Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Jonathan Tyers and the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens
In the mid 18th century, Jonathan Tyers became best known for making the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens into a spectacular success that lasted another hundred years. Under his ownership the gardens went from a fairly average recreation area on the south bank of the Thames, to the place to visit. From the sensational lighting to orchestral music, from plays to wooded walks, under his stewardship Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens became the haunt of everyone from the Prince of Wales to the common man. His creative innovations were ahead of their time, as was his canny instinct for marketing and publicity. Tyers achievements were many, but what interests us today is the man behind the hype.
Jonathan Tyers relaxing with his family
            Tyers was born in 1702, into a family of leatherworkers – dealing in hides and skins.  Perhaps he was ashamed of his humble roots because a recurrent theme during his life was raising his social status from tradesman to gentry. Indeed, Tyers was adept at reinventing not only the gardens –but himself.
Roubiliac's bust of Tyers
            At the age of just 27 Tyers acquired the lease for the Spring Gardens at Vauxhall (later renamed the Vauxhall Gardens) for an annual rent of £250. Over the next thirty years he bought out the lease, finally owning the gardens in 1758. A shrew business man with a talent for advertising, Tyers used the talents of eminent artists and musicians of the day. He enlisted William Hogarth to design season tickets, and Handel to compose music for the gardens. Some of his marketing techniques included having a special barge sail up and down the Thames, with musicians on deck playing Handel’s new pieces – to be played at the gardens that night. 
The Grand Walk, Vauxhall, in its heyday
            Tyers hung hundreds of lanterns (an unthinkably extravagant number in the 18th century) from trees lining the walks. Not content with illuminating the gardens, he developed a revolutionary technique of lighting the lanterns, all at the same time – a sight akin to magic in the 1750’s. This rouse was such a success that people flocked to the gardens – just to see the lights being switched on.
            But what of Tyers himself? He married a woman, Elizabeth, two years older than him and already a widow. Evidently, she was a woman of character and positivity, because, when in old age the house was burgled and a considerable amount of silver stolen – instead of complaining she marveled at the skill of the thieves in breaking in without waking anyone.
I took this photo, in a spot approximating to the view above.
The Grand Walk (?!) in the modern day
            Tyers was renowned for having a changeable character. For periods of time he was highly motivated and creative, but this alternated with periods of withdrawal and profound melancholia when he became suicidal. It has been postulated he may have suffered from a psychological condition such as bipolar disorder.
            Under Tyer’s ownership from 1729 to his death in 1767, Vauxhall became the haunt of the fashionable elite – from royalty to dukes, landowners and merchants. For the admission cost of one shilling, the visitor had the exciting prospect of rubbing shoulders with the celebrities of the day.
The site of Vauxhall Gardens in the modern day.
Note the Shard in the background
            Tyers was passionate about Vauxhall right up until his death in 1767. When he was terminally ill, he insisted on being carried through the gardens to say farewell to the place he loved so much. He died at his house in the gardens on 1 July aged 65. He left behind a widow, two daughters and two sons (the younger of which took over the running of the gardens). Jonathan was buried in a churchyard near his family home in Bermondsey.  The grave  was not marked and the only commemoration to his life now existing is in the street names around the site of the old Vauxhall.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Georgians: Shop to Live, or Live to Shop?

            I love history, especially the 18th century and the more I learn about the Georgians, the more it appears they oversaw the birth of many things familiar to us today. Take shopping for example.
            Before the 1700’s most trade was done direct, straight from producer to customer. If you needed a chicken, you went to a farmer to buy one and if the farmer produced surplus stock, then he took those chickens to market. Likewise craftsmen produced to order and had no need of shop premises because customers approached them directly. People shopped out of necessity, rather than for leisure – perhaps with the except ion travelling pedlars hawking more unusual goods such as tea, tobacco, spices and ribbons.
1734 - people visited fairs (Southwark Fair featured here) to
spend money and enjoy themselves
            But in the 18th century London expanded at a tremendous rate. Money was poured into building grand terraces, opulent squares and imposing town houses –all of which needed fixtures, fittings and furnishings. A demand for merchandise was born that distanced the consumer from producer. Canny merchants spotted the opportunity to buy good and supply them to towns and cities – the demand for goods as luxuries, rather than necessity had started.
            These shops were often open from 8am to 11pm and as more shops opened so competition for custom grew and window displays became important to entice the shopper inside. Bow fronted windows gave a larger stage on which to showcase goods.
An 18th century shoe shop
But this fledgling consumer society was not without disadvantages for the shopkeeper. The majority of goods did not have a fixed price and could be bargained over (a hark back to haggling in the market) and it was considered ‘odd’ to marks items with a price tag and not haggle. When a purchase was made, it was usual to put goods on account, rather than pay up front. Often a customer ran up an account for a year before settling what he owed – and if he didn’t feel like paying in full, there was little a shopkeeper could do about it.
            As the century deepened, so shopping became an entertainment in itself, with people idling away the hours at different shops but with no intention of making a purchase:
"I have heard, that some Ladies, and those too persons of good note, have taken their coaches and spent a whole afternoon in Ludgate Street, or Covent Garden, only to divert themselves in going from one mercer's shop to another, to look upon their fine silks, and to rattle and banter the shopkeepers, having not so much the least occasion, much less the intention, to buy anything; nay, not so much as carry any money out with them to buy anything if they fancied it."
Daniel Defoe – The Complete Tradesman
Buying a new muff
            Indeed, shopkeepers were expected not only to put up with having their time wasted, but to be cheerful about it!
[The shopkeeper] must never be angry, not so much as seen to be so, if a customer tumbles him £100 worth of goods and scarce bid for anything” 
Daniel Defoe – The Complete Tradesman
            So you see, in the 18th century people stopped shopping to live, and lived to shop! It was also a time when people with spare income spent it on entertainments such as the theatre or visiting a pleasure garden (as featured in The Ringmaster's Daughter). 

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

How St Albans got its Name

            Do you wonder about the history of local towns? I've lived near St. Albans for 18 years, but it was only recently I looked into the origins of this roman settlement. It started life in  AD 43 when the Romans built an encampment beside the River Ver and "Verulamium" was born (later renamed St Albans) – and for a while this was the largest Roman town in England. However, at that time most of the buildings were made of wood and destroyed during Queen Boudicca's rebellion of AD 60 -61.
The view along George St, St Albans
(which also happens to be where one of my all time favourite shops is located)

            Undeterred the Romans rebuilt in stone and then a couple of centuries later erected a wall around the town. It was around this time AD 250 -275 (exact date uncertain) that the man who went onto give his name to St Albans - was martyred.
St Alban's cathedral

            Alban is acknowledged as the first British Christian martyr and an account of his life is given by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History. The story goes that Alban was a pagan who gave a Christian priest, Amphibalus, shelter and hid him from Roman soldiers who were trying to capture him. However, during their time together the priest converted Alban to Christianity and when soldiers arrived to arrest Amphibalus, Alban donned the priest’s garments and took his place. A judge recognized the deception and insisted Alban renounce Christianity – and had him savagely beaten when he refused.
A rather grizzly depiction of Alban's execution

            Alban was sentenced to death, but on the day of his execution a number of miracles happened which made the executioner refuse to perform his duty. A second executioner was found who beheaded Alban, along with the first executioner - but then this second executioner was struck blind. Alban’s head bounced down a hill (Holywell Hill) and a stream arose where it landed.  The place of Alban’s execution is reputedly where St Alban’s cathedral stands today.
The shrine of St Alban - housed within
the cathedral that bears his name

            By AD 410 the roman presence dwindled as the army left, and many of their buildings fell into disrepair. The industrious locals reused bricks and stone, incorporating roman materials into their own houses and barns. Indeed, to this day St Albans is a place with a strong sense of history seeping from its stones, including an "Eleanor Cross" – more of this in another post.
The view down Holywell Hill in the late 19th century

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Sinking of the Mary Rose: by guest author, Judith Arnopp

I'm delighted to welcome Judith Arnopp, historical fiction author, to my blog. I've read three of Judith's books (The Winchester Goose, The Concubine's Kiss, and now Intractable Heart) and can heartily recommend them to readers of well-written historical fiction. With impeccable research, Judith's writing immerses you in the Tudor period and excels at making the motivation of the characters believable. 
Today, Judith shares a post about the sinking of the Tudor warship, the Mary Rose (see excerpt at the end of this post to  read the scene in Intractable Heart). Anyhow, enough from me - let me hand over to Judith. 
Grace x
PS For more Mary Rose info click the link.
Judith Arnopp
On July 19th 1545, with the loss of more than 400 lives, the royal flagship The Mary Rose sank beneath the waves, settled into the silt of the Solent and became history. Four hundred years later, in 1982, when archaeologists successfully raised her from the seabed, I was watching. I may have been glued to the television screen 70 miles away from Portsmouth but, in my heart, I was there with the team, experiencing one of the most profound moments of my life.

In the intervening years I have visited the museum several times and closely followed the Mary Rose Trust in its unstinting efforts to salvage not just the wreck, but the thousands of artefacts found alongside it.  For the past nineteen years the timbers of the wreck have been constantly sprayed with polyethylene glycol to preserve and reinforce the structure, but now the time has come to turn off the spray and begin drying her out. It is also time for the wreck and its artefacts to be brought back together and housed in one fabulous exhibition.

The Mary Rose is the only 16th century warship on display anywhere in the world. She offers an invaluable resource for historians, illustrating in minute detail, life as it was on a Tudor warship. Artefacts that, in normal circumstances, would have been lost to us have been preserved for 500 years in the Solent silt. They can now be viewed in situ in a new museum which opens in Portsmouth in May 2013. Visitors to the museum will be able to walk along a central gangway and view the original wreck on one side while, on the other side, see a reconstruction of how experts believe the interior of the Mary Rose may have looked on the day she sank.
Mary Rose - gun furniture
Henry VIII’s obsession with France left England a legacy of isolation in Europe, religious conflict, inflation, national penury and social upheaval, and what little gains he did make were short lived. In the 1550’s Boulogne was given back to France, and in 1558 Calais, England’s last possession on the continent, was lost. Today we can see that the one positive outcome of his war with France was the Mary Rose. What was undoubtedly a huge loss to Henry VIII that day but she has now become a gift to us as a nation, and every single person who went down with her did not die in vain. They are not forgotten. The wreck of the Mary Rose provides precious insight into life on a Tudor warship, an aspect of 16th century life that would otherwise be completely closed to us.
Mary Rose - carpentry tools
It is not just the salvaged cannon or the armour and weapons that are invaluable, it is the small, everyday things. They have become the greatest treasures. There is no thrill on this earth like looking at a handful of dice last thrown by a sailor in 1545, or a leather shoe last worn by a man defending our shores from French invasion five hundred years ago, or a nit comb still thick with 16th century lice. To me, and other peculiar people like me, those things are rarer, and more thrilling, than the crown jewels.

When I came to write my novel Intractable Heart; a story of Katheryn Parr I could not omit the tragedy of the Mary Rose. We do not know for certain if Katheryn was with Henry as he watched his favourite ship sink but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that she was. Below is an excerpt from the novel depicting the imagined scene.

19th July 1545 – Southsea, Portsmouth

The King points a finger, indicating where the ships should go next. Beside him, ignoring the squeals of the women, Charles Brandon nods.  It is as if the men are witnessing a life sized game of chess, as if real lives, real husbands aren’t at risk. I remember Henry explaining that there are more than four hundred and fifty men aboard each ship. I try to imagine the squash, the stench and the squalor. It must be like hell on earth.
The king stands proud, hands on hips, his demeanour belying his failing breath, his crippled leg, his lack of virility. He looks out across the sea, his papery cheeks growing pink in the sea air, the white feather in his cap fluttering like a stricken gull. Slowly, the pride of the English navy turns to offer a broadside attack.
It is one of those briny coastal days when the wind is sporadic, with intermittent breezes that extinguish the warmth of the sun. A sudden gust, seemingly from nowhere, lifts the King’s cloak, making him shudder.
“Someone walking over my grave,” he laughs as he wraps it closer to his bulk. He glances at me and I smile dutifully, convincing him of my adoration. And, engaged as we are in this moment of marital insincerity, we both miss the precise moment when the Mary Rose falters.
When we turn back to the panoramic scene, the action is stilled; the flags on the great ship snap and flutter. Like a painting the scene is frozen momentarily, the great ship balanced on the cusp of fate. As if in premonition the king holds his breath, grabs my arm as my heart falters and I send up a prayer. 
But, in a heartbeat, the ship is heeling over, cries of terror as her open gun ports fill with water. We stand amazed as the first sailors fall from the rigging to splash into the sea. On the snapping breeze the screams of the stricken men are borne toward us and my husband’s prowess instantly shrinks. His breath whistles from his lungs, his grip is tight and painful on my wrist.
We watch transfixed as the massive cannon break free, bursting through the sides of the ship, surging into the waves. All around us people are screaming, shouting orders; a crowd surges toward the dockside, the air clamouring with terrified voices.
 On board The Mary Rose the tilting deck is a chaos of fleeing men. They are screaming, leaping from assured death to certain drowning. As they run, they cast off their clothing, kick off their shoes in the futile hope that, although they cannot swim, they will float when the swiftly swelling sea engulfs them.
The end is quick. Henry and I watch in horrified silence while around us on the battlement, women are weeping, wailing, praying. Charles Brandon and Anthony Browne are shouting, waving their arms. Below us in the precinct men are fighting to mount terrified horses, although it is too late for fruitful action; there is nothing to be done.
It is far too late to prevent disaster. Henry knows it in his heart. I know it in my own. Now, so quickly, the only visible sign of Henry’s favourite ship is the top of the mast jutting from the water. Like a great white jelly fish the mainsail is foundering in the waves and only a few survivors are left, clinging to the fighting tops. The balmy sea is littered with the wreckage, and the remnants of his fighting crew are flotsam.
I am suddenly aware of someone sobbing and slowly I turn in a daze to find Mary Carew fallen to her knees. It is only then I remember her husband. Before I can move to comfort her Henry stumps forward and, throwing down his stick, he lifts her up and draws her into his arms.
He wraps his arms about her and over the top of her head his eyes meet mine. There are great shining tears on his lashes, dropping onto his white and sagging cheeks.
“There, there,” he croaks, caressing her shoulder awkwardly with his jewelled hand. “There, there.”
What else can he say?


Intractable Heart is available now on Kindle please click here to read a sample.
The paperback edition will be available toward the end of the summer.

Judith Arnopp’s other books include:

The Kiss of the Concubine: A Story of Anne Boleyn
The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers

All available both in paperback and on kindle.

Judith’s webpage:

Judith’s blog: