Marriage a la mode

Marriage a la mode

Marital ethics were the topic of much debate in 18th-century Britain. The many marriages of convenience and their attendant unhappiness came in for particular criticism, with a variety of authors taking the view that love was a much sounder basis for marriage than money. Hogarth for one felt the disquiet in British society sufficient to satirise it in a series of paintings called Marriage a la mode.

In the first of the series, The Marriage Settlement Hogarth shows an arranged marriage between the son of bankrupt Earl Squanderfield and the daughter of a wealthy but miserly city merchant. The construction on the Earl’s new mansion, visible through the window, has stopped as a usurer negotiates payment for further work at the centre table. The gouty Earl proudly points to a picture of his family tree. The son views himself in the mirror, showing where his interests in the matter lie. The distraught merchant’s daughter is consoled by the lawyer Silvertongue while polishing her wedding ring. Even the faces on the walls appear to have misgivings. Two dogs chained to each other in the corner mirror the situation of the young couple.

The pressure put on many young people to marry the ‘right’ person led to many secret marriages with the right people for them. This was possible because until the middle of the 18th century marriages could take place anywhere provided they were conducted before an ordained clergyman of the Church of England. Of course, this also left a lot of scope for bigamy and marriages to girls who were under age.

The trade in these irregular marriages had grown enormously in London by the 1740s and led to the introduction of the Marriage Act 1753, popularly known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act. This Act was the first statutory legislation in England and Wales to require a formal ceremony of marriage. The Act came into force on 25 March 1754 making the reading of banns, registration of a marriage and need for the marriage to be witnessed compulsory for the first time.

No marriage of a person under the age of 21 was valid without the consent of parents or guardians. Clergymen who disobeyed the law were liable for 14 years transportation. Jews and Quakers were exempted from the 1753 Act, but it required other religious non-conformists and Catholics to be married in Anglican churches.

The idea of secret marriage was taken up in the 1766 play, The Clandestine Marriage by George Colman the Elder and David Garrick. The play is a comedy and was first performed in 1766 at Drury Lane. The plot concerns a merchant, Mr Sterling, who wants to marry off his elder daughter to Sir John Melvil, who is in love with his younger daughter, Fanny. Fanny, however, is in love with a humble clerk, Lovewell, whom she has secretly married. Her attempts to extricate herself from the arrangement with Melvil lead to her being offered as a bride to Melvil’s elderly uncle, Lord Ogleby. But the truth comes out and she is saved from the awful fate of having to marry a man many years her senior whom she does not love and she and Lovewell are forgiven. In 1999, the play was made into a film directed by Christopher Miles and starring Nigel Hawthorne, Joan Collins, Timothy Spall, Emma Chambers and Tom Hollander.

Paul Nicholls and Natasha Little as the lovers in The Clandestine Marriage, 2000.

The Act did not change the position of a wife in law. On marriage, a woman became the property of her husband as soon as she said. “I do.” Clandestine and illegal marriages were not the exclusive domain of the wealthy. Many poor women where duped by unscrupulous, indecisive and inconstant men. Perhaps the most famous woman to be duped in this was Maria Fitzherbert (26 July 1756 – 27 March 1837) the secret wife of George, Prince of Wales, the future George IV.

In 1783 George, Prince of Wales became infatuated with her, wanting her to become his mistress but Maria’s devout Catholic beliefs would not allow it. So on 15 December 1785 they were married in a secret ceremony conducted by Robert Burt, an impoverished curate who set aside his scruples for the £500 fee. The marriage of course was not legal. It not only contravened the 1753 Marriage Act it was also in breach of the Act of Settlement of 1701, preventing a Roman Catholic from ascending the British throne and the Royal Marriage Act of 1772.

George and Maria spent much of their time in Brighton where Mrs Fitzherbert was treated as queen although George must have known that she never would be. Whether she was ignorant or deluded concerning her position is unknown. The couple separated when George’s affections turned to Frances, Countess of Jersey in 1794 and Maria’s position was finally put asunder when George married his cousin Caroline of Brunswick in 1795 with the benefit of law.

Illustration: Hogarth, Marriage a la mode – The marriage settlement.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29  Also available on:

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White’s Chocolate House

White’s Chocolate House

Think of the words ‘white’ and ‘chocolate’ and the images that come to mind are those of the ‘The Milky Bar Kid’ or that luxury white chocolate flecked with fine black vanilla seeds but White’s and chocolate in the 18th century meant something entirely different; gambling.

The impetus for London’s chocolate craze came from France, introduced as an ‘excellent west indian drink’ in the mid 17th century. A decade later pamphlets proclaimed the miraculous, panacean qualities of the new drink, saying that it would boost fertility, cure consumption, alleviate indigestion and reverse ageing: with a mere lick, it was said, it would ‘make old women young and fresh and create new motions of the flesh’.

Unlike in Paris and Madrid, chocolate drinking was not confined to the social elite in London however it was never as popular as coffee with its enlivening caffeine boost.. It was only around St James’s Square that a cluster of super-elite self-styled ‘chocolate houses’ flourished. The principal chocolate houses were Ozinda’s and White’s, both on St James’s Street, and the Cocoa Tree on Pall Mall.As befitted their location their interiors were a cut above the wooden, workmanlike interiors of the City coffeehouses, boasting sofas, polished tables, dandyish waiters and, at least in Ozinda’s case, a collection of valuable paintings for the customers to admire. In fact Ozinda’s comfortable surroundings became a hot bed of Jacobite intrigue. On one occasion in 1715, Jacobite supporters were arrested there and taken off to Newgate prison.

White’s started life at 4 Chesterfield Street, off Curzon Street in Mayfair, in 1693; owned by an Italian immigrant named Francesco Bianco. It was later re-named Mrs. White’s Chocolate House with a side line in tickets for the King’s Theatre and Royal Drury Lane Theatre White’s quickly made the transition from cafe into an exclusive club. It was notorious as a gambling house; those who frequented it were known as “the gamesters of White’s.” The club gained a reputation for both its exclusivity and the often raffish behaviour of its members. Jonathan Swift referred to White’s as the “bane of half the English nobility.” In 1778 it moved to 37–38 St James’s Street and was from 1783 the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party, while the Whigs’ club Brooks’s was just down the road.

White’s had such a terrible reputation Hogarth depicted its inner gambling room as ‘Hell’, in the sixth episode of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress. The place is on fire but no one seems to notice. It is a picture of greed and despair so far removed from the images of chocolate we have today.

Illustration: Meissen Chocolate Cup and Saucer.

Julia Herdman is a novelist. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1 is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29

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Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me

Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me

The World’s First Children’s Charity

Thomas Coram was a philanthropist and campaigner. His greatest achievement was the London Foundling Hospital. But this was just one of many philanthropic projects.

Early Life

The Anglo-American Founder of the World’s First Incorporated Charity was born in Lyme Regis, in 1668. He was neither wealthy nor well connected. Aged 11 his father sent him to sea. This meant he never had a formal education.

Life in America

He arrived in  Dighton, Massachusetts in 1694. He lived there for ten years. Ardently Anglican, religious differences between Coram and his neighbours soon surfaced. These were played out in the courts where seemingly trivial issues quickly escalated; claims and counter-claims. Sometimes threats turned to violence against Coram. He frequently had to go to the Boston courts to receive a fair hearing at the local magistrates’ court.  In Boston, he met and married Eunice Waite, the daughter of an established family originally from England. She was a nonconformist Congregationalist but there is no evidence of any friction over religion between them. Letters show that Eunice and Thomas Coram were happily married for 40 years.

First Charitable Works

In 1704 at the age of 36. Between 1704 and 1712 he plied his trade on merchantmen and became a ship’s captain. In 1712, he obtained a role at Trinity House, Deptford, a private corporation that combined public responsibilities with charitable purposes. The Trinty House charity operated under royal patronage and provided and managed lighthouses and buoys to aid merchant shipping and to save lives at sea.

His interest in the welfare of merchant seamen continued and he developed an interest in supporting abandoned children although we don’t know why. In 1717, he made his first attempt to set up a home for abandoned children in a founding a colony, in what is today, the American State of Maine. With one foot in England and the other in her American colony, Coram was appointed one of the trustees for Georgia colony in 1732 and in 1735 he brought forward a scheme for settling unemployed English artisans in Nova Scotia.

Abandoned Children

Settled back in England, Coram bought a house in Rotherhithe about 4 miles down the Thames from central London. On his daily journey into town he was appalled by the number of infants he saw left to die in the streets. These poor children were most likely the unwanted result of prostitution, the main source of financial support for unmarried women in London, and the abuse of female domestic servants by their employers and male servants alike. Once again he campaigned for the creation of an institution where abandoned infants and orphans could be cared for. He laboured for 17 years and was finally successful in 1739 when George II gave his project a royal charter.

The First Children Admitted to the Foundling Hospital

The first children were admitted to houses in Hatton Gardens in 1741 and the land where the hospital still stands today was purchased. The Foundling Hospital was innovative; it educated both its boys and its girls which was remarkably advanced for the times. The foundation stone of the present hospital was laid on 16 September 1742. In October 1745 the west wing was finished and the children moved into their new and permanent home.

Great interest was excited in the undertaking, especially by London’s artistic community including William Hogarth and George Frederick Handel both of whom made donations to the cause. Sadly, for Coram he fell out with the hospital’s new benefactors, the reasons are unclear, and he was ousted from its Board of Governors in 1742.

Children’s Health

From the start, the governors of the Hospital went to considerable lengths to protect the children from the infectious diseases because they were so vulnerable. Children entering the Foundling Hospital were screened and turned away if they showed any signs of infection. Following their admission, they were sent to wet nurses in the countryside to give them a good start. They remained in the country until they were five and six then they returned to the hospital where they enjoyed a healthy diet including vegetables, meat, fruit and fresh milk from the hospital’s own cow.

The children were also inoculated against the endemic disease smallpox, probably on the advice of Coram’s old friend, Dr Richard Mead who, as well as being a pioneer of smallpox inoculation, was an influential governor of the Hospital and an eminent physician. He played an important role in the early days of the institution, often attending to look after sick children and advising on their care. It was probably down to him that by 1756, of the 247 foundling children who had been inoculated against smallpox, only one had died of the disease.

Native American Children

In his later years back in America, he advocated a scheme for the education of Native American girls. This remarkably enlightened man, “An Evil amongst us here in England is to think Girls having learning given them is not so very Material as for boys to have it. I think and say it is more Material for Girls, when they come to be Mothers, will have the forming of their Children’s lives and if their Mothers be good or bad the children Generally take after them, so that giving Girls a virtuous Education is a vast Advantage to their Posterity as well as to the Publick.”

A Royal Pension

After the loss of his wife, he neglected his private affairs and fell into difficulties. On 20 March 1749, an annuity of £161 was assigned to him, the Prince of Wales subscribing £21 annually. Coram died on 29 March 1751, aged 83, and was buried on 3 April in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital. An inscription was placed there, and a statue of him by William Calder Marshall was erected in front of the building a hundred years later.

For more about the Coram Foundation:


Julia Herdman is a historical fiction author and publisher. specialising in engaging historical fiction books and selected non-fiction. Current projects: Tales of Tooley Street – a series of novels set in 18th century London. Tales of Tooley Street is a work of fiction inspired by a family of apothecary surgeons who lived and worked at No. 65 Tooley Street in the London borough of Southwark. Available Worldwide on Amazon. The Sacred Numbers of The Gods – a book on the archaeology and religion of the Ancient Egyptians. Due soon.