The Georgians were a rowdy bunch who enjoyed life to excess

By George, they’re APPALLING! The Georgians drank gin by the pint, had flatulence contests and danced naked on tables… they were a rowdy bunch who enjoyed life to excess

  • Robert Peal feels the Georgian period is ‘sadly ignored’ in UK school syllabuses
  • History teacher gives insight into the lives of 12 notable Georgians in a new book
  • Among them is Wilkes, who lived on a diet of oysters and turkey in his prison cell



by Robert Peal (William Collins £18.99, 240pp)

Sandwiched in time between the joyless Puritans and the demure Victorians, the Georgians gave Britain a vital century of merriment and excess.

For example, London had a Farting Club, whose members met once a week to eat cabbage, onions and pease porridge and then to ‘poison the neighbouring air with their unsavoury crepitations’. The average Londoner drank a pint of gin a week. The West End was so crowded with prostitutes that there needed to be a directory: Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies.

Robert Peal, author of this lively portrait of 12 notable Georgians, is a history teacher and headmaster who feels the Georgian period is ‘sadly ignored’ in school syllabuses, which tend to flit straight from the Great Fire to the Victorians — and his aim is to right this wrong.

Robert Peal tells the stories of 12 notable Georgians in a new history book. Pictured: A James Gillray creation

So, imagine you’re a sleepy teenager at the back of his history classroom. This book will keep you awake. Steering clear of pompous, soporific vocabulary, Peal errs on the side of endless contemporary slang. Georgians are forever ‘getting p****d’ and ‘sh*****g’. Scotsmen ‘beat the c**p’ out of each other. Nelson is ‘ass-kicking’, and Lady Hamilton a ‘certified super-babe’.

There are some good life stories here, gutsily told, and if you’re never quite sure exactly who John Wilkes, Olaudah Equiano or Lady Hester Stanhope were, this is a chance to refresh your general knowledge.

He enjoys the fact that the upper-classes were steeped in classical literature while indulging their baser instincts: they were ‘at their happiest debating the works of Ancient Greek poets in a brothel’.

He shows us the journalist John Wilkes — brave champion of liberty who dared to take on the King — on a typical evening at the Beefsteak Club, where any member too sensitive to take a joke was ‘escorted from the dining room, stripped to his underclothes, wrapped in a tablecloth and returned for more humiliation’.

Wilkes, the people’s hero, devoured life’s pleasures: even in his prison cell he lived on a diet of oysters, turkey, goose and smoked tongue and had an affair with one of his supporters. A new dance was invented in his honour: Wilkes’s Wriggle.

Peal tells the story of two brave lesbians, Sally Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, who escaped, dressed as men, from their miserable, mean families who tried to separate them, and set up house in a Welsh paradise, Plas Newydd, where they tenjoyed gardening and translated Virgil’s Aeneid.

Peal tells the rags-to- riches-and-back-to-rags story of Lady Hamilton, who was born Amy Lyon in poverty in Cheshire and sold coal from the back of a donkey. Pictured: Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton in That Hamilton Woman 

Far from being shunned by society as they would have been if born 50 years later, they were visited by top famous people such as Josiah Wedgwood and Richard Sheridan, and admired by Wordsworth.

Peal tells the rags-to- riches-and-back-to-rags story of Lady Hamilton, who was born Amy Lyon in poverty in Cheshire and sold coal from the back of a donkey.

55 in 

The measurement of George IV’s waist

Aged 13, she escaped to London on a cart and dazzled everyone with her beauty. Looks and daring could get you far.

She was spotted by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, who invited her to his stately home, where she danced naked on a table, got pregnant and was taken on as a mistress by Sir Harry’s friend Charles Greville, who insisted the child was fostered out.

When Greville sent her to Italy to stay with his uncle Sir William Hamilton, they became lovers and she became the most popular hostess in Naples society.

Then Nelson arrived, and the two fell madly in love. After Nelson’s death, Emma had a fall from grace, punished and resented by society who didn’t like her rise from her lowly birth.

She turned to drinking and gambling, went bankrupt and died in a cheap apartment in Calais. What a callous society it was!

Among all the feistiness, you get a sense of how desperate, dependent and helpless even the strongest women could be.

Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women, ‘Europe’s most outspoken critic of male domination’, was reduced to a pleading, weeping, nervous wreck when the handsome American she was in love with, Gilbert Imlay, whose child she was carrying, lost interest and refused to make her his wife.

MEET THE GEORGIANS by Robert Peal (William Collins £18.99, 240pp)

She jumped off Putney Bridge in a suicide attempt, only to be rescued by watermen.

She later died a horrible death from a blood infection caught while she was giving birth to the future Mary Shelley.

What brought the world of Georgian excess and unshockability to an end? Peal surmises that the nation was nervous after losing the American War of Independence and seeing the horrors of the French Revolution.

Methodists grew in numbers, disapproving of too much pleasure. ‘Georgian Britain, tired of its wild living, had checked into rehab.’

The Georgian remnants who missed the hedonism of their youth remind me of today’s people who rail against wokery. Here’s Mr Marigold, a fictional character in an 1828 magazine: ‘Give me the society where I can eat, drink, laugh, joke and smoke as I like, without being obliged to watch every word and action.’

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