The rich always prize elegance, while sometimes playing dirty to get what they want. And that was especially true in glittering, simmering
early-1800s London.

In America today, as in decades past, some multi-billionaires claim to be the true champions of the struggling working class—and we wonder if they are really just in it for themselves.

The idea that the rich are continually playing the angles—saying one thing and doing another, feigning propriety while breaking whatever rules they please—is nothing new.

Take Regency London, where elegance, deceit and debauchery reigned among the upper classes. In the new FX series “Taboo,” starring Tom Hardy, that duplicity is brought to life in all its seamy glory as James Delaney, long thought dead in Africa, returns to London to claim his inheritance—and, up against refined but ruthless businessmen, he confronts ‘proper’ society’s buried secrets.


Civilization and
Its Secrets

During England’s Regency period from 1811 to 1820, King George III was deemed mentally unfit, and his son instead ruled as Prince Regent until the king’s death. The period’s distinctive styles and fashion, great heights of beauty and art and cultural influence lasted through the reigns of George IV and William IV until the Victorian era that began in 1837.

Regency London was known as the most civilized place in the world. Handsome thoroughbreds trotted along the West End’s most fashionable streets, pulling elegant carriages with the city’s elite tucked inside. Households received guests in sumptuous drawing rooms and enjoyed multi-course, formal dinner parties with the finest crystal on display.

Afterward, well-dressed dandies flocked to neighborhoods like St. James’s to spend the evening playing card games like Faro and Commerce at private clubs such as White’s or Watier’s. And London’s fashionable ladies set out to plush boxes at the Royal Italian Opera House in the Haymarket.

Haymarket Theatre, 1815

But the city had a dark side. Outside the walls of London’s well-manicured and gated townhouses lay the city’s seedy underbelly, where lower-class Londoners of lesser morals made ends meet by looting warehouses, docks and ships, robbing the graves of the well-heeled for gold fillings and whiling away the night at gin shops and brothels.

The irony? While the less-fortunate were pilloried for their loose morals and excessive vice, the social set, hiding behind their finery, shared the same licentious traits that mirror some of today’s political and religious scandals.

Regency London, Mapped

From St. James's finest clubs to the East India Company's busy docks, see where elegance and decadence transpired.

Pleasure, Grime
and Pain

The upper class adhered to strict courting rituals that ensured proper matches for its ladies and gentlemen. The well-bred offspring of the city’s most aristocratic families were told when and how to speak to each other, touch publicly and exchange gifts. It was a man’s job to woo a woman appropriately, and chastely.

Before or after a proposal was offered, he was duty-bound to ask her father for her hand in marriage. Women were expected to be modest and dutiful, even-tempered and without opinion, keeping their reputation in mind at all times and in all matters.

Yet once a couple wed, men often engaged in sex-fueled affairs. These were commonplace, and easily tolerated if they were discreet. Many maintained courtesans, or mistresses kept to a decent standard of living.

The noble class held many examples of this louche life. The Duke of Devonshire, for example, set up his mistress with a chamber in his home, where she lived with the duke and duchess for 25 years. She in turn bore a child with the future prime minister Charles Grey, one of a handful of lovers she took over the years.

William Cavendish, First Duke of Devonshire, 1830

And one of Regency London’s most prominent socialites, Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of future prime minister William Lamb, took Lord Byron as her lover to the point of obsession. After he broke off their relationship, she burned his gifts to her in a bonfire, slashed her arms with broken glass and stalked him at his quarters dressed as a page to avoid detection.

As these indiscretions became common practice, after-dark,
under-the-radar sex clubs gained momentum among the upper crust. Behind drawn curtains, playboys, courtesans and curious, wealthy ladies donned elaborate costumes and partook in bawdy activities such as drinking from goblets etched with erotic scenes, delivering off-color toasts, viewing nude books and enjoying the company of naked "posture molls," who lay on tables and performed explicit poses.

The truly experimental retired in pairs or groups to private rooms for orgies, some with a hint of sadomasochism. This practice later lead to “flagellation brothels” where stiff-lipped high-society men subjected themselves to whippings. Still, the city’s well-off hypocritically turned up their noses at the lower classes’ vibrant prostitution trade, by some accounts worth $2 billion in today’s dollars. For 21 shillings, or only about $60 in today’s dollars, one could spend the evening with a woman found in any number of directories, like Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies.

Of course, these proclivities had a dark side for the randy upper class of Regency London, including the threat of syphilis. The only ways to avoid it were by using (and re-using) sheep-gut condoms, or through abstinence. Pox developed on the faces of those suffering from the then-incurable disease, and women took to covering their spots with black velvet or mouse skin to make them appear to be beauty spots.

Poor hygiene didn’t help. Hands and feet were washed each day, but full-body bathing, ironically considered unhealthy, happened only occasionally. Laundry was a laborious task and in most households occurred once a month, leaving wearers to rely on garb that was often crusty with sweat and foul-smelling.

Thanks to a high-sugar diet, tooth decay was commonplace, and the upper class often sought dentures plied from the poor, who were paid for their healthy teeth. Maybe even more gruesomely, after the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, teeth from dead soldiers made their way to London. One box of teeth and jawbones was valued at 100 pounds, or more than $100,000 in today’s dollars—and over one thousand times more than a night with a prostitute.

The Root of
All Evil

Walk down an ordinary street in Regency London, and one could spot the lower class toiling at menial trades, eking out a living as blacksmiths or bakers—either covered with soot or cutting flour with dust in the name of a few extra pence. The more desperate underclass resorted to burglary or drug-running to make ends meet. It was nearly impossible for a gentleman to take a stroll without meeting scores of unwashed young pickpockets eyeing his shillings.

One suitable profession for upper-class men was to work in any number of trading houses, the most prominent and successful of which was the East India Company, which imported spices, textiles and tea from China, India and beyond. But as high society enjoyed these goods, behind the scenes, the gentlemen who ran these companies were involved in brutal tactics to maintain their monopolies. They subjugated locals and plundered swaths of Asia to ensure dominance over lucrative trade routes and further line their already-full pockets.

Pickpockets, 1823

Their scheming, typified by the strong-arm tactics of Sir Stuart Strange, who runs the East India Company on “Taboo,” involved creating an East India lobby in Parliament and leaning on politicians to ease trade restrictions. They did this by wooing them with gifts of shawls and silks, just as today’s lobbyists wine and dine congressmen, and even provided monetary loans to the Treasury when the state was in jeopardy of going bankrupt.

Until 1858, the East India Company’s private armies controlled (and mismanaged) parts of India. Its agricultural exploitation led to recurring local famines—eventually prompting the British government to take over and begin colonizing the subcontinent.

The East India Company left other harmful marks on its lands. To keep peasants dependent on the land they worked, "the Company” seized two-thirds of their income in land tax. And to fund all the tea it was buying in China, the company grew opium in India and sold it to China, hooking millions of Chinese on the drug. When China attempted to ban the drug’s importation, the British responded with gunboats.