The 18th-Century Craze for Gin

In February 2018, the following article by Mark Forsyth , appeared in History Extra. Its title: “The 18th-Century Craze for Gin”. Readers of this Blog, who might have missed the article the first time round, might like to read it for themselves now. Apologies for a few minor tweaks to the article, and also for leaving out the advertising and other extraneous matter which only detracts from an interesting article. Read on:

Inspiring oddities from mass public nudity to a mechanical gin-selling cat, the craze for gin swept across London and much of England during the first half of the 18th century. Writing for History Extra, Mark Forsyth, author of A Short History of Drunkenness, explores the history behind this alcoholic spirit…

Gin Craze (Gin_lane)
Gin Lane, a print issued in 1751 by painter and printmaker William Hogarth. It depicts the perceived evils of the consumption of gin. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Gin Craze (James IV)
James IV of Scotland. We know that alcoholic spirits were drunk by the very rich since 1500, as the king is known to have purchased several barrels of whisky. (Photo by National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)

Then in about 1700, spirits hit. The reasons are complicated and involve taxation of grain and the relations with the Dutch, but the important thing is that gin suddenly became widely available to Londoners, which was a good thing for the gin-sellers as Londoners needed a drink. The turn of the 18th century was a great period of urbanisation, when the poor of England flocked to London in search of streets paved with gold and Bubbles from South Sea [the South Sea Bubble was a speculation boom in the early 1710s], only to find that the streets were paved with mud and there was no work to be had. London’s population was around 600,000. There were only two other towns in England with populations of 20,000. London was the first grand, anonymous city. There were none of the social constraints of a village where everybody knew everybody’s business. And there were none of the financial safeguards either, with a parish that would support its native poor, or the family and friends who might have looked after you at home. Instead, there was gin.

A craze among the poor

It’s very hard to say which was bigger – the craze for drinking gin that swept the lower classes, or the moral panic at the sight of so many gin drinkers that engulfed the ruling classes. Anonymous hordes of poor, often homeless people wandered the city drinking away their sorrows, and often their clothes, as they readily exchanged their garments for the spirit.

Before the industrial revolution and the rash of cotton mills that would fill the north of England a century later, cloth was very expensive. Beggars really did dress in rags, if at all, and the obvious thing to sell if you really needed money fast was, literally, the shirt on your back. The descriptions left to us by the ‘Gin Panickers’ would be funny – if they weren’t so tragic.

Gin Craze (Print).jpg
A print of an 18th-century liquor seller. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Indeed, the most notorious single incident of the gin craze was the case of Judith Defour, a young woman with a daughter and no obvious husband. The daughter, Mary, had been taken into care by the parish workhouse and provided with a nice new set of clothes. One Sunday, in January 1734, Judith Defour came to take Mary out for the day and didn’t return her. Instead, she strangled her own child and sold the new clothes to buy gin.

Judith Defour was probably mentally unwell anyway, but her case became a public sensation, because it summed up everything that people thought about the new craze for drinking gin: she was poor; she was a woman and she was a mother. Judith was selling clothes for alcohol and as the clothes had been provided by the workhouse, she was therefore taking advantage of the rudimentary social security system, combining benefits fraud with infanticide.

The arrival of gin

Before gin had come on the scene, Englishmen had drunk beer. English women had drunk it too – up to a point – but beer and the alehouses where it was served had always been seen as basically male domains. Gin, which was new and exotic and metropolitan, didn’t have any of these old associations. There were no rules around gin. There were no social norms about who could drink it, or when you could drink it, or how much of it you could drink. A lot of places served it in pints because, well… that’s what you drank. A country boy newly arrived in the city wasn’t going to drink a thimbleful of something.

This was, quite literally, put to the test in 1741, when a group of Londoners offered a farm labourer a shilling for each pint of gin he could sink. He managed three, and then dropped down dead. It’s amazing he got that far, as gin, in those days, was about twice as strong as it is now and contained some interesting flavourings. Some distillers used to add sulphuric acid, just to give it some bite.

And so the efforts to ban drinking among the lower classes began. And they didn’t work very well. When authorities decided to ban the sale of gin, there were fully fledged riots. The poor didn’t want their drug of choice taken away. They loved ‘Madam Geneva’, as they called the spirit.

Gin Craze (Cartoon)
A satirical cartoon relating to the Gin Act, depicting a mock funeral procession for ‘Madam Geneva’ in St Giles, London, 1751. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In any case, the government decided to tax the living daylights out of it. But people simply didn’t pay the tax, so government tried to pay informants to hand in unlicensed gin-sellers. This attempt turned ugly as a number of mobs formed to attack even suspected informants, and several people were beaten to death. Not that the informants were necessarily that nice; they could, and some did, run the whole thing as a protection racket – “pay me or I’ll claim the reward from the government”. And into this chaos it’s almost unsurprising that a mechanical cat should make an entry.

The Puss-and-Mew machine

The contraption known as the ‘Puss-and-Mew machine’ was simple. The gin-seller found a window in alleyway that was nowhere near the building’s front door. The window was covered boarded over with a wooden cat. The gin-buyer would approach and say to the cat: “Puss, give me two pennyworth of gin,” and then place the coins in the cat’s mouth. These would slide inwards to the gin-seller who would pour the gin down a lead pipe that emerged under the cat’s paw. The crowds loved it and the inventor, Dudley Bradstreet, made three or four pounds a day, which was a lot of money. As nobody witnessed both sides of the transaction, no charges could be brought.

Gin Craze (Puss_and_mew_gin)
A display featuring a ‘Puss-and-Mew machine’ at the Beefeater Gin Distillery in Kennington, London. (Image used with permission from Beefeater Gin Distillery in Kennington, London)

The Gin Craze was a classic example of a drug without social norms. Every society on earth has had its narcotics (and almost every society has chosen alcohol). But those narcotics have come with social rules about when, where, how and why you ‘get blasted’. Every age and every society is different. Today, young adults tend to get drunk on a Friday evening, while in medieval England, the preferred time was Sunday morning. In ancient Egypt, it was the Festival of Hathor and in ancient China, it was during the rites that honoured the family dead.

 Nowadays, gin is just another spirit, but in the 18th century, gin had no norms, no rules, no mythology and no associations. It was anyone’s, and that was its danger: a danger that in the popular imagination was easily transmuted into spontaneous female combustion.

A final note on these combustible ladies: they were all reasonably old and reasonably well off. The strange thing about spontaneous human combustion is that in all cases the body is reduced to a small pile of ashes, whilst nearby objects – however burnable – are not even singed. A human body actually burns at around 1,200 degrees Celsius. A burning house rarely gets above about 800 degrees. So, while the stories don’t stand up scientifically, a society that believes such stories is very good for those who stand to inherit the victim’s fortune.

Mark Forsyth is the author of A Short History of Drunkenness: How, why, where and when humankind has got merry from the Stone Age to the present (Viking, November 2017).

THE END

Source:
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Weird and Wonderful Georgian Beauty Treatments!

Norwich, 4th March 1736: It was on this day when the City ladies read with mounting excitement of “A Fresh and Neat Parcel of the Royal Beautifying Fluid” which had arrived in Norwich. Praise for its efficacy was not modest:

“So exceedingly valued by the Ladies of Quality and all who have used it for  its transcendent Excellency in beautifying the Face, Neck and Hands, to the most exquisite Perfection possible. It gives an inexpressible fine Air to the Features of the Face and a surprising Handsomeness to the Neck and Hands which it immediately makes excellent Smooth, Fine and delicately White” As if that is not enough:

“It takes away all disagreeable Redness, Spots, Pimples, Heats, Roughness, Morphews [blemish or birth mark], Worms in the Face, Sun-burnt, Freckles or any other Discolouring in the Skin”.

It needed only a few wipes with a little of the royal fluid, dropped on to a clean napkin, to make a lady’s face “fine, clear, soft and fair, as to cause Admiration in the Beholders”. The same retailer, William Chase, a Norwich bookseller, also stocked “the incomparable powder for the teeth, which has given such great satisfaction to most of the Nobility and Gentry in England for these Twenty Years”.

(Norwich Mercury, 4/5 March 1736)

Bless them, the Georgians cared greatly about their appearance. Indeed, the lure of a pretty face in make-up became so strong in the Georgian period, and was considered so irresistible, that parliament, apparently, considered passing a law to protect men from being duped by painted ladies with designs on their purse:

“An Act to protect men from being beguiled into marriage by false adornments. All women, of whatever rank, age, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty’s subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes and bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witch-craft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.”

Put forward in 1770 likely as a wry jab at fashion rather than a serious law, this amendment to the Witchcraft Act was never passed, nor did it make it into the debating chamber. Nevertheless, beauty treatments were abundant in Georgian Norfolk and , indeed, Britain as a whole. Here are just seven which today may be considered as the most weird and wonderful…….!

White, White and White!
Our obsession with acquiring the perfect sun-kissed tan would have utterly perplexed the Georgians. In the 18th century a suntan was a sure sign that one worked outdoors, whereas the polite, wealthy classes remained indoors and out of the sun’s glare. The most basic and perhaps famous Georgian fashion was porcelain white skin, for both men and women.

Alongside horse manure and vinegar, the main ingredient in skin-whitening creams and powders was lead. Daubed liberally on the face and neck, these creams and powders helped to achieve that all-important ‘never been outdoors’ look. Whiteness was accentuated by using blue colouring to highlight veins, while lips and cheeks were tinted with yet more lead – this time coloured with carmine [a bright-red pigment obtained from the aluminium salt of carminic acid] or even with mixes containing highly toxic mercury.

With the widespread use of lead, it was hardly surprising that fashionable sorts began to suffer serious reactions to their make-up. From eye disorders to digestive problems and even, in extreme cases, death, the price of following the fashion for blanc was high. The prized porcelain skin tone so beloved of Georgian fashionistas wasn’t financially easy to achieve either. Deadly or not, skin creams were an expensive addition to a lady’s make-up bag and for those seeking beauty on a budget the options were limited: for both hair and face a light dusting of wheat flour might have to suffice.

Beauty Treatments (Kitty Fisher)
A portrait of Kitty Fisher by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted between 1723 and 1792. Some sources say the celebrated courtesan died from the effects of lead-based cosmetics. (Photo by Carl De Souza)

Speaking of Patches…
Also known as mouches, beauty patches were small clippings of black velvet, silk or satin that were attached to the face to cover blemishes, including smallpox scars and damage wrought by white lead, or just as a bit of decoration. Often kept in highly decorative containers, these patches enjoyed many years of popularity.

Beauty Treatments (Box)
Cylindrical box, possibly by Joseph Taylor, dated from 1797 that would have contained pills, cachous (lozenges to sweeten the breath) or patches to cover smallpox scars. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Just as fans could be used to communicate a secret message, the position of these skin patches eventually came to be associated with coded meanings. For example, if one wished to show political allegiance, a patch on the right-hand-side of the face denoted a Tory while a Whig wore a patch on the left. On a more intimate note, a patch in the corner of the eye might be an invitation to a would-be paramour.

Unlike face creams, patches weren’t only the preserve of the rich. If you couldn’t afford finely shaped silk and velvet then a little bit of clipped mouse skin would do just as well. Patches even appeared in many pieces of Georgian art; perhaps most famously in William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress:

Georgian Beauty (a harlots progress)
These were a series of paintings and engravings in which heroine Moll Hackabout’s face – once fresh and pretty – takes on more and more patches until she resembles the haggard brothel madame who initiated her into London brothel life. For Moll, the patches no doubt covered the telltale signs of diseases such as syphilis – a world away from the fashionable ballrooms of France where a patch might mean flirtation, seduction and intrigue.

Even Hugh Hair!
The popular image of the later 18th century is one in which enormous and flamboyant wigs teetered precariously atop the heads of fashionable ladies, but this isn’t actually accurate. There was plenty of teetering hair but it was often real, with wigs generally worn only by 18th-century men.

Ladies and gents alike achieved their fashionable pale hair colour by applying hair powder, which was made from flour or starch and puffed onto the head with a pair of bellows [a device constructed to furnish a strong blast of air]. For that typically Georgian ‘big haired’ look the wealthy employed an army of stylists who built elaborate structures atop their heads around wooden frames padded with extra sections often made from horse hair.

Curling tongs were also developed: these resembled a pair of blunt scissors, with two metal prongs and wooden handles. When the prongs were heated in the fire the hair could then be wrapped around them and held in place until the curl had set. Alternatively, clay rollers were heated in an oven and then applied to the hair or wig. Heads also would often be adorned with wax fruit and other decorations such as flowers or even model sailing ships, and the most elaborate hairstyles would remain in place for days or weeks at a time. Within these monumental headpieces our fashionable gentleman and ladies acquired the occasional lice, but the Georgians had an answer for that too: specially designed rods were sold that could be slid between the layers of hair and used to scratch the lice bites, while ensuring that their fashionable hairstyles stayed perfect. If the lice became really itchy there was always the possibility of treating them with mercury, but given that this was known to potentially cause madness or death, a scratching rod was usually the preferred option.

Beauty Treatments (Barber)
A barber dispensing powder over his customer, from a print after Carle Vermat, c1700. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mouse Eyebrows
With lead liberally applied to the face as a matter of routine, it is hardly surprising that people’s eyebrows often fell out. Georgian fashionistas therefore adopted a new approach and began to pluck out or shave what eyebrow hair remained before pencilling on a new brow or using lead or burnt cork to colour one in.

As black brows became a popular look, occasional mentions of a rather strange new fashion began to emerge: in 1718, celebrated poet Matthew Prior wrote a satirical poem about Helen and Jane, who wear eyebrows made of mouse skin. Evidence for mouse skin brows remains scant, but mention of them does appear in satire throughout the early 18th century.

It was a ‘Must’ to Pad the right places
Many 21st-century celebrity careers have been established upon (or at least bolstered by) the strength of a shapely bottom. Yet this is nothing new: fashionable Georgian men were no strangers to a bit of strategic padding.

Beauty Treatments (Ballroom)
‘Hackney Assembly. The Graces, the Graces, Remember the Graces’, 1812, artist anon. Ballroom scene in which a man is presented to a woman. Pads could be inserted to breeches to give the appearance of muscular calves, says Catherine Curzon. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Skin-tight breeches designed to show off the well-formed legs of their wearer became all the rage – but what if one didn’t have well-formed legs? For those who were too skinny to fill the garment, padding was the natural answer. Just like a modern padded Bra enhances the bosom, pads of fabric or horsehair could be inserted to breeches that would give the impression of muscled calves.

Georgian Beauty (The Dandies)

These pads could also be inserted anywhere else the male wearer might like a boost! These pads were the preserve of the most fashion-conscious of Georgian and Regency men. They found popularity among the highly fashionable, flamboyant chaps known as Dandies who wore corsetry and pads to create the perfect male shape.

Georgian Beauty (The Dandies)2
The Dandies at Work!

What about that Gleaming Smile!
With the upper classes indulging in all manner of sugary treats, it’s hardly surprising that the teeth of our Georgian beauties were far from perfect. Tooth powders (also known as dentifrice) were therefore used to whiten teeth: among their ingredients of cuttlefish and bicarbonate of soda was often the mysteriously named spirit of vitriol. Better-known today as sulphuric acid, this mineral (which we now know to be highly corrosive) certainly whitened the teeth, but primarily because it stripped them of their enamel completely.

Unsurprisingly, many Georgians required dental surgery and, without anaesthetic, such procedures were a skin-crawling affair. Once the troublesome tooth was removed, the richest patients could opt for a replacement live tooth to be purchased from a donor and threaded directly into the socket. Some of these live teeth had actually come from the mouths of corpses, bringing with them whatever disease and infections their original owner had been subject to.

If a pricey live tooth was beyond your means and a gap simply wouldn’t do, there were alternatives on offer: anything from a single tooth to a complete set of dentures could be constructed from materials including porcelain, ivory, or even the teeth of soldiers who died at the battle of Waterloo. Known as ‘Waterloo teeth’, these were gathered from the mouths of dead soldiers and became highly sought after. After all, a client knew that a Waterloo tooth had come not from a man who died of disease or a corpse dug up by grave robbers, but a young and (hopefully) healthy soldier who died honourably on the battlefield.

Beauty Treatments (Teeth)
A set of 18th-century dentures that once belonged to Arthur Richard Dillon (1721-1806/7), Archbishop of Narbonne in France. Archaeologists discovered them, still in his mouth, when they opened his coffin in London’s St Pancras graveyard during excavations in advance of construction work for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link’s new London terminus. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Plus a Face Pack!
Less well-known than white Georgian faces and huge hair is ‘Fard’, a regency face mask used to soothe sunburn and “cutaneous eruptions” [spots].

Fard was a mix of sweet almond oil, spermaceti [a waxy substance found in the head of a sperm whale] and honey that was dissolved over heat and, once cooled, applied to the face and left on overnight. The recipe, was first published in The Mirror of the Graces,1811 followed by reprints which must have meant that the fashion continued decades later.

Georgian Beauty (Fard Paste)

THE END

Sources:
https://www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/7-weird-and-wonderful-georgian-beauty-treatments/
This Blog is based on various sources but inspired by Catherine Curzon, author of “Life in the Georgian Court”, by Pen and Sword Books . Curzon also runs an 18th-century themed website named “A Covent Garden Gilflirt’s Guide to Life” acessed via:  http://www.madamegilflurt.com/

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

Tales of the Great and the Not So Good.

By Victoria Draper (Norfolk Record Office) 2 January 2018

Marriage licences were often favoured by families of high social class since they allowed the couple privacy, ability to choose their parish of marriage and were faster to arrange than banns.  The marriage licence could also be a status symbol in itself, showing that the couple could afford to purchase it and although the cost of a licence was not exceptionally high, many people could not afford one.  As a result, the names of several prominent Norfolk families are included in the bonds.

One bond relates to the marriage of Philip Meadows Martineau (1872-1829) to Ann Dorothy Clarke in 1811.  The Martineau family were of Huguenot descent and Philip Meadows was a prominent member of the local French community.  He was a distinguished surgeon specialising in lithotomy, the surgical method for removing kidney, bladder and gallbladder stones which were common medical complaints in Norfolk.  Martineau was a surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and also served as a hospital governor.

 

003 Crop of Bracondalle engraving MC 2295-1
Engraving of Bracondale Hall on the Martineau family estate. NRO, MC 2295/1

 

The Martineau family were Unitarians and Philip Meadows Martineau attended the Octagon Chapel in Norwich.  Following Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, 1753 (which attempted to curb secret and irregular marriages) Nonconformists had to marry in an Anglican church.  There were exemptions for Jews and Quakers but Catholics and other protestant Nonconformists, including Unitarians, were not exempt until later.  Sadly, the marriage licence bond does not tell us which church Philip and Ann Dorothy married in, which is quite common.

Martineau owned a large estate at Bracondale (the Norfolk Record Office and County Hall now occupy part of the site) and this marriage licence bond is dated around the time that he also purchased the adjacent property of Carrow Abbey.

 

004 Crop of Martineau mlb v2 ANW-86-9
Marriage licence bond of Philip Meadows Martineau and Ann Dorothy Clarke, 1811. NRO, ANW 24/86/9

 

Another bond relates to the marriage of Ann Margaret Coke of Holkham, aged 15 years, to Thomas Anson in 1794.  Ann Margaret, born at Holkham Hall, became a painter and may have been taught by Thomas Gainsborough in Norfolk and London.  Her husband, Thomas Anson, was a wealthy politician and heir to the Shugborough estate in Staffordshire.  Since Ann Margaret was only fifteen at the time of her wedding, her father Thomas William Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, made a sworn oath of consent to her marriage which is noted on the marriage licence bond.

 

005 Crop of Margaret Coke mlb ANW-24-69-33
Marriage licence bond of Ann Margaret Coke and Thomas Anson, 1794. NRO, ANW 24/69/33

 

A.M.W. Stirling recounts in his two volume work, Coke of Norfolk and his Friends, that Ann looked very young at her wedding:

‘At the wedding breakfast she looked such a child that Dean Anson said mischievously to her: “Ann, if you will run round the table, I will give you a sovereign!”  Scarcely had the words left his lips, then away went the delighted bride and, racing round the table, triumphantly claimed her reward.’

Stirling also notes that Thomas Anson, concerned about his wife’s young age, insisted that Ann sat at cards with the dowagers when attending dances which unfortunately gave her a taste for gambling!

Marriage licence bonds were not the preserve of the gentry and even those of more modest social status such as tenant farmers, trades people and military occupations are well represented in them.  This particularly became the case as the cost of marriage licences fell relative to wages.  For some couples they may even have been an aspirational choice to emulate the higher social classes and add some sparkle to their wedding day!

Obtaining a marriage licence bond was no guarantee of social standing and character. One bond relates to the marriage of James Blomfield Rush (who later became the notorious Stanfield Hall murderer) to Susannah Soames (named in the bond as Susan Soame) in May 1828.  Rush, a tenant farmer who had got himself into debt, murdered estate owner Isaac Jermy and his son at Stanfield Hall on 28 November 1848.  After a dramatic legal trial, Rush was hanged at Norwich Castle on 21 April 1849.  A crowd of over 12,000 people gathered to witness the event and the Eastern County Railway Company even ran a special train from London to Norwich for the execution.

 

006 Drop of Rush lithograph mc 63-1
Lithograph of James Blomfield Rush by Sharpe, 1849. NRO, MC 63/1

Rush was no stranger to trouble. In 1835, despite being married to Susannah Soames, a woman, named either Dank or Dack, brought an action against him for breach of promise of marriage.  She claimed that she had been forced into the workhouse after Rush made her pregnant.  When the case came to court at the Norfolk Assizes in the summer of 1839, the court convicted Rush and ordered him to pay costs of over £26.


THE END

Source:
https://norfolkrecordofficeblog.org/2018/01/02/tales-of-the-great-and-the-not-so-good-norwich-archdeaconry-marriage-licence-bonds/

 

The Rabbit in East Anglia

Introduction:

Following their introduction into the British Isles by the Normans, rabbits were farmed in manmade warrens call “Coneygarths”, whose so-called “pillow mounds” encouraged the species to burrow and facilitate their capture. The construction of pillow mounds represents a remarkable long-lived form of animal husbandry, which in some places remained in use until the early 20th century. The vast majority of known pillow mounds are thought to be post-medieval and consequently the landscapes of extant rabbit warrens are a reflection of post-medieval warrening experience rather than that preceeded it.

Further, although former warrens are geographically widespread across England and Wales, their remains are more prevalent in western upland areas because the growth of arable practices in Eastern England during post-medieval period removed many of that regions former warrens. Despite this, chancery records reveals numerous references to rabbits and rabbit warrens in Eastern England compared to elsewhere. They also imply that the warrens in Eastern England were able to produce a surplus of rabbits that suported an export trade and supplied the Royal Court at Westminister, something that warrens in the remainder of England were less able to do.

The rabbit was rare in medieval England and much sought after for both its meat and its fur by landlord and poacher alike. Today the rabbit is regarded as prolific, destructive and of little value but this modern reputation belies historical experience where or much of its history the rabbit was a rare and highly prized commodity. The animal, believed to be indigenous during a previous interglacial period, was considered extinct until deliberately (re)introduced via France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its value lay both in its meat and fur and, as someone noted in the 17th century:

 ‘no host could be deemed a good housekeeper that hath not plenty of these at all times to furnish his table’.

The rabbit’s fur was used as clothing as well as on clothing and, although neither the most fashionable nor valuable, rabbit fur became very popular in the 13th century. Yet in the beginning when first introduced, the rabbit found the English climate inhospitable and needed careful rearing and cosseting inside specially created warrens such as ‘pillow mounds’. For the next five centuries the vast majority of England’s rabbit population lived protected within these confines, and it was not until the 18th century that it successfully broke out and colonised a much wider area and through numbers devalued its worth.

Back in the 17th century the rabbit was still regarded as an important cash crop.  In the Middle Ages rabbit warrens represented almost the sole source of supply for rabbits and their scarcity made them a valuable and fiercely guarded commodity. Indeed, the collapse of the grain market in the later 14th and 15th centuries encouraged some landlords to develop their warrens as an alternative source of income, to the extent that rabbiting can be classed as an unlikely but successful late medieval growth industry.

I

Throughout the Middle Ages the right to hunt and kill any beast or game was a special privilege granted by the king, so that all hunting was carefully controlled and restricted. Hunting in the extensive royal forests was the privilege of the king alone, but outside these areas the Crown was prepared to sell exclusive hunting rights by means of a charter of free-warren. In effect, the recipient of this charter was granted the sole right to kill the beasts of warren, which basically consisted of the pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit, within a specified area. Hence the right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive privilege of the owner of free-warren and it was therefore illegal for anybody else to attempt to do so. Free-warren was consequently a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.

Whereas the modern rabbit has developed a resilience to the damp British climate, its medieval predecessor felt this aversion more keenly so areas of dry and sandy soil were chosen; also, gradients were preferred so as to facilitated both drainage and the dispersal of burrowed soil. Significantly the largest concentration of warrens in East Anglia was in Breckland, a region of undulating heathland, low rainfall and deep, porous sands, in other words an ideal habitat for the rabbit.

rabbit warreners
Rabbit Warreners

Most warrens in  East Anglia had been founded by the late 13th century, many by church landlords. The Bishoprics of Ely created warrens at Brandon and Freckenham respectively; Bury St Edmunds Abbey did likewise at Mildenhall and so did West Acre Priory at Wicken and Custhorpe in Norfolk. The Prior and Convent of Ely were granted free-warren in Lakenheath. It is believed that the rabbit was a particularly favoured delicacy of the Abbot of St Edmunds who had a warren created at his country retreat in Elmswell and at Long Melford, whilst both West Acre and West Dereham Priories also established their own warrens nearby. Various lay landlords were also prominent in this new experiment, notably at Methwold, Thetford, Tunstead and Gimingham. It is difficult to ascertain the exact area of these early warrens, although the largest swept down the western edge of Breckland from Thetford through Wangford to Eriswell. By the end of the Middle Ages such warrens had probably grown to occupy the 1000 acres plus they were to reach at their zeniths.

Medieval Rabbit Warren1
Medieval Rabbit Warren

The distinctive clustering of warrens indicates that the rabbit did not colonize a wide geographical area and even in central parts of East Anglia it remained a rare beast. This might surprise a modern reader familiar with the animal’s ubiquity and sex drive, but the medieval rabbit was fragile and uncomfortable in its new, cold environment and under constant threat from predators and harsh winter conditions. Consequently, low fertility and high mortality rates restricted natural increase, even within the relative safety of the warren. This placed severe restrictions on long distance migrations, although undoubtedly some fledgling warrens were spawned in the vicinity of the early warrens, and these were then exploited by eager landlords.

The exploitation of warrens was a highly skilled business and most warreners were full-time manorial officials, paying them handsome wages but often stipulating their exact duties and reserving the right of dismissal if their work was unsatisfactory. Besides financial remuneration, most warreners enjoyed other perks such as extra pasture rights and flee accommodation within the warren lodge. The pressures of their work were largely seasonal and peaked with cullings in the autumn when the rabbit’s fur was thickest. Extra help was often required in this busy period, as at Lakenheath in I384 when seven men were hired for twenty weeks.

The most common method of trapping was with ferrets and nets, the ferrets being released into specific burrows to drive the rabbits above ground and into nets tended by trappers. Most warreners reared their own ferrets, although sometimes a ferreter was hired at considerable expense. For much of the year, however, the warrener worked alone to guard his rabbits against hunger and predators and even to seek ways to encourage breeding. Surprisingly perhaps, the early rabbits were reluctant burrowers, which prompted some warreners to construct artificial burrows or ‘pillow mounds’. Over time, rabbits got the message!

Rabbit Pillow Mound Diagram
Rabbit Pillow Mound

Pillow mounds were designed to provide dry, well-ventilated burrows in which the rabbit could breed comfortably; the very existence of these ‘aids’ just emphasize both the animal’s unease in the damp climate and the need to mother the animal carefully. Warreners needed to take positive steps to curtail rabbit’s high mortality rates, particularly with any shortage of winter food, although on the heathlands gorse provided a cheap and convenient source. Other than that, oats were regularly fed to rabbits. Warreners also waged a perpetual war against the rabbit’s natural predators and poachers. The fox, stoat, weasel, wildcat and polecat stalked with ruthless efficiency, so that Brandon, Lakenheath and Kennett warrens were set with numerous traps and snares ‘for nocturnal predators’.

Warren Lodges:

The real threat from both predators and poachers eventually resulted in the construction of a wooden watchtower at Lakenheath warren in I365 and a stone lodge in Methwold by I413, followed by Thetford. These lodges were features of medieval Breckland and the one at Thetford still stands. Most date from the late 14th century and reflected the threat posed by poachers and the determination of landlords to protect increasingly valuable assets. These remarkable buildings also absorbed much of the capital invested in warrens for they were expensive to build and maintain. Brandon lodge was completed in the I380’s and stood at two storeys high and was protected by slit windows and flint walls three feet thick. At Elmswell in the early 16th century, the warren lessee was allowed over one-sixth the value of the lease each year to spend on upkeep. Rabbit rearing was otherwise a relatively inexpensive business, with the major expenditure on labour.

mildenhall_warren_lodge
Mildenhall Warren Lodge. Photo: Friends od Thetford Forest.

II

Output from most warrens remained low until the later 14th century. Cullings varied wildly from year to year, but seldom exceeded a couple of hundred. The sale price of the rabbit reflected its scarcity and for a century after its introduction to East Anglia it cost at least 3d each, which was equivalent to the wage of almost two days’ unskilled labour. Rabbits proved most acceptable gifts to friends, favourites and eminents and the Prior of Ely sent sixty to Edward III in I345.

Prior to the Black Death of 1348-9, rabbit production was a distinctly low output concern geared primarily towards household consumption. It presented some commercial opportunities in the luxury goods market, but its mass marketing potential was restricted by its high price and the low incomes of most Englishmen. The early warrens often represented a net financial loss in many years, emphasizing that rabbits were essentially an indulgence enjoyed only by the very wealthy. However, the drastic reduction in the human population after the mid-14th century Black Death heralded a remarkable change in fortunes for commercial rabbiting. This was brought about by rapid gains in living standards and the purchasing power for many people. This increased purchasing power induced changes in taste and fashion and opened up a new market for goods previously considered as nonessential. Hence in the late 14th century there was considerable growth in output of goods with relatively high value, such as woollen cloth, cutlery, leather goods, pewter and wine.

Thetford Warren Old Map
Old Map of Thetford Rabbit Warren Area

Commercial rabbit rearing benefited from the changing economic conditions in a number of ways. First, the labour costs of rabbit keeping were low compared to grain farming and this enhanced its attractiveness to landlords in a period of rising wages. Furthermore, cullings could be sharply increased without a big rise in labour inputs, so that unit costs in rabbit production fell appreciably in the 14th century. Secondly, the demand for meat rose, and although there are no grounds for supposing that the rabbit suddenly became the meat of the masses, it certainly descended the social scale. Lastly, demand for better clothing increased and chroniclers commented on the rising standard of dress amongst the masses. Being a low-value fur, rabbit was most likely to benefit from any expansion in the mass clothing market. The common grey rabbit was most numerous in East Anglian warrens and was used for warmth rather than for display. On the other hand, Methwold, Wretham and some coastal warrens specialised in the rarer silver- grey and black rabbits. These were much more fashionable as an adornment on clothing and, apparently, Henry VII possessed night attire tailored with black rabbit fur which bore a close resemblance to the more expensive ermine and was much in demand as an imitation. By mid-century the rabbit had replaced the Russian squirrel as the basic fur of north-west Europe, and the growth of exports from London points to England’s role as a major supplier. London was not the only port to benefit, for at Blakeney in the 16th century rabbit skins were the fourth-largest export commodity. The Low Countries remained an important market, but Norfolk ports also sent furs to Danzig and the Baltic.

The rabbit trade between East Anglia and London also remained prosperous for some considerable time. Methwold warren was a regular supplier to the London market and a London merchant was fined for importing East Anglian rabbits during the close season imposed by the Poulters. Throughout the Middle Ages this Guild had fixed the price of rabbits on the London market and in the 15th century one would fetch between 3d and 4d. Even after the relatively high costs of transport and labour, the net profit on one trip was still considerable.

III

The rabbit undoubtedly made a significant impact upon those areas to which it was introduced. East Anglian soils display a wide variety of type and composition, from fertile clays to thin, acidic sands, and in the Middle Ages these sands presented a formidable obstacle to cultivation. Rabbits were valuable precisely because they provided an opportunity to make productive use of the poorest soils, and indeed some warrens were founded on soils described as fit only for rabbits. Furthermore, as areas of poor soil were most likely to suffer the brunt of the declining grain market in the later Middle Ages, then rabbiting offered a welcome source of alternative income in a difficult period. The industry presented a range of employment opportunities, not all of them legal, and as output increased so did the occupational spin-offs. The position of warrener was itself financially rewarding, whilst helping with the trapping or guarding of rabbits could provide a useful source of supplementary income at the very least.

The preparation of furs was a skilled and specialized task, and towns and villages near the warren areas harboured a number of skinners and barkers dependent on the local rabbit and sheep trades. They were prominent in medieval Thetford and Bury St Edmunds. The rabbit industry also encouraged other specialists in the clothing trades, such as listers and glove-makers . It is also probable that the fur was sometimes shorn from the skin and then felted, again for use in clothing. Of course, the amount of specialist craftwork generated by the rabbit industry locally should not be overstated, for the largest warrens tended to send their produce directly to London, and so some of the benefit accrued to London skinners and poulters. However, this trade, though largely seasonal, did then provide much needed stimulus to the boatmen and carriers of the region. As the mass of the peasantry was legally excluded from taking the rabbit, any benefit to them from the growth of the industry would appear negligible. However, it is suspected that many peasants living in the vicinity of warrens secured a reasonable supply of rabbits illegally, either for domestic consumption or for distribution through the black market. The incidence of poaching increases rapidly from the mid-fourteenth century, reflecting both the growth in rabbits and of poaching itself.

Poaching:

The attraction of poaching was its simplicity and its profitability. Most warrens were situated on vast and isolated tracts of heathland, some distance from the nearest village and were therefore exposed and palpably difficult to protect. In addition, the rabbit prefers to leave its burrow and graze nocturnally, thus presenting poachers with excellent cover from the protective gaze of warren officials and with easier pickings on the ground. With no necessity to drive the colony from its burrows, they merely surrounded the unsuspecting animals  with dogs. The stout warren lodges provided a base for the warreners’ operations against the poachers and welcome protection in case of danger, but they fought a losing battle.

poacher1
Poacher

Many of the peasants who lived in the rabbit-producing regions must have poached at some stage during their lives and most of the reported cases involved one-off offenders. However, the countless references to the use of nets, ferrets and dogs largely indicated planned operations within the rabbit-warren itself, and often the perpetrators of these deeds are common or habitual poachers. It is also apparent that no-one was beyond reproach, judging by the number of petty clerics involved in poaching. In 1435 the parson of Cressingham was fined for poaching at Swaffham and Augustinian canons from Blythburgh Priory were regular unwanted visitors to Westwood warren. In 1425 one of their number, Thomas Sherman, was described in the court roll as ‘a poaching canon’.

poacher3

Most of these regular poachers reared their own ferrets and dogs, and made their own nets. Greyhounds were popular, and were certainly favoured by the Blythburgh canons. However, rough heathland terrain proved demanding and other poachers preferred the more hardy lurcher, a cross between the greyhound and the collie.  Court officials kept a watchful eye over these men, and John Brette of Flempton (Surf) was fined because ‘he kept a certain dog in order to kill the lord’s rabbits’.  Some poachers, such as Geoffrey Sewale of Walberswick, preferred to set traps in the warrens but for many, ferreting remained the most popular. Indeed, they were in such demand on the Suffolk Sandlings in the 15th century that one Blythburgh canon ran a profitable business in leasing  his well-trained ferrets to other poachers, presumably for a suitable fee.

By the later Middle Ages poaching had become a sufficiently serious and lucrative business for poachers to organize themselves into gangs. These were not merely some haphazard extension of individual operations, but represented a deliberate and carefully planned pooling of knowledge and resources. Their activities were characterized by efficiency and ruthlessness and they entered warrens heavily armed and equipped with a comprehensive range of poaching accessories. Their success undoubtedly prompted manorial officials to try and catch them with incriminating evidence even before they entered the warrens. The homes of an East Suffolk gang were scrutinized by court officials from Walberswick, who allegedly found four men keeping lurchers ‘in their tenements’, one man keeping ferrets and a net in his house’, and another with a supply of ‘haypenne’ nets.  A Thetford gang of the 1440s, equally well equipped but more elusive, was reportedly operating in Downham warren attired with ‘soldiers tunics, steel helmets, bows and arrows’, whilst others were armed ‘with cudgels and staffs’. In September I444 this formidable bunch attacked and wounded three members of a rival gang from Elveden and without licence abducted and unjustly imprisoned them in the town of Thetford’.

Poacher2

Many of these Breckland gangs were comprised of skilled craftsmen, notably bakers, weavers, fishermen, and hostelers, and with their wide range of contacts hostelers may have been particularly important in co-ordinating activities. It is also possible that some warreners played a double game, for their expertise and local knowledge would have been invaluable. A Robert Fisher, a warrener living in Thetford, certainly poached in nearby Downham warren in 1446. With or without inside help, most poaching gangs included a number of men drafted from outside the locality. Court rolls always listed those culprits known to them, but often complained that these were joined by many other unknown men’. Such anonymity reduced the courts’ chances of breaking up gangs, and provided the gangs themselves with a wider range of dispersal points for their illicit gains.

It is possible that the rise in poaching was motivated by a sense of social grievance as much as by economic necessity. Resistance to the feudal order was endemic in late medieval East Anglia and court rolls repeatedly record refusals to perform manorial offices, labour services and the like. Occasionally this flared into violent protest, and most commentators have noted the vehemence of the I381 revolt in the region. The criminal activities of the poaching gangs were primarily directed against the ‘privilege of feudal order’ and so might have been championed and condoned by other peasants.

The rabbit was undoubtedly a very tangible embodiment of feudal privilege and status and therefore an ideal medium for social protest. The Smithfield rebels of I38I explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt hares in the field. The physical damage caused by maurauding rabbits was certainly a source of friction and was amongst the grievances cited in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. Unfortunately, conclusive proof that poaching was a major form of social protest is elusive. Its increase in the later 14th century certainly corresponded with a rise in social tensions, but also with a rise in the demand for the rabbit. Indeed, there was little sense of camaraderie or social unity between those Thetford and Elveden gangs in the I440s.

THE END

Sources:
http://www.bahs.org.uk/AGHR/ARTICLES/36n1a1.pdf
https://www.eadt.co.uk/news/rabbit-decline-in-the-brecks-1-5334129
http://www.cultureofthecountryside.ac.uk/resources/rabbits-ferrets-and-polecats-east-anglia

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