Thomas Erskine – Georgian Animal Rights Activist


“They are created indeed for our use, but not for our abuse.”


A young Thomas

After 1815, the British were much more likely to condemn animal cruelty, especially towards horses and dogs, who were very much their favourites. Dogs were pets and horses were visible in the streets being clearly overburdened. Donkeys received some sympathy, especially when they were yoked to carts to avoid paying fees when going through toll gates.

Opposition to animal cruelty had a few roots; a new emphasis on human feeling ; religion; and social prejudice. The barbaric sports of the vicious lower orders needed to be eliminated. As this article from the Bath Chronicle ( 1810) shows, motives were mixed


“Throwing at Cocks” did what it said. A cock was tethered to a post and people threw stones at it. The winner was the one who finally killed it. Mayor of Bath John Palmer- the man who also invented Britain’s first efficient Post Office- opposed for humanitarian reasons, but one that has its basis in religion. There was no licence to treat even the meanest of God’s creatures in this way. It made you insensible to the sufferings of humanity. Both arguments resonate today and most people’s opposition to animal cruelty derive from one or both of these propositions.

Palmer fails to mention that many of the ruling class were worried by orchestrated examples of the lower orders enjoying themselves in this manner; but there is some indication here of a slight reformation in manners that was evident in the late Georgian period. It is also interesting that there was no assault on hare coursing or fox-hunting in the early nineteenth century; both as barbaric as cock throwing, but enjoyed exclusively by the upper classes.

Thomas, Lord Erskine was the “morning star” of the new movement to be kind to animals. He deserves much of the credit for changing deep-seated traditional views. It was he who tried to push  “A bill to prevent cruelty to brute animals”  through the House of Lords  in 1809.  His speech on the 15 May 1809 was perhaps the first speech in a British Parliament to put the intellectual case against animal  cruelty.

Like John Palmer and the leading citizens of Bath, part of Erskine’s argument was that prevention of cruelty was needed to redeem the lower orders- they, in their unthinking state, were responsible for much of the cruelty and were the hardest to reform- the law was needed as they would not be capable of doing it themselves. Erskine was referring to the mistreatment of dogs and horses; he deliberately omitted bull-baiting and cock throwing from his bill because he knew that too many Lords believed that these activities encouraged manly vigour.

These unmanly and disgusting outrages are most frequently perpetrated by the basest and most worthless; incapable, for the most part, of any reproof which can reach the mind, and who know no more of the law, than that it suffers them to indulge their savage dispositions with impunity.”

When animal abusers were challenged, according to Lord Erskine- “ what is it to you?”- was their answer. In order to refute this argument, Erskine had to reject two key Georgian beliefs; the immunity of the servant when ordered to do something  by a master; and that owning a creature was a justification for any kind of treatment. His denial of the absolute right of a property was radical for the time. His 1809 speech called it a “stupid defence”

Erskine used theological arguments too. Mankind, despite his “ God- like qualities” would be helpless without the contribution of animals. They were creatures created by God, and the dominion over the animals that is declared in Genesis is not a carte blanche to do anything. The very usefulness of the lower creatures was perfect evidence that they were a gift from God’s creation; looking after them was a trust and abusing them was a sin- there was already a Georgian society called the Society against the Sin of Cruelty to Dumb Animals

Animals had rights because they were created with similar features to humans. This did not imply equality, but inequality was no justification for abuse”

Almost every sense bestowed upon man is equally bestowed upon them; seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking; the sense of pain and pleasure; the passions of love and anger; sensibility to kindness, and pangs from unkindness and neglect, are inseparable characteristics of their natures as much as of our own”

Erskine was not a vegetarian. He did not imbue animals with the same characteristics of man, but did not see this a justification for their suffering;

They have, besides, no knowledge of the future, and their end, when appropriated fitly for our food, is without prolonged suffering.”

Although Erskine had intellectual agreements in favour of kindness to animals, he also liked them to an extent that modern readers would recognise. In 1811, he rescued a dog from the street that was about to be killed by some boys. He had his own adored Newfoundland dog, Toss, who he taught to do tricks. He had a macaw, a goose that followed him around and two leeches who he believed had saved his life in a medical procedure. He gave the leeches names, could distinguish between them and believed that they knew and liked him. So he was “guilty” of anthropomorphism way before it became popular.

Erskine’s Bill failed in the Commons on two occasions in 1809 and 1810. It was lost very narrowly in the Commons, because too many members were worried that horse racing and fox hunting would be next on the list.

Despite the defeat, Erskine predicted that future generations would treat the lower orders of animals with more respect. He did not have to wait long. The first animal protection law ( for cattle) was passed in 1821; an organisation for the protection of animals, the forerunner of the RSPCA, was formed in 1824. The crude Georgian attitudes to living creatures were passing.

Further reading
International Vegetarian Union


My three nineteenth century  books are below

Passengers is a social history of the period 1780 to 1840, with a focus on transport and hospitality. My blog about the book here. 

Dark Days of Georgian Britain  is a political and social history of 1815- 1820. My blog about the book is here.

Radical Victorians is a study of 19 advanced thinkers of the nineteenth century. My blog about the book is here.

More about me and my five books ( Regency and English Civil War) here 


The Last Luddite Executions; April 17th 1817.

The Luddite were victims of press vilification two hundred years ago, and the tradition continues. They were much more than mindless machine breakers, although they did attack both property and people. These machines were destroying skilled jobs and emboldening the master manufacturers to treat their workers with contempt. The Luddites may have been wrong in their belief that they could hold back technological change, but they were organised and principled people who were trying to restore some social justice.

“Luddite” is used here as a badge of honour rather than a term of abuse.

With the help of the excellent I have written a brief history of the events leading to the last executions. It is here;

The primary sources, covering the whole period, are highly recommended!

“Your Grace cannot be admitted in trousers” Almack’s in the Regency

Marquis of Worcester⁠ Lady Jersey⁠ Clanronald Macdonald⁠ Lady Worcester


Almack’s, a set of assembly rooms in King Street, St James, was the very centre of the fashionable and beautiful Regency world. It consisted of two large and two smaller rooms for dancing and facilities for music and a place for some rather unprepossessing food. During the summer season, finishing in mid July, there would be balls with music, with the occasional concert and masque.

Almack’s could hold about 800 people when completely and intolerably full, but most balls would attract about 400 people. This was a similar number to the other balls organised by the aristocracy, but there were none more important than Almack’s. To gain admittance to Almack’s  was to have made it to the very top of Regency society. The Morning Post would publish a weekly list of the upcoming social occasions dancing, music, tea and cards, conversazione and routs ( drinks receptions). There would be many each day, but people mostly avoided Wednesday as that when Almack’s would be open during the season. The top 400 people would be there, no matter what sumptuous brilliance was on offer at your James Street address.


Almack’s membership  was mostly by annual subscription. You asked to join; or to be more precise, you asked for a licence, priced around £10 a year and waited. You would not be contacted by the aristocratic women who ran it. You would send your servant around to see if there was a ticket for you or a curt refusal and no reason given or correspondence entered into. Most people would not even bother to apply; those who gained a licence would  live in fear of it being withdrawn. The £10 licence was designed to be so low to prove that this was not about the money .

Merely being rich and famous was not enough to guarantee you entry. Despite being the target audience being those who made the laws, nobody could gain entrance after 11pm. This was a time when parties started late, opening   at ten with supper and one in the morning   and calling your carriage to go home at 6am was normal.

In March 1819,  the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh and the victor of Waterloo, Wellington failed to gain entry into the establishment at 11.05 pm, despite Castlereagh’s own wife Emily being one of the phalanx of society ladies who decided who got in and who didn’t. The aristocratic ladies in charge would meet every Wednesday afternoon to revise the list of who was going in this week.


What did this elite establishment provide? There were two large rooms roped off for dancing and before 1812, rustic   Scottish country dances and reels   were  most common. In 1813 the waltz was introduced, causing some moral consternation at first and later there was an emphasis on the quadrille. Rooms would be very brightly illuminated to allow people to see each other carefully in the place that was almost the bon ton tindr of its day. There would be artificial flowers in great number and perhaps an exotic foreign theme depending on the fashion of the time. Other balls were just as lavish, and the food was often better, but they were not Almacks. Dancing would start at 11.30 with supper at 1.30 and home time would be a relatively early   3.30 am.

 The Duke of Wellington was refused entry on another occasional when he arrived in trousers rather than knee breeches, even though he was wearing the required white cravat and three pointed  silk chapeau bras. He walked away without protest; he did not hold a grudge against the club as her later suggested that the hold a ball in fancy dress without masks of any time. In June 1817, 800 people turned up to a fancy dress with the themes of the “costumes of all nations”. Wellington may have invented the English fancy dress ball.

It was a marriage market to some extent, although less so than other gatherings as the bar was so high. Nobody was allowed to bring a friend everybody had to be vetted. This mock serious poem of the time describes a woman trying to break into society.


One major beneficiary of Almack’s was the orchestra leader James Paine.  He capitalised on the fame of Almack’s by publishing the music for the quadrilles, but also producing fans that were illustrated with the moves needed to perform the quadrille for those whose dancing skills did not match their social ambitions. Whether you could look at your fan and dance at the same time is a moot point. Mr Paine’’ Band ( “Paine’s of Almacks”) also rented themselves out to add lustre to less prestigious events. Paine advertised in London but also in Taunton and Worcester so it seems clear that you were meant to buy the music and the fans and produce your own Almack’s- style entertainment in your own more modest residence.   



One of the most famous frequenter of Almacks, Rees Gronow, is featured in my new book of seventeen interesting Georgians who wrote a dairy, memoir or travelogue which is available to read for free on the internet.

new book


Buy a copy 

My blog 

My three other books on the Georgian and Victorian Eras.

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain   Publisher   My blog on the book 

Passengers– Britain in the Stagecoach Era      My blog 

Radical Victorians – My blog 

All my radical history books 


The Reverend Isaac Williamson – did Jane Austen know him?

The Reverend Isaac Williamson died on November 15th 1816, and a lot of jobs became available, because he had more than one. It was no scandal; it was money and connections that decided whether you made it in the Regency world of the Church of England. Some qualified people never gained a parish; others had more than one. It was just tough.

Isaac was not a historically important figure. This blog may be the first time his name is mentioned in a hundred years , but how his life developed tells us a great deal about a world we have mostly lost. He may have had some lasting literary influence, however!

He was the rector of Estrop, near Basingstoke   in Hampshire and Master of the Free School there. In an age of absentee and plural tenancies, he was also a   Chaplain, licensed for the instruction of men and boys at the Chapel of the Holy Ghost in Basingstoke.  He had other jobs. They are all listed in the C of E clergy database. He   was curate at Winslade, Tadley and Pamber in Hampshire .His salary as curate of Winslade was £25 a year and more than £ 40 from Estrop.  He received £35 for not being present at Pamber, due to the “shortage of accommodation” at Pamber. He was also “unable to find anywhere” to live in Tadley, but was able to pick up the stipend of £50 per year “plus Easter offerings”   Records seem to suggest that he did not provide a curate as a substitute for the places he could not be. Even for an age of pluralist and absentee clergy, this was “pushing it”.

How had Isaac become a Church of England   cleric?  He did a degree in Theology and either Cambridge or Oxford University; this is not stated anywhere; it was simply impossible to do so without this qualification.

 He had been educating young men for most of his career. This comes from 1795.image002

Lots of Church of England clerics had a private school as part of their income- Jane Austen’s father   George Austen had a school at Steventon. From 1773 until 1796, he supplemented this income by teaching three or four boys at a time, who boarded at his home. Isaac may have done the same.

He died of a “severe affliction” in November and in March all of his possessions were sold over two days by Tolfree and Sons   the Auctioneers. The list tells us so much about the life of the gentlemen-farmer –vicar.

 His Alderney cow was auctioned; it was five and was having a calf in April; his other horse, his donkey, his other cow, his heifer   and his donkey cart. He had a carriage for sale, hopefully to get to all the places where he was in charge of people’s spiritual welfare. His brewing equipment, storage for beer and his drinking vessels; all   open to offers. His three beds and seven sets of bed sheets were up for sale ( It was common for the very wealthy to have many spare set of sheets so they could all be washed together and stored for future use). He had goose and down bed linen, so he had feathered his nest in the literal sense of the word. Isaac had dining and gaming tables, expensive carpets and   had just bought an eight day clock in a wainscot oak case produced by the desirable James Staples of Odiham. The whole inventory took half a column of the Hampshire Chronicle.   

Isaac had a wife and children but his belongings were sold from under them. The details are hard to fathom, but it is clear that Isaac was bankrupt and all of his money went to pay his debts. It could have been his severe affliction that caused the bankruptcy; the number of respectable people who helped the family suggests it was not a moral weakness. I have not been able to find out.

 Mrs Williamson was incurably   blind and had been so for several years. Now she was a pauper; and the Church of England did absolutely nothing officially to help. It was all left to charity.

On the 17th July 1817, as Jane Austen was having her last day on earth   , this advertisement appeared in the Hampshire Chronicle. Despite the apparent ” J Williamson”, it is our Isaac.


The clergy of Hampshire rallied around, including the Reverend James Austen, Jane’s older brother. If James   knew Isaac, then it is very likely that Jane had met him as well. Williamson had been a Hampshire cleric in the same decade as Jane was at Steventon, and it was a small world.

All three of her main fictional clergy- Elton, Grant and Collins- had strengths and weaknesses, but did Isaac have any influence on her characterisations? It would help if we knew more; we know that Williamson was rich; liked nice things and had a blind wife who he seemed to have made no consideration for. Is it   possible that Isaac Williamson is Mr Collins, interested in money more than anything? Or were there just so many clergy like this in   late Georgian era. We do not know what severe affliction killed the Reverend Williamson-perhaps it was similar to the digestive complaints that kept the Rev James from attending his own sister’s funeral- but the misery for the widow continued.

Mrs Williamson was now poor and blind. She became a widow of Morley’s College, Winchester, which despite its name was an alms house for ten widows of Church of England whose husbands died in post working for the Winchester diocese.  By 1818 £430 had been raised, of which £161 had been paid out to pay for “ H Williamson” to be apprenticed to a surgeon in Winchester-presumably a son. This was a prestigious appointment; Williamson was a great man; we just don’t know whether he was a good man or if he has appeared in any Regency novels…

Life didn’t improve for Mrs Williamson. In 1819 further advertisement in the paper raised a subscription for her to be lodged in a “ cheap lunatic asylum” That was another £138. Life was all about the money, even more than now, perhaps

My book-The Dark Days of Georgian Britain.

                                         A chapter-by-chapter guide here