By Michelle Ray, author of By Duty Bound
The London of Elizabeth Bennet’s era would have been an exciting and lovely place to live for someone with means, but someone with a conscience might have wondered about the lives of those beyond her circle. It would have taken little to find activists and reformers fighting to make changes that benefit us today.
The Elizabeth Bennet in By Duty Bound spends time in London becoming aware of the world beyond Longbourn. She visits museums to see incredible works of art and artifacts, encounters workers fighting for better conditions and pay, hears of new technologies changing lives for the better but with unintended consequences, concerns herself with unwed mothers desperate for assistance, and learns about the prison system. Many of these issues are still discussed in our world today, though in Regency England, the details were often more dire.
Let’s start with the Luddites, whom Elizabeth discusses with a young activist. Luddite is currently a word used to describe people who dislike technology, so people like me—who are content with old iPhones and insists that her students use paper and pencil more often than devices—are sometimes given that label. However, the true meaning of Luddite comes from a labor movement in the early 19th century concerned with mechanization that allowed unskilled laborers to do work that had previously required years of training and specialization. Weavers and tile-makers were threatened by new inventions such as mechanized looms and knitting frames.
Interestingly, Luddites were not against technology; they confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called ‘a fraudulent and deceitful manner’ to get around standard labor practices. Their demands were for machines that produced high-quality goods, and were operated by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and were paid decent wages. The economic pressures of the Napoleonic Wars, including food scarcity and inflation, brought these issues to the fore, and protests took the form of ‘frame-breaking’, as the destruction of these machines was called. During 1811 and 1812, there were multiple attacks on factories, and troops were called in, resulting in deaths and arrests; some of those convicted were transported to Australia. The British government even made frame-breaking punishable by death. While people of the time could see the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, they worried about how technology was changing people. Sound familiar?
Prison reform was also becoming a timely topic of conversation and action amongst those focused on societal change. One leader was Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker known as the “Angel of Prisons”. Even more remarkable than Fry being the mother of eleven children, was her impactful work to aid the women and children of London’s Newgate Prison. She fought to have male and female prisoners separated (I had no idea there was a time when they were not!), and to have female guards oversee female inmates.
Of course, as in any sector of society, money played a key role within prisons. A criminal could pay a fine and be released if they had the means. Prisoners were charged for their daily needs, making Mrs. Fry’s efforts to provide raw materials so they could produce goods to sell of vital importance, as was her creation of prison schools for children. These were not just for children imprisoned for crimes, but for the children of female inmates who were often housed with them in the overcrowded cells.
In addition to giving lectures and asking her peers for donations, Mrs. Fry wrote a book about the issues, and in 1818 even spoke in Parliament (the first woman to speak in front of the House of Commons). Her speech on prison reform was part of what led to the Gaols Act of 1823. As if that were not enough, she worked beyond prisons to organize libraries, improve conditions on penal colony ships, create nursing courses, and found the Servants’ Society to improve what she called ‘the perennial problem of relations between servants and mistresses’.
Another perennial problem was the world of orphaned and abandoned children, specifically those at London’s Foundling Hospital. The institution was founded by philanthropist Thomas Coram in the 1740s for orphans, but by the early 19th century, it housed mostly ‘by-blows,’ children born out of wedlock “to hide the shame of the mother, as well as to preserve the life of the child.”
The Foundling Hospital was so in-demand that there was a lottery for entry. Upon arrival, children had their names changed. Birth mothers could leave an item to help identify their child should they want to reclaim him or her, but this was a rare occurrence. (Musical theater fans might recall that in Annie, written over a century later, a locket was been left by Little Orphan Annie’s parents for the same purpose.) Infants accepted into the Foundling Hospital were sent to live in the country with foster families, wet-nurses, and other caretakers, and brought back to live from ages four or five until at 14 or 15, they entered apprenticeships, the military, or service.
Like any young person, Elizabeth is not so serious-minded that she does not seek enjoyable excursions in London, including a visit to see the collections at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. In addition to taxidermized animals, the museum’s exhibits included all manner of objects from around the world: Mexican saddles, models of Aztec temples, a Tahitian mourner’s costume, and a feather helmet from a Hawaiian leader.
There is much debate today over colonialism and stolen artifacts, what ought to be on display and where that should take place, but in 1811, such thoughts would not have been in the mind of one such as Elizabeth Bennet, who in my novel, enjoys the spectacle and window into other worlds.
The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: a bird's-eye view of the courtyard. Coloured engraving by T. Bowles after L. P. Boitard, 1753.
Elizabeth Fry, by Charles Robert Leslie
Newgate West View of Newgate, by George Shepherd
All images public domain.