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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A tribute to Jane Austen who died on 18 July 1817

Jane Austen

What better way to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death than to give a talk about her, dressed in Regency costume? My audience was the Friends of Sturminster Newton Library. The venue was the Stur of the Moment tearooms in Sturminster Newton, Dorset. The programme consisted of excerpts from three of Jane Austen’s novels, together with my talk and book signing, and a Regency tea. 

Rachel outside the Stur of the Moment tearooms  in Sturminster Newton, Dorset
Rachel outside the Stur of the Moment tearooms
in Sturminster Newton, Dorset
Sense and Sensibility: Willoughby plays the hero

We started with the chapter from Sense and Sensibility where Marianne Dashwood first meets Willoughby. Hearing her words read aloud, Jane’s humour comes through afresh:
Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of Mrs. Dashwood would have been secured by any act of attention to her child; but the influence of youth, beauty, and elegance, gave an interest to the action which came home to her feelings.
She thanked him again and again; and, with a sweetness of address which always attended her, invited him to be seated. But this he declined, as he was dirty and wet.1
Pride and Prejudice: Mr Darcy’s first proposal

This was followed by the scene from Pride and Prejudice where Mr Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth Bennet (read by Andrew and me), illustrating Mr Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice. Elizabeth’s words later tortured her rejected suitor:
'You are mistaken, Mr Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.'2
Some thoughts on Jane Austen

There is so much that I could have said of my favourite author, that I had to limit myself to a few stories inspired by the chapter on Jane Austen in my book, What Regency Women Did For Us.

Front cover of What Regency Women Did For Us by Rachel Knowles

I talked of the love interests in Jane’s life and how she often used the phrase ‘gentlemanlike’ to describe a man of whom she approved, like Tom Lefroy, whom maybe she would have married, if either of them had been rich enough to marry without thought of money. 

This naturally led onto the doomed love affair of her sister Cassandra, whose fiancĂ©, the Reverend Thomas Fowle disastrously travelled to the West Indies and died of yellow fever before they could be married. 

Finally, I shared one of my favourite anecdotes about Jane and one of her early fans, the Prince Regent. Whilst in London, Jane was invited to visit the library of Carlton House. The Regent’s librarian hinted that the Prince would be highly gratified if she were to dedicate her next work to him. A royal ‘hint’ was little less than a command and Jane felt obliged to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent, despite the fact that her letters make it quite clear that she hated the future king!

Carlton House from Pall Mall from Ackermann's Repository (1809)
Carlton House from Pall Mall from Ackermann's Repository (1809)
Emma: The garrulous Miss Bates

The third reading was from Emma, admirably illustrating Miss Bates’s loquaciousness:
'... And, indeed, though my mother’s eyes are not so good as they were, she can see amazingly well still, thank God! with the help of spectacles. It is such a blessing! My mother’s are really very good indeed. Jane often says, when she is here, ‘I am sure, grandmama, you must have had very strong eyes to see as you do—and so much fine work as you have done too!—I only wish my eyes may last me as well.'
All this spoken extremely fast obliged Miss Bates to stop for breath; and Emma said something very civil about the excellence of Miss Fairfax’s handwriting.
'You are extremely kind,' replied Miss Bates, highly gratified; 'you who are such a judge, and write so beautifully yourself. I am sure there is nobody’s praise that could give us so much pleasure as Miss Woodhouse’s. My mother does not hear; she is a little deaf you know. Ma’am,' addressing her, 'do you hear what Miss Woodhouse is so obliging to say about Jane’s handwriting?'
And Emma had the advantage of hearing her own silly compliment repeated twice over before the good old lady could comprehend it.3
A Regency tea

The afternoon finished with a Regency styled tea including rout drop cakes, buttered apple tarts and lemon cheesecakes.

Cakes at the Regency tea at the Stur of the Moment tearooms

Notes
(1) From Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811, London)
(2) From Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813, London).
(3) From Austen, Jane, Emma (1815, London).

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Magdalen House in Regency London

The Magdalen Hospital from The Picture of London for 1829
The Magdalen Hospital from The Picture of London for 1829
What was the Magdalen House?

The Magdalen House or Magdalen Hospital1 was set up by Robert Dingley in 1758 as a home ‘for the reception of Penitent Prostitutes’2 and to provide an asylum for young women who had been seduced and might otherwise be forced into prostitution.

Robert Dingley from The Magdalen   Hospital by HFB Compston (1917)
Robert Dingley from The Magdalen
 Hospital by HFB Compston (1917)
Where was the Magdalen House?

The Magdalen House originally operated on the site of the old London Hospital in Prescott Street, Whitechapel, before moving to St George’s Fields, Southwark. The foundation stone of the new building was laid in July 1769. The Magdalen House was situated on the east side of the road leading from Blackfriars Bridge to the obelisk in St George’s Fields.

The Magdalen House later moved to Streatham and became a school in the 1930s.

What was the Magdalen House like?

The Microcosm of London described the Magdalen House at St George's Fields:
It consists of four brick buildings, which inclose a quadrangle, with a basin in the center. The chapel is an octangular edifice, erected at one of the back corners; and to give the inclosed court uniformity, a building with a similar front is placed at the opposite corner.3
The Magdalen Hospital, St George's Fields, from    The Magdalen Hospital by HFB Compston (1917)
The Magdalen Hospital, St George's Fields, from  
The Magdalen Hospital by HFB Compston (1917)
The admission process

The Magdalen House admitted new residents on the first Thursday of every month. Applicants had to visit the Magdalen and complete a numbered, printed form which they could obtain from the clerk at the door. Each applicant was then called in by number and questioned by the board to determine the sincerity and truth of their statements, and whether they had a heart to reform or just a desire for relief from poverty. If an applicant came with a friend or relation, they were questioned separately to see if their testimony corroborated that of the woman.

Often as many as twenty or thirty young women applied for admission and the committee had to choose the most deserving cases to fill the available spaces. Most of the women were aged between sixteen and twenty-five, or even younger, especially in the early days of the Magdalen. The Picture of London for 1810 exclaimed that the majority of those discharged were less than twenty years old.4

Applicants were not accepted if they were pregnant or had a venereal disease that needed to be treated at the Lock Hospital.

When they were unable to offer a place to an applicant, the committee still tried to help them, either by interceding on their behalf to enable them to return to friends or family, or by supporting them until a place became available.

Life in the Magdalen House

On entry, young women were admitted to a probationary ward and then separated into classes, depending on their situations, each class being under an assistant and the overall supervision of the matron. The Microcosm of London explained:
This separation (useful on many accounts) is peculiarly so to a numerous class of women, who are much to be pitied, and to whom this charity has been very beneficial, viz young women who have been seduced from their friends under promises of marriage, and have been deserted by their seducers: they have never been in public prostitution, but fly to the Magdalen to avoid it: their relations, in the first moments of resentment, refuse to receive, protect, or acknowledge them; they are abandoned by the world, without character, without friends, without money, without resource, and wretched indeed is their situation! To such especially, this house of refuge opens wide its doors; and instead of being driven by despair to lay violent hands on themselves, and to superadd the crime of self-murder to that guilt which is the cause of their distress, or of being forced, by the strong calls of hunger, into prostitution, they find a safe and quiet retreat in this abode of peace and reflection. To rescue from the threatening horrors of prostitution such victims of the base and ungenerous, whose ruin has frequently been more owing to their unsuspecting innocence, than to any other cause; to restore them to virtue and industry, after one false step, and to reconcile their friends, are considerations of the greatest magnitude. The committee generally give such young women the preference, because they are almost certain of the best consequences; for it scarcely ever happens but their relations relent, when, by taking shelter in this house, they have given so strong a proof of their determination to quit a vicious way of life.5
The residents of the Magdalen House were instructed in religion and reading, and trained in work that would enable them to earn an honest living when they left. This work included scullery work, house cleaning, laundry work, cooking, housework, needlework, waiting at the table, dressmaking and millinery. The laundry work brought in a considerable income to the charity in later years.

Horace Walpole visited in 1760 and wrote:
We were then shewn their work, which is making linen, and bead-work; they earn ten pounds a week.6
The women were not encouraged to confide in one another. On the wall of each ward at the Magdalen House was written:
Tell your story to no one.7
Residents stayed at the Magdalen House for different periods of time. Wherever possible, the young women were reconciled to their family or friends, if they were of good character. When this was not possible, they were trained for about two years before entering service when a suitable situation arose. No well-behaved resident was ever discharged from the Magdalen without some means of support, either through family, friends or work.

A Magdalen in 1766 from The Magdalen   Hospital by HFB Compston (1917)
A Magdalen in 1766 from The Magdalen 
Hospital by HFB Compston (1917)
The success of the Magdalen

According to The Picture of London for 1810, between August 1758 and 1 January 1807, 3,775 women were admitted to the Magdalen of which 76 remained in the house. Two thirds of those who had been discharged (2,468) had been reconciled to friends or placed in service, whilst only fifteen percent (498) had been discharged for improper behaviour. The rest had been discharged at their own request, been incurably ill or died.8

The Microcosm of London confirmed the good success rate:
During the period that it has subsisted, more than two-thirds of the women who have been admitted, have been reconciled to their friends, or placed in honest employments or reputable services. Of this number, some undoubtedly have relapsed into their former errors; but many, who left the house at their own request, have since behaved well; and several of those discharged for improper behaviour, have, to the certain knowledge of the committee, never returned to evil courses. A very considerable number are since married, and are at this moment respectable members of society. Could their names and situations be disclosed (which, for the most obvious reasons, would be highly improper), the very great utility of this charity would appear in the strongest light.9
Supporting the charity

The governors were keen to advertise the existence of the charity, both to those who might benefit from its services and to those who might support it with charitable donations. They regularly published booklets explaining the purpose and operation of the charity. The text from the 1803 edition was reused in contemporary publications writing about the Magdalen House, such as Ackermann’s The Microcosm of London and The Picture of London.

Potential benefactors and others were encouraged to visit the charity. A regulation dated 1758 said:
That Ladies, on permission in writing, may visit the Hospital, the women to be previously acquainted with the Names of such Ladies, that any of them may retire if they think fit.10
The Picture of London for 1810 said:
Companies who wish to visit this charity may be admitted, on addressing their request by letter to the committee, any Thursday; or to the treasurer, A Bennet, Esq upon any day in the week. — No fees are taken.11
The Magdalen Chapel

The Magdalen Chapel from Ackermann's The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The Magdalen Chapel
from Ackermann's The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Visitors were encouraged to attend services at the Magdalen Chapel. These services were so popular that for a time, tickets were issued to control numbers.

The Minutes of the charity in 1786 recorded that tickets were to be discontinued ‘and the collection was taken individually as each worshipper entered the chapel!’12

According to The Picture of London for 1810:
The hours of divine service are a quarter after eleven in the forenoon, and a quarter after six in the evening, and on account of the fascination of the singing, no place of worship in the metropolis is more worthy of the notice of a stranger. It said that the Magdalen Chapel was much frequented, and highly interesting to strangers, both from the celebrity of the preachers, and the sweetness of the music.13
Horace Walpole wrote of his visit to the Magdalen in 1760:
As soon as we entered the chapel, the organ played, and the Magdalens sung a hymn in parts; you cannot imagine how well.14
The most famous chaplain at the Magdalen was the notorious Reverend William Dodd, who held the office of preacher from 1759 until he was executed for forgery in 1777.

Rev William Dodd from The Magdalen   Hospital by HFB Compston (1917)
Rev William Dodd from The Magdalen 
Hospital by HFB Compston (1917)
The governance of the Magdalen

Queen Charlotte was patroness of the Magdalen from 1765 until her death in 1818 and was succeeded by her daughter Mary, Duchess of Gloucester.

The Magdalen’s first President was Francis Seymour-Conway, 1st Marquess of Hertford (1718-1794). On his death, Lord Hertford was succeeded by Jacob Pleydell-Bouverie, 2nd Earl of Radnor (1750-1828), who was President until his death in 1828.

The Magdalen was administered by a board of governors. This committee comprised thirty-two governors who met every Thursday at midday, except on admission day when they met at eleven.

Each governor subscribed five guineas a year. A one-off subscription of twenty guineas or five guineas a year for five successive years qualified a governor for life.

General courts were held four times a year for all the governors of the charity, on the last Wednesday in January, April, July and October. The committee and officers, excepting the President, were elected at the April meeting.

Queen Charlotte from Memoirs  of Her Most Excellent Majesty   Sophia-Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain  by J Watkins (1819)
Queen Charlotte from Memoirs
of Her Most Excellent Majesty 
Sophia-Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain
by J Watkins (1819)
Notes
(1) The charity was incorporated under the name the Magdalen Hospital in 1769 but was also known variously as the Magdalen House, the Magdalen Charity and the Magdalen Institution.
(2) From Ackermann, Rudolph and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 2 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904).
(3) From Ackermann, Rudolph and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 2 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904).
(4) From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810).
(5) From Ackermann, Rudolph and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 2 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904).
(6) From a letter from Horace Walpole to George Montagu dated 26 January 1760 in Letters from the Hon Horace Walpole to George Montagu Esq (1818).
(7) From Compston, HFB, The Magdalen Hospital (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917).
(8) From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810).
(9) From Ackermann, Rudolph and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 2 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904).
(10) From Compston, HFB, The Magdalen Hospital (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917).
(11) From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810).
(12) From Compston, HFB, The Magdalen Hospital (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917).
(13) From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810).
(14) From a letter from Horace Walpole to George Montagu dated 26 January 1760 in Letters from the Hon Horace Walpole to George Montagu Esq (1818).

Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 2 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Compston, HFB, The Magdalen Hospital (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810)
Governors of the Magdalen Hospital, A short account of the Magdalen Hospital (1803)
Leigh, Samuel, Leigh's New Picture of London (1818)
Walpole, Horace, Letters from the Hon Horace Walpole to George Montagu Esq (1818)

Monday, 19 June 2017

The Unfortunate Captain Peirce by Philip Browne - a review

Front cover of The Unfortunate Captain Peirce by Philip Browne

Tales of shipwreck and lives lost at sea were commonplace in Georgian England. For a maritime tragedy to grab the headlines and become talked about across the nation, it needed to pack a serious emotional punch.

The wreck of the Halsewell, an East Indiaman, off Dorset in early January 1786, had all the right ingredients. It was the captain’s final voyage, his daughters were just two of a bevy of young female passengers, even after reaching shore the survivors were in mortal danger, and there was a dramatic clifftop rescue. Added to that was the whiff of scandal, indeed several, around the behaviour of the sailors, the East India Company, and the tragic captain himself.

All of this story has been captured in the excellent book researched and written by Philip Browne.

More than just a shipwreck

I’ve read several shipwreck narratives and the problem for the author is that the wreck itself doesn’t provide enough material for an entire book.

Philip Browne addresses this by giving us the entire history of Captain Richard Peirce. It’s a thorough account of a sailor who rose through the ranks, and made his fortune, while travelling to and from India and China.

It makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the maritime history of late Georgian England, or the operation of the East India Company. Peirce’s voyages are described in detail, and the narrative gives plenty of insights into life aboard and around an East Indiaman.

East India House from The Old East Indiamen by EK Chatterton (1914)
East India House from The Old East Indiamen by EK Chatterton (1914)
The career of Richard Peirce

Richard Peirce joined the crew of an East Indiaman in 1759, aged 20. He presumably had earlier, undocumented, crewing experience. Philip Browne can’t trace his precise origins, and offers various theories as to his parentage and early life.

His first voyage to India, as a junior officer aboard the Houghton, was a round trip of twenty-nine months. After two more journeys to and from the east, each time at a more senior rank, he became captain of the Earl of Ashburnham in 1768.

As he tells Peirce’s story, Philip Browne provides considerable detail around the workings of the East India Company, and the opportunities it offered its officers to earn extra money from conducting private trade. As Peirce accumulated sea miles, his wealth increased, allowing him to marry and take a house in Kingston, outside London.

East Indiamen also carried passengers to India, including young women whose families wished them to find and marry a young man who was making his fortune in the east. It seems that on arrival, these women could soon expect to receive an offer, there being few eligible English women available.

In late 1778, Peirce was commander of a fresh, new ship, the Halsewell. He sailed her to and from the east twice, before setting out on his final journey in the freezing winter weather of very early January 1786.

The wreck of the Halsewell in 1786

The Halsewell East Indiaman from The Old East Indiamen by EK Chatterton (1914)
The Halsewell East Indiaman from The Old East Indiamen by EK Chatterton (1914)
Passengers aboard the Halsewell included two of Peirce’s daughters, both teenagers, who were journeying to India in anticipation of finding a husband. They were joined by other young ladies, including two cousins.

In snowy and icy conditions, Captain Peirce sailed his ship along the south coast and into a storm. The Halsewell took a battering and began several desperate days of attempted escape, ending with the ship being pulverised on the rocks of the Dorset coast.

The account of those final days was later published, based on the stories of several of the survivors. They told of how in the early part of the storm some of the sailors refused to obey commands to help, and how several feet of water accumulated in the ship’s hold before anyone spotted there was a problem.

As he tried to take his ship to shelter, Captain Peirce lost control of her to the weather. In the early hours of 6 January 1786, the Halsewell crashed against rocks at the base of a high cliff. There, in the darkness, the waves slowly pulled the vessel to pieces while the Captain, his daughters and many others cowered in his quarters. Survivors later described the scene, which various artists tried to capture in paintings and verse.

Those who somehow scrambled onto the slippery rocks were still in danger. No one knew they needed rescue, until some of them clawed their way up the cliff and walked inland to raise the alarm. Even then they may have feared for their lives, as local coastal communities had a reputation for being more interested in salvaging goods than caring for victims.

However, local quarrymen quickly set up ropes to lift survivors from the rocks, under the guidance of a local farmer and a clergyman. Being wrecked at the base of the cliffs meant the Halsewell offered little opportunity for immediate salvage.

Captain Peirce, his daughters, their cousins, and many others did not survive the wrecking of the Halsewell.

The aftermath of the wreck

Philip Browne continues the story beyond the wreck, exploring its impact on the nation. The loss of so many young women, presented through vivid eye-witness accounts of their fate, stirred emotions across the land.

Questions were asked about the ethics of shipping girls to India as brides, about the failure of sailors to do their duty, and about the competence of Captain Peirce. Had he overloaded his vessel, in order to maximise his profit from his final voyage?

The book explores these questions, and details how the story of the wreck was presented in various arts. It clearly made an impression on the nation, and even King George III went to visit the site of the disaster in 1789.

I recommend The Unfortunate Captain Peirce to anyone interested in late Georgian maritime history, or in the story of the East India Company and how our nation traded with India and China. Thoroughly researched and well-written, it achieves a good balance between telling a story and presenting facts.