Country House Pursuits

Ragley_HallHello, Nicola here. One of the questions I’m often asked when I am showing visitors around Ashdown House is what did visitors to country houses do all day? Life in London or Bath was exciting, with plays, concerts, opera, shopping and many more entertainments. In contrast the country lifestyle was sometimes mocked as slow and boring, especially on a rainy day. “Morning walks, prayers three times a day and bohea tea” was how the poet Alexander Pope described it.

It was a leisured lifestyle, of course, because the owners and visitors didn’t have to work for a living, unlike the servants who attended to their every need. So they were free to pursue whatever activity and interests they wished and, mostly, had the money to indulge those interests. Below are just a few of the ways in which they passed their time.

Ashdown, being a hunting lodge, was all about sport. Guests would go fox hunting and hare coursingIMG_9275 over the Downs, ride through the woodland or go pheasant shooting. There was a private racecourse and in the 19th century a nine hole golf course as well. Cricket was also played. If visitors wished to be slightly less active they could watch the progress of the hunt from the viewing platform on the roof of the house or visit the horses in their stables. Rainy days did not mean that exercise could not be taken. Many country houses had long galleries designed for a stroll in bad weather. At Ashdown there was the grand staircase where visitors could climb up and down, admiring the portraits as they passed. And by the mid-nineteenth century one of the favourite occupations of visitors to Ashdown was to watch the Earl taking photographs and posing for them as well. Who said country house life was boring?


Ivory billiards ballsFrom the Regency period onward Ashdown also had the appropriate accommodation for other country house pastimes. Billiards had been known as a game since the 17th century when it was played with curved cues called maces. However it did not become widely popular until the late 18th century and by the 19th century it was common for there to be a separate billiards room, as there was at Ashdown, with a smoking room alongside. This suggests that billiards was primarily a male entertainment but in fact women played as well and mixed games occurred frequently. In 1813 Lord Byron declared his love for Lady Frances Webster over a game of billiards at Aston Hall in Yorkshire! The billiards balls in the picture are made of marble.

Card Games

Card games were another popular way in which to while away and evening. Most country houses had at least one card table and when there was a ball there were usually at least three tables where guests could play if they were not dancing. In Emma, Jane Austen describes: “a very superior party in which her card tables should be set out with their separate candles and unbroken packs in the true style.” Games such as Commerce, Speculation and Loo were considered respectable. However, card games brought with them the dangers of gambling and sometimes accusations of cheating. Nothing was more likely to destroy the happy atmosphere of a country house party than guests falling out because they had lost money at cards or someone had the temerity to accuse a fellow guest of swindling them.

Concerts, Theatricals and Dances

Some aristocratic families such as the Cavendishes were rich enough to employ a private orchestra andThe Pic Nic orchestra to build a private theatre but even those who could not afford to do so could put on private performances in which they all took part. Jane Austen grew up in such a world where families wrote and performed their own theatricals. The Pic Nic Club formed in 1802 to stage their own plays, which were followed by sumptuous suppers. The picture is one of James Gillray's cartoons making fun of the Pic Nic Orchestra.

Ladies were expected to be proficient on at least one musical instrument and both ladies and gentlemen sang. Performing duets together or having a gentleman turn the pages of the music for you as you played the pianoforte could be a very romantic experience for a young lady!

Then there were the country house balls. By the 19th century there was a dedicated ballroom at Ashdown House but in many smaller properties the drawing room could substitute for a ballroom. All you had to do was move the furniture and roll back the carpets and you could hold an impromptu dance! The dancefloor was a great place to hold conversations without being overheard by your chaperon, although the steps of the dance might move a lady and gentleman apart at a crucial moment.


I have no talent for drawing so it’s fortunate these days that it is not a general requirement for theRegency Interior 1819 female sex to be able to paint and draw since I would be found sadly lacking. For ladies in the 18th and 19th century there were itinerant drawing masters who would instruct them in the arts of pencil sketches and of painting in water colour. Tradition dictated that these should be painted outdoors but when it rained ladies would sometimes sketch or draw interiors. These drawings have now become an invaluable historical record of what the interiors of country houses looked like and the style in which they were decorated.

Reading, Shell Work and Model Making

Long LibraryOther occupations for a rainy day might be reading, sewing or model-making. We might not now agree with Thomas Hobbes, who claimed that: “Reading is a pernicious habit, it destroys all originality of sentiment” but before the mid 17th century reading was intended more for reflection than relaxation and country houses had very few books. By the 18th century a separate room was set aside to house collections of books and although women were always noted to be more avid readers than men, the library was generally a male preserve up until the end of the 18th century. Interestingly by abut 1820 it had become a multi-purpose sort of a room where tea was taken, music was played and books were read aloud to the assembled company. This is the Library at Blenheim Palace and as you can see it features a piano as well as endless wonderful bookshelves!

The most complicated and intricate of ladies’ entertainments was probably the shell work that becameA La Ronde extremely fashionable in the 18th century. Many ladies decorated boxes with shells but some practised shell work on a grander scale. Sarah, Duchess of Richmond, and her daughters Caroline and Emily, decorated a grotto with seashells at Goodwood Park in Sussex. In 1798 cousins Jane and Mary Parminter decorated a house called A La Ronde in Sussex (pictured) with seashells, feathered panels, glass, broken pottery shards, mica and cork. Shells were also used in model making. One of the most famous models made during the Georgian period was Betty Ratcliffe’s model of the China pagoda at Kew, complete with tinkling bells.

If you had been a Regency lady or gentleman which of the country house pursuits do you think you might have enjoyed? Something sporting or something creative? Which would you have liked to try? 

To the Regency Races!

Newbury Races Nicola here. I live near a racing village and today I’m reflecting on the pleasures of race going in the Georgian and Regency periods in my local area. I’ve been researching this not for a book I’m writing but for a talk I gave yesterday for the National Trust on gambling in the early 19th century.  In 1836 one member of the Craven family of Ashdown House bet 8000 pounds (about the equivalent of 400 000 pounds or 625 000 dollars in modern terms) against the favourite, Bay Middleton, in the Derby race. He lost. All that money lost on one horse in one race…


Arriving in Style


First you had to get to your racecourse, and a spectator’s means of transport, mode of arrival and Post chaise accommodation was defined by his class. The nobility and gentry, naturally, had their own carriages whilst families slightly lower down the social scale would arrive at the racecourse in a hired post-chaise which could travel at up to eight miles per hour and cost between sixpence and one shilling per mile.


The vast majority of spectators, however, arrived at a racecourse on foot and thought nothing of walking up to 15 miles to get there. The cheapest carriage that offered a public service was the covered wagon. The horse was led by a wagonner on foot and the vehicle travelled at walking pace. There are plenty of records of racing crowds travelling to the races at Newbury and Reading by stagecoach as well. These were drawn by four horses, carried six people inside and up to eleven clinging to the outside and in the late 18th century they charged fourpence per mile for the inside passengers and twopence for the outside ones. At seven to ten miles an hour travel by stage could be both dangerous and nausea-inducing, particularly at night on the downhill sections of the road.


The diligence was smaller and more comfortable than the stagecoach, carrying only four passengers inside and drawn by two horses. This also operated to a public timetable. Prices depended on whether it was a two wheeled variety or the more superior four wheeled one. 


Kennet and Avon canal The other alternative for some racecourses, depending on situation, was to arrive by water. Many rivers were navigable in the period. The Oxford races were served by the river Thames and with the opening of the canal system from the late 18th century onwards race-goers might have the option of a public boat service.  From 1810 the Kennet and Avon Canal ran a twice-weekly passenger barge which had priority over the slower goods barges.


There was no charge for entry to the racecourse for those who arrived either on foot or on horseback but carriages paid for the privilege of parking where there was a good view of the track. By 1800 most courses had grandstands where for the sum of five shillings the middle classes, and ladies in particular, could buy a comfortable view of the course away from the common crowds. The other benefit of the grandstand was that it was covered, which gave some protection against the weather, either stifling heat or a downpour of rain.  In her letters Jane Austen mentions the Basingstoke Races of 1813 as being a complete washout and at Abingdon in 1828 the fashionable ladies were drenched (presumably they had not bought grandstand seats) and the horses were apparently running knee deep in water.


Coaching inns in towns such as Marlborough, Newbury and Reading did extremely well for custom Coaching Inn Newbury during race weeks when they were usually full to overflowing. The other alternative for accommodation was to rent a house in the town for the period of the race meeting and some enterprising homeowners would either let their entire house or would rent out individual rooms. The inns offered special fixed price meals for race-goers during the period, rather like booking in for dinner, bed and breakfast these days. Usually the gentlemen and the ladies ate separately, though in 1829 the Star Inn at Oxford introduced mixed tables which must have caused quite a stir!


The Bet


Manchester racecourse The Georgian age was characterised by excessive gambling by the upper classes on just about anything that moved and some things that didn’t: horse races, beetle races, raindrop races, cards, cockfights, prize-fights, billiards and pedestrianism were a few of the events or sports that could be bet upon. Gentlemanly wagers at the races were initially conducted on a credit basis, one to one, off the course but in response to the demand for some fixed premises for these deals, Richard Tattersall, a horse auctioneer, set up the first betting shop at Hyde Park Corner in 1815. The entry conditions for Tattersalls were both financially and socially stringent, demanding as good a breeding in the customer as in the horse, as well as financial liquidity. Nor was gambling on the horses confined to men. A poem by Lord Abingdon called Adieu to the Turf makes reference to creditors circling Lady Bampfylde who was a racehorse owner and prominent patron and gambler.


Further down society, wealthy farmers were showing an interest in field sports and gambling. They would think nothing of losing £40 a day (several thousand pounds in today’s terms) at one race meeting. And amongst the working classes a day at the races was also popular. In 1784 La Rochefoucauld commented that: “a great number of people economise all through the year for the pleasure of risking the product of a year’s privation on one five-minute fling.”


In the beginning, racing wagers were unwritten and were settled the following day at the local coffee house. However by 1805 betting stands had become a feature of most racecourses with bookmakers called blacklegs. These were generally men from humble origins whose name derived from the top boots they wore because they could not afford stockings. Many were men of their word when it came to settling betting winnings but it was not unknown for a blackleg to decamp from the course without paying out to his customers.


It took some time for race results to become known as there was no mass communication.  Mail coach Beagle drivers were crucial in spreading the word of the results of important meetings. For really vital results carrier pigeons and even trail-trained hounds might be used to carry the news to interested parties in the surrounding coutryside. I love the idea of a beagle arriving at your door with the racing results attached to it's collar!


Other Entertainments


This was of course the age of both national and private lotteries so the opportunities for betting were not confined to the horses. One racecourse ran raffles during race week with valuable prizes such as a “high bred bay mare” one year and a four wheeled post chaise another. There were plenty of other ways to lose your money at the racecourse as well, including gambling sideshows such as the game of pitch and toss for money. Between 1805 and 1815 the town of Newbury in Berkshire banned EO betting (the precursor to roulette) in the town in race week so that gamblers were tempted to spend more on the racecourse. Billiards matches tended to follow the racing calendar as well and heavy bets were placed on the outcome of these.


Bartholomew Fair 1808 On the course itself, vendors of beer and food could rent a pitch for their booth. There were shooting galleries, musical entertainments, acrobats, high wire dancers, fire-eaters, performing dogs and gypsy fortune tellers. Crime was rife on the racecourse with some booths taken by confidence tricksters intent on taking money off naïve victims. Pickpockets mingled with the crowds, as did prostitutes soliciting for business.


Cockfights and prize-fights also took place during race weeks and were popular across the social spectrum. Cockfighting was considered a gentleman’s sport but fell into disrepute by the 1820s. Prize-fighting was technically illegal after 1750 but the ban was widely ignored and after the 1809 Abingdon Races finished a crowd of thousands gathered to watch a 50 round fight which lasted almost two hours.

More salubrious were race week balls. These were held in the local assembly rooms and were priced at five shillings for the ladies and seven and sixpence for the gentlemen, very much an event for the gentry and aristocracy. The Newbury Mansion House Ball of 1805 was described as attracting guests of “the first fashion and distinction.” 


Theatres also ran special race week programmes with different plays each night and actors and Bath Theatre actresses from London.  At Newbury’s Pelican Theatre the boxes cost three shillings, the seats in the pit two shillings and the gallery one shilling. Henry Thornton’s acting company toured the race towns frequently with a cast that included Dorothy Jordan, the Duke of Clarence's former mistress. Attendance at race balls and theatre performances meant that the ladies required the specialised of services of hairdressers and perfumiers brought in from London. Provincial hairdressers were not considered skilled enough to meet the requirements of their aristocratic clientele!


The Newbury Coat


One extraordinary wager that I came across when I was reading about gambling and racing was the story of the Newbury Coat.  Newbury was a very famous racing town and the populace of the period well accustomed to gambling. Mr John Coxeter, a cloth manufacturer in Newbury, commented to Sir John Throckmorton that he could take the coat from Sir John’s back, reduce it to wool and turn it back into a coat again all in the space of a day. Sir John was so taken with this idea that he laid a bet of 1000 guineas that at eight o'clock in the evening of June the 25th 1811 he would sit down to dinner in a well-woven, properly-made coat, the wool of which had still been on the sheep’s backs at five o'clock that same morning. (Presumably he didn't want to sacrifice the existing coat and fancied a new one!)


Newbury Coat Thousands of people turned out to watch the bet take place; there was even a refreshment tent provided. The sheep were shorn, the wool was washed, stubbed, rove, carded, spun and woven. The tailor had already taken Sir John’s measurements and was ready to leap into action. Ten men worked at

cutting out, stitching, pressing, and sewing on buttons and at twenty minutes past six that evening Mr. Coxeter presented the coat to Sir John Throckmorton, who put the garment on before a crowd of over five thousand people. Sir John took dinner with forty gentlemen at eight o'clock in the evening wearing the coat, which was a large hunting coat in the admired dark Wellington colour, a sort of a damson tint. It had been completed in the space of thirteen hours and ten minutes. The wager had been won with an Whisper of Scandal - US hour and three quarters to spare.


If you attended the Georgian races would you be in the grandstand or prefer to mingle with the crowd? Would you enjoy the races or the fortune-teller’s tent or would gambling simply not be for you? I’m giving away an ARC of my new book Whisper of Scandal, which does not feature racing at all, to one person who leaves a comment between now and Sunday morning!