Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Culinary Life of a Cabin-Boy

Eighteenth century naval life is a subject I’ve only recently developed an interest in. However, I assure you I’m making up for lost time by devouring a host of naval biographies! Just a quick look today at an appetising account of the food aboard one of His Majesty’s ships. This extract comes from a letter of Bernard Coleridge, an eleven year old cabin-boy who was writing to his parents:
“Indeed we live on beef which has been ten or eleven years in corn and biscuit which makes your throat cold in eating it thanks to the maggots which are very cold when you eat them, like calves-foot jelly or blomonge...We drink water of the colour of the bark of a pear-tree with plenty of little maggots and weavils [sic] in it and wine which is exactly like bullock’s blood and sawdust mixed together...Indeed, I do not like this life very much...I hope I shall learn not to swear, and by God’s assistance I hope I shall not.”
Sadly, three years after composing this (wonderfully reassuring) letter Bernard died after falling from the rigging of his ship.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

William Pitt the Younger: 'The Honestest Man'

Among my favourite Georgian politicians is the Right Honourable William Pitt the Younger, the second son of the esteemed first Earl of Chatham (Pitt the Elder) and to this day, the youngest man to have ever have held the office of First Lord of the Treasury (what we would now called the office of Prime Minister).
He presided over parliament during an exceedingly turbulent period of history. During his term, he contended with the effects of the French Revolution and the first significant episode of madness in King George III (and thus a Regency crisis) and initiated a war with France in response to her growing dominance over the other Continental powers. During this engagement, he witnessed the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte who inflicted a series of devastating defeats on the allied forces (of which Britain was apart) and threatened the British Isles with a very real and formidable invasion force.  

Pitt is considered by historians as a somewhat elusive character – a man of many contradictions. Whilst widely considered as the preeminent orator of his age, he was at the same time an acutely shy man who staved off social engagements. In the company of his most intimate friends, he was considered the life and soul of the party – according to William Wilberforce (of abolition movement fame):
“no man, perhaps at proper seasons ever indulged more freely or happily in that playful facetiousness which gratifies all without wounding any.”
Yet publicly he was known for his cool, impassive demeanour. While indulgent of his brother, the 2nd Earl of Chatham, who at one time served as the First Lord of the Admiralty owing to Pitt’s influence, and his former tutor George Pretyman Tomline for whom he tried  (unsuccessfully) to obtain the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, Pitt was to the people “Honest Billy” – the incorruptible. Indeed, his contemporary Horatio Nelson described him as "the greatest Minister this country ever had, and the honestest man." Such an assessment wasn't unfair. For instance, Sir Edward Warpole’s death in 1784 left the Clerkship of Pells vacant. Such a position involved no work but entailed an annual income of £3000 (approx. £180,000 today) for life – and what’s more, its appointment was the gift of the First Lord of the Treasury. No one would have blamed Pitt had he taken the position for himself – indeed it was widely assumed he would. But Pitt instead granted it to Colonel Barre who despite being revered as somewhat of a national hero owing to his role in capturing Quebec in 1775, had been denied a pension by a previous government – a move, which as William Hague put it, “maintained the Colonel’s income while...while saving the taxpayer 3000 pounds a year and giving nothing to himself.”
A depiction of William Pitt and Napoleon carving up the globe between them

Perhaps my favourite anecdote concerning Pitt which demonstrates the two distinctive sides of his personality comes from the account of William Napier, a family friend who related the following incident which took place when Pitt was in his early forties:
“Mr Pitt liked practical fun and used to riot in it with Lady Hester, Charles and James Stanhope, and myself; once...we were resolved to blacken his face with burnt cork, which he most strenuously resistsed, but at the beginning of the fray a servant announced Lords C--- and L--- desired to see him on business. ‘let them wait in the other room,’ was the answer; and the great Minister instantly turned to the battle, catching up a cushion and belabouring us with it in glorious fun. We were however, too many and strong for him him down and were actually daubing his face, when, with a look of pretended confidence in his prowess, he said, “Stop this will do; I could easily beat you all down, but we must not keep these grandees waiting any longer.”...we were obliged to get a towel and basin of water to wash him down before he could receive my surprise [the two lords] bent like spaniels on approaching the man we had just been maltreating with such successful insolence of fun! But instantly Mr Pitt’s change of manner...entirely fixed my attention...his tall, ungainly, bony figure seemed to stiffen and grow to the ceiling...and his eyes fixed immovably in one position...”
After his meeting with the two esteemed men, Pitt dismissed them (“with an abrupt stiff inclination of the body”) and
“turning with a laugh, caught up his cushions and renewed the fight.”
Pitt died in office in January of 1806 aged just 46. He remains the second longest serving British Prime Minister – in total, he was in office for 18 years and 343 days.
William Pitt the Younger addressing the Commons

Monday, 27 June 2011

Eye Spy A Miniature

Portrait miniatures (such as the one of the notorious Count Fersen below) abounded in the eighteenth century, having been fashionable since the sixteenth century. They were often exchanged between lovers, and even served as advertisements for eligible women - an aristocratic gentleman would invariably commission a series of portrait miniature of his daughter to send to suitors who resided a long distance away.
For the most part, the convention of the portrait miniature remained unaltered up until their decline in popularity during Edwardian times (with the advent of photography), however the late eighteenth century saw the emergence of a peculiar trend of eye miniatures which continued to be produced throughout the nineteenth century. Their design preserved the anonymity of the subject and were therefore considered to be more intimate tokens of one's affection. The following is an excellent example of such an object, dating from around the 1790s
The popular miniaturist Richard Cosway charged a mere five guineas per eye, and even received commissions from the Prince Regent. Horace Walpole was recorded as remarking upon the fashion to Lady Ossory in the following way:
"Do you know Madam, that the fashion now, is not to have portraits but of an eye? They say,
'Lord! Don't you know it.'"
While Lady Eleanor Bultler noted that young men returning from their Grand Tour of Europe brought back with them "an Eye, done in Paris & set in a ring - a true French idea." suggesting that the fashion may have originated on the Continent.

Text Speak, Georgian Style

In the twenty-first century, we are all accustomed to the convention of 'text speak', a form of abbreviation generally employed in a non-formal context, such as in composing a text message or a response to a friend's post on Facebook. We instantly understand what is meant by 'Lol', 'rofl', 'atm' and 'wbu' and can easily incorporate them into our own repetoire. While these particularly terms are relatively modern innovations, it is a common misconception that such forms of abbreviation are a phenomenon confined to this century. In reading James Munson's most excellent book 'Maria Fitzherbert', I have been introduced to the Georgian equivalent of text speak, a variety of shorthand commonly used in composing letters.
Let me acquaint you with the most common forms -
"ye" for "the"
"ym" for "them"
"yr" for "your"
"yt" for "that"
"wt" for "what" or "with"
"wh" for "which"
"wd" for "would"

To view these quaint abbreviations in action, let me quote from a letter from the Prince Regent to Lady Anne Barnard (née Lindsay) regarding his intentions to (illegally) marry the Catholic widow, Mrs. Fitzherbert:
"I think you are perfectly right respecting yr. ideas of writing to her Relatives; it was ye best way of hinting her situation to ym. without alarming ym. too much...I shall be totally guided in this by yr. prudence & judgement & I only hope yt. as soon as it is in your power you will see me either at yr. own House or some third place: you really know not what I have suffer'd."