By Joanne Major and Sarah Murden

Pen & Sword Books. 170 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-52675-785-2


An exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, 9th October, 2019 to 5th January, 2020


An exhibition at The Foundling Museum, London, 20th September, 2019 to 5th January, 2020

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The “long eighteenth century” ran from the late-seventeenth century to the eighteen-thirties, according to the authors of this book. And it’s probably fair enough to accept that, from the point of view of manners and morals, there was a kind of continuity of behaviour that marked the period concerned. After 1830 or so things began to change. Queen Victoria came to the throne and instituted a code of conduct that was markedly different to that which applied earlier. The parading of mistresses became less evident among politicians, the aristocracy, and members of the Royal Family. I’m generalising, and a closer look at the nineteenth-century will quickly demonstrate that mistresses were not in short supply in some quarters, and that prostitution was rife. It was all still there, but not in quite as obvious a way as previously.

It may be that, because things appeared to be much more on display in the eighteenth-century, there is a greater level of material to be drawn on when surveying the relevant years. Think of Hogarth, Rowlandson, Gillray, and others. Artists satirised the antics of the upper-classes, and in Hogarth’s case laid down morality tales about wastrel young men disposing of their inheritances in riotous living, and innocent young women being drawn into lives of depravity. The lower-classes didn’t come off any better and were shown as addicted to drink and cruel sports. It could all be made to seem great fun, as in Pierce Egan’s Life in London, which chronicles the “rambles and sprees” of Jerry Hawthorn, Corinthian Tom, and Bob Logic.

All Things Georgian doesn’t claim to be a complete history of the Georgian era, but instead selects certain individuals and incidents to illustrate certain aspects of a time when society was in a state of flux, cities were rapidly expanding, and it was often easy for those with a flair for flamboyant persuasion, and the gift of the gab, to re-invent themselves. Sarah Wilson was a kitchen-maid in a “grand home in Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square)” who somehow contrived to “snare the son of a wealthy Surrey farmer and broom-maker in matrimony”. She gave a false name at the ceremony and claimed to be a nobleman’s daughter who was due to inherit a large fortune. Once she had used up her husband’s money she abandoned him, and moved on to fresh pastures. She turned up in Coventry using the title, Lady Wilbrahammon, “a gentlewoman in distress”, and dropping names that impressed local people who lent her money or advanced credit. She promised to make things right once she came into the estate she said would be hers when she was 21.

When she re-appeared, it was in Great Budworth in Cheshire. There, Richard Frith of Crowton Hall believed her story and not only fed her, but provided new clothes so that she could travel to Kendal and then London, all at Frith’s expense. Sarah promised to express her gratitude by appointing him steward of the large estate that she would soon own. Frith and his family were so taken in by her story that they named their newly-born daughter after her.

Her mistake appears to have been that she returned to Coventry, where she began to arouse suspicions. She was ordered to remain at the inn where she was lodging while enquiries were made about her, but she “borrowed” money from the landlord, and disappeared. She was eventually arrested in Wiltshire, labelled “a vagabond, cheat and impostress”, and sent to London for trial. Convicted of a fraud committed at a London shop two years earlier, she was sentenced to seven years transportation. Her story doesn’t end there. She ran away from the person who had “purchased” her in America, and turned up in South Carolina under the name of Princess Susanna Carolina Mathilda, a friend of Queen Charlotte. The local gentry seem to have fallen for her story, but little or nothing is known of her whereabouts after that.

Con-artists are known in every age, of course, but Sarah perhaps succeeded easily with her frauds because communications were limited in the late-eighteenth century, and once out of London she would have been able to get away with her fabrications if she kept moving. And the perennial desire of people to be linked to others of a higher social status than themselves no doubt played a big part in her play-acting. It’s said that she might have been “one of the great actresses of her day” had she chosen the stage rather than crime as her profession.

Actresses frequently crop up in All Things Georgian where they beguile earls and dukes, and become mistresses of princes and even kings. Elizabeth Hartley “was a striking red-headed beauty with a lively disposition”.  Like some other celebrated females, she seems to have spent some time working in a brothel run by a Mrs Kelly. Emma Hamilton, who later married Lord Nelson, also functioned as one of Mrs Kelly’s girls. The celebrated painter¸ Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted Hartley’s portrait while she was living with Kelly, but she soon ran off with a young man who frequented the establishment. When they were short of money she was persuaded to go on the stage, an occupation which wasn’t looked on as respectable in polite circles, even if wealthy and titled men competed for the favours of actresses. She had more than one affair, and there was even the threat of a duel being fought over her, but when her health declined she retired and lived quietly until she died at the age of 73.

She wasn’t as colourful as Lavinia Fenton who was said to have been a “whore, waitress and barmaid” before taking to the stage, where she was a great success in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. She attracted the attention of the Duke of Bolton, and Hogarth portrayed them both, she on stage, he looking on, when he painted a scene from the opera. She lived as Bolton’s mistress until his wife died and he married Lavinia, thus making her the Duchess of Bolton.

Every age has its characters, but the eighteenth century seems to have abounded in them. The “wicked” Lord Lyttelton “enjoyed a reputation as both a libertine and a politician”. Like many men of his kind he was always on the lookout for a woman with money, and he married a wealthy widow primarily for the £20,000 she had. When the ceremony was over he promptly left for Paris “with a barmaid who had caught his eye”. We’re not told what happened to the wife, or the barmaid, though it’s easy to imagine that neither of them lasted too long in Lyttelton’s affections. He no doubt soon spent his wife’s money, the law at the time stating that what she had belonged to him once they were married.

It’s not all flighty women and money-grubbing men. The parade of oddballs and eccentrics includes Sir Joseph Banks, a botanist and naturalist with a place in history. He accompanied Captain Cook on one of his voyages to the Pacific where, when they landed in Tahiti, Banks found himself a compliant female companion despite having left behind a fiancé in London. When he returned to London, presumably without the lady from Tahiti, it cost Banks £5,000 to break the engagement, his attention having been diverted to a “spirited, intelligent and pretty young girl who was a pupil at Blacklands House Boarding School on Chelsea Common”. She was seventeen. When Banks discovered that she had left school, and was living in impoverished circumstances, he “set her up in a finely-furnished house on Orchard Street where, in the autumn of 1773, she gave birth to Banks’ child”. It’s not known what happened to her (her name even seems a mystery), and Banks took up with a new mistress, Sarah Wells and lived with her for some years. It’s said that they “parted amicably” when he married the heiress, Dorothea Hugessen, in 1779.  His amorous exploits appear to have come to an end at that point.  

Arsonists, including one, a religious maniac, who attempted to burn down York Cathedral, make an appearance. And there was Jenny Cameron, a “Female Imposter” who wore male clothing and claimed to have fought alongside her husband, an officer in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army when the Jacobite cause received its death blow at Culloden. There were attempts to assassinate Royalty which were usually the actions of deranged people who went to the asylum and not the gallows. And the “Resurrection Men”, or body-snatchers as they were commonly known, who specialised in digging up fresh bodies and selling them to medical schools so student could practice dissection. If caught, the common thieves were usually punished while the surgeons and others who encouraged the practice were invariably never prosecuted. They even justified it as a necessity.

Coffee-houses, balloon-flights, a zebra given as a gift to Queen Charlotte, which became an object of attention, (Stubbs did a painting of the animal) and was popularly known as “The Queen’s Ass”,  smugglers, and much more can be found in the pages of this entertaining, if capricious (in terms of the selection of material) book. It’s anecdotal, and anyone wanting a deep survey of social and economic factors relating to Georgian Britain will need to look elsewhere. But it is lively and well-illustrated, and in a small way can be quite instructive about social class and its effects. The means by which women, in particular, were very much at the mercy of men are easy to discern as their stories unfold. Brothels and/or the stage were often how to avoid poverty and sometimes climb higher up the social ladder. When a woman had money and position she was frequently a target for adventurers, and could easily be stripped of her fortune and then deserted. The Georgian Age had its colourful side, but also its darker aspects which are too easy to overlook.

It makes me wonder whether the unnamed woman made pregnant by Joseph Banks had occasion to visit The Foundling Hospital where unwanted babies could be handed in and cared for? An exhibition at the Foundling Museum concentrates on the theatre and other entertainments in the eighteenth-century, and so can be linked to all those actresses who were successful, or not, and if lucky married well or at least ended their days in comfort. Posters, handbills, programmes, paintings and drawings of theatres, the performers, and their audience, are on display, and there are items relating to the famous (infamous to some eyes) Pleasure Gardens at Vauxhall and Ranelagh. There is much to be gained from the exhibition, but before leaving the building have a look at the Museum’s general stock of material about the Foundling Hospital. The records of all those abandoned children can be a sobering rebuttal to the high jinks too often seen as the legacy of the Georgian Era.

William Hogarth was well-aware of the pitfalls facing many people in London, and his series of paintings, “A Rake’s Progress” and “A Harlot’s Progress”, had a moral purpose as they traced the downfall of a young man foolishly squandering his inheritance in brothels and gambling dens, and a similar story of a naïve country girl arriving in the city and being enticed into prostitution. Hogarth painted other series, including “The Humours of an Election” and “Marriage a la Mode”, and they are all to be seen in the small exhibition at the Soane’s Museum. There are also gems such as the familiar “Gin Lane” alongside the lesser-known “Beer Street”. A feast for the eye for fans of Hogarth.