We’re halfway through series four of the BBC’s hit drama Poldark and Winston Graham’s fictional hero, Ross Poldark, has been on the move. Answering the siren call of parliament, he kissed his family goodbye and travelled long-haul, over many days, from Cornwall to London. He returned to his family home, Nampara, and the drama of the mines, but he was soon back in the capital when summoned to parliament once more.
Described in contemporary magazines and newspapers as the “vortex of dissipation”, late 18th-century London had a magical appeal – but also an air of danger. By far the largest capital city in Europe, it considerably outstripped all other British towns and was a place like no other.
“I can but think London is a kind of mistress,” wrote Lady Anne Irwin from Yorkshire to her father, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle in London. “Dissolute in principle, loose in practice and extravagant in pleasure, and if a man keeps such a Lady he will surely be undone.”
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The business of government was just one draw amongst many for men like Poldark, who might attend London to deal with estate business, see lawyers, shop or find a wife, as well as take a seat in parliament. But it was a draw that had a profound impact on London life.
Due to constitutional changes introduced from the 1690s, it was in the 18th century that an annual meeting of parliament was established (a feature that has been retained in the British political system ever since). Having previously been summoned and dismissed irregularly at the behest of the monarch, for the first time in history, parliament – consisting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords – was required to meet every year and often sat for between five and seven months, setting the foundations for what would later be called “the London season”.
Many MPs (like our fictional hero) left their families and took temporary bachelor lodgings in London to fulfil their parliamentary responsibilities. However, given the length of the stays involved, increasing numbers travelled with their families in tow, uprooting their domestic lives for part of the year to a London town house, which were either owned or rented and in close proximity to the Houses of Parliament. The west end of London – known at the time as the ‘town’ and a counterpart to the financial ‘city’ – visibly swelled to accommodate this seasonal influx. New streets and squares emerged from countless building sites, filling in remaining spaces between Piccadilly and Oxford Street and pushing the boundaries of the capital outwards towards Euston and beyond.
The pace of change was highly evident to witnesses. Finding a morning stroll in 1770 interrupted by the appearance of yet another half-built terrace in mid development, one young man Frederick Robinson joked to his brother: “I shall not be surprised if we live to see the Haymarket upon Highgate Hill.”
So rapid was the development, Robinson suggested, that famous West End streets like The Haymarket would extend ever further north into the most distant reaches of the bucolic villages such as Highgate, which was then separated from London by miles of open land (and not to mention the highwayman-infested Hampstead Heath). To many, London was alive – a beast growing, shifting and changing year by year, month by month, week by week.
The pleasures of the capital
Whilst the serious business of politics encouraged an annual pilgrimage to the capital, there were plenty of pleasures on sale and show to occupy the seasonal residents. With a captive market of rich and wealthy clients, luxury trades set up shop in the West End, creating the hub of high-end jewellers, gentlemen’s tailors and outfitters, perfumers and wine merchants for which Bond Street, St James’s Street, Jermyn Street and Savile Row are still renowned today. Some even continue to trade from their original premises – such as Berry Bros & Rudd wine merchants at 3 St James’s Street, whose shop interior still includes their famous coffee scales, used for weighing coffee (and for weighing customers – amongst them was Lord Byron, who weighed in at 13 stone 12 pounds as a 17-year-old, but had slimmed back to a slighter 10 stone in his ‘Romantic’ prime).
The West End was also home to famous private clubs, the meeting places of London gentlemen to exchange political news, eat, drink, network and gamble. The membership of Brooks’s and White’s gentlemen’s clubs were largely divided along political lines by the late 18th century, with the Whigs (the opposition party) congregating at the former, and the Tories at the latter. Again, these ghosts of the Georgian age still linger: both Whites’s and Brooks’s remain as private clubs today, occupying their 18th-century premises and glaring at each other from opposite sides of St James’s Street. Their political colours are not quite as marked nowadays, but their membership remains restricted to men – though women are sometimes briefly tolerated as a guest of a member at particular times, in particular rooms and subject to particular protocols. I’ve sipped a gin in the Brooks’s library, run my hand over its Georgian gaming table, and swiped a page of the club’s crested notepaper after 6.30pm, when ‘lady guests’ can enter.
The exclusivity, masculine privacy and still-guarded secrecy of the West End clubs were in many ways exceptional for their time. More generally, the social life of Georgian London was legendary for its openness, publicness and commercial nature – enjoyed as much by women as by men. Theatres, the opera, masquerades, subscription balls, concerts, lectures, fairs and circuses, exhibitions of art and curiosities, museums and menageries were available to any for simply the price of a ticket. The capital’s most innovative and most famous entertainment, however, was arguably the pleasure garden.
It is at Vauxhall Gardens, London’s most famous resort located on the south side of the Thames and a boat ride from Westminster, that Ross Poldark met his nephew Geoffrey Charles in episode one of the recent series. It looked, for a brief moment when propositioned by a beautiful woman, as if Ross might be ‘undone’ by London.
Offering a chance to indulge in overpriced refreshments and take an evening walk amongst lanterns, statues, music and entertainers, the pleasures provided at Vauxhall Gardens may seem to tame to us now. But this ticketed, al fresco pleasure ground was a fantasy world and a temple to modernity. Georgian visitors were awestruck by fantastical installations in which art mimicked nature: water features that on closer inspection were made of metal; endless garden walks that turned out to be trompe-l’oeil visual deceptions; and thousands of simultaneously-lit lanterns that turned night back into day. So popular was Vauxhall that it spawned many competitors in London and also abroad, often named ‘Vauxhall’ in homage to the original.
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One of the central attractions, though – of Vauxhall in particular and London’s social scene more broadly – was the people. London was the place “to see and be seen”. And series four brings us some new characters, full of metropolitan vigour. In London, as in Cornwall, Poldark’s creator Winston Graham rooted his fictional world in 18th-century sources, anecdotes and stories. And it was to the lives, memoirs and diaries of William Hickey, George Canning, James Boswell and John Wilkes that Graham turned to find moments and materials for Poldark’s London. Dip in to the political and personal recollections of those famous Georgian diarists and politicos, and you might find more than one familiar figure refracted back.
Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and is the historical advisor on the BBC One drama series Poldark (series 1-4).