Thursday, 21 May 2015

Welcome, Regan Walker! Shopping on Oxford Street in Georgian London

Grace: I’m thrilled to welcome guest author, Regan Walker to “Fall in Love with History”. Regan posts on the subject of shopping, and contemporary accounts of what it was like to shop on 18th century Oxford Street. Enjoy!

I’m honoured to have read a preview copy of Regan’s latest release, To Tame the Wind, and I loved it. Let’s just say I’d rate Regan on a similar level to one of my favourite HR authors, Tessa Dare. And with 21 reviews to date, all of which are 5 stars, I'd say a lot of readers agree with me.

Anyhow, without further ado…over to Regan. 

Shopping on Oxford Street in Georgian London  
by Regan Walker

Shopping on Oxford Street in the late 18th century? Oh yes! You would have loved it.
Oxford Street from the Tyburn turnpike end.
Hyde Park to the right of the picture. 

Today, Oxford Street is a thoroughfare in the West End of London, but its origins go far back to the Roman roads. Between the 12th century and the year of my story, To Tame the Wind, 1782, it was variously known as Tyburn Road, Uxbridge Road, Worcester Road and Oxford Road. It became notorious as the route taken by prisoners on their final journey from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn near Marble Arch. Beginning about 1729, however, it became known as Oxford Street.

London’s population grew tremendously in the 18th century from about 630,000 in 1715 to 740,000 in 1760. It’s port, the London Pool on the Thames, was the busiest in the world. Much money was spent in building beautiful town houses, pleasure gardens, squares, museums—and shops. To venture into London’s streets was to brave pickpockets, cutthroats, bawds and bullies, not to mention mud and filth, stench from sewage and the black rain from the sea coal that was burned for heating. But on Oxford Street, where window-shopping had become a past time of the upper classes, things were better.

Though Sophie de la Roche, a German visitor to London in 1786, thought the houses in London were not so splendid as those in Paris, she raved about the shops on Oxford Street:
We strolled up and down lovely Oxford Street this evening, for some goods look more attractive by artificial light…First one passes a watchmaker’s, then a silk or fan store, now a silversmiths, a china or glass shop. Just as alluring are the confectioners and fruiterers, where, behind the handsome glass windows, pyramids of pineapples, figs, grapes, oranges and all manner of fruits are on show.
Contemporary map of Oxford Street

When my heroine in To Tame the Wind, Claire Donet, goes shopping with Cornelia, Lady Danvers, it is to Oxford Street where they browse the shop windows while Cornelia fills Claire in on the rather interesting origins of the hero, Captain Simon Powell.

While much negative could be said about the streets of London which were ever dirty and plagued by mud puddles, when it came to Oxford Street, Sophie de la Roche noted:

A street taking half an hour to cover from end to end, with double rows of brightly shining lamps, in the middle of which stands an equally long row of beautifully lacquered coaches, and on another side of these there is room for two coaches to pass one another and the pavement inlaid with flagstones can stand six people deep and allows one to gaze at the splendidly rich shop fronts in comfort.

Another visitor to London, de la Rochefoucauld, remarked,

Everything the merchant possesses is displayed behind windows which are always beautifully clean and the shops are built with a little projection on to the street so that they can be seen from three sides.

Of course he is talking about bay windows, seen in many shops today.

 At one time London shops displayed painted signs. There were roasted pigs and spotted lions, dogs and gridirons, which had no connection with the things sold in the shop. The signs posed problems, of course, making noise as they creaked in the wind and sometimes falling onto those shopping. In 1766, the signs were removed and to replace them and to tell shoppers what good were being offered, some shops displayed symbols of their trade, like the barber's pole, the grocer's sugar loaf, the golden arm holding a mallet (the sign of the goldsmith). Others put up their names and occupations on signs above their shops. Hence, Mrs. Duval the modiste in my novel (and an actual modiste of the time), though located on Bond Street, featured an spool of thread as well as her name painted on the glass.

One foreign traveler to London, after viewing the new signs, remarked,

‘Dealer in foreign spirituous liquors' is by far the most frequent.

Ha! Some things never change.

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               NY Times Bestselling author Shirlee Busbee


All Claire Donet knew was the world inside the convent walls in Saint-Denis. She had no idea her beloved papa was a pirate. But when he seized Simon Powell's schooner, the English privateer decided to take the one thing his enemy held most dear... her.


The waters between France and England roil with the clashes of Claire's father and her captor as the last year of the American Revolution rages on the sea, spies lurk in Paris and Claire’s passion for the English captain rises.

To learn more about Regan visit: 

Twitter: @RegansReview (

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Cobbled (?) Streets of Victorian London

Summon a mental picture of Dickensian streets, and if you’re like me, images spring to mind of horses clattering across cobblestones. Actually, whilst cobblestones are an ancient innovation, Dickens would have been more familiar seeing “granite setts” on the better London streets.
The ideal road surface needed to be durable, easily cleaned (all that horse excrement!), non slip, and didn’t turn into a bog when it rained.

A street being repaved with granite setts

As London grew and expanded rapidly, the search was on for a road surface that could cope with the traffic. One answer was macadam. St James’s Square in the affluent West End was the first London road to use macadam. This is a mix of small granite stones pressed into a prepared surface. Huge, heavy rollers pulled by teams of twelve men were pulled over the surface, compressing it down. This worked well when done properly; however, contractors frequently cut corners to increase their profit margins.
Look closely and you'll see these are irregularly shaped
granite setts rather than cobbles
Their cost cutting dodges included using bigger stones (less effort required to mill them finer) and giving the artifice of smoothness by covering them with sand. First heavy rainfall and sand washed away, exposing a hopelessly irregular surface. Another problem was inadequate rolling flat, which meant the weight of traffic pushed the gravel to one side creating deep ruts in the road. Perhaps an altogether less obvious problem, was poorly laid macadam provide ammunition for the protestors to throw at police at times of disquiet.
With thanks to
Cobbles are rounder than than rectangular setts

Master engineer Thomas Telford, also in the 1820s, came up with the idea of granite sets. These were stone blocks measuring 11 by 13 inches, and 9 inches deep, set over level ballast. Even when laid correctly, this surface was too smooth and therefore slippery for horses. Labourers regularly had to hammer away with chisels to roughen the surface to give the horses hooves purchase.
Granite setts
But cutting hard stone to the exact size was an expensive and time-consuming process, and poorly shaped blocks or offcuts often found their way into the roads, providing ruts and holes for a horse to trip on.
The idea behind hardwood roads

A strange solution to the modern mind, but for a while wooden roads seemed the obvious answer. Wooden blocks were easier to cut than stone, and could be dowelled together in the factory, and assembled on site like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The surface was grooved so as to provide grip. Another huge benefit was the wood muffled sound, and was much less noisy beneath hoof or iron wheel. One contemporary reports:
“The shopkeepers stat that they can now hear and speak to their customers…even when their windows were open.”
The residents of affluent areas clamoured to have this new wonder road surface installed in their square or road, and by the early 1840s Regent Street, Oxford Street, and parts of Holborn had wooden roads.

However no one foresaw the rapid deterioration of a wooden road surface – especially one in high use. By 1843 they were in such a poor state that on one stretch, in just four days, 19 horses had slipped and fallen. Indeed, on hills, or in frosty weather the roads rapidly became impassable to equine traffic (at least it kept the noise down!)

Roads which had recently been paved with wood were torn up and resurfaced. Interestingly, a few wooden roads remained in places where quiet was desirable, such as outside the Old Bailey and the Central Criminal Court.

So what of the humble cobble stone? The word “cobble” refers to a rounded stone, of between 2.5 to 10 inches diameter. And before you ask when the Victorian’s invented cobblestones – they didn’t! That honour is a much older one and dates back to the Romans. Their preferred method of building a durable road surface was to use the lumpen strength and reliability of cobbles. 

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Quintessentially Victorian: the Crinoline

It is arguable that nothing is as quintessentially Victorian as the crinoline. You only need to see the silhouette of a woman wearing a crinoline to place her fashion in the Victorian period. Whilst the Georgian period went through a fad for ridiculously wide skirts, it is the 1850s and 60s that were the era of the hoop shaped skirt we call the crinoline.
The height of fashion in 1854

A balloon like skirt is so evidently impractical, how did such a garb come into being? The roots of the answer are found in that traditional essential garment for women down the centuries – the petticoat.

Much of the time people in earlier centuries were cold. There was no central heating, and a fire in the hearth doesn’t throw heat very far. The answer was to rug up with layers of clothing so as to insulate the wearer from the worst of the icy drafts and inclement weather.

Petticoats for Warmth
For women this meant wearing petticoats under their gown. Indeed, a white cotton petticoat was usually worn over the corset but next to the skin. The layer was a simple shape and unadorned, since it needed washing on a regular basis.
The satirical magazine "Punch"
loved to poke fun at the wildly impractical crinoline

On top of the cotton petticoat came a flannel one- again simple in shape but perhaps with some decoration. Interestingly, this layer wasn’t full length but stopped just above the knee. These two layers were considered basic for women not matter what their class.

Fashionable Lengths
Just as in the modern day hemlines rise and fall, in the Victorian period fashion was all to do with the width and silhouette of the skirt. However, wide skirts needed support to hold them out and show them off to best advantage. In the 1840s the solution was to stiffen the fabric of a petticoat. The cheapest way to do this was “cording” which was a process of threading string between concentric rings of stitching on a white petticoat.

Itchy and Scratchy
But as the decade progressed, the stiffness provided by cording was not sufficient to support the weight of ever-bigger skirts. This lead to a new innovation and fabric with horsehair woven in or a “Crin au Lin”. Stiff, spring, and light, an underskirt made in this fabric or a “Crinoline” could support a weighty skirt.
The diameter of some crinolines was a disabling 6 feet

Steel Cages (…a comment on women’s lives in general?)
Horsehair, however, is scratchy and to overcome this in 1856 the steel crinoline was invented. This consisted of steel hoops suspended by tapes. This formed a cage like structure that was considerably lighter (and less itchy) than the original horsehair item.

And finally….perhaps crinoline makers were in league with fabric manufacturers, because the cages themselves were relatively inexpensive (retailing at about a third of the purchase price of a gown) and yet required many yards of fabric to make a skirt to cover it.  

PS. Can you think of anything more quintessentially Victorian than a crinoline? Do leave a comment. 
PSS - "Hope's Betrayal" has been signed by a well-known publishing house. The book will shortly become unavailable, whilst it undergoes a "wash and brush up" - so grab your copy now or face a wait...
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Sunday, 3 May 2015

Victorian Life: The Health Benefits of the Corset

Fashions come and go, but in Victorian times one item of apparel that was considered ‘de rigeur’ by women of all classes was the corset. So much so that even women in prison or the workhouse, were supplied with corsets.

Part of the reason was that 19th century medicine held that women’s internal organs needed support. It was said that a woman’s midriff was weak and not up to the job of supporting her womb. Ironically, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy because the constant use of corsets weakened the abdominal muscles.

Waisting Away
Any muscle when not used, tends to waste away (waist away? See what I did there!) and the abdominal muscles are no different. Instead of having the female version of a six-pack, the Victorian lady had muscles equivalent in tone to a blancmange – thanks to the corset.
Indeed, if a Victorian lady left off her corset, she was likely to quickly feel vulnerable and tired, thanks to the lack of support – and hence confirming the reason for wearing one.

“Women who wear very tight stays complain that they cannot sit upright without them, nay are compelled to wear night stays in bed.”  Female Beauty – Victorian periodical
A x-ray from 1908 showing how
a corset compressed the lower ribcage

Upright Posture
Thus the corset also braced the back and helped a lady to have an elegant upright posture and bearing – something much admired at the time.

Warmth and Protection
A corset was said to protect the delicate organs such as the kidneys. The garment kept in the body’s warmth and hence saved the kidneys from catching a chill. Indeed, the corset provided a valuable windproof weather, against the vagaries of the British climate.
Normal anatomy on the left
Corset restricted anatomy on the right

The Corset Not to Blame
So how come the corset has such a bad reputation as an instrument of subduing women and stopping them from leading active lives?

Mainstream medical thinking was that corsets were good, but could be made bad when laced too tightly. Unfortunately, the latter is exactly what happened because society admired a trim figure with a tiny waist – which meant women used every tool at their disposal to obtain just that.

It was the 1850s and 60s that saw tremendous pressure building to produce a tiny waist. Not only that, but it was positively encouraged, especially for young women with a husband to snare.

A Smaller Waist than a Toddler
“When I left school at 17 my waist measured only 13 inches, it formerly having been 23 inches in circumference.”
This was because fashionable schools actively worked on reducing the waists of their female charges. This was done by equipping the girls with a series of ever-smaller corsets. Of course being so tightly laced they could not eat large meals, and were forced to peck at food like a bird. Indeed, the corset was only removed for one hour per week for the girl to have a wash.

Contemporary Concerns

And finally…at the time people had concerns about the damage done by over-tight lacing, but the problem was no one could agree on how tight was too-tight. And remember that in addition, there was a cultural perception that an uncorseted woman was one of low morals – and you begin to see the mountain that had to be climbed to find a women’s undergarment that was both flattering and healthy. 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Unexpected Origins of Victorian Swimming Baths

My neighbour has three young girls and every Saturday morning, the family set off to the local pool for swimming lessons. It makes sense. We don’t live near the sea, but swimming is an invaluable skill for children to learn. The idea of the swimming pool as we know it originated in the 19th century – but their original purpose is perhaps unexpected because the very first public baths came about because of cholera – or rather to prevent it.
An original Victorian swimming pool

Shortly before Victoria came the throne, in 1832 an outbreak of cholera killed hundreds of thousands of people. This was at a time when few ordinary people had a bathroom to keep clean in, and the poor lacked even basic facilitates such as a “copper” to boil water to wash their clothes.
At the time, no one knew how cholera spread but most people believed that boiling bedding and clothing went some way to protecting them – and remember at this time many people relied on second-hand clothing and bed-sharing.
Kitty Wilkinson
"Saint of the slums"

Kitty Wilkinson and her husband Tom lived in a poor street in Liverpool. However, they were better off than most in that they owned a copper. In an effort to help her neighbours avoid cholera, and at personal risk to herself and her husband, she invited her neighbours to use her wash facilities (for a minimal payment to cover the cost of coal).
The story of Kitty’s generosity spread and the press took up her story. She became labelled “the saint of the slums”, but more than that the idea took hold of providing public facilities for washing. A movement a Public Wash and Bathhouse movement was born.

Ten years later, in 1842, the first public bathhouse was opened – in Liverpool, with Kitty and Tom Wilkinson as curators. By 1846 a legal act passed through Parliament which empowered local authorities to build equivalent facilities, paid for out of local taxes.
The first baths to open in London in 1846, in Glass House Yard, then Goulston Square in Whitechapel – serving some of the most deprived slums.
The baths had male and female areas, and were subdivided again by price. There were spacious baths supplied with hot water for those with cash to spare, or the economy version which was cramped – and you guessed it – supplied with cold water.

In addition, and cheapest of all, was the public plunge pool. This cost just 1/2 d and was within the reach of young working boys. No soap was allowed, it being said a brisk rub down was adequate for a basic bath. The same unfiltered water remained in the pool for a full week (!) during which silt and dirt accumulated.
But the boys who used these plunge pools weren’t all that bothered about cleanliness- because splashing around in the water with their friends they had fun. They larked around and spent rare moments of fun playing together. Getting clean was a secondary consideration to them.
Bradford, Manningham Pool

But other bath users were less than impressed and bigger plunger pools were built and the boys sidelined to smaller pools. But over time, the idea of having fun in water stuck and it was the baths that suffered and fell out of use, leaving the plunge pools to be enjoyed as “swimming pools”.

The first few swimming pools were relatively small, but as their popularly grew, they became larger and larger – and recognised as the forerunner of the swimming pools my neighbour visits every Saturday morning. 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Stand-Up Wash: Keeping Clean in Victorian Britain

When is a bar of soap like a joint of beef?
Answer:  When they cost the same.

Money for Old Soap
In Victorian England, a four-ounce bar of soap cost roughly the same as a joint of meat. For poorer households, faced with a choice between cleanliness or eating, naturally they looked for other ways to keep clean.

Indeed, since Victorian soap worked best with hot water (it didn’t dissolve or lather well in cold water), this involved additional time, money, and effort, to bring coppers of water to the boil. So all in all, washing with soap and water was not a realistic daily habit for many people.

Stand and Deliver
This doesn’t mean people neglected their personal hygiene. Full immersion baths were a rarity but most peoples’ daily routine started with a stand-up wash. For most this was done in the bedroom, although some female servants may have done their ablutions at the kitchen sink – made more conducive by the heat from the range.

A washstand was a standard piece of furniture in many Victorian bedrooms. On it stood a jug of cold water, a bowl, and a clean rage. The person washed first thing in the morning, immediately after rising. Most bedrooms were cold, chilly places, especially as the sash windows were kept open at the top and bottom (regardless of weather) to allow good ventilation and reduce the risk of illness. This meant in winter most people kept their nightclothes and worked on one part of their body at a time.

The art of a stand-up wash was to pour water into the bowl. The soaked flannel was then rubbed on each part of the body, and rinsed. Once the water became too soiled it was discarded into the slop bucket and more water poured into the bowl. Working methodically, all of the body was cleaned, with each part being scrubbed and dried before moving onto the next bit.

Pore Theory
In more affluent households, a servant rose before the rest of the house. She boiled a kettle, to provide hot water for her employers’ morning ablutions. Washing regularly was a Victorian phenomenon since previous to this it was believed that the skin’s pores allowed entry to disease. Since washing opened the pores, this made the activity potentially foolhardy for those wishing to keep well. Part of the change of attitude came about because the Victorians believed that oxygen passed into the body through the pores, and so clearing away dirt aided this process.

Dress Protectors
Before the advent of anti-perspirants the armpits of garments could be ruined by perspiration. To combat this, ladies who wished to protect expensive gowns used dress-protectors. These were small detachable pads which fitted into the armpit. These could then be removed and washed separately, having done their job of shielding expensive fabrics from sweat.

And finally, one home remedy to reduce the unpleasant odour associated with sweaty armpits was a wipe over with vinegar. In theory this might help kill the bacteria that created the worst smells – but the trade of was that it left you smelling like a fish and chip shop. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Victorian Knocker-Upper

Having trouble getting up in the morning?
Having just had a fantastic few days away, I’m struggling to get back into routine. What could be more of a rude awakening than a hateful alarm clock?

But what if there were no alarm clocks? Bliss, might be your response. But what if keeping a roof over your head and feeding your family meant getting up on time. And in Victorian times that often might rising in the pitch black of night, without even the dawning sun to alert you to the time.
The problem was that in the 19th century a pocket watch or clock were expensive items to purchase, and something that many working class people simply couldn’t afford. After the industrial revolution when people did shift work in factories, the problem of getting up on time was even more acute.

But as is so often the case, where there’s a need someone steps in to supply demand. Enter the “knocker-upper”. This enterprising individual invested money in a timepiece, and then armed with a long pole and a lantern, wandered the streets at night to alert his customers when it was time to rise.
The long pole was used to tap on first floor or hard to reach windows, with some knocker-uppers seemingly using a peashooter for the same purpose.
A female knocker-upper using a pea-shooter
A typical fee was one penny a month,  and for that the knocker-up would be there outside their window at the appointed time to tap on the windowpane with the end of his long cane. The conscientious knocker-up gave an undertaking not to leave until the occupant had proved they were awake. 

And if you think this sounds an unlikely way to make a living, consider how many people needed to get up early. In Baldock, Hertfordshire, had a population of around 2,000 people, and many of the workers were employed by the railway and brewing industry – which meant shift work and early starts. Indeed, there were not one but three local breweries, that all employed draymen whose day started at 3 am so there was plenty of work for a knocker up, who went to bed once everyone else was up.

Knocker-upper continued to do their duty through to the 1920s, indeed, the last professional knocker-upper turned in his long pole in the 1950s in Manchester.

All in all, perhaps my 7.15am start isn’t so bad after all…