Hood conjured a vision of Wanstead Flats – not Wanstead House
The overview to this blog looks at Thomas Hood’s impact as a poet and wry observer of the joy and hardships of life in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As explained, his only novel Tylney Hall (1834), gave readers false hope of discovering what actually happened at Wanstead House, nearby ancestral home of the Earls of Tylney – which had been suddenly and brutally demolished less than a decade earlier. Such a glaringly obvious deceit within the novel’s title undoubtedly upset readers. The Literary Gazette echoed this widespread disappointment
It was inferred that the private histories of the Wellesley and Long families had furnished matter for the novel…. Accordingly, not a few copies travelled eastward, through Stratford-le-Bow, but, of course, to the signal discomfiture of the speculators [because] the figures were not drawn from living models
I am fascinated by the fact that the central character – from whose perspective we follow events – is a black man – Not a stereotypically menial representation found in the background of much Georgian art, but a wealthy, educated and well-connected black man, with a profound understanding of the prejudice he encounters. What’s more he is not the only black character in the book. I thought this plot-device would have set alarm bells ringing as to Tylney Hall ‘s credibility. But having examined several contemporary reviews of Hood’s novel – both good and bad – I find no evidence to suggest that the presence of black people of worth was anything out of the ordinary to late Georgian readers.
Tylney Hall avoids traditional black stereotypes
So how much, if anything, does Tylney Hall represent the geography and social fabric of eighteenth century Wanstead? I will answer this question in two sections, firstly looking for physical evidence of Wanstead’s presence – and secondly questioning whether the presence of black (or Asian) people in that part of the world was as commonplace as Tylney Hall implies
1. Finding Wanstead in Tylney Hall
It is important to remember that Hood was often unwell during his years at the Lake House. Thus the writer had to rely heavily upon his surrounding neighbourhood to create the backdrop for Tylney Hall. From the outset Hood makes no effort to disguise the fact that Wanstead is the setting.
The Three Rabbits was within walking distance of Hood’s home
The opening chapter of Tylney Hall takes us to the Rabbits public house ‘set in a bleak wasteland called the Flats…On the other side stretched an immense park, behind an angle of which lay perdue a small village.’ Straight away the geography of Wanstead is laid before us – from Manor Park’s Three Rabbits pub in the south up to the village beyond Wanstead Park. Hood gives a lovely description of the pub and its characters, including their regular whist drives. We also learn that the local coaching inn, which stands outside the grounds of ‘Tylney Hall’ is called ‘The Green Man’ – not just the same name but the same proximity of Leytonstone’s Green Man pub to the gates of old Wanstead House.
The Green Man Inn (Leytonstone) features in Hood’s Tylney Hall
Tylney Hall is less obviously a replica of the real Wanstead House. Perhaps Hood never visited Wicked William’s Palladian palace before it was demolished, for interior descriptions of Tylney Hall are scanty. However Tylney Hall does possess ‘a great many Gobelin Tapestries’ – copying one of the main treasures advertised for sale by George Robins in 1822, suggesting that Hood may have seen or possessed an auction catalogue. External features of Wanstead House – such as the stables (still standing today) and the octagonal Basin are replicated by Hood for the fictitious Tylney Hall
Gobelin Tapestries prominently featured in Robins’ auction catalogue (1822)
Hood’s lovely descriptions of the park, lake and waterways around ‘Tylney Hall’ can only be picked up and appreciated by readers familiar with the landmarks in question. We can therefore conclude that Hood’s novel is definitely a homage to Wanstead Park.
2. Finding black people in Wanstead
West Indian immigrants satirised by Cruickshank (1824)
Recent research has shown that black people were fairly commonly employed as servants in wealthy or titled households during the Georgian era. As such many were educated to a high-level commensurate with their status within the hierarchy of the home. In many cases these families contained mixed race children or servants – either of whom would have enjoyed the protection of their wider family group. Those who returned from service in the East India Company often settled in close knit ‘Anglo-Indian’ communities – The writer William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), who was born in Calcutta and returned to England in 1815 to complete his education – lived in one such community – sticking together to overcome local resentments. Another example may be found in the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, which has recently been made into a film. But most importantly, there was a general influx of foreign settlers in Britain’s urban areas from the eighteenth century onwards. By the 1790s significant immigrant communities, arriving from Africa, the West Indies or Asia – either aboard merchant ships, or demobbed military/naval conscripts. In London, for example, the slums around St Giles were considered to be black ghettos.
During my research on ‘Wicked William’ of Wanstead House I discovered that during the 1790s the Wellesley-Pole family regularly opened a soup kitchen from their home in Savile Row – This weekly event was attended by such numbers of homeless black immigrants that they were eventually ordered to close it to keep the peace.
For many, black people were a regular feature of everyday life
So, let’s take these findings to the Wanstead area. First of all we can see that a great many estates in and around Epping Forest were bought up and subsequently developed by East India Company employees and merchants. Given its relatively close proximity to London and the docks – it is therefore perfectly reasonable to conclude that Hood’s Tylney Hall does reflect the reality of black people – rich and poor, entitled and subservient – who may have lived or worked around Wanstead at this time.
In my final part I will take a closer look at three black characters from Tylney Hall to get a better understanding of their place in society and the interaction they had – both good and bad – with those around them. I want to show that for Hood at least – there was a true respect for black people. Perhaps Hood was reflecting the prevalent public enthusiasm for black culture following the recent Abolition of Slavery Act (which gained Royal Assent just two months prior to publication). But I prefer to think his experience of living amidst the poor and under-privileged around Wanstead was the more fertile ground where his characterisations were formed
Paul Edwards has written a great article in History Today looking at black personalities in Georgian England
For more information on the subject of black history try this select bibliography:
Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain 1780-1830 by Dr Norma Myers
Finally you may like to read more about the Wellesley-Pole’s charitable work, as they attempt to rescue a tramp. If only their son Wicked William of Wanstead House had the same attitude when he went amongst the needy