In 1644, only a century before Soho House was built, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas! Carols were forbidden and anyone caught cooking a goose or baking a Christmas cake or boiling a pudding was in danger of fine, confiscation or worse.
By the 1800s it was once again a time of celebration, having been reinstated by Charles II. The Georgian Christmas season began on 6th of December (St. Nicholas Day). Gifts would be exchanged both then and on New Years Day and the main feasting occasion was 6th of January (Twelfth Night, Epiphany). St Stephen’s Day was 26th of December and is now better known as Boxing Day as this was when servants would be presented with gifts and donations made to charity.
The gentry spent the Christmas season in their country houses and didn’t return to their London addresses until February. It was a time of high celebration with gift and charity giving, balls, parties, games, gifts and lots of food. As families were already gathered together it was also an opportunity for weddings.
The Georgian Christmas menu would have included soup, turkey, goose, duck, and cheese. Mince pies have been eaten at Christmas in England since the sixteenth century, however they were made of minced meat. Only later was this replaced with dried fruit and spices. During this period Christmas pudding was better known as lum pottage.
The star of the show would have been Twelfth Cake, a version of present day Christmas cake. It was sliced and given to all members of the household including servants and guests. It contained a dried bean and a dried pea. The person whose slice contained the bean was King for the night; a slice with a pea indicated the Queen. Whoever won, regardless of their social standing and position in the household, was recognized by everyone as the evening’s King and Queen. By the Regency period, Twelfth cake became elaborate with added icing, trimmings, and figurines and it remained popular until the late Victorian period.
Decorating the home with holly, evergreens and mistletoe was well established and practiced throughout the Georgian period, however the Christmas tree was a tradition not yet adopted. It is widely believed that Queen Victoria is responsible for the popularity of the Christmas tree, as a tree would be placed in her bedroom each Christmas. After Victoria’s marriage in 1840 to Germany’s Prince Albert, it grew in popularity amongst the middle classes after the British press reported on the trees adorning Windsor Castle. However, it was George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, who brought the first version of the present day Christmas tree to Britain in 1800. She had it decorated it with gifts, dolls and tapers after her German traditions.
The yule log was chosen for the fire on Christmas Eve. Wrapped in hazel twigs and dragged home it was the centre piece and would burn in the fireplace during the Christmas season. Traditionally a piece would be kept back for the following year.
As part of the season’s celebrations British Pantomime grew in popularity during the Georgian period, particularly among the upper classes. Carols as we understand them didn’t exist although some such as ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks at Nights’, ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ were beginning to gain in popularity.
This Christmas there are festive tours of Soho House which offer the rare opportunity to see the House decorated for a Georgian Christmas and to hear tales of how the season was celebrated over two hundred years ago (for details visit: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events). There is also a special evening at Soho on 13th December where there will be carols and readings, followed by an opportunity to look around the historic House decorated for Christmas with a choir singing in the world famous Lunar Room (for details of this event visit: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=3501.)
Visitor Services Assistant
On Friday 17th October staff and volunteers from Soho House Museum attended a special service at Westminster Abbey. The service was to commemorate a memorial stone dedicated to Matthew Boulton.
This is not the first time Boulton has been memorialised. Brummies are familiar with the gold statue on Broad Street that depicts Boulton, his business partner James Watt and Soho’s master engineer William Murdoch.
Matthew Boulton was a master manufacturer in the 18th century and along with other members of the Lunar Society has been credited for developing concepts and techniques that laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution.
There are several other places throughout the city of Birmingham that memorialise Matthew Boulton. Matthew Boulton College opened in 1957 in his honour, and Boulton Road in Handsworth is a stone’s throw away from Soho House, where he lived for 43 years and which displays the first of three blue plaques.
Sarehole Mill in Hall Green was leased by Boulton between 1756 and 1761. He probably used the mill to produce sheet metal until all production moved to the new Soho Manufactory in the 1760s. Today the mill displays a blue plaque recording Boulton’s time spent there. Steelhouse Lane in Birmingham city centre also has a blue plaque. It was here that Boulton was born and his father had a toy, button and buckle workshop.
In 1788 Boulton established his Soho Mint and in 1797 he won a contract to produce Britain’s copper coinage. During the next two years his mint struck 45 million coins. Boulton was able to provide the Royal Mint with better machinery and coins from his workshops were exported around the world. Most importantly, his coin designs were so good it hugely decreased forgery, thus enabling the working classes a secure form of payment for a day’s work.
On 2nd November 2011, in recognition of their advancements in engineering and coinage, Boulton and Watt were immortalised by the Bank of England on the fifty pound note.
On 10th March 2009, he along with other industrialists and inventors was honoured with the issue of a Royal Mail postage stamp. The stamp bares his image alongside the Soho Manufactory – home to his Sheffield Plate, Sterling Silver tableware and Ormolu ornamental wares.
Matthew Boulton is celebrated in St Mary’s Parish Church, Handsworth. Boulton, Watt and Murdoch were all buried in the churchyard. The church was later extended over the site of his grave. In recognition of this, inside, on the north wall of the Sanctury is a large marble monument to him, commissioned by his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton.
Very active in public life, Boulton was involved with Birmingham Dispensory (which provided the poor with medicines), the General Hospital and established Soho Manufactory’s insurance scheme. This provided financial support for his workers who were sick and became the model for later schemes.
In the Westminster order of service The Bidding reads:
‘We come to add another illustrious name, that of Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, to the long list of distinguished men and women from the United Kingdom and from overseas who are buried or memorialised in Westminster Abbey.’
‘James Watt was given a memorial 189 years ago, within a few years of his death in St Paul’s Chapel […] Now an omission will be corrected. Matthew Boulton, without whom his achievements might not have been recognised, will be memorialised beside his business partner.’
Boulton and Watt’s Smethwick engine, the world’s oldest working steam engine can be seen at Thinktank Museum and the Archives of Soho House, including thousands of Boulton’s letters can be viewed by appointment at the Library of Birmingham.
Visitor Services Assistant,
Matthew Boulton was a founding member of the Lunar Society. The group were made up of 14 members who would meet once a month during a full moon. These meetings would often take place at Boulton’s home, Soho House, in the dining room, now known as The Lunar Room. The group was comprised of some of the greatest minds of the period and contributed to scientific understanding.
The other founding member was Doctor Erasmus Darwin. Physician, botanist, zoologist and grandfather of Charles Darwin. An enormous man in both personality and stature, Darwin had an enormous appetite for ‘natural philosophy’ and scientific discovery. In his most famous work ‘Zoonomia’ Darwin anticipated natural selection. He is also credited with inventing a steering device for his carriage that would be adopted for cars more than 130 years later.
Like Darwin, Boulton was also fascinated by the beauty that occurred in the natural world and kept a fossilry at Soho House. This room has specially commissioned cabinets which hold forty specimens drawers for Boulton’s vast collection of fossils and minerals.
Other members of the Lunar society included Josiah Wedgewood, best known for his beautiful pottery and skill as a chemist; Joseph Priestley who discovered several ‘airs’ including oxygen and invented soda water; James Watt, Boulton’s business partner at Soho and engineer who improved the efficiency of the steam engine.
The collection at Soho House reflects the interests and contributions Boulton and the Lunar Society made to 18th century Britain.
The collection at Soho also includes several time pieces. The pendulum clock was invented in 1656, only a century before Soho House was built. The longcase clock (also known as the grandfather clock) was first created to house the pendulum and works by the English clockmaker William Clement in 1670 or 1671.
The most famous clock in the collection is the Ormolu Clock. A popular style in France, ormolu is the process of grinding gold, mixing it with mercury and gilding it to bronze and other metals at high temperature. There are two ormolu time pieces at Soho, the most famous being the Sidereal Clock in the Drawing Room. Sidereal time uses the position of a star to measure the days, hours and minutes. The star will be found in nearly the same location on another night at the same sidereal time. However, unlike solar time which relies upon the sun, sidereal is much more exact. A sidereal day is about 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.0916 seconds. It does not account for longer days depending on the earths position, nor leap years. The exactness of sidereal time is most probably is reason it never gained in popularity.
As well as treasures from the land, Boulton looked to the skies for answers to the world around him. Astronomy and meteorology were two of his passions. The earliest recorded working telescopes were the refracting telescopes developed by Lippershey, Janssen and Metius in 1608 in the Netherlands and soon after improved by Galileo.
Originally Boulton intended to have an observatory built in the grounds of Soho House, but for what ever reason this was never fully realised. He did however have a telescope positioned on the roof of the house. He was so obsessed with keeping weather records that when away on business his daughter Anne would observe changes for him. In his twilight years he still insisted on viewing the stars from the roof, even on bitterly cold nights.
The land around Soho House was slowly sold acre at a time by Bouton’s grandson. A inner city built up area today, the views enjoyed by Boulton in the 18th century would have been very rural. You can experience a taste of this on the Heritage Open Weekend (13th and 14th of September) when we will be offering free rooftop tours.
We will also be celebrating the achievements and inventions of the Lunar Society on 6th September with a free family event ‘Crazy Science‘.
For more information on all upcoming events at Soho House visit: www.bmag.org.uk/events
Visitor Services Assistant,
Now in it’s third year, Jane Austen Day is celebrated each summer at Soho House museum and this year’s celebration took place just over a week ago. Although Austen herself never visited Boulton’s home, the Georgian property provides the perfect setting to bring the world of her novels to life.
Austen was a novelist whose works earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Georgian society is the backdrop of all of Austen’s novels. Set during the reign of George III, they describe everyday lives, social hierarchies, gender roles, marriage, and the pastimes of well-off families. They provide an insight to the English society of this period.
Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. The support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. Her father was a clergyman and after his death, she, her mother and unmarried sister Casandra went to live in a cottage on her brother’s estate. Cassandra was Austen’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life. It was in these later years Austen successfully published four novels which were generaly well-received: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. These works were published anonymously and brought her little personal fame. Austen’s most famous work remains Pride and Prejudice. In this novel her most beloved heroine Elizabeth Bennet must navigate the complexities of life as a young woman of limited dowry. During Jane Austen Day Pattern 23 performed famous scenes from Austen’s books, including Mr. Collins ill conceived marriage proposal to Elizabeth.
When Jane Austen’s characters talk about buying a dress, it means in fact that they are going to buy the necessary fabric, which they will then give to a dressmaker who will make a dress to their specifications. Patterns for dresses in the latest London fashion were found in all the women’s fashion newspapers. In ‘Emma’ Harriet Smith buys muslin cloth with this intention. For Jane Austen Day I asked a friend to make a Regency gown for me to wear. During the day there were also period hair and make-up demonstrations carried out by Julie Stevens.
Austen’s plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. A woman would have belonged in the first instance to her father and later her husband. She would have been legally subordinate to him, without rights and would not even have even been able to choose where she lived.
All members of the Lunar Society, who regularly met at Soho House, were committed to the idea of education, but what that meant for daughters and wives tended to be different from what it meant for sons. The subjects both Jane Austen and Matthew Boulton’s only daughter, Anne studied formed the main elements of the typical middle-class young woman’s curriculum. While away at school, Anne studied English, French, drawing, history and geography. Later, she learnt music from a Mr Harris in Birmingham, botany from Boulton’s friend Dr William Withering, and embroidery from Mary Linwood, a celebrated embroiderer of so-called ‘needle paintings’. Austen has been described by biographers as an accomplished seamstress and was very fond of dancing. These education topics were highlighted during Austen Day, with embroidery and dancing demonstrations for visitors to take part in.
Jane Austen acquired the remainder of her education by reading books, guided by her father and her brothers and had unlimited access both to her father’s library and that of her uncle. Like all gentry of the day, letter writing was a favoured and necessary past-time. In an uncharacteristic letter, the usually kind Anne Boulton is scathing about an expected visitor (in tone similar to Austen’s much-loved character Emma Woodhouse):
‘She is neither young, or handsome, has what some people call a pleasing cast with one eye, talks a great deal and would be glad to be thought young, notwithstanding wrinkles and grey hair begin to appear, but with all these perfections and imperfections she is I am told a sensible and entertaining woman.’
Unlike Austen, Anne was not dependent on the kindness and charity of her brother and relations after the death of her father in 1809. Boulton laid his plans well: ‘I propose to set apart, in my lifetime, as much money, land, stock or good securities as will be sufficient to support my daughter handsomely and comfortable’
Boulton left Anne a combined fortune of £34,000, enabling her to move from Soho in 1818 to a house of her own after her brother married. At Thornhill she kept a very comfortable but modest home. Upon her death in 1829 she left each of her servants one years wages, plus a further £20 each for the two longest-serving. Land she had purchased and the remainder of her fortune she left to ‘my dear brother to whom I now bid a long and last farewell.’
Jane Austen continues to be a huge influence on popular culture and this year’s celebration at Soho House was a great success. Staff, volunteers and visitors had fun immersing themselves in Austen’s stories, etiquette, interests and wit.
Visitor Services Assistant,
Quotes: The Hardware Man’s Daughter by Shena Mason, published by Phillimore & Co Ltd, 2005.