London — 29 July 1911 — On this day, passed from this life, John Ashton, aged seventy-seven years. Mr. Ashton departed this world at his home in north-west London, located at 4, Middleton-road, off Camden-road in Islington.
Just who is John Ashton, and why should anyone care about the death of a man which occurred one hundred years ago, a century after the Regency began? Because, without the diligent efforts of John Ashton, we would know a great deal less about the daily life of those who lived during the Regency, and in the centuries which preceded and followed it. There is very little information available about John Ashton on the web, and I would like to rectify that situation. I ask your indulgence as I record here the few available details about the life of a man with whom I find I have much in common.
If you run a Google search with the name "John Ashton," you will find results for an actor, a diplomat, a chef, an artist, a boxer, a musician, a handful of authors and an independent timber and damp surveyor, among others. But you will find no listings which provide a biography of the nineteenth-century British historian and author, John Ashton, in the first fifty results, and few people bother to scroll beyond that. However, if you do scroll further, you will find a link to one of his books on Project Gutenberg, and if you scroll even further down, you will find a page for him at Wikisource, such as it is. Yet the John Ashton of whom I write here devoted more than thirty years of his life to the study of history and published over thirty books in the course of his research. I think he deserves more recognition for all that effort in the new medium of the web than he has received to date.
John Ashton was born on Monday, 22 September 1834, in London, where he would spend most of his life. His parents were Thomas and Isabella Ashton, of whom very little is known. Thomas Ashton was a ship-broker in the City of London, brokering deals between those who had goods to transport and those who had ships available to transport them. Ship-brokers also made deals between those who were selling and buying ships, so it is likely Thomas Ashton made a comfortable living. Interestingly, John’s mother, Isabella Ashton, was a specialist gun maker who plied her trade in the Goodman’s Fields section of Whitechapel. John Ashton had two sisters and one brother, though their names are unknown. Thomas Ashton died at his home in Lewisham, Kent, in 1851, and Isabella Ashton died there in 1875.
There are no records of young John Ashton’s school years, or of any profession or trade in which he may have engaged as a young man, though it is fairly certain he did receive a good education. What is known is that by about 1874, when he was approaching the age of forty, he had become a professional researcher and writer of history. He went to the British Museum five to six days a week, where he spent many hours a day in the Reading Room there, researching the social and cultural life of the generations of Englishmen and women who had come before him.
John Ashton first published in 1882, when he had three books come out all in the same year. From then on, he published a new book every year for more than thirty years. One of the titles he published in that first year was Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne. This title became the first in a series of books he would publish over the years on the social history of various periods of English history. These are the Ashton books I most enjoy. He compiled contemporary information on each period, in most cases quoting it directly from the source to maintain the flavor of the time he was presenting. His social history books are a delight to read, even today. He presents the facts as he found them, he does not over-analyze them, nor does he trivialize them. He does occasionally make editorial comments, and they do have a slight Victorian sensibility, but they are still insightful and often rather amusing. John Ashton also had some skill at drawing, so he was able to illustrate his books with a number of drawings based on contemporary prints, drawings and paintings, thus capturing the visual style of images of the era along with its documents. Social England under the Regency is, of course, my favorite title in this series, but there are several other titles which I have also found very useful.
By 1895, John Ashton was known to be living at 4 Middleton Road (now Grove Road), in Islington, an area of north-west London, where he would reside for the rest of his life. Ashton never married and it is assumed he took bachelor rooms in this rather dreary neighborhood off Camden Road. There were many struggling authors residing in that district at this time, living frugally in furnished rooms and travelling about London by the low-cost omnibus or walking if the distance was short enough. John Ashton’s books sold well, but in those days, authors did not receive the same level of remuneration that they do today, especially for non-fiction work. His publisher would have reaped the bulk of the profits, leaving Ashton with a meager income, which, if he were economical, would have provided him with the necessities of life, but few luxuries. But perhaps John Ashton did not mind very much, as he spent the bulk of his days researching what interested him, immersing himself in the lives and worlds of Englishmen and women of bygone days.
I can identify with John Ashton, as he was interested in the aspects of people’s daily lives and the curiosities of history which help to personalize history for us. He did not dwell on the big historical events and prominent people on which most historians focus. He recorded details of manners, fashions and customs of the regular people of the past, to help us get a flavor of what life was like in the period about which he is writing. I try to do the same thing here, in order to bring aspects of daily life in the Regency closer to those who are interested in that period. Ashton seems to have taken delight in capturing the most intriguing customs and traditions in which ordinary people of previous times engaged and in sharing that information with his readers. I just hope I can do that as well as he did.
John Ashton’s last book was published in 1904, and it is believed he stopped researching and writing at about that time. It is unknown what he did during those last few years of his life, and he received only a single line obituary in the Times when he passed away in 1911. He has never received the kind of biographical notice in most standard reference works that his vast output deserves. This article is an attempt to correct all those oversights. I am indebted for much of the information on John Ashton presented here to the Introduction written by Leslie Shephard for a reprint of When William IV was King, published in 1967. Mr. Shephard also included a list of all of John Ashton’s books, in chronological order by publication date. I will append that list to the end of this article for those who are interested in the full scope of John Ashton’s work. Shephard noted that for two of his last books, John Ashton used the pseudonym Charles Gordon. Shephard speculates that he did so due to some complications with one of his publishing contracts.
A number of Ashton’s books can be found as reprints in your local library, and some of them have been digitized and are available online through Google Books, Project Gutenberg and other sites which offer electronic versions of books in the public domain. Just do a search at your favorite site for John Ashton. Perhaps the most comprehensive list, with links to the books, can be found at the Online Books Page for the work of John Ashton. This page does not offer links for all of Ashton’s work, but it does have links to some of the better known titles. Do not discount these books because they were written so long ago. They still contain a great deal of useful information of the life and times of our ancestors. I hope people will still be reading them and appreciating the work of John Ashton in the next century and beyond.
in Chronological Order by Publication Date
Chap-books of the Eighteenth Century; with facsimiles, notes, and introductions. 1882
[Skelton, John] The Earliest known printed English Ballad. A ballade of the Scottysshe King (facsimilie reprint without introduction). 1882.
Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne, take from original sources. 1882.
The Adventures and Discourses of Captain John Smith, sometime President of Virginia. 1883.
Humour, Wit, and Satire of the Seventeenth Century. 1883.
Lord Mayor’s Show in the Olden Times. [Drawings by F. C. Price] .
Old Times: a picture of social life at the end of the Eighteenth Century. 1885.
The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England. A social sketch of the times. 1886 ; Popular edition, 1886.
The Legendary History of the Cross. A series of sixty-four woodcuts from a Dutch book published by Veldener, A. D. 1483. Introduction by J. Ashton; Preface by S. Baring-Gould. 1887 .
Romances of Chivalry told and illustrated in facsimilie. 1887 .
A Century of Ballads … Edited, and illustrated in facsimilie of the originals. 1887.
[Mandeville, Sir John] The Voiage and Travayle of Sir John Maundeville (Edited, annotated and illustrated by J. Ashton). 1887.
The Fleet: its River, Prison, and Marriages. 1888. .
Eighteenth Century Waifs. [essays]. 1887.
Modern Street Ballads. 1888.
Men, Maidens and Manners a Hundred Years Ago. 1888.
Curious Creatures in Zoology. 1890. .
Social England under the Regency, 1890; New edition, 1899.
[Hood, Thomas] The Poetical Works of T. Hood [with memoir and notes by J. Ashton] .
Real Sailor-Songs. Collected and edited. 1891.
[with Mew, James] Drinks of the World. 1892.
A History of English Lotteries. 1893.
Charles Lett’s Date Book and Chronological Diary, or record of important events in English history. .
A Righte Merrie Christmasse!!! The story of Christmastide. .
Varia [essays]. 1894.
Hyde Park from Domesday-Book to date. 1896. .
When William IV was King. 1896.
Florizel’s Folly. George IV and Brighton. 1899.
[under pseudonym of Gordon, Charles] The Old Bailey and Newgate. 1902.
[under pseudonym of Gordon, Charles] Old-Time Aldwych, Kingsway and Neighborhood. 1903.
Gossip in the First Decade of Victoria’s Reign. 1903.
The History of Bread from prehistoric to modern times. 1904.