The Regent’s Park: A Charity Fair for the Royal Dispensary

The Regent’s Park: A Charity Fair for the Royal Dispensary. Coloured lithography by M. Gauci,1832. Source: Wellcome Library Iconographic Collections, Ref. ICV No14103

This representation of a fête champétre and ladies’ bazaar was created by the London lithographer Maxim Gauci (1774-1854). Active from 1810 to 1846, Gauci was amongst the first popular lithographers, producing numerous botanical plates for various publications.[1] This particular print illustrates the lively atmosphere of one of the annual events held in support for the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear (est. 1816). All of the common characteristics of a fair are captured: tents, flags, crowds, music and dancing. The text accompanying the bottom of the image dedicates Gauci’s lithography to those who organized the event:

To the Ladies patronesses of the Royal Dispensary for curing diseases of the ear and the deaf and dumb, Dean Street, Soho Square, under the patronage of their most gracious Majesties and the Royal family. This plate representing the ladies’ bazaar and fete champetre, held in the Regent’s Park, June 14, 1832, in aid of the funds of the institution is respectfully dedicated by their most obedient servant William Franklin.

It is likely that William Franklin purchased the lithography from Gauci, who sold many of his works, but the question as to who Franklin was and what was his relationship to the Dispensary remains to be answered. Furthermore, it is not clear what the stamp between the dedication represents; it is likely that it was Franklin’s personal or familial correspondence stamp, but is just as likely it was the Dispensary’s; there is not enough evidence supporting one over the other.

While this lithography exemplifies the typical nature of a fête champétre, it also raises broader questions about the relationship between charity, social causes, and entertainment. Frank Prochaska has demonstrated that charity bazaars and “fancy fairs” were a favourite institution of the aristocratic and gentry for raising attention and funds for a particular charity.[2] A tremendous amount of planning went into organizing these events in order to ensure their successes, which were aided by the entertainment provided. For example, the Dispensary’s fête champétre and ladies’ bazaar of 1835 paid for two English military bands, a French band, and a troupe of Hungarian singers to perform.[3] The high rate of success of the charity bazaars, in addition to the increasing demands of philanthropy and the growth of women’s charitable activities in the nineteenth century, secured these events as a popular and fashionable method for fundraising.

The immediate impression I gathered from the lithograph is that the event was a successful one, but it seems to me that the meaning of its success is somewhat ambiguous, raising several questions: As a charity event, was the fête champétre successful because it raised plenty of funds to aid the Dispensary, or because it entertained the crowd and became heralded as a social event of the year, or both? Prochaska has argued that the popularity of the charity bazaar must be viewed as an aspect of nineteenth-century entertainment and part of “fashionable” society. What then, does that say about the objects of charity? Did the organizers choose the Dispensary as its charity because it was in desperate need of aid, or because deafness was considered a “fashionable” charitable trend at the time? Further, was deafness considered an important social cause during the 1820s and 1830s?

These questions are difficult to assess, at the very least, from this particular source. What the source does reveal, however, is that the fête champétre was likely successful in drawing attention to the needs of the Dispensary and at the very least, increasing its recognition as an integral London institution. This source is also valuable for tying threads between the protagonists in my story. For instance, when the Dispensary ran into serious financial trouble during the late 1820s, Henry Sheppard Smyth, the Dispensary’s secretary, circulated a letter in a pamphlet declaring that a need was required to “awaken the sympathies of meek-eyed Charity.”[4] As historian Kenneth Hodgson points out, this connection between religion and charity was not lost among the public, who were growing to become sympathetic towards the plight of the deaf and dumb; this sympathy, Hodgson explains, was tied to the “realization that something could be done to relieve [the deaf’s] misery. The knowledge that something could be done was leading to some public demand that it should be done.”[5] Shortly after the circulation of his letter, Smyth ran a short advertisement/announcement in the London Gazette congratulating the success of the Dispensary’s fête champétre. Smyth does not indicate whether this was the first of what would become an annual event, nor does he reveal how much was raised for the Dispensary, but he does describe the joyous atmosphere of the event and how entertaining it was for everyone.

Furthermore, considering that the Dispensary’s Board of Governors included some of London’s most influential and powerful men, it is also likely that a degree of English respectability was necessary for choosing the method of fundraising. The fête champétre might have provided that sense of respectability and tradition necessary for the upper classes. The clothes of the individuals in the lithography indicate that a large number of the crowd were of the upper classes, but I imagine that the mingling of the sexes and some aspects of “lewd” behaviour (i.e. the dancing) might have offended some aristocratic or religious sensibilities who might have found the fête champétre more characteristic of a carnival than a respectable charity bazaar.

The decision of choosing the Dispensary as an object of charity could also have been aided by the wives of the Board of Governors, who were reluctant to let their husbands’ work and institution fail. Moreover, as the dedication by William Franklin suggests, there is a wider discussion to be made about the influence of women in philanthropy. Prochaska has argued that charity bazaars were pre-eminently a female affair and the ingenuity of women’s groups were essential in raising funds for the charities of their choice. The lithography clearly indicates a high presence of females on the park grounds and that it was clearly a social event attractive to women, but I am intrigued as to whether these women considered the object of their charity restricted to the Dispensary as an institution or whether they considered their work essential for promoting deafness as a social cause.

The main weakness of the lithography, of course, is that it is difficult to go beyond what is represented in the picture, but at the very least, it provides me with enough clues to connect with other primary sources. In doing so, I can attempt to weave together a proper narrative about the nature of the Dispensary’s fête champétre and its role as both a charity and a social gathering that highlighted the plight of the deaf and the necessity of an institution for providing specialized medical care. Moreover, if it was not for the text accompanying the lithography, there would be no indication that this representation of a charity fair was organized for the aiding the Dispensary. While the source is silent in answering many of my questions, it does reveal plenty about the nature of a fête champétre by recreating the atmosphere of the event. Although there is no indication as to how much funds were raised it is possible that a goal was reached since by the late 1830s the Dispensary overcame its financial limitations.

[1] Shirley Sherwood, Stephen A. Harris and Barrie Edward Juniper, A New Flowering: 1000 Years of Botanical Art (Ashmolean Museum, 2005).

[2] F.K. Prochaska, “Charity Bazaars in Nineteenth-Century England,” The Journal of British Studies vol.16.2 (Spring 1977): 62-84.

[3] Prochaska, p.74.

[4] H.S. Smyth, “Letter from the Secretary,” in Richard Ponsonby, A Sermon Preached…in aid of the Royal Dispensary for the Diseases of the Ear (London: Published by J.G. and F. Rivington, 1834).

[5] Kenneth Hodgson, The Deaf and Their Problems: A Study in Special Education (London: Watts & Co., 1953), p.156.

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