Life in a Georgian House

View of EdinburghNicola here, fresh from a fabulous research trip to Edinburgh! I'm writing a new trilogy set in Scotland. Book 1, The Lady and the Laird, is set in the Highlands and Islands, book 2 in Edinburgh and book 3 in the Scottish Borders, so of course I have to go and visit. A lot. Visiting Scotland is no hardship for me. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.

But I had not been to Edinburgh before and I knew I had only a few days to pack in all the things I wanted to see, so before I went I put together a “must see” list. Top of that list was The Georgian House in Charlotte Square, in Edinburgh’s New Town. (Edinburgh has an “old” and a “new” town. The Old Town is ancient – even the “new” one dates from the late 18th century. In that, it’s rather like the “New” Forest. Newness is relative.) Lady Mairi MacLeod, heroine of the second book in my series, has a fashionable town house – as well as a little tenement building in the Old Town that she uses for secret purposes, and The Georgian House was going to be my model for Mairi’s home.

In 1766 the architect James Craig won the competition to design Edinburgh New Town. Numerous plansThe Old Town 2 to improve Edinburgh had been put forward over the preceding years but it was only in the mid-18th century that there was the political stability and increasing wealth to do so. The New Town was to be a fashionable residential area for the wealthy and privileged, away from the cramped and squalid living conditions of the Old Town. (These days the Old Town is fascinating with tiny narrow alleys and charming ancient buildings but in the 18th century it was filthy and smelly with people packed into the tenements and throwing their waste out into the streets.) The New Town was also intended to turn Edinburgh into a centre of culture and commerce.

Edinburgh New Town PlanThe New Town developed over the following 50 years. In 1791 Robert Adam designed the north side of Charlotte Square, where the Georgian House is situated at number 7. The first owner of the house was John Lamont, 18th Chief of Clan Lamont and he paid £1800 for it. The National Trust for Scotland has restored the house to look as it would have done in 1796. I was particularly interested in the original colour schemes, the lighting and all those little details that are so important to create authentic atmosphere. Fortunately the staff were unfailingly patient with all my questions and were also extremely knowledgeable.

Here are a few of the quirky facts I picked up on my visit (and a fabulous photo of the Georgian House from the outside by Alan Bulley. Thank you for letting us use your photo, Alan.

The first thing I learned was how useful a lobby was outside the main hall. It was here that there wereThe exterior plain wooden seats for servants to wait on and also a table for visitors to leave their cards. The lobby led to an inner hall and staircase that was top lit by an oval dome. Great care was taken to light the staircase both from above and from the lamps that illuminated the steps. Interestingly the main social season in Edinburgh was during the winter not the late spring and summer, as in London, and so natural light was in short supply during the hours of entertaining. Houses would have been rather dark a lot of the time.

The Drawing Room

Drawing roomThe grand drawing room is on the first floor and was used only for entertaining. When the house was first occupied guests would have been taken directly there to be greeted by the host and hostess. For everyday living – family gatherings, reading, needlework, taking tea – there was a “back” drawing room, or parlour, which was more intimate and more informal. The decoration of this smaller room matched that of the main drawing room. This room was also used by the gentleman of the house for business meetings, which it was perfectly acceptable for him to conduct in his dressing gown – but only in the morning!

The grand drawing room had a fitted carpet which I found fascinating as I hadn’t realised there was any such thing during the later Georgian period. When there was dancing the carpet was covered with a thick rug for protection. This seemed rather dangerous and might account for any number of dancers tripping up!

The curtains in the drawing room were also very interesting as they were festoon curtains, which I had not known were in fashion in the period. I had assumed that the more familiar long curtains (which they had in the other rooms) were standard to the period. The stripy seat fabric is also authentic to the Regency period.

Dining

Lord Cockburn’s Memorials, published in 1856, gives an interesting account of evening dining in late 18th and early 19th century Edinburgh. When dinners were early, around 4pm, the habit was to have another meal, supper, in the evening. As dinner moved to be later in the evening so supper moved back too because as Lord Cockburn said: “suppers are so delightful… I have often heard strangers say that Edinburgh was the only place where people dined twice a day. Supper is cheaper than dinner; shorter, less ceremonious and more poetical.”

The dining chairs in the Georgian House were covered in red leather, which was traditional because leather was easily cleaned of any spillages and always looked good! There was also a dumb waiter in the room, a small lift operated on a pulley system for when the servants were not required to wait at table. Gossip and scandal were sold by servants from one house to another – hence the name.

 Apparently the white damask tablecloth would be removed before the dessert and the table relaid, although I'm not sure what the guests did whilst this happened. Chat amongst themselves, perhaps? Table napkins of the period were rectangular and were folded flat. There were no fancy shapes of fans or animals at this date! 

The Water Closet

Between the dining room and the bedroom was a water closet. This contained a portable early 19th Chamber pot century “receiver.” When the brass handle was pulled upwards the hand filled water tank at the back flushed the pan which emptied into the a copper box below. The end result was the same however (as it were). It was the servant who had to empty the box, having placed a brass cap over the opening to “prevent the smell.” Naturally there were also chamber pots in use, this one displayed prominently on the dressing table!

Georgian House bedThe Bedroom

It was the tradition in Edinburgh to have the main bedchamber on the ground floor overlooking the garden at the back of the house. No need for the hero (or heroine) to climb any ivy here to make a clandestine entrance! The bedroom also served as an informal parlour where ladies would take tea.

The servants

As was traditional, the servants’ quarters were down in the basement. This was painted in drab colours; apparently all the left over paint from the rooms upstairs was put in a pot and mixed together and used to decorate the servants’ quarters!

The bell board in the Georgian House showed bells with spiral springs unlike English ones, which were generally curved like a question mark.

The kitchen was painted blue which was the traditional colour to keep flies away! I’m not sure if this works…

At the top of the house there were rooms with lots more detail of life in Georgian Edinburgh, including the fact that sedan chairs remained popular into the Regency period and the use of them far outweighed that of hackney carriages!

It was the detail of life in the Georgian House and Georgian Edinburgh that really made the place come alive for me. When you are reading about the lives of our ancestors what is it that interests you? The food? Travel? Clothes? (At the Georgian House I was able to make my own fichu too!) Entertainments?