Going for the burn – or the bounce

We’re used to doctors extolling the benefits of exercise today, but that recognition is not a modern phenomenon. Among the six ‘non-naturals’ of humoural thinking – diet, air, exercise, sleep, evacuations and the passions – exercise was often viewed as the most important form of health preservation. In the eighteenth century, William Buchan, author of the popular handbook Domestic Medicine, claimed that ‘of all the causes which conspire to render the life of man short and miserable, none have greater influence than the want of proper exercise’ [1]. George Cheyne, physician to the fashionable, promoted walking as the most natural kind of exercise, and it seems to have been a female favourite, particularly in the countryside. Writer Elizabeth Montagu waxed positively lyrical on the subject, saying in a letter to Hester Pitt:

The summer season is the festival of a saunterer, there is something sublime in the reverie of a rural walk that one is apt to fancy oneself more nobly occupied than those engaged in the actual business and useful employments of human life [2].

Country house gardens were designed with circuits such as those at Stourhead and Stowe, the circular route with its temples and follies being seen as something of a ‘paradisal pilgrimage’, which provided multiple views of the gardens with no need to double back on oneself [3]. The poem ‘Stowe’ by Gilbert West, whose uncle Lord Cobham owned that house, described the tour in detail and lauds its obelisk, ‘chrystal lake’ and ‘sylvan Theatre’. West also talked about the other opportunities for exercise there:

Some mid the Nine-pins marshall’d Orders roll,

With Aim unerring the impetuous Bowl.

Others, whose Souls to loftier Objects move,

Delight the Swing’s advent’rous Joys to prove [4].

The swing was adventurous not only because you were pushed up in the air, but for the potential for revealing more than you intended: an article in the Spectator advised gentlemen that ‘The lover who swings his lady is to tie her clothes very close together with his hat-band before she admits him to throw up her heels’ [5]. I think this is the danger West was referring to when he wrote in his poem about ‘those mysterious Charms expos’d to view’, followed by what appears to be a game of kiss chase leading to the ‘Private Grotto’.

Ranelagh Gardens

The Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea by Thomas Bowles, 1754. commons.wikimedia.org

Similar opportunities for amorous encounters were presented by urban pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall and the more exclusive Ranelagh in Chelsea. There one could see and be seen while promenading, as well as drinking tea, attending concerts and watching fireworks – 12,000 people watched Handel rehearse his Music for the Royal Fireworks at Vauxhall in 1769, and novelist Tobias Smollett said that the magic lanterns at Ranelagh ‘made me almost think I was in some enchanted castle or fairy palace’ [6]. I suppose a stroll round the growing number of shops for some conspicuous consumption might also have counted as exercise. Dancing at balls during the season in London or in the spa towns certainly would have; as anyone who watched the recent re-creation of the Netherfield Ball will know, it was a strenuous pursuit. Together with fencing and tennis, it was an activity that ‘exercises every part’ and so is ‘generally most advantageous’, according to a treatise from ‘A Medical Gentleman’ called An Easy Way to Prolong Life, by a Little Attention to our Manner of Living.

Another generally advantageous pursuit was riding. From the spa at Cheltenham, Judith Milbanke wrote to her sister Mary: ‘I rise a little after seven, drink a Glass or two of the Waters & walk two hours before breakfast’, followed by ‘famous riding parties’ [7]. A letter from Lady Anne Hastings to her mother, the Countess of Huntingdon, begs her not to ‘omit the exercise’ and says that ‘you may have a pair [of horses] to go on an airing as often as you please’ [8]. This would have been in a carriage, but women did also ride on horseback, and a letter to a Mrs Gore in the Somerset Archives recommended doing so every day, ‘but not to continue it so long at a time as being fatigued would destroy its good effects’ [9]. Women had to ride sidesaddle, though, their left foot in the stirrup, their right leg supported by an extended saddle and their body facing forwards, which can’t have been too comfortable. Men, of course, faced no such limitations, and as well as riding across their land were able to participate in hunting and even horse racing.

Cheyne’s list of healthful exercises also includes ‘Digging, Working at a Pump, Ringing a dumb Bell, &c’ [10]. Not the activities of your average Georgian gentlemen, one would have thought, although they were particularly recommended for those with bad backs. In fact, essayist Joseph Addison was a devotee, writing in the Spectator:

I exercise myself an hour every morning upon a dumb-bell that is placed in the corner of my room, and pleases me the more because it does everything I require of it in the most profound silence [11].

Chamber Horse

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another indoor exercise was the ‘chamber horse’ that Cheyne recommended in a letter to novelist Samuel Richardson, which ‘has all the good beneficial effects of a hard trotting horse except the fresh air’. The description makes it sound like an instrument of torture – ‘the chair you sit on with a cushion on the board as a bottom to it with a two armed hoop and with a foot stool that with a sliding board may be raised higher or lower’ [12]. The seat, made out of stacked horsehair cushions, functioned as a kind of concertina when you sat down, then you pulled yourself up by the handles. The air went in and out of the cushions through slits in the side. The chamber horse could also be used in a parallel way to today’s standing desk, with Cheyne telling Richardson: ‘You may dictate, direct, or read in it’.

However, Jane Austen records in her unfinished novel Sanditon that ‘poor Mr. Hollis’s chamber-horse’ was available for sale ‘as good as new’, and they made frequent appearances in auction catalogues, so it appears that many of these devices met the same fate as modern exercise machines. As so often, plus ça change.


[1] Quoted in Jack W. Berryman (2010) ‘Exercise is medicine: A historical perspective’, Current Sports Medicine Reports, 9(4): 1–7.

[2] August 5th, 1772. Vere Birdwood (1994) So Dearly Loved, So Much Admired: Letters to Hester Pitt, Lady Chatham from Her Relations and Friends 1744-1801, London: HMSO.

[3] Max F. Schultz (1981) ‘The circuit walk of the eighteenth-century landscape garden and the pilgrim’s circuitous progress’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 15(1): 1–25.

[4] ‘Stowe, the Gardens of the Right Honourable Viscount Cobham’, 1732. http://faculty.bsc.edu/jtatter/west.html.

[5] Quoted in Kirstin Olsen (1999) Daily Life in 18th-Century England, Portsmouth, NH: Greenwood Publishing, p. 147.

[6] http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/georgians/entertainment/entertainments.html.

[7] 19 June 1787. Malcolm Elwin (1967) The Noels and the Milbankes: Their Letters for Twenty-Five Years 1767–1792.

[8] 17 July 1723. George Hastings Wheler (ed.) (1935) Hastings Wheler Family Letters 1704–1739, Castleford: West Yorkshire Printing Co.

[9] DD\GB/148/127, Gibbs MSS, Somerset Archives, February 4th, 1774.

[10] George Cheyne (1724) An Essay of Health and Long Life, London: George Strahan, p. 94.

[11] Robert Batchelor (2012) ‘Thinking about the gym: Greek ideals, Newtonian bodies and exercise in early eighteenth-century Britain’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 35(2): 185–97, p. 186, 189.

[12] Letter from Bath dated January 12, 1740, quoted at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/longview/longview_20031007_readings.shtml.



In the letters of Sir William Robinson (1655–1736), 1st Baronet of Newby [1], is the following set of riddles. I found it difficult to work out which person’s names they’re referring to, but all becomes (a bit) clearer when you look at the answers he provides – I’ve given these in the footnotes, if you want to try and solve them first.

The letter which sometimes for no letter gos

And what’s a great deal in any man’s nose

With the name of York Medows and what quenches our thirst

Is the name of a Lady deny it who durst

That in virtue & goodness may be reckonnd the first [2]


What the gardiner doth when he planteth his trees

And what we must do to be cloathed in frize

Is the name of a man who is chearfull & free

And whose age I account to be fivety & three [3]


The first letter we learn, and the least bird that flys

With a part of the wood that in Beaconsfield lies

Is the name of a man who with indolent air

Makes love without meaning and sight for the fair [4]


The letter next G and the Welsh-man’s distemper

Is the name of a lady who’s ne’re out of temper

And who dances with such an air, motion & grace

That you don’t see a bit of her name in her pace [5]


What’s found in a bush & what hunters pursue

With the place where at present you’ve nothing to do

Is the name of a man who is both blind & old

Yet wishes for waters to keep him from cold [6]

I’m fascinated by the ‘Welsh-man’s distemper’ in the fourth one. The association between the itch (scabies or other skin infestations) and the people of Wales was apparently widespread – according to Steven Connor’s The Book of Skin, Wales was even known as ‘Itchland’!

If you can shed any more light on these, do let me know.

1. WYL150/6002, West Yorkshire Archives.

2. Lady H-inch-ing-brook – probably Elizabeth Wilmot (1674–1757), daughter of 2nd Earl of Rochester and wife of Edward Montagu, 3rd Earl of Sandwich, Viscount Hinchingbrooke until his accession to the earldom.

3. Mr Dig-buy.

4. A-wren-dell – Arundel, probably Thomas Howard (1683–1732), 8th Duke of Norfolk and 7th Earl of Arundel. In 1709 he married Maria Shireburn, from a well-known Catholic family in Lancashire, who brought him a fortune of £30,000. I’m not sure why the insult, but it may have been because of his supposed involvement in a Jacobite plot.

5. Miss H-itch.

6. Hare-court – probably Simon Harcourt (1661–1727), Lord Chancellor to Queen Anne. He left court on the accession of George I in 1714, so he had ‘nothing to do’ there. Also alleged to be a Jacobite, which may account for the tone.

Almost there

Well, it was a long journey – five years, five months, to be exact – but I got there in the end. My thesis was submitted at the end of June: ‘The role of domestic knowledge in an era of professionalisation: Eighteenth-century manuscript medical recipe collections’.

While I wait for my viva, I thought readers of this blog might be interested in a sneak peek at the contents. I studied over 240 recipe collections from all over England, containing over 19,000 medical recipes, so of course, much of the thesis is about the recipes themselves – what form they take, what conditions they aim to treat, whether they differ regionally or over time. I offer detailed studies of recipes for coughs and colds, gout, rabies, diet drinks and Daffy’s Elixir, examining the variety of recipes, their ingredients and how they differ or are duplicated in different collections. I also consider differences by gender and by age.

But there is more to recipes than their content alone, so I take a look at the recipe books as material objects, the paraphernalia needed to create them, how they were structured, ways of finding the information easily and what else they contained. I consider the women and men who compiled the collections and contributed the recipes, and describe how recipe exchange functioned as social currency in different kinds of network. Finally, I identify reasons why the practice of collecting recipes continued through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, despite the presence of growing numbers of professional practitioners, off-the-shelf alternatives and printed sources of information.

Want to know more than that? You’ll just have to keep your fingers crossed that I acquit myself well in my viva…