Saturday 2 November 2013

'A Welch rarebit and a pot of beer'. Georgian Debating Societies - Lucy Inglis

Yesterday I went to Bristol to film with Lucy Worsley for next year’s BBC4 series Georgian Revolutions. We were talking about debating societies, their effect on society as a whole and the move to what is called, rather vaguely, ‘sociability’. Sociability is one of those academic terms that don’t really mean much and encompass a whole slew of ideas, but we managed to pick it apart from various angles and extract lots of Georgian goodness in the process.

Filming is one of those strange processes where you become both subject and object. Because, usually, most of us history girls sit behind a screen or in a library or archive for a lot of our working day it can be a bit intimidating. You have to remember all your facts whilst the cameras are on you and be placed, mic’ed, repositioned, herded and posed repeatedly whilst you ask each other about what words like ‘enlightenment’ really mean and whether your noses looks shiny.

That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable, because it is. We were filming in a Georgian pub and the atmosphere was great, as was the conversation. The ‘Revolutions’ series doesn’t only look at the obvious changes during the Georgian period, but at the huge though gradual changes throughout society that happened over the eighteenth century, and this particular episode was looking at the revolution of 'politeness' from the angle of conversation and debate. At the beginning of the century, philosophical ideas about rationalism and the nature of what was ‘true’ were filtering down the people on the streets. Discussions in coffeehouses by the intellectual celebrities of the day, such as Isaac Newton were recorded by authors and journalists, who circulated them throughout the country and in Europe.

Coffeehouses were called the ‘penny universities’ because of their penny admission fee, including a cup of coffee, and were seen as a place to become educated, and not just because of the quality of the conversations going on. From the end of the seventeenth century, coffeehouses often kept libraries for the use of the visitors, as well as a stock of newspapers. These coffeehouses libraries were sometimes, and quite often in the case of Oxford, run by the coffeehouse owner’s wife. One writer noted that they were in fact, the ‘sub-Librarians‘ who had ‘usurped their Husbands in the execution of this office’.

But the coffeehouse debates weren’t limited to geniuses like Newton. Debating societies were emerging and, after initially meeting in each others’ houses, the members increasingly began to favour meeting in taverns where they could discuss pressing matters over a ‘Welch rarebit and a pot of beer’.

One of the most prominent of these was the Robinhood Society, which, after moving around in its early years, met at the Robinhood and Little John pub in Butcher Row near the Strand. It had initially called itself the ‘Societe for Free and Candid Enquiry’, before taking on the name of the tavern where it met every Monday evening, where, ‘After the fatigues of the Day, Men of Various Occupations in Life, meet to dissipate the Gloom...and either in Flashes of Wit or solid arguments improve their judgment and entertain their imaginations.’

The members took the matter of debate seriously, and drunkenness was disapproved of. There ‘are drinking clubs. This is a disputing one. At those places, men feed their bodies; at this they feed their minds’. Questions were written on slips of paper and submitted anonymously. The moderator then read out the questions and hands were raised to vote. The question with the most votes won and was the subject for the evening.

The members of the club came from all levels of society and included:

A baker


Governor of the Plantations





House painter

Genius (yes, he's down as occupation 'genius')


A noted bug-doctor (pest controller)

A stockbroker

An illiterate brazier

A highwayman (called Bob Scamper - brilliant!)

The questions they debated initially didn’t cover religion or politics (to avoid charges of sedition), but by the 1740s they were discussing all subjects, including:

Whether the common methods of educating Youth in this Nation are not very defective, both with respect to morals, and a knowledge of the English tongue.

Whether a spendthrift or a miser is the most useless member of the Community.

Whether faith and belief are not one and the same thing?

Is a plurality of wives justifiable?

Should obey be removed from the marriage vows?

Whether it is consisted with the common sense of Mankind to believe that the Supreme Being could be born of a Virgin?

Whether the power lodged in a Prime Minister be not too great to be entrusted with any subject and if, in Time, it will not sap the very vitals of our constitution?

Women were largely excluded from debating societies until later in the century when their own societies such as La Belle Assemblee were formed, and by the 1780s the societies were meeting in halls and theatres so that the sexes could attend together, rather than taverns of coffeehouses. However, many women still attended the debates wearing masks, particularly those who would be contributing and not just listening. One advertisement announced the topic for debate as ‘Is it not detrimental to the world to restrain the female sex from the pursuit of classical and mathematical learning?’ and adds, ‘It is particularly hoped that Ladies will avail themselves of their masks and join in the debate’.


Joan Lennon said...

So much here I didn't know - thank you very much, and I look forward to seeing you on TV!

Petrea Burchard said...

Great stuff. I'd love to see my local coffee shop start this up.

The Greenockian said...

Sounds like its going to be an interesting programme.

Penny Dolan said...

So very pleased to have advance notice of this programme. A very interesting time in the development of society - and thoughts of current society too.

Ian Waugh said...

Hello. Regarding Bob Scamper (how I love that name!). I have done some fairly deep searching (Old Bailey, BL Newspapers) and found nothing about this man. Does anyone know his real name?