Shopping’s pretty good, but the new theatre at Covent Garden sucks and the British Museum is a joke. That’s one tourist’s impression of London in 1810.
Louis Simond published the journal of his 1810-11 tour as “An American in Regency England,” but as his name suggests, Simond was a native of France who emigrated to the United States shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution. His perspective may therefore be more European than American. Nevertheless, he approaches everything as an outsider and describes it in vivid and often amusing detail.
So what was the problem with the British Museum? It was already legendary by the time of Simond’s visit and it housed artifacts of major importance such as the Rosetta Stone.
The problem was that it crammed these major artifacts into a small space along with not-so-major artifacts such as stuffed birds and animals “many of them” he noted “seemingly in a state of decay.”
All of the museum’s various collections were crowded into a house on Great Russell Street; it was not until the1820s that a building was built specifically to display museum pieces. But Simond objected less to the hodge-podge displays than to the manner in which visitors were led through them. “We had no time allowed to examine anything;” he complained, “our conductor pushed on without minding questions, or unable to answer them, but treating the company with double entrendres and witticisms on various subjects of natural history.” And actually, Simond was lucky. Before1810, only gentlemen who could obtain a ticket were permitted to view the museum exhibits. Starting in 1810, the museum was open three days a week to “any person of decent appearance who may apply.”
Simond’s narrative jumps right from the museum to a discussion of theatre. While he first compliments Italian opera singer Angelica Catalini on a performance that exceeded even his already high expectations, he spends many more paragraphs describing problems with the new opera house at Covent Garden, which was built in a horseshoe shape. Basically, he said the people on the sides couldn’t see the stage because they were turned sideways, the audience facing forward couldn’t see because they were too far away, and no one could hear much of anything because the ceiling was so high. He recommended lowering the ceiling and eliminating the top two tiers of boxes since the behavior of the spectators in them was “either a great scandal or very inconvenient.” Along the sides, “certain ladies carry on their business quite openly,” while in the back, a noisy collection of sailors and low tradesmen hurled nutshells, apple cores and orange peels down on both actors and other spectators.
While he found it found such behavior unacceptable, it didn’t seem to hurt business much.
“Going to the play is not a habit with anybody here; it is in fact unfashionable:” he observes, “but London is so large and the theatres so few, that they are always full.”
He had better things to say about the shopping experience. “Foot passengers walk with ease and security along the smooth flag-stones of the side pavement. Their eyes, mine at least, are irresistibly attracted by the allurements of the shops.”
He admires the print shops full of caricatures and describes their contents in some detail. By contrast, he notes that “jewellers’ shops, glittering with costly trinkets, give me another sort of pleasure—that of feeling no sort of desire for anything they contain.” His wife’s feelings on the subject are unfortunately not recorded.
He also reports that pastry-cook shops are filled at mid-day with “decent persons” filling the long interval between breakfast and dinner with tarts, buns and a glass of whey.
To my mind, at least, Simond shops like a man. He critiques the political cartoons, he marvels at the curiosities of the apothecary, he thumbs his nose at the jewelry store because he has no intention of wasting money there, and the only thing he actually buys is a snack. There is no mention of the fabrics, bonnets, gloves and other finery that must have filled the shops. I can only wonder what his wife would have recorded in her own journal, had she kept one.
But though he gives few details about the shops, they seemed to impress him more than anything else in London. “A sort of uniform dinginess seemed to pervade everything, that is, the exterior” he noted, but “the interior of the houses, the shops at least, which are most seen, presented … appearances and colours most opposite to this dinginess; everything there was clean, fresh and brilliant.”
Simond’s journal provides a unique and memorable impression of England in 1810 and his personable writing makes it seem as if you are reading a letter from a friend. It may be the closest we can get to visiting that distant country known as the past.
This article is posted in honor of the release of my new book, Deceptive Behavior, a romantic comedy masquerading as a traditional Regency romance. To learn more click here.