The Conventions of High Society

In 1932 Mary, Countess of Lovelace shared her memories in an essay for the Times of London.

For a picture of social life fifty years ago I can only draw upon a limited experience, first as a girl before 1880 and as a young married woman after that date. I can, in short, only give the youthful feminine point of view.

Victorian ball-2

…nearly every social custom which applied to ordinary intercourse between both sexes was based on the idea that every young woman, and especially every inexperienced girl, was a sacred thing to be carefully guarded from any possibility of insult or undue temptation. The well-guarded girl of the years 1870 – 80 could not walk alone in the street or drive alone in a cab or in a railway carriage. To any sort of entertainment she must be accompanied by father or mother or by some married woman. At a ball, the place where her chaperon sat was a kind of home to which she was supposed to return after every dance. Of course, she did not always do so; and the wise mother knew when to be lenient and when to enforce the rules. All dancing partners are not equally attractive, and the necessity of “going back to Mamma” provided a by no means always unwelcome end to a tete-a-tete. Looking back I cannot recollect ever feeling my chaperon to be an irksome restraint, and she was often a most welcome protection and adviser.

The real drawback to the system was the fatigue and boredom that it imposed on the older women. How well I remember the rows of weary faces on the benches against the wall, and I wonder if they always got the loving gratitude from their charges which was certainly their due.

Now and then there would appear a male chaperon – a kind father or uncle – who took his turn at the social treadmill. He got his reward in extreme popularity, and as he was in great demand for taking dowager after dowager down to supper, he did not suffer from inaction.

I am told that there are still some chaperons, though not nearly so many as in the old days. For dinners and entertainments other than balls, apparently the girls now do not need any female protector whatever. They go about anywhere and everywhere with any male friend whom they chose. In fact, they “walk out” and “keep company” just as our friends in the servants’ hall do.
‘Society and the Season’, reproduced in ‘Fifty Years’, Thornton Butterworth, Limited, 1932.

Rotten Row 1913

Rotten Row and Hyde Park in 1913, when standards were beginning to slip – there are unaccompanied women in the street! Perhaps they’re from the servants’ hall.

Fear of The Other

In June 1853, a settler from Tasmania, Australia, called Edwin Meredith scouted the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand for suitable land to graze his sheep. June was the first month of winter and he was forced to take shelter from the rain wherever he could find it.

I had only about 20 miles to ride to reach Waipukurau but ….. my poor horse was completely knocked up as the result of his previous day’s experience [stuck in a bog and dragged out with difficulty]. There was nothing for it but to put my saddle and bridle in a flax bush and walk on in the hope of finding shelter before dark, for I was wet through.

It was raining steadily and the country around did not afford a tree or bush to break the wind and rain, or fuel for a fire. With my rug on my back I arrived at the Waipukurau Pah. Having satisfied myself that there was no European habitation in the neighbourhood, I had no alternative but to take refuge from the rain and cold of a winter’s night in one of the many whares* within.

Maori Pah

I made for a large one, about the low entrance to which I saw a number of men standing or going to and fro. It was my first experience of being in a large Maori Pah [fenced or fortified village] and I can hardly recall the circumstance without a shudder. Not that I feared any evil treatment but to be the only European in the midst of about 300 savages, the majority of whom were, or had been, cannibals and whose every feature was made hideous by tattooing – to witness the gesticulations which accompanied loud and rapid utterances in harsh gutteral tones emphasised by savage excitement might, or might not, be the prelude to something still more exciting. I was subsequently informed that there had been a pig-hunt that day on a large scale, and in all probability I had been listening to a somewhat theatrical recital of the adventures of the day’s sport.

I sat crouched upon my rug and, though occupying a conspicuous position near the doorway in a large room occupied by perhaps 50 men, none appeared to take the slightest notice of me – till my eye lighted on a man who had been especially voluble and, from the time he subsided and sat down, never took his eyes off me. Every atom of his face was tattooed and I could not help tracing in the expression of his disfigured features something malignant. I had remarked, while he was tossing his arms about in delivering his address, that he had only one hand.

Having scrutinized me long and intently, to my great relief he disappeared. I hoped that he would not return and, as no one seemed to notice me, I was about to roll myself in my rug, wet and cold as I was, when suddenly I was startled by a tap from behind upon my shoulder. On looking around, there stood the man whose gaze had been so repulsive to me, holding in his hand a clean new shirt and a pair of trousers. With the stump of the other arm he touched my wet clothes, motioning to me by signs to take them off and put on those he had brought. Never in my life had I been so rebuked for my misjudgment.
‘Reminiscences and experiences of an early Colonist’, Edwin Meredith, 1898.

*whare = house, building, residence.

There is a town at Waipukurau today but there was only the Pa in 1853.
Follow the link to learn more about Ta moko – Maori tattooing.

The King’s English

This snippet from ‘The Days Before Yesterday’ by Lord Frederic Hamilton supports the fact that “received English“, the accent of the English upper classes we know today, is a comparitively recent development from the mid-19th century.

lord-frederic-hamiltonIn the “seventies” [1870s] some of the curious tricks of pronunciation of the eighteenth century still survived. My aunts, who had been born with, or before the nineteenth century, invariably pronounced “yellow” as “yaller.” “Lilac” and “cucumber” became “laylock” and “cowcumber,” and a gold bracelet was referred to as a “goold brasslet.” They always spoke of “Proosia” and “Roosia,” drank tea out of a “chaney” cup, and the eldest of them was still “much obleeged” for any little service rendered to her, played at “cyards,” and took a little stroll in the “gyarden.” My grandfather, who was born in 1766, insisted to the end of his life on terming the capital of these islands “Lunnon,” in eighteenth-century fashion.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton. Hodder and Stoughton, London. 1920.

I’m no linguist but this ‘sounds’ like the accent of the West Country, the counties of Somerset and Devon that had an influence on English pronunciation in Elizabethan times. Modern research suggests this was the original sound of Shakespeare’s plays.

Getting personal

Today I’d like to introduce a new feature where I dive into my personal photo archive once a week and present an image or two from the ancient times, a.k.a. the 20th century. Eighteen years into the 21st, I’m forced to admit (reluctantly) that I have negatives older than some of my blog visitors. For example

Chris Barber

1970. The 100 Club, Oxford Street, London.
Legendary British jazz trombonist Chris Barber was a mere lad of 40 when I shot this. Now he’s 88 and, at time of writing, still playing. Watch and listen.

I’ve tried to avoid getting too close to The Present in my posts, for obvious reasons, but it seems this image can now be classified as a genuine ‘past impression’ – the numbers don’t lie – and as such might be informative, educational, or just mildly diverting for readers under 45. The rest of us can wallow in nostalgia.

I’ll tag this section Friday Flashback to distinguish it from the really old content you’ll find on other days of the week. Not a very original title, I’ll admit, so I hope I haven’t infringed somebody’s ™ or ®.

You might get two or three images in a post with story attached, or just one with a caption, when (hopefully) the photograph by itself holds as much interest as time and place.


1987. Lake Ferry, Palliser Bay, New Zealand.
A fisherman with two rods on the back of his motor-trike rides along a sand bar in search of a calmer spot for surf-casting. He’s silhouetted against spray rising from waves pounding the beach on the other side of the ridge.

You’re welcome to leave a comment and let me know if you think this idea sucks or has merit.

In his own words

From the diary of King George V.

June 22nd, 1911
It was overcast and cloudy with some showers and a strongish cool breeze, but better for the people than great heat. Today was indeed a great and memorable day in our lives and one we can never forget, but it brought back to me many sad memories of 9 years ago, when the beloved Parents were crowned.

CoronationMay and I left B.P. [Buckingham Palace] in the Coronation coach at 10.30 with 8 cream-coloured horses. There were over 50,000 troops lining the streets under the command of Lord Kitchener. There were hundreds of thousands of people who gave us a magnificent reception. The Service in the Abbey was most beautiful, but it was a terrible ordeal. It was grand, yet simple and most dignified and went without a hitch. I nearly broke down when dear David* came to do homage to me, as it reminded me so much when I did the same thing to beloved Papa, he did it so well. Darling May looked lovely and it was indeed a comfort to me to have her by my side, as she has been ever to me during these last eighteen years.

We left Westminster Abbey at 2.15 (having arrived there before 11.0) with our crowns on and sceptres in our hands. This time we drove by the Mall, St. James’ Street and Piccadilly, crowds enormous and decorations very pretty. On reaching B.P. just before 3.0 May and I went out on the balcony to show ourselves to the people. Downey photographed us in our robes with Crowns on.

Image from the National Portrait Gallery.

Had some lunch with our guests here. Worked all the afternoon with Bigge and others answering telegrams and letters of which I have had hundreds. Such a large crowd collected in front of the Palace that I went out on the balcony again. Our guests dined with us at 8.30. May and I showed ourselves again to the people. Wrote and read. Rather tired. Bed at 11.45. Beautiful illuminations everywhere.
‘King George the Fifth, His Life and Reign’, Harold Nicolson. Constable, 1952.
Quoted in ‘They Saw it Happen 1897 – 1940’, compiled by Asa Briggs. Basil Blackwell, 1960.

* David was one of a list of names for eldest son Edward, later to abdicate in 1936 as Edward VIII, and was the one used by his family.

Downey’s photograph “with Crowns on” from the National Portrait Gallery.

The Princess of Wales

Before there was Diana, there was Alexandra.

As a child I had a wild adoration for Queen Alexandra (then, of course, Princess of Wales), whom I thought the most beautiful person I had ever seen in my life, and I dare say that I was not far wrong. When I was taken to Marlborough House, I remembered and treasured up every single word she said to me.

Alexandra_of_Denmark02SMany years after, in 1885, [Prince] Edward and [Princess] Alexandra paid us a visit at Barons’ Court. During that visit a little episode occurred which is worth recording. On the Sunday, the Princess ….. inspected the Sunday School children before Morning Service. At luncheon the Rector of the parish told us that one of the Sunday scholars, a little girl, had been taken ill with congestion of the lungs a few days earlier. The child’s disappointment at having missed seeing the Princess was terrible. Desperately ill as she was, she kept on harping on her lost opportunity.

After luncheon the Princess drew my sister-in-law …. on one side, and inquired where the sick child lived. Upon being told that it was about four miles off, the Princess asked whether it would not be possible to get a pony-cart from the stables and drive there, as she would like to see the little girl. I myself brought a pony-cart round to the door, and the Princess and my sister-in-law having got in, we three started off alone, the Princess driving. When we reached the cottage where the child lived, H.R.H. went straight up to the little girl’s room, and stayed talking to her for an hour, to the child’s immense joy. Two days later the little girl died, but she had been made very happy meanwhile.

A little thing perhaps; but there are not many people in Queen Alexandra’s position who would have taken an eight-mile drive in an open cart on a stormy and rainy April afternoon in order to avoid disappointing a dying child, of whose very existence she had been unaware that morning.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton, London. 1920.

Adventures in Dublin Castle

Upon returning from school for my first holidays, I learnt that my father [James Hamilton] had been appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland [1866], and that we were in consequence to live now for the greater portion of the year in Dublin. …… It was the custom then for the Lord-Lieutenant to live for three months of the winter at the Castle, where a ceaseless round of entertainments went on.

J. Valentine postcard of Dublin Castle c. 1896.

Dublin Castle c. 1896

The Castle would have made the most ideal place for playing hide-and-seek, with its vast extent and endless staircases had it not been that there were people everywhere; uniformed police, messengers, footmen, and a peculiarly officious breed of uniformed busybodies, who lived in little glass hutches, and pounced down upon little boys at unexpected moments with superfluous inquiries as to what they wanted there…….


The Throne Room

My brother and I were not allowed in the throne-room on ordinary days, but it offered such wonderful opportunities for processions and investitures, with the sword of state and the mace lying ready to one’s hand in their red velvet cradles, that we soon discovered a back way into it. Should any of the staff of Mr. Healy, the present Governor-General, care to examine the sword of state and the mace, they will find them both heavily dented. This is due to two small boys having frequently dropped them when they proved too heavy for their strength, during strictly private processions fifty-eight years ago. We had seen our father conferring knighthoods, and were quite familiar with the


James Hamilton

procedure. My brother and I must have mutually knighted each other dozens of times before the “Rise, Sir Frederic,” or “Rise, Sir Ernest” had lost the charm of novelty. I often wonder what a deputation from the Corporation of Belfast must have thought when they were ushered into the throne-room, and found it already in the occupation of two small brats, one of whom, with a star cut out of silver paper pinned to his jacket to counterfeit an order, was lolling back on the throne in a lordly manner, while the other was feigning to read a long statement from a piece of paper. The small boys, after the manner of their kind, quickly vanished through a bolt-hole……

…..a battlemented terrace, probably a modern addition, runs the full length of the back of the Castle. We called this “the ramparts,” and my brother, a child of the most fertile imagination, suggested that if only we could borrow some of the old armour which hung on the grand staircase, we might hold the most splendid tournament on these ramparts. There were, however, always two uniformed policemen on the grand staircase who were unsympathetically inquisitive when we tried to unhook the armour. We gradually realized that for us the Castle was to be a place alike of endless opportunities, and of thwarted ambitions.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton (1856-1928), Hodder and Stoughton, London.