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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Two Hundred Years Ago Today: The Lakers celebrate victory at Waterloo (and Wordsworth almost messes it up)

(This is part of a new series of On This Day posts edited by Anna Mercer.  If you’re interested in contributing to the series, please contact her on anna.mercer@york.ac.uk.)

1280px-Skiddaw_engraving_by_William_Miller_after_Turner_R513

Skiddaw, engraved by William Miller after J.M.W. Turner (1833).

On the 22nd of August 1815, Robert Southey sent the following passage to his friend Grosvenor Bedford for insertion in the Courier:

On Monday the 21st of August, a bonfire was kindled on the summit of Skiddaw in honour of the Battle of Waterloo, the capture of Paris, & the surrender of Buonaparte. It is the first time that any public rejoicings had ever been held on so elevated a spot; & the effect was sublime to a degree which none can imagine but those who witnessed it. A great concourse of people were assembled; inhabitants of the country who had never performed the ascent before, going up on this occasion. {Large} Balls of tow & turpentine were set on fire & rolled down the steep {side of the} mountain. Rule Britannia, & God Save the King were sung in full chorus round the bonfire, accompanied by various wind instruments. The healths of the Prince Regent, the Duke of Wellington, & Prince Blucher were drank over a bowl of punch, each with three times three, & the healths were announced to the vale below by the discharge of cannon from the summit. The company partook of beef roasted & plum pudding boiled on the spot. Among the persons present were Lord & Lady Sunderlin, Miss Barker, Mr Southey & Mr Wordsworth with their families, Mr James Boswell,  Mr Ponsonby,  Mr Fryer  &c &c &c. They began to descend by torch light about ten o clock; & on reaching Keswick at midnight the festivities were concluded by a display of fireworks, & the ascent of a fire balloon on which were inscribed the names of Wellington & Waterloo.

It was intended to have made this commemoration on the birth day of the Prince Regent, but the state of the weather prevented; & early on the morning of the 13th some disorderly persons stole up & consumed the materials which with unprecedented labour had been collected there. No carts had ever before been carried to the summit.

Southey’s official account of the festivities balances the scrupulous reporting of the toasts drunk and the company present with accounts of a considerable number of instances of things being set on fire (the blazing balls, the summit-top cannons, the fireworks, the fire balloon).  This was a celebration which blended propriety, license and sublimity, as the personal part of the letter to Bedford which follows Southey’s report makes clear: ‘Oh that you had been with us! The night was very fine, & the track of fire which we left behind us from our streaming flambeaux, had a strange appearance at the town. The scene on the summit itself was one of the wildest imaginable, […] we formed a wide circle round the finest bonfire I ever saw, or probably ever shall see, & round us was a circle of utter darkness; – for our light fairly put out the rising moon.’  The victory at Waterloo was a cause for intellectual celebration for the more conservative inhabitants of the Lakes (there is no room in this account for people like William Hazlitt, who, on hearing that Napoleon had been defeated, turned temporarily to drink and despair).  However, the end of a war that had raged with only brief interruptions since 1792 also called for more visceral kinds of release, and even in Southey’s relatively restrained account for the Courier, the sense that the ascent was an excess which expressed both joy and relief comes through.

The poor weather on August the 13th and the theft of the supplies for that abortive ascent was not the only hitch which the Skiddaw celebrations faced.  In his letter to Bedford, Southey goes on to recount a mistake of Wordsworth’s which almost brought the festivities to a grinding halt.  Southey obviously enjoyed this story, as when he wrote the next day to his younger brother, Henry Herbert Southey, he expanded the account with a series of literary embellishments:

The only mishap which occurred will make a famous anecdote in the life of a great poet if James Boswell after the example of his father keepeth a Diary of the sayings of remarkable men. When we were craving for the punch, a cry went forth that the kettle had been kicked over with all the boiling water! Colonel [Mary] Barker as Bozzy named the Senhora from her having had the command on this occasion, immediately instituted a strict enquiry to discover the culprit, from a suspicion that it might have been done in mischief, – water as you know being a commodity not easily replaced on the summit of Skiddaw. The persons about the fire declared it was one of the Gentlemen, – they did not know his name, – but he had a red cloak on: & they pointed him out in the circle. The red cloak which (a maroon one of Ediths) ascertained him – Wordsworth had got hold if it, & was equipped like a Spanish Don, – by no means the worst figure in the company. He had committed the fatal faux pas, & thought to slink off undiscovered. But as soon as in my inquiries concerning the punch I learnt his guilt from the Senhora, I went round to all our party, & communicated the discovery, & getting them about him, I punished him by setting up singing a parody in which they all joined in – Twas you that kicked the kettle down! twas you Sir you!

One can imagine that Wordsworth was none too pleased about the singing.  Fortunately, the company found a solution to the water problem which preserved the bonds of social privilege:

The consequences were that we took all the cold water upon the summit to supply our loss. Our Myrmidons  & Messrs Rag & Co had therefore none for their grog: they necessarily drank the rum pure, & you who are Physician to the Middlesex Hospital are doubtless acquainted with the manner in which alcohol acts upon the nervous system. All our torches were lit at once by this mad company, & our way down the hill was marked by a track of fire from flambeaux dropping their pitch, tarred ropes &c. One fellow was so drunk that his companions placed him upon a horse with his face to the tail, – to bring him down, – themselves being just sober enough to guide & hold him on. Down however we all got safely by midnight, & nobody from the old Lord of 77 to my son Lunus is the worse for the toil of the day, – tho we had were eight hours from the time we set out till we reached home.