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The Victorian Season

It is true to say that the London Season revolves round the Royal Courts. So much turns upon that large gilt card which has the power to take its recipient into Buckingham Palace for that moment which all debutantes dream about. Learning to curtsy has been a preoccupation for months. Dressmakers, photographers, cosmeticists ... all play their part in preparing these girls in white for those few seconds when pale and very young they feel that they are alone with the Queen in the Throne Room. Of the Palace itself only a fragmentary impression is gained of ornate chandeliers, rich carpets, masses of flowers and people, with the Lord Chamberlain in the role of an omnipresent controller, for was he not commanded to issue the invitation, whilst none other than his voice summoned each debutante into the Royal presence, again under his eagle scrutiny. Being presented at Court can be an ordeal as well as a memorable experience.
How the London Season Began

#It is impossible to give an exact date when the London Season began. It was a slow growth that came into being in the reign of Charles I as an escapist release from boredom. Life on a country estate was monotonous. The young gentlewoman had no option other than to stay at home and assist with housewifery. Daughters had to observe the wishes of mamma. This extract taken from a letter shows how the more docile reacted to this discipline: ". . . So scrupulous was I of giving any occasion to speak of me as I know they did of others, that, though I loved well to see plays and to walk in the Spring Garden sometimes (before it grew scandalous by the abuse of some) yet I cannot remember three times that ever I went with any man besides my brothers. . . . And I was the first that prepared and practised three or four of us going together without any man, and everyone paying for themselves. . . . And this I did first upon hearing some gentlemen telling what ladies they had waited on at the plays, and how much it had cost them; upon which I resolved none should say the same of me."

But not all women were so subdued. Many refused to be buried alive in the country and insisted on being taken by their husbands to London where they could parade in all their finery. By degrees an aristocratic community began to take root in the West End. After rural boredom, the would-be pleasure-seekers found plenty of scope for frivolity. The choice must have been bewildering. The wealthy could attend a play; watch a cock-fight; take a barge up-stream to Chelsea, or a hackney-coach from the Maypole in the Strand; sup, dice and court in some outlying village; play pailk maille or bowls; attend fashionable water parties or masques, whilst card games were endless. Officialdom frowned on the waste of time and money. Those who indulged were sent home, whilst penalties were imposed by the Star Chamber on all who flaunted the ruling.

#With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, reaction against Puritanical repression became marked. The King had spent his exile at the Court of Louis XIV, where the most lavish fashions followed one another in rapid succession. It was inevitable that he was conscious of not only restoring the Stuart dynasty, but also infusing something of the Continental colour and gaiety into the English Court and general way of life. The rich flocked back to London from the country. Town houses began to appear in the meadows near Piccadilly and Leicester Square. It became fashionable to live as close as possible to the Court. Theatres re-opened and were packed to suffocation. Pepys saw a thousand people turned away from a performance of She Would if She Could. He was a regular patron and appeared not to mind being accidentally spat upon by ladies in front . . . seemingly play-goers spat backwards., over the shoulder. Audiences were rowdy. Women now played women's parts, whilst Nell Gwyn and the "Orange Molls" exchanged badinage with the bucks in the audience at Killigrew's new theatre at Drury Lane. Almost all the former sports returned. Both Pepys and Evelyn watched bull-baiting at the Bear Garden. Cock-fighting was exceptionally popular. Pepys records how he saw at a cock-pit in Shoe Lane "people who look as if they had not bread to put in their mouths betting three or four pounds, losing and betting as much again". Stakes were considerable. Evelyn saw a wrestling match in St. James's Park with 1,000 laid.

#Pleasure gardens attracted crowds. Tom Brown described the old Spring Gardens near the Mall as full of gallantry, whilst the Mulberry Garden was noted for its love-making and celebrated Spanish cook. The New Spring Gardens, later Vauxhall, had just begun, whilst 1683 saw an enormous Ice Fair on the Thames. The fashionable trend was still westwards. Berkeley, Soho, and St. James's Square came after the Restoration. The Mall and St. James's Park drew the fops and fashion-plates for the morning stroll. Hyde Park was the setting for coaches. Everything catered for restless women and bored men who wanted to indulge in "a very merry, dancing, drinking, laughing, quaffing and unthinking time".

The merry-go-round of pleasure experienced a frightful set-back in two catastrophic blows : the Great Plague and the Great Fire. In the intense heat of that summer of 1665 the plague spread with terrible rapidity. Decent burial was impossible. The dead were shovelled into pits in Bunhill Fields and in Tothill' Fields, in Deadmans Place in Southwark, in Earl Street, Westminster, and in Hand Alley, Bishopsgate. Business ceased. Grass grew in front of the Royal Exchange. Two hundred thousand people out of a population of almost 700,000 fled from the city. Winter saw the plague abated, but the final cleansing came with the Great Fire. Five-sixths of the city were burnt out; 13,200 houses disappeared in the flames; 436 acres became rubble; 200,000 people were homeless.

The rebuilding of London saw further moves of the fashionable set to the west. In the Georgian period the division became a clear-cut line of demarcation between the City and the West End. London was flooded with diversions, whilst exotic imports from overseas commerce added extra touches of novelty. The slave trade, mercantile toil, and the spoils of the Indies enabled the new rich to build country houses in Marylebone and Islington. The twin foci of gaiety and fashion were Vauxhall and Ranelagh, with their classic-romantic groves, rotundas, and grottoes.

From such a pleasure-seeking background came the London Season. 'Tis true we cannot match the extravagance of their masquerades, ridottos, and routs, but there is much to be said for the brief round of enjoyment and twentieth-century gaiety that begins with the opening of the Royal Academy. By a circuitous route we sample all the events that by consent now belong to the Season: Henley, Lord's, Epsom Downs, Eton, Chelsea Flower Show, the Royal Tournament, the International Horse Show, the Royal Courts, Trooping the Colour, Covent Garden, until we reach the verdant loveliness of Goodwood, then beyond to Cowes and the moors.

The Heart of the Season

Buckingham Palace has gained the affection of all English-speaking people for not only is it the visible symbol of the monarchy, but it is the home of the Queen, a landmark with a dual personality. The Palace itself is not nearly so venerable as many people imagine. It stands on the mulberry garden planted by James the First in the hope that the growth of silk in England would be encouraged. Thousands of young trees were brought from the Continent for this purpose, but the plan failed, though innumerable people sampled and appreciated tarts filled with mulberries from this plantation as both Pepys and Evelyn record. Young and old fops made merry in Hyde Park and Mulberry Gardens, where there walked and drove "many hundreds of rich coaches and gallants . . . most shameful powdered hair men and spotted women". In 1654 Evelyn "observed how the women began to paint themselves, formerly a most ignominious thing, and used only by prostitutes". Of that mulberry garden only one tree remains, and that is opposite Queen Anne's Gate.

This site has known three houses. The first was called Goring House, then Arlington House. It is an interesting possibility that the first cup of tea to be brewed in England was drunk where the Palace now stands, for in 1674 the Earl of Arlington imported the first pound of tea to enter this country for which he paid sixty shillings. The Duke of Buckingham bought Arlington House and built Buckingham House, a pleasant red-brick country house with stables, outbuildings, courtyard, and fountain. There is a rustic touch about the Duke's description of his new establishment for in a letter to a friend he tells how the spinneys were full of nightingales and blackbirds. When he died the House went to the Duchess, his third wife. It was on the death of this eccentric woman that the Royal associations of the House began. George III bought it as a dower-house for Queen Charlotte. It was the first hint of a dual existence, for though its purpose was purely domestic the official levees being held at the Court of St. James's, a certain number of Court routine activities found their way to Buckingham House. George IV. had ambitious plans and called in Nash to rebuild the Queen's House. Both men died before the scheme was completed. William IV had no love for the place, refused to live in it, and offered its roof to Parliament when the Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire.

Buckingham Palace lived up to its name when Victoria became Queen. She was the first sovereign to make it a regular Royal residence, though prints of that time show it as being different from its present appearance. On the site where now stands Queen Victoria's statue was the Marble Arch, which served as a ceremonial entrance, with the Royal Standard flying on top when the Queen was in residence. The Marble Arch was moved to its present site in 1851. The Palace was altered in 1847 and 1914; the latter was perhaps the most extensive as under the Queen Victoria Memorial Scheme the Mall was widened, Admiralty Arch and the Victoria Memorial were erected, and the front of the Palace was changed.

The back of the Palace is virtually unchanged. It is a surprisingly lovely piece of classical architecture, usually seen at its best in the heat of a summer afternoon with a royal garden party in progress. Except for the distant rumble of the London traffic, you might be in the grounds of an old country house. The first impression from the terrace is of immaculate lawns that lead to an artificial lake edged with the barest suspicion of reeds. To this must be added the extraordinary mirage of colour created by hundreds of women and girls in dresses of every shade and hue. The men in grey hats add an almost Ascot touch. In the centre the royal marquee. There is continual movement with the result that the changing colour-pattern is like a shimmering rainbow. If you wish to take away a picture of Buckingham Palace, what better than the vignette of the Queen, as a young girl, blushing and self-conscious, sinks into a curtsy ... a tiny incident that personifies the London Season?

London Season. Louis T. Stanley; with illustrations by Alan Crisp; prefaced by Alfred Noyes. [www.archive.org] [As Written] div div