A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 18

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Circa 1689—1702


"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
 Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
 To the last syllable of recorded time;
 And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
 The way to dusty death."


WITH the landing of William and Mary on English shores, the tide turned, and to a period of careless irresponsibility, uproarious mirth, and general masquerading succeeded an age of earnest sobriety. Weightier matters now received the attention of our forefathers, and there was less of that incessant scandal and gossip which had occupied society under the Merry Monarch. We can picture Englishmen of the day eagerly discussing the new state of affairs at home in coffee-house and tavern under the King and Queen, nephew and daughter to him who had so lately made good his escape to Paris. They would comment on the new Court at Whitehall, on the unsociable, stern, and forbidding manners of William, on his carelessness in dress, his foreign accent, his want of geniality. "His freezing look, his silence, the dry and concise answers which he uttered, when he could keep silence no longer, disgusted noblemen and gentlemen who had been accustomed to be slapped on the back by their Royal masters, called Jack or Harry, congratulated about race cups or rallied about actresses." All this social freedom was at an end now. If the King appeared at all in public, he stood among the gay crowds of courtiers and ladies, silent and abstracted, rarely smiling, never jesting. Never was he heard to swear, never was he seen at a theatre. Hunting and gambling were his recreations, and it must have been some consolation to our Tory forefathers to learn that the King could lose £4,000 at a single sitting. His wife disliked gossip and scandal as much as he did; when courtiers prattled to her of duels, debts, and elopements, she replied by asking them if they had ever read her favourite sermon by Dr. Tillotson on evil speaking.

More marked still might have been the contrast of society under William and Mary had not the new King's health suffered severely from his brief sojourn at Whitehall Court. The air of Westminster, the thick fogs, the river floods, which in spring washed the courts of his palace, the "smoke of sea-coal from the hundred thousand chimneys," the fumes of filth, which, notwithstanding the plague and fire, was still allowed to accumulate in the streets—all these told on a delicate constitution, and he was advised to remove to the purer air of Hampton Court. Built under the Tudors, the apartments were now too old-fashioned for the requirements of the seventeenth century, and it was elaborately remodelled. As William had laid out his gardens at the Hague, so now he had the famous gardens at Hampton Court laid out in the stiff formal style which had been adopted at Versailles. He introduced into England waterworks of quaint forms, parterres with fountains and jets of water and formal cascades, all designed by Dutch gardeners. They exaggerated the old manner of clipping trees and overcrowded gardens with grotesque shapes of yew and box. Though the "tulip fever" was by this time subsiding, Dutch bulbs were very much planted, as they lent themselves to the stiff style of laying out geometrical patterns and borders. If the parterres were ingenious, so also was the labyrinth at Hampton Court, which was devised at this time, and which has since puzzled so many generations of holiday visitors in modern times. Mary, who had acquired a taste for China porcelain at the Hague, put up a number of curious images and vases at Hampton Court; the fashion spread far and wide, till no great house in England was deemed complete without a museum of grotesque ornaments. Indeed, the Queen's own tea-service of Oriental china was famous; her cups were without handles, proportioned to the little round teapot She, too, was the first to introduce the tea urn into England, for she passionately loved the new dish of tea, which was becoming fashionable, and which was bought for her at 66s. a pound.

But the King was not the only person who sought health away from London in the seventeenth century. It was becoming the fashion for persons of note to resort to some watering-place, such as Bath or Tunbridge Wells, there to take the medicinal waters, which had long been known to be beneficial. Bath, or The Bath, as it was called at this time, occupied a prominent position in the social life of these times. Thither, during the summer months, flocked the rank and fashion of England, not always, it is true, for the sake of the waters, but "to divert themselves with good company." There was room for some fifty in the bath, together with their attendants, and here every morning perfumed ladies and "vigorous sparks" amused themselves in the water, while spectators looked down on them from a gallery. After some two hours in the water, which apparently was rarely changed, each was wrapped in a sheet and carried home in a chair lined with blankets. The rest of the day was spent in amusements of every description. Bath grew more popular year by year, and played a large part in the lives of "persons of quality" in the two succeeding centuries.

These resorts were for the wealthy only; but in the seventeenth century our ancestors were growing very wealthy, for the great middle class were making England the chief commercial country in the world. It was a period of transition, from the plough to the loom, from the spinning-wheel to the factory, from the age of tools to the age of machinery. The fact of the ever-increasing wealth produced by these changes is amply illustrated by the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694. The Huguenots who had taken refuge in England after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes had brought with them their secrets and their industry. Factories for silk, beaver hats, paper, velvet, damask, cutlery, glass, pottery, &c., rose in our midst. It was the South of England, not the North, that first became famous for the manufacturing industry of the kingdom. As wool was justly held to be "the foundation of England's riches," so now the exportation of wool to other countries was forbidden. Protection ruled supreme, and the manufacturing trade was thus concentrated within the country, though our forefathers proved themselves to be brilliant smugglers during this and succeeding periods. This rapid industrial progress put plenty of money into the pockets of our forefathers. Trade was less despised than of yore. Proud old aristocrats were pleased to marry their daughters to wealthy young merchants, and the old social barriers were partially broken down.

The trading classes, we are told by a contemporary, are "the best Body in the Nation, generous, sober, and charitable. So that while the People are so immersed in their own affairs, there is a better spirit stirring in our cities, more knowledge, more zeal, and more charity, with a great deal more of Devotion."

But amid all classes the ignorance was lamentable. A finished education for a boy of this period consisted in a "little Latin and less Greek," beaten into him either at one of the public schools or at home by the French tutor who had replaced the domestic chaplain of long ago. Having been whipped through a little grammar and arithmetic, he was taught to dance, as also "how to enter a room, how to carry the head and hands and to turn out the toes." Fencing and the use of one stringed instrument, such as the lute, guitar, or violin, completed education at an early age. If a boy went to the University, he entered it at fifteen or sixteen. It was eminently an unhappy age for schoolboys, and this advertisement is by no means uncommon in the papers of the day: "A gentleman's only Child is run from School; he is about twelve years of age with light Cloathes lin'd with red, a well-favour'd brisk Boy with a fair old Wig; he has been in Spain and Portugal, which makes his Parents fear that some Ship may entertain him."

Indeed, it was the fashion to travel abroad, and the finish to a boy's education was for him to make the grand tour in Europe, accompanied either by father or tutor. Slow and tedious was the travelling on the Continent by heavy, rumbling coaches, while the accommodation at night was uncomfortable and unhealthy. Boys were on distant terms with their parents, addressing them on bended knee as "Most honoured Father, Sir," and this in days of tender endearment and affection. "Child," writes a father to his sixteen-year-old son, "I shall send you 2 lb. of Chocolate upon next Monday by the carrier. … I have a new shirt here ready for you, and shall buy muslin cravats and ruffles against you come to me."

But if kind, they could be equally severe.

"Child," writes an angry father to his really good little boy at school, "I have received a letter from your master, Mr. Blackwell, who complains of you in your business, and that you are idly and evilly inclined. You have much deceived me, your father, who, blinded with love for you, thought you no less than a young Saint, but now to my grief perceive that you are growing very fast to be an old Devil."

The girls were taught still less. A lady was considered sufficiently learned if she could just read and write. Her spelling and grammar were very deficient, her knowledge on ordinary matters lamentable. Even the household duties to which she had formerly been trained were now neglected. Little girls were sent to boarding schools in London, which advertised themselves in this way: "Mrs. Elizabeth Tutchin continues to keep her school at Highgate, where sober young Gentlewomen may be taught whatsoever is necessary to the Accomplishment of that sex." To be a complete gentlewoman was to be able to dance and sing, to play on the bass viol, virginals, spinet, and guitar, to make waxwork, japan, paint upon glass, to make sweetmeats and sauces. "To-morrow I intend to carry my girl to school," wrote an Englishman of this age of his little eight-year-old daughter. So Molly went to school at Chelsea, where she learnt to dance gracefully and to "japan boxes," which art cost a guinea entrance fee and ten shillings extra for materials, neither of which items was grudged by her father. "I find you have a desire to learn to Japan and I approve of it," he writes to her, "and so I shall of anything that is good and virtuous, and therefore learn in God's name all good things, for I admire all accomplishments that will render you considerable and lovely in the sight of God and man."

It is to be feared that the capacity to please man was the principal object in Molly's education, for marriage was as yet the only vocation for women and union to some wealthy gentleman the sole ambition of every father for his daughter. The emptiness of women's lives is somewhat revealed by this supposed extract from a lady's diary of a slightly later period.

"Wednesday, 8-10.—Drank two dishes of chocolate in bed, and fell asleep after 'em.

"10-12.—Eat a slice of bread and butter, drank a dish of black tea, read the Spectator.

"11-1.—At my toilet, try'd a new head. Gave orders for Veney to be combed and washed. Mem., I look best in blue.

"1.—Called for my flowered Handkerchief, worked half a violet leaf in it—eyes ached and head out of order. Threw by my work and read.


"4-12.—Dressed, went abroad and play'd Crimp till midnight. Found Mrs. Spitely at home. Conversation: Mrs. Brilliant's necklace false stones; Old Lady Loveday going to be married to a young Fellow that is not worth a groat; Miss Prue gone into the Country; Tom Townely has real hair.

"Twelve o'clock at Night.—Went to bed. Melancholy dreams."

Little enough education was obviously required to spend life in this fashion. There was little domestic life, as we understand it to-day, in town; men spent their evenings at the coffee-house or tavern or theatre, and women were left to amuse themselves and gossip and play cards as they liked. Of course, they went to the theatre too, but often enough the plays were of such a coarse nature that they had to go masked, for fear of recognition. In the country social life, if still trivial, was of a more wholesome nature, as indeed it ever has been and will be. Even so, men and women grew prematurely old in these days: girls were introduced into society at the age of thirteen or fourteen, boys went to the University at fifteen or sixteen. Early marriages and large families weighed heavily on both sexes at a time when infant meortality was tremendous and infection stalked unchecked through the land. Fevers, agues, measles, and small-pox carried off whole families or scored young faces with fatal blemish. One recalls the pathetic scene, so graphically sketched by Thackeray, of Lady Castlewood after the small-pox. "When the marks of the disease cleared away they did not, it is true, leave furrows or scars on her face (except one, perhaps, on her forehead over her left eye), but the delicacy of her rosy colour and complexion was gone; her eyes had lost their brilliancy, her hair fell, and her face looked older. It was as if a coarse hand had rubbed off the delicate tints of that sweet picture and brought it, as one has seen some unskilful painting cleaners do, to the dead colour. Also it must be owned that for a year or two after the malady her Ladyship's nose was swollen and redder." And the sequel, despite courtly flattery, how little Esmond broke out honestly protesting that his mistress was no longer so handsome as she was, "on which Lady Castlewood gave a rueful smile and a look into a little Venice glass she had, which showed her, I suppose, that what the stupid boy said was only too true, for she turned away from the glass and her eyes filled with tears."

In 1694 the Queen herself was attacked and died in a few days of this malignant disease. Inoculation and vaccination were as yet unknown, and there was nothing to stay its ravages. The common treatment seems to have been a black powder, made of thirty or forty live toads burnt to black ashes. When the Queen sickened, her physicians had recourse to their ordinary remedy for all the ills of life, that of bleeding. But there was no cure for the virulent small-pox of the seventeenth century, and at the early age of thirty-two Mary died.

Royal funerals in these days were outrageous in their display of pomp and this exaggeration found an echo in funerals of all classes of society. No pains were spared to make a funeral of the poorest both costly and miserable. The funeral invitations sent out were ghastly eulogies of the dead, decorated with grinning skulls, pickaxes, hourglasses, and cross-bones, material ideas entirely crushing the spiritual. To each mourner gloves, hat-bands and mourning rings were presented, sometimes as many as two hundred rings being given away at a cost of one pound each. To the chief mourners and near relations whole suits of mourning were presented; physicians, apothecaries, servants, &c., were all recipients of black garments. And, indeed, the mourning of these days did not stop here. Our ancestors put their whole beds into mourning, as well as their tables and chairs; they hung their halls with black baize, and covered their cushions with black. We hear of a country gentleman mourning in two black taffety night clothes, a black nightcap, a black brush and comb, two black spice-bags, and slippers of black velvet; besides these, he had black cloth doublets, black breeches and cloak, black bands for his black hats, some "old black taffety garters and new black ribbon roses." "I have a new black beaver hat for you," writes a father to his younger son on the death of a brother, "which I will send you in a little deal box, with a black crape hat-band, black mourning gloves and stockings and shoe-buckles, and three pairs of black buttons for wrist and neck.

Funerals were preceded and followed by a good deal of drinking; often wine boiled with sugar and cinnamon was served out to the guests on their return from the long and trying ceremony. It is related by the keeper of a tavern in London that "a tun of red port" was drunk at his wife's burial by women only, for it is noteworthy that at this time no man went to a woman's funeral, nor did a woman go to a man's.

William only survived his wife eight years, leaving the throne to his sister-in-law Anne, whose reign ushered in a period of change in the social lives of our forefathers.