- News & Events
- Seventeenth Century Life
- Georgian and Regency Life
George III suffered from periods of mental instability and, during the last and most prolonged of these, retired from public view while his son, the Prince of Wales, ruled in his stead. The Prince Regent was well known for his sense of style and his interest in lavishly designed buildings and interiors. His official residence in London was Carlton House and over the years he transformed it from an unassuming property into an opulent palace decorated in the fashionable Regency Classicism style he popularised. The Prince Regent was a great patron of the Arts and frequently commissioned architects, designers and craftsmen but, unfortunately, his lavish lifestyle meant that he was often in debt and didn’t always pay his bills.
Many young men of good families spent a year or two on a Grand Tour overseas discovering ancient ruins and studying architecture, art and sculpture. Inevitably they returned home full of ideas for embellishing and remodelling their family seats. Regency Classicism was a visually rich mixture of pattern, colour and motifs from ancient Egypt, Greece and Imperial Rome. Architects copied and developed these ideas and manufacturers produced illustrated pattern books demonstrating scrolling leaves, drapery, Greek key and stylised flower patterns for use in paper hangings, carpets, furniture inlay and decorative plasterwork.
Thomas Hope (b 1769) began to collect Classical art after his Grand Tour. He believed an interior should be stylistically harmonious and applied these principles to his own home, recording his designs in his book of Household Furniture and Decoration. This became a useful source for designers and was the first book to use the phrase ‘interior decoration’.
Regency furniture is elegant, often made of woods like mahogany and rosewood. Veneers were popular as decorative inlays and ornamental details in brass were often used. Chairs frequently had sabre legs and tables were sometimes styled with carved lion’s legs or sphinx’s heads. Rich damasks, striped silks and taffetas were used to upholster chairs and sofas.
Window treatments were elaborate, often comprising heavy silks with swags and tails, tassels and fringing over muslin under-curtains. Curtains were hung from carved and gilded poles. Earlier Georgian colour schemes were restrained, using paint colours such as sage, blue-grey or burgundy but later the most popular colours were paler: sky or Wedgewood Blue, stone, dusky pink or pea green. As designs became more ostentatious in the Regency era, often influenced by Oriental and Chinese designs, bolder colours came into use: sulphur yellow, crimson, royal blue and strong greens.
The Prince Regent’s taste is perhaps best demonstrated by the exoticism of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, his seaside pleasure palace. In 1815 he commissioned the architect John Nash to begin the transformation of the modest Marine Pavilion into a magnificent oriental palace with minarets, domes and pinnacles on the outside. No expense was spared on the gloriously rich interior with rooms designed for entertaining and even the corridors were opulently decorated and exquisitely furnished.
Flamboyant and sometimes fantastical, the Regency Classicism style still influences designers today.
As an interior designer for most of my working life, Georgian and Regency design has always been one of my favourite influences. The heroine in my latest novel, The House in Quill Court, is an early interior decorator and wallpaper (known then as paperhangings) designer. It was interesting to use my own experiences as a designer to bring authenticity to a character in my novel.Tweet
Reviews are so important to an author so thank you to Mrs M G Powling. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that other readers like The House in Quill Court too.
Once I decided to set The House in Quill Court in the Regency era I began to research what it was like to live in London at that time. Very soon I became fascinated by the contrast between the elegant drawing rooms of the newly built townhouses, set around peaceful garden squares, and the gin shops and brothels in the warrens of squalid rookeries surrounding the city, where the underworld was based. Two completely different societies co-existed in the city.
Crime had reached epidemic proportions and there seemed to be no way of controlling the criminal underworld. Burglary was so common many householders were unable to leave their homes for any period of time without taking elaborate precautions. In the streets you were likely to be jostled by a predatory group of prostitutes or set upon by footpads and cutpurses.
While researching the novel, I was astonished to discover that there was no centralised police force until 1829. Previously, provision of law enforcement was patchy and corrupt, to say the least, and organised crime was growing out of control.
In the mid eighteenth century Henry Fielding had established a centre for law enforcement in Bow Street and over the years the number of people it employed increased. Experienced thief-takers who were fleet of foot became known as Bow Street Runners and could be employed by private citizens. By the end of the century some of the Runners, who didn’t receive a salary, were acting as middlemen, negotiating the return of stolen goods in exchange for a fee paid to the criminal. Sometimes the law enforcers took bribes or framed petty thieves in order to claim a reward.
In 1792 seven new Public Offices, managed along the same lines as Bow Street and manned by stipendiary magistrates appointed by the Crown, were opened. Each had six law enforcement officers but these men often owed their appointment to highly placed acquaintances rather than any special or appropriate skills of their own.
This sometimes corrupt, and often ineffective, force was reformed by Sir Robert Peel in his Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. From then on the Metropolitan Police employed salaried officers, and attempts to contain criminal activities became centralised within the city.
In 1814, however, when The House in Quill Court is set, the power and arrogance of the underworld gang leaders went virtually unchallenged and a co-ordinated attempt to administer justice was still a distant dream.Tweet
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,
Please do put a penny in the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!
In wealthy households the Regency Christmas dinner was often eaten between six and seven in the evening and consisted of several courses, each with up to twenty different items, laid out in a symmetrical pattern on the table. This was known as dining à la francaise. There would have been soup, vegetables and a variety of fish dishes. Roast beef and venison were the star of the dinner table, with a supporting cast of mutton, brawn, goose or capon. Game was frequently eaten: pheasant, grouse, pigeon, partridge and hare. This style of dining was gradually giving way to eating à la russe, a custom introduced by the Prince Regent’s chef, where dishes were served in sequence.
In Norfolk, swan was still traditional. Older birds were too tough to eat but cygnets were penned for six months or so and fattened on grass and barley. It wasn’t until the middle of the C19th that turkey became popular. Turkey had been introduced from America in the C16th and were driven to market in London from Norfolk wearing little boots to protect their feet. Both domestic and wildfowl were at their fattest at the end of the year, making them a succulent choice at Christmas time. In the wild, feed became scarce in the early months of the new year and birds became leaner.
Smaller households may have had only a small oven, or no oven at all, and so housewives took their beef or goose to the bakers on the way to church on Christmas morning, collecting the roasted meat after the service. Stuffing made with bread made the meat go further in large families and there would be seasonal vegetables such as carrots, cabbages and artichokes.
Christmas pies, originating in Yorkshire, were made of a vast ‘coffin’ of pastry filled with boned poultry. This might have included a turkey stuffed with a goose, in turn filled with a capon, a duck and a pigeon. A decorative, glazed lid topped the pie and as it cooked the goose fat based the other birds, keeping the meat moist and tender. Melted butter was poured in through a hole in the top of the cooked pie to fill any cavities, extending its keeping qualities.
Christmas pudding was carried to the table with ceremony (see my earlier post on Stir-Up Sunday) and mince pies would also be served. The mincemeat then contained chopped beef, suet, dried fruits, eggs, orange peel, spices and brandy. Mince pies were less sweet than those we eat today. They were baked in dozens and eaten every day for the Twelve Days of Christmas to ensure good luck for the coming year.
Wealthy households might also serve unseasonal fruits, such as pineapples or grapes, from their country estate glasshouses and there would be nuts, marchpane and candied fruits with sweet desert wine to end this magnificent repast.
The Regency Christmas dinner presented a wonderful opportunity for the rich to display their wealth and for their less-advantaged relatives and neighbours to enjoy their splendid hospitality. Christmas time was unlikely to be very merry, however, for the poor living in country hovels or city slums.Tweet
In the Regency era Christmas festivities began on the 6th December, St Nicholas’s Day, with the exchange of small gifts and ended on January 6th, Twelfth Night. This month was a time for parties, suppers and balls with family and friends and for charity to the poor, especially on Saint Thomas’s day, the 21st December. There was little financial help other than the workhouse for the poor widows of soldiers who had died in the Napoleonic wars. They would go ‘thomasing’ by calling at the kitchen doors seeking alms or food parcels.
On Christmas Eve holly and evergreens were gathered by both the gentry and the poor and brought inside to decorate the house. This was an ancient tradition and a part of the festive trinity of greenery, warmth and light to herald the end of the long, dark and cold days of winter. Rosemary, bay and laurel were woven into wreaths and garlands and decorated with apples, oranges, ribbons and holly berries. Mistletoe was made into a kissing ball or bough and each time a kiss was exchanged, a berry was plucked from the sprigs until none were left, and then the kissing had to stop.
A candle was lit on Christmas Eve to dispel the winter gloom and the Yule log was brought in from the woods. It would be wrapped in hazel twigs, dragged home and lit with a small piece of the previous year’s log. This great blazing fire was kept going as long as possible and formed the heart of family gatherings.
Christmas day was a national holiday and people attended church and returned home to a splendid celebration dinner with relatives and friends. The day after Christmas day is Saint Stephen’s day, a day for charity. The rich gave their servants and tenants their ‘Christmas Boxes’ of gifts or money, hence the name ‘Boxing Day’.
Many of the Christmas customs we associate with Christmas today didn’t originate until the Victorian era. Prince Albert is reputed to have started the tradition of the Christmas tree but in fact it was Queen Charlotte, wife of George III who brought the first tree to Britain. In 1848 a published illustration of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a vast fir tree glowing with candles and glittering baubles sparked the imagination of the public and Christmas trees became popular.
Christmas cards didn’t exist in the Regency era, either. Sir Henry Cole, who had been involved with the introduction of postage stamps a few years before, commissioned the first Christmas card in 1843. Cards usually depicted the coming of spring rather than religious or winter scenes. Although singing was a popular form of entertainment at social gatherings many carols were not written until after this time. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night, however, were written in the late eighteenth century and, although the words were added in 1853, the tune of In Dulci Jubilo goes back to the middle ages.
Twelfth Night marked the end of the Christmas season and often a party was held with dancing and singing, all accompanied by plenty of hot, spiced wine and games such as bobbing for apples. It was considered bad luck to keep the greenery in the house after Twelfth Night and so it was all taken down and burned.
After her Christmas guests had departed in 1807, Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, ‘I shall be left to the comfortable disposal of my time, to ease of mind from the torments of rice puddings and apple dumplings, and probably to regret that I did not take more pains to please them all.’
I imagine Jane Austen won’t have been the only hostess to heave a sigh of relief as she put her feet up with a cup of tea once she’d waved goodbye to her guests!
I love to make pomanders at this time of year so that by the time Christmas arrives the house is gloriously perfumed with their rich, spicy scent. When I was a child, making pomanders was just as much a festive ritual as Stir-up Sunday.
Originally, pomanders were silver or ivory filigree balls filled with spices, their scent fixed with ambergris, civet or musk. In the French language they were called ‘pommes d’ambre’ and used from medieval times to freshen the air against unpleasant smells.
These pretty clove-studded oranges are easy to make and look pretty hanging from silky scarlet ribbons or piled into a shallow bowl with festive greenery and placed on a coffee table.
You will need:
whole cloves – it may be less expensive to buy these in bulk online
scarlet, silver or gold ribbon
To make the spice mix, stir together the following:
4 tablespoons ground cloves
4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons orris root
2 tablespoons ground allspice
2 tablespoons ground nutmeg
The only ingredient here that isn’t readily available in the supermarket is the orris root but you may be able to buy this from a health shop. You can easily find it online. Alternatively, you could use 16 drops of sandalwood oil.
Now comes the fun bit.
Roll the oranges gently between your palms to soften the skin, then stud the fruit with the cloves, forming patterns of stripes or swirls. Leave unstudded where you intend to tie the ribbon when the pomander has dried and mind your fingers as cloves can be sharp! You may find it helpful to pierce the orange skin with a cocktail stick before pushing in the spiky stalk end of the clove. When you have finished, roll each studded orange in the spice mix so that it is evenly covered.
The oranges now need to be wrapped loosely in tissue paper and dried – the airing cupboard or the back of the Aga is ideal. It will take two or three weeks for the oranges to dry and they will be hard when they are ready.
Brush off any surplus spice and tie up with a decorative ribbon.
Your pomanders will continue to fragrance your home for months, even years, if you refresh them occasionally with some clove oil and a little of the reserved spice mixture.
Stir-Up Sunday falls on the last Sunday before Advent, which is the twenty-second of November this year. The name is derived from a quote from the Bible: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord!’ This may have been part of a stirring Sunday morning sermon and a timely reminder to make the pudding so that it would have matured by the twenty-fifth of December.
I love the festive traditions and, when I was a child, helping my mother to make the Christmas pudding on Stir-Up Sunday was one of my favourites. There was something very comforting about chatting together as we sat at the kitchen table picking stalks out of the currants and raisins. The fruit was then washed and dried on a clean tea towel in a low oven while we weighed out the remaining ingredients. The scent of drying currants mixed with nutmeg, cinnamon and brandy always smells like the essence of Christmas to me.
Once the pudding was mixed, silver sixpenny pieces were added and all the family gave the pudding a stir and made a wish. Whoever found a silver sixpenny piece in their pudding would have good luck in the coming year. I was delighted to discover that the Royal Mint has recently announced plans to give away over two thousand sixpenny coins in an attempt to revive the tradition. Sixpenny bits were first minted in the rein of Edward VI in 1551.
The Christmas pudding, often known as a plum or figgy pudding since it sometimes contained dried plums or figs, was an important part of the Georgian and Regency Christmas dinner. The pudding included thirteen ingredients to represent Jesus and the twelve apostles and it was garnished with a sprig of holly to remind us of Christ’s crown of thorns.
Once the pudding has been steamed for several hours it is doused with brandy and set alight. Flickering with blue flames and carried with ceremony to the table in a temporarily darkened room, the Christmas pudding makes a theatrical grand finale to the festive dinner.
Here is a recipe for Christmas pudding reputedly used for the Royal Family.
1 1/4 lb. Suet
1 lb. Demerara (cane) sugar
1 lb. raisins
1 lb. sultanas
4 oz. citron peel
4 oz. candied peel
1 tsp. mixed spice
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 lb. breadcrumbs
1/2 lb. sifted flour
1 lb. eggs (weighed in their shells)
1 wineglassful brandy
1/2 pint milk
Prepare all ingredients, well whip the eggs, add to milk, and thoroughly mix. Let stand for 12 hours in a cool place, add brandy and put into well-greased basins and boil 8 hours or longer. Sufficient for twenty to twenty-eight people.
If you would like to discover more about a Regency Christmas you can read my festive short story, Christmas at Quill Court available from Amazon at 99p.Tweet
Growing up in the nineteen fifties, perhaps it’s easier for me than for today’s young women to imagine what it might have been like to live in the Georgian or Regency era. Although the women’s liberation movement was gaining strength during my teenage years most women still lived lives constrained by domesticity and their menfolk.
Today women take it for granted that we have the freedom to speak our minds, own property, marry for love, have a career and gain custody of our children, etc but this wasn’t always the case for our female forbears.
A woman, and her fortune, became her husband’s property when they married and he had almost unlimited power over her. Many marriages were arranged between families where the bride had little say in the choice of her husband. Sometimes love or affection grew but when love didn’t flourish some husbands were cruel. Divorce was almost unheard of and society didn’t think badly of a man who found love elsewhere, whilst infidelity in a woman might cause her to be cast out of society and to lose her children. Sophie, one of the characters in The Chateau on the Lake, suffered such a husband and this forced her to take dramatic measures.
A good marriage to a man with a comfortable income was vitally important for a woman as she rarely had any other means of financial support. Spinsters were often forced to live upon the charity of their families, passed around like a parcel to nurse elderly relatives or sick children. You only have to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to see what a worry it was, especially in the case of a family with several daughters to settle.
Death stalked even the wealthiest families and it was common for women to die in childbed. This was an opportunity for women who hadn’t found a husband whilst in the first flush of youth, or for widows, to marry a widower and take responsibility for the ordering of his household and, perhaps, his children too.
Despite the risks, marriage was still a state desired by women and usually preferable to the alternative of a life of uncomfortable spinsterhood.
In many cases, with a little kindness and some accommodation, friendship and love often grew between spouses even if the marriage had been made out of convenience.Tweet