Drop Dead Gorgeous: 19th Century Beauty Tips for the Aspiring Consumptive

swoonPicture the ideal nineteenth century English beauty: pale, almost translucent skin, rosy cheeks, crimson lips, white teeth, and sparkling eyes. She’s waspishly thin with elegant collarbones. Perhaps she’s prone to fainting.

It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine; numerous depictions survive to this day, and the image is still held up as the gold standard for Caucasian women. At this point, it’s so embedded in the Western psyche as beauty that it doesn’t occur to us to question it. Of course that’s beautiful. Why wouldn’t it be?

By the nineteenth century, beauty standards in Britain had come a long way from the plucked hairlines of the late Middle Ages and the heavy ceruse of the Stuart period. Fashionable women wanted slimmer figures because physical fragility had become associated with intelligence and refinement. Flushed cheeks, bright eyes, and red lips had always been popular, particularly among sex workers (they suggested arousal), and women had been using cosmetics like belladonna, carmine, and Spanish leather for years to produce those effects when they didn’t occur organically.

Bright eyes, flushed cheeks, and red lips were also signs of tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis—known at the time as consumption, phthisis, hectic fever, and graveyard cough—was an epidemic that affected all classes and genders without prejudice. Today, an estimated 1.9 billion people are infected with it, and it causes about two million deaths each year. At the time, it was mainly associated with respectable women (although there are no few depictions of sex workers dying of it*) and thought to be triggered by mental exertion or too much dancing.** Attractive women were viewed as more susceptible to it because tuberculosis enhanced their best features. It was noted to cause pale skin, silky hair, weight loss, and a feverish tinge to the face (along with less desirable symptoms including weakness, coughing up blood, GI upset, and organ failure), and it was treated with little to no effect with bleeding, diet, red wine, and opium.

Although having an active (rather than latent) case of consumption was all but a death sentence, it didn’t inspire the revulsion of other less attractive diseases until the end of the 19th century when its causes were better understood.

In 1833, The London Medical and Surgical Journal described it in almost affectionate terms: “Consumption, neither effacing the lines of personal beauty, nor damaging the intellectual functions, tends to exalt the moral habits, and develop the amiable qualities of the patient.”

keats

John Keats. Joseph Severn, 1819.

Of course it didn’t only affect women. The notion that it was caused by mental exertion—along with the high number of artists and intellectuals who lost their lives to it—also led to its association with poets. John Keats died of it at 26. His friend Percy Shelley—also infected—wrote tributes to Keats that attempted to explain consumption not as a disease, but as death by passion. Bizarrely, a symptom that is unique to consumption is spes phthisica, a euphoric state that can result in intense bursts of creativity.*** Keats’ prolific final year of life has been attributed to his consumption, and spes phthisica was viewed by some as necessary for artistic genius.

As Alexandre Dumas (fils) wrote in 1852: “It was the fashion to suffer from the lungs; everybody was consumptive, poets especially; it was good form to spit blood after any emotion that was at all sensational, and to die before reaching the age of thirty.”

Because of its association with young women and poets, the disease itself came to represent beauty, romantic passion, and hyper sexuality. As far as illnesses went, it was considered to be rather glamorous, and in a culture half in love with death, it inspired its fair share of tributes. There are numerous romantic depictions of young women wasting away in death beds at the height of their beauty. Women with consumption were regularly praised for the ethereal loveliness that came from being exceptionally thin and nearly transparent.

Picture that ideal nineteenth century beauty again: that complexion is almost a pallor, and you can see her veins through it. Those lips, eyes, and cheeks are all indicative of a constant low-grade fever. Her teeth are so white they’re almost as translucent as her skin. And her figure? She’s emaciated due to the illness and the chronic diarrhea that comes with it. If she faints, it’s more to do with the lack of oxygen in her blood than the tension of her corset. The sicker she gets, the more beautiful she becomes, until she’s gone; the beauty is all the more poignant because of its impermanence. This beauty can’t last, and it’s as deadly as it is contagious.

Only a fool would wish for it, so what’s a healthy girl to do?

If you didn’t have consumption but wanted the look, there were two things you could do: wait (at its peak between 1780 and 1850, it is estimated to have caused a quarter of all deaths in Europe. Statistically, you would have had a fair chance of getting it), or fake it. Corsets could be made to narrow the waist and encourage a stooped posture, and necklines were designed to show off prominent collar bones. As for the rest, people could try:

Arsenic Complexion WafersAHB2009q11701

Although arsenic was known to be toxic, it was used throughout the nineteenth century in everything from dye to medication. Eating small amounts of arsenic regularly was said to produce a clear, ghostly pale complexion. Lola Montez reported that some women in Bohemia frequently drank the water from arsenic springs to whiten their skin.

Stop Eating

In The Ugly-Girl Papers, S.D. Powers offers her own advice for achieving consumptive skin: “The fairest skins belong to people in the earliest stages of consumption, or those of a scrofulous nature. This miraculous clearness and brilliance is due to the constant purgation which wastes the consumptive, or to the issue which relieves the system of impurities by one outlet. We must secure purity of the blood by less exhaustive methods. The diet should be regulated according to the habit of the person. If stout, she should eat as little as will satisfy her appetite.”

How little? Writing in the third person, she uses herself as an example: “Breakfast was usually a small saucer of strawberries and one Graham cracker, and was not infrequently dispensed with altogether. Lunch was half an orange—for the burden of eating the other half was not to be thought of; and at six o’clock a handful of cherries formed a plentiful dinner. Once a week she did crave something like beef-steak of soup, and took it.”

Olive-Tar

For “fair and innocent” skin that mimics the effects of consumption, The Ugly-Girl Papers offers the following recipe: “Mix one spoonful of the best tar in a pint of pure olive oil or almond oil, by heating the two together in a tin cup set in boiling water. Stir till completely mixed and smooth, putting in more oil if the compound is too thick to run easily. Rub this on the face when going to bed, and lay patches of soft old cloth on the cheeks and forehead to keep the tar from rubbing off. The bed linen must be protected by old sheets folded and thrown over the pillows. The odor, when mixed with oil, is not strong enough to be unpleasant—some people fancy its suggestion of aromatic pine breath—and the black, unpleasant mask washes off easily with warm water and soap. The skin comes out, after several applications, soft, moist, and tinted like a baby’s. The French have long used turpentine to efface the marks of age, but olive-tar is pleasanter.”

White Lead

800px-Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop)

Madame X. John Singer Sargent, 1883-4

Lead had been used as the primary ingredient for ceruse and other forms of foundation and powder for centuries. It was known to cause skin problems over time (and, you know, lead poisoning). In the nineteenth century, it was still used for the same purpose and appeared in paints and skin enamels in Europe and the United States.

Lavender Powder

If the pallor of consumption didn’t occur naturally or with the aid of arsenic, it could be imitated with the use of lavender colored powder. Usually applied over ceruse or other foundation made from white lead, it gave the skin a bluish, porcelain shade. Perhaps the best known example of this is John Singer Sargent’s Madame X. The model, Virginie Gautreau, was known to use lavender powder to create her dramatically pale complexion. She was said to be a master of drawing fake veins on with indigo, and she painted her ears with rouge to add to the illusion of translucence.

Rouge

Commonly sold and sometimes made at home, rouge was everywhere. Made from toxic bismuth or vermilion, or carmine from cochineal beetles, it was applied to cheeks, lips, ears, and sometimes even nostrils to make them appear transparent. It came in liquid, cream, and powder forms, and Napoleon’s Empress Josephine is said to have spent a fortune on it. The Ugly-Girl Papers offers this recipe for Milk of Roses, which sounds rather nice:

“(Mix) four ounces of oil of almonds, forty drops of oil of tarter, and half a pint of rose-water with carmine to the proper shade. This is very soothing to the skin. Different tinges may be given to the rouge by adding a few flakes of indigo for the deep black-rose crimson, or mixing a little pale yellow with less carmine for the soft Greuze tints.”

Ammonia

The Ugly-Girl Papers recommends ammonia for use as both a hair rinse and, worryingly, a depilatory. For healthy hair, Powers recommends scrubbing it nightly with a brush in a basin of water with three tablespoons of ammonia added. Hair should then be combed and left to air dry without a night cap.

Lemon Juice and Eyeliner

To achieve the ideal feverish “sparkling eyes,” some women still used belladonna (which could cause blindness) while others resorted to putting lemon juice or other irritants in their eyes to make them water. Eyes, eyelashes, and eyebrows could also be defined. Powers advises: “All preparations for darkening the eyebrows, eyelashes, etc., must be put on with a small hair-pencil. The “dirty-finger” effect is not good. A fine line of black round the rim of the eyelid, when properly done, should not be detected, and its effect in softening and enlarging the eyes is well known by all amateur players.”

Jessica Cale

 

 

Sources

Day, Carolyn. Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion, and Disease. (2017)

Dumas, Alexandre (fils). La Dame Aux Camélias. (1852)

Klebs, Arnold. Tuberculosis: A Treatise by American Authors on its Etiology, Pathology, Frequency, Semeiology, Diagnosis, Prognosis, Prevention, and Treatment. (1909)

Meier, Allison. How Tuberculosis Symptoms Became Ideals of Beauty in the 19th Century. Hyperallergic. January 2nd, 2018.

Montez, Lola. The Arts of Beauty: or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet. (1858)

Morens, David M. At the Deathbed of Consumptive Art. Emerging Infectious Diseases, Volume 8, Number 11. November 2002.

Mullin, Emily. How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion. Smithsonian.com, May 10th, 2016.

Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty: A History and Practical Guide to Perfumes and Cosmetics. (2005)

Powers, S. D. The Ugly-Girl Papers, or Hints for the Toilet. (1874)

Zarrelli, Natalie. The Poisonous Beauty Advice Columns of Victorian England. Atlas Obscura, December 17th, 2015.

Notes

*Depictions of sex workers dying of tuberculosis: La Traviata, Les Misérables, La Bohème, and now Moulin Rouge, etc. In the 19th century, consumption was portrayed as a kind of romantic redemption for sex workers through the physical sacrifice of the body.

**Although dancing itself wouldn’t have done it, the disease was so contagious that it could be contracted anywhere people would be at close quarters—dancing at balls with multiple partners could have reasonably been high-risk behavior.

***You know what else does that? Tertiary syphilis. How do you know which one you have? If you’re coughing blood, it’s consumption. If your skin is falling off, it’s syphilis. Either way, you’re going to want to call a doctor.

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Resurrection, Corpse Art, and How the Father of Modern Surgery Stole the Irish Giant

Ressurectionists by Phiz (HK Browne) Chronicles of Crime 1841

Resurrectionists by Phiz (H.K. Browne). Chronicles of Crime, 1841.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, medical science in Britain was rapidly evolving. Surgeons had split from the Worshipful Company of Barbers as a professional guild in 1745, forming the Company of Surgeons. This was the forerunner of the Royal College of Surgeons, which was created by Royal Charter in 1800, and the reason we don’t call hospital consultants ‘Doctor’ – barber-surgeons held no medical degree.

As the profession established itself as an Enlightenment science based upon empirical research and experiment, two figures came to dominate its development: the Scottish anatomist and physician William Hunter (1718 – 1783), and his younger brother John (1728 – 1793), who went on to be known as the ‘Father of Modern Surgery.’

William had studied medicine at Edinburgh University. He moved to London in 1741, studying anatomy at St George’s Hospital. He quickly established himself as an able physician, also running a private anatomy school in London offering supplementary tuition to hospital school students. He taught the ‘Parisian’ method, whereby each trainee surgeon could work on an individual corpse rather than the more usual practice of watching an instructor dissect or lecture using models in a great Theatrum Anatomica.

William was joined there by his brother John, who acted as his assistant, which in practice almost certainly meant illegally procuring bodies for dissection, before becoming a teacher himself. John went on to study at Chelsea Hospital and St. Bartholomew’s, and was commissioned as an army surgeon in 1760, further refining his skills during the Seven Year’s War.

Smugglerius sketched by William Linnell 1840

Smugglerius. Sketched by William Linnel, 1840.

William, meanwhile, became physician to Queen Charlotte in 1764, and by the end of the decade he was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Professor of Anatomy to the Royal Academy, where he once posed the body of an executed smuggler so that it would stiffen into the attitude of the Roman statue the ‘Dying Gaul,’ before flaying it and having the Italian artist Agostino Carlini cast it in plaster. (The ‘Smugglerius’ can still be seen at the Royal Academy.) (See above.)

On returning to England on half-pay, John became a surgeon at St George’s Hospital in 1768, after a brief stint as a dentist during which he experimentally transplanted human teeth. In 1776, he was appointed surgeon to George III, rising to the position of Surgeon General in 1790.

In addition to the importance of their collective research, which remains relevant to this day, these distinguished brothers were innovative teachers. The Hunters taught some of the most influential blades of the next generation, such as Sir Astley Paston Cooper (1768 – 1841), whose passion for anatomical study was such that he once dissected an elephant obtained from the Royal Menagerie in his front garden, the carcass being too big to get inside. They stressed the importance of hands-on pathological and physiological knowledge, which could only be gained through the regular dissection of animals and human beings, enhancing diagnostic accuracy, and the refinement of surgical technique. Books and lectures, they believed, were not enough, while no published medical ‘fact’ should be accepted without rigorous empirical testing.

Despite such advances, Georgian surgery was not pretty. There was no real understanding of infection, and no anaesthetic. Operating tables were made of wood, an ideal surface for bacteria to flourish, with a channel for blood to run off into sawdust-filled buckets. John Hunter called his patients ‘victims,’ and they were tied down and held as necessary, conscious and screaming throughout the procedure, which was often conducted in front of a large class of medical students. The mortality rate was high, but your chances of survival were greatly enhanced if your surgeon was knowledgeable, precise, and above all quick with the blade and the suture. That said, many of the patients who were strong enough to survive the operation subsequently died from infection.

For surgeons, the only way was to learn by doing. The problem was that there simply weren’t enough human corpses legally available to anatomists. Bodies for dissection were supplied under the provision of the 1752 Murder Act, as an additional deterrent to what politicians believed was a troubling rise in capital crime.

Even the Bloody Code could not meet the ever-growing demand for specimens in the burgeoning and lucrative world of the private anatomy schools. The surgeon Robert Knox, for example, who was supplied by Burke and Hare, had 400 students under him at the height of his success, while his school was only one of half a dozen in Edinburgh at the time. Thus, as is well-known, came the resurrection men, organised criminal gangs who exhumed bodies from graveyards which they sold to the surgeons, who were well aware of where their ‘subjects’ were coming from. This wasn’t a new trade, but by the end of the century it was becoming a ghoulish epidemic. As James Blake Bailey wrote in The Diary of a Resurrectionist (1896), ‘The complaint as to the scarcity of bodies for dissection is as old as the history of anatomy itself.’

Even though, as surgeons were quick to argue, the general population could only benefit from advances in surgical knowledge and well-trained doctors, the thought of body-snatching was appalling to ordinary folk. Dissection carried the stigma of criminal punishment, while in a god-fearing culture, people believed that if their mortal remains were defiled, they would not rise on the Day of Judgement. To medical men, however, all this was a necessary evil, in which the good far outweighed the bad. Surgeons viewed themselves as scientists; human corpses were no different to any other dead animal, merely specimens to study and, indeed, collect.

John Hunter was a case in point. Hunter was an active learner, who eschewed what he saw as outdated and inadequate academic study in favour of dissecting hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies provided by a network of resurrection men. He was particularly interested in abnormal specimens, and his professionally detached, unemotional eye saw no harm in his obsessive pursuit of the mortal remains of the ‘Modern Colossus’ or ‘Irish Giant,’ Charles Byrne (1761 – 1783), despite the public protestations to the contrary by the fatally ill young man.

The Surprising Irish Giant by Thomas Rowlandson 1782

The Surprising Irish Giant. Thomas Rowlandson, 1782.

The 7’ 7” Byrne was a popular celebrity in England, conquering London in 1782, but his great height was a symptom of the then unknown and unnamed disorder Acromegaly, and by the age of twenty-two his health was failing rapidly, and Hunter wanted him. Terrified, the boy from County Tyrone gave an undertaker his life savings and arranged with friends that his body be constantly watched until it was sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea.

Hunter’s fears were more practical in nature. Concerned that another surgeon might beat him to it, Hunter paid a man to watch Byrne’s lodgings for news of his demise, while the men charged with protecting the body were paid £500 to look the other way. Byrne died in June 1783, but when his huge coffin set sail from Margate and was duly committed to the deep he was not in it, having been conveyed to Hunter’s house in Earl’s Court and boiled down to his bones.

John Hunter by John Jackson (after Sir Joshua Reynolds) 1813

John Hunter by John Jackson (after Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Four years later, after public interest in the Irish Giant had died down, Byrne’s articulated skeleton went on display at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. It stands there to this day, despite calls from the British Medical Journal in 2011 and the Mayor of Derry in 2015 to end its unethical display and bury it in accordance with Byrne’s final wishes. The curious brown discolouration of the skeleton is the result of Hunter’s indecent haste during the rendering process, which locked fat into the bones.

To Hunter, who died of a heart attack ten years after Byrne, this was all done in the interests of science, and his reputation suffered no damage as a result. He’s still getting away with it. His marble bust (one of many public memorials), is mounted proudly above the glass case in which Byrne forever stands, the centrepiece of the museum. In his portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1786, the Irish Carver, 19th C Underworld (P&S)Giant’s skeletal feet are clearly visible in the background (see above right).

Dr. Stephen Carver teaches creative writing at The Unthank School of Writing. His latest book, The 19th Century Underworld, will be published by Pen & Sword next year. You can find more of his writing here

Sources

Bailey, James Blake. (1896). The Diary of a Resurrectionist 1811-1812, to which are added an account of the resurrection men in London & a short history of the passing of the anatomy act. London: S. Sonnenschien & co.

Cooper, Bransby Blake. (1843). The Life of Sir Astley Cooper. 2 vols. London: John W. Parker.

Cubbage, Eric. (2011). ‘The Tragic Story of Charles Byrne “The Irish Giant”.’ Available at: http://www.thetallestman.com/ (Accessed November 26, 2017).

Garrison, Fielding H. (1914). An Introduction to The History of Medicine. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Low, Donald A. (1999). The Regency Underworld. London: Sutton.

Muinzer, Thomas (2013). ‘A Grave Situation: An Examination of the Legal Issues raised by the Life and Death of Charles Byrne, the “Irish Giant”.’ International Journal of Cultural Property. 20 (1), February.

Moore, Wendy. (2005).  The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery. New York: Broadway.

Richardson, Ruth. (1988). Death, Dissection and the Destitute. London: Penguin.

Fanny Burney and Her Mastectomy

280px-Frances_d'Arblay_('Fanny_Burney')_by_Edward_Francisco_Burney-wiki

Fanny Burney

In 1811, before anesthesia was invented, Frances Burney d’Arblay had a mastectomy aided by nothing more than a wine cordial. She wrote such a gripping narrative about her illness and operation afterwards readers today still find it riveting and informative.

Fanny came from a large family and was the third child of six. From an early age, she began composing letters and stories, and she became a phenomenal diarist, novelist, and playwright in adulthood. Certainly, her skillful writing was a primary reason her mastectomy narrative had such appeal.

In her narrative, Fanny provides “psychological and anatomical consequences of cancer … [and] while its wealth of detail makes it a significant document in the history of surgical techniques, its intimate confessions and elaborately fictive staging, persona-building, and framing make it likewise a powerful and courageous work of literature in which the imagination confronts and translates the body.” Prior to her surgery, she had written similar works about “physical and mental pain to satirize the cruelty of social behavioral strictures, especially for women.”

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds-wikipedia

Dr. Samuel Johnson

Fanny grew up in England and had been embraced by the best of London society. She had served in George III and Queen Charlotte’s court as Second Keeper of the Royal Robes. Moreover, she was admired by such literary figures as Hester Thrale, David Garrick, and Edmund Burke. Fanny also befriended Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English writer who made significant contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. In fact, some of Fanny’s best revelations are about Johnson, how he teased her, and the fondness that he held for her.

In 1793, Fanny married Louis XVI Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d’Arblay and became Madame d’Arblay. D’Arblay was an artillery officer who served as adjutant-general to the famous hero of the American Revolution, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. D’Arblay had fled France for England during the Revolution just as had many other Frenchmen. However, in 1801, d’Arblay was offered a position in Napoleon Bonaparte’s government. He and Fanny relocated to France in 1802 and moved to Passy (the same spot where Benjamin Franklin and the princesse de Lamballe had lived), and they remained in France for about ten years.

Larrey and Dubois-x300

Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (left) and Antoine Dubois (right)

While living in France, Fanny suffered breast inflammation in her right breast in 1804 and 1806. She initially dismissed the problem but then in 1811 the pain became severe enough that it affected her ability to use her right arm. Her husband became concerned and arranged for her to visit Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, First Surgeon to the Imperial Guard, as well as the leading French obstetrician, surgeon, and anatomist, Antoine Dubois.

The French doctors treated Fanny palliatively but as there was no response to the treatment, it was determined surgery was necessary. Fanny’s surgery occurred on 11 September 1811. At the time, surgery was still in its infancy and anesthesia unavailable. Cocaine was later isolated, determined to be an effective local anesthetic, and used for the first time in 1859 by Karl Koller. So, it must have been horrific for Fanny to experience the pain of a mastectomy with nothing more than a wine cordial that may have contained some laudanum. Fanny was traumatized by the surgery and it took months before she wrote about the surgery details to her sister Esther exclaiming:

“I knew not, positively, then, the immediate danger, but every thing convinced me danger was hovering about me, & that this experiment could alone save from its jaws. I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead – & M. Dubois placed upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel – I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. A silence the most profound ensued, which lasted for some minutes, during which, I imagine, they took their orders by signs, & made their examination – Oh what a horrible suspension! … The pause, at length, was broken by Dr. Larry [sic], who in a voice of solemn melancholy, said ‘Qui me tiendra ce sein?”

Fanny went on to describe “torturing pain” and her inability to restrain her cries as the doctors cut “though veins – arteries – flesh – nerves.” Moreover, she noted:

“I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound. … I attempted no more to open my Eyes, – they felt as if hermetically shut, and so firmly closed, that the Eyelids seemed indented into my Cheeks. The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over – Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed – and worse than ever … I then felt the Knife rackling against the breast bone – scraping it! – This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture. “

Despite the excruciating pain, Fanny lived through the operation, and her surgery was deemed a success. Larrey produced a medical report about his brave patient stating that he removed her right breast at 3:45pm and that Fanny showed “un Grand courage.” Courageous as she was, there was no way for doctors to determine if Fanny’s tumor was malignant or if she suffered from mastopathy.

Burney_tombstone-x300

Fanny’s Commemorate Plaque. Courtesy of Bath-heritage.co.uk

Fanny’s healing took a long time, and while still recuperating, she and husband returned to England in 1812. Six years later, in 1818, her husband died from cancer, and she died twenty-two years later, at the age of eighty-seven, on 6 January 1840 in Lower Grosvenor-street in London. As Fanny had requested, a private funeral was held in Bath, England, and attended by a few relatives and some close friends. She was laid to rest in Walcot Cemetery, next to her beloved husband and her only son Alexander, who had died three years earlier. Their bodies were then moved during redevelopment of the Walcot Cemetery to the Haycombe Cemetery in Bath and are buried beneath the Rockery Garden.

References

DeMaria, Jr., Robert, British Literature 1640-1789, 2016
“Died,” in Northampton Mercury, 18 January 1840
Epstein, Julia L., “Writing the Unspeakable: Fanny Burney’s Mastectomy and the Fictive Body,” in Representations, No. 16 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 131-166
Madame D’Arblay, in Evening Mail, 20 January 1840
Madame D’Arblay’s Diary, in Evening Mail, 18 May 1842
“The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D’Arblay), Volume VI, France 1803-1812,” in Cambridge Journals 

61yLoQ9ugKL._SX345_BO1204203200_-347x381Geri Walton has long been interested in history and fascinated by the stories of people from the 1700 and 1800s. This led her to get a degree in History and resulted in her website, geriwalton.com which offers unique history stories from the 1700 and 1800s. Her first book, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, discusses the French Revolution and looks at the relationship between Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe.
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Beggar’s Benison: Masturbation and Free Love in 18th Century Scotland

testing platter

The Test Platter of The Beggar’s Benison. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the University of St. Andrews).

Men are gross. I should know – I am one.

But don’t take it from me. Take, for example, the eighteenth-century Scottish men’s club, “The Most Ancient and Puissant Order of Beggar’s Benison and Merryland,” or Beggar’s Benison for short. Formed in 1732 in the small town of Anstruther in Fife, this club comprised men of all ages, and of ranks ranging from tradesmen and merchants to government officials, eventually even including royalty. Its members came together – yes, in that sense of the term – to celebrate male sexuality and the idea of free love. The effluvia of their activity was collected on a “test plate” bearing an engraving of vulva and penis and the motto “The Way of a Man with a Maid.”

This pastime resulted in some interesting meeting minutes: “18 assembled, and Frigged upon the Test Platter. The origin and performance were discussed. The Platter was filled with Semen, each Knight at an average did not ‘benevolent’ [donate] quite a horn spoonful.”(1)

Masturbation was also key to initiating new members, who had to prove their manhood. In the initiation ritual, the novice would lay his erect penis on the test platter, then “The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the novice Penis to Penis.”(2)

As homo-erotic as this undoubtedly is, the Benison wasn’t a proto-gay club. Those already existed and were known derogatorily as “molly houses.” In these establishments, men seeking sex with men could meet each other with somewhat less fear of discovery than in other venues, at a time when the punishment for sodomy was transportation or execution. The Beggar’s Benison wanted to distance itself from any such suspicions, either out of homophobia or fear of prosecution (probably both). While its Code promoted “fair trade and legal entry” in sexual matters, it also sought to prevent “a preposterous and Contraband Trade too frequently practiced.”

prick glass

The Wig Club’s prick glass (often misattributed to the Beggar’s Benison). Anyone attempting to drink from it was likely to get a good dowsing, so it was probably used only to initiate new members to the Wig Club.

But the grossness doesn’t stop with semen-filled platters. Other relics of the club included a wig supposedly made of the pubic hair of King Charles II’s mistresses (and have you ever noticed the size of Restoration-era wigs?). Eighteenth-century dandies sometimes adorned their hats with tufts of pubic hair as trophies of their conquests, and this wig was just a much larger version. It would later be transferred to the elite Edinburgh Wig Club (an offshoot of the Benison), and became that club’s icon. Allegedly, the loss of the wig to the Benison’s rival inspired King George IV to donate his own mistresses’ pubic hairs to the club, of which he was already an honorary member. (Unfortunately, the wig disappeared in the early 1900s, but we still have the Wig Cub’s prick glass, right)

The childish jokes almost write themselves. But does the Beggar’s Benison only merit either a derisive laugh or a disgusted “ewww!”?

In his 2001 book on the club, David Stevenson argues that behind what seems a particularly gross frat-boy bawdiness lay an Enlightenment sex-positivity. In contrast to the Puritan view that allowed sex, even within marriage, only for procreation, the Benison aligned itself with other Enlightenment thinkers in viewing sex as pleasurable in itself. This was also a time of rabid anti-masturbation sentiment, which began in 1715 with the publication of Onania, a pamphlet warning that self-pleasure led to “stunted growth, disorders of the penis and testes, gonorrhea, epilepsy, hysteria, consumption, and barrenness.”(3)Stevenson cover

The club can be seen as a reaction to such hysteria: a bold statement of the rights of man to fap when he pleases.

But what of women? As usual with Enlightenment thinking, liberty and equality only went so far. Like the other libertines of the time (and some today), the club viewed women both with veneration and as little more than objects. The Merryland in the club’s name refers to the body of Woman, to be explored and possessed (see the above-mentioned pubic hairs). At best, the club promoted “fair trade” or “free trade” between the sexes, but the emphasis was always on male freedom to pursue “commerce” with “Merryland.” Sexual freedom for the wives and daughters of these worthy family men? Lol.

And I doubt these men wanted their own daughters to participate in a service some village girls performed for the club. The Benison employed “posture girls” (eighteenth-century strippers), although, oddly, it kept its masturbatorial and viewing activities separate. Speaking to or touching the girls was forbidden, and the girls (literally girls, as they ranged in age from 15 to 17) were allowed to wear masks while posing nude. Then every Knight “passed in turn and surveyed the Secrets of Nature.”(4) Ironically, “free love” becomes sex (or titillation) for cash.

The sex-for-cash theme goes back to the club’s founding myth, in which the Stuart King James V, traveling in commoner’s disguise, comes to Dreel Burn, a stream dividing the two neighborhoods of Anstruther. Not wanting to get his feet wet (how noble!), he employs the services of a “beggar lass” to carry him on her back across the water. He gives her a gold coin for the service, and she gives him a blessing or “benison” in return: “May your purse naer be toom [empty], and your horn aye in bloom.” From this verse of double entendres sprang the club’s salutation: “May prick nor purse never fail you.”(5)

Edinburgh Beggar's seal

The Seal of the Edinburgh branch of the Beggar’s Benison, bearing the image of the prick and purse. The anchor has nothing to do with the navy, but is a sexual metaphor (a man “dropping anchor” in a woman’s “harbor”).

So the Beggar’s Benison wasn’t just a sex club, but wove Jacobite and free-trade themes into its codes and mythology. The trade metaphors may be even more important than the sexual aspect. The merchants of the club, like most dutiful Scots, engaged in smuggling to circumvent onerous English taxes. Think of them as early Libertarians. Stevenson even suggests that the bawdy activities of the club might have been a mere cover to allow smugglers and corrupt customs officials to meet. And who would want to check up on the club, considering the type of activities one might find at its meetings?

In the end, the Beggar’s Benison may have been little more nor less than the equivalent of a bunch of guys visiting a strip club, with all the sexism that implies. Stevenson makes the case that they kept to themselves and harmed no one, apart from some of the posture girls’ reputations. They also hosted lectures on what amounted to sex education, encouraging the use of condoms: “the sexual embrace should be independent of the dread of a conception which blasts the prospects of the female.”(6)

As Stevenson points out, far worse can be said of other, better-remembered Scots, such as Robert Burns, whose affairs led to illegitimate children and untimely ends for the mothers, or James Boswell, whose seventeen bouts of gonorrhea no doubt contributed to the spread of venereal disease among the many, many prostitutes he frequented. Compared to these and other eighteenth-century rakes (the denizens of the far more notorious Hellfire Clubs, for instance), the men of the Beggar’s Benison merely seem like spunky schoolboys.

Sources

(1) Stevenson, David. The Beggar’s Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and their Rituals. Tuckwell Press, 2001. p. 38

(2) Stevenson, p. 39

(3) Allen, Peter L. The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present. University of Chicago Press, 2000. p. 87

(4) Stevenson, p. 38

(5) Stevenson, p. 12

(6) Stevenson, p. 36

Further Reading

Black, Annetta. Objects of Intrigue: Beggar’s Benison Prick Glass. Atlas Obscura. (Unfortunately, this article misattributes the intriguing prick glass as belonging to the Beggar’s Benison. According to Stevenson, it belonged to the later Wig Club.)

Perrottet, Tony. Hellfire Holidays. Slate.

Roderick, Danielle. Masturbation Clubs of the 1700s. The Hairpin.
http://www.slate.com/

HogueFinal A_macLarry Hogue’s writing is all over the place and all over time. He started out in nonfiction/nature writing with a personal narrative/environmental history of the Anza-Borrego Desert called All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys in a Desert Landscape. After moving to Michigan, he switched to writing fiction. He’s a fan of folk music, and got the idea for Daring and Decorum while listening to Loreena McKennitt’s outstanding adaptation of Alfred Noyes’ poem, The Highwayman. When not speaking a word for nature or for forgotten LGBT people of history, he spends his white-knighting, gender-betraying energies on Twitter and Facebook, and sometimes on the streets of Lansing, MI, and Washington DC. His new historical romance, Daring and Decorum, is due out August 1 from Supposed Crimes. As might be expected from this article, the novel can be described as “Regency Romance, minus the hunky, shirtless lords.”
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Agony Uncles: Advice From The Anthenian Oracle (Part 1)

Athenian_Mercury_Feb_28_1693Most people today would probably consider Dear Abby, with her origins in the 1950s, as the archetypal advice columnist, but this brand of casuistical journalism actually has its roots nearly three hundred years earlier. Usually credited with producing the first English-language advice column, John Dunton (1659–1733) first published his Athenian Mercury in London in 1690.

Although the Mercury answered questions on topics which are still modern advice column stalwarts, such as love dilemmas and health complaints, it also addressed a bewilderingly wide range of other topics from history, to science, to mathematics, and philosophy. Despite the claim to virtual omniscience inherent in setting up as an advice columnist, this might have been a tall order for just one man. Dunton, therefore, answered his readers’ queries with the aid of an expert panel: the Athenian Society, comprising Dunton, a mathematician, a discretely anonymous and genteelly uncompensated physician, and a poetic clergyman, as well as several non-existent alter-egos.

The questions asked demonstrate the enduring nature of certain human fascinations, whilst the answers given read like little populist summaries of the zeitgeist of later Stuart London. This is the first in a series of posts drawing from The Athenian Oracle, an edited collection of highlights from the periodical, available in the public domain, here.

The Oracle divides its selections from the writings of the Athenian Society under three main headings: History and Philosophy, Divinity, and, of course, Love and Marriage. This post will be the first of several drawing on the selections classified as History and Philosophy, a fascinating amalgamation of casuistry on subjects we might describe variously as natural history, human and Church history, legal history, science, psychology, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and more.

Here are three of my favorites:

HookeFlea01

Schem. XXXIV – Of a Flea. Robert Hooke, Micrographia.

1. Why the anatomy of the flea is like the cruelty of a beautiful lady.
It’s okay to be curious about the World around you, as long as you don’t mind a hefty dose of condescension, flirtation, and misogynistic leg-pulling with your edification.

Quest. —A lady desires to know whether Fleas have stings, or whether they only suck or bite, when they draw blood from the body?

Ans.—Not to trouble you, Madam, with the Hebrew or Arabic name of a flea, or to transcribe Bochart’s learned dissertations on the little animal, we shall, for your satisfaction, give such a description thereof as we have yet been able to discover. Its skin is of a lovely deep red colour, most neatly polished, and armed with scales, which can resist anything but fate and your ladyship’s unmerciful fingers; the neck of it is exactly like the tail of a lobster, and, by the assistance of those strong scales it is covered with, springs backwards and forwards much in the same manner, and with equal violence; it has two eyes on each side of its head, so pretty, that I would prefer them to any, Madam, but yours; and which it makes use of to avoid its fate, and fly its enemies, with as much nimbleness and success as your sex manage those fatal weapons, lovely basilisks as you are, for the ruin of your adorers. Nature has provided it six substantial legs, of great strength, and incomparable agility jointed like a cane, covered with large hairs, and armed each of them with two claws, which appear of a horny substance, more sharp than lancets, or the finest needle you have in all your needle-book. It was a long while before we could discover its mouth, which, we confess, we have not yet so exactly done as we could wish, the little bashful creature always holding up its two fore feet before it, which it uses instead of a fan, or mask, when it has no mind to be known; and we were forced to be guilty of an act both uncivil and cruel, without which we could never have resolved your question. We were obliged to unmask this modest one, and cut off its two forelegs to get to the face; which being performed, though it makes our tender hearts as well as yours almost bleed to think of it, we immediately discovered what your Ladyship desired, and found Nature had given it a strong proboscis, or trunk, as a gnat or muschetto, though much thicker and stouter, with which we may very well suppose it penetrates your fair hand, feasts itself on the nectar of your blood, and then, Like a Little faithless fugitive of a lover, skips away, almost invisibly, nobody knows whither.

2. Is ignorance bliss, or is it hard to tell because everyone is stupid?

Quest.—Who are the most happy in the world, wise men or fools?

Ans. — Much may be said of either, but the manner very different. If the fool be the happier, the world is a very desirable place, there being such a quantity of happy men in it. The Supreme Being is essential happiness; those, therefore, that act the most like him are happiest. There is but one right line, and infinite crooked ones; one wisdom, but follies innumerable; one real goodness, but divers appearances of it; and but one best way to every thing, and to judge of everything that is reason, or understanding. Here only is the paradox; the fool’s happiness consists in a privation of grief, and the happiness of a wise man in possession of good; which, being a little considered, the result of this next question will answer the first; namely, which would be more miserable, a wise man that wanted his good, or a fool that had a sense of his grief? In this reverse the wise man would be more miserable; because he that wants his happiness wants every thing, but he that has a sense of grief may have a sense of happiness. Now this reverse, or contrary to the reverse, must necessarily make him happy; namely, his possession of good is preferable to the fool’s privation of grief.

Fashionable_contrasts_james_gillray

Fashionable Contrasts; – or – the Duchess’s little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the Duke’s foot. James Gillray, 1792.

3. I hope you weren’t expecting medical advice from our in-house doctor…
…unless misogyny be the cure for corns.

Quest. — A lady who is extremely troubled with corns desires to know the reason?

Ans. —Alas, poor lady! There may be many weighty reasons assigned for this sore calamity. Perhaps her hard heart has infected her toes, and made them as obdurate as herself; or else the little wag Cupid is taking his vengeance upon her for having murdered some of his humble servants, and is turning her into stone for a flinty-hearted creature, as his cousin Apollo served Niobe; and she is now dying upwards as Daphne’s poor toes rooted in the ground, and if she appeases not the little angry god quickly, she must in a few days expect to be perfect plaster of Paris.

Had the Society set their conviction that all women were responsible for broken hearts over twelve bars of music, the blues might have been born somewhat earlier and in a very different place. Nevertheless, they attempted to curry favor with the sex they so mercilessly teased, and the Ladies’ Mercury became the first periodical to be aimed at women alone in 1693. Perhaps the constant jibes were not appreciated as the publication only lasted four issues.

What are the clouds-The above extracts have been selected for their entertainment value but the philosophical and historical questions most typically sent to the Mercury resemble most closely, to modern eyes, the whimsical wonderings of a stoner. In my mind, I can’t help but imagine them being read by Keanu Reeves: What are the clouds? How is the dew produced? How does a nettle sting? What is the reason that, by applying the empty shells of some shell-fishes to your ear, you may therein perceive a noise like the roaring of the sea? Whether birds have any government? Whether the sky be of any colour? What think you of the Milky Way in the heavens? Wherefore is it that, having two eyes, we see nevertheless but one … image of the objects? Why men dream of things they never thought of? What is melancholy? What is death? Is it not better to die than to live? What becomes of smoke? How is the fire made betwixt the flint and the steel? And, of course, Whence have we our Opium?

Despite how these questions may sound to me, they are more accurately viewed in the context of the Scientific Revolution. Late seventeenth century London was a place where people were feeling their way towards a confidence that empirical observation and experiment (something like what we might call the scientific method) could increase their knowledge of the natural world and that such knowledge could be used for invention and innovation which might improve the material and spiritual lot of mankind.

This was a more radical way of feeling than we might imagine. The medieval sense of living in the ‘dark ages’, where man clung to scraps of wisdom from the ancients which could not be improved upon, had been gradually eroded by discoveries of new lands, their people flora and fauna, their technologies. Scholarship flourished, partially out of the simple need to catalogue and process all this new information. London, the seat of a monarch sympathetic to learning, presiding over a court where natural philosophy was fashionable, was near the forefront of European scholarship for the first time. The men of the Royal Society, giants like Boyle and Robert Hooke, were the Mercury’s heroes and a large part of the Athenian Society’s purpose was to make their discoveries accessible to the layman. In the case of the flea, a new-ish and fashionable technology was used to reveal a previously unknown microscopic world. The Athenians make their observations, laced with humor and divested of Latin. This was popular science for people who did not want to wade through Hooke’s Micrographia, a sort of seventeenth century Bill Nye, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, or, for my older, British readers, Johnny Ball.

Quest. — Whether the common notion of the world be true, that these latter ages, for some centuries past, have a less share of learning, judgment, and invention, than those which have preceded, because we find them deficient in finding out such advantageous arts as their forefathers have done?

Ans. — …See the inventions and experiments of the Royal Society, which will abundantly convince anyone that our age has as active and busy spirits for invention as any former age in the world.

Dr. John V.P. Jenkins

Source

The Athenian Oracle, available online here. 

Bones, Blood, Barbers, and Butchers: Surgeons in the 18th Century

In the eighteenth century, the record for the fastest amputation at the thigh was nine seconds, start to finish, including sawing through the bone. Are you impressed yet? Even the average, thirty seconds, was pretty damned fast.

And speed was of the essence. Let’s face it. If you needed surgery in the eighteenth century or the first half of the nineteenth, you’d better be strong and brave, because it wasn’t a doddle. Not for the surgeon, and not at all for the patient.

Patients faced three major killers

They’d solved one of the major issues that killed people who needed surgery, reinventing ligatures to tie off blood vessels so the patient didn’t bleed out on the table. Before the sixteenth century, they’d used cautery—burning—to seal any gushers, vastly adding to the pain. And, of course, closing up the wound as fast as possible helped.

And pain was the second issue. No effective anesthetics. Not until the mid-nineteenth century. The patient was awake for the entire operation, which was the main reason why speed (and some strong helpers to hold the patient down) mattered.

The biggest killer was factor number three. Germs.

Not that they knew that, of course. The prevailing opinion was that wound infections were caused by air, though how nobody quite knew. They had no way of knowing that the surgeon’s hands and clothes, the bed sheets, the surgical instruments, the dressings, and a myriad of other surfaces that would come into contact with the patient were covered with organisms too tiny to see, but that would infect the wound. Most people sickened. More than half died.

Keep out the air to keep out the contagion

Some hospitals did pretty well. Their theory was that the infective element was carried in noxious fumes; that is, if it smelled like bad air, it would be bad for their patient. Alexander Monro (Primus and Secundus), a father and son team who headed the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, must have run a clean operation. They managed to get the death rate for amputations down to eight percent. Given that other hospitals of the time managed rates of 45 to 65 percent, that’s truly impressive.

Most surgeons relied on speed to limit the amount of time the wound was exposed to the air, thus—they hoped—cutting down on the damage the air did to the tissues.

More butchery than medicine

So a fast surgeon was far more likely to be a successful surgeon for three reasons: less blood flow, a shorter time of acute agony, and (they thought) less contagion. No wonder that, to the rest of the human race, surgery seemed more a matter of butchery than medicine.

Naturally, as they thought at the time, physicians did not perform surgery. Physicians had, since medieval times, been university trained. They were gentlemen’s sons with a medical doctorate, highly educated and knowledgeable about the humours of the body and the appropriate ways to balance them. In theory, their superior knowledge made them the only proper people to practice medicine and oversee surgery. They did not involve themselves in physical labour, but expected rather to command those who distilled the medicines they prescribed (apothecaries) or who carried out operations they deemed necessary.

Surgeons, barber surgeons and apothecary surgeons

Specialist surgeons learned their craft on the job, working as a surgeon’s mate in the navy or the army, or as the apprentice to a barber surgeon or an apothecary surgeon.

Barbers were good men with a blade, so an obvious choice for removing some part that shouldn’t be there or performing a beneficial bloodletting. The familiar red and white barber’s pole dates from the time of the barber surgeon, representing the rod the patient held tightly during the operation and the bloodied and clean bandages used. When washed and hung to dry, they would twist together in the wind, forming the spiral we see today.

Apothecary surgeons had won a landmark case in the first decade of the eighteenth century, when an apothecary was taken to court by the Guild of Physicians for compounding and administering medicines without the benefit of a physician’s advice. The Physicians won, but the Society of Apothecaries appealed to the House of Lords, who were unimpressed with the argument that allowing apothecaries to care for the sick would:

“Deprive the gentry of one of the processions by which their younger sons might honourably subsist and be a great detriment to the Universities.”

The Lords reversed the judgement.

The rise of a profession

By the eighteenth century, surgeons were giving physicians a run for their money, some attending university as well as learning their craft by apprenticeship. However, they seldom had any formal qualifications before the Royal College of Surgeons was founded in London in 1800. They were ‘Mister’ compared to the physician’s more prestigious ‘Doctor’, though the brilliant work of a plethora of eighteenth century surgeons raised their status and the work of medical teaching hospitals such as the Royal Infirmary mentioned above raised their knowledge.

By the time Victoria ascended the throne, the confidence of surgeons, and the income they could command, had risen to the point that the cheeky surgeons made the former insulting honorific into a badge of honour. In the UK, Eire and New Zealand to this day, surgeons are called ‘Mister’ rather than ‘Doctor’.

Jude Knight’s writing goal is to transport readers to another time, another place, where they can enjoy adventure and romance, thrill to trials and challenges, uncover secrets and solve mysteries, delight in a happy ending, and return from their virtual holiday refreshed and ready for anything.

She writes historical novels, novellas, and short stories, mostly set in the early 19th Century. She writes strong determined heroines, heroes who can appreciate a clever capable woman, villains you’ll love to loathe, and all with a leavening of humour.

A Raging Madness is out May 9th. Stop by our sister blog today to see surgery in action in a new excerpt and enter two giveaways!

On The Famous Voyage: Finding London’s Lost River

the fleet by samuel scott

The Fleet River. Samuel Scott, 1750.

London’s major river is, of course, the Thames but, as the capital’s antiquarians will tell you, there are more than a dozen ancient tributaries hidden beneath the surface of the modern metropolis. The largest of these smaller rivers is the River Fleet, which flows from the largest stretch of common green in London, at Hampstead Heath, to Blackfriars Bridge, where it enters the Thames. This is a journey, not just from North London to the River, but also through the history of the City from Ancient to Modern times, marking some colourful characters and encompassing some bewildering changes along the way.

Cities are typically built along rivers to provide drinking water, transport, defense, and sewage removal. The Fleet has served all of these functions over London’s long history. As place-names along its banks (Brideswell, Clerkenwell) suggest, many wells were built along the Fleet in Roman and Saxon times, although, as we shall see, the purity of its waters were not set to be a defining feature as London grew.

The Fleet (‘tidal inlet’ in Anglo-Saxon) initially provided a waterway which served London from the North and, in a later incarnation as the New Canal, was part of the network which brought coal from the North of England to fuel the rapidly industrializing London of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even after the canals were superseded by road and rail and entirely covered over in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the valley carved by the Fleet continued to form the basis for some of London’s modern arteries, such as Farringdon Road and the Metropolitan Railway line (although it resisted having an underground railway line–that which would become the Jubilee Line–lain beneath it by repeatedly flooding tunnels).

Defensively, the Fleet has a rather inglorious history. It is unclear how the Fleet was utilized by the Romans and it seems rarely to have been called upon subsequently. A second century boat carrying ragstone (possibly intended for building the city wall) was discovered in 1962, sunk at the mouth of the river.

Much later, the Fleet’s banks were built up into earthworks during the Civil War, when London was very much a Parliamentarian (‘Roundhead’) stronghold. The Royalist armies, however, never threatened the capital, with Charles II’s return to the City being by invitation rather than by conquest. During one of the great crises of the restored king’s reign in 1666, desperate Londoners were hopeful that the Fleet would provide an effective break against the Great Fire as it reached its third day. Here the Fleet proved as ineffective as the civic defenses and the Fire jumped the Fleet ditch, ultimately allowing it to claim St Paul’s Cathedral.

Of course, the most serious modern military threat to London came from the air in the form of the Luftwaffe. The old river beneath Fleet Street could offer no protection when Serjeant’s Inn, one of the oldest legal precincts in England, was destroyed during the Blitz.

It is with the removal of sewage and other waste, or at least with its failure to do so effectively, with which the Fleet is most famously associated. As London grew, the Fleet increasingly became a repository for whatever the city’s inhabitants wanted to get rid of. The medieval meat markets which grew up to feed the expanding population soon became problematic and in 1290 the Carmelite monks complained that the offal deposited in the river by butchers at a nearby market (the delightfully-named Shambles, at Newgate) was constantly blocking what was, at this point, a stream.

Copperplate_map_Fleet

The southern end of the Fleet, 1550s.

Although all manner of industries poured waste into the Fleet, it was the offal and dead animals in various forms which seemed to catch the imagination of early modern satirists of the capital. Ben Jonson’s (c. 1612) mock-epic poem which lends its title to this article was a litany of classical references intertwined with toilet humour and social satire and described the diverse pollutants of the river with considerable gusto:

Your Fleet Lane Furies; and hot cooks do dwell,
That, with still-scalding steams, make the place hell.
The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,
The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:
For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty,
To put the skins, and offal in a pasty?
Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted,
And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted,
Then, selling not, a dish was ta’en to mince them,
But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince them.
For, here they were thrown in with the melted pewter,
Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.

Jonson’s influence and the continued assault of the Fleet upon the senses continued into the eighteenth century: Jonathan Swift’s “Drown’d Puppies” and “Dead Cats” of 1710’s A Description of a City Shower, floating amongst the offal and turnip-tops, were echoed by Alexander Pope’s “large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames” in 1728’s Dunciad.

The enthusiasm of these men for describing the sewage, of which the Fleet’s waters seemed largely comprised, was hardly less. Jonson’s ‘voyage’ was taken down a river where “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs”. His Fleet contained the contents of every ‘night-tub’ from an overcrowded metropolis, where “each privy’s seat/ Is filled with buttock” and the very “walls do sweat Urine”. This state of affairs is compounded by the diet of a city where “every clerk eats artichokes, and peason, Laxative lettuce, and such windy meat”. In 1700, Thomas Brown has his narrator, an ‘Indian’ revealing the strange “Manners, Customs, and Religions” practiced by the various “Nations” of London to his readers, shove an impudent rag-seller into the kennel [1] in the centre of the street with the words:

Tho’ I want nothing out of your Shops, methinks you all want good Manners and Civility, that are ready to tear a New Sute (suit) from my Back, under pretence of selling me an Olde one; Avant Vermin, your Cloaths smell as rankly of Newgate and Tyburn, as the bedding to be sold at the Ditch-side near Fleet-Bridge, smells of Bawdy-House and Brandy.

Brown’s tone is lighthearted and playful, but some of the associations he makes are telling. The visceral nature of these accounts certainly reflected a literal reality but they also had a metaphorical dimension in which it was the excesses and vices of London itself which were clogging up its abused waterways. The writers were playing, not just on the Fleet’s role in waste disposal, but also on the reputation of those who occupied its banks. In Jonathan Swift’s A Description of a City Shower, in particular, a storm washing through London links the different areas and strata of the city together through its flow.

The Fleet flowed past Bridewell and the Fleet prisons and through areas such as Clerkenwell, notorious for sheltering heretics, thieves, and prostitutes from the arms of the law. Here the bodies floating downstream alongside the unfortunate cats and dogs might be human. The industries around the river were messy and disease was known to cling to its slums. The Dunciad plays on the Fleet’s use as an open sewer by having the hack-writers, who are one of the principal subjects of Pope’s ire, swim in it. The implication was as clear as Pope’s Fleet was ‘muddy’. Much later, Charles Dickens’ child-warping pick-pocket, Fagin, would have his den alongside the Fleet.

From the early attempts by the Carmelites to keep the river unblocked to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century attempt to make it serve as a canal, the smell and the constant need for dredging could not be overcome. So impossible was it to contain the flood of effluent that, even after the river was paved over during the later part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, the build-up of trapped gas exploded near Blackfriars in 1846, taking out three posthouses and a steamboat in the process. It must have seemed as though the truth would not be hidden beneath the streets. Eventually, however, the Great Stink of 1858 preceded a concerted effort to enclose the city’s sewers and a London more familiar to us today emerged.

Dr. J.V.P. Jenkins is a historian and freelance editor from London. He earned his BA, Master’s, and Doctorate at Swansea University. He is the new co-editor of Dirty, Sexy History and sometimes tweets @JVPolsomJenkins.

Sources

Brown, Thomas. Amusements serious and comical, calculated for the meridian of London (1700)
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist (1839)
Jonson, Ben. On The Famous Voyage (c.1612)
Pope, Alexander. Dunciad (1728)
Swift, Jonathan. A Description of a City Shower (1710)
Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography (Anchor; New York, 2003)
Brown, Laura. Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century (Cornell U.P., 2003)
Gray, Robert. A History of London (Taplinger; New York, 1979)

[1] An open gutter, running down the middle of the street. The 1671 Sewage and Paving Act had prescribed moving the kennel from the center of the street to an open side drain set off by a raised pavement. The main thoroughfares were also to be cambered (built up in middle for drainage and paved) but these measures were not instantly applied to all streets.