The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 247 - 251

18th C

Speaking of life below stairs, cess pits were placed at the back of Georgian town houses, usually in the area at the rear of the house at basement level. They were emptied at night by night-soil men. I have in front of me an illustrated trade card from one John Hunt, Nightman and Rubbish Carter, showing in detail the way in which he went about his smelly business.

Some of the houses in The Circus, even today (including this one) have no access from the back. So Margaret Gainsborough had to make sure a servant stayed up late on the designated night to unlock the basement door permitting two night-soil men to enter. They had to tramp down the area steps, pass through the basement door, clump along the stone-paved lower hall leading out into the rear area , empty out the cesspit and then return with their foul-smelling wooden tub full of excrement carried on a pole slung between them. Staggering back past the kitchen, they returned along the hall and up the area steps, leaving their stink behind them, as they emerged into The Circus to empty their loathsome load into a horse-drawn cart waiting outside the elegant front door.

We were speaking of the MP's grooming habits earlier, recorded by Boswell. It is hard to believe but apparently true that in the reign of George III, in Margaret Gainsborough's day, the British army used 6,500 tons of flour for powdering the hair every year.

As for women of fashion at this time, their elaborate towering hairstyles of real or false hair, pomade and ornaments, could take as long as three hours to dress. And then to have it taken down and re-styled, they went through a process known as having the head 'opened'. One young Irish heiress noted that she had spent half the day at the hairdresser's in London. "My head has not been opened for over a fortnight." She admitted that living with the ornate hair towers became intolerable in the heat of summer. Her stylist told her of one of his clients who, because of the cost involved, allowed her hairstyle to remain untouched for so long that when the head was finally opened a nest of mice was found inside.

21st C

I have heard on the grapevine today that The Town House, across the way in Bennett Street, written about previously as having been the premises of a baker and confectioner from 1767 to 1903, a familiar part of the Gainsborough girls' childhood and, in my time, an upmarket bed and breakfast business, has just been sold and will now become a family home. Everything changes in the blink of an eye.

18th C

But, speaking of The Town House when it was a baker's shop, and remembering that the 18th C owner would habitually take in the Gainsboroughs' Sunday roast to cook it for them had they wished, it is interesting to note that Dr Johnson regularly used his local baker to have his housekeeper's pie cooked for Sunday dinner because that was the only day in the week the London baker did not bake bread and his oven was free to cook his neighbours' prepared meats or pies.

Street food was immensley popular in Georgian times. And the local takeaway was always busy. Nothing new there then. One particular alley in Covent Garden was full of small cook shops doing a roaring trade selling hot meat at all hours for people too poor to have facilities for cooking at home. Poor labourers and their large families lived in cramped quarters, often six or seven in a tiny room or two, too poor even to own cooking pots and pans. These hole-in-the-wall shops sold meat of all kinds as well as hot "soop." At this time meat was the main ingredient of an Englishman's diet.

Corner shops everywhere sold bread, often of poor quality, mixed with chalk, alum and bone ashes to make the mixture go further, causing illnesses of all kinds, including ricketts, which was common. These shops also offered cheap stale greens gathered up from left-overs on market stalls and sold on, as well as little slivers of cheese. Tripe shops concentrated on selling hot tripe wrapped in a scrap of old paper.

Amanda Vickery tells us in her book BEHIND CLOSED DOORS that takeaway food obtained by a servant from a nearby inn was the usual dining arrangement for bachelors. Taverns and coffee houses were popular with single men living alone. They often made a particular one a home away from home by becoming a regular, using it as a base to meet friends, rather like a man today might use his club.