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Thursday, 29 September 2011

“Some Day English Capitalists Will Become Alive to the Immense Importance of European Petroleum” Or: The Birth of Our Reliance on Oil:

With things the way they are in Libya at present drawing passionate cries from all corners of the country of ‘We’re only there for the oil!’ I thought this little article quite pertinent.
It demonstrates that we here in Britain have been craving oil from all over the globe for well over a century. You may read this article and think to yourself, ‘Oh, so this is when it all started.’

A New Motive Power:
Turning over the pages of some volumes of Punch of the time when John Leech contributed prodigiously to the gaiety of this nation, I came upon a number of jokes founded upon the alarming statement of Professor Stanley Jevons that within about a hundred years our coal supply, to which many have attributed the commercial supremacy of this fantastic little island, would come to an end. There were comic drawings of people wearing pieces of “black diamond” as ear-rings or breast-pins, and many funny ideas that did credit to the inexhaustible, genial humourist. Today it appears not unlikely that before the terms of Jevrons gloomy prophesy, coal will have ceased to be of great importance.

In the sixties the “black stone” of Mrs. Markham seemed the only substantial source of heat, light and power, and now its position is menaced, not only by electricity, to which it has already been forced to act as handmaiden, but also by another mineral product, the use of which is believed to date back to the building of the Tower of Babel, when “slime had they for mortar.” The ruins of Nineveh and Babylon tell us that the mortar owed its quality to partially evaporated petroleum; and it is from petroleum, still a puzzle to the geologist, that apparently will come the force, heat, and light of the future.

Petroleum is a name that does not perhaps appeal to the housewife, although she burns it under the name of kerosene in her lamps; so dead is she, as a rule, to inquiry that there are old ladies who to this day refer to refined mineral oils as “colza.” Yet, those whose business it is to consider the safety of the little heart that beats for the huge British Empire are deeply studying the mineral oil that has introduced to our language the picturesque phrase “to strike oil.” For the meaning of the phrase it is simplest to refer to “The Golden Butterfly,” where may be found the fortunes of the delightful American who entertained a collection of sham literary lions in virtue of the fact that he had found his back garden and land flowing, not with milk and honey, but with oil. However, I do not mean to speak of the American oil industry, which has been the chief factor in the establishment of those commercial “trusts” that have put the United States under a bondage of cruel monopolies such as this happy country has not known, even in the days when the Statute of Monopolies was passed for the protection of trade. After all, one is disposed to look upon American commerce rather as a matter of statistics that appeal to Giffen, than as the subject of an article that may posses human interest, and it is Europe that attracts the attention of a non-commercial writer who can find an interest in things bought and sold. What mind can resist the quaint contrast involved in the fact that nowadays a huge business is done in exporting from Baku, on the Caspian Sea, the “sacred fire” which has attracted for many centuries the Guebres – the Persian fire-worshippers – who came to Ateshga, the “place of fire” in the cult of their religion? It is curious, lamentable to think that the site of one of the old temples of the fire-worshippers is now occupied by large petroleum works.

But what, one may ask, of the services that petroleum renders beyond producing a luminant for lamps, which, if properly used, is of great brilliance and softness? In petroleum, as in coal and other cases, “the stone which the builders refused is become the head-stone of the corner”; the by-products are more important, or at least, more valuable in some aspects, than that which was the primary object. The petroleum, after distillation of the refined oils and naphtha, leaves a residuum which promises to be the motive power of the world since, weight for weight and measure for measure, it is vastly more efficient, far easier of storage, and more convenient to handle than coal. Possibly a great many people who speak about electric power, who talk of electric traction, hardly recognize the fact that at present the marvelous force in practice can only be used in secondary form. Electricity, in fact, is like steam, and will not generate itself; some other force is needed, and so steam and gas, far from losing their importance, have almost gained in the modern developments of the form of energy whose name is based upon the fact that pieces of paper will stick to rubbed amber.

The petroleum residuum, however, threatens to oust the gas engine and dethrone coal and become the paramount means of generating the force that is to drive our ships and locomotives and generate electricity, and moreover, be used for lighting in place of coal-gas; while it has already proved itself the chosen power for the auto-cars which ere the end of the century will monopolise our roads. The Admiralty is building a new cruiser, the Galatea, to run with oil fuel. As far back as 1894 one metropolitan gas company used nearly five hundred and twelve million feet of oil-gas; the Great Eastern Railway has been building huge tanks at Stratford; in the great French auto-car competition the oil-fuel car took the prize, running from Bordeaux to Paris without a stop at the rate of fifteen miles per hour. Neither cruiser nor railway locomotive needs such an efficient fuel as the auto-car, and the French trial showed the extraordinary value of oil fuel.

What, then, about the Jevons of the petroleum supply? Already the States have shown signs, not, indeed, of immediate exhaustion, but at least the need to tap the deeper and more expensive wells. Luckily, “Yurrup,” the continent that our transatlantic cousins deem played out, seems richer in mineral oils than the States. The production of Baku increases daily to the benefit of Russia and of the Tyne, where special transport steamers are built. Roumania and Galicia have colossal stores of mineral oil till now barely touched. One European well in 1886 actually wasted in one day more than the States produced in a year and is still busy, but not wastefully. It is a characteristic of the European oils that whilst at one time scorned in the market because the residuum then treated as waste was too high, they are at present becoming the more valuable, because, the waste has proved to be “the headstone of the corner.”

Some day English capitalists will become alive to the immense importance of European petroleum, and if they find it too large for a “corner,” will make it “the headstone” of an industry that will provide a fruitful investment for the idle millions buried in the back-gardens of England.
-          Illustrated London News, May 9th 1896

Still, at least Professor Stanley Jevons’ prediction did not come true, and we did not run out of coal in the 1990’s, but it will happen, and whereas the Victorians, at the time of writing the above article had a new, wonder-fuel of petroleum to look forward to using as the coal supplies ceased, we are still using that oil and petrol, and have nothing to replace it with when the earth’s crust has surrendered all of its resources to us.

We best get thinking fast as I doubt we will squeeze another hundred years out of coal and oil…

Friday, 23 September 2011

“The Lady in the Refreshment Room…Gave me a Cup of Tea, as if I were a Hyena and She my Cruel Keeper with a Strong Dislike to me.” Or: Railway Refreshment Rooms – a Guest post by David Turner.

I know virtually nothing about trains. I know that in the middle of the nineteenth century train lines began to spring up all over Britain, feeding industry and all but making redundant our waterways as highways for business, trade and shipping. I know some things about the early days of the London Underground, but my strongest points on railway history is probably London’s Victorian termini – but that has more to do with the buildings than the railway industry.

Vast subjects such as the railways always seem to evade my grasp. The facts of the matters are like bars of wet soap; I have them one moment, and just when I think the fact is remembered and committed to memory, its gone.

This alone is enough to make me bow in admiration to today’s guest blogger, David Turner, of who commands a grasp of all aspects of the world of the Victorian Railway which leaves me slightly awestruck.
David is certainly my kind of fellow, he is passionate about his subject, and as I have alluded, very knowledgeable, and so, with my blog lacking any information on the Victorian Railway’s, and with said railways being often synonymous with the greatness of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, as she pushed ever forward, there was only one place I wished to turn.

As a whole subject, the Victorian Railways would fill an entire website – if you wish to read about every aspect of them, I urge you to visit David’s blog – so something very specific was in order. Something that you don’t often think about when you cast your mind to railway history, over to David…

‘…our railway managers, having observed that nature thus abhors a vacuum, and that the doctrine of the plenum is, in England, generally accepted, have taken care to promote the good temper of their travellers by the establishment of those most characteristic railway institutions "refreshment rooms."’[1]

By the late-1840s the refreshment room was a regular feature of railway travel in Britain. However, the date of the first railway refreshment room is unknown. The candidates are either the Grand Junction Railway’s temporary terminus at Vauxhall in Birmingham in 1837, or the London and Birmingham Railway’s stations at the Rugby and Birmingham Curzon Street Stations in 1838.[2] After this, refreshment rooms appeared at most of the medium and large railway stations in the country, serving the thirsty and hungry passengers. Yet, these were highly complained about facilities.

Before the introduction of the buffet car refreshment rooms served a number of purposes. As the plethora of food stands at stations do today, early refreshment rooms provided passengers starting journeys or changing trains with food and drink. However, they also served the needs long-distance passengers, and many trains stopped at stations for this purpose. Thus, London and Birmingham Railway trains stopped for ten minutes at Wolverton.[3]  On the East Coast route the trains stopped at York.[4]

Given the short time available, many complaints were about the rush that ensued when a full train of passengers disembarked. Sir Frances Head described the scene at Wolverton; ‘the confused crowd of passengers simultaneously liberated from the train hurry towards [the servers]...with a velocity exactly proportionate to their appetite. Considering that the row of young persons have among them all only seven hands, it is really astonishing how, in the space of a few minutes manage to extend and withdraw them so often.’[5] Yet, this rush was seemingly nothing compared to one encountered at Ipswich station in 1867. On the 27th September and excursion train stopped at the station on its way to the Yarmouth races. Six-hundred individuals, described of as being of ‘the lowest class and betting men,’ immediately poured into the refreshment room. The counter, which was described of as being relatively bare, was quickly cleared of a cheese weighing 6lbs and some buns and biscuits. It was reported that ‘no coin was paid by these hungry pleasure seekers and an attempt was made by some to get over the counter.’ On the return journey, the train did not stop at Ipswich.[6] Lastly, at Normanton on the Midland Railway, passengers could, for the price of 2s 6d, enjoy a six course meal, provided they consumed it in 20 minutes.[7]

But as with all aspects of railway food, the quality was a prime issue. Dickens wrote in Mugby Junction in 1867 that ‘The pork and veal pies, with their bumps of delusive promise and their little cubes of gristle and bad fat; the scalding infusion, satirically called tea, the stale bath buns with their veneer of furniture polish; the sawdusty sandwiches, so frequently and energetically condemned.’[8] Anthony Trollope in 1869 also condemned the railway sandwich: ‘we are often told in our newspapers that England is disgraced by this and by that…but the real disgrace of England is the railway sandwich – that withered sepulchre, fair enough outside, but so meagre, poor and spiritless within.’[9] In cases where companies’ refreshment rooms were contracted out, abuse of the agreements was a serious issue. On the Great Western Railway at Swindon, S.Y Griffiths was the first holder of the refreshment room lease from 1844. Brunel commented in response to a letter complaining about the station’s coffee that, ‘I do not think you anything such as coffee in the place; I am certain I have never taste any.’[10]

Service quality was also an issue, and Dickens wrote of the service he had received at Peterborough in 1856: ‘The lady in the refreshment room…gave me a cup of tea, as if I were a hyena and she my cruel keeper with a strong dislike to me.’[11] This attitude was later satirised in Mugby Junction, where Dickens wrote of the service there which featured ‘the icy stare from the counter, the insolent ignoring of every customer's existence, which drives the hungry frantic all these are doomed.’[12] Of course, not all comments on the quality of service were as bad. Sir Francis Head painted an idyllic view of the Swindon refreshment room where the ‘youthful handmaidens’ worked efficiently and with a smile on their faces.[13]

However, overall, this example was a rare case of a refreshment room being commended, and, as has been shown, the majority comments in the press and literature were negative. Yet, it has to be remembered that people invariably do not remember their positive experiences as vividly, and this may have tainted the published view of the refreshment room. Furthermore, it should be noted that all the criticisms levelled at refreshment rooms quoted here occurred in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. Thus, this would suggest an improvement in their quality in the later railway industry and suggests an increasing professionalism in the services that the companies’ provided. If confirmed, it would mean that the literature and comment of one period of history conspired to give all railway refreshment rooms of the Victorian period a bad name. This, would only be reversed by more detailed study.


[1] Williams, Frederick Smeeton, Our iron roads: their history, construction and administration, (London, 1888), p.264
[2] Biddle, George, ‘Refreshment Rooms,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.417
[3] Biddle, ‘Refreshment Rooms,’ p.417
[4] Richards, Jeffrey and MacKenzie, John M., The Railway Station: A Social History, (Oxford, 1988), p.291
[5] Head, Sir Francis, Stokers and Pokers, (1849 reprint, Newton Abbot, 1968) p86-87
[6] The Bury and Norwich Post, and Suffolk Herald, Tuesday, September 03, 1867; pg. 6; Issue 4445
[7] Biddle, ‘Refreshment Rooms,’ p.417
[8] All Year Round, December 1867, p.60
[9] Trollope, Anthony, He Knew He Was Right, (London, 1869), p.351
[10] Richards and MacKenzie, The Railway Station, p.292
[11] Simmons, Jack, The Victorian Railway, (London, 1991) p.354
[12] Dickens, Charles, Mugby Junction, (London, 1867) p.60
[13] Head, Stokers and Pokers, p86-87

Many thanks to David for this, and to Doug and Jayne too for contributing work to help me celebrate the first birthday of this blog, their kindness and willingness to donate their time and effort is much appreciated.

On the subject of guest blogging, having been kindly invited to contribute an article to the super and successful blog, The Virtual Victorian I am proud to say that my guest post, "Found Drowned: On Suicides of Prostitutes in the Thames" can now be seen there. 

A full and hearty thanks once again to Doug, Jayne and David who contributed excellent articles to 'The Victorianist' and to the Virtual Victorian.

Friday, 16 September 2011

“Members Shall Discourage the Wanton Destruction of Birds, and Interest Themselves Generally in their Protection” Or: In the Name of Fashion: Feathers, Carnage and Protest in Victorian England: - a Guest post by Jayne Shrimpton

In June I wrote about Victorian attitudes to animal rights, including vegetarianism and the birth of the NAVS (National Anti Vivisection Society) and the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)
Following this, I spoke with Jayne and was thrilled when she agreed to write a guest post for me on the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and how it came about.

I knew Jayne had an extensive set of historical photographs, and I was thrilled when she decided to include some of them to accompany her article. The photos’ included in this post are probably the best on this blog anywhere.

Quite enough chatter from me, here is Jayne’s guest post:

Many dress history enthusiasts would agree that sumptuous feathers and plumes have helped to create some of the most visually stunning millinery, accessories and trimmings over the centuries. But beneath the glamorous paintings, fashion plates and photographs and carefully-preserved hats and costumes lurk cruelty and devastation – disturbing facts that reveal the dark side of fashion.
An obsession with feathers
Since the Middle Ages birds’ plumage has played a significant role in western dress. As early as the 12th century feathers were used to embellish Venetian masks and by the 15th century feathered trimmings were an established element of aristocratic dress, expressing wealth and status. Ostrich feathers were worn with jewels as hat decorations during the Tudor era and single ostrich feathers or plumes (clusters of feathers) remained fashionable over hundreds of years. Other feathers in vogue during the 17th and 18th centuries included osprey, heron, peacock and even vulture feathers, worn with a flourish in vast hats or ornamenting the exaggerated ‘macaroni’ wigs of the 1770s - described by the artist and writer, Mrs Delany, as ‘waving plumes, preposterous Babylonian heads towering to the sky’. By the later 18th century, the fashion for feathers had extended lower down the social scale, leading to the near-extinction of wild ostriches. 

In the 1820s and 1830s, ‘Romantic’ extravagance influenced fashion and as garments, headwear and other dress ornaments grew ever more exuberant and inventive, fur and feather accessories were much admired, from swansdown boas (‘tippets’) and enormous fur or feather muffs, to wide-brimmed hats trimmed with ostrich or marabout stork feathers. Ostrich plume headdresses were also a requisite of Court dress – a tradition that prevailed through the 18th to 20th centuries.
1820 Fashion plate from La Belle Assemblee showing Court dress and ostrich plumes.

Victorian novelties
As material wealth increased for the rising Victorian middle classes, so the pace of fashion accelerated and the desire for display and novelty became more pronounced. At the same time colonial expansion across the globe and the exploration of distant lands introduced new and ever more exotic commodities and natural specimens to European markets: these included previously unknown varieties of birds, fuelling the fashionable demand for feathers, wings and even entire birds to decorate hats and other articles of dress. To the plumage of numerous native British birds such as grebes, gulls, egrets, herons, finches, jays and pheasants – to name but a few - were now added a rich and vibrant assortment of feathers and body parts of exquisite and, in many cases, rare species of bird including the humming bird, lyrebird, bird of paradise, quetzal and scarlet tanager.

Fashion’s favourite
Early in the Victorian period feathers were used mainly for millinery: for example in the late 1830s and early 1840s the precious male bird of paradise plume was much admired for bonnet trimmings. By the late 1850s hats were returning to fashion - headwear that provided a solid base for decoration and heralded the era now recognised as the most destructive for the world’s bird population – the years broadly spanning 1860 until 1921. Neat hats of the 1860s were often trimmed with the tip of an ostrich feather or a bird’s wing, or were circled with feathers. Then during the 1870s, as fashions grew more elaborate again, there was a marked increase in the use of feathers (and fur) to decorate hats and other items of women’s dress. Feathers were incorporated into day and evening headdresses and hair ornaments and by mid-decade whole stuffed birds were appearing on headwear, mounted on wires and springs to convey an impression of ‘natural’ movement. 

Carte de Visite, 1865
By this time feathers might also be incorporated into items of jewellery such as earrings and corsage (bodice) ornaments, while stylish muffs were often made entirely of feathers or stuffed with eiderdown. Fans also became ultra-fashionable during the 1870s and 1880s, trimmed with a light feather edging of marabout or formed entirely of natural or dyed feathers of different varieties, including cock, pheasant and pigeon feathers. Screen-type fans were also popular in the last quarter of the century: often these were adorned with a small stuffed bird such as a tiny iridescent humming bird.
Late Victorian feather fans

The most bizarre and - some would say – repulsive trends in late-Victorian millinery occurred in the 1880s. During the latter half of the decade hat crowns grew tall, offering a generous display area for not only entire birds, perched upright or posed with wings outstretched, but, in the most extreme examples, an extraordinary array of animal and organic matter, from stuffed mice and reptiles to leaves, twigs and grass – a contrived habitat in miniature on the head.

As ladies’ hats grew wider and increasingly plate-like during the 1890s, crowns and brims were literally heaped with complex arrangements of bows, flowers and plumage – so much so that it is difficult to find an image of a fashionable late-Victorian hat that doesn’t feature feathers, wings or a whole bird.

Hunting, shooting and taxidermy
The Victorian passion for birds and feathers and apparent lack of concern about wearing dead creatures on the person went hand in hand with the popular pastimes of hunting and shooting. Many birds whose plumage, heads and bodies ended up as fashionable women’s dress ornaments were unashamedly pursued by sportsmen, who thought nothing of targeting whole colonies of birds. The art of taxidermy had also been progressing since the mid-19th century, reaching its commercial heyday in the 1880s and 1890s – a pursuit that not only complemented hunting and shooting, but was even recommended in contemporary publications as a genteel pastime for women. 
 Chapter Illustration for 'Taxidermy' by Urbino & Day, 1884

Slaughter and carnage
Feathers and birds for use in the fashion industry, especially for millinery, fetched high prices and hunters operated all over the world. Both Paris and London were important auction centres but London was the world’s principal feather mart, one London auction record alone listing more than one million heron and egret skins sold between 1897 and 1911. Ostriches were farmed commercially from the late-1880s in South Africa, marking the beginning of a lucrative world-wide industry and introducing more humane methods of obtaining the desirable feathers, although wild ostriches (which can’t fly) were still hunted in some countries, being pursued on horseback until they dropped from exhaustion, then shot or clubbed to death. Many other birds were the victims of shockingly inhumane actions and almost unbelievable cruelty: for example, the wings of living gulls were sometimes pulled off, leaving them to die in slow agony in the sea, while young kittiwakes (a small species of ocean-going gull), whose attractive markings were especially admired, suffered a similar fate - their wings hacked off while they were still in the nest. Other fledglings were left to fend for themselves after the parent birds were thoughtlessly killed. 
Protest and early legislation
In some enlightened mid-Victorian circles there was growing concern about the wholesale destruction of native British birds for their skins and plumage, although motivation was primarily conservationist, rather than emotional, reflecting genuine fears for the future survival of certain species. Particularly worrying was the trade in ‘grebe fur’ - the skin and soft under-pelt of the breast feathers of the great crested grebe - commonly used as a fur substitute in ladies' clothing. Once the fashion for ‘grebe fur’ caught on, the superb head frill feathers of the adult grebes' breeding plumage also became highly desirable in the millinery trade. The feathers could only be taken by killing the birds and as a result the numbers of great crested grebes fell rapidly to the point where they became almost extinct in Britain and Ireland, by 1860.

A leading protestor was eminent ornithologist, Professor Alfred Newton, who campaigned especially for the protection of birds of prey and seabirds during the breeding season and was instrumental in seeing the first legislation passed in 1869 - the Sea Birds Preservation Act. This was designed to reduce the effects of shooting and egg collection during the breeding season and gave limited protection to many species including the auk, diver, eider duck, gannet, grebe, guillemot, gull, kittiwake, loon, oyster catcher, petrel, razorbill and tern. Other legislation followed, notably the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880, but the disturbing trends continued, especially the wearing of ever more exotic feathers in ladies’ hats, which was alone responsible for the extermination of millions of egrets, birds of paradise and other rare species.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
In 1889 the embryonic Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was formed as a pressure group campaigning against the use of bird skins and feathers in the millinery industry. First called The Plumage League, the organisation was founded by Emily Williamson (wife of the explorer and writer, Robert Wood Williamson) at her house in Didsbury, Manchester. The rules of the newly-formed Society were straightforward:

‘That Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection 

That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.’ (1889)

In 1891 the Didsbury group joined forces with Mrs Phillips and the ladies of the Fur and Feather League in Croydon to found the Society for the Protection of Birds. The new organisation began as it meant to continue, producing its first publications in the same year - two pamphlets and three leaflets, including W H Hudson’s ‘The Osprey, or Egrets and Aigrettes. Leaflet no 1: 
Destruction of Ornamental Plumaged Birds’.

In its earliest days the Society consisted mainly of women and, ironically, some of its staunchest supporters were exactly the kinds of high-ranking society ladies who might have been expected to wear fashionable feathers, including the Duchess of Portland, who became the Society's first President, and the Ranee of Sarawak. A number of other influential Victorians, including Professor Newton, also lent their support to the cause of the SPB, which gained widespread publicity, leading to a rapid growth in membership and a widening of its aims. 

In 1897 the Society acquired its first London offices at 326 High Holborn, with paid members of staff, and in 1898 moved to 3, Hanover Square, renting offices from the London Zoological Society. The growing influence of the SPB led Queen Victoria to confirm an Order in 1899 that certain military regiments should discontinue wearing osprey plumes. Finally, just 15 years after its foundation, the Society received a Royal Charter in 1904 from Edward VII, becoming the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Hat, c. 1909 - 1912

The final ban
Despite the early success of the RSPB, the international trade in plumage continued to prosper. By 1898 the export of egret feathers from Venezuela had resulted in the killing of up to two and a half million birds, while over 41,000 humming bird skins from Central and South America were sold in London during 1911 alone. The Edwardian era produced some of the most lavish and decadent displays of feathers in dramatic hats and sinuous trailing boas, a fashionable trend that ensured the continuing endangerment of many bird species worldwide. In 1908 the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Bill was first introduced to Parliament: this prohibited the importation of the plumage of any bird (including skin or body of a bird with the plumage) into the United Kingdom, with the exception of the plumage of African ostriches and eider ducks. However the bill was not passed for another thirteen years, until 1921, and didn’t come into force until April 1922. By then the world had changed, fashion had moved on and ornate feathered hats and accessories were no longer in vogue.  

Many thanks to Jayne for agreeing to do this, and for the amazing pictures she sent over to accompany her article. 
If you like, you can catch Jayne every year at ‘Who Do You Think You Are, Live’ and you can visit her website at

Thursday, 8 September 2011

“The Ignorance that Prevailed was Lamentable…” Or: Moral Statistics – A Guest Post by Douglas Brown:

I’ve always wondered what working for the office of national statistics must be like. I enjoy statistics – it’s one of the enjoyable things about the work of people like Mayhew, the pages of statistics included in his work.
Where I work, I make my own statistics; I record the volume of work processed by my department every day, and make a monthly total. At the end of the year, when things die down a bit toward the end of December, I use this information to make a scatter graph. This isn’t part of my job; I just do it because I find it interesting. (formulate your own opinions on that...)

When I approached Doug about doing a guest post, I left the subject quite open. I expected something about workhouses, but was far happier with what I actually got, which was a study of Victorian statistics and some attitudes toward them: 

Moral Statistics
Douglas Brown

Nineteenth-century statisticians were easy to parody. Take, for example, a report of the first meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything. Appearing in the periodical Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837, the association was an invention by Charles Dickens skewering a contemporary preoccupation with scientific progress.

MR. X. LEDBRAIN read a very ingenious communication, from which it appeared that the total number of legs belonging to the manufacturing population of one great town in Yorkshire was, in round numbers, forty thousand, while the total number of chair and stool legs in their houses was only thirty thousand, which, upon the very favourable average of three legs to a seat, yielded only ten thousand seats in all. From this calculation it would appear,– not taking wooden or cork legs into the account, but allowing two legs to every person,– that ten thousand individuals (one-half of the whole population) were either destitute of any rest for their legs at all, or passed the whole of their leisure time in sitting upon boxes.

The discipline of statistics – literally ‘things about the state’ – was in the mid-nineteenth century characterised by collecting and discussing information about aspects of life. Its practitioners did describe it as a science but it was not, as it has become, a mathematical science of data. A glance at the contents of the first volume (1838) of the Journal of the Statistical Society of London – which later became the Royal Statistical Society – shows just how broad were the subjects statisticians investigated. 

A short sample: Pauper schools, the progress of the nation, the state of poor families in the Miles Platting district of Manchester, strikes in the Potteries in 1834-36, copper mines in Cornwall, poor families in Bristol, agriculture in Bedford, the police in London, amputation mortality rates, the Welsh flannel trade, suicides in Westminster between 1812 and 1836, passenger numbers on the Brussels & Antwerp Railway, pulmonary consumption and diseases of the heart, endowed charities in Cornwall, the poor in Glasgow, agricultural labourers’ earnings in east Anglia, the coronation expenses of George IV and William IV, the population of New Zealand, collieries in Durham, education in New York State, agriculture in Northumberland, Prussian corn prices, the trade in foreign wheat, trade in France in 1837, turnpike roads, and the ‘moral statistics’ of several parts of Britain.

‘Moral statistics’ is an eye-catching phrase. Many social commentators identified links between poverty and moral dissolution: The poor – or a certain class of the poor – were often seen either to be poor as a result of moral laxity, or to be in particular danger of falling into it as a result of their poverty. (This is a well-rehearsed topic so I won’t dwell on the wider context, except to say that this was by no means a universally held opinion. And even among those who did see a link, there was little uniformity in conclusions about how to address the problem.)

The subjects of some of those journal papers reveal an intertwining of the concern for morality with a statistical approach to social investigation. In one article the Rev. Edgell Wyatt-Edgell, a rector in Kent, compared the moral statistics of three parishes in Westminster: St James, St George and St Anne Soho. He was a member of the society’s education committee, which had recently published a report on the schools in those parishes. Having investigated the children, he had been led to consider the ‘state of the parents of those children, and the general religious and moral condition of the poor population of the district’.

First, religion. Wyatt-Edgell tabulates the names and capacities of the places of worship in the area, split by denomination: Church of England, Scotch [sic] Church, French Protestant, Wesleyan, Bible Christian, Independent, Baptist, Roman Catholic and Jewish. There were 10,930 seats in all. He adds a table showing the locations of other prayer meetings and those of temperance societies (seven each). Then he suggests that ‘a better insight into the religious feelings of the poor than can be obtained from either of the above enquiries, would result from an investigation into the number of children who are brought up by their parents with the habit of saying their prayers’. 

Of 138 children interrogated, 21 demonstrated a fluency which ‘must have been learnt from their parents at home’. 60 repeated prayers they had probably learnt at school, ‘shewing that the practice had originated with the child and not with the parents’. 36 children said they said their prayers but their ‘manner and hesitation’ indicated they did not. The remaining 21 said they did not say prayers, or did not understand the question. Wyatt-Edgell makes no comment; readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

We might, by today’s standards, consider his premise unsound, the methodology doubtful and his inferences suspect. But contemporary investigators tended to put themselves into their inquiries in a way that we could describe as journalistic. Wyatt-Edgell wants to know how many children could say their prayers, so he asks them then reports the result.

Then he turns his attention to the reading habits of the poorer classes. Men’s reading, he suggests, is confined to newspapers, and women and young people have ‘little opportunity’ of obtaining books ‘except through the medium of the cheapest circulating libraries’. Domestic servants ‘very seldom’ use the libraries belonging to their masters and mistresses ‘from supposing them to contain none but “good” books, or from having too much other employment’. There were 38 small circulating libraries in the district, and Wyatt-Edgell inspected their catalogues and shelves. He made a detailed analysis of 10 of these libraries:

Number                                          Percentage                                       Proportion

Novels by Walter Scott, and Novels in imitation of him; Galt, &c. 
                                                             166                                                  7.57

Novels by Theodore Hook, Lytton Bulwer [sic], &c. 
                                                              41                                                   1.87

Novels by Captain Marryat, Cooper, Washington Irving, &c. 
                                                            115                                                   5.24

Voyages, Travels, History and Biography 
                                                            136                                                   6.21

Novels by Miss Edgeworth, and Moral and Religious Novels 
                                                            49                                                     2.27

Works of a good character, Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, &c. 
                                                            27                                                     1.23

Romances, Castle of Otranto, &c. 
                                                            76                                                      3.46

Fashionable Novels, well known 
                                                           439                                                     20.0

Novels of the lowest character, being chiefly imitations of Fashionable Novels, containing no good, although probably nothing decidedly bad  
                                                         1008                                                     46..0

Miscellaneous Old Books, Newgate Calendar, &c. 
                                                            86                                                       3.92

Lord Byron’s Works, Smollett’s do. [ditto], Fielding’s do., Gil Blas, &c.
                                                           39                                                        1.78

Books decidedly bad
                                                           10                                                        0.45

Total                                    2192                                                     100.0

Wyatt-Edgell makes no comment on the tabulated data. The reader, presumably, already knows whether Washington Irving, Henry Fielding and Theodore Hook will tend to corrupt. But he adds:
In one instance only, and this is worthy of remark as reflecting great credit on the parties who keep and use these small circulating libraries, were any books of an immoral character found; and in the case of this exception, the books were kept on a separate shelf and not intended for general circulation, but, as the person who kept the shop stated, “for the use of the waiters of a neighbouring hotel, who were sent out for them by the gentry attending the coffee-room.”
Contemporary data sets are great – when the data are reliable. The thought that Wyatt-Edgell collected the details of books in circulating library catalogues and then aggregated them by moral character is a bit painful. Anyone interested in reconstructing the data would have to look for similar catalogues at the British Library.

The library catalogue table is followed by another listing the numbers of periodicals found in coffee houses, public houses and eating houses in the area. The newspapers most frequently found in coffee houses appear to have been the Sun (43 instances), the Times (40) and the Weekly Dispatch (37). In public houses, however, the Morning Advertiser was the most widely found (248 instances) followed by the Weekly Dispatch (189). It’s an interesting table, but it presents some difficulties. What was the methodology? Were they periodicals supplied by the establishments or brought in by the patrons? How many establishments were visited? Wyatt-Edgell doesn’t comment on the moral nature of the publications. But he does mention that the data on public houses was obtained ‘with great difficulty from the publicans; nor would it probably have been obtained so correctly, but through the perseverance of a very zealous agent’. If I could get a research grant for investigating reading material in London pubs, I’d be very zealous too.

The final section of Wyatt-Edgell’s report concerns criminality, tabulating literacy levels among those arrested for various types of crime. In the area in question, 31.5 per cent of those arrested could neither read nor write and 48 per cent could only read or could read and write imperfectly. 18 per cent could read and write ‘well’ and 2.5 per cent ‘had received a superior education’. The last two categories were over-represented in the area compared to the rest of the Metropolitan district, where those figures were 9.4 per cent and 1.5 per cent respectively. Wyatt-Edgell explains: 
This difference… occurs almost wholly among the cases of common assaults, wilful damage, disorderly characters, and drunkenness, to which offences educated persons are most addicted, who, from their superior circumstances in life, are generally removed from the temptations to commit more serious offences.
Is it fair to criticise Edgell Wyatt-Edgell and what we might now see as his scientifically dodgy methods and prejudices? We can’t hold him to the standards of a discipline which is not the same today as it was in 1838. But we can use the same criticisms as contemporaries might have employed: What is the use of knowing how many seats there were in churches, without any context or analysis? Why simply list the names of newspapers and journals found in pubs and coffee houses? Are fashionable novels a good or bad thing? We can see why Dickens was scornful of the tabulations read at statistical societies.

But I don’t think we should be too harsh. His work reflects his interests and his methods were no different to those of his peers. In fact, inquiries of that kind continued for decades. Some ten years later an investigation into the poorer classes of the London parish of St George in the East was published in the same journal. The authors had far greater resources than Wyatt-Edgell, having been given at least £35 towards their work, and their report was accordingly more wide-ranging. It was also not specifically interested in ‘moral’ statistics. The authors list the occupations of heads of families, the heights of rooms, the weekly rents, the wages, the numbers of families per dwelling and the sanitary arrangements. But they also provide tables showing which newspapers were read by the families they visited, the pictures on their walls and the numbers and types of books they owned.
People in Mudie's Lending Library - But are they borrowing the 'right' books?
Only 58 books were found to be theatrical, while 5,791 are classed as serious… It is more than one-fourth of the houses which are without “serious” books, under which name are generally included the Holy Scriptures and books of prayer; and to what extent these are really used it must be impossible to ascertain statistically, but it would be very important to determine whether or not they appeared to be most used in the houses where they were accompanied by an equal or perhaps greater proportion of miscellaneous books.
The classification of books, say the authors, is that adopted by similar previous inquiries. This tells us that Wyatt-Edgell was by no means the only person to make moral judgments based on reading material. And who doesn’t try to get insights into the personalities of people whose houses we enter by glancing at their bookshelves?

Here’s Dickens and the Mudfog Association again – and bear in mind this was published a year before Wyatt-Edgell’s article and eleven years before the St George report:

MR. SLUG stated to the section the result of some calculations he had made with great difficulty and labour, regarding the state of infant education among the middle classes of London. He found that, within a circle of three miles from the Elephant and Castle, the following were the names and numbers of children's books principally in circulation:-
            Jack the Giant-killer……………..........7,943
Ditto and Bean-stalk……………….....8,621
Ditto and Eleven Brothers….................2,845
Ditto and Jill……………………….....1,998
Total        21,407

… The ignorance that prevailed, was lamentable. One child, on being asked whether he would rather be Saint George of England or a respectable tallow-chandler, instantly replied, “Taint George of Ingling.” Another, a little boy of eight years old, was found to be firmly impressed with a belief in the existence of dragons, and openly stated that it was his intention when he grew up, to rush forth sword in hand for the deliverance of captive princesses, and the promiscuous slaughter of giants… A Member strongly deprecating the use of all the other books mentioned, suggested that Jack and Jill might perhaps be exempted from the general censure, inasmuch as the hero and heroine, in the very outset of the tale, were depicted as going UP a hill to fetch a pail of water, which was a laborious and useful occupation,– supposing the family linen was being washed, for instance.

MR. SLUG feared that the moral effect of this passage was more than counterbalanced by another in a subsequent part of the poem, in which very gross allusion was made to the mode in which the heroine was personally chastised by her mother
“For laughing at Jack's disaster;”
besides, the whole work had this one great fault, IT WAS NOT TRUE.

For all the problems with statistics and statisticians, an evidence-based approach to social conditions did have its uses, even if the immediate conclusions of people like Edgell Wyatt-Edgell were censorious. Statistics were not only used by the government to classify and control the poor: High death rates from poor sanitation could cost civic officials their jobs. And statistics were a medium through which the poor became visible in a new way to those higher on the social scale.

Thanks to the Amateur Casual for lending the space. A guest post can be a risky proposition, especially when the blog is popular and highly regarded. All faults with this post are mine, not his.

Thanks for taking the time to write a super article, Doug, and kicking off the guest blogging!

Monday, 5 September 2011

"The Premise is Straightforward, You Pick Seven Posts from Your Back Catalogue that you Think Deserve to See the Light of Day Again…”Or: A Meme:

"Please don't be cross, but I have nominated you for a meme. The details are here, I really hope you give it a whirl."

The above comment was left on my blog a few days ago by Mr London Street. 'Hmmm, a meme...' thought I. Could such a blogging bastion really have thought 'The Victorianist' worthy of such an award? I wondered if I would win, I wondered what I would win, I began to feel that all I had written was not good enough, and why hadn’t I written about Jack the Ripper?

I imagine some bands feel the same when they release a new album and it gets nominated for an award.
‘Why did we cut that commercial pop song we had penned in as track seven and replace it with that experimental and self-indulgent muzak number?’
‘Wait a minute.’ I thought. My anxieties and distant dreams of meme glory were halted by a simple question:
'What is a meme?'
My interlocutor was kind enough to include a link to his blog in the comment he left me; I clicked on it, hoping to shed some light on the subject, and what I saw went some way to explaining what was required of me:

"The premise is straightforward, you pick seven posts from your back catalogue that you think deserve to see the light of day again and then you nominate another five bloggers to take part. Easy as pie."

‘Ah,’ I thought, intrigued. This has come at a good time for me. September 2011 will see my blog turn one year old. I’m proud of the little chap. Yes, he takes up a bit of my time, and can occasionally be a little demanding, but here, in this little corner of the internet, in amongst the dead leaves, the dust, the unwanted feathers from the birds who used to nest here, and the fragments of newspaper over a century old he sits, and smiles whenever someone passes by. Like now.

This meme would be the perfect gift for him, a chance to reflect on his first year in his dusty corner.

"I've found the post about toilets, sir..."
Mr London Street, too, had been nominated to do this, and I read through the posts he had chosen from his impressive, and surely one-day-to-be-committed-to-paper-and-sold-for-money back catalogue. There were parameters defining the attributes required of each post recalled from the archives. I was to choose:

  • Your most beautiful post:
  • Your most popular post:
  • Your most controversial post:
  • Your most helpful post:
  • A post whose success surprised you:
  • A post you didn’t feel got the attention it deserved:
  • The post you are most proud of:

I scratched my head, pondered this, and delved pitched myself head first into my dusty and musty back catalogue.

These are the posts which, after careful deliberation and a couple of days, I chose: Hopefully you will enjoy re-reading them, but if you disagree with anything I have chosen, comments are encouraged, as they are if you agree.

Your most beautiful post:
I will refrain from saying ‘this was the hardest one to choose…’ because if I did, I think I would be saying it prior to almost every category, as other than two of them, they were all very difficult to choose. For the most beautiful I couldn’t possibly declare anything that I have written to come under that description, and so I felt I had to turn to the work of Augustus Mayhew for a depiction of beauty that so moved me, I was compelled to blog it. In Each Street Lamp is Crowned with a Nightcap of the Purest Fleece he describes a snowy morning in London in the 1850’s in the most picturesque and striking way, which moved me to blog it for no reason other than its beauty, so quite rightly, he wins.

Your most popular post:
An easy one, this. I simply looked at the all time viewing stats. For a long while my post on the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was the all-time most popular post here, but in the last two or three months she has been overtaken by the poor, unfortunate, but brave and courageous children who sacrificed a childhood as we know it to oil the cogs of industry and help make Britain great.
Working Children of the Nineteenth Century is, I think, the longest post I have done too.

Your most controversial post:
Since my blog contains very little opinion, controversy is not something often seen here. I scratched my head for a long time with this one, and the most controversy I can muster up is this article. Whilst not controversial in itself, it does concern a topic which has caused controversy for roughly two thousand years, which has seen people killed, condemned and…well, other things. It is a topic best avoided at dinner parties with polite society, unless you wish chaos to ensue, and that topic is religion.
The Medium Went Through a Series of Facial Contortions contained a description, and subsequent disbelief on behalf of the writer at what he witnessed whilst attending at a séance. Shortly after posting this, I received a few comments on Twitter along the lines of ‘but you do believe in spiritualism, don’t you?’ and ‘well, my grandmother was a medium, so it’s all true.’
**clears throat, loosens collar and picks up a glass of fizzy from the waiter en route to a less controversial conversation**

Your most helpful post:
As I just said, it is not often that opinion is offered here, and neither is helpful advice (unless specifically asked for). Being a history blog it is concerned more with facts and articles, but that did not prevent me from having an opinion on the way English is taught in schools. 
Just Simple Accounts of her Family, Experiences and Observations of Life was an article about Victorian writer M.V Hughes, who, I think, would be more beneficial to be taught to pupils than Dickens and Shakespeare. The helpful element comes from the fact that, if the comments I received are to be believed, some people agree with me, and some people, who had never read M.V Hughes’ work, added it to their reading list.

A post whose success surprised you:
This post was not particularly meant to be a serious article, but just a little nod at the 152nd anniversary of the first public toilets opening in the UK – that’s why it’s so short. However, soon after Spending a Penny was posted, I realised it was a little more popular than I thought it would be. It is also, I believe, my second-most commented on post after ‘The Queen is Slowly Sinking’ about the death of Queen Victoria.
Not bad for a post about public toilets – it still surprises me now, and whatever would Her Majesty think…

A post you feel didn’t get the attention it deserved:
I’m not usually disappointed with the performance of my blog. It gets a number of views per day that make me feel content enough that I am not wasting my time writing it, and quite often people leave kind comments, which make it all worthwhile, but, having said that, I must admit to being a little disappointed with the lack of attention this article got.
The Weatherwise are predicting a Hard Winter  - a post about harsh Victorian winters, was not only interesting, but also topical, with the UK undergoing an extremely severe winter at the time of writing.
I had hoped that people would find it fascinating to read how we coped with adverse weather in the nineteenth century, but apparently not. Perhaps people were isolated from their computers by the snow, or perhaps there was enough weather talk on the news. Either way, it got very few page views and no comments.

The post that you are most proud of:
I started blogging here in September 2010, and whenever I look back on the posts I wrote when I was first starting out I do tend to feel a little embarrassed at the coarse nature of them, but, needless to say I feel I am finding my feet a little now, and after twelve months, am improving a little, I hope.
The post I take most pride in was the hardest to choose for this list, because in a way, I'm proud of them all, but I've chosen this article about ‘mad’ Victorian artist Richard Dadd because when I wrote it I had been blogging for just a month, and it's probably the first post I wrote that I felt looked a little less 'rugged' and a tad more 'professional' and looked and sounded like what I had in my mind when I first set the blog up. It also received lots of nice comments and still gets plenty of page views now, which I’m very happy about.

Those are the posts I have chosen for my meme. I hope that if you’ve stopped by you’ve had a look, and if you’re a regular visitor, that you agree.

The second part of the meme was choosing five blogs to whom I am to pass on this pleasure, that they may dredge their archives, too. I have chosen carefully, mindful not to choose only my historical peers.
I have chosen some of my very favourites which I hope you will enjoy, if you don’t already:

This Strange City
Sometimes when you’re in a city or town you’re familiar with, you take a wrong turn, or decide to go down a road you’ve never explored before because it seems as though nothing is there. To your surprise, you find a little boutique, or a café or something of that ilk, and you go inside and browse around for some time. You resolve to return again and again, and each time you do you’re not disappointed. ‘This Strange Cityis that boutique or café.
The posts are short and succinct, sometimes only a few words, but they combine with the pictures and capture the environment in a unique and delightful way. A little bit like finding a box of polaroids with descriptions of the scene beneath and thumbing through them with a cup of coffee on a spring afternoon. Please visit and follow this blog.

The Great Wen:
I love London, it is my favourite city. I have innumerable books on it and read plenty of blogs about it, but none really hit the spot like this one. Peter, who writes the Great Wen, is one of those affable chaps whose words you can sit and read and forget the time – a favourable attribute in a journo. The true mastery of this blog is that, whilst reading it, you are not aware that it is a blog about London. The city is not ‘shoved in your face’ for want of a better expression, but rather, is present in deft touches and hints. This is not a blog about London, but a London blog, written by a London lover, with the city providing the atmosphere and backdrop for a wide range of post subjects, from football, music, books, art, crime and many more.
I’m really hoping Peter does a meme, I can’t wait to see what blog posts he revives.

Spitalfields Life
Another London-based blog, but vastly different from the Great Wen, is Spitalfields Life. This is like a modern-day Victorian London periodical; articles on all manner of unique London people, industry and life can be found here; from the little company that makes the worlds finest ties to the modern day mudlark, from the markets to boxing rings, the river to theatres, former residents, current residents, former businesses and current businesses, all of London’s eccentricities, characters and charm are to be found at Spitalfields Life. Even if you live in London, you will find many posts on things you never knew existed. The photographs are wonderful and the relaxed and confident writing of the gentle author make this a perfect blog to enjoy with a cup of tea and a biscuit or two.
Look out for the utterly charming tales of Mr Pussy, too, which guarantee a smile.

Victorian Calendar
A great blog which offers a tale, news story, snippet of information or event from almost every day of Victoria’s reign. You will find articles about Victorian events you never even knew had happened here, such as the miserly old man who died and left his fortune to Queen Victoria, but also well documented happenings, such as the Whitechapel murders. An excellent blog to check back to every few days for the next article.
Plenty of information for anyone writing a novel set in a certain time period, too.

An Extraordinary Incident
One of the more entertaining historical blogs on the internet is ‘An Extraordinary Incident’. Each post is an entertaining, humerous or gruesome article from a Victorian newspaper or magazine. The author, the Impoverished Hack, describes it far better than me:
“…a collection of news stories from Victorian publications (and a few earlier ones). It will feature the unusual, the amusing, the macabre, the tragic and the hair-raising. You’ll find accounts of daredevil aeronautics, dastardly crimes, encounters with wild beasts and all manner of pith-helmeted heroics. All the stories were printed in real newspapers but that, of course, is no guarantee of their veracity.”
There’s not many Victorian blogs where you will find headlines such as; “A Woman’s Extraordinary Combat with an Alligator” “Curious Mistake with a Corpse” or “A Human Frog.” And these a real newspaper headlines from history. This blog is guaranteed a chuckle, and you cannot help but think to yourself; ‘Go on then, I’ll just read one more…’
For confirmation of the off-the-wall nature of this blog, read about the Impoverished Hack and his blog here; here

I hope you enjoy looking at my favourite blogs, and I hope they, too, do a meme so we can see their best, controversial and most beautiful work.
I’ve enjoyed doing this immensely, and want to thank Mr London Street, whose own blog, which is one of the best you will find on the entire web if you enjoy good – really good – writing, can be found at

Over the next few weeks, to celebrate the first birthday of this blog, I have asked a few people to write guest blogs for me. Guest blogs are not something I have done before, but I felt that after a year of doing this myself, it might be nice for different perspectives to be aired here, and for subjects to be tackled that I have little or no knowledge of. I hope you’ll come back over the next few Friday’s to read them, I’m certain that you shall not be disappointed.