The Georgians

By Dayna Woolbright

The Georgian period spans 123 years, 1714-1837, and marks the period when England was ruled by the Hanoverian Kings, George I, George II, George III, George IV, William IV.The Georgian period saw much change; in politics, industry and literature. In social terms it saw the gap between rich and poor widen and the emergence of the libertarian ‘middle class.’ This era helped shape Britain as we know it today and there are far too many important historical events to consolidate into one blog, for this reason I will concentrate on the social history and the developments that can be represented through objects in the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology service’s collection.


The Georgian period saw the emergence of imperial based wealth through the import/export of various goods which were sold around the world. This created a new larger, wealthy middle class who liked to illustrate their wealth and status with the construction of elaborate houses, often covering acres of land. The majority of the population were still occupied rural area but this era saw the growth of towns such as Bath, Dublin and Edinburgh. The number of influential interior designers and architects increased, many took inspiration from classical architecture. Robert Adam and his brother were the most fashionable architects and interior designers working in England and Scotland during the latter part of the 18th century. The designed country mansions and townhouses as well as the furniture and fitting for the insides.

Typical features of Georgian Architecture include:

  • a symmetrical façade
  • an ornate portico above the front door, with columns at either side in a classical style
  • lots of large sash windows made from separate rectangular panels of glass
  • smaller windows on upper floors, this would have been the servants’ quarters
  • a small ring window at the top of the building
  • Central, panelled front door with a rectangular or fan shaped window above
  • decorative iron railings at the entrance
  • chimneys on both sides

The most common building materials used were brick or stone. Commonly used colours were red, tan, or white.


Archaeology wing – Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

One of the most impressive feats of Georgian architecture is The Royal Cresent in Bath which consists of 30 townhouses built in a sweeping curve above a sloping lawn.  It was designed by the architect John Wood the Younger and built between 1767 and 1774. Many notable people have lived or stayed in the Royal Cresent since its construction including politicians and writers.

Other examples of Georgian architecture can be seen:

  • The Geffrye Museum, London – has rooms showing the development of Georgian style
  • Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
  • Syon House, Brentford, Middlesex – the Long Gallery designed by Robert Adam
  • 28 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh – a whole square built by Robert Adam and purchased by The National Trust for Scotland.
  • The Georgian House, 7 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.
  • Holkham Hall, Norfolk
  • Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, Norfolk
Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

It was also during the Georgian period that the British Museum was established. Avid collector and physician, Sir Hans Sloane had spent his life collecting treasures from around the world. Despite being a well-known doctor and naturalist he was a man with a wide range of interests which were represented in his collection of 50,000 books and manuscripts, 23,000 coins and medals and 20,000 natural history specimens. After his death in 1753 Sloane left his collection to the nation with the condition that the government paid his heirs £20,000. Sloane’s collection as well as others already in public ownership combined to create the basis of the British museum collection.  The building was rebuilt in the 1800’s inspiration for the building is taken from classical architecture which continued to be stylistically influential.

Life for the rich

For the upper classes life was very comfortable, many wealthy gentlemen owned a sprawling county estate as well as a fashionable townhouse, much time was spent socialising and eating! Dinner was served around 3’oclock and usually consisted to two main courses followed by dessert, one course could consist of 16 dishes! A Georgian Gentleman’s diet could be very rich and gout was a common complaint. Specially designed Gout stools were designed to elevate a painful leg.

Gout stool, Strangers Hall Museum

Gout stool, Strangers Hall Museum

Gambling was commonplace, Horace Walpole wrote “Lord Stavordale…lost eleven thousand last Tuesday, but recovered it by one great hand of hazard.” Brutal sports such as bear baiting, cock-fighting and bare-knuckle boxing were also enjoyed by ‘gentile’ folk.

The Georgian home was lavishly decorated often incorporating opulent and lavish designs; inspiration was taken from Palladium architecture, the Grand Tour and the Orient. Early Georgian colour schemes include burgundy, sage green and blue grey but, as the style developed, they became lighter and included pea green, sky or Wedgwood blue, soft grey, dusky pink and a flat white or stone. Panelling was still used but only as high as the dado rail, the plaster above was either painted or papered. The fireplace was the focal point of the room and the bigger the better as they were seen as status symbols. The fireplace in the Georgian dining room at Strangers Hall Museum is an excellent example; the painting above shows a trade scene which may be an indicator of the previous inhabitants’ occupation? The mouldings which surround it is again a typical stylistic feature of the Georgian period.

Georgian Dining Room, Strangers Hall Museum

Georgian Dining Room, Strangers Hall Museum

The beautiful glass chandelier dates from the late 18th century and would have also reflected the high status of the owner.

Furniture designers such as Thomas Chippendale, in the middle Georgian period and George Hepplewhite in later years were popular among the wealthy. These shield back chairs with yellow silk upholstery would have been very desirable; the large seats were designed to accommodate the large skirts worn by Georgian women.

Hepplewhite chair

Hepplewhite chair

Mahogany was commonly used by furniture makers, becoming available in Britain in 1720 and reaching the height of popularity during the Georgian period. Its’ hard, close grain enabled the maker to produce intricate carvings.

Mahogany Chippendale chair

Mahogany Chippendale chair

Decorative objects would have included items brought back from tours of Europe, fans, porcelain, lacquer work and silver items made by the French silversmith Paul de Lamerie were popular.

A beautiful home would not be complete without a beautiful garden to match and landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was just the man to provide it. He created the English parkland ideal of grand sweeps and vistas.

Ladies fashion

During the early Georgian period female dress was highly elaborate. To formal occasions wealthy women wore a dress known as a mantua, an open-fronted silk or wool gown with a train and matching petticoat. The train was worn looped up over the hips to reveal a matching petticoat. Corsets and stays were used to create the desired shape and emphasise the waist.

Shoe dating from 1700-1730

Shoe dating from 1700-1730

Shoe dating from 1700-1730

The sack back dress gradually over took the mantua in popularity. By the 1730’s this new style of dress had become increasingly more fashionable. The sack back dress was made from five or six panels of silk pleated into two box pleats at the centre back of the neck band. It flowed down and was incorporated into the fullness of the skirt, a hoop petticoat made of split cane supported the shape.

This style remained in fashion until the 1780’s when the female silhouette underwent some radical changes. The waistline became higher creating what we now know as an empire line. Fabrics became simpler and dresses were loose fitting with less corsetry. Nelson’s mistress, Emma Hamilton, was a great fan of this new look and dressed in classically styled garments fashioned from sheer flowing fabrics to preform her ‘attitudes,’ a mixture of postures, dance, and acting. In colder weather these dresses would have been worn with a pelisse coat.

Drawing of a late 18th century dress in the NMAS collection

Drawing of a late 18th century dress in the NMAS collection

Shoe dating from c.1789

Shoe dating from c.1789

Men’s fashion

When attending court a Georgian gentleman would wear his finest clothes often made from expensive fabrics and delicately embroidered. A typical outfit consisted of leather shoes with a stacked heel, silk stockings and knee breeches, a linen shirt, waistcoat and a full-skirted knee-length coat. A wig was essential, the most expensive were constructed from real human hair but cheaper alternatives were made from baked wool or horse and goat hair. The ensemble was completed with a tri-corne hat with upturned brim. When attending court gentlemen would also wear a full face of makeup. A pale face was essential, not only did it cover scars left from small pox it also showed that one did not have to go out and work. Lead or mercury was used however this often came at a great cost, the poisonous metals often caused hair loss and even death! Plump, rosy cheeks created the illusion of good health, corks were sometimes stored inside the mouth to make the cheeks appear fuller, again this showed status demonstrating that the person could afford to eat well. Flowers or crushed up beetles were used to give colour and a fake beauty spot or patch would have been applied.

Gentlemen's waistcoat

Gentlemen’s waistcoat

As the century progressed the male silhouette underwent subtle changes; wigs were tied back, before falling completely out of fashion, worn for only the most formal of occasions. Coat skirts became less full and waistcoats got shorter. Shoes became low heeled and fastened with buckles, straps or ribbons.

Both men and women made use of perfumes, washing ones face, hands and feet was a daily ritual but full bodied baths were still an infrequent luxury even for the rich. As well as personal odour the city would have bought new smells that would have been most unpleasant to the gentile nose, women often carried vinaigrettes which would be tucked in a glove, muff or purse. The vinaigrette would contain a sponge soaked in aromatic vinegar which would have been used to counter unpleasant smells or fainting fits.

18th century scent bottle

18th century scent bottle

The wealthy may have used a sedan chair as means of transportation around the city. The chair was named after the town of Sedan in France where it was first used, but by 1634, they had been introduced to London as vehicles for hire. The enclosed chair was carried between two horizontal poles supported by two porters. The design made it easier to transport its passengers around the narrow streets and as a result was much faster than a carriage. Very wealthy people may have owned their own sedan chair, lavishly decorated with painted panels and the inside upholstered in silk. Those for hire were more modest often covered with leather like this one from the Norfolk Museums collection, currently on display in the Bridewell Museum. This chair was available for hire from Opie Street in Norwich.

Sedan chair

Sedan chair

Towards the end of the 18th century the use of sedan chairs began to wane and by the mid 19th century they had been replace altogether.

Vauxhall pleasure gardens

As London became increasingly built up inhabitants found the need to seek open spaces where they could relax. Pleasure gardens were built on the outside of the city, the most famous of which was the ‘New Spring Gardens,’ a 12 acre site which opened in Vauxhall in 1661. Entry was free but exclusive and initially the gardens were only attended by the Royal Family and high society members through invitation.  However, when Johnathen Tyers took over the gardens in 1728 he saw a business opportunity in decreasing the gardens exclusivity and began charging a low entrance fee to encourage a wider range of clientele. This in turn created new problems with prostitutes and pickpockets frequenting the area. Watchmen were employed to patrol the gardens and keep crime to a minimum.

Tyers also introduced entertainment, he built pavilions, lodges, groves, grottos, lawns, temples and cascades and an elegant music room, ‘The Rotunda.’  With various pleasure gardens vying for peoples’ attention the acts grew increasingly … Playbills were posted around London’s streets advertising lion taming, fortune telling, animal acts and acrobats. In 1850 a hot air balloon was sent up above Vauxhall gardens with a horse tied beneath it and the balloonist riding on its back!

A visit to the pleasure gardens was the perfect opportunity for the Georgian lady to show off the latest fashions and meet friends and family whilst taking in the fresh air.

Unfortunately as travel increased through the growing rail network, the need for pleasure gardens diminished. Monday 26th July 1859 saw the Vauxhall pleasure gardens open for the last time and the evening culminated in a firework display entitled ‘Farwell for ever.’

A representation of the Vauxhall pleasure gardens can be seen in the Museum of London.

Coffee houses also became popular establishment where men could indulge in this fashionable new drink whilst socialising or talking business and politics.

Life for the poor

As Industrialisation continued members of the poorer classes began to move away from the countryside into the expanding industrial towns in search of work. Factory owners built accommodation close to the factories to house the workers but conditions were appalling. Houses were built back to back with families of three or four occupying one room and sharing a bed. One street pump would supply water for a whole row of houses and toilets were nothing more than a hole in the ground. Children as young as six also worked in the factories undertaking dangerous tasks such as crawling under the machines to clean them while they were still in operation.

In stark contrast to the lavish lifestyle of Britain’s upper class, the poor could only afford basic foodstuffs; bread, cheap meat and vegetables. Gin became a popular escape from the toils of working life, Hogarth’s Painting Gin lane is a satirical representation of what life was like for London’s poor during the 1740’s. However the Gin Craze really took hold and during this time 11.2 million gallons were consumed in London each year. For this reason it is likely that Hogarth’s image contains some elements of truth.

Gin Lane by Hogarth

Gin Lane by Hogarth


In 1772 a legislation was passed that permitted parishes to administer poor relief in purpose built workhouses. By 1770 there were around 2,000 such workhouses in the country housing nearly 100,000 people. Inmates were separated into single sex ‘wards’ and those who were deemed able bodied were set to work. Tasks included braking rocks for roads and Oakum picking, the aim was to make life so unpleasant that people would do everything they could to avoid having to go into the workhouse. Conditions varied greatly from parish to parish, in London many workhouses were overcrowded, the people were malnourished and disease spread rapidly.  In the 1750s social investigator Jonas Hanway discovered that the death rate amongst workhouse children in London was over 90%! Gressenhall Workhouse was built in 1776 and operated until 1946 with numerous inmates passing through its doors. Despite the idyllic countryside location work was still hard, able bodied men worked the farm land helping to grow crops for the inmates while women helped in the laundry. Children were educated until they were old enough to be apprenticed. All inmates received basic healthcare, one of the few benefits of the workhouse.

Gressenhall Museum opened in 1976 but the building has changed little over the past years and the names of previous inmates can still be seen scratched into the walls. Objects from the workhouse rarely survive but Norfolk Museums and Archaeology service have a substantial collection of items from various workhouses in Norfolk some of which are on display.


Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

Foundling hospital

Not all poor relief was provided by the state, in 1739 the Foundling hospital was founded by shipbuilder and philanthropist, Thomas Coram who was horrified by the number of infants left deserted or dying on London’s streets. Coram saw this as a waste of life and in response he, along with the support of other leading figures such as composer Handel and artist William Hogarth, rallied for change. Coram created the first purpose built home for children, mothers who were unable to care for their children were able to leave their infants safe in the knowledge that they would be cared for. The hospital was incredibly popular and a balloting system had to be introduced to cope with demand.  Often the women were illiterate and unable to write their name or that of their child, to combat this mothers were asked to leave a small token along with their babies. Tokens ranged from pieces of fabric, playing cards, coins, gambling tokens or even a humble nut. The token acted as an identifier, should a custodian return for the baby they would describe the token or produce a matching half. Unfortunately this rarely happened or sadly in some cases when the mother returned the child had already died.

Many of the tokens are now on display in the Foundling Museum in London, through these simple but emotive objects the museum seeks to tell the stories of the children and society.

Influential Georgians

Nelson – An English man who continues to be a national icon. He played a prominent part in the naval war against France

William Wilberforce – An British man who railed for the abolition of slavery within the British Empire

Jane Austen – The daughter of a clergyman and popular writer, her most prolific novel is ‘Pride and Prejudice’

Dr Samuel Johnson – essayist, political writer, poet, moralist and the man responsible for compiling the first dictionary of the English language

Robert Walpole – a very wealthy man, Walpole used his power and influence in politics and is thought of as the first Prime Minister.

For more information about the Georgian period visit the exhibition, Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain at the British Library or Strangers Hall Museum in Norwich.

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