Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sex, Swearing and Humour in the Regency Period

By Caroline Miley

History is full of facts, but Catherine Morland is probably not the only reader who sometimes found them a little trying: “I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page.”(1) Facts are, of course, of primary importance. But it's one thing to discover, for instance, that the Duke of Wellington's birthday was May Day, and quite another to know how it would have been celebrated - and the way life was lived is often far more interesting, but harder to discover, than reigns and dates and public events.

Thomas Rowlandson ‘Soldiers on a March’ 1808

Fortunately, in the late Georgian era there's a mass of contemporary material, ranging from newspapers, letters, diaries, memoirs and military dispatches to essays and novels. Not only are these full of useful information, they show clearly how people used to write and express themselves.

There's an idea that the Regency was full of people saying 'Demme, m'Lud, I do protest..' and so on, but a glance at Jane Austen's prose shows that ordinary people didn't speak like that at all. One of the things evident in reading a wide range of contemporary material is that educated people often used two quite different modes of expression, depending on what they were writing. There's the everyday, which is plain and unadorned. Clear, elegant prose was what the Georgians aimed for. Military dispatches, for instance, are models of concise statement. Here is the Duke of Wellington (in recorded speech): “All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don't know by what you do; that's what I called 'guessing what was at the other side of the hill’.”(2) So too with letters, including those Jane Austen gives in her novels. But when describing scenery in memoirs, writers sometimes break into a special 'literary' form: 'When we attained the crest of the hill, what a vale of Elysian delight opened before us! Fair Venus herself would not disdain to dwell in the exquisite groves...' and so on. But they didn't talk like that. It was a poetic mode considered suitable for literature.

The real problem for anyone wishing to learn not only the facts but the feeling of an era, is the vast amount of material that never appears in print. At the forefront of this is sex and swearing. Neither subject is ever mentioned, although there must have been a great deal of both. We can know quite a lot about sex at the time, but less of how people talked about it, and therefore what they thought. It was not a subject for polite conversation, so remained hidden. Fielding’s novels (Tom Jones, The History of Moll Flanders) and contemporary plays show that, as might be expected, people were keen on sex and thought about it a lot. There are hints about sexual desire under the text of Austen’s novels and letters – Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, and other seductions, must have been motivated by libido, and there are occasional comments that ‘I could not like him in that way’. It is noteworthy that the Georgians were a great deal less squeamish about sex than the later Victorians. The fact of Colonel Brandon’s having an illegitimate daughter, for instance, doesn’t make him an unsuitable husband for Marianne. But when it comes to details of what people did and how they did it, if it were not for Fanny Hill (3) and Rowlandson's numerous, often very graphic erotic drawings, I don't know how we'd get on at all. As it is, these two sources provide almost too much information!

Swearing also doesn't appear in print, except the occasional genteel 'by G- sir!' Naval and military reminiscences give a few more clues - one of my favourites being the officer who recalled that he had been several days as a midshipman on his first ship before discovering that 'Damn your eyes!' was not a form of greeting. But I think it is safe to assume that there was a great deal of swearing among men and the lower classes of women, and that it centred, then pretty much as now, around the common ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sexual words in use today and blasphemy. In sharp contrast to today, though, a gentleman certainly did not swear in the presence of a lady.

Which brings me to the final category: humour. I've not been able to find any joke books of the period, but irony and satire there were in plenty, and I have to assume that broad fall-on-your-face humour was as likely to raise a laugh then as now. Again, the multitude of lampoons and caricatures of the period give us the best clues to this category. Thomas Rowlandson’s ‘The Stare Case’ depicts a crowd on the notoriously narrow staircase of the Royal Academy at Exhibition time. Plump ladies are tumbling down, their skirts hiked up to show their rounded bottoms (no underwear in those days), while some dirty old men (and the sculptor Nollekens) ogle them from the foot of the stairs. A similar idea animates his sketch of ‘The Line of Beauty (a concept in art), in which some Royal Academicians (4) have positioned themselves strategically to take in the more intimate charms of the nude model reclining before them.

Thomas Rowlandson  ‘R.A.s of Genius Reflecting on the True Line
 of Beauty, at the Life Academy Somerset House June 1, 1824’ 

There is a great deal of pictorial humour along those lines, as well as poking fun at stereotypes, such as fat greedy men shoving food into their faces and elegant dandies tight-lacing their corsets and padding their skinny hips. One of my favourites, ‘On the March’ which typically combines information with comedy, shows a line of soldiers and camp followers crossing a stream. All are burdened with various things; one man bears his wife on his back; a frolicking dog (a Rowlandson trademark) holds a bundle in his mouth, and at the rear a sturdy wife carries her officer husband, too refined to get his feet wet, on her back.

Thomas Rowlandson ‘The Stare Case’ 1811

But lampoons are not the place to find the more subtle wit that really characterised the age.  Here is Austen at her best, in her letters, where she spoke less guardedly than in her published works: “I do not want People to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”(5) And for a feast of raillery, as it was called, it’s hard to go past Sheridan, the noted wit and satirist, who thought that “There's no possibility of being witty without a little ill-nature”(6). His plays are full of comedy, and he must have been a formidable opponent as an MP. To understand late Georgian humour, you can do a lot worse than to read contemporary plays. The wit is often surprisingly modern, my favourite being this riposte by Goldsmith’s Tony Lumpkin, when his mother suggests that he doesn’t want to disappoint his friends waiting at the tavern: “As for disappointing them, I should not so much mind; but I can't abide to disappoint myself.”(7)

These are not the great affairs of State (or affairs of Statesmen) that are the staple of so much history. But if we want to get inside the lives of ordinary people and find out what they thought and how they lived, then nothing is more important than humour, sex and swearing.

(1) Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, London, 1817, Chapter 14
(2) Quoted in The Croker Papers: The Correspondence and Diaries of the Late Right Honourable John Wilson Croker, LL.D F.R.S, Secretary of the Admiralty from 1809 to 1830 (1884), edited by Louis J. Jennings, Vol. III, p. 276.
(3) Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, London 1748.
(4) Plate 32 from Charles Molloy Westmacott's "English Spy" 1824. Each artist's easel is initialled for identification: B.R.H. for Benjamin Robert Haydon, M.A. Shee for Martin Archer Shee, T.L for Sir Thomas Lawrence, B.W. for Benjamin West, R.W. for Richard Westmacott, J.J. for John Jackson, J.F. for Joseph Farington, and F.C. for Francis Chantrey (courtesy Met Museum).
(5) Letter to her sister Cassandra, December 24, 1798.
(6) The School for Scandal, Act 1, Scene 1.
(7) She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith, 1773, Act 1 Scene 1.


Caroline Miley is an art historian and author of literary historical novels set in the late Georgian era. Her debut novel, The Competition, won a Varuna Fellowship and a Fellowship of Australian Writers award, and was selected by the Royal Academy of Arts for its 250th Anniversary celebrations. Her latest novel, Artist on Campaign, was inspired by wondering what would happen if a rake of an artist was obliged to put up with the British Army, and vice versa.
Her interests are art, both as a practitioner and a viewer, books, films, history, travel and gardens.

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Monday, October 28, 2019

Stuart London - A Time and Place for Discovery

By Michael Ward

Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I’m often attracted to historical research that produces surprises.

Discovering that Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, had a deep interest in alchemy certainly raised an eyebrow. As did finding out that people used to believe swallows hibernated in mud, rather than migrated, over winter.

But why wouldn’t they? The idea that such a small bird could fly as far as southern Africa would have seemed far-fetched indeed to someone in the 1600s, assuming they had any notion where southern Africa was.

Over time I’ve come to realise that my research ‘revelations’ have said more about me and my 21st century assumptions, than the people of the period I was studying.

Nowhere has this been truer than my examination of England in the mid 17th century. Of course I knew about the civil war, Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the Great Fire but I still expected to learn much on my voyage of discovery. However, I had no inkling of just how many ‘oh really?’ moments I would encounter along the way, such as burrowing birds and Newton’s alchemy.

My first surprise was that so much change was compressed into such a short period. In just over 25 years, the country experienced civil war, regicide, a republic, and a restoration of the monarchy.

Any one of these would have produced sufficient shock waves to reverberate for a decade. But to have experienced each in rapid succession, followed by 1666, a hellish year of fire and plague, meant that, for Londoners in particular, it must have been both a formative and terrifying time to be alive.

Consider experiencing the politically divisive furore of five or six consecutive Brexits between now and 2040 plus a conflict that accounted for proportionally more of the country’s population than World War One, followed by a pandemic that wiped out a quarter of the people in London and a blaze that consumed much of city. Then take away the ability to know what was happening and why, and you begin to get an inkling.

As my research continued, I realised this period also witnessed fundamental changes in science, medicine and commerce, as well as politics and religion. Beliefs firmly held for centuries were now being challenged, almost on a daily basis, by a constant stream of newly discovered, empirically driven knowledge, forced to the surface by an unquenchable spirit of enquiry.

Public Domain image of the type of printing presses
which would help transform 17th-century England

There was a swathe of new thinking. I’ve already mentioned Newton, the ‘father of modern physics’. Historians have enjoyed using such titles, with many paternity suits still argued on behalf of the sciences in particular. Nevertheless, the 17th century had more than its fair share of claimants: Galileo –the father of modern science (according to Einstein, no less), Francis Bacon - scientific method, Francesco Redi – experimental biology, Robert Boyle – modern chemistry, Marcello Malpigi – microscopic anatomy, and so on, leaving supporters of Rene Descartes and Pierre de Fermat to fight over analytical geometry.

My third realisation was that the key players of this period did not always behave to type. Several of the grandest lords in the kingdom, such as Essex and Warwick, were early and powerful advocates of the Parliamentary cause, as were a number of leading merchants, including some within the more conservative Merchant Adventurers. Equally, kings were seen as guardians of the status quo yet radical thinkers in science and medicine benefitted from their patronage.

William Harvey is a case in point. At the start of the 17th century, the views of Galen, a Greek physician born in 210 AD, still dominated medical practice throughout Europe, and his anatomical theories, including the body’s circulatory system, were largely uncontested. In 1628, William Harvey published ‘De Motu Cordis’ demonstrating that people had a single blood system which circulated continuously throughout their bodies. This flatly contradicted the accepted Galean doctrine that organs consumed blood which had to be replenished by either the liver of the heart, and each had their own circulatory networks.

William Harvey, demonstrating his theory of circulation
of Wellcome. Click HERE for image attribution

Harvey expected a storm of opposition and he wasn’t disappointed. Yet it only took 30 years for his ideas to become more widely accepted, and Galen’s 1,400 year grip on medicine to be broken, such was the iconoclastic spirit of the age.

Yet it was King James I who supported Harvey’s research by allowing him to join his court when hunting game, so that Harvey could dissect fallen animals immediately, in situ, and observe their blood flow. (However, James’ son Charles 1 later extracted a favour in return, requiring the eminent physician to dodge the musket fire at the Battle of Edgehill where, as the King’s ‘Physician in Ordinary’, he is said to have looked after the two royal princes while tending the wounded.)

As I delved deeper into the plethora of 17th century discoveries and developments, I began to notice a form of symbiotic relationship between some, despite being in different fields. I would often pull at, then follow, a thread of research in, say, scientific advances, only to discover its impact on something completely different, such as religious belief. In the 17th century, it seems one new way of interpreting the universe often led to another.

So, from Galileo onwards, many of the advances in astrology were driven by the fervent search for improved navigational tools by the expanding merchant sector. Improvements in printing technology led to a proliferation of unlicensed printing presses in London which came to have a major impact on political discourse and the spread of radical ideas, before and during the civil war. Again it is notable how quickly this development was understood and seized upon, this time by political activists including the King’s supporters, in this age of experimentation.

Another example can be found in the dramatic population shifts of this period. In just 15 years, from the late 1620s to the early 1640s, some 80,000 people sailed from England’s shores, with up to 60,000 of them crossing the Atlantic, an enormous figure for that time. A significant number of these were Puritans, wishing to found a New World where they could practise their religion freely.

Puritans left England in large numbers to set up colonies in the New World to practise their religion.
This Public Domain image shows Puritans burning a book they deemed to be heretical in Massachusetts Bay. 

One would expect such a rapid depopulation to have a concentrated impact in London, by far England’s largest city, especially when combined with its high mortality rate. Yet simultaneous advances in commerce meant that London’s growth did not stall. It actually increased, the rising economy driven in no small part by the expansion of merchant trade to all points of the globe including the Caribbean and the Americas. Each week hundreds would arrive from the surrounding counties, eager to share in the city’s new found wealth.

This more than compensated for the mass emigration partly fuelled by religious change. However, many of the new arrivals soon discovered the streets of London to be paved with something far less pleasant than gold. The city’s existing housing stock and barely rudimentary sanitation were overwhelmed by the needs of newcomers and much of London descended into a disease-ridden squalor.

This, of course, added more fuel to the political unrest, and so interlocking cycles of change and challenge continued to drive the English 17th century into the uncharted depths of civil strife, setting brother against brother and father against son.

Further reading

Adamson, J. (2009). The Nobel Revolt. London. Phoenix.

Brenner, R. (2003). Merchants and Revolution. London. Verso.

Evans, J. (2018). Emigrants. London. Orion.

Rees, J. (2016). The Leveller Revolution. London. Verso.


Michael Ward is a former BBC journalist and academic. His debut novel “Rags of Time” is set in 1639, with England sliding into civil war. Spice trader Thomas Tallant returns from India to find the overcrowded streets of London seething with sedition. Soon he is sucked into the city’s turbulence, accused of murder.

The book follows his desperate attempts to find the real killer and clear his name, helped by the enigmatic Elizabeth Seymour, astrologer and mathematician whose thirst for knowledge is only matched by her addiction to tobacco and the gaming tables. Can Elizabeth untangle the web of deceit threatening to pull Tom under?

Early reviews of ‘Rags of Time’ have described it as “a wonderful debut” with an “outstanding story”, noting that “…the author has clearly done all the hard work by researching the period and manages to impart that knowledge without any big information dumps.”

The sequel is now under development.

Connect with Michael: Amazon page Rags of Time

Amazon US 

GoodReads book page

Author’s email:

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, October 27, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Contributors to English Historical Fiction Authors bring us posts that delve into various aspects of British history. Enjoy these fascinating stories, and never miss a post on EFHA when you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or via email.

by Lauren Gilbert

by Judith Taylor

Friday, October 25, 2019

Eleanor Sleath: Gothic Heroine?

By Lauren Gilbert

With Hallowe’en fast approaching, it’s appropriate to look at scary subjects. Gothic novels were extremely popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although some were written by men, many of the most popular of these novels were written by women. Jane Austen wrote NORTHANGER ABBEY which satirizes these novels and their readers. In volume I, chapter 6 of NORTHANGER ABBEY, Isabella Thorpe gives the heroine Catherine Morland a list of these novels, now known as the “Horrid Novels”: CASTLE OF WOLFENBACH, CLERMONT, MYSTERIOUS WARNINGS, NECROMANCER OF THE BLACK FOREST, MIDNIGHT BELL, ORPHAN OF THE RHINE and HORRID MYSTERIES. THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE was written by Eleanor Sleath, who achieved a certain level of popularity at the time but is fairly obscure now. For some time, little was known about her, but that has changed. Available data appears to indicate that Mrs. Sleath suffered as many tragic losses, trials and tribulations as any heroine in a novel.
Title Page from the First Edition of Jane Austen's

Eleanor Carter was born the youngest of five children to Thomas Carter, an attorney, and his wife Elisabeth Cousins Carter. Her date of birth is unknown, but she was baptized October 15, 1770 at All Saints Church, Loughborough, Leicester, England. Her father died in 1773. Little is known about her family except that they seem to live comfortably on income generated by properties owned by the family. Eleanor’s writings indicate that she was well educated. In September of 1792, she married Joseph Barnabus Sleath, a surgeon and apothecary with connections to the militia in Calverton, Buckinghamshire. Joseph’s birth date is unknown but it appears he was about 4 years older than she. Not long after their marriage, the couple had a son, whom they named for his father. All circumstances point to the expectation of a happy family life. Sadly, the child died in September of 1794. Shortly thereafter, Eleanor’s husband also died at the age of 28, leaving her extremely in debt. She returned to her family home in November of 1794 to care of her mother. With the help of her family, particularly her brother John Edward, her debts were paid off between 1794-1795. Eleanor experienced ill health during this time as well.

Sometime in the late 1790’s, Eleanor began to write for publication. It is unknown if she wrote for personal satisfaction or from a desire to generate her own income. Her first book was the afore-mentioned THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE, which was published in 1798 by the Minerva Press. The reviews were rather lacklustre, citing the influence of Ann Radcliffe so apparent in her story. Subsequently there was also speculation that Eleanor had a pro-Catholic bias (if she wasn’t actually a Catholic). However the novel became quite popular. During this time, Eleanor and her family developed strong friendships with an intellectual circle that included Susanna Watts, who wrote poetry, did translations, and wrote the first tourist guide for the city of Leicester. Other members of this circle included Reverend John Dudley and his wife Ann. Reverend Dudley was the vicar of Humberstone and Sileby.
Cover of the reprint edition of
THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE from Valancouort Books

In 1801, the family moved to Scraptoft Hall near Leicester. It was close enough that Eleanor was able to maintain her friendships, and she and her family mixed with local society. In 1802, Eleanor’s second novel, WHO’S THE MURDERER?, was published, also with Minerva Press. Over the next few years, Eleanor visited and was visited by her circle of friends, and they even travelled together. As members of the same circle, Reverend Dudley and Eleanor became friendly and wrote together. Things rather came to a head when, in 1807, Eleanor’s sister-in-law (her brother John’s wife) made a sarcastic remark in company about Eleanor’s friendship with Reverend Dudley. This ignited a scandal that resulted in Mrs. Dudley becoming jealous and hostile to Eleanor, and the previously close circle of friends taking sides.

A period of great upheaval ensued, with several results. Reverend Dudley and his wife began living separately. Eleanor, in the meantime, wrote and published 3 more books: THE BRISTOL HEIRESS, or The Errors of Education, published in 1809; THE NOCTURNAL MINSTREL, or The Spirit of the Woods, published in 1810 (and was considered by some to be her best work); and THE PYRENEAN BANDITTI, published in 1811, all with Minerva Press. In 1813, Eleanor’s brother John died. Their mother died 6 months later. As sad as these deaths were, Eleanor did inherit sufficient means to support herself. Although her whereabouts are unknown through much of the period 1814-1816, she wrote her 6th book, GLENOWEN, or The Fairy Palace A Tale, which was published in 1815 by John Harris and Black & Co. This book is different to her other novels. While still in the gothic vein, it was intended for children. It is known that she returned to Loughborough, where she bought a house in December 1816 and was able to live as a widow of independent means. There is no indication of her writing, or at least publishing, after GLENOWEN.

John Dudley and Eleanor continued to be friends throughout the years. Ann Dudley died in February 1823. John Dudley and Eleanor Sleath were married April 1st, 1823 in Loughborough. Eleanor was 52 years old. The couple settled in the rectory in Sileby, where she would have taken up her duties as the vicar’s wife. She died at home on May 5, 1847 of liver disease, after a period of ill health.

Sileby Parish Church taken by Kev747 April 14, 2006

Austen, Jane. THE OXFORD ILLUSTRATED JANE AUSTEN. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion Vol. 5. 3rd Edition. Northanger Abbey, Vol. 1, Chapter 6, P. 40. Oxford: Oxford University Press, reprinted 1988. NEW ELEANOR SLEATH BIOGRAPHY. “The Real Eleanor Sleath,” by Rebecca Czlapinski and Eric C. Wheeler. Posted May 8, 2011. HERE. Garside, Peter, and O’Brien, Karen, editors. THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE NOVEL IN ENGLISH Vol. II English and British Fiction, 1750-1820. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. HERE.

English Historical Fiction Authors. “Northanger Horrid Novels” Thoughts from Regina Jeffers. October 8, 2011. HERE. “The Nocturnal Minstrel” by Ian Taylor. February 2, 2012. HERE.


Title page from the 1st edition of NORTHANGER ABBEY and PERSUASION from Wikimedia Commons HERE. Public domain.

THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE cover from Valancourt Books HERE.

Sileby Parish Church, Attribution: Kev747 at en.wikipedia GNU Free Documentation License. See HERE.

Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life.  Lauren has a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History.  A long time member of JASNA, she has presented various programs at meetings of the South Florida region, and presented a breakout session at the Annual General Meeting in 2011.  She lives in Florida with her husband.  Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is available.  A second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is finally due out later this year.  A long-time contributor to this blog, some of her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also researching material for a biography.  For more information, visit her website at HERE.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

More about the Crystal Palace

By Judith Taylor

Following on from her post about the creation of the Crystal Palace, Judith picks up the story again:

It is hardly surprising that an event like the Great Exhibition and a building of such magnitude and glamour as the Crystal Palace would linger in one’s mind, “agitating the little grey cells”. There is still a great deal to be learned about it and even with intense application one would only scratch the surface. There is the prosaic matter of how the exhibition was paid for and the steps taken after it closed. With all the effort put into getting show ready it is hard to believe the exhibition only lasted for six months from May to October 1851. Queen Victoria took her family to see it three times. We need to put aside the seductive charms of ancient greenhouses and cast iron and think about drier things.

To refresh everyone’ memory, some visionary senior officials wanted to create a great exhibition of the world’s arts and manufactories to celebrate Britain’s imperial dominance. Prince Albert is usually considered to be the prime mover but he was always very wary of butting into potential political minefields. His enthusiastic scientific friends and colleagues planned to open the show on May 1, 1851.

The timing was not coincidental. Think about it. The date was precisely half way through the century. Then there were the recent troubles in Europe. In 1848 the Continent had seen major radical uprisings with the Communes in Paris, Berlin, Brussels and Budapest. England watched its citizens very carefully and probably breathed a big sigh of relief when very little happened there. The worst that  occurred was the movements of the Chartists.

One way the English authorities defused the situation was to offer the masses a few perks to distract them from their miserable conditions. The unprecedented creation of free public parks and the privilege of using formerly private parks was one of them.

The leading lights of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce began the process but when it did not move very quickly they managed to persuade their president, Prince Albert, to use his personal charm and get the government to set up a royal commission to turn the idea into reality. He had no statutory authority. The French had been holding similar exhibitions of their own products every year since 1798. Sir Henry Cole and the commissioners took their task very seriously, setting up an architectural competition for a building.

The Commissioners, 1851

The next big question was where to put it. London in the late 1840s was not built up the way it is now but even so, finding enough open land was a challenge. The established open spaces such as Hyde Park or Regent’s park had originally been closed royal property and had only recently become available to the larger public.

In the early 19th century London was still bounded to the west by Park Lane, Marylebone Road to the north, the South Bank of the Thames at Southwark and Bethnal Green and Spitalfields to the east. Technically, the City of London, with the great cathedral of St Paul’s which qualifies it for the title of city and being the seat of banking and finance, had its own ancient boundaries. Surrounding the capital were villages such as Hampstead and Kensington.  Westminster with Parliament and the Abbey was a separate city. The rest was open country, part of manorial land and parish titles. West of the park, William Kent had started the trend for commercial nurseries in places like Brompton.

Most of the land surrounding London was still owned by families such as the Harringtons, Alexanders and Lees. There were also smaller holdings. A massive increase in population led to the development of suburbs like St John’s Wood and Blackheath. London began to gobble up Middlesex and Surrey. There were one million people living in the city.

Railway Map of Central London, 1899

Speculative builders bought up as much land as they could and developed mainly two kinds of housing: large villas equipped with clean running water and plenty of space for a family with servants such as the Jekylls and much more modest terraced houses where the white collar employees of such family businesses could live.

Geography and architecture both helped to extend the separation of social classes, giving London its character. Upper class people lived in the West End or near it and really poor people in the East End. They had no running water. This is a huge oversimplification but handy for the moment.

In the end the commissioners chose Hyde Park for the exhibition but prudently set about buying the parcels of land they would need for the second phase of the plan. This land lay to the west and south. It was essentially Kensington, with parts of Chelsea and Westminster included.

The financing of the project held it up for a long time. This was why the prince had been so circumspect. He was concerned that he would be accused of wasting public funds for a pet project. When preparatory talks began in late 1849 the press was against the idea. The commissioners had very little choice but to attract private funding. They signed a contract for £20000 with Messrs. J. and G.  Munday, a large firm of public works contractors.

The press now changed its attitude. A project created by a royal commission could not be seen to rely on private funds. If it were successful the backers could make a lot of money out of a national event and that was thought to be unseemly. Leading bankers, traders and merchants in the City issued a resolution in January 1850 condemning the private contract with the Mundays and insisted it be voided. Funds from the Department of Works would cover the initial steps. This decision was eased by the fact that one of the commissioners was able to explain the concept of pay as you go with money coming in as well as going out.

They then took the whole idea a step further. Considering this was to be a national event it was decided to encourage as many groups as possible to contribute voluntarily, primarily organized by municipality. The City of Glasgow sent £2666, Bradford gave £1605 and Rochester £13. The City of London contributed £26632. This can be considered to be an early version of “crowd funding”.

Land obtained for the Museum Quarter

By now the prince was fully on board and showed his vision for the future. The Great Exhibition was just the first salvo in his mind. Once the exhibition ended they would move the building to another, permanent site. In 1852 the commission used the profits from the exhibition, more than £180 000, to buy the land on which to build permanent artistic and cultural institutions which thrive to this day. These were the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum and the Imperial College. The road which is the axis of their locations is Exhibition Road. This is the district now known as South Kensington but sometimes called “Albertopolis”.

Prince Albert died in 1861 and did not live to see the final results of his vision. Of all his descendants, only Prince Charles has shown similar interests.


Coleman, Eliza


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989.
Dr Taylor’s web site is:

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, October 20, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

David Fairer takes the spotlight in the EHFA round-up.  Enjoy this visit to 18th century London's coffee houses.

by David Fairer


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Coffee Houses of Queen Anne’s London

By David Fairer

By the turn of the eighteenth century the coffee houses of London had become the great meeting-places of the capital – for relaxation and for stimulation. Whether your drink of choice was coffee, chocolate, or expensive tea, it was here you met with your friends and encountered strangers; where you could exercise your wit, pick up the latest news, sound forth your political opinions, and hear the latest spicy gossip as it did the rounds. Some characters (like Medley in Etherege’s The Man of Mode) were news bulletins in themselves, circulating scandal as a currency – one that gained value in the telling – perhaps to crash by tomorrow.

Jacob Spon’s frontispiece to his tract on coffee, tea, and chocolate (Paris, 1685). The three contrasting figures reflect the far-flung origins of the drinks: Turkey (coffee), China (tea), and Spanish America (chocolate).

A French traveller found London’s coffee houses remarkable: “You have all manner of news there: you have a good fire, which you may sit by as long as you please; you have a dish of coffee; you meet your friends for the transaction of business – and all for a penny, if you don’t care to spend more.” (Henri Misson, 1717).

Coffee houses had their individual character, and this might change over the course of a day. Early in the morning the news-mongers circulated, spreading and exchanging the overnight intelligence; later, well-informed gentlemen might stroll in and put matters right; by afternoon the atmosphere was perhaps one of after-dinner reflection; then the place would ready itself for the arrival of the wits and the theatrical crowd primed for the adventures of the evening; and by nine the critics might reappear with their judgments on the new play at the Theatre Royal.

First established in London during the Commonwealth, after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the coffee houses seem to have gained a reputation for seditious conversation – places that might attract the disaffected. In December 1675 King Charles II issued a proclamation in the London Gazette to suppress all coffee houses as being the haunts of “Idle and disaffected persons” who were spreading “malicious and scandalous reports to the defamation of His Majesties Government . . . speaking evil of things they understand not.” From the following week it would be forbidden for anyone “to keep any publick Coffeehouse, or to utter or sell any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, or they will answer the contrary at their utmost Perils.” It was a Draconian move against an institution that was becoming popular, and needless to say, this attempt to end what was proving to be a profitable trade for merchants and proprietors alike, was doomed. After a huge outcry the threat was withdrawn.* (*

By the reign of Charles’s niece, Queen Anne (1702-14), the coffee houses – and their slightly more upmarket cousins the chocolate houses – could be numbered in their hundreds, and they had established themselves as relatively respectable places of resort. Of course, seditious sentiments might still be uttered, and quarrels over politics were liable to break out at any time. The following picture suggests what a lively and disputatious place a London coffee house of the period might be, with the bewigged clientele coming to blows:

‘The Coffee-House Mob, or, Debates Pro, and Con, on the Times’. Frontispiece to Ned Ward, The Fourth Part of Vulgus Britannicus: or, The British Hudibras (1710).

But coffee houses were generally clubbable places, resorts of conversation, grumbling, rumour, wit, scandal, and intellectual and political debate. There was something to suit every taste:

The gentle Beau too, joins in wise debate,
Adjusts his cravat, and reforms the State.
[The Tripe Club. A Satyr (1706)]

One establishment might offer conversations in Latin, another attract projectors and men of science, another one be the resort of members of the clergy in town on church business. But you had to be careful – a confirmed Whig would no sooner think of frequenting the high Tory Cocoa-Tree in Pall Mall, than a Jacobitical Tory would settle himself at Will’s in Covent Garden at the corner of Russell Street and Bow Street.

Each establishment had its own character, and there was all the variety you could wish for. White’s Chocolate House on St James’s Street was a more aristocratic haunt notorious for the ‘deep play’ of hazard, a dicing game at which huge fortunes were made or lost in a single evening, and when the shirt on your back could be the final desperate stake.

The social mix was considerable, but in one important way they were exclusive. Unlike the many taverns and alehouses of the capital, London coffee houses were closed to women. A fair number of them, however, were run by widows. Lillywhite’s compendium lists nineteen of them, including those presided over by Widow Turnbull, Widow Nixon, Widow Lloyd, and Widow Vernon – who in 1713 carried on her business in Fleet Street after the death of her husband. This situation was probably quite common – and it made a widow well set up in business an attractive marriage prospect.

We can see from the following illustration what an imposing figure the chatelaine of a coffee house would cut with her tall tiara and ample gown:

A London coffee house c. 1705

The coffee boy, dressed in his smart livery, was proud of his ability to pour out the coffee in an elegant way – like the young man in the above plate. The few pictures of coffee-boys all show them lifting the pot as high as they can manage and delivering an elegant stream of liquid into the earthenware bowl (china cups with handles had not yet established themselves).

On entering, the customer deposited his penny at the bar, and was expected to seat himself with the other gentlemen. You didn’t go into a coffee house to sit alone and keep your own company. And at these so-called ‘penny universities’, newspapers, books and pamphlets were available, and some of them had their own libraries. They could be venues for auctions, lottery ticket sales, with projectors making their pitch. Business could be transacted, especially in the flourishing coffee houses in Exchange Alley, off Cheapside in the City. The most famous of these were Jonathan‘s, Garraway’s, and Lloyds – which specialised in the latest shipping news. Entering Jonathan’s you would be met with a crowd of stock-jobbers crying their wares, and could hear the price of stocks rise and fall as the deals were made all round you. When the Royal Exchange was closed to share-dealing, the trade simply moved into the warren of streets on the other side of the road, packed with brokers, bankers, and the new trade of insurance.

In contrast to the busy financial dealings in Exchange Alley, at Will’s in Covent Garden the brightest and best in the literary world gathered. In this place where the great Dryden had once held court, aspiring writers formed a coterie in the company of Addison, Swift, Wycherley, Ambrose Philips, John Dennis, and John Gay. Here, as in other coffee houses which aspired to a literary character, a young man’s reputation could be made with a witty epigram or a finely turned pastoral. It was at Will’s that the teenage Alexander Pope made friends with Swift, and brought himself to the notice of influential patrons.

Such coffee-houses had libraries that lent out books, and on the tables, beside the newspapers, would be scattered controversial pamphlets, tedious sermons, or satirical squibs. An aspiring poet might tour the coffee houses and leave behind manuscript copies of his latest inspiration, hoping they would be noticed by the cultural influencers of the day. If he was especially lucky, his piece might find its way into The Tatler, the influential periodical begun by Richard Steele in 1709. This thrice-weekly paper offered regular reports from four carefully chosen coffee houses. As Steele explained in the first number, “All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment, shall be under the article of White’s Chocolate House; Poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee House; Learning under the title of the Grecian; and Foreign and Domestick News you will have from St James’s Coffee House.” From those four appropriate outposts, the magazine’s persona, ‘Isaac Bickerstaff’, was able to cover the cultural field – much like the Sunday supplements do today.

Part of the joy of a coffee house was its clientele, and a newcomer might encounter a wide range of characters. In Ned Ward’s series, The Weekly Comedy: Or, the Humours of a Coffee-House (1707), his readers were offered a succession of comic scenes that featured a miscellany of characters, including Hazard (a gamester), Blunt (a plain dealer), Bite (a sharper), Nice (a beau), Whim (a projector), Trick (a Lawyer), Froth (a punster), Bays (a poet), Harlem (a news-writer), and Guzzle (a hard drinker) – a group described by Ward a “Knaves of all Trades, and Fools in Ev’ry Art.” In Ward’s typically dyspeptic words, the coffee houses were full of “a buzzing breed, / That o’er their Coffee tattle, smoke, and read.”

But these places were not just for drinking and talking. Wagers would be taken on the news – men would talk about their trades, their latest reading, pass judgment on new play, speculate on the news from Europe – the triumphs and reverses when Britain was involved in a long continental war. The coffee houses of Queen Anne’s London fed the capital’s insatiable desire for news and sociability. At a time when ‘the World’ was merely five miles across and could be walked in a couple of hours, people sensed that everything was within reach. So much was happening around you that you really ought to know about it, and the coffee houses acted as a busy exchange. Here is Lewis Theobald writing about his daily routine in The Censor, no. 61 (12 March 1717):

“As I am obliged, in order to see how the world runs, and gather observations on the humours of mankind . . . I constantly appear once a Day at the Coffee-houses in vogue, and where I expect to meet with the most matter for speculation. Were it not for these diurnal circulations, and the minutes which I take from what occurs there, I might find myself sometimes at a loss for subjects  . . . I [put] on an air of inadvertence, and glean up the scatter’d papers from every table . . . being seated, and like a profound politician, with my coffee half cold, seeming to nod o’er the respective interests of Europe . . . I have often sat with pleasure to hear the Nation settled, and the Wits arraign’d; and amuse myself with the variety of conversation, which is bandied by every distinct knot of talkers. I have heard a country Squire over his pipe at one corner, sputtering about the age and strength of his October [a strong beer] and recommending the house-wifery of his daughter Penelope. At another, a company of sparks praising the beauty of a bar-keeper. A third clan would be canvassing the sermons and conduct of their parson . . . These disjointed topicks of conversation [are] played off at one time and in the self-same place . . .”

In this world, variety was a stimulus. These sociable spaces offered an unpredictable mixture of entertainment and challenge, knowledge and opportunity, escape and refreshment. The world was surely a better place for these busy harbours of the mind.

Some reading:

[Anon.], The Character of a Coffee-House. Wherein is contained a Description of the Persons usually frequenting it, with their Discourse and Humors (1665)

Ned Ward, The Weekly Comedy, as it is Dayly Acted at most Coffee-Houses in London (1699; reworked and republished as The Humours of a Coffee-House, 1707)

Henri Misson, Memoirs and Observations in his Travels over England (1719)

John Ashton, Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne (1929)

Aytoun Ellis, The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (1956)

Bryant Lillywhite, London Coffee Houses (1963)

Markman Ellis, The Coffee House: A Cultural History (2004)


David Fairer was born in Kingston-Upon-Hull, Yorkshire. After studying in Oxford for ten years, he took up a lectureship at the University of Leeds in 1976, and since 1999 has been Professor of 18th Century English Literature (Emeritus 2018). He has written widely on the period. Some of his books include Pope’s Imagination (1984), English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century (2004), and Organising Poetry: The Coleridge Circle (2009). Chocolate House Treason (2019) is his fictional début – “not before time!” he says.

Chocolate House Treason is the first in a projected series of whodunits set in the London of Queen Anne during the uneasy months following the Act of Union (1707) when the new nation of ‘Great Britain’ came into being. 

The book is published by Troubador Publishing Ltd:
For some more background information, see the Chocolate House Mysteries website:

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, October 13, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Contributors to English Historical Fiction Authors bring us posts that delve into various aspects of British history. Enjoy these fascinating stories, and never miss a post on EFHA when you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or via email.

by Judith Taylor

by Maria Grace

Friday, October 11, 2019

Home Theatricals: A Tarnished Image

by Maria Grace

Jane Austen and home theatricals

While play acting was decidedly a diversion of the wealthy, less affluent members of the gentry participated as well, including Jane Austen and her family. From 1782-1789, while living at the Steventon Rectory, Austen and her family performed modern and classic plays in the family dining parlor and barn. She would have been very familiar with the challenges of putting on such an entertainment: choosing an appropriate play which suited the space available for the performance, the actors available and their relative abilities; setting up the space, crafting the scenery, costumes and props; inviting guests and handling the publicity.

Often participants in amateur theatricals such as these learned the basics of stagecraft at boarding school. There, acting was considered a tool in training elocution and grace of movement. (Performing plays had been part of the public-school curriculum in England since the sixteenth century. (Haugen, 2014))

Scenery for the theatricals offered young people an opportunity to show off their skills in painting the backdrops—flat boards that would be brought in from the side of the stage or dropped down from above. If there was no one artistic in the party, a scene painter might be hired. Costumes and props might be especially made for the event, or repurposed from what was already on hand, depending in no small part, upon the pocketbook of the family hosting the event.

All it all, especially done on a small and modest scale, home theatricals was considered an acceptable activity for young people in search of something to alleviate their boredom. Minimal publicity, a small audience, a suitable play and senior family members en constume put the stamp of innocent diversions on family play-acting. (Vickery, 1998)

On Shaky Moral Grounds

Even so, there many possibly pitfalls for the participants, including issues that the modern observer would not readily recognize.

Jane Austen’s bother James (who along with Henry appeared to be the primary instigators of the theatricals) wrote prologues and epilogues for the plays they performed. In both professional and private theater, these additions, performed before and after the play, creating transitional spaces for the audience to shift into the world of the play and back out into the afterpiece or the real world if there was not afterpiece. (Oftentimes these also contained political and philosophic elements that could make them contentious.) Newspapers and magazines often printed these pieces, both from the public and private stage.

“On the public stage, one of the lead actresses customarily spoke the epilogue, and cultural stereotypes regarding the “loose morals” of women who acted professionally certainly colored the audience’s experience of the epilogue with sexual innuendo. … The private stages did attempt to differentiate themselves from the public stages in one notable way: their prologues and epilogues were spoken by either women or men. Uncoupling both prologue and epilogue from their conventional gendered connotations may have been one way to make them better suited for domestic entertainment, particularly with respectable women’s reputations at stake.” (Haugen, 2014) So simply utilizing the convention of the epilogue already put a home theatrical on shaky moral ground.

Home Theatricals in Novels

Maria Edgeworth

With something so fraught with ambiguity and danger, it is not surprising that Austen and other authors used the home theatrical as a literary means to expose less savory aspects of their characters and their worlds. Three 1814 novels by Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and Francis Burney portray theatricals as not only as threats to female virtue, conducive to dangerous entanglements, but having the potential to unleash unacceptable desires and unveil unwelcome personal and social truths. (Just a side note, all three authors had participated in family and home theatricals themselves.)
Francis Burney

All three authors use theatricals to reveal underlying truths about their characters. In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny’s virtue is revealed in her opposition to the entire affair which also reveals the character weakness in Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram. Maria is later ruined by what was begun under the guise of the theatrical.

In Edgeworth’s Patronage the focus in on what a talent for acting might indicate about sincerity and integrity, especially if the actor is female. Being on stage ultimately exhibits the true character of her Georgiana, whose acting prowess reveals her to be essentially vain and insincere, someone for whom all of life is a performance.

Burney’s The Wanderer uses the private theatrical to question and disrupt the established hierarchies of class and gender. As the characters participate in the play, they, along with the readers question identities and categories that are usually clear and well understood. Although by the end of the novel all necessary proprieties have been reestablished, the theatrical provides a space for disorder and uncertainty essentially uncomfortable to the established social status quo.

The treatment of the home theatrical in these novels is different than that found in earlier work, which portrayed the events in a more positive light. This shift reflects an increased concern and discomfort with these performances.

Raising a Little Theater

In the 1790’s attitudes toward home theatricals began to change.

“In large part, this can be attributed to the profound changes taking place in the political and cultural milieu due to the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and its aftermath. In such a climate of fear and hostility, extravagant private theatres with lavish displays of opulence became easy targets. While, to a great extent, the press continued to follow the developments at such theatres with avid interest and publish flattering—often to the point of being sycophantic—reviews, the circulation of several pernicious polemical publications and a series of exceptionally scathing caricatures by James Gilray started to have a detrimental effect on public perception.” (Haugen, 2014)

The Pic-Nic Society, principally organized by the Countess of Buckinghamshire, began holding plays in 1802. The society, who utilized a private theatre on Tottenham Street did nothing to improve the public opinion of amateur theater. The group not only performed plays, but hosted an entire evening of entertainments: dancing, singing, card playing and a pic-nic supper—rather like a modern potluck, where all attendees contributed to the meal. With the Countess’ reputation as an inveterate faro player and compulsive gambler, her reputation for aristocratic excess tainted the Pic-Nic Society. With accusations of decadence and debauchery abounding and pointed derogatory caricatures by Gilray (Dilettanti theatricals and blowing up the pic nic society) circulating widely, the Pic-Nic Society folded under the weight of public censure.

“Raising a Little Theater”

Aristocratic excess was hardly the only concern regarding the ‘safety’ and propriety of home theatricals. In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Tom talks about ‘raising a little theater’ paralleling it to the idea of raising a little hell; for him a theatrical provided an opportunity to say and do things that were normally off limits in polite society.

“Acting, by its very nature, involves putting on different gestures, behaviors, manners, and emotions, fashioning and re-fashioning characters and identities in a process that, to the spectator, appears almost as quick and easy as changing costumes. But when this role playing takes place on a private stage, the mutability of the boundaries that defined and identified 250 categories of everyday life in the eighteenth century—gender, class, social status, rank, race, national allegiance—is laid bare, for the distinction between actor and role is blurred in such a setting where the close connections of family and friendship between actors and audience delimit any objectivity or distance.” (Haugen, 2014) The blurring of these all-important lines posed a danger to the vulnerable in society—particularly the children and young women—who needed to be protected from these disquieting and potentially ruinous effects.

Home Theatricals: A Tarnished Image

Casting off Proper Restraint

Moreover, acting often demanded the players suspend polite behavior for the sake of the play. At the end of the Georgian era, the demonstration of ‘polite behavior’ had reached almost cultish proportions. Deviating from it could spell social ruin, particularly for young unmarried ladies. Proper, polite behavior required definite emotional restraint for both men and women. One was not to display emotion openly in front of others. (The one exception for ladies: they could swoon when faced with an extremely distressing or vulgar situation.) Stage conventions of the time encouraged actresses to swoon excessively and male actors to rant and rail expressively. (Can we say overacting? But I digress.)

Moreover, audiences were expected to respond to these displays with sighs, weeping and groaning. So much emotion! What is a proper household to do?

If this were not enough, theatricals also were likely to involve active physical contact between the actors and actresses during the performance. While acceptable for the professional actress (who was not considered a proper gentlewoman by any stretch), that kind of behavior was most improper for a gentleman's daughter with a reputation and marriage prospects to consider. Doing it under the guise of a theatrical performance offered only a thin veneer of protection.

Reverend Thomas Gisbourne (1797) summed up the situation:

For some years past the custom of acting in plays in private theatres, fitted up by individuals of fortune, had occasionally prevailed…. Take the benefit of all these favourable circumstances; yet what is even then the tendency of such an amusement? To encourage vanity; to excite a thirst of applause and admiration of attainments which, if they are to be thus exhibited, it would commonly have been far better for the individual not to possess; to destroy diffidence, by the unrestrained familiarity with the persons of the other sex, which inevitably results from being joined with them in the drama; to create a general fondness for the perusal of plays, of which so many are unfit to be read; and for attending dramatic representations, of which so many are unfit to be witnessed”

Austen’s Personal Observations

On the recommendation of her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen read Gisbourne’s work in 1805. Apparently, Austen surprised herself by approving with the reverend’s writing. While there is no way to know Austen approved, it is not a far stretch to imagine that her own experiences with home theatricals might have contributed to her response.

In 1787, her cousin Eliza Hancock stayed with the Austens, and the young people performed The Wonder. Austen family tradition suggests Eliza flirted openly with both James and Henry (who were the instigators of the family theatricals.) She played the heroine of that play while Henry played the hero. The play offered many opportunities for ‘stage business’ between the two players. (Austen Only, 2010)

Some suggest Eliza Hancock was Austen’s inspiration in several pieces of Austen’s juvenilia, particularly Henry and Eliza and Lady Susan. She is also thought to be the model for Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. Eventually Eliza and Henry married, in 1797 the two married, after her first husband was guillotined in 1794.

One cannot help but wonder if Austen was putting a bit of herself into the character of Fanny Price who saw quickly how the young lovers of the party could turn the circumstance of the theatrical to their momentary advantage—and eventual ruin.


Baer, Marc. Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London. Clarendon Press. 1992

Byrne, Paula. Jane Austen and the Theatre. Bloomsbury Academic. 2007

Collins, Irene. Jane Austen, the Parson's Daughter. London: Hambledon Press, 1998.

Fullerton, Susannah. Jane Austen and Crime. Sydney: Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2004.

Gisborne, Thomas. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. London: Cadell and Davies, 1797.

Haugen, Janine Marie, “The Mimic Stage: Private Theatricals in Georgian Britain.” (2014). English Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 68.

Hudson, Chuck. “Theater in Georgian England.” The Historic Interpreter. March, 16, 2015. Accessed July, 2, 2019.

Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.

Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Leisure. London: Hambledon Press, 1999.

Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Wakefield, J. F., “Jane Austen: Fanny Price and Private Theatricals.” Austen Only. June 6, 2010. Accessed June, 2, 2019.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Lily Limp: Ernest H. (“Chinese”) Wilson and Chinese Lilies

By Judith Taylor

The huge white fragrant lilies known as “Regal lilies”, (Lilium regale) are almost universally beloved.  The only thing some people might have against them is their sheer size. Not everyone has a back garden which can accommodate a six foot tall lily be it never so gorgeous. Did you ever wonder where they came from and what was involved in getting theme back from the country of their origin? Ernest Wilson and his “lily limp” tell that story.

Ernest Henry Wilson

By 1870 more than half the ornamental plants grown and sold in the West came from Far Eastern sources, principally China. (If anyone is interested in this history I documented it in my book, “The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden” (2009)). Other sources of exotic beauties were the Southern Hemisphere: the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru and in Central America, Mexico.

North America was one of the mainstays of new plants arriving in England and the Continent in the eighteenth century. The entire landscape of Scotland was changed by the arrival of Western American conifers. Maples and azaleas from the South Eastern states influenced British gardening permanently.

Lilium regale

The Far Eastern countries could not be entered safely until the mid-nineteenth century but once that was achieved (by highly questionable means) new plants flooded in. After the Opium Wars (1839- 1842 and 1856 -1860) English and French plant explorers in the main were able to go past the tiny foreign settlements, for example in Canton and Hong Kong, into the hinterlands. One of the greatest of all the explorers, Robert Fortune, prophesied that nothing would come of that barren rock Hong Kong… The volume of plant discoveries increased exponentially in the succeeding decades, reaching a tipping point by 1870 in the United States.

Leading horticulturists in Great Britain mobilized in various ways to get their hands on this booty. Large nursery firms found it lucrative to pay for a plant collector solely to supply them alone with new discoveries. These plants were sold at enormous prices, largely covering the cost of the expeditions. In an earlier essay I mentioned the Duke of Devonshire’s obsession with rare plants of all sorts but particularly orchids. A firm like John Veitch only needed a few customers like him to flourish.

The Royal Horticultural Society and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew also sent their own collectors. Another way this was done was for a group of wealthy landowners to form a consortium to fund the explorer’s travels.  In the United States the federal government, finding itself left behind, set up its own collecting programme, sending specially equipped ships all over the world.

We can now finally think about the title person, Ernest Henry Wilson, in context. Yet again there was a very gifted lad of modest circumstances whose intelligence and application carried him far. Ernest Henry Wilson was born in Chipping Camden in 1876 but the family moved to Warwickshire when he was quite young. It is entirely possible that he is the most well known citizen of Chipping Camden. He was apprenticed to a gardener but like Joseph Paxton managed to imbibe a fair amount of general education at the same time. He travelled regularly to Birmingham for classes in science. The college gave him a diploma that opened the door for him to a job at Kew in 1897.

John Veitch

John Veitch, 1752 – 1839, was a very canny Scotsman who had worked in a tree nursery in the Scottish Lowlands while all the conifers were pouring into Britain and also set up a  successful landscaping business. That gave him enough capital to open a general nursery in Exeter and then a branch in London in the fashionable district of Chelsea. He made sure only the best people were his customers and he treated each one as if he or she were royalty. The heavy lifting was done in Exeter and the Chelsea shop was all sweetness and light. The Veitch family maintained the Chelsea business until 1917 but as there were no heirs in the pipeline Sir Harry Veitch chose to close it down and sell rather than let it limp along with inferior leadership. The Veitch nursery in Exeter lasted longer.

Veitch’s grandson realized the value in obtaining rare plants that no one else would have in stock, rather like a couturier creating unique garments. To that end he consulted the staff at Kew about a likely person to carry out his wishes. The head gardener had formed a very good impression of young Wilson and recommended him to the director, William Thistelton -Dyer.

Wilson was single without responsibilities and accepted the offer. Veitch drove a very hard bargain. There was almost never quite enough money for Wilson while he was away and he had to account literally for every penny he spent. We can only very dimly imagine what it must have been like to travel around China in 1900. It was still a client state of Great Britain with British Customs and other institutions but once you left the sophisticated coastal cities things were very different.

Wilson’s own writings leave us feeling that he went through truly ghastly experiences but that he was putting a good face on it. There is no doubting the sincerity of his joy at finding new plants.

There were no huge glossy airports or supersonic railways in 1900 when he first entered China. The great river systems of the Yangste, the Yellow River, the Salween and the Mekong provided the best way to get around but in the mountains the traveler was lucky if he could find a mule or a donkey. The equipment was carried by porters. The rivers had many impassable sections in deep gorges and portage was the only way to get around the obstruction. This was all before the dams were built later in the twentieth century to reduce the worst of the flooding in the fertile plains

Crops failed very often and the local villagers had no food to spare. They barely had enough for themselves and survived close to starvation much of the time. Many families were so poor that there was only one suit of clothes to go round between them. There was absolutely no modern medical care. To make it all worse, if that is possible, the rural Chinese were very suspicious of foreigners whom they considered to be “devils” and gangs of bandits infested the countryside.

Human Packhorses, from EH Wilson,
China, Mother of Gardens, 1929

By 1899, when Wilson was sent out to collect, Veitch had many samples of exotic plants but one still eluded them. The “dove tree”, Davidia involucrata, was hung with huge white bracts that fluttered in the wind, giving the impression of a flock of doves on the wing. It was rare even in China but the indefatigable Dr Augustine Henry of the British Chinese Customs Service, a legendary collector, had seen one. Wilson was instructed to find Dr Henry and reach the tree. This was his sole task and he was sternly warned not to waste time or get distracted by looking for anything else.

Davidia involucrata

Wilson travelled up the Red River to I-chang, the border with French Indo-China where the British had installed a customs station. Henry told him where to go but when he reached the village the tree had gone. It had been cut down to make way for a house. Most of us would have burst into tears but Wilson was made of sterner stuff. He persevered and found other specimens some distance away. During this interval he found it impossible to resist the great floral riches he passed and packed case after case of glorious plants or their seed to send back to London. Veitch made very stormy noises but was actually tickled pink to have all this material. The Davidia trees flourished and Veitch made a killing on them.

Nepenthes, growing in a Veitch Greenhouse

In all Wilson worked in China for eleven years. The first six were for Veitch but the latter  five were for the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica, Massachusetts, part of Harvard University. Veitch had sent him to the arboretum for a few months training to learn the best ways of transporting plants and seed from the director, Dr Charles Sargent, before heading out to China. Sargent had brought back superb plants from Japan and was a noted authority. He liked Wilson and offered him a post at the Arboretum once he fulfilled his contract with Veitch.

Wilson was glad to change. He had married and had one child. Sometimes he was able to take his little family with him. In 1903 he found vast valleys full of Lilium regale.  While he was collecting there was an avalanche across the pass on which he was traveling. He fell and broke his leg very badly but had to lie still while the mules stepped across him one by one before his porters could get him down to a town for care. The doctor there thought he might have to amputate the leg at first but Wilson prevailed on him not to do that. He always walked with a limp after that, his “lily limp”.

When Sargent retired he invited Wilson to take over the arboretum. Wilson preferred the title of “Keeper of the Arboretum” rather than director. In 1930, while traveling near Worcester, Massachusetts, Wilson and his wife were killed in a car accident. Their daughter Helen wanted them to buried in British soil but could not handle sending their bodies back to England. She decided to have them cremated and have the ashes buried in Canada, the closest facsimile of British soil she could find.

Knowing all this makes me look at flowers in a whole new way. Ernest Wilson discovered more than 2000 species of ornamental plants in China, adding immeasurable beauty to Western gardening. The taxonomists at the arboretum published an authoritative list of them, fully identified and named, as “Plantae Wilsonianae in 1913.

Really, really last word: he intensely disliked being called “Chinese” Wilson.


Fortune, Robert  184-  Three Years in China

Sargent, Charles Sprague ed  1913  re issued 1988    Plantae Wilsonianae
Cambridge, Massachusetts        Harvard University Press

Taylor, Judith M. 2009  The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden.
St LouIs, Missouri         Missouri Botanical Garden Press

Wilson, Ernest Henry  1929   China: mother of gardens
Boston  The Stratford Company


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989.
Dr Taylor’s web site is: