Friday, 12 June 2009

The Global Economy


The Victorians invented every aspect of the modern world : I've said it before, I'll say it again. Globalisation? See the British Empire. And here we have a (albeit rather fanciful and maudlin) critique of thoughtless global consumerism ... from 1865!

Would you tease me?


"Would you like to tease me, would you like to please me, would you like to kiss me if you only knew the way?"

Such was a fragment of song at the South London Palace, a popular music-hall in the 1880's ... one of the tit-bits of information you might gather from another report in the Bell's Life in London 'Past and Present' series (see Scotland Yard below).

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Inconsolable Grief Department


One interesting aspect of Victorian culture is how death was celebrated, or, perhaps a better word, commemorated. In my third novel 'The Welfare of the Dead' I concentrated on all things funerary, and, in particular, the institution of the 'mourning warehouse' - the department store that would supply all your mourning clothing, jewellery, stationery etc. I hadn't actually read that many accounts of the shops themselves, but I've just found a new one in Andrew Wynter's collected works ... read about the 'Inconsolable Grief Department' here.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009



One for 'steampunk' fans of lost Victorian technologies .... a nice piece from Mr. Andrew Wynter on the future of pneumatic despatch systems ...

"The projector of the railway system could scarcely have foreseen the extent to which the locomotive would supersede other means of progression, and the principle of suction certainly starts on its career with as much certainty of succeeding as did that scheme. Some time towards the end of the century, we may perchance hear the householder giving directions to have his furniture sucked up to Highgate — for hills form but little impediment to the new system of traction, — or the coal merchant ordering a waggon load of coals to be shot into the pipe for delivery a dozen miles distant ..."

See Alfred Rosling-Bennett for a little more perspective. Picture courtesy of Illustrated London News Picture Gallery.

The Bridge of Sighs


Suicide by drowning was, I think, more common in the Victorian era - perhaps because fewer other methods were available - and bridges over canals, rivers etc. were danger areas. Even Hyde Park was not immune, as this excerpt from Andrew Wynter's journalism shows:-

"A little farther on stands the boat-house belonging to the Royal Humane Society; and in it are seen the awful-looking "drags" with which the drowning are snatched from Death's black fingers. Across the road is the establishment for recovering those who have been rescued from the water. Over the door is the bas-relief of a child attempting to kindle with his breath an apparently extinguished torch, and around it is the motto: "Lateat forsan scintilla," — Perhaps a spark still lingers. Baths, hot-water beds, electrifying machines, and mechanism by which artificial breathing can be maintained, are ranged around the rooms. .
The majority of poor creatures carried beneath these portals are persons who have sought their own destruction. The bridge across the Serpentine is the Westminster "Bridge of Sighs." Who would think this bright and sunny spot could be the haunt of suicides? They are mostly women of the better order, who have been brought to shame and abandoned —at least five women to one man being the proportion. The servants of the Society, who form a kind of detective water-police, and are always on the look-out, scarcely ever fail to mark and to watch the women who contemplate self-destruction. They know them by their usually sitting all day long without food, grieving; towards evening they move. When they find they are watched, they sometimes contrive by hiding behind the trees to elude observation, and to find the solitude they desire. The men, less demonstrative and more determined, escape detection, and but too often succeed in accomplishing their purpose. Those who have been restored to life, after hours of attention in the receiving-house, frequently repay the attendants with, "Why should I live against my will?" Nevertheless, it very rarely happens, here, at least, that a second attempt at suicide is made."

Mock Auctions


There's nothing new under the sun ... or, possibly, the Victorians invented modern life ... I can never quite decide. In any case, many of the criminal cons you see in London today (and elsewhere) go back a long way. I recently came across a Victorian reference to the 'long firm' (see Jake Arnott's novel of that title, in reference to the 1960s) and another classic is the 'mock auction', which can still be found in the metropolis, although I haven't seen one in Oxford Street for a year or two (but then I don't get out much!).

Monday, 1 June 2009

Morbid Stuff


Two random items from Bell's Life in London ... a typical account of graveyard overcrowding in the 1830s and its unfortunate miasmatic consequences ...

" ... Mr. Ed. Cheeper, the master of the workhouse, stated, that about 11 o'clock he heard the loud screams of a female in the churchyard, and he instantly hastened to the spot, and looking into a grave about 20 feet deep, at the north-side of the churchyard, he saw the deceased grave-digger, Oakes, lying on his back, apparently dead ..."

plus a great account of a visit to Scotland Yard in the 1880s, including a walk through the Black Museum ...

" ... There is the pistol with which Oxford shot at the Queen in Birdcage-walk in 1840, and underneath the weapon the ill-written farrago of rubbish which he addressed to Her Majesty in the form of a petition. A relic from France - characteristic enough. A portrait of a gendarme who committed a murder, then hacked the body of his victim into pieces and distributed them all over Paris. Murderer, victim, pieces, photographed upon two sheets and framed. The Labrador spear with which the Lennie mutineers "prodded" their captain. Jemmies by the dozen, and blood-stained razors, knives and daggers ... "

[image - slightly unrelated - grave-robbers from The Mysteries of London!]