The Swan Circle

A story of Georgian networking

Who Dares… dies of alcohol poisoning

18th Century Digressions, Entertainment & Culture, Society and Politics No Comments »

Let's think about the Georgians and their favourite pastimes and act-ivities. This is not meant to be serious, so scholars and historians please don't kick me down the broadband ether, it is a frivolous and flippant exercise for the Silly Season.
   We know t
here were many respectable and not so respectable occupations that helped Georgians pass the time; so how about a bet on a cockfight? Or on a pair of bare knuckle fighters? Perhap we could partake in a good riot or a quart of gin between friends? Maybe a quadrille or a trip to the theatre to see The Country Wife? Gambling? Or drinking and gambling? Perhaps pursue the two pastimes together and indulge in a drinking wager for a guinea?
   It seems that the wager was an attractive concept for all types and classes of people. It was a form of gambling and a way to make a name for oneself locally, and perhaps get smashed at the same time. No doubt some wagers were agreed whilst the protagonists were already under the influence of alcohol and therefore extra drinking might push them over into oblivion and a wager with St Peter. Maybe that is how some people managed to extricate themselves from paying.
   Not all wagers involved drink though. I compiled this list of wagers whilst rummaging through the newspapers and in some instances the participants seemed to have been quite sober. This is not a TOTP list by the way, more like a shuffle. You pick your own favourites:

  • 'A fine tortoiseshell cat was on Friday morning seen approaching London Bridge, peaceably seated in a large bowl dish [floating on the Thames]. As she advanced towards the fall, every one anticipated that she would be overturned and precipitated into the stream. She kept her seat, however, with great presence of mind and amidst loud cheers, shot the centre arch with as much dexterity as the most experienced waterman….It turned out that the voyage was undertaken for a wager between two Richmond gentleman, and that the puss was embarked at the turn of the tide in the course of the night, and happily reached her destination without sustaining any injury'.
  • 'At the great age of 104 years, John Alfred Parnell, of Corfe Castle farm-house, he retained all his faculties till within two years of his death. In his youthful days he was a noted pedestrian, and could go with ease six miles an hour for two hours together, and several times has walked for small wagers twenty one miles within four hours; and in his 99th year he walked seven miles within two hours, for a wager'. [From an Obit.]
  • 'A curious trial, in which the rev. R. Gilbert was plaintiff', and sir M. M. Sykes, bart. M. P. defendant, came on at the York assizes, for the recovery of a bet on the life of Bonaparte ; the condition of which was, that the plaintiff, on paying 100 guineas, should receive one guinea per day so long as Bonaparte should live. For nearly three years the defendant continued to pay the stipulated sum'. [Court ruled in favour of defendant]
  • 'At Stoughton this evening a labourer entered a public house with a sixpenny loaf under his arm; some drinkers wagered the price of the loaf that he could not eat the loaf and a pound of cheese in three hours; he set to work and ate the lot "within three minutes of the time fixed"'.
  • 'At Stamford… with two bets to one against him, a young man carried half a hundredweight in each hand 20 yards and back, 140 times in three hours…'
  • 'One day last week a master-bricklayer, in Finsbury, rowed from the Old Swan at London-Bridge, to the Swan at Chelsea, against tide, for a considerable wager, against another person, who started from the same place by land, and won the wager by two minutes…'
  • 'A one-armed youth, a news-carrier, ran eleven times round the Upper and Middle Moorfields with a coach rear-wheel; he won a wager of four guineas, beating his time of an hour by five minutes'.
  • 'Stephen Junks, Stick-in-the-mud, a rubbish-carrier, drank three pints of gin for a wager in a Kent-street tavern, went home to bed, and was found dead by his wife'.
  • 'John Miller the Running Glass-blower, for a wager of half-a-crown, drank a quart of aniseed-water near Ragfair in 54 minutes (the time allowed was an hour); he soon after had convulsions and died in the afternoon'.
  • 'At Ely a baker, drunk, wagered two guineas that he could carry twelve stone of flour in a sack for a mile without stopping, and starting from Bug's-lane turnpike, did it in twenty-five minutes'.

These days we might be more inclined to sit in a bath of beans for charity or see how many medium sized individuals will fit into a mini. We are probably more aware of the dangers of alcohol to partake in drinking bets, but we might try some of the other things.

Except for the cat wager. Don't do it. As they say on the TV, 'Don't try this at home… you might receive a call from the RSPCA'.


This poem appeared in the newspapers in 1814:

Such little hopes I'd always found
Of gaining Betsey for my wife,
That I had wager'd Dick a pound
I should not win her all my life.

But—thanks to Heav'n !—my anxious care
Is all remov'd ;—the knot is tied;
And Betsey—fairest of the fair—
Consents at length to be my bride.

To Dick, then, as in honour bound,
Well pleas'd I bold myself in debt ;—
Thus, by the oddest luck, 'tis found
I lose my wager—win my Bet!
Strand, Oct. 27, 1814. 

Breakfast with the Austens

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


Godmersham Park

On a Sunday morning in 1812 Fanny Catherine Knight the niece of Jane Austen set out for church with her family. It was midsummer and Godmersham Park must have been delightful, a picturesque retreat set in the lovely verdant countryside of the Stour Valley.
Later that morning, the family sat down for breakfast and were joined by Mr Louch an acquaintance from the town of Hythe. He stayed awhile, no doubt enjoying the park before eventually accompanying the family to dinner. In May 1814 he dined with the family again, this time at Chawton Great House and in the June, he delivered a letter from Cassandra Austen to her sister Jane to which the author replied:

June 23rd 1814 Henrietta Street: I received your pretty letter while the children were drinking tea with us, as Mr. Louch was so obliging as to walk over with it'.

But who was Mr Louch and how did he come to know the Austen family? The answer to this lies with my great, great, great, great grandmother Elizabeth West formerly Louch.
After the death of her husband she took over the proprietorship of the Swan Tavern at Brentford with her daughter Sarah, son Henry and his wife Henrietta Stevens. The business had been hugely successful and as a consequence the family had acquired numerous properties at Brentford where various members of the family resided including Elizabeth's unmarried sister Jane Louch. The sisters appear to have had a brother called James Louch and nephews William, James and perhaps a John who was recorded as vintner of the White Hart in Brentford in 1791. The same year William Louch was listed as the proprietor of the Drum Inn at 319 High Street, Brentford, but in 1813-14 he seems to have rented a large portion of Churcher's College in Petersfield, Hampshire described as 'the whole of the front of the said college and the kitchen behind the same' for a guinea a week.
During his residence at Churcher's College, William would have received William Stevens Louch son of his brother James and great nephew of Elizabeth West. Sometime prior to 1806, William Stevens Louch had become the business partner of Henry Thomas Austen (pictured below right). They were recorded in partnership at the formation of two banks: Austen Blunt & Louch at 13 Market Square, Petersfield; and Austen & Louch at 93 High Street, Hythe, Kent.
Their business venture and the bank crash that followed the abdication of Napoleon is well documented and I do not intend to cover it here, but an excellent account is provided by T. A. B. Corley in an article for the Jane Austen Society called Jane Austen and her brother Henry's Bank failure. There is also an online source listed at the end of this article.
Despite such full accounts of the bank collapse, there is very little information about Mr Louch, so it seems appropriate to provide some accompanying material here.
William Stevens Louch was born on 25 April 1788 at Brentford and was the son of James and Sarah Louch. Both of his parents may have died in 1796 leaving him and his sister Mary Ann under the guardianship of their uncle William. His grandfather James had married Mary Staples at Twickenham and they seemed to have had links to the Stevens family of Box Hedge House, Steventon. 
William's early life is a mystery, he appears to have been well educated and survived the bank crash despite being gazetted for bankruptcy in 1816. At the time of the crash he was living at Hythe in Kent, but by 1851 he had moved into Hanover Chambers at 12 Buckingham Street, Westminster with three others: Thomas Withers, David G. Henderson and John Hodge a stock broker. William never married.
In 1856 his portrait was painted by the enamel painter William Essex and exhibited at the Royal Academy. Mr Louch was a keen art collector and had managed to acquire a number of paintings by Essex and by the artist Caleb Robert Stanley. No doubt these ornamented his rooms at 12 Buckingham Street and 1 Durham Place, Chelsea where he lived until his death in 1871. The house at No, 12 is part of a terrace just off the Strand in the parish of St Martin in the Fields and is now the Regent Language School. Samuel Pepys had also lived at No. 12 and is said to haunt the grand staircase probably scaring the current students as a 'blurred, smiling phantom'. Other previous occupants include Mary, Countess of Fauconberg, the third daughter of Oliver Cromwell; Sir Thomas Pelham, afterwards 1st Baron Pelham and after Mr Louch, the novelist Benjamin Leopold Farjeon.

In 1870 William prepared his Will and apportioned the following bequests:

'I give to the trustees of the South Kensington Museum the following pictures videlicet four miniatures on enamel by Essex of Shakespeare Garrick Milton and Nelson Oil painting of Callendar Bridge Scotland by C R Stanley watercolor drawings of Kilchurn Castle Ireland and a view of the Shannon by C R Stanley… and two small miniatures on metal of the father and mother of the Pretender…'

The stunning painting of Callendar Bridge by Stanley can be viewed on the Victoria & Albert Museum website. I have not been able to trace any of the other works or the portrait of William Stevens Louch, however I am sure they are stored in a vault at an art gallery somewhere.
William had no immediate family and therefore left a number of legacies to his godchildren. But his most generous contributions were reserved for the hospitals of London:

'One thousand pounds to the trustees of Saint George's hospital Hyde Park Corner one thousand pounds to the trustees of the Westminster hospital Broad Sanctuary Westminster one thousand pounds to the trustees of the Middlesex hospital Charles Street… one thousand pounds to the trustees of St Mary hospital Paddington one thousand pounds to the trustees of the Brompton Consumption hospital five hundred pounds to the trustees of the Institution for homeless No. [?] Great Queen Street Lincolns Inn Fields and two hundred pounds to the trustees of the Victoria hospital for children Gough House Chelsea…'

Clearly William had not suffered as a result of his business ventures with Henry Thomas Austen and the only real victim appears to be their relationship. He is not mentioned by either Fanny or Jane after 1814 and it seems unlikely that he breakfasted with the Austens again.

MJ Holman @mishjholman

From Fanny Catherine Knight's pocket book:

June 21st 1812 Godmersham: 'Morning Church. Mr Louch came to breakfast and staid to dinner. Mr Hoare came to dinner'.

May 17th 1814 Chawton Great House: 'Mr and Mrs Papillon and Miss Jackson, and Mr Louch dined here and some from the cottage. A letter from Edward'.

Online source for information on Henry Thomas Austen's business failure:


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