The gentry at home around 1800

Two hundred years ago life was hard for most people in Cornwall. But for a small minority fortunate enough to own land things could be lot more comfortable. Much time was spent visiting each other’s houses. Staying at Tehidy, the home of the Bassets, in 1792 James Boswell described the:

astounding variety of alcoholic beverages on offer during the dinner of two soups, a fish course, venison and other dishes with an ‘admirable dessert’. Later, when staying at Boconnoc, Boswell was offered a ‘supper of roast hare, roast chicken and partridge and other dishes’ as well as the inevitable ‘choice wines’. At this time, dinners usually began between four and five in the late afternoon. Joseph Farington, the landscape painter who visited Cornwall in 1810, never dined earlier than 3.30 or later than five during his stay. Dinners were the main occasion for conversation, although Farington reported Basset as saying he would not ‘for social intercourse wish to see more than seven at table’. After dinner tea was taken around eight o’clock.

Evenings were classed as ‘usual’ by Farington if they involved ‘tea, cards and books’. At Tehidy ’after tea the ladies were employed in music and in working at a social round table’. This ‘work’ would presumably have been embroidery of some kind. When [Thomas] Staniforth, a Liverpool banker staying with his son-in-law at Restormel House near Lostwithiel, visited Tehidy, Francis Basset’s daughter, an only child, played the piano ‘while the ladies worked’. There was ‘pleasant conversation’ until around eleven when the ladies retired, the men following at midnight. Sometimes cards were played although Staniforth preferred to read Borlase’s History of Cornwall while his son in law and the ladies played cards. Card games, usually whist, could be played for money, Boswell winning two guineas at whist (the equivalent of a month’s salary for a labourer) while staying at Truro.

Conversation, reading, tea, music and cards were the staple evening’s entertainment of the landed gentry. During the day, when not visiting other houses or viewing sites of interest (the Staniforths were taken to Roche Rock, the Cheesewring, sailed down the Fowey River and shown the new port of Charlestown during their stay), much time was spent by the men walking, shooting or fishing. While Thomas Staniforth preferred fishing, both the river and sea varieties, his son in law was out almost every morning shooting the wildlife on his estate. The life expectancy for woodcocks, partridges or rabbits was not long in the grounds and woods around Restormel House.

This is adapted from from Chapter 9 (The Great House) of my The Real World of Poldark: Cornwall 1783-1820

Restormel House, which you can rent from the Duchy of Cornwall for a week’s summer holiday (only £10,000 to £11,000)

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