Humanitarian to the Regency

Urbanity toward women; benevolence toward men; and humanity toward the brute creation.’ — Jonah Barrington

Richard Martin, (1754? – 1834) was an Irish MP, lawyer and a tireless advocate for the defenseless and mistreated. His efforts in Parliament created a body of law protecting animal rights. He inspired others to create the RSPCA. He searched out any who needed help–animals and humans, Irish rebels and ton debutantes. He expanded the meaning of being humane to encompass kind treatment toward all living things.

He was the Humanitarian to the Regency.

‘In life he never was equalled, and when he dies by whom shall he be replaced?’

It was the Prince Regent who first christened him ‘Humanity.’ Dick Martin did not always see eye-to-eye with his sovereign, notably in his defense of the estranged Princess of Wales. But when news arrived that Humanity survived a shipwreck, His Highness was overjoyed. Back in Connemara, where Martin had given shelter and legal assistance to many a countryman during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, his preservation was treated as a matter of course:

“.. ‘No one need be afeared for the master; for if he was in the midst of a raging sea the prayers of widows and orphans would keep his head above water.’ “

Before he came to London and Royal notice, Richard Martin was known in Ireland as ‘Hair-trigger Dick,’ for the many duels he fought. His most famous conflict was waged over a dog that belonged to a family close to the Martins. The notorious Fighting Fitzgerald, whose violence was attributed to a botched trepanning, induced that family to produce their famous wolfhound Prime Sargeant for his admiring inspection.

The madman shot the dog at point-blank range.

The DNA of the Regency-era Irish wolfhound is believed to closely resemble that of a Great Dane. Highly prized by royal and aristocratic circles, large numbers of them were exported abroad. (Photo via Pixabay)

Everyone agreed it was murder, but it was Martin who called Fitzgerald to account. He pursued the murderer for years. Fitzgerald evaded him time and again by seeking refuge in jail and even breaking his second’s finger at one point. Martin’s own man forgot to show up with his pistols. A theater curtain contrived to trip and injure him as he ran after his quarry.

When the day of reckoning finally came, Fitzgerald, as most bullies are apt to do, succumbed to cowardice. He complained the ground was uneven. Then he took up an opposing position beyond the range of Hair-trigger Dick’s pistol.

“I will soon cure that,’ Martin retorted. ‘I will now march up until I lay my pistol on your face.’

The first Mrs. Martin cuckolded him. But the budding Humanity did not shoot his wife’s lover, as one might expect a hair-trigger duelist to do. He sued the man instead and won £10,000 in damages (a goodly sum of money in those days). Still, the compensation that really wasn’t began ‘to weigh heavily on him.’ He threw the award out of his carriage window, a few coins at a time, from the London courtroom all the way back home to Ireland.

He refused to file for divorce.

‘My distress in this unhappy business arose if possible more from the situation of the unhappy person (Mrs. Martin) in question than from what I in my person suffered.’

His efforts in London as an advocate for animal rights, both in Parliament and as a lawyer, are well-documented. In the courtroom he brought cases against drovers, slaughterhouses and ordinary citizens he spied abusing animals in the London streets. He was the Irish scourge of hackney and coach drivers.

When the law failed him in the courts, he brought bills to the floor of the Commons with the intention of rectifying it. His humor was legendary. It had to power to break down the opposition and draw support to his causes. The House cheered when Castlereagh, with whom Martin often clashed on the Catholic Question, welcomed him back after a period of several years’ absence.

“It was so usual for him to be entertaining that they sometimes misunderstood him and laughed when he was not even joking.”

Even members of the Beau Monde benefited from his assistance. A wallflower left without a partner could always count on Humanity to lead her in a set of country dances. He would offer his arm to the governess who’d just entertained the company on a pianoforte, accompanying her to supper before his hostess could banish her employee to the nursery.

“Erring sons and daughters who had incurred the wrath of their parents found in him a protector and a counsellor who restored them to the bosom of their families. He was notorious at interceding for young men who had fallen out of favour with their superiors, and his house was a refuge to the struggling while they tried to set themselves up in life.”

Pan edition of Georgette Heyer's The Nonesuch
‘Sir Waldo, you are labouring under a misapprehension! It would be most improper in me to stand up with you, or with anyone! I’m not a guest here: I am the governess! said Miss Ancilla Trent.
‘Yes, but a most superior female!’ Sir Waldo murmured.

Sometimes it was hard to take him seriously. His eccentricity puzzled many:

‘His sterling qualities were so embossed with wild humour and fun, that it was no easy matter to form a correct judgement upon his real character.’ — journalist William Jerdan

Unfortunately, Martin was many times his own saboteur, for his tender-hearted sensitivity took precedence over his dogged prosecution of cruelty. He took a man to court for beating his donkey with the iron buckle end of a leather strap. The man’s wife protested they could not pay the fine imposed–they were already poor and it would ruin them. Martin made the offender promise to never abuse his animal again. He paid the wife a half-sovereign.

He once withdrew a case he’d brought against a solicitor who had cheated him. Against his own interest, he declined the chance to get his money back, agonizing over the possibility the court might impose the death penalty as punishment.

Being a humanitarian came at a cost to Martin’s family. Throughout his career, he neglected his wife and children, as well as his finances. He had gone from being the rich King of Connemara to a bankrupt whose tenantry was to succumb to famine. Fleeing to the Continent to escape his creditors, Martin never returned. His son’s attempt to pay the debts by breaking the entail on the family’s estates left no inheritance and no Martin of any note in Connemara.

He might have been the prototypical Dickensian character, but even that author found Humanity Dick’s benevolence too much to take.

“It is a pity that he could not exchange a little of his excessive tenderness for animals for some common sense and consideration for human beings.” — Charles Dickens

quotes are from ‘Humanity Dick Martin ‘King of Connemara 1754-1834’ by Shevauwn Lynam 1975 unless otherwise noted.

A Pictorial Regency-era Christmas

Irving by Jarvis (1809) “Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart. ”

It is ironic that an American author describes the sights and sounds of Regency Britain as well as any native diarist of the time. In a previous post, this blog examined Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) remarkable talent for charming the jaded ton. Today’s post takes a look at his first great success, the 1819-1820 serial Sketch Book.*

The chapters on Christmas are written in a visual way that is unusually striking. They have since been printed in a separate volume many times–

A coffee-table book of late-Georgian Yuletide.

Colorful, accessible to everyone’s understanding, Irving’s style might be considered unduly sentimental. Regency-era readers in particular, steeped as they were in the Romantic movement’s faraway, exotic locales, were bound to find a Yankee’s observations of everyday British life provincial and dull.

On the contrary,

“…(the Christmas sketches) are written to engage the finer feelings of the heart, they operate upon the imagination like the polished weapons of modern surgery; they make a deep, but a delicate wound.”

— The Atheneum, Vol I No. 10, February 1828

“Every ragamuffin that has a coat to his back thrusts his hands into the pockets, rolls in his gait, talks slang and is an embryo Coachey.”

The chapters begin with a journey to Squire’s estate via public coach. As an aside, I consider this snippet as good as any primary resource on Regency-era holiday travel.

There is the coachman “with a large bunch of Christmas greens stuck in the button-hole of his coat.” The English inn kitchen is detailed down to the last pot.

Young students returning home from school for the holiday are among the passengers in the coach. They seem perfectly ordinary to the naked eye. After Irving gets through with them, these schoolboys are impossible to forget. When the coach finally rolls to a stop before an ornate country estate gate, they eagerly look to see who has been sent up from the house to wait for them. It is Old John, the family footman. He has brought with him their childhood pony Bantam, an intrepid steed who will clear any hedge. The beloved dog that greets them “wriggles his whole body with joy.”

“..(the boys) held John’s hands, both talking at once, overpowering him with by questions about home, and with school anecdotes.”

Arriving at his own destination, Irving joins a large company of extended family and friends hosted by Squire at Christmas. No creature escapes his keen attention. Squire sings a stanza of an ancient carol, “his eye glistening, his voice rambling out of all the bounds of time and tune,” and the parson scolds the sexton for decorating the church with pagan mistletoe amongst the greens.

Squire’s cousin, Master Simon, acts as master of ceremony.

“..a tight, brisk little man, with the air of an arrant old bachelor…an eye of great quickness and vivacity, with a drollery and lurking waggery of expression that was irresistible.”

 

A disapproving Mama finds Master Simon’s efforts deplorable, as they encourage giggling that is only barely stifled and unbridled merriment among the younger set.

The Christmas Eve meal displays Squire’s singular character. He is a man who loves nothing more than researching the old customs so he can recreate them on important occasions. The sideboard is laden with generous amounts of rich, elaborate dishes, but  Squire forsakes them to eat the simple, traditional meal of frumenty —  ‘England’s oldest national dish.’

For his part, Irving was glad to see the familiar minced pie.

Christmas Day dinner is full of ceremony. The wassail bowl, the boar’s head and meat pie decorated with peacock feathers all warrant extensive explanatory footnotes at the end of the Christmas chapters. It seems Irving was compelled to prove to his astonished London audience that ‘the grave and learned manner of old custom’ was still being carried on in many parts of the country.

‘The tide of wine and wassail fast gaining,’ one might just recognize the outlines of the timeless Christmas party getting out of hand.

Of course there are games and dancing afterward the main meal. Squire’s sons, an army officer and an ‘Oxonian,’ step out with their maiden aunts. Most amusing is the boisterous schoolgirl trying Master Simon’s patience when he partners her in a stately rigadoon. There are masques and mummeries, enacted in costume fashioned from old clothes brought down from the attic, and an ancient hoodening rite whereby the young parade a hobby horse covered in cloth, demanding tribute from the adults.

Charles Dickens by Gillies — He, too had an ‘eagle eye,’ according to  Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Squire worries the Christmas spirit will disappear without the pastoral traditions to sustain it. He may not have been aware that his American guest was about to revive the Yuletide holiday’s former glow. Certainly he did not know that another great storyteller would follow Irving, one who would rekindle the Christmas spirit into a roaring blaze.

*Quotes (unless otherwise noted) are taken from Old Christmas by Washington Irving. This extract is from volume II of the original Sketch Book published in serial form in 1821. The clever illustrations by Randolph Caldecott appear in the 1886 printing.

Regency Gambols

 

The games kids play.

During the Regency,  the conduct of young persons, particularly in company, was a topic of intense discussion. Any prospect of activities between eligible females and males was of primary concern.

The onset of Christmas amusements was viewed as particularly dangerous:

“..there are employments which pass under the name of gambols that are quite unworthy of engaging the attention of rational creatures, and ought at least to be confined to children.”

The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, etc. by Rudolph Ackermann Ser.2,v.7(1819)

What are these gambols that elicit such alarm? They are physical activities, not unlike Twelfth Night dancing. What objection is there to games such as blind man’s buff or drawing king and queen?

Blind Man’s Buff: as popular as ever

Why must such diversions as hunt the slipper and its “co-evel and co-savage companion,” hunt the whistle be consigned to children?

“..hot cockles, questions and commands, and the various modifications of forfeits, ..may do very well for such as are only two or three degrees removed infancy, either in age or intellect.”

The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, etc. by Rudolph Ackermann Ser.2,v.7(1819)

How very lowering!

The very thought of engaging in such games seemed to arouse intense disparagement. Particular contempt was reserved for those country cousins consigned to such silliness. The very nature of their holiday celebration was looked down upon by their sophisticated town relatives:

“..the thoughts of all your grotesque sports, Christmas gambols, mistletoe kissing, stupid rubbers, starched parties, and scandal manufactories, so operated in my mind… for me to take the chance of another season in town.”

-The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, etc. by Rudolph Ackermann, Vol II (1809)

“..a circle game in which players attempt to pass a slipper from one to another without being discovered by the player who is it.”

It wouldn’t be until the Victorian period that sentiment for gambols, extended festivals and decorations for Christmas would come into full-fledged favor. A flowering, if you will, of the Dickensian image we know and love today.

“A Christmas gambol oft could cheer–The poor man’s heart through half the year.”
Sir Walter Scott

 

 

Holland House – A Rival to Lansdowne House (part one)

Its turrets and gables lacked the elegance of London’s newer, Palladian town homes.  Its “relics and curios” were dusty books and historic English papers.  Its location was staid Kensington, not fashionable Mayfair.  Its mistress was not even received at court.  But this Regency seat of influence was nontheless a formidable rival to glittering Lansdowne House:

Holland House

Yet great things were done at Holland House–reforms planned and accomplished, literary lions fed with appreciation and encouragement.  All the great names of that period may be found on the lists of the Holland House entertainments.

—  Charles Dickens, “Holland House,” All the Year Round, A Weekly Journal, Vol. 66, 1890

With the Regency barely on the horizon, the house was known as Cope Castle and practically a ruin when it came into the possession of Lord Henry Richard Fox, third Baron Holland.  He was a mere baby and presumably not ready to take on any renovations even though the house had an illustrious history.  Its best days, it seemed, were behind it.

Those days began when Queen Elizabeth I granted a part of Kensington Manor to one Walter Cope–that part that once belonged to the Abbot of Abingdon–and built a multi-turreted Jacobean mansion that others mockingly called Cope’s Castle.  The Renaissance had penetrated English architecture by the time of its construction in 1607 but classical features like columns, arcades, parapets and the like were applied in a more freeform style rather than with any strict order that characterized the later Palladian movement.  Cope Castle, unlike Lansdowne House, was more like a free spirit.

the haunted Gilt Room

Cope’s daughter inherited the house and it became greatly enlarged upon her union with the Rich family, also grown wealthy on confiscated church property when its patriarch had prosecuted Sir Thomas More on Henry VIII’s behalf.  Her husband was Henry Rich, Earl of Holland, from whom the house takes its present name.   He negotiated the marriage of Henrietta Maria to Charles I and built the house’s famous gilt-room in expectation of entertaining the new Queen there.  This did not come to pass, nor was the Earl to survive the coming storm.  His ghost was said to be seen in that very room, richly dressed as he had been on the scaffold, holding his head in his hands.

After the Restoration of Charles II, the house was sold to Henry Fox, whose sire had the distinction of fathering this first of three sons at the age of seventy-three.  Fox eloped with one of the famous Lennox sisters and it was his grandson, also named Henry, third Baron Holland, who made Holland House a rival in Regency gatherings, as we shall soon see.  Today, Holland House is a ruin, destroyed by a fire-bomb in World War II.

Holland House library – World War II