Mike Rendell is a retired lawyer who lives in Spain. His direct ancestor, Richard Hall, was a stocking maker, haberdasher and farmer who lived in the mid-Georgian period. Hall kept a meticulous diary, wrote many letters and hoarded hundreds of documents and objects that particularly interested him. Much of this – and other directly related material – is in the possession of the author. Rendell has compiled it, made sense of it, related it to the contemporary historical landscape and produced this book: The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman: The Life and Times of Richard Hall, 1729 – 1801.
Hall was born and spent his formative years in Red Lion Street, Southwark – an only child. He followed his father into the stocking making trade. Father and son were without benefit of livery membership, so business was tough. But Richard worked hard, married well and eventually bought himself a shop and respectability in the Square Mile, expanding his wares to general haberdashery, by which time the City establishment readily embraced him at no little cost: money talks. Simultaneously, he minded, nurtured and developed his small-holding interests in rural Berkshire in parnership with his wealthier brother-in-law. Having made his eldest son an equal partner in the London business, friction between them over Richard’s second marriage was largely responsible for Hall moving permanently to the Cotswolds, nonetheless visiting the capital frequently for the remainder of his life. Hence, for the historian, this man’s story has valuable depth, embracing as it does substantial periods of life lived both immediately south and north of London Bridge, plus giving us a good look at how a modest country squire spent his time at the fag-end of the 18th Century.
Hall was a Baptist, and suitably God-fearing; he appeared to have a wide circle of friends; he enjoyed a drink; he was keen to keep up with the Joneses; he was a conscientious if possibly not especially affectionate parent (although this is difficult to judge from the written word alone); he was careful with money yet not above ensuring that his house was well appointed with the latest fixtures, fittings and comforts, or that his children were well shod and went to good schools.
Not especially an original thinker himself (why should he be?), Hall nonetheless had an enquiring mind, being deeply interested in the natural world, notably astronomy, fossils, flora and fauna. He took meticulous notes of all the latest discoveries. Almost daily he tells us about the weather. He records the costs of every single transaction, from tipping a gateman to visiting a museum to re-roofing his house. He relates whom he travelled with, where they stayed, what they ate. We share every ache, pain and malady which befalls him, and what remedies he employs. There is nothing too mundane for Hall to get down on paper. We might consider him a fussy man, a bore even. But so estranged are we in time from just 250 years ago, these jottings give a fascinating insight into life lived then. A banquet for the historian of Georgian daily life.
Exceeding Sharp; Snow, froze very Hard. Froze the water in the Chamber Pot.
Went to the Chapel Royal. Saw the King and Queen, afterwards the zebra (two shillings) and elephants (three shillings).
The value of this book is that it helps one “live in the clothes” of the mid to late-Eighteenth Century. We get a real sense of what things cost, how people dined and entertained themselves, what were their fears and daily concerns. How long it took them to travel from A to B; basic medicine and dentistry; how precarious life could be (his partner’s wife died within seven hours of falling ill). I was interested to discover that Hall and is ilk liked to visit stately homes, something I took to be a 20th Century past-time: far from it.
These, then, are the brush strokes. The wider canvas of the book gives us much context. We learn, for example, about how the Enclosures Acts affected Hall’s farming interests: extremely directly as it happened. Hall and his brother-in-law, both upstanding Christian gentlemen, connived in gerrymandering the local election in order to get a piece of the action, that is to say to get their hands on public land. We discover how Hall coped with the Gordon Riots of 1780: he holed up at a friend’s house until the violence dissipated. We are reminded how hostilites with France at the end of Hall’s story caused economic problems – income tax, burgeoning national debt, acute inflation – and was felt most acutely, as usual, by those on the very bottom of the heap. No radical, Hall was nonetheless on the abolition side of the slavery argument.
There is a strong current trend for historical examination of the life of the aspirational middle class. Historians Amanda Vickery and Lucy Worsley have both recently blazed a trail across our screens. Not for them the rich, the famous, the powerful. This is the history of the street, the shop, the office, the family and the home. Mike Rendell’s excellent book makes a noteworthy contribution to building the picture of Georgian middle-class merchant domesticity.
The book is richly illustrated with photos, maps, contemporary illustrations and, of course, facsimiles of pages of Hall’s own writings. It has generous and interesting appendices.
The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, 255pp, is published by The Book Guild and is priced £17.99 RRP, but available for less.