At Home: A Short History Of Private Life by Bill BrysonAt Home: A Short History Of Private Life by Bill Bryson

At Home: A Short History Of Private Life

byBill Bryson

Paperback | October 4, 2011

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From the author of that classic of modern science writing, A Short History of Nearly Everything, comes a work of what you might call domestic science: our homes, how they work, and the fascinating history of how they got that way.

Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as found in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to "write a history of the world without leaving home." The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has figured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demostrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.

From the Hardcover edition.
BILL BRYSON's books include A Walk in the Woods, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, In a Sunburned Country, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors. Bryson lives in England with his wife and children.From the Hardc...
Title:At Home: A Short History Of Private LifeFormat:PaperbackDimensions:592 pages, 7.97 × 5.17 × 1.17 inPublished:October 4, 2011Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385661649

ISBN - 13:9780385661645

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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Humourous Another good book of BB with good added humour.
Date published: 2018-01-08
Rated 1 out of 5 by from no substance After reading the reviews for this book, I feel I have to interject with a far less positive analysis of the text. Before reading this book, I had no idea who Bill Bryson was. I still know very little, except that apparently people like his humour. Swell. Perhaps his other books are better, I don't and hopefully won't ever know. As other reviewers have pointed out, there is no actual content to the bulk of Bryson's work. In several chapters he does not even associate his quips with the room in the house he is meant to be discussing. The book would be better off titled "Things Bill Bryson Thought About One Day, Then Tried to Turn into Profit." I had looked forward to reading a book about the development of the home, but Bryson does not even attempt to analyze the history of the home. This book reads to me like Bryson was trying to produce something poignant, but instead kept getting tripped up in the facts. Don't get me wrong, it is well written, but if you're trying to actually learn something of substance, you'll be reading for pages before you get to anything earth shattering. Trivia does not a book make, no matter who writes it.
Date published: 2017-08-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from How History Should be Written Considering the subject matter of the book - the history of the home - this book is interesting, informative, and funny. Bryson has a great way of making connections between the past and the present, and a knack for presenting it in a way that you actually remember it. Great read.
Date published: 2017-03-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Bryson at his best! Bill Bryson takes us through a wonderful journey through each room recounting the connected history to today's modern comforts. Bryson connects the Victorian Age as the precursor to our modern concept of home sweet home. The writing style is easy on the eyes and Bryson's lucidity is to be admired. Great stuff making me anxious for his next book.
Date published: 2012-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative but Interesting! Bill Bryson uses his usual humor to make a story out of history. Vastly entertaining this book lets you learn without knowing that you're doing so.
Date published: 2011-11-05

Read from the Book

• CHAPTER I •THE YEAR  IIn the autumn of 1850, in Hyde Park in London, there arose a most extraordinary structure: a giant iron-and-glass greenhouse covering nineteen acres of ground and containing within its airy vastness enough room for four St. Paul’s Cathedrals. For the short time of its existence, it was the biggest building on Earth. Known formally as the Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, it was incontestably magnificent, but all the more so for being so sudden, so startlingly glassy, so gloriously and unexpectedly there. Douglas Jerrold, a columnist for the weekly magazine Punch, dubbed it the Crystal Palace, and the name stuck. It had taken just five months to build. It was a miracle that it was built at all. Less than a year earlier it had not even existed as an idea. The exhibition for which it was conceived was the dream of a civil servant named Henry Cole, whose other principal claim to history’s attention is as the inventor of the Christmas card (as a way of encouraging people to use the new penny post). In 1849, Cole visited the Paris Exhibition— a comparatively parochial affair, limited to French manufacturers— and became keen to try something similar in England, but grander. He persuaded many worthies, including Prince Albert, to get excited about the idea of a great exhibition, and on January 11, 1850, they held their first meeting with a view to opening on May 1 of the following year. This gave them slightly less than fifteen months to design and erect the largest building ever envisioned, attract and install tens of thousands of displays from every quarter of the globe, fit out restaurants and restrooms, employ staff, arrange insurance and police protection, print up handbills, and do a million other things, in a country that wasn’t at all convinced it wanted such a costly and disruptive production in the first place. It was a patently unachievable ambition, and for the next several months they patently failed to achieve it. In an open competition, 245 designs for the exhibition hall were submitted. All were rejected as unworkable. Facing disaster, the committee did what committees in desperate circumstances sometimes do: it commissioned another committee with a better title. The Building Committee of the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations consisted of four men— Matthew Digby Wyatt, Owen Jones, Charles Wild, and the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel— and a single instruction, to come up with a design worthy of the greatest exhibition in history, to begin in ten months, within a constrained and shrunken budget. Of the four committee members, only the youthful Wyatt was a trained architect, and he had not yet actually built anything; at this stage of his career he made his living as a writer. Wild was an engineer whose experience was almost exclusively with boats and bridges. Jones was an interior decorator. Only Brunel had experience with large-scale projects. He was indubitably a genius but an unnerving one, as it nearly always took epic infusions of time and cash to find a point of intersection between his soaring visions and an achievable reality. The structure the four men came up with now was a thing of unhappy wonder. A vast, low, dark shed of a building, pregnant with gloom, with all the spirit and playfulness of an abattoir, it looked like something designed in a hurry by four people working separately. The cost could scarcely be calculated, but it was almost certainly unbuildable anyway. Construction would require thirty million bricks, and there was no guarantee that such a number could be acquired, much less laid, in time. The whole was to be capped off by Brunel’s contribution: an iron dome two hundred feet across— a striking feature, without question, but rather an odd one on a one-story building. No one had ever built such a massive thing of iron before, and Brunel couldn’t of course begin to tinker and hoist until there was a building beneath it— and all of this to be undertaken and completed in ten months, for a project intended to stand for less than half a year. Who would take it all down afterward and what would become of its mighty dome and millions of bricks were questions too uncomfortable to consider. Into this unfolding crisis stepped the calm figure of Joseph Paxton, head gardener of Chatsworth House, principal seat of the Duke of Devonshire (but located in that peculiar English way in Derbyshire). Paxton was a wonder. Born into a poor farming family in Bedfordshire in 1803, he was sent out to work as an apprentice gardener at the age of fourteen; he so distinguished himself that within six years he was running an experimental arboretum at the new and prestigious Horticultural Society (soon to become the Royal Horticultural Society) in West London— a startlingly responsible job for someone who was really still just a boy. There one day he fell into conversation with the Duke of Devonshire, who owned neighboring Chiswick House and rather a lot of the rest of the British Isles— some two hundred thousand acres of productive countryside spread beneath seven great stately homes. The duke took an instant shine to Paxton, not so much, it appears, because Paxton showed any particular genius as because he spoke in a strong, clear voice. The duke was hard of hearing and appreciated clarity of speech. Impulsively, he invited Paxton to be head gardener at Chatsworth. Paxton accepted. He was twenty-two years old. It was the most improbably wise move any aristocrat has ever made. Paxton leaped into the job with levels of energy and application that simply dazzled. He designed and installed the famous Emperor Fountain, which could send a jet of water 290 feet into the air— a feat of hydraulic engineering that has since been exceeded only once in Europe; built the largest rockery in the country; designed a new estate village; became the world’s leading expert on the dahlia; won prizes for producing the country’s finest melons, figs, peaches, and nectarines; and created an enormous tropical hothouse, known as the Great Stove, which covered an acre of ground and was so roomy within that Queen Victoria, on a visit in 1843, was able to tour it in a horse-drawn carriage. Through improved estate management, Paxton eliminated £1 million from the duke’s debts. With the duke’s blessing, he launched and ran two gardening magazines and a national daily newspaper, the Daily News, which was briefly edited by Charles Dickens. He wrote books on gardening, invested so wisely in the shares of railway companies that he was invited onto the boards of three of them, and at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, designed and built the world’s first municipal park. This park so captivated the American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted that he modeled Central Park in New York on it. In 1849, the head botanist at Kew sent Paxton a rare and ailing lily, wondering if he could save it. Paxton designed a special hothouse and— you won’t be surprised to hear— within three months had the lily flowering. When he learned that the commissioners of the Great Exhibition were struggling to find a design for their hall, it occurred to him that something like his hothouses might work. While chairing a meeting of a committee of the Midland Railway, he doodled a rough design on a piece of blotting paper and had completed drawings ready for review in two weeks. The design actually broke all the competition rules. It was submitted after the closing date and, for all its glass and iron, it incorporated many combustible materials— acres of wooden flooring, for one thing— which were strictly forbidden. The architectural consultants pointed out, not unreasonably, that Paxton was not a trained architect and had never attempted anything on this scale before. But then, of course, no one had. For that reason, nobody could declare with complete confidence that the scheme would work. Many worried that the building would grow insupportably warm when filled with baking sunshine and jostling crowds. Others feared that the lofty glazing bars would expand in the summer’s heat and that giant panes of glass would silently fall out and crash onto the throngs below. The profoundest worry was that the whole frail-looking edifice would simply blow away in a storm. So the risks were considerable and keenly felt, yet after only a few days of fretful hesitation the commissioners approved Paxton’s plan. Nothing— really, absolutely nothing— says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century’s most daring and iconic building was entrusted to a gardener. Paxton’s Crystal Palace required no bricks at all— indeed, no mortar, no cement, no foundations. It was just bolted together and sat on the ground like a tent. This was not merely an ingenious solution to a monumental challenge but also a radical departure from anything that had ever been tried before. The central virtue of Paxton’s airy palace was that it could be prefabricated from standard parts. At its heart was a single component— a cast-iron truss three feet wide and twenty-three feet, three inches long—which could be fitted together with matching trusses to make a frame on which to hang the building’s glass— nearly a million square feet of it, or a third of all the glass normally produced in Britain in a year. A special mobile platform was designed that moved along the roof supports, enabling workmen to install eighteen thousand panes of glass a week— a rate of productivity that was, and is, a wonder of efficiency. To deal with the enormous amount of guttering required— some twenty miles in all— Paxton designed a machine, manned by a small team, that could attach two thousand feet of guttering a day— a quantity that would previously have represented a day’s work for three hundred men. In every sense the project was a marvel. Paxton was very lucky in his timing, for just at the moment of the Great Exhibition glass suddenly became available in a way it never had before. Glass had always been a tricky material. It was not particularly easy to make, and really hard to make well, which is why for so much of its history it was a luxury item. Happily, two recent technological breakthroughs had changed that. First, the French invented plate glass— so called because the molten glass was spread across tables known as plates. This allowed for the first time the creation of really large panes of glass, which made shop windows possible. Plate glass, however, had to be cooled for ten days after being rolled out, which meant that each table was unproductively occupied most of the time, and then each sheet required a lot of grinding and polishing. This naturally made it expensive. In 1838, a cheaper refinement was developed— sheet glass. This had most of the virtues of plate glass, but it cooled faster and needed less polishing, and so could be made much more cheaply. Suddenly glass of a good size could be produced economically in limitless volumes. Allied with this was the timely abolition of two long-standing taxes: the window tax and glass tax (which, strictly speaking, was an excise duty). The window tax dated from 1696 and was sufficiently punishing that people really did avoid putting windows in buildings where they could. The bricked-up window openings that are such a feature of many period buildings in Britain today were once usually painted to look like windows. (It is sometimes rather a shame that they aren’t still.) The tax, sorely resented as “a tax on air and light,” meant that many servants and others of constrained means were condemned to live in airless rooms. The second duty, introduced in 1746, was based not on the number of windows but on the weight of the glass within them, so glass was made thin and weak throughout the Georgian period, and window frames had to be compensatingly sturdy. The well-known bull’s-eye panes also became a feature at this time. They are a consequence of the type of glassmaking that produced what was known as crown glass (so called because it is slightly convex, or crown-shaped). The bull’s-eye marked the place on a sheet of glass where the blower’s pontil— the blowing tool— had been attached. Because that part of the glass was flawed, it escaped the tax and so developed a certain appeal among the frugal. Bull’s-eye panes became popular in cheap inns and businesses, and at the backs of private homes where quality was not an issue. The glass levy was abolished in 1845, just shy of its hundredth anniversary, and the abolition of the window tax followed, conveniently and fortuitously, in 1851. Just at the moment when Paxton wanted more glass than anyone ever had before, the price was reduced by more than half. This, along with the technological changes that independently boosted production, made the Crystal Palace possible. The finished building was precisely 1,851 feet long (in celebration of the year), 408 feet across, and almost 110 feet high along its central spine— spacious enough to enclose a much admired avenue of elms that would otherwise have had to be felled. Because of its size, the structure required a lot of inputs—293,655 panes of glass, 33,000 iron trusses, and tens of thousands of feet of wooden flooring— yet thanks to Paxton’s methods, the final cost came in at an exceedingly agreeable £80,000. From start to finish, the work took just under thirty-five weeks. St. Paul’s Cathedral had taken thirty-five years. Two miles away the new Houses of Parliament had been under construction for a decade and still weren’t anywhere near complete. A writer for Punch suggested, only half in jest, that the government should commission Paxton to design a Crystal Parliament. A catchphrase arose for any problem that proved intractable: “Ask Paxton.” The Crystal Palace was at once the world’s largest building and its lightest, most ethereal one. Today we are used to encountering glass in volume, but to someone living in 1851 the idea of strolling through cubic acres of airy light inside a building was dazzling— indeed, giddying. The arriving visitor’s first sight of the Exhibition Hall from afar, glinting and transparent, is really beyond our imagining. It would have seemed as delicate and evanescent, as miraculously improbable, as a soap bubble. To anyone arriving at Hyde Park, the first sight of the Crystal Palace, floating above the trees, sparkling in sunshine, would have been a moment of knee-weakening splendor. IIAs the Crystal Palace rose in London, 110 miles to the northeast, beside an ancient country church under the spreading skies of Norfolk, a rather more modest edifice went up in 1851 in a village near the market town of Wymondham: a parsonage of a vague and rambling nature, beneath an irregular rooftop of barge-boarded gables and jaunty chimney stacks in a cautiously Gothic style—“a good-sized house, and comfortable enough in a steady, ugly, respectable way,” as Margaret Oliphant, a hugely popular and prolific Victorian novelist, described the breed in her novel The Curate in Charge. This is the building to which we shall be attached over the next 440 or so pages. It was designed by one Edward Tull of Aylsham, an architect fascinatingly devoid of conventional talent (as we shall see), for a young clergy man of good breeding named Thomas John Gordon Marsham. Aged twenty-nine, Marsham was the beneficiary of a system that provided him and others like him with an extremely good living and required little in return. In 1851, when our story opens, there were 17,621 Anglican clergymen; a country rector, with only 250 or so souls in his care, enjoyed an average income of £500—as much as a senior civil servant like Henry Cole, the man behind the Great Exhibition. For the younger sons of peers and gentry, going into the church became one of the two default career moves (the other was joining the military), so often they brought family wealth to the position as well. Many livings also carried substantial income through rents of glebe lands, or farmland, that came with the appointment. Even the least privileged incumbents were generally well off. Jane Austen grew up in what she considered to be an embarrassingly deficient rectory at Steventon in Hampshire, but it had a drawing room, a kitchen, a parlor, a study, library, and seven bedrooms— hardly a hardship posting. The richest living of all was at Doddington in Cambridgeshire, which had thirty-eight thousand acres of land and produced an annual income of £7,300—roughly £5 million in today’s money— for the lucky parson until the estate was broken up in 1865.* *Comparing values of 1851 with those of today is not straightforward because those values can be calculated using many different measures, and things that might be expensive now (farmland, live-in servants) were often comparatively cheap then and vice versa. I am obliged to Professor Ranald Michie of Durham University for suggesting that the most accurate measure would be a comparison of retail price indexes between 1851 and the present. Looked at this way, Mr. Marsham’s £500 would be worth about £400,000 (or $630,000) today. Per capita income in Britain in 1851 was just slightly over £20.  Clergymen in the Church of England were of two types: rectors and vicars. The difference was a narrow one ecclesiastically but a broad one economically. Historically, vicars were stand-ins for rectors (the word is related to vicarious, indicating a surrogate role), but by Thomas Marsham’s day that distinction had largely faded away and whether a parson (from persona ecclesiae) was called vicar or rector was largely a matter of local tradition. There was, however, a lingering difference in income. A clergyman’s pay came not from the Church, but from rents and tithes. Tithes were of two kinds: great tithes, which came from main crops like wheat and barley, and small tithes, from vegetable gardens, mast, and other incidental provender. Rectors got the great tithes and vicars the small ones, which meant that rectors tended to be the wealthier of the two, sometimes very considerably so. Tithes were a chronic source of tension between church and farmer, and in 1836, the year before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, it was decided to simplify matters. Henceforth, instead of giving the local clergyman an agreed portion of his crop, the farmer would pay him a fixed annual sum based on the general worth of his land. This meant that the clergy were entitled to their allotted share even when the farmers had bad years, which in turn meant that clergymen had nothing but good ones. The role of country clergy was a remarkably loose one. Piety was not necessarily a requirement, or even an expectation. Ordination in the Church of England required a university degree, but most ministers read classics and didn’t study divinity at all, and so had no training in how to preach, provide inspiration or solace, or otherwise offer meaningful Christian support. Many didn’t even bother composing sermons but just bought a big book of prepared sermons and read one out once a week. Though no one intended it, the effect was to create a class of well-educated, wealthy people who had immense amounts of time on their hands. In consequence many of them began, quite spontaneously, to do remarkable things. Never before in history had a group of people engaged in a broader range of creditable activities for which they were not in any sense actually employed. Consider a few: George Bayldon, a vicar in a remote corner of Yorkshire, had such poor attendances at his services that he converted half his church into a henhouse, but he became a self-taught authority in linguistics and compiled the world’s first dictionary of Icelandic. Not far away, Laurence Sterne, vicar of a parish near York, wrote popular novels, of which The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is much the best remembered. Edmund Cartwright, rector of a rural parish in Leicestershire, invented the power loom, which in effect made the Industrial Revolution truly industrial; by the time of the Great Exhibition, over 250,000 of his looms were in use in England alone. In Devon, the Reverend Jack Russell bred the terrier that shares his name, while in Oxford the Reverend William Buckland wrote the first scientific description of dinosaurs and, not incidentally, became the world’s leading authority on coprolites— fossilized feces. Thomas Robert Malthus, in Surrey, wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population (which, as you will recall from your schooldays, suggested that increases in food supply could never keep up with population growth for mathematical reasons), and so started the discipline of political economy. The Reverend William Greenwell of Durham was a founding father of modern archaeology, though he is better remembered among anglers as the inventor of “Greenwell’s glory,” the most beloved of trout flies. In Dorset, the perkily named Octavius Pickard-Cambridge became the world’s leading authority on spiders, while his contemporary the Reverend William Shepherd wrote a history of dirty jokes. John Clayton of Yorkshire gave the first practical demonstration of gas lighting. The Reverend George Garrett, of Manchester, invented the submarine.* Adam Buddle, a botanist vicar in Essex, was the eponymous inspiration for the flowering buddleia. The Reverend John Mackenzie Bacon of Berkshire was a pioneering hot-air balloonist and the father of aerial photography. Sabine Baring-Gould wrote the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and, more unexpectedly, the first novel to feature a werewolf. The Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker of Cornwall wrote poetry of distinction and was much admired by Longfellow and Tennyson, though he slightly alarmed his parishioners by wearing a pink fez and passing much of his life under the powerfully serene influence of opium. *The ship was called the Resurgam, meaning “I shall rise again,” which proved to be a slightly unfortunate name, as the ship sank in a storm in the Irish Sea three months after it was launched in 1878 and never did rise again. Neither, come to that, did Garrett. Discouraged by his experiences, he gave up preaching and inventing, and moved to Florida, where he took up farming. That, too, proved a disaster, and he finished his disappointing and relentlessly downhill life as a foot soldier in the American army during the Spanish-American War before dying of tuberculosis, impoverished and forgotten, in New York City in 1902. Gilbert White, in the Western Weald of Hampshire, became the most esteemed naturalist of his day and wrote the luminous and still much loved Natural History of Selborne. In Northamptonshire, the Reverend M. J. Berkeley became the foremost authority on fungi and plant diseases; less happily, he appears to have been responsible for the spread of many injurious diseases, including the most pernicious of all domestic horticultural blights, powdery mildew. John Michell, a rector in Derbyshire, taught William Herschel how to build a telescope, which Herschel then used to discover Uranus. Michell also devised a method for weighing the Earth, which was arguably the most ingenious practical scientific experiment in the whole of the eighteenth century. He died before it could be carried out, and the experiment was eventually completed in London by Henry Cavendish, a brilliant kinsman of Paxton’s employer the Duke of Devonshire. Perhaps the most extraordinary clergyman of all was the Reverend Thomas Bayes, from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, who lived from about 1701 to 1761. Bayes was by all accounts a shy and hopeless preacher, but a singularly gifted mathematician. He devised the mathematical equation that has come to be known as Bayes’s theorem. People who understand Bayes’s theorem can use it to work out complex problems involving probability distributions— or inverse probabilities, as they are sometimes called. It is a way of arriving at statistically reliable probabilities based on partial information. The most remarkable feature of Bayes’s theorem is that it had no practical applications without computers to do the necessary calculations, so in Bayes’s own day it was an interesting but fundamentally pointless exercise. Bayes evidently thought so little of his theorem that he didn’t bother to make it public. In 1763, two years after Bayes’s death, a friend sent it to the Royal Society in London, where it was published in the society’s Philosophical Transactions with the modest title of “An Essay Towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances.” In fact, it was a milestone in the history of mathematics. Today Bayes’s theorem is used in modeling climate change, predicting the behavior of stock markets, fixing radiocarbon dates, interpreting cosmological events, and doing much else where the interpretation of probabilities is an issue— and all because of the thoughtful jottings of an eighteenth-century English clergyman. A great many other clergymen didn’t produce great works but rather great children. John Dryden, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Thomas Hobbes, Oliver Goldsmith, Jane Austen, Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Horatio Nelson, the Brontë sisters, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Cecil Rhodes, and Lewis Carroll (who was himself ordained, though he never practiced) were all the offspring of parsons. Something of the disproportionate influence of the clergy can be found by doing a word search of the electronic version of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Enter rector and you get nearly 4,600 promptings; vicar yields 3,300 more. This compares with a decidedly more modest 338 for physicist, 492 for economist, 639 for inventor, and 741 for scientist. (Interestingly, these are not greatly larger than the number of entries called forth by entering the words philanderer, murderer, or insane, and are considerably outdistanced by eccentric, with 1,010 entries.)  There was so much distinction among clergymen that it is easy to forget that such people were in fact unusual, and that most were more like our own Mr. Marsham, who if he had any achievements at all, or indeed any ambitions, left no trace of them. His closest link to fame was that his great-grandfather, Robert Marsham, was the inventor of phenology, the science (if it is not too much to call it that) of the relation between climate and periodic biological events— the first buds on trees, the first cuckoo of spring, and so on. You might think that that was something people would keep track of anyway, but in fact no one had, at least not systematically, and under Marsham’s influence it became a wildly popular and highly regarded pastime around the world. In America, Thomas Jefferson was a devoted follower. Even as president he found time to note the first and last appearances of thirty-seven types of fruit and vegetables in Washington markets, and had his agent at Monticello make similar observations there to see if the dates betrayed any significant climatological differences between the two places. When modern climatologists say that apple blossoms of spring are appearing three weeks earlier than formerly, and that sort of thing, often it is Robert Marsham’s records they are using as source material. This Marsham was also one of the wealthiest landowners in East Anglia, with a big estate in the curiously named village of Stratton Strawless, near Norwich, where Thomas John Gordon Marsham was born in 1822 and passed most of his life before traveling the twelve miles or so to take up the post of rector in our village. We know almost nothing about Thomas Marsham’s life there, but by chance we do know a great deal about the daily life of country parsons in the great age of country parsons thanks to the writings of one who lived in the nearby parish of Weston Longville, five miles across the fields to the north (and just visible from the roof of our rectory). He was the Reverend James Woodforde and he preceded Marsham by fifty years, but life wouldn’t have changed that much. Woodforde was not notably devoted or learned or gifted, but he enjoyed life and for forty-five years kept a lively diary that provides an unusually detailed insight into the life of a country clergyman. Forgotten for 120 years, the diary was rediscovered and published in condensed form in 1924 as The Diary of a Country Parson. It became an international best seller, even though it was, as one critic noted, “little more than a chronicle of gluttony.” The amount of food placed on eighteenth-century tables was staggering, and Woodforde scarcely ever had a meal that he didn’t record lovingly and in full. Here are the items he sat down to at a typical dinner in 1784: Dover sole in lobster sauce, spring chicken, ox tongue, roast beef, soup, fillet of veal with morrells and truffles, pigeon pie, sweetbreads, green goose and peas, apricot jam, cheesecakes, stewed mushrooms, and trifle. At another meal he could choose from a platter of tench, a ham, three fowls, two roasted ducks, a neck of pork, plum pudding and plum tart, apple tart, and miscellaneous fruit and nuts, all washed down with red and white wines, beer, and cider. Nothing got in the way of a good meal. When Woodforde’s sister died, he recorded his sincere grief in his diary but also found space to note: “Dinner today a fine turkey rosted [sic].” Nor did anything much from the outside world intrude. The American War of Independence is hardly mentioned. When the Bastille fell in 1789, Woodforde noted the fact but gave more space to what he had for breakfast. Fittingly, the final entry of his diary recorded a meal. Woodforde was a decent enough human being— he sent food to the poor from time to time and led a life of blameless virtue— but in all the years of his diaries there isn’t any indication that he ever gave a moment’s thought to the composition of a sermon or felt any particular attachment to his parishioners beyond a gladness to join them for dinner whenever the offer was extended. If he didn’t represent what was typical, he certainly represented what was possible. As for where Mr. Marsham fit into all this, there’s simply no telling. If it was his goal in life to make as little impression as possible upon history, he achieved it gloriously. In 1851, he was twenty-nine years old and unmarried— a condition he kept for life. His housekeeper, a woman with the interestingly unusual name of Elizabeth Worm, stayed with him for some fifty years until her death in 1899, so at least she seemed to find him agreeable enough company, but whether anyone else did, or didn’t, cannot be known. There is, however, one small, encouraging clue. On the last Sunday of March 1851, the Church of England conducted a national survey to see how many people actually attended church that day. The results were a shock. More than half the people of England and Wales had not gone to church at all, and only 20 percent had gone to an Anglican service. However ingenious they may have been at creating mathematical theorems or compiling Icelandic dictionaries, clearly clergymen were no longer anything like as important to their communities as they once had been. Happily, no sign of that was yet apparent in Mr. Marsham’s parish. The census records show that seventy-nine worshippers attended his morning service that Sunday and eighty-six came in the afternoon. That was almost 70 percent of the parishioners in his benefice— a result much, much better than the national average. Assuming that that was a typical turnout for him, then our Mr. Marsham, it appears, was a well-regarded man.  IIIIn the same month that the Church of England conducted its attendance survey, Britain also had its decennial census, which put the national population at a confidently precise 20,959,477. This was just 1.6 percent of the world total, but it is safe to say that nowhere was there a more rich and productive fraction. The 1.6 percent of people who were British produced half the world’s coal and iron, controlled nearly two-thirds of its shipping, and engaged in one-third of all trade. Virtually all the finished cotton in the world was produced in British mills on machines invented and built in Britain. London’s banks had more money on deposit than all the other financial centers of the world combined. London was at the heart of a huge and growing empire that would at its peak cover 11.5 million square miles and make “God Save the Queen” the national anthem for a quarter of the world’s people. Britain led the world in virtually every measurable category. It was the richest, most innovative, most accomplished nation of the age— a nation where even gardeners rose to greatness. Suddenly, for the first time in history, there was in most people’s lives a lot of everything. Karl Marx, living in London, noted with a tone of wonder, and just a hint of helpless admiration, that it was possible to buy five hundred kinds of hammer in Britain. Everywhere was activity. Modern Londoners live in a great Victorian city; the Victorians lived through it, so to speak. In twelve years eight railway termini opened in London. The scale of disruption— the trenches, the tunnels, the muddy excavations, the congestion of wagons and other vehicles, the smoke, the din, the clutter— that came from filling the city with railways, bridges, sewers, pumping stations, power stations, subway lines, and all the rest meant that Victorian London was not just the biggest city in the world but the noisiest, foulest, muddiest, busiest, most choked and dug-over place the world had ever seen. The 1851 census also showed that more people in Britain now lived in cities than in the countryside— the first time that this had happened anywhere in the world— and the most visible consequence of this was crowds on a scale never before experienced. People now worked en masse, traveled en masse, were schooled, imprisoned, and hospitalized en masse. When they went out to enjoy themselves, they did that en masse, and nowhere did they go with greater enthusiasm and rapture than to the Crystal Palace. If the building itself was a marvel, the wonders within were no less so. Almost a hundred thousand objects were on display, spread among some fourteen thousand exhibits. Among the novelties were a knife with 1,851 blades, furniture carved from furniture-sized blocks of coal (for no reason other than to show that it could be done), a four-sided piano for homey quartets, a bed that became a life raft and another that automatically tipped its startled occupant into a freshly drawn bath, flying contraptions of every type (except working), instruments for bleeding, the world’s largest mirror, an enormous lump of guano from Peru, the famous Hope and Koh-i-Noor diamonds,* a model of a proposed suspension bridge linking Britain with France, and endless displays of machinery, textiles, and manufactures of every type from all over the world. The Times calculated that it would take two hundred hours to see it all. *The Koh-i-Noor had become one of the crown jewels two years earlier, after being liberated (or looted, depending on your perspective) by the British army during its conquest of the Punjab in India. Most people found the Koh-i-Noor a letdown. Although huge at nearly 200 carats, it had been poorly cut and was disappointingly deficient in luster. After the Great Exhibition, it was boldly trimmed to a more sparkly 109 carats and set into the royal crown. Not all displays were equally scintillating. Newfoundland devoted the whole of its exhibition area to the history and manufacture of cod liver oil, and so became an oasis of tranquillity, much appreciated by those who sought relief from the pressing throngs. The United States’ section almost didn’t get filled at all. Congress, in a mood of parsimony, refused to extend funds, so the money had to be raised privately. Unfortunately, when the American products arrived in London it was discovered that the organizers had paid only enough to get the goods to the docks and not onward to Hyde Park. Nor evidently had any money been set aside to erect the displays and man them for five and a half months. Fortunately, the American philanthropist George Peabody, living in London, stepped in and provided $15,000 in emergency funding, rescuing the American delegation from its self-generated crisis. All this reinforced the more or less universal conviction that Americans were little more than amiable backwoodsmen not yet ready for unsupervised outings on the world stage. So when the displays were erected it came as something of a surprise to discover that the American section was an outpost of wizardry and wonder. Nearly all the American machines did things that the world earnestly wished machines to do— stamp out nails, cut stone, mold candles— but with a neatness, dispatch, and tireless reliability that left other nations blinking. Elias Howe’s sewing machine dazzled the ladies and held out the impossible promise that one of the great drudge pastimes of domestic life could actually be made exciting and fun. Cyrus McCormick displayed a reaper that could do the work of forty men— a claim so improbably bold that almost no one believed it until the reaper  was taken out to a farm in the Home Counties and shown to do all that it promised it could. Most exciting of all was Samuel Colt’s repeat-action revolver, which was not only marvelously lethal but made from interchangeable parts, a method of manufacture so distinctive that it became known as “the American system.” Only one homegrown creation could match these virtuoso qualities of novelty, utility, and machine-age precision— Paxton’s great hall itself, and that was to disappear when the show was over. For many Europeans this was the first unsettling hint that those tobacco-chewing rustics across the water were quietly creating the next industrial colossus— a transformation so improbable that most wouldn’t believe it even as it was happening. The most popular feature at the Great Exhibition was not an exhibition at all, but rather the elegant “retiring rooms,” where visitors could relieve themselves in comfort, an offer taken up with gratitude and enthusiasm by 827,000 people—11,000 of them on a single day. Public facilities in London were woefully lacking in 1851. At the British Museum, up to 30,000 daily visitors had to share just two outside privies. At the Crystal Palace the toilets actually flushed, enchanting visitors so much that it started a vogue for installing flushing toilets at home— a development that would quickly have catastrophic consequences for London, as we shall see. The Great Exhibition offered a social breakthrough as well as a sanitary one, for it was the first time that people of all classes were brought together and allowed to mingle in intimate proximity. Many feared that the common people—“the Great Unwashed,” as William Makepeace Thackeray had dismissively dubbed them the previous year in his novel The History of Pendennis— would prove unworthy of this trust and spoil things for their superiors. There might even be sabotage. This was, after all, just three years after the popular uprisings of 1848, which had convulsed Europe and brought down governments in Paris, Berlin, Kraków, Budapest, Vienna, Naples, Bucharest, and Zagreb. The particular fear was that the exhibition would attract Chartists and their fellow travelers. Chartism was a popular movement named for the People’s Charter of 1837, which sought a range of political reforms— all fairly modest in retrospect— from the abolition of rotten and pocket boroughs* to the adoption of universal male suffrage. Over the space of a decade or so, Chartists presented a series of petitions to Parliament, one of them over six miles long and said to be signed by 5.7 million people. Parliament was impressed but rejected them all anyway, for the people’s own good. Universal suffrage, it was commonly agreed, was a dangerous notion—“utterly incompatible with the existence of civilization,” as the historian and member of Parliament Thomas Babington Macaulay put it. *Rotten boroughs were those where a member of Parliament could be elected by a small number of people, as at Bute in Scotland, where just one resident out of fourteen thousand had the right to vote and so obviously could elect himself. Pocket boroughs were constituencies that had no inhabitants at all but that retained a seat in Parliament, which could be sold or given away (to an unemployable son, say) by the person who controlled it. The most celebrated pocket borough was Dunwich, a coastal town in Suffolk that had once been a great port— the third biggest in England— but was washed into the sea during a storm in 1286. Despite its conspicuous nonexistence, it was represented in Parliament until 1832 by a succession of privileged nonentities. In London, matters came to a head in 1848 when the Chartists announced a mass rally on Kennington Common, south of the Thames. The fear was that they would work themselves into a froth of indignation, swarm over Westminster Bridge, and seize Parliament. Government buildings throughout the city were fortified in readiness. Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, blocked the windows of the Foreign Office with bound volumes of the Times. At the British Museum men were stationed on the roof with a supply of bricks to rain down on the heads of anyone who tried to take the building. Cannons were placed outside the Bank of England, and employees at a range of state institutions were issued with swords and ancient, doubtfully maintained muskets, many of them at least as dangerous to their users as to anyone bold enough to step in front of them. Standing by were 170,000 special constables— mostly rich men and their servants— under the command of the doddering Duke of Wellington, now seventy-nine years old and deaf to anything less noisy than an extremely robust shout. In the event, the rally fizzled out, partly because the Chartists’ leader, Feargus O’Connor, was beginning to behave bizarrely from an as-yet-undiagnosed case of syphilitic dementia (for which he would be committed to an asylum the following year), partly because most of the participants weren’t really revolutionaries at heart and didn’t wish to cause or be part of a lot of bloodshed, and partly because a timely downpour made retiring to a pub suddenly seem a more attractive option than storming Parliament. The Times decided that the “London mob, though neither heroic, nor poetical, nor patriotic, nor enlightened, nor clean, is a comparatively good-natured body,” and, however patronizing, that was about right. Despite this reprieve, feelings in some quarters continued to run strong in 1851. Henry Mayhew, in his influential London Labour and the London Poor, published that year, noted that working people “almost to a man” were “red-hot proletarians, entertaining violent opinions.” But even the most hotheaded proletarian, it seems, loved the Great Exhibition. It opened on May 1, 1851, without incident— a “beautiful and imposing and touching spectacle,” in the words of a radiant Queen Victoria, who called opening day “the greatest day in our history” and sincerely meant it. People came from every corner of the country. A woman named Mary Callinack, aged eighty-five, walked more than 250 miles from Cornwall, and so made herself famous. Altogether 6 million people attended in the five and a half months that the Great Exhibition was open. On the busiest day, October 7, almost 110,000 people were admitted. At one point, 92,000 were in the building at the same time— the largest number of people ever to be indoors in a single location to that time. Not every visitor was enchanted. William Morris, the future designer and aesthete, then aged seventeen, was so appalled by what he saw as the exhibition’s lack of taste and veneration of excess that he staggered from the building and was sick in the bushes. But most people adored it, and nearly all behaved themselves. During the whole of the Great Exhibition just twenty-five people were charged with offenses— fifteen for picking pockets and ten for petty larceny. The absence of crime was even more remarkable than it sounds, for by the 1850s Hyde Park had become notoriously dangerous, particularly from dusk onward, when the risk of robbery was so great that the practice arose of crossing the park only after forming a convoy. Thanks to the crowds, for just under half a year Hyde Park was one of the safest places in London. The Great Exhibition cleared a profit of £186,000, enough to buy thirty acres of land south of Hyde Park, in an area informally called Albertopolis, where were built the great museums and institutions that still dominate the neighborhood today— the Royal Albert Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Royal College of Art, and the Royal College of Music, among others. While people tried to decide what to do with it, Paxton’s mighty Crystal Palace remained standing in Hyde Park until the summer of 1852. Almost no one wanted it to go altogether, but few could agree on what should become of it. One slightly overexcited proposal was to convert it into a glass tower a thousand feet high. Eventually, the structure was moved to a new park— the Crystal Palace Park— at Sydenham in South London. Somehow in the process it became even larger; the new Crystal Palace was half as big again and employed twice the volume of glass. Because it was sited on a slope, its re-erection was much more of a challenge. Four times it collapsed. Some sixty-four hundred workers were needed to put the new building up, and it took them more than two years to do so. Seventeen of them lost their lives. Everything about the Crystal Palace that had seemed magical and blessed had oddly leaked away. It never regained its central place in the nation’s affections. In 1936, the whole thing burned down. Prince Albert died ten years after the Great Exhibition, and the great Gothic spaceship known as the Albert Memorial was built just west of where the Crystal Palace had stood, at a whopping cost of £120,000, or about half as much again as the Crystal Palace itself had cost. There today Albert sits enthroned under an enormous gilded canopy. On his lap he holds a book: the catalog of the Great Exhibition. All that remains of the original Crystal Palace itself is a pair of large decorative wrought-iron gates that once guarded the ticket checkpoint at the entrance to Paxton’s exhibition hall and now, unnoticed, mark a small stretch of boundary between Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The golden age of the country clergy ended abruptly, too. The 1870s saw the onset of a savage agricultural depression, which hit landowners and all on whom their prosperity depended. In six years, one hundred thousand farmers and farmworkers left the land. In our parish the population fell by almost half in fifteen years. By the mid-1880s, the ratable value of the entire parish was just £1,713—barely £100 more than it had cost Thomas Marsham to build his rectory three decades earlier. By the end of the century the average English clergyman’s income was less than half what it had been fifty years before. Adjusted for purchasing power, it was an even more miserable pittance. A country parish ceased being an attractive sinecure. Many clergymen could no longer afford to marry. Those who had brains and opportunity took their talents elsewhere. By the turn of the century, writes David Cannadine in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, “the best minds of a generation were outside the church rather than within.” In 1899, the Marsham family estate was broken up and sold, and that ended the family’s benign and dominant relationship with the county. Curiously, it was something unexpected that happened in the kitchen that was in large part responsible for the devastating agricultural depression of the 1870s and beyond. We’ll get to that story presently, but before we enter the house and begin our tour, we might perhaps take a few pages to consider the unexpectedly pertinent question of why people live in houses at all.

Table of Contents


From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

"Bryson is fascinated by everything, and his curiosity is infectious . . . [his] enthusiasm brightens any dull corner. . . . You'll be given a delightful smattering of information about everything but . . . the kitchen sink."— The New York Times Book Review"Bryson's gift for finding amazing facts and fascinating connections between people and events makes this another enjoyable sprawling read through many things you didn't know you wanted to know." — National Post“Absolutely fascinating.” —The Moderate Voice