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Summer Fun in the Regency, Part 3

Can you identify which of the following games (all of them ways of hitting a ball) would have been activities for Regency people and which would not?  Tennis, baseball, rounders, nine pins, croquet, ground billiards, golf, cricket. Let’s take look at these and see how you did. Have you ever played any of these sports, or enjoyed Regency fictional characters who did?

A group of young ladies in Regency era gowns play at ninepins and bowling in an outdoor court enclosed by walls with a wide double gate behind them.
Playing bowls and ninepins in a courtyard, 1822

TENNIS: “Tennis” is a catch-all term that actually covers two types of the game with separate but related histories. While our modern sport of “tennis” has roots that go as far back as medieval times, it actually developed from “lawn tennis,” a later offshoot of the form of the game known as “royal” or “real” tennis.

Royal tennis evolved from a 12th century monastic French game, “jeu de paume” (“game of the palm”), where the ball was hit with hands. Eventually, gloves were used, and by the 16th century when the game was at peak popularity, racquets were introduced and the game was being played on enclosed courts. But as we have already seen with lawn bowling, only the very wealthy could afford to build and maintain special venues for games—hence the name “royal” tennis. The intertwined history of royalty between England and France easily explains how the game arrived in England and gained popularity there.

Wikipedia dates the game in England to Henry V (1413–22). Sports enthusiast Henry VIII added sporting venues to his palaces, including tennis courts. Whitehall was said to include four indoor tennis courts, and the tennis court at Hampton Court Palace still exists. Mary Queen of Scots played tennis on a court at Falkland Palace in Fife which also still stands. But during the 18th century in England with the German-based House of Hanover on the throne, tennis fell out of royal favor, and in France the royal sport was doomed by the French Revolution, followed by the Napoleonic wars.

Young lady dressed in late Victorian style clothing and large rbimmed straw hat, one hand holding it against a breeze and a tennis racquet clutched under her arm.

Although a reference to “field tennis, an invented game” is made by a memoirist from 1767, it was not until the 1870’s that “lawn tennis” came along, a version of the game that the general populace could play on smooth grass. As we have previously seen, the invention of the lawn mower no doubt played a key role in that evolution. So, tennis was played both before and after the Regency, but during the 18th and early 19th centuries it declined in popularity and is not a sport Regency folks would likely have played. They did, however, play racquets and squash racquets in very similar form to those games as known today.

CROQUET/Ground Billiards: Croquet is another game with ancient roots. Since croquet lawns in the 1870’s were venues for the first games of lawn tennis, let’s look at that quintessential summer game next. Croquet seems to have origins in either, or both, of two other games using balls, mallets and wickets. One is an earlier popular English game that, like tennis, has French origins—the game of pall mall (“paille-maille” in French), dating to the 13th century in France (using wickets made of wicker) and introduced in England in the 16th or 17th century (sources vary). The other root is the Irish game of “crooky” which by the earliest record dates from the 1830’s.

Thomas Blount’s Glossographia (1656) described pall mall as a game played in a long alley with wickets at either end, where the object is to drive a ball through the “high arch of iron” in as few mallet strokes as possible, or a number agreed on. Blount adds: “This game was heretofore used in the long alley near St. James’s and vulgarly called Pell-Mell.” (This is where the name of the famous London Street comes from.) The length of the alley varied, the one at St. James being close to 800 yards long. In 1854 an old ball and mallets were discovered, now in the British Museum, described thus: “the mallets resemble those used in croquet, but the heads are curved; the ball is of boxwood and about six inches in circumference.”

But how did pall mall evolve into croquet, a game with six or more wickets set in a pattern and spread over a much larger area than an alley? Or did it? An entire family of individually unidentified lawn games played in medieval times, collectively known today as “ground billiards,” were played with a long-handled mallet or mace, wooden balls, a hoop (the pass), and an upright skittle or pin (the king).” Any one of these games could have led to the development of “crooky” in Ireland, which locals are known to have played in 1834 at Castlebellingham. As with the earlier games, there is no record of the rules or method of playing.

However, a form of “crooky” was introduced in England in 1852. Isaac Spratt registered a set of rules for “croquet,” from a game he saw played in Ireland, around 1856. John Jaques published official rules and editions of croquet in 1857, 1860, and 1864 and manufactured sets. At first, croquet was played rarely, mostly by affluent or upper-class people. But the All England Croquet Club was formed at Wimbledon, London, in 1868. That same year the first all-comers croquet meet was held in Gloucestershire, England. Croquet became all the rage and spread quickly to all corners of the British Empire by 1870. Sad to say, croquet is thoroughly Victorian.

Victorian croquet match

Baseball/Rounders: The earliest reference to rounders, which may actually date back to Tudor times, was made in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) and included an illustration of “base-ball,” depicting a batter, a bowler, and several rounders posts. The rhyme refers to the ball being hit, the boy running to the next post, and then home to score.  

In 1828, William Clarke in London published the second edition of The Boy’s Own Book, which included the rules of rounders and also the first printed description in English of a bat and ball base-running game played on a diamond.

Rounders is very similar to the American game of baseball and is surely the ancestor of that game, evolved once brought across the pond. Clarke’s book including the rules and description was published in the U.S. in 1829, but English emigrants would have brought the game over with them far earlier. Rounders has been played by British children right up until modern times, so Regency children given the opportunity (most likely in the country or at school) would very likely have played the game. Would adults have played? Less likely, unless they were being particularly playful in re-enacting their childhood pursuits.

Ninepins/Skittles: Differing from lawn bowling, many lawn games involved rolling a bowl and hitting a pin or cone, or multiples of these. These games are the true ancestors of our modern day bowling. An early form of bowling was called “cones,” in which two small cone-shaped objects were placed on two opposite ends, and players would try to roll their bowl as close as possible to the opponent’s cone. The very old game of “kayles”—later called nine-pins, or skittles, after another name for the pins—usually involved throwing a stick at a series of nine pins set up in a square formation, although in some variations the players would roll a bowl instead. The object was to knock down all the pins with the least number of throws. Sometimes, the game would feature a larger “king pin” in the center of the square which, if knocked down, automatically granted a win.

Ninepins, 18th century “Modern Exercise”

Ninepins (1570s) or skittles (1630s) was generally played in an alley, like pall mall, and an arrangement of pins might stand at each end, or only at one. But it did not really require much more than a flat space of ground and became popular among all the classes, especially by the 18th century. Public houses with grounds often offered skittles accompanied by gambling, of course, leading the poor to become even poorer. Press gangs, too, found the pub-side ninepin alleys a fruitful place to gather men to serve the king.

Instructions to jurors from a Portsmouth magistrate, 1800

In the late 18th century, the moral outrage over the destructive effect of such gaming led to a movement to level the skittle grounds to counteract the problem. This merely led to the resurgence of another game, nine-holes (1570s), also known as “bumble puppy” later on. In this game, instead of pins to knock down, the object became to throw balls into nine holes (in a board or dug into the ground) arranged with successive number values and the player with the highest points won. Since this game wasn’t banned in the statutes against skittles or ninepins, the authorities could not stop the games. Eventually during the Regency, skittles reclaimed its popularity. (see illustration at top, from an 1822 book on exercise and sports for young women)

Cricket: There’s a theory that cricket, another “bats and ball game,” may have derived from a game like pall mall or bowling, by the intervention of a batsman stopping the ball from reaching its target by hitting it away. The game is so old it probably dates back to Saxon or Norman times in the southeast of England, but written references go back at least to 1590. The name comes from either Old French (criquet “goal post, stick”), Middle Dutch/Flemish (cricke “stick, staff”) or Anglo-Saxon (cricc “shepherd’s staff”).

A Village Game of Cricket

By the early 18th century cricket had become a leading sport in London as well as the south-eastern counties of England with organized clubs and some professional county teams, and continued to spread slowly. The switch to throwing the ball instead of rolling it along the ground came sometime around mid-century along with the change to straight bats instead of bent ones. Boys played cricket at schools, children played cricket in their villages, and adults of both genders apparently played as well. The first known women’s cricket match was played in Surrey in 1745. The famous Lord’s Cricket Ground opened in 1787 with the formation of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Interest in cricket has not waned from that time to the present day, so it was certainly being played during the Regency.

GOLF: Golf is another stick-and-ball game with roots in those early and unknown ancient lawn games. While the specifics of golf were developed by the Scots, the roots of the game (and even some of the early wooden balls used to play the game) came to them from the Dutch. The name “golf” is derived from the Dutch word “kolf” which means club. A Dutchman first described the game of golf in 1545, while it first appeared in Scottish literature in 1636, but there are other references to the Dutch game as early as the 13th and 14th centuries.

It was the Scots, however, who had the idea of making holes in the ground, laid out over a course, and made the object of the game to get the ball into each of those holes.

“The MacDonald boys playing golf,” portrait by 18th-century artist Jeremiah Davison

Golf has an interesting history, but it evolved quite steadily over time in Scotland with the exception of being banned by James II (1457), James III (1471) and James IV (1491) for distracting the military from training. James IV reversed his ruling by 1502, however. It seems the Scottish king was fond of the sport himself. Later in that century, King Charles I brought the game to England and Mary Queen of Scots introduced the game to France.

The Old Course at St Andrews, Scotland is one of the oldest courses dating to 1574 or possibly earlier. Diarist Thomas Kinkaid mentioned some rules in 1687, but the first “official” rules were not issued until 1744. James VI played golf at Blackheath near London in 1603 when he became James I of England, where the Royal Blackheath Golf Club was later established (1745 or earlier). Two English courtiers played against James VII of Scotland in 1681 at Leith for a wager, but there is little evidence the English took to the game until the Victorian era. But if you had a Scottish character in Regency London, he might be happy indeed to play at Blackheath if he were accepted as a member or knew someone else who was.

A group of 18th century gentlemen wearing tailcoats, breeches, boots and tricorn hats surround a putting green and hole watching as one man with a golf club prepares to sink his ball. In the background can be seen building of St. Andrews, Scotland.
Golf at St. Andrews, 18th century

“Golf is an exercise which is much used by a gentleman in Scotland……A man would live 10 years the longer for using this exercise once or twice a week.”–Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745 – 1813)

(illustrations in this post are public domain, as vintage art)

Summer Fun in the Regency-Part 2

As promised last month, here is more of our look at Regency summer sports and activities. When the sun shines and the days are warmer, what can’t be done outside? But you might be surprised at which sports were not developed or popular until later than our favorite period. Given the interesting details of the following two games, it looks like we will need to have a part 3 next month to keep this short enough!

Jeu de Volant, 1802


Battledore and Shuttlecock

In my almost-finished wip, Her Perfect Gentleman (releasing in November, I hope), a game of battledore and shuttlecock ends a bit disastrously for my heroine, Honoria. What happens is her own fault, for she insists on playing and the ground is still muddy from the previous day’s rain.

The game (known as Jeu de Volant in France, which means “the game of flight”) has been played in Europe for centuries. Western artworks from the 16th, 17th and 18th century document both adults and children playing it.

Young girl with a shuttlecock (p.d.)

The game differs from our modern sport of badminton, for it is played by individuals without “sides” or a net or defined court space, and the object is to keep the shuttlecock from landing. It can be played indoors (with an adequate space) or outdoors, using battledores (paddles or racquets) usually covered with parchment or gut-string net. The shuttlecock was made from cork (sometimes covered with leather) and feathers.

(c) National Trust, Ham House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The British National Badminton Museum says of the earlier game: “If a single player played, they would hit the shuttle in the air counting the number times they could do this without it falling on the floor. Two or more players hit the shuttlecock back and forth. This was usually a cooperative rather than competitive game. The players purposely hit the shuttlecock towards rather than away from each other, their goal was to have as long a rally as possible keeping the shuttlecock up in the air and counting the number of consecutive successful strokes in each rally.”

Adults play at shuttlecock in a garden, 18th c (p.d.)

Indeed, in Diana Sperling’s delightful book Mrs Hurst Dancing we find the following charming (and humorous) entry and illustration: 

The Badminton Museum website says: “We know the game of ‘battledore and shuttlecock’ was played at Badminton House as early as 1830 because they still have in their possession two old battledores which have inscriptions handwritten in ink on their parchment faces. The oldest reads: ‘Kept with Lady Somerset on Saturday January 12th 1830 to 2117 with… (unreadable)’.The second says: ‘The Lady Henrietta Somerset in February 1845 kept up with Beth Mitchell 2018.’”

Illustration from Healthful Sports for Young Ladies, by Mlle St. Sernin, a French governess – 1822

Several sources say the more competitive badminton evolved from Poona, a game with sides and a net learned by the British military in India in the 1860’s. It took on the name badminton in the 1870’s, named after the country estate of the Dukes of Beaufort in Glocestershire where it was either played a great deal or introduced at a party. Other sources suggest that the later version of the game was invented at the estate during a house party in 1860. An article called ‘Life in a Country House’ in the December 1863 Cornhill magazine used the term “badminton” (albeit with an explanation required), so it may have been the first introduction in print of the name in use at the duke’s house. The reference says: “your co-operation will be sought for…badminton (which is battledore and shuttlecock played with sides, across a string suspended some five feet from the ground)….” The North Hall at Badminton House is the same size as a badminton court as we know it today, 13.4m by 6.1m, and five feet is still the standard height for a badminton net. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on this one!

Lawn bowling (not to be confused with the game of  skittles or nine-pin) is so ancient it goes back to the Egyptians 7,000 years ago, and it may have been played in Turkey before that. It is believed that the Roman Legions spread their version of the game (today called Bocce in Italy) to all the European lands, where each country adopted its own variations, influenced by climate and terrain.

“Figures on a Bowling Ground” by Pieter Angillis (Flemish-1685-1734) p.d.

Lawn bowling, where the objective is to roll a ball so that it stops as close as possible to a smaller, target ball named the kitty, or jack, was so well established in England by 1299 A.D. that a group of players organized the oldest established bowling club in the world that is still active, the Southhamptom Old Bowling Green Club. The sport was so popular that royalty in both France (where it is called Boules) and England passed laws restricting it for the common people during several centuries, because it had supplanted archery as a pastime and archery skills were essential for the national defense.

In England, Edward III in 1361, Richard II in 1388, and Henry IV in 1409 put restrictions on not only who, but when and for how long certain segments of the population could play. Henry VIII outlawed it entirely for the lower classes in 1541, excepting on Christmas Day, and in 1555 Queen Mary passed her own prohibition on it for the lower classes, on the grounds that it supported “unlawful assemblies, conventiclers, seditions, and conspiracies.” Her restriction on it lasted for 3 centuries!

Lawn bowling green on a large estate, 18th century p.d.

In the meanwhile, fashionable land owners and the aristocracy could play on private bowling greens, if they paid 100 pounds to the Crown. Samuel Pepys mentions in his diary being invited to “play at bowls with the nobility and gentry.” The cost of maintaining and grooming the greens was prohibitive enough to limit them to the wealthiest circles, such as royalty, or those most devoted to the sport. Many very old bowling greens are still in use today, including one at Windsor Castle, and one at Plymouth Hoe where Sir Francis Drake and his captains were said to be bowling in 1588 when they received the news of the invading Spanish Armada.

Lawn bowling was never restricted in Scotland where rich and poor alike embraced it wholeheartedly and it has remained very popular throughout the centuries. Early versions of the game used a round ball like those used in Boules or Bocce, but later the English version adopted a weighted or “biased” ball which rolls with a curve. One story attributes that development to the Duke of Suffolk in 1522, when his wooden ball split and he replaced it with a stair-banister knob that was flat on one side and could not roll straight, thus increasing the challenge and skill required to play.

But it was not until the Victorian era that the game reached its present-day mode. Three events played a large role in that progress: 1) the invention of the lawn-mower in 1830, which made maintaining a smooth, flat green both more attainable and less expensive; 2) the queen’s 1845 rescinding of the old prohibitions, which opened the game officially to all English people; and 3) the Scots (notably W.W. Mitchell, along with 200 other bowlers from various clubs) agreed upon standardized rules in 1848 and codified them into a uniform set of laws that were eventually adopted internationally.

In Part 3 next month we’ll take a brief look at more “summer games” and even quiz you on which ones would have been played during the Regency!

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my…

Romancelandia thrives on strange pets, but the creatures authors give their characters are by no means stranger than those real people kept during the Georgian era. There was a large menagerie at the Tower of London, that included apes, leopards, lions, even a polar bear that was let loose (on a long chain) to hunt fish in the Thames. Many wealthy people kept private menageries, or strange pets.

The Moose
George Stubbs

William Wilberforce, the abolitionist politician, had a domesticated menagerie of foxes and hares and hedgehogs that roamed about his house. In 1824, Wilberforce founded the first animal welfare society in the world. The Duke of Richmond kept a famous collection of animals that people traveled far and wide to view. He had everything from lions and tigers to bears (too many bears!) and even a moose. One of my favorite stories about his collection is when he tried to acquire a sloth, but ended up with yet another bear (this reminds me of the people in China who keep ending up with bear cubs with they try to buy Tibetan Mastiffs).


I received your letter I am obliged to you
for it. I wish indeed it had been the sloath that
had been sent me, for that is the most curious
animal I know; butt this is nothing butt a
comon young black bear, which I do not know what
to do with, for I have five of them already. so pray
when you write to him, I beg you would tell
him not to send me any Bears, Eagles, Leopards,
or Tygers, for I am overstock’d with them already.

I am Dear Sir,
Your Faithfull
humble servant

Another pet that is dear to my heart, and that I may have to someday make use of, is Gilbert White’s tortoise, Timothy. Timothy had originally belonged to Gilbert’s Aunt Snooke. White inherited the tortoise from his aunt in 1780 and it lived with him for the rest of White’s life (Timothy outlived White as well as the aunt). Timothy was reportedly a great favorite in the village and during the summer months would range all over White’s five acre garden. Timothy hibernated during the cold English winters (and this clearly didn’t harm him as he lived a good, long life).

There are documented races in London parks between cheetahs and greyhounds. There was an emporium in the London docks that specialized in exotic animals. There was a constant influx of odd animals brought ashore by sailors and brought home by travelers. Everything from elephants to giraffes to dodo birds. To date, I’ve made do with dogs, but someday I just might have to go with something a little stranger…

Cooling It on the Water: Regency Boating

We looked at winter sports back in December 2020 and January 2021, and perhaps summer activities seem really obvious since when the sun shines and the days are warmer, what can’t be done outside? But some sports you might expect were not developed or popular until later than the Regency, and others you might not think of. So let’s take a look this month and next.

Boating during the Regency came in three forms based on the source of power. All three offered ways to get out on the water where it might be cooler on a hot summer day! In Sense & Sensibility Jane Austen uses the term “sailing” in reference to boating in general, not necessarily only with sails. Recreational boating was far more likely to involve rowing or punting, which were seldom done on rough waters and were considered to be under much more reliable control by their human operators than those relying on wind.

Sailing (with sails) purely for pleasure was still a little controversial during the Regency, because of safety concerns. For one thing, sailboat design still had a long way to go to reach the sort of safe and efficient crafts we have today. People were working on it, of course, and experimenting with such design is part of the hero’s interest in my old Signet Regency, The Rake’s Mistake. (Sorry, as mentioned last time, it’s out of print because I want to revise it and haven’t made time for that yet.).

However, recreational sailing in England dates all the way back to 1662, when King Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York, raced their huge new “yachts” from Greenwich to Gravesend and back. By the 18th century pleasure sailing was popular enough for the Cork Harbor Water Club to be established in Ireland, sometime prior to 1720, although they did not race, but “promenaded in formation” when they went out to rendezvous at Spithead. However, an open sailing match was held on the lower Thames in 1749, from Greenwich to the Nore and back. The prize was a silver cup presented by the eleven-year-old Prince of Wales, afterward King George III.

Documented Thames sailing matches in the London vicinity began in 1775 when HRM the Duke of Cumberland offered a silver cup (valued at 20 guineas) for a yachting race. It was sailed from Westminster Bridge to Putney Bridge and back. The next month the Duke of Newcastle sponsored another regatta, and the “Cumberland Fleet” was formed by those who sailed that summer—what would later become the Royal Thames Yacht Club in 1830. The Cumberland Cup and other races were held most years from then on to at least 1812. Vauxhall Gardens also sponsored an annual race on the Thames from 1786 to 1810.

After 1812, the racing record stops, with a gap until some 20 years later. I believe the construction of new, more navigable bridges (Vauxhall, Waterloo, Southwark) complicated racing on the Thames during the building process and increased the river traffic afterward (which included steamboats) during those years. Significantly, between 1812 and 1815, forty-two of Britain’s most distinguished yachtsmen founded the Yacht Club (later to become the Royal Yacht Club) at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. They set a minimum size of ten tons for members’ vessels, and made the racing venue the Solent instead of the Thames.

Rowing, of course, is an ancient art. Think of Cleopatra’s barge! And note the rowers in the Vauxhall race picture above. I’m sure it was only natural that those who plied oars as their business might also indulge in competitions for pleasure and prizes, and others would see the potential for simple relaxation with oars as recreation.

One of the first documented Thames rowing races was held in 1715, to commemorate the anniversary of the accession of King George I. Thomas Dogget, a celebrated comedian, instituted the “coat and badge” as a prize to be rowed for annually on the river by six young watermen that had not been apprenticed longer than a year. In 1821 there was a similar boat race on the Serpentine during the coronation celebration for Prinny. By that time the river traffic and steamboats spelled an end to the rowing races on the Thames in town as well as those under sail.

The Boat Race is an annual set of rowing races between the Cambridge University Boat Club and the Oxford University Boat Club, traditionally rowed between open-weight eights on the upper River Thames from Putney to Mortlake. The men’s race was first held in 1829, quite late in the “extended Regency.” (The first women’s race was in 1927, almost a hundred years later.) The second men’s race was only held in 1836 due to disputes over the course and other matters.

The first Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, 1829

The first Henley Regatta for rowers wasn’t held until March 1839. It later became the Henley Royal Regatta and was moved to July when the weather was more cooperative. Rowing continued to be a popular recreation throughout the 19th century, as this lovely painting below (circa 1872) by Ferdinand Heilbuth shows. Women rowing and punting seems to be more evident later in the century. By that time, the railroads had taken the burden of transportation off the Thames, allowing the river to be used once again for recreation.

Rich or poor, if you were in town you could go out on the River Thames, or you might opt to try the more tranquil waters of the man-made lake in Hyde Park, the Serpentine. The 40 acre lake was created in 1730 by order of Queen Caroline. The bridge crossing it (dividing the lower 25 acres from the narrower “Long Water” at Kensington Gardens) was redesigned and rebuilt in 1827. A lone rower is at the right of the picture below, but far more people are on shore than on the water. I recently learned that starting in the late 18th century there was a rescue station on the Serpentine for assisting those “in danger of drowning”! Rowboats can still be rented to use on the Serpentine today (along with paddle boats).

Most of the wealthy left London for the country when the warm summer days set in. If you were out of the city, you could choose the River Thames farther upstream from London, or any of the local streams, rivers, ponds or lakes. You might be so fortunate and wealthy as to have your very own man-made lake on your country estate, a fad that came into full swing after the royals built the Serpentine. In my old 1996 Signet Regency, An Unlikely Hero (ebook available from Penguin Random House), the hero and heroine are among a party who go punting on just such an estate lake. Punting is essentially “poling,” rather like the gondoliers of Venice, only using the characteristic flat shallow boats called punts. It is still a popular method of boating on English waterways that can be very quiet and relaxing!

Punting on the Thames –Marcus Stone 1863

Do you like to go out on the water? If so, which form of Regency boating would you have enjoyed if transported back in time?

Next time, we’ll look at some other favorite (land-based) warm weather Regency sports.

(All pictures are public domain/Art)

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge –June 18, 1817

Every year, June 18 always brings with it thoughts of the battle of Waterloo, an epic battle that claimed tremendous losses for its time but ultimately altered the course of world history. But I also always think of the huge commemoration of the battle that occurred two years later in London, when the latest among the new River Thames bridges was opened with much pomp and fanfare. (The Vauxhall Bridge, the first cast iron bridge across the river, opened the previous year.)

Many artists attempted to capture the scene, and a look at their pictures shows why: the river is literally filled with every conceivable type of watercraft, and people crowd every available space along the riverfront that could afford a view of the proceedings. All of that, in fact, seems more of interest than the actual ceremonial proceedings upon the bridge itself. The Ackermann illustration above (public domain) is my favorite, because it shows the view from Somerset House, looking the opposite way from most of the other, more distant views, including the famous seven-foot-long one by John Constable in the Tate Museum collection, completed in 1832 (below, cc by public domain, Wikimedia Commons).

“The-Opening-of-Waterloo-Bridge-Seen-from-Whitehall-Stairs,” John Constable, 1832

In the last of my old Signet/NAL Regencies, The Rake’s Mistake (2002), my hero and heroine attend this festive occasion in his small sailboat, the Ariadne.

“By noon the banks of the Thames beyond Westminster Bridge were crowded with spectators on both sides of the river, in the gardens, on the rooftops, and in stands that had been constructed on wharves and in many of the yards. Huge barges that normally carried corn or coal were loaded this one day with human curiosity instead. A flotilla of sailboats similar to the Ariadne milled about in mid-river, weaving in and out of an even larger assemblage of rowed vessels—excursion boats, private barges, watermen’s wherries and the like. Many of these vessels carried flags that snapped and fluttered smartly in the breeze. Buildings and even several church steeples were similarly adorned, while eighteen standards flew upon the bridge itself. Ramsdale furled the sail and anchored the Ariadne close enough so that as he and Daphne delved into the contents of their picnic hamper, they could listen to the Footguards band that was among the military detachments stationed on the bridge.”

The river is actually an important character in that story, and I have blogged about the River Thames here before (July 2016). (I still haven’t re-issued that book as I feel it needs extensive revisions, and the new Little Macclow stories set in Derbyshire are taking up my time and brain! It is currently out of print.)

Enterprising people with access to the riverfront or places overlooking it were selling viewing spots for weeks in advance of the actual bridge opening. Here is an example of a newspaper notice from June 11, a week before the event:

“OPENING OF WATERLOO BRIDGE June 11, 1817 Apartments and places commanding a complete front view of the intended Royal procession on Wednesday next, in Commemoration of the battle of Waterloo, may be had by early application to Mr. Stevenson, No 41, Drury Lane, near Long-Acre.”

Mr. Stevenson was very likely acting as agent for a number of different persons who were too genteel to be directly involved or, in the case of businesses, too busy to want to manage the details of these one-time side-line transactions.

Not everyone was in favor of naming the bridge after a battle that had occurred on continental soil. Some critics felt the name was out of keeping with all of London’s other bridges, since all of the others referenced something to do with London. The bridge, when originally proposed in 1809, was intended to be called the Strand Bridge. Work on it was begun in 1811. It was only in 1816 that a Parliamentary Act was passed to change the name to Waterloo Bridge as “a lasting Record of the brilliant and decisive Victory achieved by His Majesty’s Forces in conjunction with those of His Allies, on the Eighteenth Day of June One thousand eight hundred and fifteen.”

The Opening of the Waterloo Bridge on the 18th of June, 1817, etched by A. Pugin from a drawing by W. Findlater, engraved by R. Havell and Son, 1818 (c.c. by public domain)

What do you think? Was naming a bridge for the battle an appropriate commemoration, even as an anomaly? Or were the Regent and the other powers behind the bridge project simply too carried away by their enthusiasm for the important victory? Would you have liked to attend the grand opening celebration?

According to The Survey of London, the bridge cost £618,000 (c. $58.5 million in today’s U.S. currency or £37.1 million UK) and the total cost of the bridge and its approaches was £937,391 11s 6d. (c. $88.8 million or £56.1 million UK). It began as a “penny toll” bridge, but as the Survey authors point out, “As a commercial speculation the undertaking was far from being a success since, in order to avoid payment of tolls, many people who would otherwise have used the bridge made a detour to cross the river by Blackfriars or Westminster Bridges, which were free.” The toll operation ceased in 1877. 

Sadly, the lack of success as a toll bridge led to a more tragic form of success as a prime site for suicides—so especially sad given the high hopes and celebration when the bridge opened. The lack of traffic compared to other London bridges meant anyone intent on suicide was less likely to be seen or stopped before they could carry out their final act. Newspapers carried many accounts of poor souls who ended their days by jumping from Waterloo Bridge. There were enough to inspire poets and artists of the mid-Victorian era, and a new nickname arose from Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem “The Bridge of Sighs”, about a homeless woman who jumped from the bridge.

The bridge began to deteriorate by the end of the century, and by the 1930’s debate was whether to attempt to repair it or replace it altogether. The decision was made to replace it, and the work carried out during the war years of the early 1940’s, mostly by women. This gave a new nickname to the replacement Waterloo Bridge opened in 1942 and completed in 1945: the “Ladies Bridge” in view of their labors to build it and despite the opening day remarks that credited “the men” who had supposedly created it.