Posts Tagged ‘Georgian London’

Last week I gave St Paul’s Covent Garden a proper visit for the first time. The church was designed by Inigo Jones, having been commissioned by the Duke of Bedford, who told him to keep it simple. He wanted to keep costs down, so instructed the architect it should be no more than a barn, to which Jones replied: “Then you shall have the handsomest barn in England.” And so it is.


It is known as the Actors’ Church and once inside you’ll see on all walls, nooks and crannies, commemorative plaques and memorials to notable thespians of the past. This one, to Charles Macklin, immediately caught my attention.


Just look at that carving of a theatrical mask with a knife penetrating the left eye. Very gruesome you may think, and you’d be right. This must allude to the true tale of the killing by Macklin of a fellow actor Thomas Hallam by fatally wounding him through the eye with his cane. The violent dispute – apparently over a wig – took place backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Macklin defended himself in court and was convicted of accidental manslaughter, resulting in being branded with a cold iron.

Although his actual birthdate is unclear, Charles Macklin (c1690 – 1797) was born in Ulster and enjoyed an extraordinarily long life for his or any other era. A larger-than-life character, he became a leading Shakespearean actor on the London stage as well as writing and producing dramas of his own.

Based primarily at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (with whom he was constantly in dispute), he made his name through the realistic portrayal of Shakespearean drama, most famously in his depiction of Shylock. This was a radical transformation, for the first time making these plays as something we would recognise today. Audiences loved it.

He set up an acting school, mentoring among others David Garrick who then took Shakespeare to yet another level again in the decades to come. Lessons were given both at his home and in the upstairs room of the Bedford coffee house where Macklin would also be found expounding cantakerously to all and sundry. Essentially, he had founded London’s first drama academy.


Charles Macklin in later life, by John Opie

These are just the basics.
Further reading.
Wikipedia is a pretty good start, here.
My first introduction to him was in Mr Foote’s Other Leg (2012) by Ian Kelly, pp90 and ff. Excellent further detail, especially on the coffee shop scene and drama school.

More images of St Paul’s, Covent Garden in our Flickr space, here.




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Review. The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, by Julian Woodford.  

boss-of-bethnal-greenSometimes you have to wonder how someone as notorious as Joseph Merceron (1764 – 1839) can become all but forgotten to history. Well, it happens, because that is exactly the case here, until historian Julian Woodford stumbled across him while investigating something else, which is so often the way. It must be said that Merceron did catch the attention of radical historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the early 20C, but after that, what little there was, has been based almost entirely on the Webbs’ own research. But now Woodford, who has spent over a decade investigating the life and career of Merceron, has put him firmly in the spotlight. Joseph Merceron was singularly nasty local politician who exercised total control over the a large swathe of East London for half a century during which time Bethnal Green was – according to Roy Porter – “a law unto itself”. It can be argued that his “reign” is still being felt by the area two centuries later.

As his unusual name might suggest, Merceron was born of a proud Huguenot family made good, largely thanks to his father James, a former silk weaver who had become a well-off local rent collector and pawn broker, based in Brick Lane. Not the most noble of professions in an already poor area, you might think.

Whatever the sins of the father, Joseph put these in the shade. Of James’s children, Merceron junior took to the business to the manner born, collecting rents from the benighted local poor while still in his teens. Expanding this side of the business, he quickly expanded his intrests to property development, pub management and local politics. He became all-powerful locally through control of the parish vestry and control of the finances – virtually all the finances – of Bethnal Green by dint of being its Treasurer. There were few areas of local life that Merceron’s tentacles did not reach. He became a senior magistrate, notably the licensing Magistrate for pubs. Thereby he took care of his own and clients’ pubs, many of which descended into brothels, notably and controversially in Shadwell. Equally, if you weren’t a Merceron adherent, your pub would not get licensed. Similarly, he held a seat on the Commission of Sewers while simultaneously being a director in a water company. Conflict of interest clearly didn’t apply. In addition, Joseph sat on countless committees for this, that or the other. Whatever he didn’t control utterly, he at least influenced. Like organised criminals in the modern sense, he had placemen everywhere and, if things seemed in the balance, he could summon a mob of heavies in a trice.

When corruptly amassing eye-watering wealth, you need tame bankers. Merceron placed his and Bethnal Green’s money with Chatteris & Co, run by the Mainwaring family.  He backed William and George Mainwaring, father and so respectively, to be one of the MPs for Middlesex, thus ensuring a voice in Parliament.

When you find that Merceron defrauded members of his own family of an inheritance which was relative peanuts to him, one must conclude that his avarice was pathalogical, for he did not lead an extravagant lifestyle personally.

There has never been an individual as powerful on local government before or since, including Lutfur Rahman, whose reign in Tower Hamlets quite recently was thankfully quashed (it carried many Merceron hallmarks).

Apart from being a superb and informative read, the book is very nicely constructed. Beautifully designed and peppered with well-chosen photos, illustrations and portraits, all where they belong in relation to the text. Amazingly, no known portrait of Merceron exists, though likenesses of most of the other leading players are featured. Very good end notes, bibliography and index.

The Boss of Bethnal Green is a fascinating and impeccably-researched account. It is sensational without being sensationalist, which is what makes it such a gripping read. It’s everything an accessible history book should be and I commend it to you.

The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, 396pp by Julian Woodford is published by Spitalfields Life Books, with a jacket price of £20. Out of stock at Amazon at time of writing, it’s available in Waterstone’s, other bookshops and directly from the publisher.

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Georgian London, Lucy InglisMany of us enjoy and admire Lucy Inglis’s blog, Georgian London. Now: the book. Subtitled Into the Streets. The reason for this, I’m guessing, is not because it focuses on street urchins, noises, smells and the like – although there are sufficient of those – but that it is organised by geographical area rather than by theme.

London was a hugely different city in 1830 from that of 1714. Through this geographic approach – chapter by chapter – the author shows us almost literally how the streetscapes, buildings and houses developed through the decades, who made them, who lived in them, who worked in them.

So we start in the City, specifically new St Paul’s which was completed at the very dawn of our period; Westminster follows, then Bloomsbury, Mayfair, Soho, spiralling outwards to the burgeoning suburbs and especially towards the end of the era the industrial explosion in the East along with the docks and wharves of the world’s number one trading capital.

On this framework are draped stories of the most fascinating people, great and small. Historians of London may know some of them: the Fieldings, Jonas Hanway, Mary Wortley Montagu (my heroine!), and so on. And while the big celebrities of the age – Hogarth, Johnson, Reynolds etc – are nodded at in passing, the writer has rightly glossed over them to serve up the lesser-known but no less absorbing. So we learn, rather, of carving entrepreneur Mary Coade; Peter the Wild Boy; the French gingerbread maker, Tiddy Doll; the Hackney justice Henry Norris; possibly my favourite – James Brydges, Duke of Chandos – who was rubbish at business but a fabulous patron of music and art, a gentleman collector with taste who once invited his losing opponent in a duel to join him for dinner; and dozens of others. Do we have their equivalents today? Perhaps it’s because I don’t often read the Daily Mail, but I really don’t think so.

While her dramatis personae entertain us, Inglis mixes in sundry Georgian miscellanea. Did you know that blind musicians were engaged to play at orgies in Covent Garden? Or that corpses for dissections were priced on complicated sliding scale, where dead infants were costed by the inch? That the sedan chair business was monopolised by Irishmen, acknowledged by visitors to be the best in Europe?

While all of this may make us smile, darker, weightier and more serious themes are not neglected. Gang violence, poverty and philanthropy, immigrants, pornography, lunacy, slums, prisons, brothels. Also public leisure, East End non-conformism and the emergence of radicalism, hospitals, public health. It’s all there.

Inglis has a good ear for the outlandish, the farcical, the bizarre and the macabre. This gives the book an anecdotal and gossipy timbre without diminishing in any way its authority. She has succeeded in balancing tones, themes, facts and stories in a package which delivers a wonderful popular history of Hanoverian London.

It’s a recipe which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read and I’m thinking we may expect more of this writing style as talented bloggers are increasingly identified for recognition in print.

The book is generously illustrated with contemporary illustrations and maps, early in the period by Roque (1745) , very late in the era by John Greenwood (1829).


Georgian London: Into the Streets (400pp) is published by Viking (Penguin) today (5 September) with a cover price of £20.00, but is available for less.

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A Foundling Museum token

I spent my time in London as a devoted student of the eighteenth century. As such, I gleefully skipped from museum to historic house slightly in awe of the wonderful collections the capital has to offer, rarely allowing myself to visit the same place twice for fear of missing out on something new. One of the exceptions I made was the Foundling Museum.

Tucked away just around the corner from Russell Square station, the museum holds a fascinating collection of items relating to the Foundling Hospital, a charitable institution whose founding principle was to provide “Maintenance and Education for Exposed and Deserted Young children.” Established after nearly two decades of campaigning by Captain Thomas Coram, the work of the hospital also offered unmarried mothers the chance to reinstate themselves into respectable society. It was perhaps this oft-maligned philosophy that contributed to its many teething problems in the early stages.

One poem of 1750 entitled Scandalizade undermined Coram’s benevolent intentions by proclaiming that such institutions would  “Encourage the progress of vulgar Amours, The breeding of Rogues and th’increasing of Whores.” By offering a helping hand to poverty-stricken families and illegitimate children, they showed “how young maids may safely take a leap in the dark with their sweethearts… and pass for pure virgins.” Nevertheless, the Foundling Hospital defied its critics (and the misgivings of such notable Georgian personalities as Samuel Johnson) and over 27,000 children passed through its doors from 1739 to 1954 – with most of the early admittances being selected through a lottery owing to the huge number of applicants.

The Foundling Hospital also boasted the title of London’s first public art gallery, and the collection available to view today ranges from paintings by artists such as William Hogarth (initially used to raise revenue and stir public interest in the charity) to the heart-rending tokens mothers left with their children before being separated forever. Often bestowed upon a child as a means of identification should the family be able to reclaim them in future years, they can now only hint at the emotion and forlorn hope they once embodied. Such gifts, including buttons, rings inscribed with the infant’s name, a crudely sewn felt heart and a simple hazelnut shell, were never relayed to their intended recipients. Memories of their former life were erased, and all were re-baptised, most being named after contributors to the hospital.

It was a small glass case displaying a tiny sample of these tokens that drew me repeatedly back to the museum. The grandeur of the history of London is already so well-represented, but this gives a glimpse into the emotional lives of the less fortunate and offers a touching portrait of family life rent asunder. A new exhibition, Threads of Feeling, is inspired by these tiny and, at first glance, inconsequential, objects. Open until the  6th of March 2011, it promises a genuinely emotive sense of eighteenth-century family relationships.

The Foundling Museum: www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk

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