The Swan Circle

A story of Georgian networking

Fatal Beauty: the whores of Bridewell

18th Century Digressions, Society and Politics No Comments »

William HogarthIn the second half of the eighteenth century the rep-utable inhabitants of Covent Garden, St Martin in the Fields, St Mary le Strand and St Clement Danes met at the Blakeney's Head in Bow Street to draw up a scheme for clearing the area of the numerous brothels and street whores.They nominated and appointed individuals to a committee that would patrol the parishes every month and present all necessary information before a magistrate. 
  In Bridewell Prison many of the whores stripped themselves stark naked 'to take the diversion of dancing. The Beadle (whose business it was to give the delinquents their proper discipline) hearing of their design, and thinking it very necessary that they should have music, appeared amongst them with the proper ensigns of his office, and made them dance to the brisk tune of the Cat o' nine tails'.
   Members of the public expressed their concerns in the press regarding the treatment of the women; many commentators argued that the funds raised for caring for the impecunious Palatines (see previous post) could have been used to alleviate the plight of the poor prostitute. One particular author made a plea to the public and the authorities for the better treatment of all the street women:

   'They are first seduced by those who ought to be their protectors; are hunted by those who gain the current shilling for the discharge fee; committed to a prison, which can work no amendment in them, but from which they come totally corrupted, and destitute of any remains of shame which they might have left; and then let loose again, without the means of getting honest bread, to return to their loathsome trade, and afford another fee on being taking up afresh. When they are not in prison they are subject to the insults of the inhuman; to the vile extortions of the bawds and panders, for whose profit, rather than their own, they live a life of infamy, and die the martyrs of their fatal beauty, and a loss to the community…'

MJ Holman @mishjholman

The Poor Palatines of London

18th Century Digressions, Society and Politics No Comments »

Palatine CampIn 1764 The Daily Advertiser printed a letter from the pastor of the Lutheran Church in Goodman's fields concerning the plight of some refugees. Six hundred Germans, Protestant Wurtz-burghers and Palatines were travelling to the island of St John in America, but were unable to continue further and were stranded in London.
  Four hundred individuals came ashore, whilst the rest were detained aboard ship. The conditions were dire and though many ex-pats were charitably contributing to a fund for provisions, they were too few to sustain such a number; all the refugees were "in a manner without food, many without clothes, and some sick, yet obliged to lie in the open fields, exposed to all the inclemencies of a rainy season." The women in particular were suffering and one mother and her new borne child died.
  The morning of the letter a hundred tents were supplied from the Tower, followed swiftly by a payment for the passage of the two hundred who were  contained in the foul quarters of the ship. Londoners opened their coffers and started donating; subscriptions were declared at coffee-houses and a physician, a surgeon and male midwife offered their services. In a Cornhill coffee house, a committee took charge and advertised for two ships of not less than 200 tons burden.
  Not everyone was happy with the idea of this 'foreign aid' and many raised the criticism that the givers were not so forthcoming to assist the native poor of London who could "barely keep life and soul together". Even after such discussions, most observers agreed that conditions within the refugee camp were appalling and that those packed behind Whitechapel Church in an "intolerably nasty, inconvenient, and unwholesome" situation were suffering. Huddled together in tents that were barely two yards wide, a family of eight or nine endured the indignity of having no access to water except some stinking pools in an nearby ditch and the masses of inquisitive Georgian Londoners crowding together to get a glimpse of their plight.

MJ Holman @mishjholman

Adventures in Berlin

Family History, Military & Naval 5 Comments »

My father HenryDuring World War II my father Henry had been part of a special operations unit working on decoys in readiness for the Normandy landings. Following a major accident and subsequent discharge from the Royal Navy, he was headhunted by the Foreign Office, but initially refused to take a position. After some careful consideration, he decided to take the entrance exam and was placed in a job within the British military government in Germany.
   When I was a child, he regularly described to me his experiences in Berlin and vividly recalled some astonishing events that he had observed. I grew up with these images in my mind and following our nostalgic visit to Berlin in the early 1990s decided to record our conversations. Since my father's passing, I have been unable to listen to those tapes, but I am aware that no amount of sobbing and discomfort will stop me from returning to those fascinating accounts one day, and I hope that in time I can produce a piece of work that does him and the historical significance of his story justice.
   During our visit to Berlin, we took a taxi to Fehrbelliner Platz and the Rathaus Wilmersdorf, the site of the British HQ from 1945-1953. The former centre of Nazi military administration had been renamed Lancaster House by the British following their occupation of the sector. As we walked along Hohenzollerndamm towards the rear of the building, my father recalled that his office had been situated at the very end of the Rathaus, just a couple of doors away from the military governor.
   From the office at the back of Lancaster House, Henry journeyed to and from Whitehall accompanied by a briefcase full of sensitive documents and two military policemen armed with machine guns.
   He frequently travelled by rail, catching the boat train from London. Initially he found the journey intractable; the hardship and impecunity of the German people weighed heavily upon him: witnessing the women pulling down the remaining shells of buildings and rebuilding the towns, thin and malnourished children begging for food, the elderly without a penny for fuel or food during the bitter winter – this was the nation he had fought against a few years before.
   Eventually, he took to purchasing food and chocolate at his stop off points in Belgium and Holland, then relinquishing all of his supplies to the German children that ran by the side of the train shouting, 'Schokoladen! Schokoladen!'

Spandau Prison

Spandau Prison

   Any business conducted in and around Berlin was done by car, but his personal chauffeur, a one legged former Messerschmitt pilot disliked and feared the Soviets so intensely, that he would go no further than the beginning of the long drive up to Spandau when the Soviets were overseers of the prison. Henry was forced to walk the distance to the door of Spandau prison, observed from the watchtowers by Soviet soldiers as young as fifteen. After knocking on the door, he discovered communications were monosyllabic and the exchanges brief.
   Our allies in the west were different though, after all they spoke the same language. The Americans were engaging and generous, supplying Henry with cigarettes and food parcels he could smuggle home; there were also parties and balls, large amounts of Pimms and girlfriends. There was a drunken night accidentally driving into the Soviet zone where he and his US friends were nearly shot on suspicion of spying.
   One day, he was returning to London when his train was stopped and searched by the Soviets who were looking for a number of German individuals that they believed were being smuggled out of Berlin by the British. I had heard of this story so many times and asked him if it were true, he assured me it was.
   On 5th April 1948, Henry visited Gatow airport to meet up with the British passengers of a Viking airliner and to collect the diplomatic mail that was carried on board. He was standing smoking a cigarette and in deep conversation with General Robertson's pilot when the plane appeared in the distance and was preparing to descend, but suddenly disappeared. A Soviet fighter plane had collided with the Viking, killing everyone on board both aircraft; by the time he and the British officials had reached the site, they discovered that the Soviets had confiscated everything including the diplomatic mail.

Sunderland Flying Boat

Short Sunderland

The air disaster exacerbated tensions between the Soviets and the other allied powers leading to the Berlin Blockade. Within months the Airlift was under way and Henry stood and watched as the Sunderland flying boats skilfully touched down on the waters of the Wannsee.
   His time in Germany lasted another four years, but was tragically cut short by the sudden death of his younger brother Sidney; he felt that he could no longer be apart from his family at a time of such distress. Years later I know that he regretted the decision to leave, that he had witnessed some momentus events and had seen at first hand a significant piece of twentieth century history.


Pitchcocked eels: Tavern dining in the 18th century

Entertainment & Culture, Family History, The Swan Circle, West Family 1700-1750, West Family 1750-1800 No Comments »

The Swan at Brentford

By 1777, the Swan tavern at Brentford had developed a reputation for hospitality, quality food and entertainment. The proprietors Henry and Elizabeth West – my great, great, great, great grandparents – had acquired a large fortune from the success of the tavern and were able to acquire further property on Kew Green and in Brentford.
   The tavern landlord during this period was often a man of substance, ranking above the tradesmen of the town. Surprised foreign visitors found that the English five star taverns were decorated and fitted to a high standard; according to Rosamond Bayne-Powell in her book, Travellers in Eighteenth-Century England:

'They found the stairs and landings carpeted. The bedrooms were spacious and clean with good mahogany furniture and immense four-post beds, piled so high with feather mattresses that it needed a short pair of steps to mount into them. There were curtains at the windows and curtains round the beds, wax candles in the sitting-rooms and pictures on the walls.'
  By the end of the eighteenth century, dinner was served in a common dining room or coffee room and there were set menus, however prior to this innovation, diners had the choice of hiring a private sitting-room or having meals with the landlord and his family in the parlour or kitchen. Tables were often covered with large joints of meat, fish and game and there were no napkins, visitors had to wipe their fingers on the tablecloth as the locals did.
  The Swan tavern specialised in fish recipes and even had its own ornamental fishponds for the purpose. In 1746 the Manor of Richmond granted a licence to Henry West to fish for 'Thames salmon of the weight of fifteen pounds each at the best', but it was not a salmon dish that made the Swan famous, but another recipe entirely.
  William Hickey (1749 – 1829) the memoirist, recalled a visit he and his brother made to the Swan between 1775 – 1782 in a failed attempt to avoid becoming inebriated:

  '"Let you and I therefore get out of the way of temptation, mount our horses and ride gently to Richmond, Brentford Ait, or any other place within ten miles of London that you prefer, where we might take a quiet dinner, a pint of port each, and jog soberly home in the evening." To so steady a plan, which I really liked, I readily consented. The event, however, never answered; entirely the reverse. The first excursion of this kind that we made we dined upon the Island off the town of Brentford, where there is a house famous for dressing pitchcocked eels, and also for stewing the same fish, and got so completely intoxicated we were incapable of mounting our horses and obliged to take a post-chaise to convey us to town. The wine being remarkably good, we ordered bottle after bottle until poor prudence was quite drowned.'

What are pitchcocked eels? Hannah Glasse the eighteenth century doyenne of English culinary expertise included recipes for pitchcocked eels and eel stew in her famous, and often plagarised manual The Art of Cookery:

To pitchcock Eels.

TAKE a large eel, and scour it well with salt to clean off all the slime; then slit it down the back, take out the bones, and cut it in three or four pieces; take the yolk of an egg and put over the inside, sprinkle crumbs of bread, with some sweet herbs and parsley chopped very fine, a little nutmeg grated, and some pepper and salt, mixed all together; then put it on a gridiron over a clear fire, broil it of a fine light brown, dish it up, and garnish with raw parsley and horseraddish; or put a boiled eel in the middle, and the pitchcocked round. Garnish as above with anchovy-sauce, and parsley and butter in a boat.

To stew Eels.

Skin, gut and wash them very clean in six or eight waters, to wash away all the sand; then cut them in pieces, about as long as your finger, put just water enough for sauce, put in a small onion stuck with cloves, a little bundle of sweet herbs, a blade or two of mace, and some whole pepper in a thin muslin rag, cover it close, and let them stew very softly.
Look at them now and then, put in a little piece of butter rolled in flour and a little chopped parsley. When you find they are quite tender and well done, take out the onion, spice and sweet herbs. Put in salt enough to season it. Then dish them up with the sauce.

   Both dishes appear to have been heavily seasoned in keeping with the English traditions of the day – perhaps the custom of drinking sweet wines and clarets helped offset the strong taste of the food!

The Aits from Kew 

The Brentford Ait from the Kew bank showing where the Swan tavern once stood


MJ Holman (@mishjholman)

Clarissa and The Swan

Family History, The Swan Circle, West Family 1750-1800 No Comments »

Brentford Ait

Brentford Ait, 19th Century

"… [Clarissa] was rowed to Chelsea, where she breakfasted; and after rowing about, put in at the Swan at Brentford-Aight, where she dined; and would have written, but had no conveniency either of tolerable pens, or ink, or a private room…"
Samuel Richardson, 'Clarissa, or, The history of a young lady'


In December 1738, Samuel Richardson the author of the novel Pamela leased a house called the Grange in North End Road in west London. The Restoration period property with its grotto and high walled garden, was the country retreat where Richardson created his epistolary novel Clarissa, and where he entertained good company from 'Saturday to Monday'.
   He was a familiar figure in the neighbourhood of Fulham; a widow who kept a public house on the corner of North End Lane, recalled "a round, short gentleman, who most days passed her door", and whose family she would serve with beer. Richardson moved to Parsons Green in 1755 and the Grange was later acquired by Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, who was said to have been impressed by its atmosphere.

   Richardson did not complete the novel Clarissa until the October of 1746, the year that Stephen West died and passed the ownership of the Swan to his brother Henry (my 4 x gt grandfather). Records show that Stephen had been granted a licence for the Swan in 1729 and had managed to grow a favourable reputation for the hostelry through skilful planning. By the time of Stephen's death, the water bailiff Roger Griffiths wrote that the Brentford Ait was "a very pleasant spot, on which is a publick house, inhabited by a fisherman, who of late years has greatly improved the spot by making therein several fishponds and other ornaments, for the more agreeable reception of those who shall make use of his house".
   Richardson's account of Clarissa's experience of the Swan reads as a very personal one; we can only guess that the author visited the tavern and perhaps did not find things to his satisfaction: no private room, no tolerable pens or ink etc. However, the Swan became famous not because of the quality of its stationery, but because of the excellence of its food and the superiority of its wine.

Find out what was on the menu in the next blog post.

MJ Holman (@mishjholman)


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