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In the footsteps of the fashionable world

By Hannah Greig


Each autumn, throughout the 1700s, London’s West End was transformed. Previously quiet squares were populated again, first by servants and tradesmen. After the houses were readied, their employers journeyed to the capital from their country estates between October and January. Snow, noted one observer, ‘brings up all the Fine folks [to London], flocking like half-frozen birds into a Farm-yard, from the terror…of another fatal month’s confinement…in the country’. For them, the business and pleasures of the coming months were varied. Parliamentary machinations preoccupied many. Social networks also had to be rewoven, and plans for the hectic round of visits and balls drafted. London was a pool of potential suitors for lords and ladies coming of age, and so prospective spouses were researched and courted. A family’s political, genealogical and financial fortunes might be secured by a shrewd match or devastated by an impulsive misalliance. At the root of this sometimes frenzied seasonal activity was one ambition: to secure or reaffirm membership of a new elite – the beau monde – the so-called ‘world of fashion’.

London’s West End was once the heartland of this glittering and frenetic world.  Much of the fashionable world’s original footprint has disappeared, replaced by department stores, bus routes, tube stops, and apartment buildings. There are, however, a few places where the ghosts of the beau monde can still be found.

1. Spencer House

A smart address was essential for anyone in fashionable society. Spencer House, built in 1755-56 for John, 1st Earl Spencer (and still owned by the Spencer family today) is a rare survivor of the urban palaces that once accommodated elite families during the season – most were sold to developers in the twentieth century. Moreover, Spencer House retains much of its original eighteenth-century interior. Other examples of the decoration of such properties can be seen at the V&A, where the Norfolk House music room and sections of Northumberland House’s drawing room testify to the massive investment involved. Meander around the West End and the street names alone – Bedford Square, Portland Square, Grafton Street, Marlborough Street, Grenville Street – conjure a vanished world of aristocratic living.

2. Drury Lane Theatre and King’s Theatre Haymarket

Theatre and opera attendance was central to fashionable life. Drury Lane staged daily performances ranging from Shakespeare to new comedies of manners. An evening’s schedule could run for five hours, with prologues, epilogues, sung performances, and even additional short plays besides the headline show. Opera was performed at the King’s Theatre (on the site of what is now Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket). Attracting performers from around Europe, it was a key fixture for the beau monde.

An Audience Watching a Play at Drury Lane Theatre by Thomas Rowlandson [public domain]

Attending these venues just once did not cut it. Fashionable society subscribed to boxes and attended repeatedly every week. For them, stage performances were rarely the draw; what counted were the social performances of the audience. The Hon. Frederick Robinson, for example, bemoaned that while the opera was ‘long and dull and the dances bad… I also go as I am sure to meet all my acquaintance’.

3. Ranelagh Gardens

In the eighteenth century, the land to the east of Chelsea Royal Hospital was a pleasure garden open to evening visitors in the spring and early summer. Ranelagh Gardens had opened in 1742, in direct competition to its famous predecessor Vauxhall Gardens. With tree-lined promenades, music, singing, fireworks and masquerades, the entertainments on offer at Ranelagh were modern and varied. Its principal innovation, however, was a dramatic rotunda – ‘a vast amphitheatre, finely gilt, painted and illuminated into which everybody that love eating, drinking and staring is admitted’. The Rotunda has long gone but you can still promenade down one of the garden’s original tree-lined walks. Squint a bit and you might glimpse Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a few yards ahead.

The Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea near (now in) London by Thomas Bowles, 1754 [public domain]

The Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea near (now in) London by Thomas Bowles, 1754 [public domain]

4. Spitalfields

A fine wardrobe was essential to the fashionable set. For men and women the most important and expensive clothing was that worn to court. Spitalfield’s silk-weavers spent months producing the sumptuous fabrics required, adorned with diamonds and embroidery. Settled by Huguenot refugees in the 1680s, Spitalfields was home to London’s silk industry. The royal family visited the district to promote its trade, and to advertise their insistence that only silks woven in England should be worn at court.

A mantua or court dress, 1740-1745. Photo by Gryffindor [CC-BY-SA 3.0]

5. I am The Only Running Footman

Life for the beau monde could not be managed without an army of supporting staff, from pastry chefs to rat catchers. The liveried servants, though, had the plum posts. Well-paid and well-dressed footmen accompanied their employers around town. Besides the occasional errand, a footman’s principal role was to look the part. Tall, handsome and fit, a team of young footmen on your carriage was the ultimate fashionable accessory. One such footman established this Mayfair pub, ‘The Only Running Footman’, in the early 1800s. Located near Berkeley Square, it sits surrounded by the grand streets that once housed the beau monde and their entourages.

Hannah Greig is a lecturer in eighteenth-century British history at the University of York. Prior to joining York she held posts at Balliol College, Oxford, and the Royal College of Art. Alongside her academic work, Dr Greig works as a historical adviser for film, television, and theatre. Recent credits include the feature film The Duchess (Pathe/BBC films 2008, directed by Saul Dibb) and Jamie Lloyd’s production of The School for Scandal (at the Theatre Royal in Bath). She is the author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London.

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Image credits: (1) An Audience Watching a Play at Drury Lane Theatre by Thomas Rowlandson [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons; (2) The Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea near (now in) London by Thomas Bowles, 1754 [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons; (3) A mantua or court dress, 1740-1745. Photo by Gryffindor [CC-BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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