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Thursday, 14 February 2019

Killing Napoleon by Jonathan North - a review

Front cover of Killing Napoleon by Jonathan North

On Christmas Eve 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte narrowly escaped being blown to pieces while travelling to the Paris theatre. A cart carrying a barrel of gunpowder was deliberately detonated in a busy street, with the aim of killing the new ruler of France. Several Parisians were less fortunate, becoming innocent victims of the assassination attempt.

In Killing Napoleon, historian Jonathan North gives a thorough account of events before, during and after that dramatic moment in Paris. He explains how the plot emerged from the swirling mess of Revolutionary and counter-Revolutionary currents, which saw Bonapartists, Jacobins (pro-Revolutionaries) and Royalists jostling for control of their nation’s destiny. With what appears to be a thorough examination of the contemporary records, North details the moments surrounding the explosion and the dramatic aftermath, which included the forced exile of perceived enemies of Bonaparte who had no connection with the plot to kill him.

A compelling read and rich in detail

I found Killing Napoleon to be a compelling read - largely because I was unfamiliar with the story and was keen to discover the fate of those involved. It was obvious that Bonaparte survived - the explosion took place almost fifteen years before Waterloo. But what became of the perpetrators, and who, if anyone, was behind them?

On top of that I was curious about the impact on Paris of what became known as the Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise. Today we would call it an act of terrorism. While the motive was to kill one man, the bombers (as we would call them today) were willing to sacrifice the lives of civilians going about their daily business.

For those less familiar with the ebb and flow of French political life between 1789 and 1800, North provides a useful summary. He describes Bonaparte’s rise, alongside the continued resistance to the Revolution by Chouans in western France. The action really begins when the future Emperor seized power and became First Consul in late 1799.

I particularly enjoyed three aspects of North’s book - the story of the plot, and his illumination of both Parisian life and the world of espionage in 1800. The details were absorbing, and it was worth keeping a finger in the back of the book to read the footnotes. I had no idea that early forensic testing of pistol balls for poison involved persuading a dog to swallow them and then monitoring its health. From the notes I learned of the 1800 Law of the Trousers, requiring women to hold a licence in order to wear them. It was only abolished in 2013!

For all that I was entertained and informed by North’s telling of this story, his is first and foremost a history book. Which makes it an excellent resource for those wanting details about the events surrounding the outrage on Christmas Eve 1800.

Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul from Life of   Napoleon Bonaparte by WM Sloane (1906)
Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul from Life of 
Napoleon Bonaparte by WM Sloane (1906)
Not an easy read

As a story, it’s less accessible. The book is rich in facts, particularly names, but arguably there are too many to make it easy to follow. On top of that, the text is what I describe as ‘academic prose’. That is, complex sentences, assumptions about the reader’s knowledge, and surprising words. I now know that ‘quotidian’ means ‘everyday’. While I admire rich vocabulary, I think there’s a place for using language that the majority understand.

All of this stood between me and the story. Which is a pity, because it is an extraordinary tale when you consider how close the conspirators came to killing the man who would go on to shape Europe. It’s also surprising how inept they were - taking few precautions to cover their tracks, with the inevitable results once the authorities commenced their hunt.

The plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise

The plotters were Chouans, that is, Royalists from western France who had resisted the Revolution, often with violence. The police, whose activities are described by North in some detail, knew they were in Paris and knew of the threat to Bonaparte. Indeed, other schemes, organised by disillusioned Revolutionaries, had already been uncovered in 1800. One of these involved a bomb; the other was perhaps more a figment of the imagination of police informers. Such was the atmosphere in Paris that justice was swift and probably not entirely fair.

At the heart of the plot were Saint-Réjant, Limoëlan and Carbon, who were backed by Chouan leaders outside of Paris. They in turn were financed by the British Government. They identified the best location to place the bomb on Napoleon’s route to the theatre, and constructed it by filling a barrel with gunpowder and pieces of metal. Saint-Réjant experimented with fuses in the fireplace of his lodgings, in full view of a young girl of the household. This was just one of a list of indiscretions recounted at his trial.

Despite their apparent lack of concern for being observed, somehow the three men constructed the bomb and drove it on a cart through the Paris streets. Positioned so as to impede the First Consul’s coach, the cart was left with Saint-Réjant, who lit the fuse as he saw the target approach.

His timing was off, and Bonaparte’s coach had already passed the barrel when it exploded. The First Consul was woken by the blast and insisted on being driven to the theatre where he was acclaimed by the audience when they heard of the atrocity.

Many in the busy rue Saint-Nicaise were less fortunate. Almost a dozen died and scores were injured. North provides a detailed record of the many whose lives were ended, or changed forever, by the blast.

While violence and death were not uncommon in Paris of 1800, there was outrage at the manner in which these innocents of rue Saint-Nicaise had died. No one wanted to be associated with such a crime and the public wanted swift justice. Bonaparte seized the opportunity to send into exile over 100 Jacobins he wanted to be rid of, despite their having no part in the plot.

Of the bombers, Saint-Réjant and Carbon were tracked down, tried and guillotined. Limoëlan escaped and travelled to America where he became a Catholic priest.

Napoleon at Arcole from Life of Napoleon   Bonaparte by WM Sloane (1896)
Napoleon at Arcole from Life of Napoleon 
Bonaparte by WM Sloane (1896)
A thorough examination of attempted assassination

North provides a satisfying amount of detail in the postscript, footnotes and coda of his book. But for me, he left one question unanswered - what became of rue Saint-Nicaise? When I next travel to Paris, how close can I get to the scene of the crime and what markers, if any, remain?

The answer, it appears from other sources, is that there is nothing to see. The once-bustling thoroughfare has long been demolished.

I recommend North’s book to anyone keen to gain a better understanding of life in Paris in 1800, particularly with regard to policing and intelligence-gathering. It could provide a rich source of plot ideas for historical novels.

Killing Napoleon was published by Amberley in 2019 and has been reviewed at the request of the publisher.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Vauxhall Gardens in the Regency

Vauxhall Gardens from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Vauxhall Gardens from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Image to yourself, my dear Letty, a spacious garden, part laid out in delightful walks, bounded with high hedges and trees, and paved with gravel; part exhibiting a wonderful assemblage of the most picturesque and striking objects, pavilions, lodges, groves, grottoes, lawns, temples and cascades; porticoes, colonnades, and rotundas; adorned with pillars, statues, and paintings: the whole illuminated with an infinite number of lamps, disposed in different figures of suns, stars, and constellations; the place crowded with the gayest company, ranging through those blissful shades, or supping in different lodges on cold collations, enlivened with mirth, freedom, and good humour, and animated by an excellent band of music.1
Vauxhall Gardens appear in numerous novels written in the Georgian period, such as Evelina and Cecilia by Fanny Burney and The Expedition of Humprhy Clinker by Tobias Smollett – the source of the above excerpt. William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair published in 1848, but set earlier in the century, also includes a scene played out in the famous Vauxhall Gardens. Unsurprisingly, historical romance authors today have continued the tradition and many Georgian and Regency romances include passages set in Vauxhall. 

I am no exception. Both A Perfect Match and Georgiana (the working title of its sequel) include scenes set in Vauxhall Gardens. What is it about Vauxhall Gardens that draws us in and compels us to use it as a backdrop for our writing?

Vauxhall from Vauxhall Illustrated: Scrapbook of miscellaneous British 18th and 19th century prints (1883)  from The Metropolitan Museum of Art DP259953
Vauxhall from Vauxhall Illustrated: Scrapbook of miscellaneous
British 18th and 19th century prints
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art DP259953
What is so special about Vauxhall?

Vauxhall Gardens were pleasure gardens situated in Lambeth, Surrey, south of the River Thames, not far from where Vauxhall Bridge is today. Although this is now very much part of London, during the Georgian period, this was a rural area. The gardens were a popular place to go to breathe fresher air and be entertained outside, not just for the gentry, but for anyone who could pay the entrance price.

This was one of the attractions of Vauxhall – the cross-section of society to be found there – and it is one of the reasons that it is such a good site for action in a novel to unfold. It was a place where the nobility could rub shoulders with shopkeepers and merchants. It also attracted some of the less desirable elements of society such as pickpockets and prostitutes. Anything could happen at Vauxhall.

When were Vauxhall Gardens fashionable?

The Spring Gardens were established at Vauxhall shortly after the Restoration in 1660 and were visited by many celebrated people including John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. However, it was not until Jonathan Tyers leased the gardens in 1729 that they began to be developed into the famous pleasure gardens. The newly refurbished gardens were opened in 1732 with a grand Ridotto al Fresco.

Over the years, the fortunes of the gardens went up and down, their profitability adversely affected by bad weather and how their rivals, like Ranelagh Gardens, were doing. Although at their most popular before 1786, they were still visited by thousands of people every year during the Regency.

The Picture of London for 1810 claimed ‘from five thousand to sixteen thousand well-disposed persons are occasionally present.’2

They attained the accolade of being called The Royal Gardens, Vauxhall, in 1822. The coming of the railways, allowing people to travel out of town, and the gardens’ inability to attract the Victorian public, finally led to their closure in 1859. Sadly, all that remains are the street names and a few placards in the park depicting the pleasure gardens as they once were.

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (2012)
Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (2012)
As you read this post, it is important to keep in mind the long period of time during which Vauxhall Gardens operated as opening times, prices, buildings and entertainments were continually changing.

When was Vauxhall open?

The Vauxhall season was typically from May to August but opening and closing dates varied and the season was occasionally extended into September if the weather was good. The opening days also varied. During the early years, Vauxhall was open every day of the week, but Sunday opening was stopped in the 1760s. According to The Microcosm of London (1808-10), at that time, Vauxhall was only open three nights a week:
These gardens are opened for the season about the latter end of May, and continue their amusements for about three months. Company is admitted three nights in the week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.3
Vauxhall was an evening entertainment, primarily to be enjoyed after dark when the lamps had been lit, but at some points in the gardens’ history, a concert would be given in the daylight, from about 5pm. 

In Fanny Burney’s novel of the same name, Evelina describes how her party argued about when to go to the gardens:
There were twenty disputes previous to our setting out; first, as to the time of our going: Mr. Branghton, his son, and young Brown, were for six o’clock; and all the ladies and Mr. Smith were for eight; the latter, however, conquered.4
How much did it cost?

Vauxhall season ticket by Hogarth (Summer)   from London Pleasure  Gardens of the 18th   Century by W & AE Wroth (1896)
Vauxhall season ticket by Hogarth (Summer)
from London Pleasure  Gardens of the 18th 
Century by W & AE Wroth (1896)
The standard entrance fee was one shilling until 1792 when it was raised to two shillings. The Picture of London for 1810 wrote:
The original price of admission to these gardens was one shilling, but of late years it has been raised to two shillings, (on gala nights three shillings,) a sum comparatively very trifling, when we consider the great nightly expenditure of the proprietors to render their property convenient and attractive.5
However, it appears that The Picture of London was out of date. The Microcosm of London (1808-10) wrote that ‘the price of admission is three shillings and sixpence.’6

Special events cost more. The gardens also offered season tickets which gave entry for two for the whole season. Each year, the silver season ticket bore a new design. In 1738, it cost 1 guinea 3s.

According to The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction (1830):
The Gardens were originally opened daily (Sundays excepted); and till the year 1792, the admission was 1s; it was then raised to 2s including tea and coffee; in 1809, several improvements were made, lamps added, &c the price was raised to 3s 6d and the Gardens were only opened three nights in the week; in 1821 the price was again raised to 4s.7
Vauxhall season ticket by Hogarth (Amphion on dolphin)   from London Pleasure  Gardens of the 18th   Century by W & AE Wroth (1896)
Vauxhall season ticket by Hogarth (Amphion on dolphin)
from London Pleasure  Gardens of the 18th 
Century by W & AE Wroth (1896)
How did visitors travel to Vauxhall?

Up until 1750, when Westminster Bridge opened, the easiest way to get to Vauxhall for many people was by wherry along the River Thames from Westminster or the City. After 1750, more visitors chose to arrive by coach or sedan chair or even on foot, but most still travelled by boat. After the opening of Vauxhall Bridge in 1816, most visitors came by road.

In Evelina, published in 1778, the party argued about how to travel to Vauxhall:
Some were for a boat, others for a coach, and Mr. Branghton himself was for walking; but the boat at length was decided upon. Indeed this was the only part of the expedition that was agreeable to me; for the Thames was delightfully pleasant.8
In The Expedition of Humprhy Clinker, Lydia Melford records her experience of travelling to Vauxhall:
At nine o’clock, in a charming moonlight evening, we embarked at Ranelagh for Vauxhall, in a wherry so light and slender that we looked like so many fairies sailing in a nutshell. My uncle, being apprehensive of catching cold upon the water, went round in the coach, and my aunt would have accompanied him, but he would not suffer me to go by water if she went by land; and therefore she favoured us with her company, as she perceived I had a curiosity to make this agreeable voyage—After all, the vessel was sufficiently loaded; for, besides the waterman, there was my brother Jery, and a friend of his, one Mr Barton, a country gentleman, of a good fortune, who had dined at our house—The pleasure of this little excursion was, however, damped, by my being sadly frighted at our landing; where there was a terrible confusion of wherries and a crowd of people bawling, and swearing, and quarrelling, nay, a parcel of ugly-looking fellows came running into the water, and laid hold of our boat with great violence, to pull it ashore; nor would they quit their hold till my brother struck one of them over the head with his cane.9
What were the gardens like?

Vauxhall Gardens from an engraving dated 1751  from South London by W Besant (1899)
Vauxhall Gardens from an engraving dated 1751
from South London by W Besant (1899)
We can find out what the gardens were like by looking at maps and prints, and by reading what contemporary writers said about the gardens in their letters, journals and novels. 

The Picture of London for 1810 described the gardens:
These gardens are beautiful and extensive, and contain a variety of walks, brilliantly illuminated with variegated coloured lamps, terminated with transparent paintings, and disposed with so much taste, that they produce an enchanting effect on first entering the garden. Facing the west door is a large and superb orchestra, decorated with a profusion of lights of various colours. The whole edifice is of wood, painted white and bloom colour. The ornaments are plaistic, a com position something like plaister of Paris, but only known to the ingenious architect who designed and built this beautiful object of admiration. In fine weather the musical entertainments are performed here by a select band of the best vocal and instrumental performers. At the upper extremity of this orchestra, a very fine organ is erected, and at the foot of it are the seats and desks for the musicians, placed in a semi circular form, leaving a vacancy at the front for vocal performers.

Fronting the orchestra is a large pavilion of the composite order, which particularly attracts the eye by its size, beauty, and ornaments. It was built for his late royal highness Frederic Prince of Wales ... In cold or rainy weather, on account of sheltering the company, the musical performers is in a great room, or rotunda, which is seventy feet in diameter, and contains an elegant orchestra. The roof of this rotunda is so contrived, that sounds never vibrate under it; and thus music is heard to the greatest advantage.10
The Rotunda at Vauxhall 1752 from London Pleasure   Gardens of the 18th Century by W & AE Wroth (1896)
The Rotunda at Vauxhall 1752 from London Pleasure
 Gardens of the 18th Century by W & AE Wroth (1896)
Lighting up Vauxhall Gardens

Vauxhall was famous for creating a fairytale-like atmosphere by the huge number of lights, and for the dramatic effect produced when these lamps were lit at dusk. In 1741, there were 1,000 lamps and these could be lit, using a system of linked fuses, in about two minutes. Apparently, the train of oil from whale or seal blubber gave the gardens a distinctive smell! By the end of the 1770s, this number had more than doubled, and by 1822, there were in excess of 20,000 lamps.

There were globe lamps on trees and lamp posts and from the ceilings of supper boxes, with smaller lamps attached to arches and obelisks. Originally these lamps were uncoloured, but coloured (mostly blue) lamps were introduced from 1786, and lamps of all colours were used from around 1806.

The Picture of London for 1810 wrote:
The grove is beautifully illuminated in the evening with about fifteen thousand glass lamps, which glitter among the trees, and produce a brilliant effect.11
The Microcosm of London (1808-10) thought there were rather more lamps:
Vauxhall is a very fascinating place of amusement; but its principal feature is the illumination. Thirty-seven thousand lamps, of various colours, sometimes lighted in these gardens, in the most tasteful forms and brilliant devices, with their associated transparencies, produce a splendour of decoration, unrivalled in any place of amusement in Europe. It is a curious circumstance, and proves the extraordinary change in our manners and habits, that, in a description of these gardens in 1760, the illumination at that time, proceeding only from fifteen hundred comparatively dim lamps, of the same kind, but of a smaller size, as those which now light our streets, is mentioned in as glowing terms as would suit the present extraordinary and accumulated brilliance of the gardens.12
Supper in Vauxhall Gardens

Colonnades of supper-boxes were first introduced in 1736 and these became an ongoing feature of the gardens. Below is a bill of fare for 1762. According to Coke and Borg, the waiters had to pay for food when they collected the orders from the kitchens, so they bore the risk of customers refusing to pay. The gardens were notorious for the thinness of the slices of ham and for the alcoholic beverage arrack or arrack punch that was served. 

A bill of fare for Vauxhall for 1762 from London Pleasure   Gardens of the 18th Century by W & AE Wroth (1896)
A bill of fare for Vauxhall for 1762 from London Pleasure
 Gardens of the 18th Century by W & AE Wroth (1896)
The Picture of London for 1810 wrote:
Passing from the intellectual attractions of this fashionable place of resort, to the more solid allurements of sense and appetite, we must observe that the best kind of refreshments is provided with the utmost attention, and charged according to a reasonable bill of fare, with the prices annexed.13
In Vanity Fair, Thackeray wrote:
The two couples were perfectly happy then in their box: where the most delightful and intimate conversation took place. Jos was in his glory, ordering about the waiters with great majesty. He made the salad; and uncorked the Champagne; and carved the chickens; and ate and drank the greater part of the refreshments on the tables. Finally, he insisted upon having a bowl of rack punch; everybody had rack punch at Vauxhall. ‘Waiter, rack punch.’14
The arts at Vauxhall

Vauxhall had strong links with several renowned artists of its day. The supper boxes and other buildings were decorated with paintings by a variety of artists including Francis Hayman and William Hogarth. The gardens displayed the sculpture of Louis François Roubiliac, notably that of George Frideric Handel, whose music was frequently played in the gardens.

The Picture of London for 1810 wrote:
The different boxes and apartments of these gardens are adorned with a vast number of paintings, many of which are executed in the best style of their respective theatres. The labours of Hogarth and Hayman are the most conspicuous. Hayman has chosen his subjects from the works of Shakespeare; but as the pictures are too numerous to be particularized, we leave them and their merits for the inspection of the curious.15
According to The Microcosm of London:
The grove, principal entrance, and other parts of the gardens, are furnished with a great number of small pavilions, ornamented with paintings, chiefly by Hogarth and Hayman; each containing a table and seats, to which the company retire, at the conclusion of the concert, to enjoy the refreshments prepared for them. Some of these pavilions are very elegant. That which is opposite the orchestra, and is called the Prince's pavilion, having been erected for the accommodation of Frederic, Prince of Wales, his present Majesty's father, is a very beautiful example of Palladian architecture. During the remainder of the evening, bands of wind-instruments, of different kinds, are placed in different parts of the gardens, which contribute to enliven the scene and invite the dance.16
The statue of Handel was moved around the gardens somewhat over the years. According to The Picture of London for 1810:
In the middle of the piazza is a grand portico of the Doric order, and under the arch, on a pedestal, is a beautiful marble statue of Handel, in the character of Orpheus, playing on his lyre, done by the celebrated Mr Roubiliac.17
However, The Microcosm of London (1808-10) recorded:
At the end of this [supper] room was the statue of the immortal Handel, in white marble, and in the character of Orpheus singing to his lyre; but is now removed behind the orchestra in the garden. This fine specimen of sculpture first introduced the abilities of Roubiliac to the notice of the public. It was begun and completed in the place of which it is the ornament, while the noble subject and the superior artist were enjoying the friendly and protecting hospitality of Mr Jonathan Tyers. It is said to bear a strong resemblance to the great musician.18
Entertainment at Vauxhall

The main entertainment at Vauxhall was promenading in the gardens and listening to music, from the Orchestra or in the Rotunda or one of the other buildings. 

Firework shows were very popular and featured at Vauxhall from 1798. The gardens sought to rival the excitement of Astley’s with acrobats and tightrope walkers, including the famous Madame Saqui who performed at Vauxhall from 1816 to 1820. 

Other entertainments included mechanical attractions such as the Cascade which operated for about fifteen minutes during the evening for many years. You can read more about the Cascade at Vauxhall here.

Special events included balloon ascensions and masquerades and displays celebrating, for example, the Battle of Waterloo.

Vaux-Hall by Thomas Rowlandson (1785) © British Museum 1880,1113.5484
Vaux-Hall by Thomas Rowlandson (1785) © British Museum 1880,1113.5484 (22)
A description of the gardens from Evelina

In Fanny Burney’s novel of the same name, Evelina describes the gardens:
The garden is very pretty, but too formal; I should have been better pleased, had it consisted less of straight walks, where Grove nods at grove, each alley has its brother.
The trees, the numerous lights, and the company in the circle round the orchestra make a most brilliant and gay appearance; and had I been with a party less disagreeable to me, I should have thought it a place formed for animation and pleasure. There was a concert; in the course of which a hautbois concerto was so charmingly played, that I could have thought myself upon enchanted ground, had I had spirits more gentle to associate with. The hautbois in the open air is heavenly.19
A description of the gardens in 1811

In a letter by Samuel Morse written in 1811, he described Vauxhall Gardens:
A few evenings since I visited the celebrated Vauxhall Gardens, of which you have doubtless often heard. I must say they far exceeded my expectations; I never before had an idea of such splendor. The moment I went in I was almost struck blind with the blaze of light proceeding from thousands of lamps and those of every color.

In the midst of the gardens stands the orchestra box in the form of a large temple and most beautifully illuminated. In this the principal band of music is placed. At a little distance is another smaller temple in which is placed the Turkish band. On one side of the gardens you enter two splendid saloons illuminated in the same brilliant manner. In one of them the Pandean band is placed, and in the other the Scotch band. All around the gardens is a walk with a covered top, but opening on the sides under curtains in festoons, and these form the most splendid illuminated part of the whole gardens. The amusements of the evening are music, waterworks, fireworks, and dancing.20
The Orchestra at Vauxhall from London Pleasure   Gardens of the 18th Century by W & AE Wroth (1896)
The Orchestra at Vauxhall from London Pleasure
 Gardens of the 18th Century by W & AE Wroth (1896)
A more detailed note on the history of the ownership of the gardens

Jonathan Tyers owned the gardens until his death in 1767, after which the gardens were managed by his wife Elizabeth, then by his son, Jonathan Tyers the younger, and then from 1786-1809, by the younger Jonathan’s son-in-law, Bryant Barrett. After this, the gardens passed to Bryant’s sons, George and Jonathan Tyers Barrett. 

According to The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction (1830):
In 1818, the entire property was advertised for sale, but no purchaser was obtained. In 1821 it was purchased by the London Wine Company; and it is but bare justice to say they have done all in their power to revive the fashionable celebrity of Vaux-hall. Had not a purchaser been found at the last-mentioned date, the fairy groves and palaces would have fallen before the mere speculator, and the site would be now covered with houses— for the whole was, in the language of the roadside, ‘to be let as building ground.’21
The gardens were not, in fact, bought by the London Wine Company in 1821, but leased by its owner, Frederick Gye, and his business partner Thomas Bish. Under their management, the gardens gained the accolade of The Royal Gardens, Vauxhall. Gye went on to buy the gardens from the Barrett family with Richard Hughes in 1825. The gardens were sold to Thomas Fowler, Bish’s son-in-law, in 1841, and he leased the gardens to a variety of people during the 1840s and 1850s. Ultimately, the gardens failed to develop in such a way as to appeal to the Victorian public and opened for the last time on Monday 25 July 1859.

1. Smollett, Tobias, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).
2. Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810).
3. Ackermann, Rudolph and Combe, William, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 3 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904).
4. Burney, Fanny, Evelina or the history of a young lady’s entrance into the world (1778).
5. Feltham iop cit.
6. Ackermann op cit.
7. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction (1830).
8. Burney op cit.
9. Smollett op cit.
10. Feltham op cit.
11. Ibid.
12. Ackermann op cit.
13. Feltham op cit.
14. Thackeray, William Makepeace, Vanity Fair (1848).
15. Feltham op cit.
16. Ackermann op cit.
17. Feltham op cit.
18. Ackermann op cit.
19. Burney op cit.
20. Morse, Samuel FB, Samuel Morse, His letters and journals, edited and supplemented by his son Edward Lind Morse (1914).
21. The Mirror op cit.
22. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph and Combe, William, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 3 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Besant, Walter, South London (1899)
Burney, Fanny, Cecilia or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782)
Burney, Fanny, Evelina or the history of a young lady’s entrance into the world (1778)
Coke, David and Borg, Alan, Vauxhall Gardens, a history (2011)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810)
Hassan Khan, Mirza Abul, A Persian at the Court of King George 1809-10, edited by Margaret Morris Cloake (1988)
Morse, Samuel FB, Samuel Morse, His letters and journals, edited and supplemented by his son Edward Lind Morse (1914)
Smollett, Tobias, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771)
Thackeray, William Makepeace, Vanity Fair (1848)
The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction (1830)
Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878, London) Vol 6
Walpole, Horace, Horace Walpole and his World, Select passages from his letters ed LBSeeley (1884)
Wroth, Warwick and Wroth, Arthur Edgar, The London Pleasure Gardens of the eighteenth century (1896)

Vauxhall Gardens website
Vauxhall and Kennington website

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Regency Christmas celebrations

Mr Fezziwig's Ball by John Leech from A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens (1920 reprint of original 1843 edition)
Mr Fezziwig's Ball by John Leech from A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens (1920 reprint of original 1843 edition)
I have just watched The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) starring Dan Stevens (alias Edward Ferrars from the 2008 BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility/Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey). It tells the story of Charles Dickens, a successful writer who is struggling to meet his bills and support his ever-increasing family and desperately seeking inspiration for his next book. Once he has visualised the character of Scrooge (played by Christopher Plummer of Sound of Music fame), the story of A Christmas Carol writes itself around him.

A Christmas Carol was published on 19 December 1843 and was a huge success. It is still very popular today and numerous adaptations have been made (two of which I’ve already watched this Christmas – Scrooged starring Bill Murray and A Christmas Carol starring Patrick Stewart). Some credit Dickens with bringing Christmas back into fashion, but is this true? I thought I would see what I could find in contemporary sources and novels about Christmas celebrations in the late Georgian and Regency periods.

Marley's Ghost by John Leech from A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens (1920 reprint of original 1843 edition)
Marley's Ghost by John Leech from A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens (1920 reprint of original 1843 edition)
Was Christmas Day a public holiday?

Bank Holidays were first introduced by an act in 1871 but Christmas Day was not included as, along with Good Friday, it was already traditionally accepted as a public holiday in Britain. There is evidence that this holiday was observed in late Georgian England. The Persian ambassador, Mirza Abul Hassan, visiting England in 1809-10, wrote in his journal on Monday 25 December 1809:
This morning a messenger brought a note from Sir Gore Ouseley to say that Lord Wellesley had forgotten that today is one of their holidays and that it would not be possible for him to visit me. He would see me tomorrow night. In reply I wrote: ‘Such an excuse is unacceptable.’1
The Persian ambassador clearly did not understand the necessity for a holiday on Christmas Day!

It would appear that the theatres were closed on Christmas Day. The Theatrical Register for December 1809 showed that the theatre was not open on Sundays or on Christmas Day.2

Did people attend a church service on Christmas Day?

St George's, Hanover Square  from Ackermann's Repository (1812)
St George's, Hanover Square
from Ackermann's Repository (1812)
Jane Austen’s novel Emma indicates that Austen certainly thought it was normal to go to church on Christmas Day. Emma’s misunderstanding of Mr Elton’s intentions made her keen to avoid the clergyman whom she would have expected to see taking the service on Christmas Day:
The weather was most favourable for her; though Christmas Day, she could not go to church. Mr. Woodhouse would have been miserable had his daughter attempted it, and she was therefore safe from either exciting or receiving unpleasant and most unsuitable ideas. The ground covered with snow, and the atmosphere in that unsettled state between frost and thaw, which is of all others the most unfriendly for exercise, every morning beginning in rain or snow, and every evening setting in to freeze, she was for many days a most honourable prisoner.3
Harriet Leveson-Gower, Lady Granville, daughter of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, spent Christmas 1824 in Brighton with the king, George IV. She wrote:
On Christmas Day we processed into the chapel, where the service was really divine, but what with heat and emotion very overpowering.4
Perhaps surprisingly, the marriage registers of St George’s Hanover Square show that people could get married on Christmas Day.5

In Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram expected to take orders at Christmas and wrote:
On the 23rd he was going to a friend near Peterborough, in the same situation as himself, and they were to receive ordination in the course of the Christmas week.6
Was Christmas a time for family?

Jane Austen certainly thought so. Christmas was a time of the year when the whole family could be together. Many gentlemen’s sons (and sometimes daughters) were sent away to be educated at boarding schools such as Eton, and the Michaelmas Term ran from late September or October until Christmas.

Eton College from Picturesque Views of the River Thames by S Ireland (1792)
Eton College from Picturesque Views of the River Thames by S Ireland (1792)
In Persuasion, Mr and Mrs Musgrove needed to ‘return in time to receive their younger children for the Christmas holidays.’7 Austen proceeded to paint a picture of a family Christmas:
Immediately surrounding Mrs Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit, and Mr Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family piece.7
In Emma, Emma’s sister and husband were coming to stay at Hartfield for Christmas. Emma commented:
It is unfortunate that they cannot stay longer—but it seems a case of necessity. Mr John Knightley must be in town again on the 28th, and we ought to be thankful, papa, that we are to have the whole of the time they can give to the country, that two or three days are not to be taken out for the Abbey. Mr Knightley promises to give up his claim this Christmas—though you know it is longer since they were with him, than with us.8
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr and Mrs Gardiner arrived to stay with the Bennet family for Christmas:
On the following Monday, Mrs Bennet had the pleasure of receiving her brother and his wife, who came as usual to spend the Christmas at Longbourn.9
After becoming betrothed to Mr Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet wrote to her Aunt Gardiner:
Mr Darcy sends you all the love in the world that he can spare from me. You are all to come to Pemberley at Christmas.9
Lyme Park, Cheshire - Pemberley in the BBC's 1995  adapation of Pride and Prejudice
Lyme Park, Cheshire - Pemberley in the BBC's 1995
adapation of Pride and Prejudice
Did they have Christmas house parties?

For some, Christmas was spent away from home with friends. Horace Walpole wrote on 30 December 1761:
I have been my out-of-town with lord Waldegrave, Selwyn, and Williams; it was melancholy the missing poor Edgecumbe, who was constantly of the Christmas and Easter parties.10
Maria Edgeworth spent Christmas Day 1807 at Pakenham Hall, the home of Kitty Pakenham, who later became the wife of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Maria wrote:
A merry Christmas to you, my dear Henry and Sneyd! I wish you were here at this instant, and you would be sure of one; for this is really the most agreeable family and the pleasantest and most comfortable castle I ever was in. We came here yesterday – the we being Mr and Mrs Edgeworth, Honora, and ME. A few minutes after we came, arrived Hercules Pakenham – the first time he had met his family since his return from Copenhagen.’11
Harriet Leveson-Gower, Lady Granville, described the party gathered in Brighton for Christmas 1824:
We arrived here on the 24th in time for dinner. The King received us more than graciously. I never saw him in such health and spirits. He scarcely ever sits down or is still for a moment, but allows us. No legs but royal ones could otherwise endure. The company assembled were the Duke of York, who adores us, breakfasts en trio with us every morning, says Wherstead is the best house in England, and my toilette the most perfect. Partiality could no further go. The Duke of Clarence, the Duchess, a very excellent, amiable, well-bred little woman, who comes in and out of the room a ravir, with nine new gowns (the most loyal of us not having been able to muster above six), moving a la Lieven, independent of her body. Lord and Lady Erroll with faces like angels, that look as if they ought to have wings under their chins. She is a domestic, lazy, fat woman, excédée with curtseying and backsliding. Lord and Lady Maryborough, a very agreeable woman, with a fine back and very plausible ugliness. The usual Dukes and gentlemen-in-waiting. Lord Exeter, who pays no attention to Lady Exeter, who, nevertheless, is as handsome and as delightful as ever.12
The Royal Pavilion, Brighton © A Knowles
The Royal Pavilion, Brighton © A Knowles
Did they have Christmas parties?

Jane Austen referred to the gaieties of the Christmas season in her novels. In Emma, Mr Elton noted that:
This is quite the season indeed for friendly meetings. At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather. I was snowed up at a friend's house once for a week. Nothing could be pleasanter. I went for only one night, and could not get away till that very day se'nnight.13
In Persuasion, Mary moaned to her sister Anne Elliot:
We have had a very dull Christmas; Mr and Mrs Musgrove have not had one dinner party all the holidays. I do not reckon the Hayters as anybody. The holidays, however, are over at last: I believe no children ever had such long ones. I am sure I had not.14
In Mansfield Park, Miss Crawford is eager for news of Edmund. She asked:
Was his letter a long one? Does he give you much account of what he is doing? Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for? She continued: Oh! if he wrote to his father; but I thought it might have been to Lady Bertram or you. But if he wrote to his father, no wonder he was concise. Who could write chat to Sir Thomas? If he had written to you, there would have been more particulars. You would have heard of balls and parties.15
In Pride and Prejudice, on setting out to follow her brother to London, Caroline Bingley wrote to Jane Bennet:
Many of my acquaintances are already there for the winter; I wish that I could hear that you, my dearest friend, had any intention of making one of the crowd—but of that I despair. I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings, and that your beaux will be so numerous as to prevent your feeling the loss of the three of whom we shall deprive you.16
In Sense and Sensibility, Sir John described Willoughby:
‘He is as good a sort of fellow, I believe, as ever lived,’ repeated Sir John. ‘I remember last Christmas at a little hop at the park, he danced from eight o'clock till four, without once sitting down.’17
Did people play games at Christmas?

Fanny Burney recorded an instance of playing Christmas games in her diary for December 1785. She was teaching games to a little girl when they were disturbed by the entrance of the king, George III:
After dinner, while Mrs Delany was left alone, as usual, to take a little rest—for sleep it but seldom proves—Mr B Dewes, his little daughter, Miss Port, and myself, went into the drawing-room. And here, while, to pass the time, I was amusing the little girl with teaching her some Christmas games, in which her father and cousin joined, Mrs Delany came in … The Christmas games we had been showing Miss Dewes, it seemed as if we were still performing, as none of us thought it proper to move, though our manner of standing reminded one of “Puss in the corner.” Close to the door was posted Miss Port; opposite her, close to the wainscot, stood Mr Dewes; at just an equal distance from him, close to a window, stood myself. Mrs.Delany, though seated, was at the opposite side to Miss Port; and his majesty kept pretty much in the middle of the room. The little girl, who kept close to me, did not break the order, and I could hardly help expecting to be beckoned, with a PUSS! PUSS! PUSS! to change places with one of my neighbours.18
In Emma, Mrs Elton is scornful of the game suggested by Frank Churchill:
I really cannot attempt—I am not at all fond of the sort of thing. I had an acrostic once sent to me upon my own name, which I was not at all pleased with. I knew who it came from. An abominable puppy!—You know who I mean (nodding to her husband). These kind of things are very well at Christmas, when one is sitting round the fire; but quite out of place, in my opinion, when one is exploring about the country in summer.19
Did they give to the poor?

Wilson spoke of the generosity of the actress Harriot Mellon’s mother:
And when some kind patron would send her a Christmas or Easter present in money, a portion of it always was devoted to the purchase of common clothing for infants, or to materials for a dinner to indigent persons in her parish.20
Watkins wrote of Queen Charlotte in 1800:
At the beginning of October the royal family left the coast for Windsor, where Her Majesty kept the Christmas-day following in a very pleasing manner. Sixty poor families had a substantial dinner given them; and in the evening the children of the principal families in the neighbourhood were invited to an entertainment at the Lodge.21
Did they give each other presents?

Harriet Leveson-Gower, Lady Granville, wrote about Lady Conyngham’s Christmas presents in 1824:
I went after it to Lady Conyngham, and saw her Christmas gifts, which made my mouth water, and made me almost wish for a situation. A magnificent cross, seized from the expiring body of a murdered bishop in the island of Scio. An almanack, gold with flowers embossed on it of precious stones. A gold melon, which upon being touched by a spring falls into compartments like the quarters of an orange, each containing different perfumes. I returned like Aladdin after the cave, only empty-handed, which, I believe, he was not.22
The future Queen Victoria wrote in her diary for Christmas Eve, 1832:
Mamma gave me a lovely pink bag which she had worked with a little sachet likewise done by her; a beautiful little opal brooch and earrings; books, some lovely prints, a pink satin dress and a cloak lined with fur. Aunt Sophia gave me a dress which she worked herself, and Aunt Mary a pair of amethyst earrings. Lehzen a lovely music book. Victoire a very pretty white bag worked by herself and Sir John a silver brush. I gave Lehzen some little things and Mamma gave her a writing ¬table. We then went to my room where I had arranged Mamma’s table. I gave Mamma a white bag which I had worked, a collar and a steel chain for Flora and an annual; Aunt Sophia a pair of turquoise earrings; Lehzen, a little white and gold pin cushion and a pin with two little gold hearts hanging to it. Sir John, flora and a book holder and an annual. Mamma then took me up into my bedroom with all the ladies. There was my new toilet table with a white muslin cover over pink of all my silver things standing on it with a fine new looking glass. I stayed up till ½ past 9. The dog went away again to the doctor for her leg. I saw good Louis for an instant and she gave me a lovely little wooden box with bottles. I was soon in bed and asleep.23
Did they have special Christmas food?

Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech   from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens   (1920 reprint of original 1843 edition)
Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech
from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
(1920 reprint of original 1843 edition)
Mince pies go back to at least 1666 as Samuel Pepys refers to them in his diary of that year for Christmas Day:
Lay pretty long in bed, and then rose, leaving my wife desirous to sleep, having sat up till four this morning seeing her mayds make mince-pies. I to church, where our parson Mills made a good sermon. Then home, and dined well on some good ribbs of beef roasted and mince pies; only my wife, brother, and Barker, and plenty of good wine of my owne, and my heart full of true joy; and thanks to God Almighty for the goodness of my condition at this day.24
Wilson also referred to mince pies when talking of the superstitious rituals that Harriot Mellon’s mother adhered to:
Mrs Entwisle had brought her up with the firm belief in the necessity of complying with the superstitious customs attached to certain days, the omission of which would infallibly be followed by ill luck; and therefore, the Christmas mince-pie, Shrove-Tuesday pancakes, Easter tansy-pudding, or Michaelmas-goose, must be tasted, though in ever so small a quantity, nay, even though disagreeable to the partaker, as was her own case respecting the Michaelmas dainty.25
On 16 December 1766, Horace Walpole wrote to his friend George Montagu:
Thank you for your offer of a do; you know, when I dine at home here, it is quite alone, and venison frightens my little meal; yet, as half of it is designed for dimidium animce meee Mrs Clive (a pretty round half), I must not refuse it; venison will make such a figure at her Christmas gambols! only let me know when and how I am to receive it, that she may prepare the rest of her banquet; I will convey it to her.26
Scrooge and Bob Cratchit by John Leech from A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens (1920 reprint of original 1843 edition)
Scrooge and Bob Cratchit by John Leech from A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens (1920 reprint of original 1843 edition)
Did they decorate their homes?

In his journal of his residence in Great Britain in 1810-11, Louis Simond refers to houses decorated with greenery at Christmas:
The villages along the road are in general not beautiful, the houses very poor indeed; the walls old and rough, but the windows generally whole and clean; no old hats or bundles of rags stuck in as in America, where people build, but do not repair. Peeping in, as we pass along, the floors appear to be a pavement of round stones like the streets— a few seats, in the form of short benches — a table or two — a spinning-wheel — a few shelves — and just now (Christmas,) greens hanging about.27
Did they have Christmas trees?

Christmas trees did not become widespread in England until after 1848 although Queen Charlotte had a Christmas tree from at least 1800. You can read more about this on my blog: Did they have Christmas trees in the Regency?

Christmas tree at Windsor Castle from The Illustrated London News Christmas supplement (1848)
Christmas tree at Windsor Castle from The Illustrated 
London News Christmas supplement (1848)

1. Hassan Khan, Mirza Abul, A Persian at the Court of King George 1809-10, edited by Margaret Morris Cloake (1988)
2. The Gentleman's Magazine Supplement July-December 1809
3. Austen, Jane, Emma (1815)
4. Granville, Harriet, Countess, Letters of Harriet, Countess Granville 1810-1845 (1894)
5. Chapman, John H (ed) The Register book of marriages belonging to the Parish of St George, Hanover Square in the County of Middlesex Vol 3 1810-1823 (1896)
6. Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park (1814)
7. Austen, Jane, Persuasion (1817)
8. Austen, Jane, Emma (1815)
9. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
10. Walpole, Horace, Correspondence of Horace Walpole with George Montagu (1837)
11. Edgeworth, Maria, A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth with a selection from her letters (1867)
12. Granville, Harriet, Countess, Letters of Harriet, Countess Granville 1810-1845 (1894)
13. Austen, Jane, Emma (1815)
14. Austen, Jane, Persuasion (1817)
15. Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park (1814)
16. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
17. Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811)
18. Burney, Fanny, Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, edited by her niece, Charlotte Barrett (1842)
19. Austen, Jane, Emma (1815)
20. Wilson, Mrs Cornwell Baron, Memoirs of Miss Mellon, afterwards Duchess of St Albans (1886)
21. Watkins, John, Memoirs of her most excellent majesty Sophia-Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain (1819)
22. Granville, Harriet, Countess, Letters of Harriet, Countess Granville 1810-1845 (1894)
23. Queen Victoria’s journals online
24. Samuel Pepys diary online
25. Wilson, Mrs Cornwell Baron, Memoirs of Miss Mellon, afterwards Duchess of St Albans (1886)
26. Walpole, Horace, Correspondence of Horace Walpole with George Montagu (1837)
27. Simond, Louis, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811 (1815)

Sources used include:
Austen, Jane, Emma (1815)
Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park (1814)
Austen, Jane, Persuasion (1817)
Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Burney, Fanny, Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, edited by her niece, Charlotte Barrett (1842)
Chapman, John H (ed) The Register book of marriages belonging to the Parish of St George, Hanover Square in the County of Middlesex Vol 3 1810-1823 (1896)
Edgeworth, Maria, A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth with a selection from her letters (1867)
Granville, Harriet, Countess, Letters of Harriet, Countess Granville 1810-1845 (1894)
Hassan Khan, Mirza Abul, A Persian at the Court of King George 1809-10, edited by Margaret Morris Cloake (1988)
Simond, Louis, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811 (1815)
The Gentleman's Magazine Supplement July-December 1809
Walpole, Horace, Correspondence of Horace Walpole with George Montagu (1837)
Watkins, John, Memoirs of her most excellent majesty Sophia-Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain (1819)
Wilson, Mrs Cornwell Baron, Memoirs of Miss Mellon, afterwards Duchess of St Albans (1886)

Queen Victoria’s journals online
Samuel Pepys diary online