Journals 1.3 – England in 1815 by Joseph Ballard (Part 3)

The following is a continuation of my essay on Ballard’s journal.  See the earlier entry from 14th May 2015 for the first part, and 18th May 2015 for the second part.

stpauls2Predictably, the highlight of Ballard’s travels in Britain was his time in London, where he was impressed by the Bank of England with its ‘porters dressed in scarlet coats’ and ‘Beadles with a curious uniform and huge gold-laced hats.’ This is one of many landmarks Ballard described in his journal, occasionally complaining of some perceived defect such as the appearance of Guildhall, which he considered ‘not handsome’, or the location of St. Paul’s Cathedral, crowded amongst so many other buildings. Inside St. Paul’s he found that a service was taking place, which was a source of great displeasure to the devout Christian:

‘I found eight or ten men and boys dressed in dirty surplices chanting prayers in such a lazy, ridiculous manner that had I not been disgusted with the impropriety of it I should have laughed outright. I thought that they had not only “erred and strayed” but sung like “lost sheep.” It rather resembled the braying of an ass. If this is the way the Deity is to be petitioned, I should like to know what idea the chapter of St. Paul’s has of Him.’

Ballard also visited the hospitals of Greenwich and Chelsea. War veterans were a major problem on the horizon for Britain in 1815, with so many soldiers returning from the wars. The following year, over 300,000 men would be discharged from the forces, resulting in such a large influx of men attempting to find work that many had to resort to begging, particularly those who had sustained injuries. Greenwich and Chelsea provided two agreeable exceptions in the treatment of veterans. At Greenwich he saw ‘many old seamen reclining at their ease beneath the piazza’ and was impressed with their accommodation, with ‘perfectly clean and neat’ cabins ‘fitted up like the stateroom of a ship.’ At Chelsea he found old soldiers at prayer in the chapel, and discovered that their food rations were far from humble, more than most working men could hope to afford for their Sunday dinner: ‘a pound of meat, a loaf of bread, a quarter of a pound of cheese and a quart of beer.’

During his time in London, Ballard was a dedicated theatre-goer, attending performances at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, two of the most noted London theatres of the day. He was enthusiastic about the qualities of the performances, during a period known for its acting excellence rather than dramatic achievements. It was common practice at the time for plays to be followed by some lighter entertainment such as dancing or pantomime. Apart from serious productions, including Romeo and Juliet, Ballard also saw dancing at Covent Garden Theatre, which was shocking to his Bostonian sensibilities, with ladies that ‘are so thinly clad and throw themselves into such indecent postures that I think a New England audience would not have tolerated them.’ He formed a similar opinion of a performance at the Royal Opera House, where ‘the manner of the female dancing was very indelicate, to my ideas!’ He saw what would today be termed a variety show at the smaller theatre of Sadler’s Wells, Islington, where he was lucky enough to watch the famous comedian Joseph Grimaldi perform.

A night at the theatre could sometimes become an uncomfortable pastime, as the following anecdote magnificently illustrates. The occasion was a visit to Drury Lane Theatre, to see a performance of Wild Oats, a comedy by John O’Keefe:

‘I went into the pit which was crowded with ladies and gentlemen so full that I was obliged to stand up for some time until a gentleman by hard squeezing contrived to let me have a part of a seat, just affording me room sufficient to half sit down. I was soon relieved from this awkward situation by a lady (who was it appears an old attender on the playhouse) having brought in a small stool upon which she sat down directly behind me, and as there was not room sufficient otherwise, thrust her lap directly under me and furnished a comfortable seat during the rest of the evening.’

Ballard saw all walks of life in London, from royalty to poverty. He was one of a large crowd who assembled to watch Queen Charlotte Sophia, the wife of George III, hold a levee, a reception open to public spectators. He observed the ‘splendid liveries and gold-headed canes’, the ‘fair dames’ with ostrich plumes on their heads, ‘of such immoderate length that they were obliged to sit stooping’. A master of polite understatement, Ballard remarked on the absence of the Prince Regent, later to be George IV, that he ‘is not very fond of showing himself to the people, as they take a disagreeable liberty of speaking very frankly to him.’ In truth, the frank speech was more likely to be manifest in people jeering and throwing things at the prince, who was detested due to his hedonistic lifestyle and the treatment of his popular wife, Caroline of Brunswick. On 12th July 1815, Ballard saw the Prince Regent for himself, on the occasion of his prorogation (ceremonial closure) of both Houses of Parliament. Ballard described him as ‘perfectly elegant, but his countenance exhibits the marks of intemperate habits.’

It was not only the royal family who could put on a show. On the 1st May it was the turn of the chimney sweeps to have a ‘grand jubilee’:

‘These sons of soot parade the streets fantastically dressed out in gilt paper jackets with gaudy wreaths around their heads, their faces besmeared with soot, and their hair powdered. They go from house to house begging money. Lady Montague, who had lost her son, and after a very long search found him apprenticed to a sweep, left by will a sum of money to purchase annually a dinner at Paddington for as many of these sable sons as choose to attend. The hackney coachmen also have abundance of ribbons on their hats in honor of the season.’

A visit to the House of Commons, which burnt down in 1834, left Ballard unimpressed by a building that was ‘not much more elegant than our old court-house at Boston.’ The Leader of the Commons at the time was Viscount Castlereagh, who had the unenviable responsibility of justifying unpopular policies to the house, at a time when the majority of the Cabinet sat in the Lords. Not only was he virtually the sole frontbench representative of the Cabinet in the Commons, but he also had the burden of a second job, that of Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, a position that required immense dedication and hard work. He remained in office until his suicide in 1822. The quality of the oratory that day did not inspire Ballard, although the topic of the debate was an interesting one:

‘The Commons were debating upon the propriety of accepting a most impudent petition from the city against going to war with Bonaparte. In this petition they called the Parliament a corrupt one, and the ministry wicked, weak and dangerous men. Lord Castlereagh made no reply.’

Although he visited all the major landmarks, Ballard gained just as much pleasure from browsing the London shops. A merchant himself, he showed a keen interest in the sales techniques of the shopkeepers and the range of goods on offer:

‘They have a wonderful way in this great city of showing off to advantage everything they have to sell. One has at his windows roasting jacks, with shapes of birds, mutton, beef, &c. cut out of wood turning upon them; another a patent hat which (to show it is water proof) is floating in a vessel of water; another water filtering through a stone; another men’s eyes, legs, arms, &c., to supply the loss of those members; in short there is such an endless variety of objects at the shop windows that it would take a volume to describe them.’

Ballard took an interest in the prices of the wares on offer, remarking upon the high cost of goods manufactured in Britain. He also saw something of the spiralling food costs that beset the year 1815. This he attributed to taxation, in the year of the introduction of the controversial Corn Law. The Tory government had been under pressure to protect the interests of British landowners and farmers, whose livelihoods had begun to be threatened by cheap foreign imports in a peacetime economy. The response of Lord Liverpool’s government was to impound foreign corn unless British farmers could sell their own corn for 80 shillings a quarter, but this caused inflation in food prices at a time when the British poor were already struggling. Widespread opposition to the law and even rioting arose around the time of Ballard’s visit, some of which he reported in his journal:

‘When I passed through the country upon my first arrival there was written upon every fence “no corn bill”… In London the populace were so much exasperated at this bill that they attempted to tear down a member of Parliament’s house for voting for it, and the government had to employ a military force to suppress the mob.’

There were demonstrations in London for several days, and rioting across the country, from Canterbury to Edinburgh, so Ballard was fortunate not to be caught up in the violence himself. The Corn Law would remain in place, albeit with a slight modification in 1828, until Sir Robert Peel, motivated by the famine in Ireland, pressure from the Anti-Corn Law League, and his own belief in free trade, repealed the law in 1846.

We will return to Ballard’s journal in a few days, for the final part of this article.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Britain, England, History, Joseph Ballard, Journals, Royalty, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Journals 1.3 – England in 1815 by Joseph Ballard (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: Blog News (13th July 2015) | Windows into History (Reblogs and News)

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