Much of our cultural concept of the English Regency era is based on the tame and polite society depicted in Jane Austen’s work, and the popular genre of regency historicals that reflect that same depiction, like the work of Georgette Heyer. Because of the popularity of Jane Austen and the polite society depicted within, we don’t often see that the Regency era was one that loved the scandalous and the shocking, where some of the most popular parties and salons were hosted by known courtesans and attended by the Prince Regent and his coterie of sharp-dressed and sharp-witted gentlemen friends, along with anyone else who wanted a place in high society!
The Georgians are celebrated for their love of the finer things in life, including gin, ice-cream and enjoyable scandal. Of course, the vast majority of them toiled in the fields like their forefathers. But the rich and fashionable flapped their fans in London drawing rooms alive with gossip about their wonderfully soap-operatic Royal Family.
The Regency era loved a good scandal–not to be scandalized at it, but to celebrate it! A lot of things went on behind closed doors, from illicit affairs to grisly crimes, some of the stories listed below make our modern day era look tame!
To Kill a Queen
The most famous Victorian, Queen Victoria, almost ended her reign after three years, when Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate her in 1840.
The pregnant monarch was in a carriage with her husband when Oxford took aim with a pistol. He missed and was arrested after being nabbed by onlookers. The shaken Queen went home, wept for a while and then regained her stoic attitude.
She was concerned, however, to discover that while Oxford admitted the crime, no bullets were found at the scene. He was tried for treason but, because nobody could decide if the pistol was loaded, he was not imprisoned. Instead he was admitted to an asylum then shipped off to Australia.
Queen Victoria was not amused…
Mary Stansbury’s Great Escape
In 1837 Mary Stansbury longed for a more exciting life. Bored by living with her husband, Mary hatched a plan to give her servant the slip while on a walk in London.
Terrified, the maid ran home and told Mr. Stansbury her mistress was visiting relatives and would return by morning. But she did not and after days of questions the servant hanged herself, fearful that she would be blamed for Stansbury’s kidnap or even death.
In reality, the woman had run off to Bristol where she bigamously married another man. However, her notoriety, due to her disappearance and the death of her servant, ensured she was recognized and arrested.
The Bloody Battersea Bridge Murder
The Victorians had a thirst for scandal, and this was apparent when Augustus Dalmas admitted murdering his lover Sarah MacFarlane after a torrid affair, which began shortly after the death of his wife.
MacFarlane was rumored to be a prostitute with several lovers but Dalmas could not resist her. However, he felt so guilty about the dalliance that he bombarded the woman with hate mail, blaming her for their active sex life.
Then in April 1844, Dalmas sliced MacFarlane’s throat during a walk on London’s Battersea Bridge. But instead of being hanged for murder, he was shipped off to Australia where he lived for many years.
The Strange Confession of Priscila Guppy
In November 1857, Priscilla Guppy was living out her last days in Weymouth, Dorset. What no one knew was that 65 years earlier she had worked in a brothel.
When the 90-year-old confessed, her family were shocked. But then a sensational tale followed. A fight had broken out in the brothel between two men and Guppy hit one over the head, killing him.
With help from two customers, she dumped the body under a bridge. Although they were arrested, lack of evidence meant all three walked free. “I beat him in the head with an iron! May God have mercy on my soul.” Guppy died shortly afterwards, once again escaping justice for her grisly crime.
The One That Got Away
In November 1892 Emily Edith Smith was convinced she had escaped Jack the Ripper’s clutches.
According to the 18-year-old, he asked if she’d like to have a drink. She agreed but “Jack” led her down a passageway where he produced a knife. “I’ll settle you now,” he said but Smith kicked him between the legs and fled.
She gave a full description of the attacker to the police – 5ft 9ins, dark hair, different colored eyes and peculiar eyebrows – but despite assurances that they’d investigate, they never took her seriously. Jack was never found, and his legend continues to this day.
The Bournemouth Nightmare
Louisa Bailey was working at a Bournemouth store in 1896 when, after a party with colleagues, she was visited by one of the customers – Mrs. Digby – who spotted an open bottle of brandy in the room and decided Bailey must be an alcoholic.
She convinced authorities to admit the woman to an asylum and Bailey was kept in a ward for deranged patients for 11 months, until she managed to escape.
She hid under a bush until guards gave up their search and she then found her way to Southampton.
Bailey sold her story to the press, but it remained a mystery as to why she’d been sent to the asylum and no apology was ever made.
Get me a drink! Or two…or three…or ten…
Gin was such a problem in the early 18th century that several laws were passed to try to control it, but this barely stopped its flow. At the height of gin’s popularity, the people of London alone were drinking 11 million gallons every year, on top of the gallons of wine and beer they were also drinking. Tens of thousands of people a year died for alcohol-related reasons, including around 9,000 children. Men and women of all levels of society indulged, to the point that public drunkenness was not considered offensive or even particularly noteworthy. Instead of being frowned upon, getting drunk was considered appropriate and masculine, especially for the upper classes.
The Prince of Wales led the charge, getting wasted most nights. He even arrived at his wedding fall-down drunk. He was caricatured as a drunken lout in the press so many times that he actually bribed some artists “not to caricature his majesty in any immoral situation.” According to the Duke of Wellington, George had “three parts of a bottle of Mozelle, a glass of dry champagne, two glasses of port, and a glass of brandy…”
Ah, there’s nothing like pancakes washed down with a bit of brandy!
If Alcohol Wasn’t Enough…
If you couldn’t afford gallons of booze a year, you could always do drugs. Specifically, laudanum. A mix of opium and alcohol, it was sold legally -and cheaply- over the counter and recommended for absolutely anything, from a cold to a heart attack. It was also given to infants, even though the addictive properties of opium were well known. Not surprisingly, there were estimated tens of thousands of opium addicts!
I do believe it’s time to look at the 19th century from another angle!
Of course, debauchery is never absent from any Era, and the Georgian is no exception. Why, it seems to me that those good old Georgians did love a good scandal to gossip about!
As preposterous at these might seem, we have a lot to thank the 19th century for!
Do you have anything in mind?
Why, a good historical romance of course! 😉
Written by Hanna Hamilton