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Thursday, 28 April 2011

“…The Most Remarkable Woman in the Kingdom.” Or, The Philanthropy of Angela Burdett-Coutts

I have struggled and laboured for weeks with this post but I hope it doesn’t show. The source of my difficulty was that essentially all I had to work with as a starting point was a long list of sentences that began; “She also donated money to…” and; “She also funded the…” with a great many; “In year X she gave Y amount of money to Z charity…”
Whilst lists like this can be interesting as pure statistics, when writing about the person who funded, gave and donated, it makes for a quite dull and monotonous post. Trying to pull interesting reading from statistics is extremely hard, but hopefully, if not the most interesting post you will read, I hope that this can give a decent insight into a remarkable Victorian lady.

You may recognize the name Coutts, or the logo below, and you may even be lucky enough to be a customer of the private bank. This will not be a post about the bank or banking, but about a remarkable Victorian lady associated with Coutts; a lady named Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Having said this post will not be about banking, a little background upon the Coutts bank and how Angela became involved with it may be helpful. The following is an excerpt from the Coutts website, which I was extremely grateful to find as they have condensed this part of their history much better than I could possibly hope:

"The name Coutts first appeared in the title of the Bank in 1755. James Coutts, a Scottish banker, was taken into partnership by George Campbell (youngest son of the banks founder, John Campbell – Ed) on his marriage to Mary Peagrum, granddaughter of the founder. When Campbell died in 1760, James invited his youngest brother, Thomas, to join him and in January 1761 the Bank became known as James & Thomas Coutts. When James retired in 1775, the Bank’s title changed to Thomas Coutts & Company, which it was to remain until Thomas’ death in 1822.
The Bank flourished under Thomas and his partners Edmund Antrobus, Edward Marjoribanks and Coutts Trotter. The premises at 59 Strand were significantly enlarged in the last decade of the 18th century and profits rose from £9,700 in 1775 to £72,000 in 1821. The long reign of George III was a period of major political, social and economic change. Coutts’ customers were closely involved with such events as the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the opening of India and the Far East. Thomas’ customers, many of whom were also friends, ranged from the monarch to the Covent Garden cowkeeper.
When Thomas died in 1822, his estate and 50% share in the Bank passed to his second wife, Harriot and the name of the Bank became Coutts & Co. As senior partner, Harriot (later Duchess of St Albans) took an active interest in the business. She decided that the 50% share and Thomas’ fortune should revert to a family member at her death. Consequently, in 1837, Angela Burdett, at 23 the youngest of Thomas’ grandchildren, inherited the interest in a Trust which included a half-share in the Bank. Harriot’s Will stipulated that Angela take the Coutts name but forbade her from marrying a foreigner or interfering in the running of the business."

So, born in 1814, newly named Angela Burdett-Coutts was just twenty-three when in 1837 she gained her inheritance of around three million pounds (roughly one hundred and thirty million pounds in today’s money) from her Grandfather, and became the wealthiest woman in England.
Unlike many extremely rich people of the time, she did not opt to live a high life of shopping, gambling and self-pampering, but rather devoted her life and virtually all of her money to a vast number of good causes intended to improve the lot of the poor and needy. Here we shall observe just some of the many things she did with her wealth. Rather than go through her life chronologically, I have broken some of her work down into the demographics she helped. To make the post a little more interesting, I have also added snippets about her personal life:
Angela Burdett-Coutts

The first people to benefit from Angela’s money were London’s fallen women. She campaigned to get much needed and valuable life-skills such as needlework and cooking taught in special schools so that women had better ways to earn a living than turning to prostitution. One such school opened in Spitalfields, an area of London where there were high levels of poverty and unemployment. This school took on contracts from the government to give the women things to sew, but as well as offering this helping hand to women, the school also sent out nurses to tend to the ill and sick poor of the area, and to distribute medical supplies and clothes amongst to those most in need. Every jobless pauper who was willing to work was assisted by Angela.

Another project for these women brought about by her generosity was Charles Dickens’ ‘Urania Cottage’, which they opened in Shepherds’ Bush in the 1840’s as a home for fallen women.

In her personal life…
A year after she gained her inheritance, at the age of twenty-four, Angela caught the eye of an Irish barrister, Richard Dunn, who became smitten with her and would spend the next four years obsessively stalking her.

For London’s children, she converted some of the very oldest burial grounds of the city into playgrounds, complete with walkways through flowerbeds and seats so they had somewhere clean and safe to play rather than the usual gutters and dirty yards of their tenement buildings. In 1877 a playground opened on the site which was once old St. Pancras churchyard. Here she erected a sundial as a memorial to the dead buried there, laying the first stone of it herself. These poor children needed education, however, as well as play, and for this she organized ‘traveling teachers’ to visit and teach them at home.
St Pancras Sundial

To further assist in the education of poor children she gave large sums of money to the Ragged School Union, who set up schools to educate the destitute youth, and to the Temperance Society, a social society wishing to reduce the general consumption of alcohol. Her money was used to set up soup kitchens, pay for scholarships, and to establish a charity that still carries out important work today; the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in 1883.

The trade of the East End weavers had been declining for a while virtually to a stop, leaving them living in abject poverty. Seeing this, Angela donated funds to help many of them move to Queensland, Australia, where they prospered, and more importantly, did not die of starvation or fall into the life of crime that beckoned them.

The Poor:
In 1869 she funded the building of Bethnal Green’s Columbia Road Market in the East End of London, the district where much of her work with the poor was carried out. The Market was intended for the convenience of small dealers and poorer people from that area, so that they could purchase decent and edible food, but her kindness of heart for this poor district did not end there; she also purchased many of the worst local tenement buildings and rookeries and had them torn down, such as Nova Scotia Gardens (previously the home of the body snatchers John Bishop, Thomas Williams, Michael Shields and James May) and had built in their places clean homes for two hundred families who were charged a weekly low rent.

Holly Lodge
Her small housing development, Holly Village, was situated on the corner of what was then her estate in Highgate, Holly Lodge. Holly Village can still be seen today can still be seen today, it was purchased by its tenants in 1921, and people still live there.
When she lived at Holly Lodge, Angela opened her beautiful gardens to hundreds of school children and allowed them to play there under the oak and chestnut trees, and she also used the gardens to entertain the tenants of Holly Village.

In her personal life…
In 1839 Angela was introduced to the Duke of Wellington, and they became great friends. So much so that eight years later, when she was 33, she proposed to him. The Duke, aged 78 at the time, turned her down – no doubt in a most gentlemanly way – due to their difference in age. Despite this, they remained close friends until 1852 when he died. 
Wellington in 1844, aged 75

The Church:
Angela was a notable benefactor of the Church of England, building and endowing three churches including St Stephen's in Rochester Row, Westminster and church schools. As Executor of the Will of the Reverend Chauncy Hare Townshend (the author of several volumes of poetry) she, with the Reverend Thomas Helmore (another poet), used a large sum from Townshend's estate, at his request, to build a primary school in Westminster. The School is called Burdett-Coutts & Townshend Foundation C of E Primary School.

Much like the Queen, Angela avoided showing favour to any of the political parties. She gave no money to them, other than backing various government projects in which she was interested. She also approved and supported any actions by the British Empire to improve the lot of less fortunate parts of the world. When Britain went to places such as Australia, Africa, and British America, Angela’s money often followed. In South Australia she provided an institution for the improvement of the aborigines, who were seen as being a rather uneducated people. She also personally endowed the bishoprics of Cape Town, and Adelaide (1847), and the founding bishopric of British Columbia in Canada (1857).

In her personal life…
Back in Angela’s personal life she suffered a great upset when, in 1878 her long-time companion, Hannah Brown, died. Angela was distraught and wrote to a friend that she was utterly crushed by the loss of ‘my poor darling, the companion and sunshine of my life for 52 years.’

Back in the world of charity, men, women and children both at home and abroad had benefited from Angela’s extraordinary generosity, but still there is more; For the animals of Britain She erected four handsome drinking fountains: one in Victoria Park, one at the entrance to the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park, one near Columbia Market, and one in the city of Manchester. At the opening of the latter, the citizens gave Lady Burdett-Coutts a hugely enthusiastic reception. She also made contributions to Mary Tealby’s ‘Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs' in Hackney (Now Battersea Dogs and Cats home)

In her personal life…
Angela had been assisted for some years by her young friend and secretary, the American born William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett. William had helped her in dispensing her wealth to all these charities, and in other financial matters, but on 12th February 1881, when Angela was 67 she shocked the public and society alike by marrying William at Christ Church, Piccadilly. Her new husband changed his surname to Burdett-Coutts, and later became a member of Parliament. The marriage was a happy one.

In recognition of this unrivalled generosity, in 1871 Queen Victoria conferred a peerage on Angela under the title Baroness Burdett-Coutts, of Highgate and Brookfield in the County of Middlesex. On 18 July 1872 she became the first woman to be presented with the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall. It was accompanied by a complementary address, enclosed in a beautiful gold casket with several compartments. One bore the arms of the Baroness, while the other seven represented tableaux emblematic of her noble life, Feeding the Hungry, Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Clothing the Naked, Visiting the Captive, Lodging the Homeless, Visiting the Sick, and Burying the Dead. The four cardinal virtues, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, supported the box at the four corners, while the lid was surmounted by the arms of the city.
In 1874 she was Edinburgh's first woman Burgess, also being presented with the Freedom of that city.

In 1877, when word reached England of the suffering through war of Bulgarian and Turkish peasants, she instituted the "Compassion Fund," which transported over a hundred thousand pounds in both money and food to the civilians, saving thousands of lives destined for starvation. For this generosity the Sultan conferred upon her the Order of Medjidie, the first woman who has received this distinction.

In her personal life…
After leading an exemplary, distinguished and remarkable life, on 30th December 1906 Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts died of acute bronchitis at her house in Stratton Street, Piccadilly, at the age of 92. By the time of her death she had given more than £3 million to good causes. She was buried on the 5th January 1907 near the West Door in the nave of Westminster Abbey. The barony became extinct upon her death.

Charles Dickens dedicated his novel Martin Chuzzlewit to her and King Edward VII is reported to have described her, "After my mother (Queen Victoria), the most remarkable woman in the kingdom."

Addendum: The ‘Charity C.V’ of Angela Burdett-Coutts:
Angela’s charitable and philanthropic earned her the nickname of the "queen of the poor" and if we break down her “C.V” and look at things she did that I have not gone even mentioned, you can easily see why.

Take a deep breath:

  • President, British Beekeepers Association 1878–1906
  • President of the Ladies Committee of the RSPCA (England/Scotland).
  • Church bells for St Paul's cathedral
  • Cotton gins (cotton engines) for Nigeria
  • Drinking fountains for dogs
  • Help for Turkish peasants and the refugees of the 1877 Russo-Turkish War, receiving the order of the Medjidieh, (the only time it was conferred on a woman)
  • Housing schemes for the working-class along the lines of contemporary model dwellings companies.
  • Lifeboats in Brittany, France
  • The London Ragged School Union
  • A sewing school for women in Spitalfields when the silk trade declined
  • Soup kitchens
  • Support organisations for the aboriginal peoples of Australia and for the Dayaks of Borneo
  • The Temperance Society
  • Promotion of the fishing industry in Ireland by helping to start schools and provide boats; she also advanced £250,000 in 1880 for supplying seed to the impoverished tenants
  • Placement of hundreds of destitute boys in training ships for the navy and merchant service
  • Financing the first archaeological survey of Jerusalem in 1864 to improve its sanitation
  • Prominent supporter of the British Horological Institute at a crucial time in its history, due to her acquaintance with John Jones, a BHI founder
  • In 1858 donated £500 to the Cotton Supply Association and contributed an annual subscription of £100 for five years. Ten years letter she donated another £500 to the Association.
  • In 1864 purchased more than one hundred Greek manuscripts (532-546) from Janina (Epirus), transported to England between 1870 and 1872 and presented them to Sir Roger Cholmely's School, they were housed at the Highgate, in London
  • Commissioned a monument for St Pancras Old Church, containing the names of many people whose bodies had been dug up from the churchyard to make space for the railway.
Philanthropists are something that we sadly don’t see very often in Britain these days, and I doubt the like of Angela Burdett-Coutts will ever be seen again upon these shores.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

“She Threads Her Way Dexterously, With an Unconscious Air” Or: London’s Most Famous Prostitute, ‘Skittles’

With the TV adaptation of Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ currently very much at the top of the viewing agenda for Victorianists & history lovers, I have deemed it appropriate, for a couple of weeks anyway, to look at the world of Victorian prostitution.
 If you have neither read the book nor seen any of the television series, don’t worry, there will be no ‘spoilers’ contained in this post, in fact, ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ wont be getting another mention beyond this point, so you’re quite safe to read on.
Catherine 'Skittles' Walters
In my last post we read about the help offered to Victorian ‘fallen women’, or prostitutes, but today we peek at the opposite end of the scale in this trade, at a woman who needed no help or support at all.
Of the estimated 80,000 prostitutes plying their trade in London in the middle of the nineteenth century, perhaps the most famous was Catherine Walters. Known by the nickname of ‘Skittles’ (possibly because she worked at a bowling alley near Park Lane) she was, it has to be said, more than just an average prostitute.

She was born in Toxteth, Liverpool in 1839, the third of five children, and grew up in Merseyside but moved to London around the age of eighteen or nineteen.

Being a beautiful girl, she found no difficulty in making money on the streets in an era when a glass of gin and a few pence (or even sometimes a glass of gin or a few pence) could secure the services of average prostitutes, or ladybirds, or troopers as they were often known. The better looking girls, such as Catherine, were able to attract higher class customers, known to them as toffs (which led to the ‘better’ prostitutes being nicknamed toffers)

Catherine’s looks meant she was able to charge higher fees that most, and she quickly became a successful ‘trooper’, but she was more than that. It was even rumoured that amongst her list of regular clientele were famous intellectuals, politicians, aristocrats and even a member of the Royal Family, although her discretion and loyalty to her V.I.P clients and benefactors meant that not only are these rumours unconfirmed, but also – and maybe more importantly for her – that she continued to receive their custom; they being confident that they would never be found out.

She was not only beautiful, successful and in-demand with high-class men, meaning she was becoming financially comfortable, but also excellent at riding a horse. In the 1860s the sight of Catherine riding through Hyde Park along Rotten Row drew huge crowds, and aristocratic ladies copied the fashion of her perfectly fitting and skin tight riding habits, (worn without underwear). So, not only did she enjoy a successful career as a courtesan, but she was also a trendsetter & fashion icon too. Precious few of the cities prostitutes could boast a career such as hers.

In a letter to The Times in July 1862, the writer describes the excitement and anticipation of the public waiting for the well-known courtesan (referred to as Anonyma) to appear upon her horse. She wore a disguise, but was still recognized by her fans:

"Expectation is raised to its highest pitch: a handsome woman drives rapidly by in a carriage drawn by thoroughbred ponies of surpassing shape and action; the driver is attired in the pork pie hat and the Poole paletot introduced by Anonyma; but alas!, she caused no effect at all, for she is not Anonyma; she is only the Duchess of A–, the Marchioness of B–, the Countess of C–, or some other of Anonyma's many imitators.
The crowd, disappointed, reseat themselves, and wait. Another pony carriage succeeds – and another – with the same depressing result. At last their patience is rewarded. Anonyma and her ponies appear, and they are satisfied. She threads her way dexterously, with an unconscious air, through the throng, commented upon by the hundreds who admire and the hundreds who envy her. She pulls up her ponies to speak to an acquaintance, and her carriage is instantly surrounded by a multitude; she turns and drives back again towards Apsley House, and then away into the unknown world, nobody knows whither".

Could it also be that Catherine was the first person to be a celebrity without actually having any perceived skill-set or achievements? A distant pre-cursor to the female ‘celebrities’ who adorn the pages of cheap magazines in the present day? Perhaps.

She certainly became a famous London character, and even more so in 1862 when she rather glamorously eloped to America with married man Aubrey de Vere Beacuclerk, and then to Paris with the Marquess of Hartington, who paid her £2000 per year (a large sum of money at that time, and almost £90,000 in today’s money) to remain as his mistress.

In the 1890’s, when she was in her fifties (and therefore probably not quite as appealing as in her younger days) she retired from ‘society’ a wealthy woman. At the time of her death in 1920 her estate was worth £2,764. This included a home in Mayfair she had owned from 1872, but a court case in which she was sued for non-payment of a tailoring bill refers to her having other addresses, possibly properties she owned. Two were hotels, one of which was in France.

She died of a cerebral haemorrhage at her home at 15 South Street, Mayfair, and was buried in the graveyard of the Franciscan Monastery at Crawley.

She was the last of the great courtesans of Victorian London.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

“They Find it Very Convenient to Come Down Here and Drop Into The Water” Or: A Helping Hand for Victorian Prostitutes:

Prostitution was rife in Victorian England, particularly in the big cities. As far as earning money went, it was a relatively easy living for women of almost all ages, which, I expect, is why so many philanthropists and the church, despite their efforts at trying to ‘save’ the women from their lifestyle, have never managed to eradicate what is commonly known as the oldest occupation in the world.

There were many social reformists and societies established in the nineteenth century to try and put a stop to this immoral practice, and countless pieces of journalism or literature by reporters, writers and the clergy which seek to bring the problems of the ‘fallen women’ to the attention of both the government and, perhaps more importantly, the public. Even Charles Dickens opened ‘Urania Cottage’ a house for ‘fallen women’ in the late 1840’s in Shepherd’s Bush with the help of wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, but could not put a stop the trade.

Some of these establishments, however, it seems got through to the odd girl or two and encouraged them to turn their lives around. Whilst reading through some other works of Charles Maurice Davies, whose article on an evening with a spirit medium appears in the previous post, I came across another of his works, this time from 1873, named ‘Orthodox London.’
In this chapter he writes of his attendance at a midnight meeting in the east end. At these midnight meetings, prostitutes were given food, spoken to, mildly educated, entertained and given advice and, if possible, help. 
It is interesting to note in the piece that one of the workers tells Davies that he refers to the Dock Bridge – which was constantly attended by a police officer due to its popularity with suicidal fallen women – as the ‘Bridge of Sighs.’ This is almost certainly in reference to the poem of the same name written in 1844 by Thomas Hood, though the bridge in the poem is Waterloo Bridge.
I have included the poem, ‘Bridge of Sighs’ beneath Davies’ article.

An East End Midnight Meeting
That man essays a difficult task who would write of London's ugliest vice without calling up a blush to the cheek of virtue and innocence who would let decent English maids and matrons read the story of their "erring sisters' shame" without pandering to a depraved curiosity or a vulgar appetite for horrors. 
Let none who seek such prurient details be at the pains to run their eye down these pages; nor, at the same time; let those who dread to hear of the special sin of great cities veil them from the sight even of the purest and most blessedly ignorant in the household. Let each be well assured that, while a plain, unvarnished statement of things heard and seen is given, much must of necessity be suppressed. The whole of the stern, sad truth cannot be told, but from what is told, let those who read guess what might .be revealed were no such wholesome restraint enforced.
Neither, again, is it of West-end vice painted, enamelled, almost refined that we would now speak. No Lais or Aspasia is the model at present. No Formosa lures us to scenes of gilded vice. It is vice with the paint off, or so clumsily patched as to heighten its deformity, that we are to see. 

Here is the programme: Midnight Meeting Movement. Admit to St Matthew's Schoolroom, Princes Square, St George's Street, E., at eleven o'clock; whilst a written addendum states that ‘This meeting is among the sailors' girls of Ratcliff Highway, a distinct class of the fallen.' Fallen, and in Ratcliff Highway! That announcement, coupled with the assurance that every unpleasing detail shall be delicately veiled, will surely be enough to scare all but genuine good Samaritans from the too true story. 

On leaving the silent city behind to go eastward at night, I have a feeling as though I had passed beyond the haunts of civilization into some desert. Nor is the idea quite hyperbolical; for that district lying along the Thames east of London Bridge is a country in itself, and towards midnight it has many of the unattractive aspects of a wilderness. Along Thames Street, so busy by day-time, you hear the echo of your own footsteps. Pass the postern gate of the Tower, and you are in the sailors' quarter; on into Ratcliff Highway, euphemistically termed St George's Street where, amid frequent public-houses and dancing-rooms, low vice keeps perpetual saturnalia. Leaving for a moment this noisy thoroughfare, I find myself in one of those queer, quiet nooks so numerous in London, Princes Square, with the little Swedish church in the centre, looking picturesque in the moonlight. Among other buildings is St Matthew's Schoolroom. I enter, and find the clergyman and a couple of the society's officials. The company have not yet arrived, though ample preparations are being made for a large number in the shape of a comfortable tea. 

It is proposed that we should pass the time before the hour of assembling in visiting the public-houses of Ratcliff Highway; and, in charge of a gentleman who has the entree, I sally forth. If you look narrowly into each low gin-shop, you will find that it has a long room at the back, with tables running round, the centre being left open for dancing, and the end occupied by a small stage. In the first we enter a man is singing a comic song to a small audience; or rather the audience and he are singing it together, and the young ladies of the company, in a sort of ballet attire, with a tendency to scarlet boots, are mingling freely with the audience. A word with the smart barmaid as to whether she has read the last book he left, and my guide marshals me into the dancing-room, the manager of which, attired as a clown, is lounging in the doorway. 

The wonderful thing is the excellent footing on which my friend, who is a City Missionary, stands with the publicans, diametrically opposed as their callings seem. He shakes hands with all the girls, calls them 'lassies' and scatters his invitations broadcast among them. They are largely accepted too. There is an utter difference, he tells me, between these sailors' girls and the soldiers' girls of contiguous quarters. They hold no communication with one another. These girls have a distinctive attire. They go bareheaded, greatly leaning to ornaments in their hair; they wear low dresses and a shawl cast about them to look like an opera cloak. On many a breast I saw strange to say a large cross! 

As we passed one dismal lane leading out of the main thoroughfare, my guide asked me to come down. 'This is Gravel Lane,' he said; 'at the bottom is the Dock bridge, where so many of these poor girls throw themselves over. It has been found necessary in consequence to keep a policeman there from seven in the evening all night. I call it the "Bridge of Sighs"' he added. We went down; and, sure enough, there was the policeman at his gloomy vigil. It was a quiet nook, with the bows of two big ships looming over the moonlit water. 'They find it very convenient,' said the Missionary, with a touch of grim humour, 'to come down here and drop into the water.' 

'The Bridge of Sighs' by John Everett Millais
But it was time to get back to the schoolroom. When we did so, we found somewhere about eighty girls assembled, sitting on the school forms, and taking tea with evident gusto. There was some little noise of course - where did ever fourscore females of any class gather without noise over the cup that cheers? - But still all was orderly and decorous, so far. From the brazen-face harridan who had been 'out' for long years (such is the technical term), to the girl of fifteen, whose 'outing' numbered only weeks there they were, human wrecks, body and soul, stranded on the cruel shoals of society, and only beginning to be recognized as material for the social reformer to work upon. Some half-dozen gentlemen connected with the Midnight Meeting Society, and two or three Bible-women were waiting on these strange guests; and the clergyman, a youngish man, with quite white hair and a silvery voice, was going up and down the ranks, making cheery remarks, and ministering to appetites that were by no means delicate. I ingratiated myself by taking round that highly popular condiment, the plumcake; and whilst I did so, not one indecent or even discourteous word was spoken, no indelicate act or look met my eye amongst those fourscore of the very offscouring of Ratcliff Highway. 'It is astonishing what relics of humanity one finds here,' said the clergyman. 

With instinctive horror naturally experienced for what is new or strange, I felt myself shrinking from these poor girls in the dancing- room, whilst my merry Missionary shook each one by the hand and greeted her with his 'Well, lassie! ' But when brought face to face with them, I was utterly ashamed of such a feeling, and wondered why people should shake them off roughly or give them hard speeches, instead of imitating the good Missionary's efforts to say a word that shall save them. 

One of the first girls to whom I spoke had just made the 'great experiment' of a leap from the Bridge of Sighs. She had been rescued from the water and taken to prison, where she was kept for seven days; and when I saw her she had only that morning come out of gaol. She had evidently been drinking during the day; and there was a fierce light in her eyes, as she kept saying, in answer to protests against her attempted suicide, and advice that she should try to right herself, 'No, no; I am fallen too low, too low. I shall try London Bridge tonight.' 'Do you think she will?' I asked of one of the officials.' 'Likely enough,' was the business-like reply. In a quarter of an hour I came round to her again, and she was roaring with laughter and 'taking a sight' at a friend on a neighbouring bench. 

When tea was over a hymn was sung, and considerable giggling was caused by its being pitched so high that the key had to be changed. That was the great interruption in fact, the only interruption of the evening, the irrepressible proneness of the girls to giggle; but I fancy I have observed this proneness elsewhere than in the purlieus of Ratcliff Highway. For instance, to show how a casual word will lead these impetuous people astray the clergyman read a portion of Scripture to them, and related the parable of the Ten Virgins. The title was received with a regular guffaw. His address, which was perhaps a little too scholarly, described the marriage ceremonies of the East, and the 'ornament of grace' worn by the bride, at which the girls giggled again, and quite lost the point of that allegory. They sang lustily, and many of them had melodious voices. A few could sing the hymns without book - relic of a decent childhood, not yet lost!
One old stager, who prided herself on her vocal powers, managed to get an arm-chair all to herself, and sang really an excellent alto with the air of an Alboni. Another gentleman followed the clergyman, and took the invitation ticket above quoted as his text, repeating, over and over again, the question, 'Have you got tickets for Heaven?' and receiving pointed, but sotto voce replies. Strangely enough, the noisiest and most troublesome section were not the sailors' girls, but some work-girls sack-sewers who kept to themselves, and did their best to disturb proceedings, leaving noisily so soon as they had disposed of a very heavy tea, and had a brief 'lark' during the preliminary proceedings. 

There were several more hymns, and a brief address was given by the secretary of the society, who urged the girls to leave the bad life at once behind. They could, if they chose, go away from that room, and be taken in cabs to homes where they would be qualified to lead decent lives for the future, and eventually, out of a total of eighty-eight, four girls did so remain, and a good many others promised to come to the office in the morning. One fresh-looking country lass wanted to be sent home to attend her mother's funeral. Her father, who had been a farmer, was in independent circumstances; but the daughter was an outcast, though only six weeks 'out' in Ratcliff Highway, and as comely and well-spoken a girl as one could wish to see. Decidedly the noisiest and most giggling of the whole fourscore was, to my surprise, one of the four who remained; but I was informed that those who thus remained are often disappointing cases. Either they act on impulse, which cools down Before the morning ; or they will sometimes go to the Home because it is late, and they may be locked out of their lodgings; or even they will go simply for the 'lark' of having a ride in a cab. The ordeal of having to walk up from Ratcliff to the office in Red Lion Square in the morning is, as one can well understand, a much better test of sincerity. 

Two other interesting 'cases' may be mentioned, each confirming the good clergyman's remark that relics of humanity exist even here. One girl lingered long and anxiously about the door; and the cause, I was told, was that she had a little child, two years old, whom she wished to have cared for. Clinging to the old, vile life herself, she still sought, like Dives in the parable, that the one to whom Nature had bound her with such strong ties might not come to that place of torment. The second case was that of a middle-aged woman, on whose face, it perhaps sounds hard to say, Nature seemed to have graven the stigma of her calling. I had noticed her as one of the few who shed tears when allusion was made to the fact that some of the girls probably had mothers who had cared for them and prayed over them, and might even now be watching them from the world beyond. 'That woman,' said my guide of the evening, 'is a veritable missionary for me. She has been 'out' eleven years; and though she won't leave her bad life, she protects me from being insulted, and gets the younger girls to listen to me.' 

As the girls passed out of the room, a card was presented to each with the following words: 'Dear Friend, If you will call at the office of the Midnight Meeting Movement, 5, Red Lion Square, Holborn, W. C., any day, from Monday to Friday, between ten and four, and Saturday, between ten and twelve, advice will be given you, and, if possible, assistance for the future.' 

Such were some of the presentable particulars of the Midnight Meeting. They may serve a good purpose if they convince the most forlorn wanderer on the wild London streets that there is still such a word as 'home' for her; that she need not say, in Hood's graphic words 

Oh, it was pitiful, 
Near a whole city full, 
Home she had none.

Christian charity is not so rare as it was. There are among us those large-hearted ones who can pity the sinner, whilst they loathe her sin. If one such Sister of Mercy in the truest sense of the words can learn from what we have now said a new mission and mode of doing good, another sphere of serving Him who did not disdain to work among the publicans and harlots, this brief record of the Midnight Meeting will not have been written in vain. 

Bridge of Sighs’ by Thomas Hood (1844)
One more unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly
Lift her with care;
Fashion'd so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving, not loathing.

Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonor,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve's family--
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily.

Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God's providence
Seeming estranged.

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life's history,
Glad to death's mystery,
Swift to be hurl'd--
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

Is she plunged boldly--
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran--
Over the brink of it,
Picture it--think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion'd so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

Dreadfully staring
Thro' muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fix'd on futurity.

Perishing gloomily,
Spurr'd by contumely,
Cold inhumanity,
Burning insanity,
Into her rest.--
Cross her hand humbly
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!

Owning her weakness,
Her evil behavior,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to the Savior!

As an addendum, a few posts ago I mentioned a book by Augustus Mayhew named “Paved with Gold, Or, the Romance and Reality of the London Streets: An Unfashionable Novel” (if you missed in, you can read it here) In which he gave one of the best descriptions of Victorian London in the snow I had ever read.
Similarly, whilst reading the novel, I came across some excellent descriptions of desolate and desperate women. I don’t want to reveal too much of the story, but to ‘cap off’ this post, I’ll finish with a word from him, in which he describes a homeless pregnant woman walking the streets of London on her way to end her life in similar fashion to the women at the ‘bridge of Sighs’:

As the air seemed to grow colder than ever at the fag end of the night, and the streets had long been rid of the few remaining brawlers, leaving her the only wanderer through them, she grew more wretched and desperate than ever. Driven by the policeman from door-step to door-step, and finding that she was not allowed to sit, much less sleep, in the thoroughfares, she began to think it better to end such a life as hers, and sauntered on, shuddering, towards the river.
But when there, the water was like a sheet of steel, and looked so witheringly cold as her mantle flew open in the nipping breeze, that her timid resolves took flight, and she felt she lacked the courage, even though heart-broken and half-frozen as she was, for such a death as that.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

“The Medium Went Through a Series of Facial Contortions, Most of Which Looked the Reverse of Pleasing” Or: An Evening With The Higher Spirits

In my first post regarding Victorian séances from two weeks ago, I mentioned a piece of Victorian journalism I had at home which I had only read a few pages of. The piece, entitled ‘Mystic London’ was written in 1875 by Charles Maurice Davies.
Davies was an Anglo-Catholic clergyman, who, along with five other such men founded the Society of the Holy Cross in the 1850’s.
In 1861 he left the church to become headmaster of the West London College, before eventually returning to the church where he was increasingly drawn into explorations of spiritualism and psychical research, producing a series of widely-read books, including ‘Mystic London’

Davies’ article on his attendance at a séance is far more analytical and critical that the somewhat dramatic and romanticised piece featured previously from the anonymous author in The Leisure Hour, but is still an interesting critique upon what was, and still is, a dubious practise, but was, at the time, gaining popularity.

I am sure I have seen somewhere that ‘Mystic London’ is to be released as a book in May this year, but, if you prefer, you can also read the whole piece for free on Project Gutenberg (at the time of writing, at least)

Here I have reproduced only the chapter in which he records his visit to a medium, a chapter entitled:

An Evening With The Higher Spirits:
At the head of social heresies, and rapidly beginning to take rank as a religious heresy as well, I have no hesitation in placing modern Spiritualism.

Those who associate this latest mystery only with gyrating articles of furniture, rapping tables, or simpering planchettes, are simply in the abyss of ignorance, and dangerously underrate the gravity of the subject. The later development of Spirit Faces and Spirit Forms, each of which I have examined thoroughly, and made the results of my observations public, fail to afford any adequate idea of the pitch to which the mania - if mania, it be - has attained.

To many persons Spiritualism forms the ultimatum, not only in science, but also in religion. Whatever the Spirits tell them they believe and do as devoutly as the Protestant obeys his Bible, the Catholic his Church, or the scientific man follows up the results of his demonstrations. That is, in fact, the position they assume. They claim to have attained in matters of religion to demonstration as clear and infallible as the philosopher does in pure science. They say no longer "We believe," but "We know." These people care little for the vagaries of Dark Circles, or even the doings of young ladies with "doubles." The flight of Mrs. Guppy through the air, the elongation of Mr. Home's braces, the insertion of live coals among the intricacies of Mr. S. C. Hall's exuberant locks, are but the A B C which have led them to their present advanced position.

These physical "manifestations" may do for the neophytes. They are the initiated. I am the initiated; or I ought to be, if patience and perseverance constitute serving an apprenticeship. I have devoted a good portion of my late life to the study. I have given up valuable evenings through several consecutive winters to dark séances; have had my hair pulled, my head thumped with paper tubes, and suffered other indignities at the hands of the "Invisibles;" and, worse than all, my friends have looked upon me as a lunatic for my pains, and if my enemies could have wrought their will they would have incarcerated me as non compos, or made an auto-da-fe of me as a heretic years ago.

Through sheer length of service, then, if on no other account, I had grown somewhat blasé with the ordinary run of manifestations. Spirit Faces no longer interest me; for I seek among them in vain the lineaments of my departed friends. Spirit Hands I shake as unconcernedly as I do those of my familiar acquaintances at the club or in the street. I have even cut off a portion of the veil of Miss Florence Maple, the Aberdeen Spirit, and gone away with it in my pocket: so that it was, at all events, a new sensation when I received an invitation to be present at a trance dance, where one of the Higher Spirits communicated to the assembled things undreamed of in mundane philosophy. The sitting was a strictly private one; so I must not mention names or localities; but this does not matter, as I have no marvels in the vulgar sense of the word to relate: only Higher Teachings, which will do just as well with asterisks or initials as with the names in full.

The scene, then, was an artist's studio at the West End of London, and the medium a magnetic lady with whom I had frequently sat before, though not for the "Higher" teachings. Her instruction had so far come in the shape of very vigorous raps, which ruined my knuckles to imitate them, and in levitation of a small and volatile chess table, which resisted all my efforts to keep it to the paths of propriety. This lady was not young; and I confess frankly this was, to my thinking, an advantage. When I once told a skeptical friend about Miss Florence Cook's dance, and added, triumphantly, "Why, she's a pretty little simple girl of sixteen," that clenched the doubts of this Thomas at once, for he rejoined, "What is there that a pretty little simple girl of sixteen won't do?" Miss Showers is sweet sixteen, too; and when "Peter" sings through her in a clear baritone voice, I cannot, despite myself, help the thought occasionally flitting across my mind, "Would that you were six-and-twenty, or, better still, six-and-thirty, instead of sixteen!"

Without specifying to which of the two latter classes our present medium belonged, one might venture to say she had safely passed the former. She was of that ripe and Rubens-like beauty to which we could well imagine some "Higher" spirit offering the golden apple of its approval, however the skittish Paris of the spheres might incline to sweet sixteen. I had a short time before sat infructuously with this lady, when a distressing contretemps occurred. We were going in for a dark séance then, and just as we fancied the revenants were about to justify the title, we were startled by a crash, and on my lighting up, all of the medium I could see were two ankles protruding from beneath the table. She had fainted "right off," as the ladies say, and it required something strong to bring her to. In fact, we all had a "refresher," I recollect, for sitting is generally found to be exhausting to the circle as well as to the medium.

On the present occasion, however, everything was, if not en plein jour, en plein gaz. There was a good deal of preliminary difficulty as to the choice of a chair for the medium. Our artist-friend had a lot of antique chairs in his studio, no two being alike, and I was glad to see the lady select a capacious one with arms to it, from which she would not be likely to topple off when the spirits took possession. The rest of us sat in a sort of irregular circle round the room, myself alone being accommodated with a small table, not for the purposes of turning (I am set down as ‘too physical’) but in order to report the utterances of the Higher Spirits. We were five “assistants” in all - our host, a young lady residing with him, another lady well known as a musical artiste, with her mamma and my unworthy self.

Installed in her comfortable chair, the medium went through a series of facial contortions, most of which looked the reverse of pleasing, though occasionally she smiled benignantly par parenthese. I was told - or I understood it so - that this represented her upward passage through different spheres. She was performing, in fact, a sort of spiritualistic "Excelsior." By way of assimilating our minds to the matter in hand, we discussed the Apocryphal Gospels, which happened to be lying on the table; and very soon, without any other process than the facial contortions having been gone through, the medium broke silence, and, in measured tones of considerable benignity, said: "Friends, we greet you in the name of our Lord and Master. Let us say the Lord's Prayer."

She then repeated the Lord's Prayer, with considerable alterations from the Authorized Version, especially, I noticed, inserting the Swedenborgian expressions, "the Heavens," "on earth;" but also altering the order of the clauses, and omitting one altogether. She then informed us that she was ready to answer questions on any subject, but that we were not bound to accept any teaching which she - or let us say they, for it was the spirits now speaking - might give us. "What did we wish to know?" I always notice that when this question is asked at a spirit circle everybody simultaneously shuts up, as though the desire for knowledge were dried at its source. Nobody spoke, and I myself was not prepared with a subject, but I had just been reviewing a Swedenborgian book, and I softly insinuated "Spiritual Marriage." It was graciously accepted; and our Sibyl thus delivered herself:-

Mankind, the higher Spirit or Spirits, said was originally created in pairs, and the soul was still dual. Somehow or other - my notes are not quite clear how - the parts had got mixed up, separated, or wrongly sorted. There were, however, some advantages in this wrong sorting, which was so frequent an accident of terrestrial marriage, since it was possible for people to be too much alike - an observation I fancied I had heard before, or at least not so profound a one as to need a ghost "Come from the dead to tell us that, Horatio!" When the right halves did get together on earth the good developed for good, the evil for evil, until they got to the heavens or the other places - they were all plurals. Swedenborgianism has an objection to the singular number; and I could not fail to identify the teaching of the Higher Spirit at once with that of the New Jerusalem Church.

Two preliminary facts were brought before us; the Higher Spirits were in theology Swedenborgian, and in medical practice homoeopaths. So was the Medium. Although there was no marriage in the spiritual world, in our sense of the term, there was not only this re-sorting and junction of the disunited bivalves, but there were actual "nuptials" celebrated. We were to be careful and understand that what terrestrials called marriage celestials named nuptials - it seemed to me rather a distinction without a difference. There was no need of any ceremony, but still a ceremony was pleasing and also significant. I asked if it was true, as I had read in the Swedenborgian book, that all adult angels were married. She replied, "Yes; they married from the age of 15 to 24, and the male was always a few years older than the female."

There was a tendency, which I continually had to check, on the part of the Medium to wander off from matrimonial to theological subjects; and the latter, though trite, were scarcely so heterodox as I expected. I had found most "spiritualistic" teaching to be purely Theistic. Love to God and man were declared to be the great essentials, and creeds to matter little. If a man loved truth, it was no matter how wild or absurd his ideas might be. The love of God might seem a merely abstract idea, but it was not so. To love goodness was to love God. The love of the neighbour, in the sense of loving all one's kind, might seem hard, too; but it was not really so. There were in the sphere where this Intelligence dwelt millions of angels, or good spirits, working for the salvation of men.

I ought to mention that this lady, in her normal condition, is singularly reticent, and that the "communications" I chronicle were delivered fluently in one unbroken chain of what often rose into real eloquence.
So Christ came for the good of man, and Christ was not the only Messiah who had appeared on earth. In the millions of ages that had passed over our globe, and in the other planets of our solar system, there had risen up "other men filled with the spirit of good, and so Sons of God." I here tried to get at the views of the Higher Spirits on the Divinity of Christ, but found considerable haziness; at one time it was roundly asserted, at another it seemed to me explained away by such expressions as I have quoted above.

Our planet, I was informed, had been made the subject of special care because we were more material, more "solid" than the inhabitants of any other orb. There was an essential difference between Christ and all other great teachers, such as Buddha; and there were no historical records of any other manifestation of the Messiah than that we possessed; but such manifestations had taken place.
The Spirit then gave us an account of its surroundings, which is, I believe, purely Swedenborgian. The "celestial" angels were devoted to truth, the "spiritual" angels to goodness; and so, too, there were the Homes of the Satans, where falsehoods prevailed, and of the Devils, where evils predominated. Spirits from each of these came to man and held him in equilibria; but gained power as his will inclined towards them. The will was not altogether free, because affected by inherited tendencies; but the "determination" was. I have no idea what the Higher Spirit meant by this; and I rather fancy the Higher Spirit was in some doubt itself. It rather put me in mind of the definition of metaphysics: "If you are talking to me of what you know nothing about, and I don't understand a word of what you are saying - that's metaphysics."

All can do good, continued the Sibyl. Evil cannot compel yon. Utter only such an aspiration as, "God help me," and it brings a crowd of angels round you. From those who came to them from this world, however, they (the Higher Spirits) found that teachers taught more about what we were to think than what we were to do. Goodness was so easy. A right belief made us happier; but right action was essential.

Pushed by our host, who was rather inclined to "badger" the Higher Spirit, as to irresistible tendencies, the Intelligence said they were not irresistible. When we arrived in the Spirit World we should find everything that had occurred in our lives photographed. You will condemn yourselves, it was added. You will not be "had up" before an angry God. You will decide, in reference to any wrong action, whether you could help it. Even in the act of doing it a man condemns himself; much more so there. The doctrine of the Atonement was summarily disposed of as a "damnable heresy." "Does the Great Spirit want one man to die? It hurts us even to think of it!"

I then questioned the Medium with regard to the resurrection of the body; and was told that man, as originally created, was a spiritual being, but had "super-induced" his present body of flesh - how he managed it I did not quite gather. As to possible sublimation of corporeal integument, the case of ghosts was mentioned. It was to no purpose I gently insinuated I had never seen a ghost, or had the existence of one properly authenticated. I was told that if I fired a pistol through a ghost only a small particle of dust would remain which could be swept up. I was not aware that even so much would remain. Fancy "sweeping up" a Higher Spirit!

I could not help once or twice pausing to look round on this strange preacher and congregation. The comfortable-looking lady propped in an armchair, and with an urbane smile discoursing on these tremendous topics, our little congregation of five, myself writing away for dear life, the young hostess nursing a weird-looking black cat; the other young lady continually harking back to "conjugal" subjects, which seemed to interest her; the mamma slightly flabbergastered at the rather revolutionary nature of the communications; and our host every now and then throwing in a rude or caustic remark. I dreaded to think what might have been the result of a domiciliary visit paid by a Commissioner in Lunacy to that particular studio!

Back, then, the musical young lady took us to conjugal pairs. It was very difficult to convey to us what this conjugal love was like. Was it Elective Affinity? I asked. Yes; something like that, but still not that. It was the spontaneous gravitation in the spheres, either to other, of the halves of the dual spirit dissociated on earth. Not at all - again in reply to me - like flirting in a corner. The two, when walking in the spheres, looked like one. This conjugal puzzle was too much for us. We "gave it up;" and with an eloquent peroration on the Dynamics of Prayer, the séance concluded.

The Lord's Prayer was again said, with even more varieties than before; a few extemporaneous supplications were added. The process of coming-to seemed even more disagreeable, if one may judge by facial expression, than going into the trance. Eventually, to get back quite to earth, our Sibyl had to be demesmerized by our host, and in a few minutes was partaking of a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee as though she had never been in nubibus at all.

What the psychological condition had been I leave for those more learned than myself to determine. That some exaltation of the faculties took place was clear. That the resulting intelligence was of deep practical import few, I fancy, would aver. Happily my mission is not to discuss, but to describe; and so I simply set down my experience in the same terms in which it was conveyed to me as "An Evening with the Higher Spirits."