Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Penny Dreadfuls

If literacy rates are to be measured by one's ability to sign the marriage register (a somewhat dubious premise at best) then between 1840 and 1900, the rate of literacy increased from somewhere between half and two-thirds to around 97 per cent. There can be little doubt that literacy did increase dramatically during Victoria's reign and this can be attributed to a variety of factors; two of which were the movement toward and the expansion of popular education on the one hand, and the increasing availability of cheap reading material on the other.

Education for the lower and labouring classes in England was provided in the early years of Victoria's reign from a variety of non-government sources, and although it improved through her reign, the main thrust of what little was available emphasized such values as social conformity, knowing one's place, and subservience to one's betters. In 1870, the movement towards widespread, inexpensive mass education finally culminated in the passage of the Elementary Education Act, sponsored by W. E. Forster. This provided elementary education in England and Wales and a decade later, in 1880, schooling was made compulsory until the age of ten. While a great many children managed either to evade the acts, attend on only the the most irregular basis or leave school as soon as it was legal to do so, such schooling meant that the number of readers in the working classes was increasing. A new "class" of readers was being formed, the barely-literate. For these, as Richard Altick points out,

Because they possessed virtually no general information, their reading matter had to be devoid of all but the most familiar literary and historical allusions; they could not be expected to waste time puzzling over any more recondite kind. And because their attention spans were short, they needed a running supply of excitements, brief and to the point, and sentences and paragraphs to match.
The Victorian Era saw a revolution in publishing and particularly in works for the mass market. Improving works and religious tracts were produced in comparatively large numbers and were aimed at the lower end of the reading market. With the success of Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836 as a serial, it became clear that the market for "books" could be increased when they were sold in monthly installments. The greater demand, coupled with the reduction in printing costs meant that it was possible to supply the new market at a lower per-book cost.

Newspapers saw the abolition of the newspaper tax in 1855, and in 1861 the duty on paper. Thus, while The Times continued to sell, its dominant position was threatened by the increasing number of penny dailies (The Times continued to charge 3d until 1870). Even so, even the papers entering the market continued to appeal to a more educated class, at least until the 1880s when the impact of Forster's Education Act began to be felt. Sir Robert Ensor, in his magesterial Oxford History of England volume for the years 1870 to 1914, notes that the Education Act taught millions how to read, "without teaching them what to read." By the end of the century, the Evening News and the Daily Mail were directing their appeal to the newly literate working classes.

And it was at this class, the barely-literate, that the literary pap, whether in the form of cheap newspapers or Penny Dreadfuls was aimed. Its appeal extended beyond this class, however, reaching even the illiterate who would gather around a reader to hear the latest installment from the pen of (among others) the prolific author, G. W. Reynolds.

Penny Dreadfuls were inexpensive novels usually filled with violent adventure or crime and issued in installments. It was a popular genre, giving way, as literacy expanded to adventures aimed at a juvenile population. In their heyday, the Penny Dreadfuls (sometimes called "bloods" or "shilling shockers") were produced en-masse. The reader could be titillated with such titles as "Vice and its Victims," "Wagner the Wehr-Wolf" or "Varney, the Vampire" although perhaps the most famous of all, the tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street was rather more innocuously entitled, "String of Pearls: A Romance." Such works were liberally sprinkled with lurid illustrations and certainly appealing to the Costermongers according Mayhew.

What they love best to listen to - and, indeed, what they are most eager for - are Reynolds's periodicals, especially the "Mysteries of the Court."
"The Mysteries of the Court of London" which ran from 1848 to 1856 was Reynolds' sequel to "The Mysteries of London," his long running serial first published in 1844.

While most critics have treated the Penny Dreadful with disdain, there have been those who have been prepared to admit to a liking for this genre; even to its value. Noteworthy was G. K. Chesterton who described his taste in reading as:

one which I am prepared in a rather especial manner, not only to declare, but to defend. My taste is for the sensational novel, the detective story, the story about death, robbery and secret societies; a taste which I share in common with the bulk at least of the male population of this world. There was a time in my own melodramatic boyhood when I became quite fastidious in this respect. I would look at the first chapter of any new novel as a final test of its merits. If there was a murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I read the story. If there was no murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I dismissed the story as tea-table twaddle, which it often really was.
He then goes on to declare that any “literature that represents our life as dangerous and startling is truer than any literature that represents it as dubious and languid. For life is a fight and is not a conversation.” Certainly the Penny Dreadful more than fulfilled these criteria!

There are numerous examples of the penny dreadful available on line. Click on the titles below to either download or read on-line the book named.

To download Wagner the Wehr-Wolf in text format click here.

To download Varney the Vampire in text format click here.

To read Vol. 1 of The Mysteries of London online click here.

To read The String of Pearls, the famous story of Sweeny Todd, online, click here.

To read G. K. Chesterton's comments on the Penny Dreadfuls click here.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

It’s all in your head: Phrenology and the Victorians

Phrenology, the pseudo-science based on the belief that by examining the shape of a subject’s head, one can determine various traits of character and intelligence was based on the work of the Viennese physician Franz Josef Gall. Popularized in England by Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, it reached its zenith in the latter years of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century before falling out of fashion.

Phrenology returned as a popular “science” in the middle and later years of the Victorian Era. Its popularity was so great that it even became the subject of lectures and classes amongst the working classes at the Windsor and Eton Mechanics’ Institution in the latter years of the 1830s.

From the middle years of the century forward, it gained in popularity despite an increasing debunking of it by the medical profession. Many phrenologists dabbled in a wide range of “alternative” therapies. When Samuel Adcock was murdered near Leicester, towards the end of June 1854, one of the suspects, Frederick Ashton, who claimed to be from New York, had

been lecturing on phrenology at Leicester for about six months, and he also professes to cure all sorts of diseases by means of flannel bands charged with electricity.
There were those, of course, who took it seriously or at least felt that it might possibly be a fruitful line of medical inquiry. Rev. Baden-Powell, father to the founder of the scouting movement, and Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, deplored the violence of the debates surrounding phrenology. He argued that this had “divested of its true philosophic character what ought to be simply a branch of inductive inquiry,” and went on to argue in From the Order of Nature Considered in Reference to the Claims of Revelation published in 1859, that

Calmly viewed, it exhibits only a set of the most unexpected relations, at first collected and examined in the most purely empirical manner, in complete absence of any theory; out of which, by slow degrees, a system has been elicited, of which it can only be said, that at present it exhibits just that sort of rough, general coherency which, in spite of numberless objections in detail, gives an assurance of something too deeply seated in truth to be put down as mere random coincidence or fanciful delusion.
Even so, there were many who felt that phrenology had been adequately tested and had failed. Thirty years earlier, in March of 1829, writing in the Edinburgh Review, Lord Macaulay described Phrenology as “laughable.” And by 1855, John Hilton, the foremost anatomist of his day, was combating the doctrines of this pseudo-science, “adducing many anatomical objections to prove the fallacies on which it is based.” Nonetheless, the medical profession was certainly not in full agreement as to the usefulness or even the theoretical structure of Phrenology. And while some treated it with disdain, it was not to fall fully into disrepute until well into the twentieth century.

Phrenology was often seen as a joke by Victorians. Light theatrical pieces tended to use it and practitioners were seen as either charlatans or dupes. In 1841, at the Strand a new piece, The Bump of Benevolence, appeared and while the review suggests it had little to do with phrenology, the title is clearly an allusion to it. In 1848, the Lyceum put on Astounding Phenomena, in which one of the main characters is a pseudo-professor of mesmerism and phrenology. In 1867, Tide and Time, A Tale of the Thames, offered viewers at the Surrey Theatre a trial in which an itinerant Professor of Phrenology saves the day (at least temporarily) for our heroine albeit not through any phrenological methods. Phrenology often played a peripheral role in theatrical pieces, and tended to be associated with itinerant “professors,” an association which surely carried with it a certain stigma.

Even as late as 1899, Phrenology could still be seen as a theatre piece. In the musical comedy, Florodora, for example, a song entitled “Phrenology” was described by The Times as “capital”.

Although it is easy to dismiss Phrenology, it was, of course, taken quite seriously by many. In the Tichborne trial, for example, Mr David Wilson, who told the court that he was a physician with a diploma from the Edinburgh College of Surgeons, testified that

he was chiefly engaged in examining the defendant’s brain—that is, he explained,his phrenological development. He believed, he said, firmly in phrenology.
Scientists, however, remained divided on the question of phrenology and it continued to be a subject of some interest. According to The Times of 24 February 1887, at a meeting of the Anthropological Institute (Francis Galton in the Chair) a paper was presented by Professor David Ferrier on the subject of the functional topography of the brain.

He expressed his belief that in the present state of our knowledge the data of a scientific phrenology were still very deficient. Here was reason to believe, however, that if the subject were taken up from different points of view by anatomists, physiologists, psychologists and anthropologists, great progress might be made.
Considering Ferrier’s brilliant career in neurology and neurosurgery, it is difficult to see such a statement as little more than damning of phrenology with faint praise on the one hand or a willingness to accept the name but not the discipline. In fact, he had made his position quite clear three years earlier when, in speaking to the British Association meeting at Bradford in September of 1873, he commented, that

The great work now to be done was to further ascertain the exact scientific localization of the different faculties by examining scientifically the convolution of the brain a work which Gall had begun, but which unfortunately he left off for the more unsatisfactory science of phrenology.
In the popular arena there seems to have been no shortness of practitioners and few if any requirements for one to put up one’s shingle. George Burgess, for example, on his 70th birthday on 12 June 1899 wrote in his diary that

since January 1861 I have been practising Phrenology in the Arcades, Bristol. But my deafness since 1871 has greatly interfered with my pleasure, and my profits, in my work.
Burgess’ formal education was limited for, as he notes, he “finally left off schooling about age 14, a poor scholar”. Although he trained as a stone-cutter and was apprenticed to a marble works in the United States, he enjoyed Phrenology, describing it as “fairly profitable, and … a real good and useful profession.” It is possible that while in the United States Burgess was influenced by the phrenologists, Orson Squire Fowler and his brother, Lorenzo.

Lorenzo Fowler was to later open offices in London where he performed a phrenological examination of Mark Twain. Some time in 1872 or ’73, the ever sceptical Twain visited Fowler’s establishment using a pseudonym. He found Fowler indifferent and the reading so balanced in terms of his strengths and weaknesses as to amount to nothing in the end. One surprise, however, was to be told that he had a cavity where a bump should have been and this was an indication that he lacked a sense of humour!

By the early 1900s, much of the theory of Phrenology had been replaced by the nascent work of psychotherapists like Sigmund Freud whose work was beginning to impact on theories of the mind as well as by the increasing study of the brain itself.

To download George Combe, A System of Phrenology (1837), all 664 pages, click here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Madame Rachel: Beautiful for Ever


In the 1860s, it was not uncommon to find advertisements on the front page of The Times for a book on beauty by one Madame Rachel. The book, more of a pamphlet at only 24 pages, was published in 1863, and could be purchased at 47a New Bond-Street. Available to the discerning buyer for only 2s. 6d. it was entitled Beautiful for Ever, and, according to the advertisement, was a book "on Female Grace and Beauty." Certainly Madame Rachel had no lack of imagination when it came to describing her products! Such "puffery" was not unique, nor was it limited to the beauty products available for women. The Gentleman's Magazine, in December, 1863, ran a half-page advertisement for Rowlands' products; calling its Macassar Oil, "a delightfully Fragrant and Transparent preparation ... an Invigorator and Beautifier beyond all precedent." Its Kalydor, which was a skin preparation for women, was "unequalled for its rare and inestimable qualities" not to mention "the radiant bloom it imparts to the Cheek."

The 1860s was a decade in which beauty was increasingly seen as a commodity. The design of the commodity was based on those who were considered the beauties of the age. Morality had little to do with this as Skittles, one of the great courtesans of the nineteenth century, was widely admired and imitated by all classes of women. It was to those who sold "beauty" that many women turned, hoping to improve their chances, whether of marriage or of entering into a satisfactory liaison, by improving their looks.

Madame Rachel, or Sarah Rachel Leverson, was born in 1806. She claimed that she entered the beauty business as a result of having her head shaved when she was hospitalized with fever.

This greatly distressed her, for she was very proud of her ... fine flowing locks. ... The medical man ... told her ... that he would give her something that should make her hair grow rapidly and be more beautiful than ever.

When, according to the story, this product worked, Madame Rachel began using it to colour grey hair and soon expanded her claims to her ability to remove wrinkles and generally to cheat the ageing process. It was particularly this reversal of nature's ageing process that had great appeal. The products sold by Madame Rachel and her ilk were of a most dubious nature. They promised much and great claims were made for their ingredients as well as their efficacy. In reality, however, most were simple concoctions, sometimes dangerous, but certainly unlikely to live up the the extravagent claims made for them. All through the nineteenth century goods were adulterated and so-called "beauty aids" were not an exception.

Among the many "beauty" products offered by Madame Rachel were such delights as "Circassian Beauty Wash" and "Magnetic Rock Dew Water of Sahara, for removing Wrinkles;" the former for a price of one guinea and the latter for two guineas. A bottle of "Jordan Water" could be purchased for from ten to twenty guineas and something called "Venus's Toilet," for the same price.

Madame Rachel was, however, much more than a "beautifier." She was certainly a confidence trickster and various sources suggest she was a brothel keeper - or at least a provider of accommodation for sexual activities - as well. Much of the information on Madame Rachel comes from the newspapers where her criminal activities were well covered, a contemporary work, The Extraordinary Life and Trial of Madame Rachel, made up largely of reports in The Times, and a rather scurillous work, History and Trial of Mdme Rachel or, Beautiful for Ever, a penny pamphlet. Certainly Madame Rachel was well enough known to serve as the model for Madame Sara in the first part of a story by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace "The sorceress of the Strand" which appeared in the Strand Magazine for October 1902. In it, Madame Sara is described as

A professional beautifier. She claims the privilege of restoring youth to those who consult her. She also declares that she can make quite ugly people handsome. ...This woman deals in all sorts of curious secrets, but principally in cosmetics. Her shop in the Strand could, I fancy, tell many a strange history. Her clients go to her there, and she does what is necessary for them.

The great music hall performer, Arthur Lloyd, reflected the interest in the 1868 trial with his song, Mrs. Mary Plucker Sparrowtail, in which the eponymous lady goes to a beauty shop run by Madame Brachel where she tells us,

I paid her a couple of thousand and got my pick,
Of the most beautiful requisite cosmetic,
Prhaps you'll think me a lunatic,
Talking to you in this way.
She said a great Duke had fallen in love with me,
This was the truth, and the truth she could prov' to me;
Very soon he was introduced to me,
And adored me from that day.

In August of 1868, Sarah Rachel Leverson, aged 43, was charged with unlawfully obtaining 600 pounds from Mary Tucker Borradaile by false pretences. In addition there was a further charge of conspiring to defraud Borradaile of 3,000 pounds. After listening to the evidence, the Jury retired but was unable to reach a verdict after five hours and was discharged. The following month, Madame Rachel was again placed on trial. The retrial allowed the further evidence to be brought forward.

Mary Tucker Borradaile, according to her own testimony, was the widow of a Colonel and had been married for twenty-two years, six of which were spent in India with her husband. She had first met Madame Rachel in 1864 and had purchased some of her products. She continued over the next several years to visit the shop and buy beauty products until, in 1866 Madame Rachel "suggested a mode by which she could be made 'beautiful for ever,' asking for £1,000 for making her so." Clearly to encourage Mrs Borradaile to do so, Madame Rachel told her that a particular nobleman, Lord Ranelagh, was in love with her and would marry her. The sorry fraud took its course; Lord Ranelagh denying he had ever "authorized her to use my name in any way as representing a desire or intention on my part to marry Mrs. Borradaile." It was a story about exchanges of letters in false names, money obtained under false pretences and a confusing body of contradictory evidence.

In the end, the jury believed that Mrs. Borradaile had been the victim of a scheme by Madame Rachel to obtain money by false pretences. A sentence of five years penal servitude was passed on Sarah Rachel Leverson. Apparently she did not learn her lesson, but went back to the "beauty" business. She was to appear at the Old Bailey ten years later where she was once again convicted of fraud and sentenced to another term of five years penal servitude. Sarah Rachel Leverson, Madame Rachel to the beauty trade, died, still in prison, in 1880.

To download a copy of The Extraordinary Life and Trial of Madame Rachel At the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, London, 1868, click here. A list of her extraordinary products (and their prices) can be found on pp. vi-vii.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Threading Cleopatra's Needle

Cleopatra's Needle on the Victoria Embankment

On the Victoria Embankment in London, passed by millions of pedestrians every year, is an Egyptian obelisk known as Cleopatra's Needle. One of three, the other two are in New York and Paris, it is made of red granite and stands 68 feet tall. Passerbys occasionally stop and look at it or take a photograph for their album, but few would know the dramatic story of how the 180 ton monolith came to be erected in London, far from its original home.

The obelisk was presented to the United Kingdom in 1819 by Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Egyptian Viceroy, to commemorate the Battle of the Nile in which the British, under Nelson, defeated the French Fleet in August 1798; and the victory of the British under Sir Ralph Abercrombie over the French in March 1801 at the Battle of Alexandria. Although the British government graciously accepted the gift, it refused to pay for the transportation of the massive obelisk to London; a cost estimated at around 5,000 pounds. In fact, as early as 1801 plans had been put in train to bring Cleopatra's Needle to London but they had been dropped when it was feared that the removal of the artefact would offend the Turkish authorities.

In the 1830s, the matter was still very much in the public eye. According to W. R. Wilde in Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, (2d ed. 1844),

Captain T. C. Head, who, in 1833, brought this matter strongly before the public, adds, 'that twelve years had elapsed since the notification was made, and the Needle of Cleopatra remains in its neglected state.' There seems to be a disregard of courtesy, as well as of policy, in not accepting the offer of a grateful prince.
Exactly what was to be done with the gift was a topic of popular discussion in the 1850s. Mr Punch himself, in 1851, seemed to delight in playing word games with the obelisk. At one point, he expressed his view that there seemed

some difficulty in getting the public to have an eye to Cleopatra's needle, which is, nevertheless, valuable, on account of its connexion with the thread of history.
There was, however, more serious discussion in the House of Commons in 1852 about it being brought to England by the proprietors of the Crystal Palace newly relocated in Sydenham.

It was to be brought at the proprietors' expense but the Government reserved the right, should the Crystal Palace not prove as popular as expected, to take possession of it on the payment of the Proprietors' expenses. Toward the end of the decade, Charles Dickens's All the Year Round, was expressing the view that something needed to be done. The Needle belonged to England and should be brought home! Nonetheless, it was not until the mid-1870s that serious efforts were made to bring the obelisk to England.

At a dinner party at the home of the well known artist, Edward A. Goodall, John Dixon, an engineer, proposed that the Needle be brought to England by private means. Not long after this, Erasmus (later Sir Erasmus) Wilson offered to fund the project. Wilson was a highly successful dermatologist interested in Egyptian antiquities and a man of varied and widespread interests.(1)

The Pontoon "Cleopatra"
The plan that was settled on for getting the obelisk to England revolved around the placing of the Needle in an iron cylindrical pontoon, 95 feet long and with a diameter of 15 feet. It had a draft of 9 feet, a displacement of 270 tons and with internal supports at ten foot intervals and elastic packing to secure the obelisk from shocks, it was well designed to take and transport the enormous "Needle." The pontoon had a rudder at its stern and a small deck house on top of the cylinder which allowed the steering of the "Cleopatra" as the pontoon was named. The deck house could house a small crew. In addition, although it was to be towed by steamer to London there were two small sails which were designed to steady the pontoon.

By 1877, The Illustrated News could tell the public that the

obelisk of ancient Egypt, which has been left lying so long half buried in the sand at Alexandria, is now about to be made an ornament to the city of London.
There were a few, not unexpected, problems.Very rough weather enroute from Alexandria to Gibralter was sufficient reason for the Captain of the Steamship Olga to decide that it was prudent to put into Algiers for coal. After setting out again, the Olga once more ran into bad weather. On Sunday, 13 October 1877 in a force 7 to 8 gale in the Bay of Biscay, the "Cleopatra" had to be abandoned . In an attempt to rescue those on the pontoon, a boat with six crew from the mother ship was swamped and all six lost their lives. The men are commemorated on a bronze plaque attached to the foot of the needle's mounting stone. Eventually Captain Booth was able to get the Olga next to the pontoon and rescue Captain Carter and the five remaining crew aboard "Cleopatra" which was abandoned and presumed lost.

Within a few days, however, and despite a pessimistic assessment from Captain Carter, the Cleopatra was found floating comfortably in the sea some distance off Ferrol, a coastal town in northwest Spain. On Friday, the 19th of October, The Times reported the receipt of the following telegram from Lloyds.

Ferrol, Oct. 18, 10.50 a.m.

The "Fitzmaurice," steamer, from Middlesbrough for Valencia, fell in with and recovered at sea the Cleopatra's Needle recovered Cleopatra's Needle, 90 miles north of Ferrol.
Less than a month later, at 7.00 a.m. on Tuesday, 15 January 1878 in fine weather, the Cleopatra resumed its voyage to England in tow behind the paddle tug, Anglia. the great obelisk arrived in the Thames estuary six days later, as debate raged over a permanent location for the needle.

Finally, on Friday, the 15th of February, the Board of Works approved a site on the Thames Embankment at the Adelphi Steps. By the middle of September, the obelisk had been erected and within a month, the site had been cleared of all the material used in the erection of the needle. There it still stands, passed by millions of pedestrians every year of whom few, if any, know its true story.

To download a copy of James King, Cleopatra's needle : a history of the London obelisk, with an exposition of the hieroglyphics (1883), click here.

(1)For further information on Wilson and particularly his involvement with Turkish Baths, click here or go to Malcolm Shifrin's wonderful website at http://www.victorianturkishbath.org.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Wet Nursing in Victorian England

Morisot, The Wet Nurse (1880)

In recent years there appears to have been a resurgence in "cross-feeding," the practice of breast feeding of infants by other members of the family than the mother. Although often differentiated from "wet nursing," where the nurse was an outsider hired to breast feed, the principle of using the non-maternal breast is much the same. There is no question that wet nursing has been widely practiced in a great many cultures including Victorian England. In 1863, The Medical Times and Gazette, noted that in cases where it was inadvisable to give the child the breast, "amongst the higher classes who can afford to have a wet nurse, a good one should at once be procured." It went on to caution, however, that "amongst the lower orders the child should be fed, in great part, 'upon the bottle,'" even though this was not as satisfactory a method as wet-nursing but certainly "much more desirable than the exclusive use of the deteriorated milk of the mother."

Two major issues surrounded the question of wet-nursing. First, was whether or not it was desirable, in a general sense. when the mother was capable of breast feeding and, second, the question of safety; was the milk from a wet nurse, often unknown to the family, safe. A number of other issues were raised during the century, many of which revolved around questions of social class behaviour. For if one believed that the lower and labouring classes were unclean, immoral and animalistic one had to ask why a healthy woman capable of breast feeding, would turn to a wet nurse.

Assuming the need or desire for a wet nurse, the safest way to acquire such an employee was through a Lying-in Hospital. The Times regularly carried advertisements. Typically, Queen Charlotte's Lying-in Hospital advertised in March of 1888 that "wet nurses [could be] promptly supplied on application to the Matron," and the General Lying-in Hospital in York road, Lambeth advertised in the last year of the century, on 4 September, that "Wet Nurses ... can always be obtained on application to the Matron." In addition wet-nurses were sometimes available through the workhouses. According to The Times of 15 October 1836, in some workhouses, when a woman was admitted and gave birth, the parish officers would, after the birth, recommend them "as wet nurse, which is their usual mode of providing for unfortunate persons of this kind."

One of the foremost critics of the system of wet-nursing in the middle years of the nineteenth century was the Rev. Sydney Godolphin Osborne described in the Dictionary of National Biography as "a militant and controversial philanthropist." A frequent writer to The Times, he was well known under his signature, S.G.O. and held the living at Durweston in Dorset. On 4 September 1852, his letter "the Wet-Nurse System," was published in The Times. In it he attacked the wet-nursing system on the grounds that it was destructive of the lives of the children of the wet-nurses. He quoted the registrar of the rectory sub-district of Marylebone who, in his return to the Registrar-General, pointed out that in the month of August he "registered the deaths of 19 children under one year old," and then went on to write that most of them were "brought up by hand" and amongst the number "some of them were illegitimate."

The mothers obtain situations as wet-nurses, and their own offspring are left without any one to take proper charge of them. The food given is often improper, and it is irregularly administered. Usually in about four or five months death occurs, literally and truly for the want of nature's own nutriment--breast milk.

The deaths of the infants born to women who became wet nurses were not always simply a lack of care or nutrition. There was always the suspicion that it might have a secondary monetary rationale. An article in The Times of 18 January 1849, dealing with Burial Clubs, reports stories about wet nurses enrolling their own children in multiple burial societies in order to profit from deaths brought on by illness and lack of nutrition while their mother wet nursed another woman's child. Worse still were those cases where a wet nurse would enrol the nursing infant in one or more burial societies.

Of great concern, too, was the question of the transmission of disease, and particularly venereal disease from the wet-nurse to the baby. As it was not uncommon for a wet nurse to be the mother of an illegitimate child, there were constant questions about their morality. In the 1860s, when the treatment of the disease was still a subject of much speculation, The Medical Times and Gazette, explored the possibility of the communication of syphilis from a wet-nurse to an infant. What seems to have been overlooked, however, was the possibility of the transmission of syphilis from a baby to a wet nurse. David Kertzer, in Amalia's Tale, writes about the legal fight of an Italian peasant woman for justice after she contracted the disease from a baby she was wet nursing. Although she won the case, during the years in which it was fought, Amalia Bagnacavalli lost her own little girl to syphilis, her husband contracted the disease and her pregnancies ended with the death of the newborn either at birth or shortly thereafter. One cannot help but wonder how frequently this pathetic tale was repeated in England in the nineteenth century.

Moralists often concerned themselves with the notion that a wet nurse, having borne an illegitimate child, was living in the lap of luxury. A Mr H Turner, a chemist, writing in The British Journal of Homoeopathy in 1857, summed up the prevailing attitude when he described the wet nurse as one

who generally turns out a nuisance in the house, barely endurable. If the nurse has lost her own child of nearly the same age as the one she is engaged to suckle, her health good, and all parties satisfied, then nothing can be said against the arrangement; but if her own offspring is living, and if it has to be taken from her, and deprived of its own proper nourishment, an unnatural and cruel wrong is inflicted on the poor helpless and innocent sufferer; and if, as is often the case, the selected nurse is a mother but not a wife, the encouragement to immorality is so direct and positive, as to be shrunk from by all right minded persons, and vice is rewarded with a good home, good living, and little or no work.

It is a view echoed by the Rev. Sydney Godolphin Osborne when he said he did "not know which to rate highest, the cruelty or the immorality to which the wet-nurse system offers so liberal a premium."

Even Mrs Beeton who is more than fair-minded and balanced in dealing with wet nurses expresses her concern that there are always those amongst them who "are too often both selfish and sensual, performing, without further interest than is consistent with their own advantage, the routine of customary duties."(1) Mrs Beeton then goes on to describe at some length what a prospective employer should look for in selecting a wet nurse. And, once selected, it was necessary, according to Mrs Beeton, to watch the wet nurse like a hawk.

There are two points all mothers, who are obliged to employ wet-nurses, should remember, and be on their guard against. The first is, never to allow a nurse to give medicine to the infant on her own authority: many have such an infatuated idea of the healing excellence of castor-oil, that they would administer a dose of this disgusting grease twice a week, and think they had done a meritorious service to the child. The next point is, to watch carefully, lest, to insure a night’s sleep for herself, she does not dose the infant with Godfrey’s cordial, syrup of poppies, or some narcotic potion, to insure tranquillity to the one and give the opportunity of sleep to the other. The fact that scores of nurses keep secret bottles of these deadly syrups, for the purpose of stilling their charges, is notorious; and that many use them to a fearful extent, is sufficiently patent to all.

Such concerns seemed not to bother those who, for whatever reason, used wet nurses; and those who chose to do so were amongst the highest in the land. Certainly Queen Victoria did not breastfeed her children. An 1858 Anecdotal Memoir of the Princess Royal, justifies this decision on grounds of the Monarch's busy schedule.

State duties and Court requirements ... did not permit one in so exalted a position as Her Majesty to devote herself to this delightful task, at least with that unremitting attention which the health of the babe rendered necessary, and therefore, though deeply to Her Majesty's regret, a wet nurse was appointed.

Just how dissapointed Victoria was is, of course, open to speculation since apparently she chose not to breast feed any of her children. What was good enough, however, for the Monarch was certainly good enough for her subjects and wet nursing continued all through Victoria's reign and beyond.



(1)Isabella Beeton, Book of Household Management (London: 1861), para 2436.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Greatest Show on Earth - And all for a Shilling

The Great Exhibition Hall, The Crystal Palace


On a cloudy and mildly threatening first day of May in 1851, Queen Victoria arrived at the Great Exhibition to a tumultuous welcome. Attired in a dress of pink watered silk, brocaded with silver and decorated with pink and blonde ribbons ornamented with diamonds, she wore a head dress of diamonds and feathers and on her arm, the Order of the Garter. Her entrance to the building was marked with a flourish of trumpets while those in the audience waved hats and handkerchiefs. In the words of The Times, the "whole scene presented was one of unusual splendour."

The Report of the Proceedings of the Royal Commission was read, in part, and presented to her Majesty by His Royal Highness, Prince Albert. The Queen responded enthusiastically, expressing her "greatest satisfaction, " and noting that she had
"observed with a warm and increasing interest the progress of your proceedings in the execution of the duties intrusted to you by the Royal Commission." She went on, not surprisingly, to express her "sincere gratification to witness the successful result of your judicious and unremitting exertions in the splended spectacle by which I am this day surrounded."

Butr what else could the Queen say? This was the great triumph of her beloved Albert's efforts. it was new, it was exciting. Writing to her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, on 3 May, she described her feelings and emotions. It was, she told him, the "greatest day in our history, the most beautiful and imposing and touching spectacle ever seen and the triumph of my beloved Albert." It was, she goes on to say, "the happiest, proudest day in my life."

Despite waxing ecstatic over Albert's contribution, she managed a few snide digs at his detractors.

Albert's dearest name is immortalised with this great conception, his own, and my own dear country showed she was worthy of it. The triumph is immense, for up to the last hour the difficulties, the opposition, and the ill-natured attempts to annoy and frighten, of a certain set of fashionables and Protectionists, were immense; but Albert's temper, patience, firmness, and energy surmounted all, and the feeeling is universal. You will be astounded at this great work when you see it! The beauty of the building and the vastness of it all, I can never thank God enough. I feel so happy, so proud.

In the six months that the Great Exhibition ran, Victoria visited it frequently. But so too did many of the great and fashionable. Charlotte Bronte visited it five times. Writing to her father on 30 May, she described her attendance at a lecture by Thackery and then went on to describe her first impressions of the Exhibition, and particularly the "look" of the Crystal Palace.

The exterior has a strange and elegant but somewhat unsubstantial effect. The interior is like a mighty Vanity Fair. The brightest colours blaze on all sides; and were of all kinds, from diamonds to spinning jennies and printing presses, are there to be seen. It was very fine, gorgeous, animated, bewildering.

Nonetheless, she went on to tell her father that she "liked Thackeray's lecture better." But as time wore on and visit followed visit, she became more enamoured of the Great Exhibition. In a later letter, Charlotte wrote to her father, "I must say I was more struck with it on this occasion than at my first visit. It is a wonderful place - vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. ...It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created."

Not everyone was enthralled with the amazing glass structure. Pugin called it "a glass monster" and advised Paxton to limit his building to greenhouses. Ruskin complained that its contents were trivial and Thomas Carlyle compared it to a "big glass soap bubble."

During the 141 days that the Exhibition was open to the public, it played host to six million visitors. Once it ended, London would never be the same again. Consider, for example, one small businessman in Knightsbridge, not far from the site of the Crystal Palace. A wholesale grocer from Stepney took over a small shop hoping to cash in on the Great Exhibition. And "cash in" he did. Charles Harrod built his shop into a thriving retail business which by 1880 had over 100 employees. Another fortune was made by Schweppes which sold 85,000 dozen bottles of soda water, almost one-half of its sales for the year, at the Great Exhibition. This was in addition to the half-ton of tea and six tons of coffee they provided to service two refreshment courts (such as the one on the left) for which they were suppliers.

Of those who visited the Great Exhibition, the great majority were British and had come from every place in the British Isles to view the Crystal Palace. For many, it was the first time they had come to London and the cost, both in money and time was to make it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Special trains brought visitors from all over the country. Thomas Cook ran tours from Yorkshire and the Midlands and in the the short period of the Exhibition he carried more than 150,000 excursionists to London and back. Indeed, so significant was the business that he even promoted his tours with a newspaper, Cook's Exhibition Herald and Excursion Advertiser. it was a unique and fascinating experience for the visitors to see the wonders of the world gathered in the great glass and iron building which seemed so to dominate Hyde Park. But if what was inside the building fascinated, it was the structure itself that captured the imagination. Not only was it one of the most incredible construction projects ever undertaken, it required the development of new methods of construction and it contributed to, if it did not create, the process of mass production of interchangeable parts. Just one example of the new technology that was required can be seen on the left, a sled pulled along the guttering in order to expedite the insertion of the glass panes into the building. The building was never meant to be more than a temporary structure, yet it became one of the architectural wonders of the nineteenth century; an example of what could be done with iron and glass and imagination.

Despite the litany of complaints as the building was being erected, mostly from those who believed they should be profiting from it, the one criticism which can, fairly, be laid at the building’s feet was its lack of cohesion. Inside, the wonderful straight lines which captured the eye and drew it onward and upward were compromised by busy, rounded art works totally out of place; not to mention out of time. While the era demonstrated progress in power, architecture and construction in the sciences, the arts languished. there was too much of too little and that "little" was all too often the fancy doo-dads so popular in the age of ornamentation. It was as if anybody who thought they had something to exhibit could show it at the Great Exhibition. John Lienhard, of the University of Houston summed it up.

The power of the exhibition lay in the engineering of the building. Victorian art and design lumbered on, ponderous, off-the-wall, and slightly claustrophobic. It was Victorian engineering that laqy its hold on our imaginations. The simple truth was that engineering was the major art of the middle 19th century. The Crystal Palace itself, not its contents, was the art here.

In the end, the Great Exhibition ended more with a whimper than a bang. For almost a year after the Exhibition closed, the building remained with nobody quite sure what should be done with it. It had, after all, been meant as a temporary structure. It had served its purpose and now it was time for it to go - or so Prince Albert thought. Finally, on 29 April 1852, the House of Commons agreed. The building had to be torn down or removed. In just over a fortnight a company was formed and the public was invited to subscribe to a plan to move the great building to Sydenham Hill in Norwood, just south of London. In what must have been one of the most monumental moves of all time, the building was taken down glass pane by glass pane, column by column, and moved by horse and dray to its new location. 400 tons of glass and 4,000 tons of iron were dragged up the hill by horse and cart. A 15 ton, 50 year old palm tree was purchased along with an enormous amount of greenery to go into the reconstructed building and the three-storey tall palm tree was dragged up Sydenham Hill on a special wide-wheeled transporter pulled by 32 horses. And so it stood, the new Crystal Palace, larger than the one in Hyde Park. It was to remain an outstanding landmark until 1936 when it burned down.

To view or download The Industry of Nations as Exemplified in The Great Exhibition of 1851, click here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

America Comes to London: Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show

On 14 April 1887, the steamship, State of Nebraska entered the Thames and anchored at Gravesend fourteen days after leaving the United States. Despite a rousing send-off with, according to Colonel William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody, thousands there to see the travellers away, the voyage was not easy, with headwinds for much of the trip. But what made this trip unusual was its passengers including nearly 100 native Americans (See image on right). The weather was cold when they arrived in England, there had been snow earlier in the day, and the Indians wrapped themselves in their blankets to greet officials from the American Exhibition.

The newspapers were enthralled with the arrivals who made up a part of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show," describing them as "the selected representatives of several nations, including the Sioux, the Cheyennes, and the Pawnees." The chiefs were "reserved and dignified," while the men were "of the highest type of physical humanity, and apparently possess[ed]all the traditional calm associated with the Indian character." Indeed, the "Noble Savage" had come to London which was about to be taken by storm. But the most popular person in the show was Colonel William F Cody, Buffalo Bill, himself (Seen on the left).

Many of the animals which were a part of the show were also new to Europe, and there were more than 160 horses which were to take part under the direction of Cody or "Buffalo Bill" as he was better known. The animals and cast members of the disembarked at Albert Dock from where they went by train to the American Exhibition at West Brompton which was scheduled to open at Earl's Court in May. The American Exhibition had been in preparation for three years and was a privately funded project with one-third of the capital coming from English sources and the remainder from American investors. The "Wild West" show was to be the centrepiece of the exhibition, having "attained unexampled popularity" in the United States. As The Times pointed out on 27 April,

Its great object is to illustrate the wild life of the Western frontier--its Indians and cowboys, its buffalo-huntings and cattle-ranches, its pioneering and its horsemanship, its dangers and its joys.
The next day, on the 28th of April, William Ewart Gladstone and his wife came to the American Exhibition grounds to see the progress being made and especially to visit the Indian campsite. Although it was supposed to be an informal visit, word had been circulated and the workmen on the site received them warmly, while the band of the Wild West Show played, Yankee Doodle. Gladstone was introduced to one of the Indians, Red Shirt, whom he asked "if he liked the English climate." Red Shirt apparently replied with considerable forbearance considering the short time he had been in the country, that "he had hardly had sufficient experience to be able to say." Gladstone then went on to ask Red Shirt if he "thought there was that cordial relationship between the two great sections of the English-speaking race--the people of England and of the United States--that there ought to be between two nations that were so much akin." One can only imagine Red Shirt's thoughts when he replied that he "did not know much about that." It is not difficult to see why Queen Victoria complained that Gladstone always addressed her "as if ... [she] were a public meeting."

But the Wild West Show was only one part of the Exhibition. In addition to Buffalo Bill and his show there were displays of American products and American ingenuity. It was to be an "attractive and instructive exhibition," but despite the reports in the paper it was clear the the central attraction was going to be Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show scheduled to officially open on 9 May. On the 5th of that month, the Prince and Princess of Wales with a party which included members of the Royal Household and a number of other members of the nobility including the Crown Prince of Denmark were treated to a private showing which included the first complete performance of the show on English soil. The guests watched from the Royal Box, duly draped with the English and the American flags.

According to The Times of 6 May, the performance lasted for more than ninety minutes and included

Colonel Cody's throwing of the lasso and shooting at glass balls thrown in the air by an attendant riding by his side, both horses going at full gallop. ... Buck Taylor, king of the cow boys[sic], picked his handkerchief from the ground while riding at full gallop, and also in the same way picked up a rope attached to a runaway horse.
Cody, who had been nervous about the special performance was more than satisfied with the result. He recorded that

the Indians, yelling like fiends, galloped out from their ambuscades and swept around the enclosure like a whirlwind.

The effect was instantaneous and otherwise electric. The Prince rose from his seat and leaned eagerly over the front of the box and the entire party seemed thrilled effectually by the spectacle.
The Prince of Wales was particularly impressed by the shooting of the two young women, Annie Oakley and Lilian Smith congratulating them on their skills. But the high point of the performance was the series of attacks by Indians on a wagon train, a stage coach and a settler's hut and the "gallant rescue in each case by a company of scouts under the command of Buffalo Bill." At the end of the performance, the Royal Party was given a conducted tour of the campsite.

The afternoon of 9 May saw the opening of the American Exhibition and even with the admission set at one guinea, The Times estimated the number of spectators attending at around 28,000. In addition to the Wild West show, the exhibition itself was an attraction. As The Times noted,

The grounds of the exhibition were also an attraction to thousands, the toboggan-slide and the switch railway being extremely popular as long as light lasted. At nightfall the grounds were illuminated in every part with innumerable coloured lamps and Chinese lanterns, while Mr. Dan Godfrey's band provided the necessary music.
Two days after its opening, on 11 May, the Queen herself visited the American Exhibition for a private showing of the Wild West Show. This was all the more remarkable since Her Majesty did not go to events, rather she had them come to her at Windsor. But, as Cody noted, the show

was altogether too big a thing to take to Windsor Castle, and as in the case of Mahomet and the mountain, as the Wild West could not go to the Queen it became absolutely necessary for the Queen to go to the Wild West, if she desired to see it, and it was evident that she did.
The show went according to plan although there was one remarkable event. As the American flag went past the Royal Box, carried by one of the horsemen from the show, "her Majesty arose, bowed deeply and impressively to the banner, and the entire court party came up standing, the noblemen uncovered, the ladies bowed and the soldiers, generals and all, saluted." Needless to say, the Americans were overjoyed. The continuing large numbers at the show were indicative of the good press it received and probably the fact of the Queen's attendance. After the performance, Buffalo Bill was presented to the Queen who, according to The Times of 12 May "expressed herself as greatly pleased" and went on to tell him that "she only regretted that her time was so limited and she would like to come again."

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the Wild West Show as Queen Victoria. While the behaviour of most of the troupe was exemplary, there were, of course, exceptions. Late in July, Jack Ross, a member of the show, was charged at the Thames Police Court with being drunk and wilfully breaking a plate glass window at the Old House Revived public house. A few days later, in early August, Richard Johnson, billed as "The Giant Cowboy" at the Wild West Show, was charged with assault, including that of two police constables, one of whom had to be hospitalized.

A more serious complaint was laid about the same time by an artist living near Earls Court. He sought an injunction restraining the defendants (the Wild West Show) "from causing a nuisance of noise and smell." He argued that the shouting of the performers and the roars of the crowd, including the sound of the brass band was excessive and the smell, particularly in the hot weather, of the horses and buffaloes was overwhelming. Affidavits and counter-affidavits were offered, and it was argued that the noise could not possibly be any worse than that caused by "the no less than 476 trains [that] daily passed within 50 yards of the plaintiff's house."

In August and September, the millionaire and Circus Entrepreneur, George Sanger, found himself in Court as a result of using "Buffalo Bill" and "Wild West." His defence was, to say the least, disingenuous. His lawyers argued that there was no intent to refer to either Cody or his show, but Cody's solicitor quickly pointed out that

the defendant proposed to publish with the words pictures, being exact copies of the plaintiff's pictures, the same expression of horror on the driver's face, and the real Buffalo Bill, in a blue shirt, riding up to the rescue of the mail.
Sanger was warned that to publish the pictures would put him at serious risk, although "His Lordship considered the programme, standing alone, as unobjectionable, and discharged the order and directed Mr. Sanger to pay the costs of the application." In October, Sanger agreed to a perpetual injunction keeping him from using the words "Buffalo Bill" and "Wild West," but that was in the same month that Cody's great show was closing. It had played to a total audience of over 1,000,000 people and its popularity was so great that it was to return in 1892 and in 1903/04 to once again thrill British spectators.

To download and read Buffalo Bill's autobiography, click here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Case of the "Growler" and the Handsome Hansom

A Hansom Cab

For many of us, especially those living in the "colonies", our introduction to the Hansom cab came as we first read the works of Dr John Watson about his sometime companion Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This is neither the time nor the place to explore the relationship between the two men or their involvement with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the well known literary agent for John (or was it James?) Watson. Rather such speculation should be left to those pseudo-scientists who delight in the name of "Sherlockians." Ours is a more serious business, to consider that most famous mode of transportation in the Victorian Era, the Hansom cab.

During Victoria's reign, two types of "hired" transport dominated the streets of London. The first of these was a four-wheeled vehicle, the Clarence or the "growler" (pictured left)which acquired its nickname as a result of the noise it made when driven over the cobblestoned streets. A closed, four-wheeled carriage, it was glass-fronted and seated four passengers in relative comfort. It was a popular vehicle holding more passengers and baggage than the hansom cab and for this reason was often found at railway stations. Indeed, so popular was it that as Mrs Beeton notes in 1861, "the family carriage of the day being a modified form of the clarence adapted for family use."

It was the two wheeled hansom cab, however, that was the most popular public vehicle of the century. Although named for its inventor, the coachbuilder Joseph Hansom (pictured right), the design of the cab which dominated the London streets was that of John Chapman. In many ways it was the ideal vehicle for moving through the crowded London streets quickly. The body was light enough to be pulled by a single horse and with only two wheels and a low centre of gravity could safely turn on a sixpence. Speed, coupled with maneuverability meant that the hansom cab could steer through the traffic jams so common in later Victorian London.

The driver of the hansom cab sat on a raised seat above and behind the passengers compartment. Two passengers could ride with reasonable comfort in the cab and a third might be squeezed in if necessary. Passengers spoke to and paid the driver through a trap-door in the roof which also provided a degree of security for the driver who had control of a lever used to release the doors once the fare had been paid. The reins used to control the horse at the front of the cab ran over the roof of the vehicle which meant that the only part of the horse visible to the driver was its head.

It is not surprising that our image of the Hansom cab is somewhat fogged by time. Comfortable, they were not, nor were they particularly clean. In the early days, with their open fronts, the passengers were likely to get wet if it rained or have to deal with whatever the horse's hooves threw up from the road. Later, they had folding half doors which protected the passengers' legs. Mr Udny Yule, in proposing a vote of thanks to a speaker at the Royal Statistical Society in 1936, took the ocassion to comment on London as he had known it as a boy. Among his observations was a comment on "giving unintended hospitality to a hungry flea picked up on some growler or hansom cab," which he went on to note "was not exceedingly rare." It was certainly a case for Keating's Powder, a well-known product advertised in the '80s with the lines: "Keating's Powder does the trick/Kills all Bugs and Fleas off quick".

Drivers of Hansom cabs were often before the courts for drunkeness and abusing or injuring their passengers or pedestrians. To cite only one example, from The Times of 12 April 1882.

At MARYLEBONE, ROBERT COOMBER, 38, hansom cab driver, was charged with being drunk and furiously driving his cab, thereby causing damage to the extent of £4 to another cab and seriously injuring Mrs. Elizabeth Griffin. ... On Monday night about half-past 11, the prisoner, who was intoxicated, was seen driving his cab at a very fast rate ... on the wrong side of the way. He was shouted to, but took no notice, and after going some 600 yards he came into collision with another cab, and the shaft of his cab struck Mrs. Griffin who, with her husband, was in the damaged vehicle. She was picked up senseless and was taken to a doctor's where it was found that she was seriously injured. During the night she only recovered consciousness for a few minutes. Her husband also received a severe shock.
Small children playing in the streets were particularly vulnerable. Only six weeks later two little boys, one sixteen months old and the other four and a half years were killed by horse drawn vehicles; the latter by a hansom cab.

Although the Hansom Cab continued in use until well into the twentieth century, its popularity waned and within the first decade of the new century it was being reported that "'London's gondola,' the hansom cab, has had its day, and the future is with the taximotor."

What amounts to an official recognition of the fact is to be found in a new police regulation on the subject of cab whistles. Hitherto one blast has signified a call for a hansom, two blasts meant a four wheeler, or 'growler,' and three were required to summon a taximotor.

Now this is all changed by a regulation issued by the Chief Commissioner of Police and the 'taxi' takes the place of honor, the hansom going down, and the 'growler' being last in order. Henceforward one whistle summons a 'taxi.'
But there are still those of us who believe, as the yellow fog settles over London, that we can hear the footsteps of Holmes and Watson as they race towards a Hansom and in the ghostly stillness we can still hear Holmes' strident voice, "Come, Watson, come. The game is afoot."

There are numerous tales which involve hansom cabs. Here are two you might find of interest.

"The Adventure of the Hansom Cab," by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of the stories in the compilation New Arabian Nights which can be downloaded by clicking here.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, an Australian Novel (1886) by Fergus Hume can be downloaded by clicking here.

And of course, there are all those Sherlock Holmes stories!


Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Bridge Over the River Tay

Bridge Before the Disaster


Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Almost everyone would be familiar with the work of William Topaz McGonagall (pictured on the right). And among the very worst of his appalling output was The Tay Bridge Disaster! But while we laugh at McGonagall, we need to remember that there was, indeed, a terrible catastrophe when the railway bridge over the river Tay collapsed in 1879. Opened in May of the year before, it was the first rail bridge to cross the river and, with a length of two miles, was the longest bridge in the world. A single rail track ran the length of the bridge and the first crossing, by train, was on 26 September 1877.

The bridge, designed and built by Civil Engineer Thomas Bouch, was officially opened at the end of May 1878 after having been inspected and approved for use by the Board of Trade. It had taken six years to build and of the 600 men who worked on it, 20 or just under three and one-half percent lost their lives during construction. The Times of 8 June, in a report from Edinburgh on the official opening, noted that "Fragile as its appearance is, however, there is no doubt of its thorough stability."

Just a year after its opening, on 20 June 1879, Queen Victoria crossed the bridge on her return to Windsor from Balmoral. The Royal train arrived at Tay-bridge Station at 6.00pm and after the usual ceremonial niceties, including the presentation of Mr and Mrs Bouch to Her Majesty,departed at 6.05, crossing the bridge at a reduced speed of fifteen miles per hour "to allow the Royal visitors to enjoy the magnificent view." On 24 June, only three days after the Queen's return to Windsor, a short notice appeared in The Times.

The Queen has been graciously pleased to confer the honour of knighthood upon Mr. Thomas Bouch, C.E., chief engineer and projector of the Tay Bridge.
Six months later, and only three days after Christmas, on the night of 28 December, a heavy gale swept over the Dundee area as the train from Edinburgh made its way toward the city. The train was due to arrive at 7.15 after crossing the Tay Bridge but while the train was still crossing the river, the bridge collapsed, taking the train into the water far below and an estimated 75 passengers to their death. No survivors were found and only 60 bodies were recovered. First reports to The Times, filed at midnight, reported:

It is believed that the train is in the water, but the gale is still so strong that a steamboat has not yet been able to reach the bridge.
The train had rolled onto the bridge at 7.14 and appeared to be progressing normally when "sudenly there was observed a flash of fire. The opinion was that the train left the rails and went over the bridge."

When it was found that telegraphic communication between the north and south ends of the bridge were broken, the station-master and the locomotive superintendent walked out onto the bridge despite the fierce gale. They saw a gap in the bridge and realized that the bridge was down in part although they initially believed the train had crossed over the broken area before it had given way.

Reports continued to filter in through the night. By 1.30 in the morning there were thousands pf people at the Tay-bridge station and it was remembered that in October of 1877 during construction of the bridge, one of the girders was blown down during a gale and a workman had been killed. Two and a half hours later,it was reported that the portion of the bridge that had fallen into the river

consisted of several of the large superincumbent girders at the central and navigable portion of the river, which is on an average from 40ft. to 45ft. deep. The train would fal a distance of 88ft. before reaching the water. Some time elapsed before the nature of the accident was ascertained. Roberts, an official, walked along the bridge a certain distance, and then crawled till he came to the great chasm, when he was that the 13 girders had gone, and that nothing was left but the iron piers which had supported them. Smith, a station-master, went along in the same manner from the other end, and also saw that the girders had gone, thereby corroborating the statement of Roberts.
Initial estimates of the number of lives lost were as high as 300, although the final figure generally agreed upon was 75. As in the case of any great tragedy, all sorts of "experts" wrote to The Times to explain how and why the accident occurred. On 31 December, "The Thunderer" published letters from E. R. Robson, F.R.I.B.A., F.S.A., Architect to the School Board for London; J. D. Shakespear, The Scientific Club, Savile-row, W.; Charles B. King and a correspondent who signed himself as "Slow and Sure." Each pointed out deficiencies in the building of the bridge which would, accordingly, explain the accident. Another nine letters were published during the week, and then a few more as the initial shock wore off.

On 30 December 1879, The Times summed up the story.

All that will ever be known of the terrible calamity at the Tay Bridge is probably known, and it is sadly little. The huge gap, some three thousand feet in length, in the structure, the broken or dismantled piers left standing in the stream, and the motley wreckage washed ashore from hour to hour are the only evidence of an unexampled calamity. No one clearly saw the disaster. none have escapeed to tell how it occurred. A trail of fire and a sudden shower of sparks seen for a moment from the shore were the sole signal made by the train as it shot with a multitude of human beings into the abyss below.
The Report of the Court of Inquiry ordered by the Board of Trade was issued on Saturday, 3 July 1880, just over six months after the accident. It noted imperfect workmanship and changes in the specifications that would, in general, have weakened the structure. Nonetheless, it pointed out that during the inspection in February of 1878, "six locomotives coupled together, each weighing 73 tons, [were caused] to pass over the bridge at a speed of 40 miles per hour." Everything seemed fine at the time although it was recommended that a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour should be set as a limit, "not to be exceeded." But perhaps the most interesting finding to come out of the Inquiry was the statement made at the time of the inspection that the Inspector, General Hutchinson, "should wish, if possible, to have an opportunity of 'observing the effects of a high wind when a train of carriages is running over the bridge.'" A number of weaknesses in the bridge were identified but in the end the Report found

That the fall of the bridge was occasioned by the insufficiency of the cross bracings and its fastenings to sustain the force of the gale on the night of December 28, 1879, and that the bridge had been previously strained by other gales.
Mr Rothery, the Wreck Commissioner issued a separate report in which he wrote,

I apprehend that, if we think that blame attaches to anyone for this casualty, it is our duty to say so, and to say to whom it applies. I do not understand my colleagues to differ from me in thinking that the chief blame for this casualty rests with Sir Thomas Bourch, but they consider that it is not for us to say so.
As a result of the Inquiry, Bouch was released from his job with the Edinburgh and Northern Railway and died in disgrace at the end of October 1880, his ill-health undoubtedly exacerbated by his vilification at the Inquiry.

An exhibition for the 125th anniversary of the disaster, containing original "news" sketches and much, much more can be found by clicking here.

To see an 1880 ballad about the disaster, click here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Victorian Vegetarians

While modern vegetarians with an interest in the past may well know that a diet excluding meat has a long and honourable history, most of us tend to believe it is a fad of the middle years of the twentieth century. Those who think back as far as the beginning of the last century will remember that George Bernard Shaw was an advocate of vegetarianism but are still likely to think of it as a diet choice. The reality is that there has always been much more to it than that. Certainly in the nineteenth century, for some practitioners at least, it had a more radical sub-text. Before the nineteenth century the main argument for a vegetarian diet was the moral one. By the middle years of that century the organized movement seemed increasingly to be centered around a romantic sentimentality.

Health was one of the great obsessions of the Victorians. There were frequent and devastating outbreaks of disease during the Queen's reign. If it wasn't influenza, it was typhus, if not typhus, then cholera. And if that wasn't enough, there was always the possibility of acarlet fever or typhoid.

We can clearly see two streams of thought in support of vegetarianism. The first is medicinal, arguing that a diet which excludes meat is better for the health and more likely to help in the avoidance of certain types of disease as well as having curative properties. The other, even amongst medical practitioners, is essentially a moral argument that it is immoral to kill and eat animals.

The earliest reference to the term, "vegetarianism" is cited as 1851 in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and was found in Robley Dunglison's, Medical lexicon; A dictionary of medical science where it is described as "a modern term, employed to designate the view that man..ought to subsist on the direct productions of the vegetable kingdom and totally abstain from flesh and blood." However, "vegetarian" to refer to one who engages in this diet has many earlier examples of usage. In the earliest years of Victoria's reign, in 1839, the actress Fanny Kemble was commenting that if she had to do her own cooking she "should inevitably become a vegetarian."

While there has always been a degree of antipathy between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, it seems that both groups believe that the vegetarians are taking a position on the higher moral ground. This is evident when as early as 1854 Hugh Miller, in his Schools and Schoolmasters, argues that "a man can scarce become a vegetarian even without also becoming in some measure intolerant of the still large..class that eat beef with their greens, and herrings with their potatoes." And by 1885, one writer noted that "even those who used animal food themselves came to think of the vegetarian as one who lived a higher life."

Of course those who were meat-eaters; to use a term which seems to carry less odium than those used by the more radical Vegetarians, argued just as strongly that it was healthy to eat meat. In addition they frequently argued that meat eating was an economic necessity. An editorial in The Times on Christmas Day, 1850, begins, "the laws of the human economy demand that we should consume animal food." The author then goes on to point out that the animals that will grace the Christmas table are subjected to terrible conditions and argues for the amelioration of these and the improvement of sanitary conditions under which the slaughter takes place. Frequently vegetarians argued that it was possible to have a better, and certainly cheaper, diet when one excluded meat. On the 24th of December 1878, William Gibson Ward, writing to The Times as "the oldest Vice-President of the Vegetarian Society" argued just this point and included a simple recipe for lentil soup which he described as "the cheapest and best soup, pleasant, nutritious and wholesome." But somehow, considering it was Christmas Eve on which the recipe was published, one is left with the distinct impression that most people would be having a traditional Christmas dinner. Five years later, on 7 December 1883, T. R. Allinson wrote to The Times arguing the lower cost of a vegetarian diet and its greater health benefits.

Those who supported the more radical view of vegetarianism often tied it to man's inherently warlike nature. A report in The Times of the fifteenth annual meeting of the Vegetarian Society on 5 September 1862, indicated that

a lengthy report was read, which stated that in one phase of the vegetarian question popular feeling and opinion had been upon the whole decidedly adverse, and that, as with other beneficial movements, its progress had been retarded by the present position of warlike and military preparations. While men were engaged in encouraging, without compunction, and even with studied delight, the destruction of human life produced by war, it was useless to expect any consideration towards the lower orders of animals.
By the 1870s, the battle lines appear to have been more clearly drawn. At the 1874 meeting of the Vegetarian Society, one speaker used terms like "blood-lappers" and "patronizers of slaughter-houses" to refer to those who ate meat. But even in their own meetings, Vegetarians clearly did not always have it their own way. At the same gathering, a gentleman was invited to the platform where he protested the language used.

He empatically repudiated, as an Englishman, the statement that he was a "blood-licker." He ate beef and mutton ; and if he had been one of the 5,000 who were fed by the two fishes, he should never have refused the food which the Lord gave to His people. He might be wrong ; but he must say that after what he had heard in favour of vegetarianism that night, he left the meeting less inclined to become a vegetarian than when he entered to room.

Anna Kingsford, in the 1880s, clearly reflected a similar view. Kingsford was a spiritualist, an anti-vivisectionist, a Theosophist and a Vegetarian. In 1872 she became the owner of The Lady's Own Paper and in 1880 after passing all of her medical examinations in France wrote, as her thesis, "De 'l'alimentation végétale chez l'homme" later published in English as The Perfect Way to Diet. In a lecture given at Girton College in 1882, she accused "the modern advocates of flesh-eating and vivisection" of "making ... the practice of the lowest in the scale of Nature the rule of the highest, and abasing the moral standard of mankind to the level of the habits of the most dangerous or noxious orders of brutes." Clearly Kingsford was speaking not as what today would be described as "a health professional," but rather as an advocate of particular social doctrines.

G Yeates Hunter probably gave the view supported by most Victorians. He wrote,

It is very far from my purpose to depreciate the value of vegetables, but I would caution the public against being led away by the outpourings of a fervid imagination, which mixes up in a hotch-potch and bears away in its wondrous flight thrones lentils, game preservers, and haricot beans. However, I think the common sense of your readers would rather tend to set them against a form of food or character of diet which would seem to heat the brain and produce such fevered effects.
To read about Anna Kingsford in the Archives of the Vegetarian Society of the UK, click here
A description of Victorian vegetarian restaurants and their menus can be found in the middle of the page reached by clicking here.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Victorian Funerals and Mourning

Victorian funerals were big business. Indeed, there were funerals pitched at all levels of society. At their most elaborate, they could bring even the great metropolis to a standstill. When the Queen's Consort, Prince Albert, died, the whole of the realm went into mourning. Not only were church bells tolled throughout the land, many churches held special services and shops in many towns were closed. When the Duke of Wellington died, more than 65,000 people came to see him lying in state. On the day of the funeral itself, the bells in the Tower Hamlets were tolling at minute intervals throughout the day and, according to The Times, ninety percent of shops were completely closed and the remainder partially so.

That the funeral business was an excellent trade can hardly be doubted. One writer in Leisure Hour in 1862 describes the business as extortionate.
In numberless instances the interment of the dead is in the hands of miscreants, whom it is almost flattery to compare to the vulture, or the foulest carrion bird. . . the morality is, in their hands, to use a plain word, robbery.
The bereaved were often led into spending more than was either necessary or desirable and paying inflated prices for no purpose other than to increase the profits of those in the industry. But not everyone profited from a funeral. When a funeral became a major event, it had ramifications for tradesmen as well. A linen-draper, writing to The Times (4 June 1830), noted that when King George IV took ill, his very successful trade in "coloured silks, prints, ribands, and every kind of fancy and coloured goods" had stopped and he went on to say that "all my hopes are blighted." Three weeks later, the King died and a period of general mourning was declared which lasted 45 days. When the period of general mourning was brought to a close, on 11 August, it was "evidently . . . dictated by a considerate regard to the injury which the manufacturers . . . sustained by the event." Again, on the death of the Duke of Wellington letters appeared in The Times (24 September 1852) pointing out the impact a period of mourning would have on trade, and with the death of Queen Victoria, the Secretary to the Drapers' Chamber of Trade, wrote to The Times (26 January 1901) to suggest that the twelve months of Court Mourning would profoundly impact on the retail drapery trade which ordered their products three or four months in advance. He went on to suggest that the Earl Marshall fix a shorter period for public mourning; suggesting three months.

While great funerals were, of course, the exception, there seems to have been a funeral available for everyone as evidenced in a mid-century advertisement in The Times that offered six classes of funerals ranging in price from 21 pounds for a first-class burial down to 3 pounds, five shillings for the sixth class. Even these prices could be reduced further "by dispensing with the funeral cortege through the streets of London." Instead, the Necropolis Company suggested that the body be taken by special train from their private station to Woking Cemetery "to relieve the public from unnecessary and costly display."

If one was attending a funeral one needed to dress accordingly. There were outfitters prepared to provide appropriate clothing and other elements to the discerning mourner. The London General Mourning Warehouse located at 247 and 249 Regent street advertised in The Times (1 November 1845) that "millinery, dresses, cloaks, shawls, mantles, &c., of the best quality can be purchased at the most reasonable prices." Business must have been good, for by the 1870s it had taken over properties on either side and was now advertised at 245-251 Regent Street from where it offered, in The Illustrated London News (11 January 1873), "a Black Dress made up complete, sufficient Print for a Dress, also a Bonnet, Mantle or Shawl and Gloves, for 3gs." In addition to such large firms, there were many smaller ones and even those that specialized in particular articles of clothing. The Misses Lewis, for example, advertised as "mourning milliners" in the late 1840s.

Not only was the family expected to mourn (and to dress appropriately), the family's servants might be required to wear mourning clothing. Peter Robinson's at 256 to 262 Regent Street advertised "Mourning for servants at unexceptionably low rates, at a great saving to large or small families." Both Peter Robinson's and Jay's (also in Regent Street)offered to conduct funerals, in London or in the country although it is likely that they acted as middle-men, arranging for an undertaker to actually do the funeral while taking a profit for themselves.

By the middle of the century, funerals had become such big business that Mr Punch was drawn to comment on it. Referring to advertisements to perform funerals, he commented that there must be "different qualities of grief ... according to the price you pay."
For £2 10s., the regard is very small. For £5, the sighs are deep and audible. For £7 10s. the woe is profound, only properly controlled; but for £10, the despair bursts through all restraint, and the mourners water the ground, no doubt, with their tears.
Charles Manby Smith, writing in Curiosities of London Life (1853) had little to say that was favourable to the industries that provided for funerals.
Here, when you enter his gloomy penetralia, and invoke his services, the sable-clad and cadaverous- featured shopman asks you, in a sepulchral voice-we are not writing romance, but simple fact - whether you are to be suited for inextinguishable sorrow, or for mere passing grief; and if you are at all in doubt upon the subject, he can solve the problem for you, if you lend him your confidence for the occasion. . . .Messrs. Moan and Groan know well enough, that when the heart is burdened with sorrow, considerations of economy are likely to be banished from the mind as out of place, and disrespectful to the memory of the departed; and, therefore, they do not affront their sorrowing patrons with the sublunary details of pounds, shillings, and pence. ... For such benefactors to womankind - the dears - of course no reward can be too great; and, therefore, Messrs. Moan and Groan, strong in their modest sense of merit, make no parade of prices. They offer you all that in circumstances of mourning you can possibly want; they scorn to do you the disgrace of imagining that you would drive a bargain on the very brink of the grave; and you are of course obliged to them for the delicacy of their reserve on so commonplace a subject, and you pay their bill in decorous disregard of the amount. It is true, that certain envious rivals have compared them to birds of prey, scenting mortality from afar, and hovering like vultures on the trail of death, in order to profit by his dart; but such "caparisons," as Mrs. Malaprop says, "are odorous," and we will have nothing to do with them.
Although expected to mourn, women were generally advised against attending funerals, especially for those nearest and dearest to them. Cassell's Household Guide for 1878 discourages the practice pointing out that it is something done by female relatives in the poorer classes. It may also have been the case that the frequent practice of drinking both before and after the funeral not only by the funeral party, but by the undertaker and his assistants would have been upsetting. An article in Leisure Hour (1862) quotes the secretary of an English burial society that
Undertakers' men, . . . usually take whatever drink is given them, and are frequently unfit to perform their duty, and have reeled in carrying the coffin. The men who stand as mutes at the door are supposed to require most drink. I have seen these men reel about the road, and after the burial, we have been obliged to put these mutes and their staves into the interior of the hearse and drive them home, as they were incapapble of walking.
Aside from the clothes that were so much a part of mourning there were all the little things that had to be done and the appropriate appurtenances ranging from mourning envelopes and paper and black sealing wax to mourning jewellery. The selection of items was extensive. In a period when correspondence was far more formal than today, Parkins and Gotto, stationary manufactures of Oxford Street, advertised "50 different kinds of mourning stationary" and for those who wanted their mourning stationary to carry the appropriate monogram, there was always the service provided by firms such as Henry Rodrigues at 42, Piccadilly which offered:
Black bordered note paper and envelopes of every description, also ... paper every width of border. Memorial Cards and return Thanks of the newest patterns. Notepaper and envelopes stamped in black relief, and illuminated in a superior manner.
In addition there were the personal momentos of the deceased. In a period when death was likely to take people at a younger age and the body was kept in the home until the funeral, momentos provided a kind of therapy and a physical remembrance. It was a time before the widespread popularity of photography meant that one could go to one's photo album and see pictures from happier days and so rings, brooches and lockets containing hair from the dead were often kept by the immediate family and sometimes even by particularly close friends.
A Victorian Mourning Brooch with Hair

For those who could afford it the one picture of the loved one might be a post-mortem photograph taken and kept as a momento.

The mourning process was rigidly governed by convention. Clocks in the house were stopped at the time of death and mirrors were either draped or turned to the wall. Curtains were drawn. The length of time for mourning appropriate for a widow or widower, a child or a parent was clearly spelt out. Deep mourning, for example, for a widow might be two years, followed by a period of half-mourning. Within these times codes of dress, especially for women were quite detailed as were what was and was not appropriate activity. Men, because they still had to carry on the business of the day, were less bound by convention, but even they had to adhere to the appropriate dress and behaviour expected from them for their place in the family. Such patterns were followed by those in the "better" classes. Death in the lower and labouring classes was less bound up with the rituals. This, of course, was seen by the middle-classes as evidence for shallowness in feeling and a general lack of respectability.

By the later years of the century, the pattern and habits of mourning had begun to change. Cremation was more widely accepted and as Richard Davey noted in 1889, men no longer wore "full black for a fixed number of months after the decease of a near relation, and even content themselves with a black hat-band and dark-coloured garments." The funeral ceremony was becoming less elaborate and it was much more common to send flowers to the grave than in earlier years. This must have been a problem to the vast mourning industry which surely would have wanted to keep the whole process as complicated as possible. The mourning warehouses which had expanded from clothing to paraphernalia to funerals were, by the 1890s, advertising their knowledge of the appropriate behaviour for mourners. In a full column advertisement in The Times in 1894, Jay's Mourning House pointed out that
The etiquette of Mourning is continually changing in certain matters of detail, and a reliable guide to what may, and what may not, be worn under certain circumstances is almost necessary. That guide is to be found here--an authority on everything, from the length of a widow's veil to the texture of a ball dress.
For a collection of Victorian post-mortem photographs, click here.