Having fun in 18th Century

Mon 20 Aug

Nowadays there are hundreds of ways to let your hair down and enjoy yourself whether it be dancing in the mud at a festival, snuggling up and binge watching your favourite series or watching The Art of Success and The Taste of the Town at your favourite local theatre! But what entertainment options were on offer for Hogarth and his friends? In honour of double bill Hogarth's Progress, we have a look at how 18th century Londoners liked to have fun...


The Rose may only have been around for 10 years but 18th Century Londoners loved going to see the latest hit new play at the theatre - afterall, televisions weren't invented for another two hundred years. Go to the most exciting theatre at the time and you may catch a comedy of manners by Oliver Goldsmith or a savagely satirical new piece by Henry Fielding - both friends of Hogarth in his younger days and popping up in The Art of Success. If you were really lucky, you might catch flawless new actor David Garrick who became the taste of the town (see what we did there!) in 1741 with his innovative new naturalistic acting style. 

Gin Houses

Sanitation in 18th century London was non existent. Drinking water came from the Thames where most refuse ended up without any filtering system in place. The contents of chamber pots were thrown out the window and hardly anyone washed (many people believed washing was harmful). It was no surprise that Londoners coped with their stinking social conditions by getting drunk. In 1690 Soldiers returning from Europe brought a new Dutch drink called eau de genièvre (juniper water) which the British called gin. Due to the cheap manufacturing process, gin houses sprang up all over London and it was sold everywhere, even out of wheelbarrows! The nation's love of gin was getting out of hand, nurses gave it to children to keep quiet contributing to over 9,000 children dying from drinking gin in 1791. Some untrustworthy sellers would even flavour the gin with turpentine (an organic solvent) instead of juniper berries. After the introduction of the Gin Act 1751 and Hogarth's prints Gin Lane and Beer Street, the production of gin fell by 40%. However, the age old tradition of having an alcoholic drink to relax is still going strong. 


Not spoken about in polite company but brothels were rife in the 18th century, so much so that if you were new to town you could buy Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, an annual directory of prostitutes working in London for two shillings and sixpence. Maybe Louisa from The Art of Success would have been featured...

Curiosity Shows and Waxworks

Curiosity shows displayed all the weird and wonderful things that could surprise and fascinate an 18th century Londoner including performing animals (pigs who could play cards and do arithmetic and acrobatic monkeys), hermaphrodites and dwarves. A disgusting and inhumane practice in this century was great fun in the 1700s but they also loved waxwork museums, which endure to this day. 

Mental Asylums

A horrific idea by today's standards but in the 18th century it was possible to visit a mental hospital and look at the patients like a human zoo. Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam) in Finsbury Square was open to the public for over 150 years until 1770. The hospital gained charitable donations from opening the gates to the public and offered a 'moral instruction' to visitors, a cautionary tale for what would happen if they indulged their debauched appetities and immoral desires. However, no one can deny that huge numbers flocked to visit the hospital for it's entertainment value. 


More like something out of Game of Thrones but in the 18th century Britain still had the death penalty (the last hanging occurred in 1964) and it was a prominent form of entertainment for the average Londoner. For high profile cases thousands would congregate to see the accused hanged or if you were a member of the aristocracy, beheaded. The events became so popular that many artists wanted to gain access to the criminals just before they met their demise to see if they can make money from it. William Hogarth sketched and painted murderess Sarah Malcolm, who became the basis for Sarah Sprackling in The Art of Success

So, the entertainment on display in 18th century might leave the modern Londoner feeling rather ill. Thank God for the theatre...

Hogarth's Progress runs at the Rose Thu 13 Sep - Sun 21 Oct. For more information click here

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