Georgians: Daily Life

Although the majority of people still lived in the countryside at the end of the Georgian period, by 1800 about a quarter were living and working in towns. Industrialisation brought with it a growing consumer culture.

Detail from ‘Gin Lane’, by William Hogarth, 1751

Detail from ‘Gin Lane’, by William Hogarth, 1751

ELEGANCE, BRUTALITY AND ‘BOTTOM’

Sometimes called the Age of Elegance, the Georgian period was also a time when brutality was accepted as a matter of course.

Thus when Earl Ferrers was hanged in 1760 for lingeringly murdering his steward, he wore a superb suit of white and silver clothes. His executioners then came to blows over the ‘lucky’ and highly saleable rope; the one who lost apparently cried.

The criminals whose executions were popular public events were expected to display ‘bottom’, a combination of steadiness and grit that Ferrers’s executioner clearly lacked, but which was the most admired Georgian virtue.

'Going to market' by Gainsborough

‘Going to Market’ was painted in about 1770 by Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88). Despite the pace of industrialisation in the 18th century, in 1800 about three-quarters of the population still lived in the countryside.

SPORTS AND PASTIMES

‘Bottom’ was likewise a requirement for robust Georgian sports like bare-knuckle prize-fighting. Blood sports such as cock fighting and bull baiting were also very popular, though made illegal in the early 19th century. Horse racing came into its own in the 18th century, and cricket – featuring underarm bowling, two stumps, and scoop-shaped bats – invariably attracted feverish gambling.

Crowds were also drawn to the theatre, which was immensely popular with both rich and poor. The pleasure gardens of the period – venues for a whole host of entertainments – were frequented by all classes in London and provincial towns and cities.

Silhouette of a family at leisure at Wrest Park

A silhouette of the de Grey family at Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, from the mid 18th century. The family is depicted reading and sewing by candlelight, while one of the women plays with a dog.

HOME COMFORTS

While all and sundry mingled at public entertainments, only a small minority lived in any sort of luxury. Nonetheless, the consumer revolution transformed not just the homes of the rich, but also of the middling and even some of the lower social strata. What had been drab, sparsely furnished spaces were increasingly stuffed full of a cornucopia of cheaply manufactured household items known as ‘decencies’.

Thus the tradesman, parson or attorney might live in moderate comfort, copying the manners of the rich as far as they could. The great value placed on politeness helped smooth over social barriers between the gentry and the aspiring middle classes.

FASHION

None but the very wealthy, however, could afford the extravagant society fashions of the mid-18th century: for women, tight whaleboned stays and immensely wide skirts supported on hooped petticoats or ‘false hips’; and for men, powdered wigs, long coats and richly embroidered waistcoats. The towering coiffeurs of the later 18th century forced ladies to sit on the floors of their coaches.

In the first decades of the 19th century, all this was replaced by Regency ‘elegance and simplicity’.

Anti-slavery pendant designed by Josiah Wedgwood

An anti-slavery pendant designed by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787, now at Kenwood House in London. It depicts a kneeling slave and bears the words (on the reverse) ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’. The movement for the abolition of the slave trade gained many followers in 18th-century Britain, but it was not until 1833 that slavery was finally outlawed.

POVERTY AND SLAVERY

At the bottom of the social scale, whether in the town or the country, were people who had no leisure for elegance. Those who fell on hard times through accident, ill-health or old age depended on parish handouts to survive.

In 1723 a law was passed allowing the construction of workhouses, which meant that parishes could choose to offer poor relief in such institutions, rather than giving handouts. By the 1770s there were about 2,000 workhouses across England.

Slavery also besmirched Georgian England – and the ready availability of luxury goods like sugar, tea and tobacco depended on it. But by the 1760s opinion was turning against it, holding that any slave who set foot on English soil was free. Lord Mansfield (of Kenwood, London) confirmed in 1772 that slave owners could not force their slaves to leave England, but British involvement in the slave trade was not made illegal until 1807, and not until 1833 was slavery itself finally outlawed.

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