A Regency Ghost

Wench wolf

Also probably not a werewolf

Joanna here. Ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night are my topic today. That line would be a wonderful old survival from the past if only it were genuine instead of a Victorian fake. But it is fakes I’m going to talk about so this sets the mood pleasantly.

What did our Regency and Georgian predecessors dread when they huddled under the bedclothes and brisk winds blew their midnight candle out? What did they fear? What haunted their nightmares?

Superstition was pretty rife in the elegant Beau Brummel days, as we know by looking at all those ‘horrid novels’ they shiveringly adored. Before I let myself go all smug and superior, I’ll remind myself superstition is pretty rife nowadays too. Grossmom was born at the end of the nineteenth Century not far from Kiev. She not only believed in werewolves, there’d been one killed in her village in her father’s time. They tracked a killer wolf into the deep woods and shot it. When they came up to find the body, it was a naked man they found dead.

Hmmm … (goes jo skeptically.) Was this some hunting accident quickly hushed up? Or just somebody who'd made himself unpopular in the village? Grossmom believed it though.

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Buy that art!

Wench Peep-at-Christies-GillrayLet's say you're a rich man in 1800. You own a house in town and have an estate in the country. Maybe you own manufacturies or mills. You buy expensive clothes and horses and carriages. You shower jewels upon your womenfolk. But at the end of the day, you still have more money than you know what to do with.

You could gamble, of course. Many men and women managed to subdue a rising fortune by gambling it away.

But let's say you had no taste for throwing money away on the green baize table. Let's say you go … collecting. Collecting art, in particular. Where? How? What? Inquiring minds want to know.

In the mid Eighteenth Century there was the 'Grand Tour' of course. A fashionable quest for sophistication had long sent rich young Englishmen off to the Continent to buy Old Masters and Etruscan pots and a good many well-made fakes. They carted them home to decorate the Old Manse.


he looks amiable, doesn't he?

The art auction achieved its modern form around this time. Rather than the older practice of offering a collection of artworks for sale, each with its proposed price —. this really sounds like a tag sale, doesn't it? — the collection was open for view, and then on the day of sale the auctioneer offered successive artworks and invited bids. Auction madness was born. Much more satisfying, really.

By the end of the Eighteenth Century London housed some of the major auction houses we know today, like Christie's, Phillips, and Sotheby's, as well as others now vanished like Skinner and Dyke, Langford, (with auction rooms at Covent garden,) and Bryant.

Here, to the right, is a portrait, by Gainsborough, of James Christie in 1788, rich in years and honors after two decades and more in the auction business. Sotheby's Auction House is slightly older, but spent the Regency specializing in "scarce and valuable" books rather than paintings. For instance, the library Napoleon carried with him into exile was sold through Sotheby's after his death. Phillips Auction House is solidly Regency, founded in 1796 by the senior clerk at Christie's. I'm sure there is a story behind that.

By the time the Grand Tour was made inconvenient by those troublesome sans culottes in France, the art valuables of France and later the Continent were making their own way to England, fleeing the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars. Wench catalogue henry phillips

Here's what theWench terburgh the music lesson notice of an impending auction looked like. It's the upcoming sale of drawings belonging to the "Count de Carriere", (count of the stone pit or quarry,) probably the nom d'exile of Etienne Bourgevin Vialart, comte de Saint-Morys.

And here is a typical painting that fled France on the wings of Revolution. Ter Borch's The Music Lesson. It was sold by its French owner through the auction house of Skinner and Dyke in London in 1795. Two centuries later, we find it in California where the weather is better, but it's far, far away from the Netherlands where it was painted.

Our Regency auction would have looked a little like this. The examination of the paintings before the sale is up above. Then the auction itself, below.Click on the picture for a closer look.  Notice how many women there are among the bidders, but the main action next to the picture for sale is men.

Wenches Microcosm_of_London_christies auction


Those Lively Regency Streets

Rowlandson_Thomas_Elegant_Company_On_Blackfriars_Bridge artrenewal
Regency streets would have been fairly active and interesting places, what with knife grinders, pot  menders and chimney sweeps, milkmaids and streets sellers hawking everything from cherries to hot codlins — not to mention the miscellany of enterprising pickpockets and cut purses and those generally operating on the windy side of the law.

Exciting, those Regency streets.

Hot-Codlins-q100-432x701'Hot Codlins' are roasted apples, in case you didn't know and were wondering.

There was a little woman, as I've been told,

Who was not very young, nor yet very old;

Now this little woman her living got

By selling codlins, hot, hot, hot!

But I digress.

Along with all those buyers and sellers, intent upon the mystery of commerce, there were artists out there hustling a living.

You had your street musicians.  Most often, they'd be playing something portable, like a violin or a hurdy gurdy.  I do not feel impelled to discuss what a violin is, but hurdy gurdy's are kinda interesting.   

Hurdy gurdys, are instruments played by skill, to borrow phraseology from the insurance business.  When you turn a crank, this rubs a wheel against the strings to make the music.  A couple strings make a constant drone.  The little keyboard on the side presses other strings tVielle a roue en forme de luth last quarter C18 at jacondeo change the pitch and play a melody.

There's a performance on a hurdy gurdy here.

To my mind, this sounds a little like a bagpipe. 

Ferdinand_Marohn_Wanderzirkusknabe_mit_ÄffchenWhen I was playing bagpipe music on my computer a while back, my son came in and said, "Mom, there's something wrong with your sound card."
Which kinda sums it up.


The hurdy gurdy player and the barrel organ grinder were often accompanied by capuchin monkeys who entertained the customers and 'passed the hat'.

Hurdy gurdys aren't to be confused with barrel organs which are altogether larger affairs.  (The words were used interchangeably in the Regency, which is confusing.)  Barrel organs are also played by turning a crank, but barrel organs use pipes and bellows to play a tune encoded by pins.  Think music box. With a single tune. Very loud.  DoreOrganGrinderR

The barrel organ exists in the Regency, but it's more a Victorian institution.  This to the right is a Victorian engraving of a barrel organ being played.

The music of barrel organs was not universally loved.  As one writer put it:

As our nerves are rather delicate (fine minds are in general attended with fine nerves) the faintest and most distant squeaking of a hurdy-gurdy is sufficient, so to speak, to knock us off our perch. The very instant that we hear it, the fear of coming horrors completely overpowers us; and throwing down our pen we make a frantic rush to our remotest coal-cellar, where with cotton in our ears we tremblingly abide until we think the danger past.  Punch 1860

What else?  — You hadJohann Ferdinand Schlez Tanzbär_1810 your street singers, often accompanied by an instrument.  Yer jugglers.  Conjurors set up a table and showed off feats of magic and slight of hand.  There were dancing bears and trained dogs doing tricks.  There were even entire theatrical performances put on in the public streets by strolling players. 

There was the raree show or 'rarity show'.

1800 raree show
The raree show was a portable peep show, carried around on a man's back.  It's described as: 

a raree-show . . .  has a very plain and mean external appearance; but if we look into it intently, the prospect inlarges by degrees, and gives us a most surprising and delightful entertainment, successively presenting to our view the greatest variety of nature and of art."  Memoirs of the Society of Grub Street 1737

The raree show box would have glass spyholes in it.  The pictures inside were set into viewing position by the operator pulling a string.  The great attraction was the raree operator's patter, explaining the wonders within for whoever was lucky enough to pay his farthing and look through the glass.  

And what was within?  Illustrations of the wonders of nature.  Art.  Drawings of topical interest.  Views of distant places. 

One writer describes a raree show as being, " really very comical and diverting."

And another says:

AS I was going through Smithfield the other day, I observed an old fellow with a wooden leg, drest in a sailor's habit, who courteously invited the passer-by to peep into his raree-show, for the small price of an halfpenny. His exhibitions, I found, were very well suited to the times, and quite in character for himself: for among other particulars, with which he amused the little audience of children that surrounded his box, I was mightily pleased to hear the following; "— There you see the British fleet "persuing the French ships, which are running "away—There you see Major-General Johnson beating the French soldiers in America, and "taking Count Dieskau prisoner — There you "see the Grand Monarque upon his knees before "King George, begging his life."   The Connoisseur, 1755

Raree shows were considered good fun, but a little . . . vulgar.  Contemporary writers speak of someone bombastic as "bawling out with the tone and gestures of raree show men."   The word itself was used to mean an empty amusement.  

Last but not least … Punch and Judy.

Punch and Judy go way back.  Back to Sixteenth Century Italian Commedia del'arte.  Back to Seventeenth Century London.  Samuel Pepys attended an early version of Punch and Judy as a marionette show at Covent Garden.

By the Regency, the Punch and Judy performance had moved onto the  streets.  Marionettes, with the heavy equipment and multiple operators, had been replaced by a single puppeteer and hand puppets.    

The single puppeteer means only two puppets on stage, so Punch and Judy consists of a number of short scenes between two characters, one of them Punch.

Something about squawking, outraged Mr. Punch appealed to the Regency audience up and down the
Thomas_Rowlandson_-_A_Punch_and_Judy_Show_-_Google_Art_Projectsocial scale.  Punch — the puppet with the personality disorder.  Wild, cantankerous, so-much-not-a-pacifist Mr. Punch.  He carries a stick — called a slapstick — as big as himself and whaps it about freely.   He is gleefully self-satisfied.  "That's the way to do it," he says, pleased — of course — as Punch.


Big cities still have a vibrant street life.  What's your favorite 'free show' in the city?

Regency Pyrotechnics

Catherine wheels wikiJoanna here.

What do Vauxhall, the court of Queen Elizabeth, Cuper's Gardens, (which is described intriguingly as "the scene of low dissipation . . . and the great resort of the profligate of both sexes" — rather like our local mall,) thFurttenbach_Feuerwerk1644e celebration of the wedding of George III, and Kensington Gardens have in common?

Fireworks.  Big, bright rockets and Catherine wheels and crackers.  Fireworks were the sound and light show of the Eighteenth Century.  The extravaganza that marked all great and festive events.

Sometimes there was music.  You can listen to Handel's Fireworks Music, for instance, here.  I'll admit I was expecting something with more booms in it.


“…. fireworks had for her a direct and magical appeal. Their attraction was more complex than that of any other form of art. They had pattern and sequence, colour and sound, brilliance and mobility; they had suspense, surprise, and a faint hint of danger; above all, they had the supreme quality of transience, which puts the keenest edge on beauty.”
Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver


Fireworks came out of China, like printing, dim sum and Bruce Lee.  The original fireworks date back to the Ninth Century or so.  They, were firecrackers made of gunpowder, stuffed into thin bamboo shoots.  Oddly enough, the original use of pyrotechnics was not warfare.  All this gunpowder was set off at the new year to scare away evil spirits.  It probably worked.

Knowledge of gunpowder arrived in the Middle East and Europe in the 1200s.  Marco Polo sometimes gets the credit, and why shouldn't he? 


“You're much better than fireworks. They're all over in a moment, and you're going to stay for a fortnight. Besides, fireworks are noisy, and they make too much smoke.”
Kate Ross, Cut to the Quick

One of the first mentions of fireworks is in Roger Bacon's Opus Majus.  Roger-bacon-wiki

"… that children's toy which is made in many diverse parts of the world, a device no bigger than one's thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpetre, together with sulphur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder, so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, with no more than a bit of parchment containing it, that we find the ear assaulted by a noise exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning."
Early English fireworks specialists were — it's not surprising — military gunners.  The same men who used gunpowder to send an iron ball shooting out of a cannon, used that knowledge to create and explode fireworks.  They formed craft guilds across Europe, traveled, exchanged information, and wrote long treatises on the formulas and methods.    

Fireworks 2 and illuminations 1749This here is a vast fireworks display over the Thames in 1748 at the Duke of Richmond to celebrate the ending of the War of the Austrian Succession.  This is the shindig for which Handel wrote that music linked above.  

See there in the middle of the Thames?  Those rockets going up and letting off a globe and lights falling out were called 'stars'. 

To make falling stars —
"… the stuffe which is to be put into the Rocket for to flame and give crackes is made of twelve partes of Saltpeeter refind, of Citrine Brimstone nine partes, of grosse gunpowder five partes and 1/4 of a part mingled togeather with your hand."

That mixture was moistened and formed into small pieces, then packed into a ball and wound tightly Fireworks wikiround with packthread, given a fuse, and placed in the head of a rocket.  When the rocket exploded, the stars would stream down in the air.

One observer said it seemed "as if the sky has opened … as if all the air in the world is filled with fireworks and all the stars in the heavens are falling to earth …  a thing truly stupendous and marvelous to behold."


"We were ready for the apocalypse and when it didn't come we were very disappointed. So we drank more absinthe and set off fireworks."
Marilyn Manson


Black powderWhat our Regency folks would have called 'gun powder', what we might call 'black powder' today, was made from three main ingredients.  There were some other additives, but thee were the Big Three.

Ground charcoal.  The best charcoal, the sort used for fireworks — was made from willow, alder or black dogwood. 

Sulphur, which had to be perfectly clean and free from sulfuric acid. 

And saltpeter. Saltpeter is interesting stuff.  It's mainly potassium nitrate.  The name, sal petrae, 'salt of rock' is because it's found as an incrustation on rocks.  Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century folks mined it in dungheaps and farmyards and caves favored by bats for many years. Or they cultivated it deliberately by composting manure for a year, adding additional urine.  It was the urea in urine that bacteria broke down to the useful nitrates.

I haven't found any Regency reference to the idea that saltpeter suppresses sexual desire.  Either I just haven't found it or they hadn't thought that up yet.

Back to the ingredients for fireworks.
It's somewhat a matter of what they didn't have. Iron filings might be added to make a brighter and more intense flame, but fireworks were white and yellow.  They didn't have color.  It wasn't till the 1830s that folks started adding the metals that give color to fireworks.  All our red, blues and greens, the Regency folks never saw.

The rockets that launched all this display looked something like these Congreve rockets — military rockets — from 1805. Congreve_rocket pub dom 1805
  Rockets for firework displays were made of paper, filled with powder.  The height of accent and the timing of the explosion was carefully controlled by the tightness of the packing, the size of the case and the length of the cotton fuse.  A long stick fixed the rocket to the ground, setting the flight at the proper angle.

And they had Catherine wheels.  As early as 1540, Florence and Siena in Italy erected huge wood and papier mache wheels set in motion by rockets and fire tubes.  Fireworks 2 display for muhammad shah

Fixed designs like modern fire fountains shot streams of lit powder into the air from rolls of pasteboard filled with gunpowder. I'm particularly impressed with this picture from the mid-Eighteenth Century that shows these fire fountains and the court ladies of Mohammad Shah playing with fireworks.  Brave ladies.

Another fixed display was a spherical 'sun'.
Sun firework 2 public dom
"In the centre of the block of the sun drive a spindle on which put a small hexagonal wheel whose cases must be  filled with the same charge as the cases of the sun…a sun thus made is called a Brilliant Sun because the wood work is intierly covered with fire from the wheel to the middle so there appears nothing but sparks of a brilliant fire."

For the entry of Louis XIII into Lyon in 1623, fireworkers constructed a huge artificial lion with fire bursting from its jaw.

Fireworks were spectacle, display, public celebration.  In 1814, in a jubilee in celebration of peace in London —

"The senses were next astoniFireworks_1856 wikished and enchanted with a pacific exhibition of those tremendous instruments of destruction invented by colonel Congreve. Some notion even of their terrible power might be formed from the display of the night, and their exceeding beauty could be contemplated, divested of its usual awful associations. Each rocket contains in itself a world of smaller rockets: as soon as it is discharged from the gun it bursts, and flings aloft in the air innumerable parcels of flame, brilliant as the brightest stars: the whole atmosphere was illuminated by a delicate blue light, which threw an air of inchantment over the trees and lawns, and made even the motley groups of universal London become interesting as an assembly in romance."


What's the most memorable fireworks you've ever seen or participated in?  Anything from Black Hawkbackyard sparklers to the aurora borealis or australis.  

One lucky commenter will win their choice of Black Hawk or Forbidden Rose.