How to have fun in 18th-century London

Fri 31 Aug

These days, there are hundreds of ways to let your hair down and enjoy yourself – whether it's dancing in the mud at a festival, snuggling up and binge-watching your favourite series, or watching The Art of Success and The Taste of the Town at your favourite local theatre! But what entertainment options were on offer for William Hogarth and his friends in the 18th century? In honour of our upcoming double bill Hogarth's Progress, we took a look into how Londoners liked to have fun back in the day...


The Rose may only have been around for 10 years, but 18th-century Londoners loved going to see the latest hit play at the theatre – after all, televisions weren't invented for another 200 years. Go to the most exciting theatre at the time and you might catch a comedy of manners by Oliver Goldsmith or a savagely satirical new piece by Henry Fielding – both friends of Hogarth in his younger days, and characters that make an appearance in The Art of Success. If you were really lucky, you might catch flawless new actor David Garrick, who became the taste of the town (see what we did there!) in 1741 with his innovative naturalistic acting style. 

Gin Houses

Sanitation in 18th-century London was non-existent. Drinking water came from the Thames, where most refuse ended up without any filtering system in place. The contents of chamber pots were thrown out of windows and hardly anyone washed (many people believed washing was harmful). It was no surprise that Londoners coped with their stinking social conditions by getting drunk...

In 1690, soldiers returning from Europe brought with them a new Dutch drink called eau de genièvre (juniper water), which the British called gin. Due to the cheap manufacturing process, gin houses sprang up all over London and it was sold everywhere – even out of wheelbarrows! The nation's love of gin was getting out of hand. Nurses gave it to children to keep them quiet, contributing to over 9,000 child deaths in 1791. Some untrustworthy sellers would even flavour the gin with turpentine (an organic solvent) instead of juniper berries. After the introduction of the Gin Act 1751 and Hogarth's satirical prints Gin Lane and Beer Street, the production of gin fell by 40%. 


They weren't spoken about in polite company, but brothels were rife in the 18th century – so much so that if you were new to town you could buy Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, an annual directory of prostitutes working in London, for two shillings and sixpence. Maybe Louisa from The Art of Success would have been featured...

Curiosity Shows

Curiosity shows displayed all the weird and wonderful things that could surprise and fascinate an 18th-century Londoner, including performing animals (pigs who could play cards and do arithmetic and acrobatic monkeys), hermaphrodites and dwarves. An inhumane practice in this century, these shows were considered great fun in the 1700s.

Mental Asylums

A horrific idea by today's standards, in the 18th century it was possible to visit a mental hospital and look at the patients like a human zoo. Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam) in Finsbury Square was open to the public for over 150 years until 1770. The hospital gained charitable donations from opening the gates to the public and offering a 'moral instruction' to visitors – they considered this to be a cautionary tale for what would happen if they indulged their debauched appetites and immoral desires. Huge numbers ended up flocking to visit the hospital for what they saw as entertainment value. 


Like something out of Game of Thrones, this one... In the 18th century, Britain still had the death penalty – the last hanging occurred in 1964 – and it was a staple form of entertainment for the average Londoner. For high-profile cases, thousands would congregate to see the accused be hanged, or beheaded if you were a member of the aristocracy. Executions became so popular that many artists wanted to gain access to the criminals just before they met their demise, in an effort to make money from it. For example, William Hogarth sketched and painted the murderess Sarah Malcolm, who became the basis for character Sarah Sprackling in The Art of Success

So, the popular entertainment options in the 18th century might leave the modern Londoner feeling rather ill. At least we still have theatre...

Hogarth's Progress runs at the Rose from Thu 13 Sep – Sun 21 Oct. Each play can be enjoyed as a standalone performance or together, either over different days or both in one day.

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