The Regency View of the Poor. How much has changed?

There was no concern at all in Regency Britain about people being poor; it was considered a natural state. Poverty encouraged social order – it was believed that people could escape the worst of their condition by sobriety, obedience and constant hard work. People could be as poor as they could bear, and they were obliged by God to bear it. It only became a problem when the people became indigent – unable to survive without help.  The key question was, and perhaps is; how do we help the poor, and who gets that help?

The first principle in the Regency  was the simple, brutal, and  universally held belief that the lower orders in their natural state were idle, would not work at all if they could get away with it, and would do something far worse if they had the spare time. William Hutton, a dissenting bookseller from Birmingham and no particular enemy of the poor, put this comment in his diary (1795): If a man can support his family with 3 days of labour, he will not work six … “If the body is unemployed, it becomes a nursery of disease. If the mind is unemployed, a languor commences, and a man becomes a burthen to himself “.
All attempts to alleviate the poor had this idea in the forefront. Idleness was far more dangerous than poverty. That’s why it was though the a cure for poverty was to encourage the poor to save. During the Regency period there was a rush of new saving banks for the poor, usually run by the rich charitable gentry of the town. This may seem to us to be a paradox; one strong definition of poverty is that it involves having no money. So how could they save?
We need a Regency view of the poor to answer this question. The second principle was to avoid giving the poor money; they would waste it. A correspondent to Stamford Mercury in 1816, says no to “ pecuniary aid”


The legal claim of the poor  to support from the parish was an encouragement to bad habits. These bad habits that lead to poverty. Poor habits are further encouraged by the certainty of aid and the poor become unthankful. It is, therefore, the bad habits that are the root of poverty, and the poor continuing to drink, smoke and try to live a life while poor is a moral weakness. The correspondent is correct that the number of people on poor relief had reached a crisis level in 1816, but the real roots of poverty are ignored- high bread prices due to protectionist trade policies, a fall in government spending after the Napoleonic Wars, the abolition of income tax for higher earners and the imposition of austerity to pay the £800million  national debt.
So the root causes of poverty were moral weakness; not just gin and beer but the belief that the poor were naturally idle; and only the danger of starvation kept them working.
The role of the savings bank was to encourage “industry, economy and sobriety” and allow the surplus created by good habits  to be banked. In times of good employment, money should be saved for the bad times to come. Most workers, it suggested, could save 2 shillings a week if they behaved better. A Manchester weaver would be earning 10 shillings a week, so even a paragon of virtue would be unlikely to achieve this.
A new Act was passed in 1816 to promote savings banks and therefore keep people away from the Poor Law. All the MPs seem to have an anecdote about a poor person they knew who had the necessary good habits. One MP said this;


Many of the banks set up would include the word “INDUSTRIOUS “ in the title and appeal to young unmarried men; many opened on Saturday night, or the normal day of payment of wages, to stop the money being spent in the public house. Another real advantage of the savings banks is that the proceeds were held in Bank of England notes and other securities, while the poor who had savings were likely to hoard £1 or £2 notes from their local bank. If these went broke, their hard-earned savings became worthless pieces of paper.
Many of the establishment tried to dissuade the poor from joining Friendly Societies, which seem at first glance to do the same as the Savings Banks-but the charitable gentlemen found unsettling differences. Firstly, the Friendly Societies often had some imput from the poor themselves; they would often meet in public houses. Some Friendly Societies members drank too much beer; and the fact that some societies had rules about how many drinks you could have “ proved” that they were irresponsible, although exactly the opposite case could be made.
Friendly societies also had a fixed subscription that could not be altered upward if the poor person was doing well and wanted to save more -the savings bank was a vehicle for individual advancement while the Societies were a collective help organisation, so much so that many the of the ruling class( rightly) thought that they were really Trade Unions. Savings banks were not designed to solve the general problem of poverty; they were designed to solve the problems of the deserving individual.

The Friendly Society would support people who were out of employment, thus, the words of the Stamford Mercury correspondent “the discharged workmen had been enabled in nearly all cases to carry out their unjustifiable demands”.

Some of the comments about the Societies were reasonable; unlike the payment of interest, the payment of benefits for unemployment, illness and death were not predictable and could lead to the bankruptcy of the organisation- but his was due to the precariousness of the life of the poor when faced with economic changes that nobody could influence. This was this cause of poverty that the rich refused to acknowledge.
One form of moral weakness was the “improvident marriage” (literally a marriage that had not been adequately provided for). This moral weakness becomes financial when children  were produced. You were meant to save before marriage; newspaper correspondents suggested that if you save from the age of 10 ( the start of the working life in the Regency) you might be able to marry around 25. The real average of first marriage for a man was a little higher than this (about 28)and was done without the unrealistic level of savings suggested by well healed men writing to newspapers.
Some things have not changed in 200 years. We still seem fixated on solving poverty for the individual “deserving poor”; we blame poverty on morality, not economics; and we do not deal with the causes because we still (mostly) believe that poverty is still a natural state……

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The King of Georgian Quacks- Samuel Solomon


Samuel Solomon- King of quacks in the early phase of his fraudulent activities c 1796

The Regency Newspapers were crammed with quack medicines; Spilsbury’s Antiscorbic drops; Dr Freeman’s Gutta Salutas; Mrs Vincent Garland’s Lotion. What they all had in common was the wide ranges of diseases that they claimed to cure, and their reliance on alcohol and opiates to make their victims feel batter while they either recovered naturally or died.
The King of quack medicines was the Cordial Balm of Gilead, manufactured and sold by “Dr” Samuel Solomon of Liverpool. Born in Dublin and then living in Newcastle, he had previously failed as a boot seller and by about 1796 had moved to Liverpool and started to produce his cure-all mixture of brandy, turpentine and herbs. He had bought his qualifications from a medical college in Aberdeen.

The first trace of him is an advertisement in the Newcastle Courant on 25 March 1797. He had published the 4th edition of his “Guide to Health” . This was a common medical genre in the late eighteenth century- a book of advice mostly for young adults and their parents and guardians, covering areas such as prevention and cure of hypochondria, Venereal Disease, gleets (discharges from infected organs or wounds ), seminal weakness ( wet dreams) and the consequences of masturbation. He does not mention his Cordial Balm of Gilead by name, but the odds are that he would have already been producing it, as it would be the cure for all the afflictions mentioned in the advertisement.

By May of the same year, Solomon’s advertisements explode into every newspaper in Britain. He is living in Marybone, Liverpool and provided his Balm of Gilead to all, out of sincere wish to be a friend of humanity. In late 1797-the marketing was very fast- the B of G was getting the most coverage in the newspapers. A Mr Thomas Glaister of Carlisle had sailed all the way the Liverpool to thank the good doctor for curing his “internal weakness, loss of memory and pains in the Head”

His marketing was magnificent. He used sealed, embossed bottles and offered rewards for any forgeries. He constantly used testimonials to prove that illnesses such as consumption, paleness and nervous disorder had been cured.

Solomon turns to onanism ( in a manner of speaking) in the 1800’s and moved to Brownlow Hill ( near to were my relative Robert Dilworth was selling books; booksellers sold his pamphlets but can find no evidence of my relative doing so; I hope they hated each other). His advertisements claimed that the consequences of the “solitary vice” could be cured by the B of G. He was now charging a guinea per personal consultation and half a guinea by post- and you had to pay both sets of postage. His address was -“Money Letter, Dr Solomon, and Brownlow Street”. He had branched out it Abstergent Lotion, for spots and Anti-Impetigines for scurvy, scrofula and leprosy-not the type of things we go to the chemists for today.

The Balm of Gilead was also curing influenza and stomach complaints by 1803; the first effects were “ serenity and cheerfulness” ; this was not a surprise, as many quack medicines seem to contain opiates, but Dr Solomon seems to have been relying on brandy and lemon peel. By 1815 the Balm of Gilead came with instructions in many Western European languages and was being sold all around the Empire. It was a huge success.


Quack medicine had its critics. The anonymous 1805 pamphlet “ An Essay on Quackery” singled out Solomon for particular abuse- not by name. It was the so-called “wise man of Liverpool”, who thought he had “the wisdom of Solomon, who went round the country like the wandering Israelite” ( Solomon was Jew) selling his quack medicines. Anonymous reports that Solomon boasted that he started in a Liverpool attic garret and from there became rich on The Balm of Gilead, which was a rediscovered recipe from 1730BC and was made with dissolved gold. The only gold it actually dissolved belonged to his poor victims, who were convinced that it was the cure for.

Anonymous listed the claims of the Balm. He was, to say the least, unconvinced that it could help;
Barren Women, Bubo ,Chlorosis(anaemia) or Green Sickness Child bearing Conception Deficiency of Natural Strength, Female Complaint, Girls Gouty, Spasms in the Stomach, Great Schools( euphemism for masturbation) Hypochondria complaints’ Internal Sinking, Maids of a weakly Constitution, Menses, Loss or Defect of Memory, Baneful Effects of obscene Conversation, Rheumatism, Scurvy Scrofula, Turn of Life, Venereal Diseases, Weakness, Women Youth
Anonymous  also accuses Solomon of making up the testimonials and copying the Guide to Health from a Dutch doctor called Falck. The only thing that the author could say in favour of  the Balm was that it did not kill anybody- unlike Ching’s Worm Lozenges, which killed stomach infections with a poisonous amount of mercury. More about Ching’s lozenges here.

Solomon died on May 21st 1819 at his lodgings at North Parade Bath, presumably recuperating from something not on the miracle cure list of the Balm of Gilead. He extolled the value of Bath water in his Guide to Health, so at least he cannot be accused of not taking his own advice.
The Stamford Mercury was not impressed but also not accurate.image002

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Climate Change in the Regency -the terrible summer of 1816

Today there is no doubt what happened to the weather in Europe and North America in 1816- it was the worse summer weather that has been known in living  memory. In Europe it is called the Year without a summer and in the Americas, sometimes “Eighteen- hundred and froze to death”. The  cause is known too; the eruption of Mount Tambora in present day Indonesia. We now know that volcanic eruptions cause wet and cold summers and that it leads to poor harvests. It happened in the 1880s when Krakatoa erupted. The more scientific discussions around that time  identified 1816 as being the worst example of climate change caused by volcanic eruptions. The first use of the expression ” year without a summer” dates to the early 1880s too.
At the time of course, it was much harder to gain that perspective, but there are some indications that people thought 1816 was different enough to cause concern. In both the USA and Britain, panic about the weather did not start until the middle of the year. Indeed in the USA, most of the continent had experienced the mildest January and February that anybody could remember. However there was unseasonable snow in April, May was cold and June was the coldest in memory, killing recently planted crops and destroying any green living thing.
People in Britain knew about patterns in the weather, but nobody could remember conditions like this. In July 1816 the Cambridge Chronicle reported that “The oldest man living does not recollect such unseasonable weather as we have lately experienced”. This would include the dreadful summers of 1812 and 1799.Many other newspapers asked their oldest readers about the weather and got the same answer- it was never as bad as this
Newspapers were generally sceptical when their correspondents queried the “ alteration of the seasons” People naturally turned to early records to convince themselves that the extraordinary weather was within normal bounds, despite it being within nobody’s experience. It was pointed out that the summer of 1695 consisted of three sunny days only. The Perthshire Chronicle related that terrible cold summer of 1698, but even then there was not snow at the end of May. It went as far as describing 1816 as an “unnatural season”; but for most of the time, most people simply thought that they were unlucky.
Reporting the weather was commonplace and important in regency newspapers; people’s lives depended on it, but there were still many examples of weather beyond normal expectations. July was a month of snow, hail and thunder all over Britain . In that month in Cumbria, two inch hailstones smashed 700 panes of glass at Sir James Graham’s glasshouses at Netherby ; more rain than could ever be remembered fell in Glasgow. On August 5th, in the village of Fettercairn, Scotland a mere 12 miles from the German Ocean ( North Sea) there was five foot of snow, and even the oldest residents could only remember any snow up to June. Ten Children in Spilsby, Yorkshire, were blackened head to foot as torrential rain poured down the chimney, pushing out the soot. In Manchester it rained heavily for 28 days in July and did not rain in 3, which is bad, even for Manchester.
It was the same all over North Western Europe .In July 1816 Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein in Lake Geneva, the incessant rain and lightening keeping her indoors, and she wrote her famous novel about a creature being brought back to life by electric fluid ( lightening)
Newspapers remained optimistic about the wheat crop but by late August prices were spiralling out of the reach of the poor. Luckily, September was better and premature crops were left to grow in the fields. Harvests were still being brought in October ; by the 10th it looked in many parts of Britain as there was no sunlight at all.
People looked for reasons. They noticed the visible spots on the sun and believed that this was responsible- it was relevant but it was not the cause. For some it was an unexpected visitation from heaven, although there was no obvious blaming of people or sin . On the 30th August 1816, the Leicester Chronicle printed a letter using astrology to explain the poor weather, but prefaced the letter with “the present WEATHER is so much at present subject to enquiry, that we doubt not our readers may derive some amusement from this letter!”.
Prayers were held in church ,especially in July, when the rumour spread that the word was about to end dues to weather and the clearly visible sunspots. There are more details on my blogpost;

Hay and Clover were in such bad condition that they were composted into manure; they was no summer  work for haymakers. This, from the Carlisle Patriot July 1816;



The poor still suffered. A clergymen writing in the Western Daily Press ( October 1879) retold the story of the oldest residents, who remembered women and children picking tiny out pieces of wheat from the fields on St. Thomas’s day- December 21st. They were desperate.


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The “Solitary and Deluded Vice” in the Regency

The “deluded and solitary vice” is an elusive subject in the Regency period because it does not appear in the primary sources very much. Much as now, it was the great unmentionable. There are mentions in the newspapers but there are problems there as well. Of course, we are using the advertisements from a relatively small number of organisations – Goss of Bouverie Street, Dr Solomon’s Guide to Health and Dr Currie of Hatton Garden. They advertised all over the country and used the same vocabulary.

They are very much against it. In the Regency, the solitary vice is presented in the papers as a medical problem with adverse medical consequences. Mentions are to be found in advertisement for surgeons and quack doctors and in books of medical advice. The consequences are muscle weakness, apathy and an imbecility that is similar to old age, sterility and barrenness these are the main ones, but Regency pamphlets on the subjects list many more.

Masturbation is seen as sin of youth and is “unhappily practiced by both sexes”. It starts at school- boarding school- at an age where reason has not taken her hold on the child. As a cynic, I thought that the emphasis on children was due to the fact that the advertisements were aimed at concerned adults, and these adults would not  self –refer if they had this “problem” themselves.

The treatment is rarely mentioned in the advertisements although Dr Currie-another major player in the Regency fight against Onanism- does point out that none of their treatments involve the “violent means” that others use. It does seem however that the cure for this is often the same as the cure for many other things at the same time, which may make people today sceptical, but there seems to be a lot of faith in the universal cure- all. This is from 1810


Solomon’s Guide to Health-circulation about 80,000 when the Times was selling 4000 – adds new medical details and moral condemnation . They argued that Onanism*, or the Secret Venery, tried to recreate those feelings that God had created only for the “commerce between the sexes”. But the emphasis on the moral is fleeting; there is a large number of new medical consequences, including indifference to the “Pleasures of Venus” leading to barrenness, and in males, consumption caused by the draining away of “radical moisture”. Seminal weakness, a separate malady, was related to Onanism; it was all very “four humours” medicine.

True it is that we are ignorant whether the animal spirits and the seminal liquor are the same but experience teaches us those two fluids have an analogy and that the loss of either produces the same effects

Female Onanism had its specific problems.

Virgins who indulge themselves over eagerly in this abuse of their bodies deflower themselves and destroy that valuable badge of their chastity which it is expected they should not part with before marriage but which when lost can never be retrieved

Because of this they will be miserable on the marriage day, dues to the apparent loss of their “sacred badge”

the marriage bed which heaven has designed for the seat of the highest sensual enjoyments when they reflect that their virtue on the first amorous encounter is liable to such suspicions as may never be worn off but which may render uncomfortable the life both of her or otherwise her affectionate husband

As for boys, Solomon believes that the secret vice starts before puberty and before it was regarded as a vice. He suggests that ot was taught (note the choice of word-it tells you a lot about the “great schools” of England) in the great schools from about 8 years old. Reason is not present at this age. The implication is that the activity turns its participants into slaves- they are “deluded votaries” who are enervated by the activity-literally and metaphorically drained.

Onanism becomes an obsession in boys and prevents concentration on anything else; it is a shelving pool, which seems shallow at first and draws people in. Surprising, Dr Solomon uses the word masturbators- not often, but clearly a word that people would recognise.

Onanism is wrong because the context is wrong and the body is being forced too early. The actions would be natural in married adults; indeed it was a good thing, part of God’s gift; while Onanism made a mockery of the sacred duty of procreation.

Solomon, despite being a medicine seller, believes that REPENTENCE and TURNING AWAY FROM SIN is the real cure for Onanism. Indeed he makes no prescriptions at all for the maladies he mentions, expecting you to go and visit him for a personal consultation.

Whatever treatment you required involved a degree of secrecy. Whether it was VD (variously “ Lues Venera” “ the ebullition of passion” “a certain complaint”) the need to for abortion or a cure against the “solitary vice”, companies would allow you to add the postage onto the cost of medicine if you were buying from the provinces to avoid having a perform any financial transaction when the parcel reached you. It was the Regency equivalent of the plain brown wrapper. Goss of Bouverie Street had a secret door- which they then went on to advertise in the paper- but it was the Gentlemen’s Magazine, who were clearly not gentlemen all of the time.


* Genesis 38;8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother

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