The History of the Country House Guidebook

by Louisa Cornell

Anyone who writes romances set in Regency England must have a thorough knowledge of that quintessential piece of British architecture – the English country house. One of the best resources for the study of these monuments to old titles and often older money is the country house guidebook. They usually include photographs of the most beautiful rooms, and more often than not, a floor plan of the house. I have an ever-increasing collection of these guidebooks, many for homes I have not visited. Yet. Frequent visits to Amazon used books and Ebay make adding to my collection easy. And I have friends who enable my addiction by bringing these books back from their trips to England for me.

Elizabeth I actually set the wheels to the country house tour in motion. Whilst her father made pilgrimages to tour his own homes, Elizabeth I often traveled England visiting houses of the nobility. Therefore, as early as the Elizabethan age, the aristocratic pattern of building large country houses for the sake of display and prestige was set by these royal pilgrimages.

In the Georgian era, the increasing wealth of the expanded upper classes provided time for travel and cultural pursuits. More and more turnpike roads were created, making travel faster and safer. Inns were built to accommodate tourists. By the end of the 18th century clergymen, lawyers, military officers, bankers, merchants, minor landowners, and members of the aristocracy were all making tours.

Frequent wars on the Continent thwarted traditional Grand Tour Destinations. Even without wars, travel for women was restricted. Visiting other ‘good’ families was an acceptable way to broaden their knowledge and tastes – cross pollinating ideas, styles, and fashions.

Houses near large conurbations were especially susceptible. Walpole’s neo-Gothic Strawberry Hill near Twickenham was a particularly sought out destination. When visiting an area, day trips to nearby country houses were a favorite activity. The expectation was an owner would, as part of their duty to better society, open their house. Part of being a polite land owner was allowing tourists to visit one’s house and grounds. Key questions in planning these visits were – find the houses, determine whether the owners were amenable to visitors, no matter how genteel. Areas with a higher density of fine houses, within a day or two ride of a city or other existing tourist destinations – Norfolk, Derbyshire, Wiltshire – became part of the unofficial British Grand Tour.

By the latter part of the 18th century the number of people visiting country houses had grown exponentially. As these numbers increased so did the need to manage the situation. Some owners simply refused visitors access. By 1760, Chatsworth was specifically open two days per week.

In 1774, Walpole began issuing tickets and rules for good conduct. He only allowed a maximum of four visitors per day, and children were absolutely forbidden. Smart man. He wrote his own guidebook and printed them on his own printing press. He seldom gave them out as he was afraid people would never leave should they try to see everything he described in the guidebook.

Frontispiece to A Description of the Villa
at Strawberry Hill

Only a handful of houses attracted hundreds of visitors. Wilton House in Wiltshire was one. The increase in visitors eventually led to formal opening hours and standardized tours led by housekeepers. Inns were built near to these houses to cater to tourists.

Internal tours were conducted by the housekeeper.Whilst their stories of family history might or might not be true, their information about works of art and collections in the house were more often than not quite wrong. Some housekeepers were even rumored to simply make things up. Demand for more accurate information gave birth to the concept of the guidebook. In the beginning, the standard form of these guidebooks was a map of an agreed upon route through the home,with entries on each work of art. Indeed most of the ones from the 1730’s and 1740’s were in-house creations with the aforementioned maps, i.e. a floor plan with a suggested route through the house. All of them were focused on an individual house and were basically a catalogue of the artworks and collections in the house.Usually published after a house became established as a tourist attraction, they included information about those things visitors were expected to notice. And, of course, they excluded those things visitors were expected to ignore.

[A Guide to Burghley House, Northamptonshire, the seat of the Marquis of Exeter; containing a catalogue of all the paintings, antiquities, &c. With biographical notices of the artists. [By Thomas Blore. With plates.]]

Only a handful of houses had their own guidebooks before 1800. In 1774 Benton Seeley’s guide to the House and Gardens at Stowe was the first to be published by an outside publisher. It ran to twenty editions in sixty years.

Early guidebooks not designed in-house were published to take advantage of the new market and to build on tours available at multiple country houses. They were designed to be practical for travelers – small, lightweight, simply bound pamphlets with marbled paper covers. They were comprised of information about the house and gardens – according to the paths visitors were expected to take. The guidebook to Hawkstone in Shropshire provided information about various views and spaces of the renowned gardens there.

Hawkstone Park, depicted here by John Emes,  a landscaped parkland and pleasure gardens belonging to the Hawkstone Hall estate in Shropshire. (1790)

Places popular with the 18th and early 19th century visitors were :

Stowe, Buckinghamshire – It was the first to attract visitors in significant numbers, to have its own inn, and to have its own guidebook. It was primarily famous for its gardens.

Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire – It was known for its art collection. It offered impressive tours conducted by the housekeeper. It was considered one of the first “modern” stately homes as its interiors were the work of Robert Adam.

Stourhead, Wiltshire – One of several popular houses in Wiltshire, it could easily be included in a tour of the West Country. Visitors came to see the gardens, the park, and the fabulous ‘Pope’s cabinet’ on display in the house.

Studley Royal Water Garden, North Yorkshire – Studley was most known for its gardens and its connection to the ruins of Fountains Abbey,which was purchased by the Aislabie family in 1767. However, visitors were rarely admitted to the house.

As outside publishers realized the value of these guidebooks they were designed to be more functional. They came in small octavo form, bound in paper covers, lightweight and inexpensive. They were sized in easy to carry forms to be used as one toured the house. Their appeal as a souvenir was heightened by the addition of illustrated frontspieces – the most common being images of the house. The most elaborate guidebooks included a series of illustrations. Some editions of the guide to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire included a fold-out map of the gardens, often with hand-colored details, and a set of views of the house.

Booksellers began to see the value in guidebooks and before long rival booksellers were publishing guidebooks of the same house. Eventually they became available in London bookstores as well as in the shops near the houses themselves. People began to read them whether they ever intended to visit the houses or not. The guidebooks began to include a wider range of information. They began to describe the surrounding countryside, details about the family, an architectural history of the house – which included information about everyone from the architect to the plasterers and other artisans involved in the creation of the house. And, of course, they also served as catalogues of the works of art and collections assembled in each house.

Eventually, writers took on the task of writing guidebooks for specific areas, such as Stephen Glover’s The Peak Guide published in 1830. He was among the first to write a guidebook for an area, rather than an individual house. However, his book does include extensive entries on houses in the area. The entry for Chatsworth is over 37 pages and includes detailed entries on important paintings and the artists who painted them.

‘Plan of the Library Story’ from ‘The Peak Guide; containing the topographical, statistical, and general history of Buxton, Chatsworth, Edensor, Castlteon [sic], Bakewell, Haddon, Matlock, and Cromford’ by Stephen Glover of Derby [1830]

The country house guidebook has come a long way and has undergone numerous permutations to become the stylish, slim, photograph-heavy little books sold in the souvenir shops and village booksellers in and around Britain’s stately country houses. They began as and continue to be important sources of information about the treasures, mysteries, histories, and families of these magnificent microcosms of British history.

Treating Mental Illness During the Regency – Rotation Therapy



The Treatments That Put the “Mad” in “Mad Doctor”

by Louisa Cornell

Many of the treatments used for mental illness during the Regency were heinous forms of torture perpetrated on people too vulnerable to protest. The believed causes of mental illness ranged from ill humors – imbalances in the blood – to congestion of the brain to masturbation. It is no surprise the so-called cures and treatments based on these assumptions were equally… punitive and fantastical. One such method was inspired by the work of Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin. Known as rotation therapy, there were two main methods of implementing this supposedly therapeutic procedure.

  1. An ordinary chair, suspended from the ceiling, with ropes attached to the legs. The ropes were used to spin the chair until it was set in motion.


2. A pole fixed from the floor to the ceiling by iron rods. It had a horizontal arm        attached, which was used to hang a chair or bed and to spin the patient.


Psychiatric Treatments

The basis for Erasmus Darwin’s theories about this treatment? He observed children spinning themselves to induce vertigo and the resulting laughter as the children grew dizzy and fell down struck him as a helpful state to induce in the mentally ill. The fact the children did this to themselves voluntarily and only to the point they grew slightly dizzy and fell down appears to have eluded the great man.

The patients were spun in a circular motion until they promised to obey the doctors and get better. (Who wouldn’t?) Once the promise was made, the patient was released and allowed time to sleep and recover. (Not to mention vomit and change his trousers.) Rather like being forced to ride the tilt-a-whirl non-stop until one promised not to be mentally ill any longer. As expected once the shock wore off the patient was still mentally ill, necessitating a repeat of the procedure.

Known side effects of the treatment included :

Bowel Movement

“Positive” Results (according to the doctors)

The powerful shock to the disposition subdued even the most refractory of patients. Further results were tiredness, and a deep sleep, which often lasted for many hours.

I daresay many patients were “cured” simply at the sight of these spinning torture chambers. More on this subject in future posts. Wait until you hear how some “mad” doctors persuaded women unwilling to sleep with their husbands to crawl back into bed. It does not involve dinner and a nice bottle of wine!

Recurring Phrases in the English Ballad

by Louisa Cornell

My study of the music of the Regency Era has covered a broad range of musical forms. One of the most typically English forms is that of the traditional ballad. It is a difficult field of study in one aspect as many of these songs have been passed down in varying forms long before they were written down. Their authors were often unknown and their words were interchangeable depending on the singer and the venue in which they were performed. In addition to word of mouth, during the Regency many of these songs came from the music hall in the form of parlour ballads, music hall comic operas and eventually in the form of commercial print literature and broadsheet publications.



A few of the commonalities they shared were formulaic diction, stock phrases and narrative motifs. One of the most fascinating of these is the stock phrase. Each of these phrases had a message or meaning the listener knew at once because it was such a standard in so many ballads. The best examples of these can be found in what was known as the “Child’s ballads” – songs of love, betrayal, murder, and mystery collected and published in the nineteenth century by Francis James Child in his The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Here are a few of those stock phrases, some quite chilling when one learns their meaning!


Lily-white hand    serves as a warning something dramatic is about to happen. When written as a man taking a lady’s hand it can denote either rape or seduction. And whilst the rape connotation always ends tragically (such as in Prince Heathen) the seduction connotation can go either way (in Katherine Jafray she is seduced and later rescued by her lover.) In addition to her lovely skin tone the phrase may also denote the lady’s virtue as well.


Playing at the ball – serves a rather eerie purpose as it usually forewarns a love affair, adultery or violent death (sometimes all three.) A group of ladies or boys are seen playing at a ball and one is singled out as the ‘fairest flower’ of them all. The word play can be used to mean a literal game, a symbol of fate or to signify manipulation and pursuit. In some ballads the game is followed by the immediate death of the game’s spectator.


Where will I get a bonny boy – This plea is generally met with a willing response from a boy to either carry a message or run an errand. His efforts can end well or ill. In Lord Lovel the lover receives a message from his lady, but when he returns it is too late, she has died of longing for his return. However, in Geordie the condemned husband is saved. The term bonny is used to denote health, strength, vigor, and physical beauty.


She dressed herself in silks so fine / rich attire / scarlet red – a ballad character who dresses in her finest is often about to embark on a journey. Some of its other uses include outfitting oneself for war. Most often this journey is to confront a lover who is about to marry another. As you can imagine, many of these ballads do not end well for any of the parties concerned. Sometimes the heroine is dressing to go to her execution. One does want to look nice for such an occasion.


O mother, mother make my bed – This one, unfortunately, never bodes well. It always signals the imminent death of the speaker. It usually refers to the grave. The best example can be found in Bonny Barbara Allen.



As many of the early singers of these ballads could not read or write and learned the words and melodies by heart, these phrases enabled them to compose their own songs or to add their own or local twists to a song familiar to their listeners. In later years it served to give a ‘traditional’ flavor to the songs used in the music halls and the broadsheet ballads. These phrases were familiar to the man on the street and to even the most discerning music listener of the era.

And interestingly enough, the use of phrases like this is nothing new. They can be found in the works of Homer and in the verses of many of the epic poems even before the middle ages.

A particularly maudlin form of the English ballad is the murder ballad. But that is a story for another post.



Happy Birthday, Your Majesty !!

Whilst her birthday is officially celebrated on the second Saturday in June, Queen Elizabeth II’s actual birthday is April 21, 1926 !!

Happy 91st Birthday, Your Majesty !!

And many happy returns of the day !!

Frankly, those of us at Number One London hope you have as many birthdays as you please, and at least one more after that, because we simply cannot imagine a world without you on the throne.

God Save the Queen !!

Long may she continue to reign!!

Royal Historian Catherine Curzon Brings Us Kings of Georgian Britain

A Delicate Scandal


The soubriquet ‘Queen of Hearts’ is an expression that might have been intended for Caroline of Brunswick. This wife of George IV was also his greatest enemy and from the day of their marriage to the day of her death, the couple were at daggers drawn.


(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


Married in 1795, Caroline gave birth to the couple’s only child in 1796 and in 1797, the marriage was effectively over. Caroline moved to Blackheath and threw herself into the single life. Gossips were soon whispering about the procession of men who visited her home; it was all too deliciously outrageous to be ignored.

Charlotte also had a passion for adopting poor children and in 1802, her household was joined by an infant named  William Austin. This was the evidence that George needed and when he heard a juicy bit of gossip from Caroline’s former friend, Lady Douglas, he swung into action.



Having fallen out with Caroline over their shared affections for a dashing naval captain, Lady Douglas made a groundless claim that William was no orphan at all, but Caroline’s own illegitimate child. The Prince of Wales seized upon the moment to play the victim and demanded a full inquiry into this serious if baseless accusation. The Delicate Investigation was convened to find out the truth of the matter and began on 1st June 1806 under the stewardship of the Prime Minister, William Grenville. The stakes were high, as noted in The Morning Post on 24 June 1806:

“The acts charged would, if proved, amount to no less than high treason in the illustrious personage: […] The nature of the accusation, amounting to what might eventually affect the succession of the crown; and the great stake the accusers put to hazard.”

Lady Douglas repeated her allegation that Austin was Caroline’s son and went on to elaborate with stories of sexual intrigues that engulfed any number of famous men, describing a house where debauchery was rampant and of a woman who was never without male company. One might raise an eyebrow to learn that many of the men implicated were senior Tory figures who championed the cause of Caroline as regent should the Prince of Wales die before he assumed the throne.

A procession of witnesses were sworn in and questioned, including doctors and domestics yet Caroline had an ace up her sleeve in the shape of William’s true parents, Sophia and Samuel Austin. They told the commission that William was indeed their child and had been given over to Caroline’s care in order to assure a better life for him. Naturally, his only enhanced her reputation as a lady of selfless philanthropy, much to George’s disgust.

With this damning evidence against the case of adultery and illegitimacy, the Delicate Investigation limped to its conclusion six weeks after it had opened and declared that William was not Caroline’s child, illegitimate or otherwise. However, it stopped short of exonerating her on charges of adultery and declared that she had not been proved innocent of that portion of the case.

The victory was a slight one for George, who had hoped that William Austin was to prove his winning ticket. Instead, the consummate gambler had been left with a dud hand.


About the Book

For over a century of turmoil, upheaval and scandal, Great Britain was a Georgian land.

From the day the German-speaking George I stepped off the boat from Hanover, to the night that George IV, bloated and diseased, breathed his last at Windsor, the four kings presided over a changing nation.

Kings of Georgian Britain offers a fresh perspective on the lives of the four Georges and the events that shaped their characters and reigns. From love affairs to family feuds, political wrangling and beyond, peer behind the pomp and follow these iconic figures from cradle to grave. After all, being a king isn’t always grand parties and jaw-dropping jewels, and sometimes following in a father’s footsteps can be the hardest job around.

Take a trip back in time to meet the wives, mistresses, friends and foes of the men who shaped the nation, and find out what really went on behind closed palace doors. Whether dodging assassins, marrying for money, digging up their ancestors or sparking domestic disputes that echoed down the generations, the kings of Georgian Britain were never short on drama.


Catherine Curzon is a royal historian who writes on all matters 18th century at Her work has been featured on, the official website of BBC History Magazine and in publications such as Explore History, All About History, History of Royals and Jane Austens Regency World. She has provided additional research for An Evening with Jane Austen  at the V&A and spoken at venues including the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, Lichfield Guildhall, The National Maritime Museum and Dr Johnson’s House. Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

Social media

Buy Links

Pen & Sword:

Amazon UK:

Amazon US: