Friday, January 30, 2009

Gin and Vice in Georgian London

Who'd a thunk it? Benjamin Franklin lived within spitting distance of Charing Cross Station back in Georgian times. Not that there was a station there when Benjamin Franklin inhabited 36 Craven Street, in 1757-1775.

Not that I'm that well up on American Presidents, either. For me, they generally come heavily mediated by Hollywood films, and if Frank Langella's current portrayal of Richard Nixon is anything to go by there's probably little connection with reality.

'Benjamin Franklin' was the answer to one of the 'Slumdog Millionaire' quiz questions, so I was better prepared, I thought, for a visit to his house in Craven Street.

It was a U3A notice of a talk on 'Vice and Debauchery in Georgian England' that drew me in, interest provoked by the Hogarth exhibition at the Tate Britain last year . It wasn't a surprise to find a scene from his cartoon series called 'The Harlot's Progress' attached to the door, and I passed some time talking to two 'interns' (ie unpaid employees) in the entrance hall before being joined by another U3A member to whom I chatted before the lecture.

The room was full by the time we sat down. It was strange being addressed by a young fresh-face American about such a sleazyy topic, especially as his research was so thorough. One cringed to think of the sordid details he'd have had to wade through. He knew all the gradations of prostitutes from Duke's mistress down to streetwalker as well as the ins and outs of gin production and drinking customs as well. His talk was well-laced with anecdotes.

The talk was an excellent £3.50's worth. Incredibly as it seemed, by the time we'd heard that one in four houses in Westminster was a gin shop, some residents stayed clear of vice. It was also known as 'The Age of Englightenment'. On my next visit maybe I'll find out how Benjamin Franklin kept to the straight and narrow whilst living in the midst of temptation. I suspect that he didn't.

More information about the house, talk and events:

About Frost/Nixon :

About Slumdog Milllionaire:


Joanna Moncrieff said...

That talk sounds very interesting - would have like to have gone. Am now in 4th week of no work so have some free time (but no money!) on my hands.

Caroline Rance said...

This sounds really fascinating - exactly my sort of thing! I wish I'd known it was on, so will keep an eye on the website for other talks of interest. What was the name of the lecturer?

Sheila Cornelius said...

Joanna, yes, this was a great contrast with your own talk about the dandies of St James. He did mention that most of the rich, respectable people moved out to Mayfair as the Strand area became infested with pickpockets and the like.

Caroline, I assumed the lecturer's name would appear on the website. It isn't on the leaflets I brought away, either. I found it on another photo, and it says quite clearly that it's Rob Taylor. I missed it at the start of the talk, and should have asked. Thanks for raising the point, and I've added the photo to the blog.