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“The Georgian era was a time of experimentation and invention”: Penelope J Corfield on 18th-century Britain

Penelope J Corfield speaks to Rhiannon Davies about her new study of the 18th century – The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain – which highlights both the triumphs and scandals of the age

A group of Georgian gentlemen smoking, drinking and reading newspapers at their club
Published: February 7, 2022 at 2:16 pm
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The subtitle of your book is The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain. Can we call the actions of the past “misdeeds”?

I certainly don’t think, as historians, we should be patting the past on the head and saying, “Oh, this is the good old days”, but neither should we criticise and pronounce: “These are the bad old days.” We should be trying to look at the picture in the round and assess both what people thought at the time, and what we think now, looking back retrospectively.


Obviously, we have to allow that some standards change, but at the same time, just as in international law, we can say that some things are beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour between fellow humans. The clear example of that is the trade in enslaved Africans that came to an end in the Georgian era. In 1789, the abolitionist and reform campaigner William Wilberforce made a wonderful speech in parliament saying that it wasn’t a case of just blaming individuals directly involved in the process; we are all guilty, he said, because the whole of society is based on this trade.

Why did attitudes towards slavery change in the Georgian era?

I don’t think we should praise the Georgians too much for abolition. I mean this in the sense that it took quite a long time for opinion to change, after quite a lot of education and effort from various groups, including the Quakers, who campaigned against the slave trade. And as the century went on, there were enormous numbers of local pressure groups, societies, associations and campaigners who were trying to alert people to what was happening.

The abolitionists had all sorts of tactics, poems and pictures to change people’s attitudes. There were graphic pictures of bodies stacked in the ships, and an abolitionist token featuring an enslaved man, his hands in manacles, appealing: “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Meanwhile, a poet called William Cowper wrote an interesting poem about ordinary people who continued to drink rum and eat sugar, knowing at the back of their minds that there might be an ethical problem attached to it, but they didn’t consider it day to day because they liked their rum and sugar too much.

Eventually, Britain legislated to stop a trade over which the government had no power – it didn’t run the trade. So it was just asserting: “This cannot happen under our authority.” Having taken that step, they then set the British navy to disrupt other traders and to police the high seas.

The moment they got the slave trade abolished, the campaigners moved on to try to abolish slavery itself, which was a bigger issue. Again, they got that through, even though there were big problems in the way that they did it: for instance, generous compensation was paid to slave owners, but not to formerly enslaved people.

So there was a significant change in attitude, and it had taken an awful lot of campaigning to get public opinion – which at first was hostile or unaware – to swing into putting on the pressure so that eventually the government felt it had to act.

Penelope J Corfield is the author of The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain (Yale University Press, 2022). Buy it now on:

Colonisation is a key trend of the era. Do you think the Georgians intended to gain a formalised overseas empire with a British monarch as the emperor at its head?

No, I don’t. No British monarch was an emperor until 1876, when Queen Victoria was made empress of India. At that time, there was a lot of debate in the House of Commons over whether she might be empress of Great Britain, and there was a lot of resistance to that because it was considered a more absolute form of rule, and they did not want that in Britain. So, no, there was no sort of masterplan.

That said, there was an expansionist mood. When the young George Vancouver arrived in Hawaii in the 1790s, he planted the flag and claimed Hawaii for the British government. But nobody told Britain, so nothing came from it. That example does show something about their mindset: Georgian explorers represented a confident and assertive power that didn’t have any inhibitions, and they were quite ready to claim territory that they thought of as free and available.

The term “empire”, initially, was used in terms of a commercial empire. There are songs about Britain’s empire over the seas – the Britannia of ‘Rule Britannia’ rules the waves, but it isn’t a worldwide empire. As the British expanded and the different forms of rule had to be organised, it did get more formalised.

I certainly think that the British empire in India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was far more formalised and socially repressive in terms of relationships between Indians and Britons than it was in the late 17th and early 18th centuries – not that it was perfect then, but it was much more free and easy. There was an enormous amount of inter-marriage between Britons and Indians, and a lot of migration to and fro.

You write that there was a sexualisation of British social life and culture in the Georgian period. What caused this?

There’s a real lifting of the lid on people’s sexual interests and behaviours, and it’s to do with the freeing of the press, and the lifting of the licensing laws. No doubt people were interested in sexuality long before the 1690s, but when the press became freer it could be discussed more overtly and publicly, letting people become explicit about things they would have been hesitant about before. You can find the most amazing things in print in the 18th century – some of them would make modern readers blush.

The decline of the powers of the church courts was another big factor. Before the civil wars, these courts had tried to regulate people’s moral behaviour. And although they didn’t completely disappear, in the Georgian era their scope and their control over day-to-day business became minimal.

What were men’s clubs and how did they fit into this story?

The 18th century was a great era of clubs and societies. They could cover absolutely everything – there were learned societies, sports societies, scientific research clubs. Some of them were dedicated to drinking and chatting about and enjoying sex. We have accounts, for example, that say a nude woman might be brought out, and they would be talking about sex and women and so forth.

I don’t know whether they brought out nude men in the gay clubs, but we do know that there were specific spaces for gay men. There weren’t really the same kinds of clubs for lesbians, as their actions were not so public.

How were attitudes to same-sex relationships changing?

Officially, not much. The laws were still very, very tough on this, but over time they were enacted with a little less rigour. Sentences of imprisonment or banishment were more common; although these still seem pretty tough, they were not as severe as hanging. Interestingly, many cases of known gay men in the 18th century did not end up in front of the law. The legal penalties were a great source of uncertainty and anxiety for everybody, because the law was – and this is one of the things that reformers point out – administered so arbitrarily, and was really unfair. An awful lot of people, including a number of famous people, weren’t prosecuted.

In the case of legislation on sexual matters, it’s notable that behaviour tends to change long before the law changes. The law waits quite a long time; the politicians are worried to rock the boat. And theologians, of course, are always strongly opposed. So if you look at the history of something through the legislation, it appears far harsher than it really was.

The era was rocked by a number of scandals, with some of them affecting the crown. What was it that made the relationship between George IV and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, so controversial?

George IV is a wonderful instance for historians of how inappropriate behaviour in a role can put the whole institution at risk. Republican feeling in Britain was at its height in the 1830s, partly as a result of George’s behaviour and failure to play by the rules publicly during and before his reign [1820–30]. Plenty of monarchs were playboys in secret, but he was flamboyantly and publicly so, and he was a spendthrift, which people didn’t like either. His marriage to Caroline was never a happy one. From the first night, they both expressed displeasure with the other’s person, so it didn’t succeed at any level.

As time went on, their marriage deepened divisions within British society. The more traditional forces tended to rally behind the monarchs, as they were the head of state, head of the army and head of the church. However, those who were more radical and wanted change – the sort of people who would favour abolition of slavery, for example – were rallying against George, by supporting his wife. Caroline, who had an easy, open, friendly manner, became a public symbol of opposition to monarchy.

She garnered a huge amount of public support, as seen in the reaction to her death. She died in 1821, just after the king’s coronation, when she had been denied entry to Westminster Abbey so hammered on the doors trying to get in and join the ceremony before being turned away.

She’d asked to be buried back in Germany and there was a cortège to take her coffin to the ports. It was decreed it should not pass through central London, for fear of huge crowds showing up in support. The crowds did indeed gather and were so outraged that people blocked the intended route and so forced the procession into the city.

Your book also explores the treatment of disabled people. How did that change in the Georgian era?

This was very much a liberal good cause, stemming in part from the increased education and literacy of the time. The Georgians suddenly realised that disabled people had all sorts of skills, and the right thing was to care for them and improve their education and allow each one to develop to their full potential.

This was in stark opposition to earlier times, when literature was full of jokes at the expense of disabled people. For instance, there were jokes that if you saw a blind man walking, you should direct him into a wall and then laugh as he hit himself. That was supposed to be funny. By the end of the 18th century, people would think that was an absolutely terrible thing to do. In the Georgian era, there were schools for the blind. But again, I wouldn’t say that all behaviour changed just like that – it’s not just a simple progress story.

Also changing were attitudes towards the classes of society. How was the Gin Craze of the 1730s and the 1740s incorporated into the class debate?

The Gin Craze was partly a product of successful agriculture, because grain was cheap and therefore gin was cheap. So it wasn’t that people suddenly all let their hair down and began drinking gin in unprecedented numbers.

This was an era, by the way, when people didn’t drink much water because water wasn’t cleansed – that was something again that was gradually being worked on in the 18th century – but they used to drink beer and gin and, in the case of the upper classes, wine. When gin became cheap, consumption of it spread like wildfire. Eventually, they had to bring in regulation of gin shops and raise the excise to control it.

The craze led to accusations that the poor were forgetting to work, forgetting their duty, and forgetting hierarchy by not acknowledging their betters. And, worse still, women and servants were taking to drinking gin. It’s quite an interesting episode, both for the history of consumption and the history of social attitudes. It’s also part of this longer shift between talking of a society in terms of ranks and degrees and clearly graded hierarchies, into a looser, more general language of class. That is often thought to start in the 19th century, but that’s not true: I’ve chased it well back throughout the 18th century. For a long period, terms for both ranks and classes were used side by side, but gradually, a looser concept of class emerged.

I would stress that one of the early ideas of class was that classes might co-operate; they weren’t necessarily viewed in a Marxist sense of class conflict. Yet over time, rather like the Indian empire, this became more formalised and class turned into a source of oppression.

The Georgian era is noted for its highwaymen and smugglers. Why do you think that many people today romanticise these figures, rather than viewing them as criminals?

Some of them were quite charming, but in my view it’s because of historical distance. People love a rogue at a distance. When we read that Horace Walpole was stopped outside London and robbed of his fob watch by a gentlemanly highwayman who quoted some Latin at him, that all seems quite charming. But of course, today, we wouldn’t like it if we were held up on the A30 and robbed as we were trying to drive into London.

How did the Georgian people themselves feel about their era? Did they think that they were living through a golden age, or a time of decline?

I’ve found about 700 instances of people from the 18th century writing in their diaries and letters: “This is an age of, or a century of x, y or z.” One example of the sort of thing I mean can be found in the intimate diary of Thomas Turner, a Georgian shopkeeper. If things were going wrong, he would write something like: “Oh, what terrible times we live in. The nation’s in decay and everything is going to the dogs.” But then a few days later, he’d been in a happier frame of mind and maybe reading some improving book and would say something along the lines of: “Ah, what an era of light and progress we live in.”

There’s a broad distinction between the optimists and the pessimists, but over time the optimistic narrative came to the fore. The power of Britain’s global trade was encouraging; Britain was triumphing in war, especially after 1815, and there was a lot of literature of self-congratulation. There was also the spread of literacy, the spread of learning. There were scientific discoveries – Newton, Faraday, the first steam engine – and people were tremendously aware that they were living through a time of experimentation and invention.

These innovations are, of course, the source of some of our major problems today. This was when the first intensive use of fossil fuels began, which has had huge ramifications on climate change – though if we could transport the Georgians to the 21st century, many would likely be involved in debates about climate change and how we can slow it.

The Georgians were always debating their deeds and misdeeds, and trying to get a grip on them. It was such a dynamic time.

Penelope J Corfield is the author of The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain (Yale University Press, 2022). Buy it now on Amazon, Waterstones or Bookshop.org


This article was first published in the February 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine


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