There’s nowt so hard as fops

© Trustees of the British Museum. (This version cropped.)

We tend to think of fops as weak, coddled, over-groomed, and lacking in mettle. A man wearing make-up, a powdered wig and silks, speaking with an affected drawl and striking artful poses; a woman with towering hair and a lapdog, fanning herself with infinite boredom and leisure. The 18th-century gentry must have been be soft, lacking in grit, surely?

We are apt to forget how necessary the stoic and solid qualities must have been, in an age before anaesthetics and modern medicine. Childbirth had no palliatives then, and operations were performed either in full consciousness, or else with the patient inebriated, or else, it has been said, after stunning the sufferer with a mallet.

It wasn’t only physical suffering and danger that required fortitude; bereavement was continual, from the death of mothers and children in childbirth on. Few parents would escape the loss of a child, few children the loss of a sibling.

To meet these adversaries, and also to meet the minor ones of gout and sudden death by highwaymen and the gallows, which held out its arms for many crimes beside the one of murder—200 offences were punishable by death in eighteenth-century criminal law—the faculty of Bottom was cultivated. It was felt that, if their heads were to be bloody, it would be a stay to find that they could keep them still unbowed. Those who could keep them so were admired; those who could not, were trained, so far as possible, to achieve the necessary resilience.

What was bottom?

In the eighteenth century, but particularly under the Regency, a gentleman was expected to have ‘bottom’. It was a word of composite meaning, which implied stability, and also what the twentieth century calls ‘guts’. It meant being able to keep one’s head in emergencies, and, in a financial sense, that one was backed by capital, instead of being an adventurer. Bottom, in fact, was synonymous with courage, coolness and solidity. The metaphor was derived from ships.

Betting (and taking one’s losses coolly and always paying, even to ruin) and drinking were also part of bottom.

Two friends of Sir Philip Francis drank ten bottles of champagne and burgundy between them, at a sitting, without thinking it exceptional. ‘I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it,’ said Dr Johnson.

Then there was their own style of fitness.

Physical stamina was valued. Allardyce, born in 1779, once walked thirty miles grouse-shooting, dined at five, walked sixty miles to his house at Ury in eleven hours, attended to his business, walked sixteen miles to Laurence Kirk, danced at a ball, returned to Ury by seven a.m., and spent the next day partridge-shooting, having travelled one hundred and thirty miles and been without sleep for two nights and three days.

And there were the duels. Gentlemen still carried swords. No doubt it was a factor in the greater politeness of their period; you might be killed for insulting someone. Dr Johnson, being a poet and lexicographer rather than a gentleman, carried a cudgel at night, once holding off four footpads until the night watch intervened; he, too, had bottom. The streets of London required it: they may have been paved with gold, but they were also stalked by robbers keen to take a share. Indiscriminate use of the death penalty encouraged them to do away with their victims, and why not? They would be hanged whether they cut a purse or a throat, better not to leave a witness.

For long spells it was also possible to go abroad to be killed violently. And if sword, musket or cannonball didn’t take you, there was always disease. The Duke of Wellington was for the most part indifferent to how his officers dressed, foppish or not, but bridled at them carrying umbrellas in the field; Captain Gronow of the First Foot Guards (Grenadiers) wrote:

His Grace, on looking round, saw, to his surprise, a great many umbrellas, with which the officers protected themselves from the rain that was then falling. Arthur Hill came galloping up to us saying, Lord Wellington does not approve of the use of umbrellas during the enemy’s firing, and will not allow the ‘gentlemen’s sons’ to make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the army.

Wellington later added, ‘The Guards may in uniform, when on duty at St James’, carry umbrellas if they please, but in the field it is not only ridiculous but unmilitary.’ This in an army where the men wore powdered wigs into battle, of course.

His Lordship had bottom. At Waterloo Lord Uxbridge, seated on a horse next to him, had his leg taken off by a cannonball:

Uxbridge: By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!

Wellington: By God, sir, so you have!

The Iron Duke was laconic and direct, but he was also cultured, witty, and even sympathetic. We tend to associate toughness with a sort of no nonsense, to-hell-with-you gruffness, possibly influenced by Hollywood and the American frontier spirit, while we assume that dandies must be shallow as well as soft; our ancestors saw things differently. It wasn’t enough to have bottom, you should have ‘parts’, meaning interests, eloquence, deportment, manners and a proper sympathy for your fellows. Dr Johnson said that ‘Want of tenderness is want of parts, and is no less a proof of stupidity than depravity’.

The strange thing about these people, in their aspect as they aspired to be heroes, was that their pistolling, boxing, flogging, gaming, boozing, daring and enduring were combined with qualities which were so remote from being brutal. Their profuse tears in public, gentleness to blind old women like Madame du Deffand or Mrs Delaney, politeness in the act of fighting, tenderness for lap-dogs, and real enjoyment of literature, together with a hundred other forms of wit, culture, delicacy and eccentricity, made it ridiculous to think of them as bruisers.

It’s this strangeness that makes us misunderstand and underestimate them, and it’s hard not to think that we seem soft, boring, and uncouth by comparison. Then, of course, we remember the public executions, the flogging, the cock fighting and dirt, the poverty, Dr Johnson hiding pennies in the hands of children sleeping in doorways so they could buy some food when they woke.

We in the modern West may have simpler manners and (for the most part) wear simpler rig, but we’re the most comfortable and coddled generation ever. Most people in the United Kingdom now have luxuries at their disposal that even the richest of our ancestors, Roman emperors and English dukes alike, would marvel at, while our everyday lives are more certain, less subject to the buffetings of chance. We don’t need the same artistry or fortitude to get through life. Wipe off the fop’s make-up and underneath as like as not you’d find scars—from the pox, the sword, or God knows what.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, January 2015)

The longer quoted passages are taken from T H White 1950 The Age of Scandal. It’s a ‘gossip’s history’ of the period, roughly the late 18th and early 19th centuries, not too precisely defined. It’s a peculiar and wonderful book. The Penguin edition is out of print and it was recently republished in a print-on-demand edition by Faber Finds, ‘the place for lost books’. T H White also wrote the Sword in the Stone series of Arthurian children’s stories.

Digby-Tatham-WarterThe tradition of foppish bottom has persisted longest in the military. During the heavy fighting at Arnhem in 1944, where lightly armed elements of the British Parachute Regiment were surrounded by German forces with tanks and artillery, Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter carried his umbrella throughout. At one point he used it to attack an armoured car by thrusting it into the observation slit, pinning the driver; at another he whirled it above his head while leading a bayonet charge. He wore a soft beret or a bowler hat instead of a helmet.

Header image: ‘Satire; an extravagantly dressed woman catches a fashionable man by the arm as she points with her fan at a mezzotint droll in a print-shop window; a small dog looks up at her; an old gentleman with a stick stares at the prints and is surprised by a man with a warrant for his arrest. 1774. Hand-coloured mezzotint.’ © The Trustees of the British Museum. (This version cropped.)

One thought on “There’s nowt so hard as fops

  1. “This in an army where the men wore powdered wigs into battle, of course.”

    To be fair, I doubt a dress wig had been seen on the battlefield since the 1750s. After that, powdering the hair came to be a ritual for the weekly Colonel’s parade and what we might call Full Dress occasions. The custom was suspended, effectively done away with, in 1796- mainly because of the rising cost of flour due to wheat shortages. In 1808, The British army was ordered en masse to cut off the ‘queue’ and wear its hair short thereafter, to a united chorus of cheers that rang around the troopships moored in Southhampton Water, as greasy hanks of hair were cast overboard by the hundred.

    There was some resistance, for instance, in the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, where a number of officers took great pride in their flowing locks and some indignant soldiers’ wives, taking equal pride in their mens’ grooming, had to be faced down by the Colonel on the parade square in Halfiax, Nova Scotia.

    He had waited till this fellow officers were mellow after a good dinner in the Officers’ Mess before announcing the order and they sawed off the others’ queues with carving knives then burned them en masse in the Mess fire place.

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