Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Adulteration of Food and Drink in Victorian England


It’s a warm summer’s
day in London in the latter years of Victoria’s reign, the temperature is climbing and the streets are crowded with the hustle and bustle that we know characterizes the great metropolis. We are in Shoreditch or Seven Dials or any one of the great city’s numerous poorer districts. It is time for an Ice or an Ice-Cream.


It was only at mid-century that the Ice and Ice-Cream sellers began to make their presence felt, but now in the 1880s, they are everywhere. The Ice-Cream or Hokey-Pokey man, like the ubiquitous organ-grinder, is likely to be Italian and from Saffron Hill in the London Borough of Camden. In the middle of the century Saffron Hill was a squalid slum overrun by paupers and thieves. It was there that the Artful Dodger took Oliver for it was at Saffron Hill that Fagin had his den; a “dirty and more wretched place” than the boy had ever seen. “The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.” Even clergymen visiting the area had to be accompanied by plainclothes policemen.

In 1877, Thomson and Smith, writing about Street Life in London described the

... little villainous-looking and dirty shops [in which] an enormous business is transacted in the sale of milk for the manufacture of halfpenny ices. This trade commences at about four in the morning. The men in varied and extraordinary d├ęshabille pour into the streets, throng the milk-shops, drag their barrows out, and begin to mix and freeze the ices.

Even the frozen water-ices which should have consisted of nothing but water and a bit of flavouring were adulterated. The colouring was artificial, it contained none of the fruit from which it was allegedly made and as Thomson and Smith went on to point out, it was "a very questionable article, and the less consumed the better the consumer will find himself."

It was the cream ice, as it was called, that had the greatest appeal. Properly made it included milk and eggs and, therefore, the cost of production, especially when it was made with care and with good ingredients, was higher than the cost of producing Ices, the profits could be considerable. And these profits could be extended by mixing water ices with the cream ices and using milk which was frequently adulterated.

Not only was milk commonly adulterated, it was often unclean. Coming as it did from cowsheds in London and from the surrounding countryside; it “proved," in the eyes of Charles Dickens Jr, "often the source of, or rather, perhaps, the means of spreading, serious epidemics of typhoid, diphtheria, and scarlatina.” It may, indeed, have been safer to use the adulterated milk which was usually just water and chalk, than the real thing. Mr Punch aptly described the product as a “wishy-washy triumph of art over nature ... milk from the pump and chalk-pit, without ever having been possessed of a cow.”

All through the Victorian era food was adulterated. It was, put simply, a fact of life. Almost anything you purchased was likely to have had something added. Two reasons for such practices are readily apparent. First, food might be adulterated to make it more appealing. This is a practice which is still employed with the use of food colourings and special lights over meat displays in order to give the meat a richer, redder look. The second reason was to dilute the product in order to increase the profit margin. Adding water to milk is probably the most common instance of this although adulteration was far more widely practiced in terms of the range of foods available to Victorians. Often the two practices merged. James Greenwood, in his 1869 book, The Seven Curses of London, makes a telling point.

We are constantly reminded that “competition is the soul of trade,” but we should be loath to think that such were the fact if the term “competition” is to be regarded as synonymous with adulteration, or, in plain language, robbery.
More than a decade earlier, in his testimony before a Parliamentary committee, the Select Committee to inquire into the Adulteration of Food, Drinks and Drugs, Arthur Hill Hassall pointed out that the practice “prevails in nearly all articles which it is worth while to adulterate, whether it is food, drink or drugs.” and he went on to point out that

The majority of adulterations consist in the addition of substances of greatly inferior nature, for the sake of weight and bulk. Others consist in the addition of various colouring matters, to conceal other adulterations, or to heighten, and, as it is considered, to improve the appearance. Lastly, a few adulterations are for the purpose of imparting smell, pungency, or taste.
Among the items adulterated and the adulterants used were alum, added to flour in the production of white bread; sloe, ash and elder leaves used to adulterate tea; peas and beans in ground coffee; alum to brighten wine; Brazil wood to colour Port; and sawdust and filbert husks to make red wine more astringent. Just how widespread was the adulteration of food and drink? Certainly it varied from area to area, but it is likely that it was as great or greater in London than in any other part of the British Isles. Writing at the very beginning of the Victorian Era, Theodore Sedgwick commented that it was “difficult to mention a single article of food that is not adulterated.” Some items, he noted, could hardly be found in their genuine state. Even medicines were adulterated and the “quantity of medical preparations thus injured is said to exceed belief.”

Although a string of acts were passed in the second half of the century, it was not until the 1875
Sale of Food and Drugs Act with its definition of an adulterated product as one which endangered the health of the consumer or one by which the customer was deceived through misrepresentation of the goods, that this process which did so much damage to the health of the British public was gradually brought under control.

To read or download a copy of Arthur Hill Hassall's Adulteration Detected (1857), click here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tragedy on the Thames

Tuesday, the third of September 1878, was a fine day for an excursion. Around seven-hundred men, women and children took advantage of the weather to cram aboard the saloon steamer, the Princess Alice, for a day on the river. The boat left London about 11.00 in the morning, heading downstream for Gravesend, a distance of thirty-one miles, and from there, on to Sheerness. The trip to Gravesend normally took less than ninety minutes and once there, many of the excursionists went on to one or the other of the tourist attractions, for Gravesend was becoming a popular resort town in the nineteenth century.

A number of those on the Princess Alice had come to Gravesend to spend the day at Rosherville Gardens. A favourite destination for London excursionists, John Marius Wilson in his Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72), described it as a

highly picturesque grounds of about 18 acres, constantly open for a small admission fee, and possessing a rich combination of attractions, variously natural and artificial. Tea gardens, taverns, archery grounds, gipsy tents, abundant lodging houses, salubrious air, cheap living, good bathing appliances, the stir on the river, fine rambling grounds in the neighbourhood, and ready communication by steamer and by railway with London, also draw hither a great and constant concourse of visitors. The town is full of these during all the summer months, and absolutely swarms with them on Sundays.
By Tuesday evening the weather had turned “muggy” and tired but happy the excursionists boarded the steamer at Gravesend for the “moonlight” return to London. The Rev. Mr Gill, who had gone to Sheerness for the day, noted that “the passengers on board were a quiet, well-behaved, and respectable company.”

The Princess Alice pulled out of Gravesend and headed back up the Thames at just after 6.00 pm. The passengers, who had paid 2s. for the day trip must have felt that their money was well spent. The weather had been kind although by 7.40 pm, as the boat approached Woolwich, pier to disembark some of the sight-seers, a chill had descended which led the Rev. Gill to go from the front seat of the saloon deck, inside to the saloon cabin where there were about fifteen people. Suddenly there was a crash and William Alexander Law, second steward on board the Princess Alice, said to the stewardess “There’s some barge alongside.” Another crash and Law ran up to the deck where he saw unbelievable carnage.

… amid the confusion and screams of the passengers I heard the water rushing in below, and saw that we were sinking. I then rushed to the top of the saloon gangway and shouted, ‘Come on deck; we are sinking.’
Meanwhile, in the saloon cabin, the Rev. Mr Gill “heard a grazing and grinding of the side of the vessel, then a sudden stop, and then a terrible crash of shivered and splintering timbers.” Running from the cabin to the lower deck on the port side, he saw “the bows of the huge iron-cased ship towering above as high and inaccessible as the walls of a castle.” It was the Bywell Castle, a newly repainted steam collier of 890 tons bound for Newcastle to pick up a cargo of coal for Alexandria, Egypt.

In the ensuing chaos, those passengers who could, rushed to the rear of the steamer. Some threw themselves into the water, others attempted to climb aboard the Bywell Castle, and a great number were trapped below decks when the two boats collided. The Rev. Gill saw that

A few were hanging onto the chain at the bows, but what was one chain for 700 people, most of them helpless women and children, all crowding and trampling one another in a boat which was doomed to sink in a minute or two? The shrieks, ejaculations, prayers, and wails of helpless agony … were heartrending…
William Law, the second steward, ran to a young woman with whom he “was keeping company,” and tried to rescue her, jumping overboard and with her on his shoulders struck out for shore.

But as I was going my poor girl slipped off my shoulders, or was dragged off, and I lost her, although I dived for her. I saw a gentleman … who was sinking, and caught hold of him and held him up till we were picked up.
Although there were a dozen or more lifebuoys on board and several lifeboats, the accident took place with such speed it would have been impossible to organize their use. Although every effort was made to rescue the survivors, there were very few and many died in the weeks following as a result of the terrible and toxic industrial pollution of the Thames. Of the approximately 700 on board the Princess Alice, the best estimates suggest that 600 died either in the crash or as a result of the collision.

Twelve years earlier in almost the same location, a steamer and a collier had collided and while only four lives had been lost in that accident it was probably more good fortune than good management as the excursion steamer, the Metis, ran aground immediately after the collision. Little, if any, change came as a result of the earlier accident, but after the Princess Alice sank with its horrendous loss of life, efforts were made to make the Thames safer both in terms of public health and in terms of safety for navigation.

To see a picture of Rosherville Gardens, click here.
To see a contemporary drawing of the moment the Bywell Castle hit the Princess Alice, click here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Penny Gaffs

The real "Coster's" entertainment was the Penny Gaff, a form of rough entertainment enjoyed by the lower classes. In reality the Penny Gaff was as far removed from the Music Hall as Albert Chevalier, one of the great Music Hall entertainers and the epitome of the stage "Coster" was from the real thing! At mid-century Penny Gaffs were described by Henry Mayhew.
In many of the thoroughfares of London there are shops which have been turned into a kind of temporary theatre (admission one penny), where dancing and singing take place every night. Rude pictures of the performers are arranged outside, to give the front a gaudy and attractive look, and at night-time coloured lamps and transparencies are displayed to draw an audience. These places are called by the costers "Penny Gaffs;" and on a Monday night as many as six performances will take place, each one having its two hundred visitors.
Many of those attracted to the Penny Gaffs were young and poorly educated. James Greenwood notes that there was no reduction in the tariff for children since,
...such an arrangement would reduce the takings exactly fifty per cent. They are all children who support the gaff. Costermonger boys and girls, from eight or nine to fourteen years old, and errand boys and girls employed at factories.
Writing in 1869, Greenwood found the Penny Gaffs both widespread and dangerous, estimating "that within a circuit of five miles of St. Paul’s, at least twenty of these dangerous dens of amusement might be enumerated." The coster lads and lasses who made up the bulk of the attendees, were amongst the roughest in London; always ready for a fight or a frolic. One of them told Mayhew how,
On a Sunday I goes out selling, and all I yarns I keeps. As for going to church, why, I can‘t afford it,--besides, to tell the truth, I don‘t like it well enough. Plays, too, ain‘t in my line much; I‘d sooner go to a dance--its more livelier. The ‘penny gaffs’ is rather more in my style; the songs are out and out, and makes our gals laugh. The smuttier the better, I thinks; bless you! the gals likes it as much as we do.
What was it like to attend one of these Penny Gaffs? The admission was a penny and on entering one might find a place set up where they could buy something basic to eat or to drink. The Penny Gaffs, according to the journalist George Augustus Sala were "abominably dirty," smelling of unclean bodies "and of the shag tobacco they are smoking." Here one might wait until the current house emptied and a new one was formed. J. Ewing Ritchie, who visited a Penny Gaff in 1859, described his experience. After paying his admission fee, he did not gain immediate entry but was forced
...to wait with several others, chiefly boys, very dirty, who regard us apparently with no very favourable eye, till a fresh house is formed. Our new acquaintances are not talkative, and we are not sorry when our turn comes to enter the dirty hole set apart for the entertainment...
When one entered the performance area, there was usually a pit which held approximately fifty people and there might be some wooden benches arranged to form a primitive gallery to hold the overflow. In 1853, Max Schlesinger commented on the practice of men sitting on one side and women on the other and suggested it was because the men "chiefly labourers and apprentices, luxuriate during the representation in the aroma of their “pickwicks,” a weed of which we can assure the reader that it is not to be found in the Havanna."

After a bit of a warm-up by the director, the show begins. It may be composed of a series of vignettes, songs and short sketches. It was common for there to be something of a patriotic - even jingoistic - nature to play on the emotions of the crowd. When Schlesinger attended a performance in 1853, it ended with the mock repeling of an invasion by Napoleon in which
just as the invader has gained the edge of the stage, he is attacked by the sailor, who, applying his foot to a part of the Frenchman’s body which shall be nameless, kicks that warrior back into the pit. The public cheer, Britannia and the Lord Mayor dance a polka, and the sailor sings “God save the Queen!”
Ritchie, on visiting another Penny Gaff in a rougher neighborhood described the proceedings as “indecent and disgusting, yet very satisfactory to the half grown girls and boys present'” while James Greenwood suggested that the police
...be roused to increased vigilance in the suppression, as well as the arrest of criminality, it would be as well if those in authority directed their especial attention to these penny theatres. As they at present exist, they are nothing better than hot-beds of vice in its vilest forms.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Music Halls

The end of the nineteenth and the first two decades of the twentieth centuries was the heyday of the Music Hall. It was in these institutions that one could see the greatest entertainers of the Victorian years; entertainers like Dan Leno, Albert Chevalier, Little Tich, Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. Although the Victorian Music Halls may have declined from the 1920s on, their influence was to be felt much longer. One need only think of great entertainers who carried the tradition forward; entertainers like the indomitable Gracie Fields and the amazing Stanley Halloway! Who hasn’t heard and loved recitations like “Albert and the Lion,” and songs like “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World,” and “Walter, Walter, Lead me to the Alter and I’ll show you where I’m tattooed!”

The Music Hall as we generally use the term can be dated from the first decade of Victoria’s reign. Peter Bailey, one of the best of social and cultural historians dealing with nineteenth century Britain, comments that

“Music hall” refers to both a popular form of miscellaneous entertainment and the institution that housed and promoted it.

The Music Halls fulfilled much of the entertainment needs of the urban population, and particularly the needs of the lower and labouring classes. It was, at least marginally, a safer environment than the Penny Gaffs so beloved of the coster lads and lasses. In the middle years of the century, although still a place for drinking as well as being entertained, Music Halls were becoming establishments in their own right with purpose-built premises. Nonetheless, their clientele, at mid-century, remained largely single young males and some young women.

By the 1870s some of the Music Halls, particularly those in the West End were moving away from their traditional working-class origins. Improved public transportation meant that those in the upper working and lower middle classes, now living in the suburbs of the great metropolis, could come into the West End for a night’s entertainment. Suddenly Music Hall had become family entertainment.

Nonetheless, many such places of entertainment were considered inappropriate for young women of the better classes. Even as late as 1908, the Baedeker Guide To London advised that as far as Music Halls were concerned, “ladies may visit the better-class West End establishments without fear, although they should, of course, eschew the cheaper seats.”

In the multitude of Music Halls, the performances were basically the same and in a large city, like London, it was not uncommon for performers at one theatre to finish their turn and then go to another theatre where they repeated it. Charles Dickens (Jr.) in his 1879 edition of the Dictionary of London, pointed out that it was

undesirable to visit many of these establishments on the same evening, as it is quite possible to go to four or five halls in different parts of the town, and to find widely diverse stages occupied by the same sets of performers.

In the 1870s and ‘80s, if one attended performances at any of the brilliant Music Halls in London, the shows would have been very much the same, differing only in their greater magnitude from those seen in other cities and towns and in the appearance of more illustrious performers. The “bill” would usually include a variety of items including gymnastics, ballet and the always-popular comic singing. In fact, when one thinks about Music Hall, it is this latter “turn” that tends to characterize it for us. We forget the performing animals, sporting celebrities, strong-men, magicians, ventriloquists, and all the other forms of entertainment too numerous to mention.

Raucous, licentious, loud, and fun, can all be used to describe the Music Halls of the second half of the nineteenth century. The music and performances also encouraged a level of Jingoism and patriotic fervour. Much that today would be considered unacceptable made up the pleasures of the Music Hall, particularly for those in the lower and the labouring classes. But the Music Halls presented what the people wanted. And it was what the people wanted that kept entertainers like Marie Lloyd at the top of the bill. Interviewed in the United States by the New York Telegraph she was quoted as saying,

They don't pay their sixpences and shillings at a music hall to hear the Salvation Army. If I was to try to sing highly moral songs, they would fire ginger beer bottles and beer mugs at me. I can't help it if people want to turn and twist my meanings.

It was highly unlikely that audiences had to twist the meaning of lines such as:

“She’d never had her ticket punched before”
“I sits among the cabbages and peas”

when delivered with the fine sense of innuendo that this marvelous entertainer was capable of mustering.

Growing out of the Penny Gaffs and originally an entertainment for the masses, Music Hall soon became the dominant form of amusement in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many contemporary entertainers owe a debt to the great entertainers it produced; carrying on the tradition whether in films, television or on the stage. Surely the goons, Frankie Howard and Charlie Chaplin all owed a debt to Music Hall as, in an even more direct sense did performers of the first half of the twentieth century like Gracie Fields and Stanley Holloway.

Among the many great performers of the Music Halls was Little Tich. I'll say more about him in a later blog, but to see a performance of his famous shoe dance, recorded around 1900, click here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sounds of Victorian London

Noise, noise, noise. It didn’t matter which way one turned, Victorian London was awash with noise. Noisy traffic, noisy industry, street musicians, the cries of street-sellers and street collectors echoed through London. From morning till night, the costermongers could be heard crying their wares and music whether just the organ-grinder, or the full brass band seemed to surround one night and day.

Traffic in London was extreme as much of the city was created long before Victoria came to the throne. Streets were narrow and paved with cobblestones. The wheels of the transport were iron-shod since the pneumatic tyre did not come into use until the 1890s. In the streets horses and pedestrians mingled.

A doctor, writing to The Times from Harley Street on 13 August 1869, complained amongst other things, of the way in which Cab drivers would hold long conversations from opposite sides of the road at the top of their voices and scavengers would shout jokes from cart to cart. The letter went on to complain of paper boys yelling out the news, musicians disturbing whole neighbourhoods, and drunks “who choose to sing and holloa up and down our streets and squares.” Then there were “the early organ-grinders, collectors of hares’ and rabbits’ skins, sellers of watercresses, [and] the inevitable dustman” to keep one from sleep.

Noise levels were so intolerable that they might cause or exacerbate illness. When John Leech, the illustrator, died in 1864, his friends believed his death had been hastened by the noise which he so despised. “Dickens called them ‘brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads’.”

But correspondence to The Times and the feelings of artists and writers seemed to have only the most limited impact on noise levels. The Honourable Secretary of the Association for the Suppression of Street Noises, Charles Fox, wrote to The Times on 5 December 1895 to complain that “the general street noises of London are increasing in volume and intensity.”

Street Organs seem to have been the bane of the Victorians’ existence. In part this was because of the noise they created; by the 1860s there were estimated to be over one-thousand organ-grinders in London alone. But there may be more to it than just noise. From the constant harping upon the ethnic characteristics of the Organ-Grinders, one gains the impression that much of the objection was xenophobic.

The Rev. D. Rice-Jones in, In the Slums (1884), described life in Sardinia Street. Located in the Camden area, this was one of the poorest slums in London. By ten or eleven at night, the street came to life with barrel-organs playing sometimes until well past midnight. These, in turn, acted as a kind of magnet for young people who engaged “in the coarsest kind of horseplay, and the coarsest language.”

Small children danced on the pavement “to the mingled accompaniments of jig music, obscene songs, and profane oaths.” While this went on in the streets one could also hear the sounds coming from the public house; “the confused noise of many voices brutalised by drink, and all trying to make themselves heard at the same time.”On Monday, Wednesday and Friday the noise from horses and wagons from the Covent Garden Market often woke one through the night and, of course, on Saturday and Sunday night "it is almost impossible to get any sleep before three or four o'clock. For some hours after the public-houses are closed there is a continuous uproar-singing, shouting, howling, yelling, cursing, fighting; women's voices crying "Murder!" and the voices of little children screaming with terror, while their parents are engaged in a desperate fight with their boon companions, or with each other."

Henry Mayhew, who chronicled lower-class life in London in his great study, London Labour and the London Poor, has much to say of the noisy street life of the Victorian metropolis in the 1850s. He describes life in the streets whether it is the Punch professor (as they were known) or the poorest watercress seller. Often street exhibitors had assistants with a drum or some other instrument to attract the crowds. An exhibitor of mechanical figures told Mayhew that he had “two men beside myself, one plays the organ.” But whether with organ, drum or some other instrument, street performers, thimble-riggers, costermongers and anyone with something to say, show or sell hollered and shouted, banged and whistled to draw a crowd. With so many street performers and beggars, the noise must often have been intolerable.

Then, there were the bands and musicians; the violinist who imitated barnyard animal, the bell ringers, cellists, street bands (according to one of Mayhew’s informants there were around 250 street bands, not including black minstrel bands). There were English bands, German bands an, bagpipers. There were hurdy-gurdy players and harpists and clarinet players. Assisting the organ-grinder one might see a trained monkey or dancing dogs and one could go on almost indefinitely. If it was an instrument that could be played, it was likely to be found on the streets of Victorian London.

If it wasn’t instruments, it was often the sounds of the street vocalists; Black serenaders, glee-singers and balladeers. If a street performer couldn’t sing, he or she might whistle. The street seemed to draw the most bizarre forms of “entertainment.” One found the blind reader or the writer without hands or the blind profile cutter working in London and selling their products with shouts into the infernal din.

Add to all this, the sound of carts on cobble-stones, the neighing of horses, the sound of steam trains and all the ordinary cacophony of the streets and London was noisy indeed!

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Malodorous Metropolis

One thing that commentators, both domestic and foreign, noticed in Victorian London was the smell. To put it in the simplest possible terms, London was "on the nose."

As the city expanded and industrialized, tenements spring up to meet the housing requirements of the factory workers and their families. Older buildings were turned into flats which were then subdivided into even smaller flats. Rents were high, often requiring several families to share accommodation even forcing large families into one room. Landlords cared little about the conditions of their tenants knowing that they could always fill vacancies and, in the process, raise the rent still higher. The conditions under which the poor lived were appalling. Bathing facilities were minimal and often a family's only access to water was through a communal pump which might only operate for several hours in the day.

Of course, as the population of London increased, suburbs became increasingly distant from the heart of the city. In order to move from one part of London to another, one could walk, go by train or rely, in some form, on horse power. Coal burning trains and a coal fired economy filled the air with soot. Horse power, too, created by-products, the primary one of which was manure. Tons of this muck dropped into the streets daily. One estimate has it at 100 tons daily. So much manure, often decomposing, meant that its smell pervaded London. Most streets had crossing sweepers who, for a small gratuity, would precede a person wishing to cross a street, sweeping the muck aside in order to make a relatively clear crossing.

London stank of unwashed bodies, raw sewage, coal fires and horse manure. And most of all, it stank of the Thames, for the Thames was, particularly in the early years of Victoria’s reign, the great sewer of London. The problem reached its apex in 1858, the year of the Great Stink. The smell off the river was so intense that members of Parliament avoided sessions and wandered around the building with handkerchiefs held over their noses. In an attempt to ameliorate the stench, curtains impregnated with chemicals were hung over the windows.

Surely, nobody could have been surprised at the Great Stink. Eight years earlier, Punch had published a picture of what it imagined a drop of water from the Thames would have looked like under the microscope. (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

A number of factors combined to make what was normally unpleasant, appalling. In part the problem was exacerbated by a very warm summer. The increased population meant an increase in human waste to be disposed of. While the flush toilet or water closet was a great step forward in public hygiene, they discharged into the old cesspits which were meant only to collect rainwater and discharge it into ditches and streams that eventually found their way to the Thames. Increasingly it was human waste that was finding its way into the Thames along with the byproducts of those industries which, needing water, lined areas of the river and discharged their noxious wastes into the water.

As if the stench of the city and particularly of the Thames was not enough, many of the open sewers drained into the river at low tide. The results of this led one writer to comment that “the results are better imagined than described.” At the same time, a significant amount of the drinking water in the Metropolis came from the Thames; often well below the point at which raw sewage entered the system. On 8 July 1858, a Report to the City Sewers Commissioners by the Medical Officer of Health, Dr Letheby, noted that the Thames had assumed “an appearance and [appeared] to undergo a change which has never before been witnessed.” He went on to characterize the odour of the river as,
a stinking vapour, which is in the highest degree offensive, and which inhaled produces slight headache, giddiness, and nausea. The water at midstream is charged with the higher forms of animal and vegetable infusorial life, but at the shore is so lethal in its qualities that nothing exists in it but the lowest forms of fungi and the simplest of living creatures.
Those travelling on the river often remarked on its smell. George Godwin went to Lambeth via one of the many boats plying the great waterway, a “Thames omnibus.” He eventually alighted “to escape the fearful odour which was floating over the water from the mouths of the sewers opened by the retiring tide.” Godwin went on to describe an area around Lincoln-inn-fields with six slaughter-houses, a large tripe-boiler “the effluvium from which is very bad,” and stables. In one house water was coming in.
There is one cask capable of holding about fifty gallons, another a little more. There is no tap in these casks, so each person is obliged to dip vessels, however dirty, into the water. This supply is for three small houses, containing five families of from five to six persons each: this number the people allow, but some of them being Irish, it is probable that they have lodgers. The people do not like to drink the water from the casks.
. . .
This dwelling-place has two slaughter-houses at the back, a closet close to the water, a dust-heap, and an open gully-hole in front. The smell of this place is shocking.
We went at random into a house in Sheppard-street, close by. The drain is stopped: the smell, even before passing the threshold, is frightful. … So bad was this place, that we were glad to rush out into the somewhat purer air.
And while Godwin was able to remove himself from the stink of London, all too many of its residents were not able to do so, living with it continuously.

For more information on London and the effect of its air and water, click here to read Stephen Halliday's 2001 article in the British Medical Journal, Death and Miasma in Victorian London: An Obstinate Belief.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Working Men's Clubs and Reading

One of the major sources of education and particularly self-help for working men was to be found in the Working Men’s Clubs. Not surprisingly, attempts had been made all through Victoria's reign to control the working classes and to convince them of the virtues of industrial capitalism. The origins of the Working Men's Club movement was, in large part, an extension of just such attempts at social control.

The early, sponsored, clubs such as the Colonnade Working Men's Club opened by Viscount Ingestre in 1852, were meant to provide "amusement and refreshment as well as newspapers and books." Often they were concerned with improving the working man. At Stormant House Working Men's Association in Notting Hill, for example, neither drinking nor smoking was permitted and the library contained 400 "uplifting" volumes.

The Saint Matthias Working Men's Club at Salford, was not untypical. Opened in 1858, in "two large cottages, well lighted, warmed and ventilated ... thrown into one, and made to present, as far as possible, the features of home," the subscription was one penny per week. Like most early clubs, it attempted to combine social meetings with lectures and exhibitions. The cottages soon proved too small and a club-house was built containing "rooms for conversation, amusements, committee meetings, and school purposes, as well as a library, well stocked with history, travel and popular science." In addition, there was a newspaper room and a lavatory. Some clubs had smoking rooms as well.

Prior to the 1870s and the expansion of popular education, the reading rooms in the clubs often provided the only significant educative service available for working men who sought it. Additionally, for those who wished to read the papers, it was cheaper to be a member of the club and have access to a reasonable selection from the press than to buy one's own. In the Workmen's Halls in Southampton, for example, in the 1860s, one could select from "five daily and nine weekly London and provincial newspapers, and sixteen monthly and weekly periodicals," all of which had been placed out on tables.

By the middle of the 1880s, a typical Working Men's Club might have six hundred members ranging from small masters through skilled artisans earning anywhere between 25 shillings to 4 pounds a week. Subscriptions were about 15 shillings per year and an observer in 1885 noted that the clubs often had, as a chief room, "a spacious hall for debate, with a stage at one end for occasional dramatic entertainments. Immediately adjoining it is a smaller chamber furnished with a refreshment buffet." In addition, the visitor might find a billiard-room, a bagatelle-room, a chess-room and most certainly the ubiquitous reading-room.

At least one analysis was done in the 1860s of the membership of a Working Men's Club; in this instance one of the Workmen's Halls in Southampton. Of the first 700 members, 172 or just under 25 per cent were from employment as labourers, hawkers or porters. The remainder were basically skilled workmen. Just over fifteen per cent were involved in the building trades as bricklayers, masons and carpenters, and another, only slightly smaller group were involved in boiler-making or working as smiths. Among the remainder there were to be found shoemakers, engineers, seamen, painters, mechanics, tailors, shopmen, agents and carriers.

Clearly in the fifty years from mid-century to the death of the old Queen, the Working Men's Club movement was an influential force. Although started to encourage the moral regeneration of the working classes, the development of popular education and the growth of the trades union movement as a focus for class solidarity allowed the clubs to be just what the gentlemen's clubs in Pall Mall or St. James Street were, social organisations where men might escape from the daily grind of work, the wife and children, and yet be remarkably safe from the hazards of the Gin-Palaces and the public-houses.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Crowning of a Queen

Thursday, the 28th of June, 1838, dawned early for the young Queen. She was awakened at 4.00 by the sound of guns in the Park and dozed fitfully until 7.00. Outside the palace and all the way to the Abbey, people crowded up Constitution Hill watching the soldiers and listening to the bands playing.

By 8.00 the streets were thick with people and platforms had been erected on which, for a fee of 2s 6d one could stand to see the procession. Some, like Charles Dickens, rented rooms in houses overlooking the route in order to get a good view of the momentous event. By the time the Queen passed, on her way to the Abbey, there were between 300 and 400 thousand spectators lining the route. The large numbers may have been increased by the fact that for the first time the new railroads contributed to the massive influx of those coming to London for the day's events. According to Charles Greville, "the railroads [were] loaded with arrivng multitudes."

At 10.00 the Royal Procession set out from Buckingham Palace. Even the weather seemed to cooperate to make this a brilliant event. The Queen noted in her journal that "it was a fine day, and the crowds of people exceeded what I have ever seen; ... [they] were assembled in every spot to witness the procession." The crowd was so great that she "was alarmed at times for fear that the people would be crushed and squeezed on account of the tremendous rush and pressure." An hour and a half after setting out, the procession reached the Abbey where Victoria was greeted by deafening cheers.

Harriet Martineau was fortunate enough to have a seat in the back row of the Abbey gallery where she had "a pillar to lean against, and a nice corner for ... [her] shawl and bag of sandwiches." She had also had the foresight to take a book to read while waiting. Like many of the others who attended the ceremony or lined the streets, she was up early, waking at 2.30 in the morning and beginning her preparations an hour later. The Abbey opened at 5.00 in the morning and people were already waiting to enter.

Despite the great solemnity of the occasion there were moments of humour. The Bishop of Durham, Edward Maltby, who stood near the Queen during the ceremony, seemed to have little idea of what was going on and was, the words of Lord Melbourne, "remarkably maladroit." Things were so confused, and the clergy seemed to have such a poor grasp of what was happening, that at one point the Queen turned to John Thynne, the Sub-Deacon at the Abbey, and asked "Pray tell me what I am to do for they don't know." And clearly this was the case when the ruby ring, which had been made for her little finger, was forced, by the Archbishop, onto the wrong finger. "The consequence" of this was that she had "the greatest difficulty to take it off again, which ... at last she did with great pain."

Following the crowning of the Queen the peers paid homage to the Monarch. It was, according to Martineau, "as pretty a sight as any; trains of peers touching her crown, and ... kissing her hand." In the middle of all of this pomp and ceremony, the 82 years old Lord Rolle came forward to pay his homage. Rolle was a large man, but unsteady on his feet, and was supported by peers on each side. As Victoria described it in her journal, "in attempting to ascend the steps [he] fell and rolled quite down, but was not the least hurt." He tried to ascend the steps again, at which Victoria, according to the ever-observant Harriet Martineau, "rose, leaned forward, and held out her hand to the old man, dispensing with his touching the crown." John Martin's 1839 painting of the scene can be found by clicking here.

As the homage ended, drums were beaten and trumpets sounded and the crowd shouted:

God Save Queen Victoria
God Save Queen Victoria
May the Queen live forever

Medals of gold and silver were thrown to the crowd leading to an undignified scramble for the momentos. The Queen, with her Ladies, Train-bearers and the Peers bearing the Regalia repaired to St Edward's Chapel where Lord Melbourne commented that it "was more unlike a Chapel than anything he had ever seen; for what was called an Alter was covered with sandwiches, bottles of wine, etc., etc." While they waited, the Archbishop of Canterbury came in to give Victoria the Orb, which she had already received and he left "confused and puzzled."

On the eve of the Coronation there were fireworks in Hyde and Green Parks, and in the four days following, a great fair with theatres, ballon ascents, food stalls and dance floors up to 500 feet in length was held in Hyde Park. On the second day of the festivities, the Queen visited the park. The Coronation festivities were finally brought to an end on 9 July when the Queen reviewed 5,000 troops in Hyde Park.

The festivities were not limited to London. At Leamington there was a procession, a dinner for the poor, a public dinner and displays of fireworks. At Coventry churches and chapels held services and an ox and sheep were roasted to be distributed to the poor. There was music and fireworks as well. At Stratford-upon-Avon there were entertainments for the poor and a ball at the Town-hall in the evening. Children from the Sunday schools were fed in many places and at Redditch were presented with coronation medals. Balls and dinners were held around the country as well as special meals for the poor. Even in the gaols and the poor-houses there were celebrations. The prisoners in Horsham Gaol were treated to a roast or boiled beef dinner with plum pudding and a pot of ale or porter and the Board of Guardians of the Strand Union ordered that inmates of the two workhouses of the Union should be provided with a meal of baked beef, plum pudding and a pint of porter.

Views of the Coronation were mixed. Most people would seem to have concurred with Harriet Martineau for whom "it was a wonderful day; and one which I am glad to have witnessed." But there were those who felt differently. Charles Greville, the political diarist, was among those who took a dimmer view of the proceedings, noting that "it is very curious, but uncommonly tiresome, and the sooner it is over the better."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Fighting Fairer Sex

While fighting may have been a man’s game, and certainly the vast majority of spectators were male, there was always something new and different to appeal to the potential audience. In 1852, at Kensal-green, a fight took place between two women who according to a writer to The Times “fought for about half-an-hour, some say for 5s., some say for a sovereign, and some say they will do it again. I saw the winner led back in triumph.”

The writer emphasises the fact that “Men took them there, men backed them, men were the bottle-holders and time-keepers” and concludes by expressing his view that “some vices and some crimes are too disgraceful for mere punishment of a clean, well-ordered, and well-fed prison. Let us have the whipping-post again, and at the flogging let the crime of ‘unmanly brutes’ be written over their heads.” [1]

As with so much of women’s history, little is known of their involvement in pugilism although there is evidence of their participation as early as 1722 when Elizabeth Wilkinson entered the ring. Like male boxers, they fought bare-knuckled and fights were bloody and brutal affairs. The women in the ring were probably drawn from the lower and labouring classes where fighting was as much a way of life as Gin. Certainly amongst the costermongers fighting was expected and approved and many a personal disagreement between women would have been settled with their fists. Mayhew notes that “it is important for a lad and even a girl to know how to “work their fists well”--as expert boxing is called among them. If a coster man or woman is struck they are obliged to fight.”[2]

For the men attending the fight the excuse that it was an exercise in the “manly” art of self defence would hardly be applicable. More likely, it was the contrast of these blood covered, sweating, bare-breasted women with the traditional image of the classical Victorian woman that appealed and probably aroused the fight-goers.

[1] The Times (1 September 1852) quoted in http://www.victorianlondon.org/entertainment/boxing.htm (accessed: 21 March 2006).
[2] Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 4 vols. (London: 1851-1862), I, 16.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Walking Underwater: The Thames Tunnel

It must have been something of a surprise to visitors to the Thames Tunnel one day in the 1840s to see a group of American Indians gazing in wonder at that marvel of contemporary engineering. According the George Catlin,

When they entered the Tunnel, and were told that they were under the middle of the Thames, and that the great ships were riding over their heads, they stood in utter astonishment, with their hands over their mouths (denoting silence), and said nothing until they came out. They called it the “Great Medicine Cave,” and gave the medicine (or wa-be-no) dance at the entrance of it.
Started in February of 1825, the world's first underwater tunnel was opened to pedestrian traffic on 25 March 1843, and is still in use today. The “Great Bore” as it was affectionately known was originally designed to provide for carriages to be driven through its length and to house a walkway for pedestrians, including shops and exhibitions. During its construction, such was the interest in the project, that for a fee it was possible to arrange to be lowered down to watch the work in progress.

Today, passengers on the East London Line of the Underground would probably be surprised to know that as they rush to and from work and home, travelling under the Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping, they are using that very same tunnel designed by Sir Marc Brunel and built, in large part, by his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

During its construction and immediately after its completion, the tunnel was one of the wonders that everyone seemed to want to see. It was opened for pedestrians in March, 1843 and two months later the Queen, accompanied by Prince Albert and a party of notables visited the Tunnel. The party arrived by Royal Barge and the Queen descended into the Rotherhithe Shaft. Her Majesty was presented with a gold medal with a view of the Tunnel on one side, and Brunel's head on the other; a memento of her visit.

Later it was visited by Sarah Rogers Haight, a traveller from New York who described it in glowing prose.

Only to think of all these marvels! My mind aches with thinking, as does my head and eyes with seeing; and what an accumulation of wonders of the world might we now have if the days of wonders as well as miracles had not ceased. The Tunnel itself is a wonderful creation; standing in the centre, and looking each way, you get a fine idea of its extent, you see about a quarter of a mile each way, and the perspective is very good; the arches are small at the bottom and larger at the top—a division running between the two archways forms a footpath, and a place for the stands of the venders of different articles.
In the Tunnel, arches and Doric columns, pilasters and porticos lined an arcade with stalls and shops. On her visit to the Tunnel, Sarah purchased a candlestick and a medal similar to the gold one struck for the Queen.

During the first three or four months of its opening, the tunnel had over one million paying visitors and from the beginning of construction until 1865, twenty-four million paid to either visit or pass through the Tunnel. .Sadly, however, like many such attractions, its appeal soon faded after its completion, possibly in part, because of its less than salubrious location. Open 24 hours a day, all year round, its primary clientele was workers who found it a useful passage from one side of the river to the other, a convenience for which they were charged one penny.

By 1846, the directors were being informed that the numbers passing through the tunnel, and therefore its income had declined for the second year running. In fact, in 1844 the Tunnel’s revenue was £6137 declining four years later to £3796. It is difficult to know just how dangerous the Tunnel was to pedestrians. Certainly, a robbery was reported in May of 1845, in which, around midnight on the 18th of that month, three men attacked a pedestrian, dragged him down the Rotherhithe staircase and robbed him of 5s. 8d. and his house key before kicking him in the forehead and leaving him unconscious. The same report, from The Times of 23 May 1845, complained “that after a certain hour of the night the tunnel is infested with loose women”.

From a financial point of view, the Tunnel was never a success. One writer to The Times in January of 1863 referred to that “desolate Thames Tunnel” as “that Gulf of Capital and by-word of profitlessness. The Tunnel was finally closed to pedestrian traffic on 20 July 1869, having been sold, in 1865, to the East London Railway Company for little more than one-third of the £600,000 expended in its construction.

To see what the Tunnel looked like in 1843 when opened for pedestrian traffic, click here.