Regency Bicentennial:   An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London

Last week, I wrote about the Horse Armoury at the Tower of London. However, there were several other attractions at the Tower of London during that time which might be of interest to a Regency author. And what could be more useful to Regency authors than an actual Regency-era guidebook to the Tower of London? Such a guidebook was published two hundred years ago, this year, and a copy is available online.

The 1817 edition of An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London . . .

Guidebooks to the Tower of London were published from at least the mid-eighteenth century, when the growing middle classes began to have the leisure time and financial resources to be able visit points of interest in the metropolis which were once restricted to the upper classes. One Tower guidebook, A New and Improved History and Description of the Tower of London:   Including a Particular Detail of Its Numerous and Interesting Curiosities, was published under slight title variations from the first year of the nineteenth century. Initially, a visitor to the Tower would not be able to purchase a guidebook when they arrived at the Tower complex. If they wanted a guide which would provide more detail than they would get from a Tower tour guide, they would have had to equip themselves with a guidebook before they arrived. In most cases, they would purchase their guidebook from their favorite bookseller. However, by the Regency, it does appear that An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London could also be purchased at the Tower. However, sales were strictly limited to those who had paid the price of admission and were there to take one or more of the available tours, which suggests large stocks of the guide were not kept on hand.

An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London was actually more of a pamphlet than a book. In its various editions, through the first few decades of the nineteenth century, it typically ran to about forty pages. It appears that this guide was only published in small print runs. Not only did that reduce costs, it also made it relatively inexpensive to update the guide whenever there were significant changes in the exhibitions which were on display at the Tower of London, since there would be little loss if there were only a limited number of copies which were then rendered out-of-date by a newer edition. Since no author is given for any known edition of this guide, it seems highly likely that, like many guidebooks of the period, it was written by freelance writers hired by the printer who was publishing the Tower guide that year.

It would appear that the 1817 edition of An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London; Including a particular Detail of its numerous and interesting Curiosities: Illustrated with an Account of the Spanish Armada; A Brief History of the Kings of England, Whose Equestrian Figures, clad in Armour and sitting on Horseback, are exhibited in the Horse Armoury; Queen Elizabeth’s Speech To her Troops at Tilbury Camp; An Account of a daring Attempt to steal the King’s Crown, &c. was updated to include information on the new exhibition of French armour captured after the Battle of Waterloo, which had been put on display in the Horse Armoury. This edition was printed by P. & F. Hack of Cullum Street, at the corner of Fenchurch Street, conveniently located just a few blocks north and west of the Tower of London. The 1817 edition could be purchased for sixpence a copy at the Tower, as well as at several book-sellers across the city.

The 1817 edition of An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London ran to thirty-six pages. There are no illustrations in the body of the guide, probably because it was intended to be used at the Tower while viewing the displays which were described. However, there are two illustrations in the front matter, one of the wreck of a ship from the Spanish Armada on the page facing the title page, and an illustration of the north side of the White Tower, in the lower portion of the title page. This edition of the guide has no table of contents or index, however, all of the information is presented in the order that a Tower visitor is most likely to encounter as they tour the complex.

The introduction to the guide gives a brief overview of the history of the Tower and its place in the history of England. It also details the various officers who are in charge of the operation and maintenance of the Tower and describes the uniforms each wears. Next is a list of the main buildings and offices in the Tower complex. Each is listed by name, with some information about the specific structure. This section is followed by a couple of paragraphs on the Royal Menagerie, including a list of the animals which were kept there. After that are listed the four main armouries, in the order in which a visitor would encounter them on a tour of the Tower. First comes the Spanish Armoury, in which was stored a vast array of artifacts and trophies of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, for which details are provided in the guide. This is followed by the Horse Armoury, the contents of which are described in detail, with historical background provided for many of the objects there. Next is the Volunteer Armoury, in which was stored literally thousands of pieces of weaponry. Many of the objects in this collection are described as being ready for service at a five minutes notice, should they be needed. Ordnance taken by General Wolfe at the siege of Quebec were on display, as well as a suit of armour once worn by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, during the reign of Henry VIII. The last of the four armouries is the Sea Armoury. In this armoury were stored arms for thousands of mariners, in addition to some cannon and still more pieces of armour.

Below the major armouries, was another room called the Royal Train of Artillery. Stored here was a substantial collection of cannon and other large ordnance which had been used in various battles over at least a century. Cannon balls and other accoutrements used in conjunction with cannon were also on display. From the Royal Train of Artillery, visitors would ascend an elegant staircase which would take them to a grand room called the Small Armoury. Despite its name, this room was adorned with at least 150,000 weapons which were also noted to be ready for use upon only a few moments notice. These arms were displayed in ornate patterns on the wall, said to be the work of a Mr. Harris, a common gun-smith who was later granted a pension for his eye-catching displays of weaponry. One of the most interesting features of this room was a set of four pillars, each of which was "entwined with pistols up to the top of the room." A wide selection of other weapons captured during a number of historic battles were also on display in the Small Armoury, all of which are described in the guide.

The last section in the 1817 guide of the Tower is devoted to the Jewel Office, that is, the area where the royal regalia and the Crown jewels were stored. It is noted that there is a separate admission charge for the Jewel Office, one shilling per person for groups, or one shilling, six pence for visitors on their own. In this section, the most significant objects in the collection are listed, with some information on their history. That information is followed by the tale of the events of an attempt by a Colonel Blood to steal the crown jewels and royal regalia during the reign of King Charles II. The 1817 edition of An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London came to a close with that story.

Some records suggest that An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London was updated and reprinted at least once or twice a year since it was first published in 1800. However, there are very few copies of this guide which have survived into modern times. But fortunately for Regency authors who might be interested in setting part of a story in one of the areas in the Tower of London, two editions of that guide from the Regency period have not only survived, but they have also been digitized and made available online. Both are available for free download at Google books.

The 1817 edition of An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London can be found here:   https://books.google.com/books?id=Rzd1Ifs4rFkC&pg=PA5&dq=%22An+Improved+History+and+description+of+the+Tower+of+London%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiDvp_iyrDRAhUE7SYKHUlzD5oQ6AEILzAB#v=onepage&q&f=false

The 1819 edition of An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London can be found here:   https://books.google.com/books?id=mShFAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22An+Improved+History+and+description+of+the+Tower+of+London%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiDvp_iyrDRAhUE7SYKHUlzD5oQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Both of these editions are currently available for free download, as either a .PDF file or as plain text. The bulk of the content in the two editions of the Tower guide is nearly identical. However, for some reason, the tale of Colonel Blood’s attempt to steal the royal regalia was omitted from the 1819 edition. Perhaps that was done to save paper, or perhaps to avoid giving any visitors the idea of doing the same as economic and political tensions were growing in that year of Peterloo.

Dear Regency Authors, even if you are not currently planning to set any scenes of a new story in the Tower of London, you might still want to add a copy of the Tower guide to your research library. Just reading through it might spark ideas for future scenes for a Regency romance or other story. In addtion, the Regency-era guide not only documents what was on display at the Tower during our favorite period, it also provides the language used during that time to describe those displays. Authors seeking an authentic flavor for a scene or more in the Tower may find that language very helpful. And both guides are divided into sections which are provided in the order in which the displays were seen by visitors as they moved through the tour of the Tower during the Regency, so you can follow the flow of the tour as you read through the guide.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London

  1. one and six to see the crown jewels? very pricey! Mind, I think it’s pricey these days too. Calls out for the impoverished heroine to have her younger sibling treated by the hero.

  2. Great source! Historical sources provide invaluable information, and additonally an insight into the mindset and the usuage of language. Thanks for sharing.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My pleasure! I particularly enjoy stories which incorporate actual historical bits. For me, it makes such stories more fun. I thought other Regency authors might enjoy knowing about this guidebook.

      Regards,

      Kat

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