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A Q&A With Poldark’s Historical Advisor

Dr. Hannah Greig, historical adivsor to Poldark, chats about the show.

October 19, 2016
Viewer note: This interview may contain spoilers. Read at your own risk. 
We are deep into the drama, romance and adventure of the second season of Poldark, the reboot of the 1970s Masterpiece hit series set on the Cornish coast in late 18th-century England. This new period drama accurately depicts the life and times of the landed gentry and the miners and peasant folk who live and work under their stewardship — good and bad. Recreating an era of Cornwall that is now over two hundred years old is a challenge for 21st century filmmakers. Historical advisor to the production is Dr. Hannah Greig, author, teacher and historian extraordinaire, who joins us today for an interview. 
Welcome Hannah…        
Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark in the Season 1 final, cliffhanger episode in 2015.

Season one of Poldark was rich with social, political and historical context. Can we expect the same attention to detail in season 2?  
With rioting, local elections and Ross on trial and facing the death sentence, the opening episode of Poldark’s second series drops us in at the deep end of late 18th century British social and political history. Winston Graham, the author of the original books on which the series is based, clearly knew his history. Whilst the characters in Poldark are fictional, the world they live in, the challenges they face, the mystifying rules of law and order they encounter, the crime and punishment they must endure, the local traditions and customary codes that shape their lives, their ambitions and beliefs are all closely drawn from 18th century realities. One of the many reasons I am now myself a committed Poldark fan is because the dramatic tensions and plot twists are characteristic of the 18th century. Winston Graham does not shy away from giving us some whopping-great history lessons, lessons sketched in vivid human detail.
Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark with his attorney in court.

Ross Poldark has been charged with several serious crimes that could result in him swinging from the gallows. Did convicted criminals always hang for a capital offence?  
In episode 2, just before Ross is led into the courtroom, another man standing trial for inciting a riot is found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The same fate would seem inevitable for Ross, too — he is being tried at the same assizes, by the same judge and jury, for the same charge, along with theft of shipwrecked goods from the shoreline and attacking a customs officer. 
Both theft and rioting were capital offences, part of what has since become known as the century’s “bloody code,” in which the number of offences subject to the death penalty quadrupled between 1700 and 1800, until over two hundred crimes were potentially punishable by death. In theory, a vast array of illegal acts, from pickpocketing a handkerchief to poaching game or fraud, might lead a man or woman to the gallows.
Thomas Rowlandson, An execution outside Newgate Prison [London]. Three bodies hang from the scaffold and the crowd gathers around. 1806

However, as the Poldark saga repeatedly explores, the harsh theory of law did not always translate to a harsh practice. Juries could be swayed. Judges and magistrates frequently showed mercy, and the public display of clemency and pardoning was as much a part of the rule of 18th century law as the threat of the gallows. Hangings were used selectively rather than arbitrarily, and even for those sentenced to death, over half ultimately avoided the gallows, through having their sentences overturned or being issued with pardons before a rope was tightened. The potential for individual discretion also meant that the rule of law was subjectively interpreted in different contexts, at different assizes by different magistrates and judges — allowing for personality as well as statues to decide an outcome. Demelza’s attempt to influence the judge, then, was not a hopeless strategy — even if Ross had been found guilty by the jury, a judge could still have saved him from the noose.
William Hogarth (British, 1697–1764). Chairing the Members From Four Prints of an Election, 1758.

We are in the midst of a presidential election here in the U.S. with antagonistic campaigns and rancorous debates. How is the political atmosphere in Poldark’s Cornwall different from today? Did everyone participate in political elections even if they didn’t have the right to vote? 
You would be forgiven for thinking that, because only a small minority of the population (propertied men) were allowed to vote in the late 18th century, politics was only for a rarefied elite. However, as we see in series 2 and elsewhere in the Poldark novels, politics was actually very much a part of most people’s lives, and elections of MPs could be boisterous, community-focused and very participatory. 
There was no secret ballot and so voting took place in public. This provided the opportunity for the wider community to exert pressure on both voters and candidates. The property qualification needed to vote was quite widely and differently interpreted around the country. In Cornwall (where 44 MPs were elected to represent the region), a tenant farmer and most ordinary businessmen might have had voting rights. Voters had to be wined and dined by candidates and the needs of their friends, neighbours and customers had to be met, before any aspiring MP could be sure of success. Election campaigns, then, often had a carnivalesque air, an air that could quickly turn dark if the community felt aggrieved. The election results were announced in public and the successful candidates would be “chaired” around the area — literally carried on a chair — in a parade to the community. At that moment, too, as Unwin Trevaunance discovered to his cost, the public could find ways to express their satisfaction or anger at the result.
Eighteenth-century politics was a form of public theatre — far more boisterous, inclusive and melodramatic than any television debate today. 
Jack Farthing as George Warleggan, the powerful and vengeful banker.

George Warleggan, the antagonist of Poldark, has become a very rich and powerful man because of his ruthless financial dealings. Ross Poldark’s banker, Mr. Pascoe, takes a different approach with more flexible means. How important was your credit rating during the time Poldark takes place?   
Money definitely makes the world of Poldark go round. Both the novels and the television adaptation deliver a weighty economic history lesson to the alert viewer, with mortgages, emerging banking infrastructures, local systems of credit, promissory notes and high-interest loans all taking center stage at various points in the storylines. 
Britain was experiencing rapid economic change at the time, cash currency was often in short supply but emerging, and expanding systems of industry, trade, shipping, production and consumption all needed money to keep them afloat. Much depended on local networks of credit and debt, on loans and trades between individuals, and on ideas of honour and credit-worthiness. Even the richest aristocrat had bills that were rarely paid in full. Instead, they paid in installments and offset large accounts with exchanges of goods in kind. Middle-class shopkeepers often extended lengthy credit to valued customers and clients whom they hoped they could rely on to make good on payments. And money-hungry investments — like mines or shipping companies — brought together risk-taking speculators operating with high-interest loans. 
There were none of the formal financial regulations that we have today. Instead, 18th century creditors depended on a very different structure to ensure that this rickety system of debt did not crumble — the debtors’ prison. Those who couldn’t pay their debts faced imprisonment, and indeed the majority of people incarcerated in prisons in the 18th century were imprisoned for debt rather than crime, a likely fate that Ross faces even though he has escaped unscathed from his assize trial.
Gabriella Wilde as heiress Caroline Penvenen.

A new character this season is Miss Caroline Penvenen. While an orphan, and at the command of her uncle, she is an heiress. Once she reaches her majority she will be under her own rule. How much freedom could a woman of rank and fortune command during this time? 
The crimson-frocked, fashionable and flirtatious Caroline Penvenen (Gabriella Wilde) is the woman you would surely most want to be if you time-travelled back to the 18th century — an heiress with an independent fortune, free — within reason — to pick a husband.
Property is everything in 18th century law and society, and few women had any rights to their own. Primogeniture meant that estates remained intact, passing from eldest son to eldest son whenever fate permitted. Daughters of landed aristocrats might enjoy sizeable dowries, negotiated to secure a suitable spouse, but women’s access to an independent fortune was a rare fortune indeed. 
Thomas Rowlandson, The Successful Fortune Hunter, 1802.

With financial freedom came certain social freedoms, and the ability to exert far greater control over marriage choices than would be possible for most other women. However, an heiress was a prime catch and there were plenty of unscrupulous men keen to snare them. The 1753 Marriage Act, which insisted on the publication of banns to make a marriage legal, went some way to protect heiresses by making it difficult for them to sneak off and marry a footman, music master or some other rogue. Yet, as 18th century caricatures, novels, newspaper clippings and scandals made abundantly clear, there were many fortune hunters keen to seduce an heiress and squander her estate.
Caroline’s situation is unique for the time. She has her fortune and her independence to choose her own fate. We shall see if she uses her new freedom wisely.
Heida Reid as Elizabeth Poldark.

In strong contrast to Miss Penvenen and her tidy fortune is Elizabeth Poldark, a recent widow and the mother of the heir of Trenwith, the deeply mortgaged Poldark family estate. Her indebtedness to George Warleggan could be her undoing. What were the prospects for a woman in her financial position during this time? Do you think Elizabeth made the right choice?
Perhaps she makes the only choice? Had she been left widowed and wealthy then her prospects would have been completely different. In those circumstances, she would have been even better placed than Caroline Penvenen, as a respectable woman of means but with no obligation to re-marry, given that there was already an heir (Geoffrey Charles) in place to succeed to the estate. With some financial resources in the bank, she would likely have been empowered — as a widow and mother of the heir — to run Trenwith (the estate’s assets and interests) herself until her son came of age. There were few other circumstances in which 18th century women were invested with such power and freedom. The bluestocking hostess and patroness of the arts, Elizabeth Montagu, is the exemplar of what Elizabeth Poldark could have been, had Trenwith been in better shape. Elizabeth Montagu inherited a vast estate from her elderly husband, which included highly profitable Northumberland coal mines which she ran as a widow for over 25 years. But the Poldark estate was no lottery win for Elizabeth. At the moment Francis dies, it is an indebted estate rather than a profitable enterprise that Elizabeth is required to manage. And yet the estate is Geoffrey Charles’ future. Shrewd financial choices would certainly be required to secure his legacy.  
Any final thoughts, predictions or hints about series 3, which is currently in production? 
Debbie Horsfield’s scripts are as lively and compelling as you’d expect and there are some really great new characters who represent yet more elements of 18th century life — including Demelza’s brothers, Sam and Drake Carne, ardent Methodists, and Elizabeth’s cousin, Morwenna, a governess (yet another archetypal 18th century female character!).  I was lucky enough to meet the new cast members in London and have a little chat about the 18th century before they started filming. I’m sure you will love them when you meet them on screen next year. 

Hannah Greig is a senior lecturer in 18th century history at the University of York. She is also an established consultant to film, television and theatre. Other credits include BBC dramas Death Comes to Pemberley and Jamaica Inn, The Duchess and a Jamie Lloyd production of The School for Scandal. She is the author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (2013). Visit Hannah at her website and follow her on Twitter as @Hannah_Grieg
Season 2 of Poldark continues on Sundays at 9:00pm through November 27, 2016 on KCTS 9.
Photo credit: Courtesy of @ ITV, plc (ITV Global Entertainment, Ltd.)



Laurel Ann Nattress

Writer, blogger, and editor of Jane Austen Made Me Do It, Laurel Ann Nattress is a champion of Georgian civility, British culture and Masterpiece PBS. Visit her at and follow her on twitter as @Austenprose

More stories by Laurel Ann Nattress

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