London Life in the 1790s

Frances Austin reads the lively late eighteenth century letters of a great surgeon’s apprentice to his family in Cornwall.

Descriptions of London in the late eighteenth century are common enough, but it is rare to find impressions conveyed with such immediacy and spontaneity as those of William Clift in the letters he wrote to his sister, Elizabeth, in the 1790s. Clift arrived from Bodmin in Cornwall at what was to be his London home in Leicester Square on February 14th, 1792. It was his seventeenth birthday and, by a strange coincidence, the birthday of his new master, the surgeon and anatomist, John Hunter.

Hunter had been in need of a new apprentice to assist in his dissecting room, and for writing and drawing; and young Clift was brought to his notice by an old schoolfriend of his wife, Nancy Gilbert of Bodmin Priory. Clift, the son of a journeyman miller who had died when he was nine, had left school when he was eleven on the death of his mother. Since then he had had a variety of jobs, starting in a market garden from which he was dismissed for drawing a caricature of his somewhat irascible employer.

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