What did the Georgians ever do for us?

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12 November 2019
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History buff Steve Roberts takes us on a tour around the England of our Georgian ancestors, starting in glorious Bath and with tongue firmly in cheek...
What did the Georgians ever do for us? Images

Bath (November 2011)

What did the Georgians ever do for us? Well, they gave us a lot of architecture and literature to start with. Eight years ago, in November, I was standing outside 4 Sydney Place, Bath, a Grade I-Listed ‘courtyard apartment’, built in 1794, and home to Jane Austen between 1801 and 1805 (or 1804 depending on who you believe). Both boxes of my opening gambit were being ticked right here. As far as Georgian architecture is concerned, you can’t do a lot better than Bath; it’s positively heaving with the stuff. Jane Austen wasn’t bad either.

I’d like to say that the Georgians also gave us the tradition of ‘afternoon tea’, but I’d be, well, chucking you a less than perfect scone there. According to my sources, afternoon tea came in a bit later, when Anna Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford, a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria, put on a spread at her country pile, Woburn Abbey, in 1841. As such, it’s just outside our Georgian period, which I’ve decided drew to a close in 1837 with the death of William IV. 

The opportunity to take tea in Bath was just too good an invitation to pass up, however, whether it was authentically Georgian, or not. Mrs Steve and I headed for the Pump Room, built in 1795, so resolutely Georgian. Here we could listen to the tones of the ‘Pump Room Trio’, partake of the warm spa water containing 43 minerals, and, of course, sample the much-vaunted Pump Room Tea, which retailed at £21 per person at the time (we were permitted to egress with a ‘doggie-bag’ though, the contents of which kept us supplied for the rest of our weekend). 

To paraphrase Jane herself, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a married couple in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of some afternoon tea'.

Manchester (March 2016)

Nearly five years later I arrived in Manchester by train, a new-fangled invention that was just coming in at the end of the Georgian era, and would supersede the canal, thousands of miles of which the Georgians had built, using the navigators, or ‘navvies’, the construction workers who’d move seamlessly from tow-path to track-bed. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) would open in September 1830, the year that William IV came to the throne.

Armed with camera and notebook (tools of the trade for the jobbing writer), I set off in pursuit of a story from a few years before, one that came to exemplify the social and political wrangling, and discontent, of the time. The French Revolution had occurred in 1789, and we were potentially treading on thin ice in this country, with a corrupt, and inequitable, political system that saw the whole of Lancashire represented by just two MPs. On 16 August 1819, a large, peaceable crowd, gathered in Manchester, at St Peter's Field, to hear speeches and demand parliamentary reform. Tragically, the authorities took fright at a crowd of 60,000-80,000, and mounted troops were ordered to disperse the throng, resulting in the deaths of as many as 18 people. There is a red plaque on the Free Trade Hall, which puts the death toll at 15, with over 600 injured. 

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Westminster wasn’t built in a day, and it still took time, but before the Georgian period was out, the Great Reform Act would be passed (1832), which was the first step towards a fairer, more representative voting system. It extended the right to vote (among men, not women) from around 366,000 to some 650,000, and, at last, redistributed parliamentary seats to industrial seats like Manchester and Birmingham, whilst ‘rotten boroughs’, which had few, if any electors, such as the infamous Old Sarum, near Salisbury, no longer sent MPs to Parliament. The Georgians gave us social and political problems, but also the beginnings of reform.

Westerham (March 2016)

That same month I was back in Westerham, in Kent, a familiar familial stomping ground for me, because it has links to a couple of famous bods who were writ large over the Georgian period. These two men shout loud about two other forces that were building during our era, the emergence of party politics, and the growth of empire.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) was something of a prodigy, Prime Minister at the age of just 24, the youngest we’ve ever had. Being PM strikes me as being a tough job, and Pitt, a prominent Tory of the late-18th century, got the top (and toughest) job in 1783. He’d hang on in there until 1801, a reign of 18 years (he also had a second stint between 1804 and his death in 1806). He’s known as ‘the Younger’ to distinguish him from his dad, who’d previously been PM (the ‘Older’). I’m sorry to shatter illusions Blackadder fans, but ‘William Pitt the even Younger’ never existed: he was a fictional younger brother of ‘the Younger’ dreamed up for the tv series. Funny though. 

Pitt (the Younger that is) was undeniably one of our greatest PMs, being at the helm during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the defender of a threatened nation, during the reign of George III. Pitt probably wouldn’t have fared so well in our TV age, as he was described as ‘colourless’ and ‘superior’, which probably would have had today’s viewers reaching for the remote. Oh, and the Westerham connection? Well, every PM needs a bolt hole, and Pitt’s was right here. There’s a blue plaque to that effect.

James Wolfe (1727-59) meanwhile was a soldier whose most memorable (and very final) act was the capture of Quebec in September 1759, which he achieved against all odds, all logic, and with a ritual shredding of the British Army’s military textbook. Wolfe was born in Westerham, so there are numerous reminders of him here, including an imposing statue and a General Wolfe pub. Quebec fell to the British and Canada became a part of the Empire. It was another direction we were marching in during the Georgian era (with the notable exception of the loss of the American colonies). Wolfe played his part but died ‘in the hour of victory’.

Weymouth (November 2016)

So, what else did the Georgians do for us? Well, what about sea-bathing, or taking the waters? I was in my home county of Dorset looking up at a statue of George III, who’s plonked on top of a mighty plinth, which is probably not a bad idea, what with global warming and the risk of attendant sea-level rise. The citation on said plinth reads, ‘The grateful inhabitants, to George the Third, on his entering the 50th year of his reign’. Of course, he was one of our longest-reigning monarchs, albeit an occasionally unhinged one. 

Weymouth had good reason to be grateful. It became one of the first of the modern tourist destinations, after George III’s brother, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (1743-1805), built a splendid house here, then put his feet up (or possibly in) during the mild winter of 1780. George III then latched on to a good thing, making Weymouth his holiday destination of choice between 1789 and 1805, venturing into the sea in a ‘bathing machine’ (moveable antecedents of today’s static beach huts). The ‘King’s Statue’ stands aptly on the seafront. You half expect him to clamber down off his plinth and go tearing into the sea in a mad dash (pun unintended). 

Now, I’ve always liked an English seaside holiday, so I have much to thank the Georgians and their popularising monarchs for. I don’t really understand why so many Brits think they have to wedge themselves on an aeroplane and fly somewhere for a holiday, when they have all of this on their doorstep. George III would probably declare them all ‘mad’. Funny that.

That Georgian architecture is here too by the way. Weymouth’s Esplanade was conceived during the Georgian and Regency periods, when today’s terraces shot up to form the long, continuous arc that we can still admire. The original Royal Hotel was built at this time (1773), but this was sadly knocked down and replaced in the late-Victorian era, so Georgian no more.

Burton (November 2017)

You’re probably wondering why I headed up to Burton-on-Trent, in Staffordshire (brewing country), but I didn't. The Burton I rocked up in is the small village of Burton, which is a part of the Borough of Christchurch, in Dorset. It’s the other side of the River Avon from Christchurch itself, the market town where I hang my hat these days.

I’m looking at a Grade II-Listed thatched cottage that was built around 300 years ago, so possibly just sneaking in at the beginning of the Georgian era. It’s not the building that I’m interested in (enchantingly quaint as it is), but one of its former occupants, a gent by the name of Robert Southey (1774-1843). He was a poet of some repute (literature again) and was our third-longest serving Poet Laureate (1813-43). He lived most of his life during my Georgian era.

Accomplished poet as he was, Southey would be remembered chiefly for a little ditty involving a wee lass and three bears. Yes, ‘Goldilocks’ it is, and I jest not. Southey didn’t just write, he collected, and the story is that he ‘acquired’ the tale and published it towards the end of his life, long after his Burton sojourn. There’s much misinformation re. the thatched idyll, namely that Southey had it built, and that he wrote Goldilocks while he was there. I’d like to say that the Georgians gave us ‘fake news’, but that wouldn’t be true either. 

Incidentally, while Southey was enjoying his thatch and pondering, he was visited by two other great writers of the time, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott. I’m beginning to feel that my blog is a homage to a golden era of British writing. 

Brighton (December 2017)

I just had to return to Brighton, a city that I first visited in 1978, when I was fresh out of training college, wide-eyed and enthusiastic, as I took the first steps in my teaching career, here, in Brighton, of all places. Having grown up in land-locked Worcestershire, I was taken aback with Brighton, a place that had, well, sea, and lots of it. 

One person who appreciated Brighton very much was the Prince Regent, the future George IV, who built himself a fantasy palace here, the Grade I Listed, Royal Pavilion, or Brighton Pavilion, which he began building, in stages, from 1787, as a royal residence and seaside retreat. This is not archetypal Georgian architecture though, for what we have here is an Indo-Saracenic style more in keeping with India than Britain. The building’s current appearance, with its domes and minarets, was down to the famous architect John Nash, who began extending the place in 1815, the year of Waterloo.

The Prince of Wales (future Prince Regent, future 4th George), first visited Brighton in 1783, when he was aged just 21. Curiously, I was exactly the same age when I first came to Brighton. As with Weymouth, it needed royal patronage to get things fashionable, and here it was provided by Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland (1745-90), who had a penchant for fine dining, gambling and ‘fast living’ that saw him gravitate to Brighton for some reason. The Duke’s nephew, our future Prince Regent, shared the same proclivities, and lodged with his mentor in the developing resort. The Prince got a diagnosis on his gout meanwhile, which declared that fresh air and seawater would assist no end. Brighton it was then. The Prince then began constructing his pleasure palace where he could get up to all sorts, including wooing Mrs Fitzherbert, with whom he enjoyed ‘private liaisons’. Ooh, I say. What did the Georgians do for us? I’m thinking they also gave us a whiff of scandal. Lovely jubbly. 

Just in case you’re wondering, I didn’t emulate the Prince Regent and get up to all sorts in Brighton. That’s my story anyway and I’m resolutely sticking to it.

So, to sum up, what did the Georgians ever do for us? Well, other than giving us some of our greatest architecture, literature, military heroes, watering holes and pleasure palaces, and social and political reforms, and, even a whiff of scandal, yes, what did the Georgians ever do for us? 

* Steve Roberts is a freelance writer and author of ‘Lesser Known Christchurch’. and ‘Lesser Known Bournemouth’. He has had over 700 articles published in 75 different magazines. See his blogs on Yorkists and Lancastrians here and here.

Are you trying to trace your ancestors back to the 1700s and 1800s? Don't miss Steve Roberts' special feature, 'Getting back to the Georgians', in the Christmas 2019 issue of Family Tree, on sale from 19 November 2019 – order here to include your Family History Handbook 2020 while stocks last.

All photographs © Steve Roberts.