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A Look Round Georgian Britain


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The Georgian era began with the accession of George I in 1714 and ended, according to choice, either with the death of " The First Gentleman of Europe," in 1830, or the death of his younger brother, William IV, seven years later- that is to say, roughly, that it began two hundred, and closed one hundred, years ago.

A century is not a great period in the history of a country as old as Britain; but the mechanical improvements of the last two score of years have been so enormous and so numerous as to make the Georgian era seem almost as remote as the period when the Norman ruled the land. Even for a man of middle-age to conjure up the condition that existed in the days of his youth requires a considerable effort of memory.

The changes in the last two-score years are certainly greater than have ever been seen in a similar period during the world's history. On the other hand, the transition from the Stuart to the Georgian period was so gradual as to be almost unnoticeable. To-day, new suburbs spring up overnight; and whole towns are erected in a year or two; then, the erection of a row of houses was more than a nine days' wonder to people.

To visualise Georgian Britain, it is particularly necessary to remember that the inhabitants were, for all practical purposes, stationary. The great majority rarely wandered beyond the confines of the parish-except now and then a lad adventured as an apprentice to London, and probably never returned to his home. To travel was costly, and beyond the means of most. Also, it was slow and uncomfortable; and, in the days of the highwayman, not without more than a spice of danger. Only the rich took their holidays at a distance from their residence, and they usually travelled post in their own coaches, themselves and their servants, with elementary caution, well armed for emergencies.

The cleavage between the classes was very definite. Not until George III had been a good many years on the throne did the day of the nabob begin to dawn. The peer and the country gentleman had their mansions; the labourers had their hovels; in the country there were few of the middle-class-they lived in the towns. There were, of course, the clergy; but in most houses they sat below the salt, and the resident chaplains left the table-for the good of their souls-on the appearance of the dessert and the port. The greatest development was, of course, in London; though the northern cities of Manchester and Liverpool and Edinburgh and Glasgow increased in size and population. The most striking changes were, however, elsewhere: especially at the watering-places that were then so popular. Bath, one of the oldest cities in the kingdom, so old that of its origin there is no record, and with it, though in a lesser degree, Tunbridge Wells, Bristol, Scarborough, Harrogate and Cheltenham, among other places, became the recognized resorts of the fashionable world, and of those who liked to mix with the Quality, or at least to observe-so that they could presently imitate-the manners and the costumes of the aristocratic section of society.

At first, people suffering from ailments, real or imaginary, came to these places to drink the waters, in spite of the discomfort and actual danger of insanitary lodgings, and the tedium arising from a total lack of amusement. The leisured class in those times had too much leisure: there was nothing for its members to do but indulge in gaming, drinking and love-making-with an occasional duel (usually arising out of the last pursuit) to give a zest to life. The Corporation of Bath realized that if it could provide entertainment, wealthy folk would flock in numbers to the city. With this idea in view, in 1704 it revived the ancient office of Master of the Ceremonies, and appointed' one Captain Webster.

Webster was not a man of much repute, but he knew his job. He organized balls at the Town Hall, and then provided facilities for gaming. There, a year later, came Richard Nash, who, when, soon after, Webster was conveniently killed in a duel, succeeded to the post. This was the ideal appointment, and in a short time Bath became the most fashionable resort in the kingdom. So many people came to the city that the authorities decided that it was necessary to increase the accommodation. They employed John Wood the elder as an architect, and he in 1728 designed the Assembly Rooms and the. 'North and South Parades, upon which the splendid Folly of the day strutted and swaggered. It was John Wood the younger who planned the splendid Royal Crescent.

The buildings erected by these men were subjected to much hostile criticism. This was amusingly voiced by Smollett in "Humphry Clinker," who, when he wrote, was more than usually splenetic, not merely because he was in bad health, but rather because he had failed to establish a medical practice in the city: " The same artist who planned the Circus has likewise projected a Crescent; when that is finished, we shall probably have a Star; and those who are living thirty years hence may perhaps see all the signs of the Zodiac exhibited in architecture at Bath."

The watering-place became a feature of no little importance. Tunbridge Wells, over which "Beau" Nash also presided, likewise came into prominence, and so did half-a-dozen of the other towns that boasted of springs which were likely to serve as an excuse for those whose only desire was entertainment. Then, about the time that George III became king, Society suddenly discovered the sea. In 1752 Dr. Richard Russell urged on his patients the value of sea-bathing, and Brighton-Brighthelmstone, it was called then-which consisted only of half-a-dozen principal streets, slowly became the prevailing fashion of the day.

Royalty patronised Brighton. The Dukes of Gloucester and York, brothers of the king, came; and in 1771 his Grace of Cumberland. Twelve years later, George, Prince of Wales, paid a visit to the town, and took it under his patronage. He bought a house on The Steyne, altered it, and added to it spending (or owing) a fortune on these processes, until it became that palace which is known as The Pavilion.

The popularity of the watering-place and the seaside resorts had a far-reaching effect upon the inns. The more people travelled, the more concerned were the landlords to make their travellers comfortable They were bound by law to provide post-horses; but now they set about improving their coffee-rooms Brighton could be reached in a day; but the journey to Bath took three days, and bedroom accommodation at the halts had to be provided. The inns were vital to the comfort (or discomfort) of travellers until the time when railways became the usual method of progression-which, however, was not until the reign of Queen Victoria.

The first half-century of the Georgian era was the age of the Folly. "It was a splendid, embroidered be-ruffled, snuff-boxed, red-heeled, impertinent Folly and knew how to make itself respected." Thackeray wrote of the days of the second George. It was the age of the sedan chair and the gilded coach, of handsomely caparisoned lackeys and running footmen;! of ruffles and swords and laced solitaires; of cock-fighting and prize-fighting and masquerades. To turn over the pictures of Hogarth, of Rowlandson and Gillray, and, later, of Dighton, is to obtain a knowledge of the period better far than perusing oceans of print. If it was still the day of the top-dog, the conditions of life for the lower classes steadily, if slowly, improved for the better.

The principal city in Georgian Britain was, of course, London; and during the century its development in every way, was, immense--in area, in trade? in wealth. A glance at a map of London at the accession of George I, and then a glance at one of the date of the death of William IV will show the enormous increase. Buildings sprang up in every direction, and all that can be done is to make a fleeting reference to two or three.

There was Buckingham Palace, which had been built so early as 1703 by John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham; but it was much altered when George III settled it as a dower-house on his bride; whereafter for a time it was called the Queen's House. Still in the Georgian period, in 1825, it was pulled down and rebuilt. Carlton House was on land leased in 1709 by Queen Anne to Henry Boyle, Lord Carleton. After changes of ownership, it came, in 1732, into possession of Frederick, Prince of Wales.

Hall a century later George, Prince of Wales, was allowed a separate establishment, and he selected Carlton House for his residence, and called in Henry Holland, who added the chief features of the house. It was taken down after he ascended the throne; the columns of the portico were used, at the National Gallery. Albany, once the home of Frederick, Duke of York and Albany-hence its title-the mansion was designed by Sir William Chambers-was added to in 1804 for lodgings for gentlemen who did not carry on profession or business in the chambers, and it still serves the same purpose.

On the south side of the Strand the Adelphi (Greek for brothers), near Charing Cross, was erected about 1768 by John, Robert, James and William Adam, after whom the streets were named. It was built on arches, which were a resort of the worst ruffians of the town in order to escape the attentions of the police. These arches are now used for wine-cellars.

London was not only the great commercial city of the day, but it was the headquarters of fashion and of pleasure. Hotels, now so much the seat of hospitality and social life, were then (as we understand them now) non-existent. Poor Shenstone, who said that he found his warmest welcome at an inn, must indeed have been in a bad way, for, anyhow, comfort was not their strong suit. They were used perforce by travellers, who, starting very early in the morning, would stay overnight (so as to be on the spot) at the inn from which the coach started-it might be Slaughter's in St. Martin's Lane; the Old White Cellars (now Hatchett's) in Piccadilly, or the Gloucester, which almost faced it; the Belle Sauvage, or the Saracen's Head, on Ludgate Hill; the Rose and Crown on Holborn Bridge; or the much frequented Three Cups in Bread Street, off Cheapside.

Chocolate and coffee houses were to be found in every quarter, from the City to St. James's Street. Those in the city, like Garroway's and Jonathan's and Robins', were the resort of those who had business to do, and in them many large transactions were made, especially, for a brief period, in the shares of the unfortunate South Sea Company.

In the West End the chocolate and coffee houses were the gathering-places of men of fashion and of the wits. There frequenters, to avoid contact with strangers, hired a room where they could keep themselves to themselves. Presently the part dominated the whole, and the building was turned into a club and reserved entirely for them. Hence such famous institutions as White's and Brooks's and Boodle's.

As regards amusements, there were not even many theatres; Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and Sadler's Wells, of course; some also in, or around, Lincoln's Inn Fields; then, going west, the Hay-market, erected in 1702; His Majesty's, then an Opera House, opened its doors three years later. The theatre came into greater prominence, anyhow as regards number, towards the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century- Astley's Amphitheatre, 1773; the Surrey Theatre (formerly Circus), 1782; the Lyceum, 1794; the Olympic and the Adelphi (first called the Non Pareil), 1806; in 1816 the Victoria which, as the Coburg, opened under the patronage of the Princess Charlotte of Wales and her consort, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg.

Present-day Londoners, or visitors to London, have, as regards the greater number, forgotten the numerous pleasure-gardens that played a considerable part in the social life of all classes of their Georgian forebears. There were in Queen Victoria's day a number of exhibitions with outdoor amusements at South Kensington and Earl's Court, and later at the White City many outdoor attractions; but these had at least the excuse of being educational.

The Georgian pleasure-gardens, though they had the pretence of having mineral springs, were really run for recreation pure and simple-for bowls, dancing, for al-fresco meals, for syllabubs for the ladies and the like. The districts of Clerkenwell and Central London, now so densely populated, were then open fields. To mention only a few, there were Islington Spa and its opposite neighbour, Sadler's Wells; there were the Wells of Bagnigge and Pancras Wells, and the Adam and Eve Garden at Tottenham Court; the Jew's Harp House, the Queen's Head and Artichoke, and the Adam and Eve Garden, all where Regent's Park now is and the Marylebone Gardens, which last became popular when George II was king.

Even in the heart of London were Cupar's Gardens,, over against Somerset House; and in the Westminster Bridge Road was the Temple of Apollo and the Temple of Flora, rival establishments, with painted boxes, illuminations, music and a variety of imitation singing birds. These last two were set up late in the eighteenth century and came to a bad end.

More famous were Ranelagh and Vauxhall. The Ranclagh of that day, which is not to be confused with the sports club of the same name at Barnes, was in Chelsea, occupying the grounds of Ranelagh House, built by Richard Jones, Earl of Ranelagh, at the end of the seventeenth century. It was opened in 1742 as a public garden for concerts and dancing, and was inaugurated with a breakfast. It is worthy of note that the music of the orchestra was frequently written by no less a person than Dr. Arne. It closed its gates in 1804, having probably been outdistanced by the rival Vauxhall Gardens.

The latter came into being in the reign of Charles II and was a place of great resort. Its popularity increased when Jonathan Tyers, under the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, opened it in 1732 for a "vidotto al fresco." In the year 1823 no less than 133,000 persons visited it, and the receipts amounted to the not inconsiderable sum of thirty thousand pounds.

The Vauxhall Gardens, famous for two hundred-years, were finally closed in 1859.


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Pictures for A Look Round Georgian Britain

THE DICTATOR OF BATH
THE DICTATOR OF BATH >>>>
FAMOUS HOUSES IN GEORGIAN LONDON, SHOWN BY CONTEMPORARY PRINTS
FAMOUS HOUSES IN GEORGIAN LONDON, SHOWN BY CONTEMPORARY PRINTS >>>>
THE DRURY LANE OF SIR CHRISTOPHER WREN
THE DRURY LANE OF SIR CHRISTOPHER WREN >>>>
PALLADIAN VILLA AT CHISWICK; A HAYMARKET SHOP AND BOODLE'S CLUB
PALLADIAN VILLA AT CHISWICK; A HAYMARKET SHOP AND BOODLE'S CLUB >>>>
THE FASHIONABLE SPAS OF TUNBRIDGE WELLS AND HARROGATE
THE FASHIONABLE SPAS OF TUNBRIDGE WELLS AND HARROGATE >>>>
PUMP ROOM AT BATH WHERE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY GALLANTS DRANK THE WATERS
PUMP ROOM AT BATH WHERE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY GALLANTS DRANK THE WATERS >>>>
EARLY GEORGIAN BUILDINGS IN BATH. WHERE THE QUALITY CONGREGATED
EARLY GEORGIAN BUILDINGS IN BATH. WHERE THE QUALITY CONGREGATED >>>>
EARLY GEORGIAN BUILDINGS IN BATH. WHERE THE QUALITY CONGREGATED
EARLY GEORGIAN BUILDINGS IN BATH. WHERE THE QUALITY CONGREGATED >>>>
THE PLEASURE GROUNDS AT RANELAGH AND THE PAVILION AT BRIGHTON
THE PLEASURE GROUNDS AT RANELAGH AND THE PAVILION AT BRIGHTON >>>>
GEORGE STREET, EDINBURGH, AND THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY REGISTER HOUSE OF ROBERT ADAM
GEORGE STREET, EDINBURGH, AND THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY REGISTER HOUSE OF ROBERT ADAM >>>>
A WINDOW IN NEWCASTLE
A WINDOW IN NEWCASTLE >>>>
A HOUSE IN SALISBURY CLOSE
A HOUSE IN SALISBURY CLOSE >>>>

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