11 March 2021
William Henry Pyne’s The Costume of Great Britain (1804) is a very high-quality hand-coloured book on this theme, and characteristic of its type in interpreting its subject of ‘costume’ very broadly, so as to include illustrations of contemporary and traditional life and occupations, both high and low. This is apparent on the opening title page of Emmanuel’s copy in the Graham Watson Collection (Plate 1), where some Beafeaters in their gorgeous costumes are depicted playing a board game below the title, while the facing page illustrates a humble potter working at his wheel to produce traditional pottery ware.
This is a pattern throughout the book, where depictions of men and women at their trades, both new and age-old, are interspersed with illustrations of individuals in traditional and ceremonial dress and uniform. The latter include a Herald, a Knight of the Garter, the Speaker of the Commons, the Lord Mayor of London and peers in their robes, as well as examples of Highland dress.
Examples of the newer occupations illustrated include the depiction of a couple of London lamplighters (Plate 2). Pyne – who produced the text as well as the illustrations – writes with evident satisfaction that the lighting of the streets in London and Westminster is ‘so well conducted as to excite the admiration of all foreigners’ and claims that the English invented city street-lighting on this scale. Regular street-lighting had begun in London in 1736 with a thousand lamps, expanding to 15,000. Lamps were lit at sunset in the cities of London and Westminster on every day of the year, but in the suburbs only between September and March. The lamps were of clear glass, in which oil was burned with cotton wicks, trimmed every morning. During the day the lamplighters worked at cleaning the lamps; in the evening they went round lighting them; and during the night they worked shifts to replenish lamps that were going out. The whole thing was paid for by rates levied on householders, organized by each parish.
Another new trade symptomatic of a faster-paced society was the bill-sticker (Plate 3). Pyne’s text enthuses on how ‘rapid and cheap advertising to the public through the medium of printed bills … can convey information to the inhabitants of a great city within six hours … and throughout the kingdom in four or five days…’ Bills measuring six or eight feet in length had been produced as eye-catchers to get the attention of passers-by, and none were so energetic in competing for the public’s attention as the managers of lotteries.
Other occupations are dirtier, but also driven by modernity. The dustmen who have a contract for the exclusive privilege of carting away people’s rubbish (Plate 4) seem to have operated an early form of recycling. The trade, as Pyne observes, ‘furnishes the means of an honest livelihood for a great number of men and women of the lowest sort, who are employed in separating the different materials’. Once transported to the mountainous dusthills on the edge of the city, cinders were extracted and re-used for brick-making, rags and rope were recycled for paper-making, and other rubbish was re-purposed for road-mending.
Pyne’s image of coal-blackened coal-heavers is also depicting a relatively new occupation born of the expanding coal-mining industry (Plate 5). The coal-heavers are working at sorting by size the pieces of coal to be sent on to consumers, with Pyne reflecting on the distinction and distance between those who labour in this arduous trade and those who use the product of that labour in their homes.
Pyne’s illustration of a woman winding worsted upon bobbins, in preparation for its being placed upon the loom to weave into lace, catches a cottage industry that is on the cusp of being transformed into something more industrial (Plate 6). For Pyne the invention of machines for spinning and weaving is a wonderful example of human ingenuity which ‘provides employment for men, women, and children’, whose skills are applied to different kinds of work.
Many more traditional occupations are illustrated, such as the street vendors exemplified by the ‘Rabbit Woman’ (Plate 7), who sells the wild fowl and rabbits hung on her pole, together with the pigeons that are kept in her basket. For Pyne, ‘these itinerant traders are of great use to persons of limited income for, being obliged to sell for ready money, they are contented with small profit’. Traders like these have inherited traditional street-cries: ‘each has a particular cry denoting what they sell: some of which are very musical and have most likely been handed down to us as the custom of ancient times…’
Other foodstuffs to meet the appetite of a growing metropolitan population are caught by women. ‘Shrimps, of which an abundance are daily eaten in London … are principally caught by women on the sea-coast’, and Pyne’s plate illustrates just such a ‘Shrimper’ (Plate 8). Hitching up their skirts, these women wade out into the waves, scooping up the shrimps with their nets and depositing their catch into the baskets around their waists. Great quantities of shrimps arrived at Billingsgate fish market, and nearby were big coppers where the shrimps were boiled with salt before being distributed for sale around London.
Although many of the trades Pyne illustrates are urban, indeed London-based, he also depicts examples of age-old trades that were itinerant throughout the country, such as the travelling knife-grinder who would arrive with his grinding machine at towns and villages to sharpen all manner of tools (Plate 9).
Also essentially itinerant through the countryside are the fairs and entertainments that are illustrated within Pyne’s distinctly inclusive definition of ‘costume’. His plate of ‘A Country Fair’ (Plate 10) is focussed on the figures in the foreground, who have bells attached to their costumes on which they ring changes to the entertainment of spectators. As with the clowns playing on the booth in the background, Pyne sees these fair traditions going back to medieval and early modern traditions: ‘the minstrels and joculators of old times seem to exist in the pantaloons and jack-puddings of modern wakes and fairs’. Perhaps more modern is the peepshow at which two young boys are peering in Pyne’s plate of ‘The Travelling Halfpenny Showman’ (Plate 11). The text comments that many of these may be seen at country fairs, and ‘they walk all over England with their exhibitions at their backs’.
Another itinerant entertainment is the ‘Round-About’ (Plate 12), a wooden circular construction mounted with fixed wooden horses and even a carriage. The proprietor charges a half-penny for each passenger and some of these vehicles – Pyne reports – were large enough to carry sixty children. Their ride lasts about a minute and a half, and the roundabout effect is achieved ‘by miserable straggling boys who receive a few half-pence for pushing it swiftly round, by running within the cross bars that connect it together’. Pyne sniffs that as many vehicles are annually employed in transporting fairs around the country as ‘would be sufficient to convey a considerable part of the camp equipage of His Majesty’s land forces’.
A very modern use for the armed forces was in guarding the giant ‘wheels’ containing lottery tickets, and Pyne (Plate 13) shows the Life Guards escorting a heavy lottery wheel as it is dragged on a sledge to Cooper’s Hall, where the winning tickets would be drawn by scholars of Christ’s Hospital. Lotteries had started in the reign of Elizabeth I to raise funds to strengthen harbours round the coast. Almost too popular, and with such licensing of gambling dubious to many minds, they were eventually prohibited by William and Mary, but then revived under stricter regulation and were again very popular by Pyne’s day.
The link here with Pyne’s ‘costume’ theme may seem tenuous but his true focus is always on manners and customs. He includes a plate showing a small boat being rowed out to rescue shipping in stormy seas, celebrating an early philanthropic precursor of today’s Lifeboats. He includes some grim prison ships moored near the Tower of London, in order to discuss the continuing ‘impressment’ of men into the Navy against their will. His focus so often recurs to the community occasion and public attention.
Such is his plate recording the ‘very general custom for the rabble to burn in effigy Guy Fawkes’ (Plate 14). The effigy is stuffed with straw, with ‘a bundle of matches stuck in his bosom’. Placed on a chair between two poles, he is then carried through the streets by troops of boys begging for money to buy fireworks and crying ‘Pray remember the Fifth of November – Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!’ The effigy is then (as shown in the background) hung on a gibbet and consumed by a large bonfire below.
Even two centuries after Guy Fawkes, there was common cause in Pyne’s day in celebrating the frustration of what would have been a revolutionary terrorist outrage. Pyne’s illustration of malefactors in the pillory is a public spectacle that was much more ambivalent (Plate 15). Pyne’s text admits that he is here illustrating a practice ‘more generally in use in former times than at present’, though only fifty years before three criminals had been stoned to death in the pillory by an outraged populace. Among ‘the lower orders of the English’ who attend the pillory, Pyne observes a clear scale of values: ‘the perjured informer, who prays upon individuals, finds no mercy; but he whose offence is against the state is allowed to pass his hour unmolested’.
Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)
Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)Back to All Blog Posts