Being Entertained in London

Being Entertained in London

Those of us who love the Regency Era and devour novels by Austen, Heyer, and contemporary authors within the genre are familiar with the famous London hot spots. We have joined our heroines at balls held at Almack’s Assembly, eavesdropped on manly conversation over a game of faro or poker at White’s and Brook’s gentlemen’s clubs, spent our pin money while shopping on Pall Mall, and strolled along Route du Roi (AKA “Rotten Row”) in Hyde Park. Undoubtedly we have attended dozens of theatricals and operas at Drury Lane, the Theatre Royal, and Covent Garden. And what Regency novel wouldn’t at least mention the horse races at Epsom Downs or the Derby? Our favorite Regency heroes and heroines never seem to tire of dancing, promenading, shopping, and gambling! Still, was this all they had available to entertain during those long months of the Season passed in stifling London? Did no one yearn for something different, or perhaps more stimulating… or, dare I say, scandalous?

The truth is, London was (and still is) a massive metropolis with dozen upon dozens of varied amusements. For fun I thought I’d share some of the more unusual options a bored city dweller could consider. And just to be clear, this is far from an exhaustive list!

The British Museum

Montagu House, by James Simon, 1715 *click for Wikipedia article

Founded by Parliament in 1753, the British Museum was the first national, public museum in the world. Located at Montagu House in Bloomsbury, the gardens opened in 1757 and the museum in 1759, with a beginning collection of over 71,000 antiquities donated by physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane. Initially, the collections were split into three sections: printed books and prints; manuscripts including medals; and natural and artificial productions. By 1809, this had been separated into four: printed books; manuscripts; natural history and modern artificial curiosities; antiquities, coins, drawings and engravings. Entry was free to everyone.

During the early decades of the British Museum, many rare artifacts – some the first in any museum – were displayed. These include the first ancient Egyptian mummy (1756); ethnographic artifacts from Captain Cook’s Pacific voyages, including a Tahitian mourner’s dress (1756); a live tortoise from North America (1765); Saxon coins (1802); the Rosetta Stone (1802); sculptures from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae (1815); the Parthenon sculptures (1816); and George III’s library, donated by George IV (1823).

Over the decades the exhibits grew, with new wings added in order to accommodate. In 1842 the original Montagu House was demolished to allow for further expansion and updating. Eventually, by the 1880s, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington. This became the Natural History Museum, but the 263 year old British Museum is still located on Great Russell Street where it began.


The Egyptian Hall

Egyptian Hall exterior in 1815 *click for Wikipedia article

Speaking of museums, the Egyptian Hall, while much smaller than the British Museum, was unique. When Nelson triumphed at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, English interest in the ‘East’ began to soar. While obelisks and other monumental pieces had been leaking out of Egypt for a century, Napoleon’s heavy thieving from Luxor and Karnak made Egyptian objects desirable amongst the European elite. Located in Piccadilly, the Egyptian Museum was commissioned by William Bullock as a museum to house his collection (which included curiosities brought back from the South Seas by Captain Cook). It was completed in 1812. Admission was 1 shilling or 1 guinea for an annual ticket.

It was the first building in England to be influenced by the Egyptian style, although interestingly the neoclassical facade gave no hint of the Egyptian decor and exhibitions within. The grand hall of the interior, for instance, was an extraordinary replica of the avenue at the Karnak Temple complex, near Luxor. Artifacts and exhibits included: an alabaster sarcophagus from the tomb of Seti I; Napoleonic relics in 1816 including Napoleon’s carriage taken at Waterloo; ancient Mexican antiquities from Mexico City; and a herd of reindeer with their harnesses and sleds accompanied by a family of Laplanders with their furniture and even their huts. Bullock sold the museum to bookseller George Lackington in 1825, and over the decades the focus changed several times until 1905 when the building was demolished. A Starbucks now stands where the museum was… another reason to hate Starbucks. 😉


The Charing Cross Pillory

Charing Cross pillory, from “Microcosm of London” by Ackermann (1808)

The pillory was an ancient punishment and as early as the 13th century it was used for traders who had swindled the public. After 1637 it became the recognized punishment for those who published books without a license or libeled the government. Once locked into the mechanism, the prisoner would be pelted with rotten eggs, vegetables, or even excrement by members of the public. The most famous pillory in London was at Charing Cross, located at the junction of Strand, Whitehall, and Cockspur Street, just south of Trafalgar Square. As noted in Crime, Punishment, and Reform in Europe by Mary Anne Nichols and Louis A. Knafla:

The crowd played an important role. As a form of legally sanctioned street theatre, each pillory event relied upon the audience for its success. In a carnival-like atmosphere, people crowded the streets and surrounding buildings in an attempt to get the best vantage point to view the offender’s punishment.

Definitely not your typical high-brow entertainment, nevertheless, the mobs gathered to “enjoy” the spectacle did not exclusively consist of the common folk. Those who gathered round the pillory were expected to denounce the individual and uphold the rule of law, as well as protect the moral standards of the community. Conversely, when the public disagreed with the verdict of the court they turned the event into a demonstration against those in power. For example, when Daniel Defoe was pilloried in 1703 for libel, the crowd covered the pillory in flowers and gave him an ovation when he arrived at Charing Cross. In 1816, the pillory as a form of punishment was abolished except for certain crimes such as perjury.


Royal Institution, London Institution, Surrey Institution, and Russell Institution

The Royal Institution was founded in 1799 by the leading British scientists of the age, including Henry Cavendish and its first president, George Finch, the 9th Earl of Winchilsea, for:

…diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life.

The Royal Institution became the inspiration for three additional educational institutions during the Regency, but is the only one to remain to the present day. The London Institution followed in 1806, preceding the University of London (founded 1826) by making scientific education widely available in the capital to people such as the Dissenters, who adhered to non-orthodox religious beliefs and were consequently barred from attending Oxford or Cambridge. Lasting into the 20th century, it closed in 1912. The Surrey Institution in Blackfriars was founded in 1808, modeled after the Royal Institution and London Institution, and dissolved in 1823. Fourth of the institutions was Russell Institution, founded by private subscription, also opened in 1808. It was relatively long-lived, being listed in the 1881 Post Office directory, but not in the 1891 directory.

The aim was to foster and disseminate scientific, technical, and literary knowledge and understanding among a wider public. The Institutions offered proprietors and subscribers the use of extensive reference libraries and reading rooms. Most importantly, they provided the opportunity to attend courses or lectures on scientific, technological, and other subjects. Though popular in approach, the lectures conformed to high educational standards and were delivered by recognized authorities in their fields. As a meeting place for scientists and men of business with mercantile and manufacturing interests, as well as women, these Institutions performed an important function in cross-fertilizing and reinforcing ideas on innovation and enterprise against the background of the ongoing Industrial Revolution.

Royal Institution, 1838 *click for Wikipedia article
London Institution, 1827 *click for Wikipedia article
Surrey Institution, 1810 *click for Wikipedia article
Russell Institution, 1827 *click for Wikipedia article


Exeter Exchange Menagerie

From about 1773, the upper floors of the Exeter Exchange (a popular shopping arcade) took on a new role: a menagerie of exotic animals. It was formed by Gilbert Pidcock, and upon his death in about 1810, the menagerie passed to Stephani Polito. On his death in 1814, one of his employees, Edward Cross, took over the menagerie. Cross renamed the collection the Royal Grand National Menagerie. When the Exeter Exchange was demolished in 1829, as part of general improvements to the Strand, the animals were dispersed to the new London Zoo in Regent’s Park and Cross’s new enterprise at Surrey Zoological Gardens.

The menagerie displayed a wide variety of animals to the public, aimed to compete with the menagerie at the Tower of London. In 1812, the animals at the Exeter Exchange included a Bengal tiger, a hyena, a lion, a jaguar, a sloth, a camel, monkeys, a hippopotamus, a rhinoceros, an elephant, an ostrich “said to weigh upwards of 200 lbs and to be 11 feet high”, a cassowary, a pelican, “emews”, cranes, an eagle, cockatoos, elks, kangaroos and antelopes.

Exeter Exchange exterior, 1829 *click for Wikipedia article
Animals on display, 1812 *click for blog on Regency History

Peerless Pool

Perilous Pond was an ancient pond fed by a spring. Located near the junction of modern-day Old Street and City Road, it earned its name due to the many tragic drownings of people using it as a swimming hole.

Peerless Pool *click for Wikipedia article

In 1743 the land was purchased by William Kemp. He enclosed the pond with stone edging, and added marble steps and a gravel bottom. Renamed the more enticing Peerless Pool, it was London’s first outdoor public swimming pool, measuring 170 ft long x 108 ft wide and 3 to 5 feet deep. Bathers dressed in a vestibule made of marble.

Kemp built a separate pond for fishing and the grounds were screened by trees. Similar to London’s pleasure gardens, visitors could expect other attractions in the form of a small library with light literature, a bowling green, and “every innocent and rational amusement”,  including ice skating in winter. Kemp charged an annual subscription rate of £1 10s, or one shilling per visit, the costs therefore prohibitive for all but the upper and rising middle classes.

William Hone , the satirist, visited the pool in 1826 and described it thus:

“Trees enough remain to shade the visitor from the heat of the sun on the brink. On a summer evening it is amusing to survey the conduct of the bathers; some boldly dive, others timorous stand and then descend step by step, unwilling and slow; choice swimmers attract attention by divings and somersets, and the whole sheet of water sometimes rings with merriment. Every fine Thursday and Saturday afternoon in the summer columns of Bluecoat boys, more than a score in each, headed by their respective beadles, arrive and some half strip themselves ‘ere they reach their destination. The rapid plunges they make into the Pool and their hilarity in the bath testify their enjoyment of the tepid fluid.”

The pool was closed in 1850 and built over. No traces of the old site remain except for the names of Peerless Street and Bath Street.

The Peerless Pool, with bathers and elegantly dressed figures, a tower windmill and an extensive landscape beyond, ca. 1745


So, which one is your favorite?
Can you imagine your favorite Austen or other Regency hero and heroine partaking of these entertainments? 

11 Responses to Being Entertained in London

  1. Thank you for sharing your extensive research to the uninformed (me). It’s thrilling to see how many options they actually had, it was a surprise to me.
    Personally I would love to visit the royal institution, being scientifically bent.

  2. I would have liked to have seen Royal Grand National Menagerie but I have read of some cruel treatments so have misgivings despite how animals interest me. I hate to hear of abuse even such as overcrowding. If not that then the Egyptian Hall or the Museum…I do like history. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hi Sharon,

    What a great post. I’m glad I remembered I’d missed reading it and came back to it. It definitely adds information and culture. Imagine being pelted with rotten food for publishing books without permission from the government? I’d be in so much trouble!


  4. I’m that boring, booking girl who would have been less interested in Pall Mall and the dances, and more interested in the Institutions and the museums! LOL The whole idea of the indoor zoo is rather off-putting. I’m not a fan of modern zoos, I can’t imagine a second story enclosed one! Great post!!

  5. Thanks for this post Sharon. I have been reading Georgette Beyer books for over 30 years and thanks to you I have been reading JAFF for 2 1/2 years so often read about these places so it is lovely to see what they were actually like. I am a bit surprised that the animals in the Exchange actually survived to be moved anywhere. It is certainly not like today’s zoo’s!!! I love museums, I was last in London in 2000 and visited the British Museum and the V&A – wonderful! I was fascinated by the Peerless Pool as well. I don’t suppose it was used much except for in the summer? When I was a child (far too many years ago!) there was an open air pool near where we lived in Derbyshire but it had to be really hot to enjoy it. We must have had some good summer’s though as we went quite often.

  6. Wow, what a fascinating article Sharon! As I live in the UK, I’ve been to London on a number of occasions when I was growing up (living in Leicester) and as an adult (living in Yorkshire). The museums are always fascinating places to visit and you could easily spend a whole day, or more, in each of them. The Egyptian Hall must have been an amazing sight. What a shame it no longer exists as it sounds to have been a fascinating place.

    The Royal Institution is also very interesting. They still hold the Christmas Lectures (founded by Michael Faraday) every year, which are given by a prominent scientist in his or her field and they’re also shown on television. More notable figures have been Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough. Our son was always fascinated by these lectures and on a visit to London, we called in there and went round the museum, including Michael Faraday’s laboratory. As a special favour, they even allowed us to look into the lecture theatre, which isn’t usually open to the public.

    The menagerie part of the Exeter Exchange must have been a bit smelly! Nowadays, I’m pretty sure we’d be horrified at animals being kept under such conditions. One wonders how they got an elephant up the stairs!

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