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Monday, 29 March 2010

Real Life in Regency England

We’ve all coveted the fashion prints, or explored the stately homes and gardens, or perhaps pictured ourselves whirling around a ballroom with Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett. But are we in danger of losing sight of the ‘real’ Regency?
It’s easy to get seduced by the affluent lifestyles of the upper classes. Yet the Regency was an age of contrasts. Far away from the glitzy world of clubs like Almack’s and White’s, social unrest in counties such as Cheshire embodied the real spirit of the age. 
The Napoleonic Wars placed a huge financial burden on Britain. The working classes groaned under the weight of taxes on tea, soap, salt, sugar and other household items. War and a succession of bad harvests led to great hardship. When bread prices hit famine levels in 1812, workers rioted. The Luddites attacked mill owners’ factories and homes. The Corn Laws, introduced in 1815 to protect the profits of the landed and farming interests, kept the price of corn at grossly inflated levels. Two years later, celebrity chef Carême created a famous feast at Brighton Pavilion for the Prince Regent and guests with over 100 different dishes on the menu.
The working classes bitterly resented the Corn Laws, but they had no vote. Booming industrial towns such as Manchester and Stockport, with spiralling populations, had no representation in parliament. Political tension simmered between the upper and lower classes. It’s a measure of workers’ desperation that they risked their lives for change. The Radical reform movement was brutally repressed by a paranoid administration terrified that Revolution would cross the Channel from France. Lancashire and Cheshire workers protesting peacefully in the ‘march of the Blanketeers’ and on the field of Peterloo were met by the gleaming sabres of the yeomanry cavalry.
The penal code was savage; land and property were sacrosanct. Men faced transportation for stealing a pheasant to feed their families. Medieval punishments such as the stocks and scold’s bridle were still used in Cheshire towns. Even children could face a death sentence for stealing property worth seven shillings or more, although in practice the sentence was often commuted to transportation. Eleven year old Samuel Jones spent six months in Knutsford’s House of Correction in 1828 for stealing linen.
It’s fair to say that many members of the privileged classes took their social responsibilities very seriously. Jane Austen was well acquainted with the nature of poverty. In Emma (1816), she describes the cottage of a ‘poor sick family’ living near Highbury, with its ‘outward wretchedness’ and ‘still greater within.’ It’s one of Emma Woodhouse’s nicer traits that she is ‘very compassionate’, and Georgian charity flowed freely. In Cheshire, charity balls were held and soup kitchens set up to help relieve silk workers’ families suffering during a trade depression, which was exacerbated by the banking crash of 1825-6.
Many silk and cotton workers were children and young people. Those elegant muslins and silks depicted in La Belle Assemblée and the Lady's Monthly Museum were made by cheap child labour.
The new factories springing up during the industrial revolution needed workers. Some were ‘free’ labour children sent to the mill by their parents. Farmer’s boy Adam Rushton hated the long hours he worked in the Macclesfield silk mills, but his impoverished parents needed his wages. In one Stockport cotton mill in 1816, 145 of its 418 workers were under eighteen. Tiny children were small enough to crawl under and clean the ‘mules’ which spun cotton; their fingers could nimbly fasten together broken threads. Children as young as five years old worked for fourteen hours a day or more for a few pennies each day.
Other child workers were parish apprentices. Some London parishes sent cartloads of workhouse children to northern counties. These children were apprenticed to factory owners from age nine or ten until they were twenty-one. The parish apprentices were legally owned by their masters, who didn’t pay the children a wage – just fed and clothed them.
By contrast, ‘The First Gentleman of Europe’ squandered £30,000 p.a. on his racing establishment alone. The Prince Regent alienated his subjects with his spendthrift ways, gambling, love affairs and bitter feud with Prince Caroline. William Cobbett commented that when George IV was buried in July 1830, the people of London, far from showing grief, treated the event as a public holiday.
So spare a thought for those who really paid for the dreaming spires of Brighton Pavilion: the impoverished millions who also inhabited Jane Austen’s ‘Regency World.’

This article first appeared in Jane Austen's Regency World. © Sue Wilkes.
Images: Men’s fashions, winter wear, French engraving by Camus, c.1830. French modes were in vogue, even though England was at war with France.

Map of Cheshire, 1819 by John Cary. West is at the top of the map.

Scold’s Bridle or Brank. Chambers’ Book of Days, Vol. II, 1864.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Big Cheese

At last we have some daffodils blooming in our garden – I cannot remember them being this late for many years. Spring was a busy time for farmers in Regency Cheshire. Ploughing for barley began in April, and in May farmers started work on their potato crop. The end of the Napoleonic wars was a very bad time for Cheshire farmers; they found it very difficult to sell their produce, because there was a trade depression.
Cheshire, of course, was famous for its cheese. The best dairies were in the Nantwich area. The Weaver valley was said to produce some of the finest cheese in the county. During the early nineteenth century, 92,000 cows were kept for dairy production; about 11,500 tons of cheese were produced each year. Whey left over from the cheese-making process was used to feed pigs; the pigs favoured by Cheshire farmers were a mixture of long-eared and short-eared breeds.
In 1825, huge cheeses were presented as gifts to the Duke of York and the Bishop of Chester by some ‘No Popery’ Cheshire folk as a mark of approbation for the peers’ stance against Catholic Emancipation. The Duke of York’s cheese weighed 132 lb.

Image: ‘The Cow and the Mischievous Boy,' and ‘The Bull, the Pig and the Robbers’. Engravings by Harrison Weir and J.Greenaway, Children’s Picture Book of the Sagacity of Animals, George Routledge & Sons, 1872).

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Cheshire Luddites

The spring of 1812 was a time of huge industrial unrest in north west England. Families were starving; food prices had risen to unprecedented levels, and wages had fallen. Wheat had reached the famine price of 152s 3d per quarter, and potatoes (the staple food of the working classes) were three times their usual price. Starving handloom weavers blamed the introduction of steam-powered looms for depressing the cost of their labour.
The workers decided on direct action. In February 1812, arsonists attacked Peter Marsland’s steam loom factory at Stockport, and unsuccessfully torched William Radcliffe’s steam loom factory in March. Manufacturers weren’t even safe in their own homes. In early April, Peter Marsland’s house windows were broken, and the homes of mill owners William Radcliffe and Mr Hindley were also attacked. Macclesfield, too, saw riots by angry cotton workers in the same month. The Cheshire Yeomanry had a full-time job keeping public order. You can find out more about the riots and the rioters’ fate in Regency Cheshire.

Image: Harrison’s Improved Powerloom, exhibited by Harrison’s of Blackburn at the Great Exhibition. Illustrated London News, 23 August 1851.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

A Grand Day Out

I had a smashing day out in Bath on Saturday. First I met up with fellow author Jane Odiwe for lunch, which was lovely, thank you, Jane. Then on to the Guildhall for a fascinating talk by Claire Tomalin on the art of biography, sponsored by Jane Austen's Regency World. Claire gave the audience some intriguing insights into the way she approached writing her biographies of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. She advised would-be biographers to ‘travel the ground’ where their subjects lived whenever possible. The Guildhall is a beautiful building; the room where we had the talk was decorated in pastel green and gilt, illuminated with huge sparkling chandeliers. After the talk I met up with Tim Bullamore and other luminaries from Jane Austen’s Regency World, and we had a lovely afternoon tea at the Jane Austen Centre. So a big thank you to Tim for inviting me, and for the warm welcome I received. It was wonderful to meet everyone.

Image: The author and Jane Odiwe, author of Willoughby's Return, outside the Guildhall in Bath. © Sue Wilkes.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Library Angst

I have only just discovered, to my abject horror, that Manchester Central Library is closing until 2103! And the archives service there has already closed down! I was planning several trips to research my books. The library's collection will be stored down our Cheshire salt mines.  And to add to the misery, Liverpool Central Library will close this year for a major overhaul. Didn't anybody realise that two of the biggest libraries in the north-west would be closed at the same time?

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Mistakes Writers Make

Writers Bureau tutor Alex Gazzola has just started a new blog called Mistakes Writers Make. The new website will include market information for novice writers, and will be packed with good advice and tips, so do take a look if you are a novice writer.