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Gambling, gin & jolly Georgians

A new book on an outrageous era brings 100 years of British history vividly to life, writes Maggie Gruner

23 September, 2021 — By Maggie Gruner

Illustration of John Wilkes. Illustration: Christopher Brown

RADICAL journalist and politician John Wilkes, son of a Clerkenwell gin distiller, summed up the “devil-may-care atmosphere” of Georgian England.

Wilkes cuts a dash in Meet the Georgians, by Robert Peal. It depicts a wild era, with revellers glorying in gambling, drinking, dancing, fighting, sex – and socialising at venues including a “farting” club at Cripplegate and the riotous Covent Garden-based Beefsteak Club.

Gin was dangerously cheap and the average early18th-century Londoner quaffed almost a pint of spirits a week. Pubs, taverns and theatres lined the West End’s streets and there were thousands of prostitutes, the most popular featuring in a guide called Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies.

Wilkes, wildly popular champion of liberty, is among 12 extraordinary people whose stories Peal tells, believing them to embody Georgian Britain – the 100 years or so between the coronation of George I in 1714 and the death of George IV in 1830.

The book’s diverse bunch includes former slave Olaudah Equiano, fearless campaigner for slavery’s abolition – who lived at different times in Holborn, Fitzrovia and Marylebone – and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, who ran a small school for girls at Newington Green, and later lived in Blooms­bury and Somers Town.

We meet women pirates; poet Lord Byron, famously “mad, bad and dangerous to know”; a lesbian couple who escaped their families and lived openly together in Wales; and Lady Hamil­ton, Nelson’s lover, who went from rags to riches and back again.

The book relates how expert fossil hunter Mary Anning stayed with friends near Regent’s Park on her first trip out of Lyme, Dorset. They took her around London, visiting the Geological Society and British Museum.

Others featured include an Indian ruler who kept the British Empire at bay and James Watt of steam engine renown.

Olaudah Equiano and Mary Wollstonecraft

Peal, a history teacher for 10 years and joint headteacher at the West London Free School, told Review he adores the Georgian period, but it often gets ignored by schools. “This makes little sense to me, seeing how vital the Georgian period was in the making of modern Britain, and generally how hilarious the madcap, devil-may-care Georgians were.”

Peal brings the era to vivid, outrageous life, writing chattily, with a scattering of slang that wouldn’t have made the Georgians turn a hair.

He says: “Reading contemporary sources, I was constantly surprised by how fruity the Georgians’ language could be.”

There was a “preponder­ance of four- letter words, freely deployed in personal cor­res­pondence by some of the most respec­table figures of the day”. The Georgians coined terms such as “bumfiddle”. This was used in reference to sound effects at the farting club. Members ate cabbage, onions and pease-porridge until their stomachs swelled up like a “blown bag pipe”. They then competed to see whose “windy eruptions” were loudest and longest.

Some of the people featured in the book are well known, others not.

John Wilkes has been largely forgotten. But Peal writes: “So many of the rights we take for granted today – the right to criticise the government in the press; the right to vote for whoever we want; the right to know what is debated in parliament – were won by Wilkes, and he risked his own life and freedom in the process.”

His weekly newspaper attacked the policies and corruption of King George III’s government, which Wilkes took on in legal and electoral battles.

The most famous politician of the 1760s, Wilkes was no angel. A “duel-fighting spendthrift womaniser with a weak­ness for booze and a filthy sense of humour”, he was a regular at the all-male Beefsteak Club, where any member too sensitive to take a joke was “escorted from the dining room, stripped to his underclothes, wrapped in a tablecloth and returned for more humiliation”.

Robert Peal

Why has Wilkes disappeared from public memory? Peal says: “I think this has much to do with the fact that the hedonistic, irreverent way he lived his life was diametrically opposed to the virtues embraced by Victorian historians, who had little time for him.”

Poking beneath the frills, bright colours and powdered wigs, the book shows that, while rich men had the best of Geor­gian times, life wasn’t so merry if you were poor, a woman, or a slave.

Treats jolly Georgians enjoyed, such as coffee, sugar and tobacco, were bound up with the suffer­ing of enslaved workers. Olaudah Equiano was one of an estimated 20,000 people of African descent in Britain in the 1780s. Most lived as free men and women. He led a group of freed slaves campaigning for abolition. He wrote his memoirs, a first-hand account of the horror of slavery. The bestselling book powerfully boosted the abolitionist movement.

Things could be woeful for women. Peal writes that among the lower classes, it wasn’t uncommon to see men selling unwanted wives at the local market. Everything a wife owned or earned was the property of her husband.

No wonder Mary Woll­stonecraft felt moved to write A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Boldly, she travelled to Paris at the height of the French Revolution, had a child out of wedlock, went on a solo tour of Scandinavia and made her living as an independent writer. But she jumped off Putney Bridge in a suicide attempt after the man she loved lost interest in her. She was rescued by two watermen.

Would Peal like to have lived in the Georgian era? “Provided I was male, wealthy enough to be at least a member of the minor gentry, and did not die at a young age of smallpox or cholera, I think being a Georgian would have been a blast,” he said. “But that was obviously a very small segment of the population. Needless to say, for the majority of the population, life remained nasty, brutish and short.”

Georgian excesses came to an end amid trauma – Britain losing the American War of Independence; the French Revolution; industrialisa­tion. A campaign against immorality gathered pace.

  • Meet the Georgians: Epic Tales from Britain’s Wildest Century. By Robert Peal. Collins, £18.99

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