The Swan Circle

A story of Georgian networking

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Georgian hairWhile researching 18th century hair-styles and wondering how extravagant they actually were, I discovered an article in a 1773 edition of The Gentlemen’s Magazine which makes a very important point: women were walking conductor’s of electricity. Here’s what said chappie had to say:

Singular Effects of Electricity.-by P. Brydone, F.R.S.

A Lady who has her head surrounded with a wire cap, and her hair stuck full of metal pins, and who at the same time stands upon dry silk, is to all intents and purposes an electrical conductor insolated, and prepared for collecting the fire from the atmosphere: And it is not at all surprising, that during thunder-storms, or when the air is extremely replete with electrical matter, she should emit sparks, and exhibit other appearances of electricity.—I imagine a very trifling change of dress, which from the constant versatility of their modes may some day take place, would render this Lady’s disease altogether epidemical amongst the sex. Only let the soles of their shoes be made of an electric substance; and let the wires of their caps, and pins of their hair, be somewhat lengthened and pointed outwards; and I think there is little doubt, that they will often find themselves in an electrified state: —But, indeed, if they only wear silk, or even worsted stockings, it may sometimes prove sufficient; for I have often insolated electrometers as perfectly by placing them on a piece of dry silk or flannel, as on glass.

How little do our Ladies imagine, when they surround their heads with wire, tha most powerful of all conductors; and at the same time wear stockings, shoes, and gowns of silk, one of the most powerful repellents; that they prepare their bodies in the same manner, and according to the same principles as Electricians prepare their conductors for attracting the fire of lightning! If they cannot be brought to relinquish their wire caps and their pins, might they not fall upon some such preservative as those which of late years have been applied to objects of much less consequence?

Suppose that every Lady should provide herself with a small chain or wire, to be hooked on at pleasure during thunder-storms. This should pass from her cap over the thickest part of her hair, which will prevent the fire from being communicated to her head; and so down to the ground.—It is plain that this will act in the same manner as the conductors on the tops of steeples, which from the metal spires that are commonly placed there, analogous to the pins and wires, were so liable to accidents. You may laugh at all this, but I assure you I never was more serious in my life. A very amiable Lady of my acquaintance, Mrs. Douglas, of Kelso, had almost lost her life by one of those caps mounted on wire. She was standing at an open window during a thunder-storm: The lightning was attracted by the wire, and the cap was burnt to ashes; happily her hair was in its natural state, without powder, pomatum, or pins; and prevented the fire from being conducted to her head, for as she felt no kind of shock, it is probable that it went off from the wires of the cap to the wall, close to which it then stood. If it had found any conductor to carry it to her head or body, in all probability she must have been killed.—A good strong head of hair, if it is kept perfectly clean and dry, is probably one of the I preservatives against the fire of lightning. But so soon as it is stuffed full of powder and pomatum, and bound together with pins, its repellent force is lost, and it comes a conductor*. We have it even in our power to be making experiments in electricity. And although this fluid is the most subtile and active of any that we know, we can command it on all occasions; and I now so accustomed to its operations, that I seldom comb my hair, or pull off a stocking, without observing them under some form or other. How surprising is it that mankind should have lived and breathed in it for so many thousand years, without almost ever supposing that it existed!

•Since the writing of this, the author has made some experiments on the electricity of hair, which tend still to convince him the more of what he has advanced. A Lady told him, that on combing her hair in frosty weather, in the dark, she had sometimes observed sparks of fire to issue from it. This made him think of attempting to collect electrical fire from hair alone, without the assistance of any other electrical apparatus, to this end, he desired a young Lady to stand on a cake of bees-wax, and to comb her sister’s hair, who was sitting on a chair before her.—Soon after she began to comb, the young Lady on the wax was greatly astonished to find her whole body electrified; darting sparks of fire against every object that approached her. The hair was extremely electrified and affected an electrometer at a very great distance: He charged a metal conductor from it with great ease; and in the space of a few minutes collected as much fire immediately from the hair, as to kindle common spirits; and by means of a small phial gave many smart shocks to all the company. A full account of these Expeiiments was lately read before the Royal Society. They were made during the time of a very hard frost, and a strong head of hair, where no powder or pomatum had been used for many months.

Rainham Hall: behind closed doors

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Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall built 1729

“…it is one of the finest and best preserved examples in England of a medium sized early Georgian merchant’s house” –  2011 Heritage Scoping Study

On a chilly day last December, in that pale daylight which never really wakes to full glory, I set off for my local village ‘fayre’. It had been a few years since I had last ventured there, and behind the milling folk and teams of morris dancers, I could see it had evolved into something greater in size, in ambition, and in attraction, if a little Disneyesque. I admit I was immediately drawn to the mulled cider, but beyond the seasonal food stall and the small choir rendering with aplomb a rather fine version of ‘Rockin’ around the Christmas tree’, stood an even greater pull: Rainham Hall.
     During the fair, this National Trust Queen Anne style property was open to all-comers, and I grabbed the opportunity to venture through its grand portico with smiling glee. No doubt I wore a wondrous expression like some child accidentally finding a wardrobe portal, but it made talking to the NT stalwart volunteer easier: I was cheerily enthusiastic. And I was dying to ask questions, so many flooded my head, ‘Is this plaster original?’ was perhaps the first, and I could hardly wait to splutter it out even though to my inexpert eye, the bulging wall suggested it was.
     How the wall had been damaged was anyone’s guess and the answer to the question of safety was addressed by my newly acquired NT friend. Safe it was and yes the plaster was original, so too part of the staircase and the mouldings around the portico; in the parlour an original Queen Anne dresser had stood, but had been removed prior to the onset of conservation work; the arches in the basement were not original and were later added to carry the weight of the marble floor above, the conservators had started work on the blue room, ‘hidden behind this door’ – a curiosity like the forbidden room in a Victorian gothic novel – and would proceed through most of the house before attempting the stable block, the soon to be NT Visitor Centre and cafe. Oh I was in ecstasy. 

Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall: Portico

         

And so we started to talk about Captain Harle, the merchant and prosperous builder of Rainham Hall – though not entirely well heeled because he could only afford to build a house twenty years behind the fashion – and the acquisition of Rainham Wharf in 1718. The South Shields sea captain began his business at Rainham importing commodities and conducting affairs from his small office opposite the hall – now a cabbies office – until his business flourished and he was flush with the required amount to build his dream home and move in with his wife from Stepney. The hall was passed down the generations and was still in private ownership until 1949 when the NT took over; the Trust was recently awarded a grant for renovation with full plans to open up this gem for the enjoyment of all Londoners and visitors.
      After the work has been completed, go and take in its full glory; it left a distinct impression on me, it was a lavish meal to my dessert of mulled cider.

Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall: Detail

Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall: Blue Room

Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall: Plasterwork

Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall: Hall

Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall: Detail

Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall Detail

Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall Detail

Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall: Hall

Rainham Hall

Rainhall Hall: Detail

Photos, 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 – C.A. Jackson
Photos, 2, 8 – James Brennan, National Trust
Photo, 4 – attribution unknown

 

 

The Common Man’s Dress, 1758

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All you need to know about 18th century men's fashion in one advert… okay perhaps not everything, but I found this quite useful in regard to fabrics:

'‘Mens and Boys ready made broad and narrow Cloth Cloathes, Ratten and Frieze Suits… Fustian Cloaths of all Sorts, Everlasting Waistcoats and Breeches, Velvet and Shag Waistcoats and Breeches, Russia Drab Frocks of all sizes, Fearnought and Duffle Coats and Waistcoats…’ (1758, May 13 Norwich Mercury)

In the news…

18th Century Digressions, Entertainment & Culture, Health & Medicine, Love & Marriage No Comments »

Lost PropertyWe have all experienced that kind of day when we switch on the rolling TV news channels and find there is not much going on. A slow day for news we call it, and for the news channels it must feel like the silly season comes more than once a year. They have to scrape out the ridiculous, the ephemeral, the shallow vapid tales and make them newsworthy – persuade us we want them. The same goes for our daily newspapers, and it has to be said, the online news and blogs. Has that changed in three hundred years? Judging by the evidence derived from contemporary newspapers of the mid-eighteenth century, it appears that it has not. In 1764, it was thought worthy to add a paragraph to one London newspaper concerning someone's pet parrot who had laid four eggs over a period of ten days. Then there was some letter about the militia 'dancing' to music during exercises! Dotted interlinearly between the serious and the ridiculous are the stories, adverts and announcements that were considered of some importance to individuals, such as petty crimes and pleas for lost property, but to us, these may appear unintentionally amusing. And out of interest, what about Mr William Shakespear below? Doing his duty for poor old Isaac Elias – "if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

"News"
'Northern climes have always been observed to be most favorable to population, but we seldom meet with so curious an instance as the following, communicated to us by a correspondent at St. Petersburgh. There now lives in the district of Schuiske, a villager of the name of Foedor Vassili, who, of two wives he married successively, has had a very extraordinary number of children. The first, in 27 years, made him father of 69, having had four at a time at four successive births, three at each of seven following lyings-in, and two at a time in 16 more. The second wife was brought to bed only eight times; at six of her births she had two at a time, and three in the two ones subsequent, so that the above two wives in 35 lyings-in, made him father to 87 children, four only of whom died young, and his family now consists of 83!'

'A Gentleman in Suffolk writes thus to his friend in London: "Whilst you have horse and foot patrolling to protect you from the poor Spitalfields Weavers that are up in arms thro' want of their daily bread; we have at Bury 500 of our Militia learning to dance, and march to the sound of the fife. The new recruits are exercising morning and afternoon, without arms, to teach them first to make use of their legs. Picture to yourself a very awkward country fellow, whose legs are always left half a yard behind him, teaching to move to music, and stand upright. The scene is better conceived then can be expressed: To me it is excessive droll; though I heartily pity the poor Serjeants, and think they need more patience than Pedagogues: but let me do the justice to those who have been taught the exercise, to say, they are quite equal to the regulars, and both officers and men do that credit to their country which a well disciplined Militia was intended for, and may serve every other good purpose of a standing army."'
 

'Chelmsford, Nov. 16.
Monday the Fair began here, and Cattle in general sold dear. At Night a Tradesman found his Son in Company with a common Prostitute, and on desiring him to leave her, was refused; on which the Father got a Warrant, took up the Woman, and carried her before a Magistrate, who ordered her to the House of Correction; but as the Constable was conducting her, some young Bloods knocked him down, and carried off the Nymph in Triumph. In the Fray the Constable lost his Hat and Wig.'

 

'Yesterday John Eason, a soldier, who was on a recruiting party at Walton upon Thames, Surry. was committed to the New Gaol in Southwark, by William Shakespear, Esq; for breaking open a room, and robbing Isaac Elias, a travelling Jew, of his box, containing money, jewel, plate, and other effects, to a great value.'

A Plea
'If the benevolent Author of a Pamphlet, called the History of a Gentleman cured of HEATS to his face, would be so good, as by a line in this paper, to be particularly explicit, how the drops of the medice he reats of called Red Speedwell, are made and how many are to be taken in the day, and where the herb is to be procured, he will oblige one who hopes for relief from the use of them, and to be indebted to them for the benefit.
'

Advert
'Dr Lowther's Nervous Powder [for]
A Relaxation of the whole Nervous System, attended with Tremors, Lowness of Spirits, and great Dejections, Retchings, Startings, Hectic Heats, Wailing of the whole Habit of Body, greatly oppressed with Wind, Want of Appetite, indigestion, and violent Reaching for many Years, &c.
'

Lost Property
'Left in a Hackney Coach that set a Gentleman down at Westminster-hall Gate, on Friday the 25th of February last, between Six and Seven o'clock in the evening, a Row of ARTIFICIAL TEETH. Whoever will bring the same to Mr Meckleson, dentist, in Coventry-street, Piccadilly, shall receive a Guinea reward.
'

An Announcement
'This morning Laurence Richardson, esq; of Hampton Hedges in Leicestershire, was married to Miss Sally Essex, of Kensington; what renders the union remarkable is, that each of the parties have lost an eye, and were both born the 26th day of June, 1740.
'

From the Gossip Column
'Two or three absurd paragraphs have crept into our paper within this day or two, fabricated with the elegant design of giving uneasiness to one of the few amiable and repectable Ladies of St. James's. It is needless to observe that the paragraphs alluded to were written in a female hand, and the orthography required no small degree of correction!
'

Finally, this delightful piece of sarcasm about Sally the Small, subject of many articles on my other blog, Theatre History:

'Wonderful Intelligence. – "Sally the Small is as well as can be expected after her lying-in." To which we may add, by way of companion to this, that "yesterday died Jowler, only dog to Mr. Marrowbones, of Clare-market." – And now the public have information enough for one day!'

And that just about sums it up, only Yahoo OMG could do better. I must dash, having a hectic heat.

 

All stories taken from various London newspapers: London Chronicle, Morning Chronicle, Westminster Journal etc. between 1766-1795

The Perfect Hoop Petticoat

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Various petticoats a la mode

The new fashion for the circular hoop petticoat was picked up by Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer on the 26 April 1783 in the following biting paragraph:

'The perfect hoop petticoat is to undergo a material alteration before the Summer commences, and is to be a perfect imitation of that magnificent one worn by the fair islanders of Myconia, which is perfectly circular, and of course furnishes that beautiful simile of comparing a woman to a star ; as then it may be truly said, that every lady moves in her own orb, and shines in her own sphere. There may indeed arise some objections to those kind of ornaments, viz. that a slender woman in such a dress stands upon a basis so exorbitantly wide, that she resembles a tunnel; and that a woman of low stature, when she moves, gives us a perfect idea of a child in a go-cart.'

Miaow.
 

MJ Holman

 

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