[From Chrononhotonthologos, Phantasmagoria. Cotillions and Supper Entertainment in the Isle of Man 1793-1820 ]

Historical Background

The Duke of Atholl sold his Lordship of Mann to the British Crown in 1765. At that time the Isle of Man had only four major roads, those joining the four main towns of Douglas, Ramsey, Castletown and Peel; they were not surfaced and full of potholes. This made travel difficult especially in the winter months. Trade in the towns was limited to local produce and a contemporary writer of the time describes the town of Douglas as, "A collection of mean looking houses .... its shops are small and dark, in keeping with its streets."

The building of the Red Pier in the 1793 made transportation to and from the Island much easier. The turn of the 18"' century saw trade and industry come on by leaps and bounds. The Georgian style mansions and houses that still survive today bear witness to the new money that flowed into the Island. Smuggling had not yet been eradicated for there were reports in the Whitehaven Pacquet newspaper telling of vessels from the Isle of Man being impounded and searched for contraband. I have no proof but it seems likely that the slave trade through Liverpool offered a profitable return on capital for anyone seeking a good investment. Although wealth may have increased, the town of Douglas was still far from a pleasant place to visit. A newspaper complained about the state of the streets, Manx Advertiser 05.08.1819,

"Nuisances- Under this head we feel it incumbent to notice - the filthy and dangerous practice of firing chimneys instead of having them swept; - slaughter houses, in all parts of the town, emitting a pestilential effluvia; - emptying privies, and leading the filth though the town in carts, at all hours of the day, literally strewing the streets with dirt, the stench from which is intolerable; - pigs going at large, - drunken and disorderly persons parading the streets insulting the peaceable inhabitants - to say nothing of the hoards of beggars which have been let loose upon the public; all evince the necessity of an active rigorous police, which, we regret to say, this town is lamentably deficient."

King George III's long reign witnessed historical events that changed the lives of his subjects. The American War of Independence, 1775-1783 was a great lost of revenue to the British Crown. The Revolutionary Wars in Europe, 1791-1802, were a series of wars between the French and the combined armies of England, Austria, Prussia and other minor European states. There was a "false" peace for a few months during 1802 but it was short lived and in 1803 the Napoleonic Wars broke out and lasted until 1814 when Louis XVIII was crowned King of France. Napoleon escaped capture and made it back to Paris in 1815 but was finally defeated by Wellington at Waterloo on June 18'' resulting in his incarceration at St. Helena.

Revolution challenged the power of thrones, governments and the church in Europe. King George lost his colony America and it seemed that the revolutionary movement in Europe would spill over into England. The Government and the Church therefore stirred every man to stand for King and country against the possibility of invasion. What affect did these events have on the Isle of Man? The America War and later the Europe and Napoleonic wars required detachments of soldiers and sailors to be recruited from the Kingdom's population. Manxmen were seafarers and their skills renowned and those that did not sign up for service were fodder for the scavenging press gangs.

Volunteer Forces were raised during those wars and the Isle of Man had its regiments of Volunteers called Fencibles. The name Fencibles is derived from the word defensible. They were the Home Guard of the day commanded by Regular Army officers. These corps of fencibles formed a line of local defence and allowed the regular army units to carry on their operations in Europe. The Cumberland newspaper for the 21St of March 1797 states, "there are five volunteer corps companies in Douglas and two more forming; in the Ramsey district three hundred men enrolled in one day."

The regiments recruited in the Isle of Man were not used only to defend the Island as some local units were deployed to different parts of the United Kingdom. In 1797 the Cumberland Pacquet makes references to Manx regiments stationed in Londonderry and Newcastle upon Tyne.

His Majesty's Schooner, the Alban, patrolled the Irish Sea and anchored in the Douglas bay occasionally to "fly the flag" for the Navy. The influx of the officer class into the Island, drawn from the English nobility and gentry created wealth, for servants were needed, excellent food and fine wine required and last but not least entertainments. When off duty the officers would have socialised with the local gentry. The usual garrison port pursuits, no doubt, could be found in the towns but more respectable and appropriate entertainments were required when the officers' wives and families arrived to set up home. Prior to this period entertainment was non- existent according to George Waldron whose description of the Island was printed in 1731,

"As for public shows, there are none of any kind exhibited in this Island, so that the only diversion of the better sort of people is drinking, which, indeed they have an excellent opportunity to indulge; the best wines, and rum, and brandy, being excessively cheap, by reason, as I before observed, of their paying no custom for it, and a man may drink himself dead without much expense to his family.....Nor does the eye want its entertainment too; though there are no plays nor magnificent sights to dazzle it, here is every charm that nature can bestow............

This heavy drinking may have led to duels that were reported at length in the newspapers of the day. The Cumberland Pacquet for the 14th of March 1797 names two duellists as Major Peachy and Capt. Lathrop.

The officers and merchant gentlemen that settled in the towns were often members of Fraternities and held regular lodge meetings. There is only one reported meeting of the Freemasons and that was in 1804 but another well established fraternity called the Bucks had flourished since the 1760s and advertised their meetings in the local press. This, however, did not provide social circles for younger gentlemen and ladies to meet and enjoy lighter entertainments. The establishment of Assembly Rooms for dancing and dining became the venues for social gatherings outside the home. Supper parties and balls were regular events. As the wealth of the Island grew it wasn't long before the usual "camp followers" of entertainers tried their luck in the Isle of Man. The commencement of regular Dancing Assemblies in the main towns on the Island meant that the new and the most fashionable dancing steps could be shown to be as good as those practiced in the social Assemblies of the capitals of the Kingdom.

Dancing Masters set up dancing classes and parents were encouraged to have their offspring tutored in this graceful art as part of their education and acceptance into the best social circles. Plays, exhibitions, side shows, speciality acts and circuses wowed the crowds with their antics whilst the more sober enjoyed singing concerts and the sacred music of oratorios by Handel and his contemporaries. Theatre was now a popular and acceptable form of entertainment in the main cities of Great Britain and actors and entertainers travelled the length and breadth of the Kingdom announcing their acts and boasting of the approbation of royalty and respectable persons. The entertainments were received with great applause by the audiences that attended the productions and the newspapers gave glowing reports. No working man could have afforded to go to the Georgian theatre as the cost of the cheapest seat was the equivalent of two days pay for a labourer. Some of those locals, who were of a more "simple" nature, were superstitious about the theatre and blamed the failure of the herring catches on the antics on stage; the fishing industry was surrounded by many omens of ill will. Superstition or not, going to the Theatre had its problems one of which were the bands of ruffians who hung about the Douglas streets. Such was the fate of a Mr. Blakeny recorded in one of the newspapers,

Manx Advertiser 31.07.1809 -

"Incident near Old Theatre. On Monday night last as Mr. Blakeny of this town passed along near the old Playhouse two fellows ran from a neighbouring lane where an assembly of disorderly persons were collected together by the sound of horns, (a most painful and egregious nuisance) and before he was aware of their intention, by a similar trip and push, he was cast upon a stone, by which his leg was fractured, and the bones at the ankle displaced. Doctor Bible was immediately sent for, who set the limb, but Mr. Blakeny still suffers violent agony from the consequent inflammation."

I hope Dr Bible's patient recovered as the treatment to set injured limbs was far from pain free; blood letting, poisonous potions, hard drugs, surgery using germ infected surgical instruments being part of the course. Many patients died.

Crime was endemic and those who committed it were dealt with harshly, both children and adults without deference to age or condition; the lash and the cane or "birch" was administered for stealing small items of food or cash, the death penalty by hanging was meted out, not only for murder but for a long list of much lesser crimes. Debt was a major problem and many, young and old, found themselves in the dark recesses of Castle Rushen prison, some being transported to Australia never to return to their native shore. There is an old proverb in Manx Gaelic, "Share goll dy lhie fegooish shibber ny girree ayns lhiastynys" - "Better to go to bed without supper than to get up in debt!" That fear hung over the Islanders well into the 20 a' century. The Friendly Societies formed for the benefit of the working man provided insurance cover for medical, death and sickness costs. From the 1800s coverage of the annual meetings and celebration dinners was given in the newspapers. Some of these offered the working man a social life in particular the lodges of Oddfellows and the Forresters.

As the numbers of the new residents grew, so the entertainments flourished and many an entertainer gained useful employment in the theatres, dance and assembly rooms around the Island. Many prospered, some ended up in debt. The success and failure of the entertainment industry provides us with a barometer of the social life that could be enjoyed by the richer residents on the Isle of Man for the years 1793 to 1820.


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