Tag Archive | Mike Rendell

Journal of a Georgian Gentleman

The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman:

The Life and Times of Richard Hall, 1729-1801

by Mike Rendell



Treasures from the Past

Have you ever wished you could find a trunk somewhere that is full of diaries and papers and mementos from one of your ancestors? Remnants from the past that give you a glimpse of the person, and not just the name and dates generally found in family Bibles or ancestry.com?

Sadly, most of my ancestors weren’t the sort to write things down, so when they disappeared from the earth, most of their life experiences disappeared with them. One exception was my great-grandfather, Jess Sherry. An educator who valued words, he left a legacy of writings that are in many ways as apropos today as they were a hundred years ago.


A silhouette of Richard Hall, made by his daughter Martha.


In his lifetime Richard kept copious notebooks, diaries and journals as well as everyday ephemera of the time—newspaper cuttings, admission tickets, catalogues and so on. Apart from a dozen contemporaneously written diaries which are still extant, Richard completed numerous retrospective accounts of events which had influenced his life. These were often interspersed with details about the weather, the price of bread, recipes for making wine, inventories of his assets, and so forth. Separately he also maintained little notebooks on favoured topics—‘Observables’ (referring to what he had seen and noted, e.g. eclipses, earthquakes, violent storms and other natural phenomena), ‘Fossils’ (which he took to mean anything dug out of the ground) and ‘Receipts’ (i.e., recipes, which included medicines rather than just meals). He left behind his collection of coins, shells and fossils. He was also, from the 1750’s onwards, an avid collector of books, many of them bought from local booksellers.


Richard often wrote his thoughts and ideas—as well as copied out sermons—in manuscript books, which were then bound up. Many remain. A fastidious record-keeper, at the end of each year he would set out a list of the books which he had read—and most of these lists survive, too. Together these collections give a fascinating insight into the man and his times. Many of the items were stored in Richard’s horse-hair trunk. One of the restrospective journals is entitled ‘Family and Personal Recollections’. It begins:

I have frequently thought of writing a little history of my life interspersed with as much information as I could collect from letters and memorandum in my possession, of my family connexions. No very striking incidents, I am fully aware will be presented. Still I trust it may be attended with benefit in awakening feelings of deep humility and a lively gratitude in my own mind whilst it will afford an outline of a family history to my children they could not otherwise obtain.

What follows is a story of the life of Richard Hall—my great-great-great-great grandfather. It is based on what Richard himself wrote and collected—with some additional material from his son, who maintained the family tradition of retrospective musing and diary-keeping, and from his brother-in-law William, whose three surviving diaries give a fascinating counterpart to what was happening in the Hall family in the middle part of the eighteenth century. To this family source material has been added background information—to give a fuller picture of Richard’s life and times.

Richard’s Story

Richard’s grandfather Thomas, a gentleman farmer, managed to survive “the end of the English Civil War—the execution of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, the Restoration of Charles II, the upheavals of the reign of James II, the accession of William of Orange and the start of the Hanoverian dynasty.” But also, he was financially ruined by the notorious South Sea Bubble (see blog post here). The end result was that Thomas’s son Francis had to go to London to find work, as many did in that situation. Francis got an apprenticeship with a hosier, which, as the author puts it, was “quite a step down for a young man brought up as the son of a ‘gentleman farmer’.

An only child, Richard was brought up on Red Lion Street in Southwark. What was it like for him growing up in that rather unsavory neighborhood? Rendell sets that scene for us, using historical data that is pure gold for a historical author who might be seeking a background for a character who was in trade during that period.

How were babies treated? Words pronounced? What would Richard have learned in school? What did they eat? How did they cook? What was the postal system like? The roads? Was it necessary to have a passport to travel abroad? How much did Richard weigh? How much did things cost? Where did he go for entertainment and what curiosities garnered his interest? What did men and women wear?

In 1766, Richard, aiming for a more fashionable clientele, signed a contract to build a shop on London Bridge (“the corner London Thames Street, London Bridge). With this move, now he was able to offer fabrics as well as silk stockings. He took out fire insurance. Eventually, he took on his own son as apprentice. And his life continued, well-documented—through 1801. Even better, his descendants had the good sense not to destroy the remnants that he left.

school expenses

Do you have an ancestor who left journals or writings behind to document his/her life? What sort of plans do you have to document your own life for your descendants?

About the Author

Mike RendellBorn in Bristol, England, Mike Rendell read Law at Southampton University. After graduation he joined a Bristol law firm where he was to launch the UK s first 24/7 residential property transfer service. He contributed regular articles on property matters to legal journals and wrote a weekly legal advice column in the local press. He retired in 2003 and now lives with his wife Philippa, sometimes on the edge of Dartmoor in the South West of England, and sometimes in Spain, where he tends his garden of olives, pomegranates and citrus fruits. He has two children from a former marriage. He is currently working on a novel set in Georgian England as well as on a book to be published by Pen & Sword entitled “Sex, Scandal and Satire – in bed with the Georgians” – due out 2015/6.



Philip Astley: Equestrian, Showman and Entrepreneur

Philip Astley: Equestrian, Showman and Entrepreneur


Philip Astley: Early Life

Philip Astley was born in Staffordshire (about 150 miles from London) on January 8, 1742. When he was around eleven years old, his family moved to London, where his father had a carpentry shop near Westminster Bridge. In 1759, he went to be trained in horsemanship in Wilton at Lord Pembroke’s estate, where he showed extraordinary promise. Soon after, in search of excitement, he left his family and joined a regiment of light dragoons called Eliot’s Light Horse, later the 15th Light Hussars.

Astley’s Military Service

Astley was assigned to care for and train the horses to be “bomb-proof”, i.e., not to take off in fear at the sound of gunshot. His unit was soon shipped off to Hamburg, Germany to assist the Prussians in fighting the French in the Seven Years’ War. The 15th distinguished itself by being instrumental in capturing sixteen colors (flags) from the French, and one of them was taken by Philip Astley. Losing one such flag would be considered a disaster, so losing sixteen of them was humiliating for the French. The tactics and riding skills of the 15th were too much for the French to overcome. The 15th was awarded the country’s first ever Battle Honor and nicknamed “The Fighting Fifteenth.”

That same year, Astley earned the lifelong gratitude of royalty when he single-handedly rode through enemy lines to rescue Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick. A prince of the Holy Roman Empire, the duke was married to George II’s daughter and was the father of Princess Caroline, who would become the wife of George IV.

duke of brunswick

Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick

Astley continued to prove himself throughout the remainder of the Seven Years’ War. In 1766, he was discharged from the army and given a white charger called Gibraltar as a token of appreciation from his commander. Having married and become the father of John Philip Conway Astley, he took a job at a nearby riding school that demonstrated tricks as well as teaching riding skills. After a year, Astley obtained some property and started his own establishment.

Astley’s Amphitheatre: The Beginning

It was around 1768 when people would come around to watch Astley and his pupils perform equestrian tricks. A collection bucket was sent around, money started to pour in, and Astley began to hire musicians. He’d stand on his head on the back of a horse, straddle two cantering and jumping horses, and often be joined by his wife Patty, also a talented performer. Even at this early stage, Astley knew that variety was the best way to keep his audience happy, and he was never satisfied to keep performing the same tricks over and over again.

Mr. Astley, Sergeant-Major in His Majesty’s Royal Regiment of Light Dragoons. Nearly twenty different attitudes will be performed on one, two, and three horses, every evening during the summer, at his riding school. Doors to be open at four, and he will mount at five. Seats, one shilling; standing places, sixpence.


It wasn’t long before Astley mysteriously found a diamond ring on Westminster Bridge and was able to lease (and then acquire) a piece of property south of the bridge. He cut down the timber and constructed the first Astley’s Amphitheatre, although it was first called The British Riding School. The fenced-in compound was in open-air, but had a covered standing area for visitors and a central viewing platform. Eventually, a dome-shaped roof covered the entire ring, and there was a room above the horses’ stables where wealthy visitors could sit.

The Licensing Act of 1737

Censorship was alive and well in England for more than two centuries due to this law that gave the Lord Chamberlain the power to approve or ban public performances. The only two theaters authorized to perform plays were Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Any other performances could get raided and their employees thrown into prison. Astley fought public officials trying to shut him down for many years, often using his upstanding military background and royal connections to keep his business going. At one point, George III himself came to his defense, perhaps because a dozen years earlier Astley had saved him from injury on Westminster Bridge when a horse pulling his carriage became uncontrollable. It didn’t hurt that Astley celebrated the King’s birthday on June 4th every year with a fireworks demonstration over the Thames either.

Astley’s Goes on Tour

As other performers—jugglers, rope-walkers, tumblers, clowns, etc.—were added, Astley’s role became more producer, artistic director, marketer, and business manager.

In the autumn, Astley used his army training to take his show on tour, where he would perform at fairs and gardens, in fields, and borrowed theaters, with staging and fencing loaded on wagons, as far away as Edinburgh.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that he would conquer the French with his extraordinary show. He charmed Marie-Antoinette, who called him “le plus bel homme d’Europe”, and in 1802, during a brief period of peace with the French, he achieved an audience with Napoleon and was granted reparations for the theater that was appropriated by the republican army during the revolution. Brussels, Vienna, and Belgrade were among the European capitals he captivated prior to the French Revolution

Astley’s After Astley

Rendell, Mike. Astley's Circus: The Story of an English Hussar. 2014
Rendell, Mike. Astley’s Circus: The Story of an English Hussar. 2014. Amazon

Following Philip Astley’s death in 1814, his son John managed the circus. After he died in 1821, Andrew Ducrow, son of the “Flemish Hercules” took over management of the Amphitheatre. Ducrow was the first performer to ride six horses at once. After Ducrow died (following a devastating fire—the third in its history—the property was rebuilt by William Batty. After Batty came a long a long line of new owners, but by the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign, Astley’s was long-since its prime. It was closed in 1893 and demolished two years later.

Astley’s Accomplishments

  • The first ringmaster. Astley went around in military costume announcing the acts in his booming voice, cracking the whip, and generally serving as Master of Ceremonies.
  • Pioneered the idea of the circus parade to create enthusiasm for his performances
  • Astley propagated the idea of a ring with a diameter of 42 feet as the optimal for circus acts.
  • Although he is often called the “Father of the Modern Circus,” he never called his venue a circus.

“…everything was delightful, splendid, and surprising!”

Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock

For a detailed list of some of the “attitudes” offered in Astley’s performances, click here.