Introduction to The Regency Reference Book
The Regency Period — 1811-1820
Regency England was a very special, if brief, period in history. Quite often it fails to find much of a place in history books, perhaps only in bits and snippets; the tail end of a book on the Georgian era, or the brief introduction in a book on the Victorian era. Many writers expand the time of the period to cover the years between 1788 [the year of the first Regency crisis] to the death of George IV in 1830. I have attempted to gather and include such pertinent information that I considered particularly useful to the writer, and quite possibly to the readers of books set in that fascinating time. It was a time when London tailors set the standard for gentlemen’s fashion for England and the continent. Even the English mantua-maker set the styles for the females of the ton between the years of 1802 and 1814, while French fashion news was cut off during the war. Although smuggled French fashion plates were much prized. La Belle Assemblee, the product of Mrs. Bell, and the other magazines for women tried to atone for any lack of French fashion designs.
Life in London
The streets of London teemed with carriages, thronged with people, and seldom, if ever, were silent. Visitors complained that the noise went on all night. It was a male-oriented society. The gentlemen went off to their clubs, dashed madly about in elegant carriages or on prime bits of blood and bone, and in general enjoyed a rousing good time. Young men from Oxford and Cambridge came down to London to acquire a bit of Town Bronze.
Shops offered a dazzling display of wares. Entertainment scarcely dreamed of in the provincial areas went on every evening. Vendors hawked at every turn of the street, and in 1810 those fancy new gas lights illuminated parts of Pall Mall and Whitecross Street, gradually spreading outward to other areas of the city. It must have been a shock for those accustomed to groping their way along dimly lit or totally dark streets to have a blaze of light from the pan-shaped fixtures enabling them to see distinctly what was around them.
There were sights to be seen, such as Trevithick’s “Catch-me-who-can”, the little steam engine that ran on a circular track on the site of Euston Square in 1809. Balloon ascensions were frequent, some balloonists using that newfangled contraption called a parachute when endangered. They were occasionally to be observed arising from Green Park with a throng of eager witnesses to their daring deed. Consider how the country miss or the lad up from Oxford must have stared to see the fashionable world thronging Hyde Park in the late afternoon, be it in a stylish carriage or on horseback along Rotten Row.
Although Bond Street wasn’t the most elegant looking street, it was deemed the most fashionable. Jane Austen liked to shop at Grafton House, 164 New Bond Street, as did many other ladies. Jane complained that when she went there at eleven thirty “the whole Counter was thronged and we waited full half an hour before we could be attended to. When we were served however, I was very well satisfied with my purchases.” This was a linen-draper’s shop where fabrics for gowns, trimmings, and accessories could be bought. Accompanied by a maid or footman, the ladies shopped there in the late morning hours before the street became the province of the gentlemen from two until five. Another street that remained the province of the gentlemen was St. James’s, where White’s and Brooks’s clubs were located. Like Bond Street, a lady did not appear here in the afternoon, unless she wished to be thought fast.
One sight of London that always drew a crowd was the setting out of the night mail coaches form Lombard Street and Piccadilly at eight every evening. Another great, never-to-be-forgotten sight was in 1814, the year the Thames River froze and the Frost Fair held on the ice. Thomas Burke gives an account of it in his Streets of London as does John Aston in Social England Under the Regency.
One didn’t stray into the less agreeable parts of the City: Seven Dials and St. Giles, and the Rookery, found in the Covent Garden area. Robbers and worse inhabited these streets and a man’s life wasn’t worth the clothes he wore. Gangs prowled the streets, which were most unsafe at night and not all that good by daylight.
If one had difficulties, one might seek help. The Bow Street Horse and Foot Patrol consisted of about sixty men who patrolled the main roads within sixty miles of London to protect travelers. They successfully reduced the number of highwaymen on Hounslow Heath. They were known for their courage and astuteness. The Bow Street Runners were hardy souls employed by Sir John Fielding, and nick-named the Robin Redbreasts because of the red vests they wore. Rather than a police force, they acted more like a detective force, raiding gaming houses, chasing highwaymen and footpads, putting down riots, and tracking after wanted criminals. They were armed with staves and pistols plus determination.
To stem the growth of crime, Parliament had made the penal code even more severe. At the end of the eighteenth century around two hundred offences were capital. A few police measures had been adopted. Barracks with small bodies of soldiery had been established in country districts. In London, a number of stipendiary magistrates were established, assisted by police officers. In December of 1811 the Ratcliffe Highway murders prompted demands that a better form of protection be established for the citizens of London. Panic spread across London as well as the entire country. The papers of the day noted the formation in widely separated areas of police associations, voluntary unions of the leading gentlemen of the district. In Chelsea, January 14, 1812, the newspaper informed its readers that the Committee appointed by the inhabitants of Chelsea put their patrol of ten men in motion on Sunday night. These men are relieved by a second party, who patrol till daylight.” Thomas Bonner, Esq. conducted the first patrol. The English people obstinately refused the organization of a state police. The public was prepared, if necessary, to put up with a certain amount of disorder if it was the price of freedom.
The “Charlies” were watchmen employed to guard the streets. They were armed with a staff, a rattle and a lantern. For the most part these were old men acting on the orders of the local magistrates. They were called “Charlies” because they came into being during the reign of Charles II. Many of them dozed away in their box, oblivious to what was going on about them, unless upset by some young bucks. Others were receptive to bribes. London was not a safe place to be, for the deep distrust of police was difficult to overcome. Low’s book Thieves Kitchen is a good source. I Spy Blue also details the history of the police in London during the Regency.