May 1812 – About the places

The first thing that one has to do is depopulate the land and cityscape. Britain in 1800 had a population of 11 million people.  (Today’s population stands at about 62 million.)

Regency London wasn’t nearly as built up as we may imagine.  St. James’s Square, Berkeley Square, Cavendish Square–these had all been built and improved upon in the 18th century, but Regent Street wasn’t built yet–despite the name.  And many other of the fine squares hadn’t yet been constructed either.

There were, however, many building sites and fire was endemic.  Covent Garden burnt down on 20 September 1808 and was rebuilt by winter 1810; the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane burnt down less than a year after Sadler’s Wells, on 24 February 1809, and didn’t reopen for another three and a half years.

St. James’s Street was much as it is now–though with less traffic, of course.  And the gentlemen’s clubs were there as they are today–White’s (with its bow window where Brummell and his friends were used to sit) for those of Tory persuasion, and Brooks’s for the Whigs.  Locke’s, the hatter, is just down from White’s.  Hatchard’s for books was nearby on Picadilly.  And a brief stroll down St. James’s Street will take one to King Street which in the early years of the 19th century was home to a number of high class gambling hells and/or brothels.  Hence the whole of St. James’s was, in one sense, a gentlemen’s enclave, devoted solely to their interests, comforts and pleasures.

Throughout London, the streets were an aggregate of clay and grit, and clogged with horses, drays, carriages…there were hundreds and hundreds of horses and the city was never still.

There were just three bridges over the River Thames–Westminster, Blackfriars, and London Bridge–while across the river was Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and little else but countryside.  Which meant that all the routes into the city were crammed with traffic and the ‘lock’ at Hyde Park Corner, for example–a traffic jam of horses, carriages, swearing tradesmen, and animals being brought to market–was often jammed solid for up to three hours at a time.

Gas street lighting wasn’t introduced until 1814 and then only on Pall Mall.  There was no police force and the London mob was quite rightly feared for their looting–so London townhouses had heavy wooden shutters at least on the ground floor.  Yet the London fog, which is such a feature of Sherlock Holmes’s London, that was a very present thing, often obscuring the sky for days on end–the result of the city burning coal to heat their homes.  (In Paris, they burned wood or charcoal, and travellers often remarked on the clean, clear air there, as opposed to that of London.)

The interiors of both London and country houses had undergone quite a change through the last years of the 18th century, transformed by the work of rival architects, Robert Adam and James Wyatt.  Both had drawn on the straighter lines and decorative arts of classical architecture and Josiah Wedgwood, respectively, so English style had evolved quite separately and distinctly from that of the Continent.  Straight-sided tables and desks with swags of inlaid wood, for example, are typical.  And though one has a sense of many people turning their houses out and starting afresh with these new designs and fitments, probably just as many introduced a new thing here, a new piece there and the old would have dwelt side by side with the new–that at least is how I envisioned the rooms at Britwell Park.

Over the years, I’ve visited–often several times–many of the great houses now owned by the National Trust.   Walking through these houses has proved of immense value in seeing how the inhabitants might have lived 200 years ago.  It’s taught me a vast amount about the various styles of architecture, the size and composition of rooms both large and small, the accumulated fitments and furnishings of generations.  And I go on learning.

Watercolours, paintings, and engravings of the period are another invaluable resource.

So whilst there is no such place as Great Myddelton, Myddelton House or indeed Britwell Park, these homes are all based on houses that I have visited, the architecture, decor and grounds of which have impressed me as ‘just right’, though I confess, I generally assemble them with a hall from one house and a salon from another as it suits me.

The landscape?  Well, the countryside and those episodes which take place in country settings–those are all real places and I have recorded them as faithfully as I could.

An Authonomy Gold Medal winner, May 1812 is available through either or

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