Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low

The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low
Originally published 1972 - revised 1999
Sutton Books ISBN 0750921226

For anyone expecting this to be a companion copy to Kellow Chesney's masterful 'The Victorian Underworld' (which I've read many times and will review at some point..) this book might prove a little disappointing - especially from a Family History perspective. The reason for this is the approach taken by Low is more general, with less specific detail about everyday life of the lower orders.

However, what he does do is put forward a very convincing argument that much of the popular image of the Victorian Underworld actually belongs to the Regency days, with writers such as Dickens drawing more on their memories of this period than their contemporary times.

The Regency Period was of course one of extravagance and display - the time of the Dandy and the Fop - and those without wealth still needed to act and dress as if they had money to spare. Low puts all this within the social context of such concerns as the Napoleonic Wars, the growth of the nouveau rich, and the move away from rural idylls.

The book is almost totally focused on London, and has a good study of the attitudes to crime and policing that developed from the late 18th Century into the early Victorian period, and how this impacted on those who carried out their underworld trades. There are also chapters dedicated to the Medical Underworld - with a lot of stories and information about the Resurrection Men and other dubious goings on - and a chapter on Gambling - a theme which underpins much of the background to the whole period. There is also a long chapter about the fictional exploits of the original Tom and Jerry which whilst being used to draw out real-life situations seems a little odd in the overall context of the book. It does however provide the opportunity for more magnificent contemporary illustrations, and this is an area that the book excels in throughout - the reproductions are superb and come from a wide range of sources that really provides the reader with a flavour of what London was like two hundred years ago!

So, whilst this book won't give the family historian quite the depth of understanding into their ancestors lives as 'The Victorian Underworld' does, it does provide a very readable and enjoyable overview of the background in which London ancestors in the Regency period got through their probably rather short allotted spans. Especially if they were of the better off sort!

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