May 172017

It is good to be making progress with my next book in the pipeline – I submitted the manuscript to Pen & Sword a couple of months ago and the editing process has been completed. Now it is down to  the printer to come up with the first proof…..

Meanwhile I have been asked to change the title – originally ‘Petticoat Pioneers’ – because it wasn’t clear from the title what the book was about (dress making?). So instead it is now going to be called ‘Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era’ – with the strap-line ‘The eighteenth century struggle for Female Success in a Man’s World’. It will take a bit of getting used to, having lived with ‘Petticoat Pioneers’ for the past year I have got rather accustomed to it! But hey, at the end of the day it is all about ‘what sells?’ and if the publishers think they can sell ‘Trailblazing Women’, that is fine by me!

The cover design has just come through – and I cannot wait to see the final version in print – hopefully towards the end of this year. Meanwhile, it is back to the grindstone, as I have only so far managed three chapters of my next book – about the Georgian Greats whose achievements were overshadowed by more famous contemporaries. So let’s get rid of James Watt and think of William Murdoch, his partner. Let us hear no more of Josiah Wedgwood and instead  concentrate on another Josiah – Mr Spode. And forget Charles Darwin – what about grandfather Erasmus?  And Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s father? And Thomas Boulsover, who gave us Sheffield Plate, and Christopher Pinchbeck who gave us costume jewellery. And a host of other people who changed the face of Georgian Britain but whose achievements have gone largely unnoticed because the spotlight of fame happened to catch on the person standing next to them in the queue.

My problem is that old age is creeping up on me, and I keep procrastinating in favour of writing fun things, like children’s books about pirates. I won’t even bother to get them published – but they are so much more enjoyable than having to do “real” writing! So, I suspect that ‘Georgian Greats’ may be my final book. Well, until something else comes along to fire my imagination….

Finally, my thanks to Lil’s Vintage World for a lovely YouTube critique of five books on the Georgian era, all published by Pen & Sword, and which features “In Bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal & Satire”. It is really nice to feel that the book is appreciated – it makes it all worthwhile. Thanks Lil. Do have a look at her film on YouTube – it says it all !

Mar 212017

A couple of very nice reviews of my book In bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal and Satire The first appeared in the February edition of History of Royals which enthused:

In Bed with the Georgians“For many books detailing the passion of kings and paramours, it’s easy to be soft in the portrayal of their love lives. The ambiguity that follows, though, can almost mask true deviance by simply not delving deeper. It’s refreshing, then, that In Bed With the Georgians is more explicit, providing an authenticity that can often go amiss.
With graphic descriptions and plenty of satirical imagery referenced throughout, In Bed With The Georgians explores the celebrity courtesans of the era alongside the scandals in royal court, common lingo, the impact of newspapers, brothels, lower-class sex workers, sex crimes of the 18th century and more. Almost nothing escapes the sharp tongue of the author, with his sarcastic commentary on the ignorance and hedonism of Georgian men. His text, though humorous at times, focuses foremost on delivering a wide-ranging perspective for modern readers.”

Meanwhile I was delighted to see a review on Amazon giving the book five stars, under the title of ‘The Georgian underbelly exposed’:

“Well, this is a romp — a right rollicking ride through the 18th-century world of courtesans, harlots, bigamists, rapists, pimps, brothels, bagnios, profligates and narcissists. Along the way we meet myriad crooks and celebrities: Kitty Fisher, Lavinia Fenton, Nelly O’Brien, Casanova, Charteris, the Hanoverians and their hangers-on and many more.
Although he is excellent at weaving in historical context, Rendell has wisely focused on the stories and therefore allowed the human frailty of his subjects to show through. His easy-to-read style makes the book highly accessible; even those without a declared interest in history should find it interesting.
It’s clear that those at the top did what they wanted to do and those at the bottom did was they needed to do. Those in the middle tried to tell everyone else what to do. Perhaps nothing has changed. Rendell himself avoids imposing 21st-century moral values on lives lived 300 years ago.
This handsomely produced large format paperback has 69 colour illustrations — an appropriate number I would say.”
Thanks, “Nomester” whoever you are!
I am delighted that the book is now available through as well as via It is also available on Kindle – but I haven’t had the chance to check out how the images are integrated with the text. It is one of my great regrets that in printed format the colour images have to be confined to a plates section. I appreciate the cost implications, but I must admit, as a reader, I do like having the images next to the appropriate section of text. I am aware that some may find the images a tad smutty (one lady,  who bought the book after attending one of my talks on Royal Shenanigans, came up to me afterwards to say “My oh my, that book was not half as  sanitised as the talk” – and seemed surprised that a book about the sex trade and sex workers should have used explicit images). But that was the whole point of the book – to show how the Georgians looked at their world. To me, the satire, whether in the form of caricatures or the printed word, was just as important as the sex and the scandal. And I find it truly fascinating that whereas today the famous fashionistas (no names given….) dress like whores, 250 years ago it was the whores who dressed like famous fashionistas. I recall visiting an exhibition a couple of years ago at the Number One Royal Crescent Museum at Bath, curated by the excellent Hallie Rubenhold, consisting of prints and mezzotints of Georgian ladies – and realizing that it was impossible to tell the difference between the harlot and the aristocrat. Having said that, this one leaves little doubt about what is on her mind…. which is why I used her on the front cover of my book.
Love at 300dpi
Moving on, I have just submitted my manuscript of “Petticoat Pioneers” to Pen and Sword books – a look at some really fascinating women of the Eighteenth Century who ‘made a difference’ and who succeeded in a man’s world. More on that later….
Nov 142016

I was delighted to hear the news that my new book “In bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal & Satire” has finally hit the streets. Many thanks to Pen & Sword for all their hard work… mike-with-book-sss   Just by way of background: why write another book about Georgian sex workers and the sex trade?  Because I wanted to show how the Georgians viewed prostitution, not how we look back at it from a distance of two centuries. I feel that we are incredibly hypocritical nowadays. As a “for instance”: if a woman sleeps around she is a tart, a slut, a slapper. If a man sleeps around he is a lothario, a stud or a rake – adjectives with a positive connotation. Think of the words which describe a prostitute – nearly all of them have a pejorative meaning. OK, we nowadays have “sex worker” but that sounds a tad anodyne and politically correct for the 18th Century – as well as being anachronistic. “Strumpet” is a bit too biblical and theatrical – but all the others – whore, harlot, and so on, have an underlying attitude of criticism. But why? At least in the 18th Century they received respect for what they did. Sure, they would not be admitted to the homes of the aristocratic lovers they entertained, but on their own turf they were regarded with respect – almost awe. They lived in the demi-monde – a sort of parallel universe – and some of them were incredibly rich and influential. In particular, they were looked up to by many. After all, if you were a milliner working in a hat shop, serving a well-dressed lady who was calling in for a fitting on her new chapeau, wouldn’t you be tempted to follow her example if you realized that she earned her money in a high-class seraglio, and that perhaps a mere six months earlier she was serving behind the same counter as you now occupy? In the Georgian era, for many the sex trade was the only way out of a life of hardship and grinding poverty. Denied education, barred from employment other than in domestic service or “the needle trades”  young girls had little alternative but to prostitute themselves – and who are we to blame them?

Fanny Murray

Fanny Murray

In the Eighteenth Century the hookers were occupying the pinnacle of fashion. They wanted to show their success by the way they dressed – which was why the Madam started off by bedecking them in fine silks, and loads of bling, all lent on IOUs at an exorbitant rate. But it meant that the prostitute was able to sell herself to the wealthiest in the land. To succeed, she would dress well, have the latest carriage drawn by matching steeds, flaunting her success with liveried man-servants and so on, as well as spending a fortune on hot-house flowers, the latest fashions, diamonds and pearls. They were the fashion icons of the day – what the leading courtesans wore one day, the President of the Royal Academy would paint the next, and the High Street shops would stock the day afterwards. They were hugely influential – the equivalent in terms of fame and influence to the TV reality stars of today. But whereas our modern-day fashionistas of the popular press seem determined to dress like hookers, in the 18th Century the hookers were determined to dress like fashionistas. Indeed when you look at the majority of pictures of women in the 18th Century the best way of deciding which ones were the whores was to ask the question: is she overdressed for the occasion? If so, the chances are that she was standing out for a reason: to attract custom.

Nelly O'Brien

Nelly O’Brien

One of the things I enjoyed most about writing the book was choosing the illustrations – and there are over seventy. I wanted to show how caricaturists and artists portrayed the “Toasts of the Town” – and clearly if you were Sir Joshua Reynolds you must have been very happy in their company, because some were painted by him on more than half a dozen occasions. I wanted to show how “indiscretions” were reported – and to consider how a few of the “flash mollishers” ascended to the absolute pinnacle of fashion. The successful ones married their earls, their baronets and their viscounts – just as the unsuccessful ones succumbed to disease and an early demise. I wanted to show how Gillray, Newton and Cruikshank commented on their antics – plus a bit of gratuitous vulgarity from Rowlandson thrown in for good measure! Some may be surprised by the dedication in the book: to dollymops in general and to DollyMopp in particular. A dolly mop (one “p”) was a Victorian word for a prostitute. Dolly Mopp (with two “p”s) is a lovely, articulate and well-educated woman who lives in London and is proud of her chosen profession – as a latter-day courtesan. She shares an interest in 18th Century history, and in the role of the sex worker in society, and I must say I found it fascinating to talk to her about her lifestyle, its business aspects, its  pitfalls and its  benefits. I cannot pretend that she divested me of all my prejudices, but I did find it helpful, having met her over coffee in a Southwark hostelry, to think when writing: would you say this if Dolly was in the room? Hopefully, insulting comments like “common whore” have been ditched. Misunderstandings about life choices have been recognized – and hopefully, judgmental comments about people and their chosen jobs eliminated. After all, when I was a lawyer I hated being pigeon-holed as a solicitor – I didn’t want to be defined by my job. So why should Dolly be defined by hers? She is a fascinating and intelligent woman who just happens to spend some of her time – not all – entertaining clients in a way which is mutually satisfying to both parties. In that sense she is a throw-back to the 18th Century females who stride across the pages of the book “In bed with Georgians” – proud, successful – and happy! So, to Dolly Mopp – a sincere thanks for your guidance and for putting up with my ignorance about what it is like now, and was like then, to be a courtesan/whore/strumpet/prostitute or sex worker. For those interested, my book is available here. And you can follow Dolly Mopp on Twitter via @Dollymopp ! in-bed-etc

Nov 072016





It is always an exciting time when the first reviews come out – especially as I won’t actually see a copy of my new book until I return to the UK on Thursday. I can’t wait!

I was delighted to see this comment:

“In Bed With The Georgians is a thoroughly delicious compendium of succulent titbits and shocking revelations about our fruity forebears. The action – and boy, is there a lot of
action – is, necessarily, centred around the pleasure pits of central London, specifically the fulcrum of Georgian London’s burgeoning sex trade that was Covent Garden. As such, In Bed With the Georgians is something of a social history of London in microcosm, which only adds to its appeal. It’s all a great deal of smutty fun, of course, but what I found particularly pleasing about Rendell’s lively work was that unlike many other books on the subject, the true, often tragic facts are not shied away from. Rendell gives a voice to the women – and men – whom the sexual mores of the era worked against; the sad lot of women, for example, is laid devastatingly bare. The reader finds themselves far more shocked by the suffering meted out to wives, homosexuals and those who did not toe the double-standard riddled moralistic line than by the sexploits of Regency rakes and Covent Garden molls. A dark flipside indeed.

Both a dip-inable encylopaedia of sauce and a comprehensive history of what made our ancestors tick, In Bed With The Georgians takes us from the gutters of St Giles to the bedrooms of palaces on its sweeping journey through eighteenth century society – both high and low. If heaving bosoms, lecherous lords and dastardly deeds are your thing, you really do need to partake in this fizzing, accessible and thoroughly enjoyable romp.”

Another reviewer wrote:

“This is a fascinating read. It has a comprehensive list of well known figures of the time and biographical information about them and their sexual interactions in society. It also has terms that were popular in that time. Some of them I had to read a few times just to make sure I was reading it right. When I think of the Georgian Britain, Architecture is the first thing to pop in my head and the last thing I think of is their torrid sex lives. I think more people would read history if it encompassed the entire human experience, which of course would include their sex lives.”

And finally:

“Oh Georgians! What a bawdy, naughty bunch it turns out you were. Before the prudishness and censure of the Victorian age, the English were fun, in an adventurously promiscuous sort of way. In Bed with Georgians is all about that, the brothels, the whores, the pimps, the cheaters, the lovers, the seducers, the rapists, the polygamists (and all the hilarious euphemisms of the time for the aforementioned terms) populate the pages of a well researched and terrifically amusing book. With great humour and a sort of bemused affection for its lovely and distinctly unlovely subjects, Rendell navigates the era so well, it makes for a terrific tour of a bygone age. There are a lot of individual accounts and plenty of art from the time… and it was just a lot of fun to read. From famous to infamous, some names recognizable today, most lost to history, but apparently not forgotten, because of their ludicrous and wild love lives these Georgians are definitely worth reading about if only to enlighten oneself to a sexual and social zeitgeist of a historical epoch. Very entertaining read. Recommended”

These, and several other very positive reviews, can all be seen in full on Goodreads, together with details of the reviewers (just in case, like my Dear Daughter, you assume that I made them all up!). If you want to get your hands on a copy for Christmas, hurry along to the publishers (Pen & Sword Books, here) and get yourself a copy at a discount of 20%! Mind you, I never have understood the book trade: twenty per cent off what? Whatever, I hope that you find it a rollicking good read! I will be taking my copy along on the Good Ship “Boudicca” when she sails off to the Cape Verde Islands in a fortnight’s time – and indeed the contents will feature in at least two of the lectures I will be giving on board. Roll-on “Royal Shenanigans of the 18th Century” and “From Courtesans to Celebrities – the tarts with hearts”!




Oct 312016



harriette-wilsonA guest post today from those prolific writers Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, fresh from having published “An Infamous Mistress The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott”. The post concerns one of my favourite courtesans of the Regency era, Harriette Wilson. For those of you unfamiliar with the lady, she was one of five daughters of a Swiss watch-maker who had settled in London. Of the five, only one (known derisively as ‘The Paragon’) failed to take up harlotry. The others were highly successful in their chosen profession, but none scaled the heights like Harriette….  Over to Joanne and Sarah:

“A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History” charts the successive unions of two generations of the ducal Cavendish-Bentinck family, ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II. Both shocked their family and society, but for very different reasons; the first marriage was the result of an elopement, just weeks after the Battle of Waterloo, when the Duke of Wellington’s married niece ran off with the widowed Lord Charles Bentinck, brother to the Duke of Portland.
Today we have decided to write a little about the Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson, who is mentioned often during the first half of “A Right Royal Scandal” as she was embroiled in the antics of a fair few of the main players in our book.
Lord Charles Bentinck, and his younger brother Frederick, were frequent visitors to her rooms and both were mentioned in the “Memoirs of Harriette Wilson”, written by herself, as was the Duke of Wellington, another of Harriette’s admirers. Harriette offered the men to be named in her memoirs the chance to buy themselves out of its pages, an opportunistic form of blackmail with which she even approached the Prince Regent; the two Bentinck brothers, perpetually financially embarrassed, probably didn’t have the means to do this even if the chance was given to them, and had to suffer the ignominy of seeing their names in print within its pages. But, as Lord Charles said:
We are in for it… my brother Frederick and I are in the book, up to our necks; but we shall only make bad worse by contending against it; for it is not only true, every word of it, but is excellently written and very amusing.
The Duke of Wellington supposedly, and famously, replied to Harriette that she should ‘publish and be damned!’, and he too appeared within. Harriett described him as “having no small talk, and looking like a rat- catcher”, giving rise to this caricature:
Beau Brummell

Beau Brummell


Lord Frederick Bentinck was Harriette’s ‘constant and steady admirer’ but she mocked him mercilessly, as did another visitor to Harriette’s house, the dandy Beau Brummell. On one occasion Fred was admiring his new leather breeches in Harriett’s mirror when he was rebuked for his bad fashion choice by Brummell.

‘They only came home this morning,’ proceeded Fred, ‘and I thought they were rather neat.’
‘Bad knees, my good fellow! bad knees!’ said Brummell, shrugging up his shoulders.
Lord Charles was a widowed man when he danced attendance on Harriette, and it was Harriette who introduced him to a young prostitute, known as Little Ann, who Charles took ‘into his keeping’. Lord Charles parked his mistress in rooms above an umbrella shop in Knightsbridge and his relationship with Little Ann continued until he fell for the charms of the bored, but married, Lady Abdy, and persuaded the lady to elope with him. The cuckolded Sir William Abdy paid a visit to Harriette in the immediate aftermath of the elopement, to pour out his heart to her. He received scant sympathy from the knowing courtesan.
‘That Charles Bentinck,’ said he, half angry, ‘is the greatest fool in the world; and in Paris we always used to laugh at him.’
‘But,’ said [Harriette], ‘why did you suffer his lordship to be eternally at your house?’
‘Why, dear me!’ answered Abdy, peevishly, ‘I told him in a letter I did not like it and I thought it wrong, and he told me it was no such thing.’
‘And therefore,’ [Harriette] remarked, ‘you suffered him to continue his visits as usual?’
‘Why, good gracious, what could I do! Charles Bentinck told me, upon his honour, he meant nothing wrong.’
A Criminal Conversation case and a divorce were the result of the elopement, and the scandal kept the ton in Regency London occupied for many months. You can find out more about this and the second marriage of the title in “A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History”, available from Pen and Sword Books and all good bookshops.
Almost two books in one, “A Right Royal Scandal” recounts the fascinating history of the irregular love matches contracted by two successive generations of the Cavendish-Bentinck family, ancestors of the British Royal Family. The first part of this intriguing book looks at the scandal that erupted in Regency London, just months after the Battle of Waterloo, when the widowed Lord Charles Bentinck eloped with the Duke of Wellington’s married niece. A messy divorce and a swift marriage followed, complicated by an unseemly tug-of-war over Lord Charles’ infant daughter from his first union. Over two decades later and while at Oxford University, Lord Charles’ eldest son, known to his family as Charley, fell in love with a beautiful gypsy girl, and secretly married her. He kept this union hidden from his family, in particular his uncle, William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 4th Duke of Portland, upon whose patronage he relied. When his alliance was discovered, Charley was cast adrift by his family, with devastating consequences.
A love story as well as a brilliantly researched historical biography, this is a continuation of Joanne and Sarah’s first biography, An Infamous Mistress, about the eighteenth-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott, whose daughter was the first wife of Lord Charles Bentinck. The book ends by showing how, if not for a young gypsy and her tragic life, the British monarchy would look very different today
* * *
Credits for images:
Harriette Wilson, 1806. © The Trustees of the British Museum
The Flat Catcher, and the Rat Catcher. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Harriette Wilson’s last letter, or a new method of raising the wind!! © The Trustees of the British Museum
George ‘Beau’ Brummell, from a print by Robert Dighton, 1805. Wikimedia


Sep 272016

love-at-300dpiFor the cover on my forthcoming book “In Bed with the Georgians – Sex Scandal and Satire in the 18th Century” I chose a print based on a painting by William Matthew Peters. I subsequently acquired an original print of the lady in question, thanks to the generosity of one of the readers of this blog, for which I am extremely grateful.

The Rev W M Peters

The Rev W M Peters

Peters was quite an interesting character. Some books describe him as “ a portrait and history painter from the Isle of Wight” while others ascribe to him an Irish birth and ancestry. His father appears to have been a garden designer working in Dublin and who had originally done work for Lord Cobham at Stowe. As a youth Peters went twice to Italy to study the works of the great Renaissance artists. He returned from the first trip (to Rome) in the early 1760s and then went again to Rome, and Venice, in the early to mid 1770s. He gained the somewhat over-egged title of “the English Titian” – due to a series of portraits of ladies in various stages of undress. He apparently painted them as a tribute to the works of Titian, intending to emulate Titian’s “Venus” by showing modern-day seductresses. However, whereas Titian painted his Venus stretched out full length on her bed, entirely naked, Peters showed only the head, shoulders and breasts. Peters provided his ladies with contemporary night-caps along with familiar names of the period eg Lydia, Belinda, Sylvia (and Lucrece…?).

Lydia. circa 1777 . shown courtesy of the Tate Museum

Lydia. circa 1777 . shown courtesy of the Tate Museum

Described as "a Study for Lydia" - same hat, same breasts... It poses the question: how much study did he really need to do?

Described as “a Study for Lydia” – same hat, same breasts… It poses the question: how much study did he really need to do?!



He may have seen them as tributes to the great Italian Masters, but the public saw them as erotic art which they could buy as pin-ups, and copies appeared in print many times over. Not all the critics were in favour. When Peters exhibited The Woman in Bed at the RA summer exhibition the critic in The Morning Chronicle of 26 April 1777 noted: “We cannot … help thinking that the inviting leer of the lady, and her still more inviting bosom, ought to be consigned to the bedchamber of a bagnio, where each would doubtless provoke a proper effect; in the present situation they serve to prevent the pictures around them from being so much seen and admired as their merits demand, for every man who has either his wife or daughter with him, must, for decency sake, hurry them away from that corner of the room”

Belinda - the basis for the print used on  my book cover

Belinda – the basis for the print used on my book cover, but showing rather less décolletage – and a different hat!

Matthew Peters had trained in London under the portraitist Thomas Hudson and when he returned from his second Italian tour Peters had moved into a house belonging to Lord Grosvenor in Millbank. It was then, presumably urged on by patrons such as Lord Grosvenor, that he began to paint his studies of courtesans. And let’s face it, Lord Grosvenor certainly knew a lot of courtesans… I can just imagine him coming home after a torrid night between the sheets at a local brothel and saying to Peters “Look who I’ve brought for you to paint.”



By the late 1770s Peters, was getting increasingly worried about the damage to his reputation as a serious artist, and so abandoned painting courtesans. This became even more important to him when he decided to become ordained in 1781, Subsequently he was appointed Honorary Chaplain to the Royal Academy, and was highly embarrassed by his quasi-erotoc offerings. According to the Tate Gallery he expressed “a profound regret that he ever devoted his talents to such subjects, not only because they were degrading to his character but [also] from sincere moral regret.” He went on to become rector of Eaton, Leicestershire, then rector of Wolsthorpe, Leicestershire, in 1788, and became Prebendary of Lincoln in 1795 He was also chaplain to the Prince Regent, so we can safely say that he was not just a man of the canvas but also a man of the cloth….

In 1777 he had been elected a full Member of the Royal Academy. He married Margaret, daughter of the Rev John Knowsley and they had various children including a son, Edmund, who took the surname of Turton in order to receive a benefit under the will of Dr John Edmund. He carried on painting – mostly mawkish pictures of young children ascending to Heaven, but I rather go along with the comment on his works which appeared in the Dictionary of Irish Artists in 1913 “Peters’ work as a painter was very unequal; but in his portraits he shows a strength and ease in painting, with good colour, which raises him to a higher level than has hitherto been accorded him. Had he devoted his talents to portraiture instead of wasting them on his historical pictures and his ill-drawn, badly-coloured angels and pious children by which he is best known, he would have been regarded, and taken his place, as one of the best painters of the English school.”

Peters died at Brasted Place, Kent, on 20th March, 1814. I confess that I rather like his seductive nudes with their ‘come hither’ look. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have any other of his paintings hanging on my study wall…. My book is due to be published by Pen & Sword next month and is available on pre-order at a discount here. I don’t reckon  a shade under £12 is bad for a rattling read through the bedroom antics of Georgian Britain, and I am grateful to the Rev. Peters for providing me with a most suitable cover.


Jul 252016

I am delighted to see that Pen & Sword are now promoting my forthcoming book on pre-release! What it means is that you can all relax, safe in the knowledge that this year all your Christmas shopping nightmares have been eliminated – because the book comes out at the end of November, and you can organize all your shopping in advance by clicking on the pre-order page here! £11.99 can’t be bad for a rip-roaring tour through the brothels and bagnios of 18th Century London, accompanied by lots of juicy bits about royal shenanigans, randy rakes, and some very naughty courtesans….!

When the book comes out I will immediately be doing a 21 day lecture-cruise on the Boudicca to the Cape Verde Islands on what I am assured is an adult-only cruise! So, I have prepared three new talks linked to the book, and am really looking forward to adding them to the usual repertoire.In bed etc

Funnily enough I am getting a lot of interest from W.I.s about the talks, whereas one of the U3As has objected to my use of the phrase “tarts with hearts” in the promotional material, which is a shame. Ah well, you cannot please everyone…

Currently my list of talks include:

  • Jane Austen – Fact & Fiction
  • Pride & Prejudice, from printed page to the silver screen
  • Gardening 1603 to 1837 (from Tradescant to Brown and Repton)
  • Eat Drink and be Merry – the story of food and drink in the 18th Century
  • Everyday life in Georgian England
  • Sight-seeing and tourism in the 18th Century
  • Sport, games and entertainment in the Georgian Era
  • The Golden Age of Satire
  • The art of Paper-craft – from cut-outs and silhouettes to paper ball-gowns
  • Astley’s Circus
  • Bristol Blue and Nailsea Glass
  • Slavery and the abolition movement in Britain
  • The early years of the Royal Academy
  • Royal shenanigans, from German George to Randy Regent
  • Scandalous liaisons (Fallen women and the New Female Coterie)
  • Courtesans and Celebrities
  • Rakes and Roués of the Regency era

but I always seem to be adding to the selection!

Apr 042016


NPG D9009; Philip Astley after Unknown artist248 years ago today, my hero Philip Astley opened the first circus premises in a field at Halfpenny Hatch in Lambeth. Within months this amazing ex-Army equestrian was  pulling in the crowds – and the money. His story, of how he introduced a mass-appeal show which crossed all social boundaries and which appealed to young and old alike,  is told in my book “Astley’s Circus – the story of an English Hussar”. It is a story of dogged determination, extraordinary showmanship – and not a wild animal in sight!

In two years time it will be the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of this important event – and I look forward to seeing what can be done to promote the occasion. I am including a talk about Astley in the group of talks on life in the 18th century which I will be giving on board Fred. Olsen’s “Boudicca” later this year, and he is the subject of a number of other talks I will be giving next year.

Circus book coverLast week it was the turn  of the Club for Acts and Actors (who have a particular interest in the origins of the British Music Hall) – so, let’s hear it for Philip Astley, entrepreneur, entertainer and equestrian. A great man…


Nov 192015

Regency coverI am delighted to see that The Illustrated Introduction to the Regency (a companion volume to the Illustrated Introduction to the Georgians) has now been published. It is an odd experience – I suppose it must be like film actors who do all the work on a new film, and then have to wait for months and months before the actual premiere. So it is with the launch of a new title – I wrote the words for the book and identified all the images (some seventy of them) months and months ago and handed the manuscript in to Amberley. A year later, suddenly, hey presto it’s out in print!

It was an interesting experience, because the book had to follow a set format in order to fit in with the series. The size and layout of the illustrations was largely pre-determined, and indeed I started off by selecting all the images, and then wrote the text around them. It was quite a struggle finding all the illustrations without incurring copyright fees, and as ever I am so very indebted to the wonderful Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University for the use of their images. The National Portrait Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Yale Center for British Art also came up trumps, and I was able to top these up with my own photographs as I toured around the country looking at Regency gems. Plenty of angled shots of The Royal Pavilion at Brighton, and of terraces at Bristol and Cheltenham, plus pictures of long-favoured antiques – simple and effective!

AIITR Vice roy lwl Prince Regent‘The Georgians’ came out a year ago, so it’s nice to have then both available in time for Christmas. I am especially pleased because ‘The ‘Regency’ volume is a co-authored project. My gorgeous wife Philippa co-wrote the book, doing all the work on etiquette, style and fashion, and it is rather good to see a collaborative project come to fruition. She has always been a Regency nut. Apparently when she was thirteen she changed her name to ‘Philippa’ – without her parents even knowing – because she felt it had more of a Regency ring to it than her given name. The Bishop made the change and it was registered before anyone knew. It was apparently a toss-up between either ‘Philippa’ or ‘Arabella’…..I blame it on Georgette Heyer and all those regency romances!

What goes in a book like this is very much a personal choice – I am bound to have missed out some things which readers would have liked to see. It is, as it says, merely an introduction and for that reason includes a list of places to go to, films to watch and books to see. I hope people like it as a readable, fun, introduction to one of the most intriguing periods of history. There is a lot about the Regent, Prince of Bling, but also about the changes which took place in the regency era. Hopefully it is short on battles and wars (already covered in ‘The Georgians’) which leaves more room for social history, inventions, dandies and style.

All in all it has been a busy 2015 – this is my third published title this year. Next year will see ‘In bed with the Georgians – Sex Scandal and Satire’ come to the shops. I can’t wait! Meanwhile there is a ninth book well under way. No title yet, but as a clue: it will be about the women in the eighteenth century who succeeded in a man’s world. You will be surprised how many there were. History remembers the male achievements (think Watt, Boulton, Wedgwood, Reynolds and Gainsborough et al.) but if you listen carefully enough, underneath the male cacophony there was a less strident, female, voice waiting to be heard.

The book will start with a quote from ‘The History Boys’, by Alan Bennett: “History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”  

So my project is about the bucket, and the women who carried it … I am no feminist, and I see the project as a voyage of discovery: a penance for my male bigotry and ignorance. Watch this space!

Meanwhile, for anyone interested the new book on the Regency is available here for readers in the UK,  here on Kindle and here via  I do hope you enjoy reading it as much as my wife and I enjoyed writing it!

Nov 172015

The trial of the Duchess of Kingston (born Elizabeth Chudleigh in 1721) for the crime of bigamy was one of the sensations of the Georgian Age. The Press devoted endless column inches to the trial and its aftermath – to the lower orders it confirmed what they had always known: that their supposed social superiors were a load of lying degenerates. Even The Times was moved to comment in June 1788 that ‘Bigamy, it seems, is a greater crime than simple fornication or fashionable adultery.’

Elizabeth had risen from fairly humble origins – the family owned a small estate in Devon, but they were not wealthy. Her father had unwisely invested what family money there was (£1000) in South Sea Stock, and when the Bubble burst in 1720 he lost the lot. Her father died when he was only 38, leaving the five year old Elizabeth to be brought up in genteel poverty. Mother was forced to take in lodgers at her home in the newly-developed, but not yet fashionable, area of Mayfair in London.

1Elizabeth’s childhood seems to have involved little formal education. She was passed like a baton from the care of one country relation to another, until her mother used her friendship with the Earl of Bath to secure a position at Court for Elizabeth as maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales. The year was 1743 and Elizabeth was 22. She desperately needed the annual sum of £200 which went with the position.

When she wanted to shock she could be coarse and vulgar. For instance, she developed a reputation for flatulence at the dinner table, and took repeated pleasure on blaming it on the dogs. She was however a popular figure at Court – vivacious, bright and witty. One day at Winchester Races she encountered a young naval officer called Augustus John Hervey. The two fell impetuously in love, and Hervey proposed marriage almost immediately. His prospects were not good – his salary was a paltry fifty pounds a year, and marriage would automatically mean that Elizabeth would have to abandon her position as Maid of Honour (since married ladies were no longer considered to be maids). More to the point he was about to leave on a two-year tour of duty. A long engagement might have been prudent, not least because it would reveal whether his prospects were ever likely to materialize. He was the second son of the Earl of Bristol but his elder brother was alive, albeit in bad health, and it was by no means certain that Augustus John would ever inherit either the title or the money which would go with it. But the headstrong couple rushed into marriage, deciding to keep it a secret from the outside world. That way, she kept her position at Court, and he was able to avoid the risk of alienating his family. The wedding took place at Lainston in Wiltshire, on 4 August 1744, and he left to join his squadron, en route to the West Indies, two days later.

When the time came for Hervey to return to England, he found that his bride had not exactly been pining away during his absence. She had developed a close friendship with James, Sixth Duke of Hamilton, and her flirtatious behaviour had attracted a host of other admirers, none of whom were aware of her marriage. Proposals from both the Duke of Hamilton and the Duke of Ancaster had been turned down. Hervey was shocked and appalled at her reputation, and the couple did not even meet up for three months. It appears that Elizabeth was keen to see that her debts were paid by Hervey, but not so keen to have to have anything else to do with him. According to later reports, Hervey engineered a private meeting at his apartments by threatening to go public about the marriage if Elizabeth refused to see him. She turned up, was locked inside, and in the words of the time “he would not permit her to retire without consenting to that commerce, delectable only when kindred souls melt into each other with the soft embrace.” In other words, he forced himself upon her. The report continued “The fruit of this meeting was the addition of a boy to the human race.”

This was in 1747. In order to conceal the pregnancy Elizabeth discreetly moved to Chelsea where she could have the child, away from the prying eyes and ears of the Court. But the child, a boy, only lived a few months. The couple agreed to separate a year after the birth, but, since the marriage was a secret, so was the news of the separation. From that point in time, Elizabeth could no longer look to Hervey for financial support and protection, leaving her in a most vulnerable position. Her impetuous behaviour and lack of decorum caused difficulties at Court – especially when she turned up at a masquerade ball at the end of April 1749, during the Jubilee celebrations of George II, wearing … virtually nothing.

Her fellow Maids of Honour were outraged at her bare-chested appearance. She went in the character of Iphigenia, who in Greek mythology was offered as a sacrifice to appease the gods offended by her father Agamemnon, and one of the guests remarked that she gave the appearance of being ‘so naked ye high Priest might easily inspect ye Entrails of ye Victim.’ As The Life and Memoirs of Elizabeth Chudleigh, published in 1788, put it:

“… it has been asserted this lady appeared in a shape of flesh-coloured silk so nicely and closely fitted to her body as to produce a perfect review of the unadorned mother of mankind, and that this fair representative of frailty … had contrived a method of giving as evident tokens of modesty, by binding her loins with a partial covering, or zone, of fig-leaves.”

The King was, as might be expected, far from disinterested in her appearance and as1ked if he might touch her breast, only to be met with the response that Elizabeth knew of something softer – and promptly placed the King’s hand on his head. His Royal Highness was enchanted by the near-naked nymph, and the gossip-mongers had a field day. Clearly she had the opportunity to become a royal mistress, but for Elizabeth this prospect did not feature in her long-term quest for security. Besides, the Hanoverian kings were notoriously parsimonious when it came to mistresses…
Instead she befriended the shy but rather well-connected Evelyn Pierrepont, Second Duke of  Kingston-upon-Hull. A cousin of Lord Bute (future Prime Minister) he was considered one of the most handsome men in England. Not for him the outrageous extravagances of Court – his interests were simple: fishing and cricket. Surprisingly, Elizabeth was happy to share these passions and by 1752 it was noted that the pair were an item. Their union meant that Elizabeth was able to spend money like water. A fine new house was built in London – called initially Chudleigh House, but later renamed Kingston House. Parties for their rich and influential friends were held, and Elizabeth was granted a fair amount of personal freedom, travelling on the continent, where she became a particular friend of the Electress of Saxony. When in England with the duke she was content to spend her time fishing and sharing his other interests – she reportedly even arranged a Ladies Cricket match in his honour.

The question of her marital status became an issue. Hervey had settled in England and wanted a divorce, which could only be obtained by a private Act of Parliament. Such a step would inevitably mean public gossip and adverse comments in parliament. If granted, the divorce would have meant that on any remarriage she would be seen to be “second hand goods”. Elizabeth therefore objected to the whole idea of a divorce and instead petitioned the Ecclesiastical Court for a declaration that she had never been married. The onus was on Hervey to prove that the marriage had taken place – but whereas servants were produced to say that they had heard of the wedding, no-one would testify that they had been present at the ceremony. Elizabeth swore blind that there was no such wedding. On 10th February 1769, sentence was pronounced, “that the said Elizabeth Chudleigh was and now is a Spinster, and free from all matrimonial contracts and espousals with the said Augustus John Hervey “ A month later, on her forty-eighth birthday, Elizabeth married the duke.

Oddly, polite society turned against the couple. Everyone knew that she had been married, and whereas it was one thing to be the Duke’s mistress, received at Court and by the great and the good, it was another to be seen as a flagrant bigamist. Elizabeth found herself shunned, and she and her husband retreated to their country estates. All was well for a few years, but the Duke suffered a series of strokes and died in 1763. Under his will, everything passed to his widow, on condition that she did not remarry. Enter the jealous relations, outraged at either having to wait, or worse still, having to be cut out of their inheritances altogether.

Elizabeth set out for the continent. She was received with the courtesies due to a duchess by the Pope, Clement XIV. Meanwhile, March 1775 saw her first, and therefore legal, husband succeed to the Earldom of Bristol, making her the Countess of Bristol. It was not a title she wished to be known by!

Later in 1775 she was forced to return to England because the Duke of Kingston’s nephew, Evelyn Meadows, brought proceedings against her based on the fact that she had married bigamously. He wanted to show that the Will should be set aside, either on the basis that there was no marriage, or that Elizabeth had used undue influence. In vain Elizabeth sought to have the hearing set aside by virtue of the earlier decision of the Ecclesiastical Court. In vain she tried to get George III to intervene, or to help her get the case transferred to the House of Lords. All this was duly reported in the papers of the day. Worse still, the actor play-wright Samuel Foote tried to put on a play called A Trip to Calais, in which the thinly disguised figure of the Duchess was represented by a coarse, avaricious woman named Kitty Crocodile. Foote’s purpose may have been no more than to extort money from Elizabeth – he reportedly turned up at her house and read aloud passages to the mortified lady, and demanded two thousand pounds in return for agreeing not to have the play published. By all accounts Elizabeth tried to outflank Foote by using her influence with the Lord Chamberlain, who was happy to have the play banned. Outraged, Foote took the story to the papers. Matters were made worse when Elizabeth responded to a letter written by Foote – he simply published the exchange of letters, which brought the entire saga out into the open. The whole story became public property.

1The bigamy trial in April 1776 was a sensation: Elizabeth was unwell and therefore escaped being locked up in the Tower prior to the trial. Instead, she was in effect put under house arrest. 350 tickets were printed granting entrance to the court – even Queen Charlotte turned up one day. The general consensus was that Elizabeth would be found guilty –and there was much conjecture as to whether she could be sent to a penal colony, given that Britain was by then at war with her American colonies.

Witnesses who had previously denied the wedding suddenly appeared out of the woodwork and agreed that they had been present at the ceremony. Others, who might have helped Elizabeth, simply declined to give evidence or went on long holidays abroad. The result was inevitable – she was found guilty, probably not helped by the fact that in 1759, before her bigamous union, she had taken the extraordinary step of registering the original marriage in the Parish Church at Lainston. Quite why she had done this was unclear – maybe it was a safety precaution in case the Duke did not marry her, perhaps she wanted to be able to fall back on the idea of being a Countess if and when Hervey became Earl. Whatever the reason, it hardly helped her case, although she personally addressed the court for three quarters of an hour. The decision of the Lords was unanimous – 119 peers took it in turns to give a verdict of guilty. Only her rank (i.e. as Countess of Bristol) spared her from imprisonment. Instead she fled to the continent, her fortune intact but her reputation in tatters.

1This cartoon, shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, is entitled ‘Iphigenia’s late procession from Kingston to Bristol, by Chudleigh Meadows’ and shows the duchess in a voluminous gown entering the court, followed by three elegantly dressed Maids of Honour, a fat chaplain, her physician and finally by an apothecary carrying an enormous clyster or syringe. It alludes to the fact that as a result of the trial, Elizabeth progressed from being the Duchess of Kingston to being the Countess of Bristol. The speech bubble coming out of the mouth of the duchess reads “By God and…” – the opening words of her sworn statement before the earlier ecclesiastical court.

Within days, pamphlets giving lurid details of the trial appeared not just in London but across the country. One ran to thirty-two pages and was published by Joseph Harrop, printer and proprietor of the Manchester Mercury. He sold it for three pence, or offered it for free to subscribers of his newspaper. In effect it was the forerunner of the free supplements which accompany today’s gossip magazines.

The run-in with Samuel Foote led to a secondary scandal, which was to ruin the poor playwright. Elizabeth employed the Reverend William Jackson as her secretary. He wrote articles in the ’Public Ledger’ suggesting that Foote was a homosexual. Foote successfully sued for libel, but the Reverend, probably bankrolled by Elizabeth, and using the nom de plume of Humphrey Nettle, published a lengthy attack on Foote under the title of ‘Sodom and Onan.’ It contained a recognisable portrait of Foote, together with an illustration of a large naked foot. The satire attacked Foote as a sodomite, using language which was neither subtle nor appropriate for a man of the cloth. Foote responded by re-writing A Trip to Calais as The Capuchin, with William Jackson lampooned as Dr Viper. The bitter exchange of vitriol was followed by criminal charges being brought against Foote in late 1776. He appeared before the Kings Bench to answer allegations, made by his former footman John Sangster, that Foote had attempted to “commit an unnatural act upon his person” twice in May 1775. Lord Mansfield heard the case, and concluded that the whole thing was a conspiracy to blacken Foote’s character, and Foote was acquitted. But the damage had been done, and Foote died, a broken man, shortly afterwards. He was 57.

On the back of the bigamy trial the Meadows family sought to have the Will set aside. A suit in the Court of Chancery would inevitably take many years, and during this time Elizabeth drifted from one European court to another. To her great consternation, she was not an honoured guest at Maria Theresa’s court in Vienna, thanks in part to the intervention of the British Ambassador. She found greater favour at the court of the Russian Empress, and bought an extensive estate near St Petersburg which she named Chudleigh. She also had residences in Rome and in Paris, finally dying in the French capital in 1788, still legally the Countess of Bristol but denied the title of Duchess of Kingston. The Meadows family descended on her assets like vultures, reclaiming what they saw as rightfully theirs. News quickly crossed the Channel, and in death the bigamist Elizabeth became famous once more, with pamphlets and newspapers reviving public interest in her scandalous life. One book ran to 252 pages and bore the title “Authentic Particulars of the Life of the Late Duchess of Kingston During Her Connection with the Duke: Her Residence at Dresden, Vienna, St. Petersburgh, Paris and Several Other Courts of Europe, Also a Faithful Copy of Her Singular Will”

Was she a gold digger, a callous woman who lied through her teeth and enjoyed a status to which she had no entitlement? Or was she simply a woman who genuinely did not regard herself as being married (whatever the letter of the law) when she had spent so little time with Hervey as man and wife? Perhaps she had simply convinced herself that she was entitled to regard the order from the ecclesiastical court as binding. Having been raped by Hervey, who can blame her? Certainly she appears to have been a loving and devoted partner to the Duke – he was clearly the love of her life, and vice versa. In the event it did not really matter – the public were able to indulge their appetite for scandal, gossip and intrigue, and the case sums up much about Georgian attitudes and hypocrisy towards marriage, infidelity, the courts and money. As such, she earns her place in my forthcoming book, ‘Sex Scandal and Satire, in bed with the Georgians’.