What would you think about, if someone asked you to describe 18th century? Rococo, enormous skirts and elaborate etiquette; satin and Chippendale; literary salons and Enlightenment. And all these things, of course, would be true and relevant. But they are only one part of the story – we can even say, a relatively small part. Tonight, I would like to show you a different part of Georgian London – the one, that glorious paintings in the National Gallery wouldn’t depict.
Have no fear, though: I will not drag you into any really dark stories – although this imperial capital has them in abundance. On the contrary, our subject tonight would be cheerful and light-hearted – namely, entertainment. How did people in Georgian London entertain themselves? Where would they go to have fun? Surely, nobility had their balls and concerts; but what about people like you and me, who would look for something to do on Sunday afternoon without breaking their bank? (Remember, Sunday in the Georgian era is the only weekend; although, if your employer is lenient, on Saturday he might let you go home earlier).
Bull-baiting, dog-baiting and other blood sports remained popular as ever. On the other hand, bear-baiting – this indisputable hit of Elizabethan times – had died out; not because of the rising humanism in society, as some might think, but because wars with the Continent stopped the supply of bears.
Cock-fighting, at the same time, was dazzlingly popular – some public houses even constructed their own purpose-built cock-pits. Heady atmosphere during these battles, exhilarating risk of betting and an allure of easy win attracted many people. Careful class segregation had to wait until Victorian era – for now, elegantly dressed nobles in their satin coats jostled for a better view with poor apprentices of both sexes. You had to be careful, though: according to the rules, “Should any man make a wager and lose, but not pay his dues and make another wager, he shall be put in a basket and hung up to the eaves of the main, where all men shall see him, and there shall remain till the end of the session, when he shall be cut down and banished from the main”.
Should you seek a more conventional pastime, you could watch a football match. But I must warn you, that Georgian version of football was much rougher, than its modern equivalent. Some of participants ended up with broken legs, as all players were wearing thick shoes armed with iron. Black eyes, along with bruised arms, were almost a part of job description. But the reward for victors could sweeten the lot and salve the wounds: according to the memories of William Hutton, the best players were treated like celebrities. “I have seen this coarse sport carried to the barbarous height of an election contest; nay, I have known a football hero chaired through the streets like a successful member [of parliament], although his utmost elevation of character was no more than that of a butcher’s apprentice”. It’s almost soothing to know, that nothing had changed in that regard.
The fields near Marylebone – how strange does it sound now! – were a favourite place for ‘bruising matches’ (bare-knuckle boxing). In our day and age, women’s boxing is often treated as a very recent invention and a sign of the World Gone Mad (with a frequent mention of Those Wacky Feminists, who had ruined it all). Well, I hate to break it (I don’t), but inhabitants of Georgian London would’ve been very surprised to hear it. Especially those, who used to go and watch legendary “Bruising Peg”. A darling of London boxing scene, she was famous for “beating her antagonist in a terrible manner”.
Not all pleasures and spectacles of Georgian London were so violent, of course. Even during bitter, dark winters people used to set up marvellous fairs on the frozen Thames. It’s hard for us now to imagine it covered with ice so thick you could safely walk on it. But this was a reality for centuries – in fact, the first frost fairs were recorded during Elizabethan times. Back then, a printing press would be pushed on the ice to test it. If the ice held, souvenir cards were printed off and sold as a memento of the occasion. I would’ve gladly read about the occasions, when the ice didn’t hold, and some unlucky souls would have to rescue valuable printing press from Thames water – but then, history rarely records defeats.
On this thick ice, booths were erected and puppet-shows set up; wine and hot gingerbread were sold under a helpful sign “No Shop Tax nor Window Duty”. Travelling shows and wild beasts were drawn to this glittering frost kingdom from all adjacent villages. On such days, Thames became positively crowded. Even the legendary London watermen didn’t lose out (much), when their trade was suspended. They simply broke the ice close to the shore, constructed bridges with toll-bars and made every passenger to pay a halfpenny for crossing them.
Unfortunately, nowadays you wouldn’t find Frost Fairs in London even during the coldest of winters. In 1831, the old London Bridge was removed, and it improved the flow of the river greatly. Like many other developments of the new age, this act obliterated one of the features of all London forever. The Frost Fairs went out with a bang, however – during the last one, held in 1814, an elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. And, beneath the Southwark Bridge, you can still see intricate engravings, depicting scenes from the Frost Fairs of old. They are accompanied by a poem, based on typical handbills, that were circulated among the public during each fair:
“Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num’d with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done!”.
Booths, where you can spend your Pence & Groats on hot drinks and gingerbread, are far from being extinct, though. Should you visit London in November or December, the city will be awash with glittering Christmas fairs – from fabulous Southbank Centre Christmas Market to smaller-scale, cosy events in Islington.
If you are fond of a good debate over a good dinner, then another legacy of the Georgian era might be more to your taste. When people recall the “famous clubs” of that age, they usually refer to the gentlemen’s clubs, that still dot Pall Mall. Gilded haunts of MPs, diplomats and famous writers, they grew in the Georgian era, blossomed in Victorian and continue functioning to this day (and still remain off-limits to both you and me). But they were only a part of much greater picture. Due to many factors – growth of newspaper industry, improved post service, prosperous book trade – the 18th century saw literacy rate skyrocketing. People were reading more, and wished to discuss, what they’ve read – whether this was a literary bestseller or some fresh news. For example, there was a well-known debating club, beloved by of tradesmen and workmen, aptly named Robin Hood. Members had to pay only 6d for a seat and a pint of beer, and could speak about any topic they were interested in, including religion and politics. However, each member could speak only for five minutes at a time. I am not sure, whether any debating club nowadays follows this useful rule. But you can check: there’re plenty of vibrant intellectual “meetups” in London, concerning themselves with everything from art house cinema to business ideas.
The panorama of Georgian London is vast, and I am glad, if I can give you a snapshot of it. Next time with visit it, I am going to take you to a charming 18th century village, which is not a village anymore (but still charming), show you an early equivalent of cinema and lead you into some celebrated bookstores of an age gone by.
Thank you for bearing with me!
Georgian London: Into the Streets, Lucy Inglis
Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How our ancestors lived two centuries ago, Roy & Lesley Adkins
Dr Johnson’s London: Everyday Life in London in the Mid 18th Century, Liza Picard.