Hi, Jo here. I'm going to be nerdy today, because I have to share some tid-bits from a wonderful book I stumbled across in a clearance catalogue. LONDON OBSERVED: A Polish Philosopher at Large, 1820-24.
You can get your own copy quite cheaply on line. This link will take you to Amazon in the US.
1820-24 a little after my current books, which are set in 1817, but close enough to enrich my knowledge base because Krystyn Lach-Szyrma is the sort of traveler who loves to record details of his travel. I'm simply going to share some. I never take one source as gospel, and I have questions about some bits. He might not always be accurate, and I'm reading in translation, but here it is.
Crossing the Channel. "The ships that are used to cross the sea are called packet boats…. They have quite a spacious cabin which is illuminated by window in the deck. On the sides of the cabin, in two rows one above the other, there are frame-like compartments allotted for bunks. The bedclothes are clean and white, as Englishmen will not use any other. Screen curtains for the beds are green or red…. The charge for the crossing is one guinea a person."
Nice to know that English people are fastidious. Later he describes taking a steam ship from Scotland to London, and the accomodations were similar. Before steam such a sea voyage was quite dangerous and most people preferred land travel, but clearly by the early 1820s steam was the more comfortable option.
Dover to London. "A journey from Dover to London lasts one day. It would be more, but a perfect road, flat as a table top, makes an overnight stop unnecessary…. Frequently we were passing carriages and stagecoaches; the latter were quite new to us. All of them were beautifully oil-painted and on every one was written, in gold letters, its name, place of departure and destination. Many men and women of different ages and status were sitting on top and inside them…. we were told that at least sixty such vehicles run daily between Dover and London…. I counted, and on and inside a few of the coaches as many as fourteen to seventeen people!"
This does seem a lot, but I get the impressione there were some over-sized coaches. Louis Simond, another traveler, talks of ones with a number of compartments. I've never seen a picture of one, however.
On the beef served in Rochester. "We expected the equivalent of Polish roast beef, but it was not similar to it at all. It was a huge and beautiful chunk of fatty beef, not roasted but only scalded. When you cut it with a knife blood oozed out. Therefore, though it may have been faithfully prepared according to a London recipe, we were disgusted and had no appetite for it."
He then suggested that travelers choose from "delicious hams, tongues, fish, butter and cheeses. You will find them in the entrance halls (of the inns) displayed behind glass in the most beautiful way."
This is a detail I hadn't come across before, but it makes sense in a large inn catering for a lot of travelers. Eating places in London usually had such displays from which customers could choose.
About a hotel — specifically, the Clarendon in London. There's a lot of description, but I'll just pick out this bit. "Bedrooms are usually situated on the second floor and a drawing room on the first. You entertain your guests there as in England no one of a good social position sits or is paid a visit in a bedroom. It is a private place, where no one apart from the owner is allowed to enter….. Beds are large; two or three people could sleep in them. People in England, especially within one family, do not flinch at this…. Bed linen is changed in the presence of the guest. No one here travels with their own bedding."
It's not clear here if he mean second floor in the usual British sense, which would be third from the ground. There's no mention here of a private parlor, but this is a hotel, not an inn.
After talking about drawing the bed curtains, he writes, "There are pockets for money, a watch, and scents at the top of the bed. A thick rope made of cotton or silk, with a wide tassel at the end, is attached to the bottom part to help you get up when you are in bed. Two other ropes hang from the sides of the be to call the servants."
I really can't fathom the rope to help people get up. Any ideas?
Breakfast in the hotel. "no one eats breakfast or dinner in their bedroom unless they are ill." "We found a table laden with breakfast dishes. There was coffee and tea and boiling water in a large samovar on the table. Next to them… were toast, bread, butter, soft-boiled eggs, cold roast beef, roast pork and ham. Preserves and ice cream were served later."
Ice cream? I have to wonder if this is a mis-translation of cream, but why would cream be served later if it was for the coffee or tea?
On houses and addresses. "Despite the fact that London is a great city, it is easy to find anyone you are looking for: all you need is to know the street and the number of the house. Every house has not only a number, but also a brass plate attached to the door with the name of the owner or occupant. This way of marking is common, and is used even in small English towns."
Street numbering had been introduced in London in the mid 18th century, but I didn't know about the names on the door. I doubt the poorer dwellings had brass plates, but perhaps they had simpler signs? It would be interesting to know as it could affect the plot of some books.
On places to stay. He describes a foreigner's choices. Hotels are expensive. Some who travel with a family rent a house, or a traveler alone can rent furnished lodgings. "These vary enormously in price. The landlord or landlady remains in charge of the kitchen and other amenities. They respond to the tenant's wishes and collect the rent weekly or monthly." However, he prefers a boarding house, because it will provide company. "Information about such boarding houses can be obtained from signboards exposed in windows, or nailed to doors, or else from the notices at the Royal Exchange." He paid 7 pounds a month for his boarding house, but servants, drink and desserts were extra, which he reckoned came to about 2 pounds a month.
More about boarding houses. "Every tenant has a single bedroom with a carpet. The room has all the necessary furniture and bedding and sheets are changed every week…. At nine o1clock in the morning there is breakfast. It is served in the dining room where everyone gathers." The food served is much like that in the hotel, which is clearly the norm in England. "Around one o'clock there is lunch, which consists of some cold meat, cheese, and bread, but is rarely attended….. Lunch is served in the drawing room. The dinner commences at five…. The dinner, a typically English one, is without delicacies but healthy and composed of five dishes. … The fish that we had each day was especially delicious. The dinner ended with cheese. Desserts and drinks, other than beer, were the responsibility of the boarders."
Apart from the charges for drinks and desserts, this is much like the boarding house that I grew up in. By then the common dining table had become smaller ones, but not great differences. He writes of the convivial evenings with music and cards played for small stakes. That was my world! I didn't know it existed quite like that then, but it makes sense.
He then gives some prices typical in inns and eating houses.
Coffee or tea at breakfast. 1/6 to 3s (1/6 means 1s and 6d)
Dinner, 3/ to 14/
A bed 2/6 to 5s (It seems odd to me that a bed is only twice coffee!)
A bottle of port or sherry 5 – 5s
Madeira 8 – 10s
I hope you found this as interesting as I did. I may share more at some point, or you might want to buy the book yourself. It's at a great price. Please share any comments or observations, and tweet this blog if you're a twitterer.
My characters in A Shattered Rose travel the length of England in very different ways, but the good news is that it's available again, this time as an e-book. This is a gritty medieval that always gets a mixed reception. You can read an excerpt here.