Rue de la Blanchisserie (Brussels)

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From 1814 until April 1818 Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond and his family lived in an eighteenth century mansion in a street near the Blanchisserie de la Fontaine in Brussels (the laundry was situated close to a fountain). The Duke was in command of a reserve force that was protecting the city from an invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte. The mansion, located at no. 23 Rue de la Blanchisserie, was an elegant but simple building with six rooms, a hall and a staircase. There were two floors, an attic and a large basement. To the left of the main entrance had been a workshop with the Richmonds initially transformed into a playroom for the children and subsequently into a ballroom.

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It was there that three nights before the Battle of Waterloo the Duchess of Richmond gave a ball where many officers of the allied English, Prussian and Dutch armies (including the Prince of Orange) were invited. A majority of Europe’s military and diplomatic elite gathered together under one roof – if Napoleon had known about this history would have taken an entirely different course. The occasion inspired various artists. Robert Hillingford captured the splendour of the occasion in his painting ‘The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball’. Thackeray made dramatic use of the event in his novel Vanity Fair. But it was Lord Byron who recorded the occasion in the most colourful terms.

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In the section of Childe Harold which is entitled ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ the poet related the events that took place on the night before the Battle of Quatre Bras which was fought on 16 June 1815 as a preliminary of the real Battle of Waterloo two days later. With the ball at its height a messenger brings word to Wellington that Napoleon is advancing towards Brussels. The news comes as a shock on a festive occasion that, until that fateful moment, had been all smiles and sparkling white teeth:

Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro,
And gathering tears, and trembling of distress,
And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago
Blushed at the praise of their own loveliness

Neither Thackeray nor Byron attended the ball, but they were the two writers who turned that night into the most glittering ball in history.

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The night of 18 June 1815 was a momentous one. After twenty-three years of war in Europe, Napoleon faced the combined might of the allied forces at Waterloo. When the battle was over, the French were defeated and 50,000 men lay dead or wounded on the field of slaughter. Waterloo lifted the spirit of the British. It soon became an indispensable topic in the poetry of Walter Scott, Robert Southey or William Wordsworth. This was inspiring and uplifting verse giving the notion of Britishness a new dimension. Waterloo became the attraction par excellence for the emerging tourist industry, a must for everyone to see. Little interest was shown in Flemish culture itself. Even Rubens was judged to be vulgar and coarse (read Rossetti, Thackeray, Henry James, Ruskin and others). Wellington was hailed as an English hero in spite of the fact that he was born and raised in Ireland and educated in Paris. In 1816, Lord Byron stayed briefly in Brussels. He visited the battlefield at Waterloo and told the story in the third canto of Childe Harold. The poet had been preceded by a stream of other visitors.

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Landscape painter Robert Hills made his way to the battlefield in the summer of 1815. He produced a series of sketches there which formed the basis for fifty-three aquatints which were published as Sketches in Flanders and Holland (1816). Hill emerges as a curiously dispassionate observer of the aftermath of the bloody battle. Young Newman Smith had undertaken the journey to Flanders for health reasons, hoping that the sea trip would improve his weak constitution. When in Brussels, he heard of Bonaparte’s surprise advance and even ran into the Duke of Wellington. Smith promptly resolved to travel to the scene of battle. He arrived there at its immediate aftermath. Walking among the dead and dying, he picked up a ‘tolerably good cuirass’ from the field, only to be forced by a Brussels gendarme to return it. It is an early account of our obsession with violence and the instruments of torture. Smith published an account of this visit in his Flying Sketches from the Battle of Waterloo, Brussels, Holland &c, in June 1815 (although the book was not published until 1852).

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By strange coincidence, All Smiles is a family dentistry in Waterloo, New York. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries people dreaded losing their teeth. The toothless had sunken cheeks and looked old before their time. Replacement teeth were traditionally made from ivory (hippopotamus, walrus, or elephant) which deteriorated quicker than real teeth. More costly dentures were made with an ivory base and then set with real human teeth. The biggest purveyors of teeth were the resurrectionists who stole corpses to sell to medical schools. A set of teeth was one of the perks of the job. Even if they dug up a body too far gone for the anatomy lesson, they could still sell the teeth. Unfortunately for some unlucky recipients, syphilis and tuberculosis were unknowingly transmitted into their mouths from infected donors. When the fighting at Waterloo ended, night was closing in. Battlefield scavengers flitted from corpse to corpse, gathering up weapons and looking for valuables. The final act of desecration followed. They pulled and pocketed any intact front teeth. As a result, the sudden flood of teeth onto the market was enormous. Dentures made from second-hand teeth acquired a new name – Waterloo teeth. Far from putting clients off, this was a selling point. Better to have teeth from a soldier killed in battle than those plucked from the jaws of a decaying corpse or a hanged person. Apparently, Waterloo teeth still appeared in dental supply catalogues of the 1860s.

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