Detail of Dickens in Florence Caxton, Four Intellects, nineteenth century, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.
If Severndroog was a popular spot for poetry in the early 1800s, it was also becoming notorious for luxurious gatherings. In 1801, an anonymous writer described a group of thirty-two wealthy men and women ‘broiling up’ to the castle — some ‘seemingly arranged in bridal robes’ — to whet their appetite for a dinner whose menu was twice as long’ as her arm. Considering herself a ‘total stranger to the group’ and realising that she ‘stood no chance of coming in for my share of the good things of this world’, the writer leaves the revellers to wash their hands in silver vases of rose water, sit down to a meal of turtle and venison, and take part in a lottery in which every entrant is guaranteed a prize.
A decade later, Severndroog also became a hotspot for the genteel hobby of hot-air balloon spotting. Britain’s first balloon ascent took place in 1784, the same year that Severndroog was built, and Greenwich became a popular location for subsequent launches. Fascination with ballooning amongst fashionable society quickly became known as 'balloon madness' and the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson satirised wealthy Londoners’ use of Severndroog’s tower for balloon spotting in his print Rural Sports. Balloon Hunting (1811). The tower in the print bears little resemblance to Severndroog, but Rowlandson made the connection to the castle clear in a preparatory drawing, which was titled 'Balloon Hunting near Lady James’s Folly' (an early nickname for the castle).
Thomas Rowlandson, Rural Sports: Balloon Hunting, 1811, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Severndroog’s association with the pastimes and more indulgent pursuits of the wealthy turned it into a symbol for the stark class divisions that plagued nineteenth-century society. In the 1830s, this brought the castle to the attention of an author who did more than most to champion changes to Britain’s class system. Charles Dickens played a key role in changing attitudes towards the Victorian labouring classes, whose horrific poverty was often dismissed as the result of drunkenness, immorality and a poor work ethic by the more fortunate. In one of his early works, Sunday, under Three Heads (1836), Dickens challenged these accusations of laziness and bad character by describing the back-breaking working week of the ‘humbler classes’, whose ‘only day of rest from toil’ is spent on a family excursion to ‘survey the wonders of Shooter’s Hill and Lady James’s Folly’.
George Cruikshank's print series The Bottle (1847) attributed a Victorian family's descent into poverty to a father's drinking problem.
George Cruikshank, Cold, Misery, and Want Destroy Their Youngest Child, 1847, Yale Center for British Art; Yale University Art Gallery Collection.
Dickens’s description of poorer Londoners’ visits to Severndroog highlighted the hypocrisy of claims that those who struggled for money did so because they were disinclined to work. He pointed out the difference between the labouring families’ hard-earned, ‘innocent and harmless’ excursions to the castle and the kind of ‘sensual gratifications’ that wealthier visitors were known to enjoy on their very different outings to the tower. Perhaps recalling the anonymous author’s observation that the party who had visited Severndroog in 1801 could not enjoy the view from the folly because they were too busy ‘looking at their watches, and counting the seconds’ until their feast, Dickens claimed that the wealthy could ‘by no possibility form an adequate notion’ of either the hard week’s work performed by the poor, or the ‘innocent enjoyment’ that they consequently received from a simple Sunday visit to Severndroog.
The hard-working Londoners who visit Severndroog in Sunday, under Three Heads are early models for some of Dickens’s most memorable characters, such as the poverty-stricken Cratchit family of A Christmas Carol. Dickens’s championing of such characters did much to change perceptions about the morals of poorer members of society and raise sympathy for their plight. However, his depiction of less wealthy visitors enjoying a trip to Sevendroog also helped to salvage the castle’s reputation. Dickens not only highlighted the fact that the castle was open for all to enjoy, but rescued it from a connection with privileged indulgence that, on certain occasions, may have made ‘Lady James’s Folly’ seem all too apt a nickname.
Bob Cratchit and Ebenezer Scrooge, illustrated by John Leech.
A Christmas Carol (London: Chapman and Hall, 1843). Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.