Dangers of the Georgian Era

The Georgian Era takes its name from the four Hanoverian kings named George that reigned from 1714 to 1830. The Georgian Era was portrayed by writers such as Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, and Henry Fielding, and by the vivid poetry of William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was a time of immense social change in Britain and a time of extremes with the haves (who enjoyed overwhelming luxury) and the have-nots (who suffered immense poverty). It was also the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and millions of people left the farm for the city.

George III in 1762, Danger of the Georgian Era

George III in 1762. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Changes surrounding population also occurred when millions emigrated to other countries and when Britain’s population nearly doubled, increasing from five million in 1700 to nine million by 1801. But population wasn’t the only major change. There were numerous wars: Seven Years’ War, American Revolutionary War, French Revolutionary Wars, Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the Napoleonic Wars. Nevertheless, amidst all the upheaval, people still had to navigate safely through the daily dangers of the Georgian Era. Many of these dangers did not appear dangerous at all, but among them were London Bridge, sedan chairs, cosmetics, laudanum, and smallpox.

Old London Bridge was built and finished in 1209 during the reign of King John. Later, it became the sight for a display of gruesome, impaled, and severed heads. Severed heads and the displaying of them was said to have continued into the 1770s. However, by the mid-1700s, Georgians found there was less danger of them becoming a severed head and more danger likely to happen to them if they crossed the bridge. This was noted in 1746, “London-Bridge is very dangerous and incommodious.”[1]

Small Portion of the Old London Bridge, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Small portion of the Old London Bridge. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The bridge was dangerous for a variety of reasons: constant traffic, narrowness of the bridge, and people stopping on it. In fact, by 1772, congestion was so severe and accidents so frequent, London’s Lord Mayor, its aldermen, and the common council published an order to preserve free passage, stating, “all carts, coaches, and other, carriages coming out of Southwark into this city, do keep all along on the west side of the said bridge; and all carts and coaches, and other carriages going out of this city, do keep along on the east side of the said bridge.”[2] Moreover, travel underneath the bridge was as dangerous as travel above because numerous people drowned. To improve travel both on and under the bridge a contest to redesign it was held in 1799. John Rennie, a Scottish civil engineer, won, and the new bridge with its well-known five stone arches was completed in 1831.

Accidents on the Old London Bridge were not the only dangers of the Georgian Era. Numerous accidents happened with the human-powered and wheel less vehicles, known as sedan chairs. These chairs were used to transport people and were carried by chairmen. They first became available for hire in London in the mid-1600s. They were a popular form of travel because they were small enough to fit in areas too tight for coaches or carriages and because of this they alleviated traffic congestion. However, they were not always safe for riders, pedestrians, or the chairmen.

Dangers of the Georgian Era - A Rococo Sedan Chair Depicted in a 19th-Century Oil Painting

A Rococo sedan chair depicted in a nineteenth-century oil painting by G. Borgelli. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Most sedan chairs employed at least two chairmen (front and back), and they moved along at clipped paces, sometimes knocking over pedestrians, breaking glass windows, or even upending passengers and chairs. In fact, a book written for footmen and butlers noted that if they were tasked with walking in front of a sedan chair, they were to create a distance of eight to ten yards ahead of the chair and “clear away the people, that the chairmen may not be interrupted, or run the chair against any one.”[3] There were also other dangers with sedan chairs. Edward Topham, an English journalist and playwright, noted in a letter written in April of 1775 that in the town of Edinburgh, air currents often overturned the chairs, even with extra precautions, such as two chairmen on either side.

Besides Old London Bridge and sedan chairs there were other dangers in the Georgian era, one being cosmetics. Such dangers were everywhere and as both Georgian men and women used hair powders, face powders, rouges, and wigs, everyone was affected. Although most cosmetics were homemade, the recipes often required the use of toxic substances, such as lead, mercury, or bismuth. For example, the powders Georgians used to achieve that milky-white look were often created from finely flaked lead that eventually resulted in serious medical problems or even death. One of the favorite rouge preparations, called carmine, or “harmless rouge,” as Georgian women referred to it, was “a preparation of cochineal in nitrous acid, with some other ingredients,”[4] such as vermilion (a preparation created with mercury). During much of the Georgian era wigs were popular, but they were not ordinary wigs. Wearers often shaved their head to wear them, and women’s wigs grew higher and higher, until they reached a towering pinnacle in the 1780s. To keep these towering structures attached to the head, hog’s lard was often used. This resulted in them becoming a “nursery for vermin, and a mass of putrefaction.”[5] Because wig wearers either refused to wash their hair or did not wash it regularly, they also often suffered from lice, fleas, and a variety of scalp problems, such as scurf, known today as dandruff.

Dangers of the Georgian Era - Towering Headdress, Author's Collection

Towering Headdress. Author’s collection.

If Georgians weren’t itching their heads, they were taking laudanum, which was really opium. Laudanum, was by the eighteenth century, extolled for its medicinal properties and recommended for nearly every ailment that affected mankind. A Doctor Hosack claimed in 1801 that a case of trismus, now known as lockjaw, was cured by laudanum after the afflicted patient was given 7 doses of 60 drops each. After the fifth dose, the patient’s jaw was claimed to be “as well as ever.”[6] After two more doses, “the medicines had completely removed his spasms, pain and uneasiness.”[7]

 

Laudanum Flask, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Laudanum Flask. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Laudanum was also used for other things despite being considered today as one of the dangers of the Georgian Era. For instance, it was a popular remedy to relieve nervous symptoms related to indigestion, stomach spasms, or vomiting. The Scottish physician Robert Whytt asserted, “I have found nothing produces such immediate good effects as laudanum given an hour or more before dinner or supper.”[8] Midwives also used laudanum, and one midwife gave it to a woman in her seventh month who had been for a month been “flooding excessively.” The midwife felt it was the only way to save the woman. Over the course of the next 5 days, the woman received 800 drops: She recovered, but her fetus died.

Unfortunately, overdoses of laudanum were responsible for many deaths, and, because of its potency, it became a popular way to commit suicide. Laudanum remained extremely popular into the Victorian Era. Perhaps, it became more popular in 1843 after Dr. Alexander Wood of Edinburgh discovered how to inject morphine with a syringe. This made the drug’s effects instantaneous and three times as potent as any oral dose. However, despite its potency and addictiveness, laudanum was still touted for its ability to “relieve pain … produce sleep … allay irritation … check excessive secretion … [and] support the system.”[9]

Of all the dangers of the Georgian Era, smallpox was the most deadly. It is estimated hundreds of thousands of Europeans died, including several monarchs. Smallpox was infectious and “spread via pox pus or scabs, but in … [a] majority of cases did so when the susceptible inhaled the virus exhaled by people sick with the disease.”[10] It also resulted in a rash and pus or fluid-filled blisters, which often caused permanent scarring. Smallpox was a major endemic disease by the mid-eighteenth century everywhere except Australia, and children particularly suffered from it. In fact, it was one of the most common reasons for a child’s death in the eighteenth century.

Dangers of the Georgian Era - Cartoon of Controversy of Edward Jenner's Vaccination

Cartoon of controversy of Edward Jenner’s vaccination. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Various attempts to cure or stop smallpox were undertaken both by legitimate physicians and quacks. However, nothing other than quarantine seemed to help, although even that was not always successful. That is because smallpox has a long incubation period. In 1796, Doctor Edward Jenner realized that some people suffered from a milder form of smallpox known as cowpox, and this insight resulted in the creation of an inoculation that began to be used worldwide. “By 1801 more than 100,000 had been vaccinated in England, by 1811 more than 1.7 million in France, and so on around the world.”[11]

References:

  • [1] The History of London-Bridge, 1758, p. 40.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 37.
  • [3] The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Remembrancer, 4th ed., 1825, p. 209.
  • [4] The Lady’s Magazine or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Vol. 24, 1793, p. 93.
  • [5] The Scots Magazine, Or, General Repository of Literature History, Vol. 63, 1801, p. 173.
  • [6] Medical Repository of Original Essays and Intelligence Relative to Physic, Surgery, Chemistry, and Natural History, Volume 6, 1803, p. 388.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Works of Robert Whytt, 1768, p. 695.
  • [9] Medical Reporter, Vol. 2-4, 1894, p. 248.
  • [10] Crosby, Alfred, “Smallpox: There Never Was a Cure,” in Plague, Pox, and Pestilence, 1997, London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, p. 74.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 79.

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