Extracts from memoirs and works on changes in British customsby Ian Irvine / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
High Change in Bond Street (1796) by James Gillray
Poet and singer Thomas Moore writes about the manners of the 1780s in his 1825 life of the dramatist Sheridan:
Without any disparagement of the manly and useful talents, which are at present nowhere more conspicuous than in the upper ranks of society, it may be owned that for wit, social powers, and literary accomplishments, the political men of the period under consideration formed such an association as it would be flattery to say our own times can parallel. The natural tendency of the excesses of the French Revolution was to produce in the higher classes of England an increased reserve of manner, and, of course, a proportionate restraint on all within their circle, which have been fatal to conviviality and humour, and not very propitious to wit—subduing both manners and conversation to a sort of polished level, to rise above which is often thought as vulgar as to sink below it. Of the greater ease of manners that existed forty years ago, one trifling, but not the less significant, indication was the habit, then prevalent among men of high station, of calling each other by such familiar names as Dick, Jack, Tom, etc—a mode of address, that brings with it, in its very sound, the notion of conviviality and playfulness, and, however unrefined, implies at least, that ease and sea-room, in which wit spreads its canvas most fearlessly.
In 1841, the Reverend Sydney Smith, aged 70, catalogues the progress made during his life in his work “Modern Changes”:
It is of some importance at what period a man is born. A young man, alive at this period, hardly knows to what improvements of human life he has been introduced; and I would bring before his notice the following eighteen changes which have taken place in England since I first began to breathe in it the breath of life.
Gas was unknown: I groped about the streets of London in all but the utter dark…