The silent killer of Georgian Britain-damp bed sheets.

passengersIn 1816, the Chester Courant noticed that there was a rage for travelling amongst the rich. It did not know why. It could not understand it. The immediate cause was the end of the war with France, and the consequent fact that the continent was open again. The fact was, reported the news paper, that travelling forces on the rich and lazy many of the habits and necessities of the poor and industrious. The rich grew  coarse, but also a bit brave- after a week they could bear a door being shut loudly, after two weeks they could get onto a stagecoach in the early morning without breakfast. After a month they could shrug off a hair in their soup, and brave a rain shower without repairing to their bed.

One thing that could not be countenanced, either at home or abroad, was damp beds .Foreigners  were well-known for damp sheets. The Germans, it was said, washed their sheets but did not air them, and there was no real point visiting the Rhineland with all your waterproof clothes and your Perrings beaver (a waterproof hat) if sheets were not dry

We do not appreciate how damp the Regency period was- clothes, bed sheets, and churches were damp. Houses were certainly damp- it was only in the 1840s that ordinary houses were being built with a membrane to stop rising damp, and even then it was regarded as a bit of a novelty.

Georgians did mind the damp. It was seen as a silent, unseen killer, especially in the form of damp bed sheets. People today that visit hotels want their sheets to be clean; for many people it is the first thing that they check, as a touchstone of general standards. Travellers in our period wanted the sheets to be dry. In Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1807) damp sheets are the main danger to health of travelling, especially in comparison to the rest of the stay, when the constant changes on temperature were not regarded as very safe.

When a traveller cold and wet arrives at an inn he may, by means of a good fire, warm diluting liquor and a dry bed have the perspiration restored but if he be put into a cold room and laid in a damp bed it will be more obstructed and the worst consequence will ensue. Travellers should avoid inns which are not ted for damp beds as they would a house infected with the plague, as no man however robust is proof against the danger arising from them.

The idea that damp sheets could cause death-even amongst the previously healthy – survived the Georgian (and Victorian) period. The Georgian fear was one of obstructed perspiration, caused by rapid changes in temperature that might be experienced when travelling. This is from Salisbury, in 1810 (Salisbury and Winchester Journal)

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The poor old pork butcher, travelling in the wilds of the West Country, was probably sleeping somewhere pretty horrible. These reports in the newspapers regularly and never disbelieved. Distressingly, it also affected people better than shopkeepers and was particularly effective if you were already unwell. This, from 1819:

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Newspapers in the 1770s often had sleeping in damp sheets as a cause of death. What made damp sheets a silent killer was that you could not really tell they were injurious until you had got into them and fallen asleep. Most travel guides recommended placing a spy glass (later in the Victorian period it was spectacles) into the bed sheets, waiting half an hour, and then checking if there was any condensation on the glass. If there was, it was recommended that you ripped the sheets off and just slept in the blankets, which shows that dirt was less dangerous than damp.

Coal was expensive in many parts of the country, and Buchan’s Domestic Medicine warned traveller to take extra care in the areas of the country where that was the case. The best way to achieve damp sheets was to travel to an Inn and arrive late. Rooms would only be warmed when they were occupied- so, if you arrive late in an Inn, you would need to eat there before going to bed, as your bed would definitely be damp. If there was nobody expected in your room, that the sheets may not have been warmed by the chambermaid using a bed warming pan, filled with coal. This is the situation that is shown in this Rowlandson cartoon of 1790:

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The rich would often take their own linen with them on their travels- not because the sheets that they would encounter on their visits were dirty, but because they were damp. To avoid your own sheets getting damp while travelling, leather sheets were often to be preferred. Hotels would advertise that their rooms were both well ventilated and had clean sheets- this was the great paradox of the late Georgian and Victorian period- the better off and their hundreds of books about health asked for everything to be well ventilated, but this also meant that they were cold.

It wasn’t only inns that were a problem. If you were expecting visitors to your own home, then you would be expected to take precautions about damp. If you were entertaining visiting in a few days time and your sheets were damp, it was prudent to all a servant to sleep in them for a day or two to warm them up, which tells us a lot about attitudes to servants and personal hygiene in the early nineteenth century. The sheets that the visitor used would be dirty because they were not damp, and the servants would have to go back to their own damp bed!

My two books on the late Georgian/ Early Victorian period. 

Dark Days of Georgian Britain – a social history of 1811- 1820 

Passengers – Britain 1790- 1840, with an emphasis on travel, hospitality and transport 

 

What did Mary Smiths do in 1816?

The Stories of Mary Smith 1816

 In January, the advertising section of the paper announced that “Mary Smith” of Weston, Bath, a women who had suffered for 8 long years with coughs and colds and aching limbs purchased a bottle of HICKMAN’S COUGH DROPS and her cough and cold disappeared after 2 bottles. No other remedies, as she had tried many over the years, were as efficacious   as HICKMANS. She wrote a thankful letter to the local Bath newspaper.

 In July, the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette reported the death of a Bath women,Mary Smith, who died at home aged 68, after a long and painful illness, “borne with Christian fortitude”. She may or may not have been the same one who swore by the effects of HICKMAN’S COUGH DROPS

 Mary Smith also broke the law. A lot. At Middlesex assizes in July she was accused of stealing three pots…”The property was found on her person” and sentenced to two months imprisonment for each pot. Clearly the “Bloody Code” did not believe in sentences that ran concurrently.

 Earlier, in May, Mary Smith, her mother and two others were found guilty of stealing paper from the haberdasher’s shop of the Misses Payne and was sentenced to two years imprisonment with solitary confinement. She was regarded as the ringleader, with the other three women awarded one year.

 On the other side of the law, Mary Smith of Gnosall, Staffordshire was one of the twenty local citizens who subscribed to a society to reward those who informed on criminals. Mary and her associates offered 20 guineas for information that led to the death sentence and 10 guineas for information that led to transportation. This was an indication on how poor the law enforcement system was outside of the capital.

 Mary Smith of Newcastle was one of the local insurance agents for the SUN FIRE insurance company.They specialized in insuring agricultural buildings and specifically mentioned in their advertisement their excellent record of paying out. That rings as true as it does now.

 In Durham in November, Mary Smith was indicted for child kidnap fourteen years earlier and early in the year, Mary Smith was married at Lincoln to Mr William Banyard. Mary Smith was also transported in April.

It was an eventful year.