Universal Joy: The Grand Festival at Yarmouth, 19 April 1814

A post by Samantha Evans (Darwin Correspondence Project).

The library recently acquired a substantial part of the Paget family archive as a gift from Sir Adam Thomson (MS Add 10379). George Edward Paget (1809–92) was Regius Professor of Physic at the University of Cambridge; his father was Samuel Paget (1774–1857), a man of humble origins who made his fortune provisioning ships during the Napoleonic wars, and was able as a result to build a handsome house on the quay at Great Yarmouth. He married Sarah Elizabeth Tolver (1778–1843), known as Betsey. Betsey bore seventeen children, of whom eight died in infancy. She was a talented artist, collector, and cataloguer, and laid the foundations of the family’s writing, drawing, and archiving habits.

One of the most interesting items I found while compiling box lists, as a trainee archivist in the middle of a part-time distance-learning course at Aberystwyth University, was a little book about the festival at Great Yarmouth to celebrate what at the time was thought to be the end of the Napoleonic Wars. About the size of a Ladybird book, it bristles with patriotic and civic pride, and is beautifully printed with enchanting illustrations and an enthusiastic selection of fonts.

The festivities included donkey races, a pig hunt (two pigs provided for the winners), and a feast for 8,023 with tables laid out along the quay. A map suggests that notables who had houses along the quay were expected to provide provisions for nearby tables: certainly the Pagets did.

The Pagets are down at the right-hand end.

The book contains handwritten notes by Betsey Paget about the event, and in one she approvingly notes the fact that all the spoons she provided from her household were returned.

‘I set on the first dish—we roasted a rump of beef for the top [table] & sent it in with a silk union Jack, every dish was cover’d & though we furnish’d them with spoons, salt spoons &c &c, nothing was lost, nor was there any one thing broken. Indeed it all appeared done by Majic!’

Later in the evening there was an elaborate symbolic bonfire: the book provides a helpful diagram.

The artist responsible for this and the other images was John Sell Cotman of Norwich, at that time living in Great Yarmouth under the patronage of Samuel Paget’s friend Dawson Turner (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). One of Cotman’s biographers characterised his time in Yarmouth as drudgery – to which time spent making maps of tables and bonfires might have contributed – but the ODNB takes a more positive line, emphasising the positive relationship Cotman had with his employers. The Pagets were also enthusiastic collectors of art.

Sadly, the festivities were premature; but the little souvenir, with its handwritten commentary, gives us an insight into those times.


  • It was wonderful to see this manuscript. Sir James Paget refers to the Festival in the book written about him by his son, Stephen. Sir James had written the first few chapters. He was only 3 months old at the time of the Festival so people must have talked about it for years afterwards or he read his mother’s manuscript.

  • Indeed, a VERY useful insight into the mood of the times.

    TY for sharing.