Friday, 30 October 2009

A History of Private Life

Autumn heralds the new season of TV and radio productions and there are two I'm currently enjoying: A History of Private Life on BBC Radio and Garrow's Law: Tales from the Old Bailey on BBC TV.

Professor Amanda Vickery (the historian and award-winning author of The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England) writes and presents A History of Private Life on BBC Radio 4. It's an ambitious project, composed of 30 quarter-hour programmes spread over six weeks, which explore the home and everything it has stood for over the past 400 years. Last week's programmes were all related to the 18th century and some are still available via the BBC's Listen Again feature.

Amanda Vickery draws on first hand accounts, from diaries, letters, wills, autobiographies, inventories, trial transcripts etc. to piece together a window on people's day to day lives. It's a format that brings history brilliantly to life and makes for great listening. The readers are wonderful and Prof. Vickery is a lively and engaging presenter. My only criticism would be some of the music choices, but, all in all, the programme is a delight. Please BBC, make it available on CD!

The episode 'Taste' which aired on 27th October tells the story of an 18th century couple who spend life doing up their magnificent houses. Listen in to the touching tale of the Earl of Shelburne and his wife Sophia while it's still available.

Amanda Vickery's book Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, published 15th October 2009 by Yale University Press.

Garrow's Law: Tales from the Old Bailey aired last night on BBC 1 in the prime time 9 pm slot and fabulous stuff it was too. Andrew Buchan plays William Garrow, the pioneering 18th century barrister who was a passionate believer in social and legal justice.

As a defence counsel, Garrow's desire is to change the law and revolutionise the proceedings of a criminal trial forever: to give defendants the representation in court that they had never previously had, at cost not only to their innocence but also their lives. Garrow pretty much invented the art of cross examination and yet many people, including those in the legal profession, have never heard of him.

You can read more about the series here and if you are in the UK, view the first episode on BBC iplayer here.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

If Jane Austen owned a cookbook ... might have been this one.

I blogged about this book earlier in the year and thought I'd highlight it again now that it's available and I've ordered it - eek! I have NO willpower where books are concerned :-0 Anyway, back to the book ... A New System of Domestic Cookery by Mrs Rundell has just been reprinted by Persephone Books.

Maria Rundell (1745-1828) was the original domestic goddess. The daughter of a barrister, Maria married Thomas Rundell, a Bath surgeon, at the age of 21 and they had five children. After her husband died, Maria travelled frequently on visits to friends and relations, but found time to collect and sort her large collection of receipts and remedies for her daughters. She eventually sent the manuscript to a family friend the publisher John Murray and it was published in 1806 as A New System of Domestic Cookery; a second edition was written at Swansea, where Mrs Rundell was then living with her married daughter. Every year 5–10,000 copies were sold and the book, one of the earliest manuals of household management, became one of Murray’s most valuable properties. In 1814 there was a law suit over the copyright; Mrs Rundell eventually accepted Murray’s offer of 2000 guineas. Between 1806-44 there were sixty-seven English reprints and it was also a bestseller in America. It sold more than 245,000 copies in the UK, remaining in print until 1893.

Persephone are reprinting the 1816 edition, the same year as Jane Austen's Emma was published. As well as more than a thousand 'receipts' (recipes), The New System of Domestic Cookery contains numerous tips and wrinkles for nineteenth century domestic challenges and household management, such as how 'To cement broken China', 'To take stains of any kind out of Linen' or 'To prevent the creaking of a Door'. There's even instructions on how to make a 'Fine Blacking for Shoes', something that Sir Seymour Dinniscombe, a character in my latest Regency romance Ice Angel, would appreciate! Here's a 'receipt' for lip salve for chopped (chapped) lips...

Put a quarter of an ounce of benjamin, storax, and spermaceti, two penny-worth of alkanet root, a large juicy apple chopped, a bunch of black grapes bruised, a quarter of a pound of unsalted butter, and two ounces of bees-wax, into a new tin saucepan. Simmer gently till the wax, &c. are dissolved, and then strain it through a linen. When cold melt it again, and pour it into small pots or boxes.

The endpaper from the Persephone edition of A New System of Domestic Cookery -
a block printed cotton in Lapis style 1808-15
, Victoria and Albert Museum

A New System of Domestic Cookery by Mrs. Rundell, published by Persephone Books 2009. ISBN 9781903155745

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Secret History of Georgian London

Carrying on from the theme of my last blogpost on the darker side of London, my copy of The Secret History of Georgian London arrived this week. As always, Dan Cruickshank's latest is a riveting read. The full title is The Secret History of Georgian London - how the wages of sin shaped the capital, which gives a better clue to the bit of Georgian London history this book concentrates on (and don't you just love the cover...Cupid Unfastening the Girdle of Venus by Sir Joshua Reynolds, viewed through an elegant keyhole? ;0) ) Frances Wilson's review in The Times describes it as 'a colossal melting pot of a book: ambitious, rigorously researched, vigorously narrated and marvellously illustrated.' I agree completely.

Georgian London evokes images of elegance and fine art, but it was also a city where prostitution was rife and many thousands of inhabitants were dependant in some way or other on the wages of sin. Cruickshank argues that the wages of sin came to affect almost every aspect of life and culture in the capital. The money generated was ploughed back into the wider economy. It shaped the buildings, impacted on the arts and aroused a variety of attitudes in contempories such as Sir Francis Dashwood and Samuel Johnson.

The 'Winners & Losers' chapter concentrates on the individual stories of two women. Sally Salisbury and Lavinia Weston were both from humble origins and both became prostitutes, but afterwards their lives took very different paths.

Renown for her beauty and wit, Sally achieved financial and social success, becoming a noted celebrity with a string of rich and powerful gallants. She also spent time in Marshalsea and Bridewell prisons for minor offences and debt. In 1713, she was sent to Newgate but was released by the judge who was infatuated with her. However, Sally's hedonistic lifestyle caught up with her. In a drug or drink induced rage, she stabbed her lover, John Finch, second son of the Duchess of Winchelsea. He was gravely ill for a time but eventually recovered and forgave her. Sally was found guilty of stabbing and wounding Finch, but aquitted of attempted murder. She was fined and sentenced to a year's imprisonment. After serving nine months in Newgate, she died of 'brain fever brought on by debauch'. Sally's short life and sad end was, unfortunately, the more likely outcome for women involved in prostitution than the extraordinary rags-to-riches tale of Lavinia Fenton.

Lavinia Fenton became an actress in 1726. She was successful, but when she appeared as Polly Peachum in Gay's The Beggar's Opera, she became the toast of London. On the opening night and on many subsequent nights, Lavinia was ogled from a box by Charles Paulet, 3rd Duke of Bolton. Although already (unhappily) married and older than Lavinia, he was besotted with her and, eventually, Lavinia gave up the theatre and ran away to France with the Duke. It appears to have been a happy and devoted relationship. The couple were together for twenty years and she bore him three illegitimate sons, Charles, Percy and Horatio Armand. The Duke even purchased the theatre box he had watched Lavinia from and had it installed in his local church as the family pew. On the death of the Duke's wife in 1751, the couple married and Lavinia became a Duchess. The Duke died in 1754; Lavinia survived him by six years. She is buried in Greenwich.

William Hogarth's painting A Scene from the Beggar's Opera depicts Lavinia in the role of Polly Peachum, pleading for the life of Captain Macheath the highwayman. Her gaze, though, is focused on her smitten, real-life lover the Duke of Bolton, who can be seen on the far right in the audience.

A highly recommended read, Dan Cruickshank's The Secret History of Georgian London was published by Random House on 1st October.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice

In the early part of the 19th century, London was a thriving city, an important centre of trade and commerce with magnificent shops and houses, fine squares, streets and thoroughfares. But the city’s size and rapid expansion encouraged the growth of crime until it reached epidemic proportions and alongside (usually within a stone’s throw) of these prosperous areas flourished far seedier districts. Narrow alleys, streets and courts formed evil smelling, densely populated, labyrinthine slums known as rookeries. The term rookery probably evolved from the slang verb ‘to rook’, meaning to cheat or steal, associated with the supposedly thieving nature of the rook bird.

Any visitors to London who took a wrong turn into the rookeries found themselves in a lawless place where every conceivable vice and crime was committed among the gin dens, bawdy houses, brothels and filthy, overcrowded housing. A popular legend claimed that a traveller had entered Portugal Street on his way to the Strand and had never emerged, his ghost still searching for a way back to civilisation.

The areas of Covent Garden and St. Giles’ were generally known as the most dangerous and depraved in the country, if not in Europe. St. Giles’ Rookery, nicknamed the Holy Land or Rats’ Castle, was the most notorious of all. It centred on Seven Dials and comprised the area between Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street, which was even then a fashionable shopping area.

Few people would venture into the Rats’ Castle. Physicians and surgeons would not go in for fear of catching some disease or being set upon. One who did, William Blair, gave this description:

‘human beings, hogs, and dogs, were associated in the same habitations; and great heaps of dirt, in different quarters, may be found piled up in the streets. Another reason of their ill health is this, that some of the lower inhabitations have neither windows nor chimneys nor floors, and were so dark that I can scarcely see there at midday without a candle. I have actually gone into a ground floor bedroom, and could not find my patient without the light of a candle.’ - Parliamentary papers 1816, vol IV

Rookery inhabitants had their own peculiar cant language too, called St. Giles’ Greek, which produced words such as diver (a pickpocket), hearing cheats (ears), smelt (half guinea) and topping cheat (the gallows).

In 1850, the novelist Charles Dickens was given a guided tour of several rookeries by Inspector Field of Scotland Yard. Dickens, Field, an Assistant Commissioner and three lower ranks (who were probably armed) made their way into the Rat's Castle, backed by a squad of local police. The excursion started in the evening and lasted until dawn. They went through St. Giles, the Old Mint, and along the Ratcliffe Highway and Petticoat Lane and Dickens used the information in his writing, notably Oliver Twist, where Fagin’s den is set in the Rookery at Jacob’s Island.

Although the Select Committee reports of 1836 and 1838 on Metropolis Improvments instigated change by proposing demolition of the slums, building wider streets (such as New Oxford Street) and improving lighting, for a time this merely moved the problem on. 5,000 people were said to be evicted from the Rookery in the mid 1840s, but the population of nearby Church Lane became desperately overcrowded. Others went further afield to Field Lane and Saffron Hill, only to be moved on again in due course as change progressed. Charles Dickens himself commented 'thus we make our New Oxford Streets, and our other new streets, never heeding, never asking, where the wretches when we clear out, crowd.'

The rookeries did not finally disappear until the end of the 19th century.


Flash houses were the colloquial names for pubs frequented by criminals. A combination of brothels, drinking places and centres for criminal intelligence, some were kept exclusively for young boys and girls. They were described at ‘hot beds of profligacy and vice’ and usually situated in the rookeries described above. Some, like The Finish in Covent Garden, were under the nose of Bow Street.

Most magistrates and officers of the law did not want to interfere with the flash houses. It was generally thought better to turn a blind eye to rowdy behaviour than to persecute the poor, but there was another reason for this attitude. It was said that the flash houses were at the centre of policing - remove them and law officers would be deprived of the means of detecting crime. Officers drank in the same flash houses as notorious thieves, and listened to their conversation – how else, it was argued, would they know what was happening?

At one time, law officers would have been treated badly had they entered flash houses, but by the time of the 1816 Select Committee report on the Police of the Metropolis, they mixed freely with the criminals. John Vickery, a Bow Street Officer, reported ‘I am always treated with great civility.’ This civility concealed more sinister happenings. Many officers were lazy, many were also corrupt. The Select Committee heard from several witnesses about ‘hush money’ and underworld bribes, while others warned that they did not want their names known in case of reprisals. An anonymous witness, known only as A.L., supplied the Committee with a list of flash houses known to the police, and gave detailed notes on receivers of stolen goods.

The Select Committee’s chairman, Henry Grey Bennet, reported:

'There are above two hundred regular flash houses in the metropolis, all known to the police officers, which they frequent, many of them, open all night: that the landlords in numerous instances receive stolen goods, and are what are technically called fences; that this fact is known also to the officers, who, for obvious reasons, connive at the existence of these houses; that many of the houses are frequented by boys and girls of the ages of ten to fourteen and fifteen, who are exclusively admitted, who pass the night in gambling & debauchery, and who there sell and divide the plunder of the day, or who sally forth from these houses to rob in the street.’

Many flash houses owners were indeed receivers, or fences. So were pawnbrokers, and coffee shop and lodging house keepers, and second hand clothes dealers. In Field Lane, Holborn, in the rookery bordered by Saffron Hill, Chick Lane and Field Lane, it was claimed that 4,000-5,000 stolen silk handkerchiefs were handled every week. The fences combined receiving stolen goods with training the child thieves who stole them, exploiting and holding complete control over their young charges. The committee heard of the example of Mrs Jennings of Red Lion Market, White Cross Street:

'This is a most notorious Fence & keeps a house of ill fame. She has secret Rooms by Doors out of Cupboards where she plants or secretes the property she buys till she has got it disposed of. Innumerable Girls & Boys of the Youngest class report to this House as she makes up more Beds & the House is thronged every night. She sanctions Robberies in her House which are continually committed by the Girls on Strangers whom they can inveigle into the House and whom the Girls will bilk into the bargain, as their Flash Boys never permit a connection under such circumstances.’

Henry Grey Bennet was convinced that something must be done about flash houses. They were a cause of far more crime than they prevented, despite the arguments of some officers and witnesses, and corrupted youth; they were academies of vice.

Grey Bennet did not immediately succeed in closing down the flash houses – it would be 1820 before real reform began – but he and the Select Committee did start the ball rolling by placing before Parliament an astonishing body of evidence which led eventually to change. To find out more about the underworld of 19th century London, follow the links on my website for some recommended further reading.

Flash houses, fences, silk handkerchiefs and Henry Grey Bennet get a mention in my latest Regency romance novel Ice Angel. It's currently available from Amazon, The Book Depository, Robert Hale, or your local library by quoting the ISBN number 9780709087847.