Thursday, December 14, 2006

The "Cheap Christmas Pudding."

As the Christmas season is upon us, it seems appropriate to reconsider that most important element of the Victorian holiday season, the Christmas pudding. Ebenezer Scrooge, at least prior to the visitations of the Ghosts, could hardly have been described as a fan of such fare. "Every idiot," he tells us, "who goes abut with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!" But Dickens himself waxed rhapsodic when describing the arrival of the rather small pudding at the Cratchit table.

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered--flushed, but smiling proudly--with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.

For the Cratchits, like the "tens of thousands of respectable families whose life is one continual struggle with poverty" the Christmas Pudding was a considerable expense. Naturally, those who were always prepared to proffer advice to the poorer classes, considered this problem and, in The Times, on Christmas Eve, 1890, A. G. Payne stepped forward with his solution to the problem and his recipe for "A Cheap Christmas Pudding."

Now that eggs are 2d. each and sultana raisins 1s. a pound, a really cheap Christmas pudding would be a positive boon to many. The following recipe will not be found in any cookery book, as it is the result of some experiments I made with dates a few weeks ago. Dates are now retailed at 2d. a pound, and enable us to make a rich, nourishing, and wholesome pudding, closely resembling Christmas pudding in appearance and flavour, sufficient for six persons, at a cost of 4d.

Take a quarter of a pound each of suet, flour, and brown sugar (Porto Rico), one pound of dates, and a quarter of a grated nutmeg. Chop the suet finely, stone and cut up the dates, mix all the ingredients well together, moistening with as little water as possible; boil the whole in a buttered basin for four hours.

Within days, of course, another letter to The Times queried the provenance of the recipe pointing out that it “must be known and appreciated by nearly every cottager in England.” The author, C. P. C. claimed that he had known the recipe for many years but in the true spirit of the season and despite the fact that it was “by no means a recent discovery,” was prepared to say that the end product, the pudding, was indeed excellent.

Other writers strongly supported the view of the recipe’s excellence. Materfamilias, for one, could hardly contain her rapture, immediately taking pen to paper on Christmas Day to tell the world that she had “substituted a little sherry for the water” and she had “placed the dish before a distinguished member of the legal profession” who “was perfectly satisfied with it.”

The final letter in the great “Cheap Christmas Pudding” correspondence was dated December 30th, and pointed out that a group of gentlemen, including a Colonel in the Regular Army, a Bankruptcy Registrar, a Prison Surgeon, a Town Clerk and a Banker had enjoyed the pudding, albeit without benefit of the glass of sherry suggested by Materfamilias. They all agreed that “it was not so trying on their digestive apparatuses” as a real Christmas pudding but seemed at least mildly concerned that their cook had costed the pudding out to a halfpenny more than the original letter’s estimate. Even so, if they were to be believed, the portions were of an excellent size for the recipe was meant to create a pudding “sufficient for six persons” while these five gentlemen “only consumed half of Mr. Payne’s allowance for six persons.” Such restraint conjures up a vision of five elderly gentlemen sitting around a sparse dining room; each considering a thin sliver of Christmas pudding before their afternoon nap. Hardly the Christmas scene that Charles Dickens would have favoured!

To download a copy of the 1847 edition of A Christmas Carol, complete with the illustrations of John Leech, click here.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A London Fog

A London fog is brown, reddish-yellow, or greenish, darkens more than a white fog, has a smoky, or sulphurous smell, is often somewhat dryer than a country fog, and produces, when thick, a choking sensation. Instead of diminishing while the sun rises higher, it often increases in density, and some of the most lowering London fogs occur about midday or late in the afternoon. Sometimes the brown masses rise and interpose a thick curtain at a considerable elevation between earth and sky. A white cloth spread out on the ground rapidly turns dirty, and particles of soot attach themselves to every exposed object.

R Russell, London Fogs (London: 1880), p. 6.

It is difficult today to conceive of the density of the nineteenth century fogs in and around London. Deaths were a common result either through the effects of pollution on weakened lungs or through accidents caused by the inability to see dangers because of the dense murk. On the 8th of February, 1834, three young men who had been out on a drinking spree with friends fell into the Thames in fog and drowned. On the same night there were a number of accidents attributable to the fog, on the river and several more deaths.

London stank constantly of coal in an age when that fossil fuel was the primary source of heat and power. The soot drifting down, commonly referred to as “blacks” and the smell of coal were pervasive as were the pea-soupers, fogs caused by a foul mixture of soot, smoke and fog. Some measure of the density of what Mr Guppy referred to as “a London particular”can be gathered from a report in The Times for Tuesday, 5 December 1837, describing the previous day’s fog.

Not only was the darkness so great [in the morning] that the shops were all lighted up., but also every object in the streets, however near, was totally obscured from the view of the persons walking along. In Piccadilly the darkness was very great, and the confusion caused by the vehicles running against each other beyond description. About 9 o’clock the Hastings branch coach, which had just left the Old White Horse Cellar, while endeavouring to turn into St. James’s-street, ran into the shop window of Mr Hoby, the celebrated bootmaker, at the western corner, which it demolished with a fearful crash, breaking upwards of 40 squares of glass.

At times the fog was so thick that the horses pulling omnibuses and coaches had to be led by men carrying torches in order to warn of their approach through the murk. Not surprisingly the fog was often densest upon the river. Steamers, which usually began plying their trade around 8.00 am couldn’t risk the river until later in the day when the fog was less dense.

At night, the combination of ordinary darkness and the blotting out of the moon and stars as well as the ordinary light of the city by the dense fog made movement in the metropolis especially dangerous. Omnibuses frequently ran off the road and individuals, such as the hapless Mr Jones from Southwark who was driving a horse and gig toward town, on 2 November 1847, were always at risk of colliding with stationary objects. Jones “ran against a heap of granite at the side of the road ... [and] was thrown out with great force on the footpath.” On the same night, as a result of the fog, a coal barge ran into Vauxhall Bridge and sank.

The fog crept in everywhere. As The Times of Tuesday, 24 January 1865 noted, “Even those who remained at home found a large clear fire but a poor mitigation of the unpleasant atmosphere that filled their comfortable rooms.” In the theatre, the voices of the actors were heard, but the actors themselves cold hardly be seen. As the century moved forward, the fogs seemed to increase in frequency and density. The growth of industry and the ever expanding population which relied on coal for heating and cooking meant that those elements which contributed to “pea-soupers” increased in volume. The Medical Times and Gazette in December of 1873 described one recent fog as “one of the most disastrous this generation has known,” going on to point out that “to persons with cardiac and respiratory disease it has in numerous instances proved fatal.” In fact, 273 people died as a result of bronchitis caused by the coal-smoke saturated fog which enveloped the city for days.

All during 1892, the columns of The Times were filled with letters dealing with the increasing number of fogs which slowed the great metropolis to a crawl. Most were concerned with what could be done to either end the great scourge or to at least ameliorate the worst effects of the great seasonal nuisance. By November of that year, the Governor of the Gas Light and Coke Company was becoming tired of accusations that they were not supplying enough gas during fogs and in a somewhat acerbic note pointed out that during a particularly foggy week in November of 1892, consumers used 60 million cubic feet of gas more than in the corresponding week a year earlier. Turning to the chief complainant, he suggested that his problem lay with is fittings “over which the company has no control” and went on to accuse him of “recklessly bring[ing] a baseless charge against this company.”

It was not until the 1960s that the fogs began to abate and eventually as a result of greater ecological awareness and stricter restrictions on those elements that contributed to the fogs they ended.

To read about one of the last great London fogs which lasted four days in early December of 1952; a fog to which 4,000 deaths were attributed, click here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Early Victorian Mountaineering and the Search for Scientific Knowledge

Victorians came to the Alps for many and varied reasons; but in the first two decades of Victoria's long reign, whatever the reasons might be, sensible English men and women felt obliged to justify what must have seemed to many a foolhardy and futile activity. In the main, this was done by linking it to exploration; the search for knowledge that seemed to obsess so many of the Victorian middle and upper classes. These inquiries were not confined to scientific knowledge, however, for if the world was infinitely explorable, so too was the nature of man; and religion was as great an impulse to the search for knowledge as was scientific curiosity.

The earliest mountaineers would not have thought of climbing without the encumbrance of scientific paraphenalia, particularly barometers, thermometers and theodolites. Imbued as they were with the Victorian middle-class work ethic, the scientists, amateur or professional, would have seen climbing for the sheer joy of the sport as a kind of moral failure. Pleasure could only be a by-product of the eternal search for knowledge.

Two of the greatest mountaineers of this early period were the scientists James D. Forbes and his great adversary, John Tyndall. Both saw the mountains as their laboratory and it was the scientific study of glaciers that brought both men to the Alps. Yet both were captured by the spell of the mountains albeit in different ways and at different times. For Forbes, the pleasure he experienced was "a satisfaction and freedom from restraint" which would "dispel anxiety and invite to sustained exertion." Tyndall, whose theories were diametrically opposed to those of Forbes, nonetheless shared his predecessor's pleasure in the Alps, writing that they "appealed at once to thought and feeling, offering their problems to one and their grandeur to the other, while conferring upon the body the soundness and the purity necessary to the healthful exercise of both."

Both Forbes and Tyndall fell under the sway of the great peaks in precisely the way those who came for religious reasons, or for the sake of personal challenge, did. Once captured, science provided the justification for their climbing. The age was one of scientific and technological advances. It was one of careful scrutiny, cataloguing and measurement, and men like Forbes and Tyndall extended those passions to the mountains. Both tried to encourage scientific pursuits among Alpinists and Forbes, in his later years, often bemoaned the fact that the idea of adventure in mountaineering was gradually displacing the values of science.

Certainly pursuit of the scientific cannot explain Tyndall's solitary ascent of Monte Rosa. He later described how awakening one morning in mid-August of 1858, "the unspeakable beauty of the morning filled [me] with a longing to see the world from the top of Monte Rosa." It was the man of passion, not the man of science, who set out that morning. Whether it was the need to pit himself alone against the elements or whether it was a whim from which, once committed, Tyndall would not turn back is less important than the evidence of his passion for the mountains which clearly transcended the search for scientific knowledge.

The age of scientific climbing received its coup-de-grace at the hands of Leslie Stephen at a meeting of the Alpine Club in 1862. That evening he described his imaginary ascent of the Ober Gabelhorn.

And what philosophical observations did you make? will be the inquiry of one of those fanatics who, by a reasoning process to me uterly inscrutable, have shomehow irrevocably associated alpine tgravellng with science. To them I answer that the temperature was approximately (I had no thermometer) 212 degrees (Fahrenheit) below freezing point. As for ozone, if any existed in the atmosphere, it was a greater fool than I take it for. As we had, unluckily, no barometer, I am unable to give the usual information as to the extent of our deviation from the correct altitude, but the federal map fixes the height at 13,855 feet.

Tyndall, feeling the Ober Gabelhorn speech a personal attack, walked out, resigning shortly thereafter. Yet the speech had some very real value, freeing mountaineering fom the death grip of science and allowing it to stand as a sport on its own. After Stephen's speech, scientists might climb mountains, but mountain climbers no longer felt compelled to play at science.

For some wonderful nineteenth century photographs of Alpinists in the collection of the Alpine Club click here.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Progress and the Railways

The Victorian Era is often seen as a period of great progress and certainly material developments continued through the Queen's reign. Progress, however, always carries with it a social cost. As Great Britain became increasingly urban, it was the steam locomotive which came to be seen by many as the symbol of the age. The building of the British railways in the nineteenth century was, as E. L. Woodward has so aptly described it, “the greatest physical achievement carried out by the human race within a comparatively short space of time.” The coming of the railways, with their adjuncts, the railway bridge and the railway hotel, brought about revolutions in domestic travel, transport of freight and accommodation for travellers.

The railways appealed to many Victorians. They were fast and efficient. They linked Great Britain into a network which allowed the transportation of goods in great volume over considerable distances at comparatively low costs. Aside from the obvious demand they created for iron for rails and coal, both for fuel and the smelting of the iron, they created a host of new demands by permitting perishables to be shipped greater distances to markets. In the process, the railways broke down the former isolation of the countryside bringing a host of new products and new ideas into what had previously been rural isolation.

In 1841, Thomas Cook started his travel firm, and by 1844 trains were transporting the poorest classes of Victorian Britain for a penny a mile. A measure of their impact may be seen in the number of people transported and the costs involved. In its first year, the line from Liverpool to Manchester more than doubled the number of travellers previously carried by coach and carried them for half the price in half the time. By mid-century, rail lines extended from Plymouth to Aberdeen and in 1865 the railways carried more than 250 million passengers. There is something uniquely Victorian about steam locomotives pulling carriages full of overdressed working folk on day excursions and of Holmes and Watson checking train schedules in Bradshaw’s Railway Guide while the latter yearns for a typical middle-class Victorian holiday in the glades of New Forest or at Southsea.

Not all of Victoria’s subjects approved of the steam-belching noisy behemoths. Landowners in particular despised the locomotives which crossed their land, affecting their hunting, frightening their horses and livestock and bringing a more disreputable element to their midst. The trains, by the middle of the century, were not only being used for the genteel types of tours run by Thomas Cook, but were used extensively in the attempts of supporters of pugilism to outwit the local constabulary. Some lines even went so far as to arrange special excursions to public hangings.

Despite the growth of domestic travel, the railways were not particularly safe. Accidents were frequent and, not uncommonly, fatal to innocent passengers. In the mid-1830s, the noise in the Box Tunnel on the London to Bristol line was said to be so great that “no passenger would be induced to go twice”. Derailments were frequent, causing, at best, delay and inconvenience to the travelling public and bringing in their wake, at worst, injury and death. But all progress, Victorians would have reminded us, carried with it some risk, whether to capital or to one’s very existence.

To see a photograph of a mid-nineteenth century train, click here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Christmas Cards and Christmas Mail

Christmas, as we know it today, is very much a product of nineteenth century England and particularly the Victorian era. Certainly Victorians enjoyed the holiday looking both backward to the maintenance of old traditions and forward with the development of new ways of celebrating. In some respects, Christmas represented the ambivalence of Victorian Society in general. On the one hand, it was a society which constantly looked for the new and more powerful. It was the age of steam, and more importantly it was the age in which steam was harnessed, bringing Great Britain out of it’s medieval past and into what can be legitimately described as the modern age. Yet, at the same time, it was a backward looking society. The great fascination with the middle ages, a movement in art called, interestingly, the pre-Raphaelites, the urge to reach out to heaven seen in the neo-gothic movement yet tied to the modernism of the railway station and hotel as, for example, at St Pancras. It was out of this fascination with both the new and the old that the modern, Victorian Christmas was born. It was a Victorian invention which was to shape the celebration of the holiday around the world.

The earliest Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 and designed by John Calcott Horsley. Cole had the inspired idea that rather than write letters at the festive season to his wide circle of friends, he would send them a card. The card is designed as a triptych with the centre panel showing a family party drinking wine from goblets. The sides contained images of the feeding and clothing of the poor. A thousand cards were sold to the public at one shilling each. The following years saw more and more cards being created and sold.

A popular image from mid-century on was that of the Robin red-breast, a symbol of peace. Its popularity probably arose because of the association of the red breast with the blood of Christ and the story that it was red because it had picked the thorns from the crucified Christ’s crown of thorns. Cards could be serious or funny. Some reflected some rather strange facets of the Victorian sense of humour. Mr Pooter received an insulting Christmas card and was more than a little annoyed, writing in his diary, “I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings to find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card I received this morning.” Sadly he does not describe the card and we are left with no idea as to what it was that he found so insulting.

By the last quarter of the century Kate Greenaway’s illustrations were very popular on Christmas cards as were cards containing elegant perfumed sachets. As the new century approached, mechanical cards had something of a vogue. Cards in which you turned a handle or pulled a string in order to create some kind of movement on the card were popular as were pop-up cards and those that folded out into three dimensional images.

It was with the introduction of the penny-post in 1840 that the postal service came into its own; a phenomenon which undoubtedly contributed to greater communication during the holiday season. For one penny a ½ ounce letter would be delivered anywhere in England. Deliveries were frequent with from six to twelve deliveries a day although one writer to The Times complained bitterly about the slowness of deliveries.

I posted a letter in the Gray's Inn post office on Saturday at half-past 1 o'clock, addressed to a person living close to Westminster Abbey, which was not delivered till 9 o'clock the same evening; and I posted another letter in the same post office, addressed to the same place, which was not delivered till past 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Now, Sir, why is this? If there is any good reason why letters should not be delivered in less than eight hours after their postage, let the state of the case be understood: but the belief that one can communicate with another person in two or three hours whereas in reality the time required is eight or nine, may be productive of the most disastrous consequences.

By the last years of the old Queen's reign, the amount of mail had increased so greatly during the Christmas season that hundreds of extra staff were put on to ensure its prompt delivery. Correspondents were asked to make sure that their missives to be delivered on Christmas Day were posted no later than the 24th of December. Aside from one delivery on the morning of Christmas day, there was no postal activity. And then, even as now, the Post Office requested those mailing gifts, especially food parcels such as mince-pies, to make sure that they were securely packed so as to avoid damage in shipping.

To see an image of the first Christmas card and read a bit more about it, click here.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Walking and Walking Tours

The primary means of transportation, particularly for the lower and labouring classes during the bulk of Victoria’s reign, was walking. “To go afoot,” Victorians might be reminded, “has ever been deemed the extreme of poverty or folly, and has accordingly been marked with deserved contempt,” but it was typical of middle-class Victorians that they would make a virtue of necessity; especially if their virtue was a poorer person’s necessity.

Middle class optimism--at least in relation to walking-- emphasised the simple pleasures and the joys that no amount of money could buy. In 1838, Albert Smith, the man whose name was to be identified in the middle years of Victoria’s reign with the climbing of Mont Blanc, went, as a young student, on a five week walking tour of the Alps. Smith and a friend accomplished their vacation on an expenditure of twelve pounds per man. “If there is anything more delightful,” Smith later wrote of the experience, “than travelling with plenty of money, it is certainly making a journey of pleasure with very little.”

“The walking party,” London Society noted in 1879, “is certainly the cheapest, and, if properly managed, may be the healthiest and most enjoyable of summer holiday excursions.” Cheap indeed, for the middle and upper class excursionist, but still well out of the reach of the labouring man for whom walking was an everyday fact of life.

For the pedestrian with either limited time or limited funds, there were dozens of attractive walks close to the cities or, as the railways continued through the century to make their inroads into rural areas, near suburban and nearby country stations. Some of Victorian England’s loveliest scenery could be found in Kent, Surrey, Middlesex and Essex. Indeed, one could walk a delightful seven miles starting at Lower Sydenham Station and “keeping down the lane to Southend, walk to Bromley through Boyd’s Park, and on to Chislehurst by way of Scott’s Park and Bonner’s Park.” Yet this walk was accessible to even the most metropolitan of the Queen’s subjects, the Londoners.

For the more serious walker, travelling greater distances, every day was something new and different. The walker might be awakened in a new village or a new market-town by “a different chambermaid, with her sweet, ‘if you please, sir, the hot water is at the door’” Following a good wash, the wanderer would dress in walking gear and stout boots and after nothing more than “a glass of creaming milk, mildly mixed with spirits or sherry,” he would be on his way. A good two or three hours of walking was usually more than sufficient to bring on an appetite that could be assuaged at a country inn.

The breakfast, served in a parlour hung with coloured coaching prints, is by no means to be despised. There are honest chops of Southdown mutton, rather bigger, perhaps than altogether desirable, but tasting of the wild thyme on the neighbouring downs. There are fresh-laid eggs forming a symphony in white and gold with the slices of frizzled bacon; and there is golden butter too, with home-baked bread, and coffee of which the short-comings are covered by the cream.
It was the freedom to go “off the beaten track” that appealed to so many young Victorians. Theirs were middle-class lives already mapped out. Their education was carefully selected, their futures secured to the greatest degree within the power of their families. Much of life was, for them a ritual of controlled behaviour with the constraints of convention. So to be free, really free, to wander where one would, was the greatest joy. When Albert Smith remembered his wanderings of 1838, he noted how he and his companion left the beaten track and “not being bound by any conventional laws of travelling, you are more independent to wander wherever you please. And in the mid ‘80s, James Purves commented that “the greatest virtue a walking tour has is its freedom.”

A man can live unto himself; for the remainder of the year he lives to his family . … So long as a man is not a cripple has a few sovereigns and a knapsack, he need never be miserable.
Walking was, as another writer noted, “the true life of travel.” Going on foot allowed one “to see, hear and feel – to gather thoughts and pictures.” It meant that the Victorian heart could be filled “with images of beauty, … with impulses of love and truthfulness.” Walking “set the soul in its fitting sphere of contemplation and worship.”

Robert Louis Stevenson's 1878 memoir of a 12-day walking tour through the CĂ©vennes of France's Massif Central with a donkey can be read by clicking here.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Punch and Judy

One of the most popular forms of English amusement throughout the Nineteenth Century was the Punch and Judy show. Punch, an evil, hooknosed, humpbacked figure was the main character in the glove puppet presentation. By the middle years of the nineteenth century the Punch and Judy show had entered its golden age. Punchmen performed wherever they thought they might draw a paying audience including country fairs and seaside resorts as well as London and the other population centres in England.

Punch himself is based on the Commedia dell'arte character, Pulcinella or Punchinello, to whom has been added many of the characteristics of the medieval English fool or jester. In the play, which is often coarse and satirical, Punch first kills his infant child when the baby will not stop crying. He then beats his wife to death. The story rambles on with Punch meeting, arguing with and finally beating--often to death--a series of characters. He outwits the hangman who hangs himself and finally vanquishes the devil through either trickery or through combat.

Although the plots vary from one version to the next, the nineteenth century play usually included, in addition to Punch and Judy, Judy’s ghost, the baby, Toby the Dog, the Beadle, the black servant, the Hangman and the Devil. With the exception of Toby these were puppets, but by the nineteenth century it had become a common, if not universal practice, to have a real dog playing the role of Toby. Indeed, some Punchmen even taught their dog to sit and hold a pipe in its mouth.

Punch’s voice, high pitched and squeaky is produced through the use of a swazzle or squeaker. Henry Mayhew interviewed one Punchman who refered to it as a "call" and said,

they ain’t whistles, but calls, or unknown tongues, as we sometimes names ‘em, because with them in the mouth we can pronounce each word as plain as any parson. We have two or three kinds--one for out-of-doors, one for in-doors, one for speaking and for singing, and another for selling.

These devices were made by the Punchmen themselves and were a closely guarded secret. They were tuned to a musical instrument and were apparently fairly difficult to learn to use properly.

Victoria’s reign was one in which the streets of the Metropolis were alive with activity. Steetsellers, beggars and entertainers vied with one another for space and among the most popular of the street performers were the Punchmen who, behind the green baize in their rickety frames, presented the story of Punch and Judy. A century later, largely unchanged, they are one of the few reminders we have of the sights and sounds of street, seaside and fair entertainment in the nineteenth century.

To see a photograph of a late nineteenth century Punch and Judy show, click here.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

State Involvement in Public Education before the 1870 Education Act

There is a tendency to believe that education came to England with the 1870 Education Act. In fact, the state had been involved since at least the 1830s and the debate over education for the the poor had been going for many many years prior to that. In Scotland every parish had had a school since the seventeenth century and as early as 1807 a bill was introduced in England's Parliament which would have replicated that system. The bill was passed in the Commons but defeated in the House of Lords where it was argued that the interests of the Established Church were not protected.

Less than a decade later, a parliamentary committee to inquire into education in London for the "lower orders" was established at the instigation of Lord Brougham. Despite his encouragement of education (which would have been controlled by the Church of England but limited in religious teaching to the bible and a non- denominational catechism)no progress of note was made until 1833 when parliament made its first limited grant to education. The grant itself was small and went to religious bodies which used it to build schools. Its significance was that it was the first acceptance by the government of any financial responsibility for the education of the poor.

It is difficult to know what percentage of the labouring classes' children attended school. Estimates suggest that it ranged from about one-third to one-half in the first few years of Victoria's reign. The most common schools were Sunday Schools where children could go if they were not working and could learn to "read" the bible. What schooling there was was sporadic and its primary function was to fit people for their place in the social order. To say that schools in the early Victorian years were simply instruments of social control is simplistic, but that they filled this role more clearly than others is unquestionable. Even a cursory glance at the reports of the Central Society of Education (1837-39) bring this into clear focus.

Of greater interest to Victorianists would be the many and varied philanthropic movements concerned with education. Among the most important were the National and the British and Foreign Schools Societies. These were founded on the Monitorial Principles of Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell and were proclaimed the STEAM ENGINE OF THE MORAL WORLD. In fact, by using older children to teach the younger, and by carrying on education in one large room, it was possible to justify fewer teachers and lower building costs. In the words of G D H Cole and Raymond Postgate (The Common People, 308), "It is a notable example of the gullibility of the historian that this probably retrograde step is still frequently referred to as an advance."

The years of Victoria's reign were years of educational ferment. In perspective, however, it should be noted that it was not until 1899 and the establishment of the National Board of Education that free public education was available to all children in England. And it was not until 1902, after Victoria's death, that public secondary education was available. In that same year, the school boards were abolished and the responsibility for education was placed in the hands of local government. But that's another story, and one that falls outside our time frame.

For comments on Ragged Schools from the Illustrated London News (1846)click here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Agnata Frances Ramsay

It was not until 1948 that women were admitted to degrees at Cambridge University although as early as 1868 it had created "Higher Locals" examinations for women over the age of eighteen. The University clearly had no intention of being rushed into opening its doors to women albeit in 1870 lectures for women were inaugurated.

The push by women continued and in 1873 Girton College moved to the edge of Cambridge from Hitchin, thirty miles away. Two years later, In 1875, Newnham College opened on the outskirts of the city offering residential accommodation and teaching.

In 1881 Cambridge granted women the right to take the Tripos Examinations and they were awarded a University Certificate if they passed. Six years after women won this right, Agnata Frances Ramsay from Girton College came first among those taking the Classics Tripos examination, the only candidate to be placed in the first division of the First Class. According to the Class I lists, there were five men in the second division, and seven in the third division. Ramsay’s attainment would have warranted the position of Senior Classic except for the fact that she was a woman. Nonetheless, Mr Punch, who always seemed to know a good thing when he saw one made sure that her achievement was recognised. In her honor, du Maurier drew a cartoon of Mr Punch tipping his mortar-board as Agnata enters a first-class railway compartment labelled Ladies Only with the text ‘Honour to Agnata Frances Ramsay’. The cartoon still hangs in the front hall of Girton College and can be viewed on its website. It was she and others who followed such as Phillipa Fawcett of Newnham College and Margaret Alford of Girton who clearly demonstrated that intellectually and academically they were in no way inferior to male students.

In 1998, on the fiftieth anniversary of the admission of women to Cambridge degrees, in the oration, the speaker noted that:

not without the help of more friends and supporters than could easily be mentioned here, two women had established foundations for their own sex, and those women come first in today's celebrations: Emily Davies and Anne Jemima Clough. Soon came Agnata Ramsay and Philippa Fawcett, taking top Firsts in Classics and Mathematics respectively, and Marion Bidder should be mentioned too, who took a First Class in both Parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos before lecturing in Physiology and Botany in both your Colleges. Was it more shame to the University that their names could not be read out with the men, or glory to you that in those subjects traditionally thought fitter for men they proved the capacity of women?

To see Mr Punch's tribute to Agnata Ramsay, click here.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Serious or Not So Serious Victorians

Most writers on the Victorian Era make the point that Victorians were often earnest and serious people. Certainly one has the impression that they attacked life, including their recreations, both earnestly and seriously. One did not simply enjoy one's self, one had a "higher" reason which justified support for an activity. I would suggest that this may well have been a class view, rather than something that was true of Victorians generally.

I've been re-reading Jerome K. Jerome's wonderful book, Three Men in a Boat; a book characterized by the undercurrent of Victorians laughing at this particular view. Perhaps Kenneth Grahame spoke for Jerome K. Jerome when he had Ratty tell Mole, “there is nothing -- absolute nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Of course, for the most outstanding send-up of Victorian earnestness, one need only turn to George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody.

If the middle-classes could enjoy themselves without seeing a higher purpose, it seems unlikely that the lower and labouring classes would have, or could have, sought to find a higher meaning in activities such as cock-fighting, ratting, dog-fighting and bull-baiting which, although outlawed early in Victoria's reign continued for many years after her ascension to the throne.

Nonetheless, it is clear that some activities were seen as being particularly ennobling. Mountain-climbing was often viewed as a spiritual activity; prize-fighting became “the manly art of self-defence”; public hangings, it was suggested, were a deterrent to crime; and even prostitution was justified as a way of letting men satisfy their animal lusts without offending “decent” women.

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