Authors of sites, far more qualified than me, write about fashion in the Gregorian /Regency era, and I would never presume to step on their toes.
But occasionally if there is something different but relevant on that topic which interests me and that I can discuss, I will, and I hope you will indulge me.
Today I want to talk about a book which is fascinating , not just for the descriptions of clothing in Jane Austen’s time, but for the historical perspective it gives : The Dress of the People by John Styles.
This book is currently one of my favourite books on the history of the era, because it tackles an area that has been very neglected: the clothing of the poor, the working class and servants in the long 18th century.
Jane Austen gives us some ideas of the puritanical attitude some held towards servants clothing in Mansfield Park : Mrs Norris and her sister, Mrs Price, share the opinion that servant girls ought not to show any extravagance in dress:
The family were now seen to advantage. Nature had given them no inconsiderable share of beauty, and every Sunday dressed them in their cleanest skins and best attire. Sunday always brought this comfort to Fanny, and on this Sunday she felt it more than ever. Her poor mother now did not look so very unworthy of being Lady Bertram’s sister as she was but too apt to look. It often grieved her to the heart to think of the contrast between them; to think that where nature had made so little difference, circumstances should have made so much, and that her mother, as handsome as Lady Bertram, and some years her junior, should have an appearance so much more worn and faded, so comfortless, so slatternly, so shabby. But Sunday made her a very creditable and tolerably cheerful–looking Mrs. Price, coming abroad with a fine family of children, feeling a little respite of her weekly cares, and only discomposed if she saw her boys run into danger, or Rebecca pass by with a flower in her hat.
That Mrs. Whitaker is a treasure! She was quite shocked when I asked her whether wine was allowed at the second table, and she has turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns.
I leave it to yourselves to determine if we should have shared that view…
Surviving costumes as worn by the poor etc in the long 18th century are , of course, very rare .They were worn, re worn and adapted till they fell apart into rags. That makes a study of them very difficult. John Styles the Research Professor of History at the University of Hertfordshire has tackled this problem head on and resolved it by referring to various sources of information. Unusual written sources are sourced by him in this book: criminal records are invaluable as the theft of clothes and clothing material was one of the most frequently prosecuted set of offences in the criminal courts during the long 18th century. Newspaper advertisements for fugitives inevitably contain descriptions of the clothes the fugitive was wearing when last seen.
For visual and material sources, Professor Styles refers to the prints and paintings of the era, of which this is one:
It reminds me of the family to whom Emma dispenses practical charity in chapter 10:
They were now approaching the cottage, and all idle topics were superseded. Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for whom education had done so little; entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will. In the present instance, it was sickness and poverty together which she came to visit; and after remaining there as long as she could give comfort or advice, she quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away…
And for evidence of the type of materials worn by the poor he refers to the magnificent but sad collection of textile scraps preserved by the London Foundling Hospital. Here is a picture of the building from my collection of early 19th century topographical prints:
The Foundling hospital was the first intitution in England where children abandoned by their desperate mothers could be cared for, brought up and finally set out into the world suitably educated for a trade. Go here for a detailed history of the Foundling Hospital.
The Foundling Hospital was founded by Thomas Corum , a seafaring merchant, born in Lyme Regis. While living at Rotherhithe and pursuing his business interests in London, Coram regularly travelled a route on which he saw abandoned children, some dead, others dying. In 1722, motivated by an enduring blend of Christian benevolence, practical morality, and civic spirit, he decided to take action.
Inspired by the examples of the foundling hospitals on the continent, he advocated one for London. However, failure attended these first efforts, but in 1739 Thomas Corum obtained a royal charter for a Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children. Orphanages for such children had not been adopted in England, unlike in Europe, due to the prevailing puritan outlook : it was considered that young women would be encouraged into immorality and vice if facilities were provided for the succor of unwanted children.
Thomas Corum and his supporters- including Hogarth who painted this stunning portrait of him above- combined pity of the unwanted child with a certain commercial pragmatism.
The care regime for the child was as follows: after four years of wet nursing and foster care in the country among suitable families, the foundling children were taught useful skills in the Hospital that would benefit them and society. Girls were brought up to be domestic servants and boys to be employable in husbandry, seafaring or as household servants or placed with London shopkeepers( their ability to write and keep accounts assisted them in this). Boys were apprenticed at the age of 12 or 13, girls at 14.
Here is its position in London from a section of my copy of Smith’s New Map of London (1809)
You can see the Foundling Hospital quite clearly I hope, with Brunswick Square set around it- for the square was in fact built on land owned by the Foundling Hospital and was developed by the Governors of the Hospital:
The Foundling Hospital, which, like so many institutions of the 1740-60 period, stood out in the fields. Unlike other hospitals, however, the Foundling possessed the freehold of much of the land surrounding it and it was seen that, as London expanded northwards, this could be made a considerable source of wealth.” When the Governors talked of building in 1788 there was an immediate outcry against the invasion of more open country; it was also considered that the children’s health might suffer. Two years later, however, the hospital architect was instructed to make a report. This architect was Samuel Pepys Cockerell, a pupil of Sir Robert Taylor and a man who, like Taylor, combined artistic ability and scholarship with a real grasp of practical affairs and an unimpeachable professional character.
In his Report to the Governors of the Foundling, Cockerell recommended the formation of the open spaces which we now know as Mecklenburgh and Brunswick Squares.” In this he had the support of Thomas Bernard, one of the Governors, whose name became much associated with public improvements in the Regency. The objects of the squares were, first, to retain for the hospital ‘the advantages of its present open situation’ and, second, to provide an architectural setting so ‘as rather to raise than depress the Character of this Hospital itself as an Object of National Munificence’.
The Report sets out that cardinal principle of Georgian town planning, the creation of urban units containing accommodation for all classes. Cockerell proposes:
“That there shall be such principal features of attraction in the Plan as shall not be too great for a due proportion to the whole but yet sufficient to draw Adventurers to the subordinate parts and that these subordinate parts be so calculated as to comprise all Classes of Building from the first Class down to Houses of Twenty-five pound pr. annum without the lower Classes interfering with and diminishing the Character of those above them, and particularly that the Stile of the Buildings at the several Boundaries, be (in order to ensure success to the intermediate parts) as respectable as possible consistent with their situations and with prudence in the Adventurers.”
(from “Georgian London” , p184-5 by Sir John Summerson)
By 1802 nearly 600 houses had been built on the estate owned by the foundling Hospital. Of which Mr John Knightley’s in Emma was one. This makes sense- for the air on the outskirts of London was considered good: and Isabella Knightley ,very much her father’s daughter would surely have settled no where else. For John Knightley’s comfort-and we know that was very important to him-he was not far from the law courts and Barristers chambers , and finally I think Jane Austen was making an indirect reference to the illegitimate and abandoned state of Harriet Smith, who found happiness in Brunswick Square while staying with the Mr John Knightley’s there. A trip to Astley’s Amphitheatre was the scene of her reconciliation with Robert Martin.
Back to the book…..
The hospital’s admission or billet books which were meticulously kept form 1741 to 1760 contain the worlds largest collection of everyday fabrics. This is one example of a blue and white striped cotton turned up with purple and white linen ,made up into a baby’s sleeve, accompanied by a pink ribbon.
The child who wore it was as you can see about 3 weeks old when it was accepted into the Foundling Hospital. Heatrending.
However Professor Styles users them very carefully, describing the type of cottons and linen the preserved scraps represent and the type of clothes from which they came.
It all makes for an absorbing and facinating read.
The book is published by Yale and it is sumptuously and carefuly produced, the illustrations are clearly reproduced, an important point other publishers may have fudged.
I thoroughly recommend it, not only for its history of plebeian clothing in our era, but for its examination of that part of society which,i s certainly referred to by Jane Austen but is not usually covered in history books.