Why Was Straw Laid in the Streets?

© Cheryl Bolen

Recently as I was reading some letters written by Sarah, the 1st Duchess of Marlborough, she wrote (pre Regency) that she was  going to have straw laid in her street:

The place [Scarborough] was so very dirty and so noisy I am going to lay straw in the street to hinder the intolerable noise of the horses that go by my window.

I hadn’t heard of that practice since a long, long ago reading of Thackeray’s classic 1848 novel Vanity Fair, when I first became acquainted with the practice of laying straw in the streets to muffle sound. Here’s how Thackeray used it:

She had the street laid knee deep with straw; and the knocker put by with Mr. Bowl’s plate. She insisted the Doctor should call twice a day; and a deluged her patient with draughts every two hours. When anybody entered the room, she uttered shshshsh so sibilent and ominous that it frightened the poor old lady [Mrs. Crawley] in her bed.

Apparently laying straw in the streets was a common occurrence in England’s cities.

Here’s what nineteenth century novelist Ellen Wood wrote on the subject in her serialized novel, The Shadow of Ashlydyat, that was published between 1861 and 1863:

For some distance on either side; ankle-deep down Crosse Street as far as you could see, lay masses of straw. As carriages came up to traverse it, their drivers checked their horses and drove them at a foot-pace, raising their own heads to look up at the windows of the dwelling; for they knew that one was lying there hovering between life and death.

The solemnity spread through the town, and Wood later wrote:

Knockers were muffled; bells were tied up; straw, as you hear, was laid in the streets; people passed in and out [of the bank], even at the swing doors, when they went to transact business, with a softened tread … and asked the clerks in a whisper whether Mr. George was yet alive.

Later, in 1889, English poet Amy Levy also used straw in the streets to impart imminent death in her poem, “Straw in the Street,” in her collection, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse:

Straw in the street where I pass to-day

Dulls the sound of the wheels and feet.

’Tis for a failing life they lay

Straw in the street.

Here, where the pulses of London beat,

Someone strives with the Presence grey;

Ah, is it victory or defeat?

The hurrying people go their way,

Pause and jostle and pass and greet;

For life, for death, are they treading, say,

Straw in the street?


From what I gather, wealthy people regularly exercised such a practice during run-of-the-mill illnesses, not just for those terminally ill.  One assumes the practice came to a halt with the advent of . . . the rubber tire! 

Many thanks to English doctoral student Chloé Holland for her research on Wood and Levy. – Cheryl Bolen, whose final book in the Lords of Eton series, Last Duke Standing, can now be ordered, prior to its Jan. 15 release.

Treasure Houses of England: Blenheim Palace

Note: Cheryl will be writing about the ten Treasure Houses of England. These are selected for their grandeur of architecture, furnishings, landscape, and historical significance.

 ©Cheryl Bolen

Blenheim Palace was built between 1705 and 1722 to honor John Churchill (1650-1722), 1st Duke of Marlborough for his victory over the French at Blenheim (Bavaria) in 1703. Churchill had previously married Sara Jennings (1660-1744), a lady in waiting to Queen Anne, the monarch who gave them the royal park at Woodstock and authorized the construction of a palace there.

Sara Churchill, Douchess of Marlborough

The architect of Castle Howard, Sir John Vanbrugh (who had no training as an architect), designed the baroque palace, with assistance from Sir Christopher Wren’s top assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor. It was Vanbrugh’s intent the palace be a monument, castle, citadel and private house – in that order. The last room to be completed, the long library, was not finished until ten years after the 1st Duke’s death.

Though she preferred plain and cozy, the 1st Duchess threw her heart into the palace’s completion to honor her beloved husband – perhaps the only person with whom she did not fight.

By special dispensation of Parliament, the title passed to John and Sarah’s daughter, Henrietta, because their sons had died of smallpox before reaching adulthood. Upon Henrietta’s death, the dukedom passed through the son of her sister, who had married Charles Spencer. The old duchess Sarah’s private fortune passed to the second Spencer grandson, who became the 1st Earl Spencer (Princess Diana’s ancestor).

The 7th Duke of Marlborough (1822-1857) was Sir Winston Churchill’s grandfather.  Winston Churchill (1874-1965) said the two most significant events in his life occurred at Blenheim: He was born there, and he proposed marriage to Clementine Hozier there.

The 9th Duke (1871-1934) bolstered the family’s sagging fortunes in 1895 when he married Consuelo Vanderbilt of the American railroad fortune, who brought $2.5 million (about $75 million today) into the marriage. Both bride and groom were forced into the marriage for reasons other than love, and the marriage that produced two sons ended in divorce in 1921. The duke and duchess quickly remarried others.

Today, Blenheim Palace is the principal seat for the 11th duke and his wife.


Blenheim lives up to the claim it is “Britain’s Greatest Palace.” The baroque palace is not only one of England’s 10 Treasure Houses (selected for grandeur of architecture, furnishings, landscape, and historical significance), but has also been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Blenheim’s massive scale

Constructed of ochre-colored stone and topped with several graceful turrets, the central, u-shaped block opens onto a massive courtyard of which the grand, pedimented entry is the focal point. Wings on either side of the entry are connected by curving links. Visitors enter the great hall – the magnificence of which redefines that venerable English room. This great hall soars to 67 feet and features three towering tiers of arches, culminating in an upper tier of arched windows that flood the room with light.

Blenheim’s library

There’s a painted ceiling featuring the 1st Duke in Roman garb, and opposite the entry Corinthian columns support a huge arch that trumpets entry into the saloon, another vast stone room with elaborate marble door casings.

On weekdays visitors are taken on a guided tour of the public rooms, which include the 180-foot long library, the red drawing room and the green drawing room, the green writing room, and state rooms hung with tapestries commemorating the 1st Duke’s battles.

The room in which Winston Churchill was born is also displayed, along with a self-guided Churchill exhibition. Visitors may opt to take a tour (about 45 minutes) titled The Untold Story, which uses talking portraits and special projection technology to tell the history of the house.


Pick a pretty day to come here and plan to stay until dusk exploring the 2,100 acres. Children will enjoy taking the train from just outside the house’s main entrance to the Pleasure Gardens, which include mazes, a Blenheim Bygone exhibition, putting greens, giant chess game, kitchen and cutting gardens, and an adventure play area.

But the main attraction here is the Capability Brown landscape commissioned by the 4th Duke in 1764 and completed 10 years later. Brown created the lakes on either side of Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge that had been built over the Glyme stream. A circular walk around the Queen’s Pool takes 45 minutes; another circular lakeside walk to the rose gardens also takes 45 minutes. A one-hour walk brings visitors to the rose garden and the Secret Garden (tropical) as well as across broad lawns. Two of the walks sweep past the Temple of Diana where Winston Churchill asked Clementine to marry him.

In addition to picnic areas, there is one restaurant at the Pleasure Gardens and another adjacent to the Water Terraces.

From the house’s grand entry, one can look straight ahead, past the Vanbrugh Grand Bridge to see the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s 134-foot high Column of Victory.–By Cheryl Bolen, whose next Regency-set romance novel, Miss Hastings’ Excellent London Adventure, comes out soon.

What Regency Gentlemen Knew

It is difficult for those of us in the twenty-first century to possess the knowledge our Georgian heroes possessed. As members of the aristocracy, they had studied with private tutors since the age of four or five. They were fluent in Latin and most could read Greek. They knew the ancient scholars as well as contemporary boys know baseball and football. Regency-era gentlemen spoke French as well as they spoke their native tongue. Most of them had undertaken the Grand Tour throughout Europe, and many had ventured as far away as Turkey, India, or Egypt.

Few of us today connect with the ancient Greeks and Romans as did those in Georgian England.

But it is now possible to — without laboring for years over Greek and Roman classics — to gain a cursory understanding of the knowledge our heroes possessed. For there is a succinct “cheat sheet” readily available on the internet.

This cheat sheet (actually about 90 pages) is an appendix of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to Son, which has been digitalized by Google.

Cheryl prefers print. These are two of her volumes of Lord Chesterfield's letters, one of which dates to the Regency.

Cheryl prefers print. These are two of her volumes of Lord Chesterfield’s letters, one of which dates to the Regency.

The entire collection of the peer’s letters, edited by Oliver H. Leigh in 1901, is available by linking from Google’s home page, to the second page, then clicking on books.

The letters to Lord Chesterfield’s illegitimate son and only offspring were published upon his lordship’s 1773 death and were widely read.

To compensate for the disadvantages of the boy’s birth, the father attempted to give the boy every advantage he could in education and spent years writing long epistles to the poor lad, instructing him in every phase of deportment.

What is especially useful to those of us who write about the era is the information contained in the last section of the work, the appendix, “Juvenile Section.”

These letters covered the decade ending when the boy was fourteen. In them, Lord Chesterfield provides instruction from which most of us can profit.

The Trojan Wars — which raged for ten years and which are treated in millions of words elsewhere — are encapsulated into a couple of pages by Lord Chesterfield’s ability to simplify into descriptions readily comprehensible to a young boy.


Likewise, Lord Chesterfield explains the founding of Rome and the chronology of its early rulers. He does the same for the history of England, giving a brief paragraph to each English ruler, as well as to the island’s earliest inhabitants. For example, “The Romans quitted Briton of themselves; and then the Scotch, who went by the name of the Picts (from pingere to paint), because they painted their skins…”

The juvenile letters also list the twelve provinces of France and briefly tell what the capital city is of each and what the province is noted for. He similarly describes Asia, Germany, and many other geographical regions so that the modern reader (us) will have the same knowledge of 18th century geography that our heroes and heroines would have had, ie., “Indostan, or the country of the Great Mogul, is a most extensive, fruitful, and rich country. The two chief towns are Agra and Delhi; and the two great rivers are the Indus and the Ganges. This country, as well as Persia, produces great quantities of silks and cotton; we trade with it very much, and our East India company has a great settlement at Fort St. George.”

Here is another example: “The Lord Mayor is the head of the city of London, and there is a new Lord Mayor chosen every year; the city is governed by the Lord Mayor, the Court of Alderman, and the Common Council. There are six-and-twenty Alderman, who are the most considerable tradesmen of the city. The Common Council is very numerous and consists likewise of tradesmen…The Lord Mayor is chosen every year out of the Court of Aldermen. There are but two lord mayors in England; one for the city of London, and the other for the city of York. The mayors of other towns are only called mayors.”

Lord Chesterfield stresses that such knowledge as he is imparting to his son cannot be found in books, nor can it be studied in school. Because of his book of letters (never intended for publication), now we can profit from his vast knowledge.