25 November 2020

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Clothes! What a perennial – even obsessive – object of fascination they are, not least in their perplexing insistence in looking so much better on others than on oneself.

Clothes are a significant theme among the hand-coloured books from c.1770-c.1850 in Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection. An interest in the ‘costumes and customs’ of foreign lands was an important aspect of that curiosity for armchair travel to which such books catered.  But there are also books responding to a taste for the high fashions of the moment, recording fabulous attire that was the last word in elegance in its day. These will be the subject of future blogs.

This week’s rare book, Picturesque Representations of the Dress and Manners of the English (1814) is one of a set by William Alexander (1767-1816) which aims to please the armchair traveller with its plates of the exotic costumes worn by the diverse subjects of the Austrian, Russian, Chinese and Ottoman Empires. Alexander, who became the first Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, had been junior draughtsman on Lord Macartney’s embassy to the Emperor of China in 1792-4 and his drawings were engraved for the official record. Alexander had already published The Costumes of the Russian Empire (1802) and The Costumes of China (1805), and this volume devoted to English costume could hardly match the variety of dress in these extensive empires. It is, however, notable for including plates showing the dress of ordinary tradespeople, especially in London, and this week’s blog focusses on these memorials of many humble lives and vanished occupations.


                                                                                    Plate 1:  Farmer’s Boy.

The plate shows ‘The usual dress of the farmers’ servants in the southern parts of the kingdom’. The over-smock is usually stitched or plaited on the front ‘in a fanciful manner’. It is evidently thirsty work since ‘The small keg seen on the ground contains his beverage’.  As always, there are regional variations: ‘The peasantry and farmers’ servants in the southern counties of England are far behind their brethren in the more northern parts both in the cleanness and neatness of their dress …’


                                                                                    Plate 2:  Dustman

Dustmen collected ashes from houses and were employed by those who had purchased from each parish the right to remove such ashes. Dustmen announced their presence by ringing a bell; they carried the ashes out in baskets to waiting carts. Since ashes were used in the manufacture of bricks, this collection of ashes became very profitable to parishes.


                                                                                    Plate 3:  Fireman

The first company insuring buildings against fire had been formed in 1698, and other companies followed that insured all kinds of property against fire. Each company maintained engines and firemen on standby to assist their own clients. A company’s firemen wore a badge on their right arm with the company’s device. They wore a cap reinforced to offer protection from falling materials and carried a pick-axe to remove anything preventing water from the engines from reaching the flames.


                                                                        Plate 4:  Billingsgate Fish-Woman

The text grumbles that an ancient bye-law still requiring all fish in London to be sold through Billingsgate market has created a monopoly, but notes that small quantities of inferior fish are ‘bought by poor persons, chiefly females, who obtain a livelihood by selling them about the streets.’ This fish-wife is perhaps shown with her mouth open because ‘Their manners and language are of the lowest and most brutal kind …’


                                                                          Plate 5:  Milkmaid

The commentary describes the London milkmaids as ‘a hardy set of women, chiefly Irish or Welsh’ and records their daily rounds. They report to the dairies between 4.00 and 6.00 a.m. to collect the milk which they are then vending from house to house. At noon they go back to the dairies for fresh supplies, which they then sell until 6.00 p.m. Their pails are of tin suspended from a wooden yoke across their shoulders. The text estimates that some 8000 dairy cows were kept around London to supply the trade and that the value of the milk sold stood at £480,000 a year.


                                                                                     Plate 6:  Drover

The text notes how cattle and sheep for Smithfield market are brought as far as Islington on the preceding day and then, early on the following day, driven to Smithfield by ‘a number of men and lads termed drovers’. The text observes: ‘The cruelty with which these people were accustomed to treat the animals … called so loudly for the interference of the legislature, that a regulation was adopted a few years ago by which they are all now compelled to wear a badge with a number upon it, so that any person may give information at the proper office, in cases where they are seen guilty of cruelty or other improper conduct …’


                                                                  Plate 7:  Chimney-Sweeper on 1st May

‘It is a custom (probably derived from the numerous May-games once prevalent in this country) for little groups of chimney-sweepers to parade the streets of London on 1st May and three or four following days, dressed in the most ludicrous manner, with all the faded tinsel finery they can procure … some accompanied with a drum, others with a fiddle [but sometimes they have nothing to use but their shovels and brushes] … They solicit the donations of the public and, where successful, repay it by a rude kind of dance …’


                                                                        Plate 8:  Barrow-Woman

The text comments that of all the itinerant traders on the London streets those who sold fruit were probably the most numerous. ‘They are almost all females from the sister kingdom [i.e. Ireland], and generally fix their stand at the corner of a street, or wheel their wares about in a barrow …’


                                                                             Plate 9:  Postman

Describing arrangements before railways enabled the Victorian invention of a national postal service, the text notes how all letters addressed to London residents are delivered between 10.00 and 12.00, Monday to Saturday, by postmen dressed in their livery. These postmen then go round London between 5.00 and 6.00, sounding a bell and collecting any letters not already ‘put into the various receiving houses’.  Mail is then despatched out of London around 8.00 p.m.


                                                                          Plate 10:   Night Watchman

Each parish maintained night watchmen who patrolled the streets every half hour, proclaiming aloud the time, between 9.00 p.m. and 6.00 a.m. in winter, 10.00 p.m. and 4.00 a.m. in summer. The text grumbles that ‘This species of police is not so efficient’ and implies that watchmen connive in ‘the frequent depredations committed upon property and persons during the night …’


                                                                            Plate 11:  Welsh Women

The plate depicts ‘the mode in which the Welsh peasantry wash their linen’, rinsing it in a stream, then beating it with a wooden spatula, repeating several more times before spreading it somewhere to dry in the sun. ‘The Scottish peasantry follow the same method with their linen, after first soaking it in water and then treading it with their bare feet …’


                                                                            Plate 12:  Newsman

The text notes how, in addition to the regular deliveries of newspapers at an early hour each day, ‘there are a number of idle characters who hawk the evening papers about the streets, frequently to a late hour, particularly when they contain any extraordinary news’.  On these occasions ‘they place a paper in the front of their hats containing the words ‘Second Edition’, ‘Important Intelligence’, or some equally striking words, while they announce their presence with a tin horn, which they blow with the utmost vehemence, to the no slight annoyance of every person that comes in their way …’


Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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