love with her husband. Too unschooled in the ways of a man (for she is only seventeen) Horatia fails to realize that while she might not have her sister’s outer beauty, her intelligence, warmth, and charm are far more superior traits. Despite being short and possessing a pair of definite brows that stubbornly refuse to arch, she has bewitched her husband. With the earl so much older and secure in his own skin (he is thirty five), Horatia has a tough time interpreting his thoughts and actions and thus she fails to read the signs that he has fallen in love with her as well. And so begins a comedy of misinterpretations and errors on Horatia’s part, thinking Rule is in love with his mistress when in reality he has broken the relationship off.  Horatia’s inept attempts to behave like a sophisticate and not interfere with Rule’s daily routine allows the earl’s nemesis, Robert Lethbridge, a foot through the door, and the plot begins to resemble Dangerous Liaisons. Lethbridge and Rule’s former mistress, Lady Massey, are hell bent on ruining our guileless heroine. Spoiled and bored, they team up for sport and to extract their revenge upon the earl. Horatia unknowingly falls into their clutches with her enthusiastic card playing, but Rule was not born yesterday and he can easily read his young wife’s transparent thoughts and actions.

The novel takes another twist and the reader now enters the realm of slapstick comedy, keystone cops and all. Horatia’s brother Pelham, an incompetent boob if ever there was one, enmeshes himself in Horatia’s affairs hoping to “save” her from ruining her reputation with Lethbridge, who has extracted a scandalous gambler’s promise from her. Pelham’s interference (and that of his equally inept friend), makes matters worse. Georgette Heyer often uses the ploy of a Greek chorus of family and acquaintances to enliven the action, and in this instance Pelham and his numskull friend do a splendid job of adding laughter and color to the plot. Added to the mix is a Dandy in the form of Mr. Drelincourt, the earl’s presumptive heir until Horatia conceives. He will do anything to separate the earl from his bride, but he fumbles and bumbles his way through life, acquiring the scorn of all.

As well as her talent for writing comedic scenes, Georgette’s casual observations about the Georgian Era are accurate and illuminating. Here she makes the distinction between a Macaroni and a Buck:

The Macaronis, mincing, simpering, sniffing at crystal scent-bottles, formed a startling contrast to the Bucks, the young sparks who, in defiance of their affected contemporaries, had flown to another extreme of fashion. No extravagance of costume distinguished these gentlemen, unless a studied slovenliness could be called such, and their amusements were of a violent nature, quite at variance with your true Macaroni’s notion of entertainment. These Bloods were to be found at any prize-fight, or cock-fight, and when these diversions palled could always while away an evening in masquerading abroad in the guise of footpads, to the terror of all honest townsfolk.

The book’s ending, though predictable, includes a rousing duel and is completely satisfying for the romantic at heart, with our Horatia recognizing that the earl has loved her for a long, long time and with the earl finally able to express his feelings for his young bride. Although thoroughly enjoyable, The Convenient Marriage is not one of Georgette Heyer’s best efforts. Having said that, I would read this book over 90% of the romances being published today. I give The Convenient Marriage four out of five Regency fans.

Click here to enter SourceBooks and to order the book.

My Other Georgette Heyer Reviews Sit Below

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Keira Knightley in The Duchess

Keira Knightley in The Duchess

Sometimes interviews go one way, and sometimes another, as Diana Birchall reveals on her blog, Light, Bright, and Sparkling. In it she discusses her talk with writer Amanda Foreman and producer Gaby Tana, and how some of her questions were left unanswered.  Linked with Diana’s telling insights, is Ellen Moody’s expert analysis of the movie, book, and the Duchess of Devonshire’s life. Click here to read it on Ellen and Jim Have a Blog Too.

The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide also offers a post about meeting author Amanda Foreman. Click here to read it.

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