The year 1814 was one of the most eventful of the Regency period. There was great rejoicing when it was believed the war with Napoleon was over, while Princess Charlotte won her own small battle with her father. There were milestones in the arts, sports and politics, and even on the Thames River.
Some highlights of 1814 . . .
The year began with the triumphant debut of Edmund Kean in the role of Shylock at the Drury Lane Theatre. Not only did Kean become a celebrity, quite literally overnight, but his performances at the financially strapped theatre pulled it back from the brink of bankruptcy. Before the year was out, the Drury Lane Theatre was once again in the black, with packed houses every night that Edmund Kean performed. With his emphasis on more realistic performances, he was responsible for a sea change in the style of acting on the London stage.
While Kean’s run in Merchant of Venice was still in progress at Drury Lane, a great freeze across much of southern England resulted in the last, and perhaps the most extensive, Frost Fair to be held on the frozen surface of the Thames River. The brutal cold was a hardship to many, but the make-shift city which grew up on the frozen river provided income for some and entertainment for many. For several days, people came, not only from London, but from miles outside the metropolis to view the amazing site of the mighty Thames brought to a standstill. By the time another such weather phenomena struck the city, the conditions which had made the Frost Fair possible no longer existed and Londoners would never again frolic on the frozen Thames.
Of course, the most momentous event of the year 1814 was the defeat of Napoleon and his abdication of the throne of France. All of Europe was relieved at the news, and there were great celebrations throughout Britain when the news arrived. Years of fighting and privation were over and everyone, even the French, looked forward to long years of peace on the Continent. That summer, all of the sovereigns of the countries which had fought against Napoleon came to London for a series of events to celebrate the defeat of the tyrant and the restoration of peace. The Prince Regent had expected to be acclaimed and exalted by the other sovereigns as the head of the country which was most responsible for Bonaparte’s downfall. He was extremely disappointed and deeply angered to find that most of them barely did him lip-service during their visit. Some even snubbed him outright.
The Prince Regent’s anger at being ignored and snubbed by the allied sovereigns might have exacerbated his cruel treatment of his daughter, Princess Charlotte. All of the sovereigns had made it clear they expected to find her sharing in the celebrations, from which the Regent had taken care to bar her. He feared her popularity with the public would overshadow him, and he wanted to be the center of attention during the victory celebrations. By July, she was unable to bear his cruel treatment in essentially keeping her prisoner in her home and his attempts to force her to marry the man of his choice, a man she abhorred. She was driven to escape Warwick House and flee to her mother’s home at Connaught House. She refused to leave unless she was allowed to see her friends and have some control over her own life. Her refusal to return and to make her treatment by her father public could have caused an uprising among the people, and might even have brought down the government. Fortunately, Henry Brougham was able to appeal to her better nature and convince her to return to her father’s home. But the Regent seemed to also realize how close he had come to disaster. Though he still kept her closely confined, he had to accept her refusal to marry the Prince of Orange. Eventually, Charlotte was able to marry the man she loved, Prince Leopold, and had a few happy years before her untimely death.
Another event also caused serious problems for the government that year. The Great Stock Exchange Fraud led to the trial of Captain Thomas Cochrane, who was accused of complicity in the fraud. Cochrane was essentially railroaded by his enemies in the Admiralty. His conviction angered his many supporters in the Royal Navy and among the general public to the point that the government was forced to find a plausible reason to spare him from the pillory in order to avoid a riot. The government was even more chagrined to find that Cochrane was re-elected to his seat in the House of Commons from which he had been officially expelled upon his conviction.
Two important milestones in sports took place in 1814. That April saw the first running of the 1000 Guinea Stakes, which became one of the classics of thoroughbred horse racing in England. It was also one of two top flat races which was restricted to fillies only. The first 1000 Guineas Stakes was run at Newmarket, the home of British racing, over the Rowley Mile course. It is still run on that same course to this day. The other important sporting event of 1814 took place in June, when the first match was played at the brand new Lord’s Cricket Ground in St. John’s Wood. Of course, the surface on which the match was played was not new, since Thomas Lord had the turf from the old pitch removed and laid down on the new pitch. That pitch is still in use today, though it is unlikely much of Lord’s original turf is still in place.
Sadly, October of 1814 saw a terrible tragedy take place the St. Giles neighborhood of London. An enormous vat came apart at the Horseshoe Brewery, resulting in the Great Porter Flood. Eight people were killed, mostly women and children trapped in their basement homes. Though it was later claimed that the residents of the area took advantage of the event to gather up beer for themselves. But in actual fact, most of the residents of the area went to great lengths to help the victims and to aid the survivors in the aftermath.
Beyond Edmund Kean’s stage triumph, there were other important milestones in publishing and the literary arts which took place in 1814. The first English edition of The Swiss Family Robinson was published in London that year. In May, Jane Austen’s third novel, Mansfield Park, was published, though, of course, not under her real name. And, at the end of November, The Times newspaper was first published by steam-powered presses. Before the decade was out, a great many presses were powered by steam. The age of the hand-powered press was slowly slipping away and by mid-century, few newspapers, magazines or books would be printed on hand-powered presses.
In another form of art, stitchery, in the county of Ayrshire, in Scotland, a new type of embroidery which the needlewomen called "flowering." Many women in the shire learned this new embroidery style and for the next half century or so, that skill would allow those women to earn extra money by which they could support themselves and/or supplement the family income.
A well-known, if rather scandalous, Regency personage was liberated from debtor’s prison by his friends in 1814. Sir John Lade was also given a pension by the Prince Regent which continued to the end of his life, allowing him to enjoy a comfortable, if mundane, retirement on his horse farm in the country. At the other end of the spectrum, a very religious, if perhaps rather misguided, elderly lady who had established her own religious sect, was nearing the end of her life. Joanna Southcott passed away in late December, very disappointed that she had not given birth to the second Messiah, as she had expected to do earlier in the year. Certainly two people who had little, if anything, in common.