Friday, August 04, 2017

Victorian Dial-a-Birch

Paul Townsend, a Bristol historian, recently posted the following article on Facebook.  Paul has kindly given me permission to re-post it with credit to Paul Townsend,

The article is of particular interest as my wife grew up only one street away from Oakfield Road, Clifton, Bristol.

Mrs Walter of Clifton offered a discreet service to Victorian parents – she disciplined their children to avoid them having to do it. Campaigners who have succeeded in having the beating of children outlawed in Britain would have loved Mrs Walter. She offered a very special service to sensitive parents who felt their girls needed a good thrashing but didn’t like to do it themselves a Victorian “Dial-a-Birch” in fact.

Mrs Walter operated at 53 Oakfield Road, Clifton, and advertised her respectable chastising service for unruly daughters in the national papers. One advertisement read: ‘Bad temper, hysteria, idleness etc. cured by strict disciple and careful training”.

Another claimed ‘Intractable Girls trained and educated. Excellent references. ‘Hints on Management’, Training of Children’ and ‘The Rod’ is each. Advice by letter, 5-shillings. Mrs Walter, Clifton’.

This was a bizarre enough idea, even by Victorian standards, for a bit of investigative reporting, and a magazine called Truth sent along some undercover agents.

One of them, a woman, explained she had an unruly daughter she wanted “broken in”. Mrs Walter offered to take the mythical unruly daughter for £100 a year and presented impressive references from the Dean of Lincoln, an admiral, a general, and a number of lords and ladies.

Her guiding rule, she claimed was ‘Never birch when angry’. She also revealed that she offered a travelling chastisement service as far away as London. If she was called up specially, she charged two and a half guineas: if she was already in London, the fee was 10s 6p.

The Truth team described her as a tall, strong woman, dressed like a nurse and wearing a Good Shepherd medallion, who was quite happy to describe her methods to curious parents.

She had a strong narrow table, straps for waist, wrists and ankle and a long pliable birch rod. The hapless victim had to take off her dress, knickers and corset and put on a dressing gown back to front a bit like those embarrassing hospital gowns and was quickly strapped down.

Taking the birch, I measure my distance, and standing at the side, I proceed to strike slowly but firmly’ Mrs Walter explained. ‘By moving gently forward, each stroke is differently placed and six strokes may well be enough if given with full force. If the fault has been such as to need severe correction, then I begin on the other side and work back again.

For screams, increased strokes must be given. If a girl tries very hard to bear it bravely, then perhaps I give 10 instead of 12’.

Remember that this was not a flagellation brothel but a respectable establishment in a high class residential district and widely advertised, recommended and used.

Even so, ‘Mrs Walter’ was not quite what she seemed. Truth discovered she was really Mrs Walter Smith, widow of the clergyman headmaster of All Saints School, Clifton, and she was so busy that she charged half a guinea just for an interview.
When her husband died, she set up a girls’ school of her own and it was for this that the dean and other VIPs had given references. No one had told them that Mrs Smith had quietly changed bits purpose to a house of chastisement fir difficult girls and they were aghast when Truth published its finding.

Mrs Smith suddenly found her establishment had lost all its big name supporters. The controversy over her activities filled the Bristol and Clifton newspapers’ letters columns for some weeks and Mrs Clapp, Mrs Smith’s birch supplier in St John’s Road (‘from a family who have made them for generations’) panicked and denied ever selling them It didn’t help her cause that she had been advertising them for sale in the Church Times, of all places, six months earlier.

What happened to Mrs Smith? Did she carry on with her useful service for sensitive parents, or did she retire?

Whatever happened to her, her story survives in numerous books as an example of the hypocritical and cruel underside of Victorian society.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The First Royal Visit to Australia

HRH Prince Alfred, KG, Duke of Edinburgh
In general, I have tried to limit these blogs to England and particularly London.  But, of course, during the reign of Queen Victoria, England, and therefore London, was the centre of one of the largest empires the world had ever known.  Events that took place in the far-flung reaches of the Empire reverberated around the world and what could have had as profound an effect as a first Royal visit to Australia. 

Considering that it was barely more than a decade since a degree of self-government had been granted to the individual colonies (with the exception of Western Australia) and that the last convict ship had not yet arrived in Australia, a visit from a Royal Prince, one of Queen Victoria’s children, was a momentous event.  This was to be even more the case when, much to the embarrassment of the colony of New South Wales, an attempt was made on the life of a Royal Prince.

The story is too interesting to be told in only one blog.  This is the first of a series of three that will discuss the 1867-68 visit of Prince Alfred Ernest Albert, the second son and the fourth child of Queen Victoria and second in line to the British throne. 
Born on 6 August 1844, at the time of his visit to Australia, he was intituled Duke of Edinburgh. Prince Alfred indicated, from an early age, that he wanted to enter the navy and in 1858, at the age of fourteen, having passed the midshipman’s examination he was appointed in that rank to HMS Euryalis. Over the next decade he rose through the ranks, being appointed Captain in 1866 and being given command of the newly refitted 26-gun wooden screw frigate HMS Galatea in 1867 for a world cruise.

In February, after some time in the Mediterranean he departed for Brazil and a state visit with the Emperor of that country.  This was followed by two months at the Cape, and on 31 October HMS Galatea, under the command of the 32-year-old Prince, arrived in Adelaide, South Australia. His six-month stay in Australia was to be both a triumph and a disaster frequently overlaid with elements of farce.

Typical of the latter was the controversy which started even before the Prince’s arrival in the country.  Where was he to land?  Much to the annoyance of those who supported Port Adelaide, by then the principal port in South Australia, the reception committee decided on Glenelg.  It was selected because it had been the site of the first landing of colonists in South Australia. Then, too, despite uncertainty as to the date of the Prince’s arrival, there was the question of the decorations; they
were mean and tawdry, so it was said—unworthy of the city—unfit for the reception of a Prince; King William Street was likened to a rag fair, and every epithet exhaustive of condemnation was heaped upon them.[1]
Eventually the date of the departure from South Africa was confirmed and plans were made for the arrival of the Prince.  Days passed but the ship did not arrive.  Finally, on 27 October the signal guns rang out: bang, bang, fizz.  The third of the three shots meant to herald the sighting of the ship provided a flash without a bang! Even so, the excitement was intense.
Almost every one turned out into the streets, which wore a more lively and busier appearance than they had done for many a day previous. After wandering about for more than an hour in a most purposeless manner, irritated and excited by all kinds of contradictory rumours, they gradually dispersed with the unpleasant conviction that they had been hoaxed.[2]
Indeed, they had been hoaxed. But a few days later, when HMS Galatea actually did arrive, it was barely noticed as it slipped into Holdfast Bay.  It was not until five excursionists from Adelaide rowed out the to ship that Glenelg, Adelaide and the newspapers were able to confirm that the Prince had arrived.[3] 

A long and arduous schedule was planned for the Prince as everyone sought to engage him in formal and informal duties.  As James Dominick Woods notes, had the Prince followed his itinerary, he “would have had three weeks of the hardest labor that ever fell to the lot of a Royal Prince in the pursuit of amusement.” But needless to say, the proposed schedule “was not adhered to.”[4]

Today, in Australia, there are a number of buildings which bear the name of Prince Alfred. Some of these, such as Prince Alfred College in Adelaide, South Australia, are so named in honour of the Prince who, in 1867, laid the foundation stone for the main building. At the ceremony, the Rev. Mr. Watsford described the new college as one where “a sound and superior education will be imparted both to the sons of the members of the Wesleyan Church, and to all who may desire to avail themselves of its advantages.”[5]

But not all the monuments which bear the Prince’s name derive from such happy events.  The Royal Prince Alfred Memorial Hospital in Sydney, was erected, as the name suggests, as a memorial and as a thanksgiving after the Prince survived an attempt on his life. So, what was Prince Alfred doing in Australia, where did he go, what kind of reception did he receive, how did the assassination attempt come about? And what, if any, were the ramifications of the attack?

For more details on Prince Alfred’s stay in South Australia, download J. D. Woods, A Narrative of the Visit of H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh, K.G., to South Australia, by clicking here.

[1] J. D. Woods, A Narrative of the Visit of H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh, K.G., to South Australia (Adelaide, 1868), p. 4.
[2] Ibid., p. 6.
[3] Ibid., p. 7.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Laying the Foundation-Stone of Prince Alfred College,” South Australian Advertiser (6 November 1867), p. 2.

Friday, November 04, 2016


Thomas Rowlandson, A Dead Horse on a Knacker's Cart
It must have been around 1967 when I made my first trip to Great Britain from the United States. It was there, I am reasonably certain, that I first heard the term, “knackered.” Someone used the expression “I am totally knackered,” and I gathered, from the context, that it meant that they were completely exhausted. I liked the word and soon discovered that in the context of the “knacker’s yard,” it was a place in which horses that were no longer useful, whose work lives were done, were taken to be slaughtered.

 It is difficult in the second decade of the twenty-first century to realise that the greatest source of rural labour and virtually all transport was horse-power. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, W. J. Gordon puts the number of horses required to keep the wheels of London turning at over 300,000, and Sally Mitchell estimates that by 1901, “at least 400,000 working horses pulled passengers and loads on the streets of London.” Indeed, Gordon noted, if all the horses required in the great metropolis were placed in a single file, “they would reach along the bridle-ways from St. Paul's to John-o'-Groat's.”

While it is difficult to know the exact numbers of horses in all of England at any point in the nineteenth century, estimates for the latter years of the Queen’s reign suggest that there may have been as many as 3.3 million. Citing a Parliamentary Report, Henry Mayhew, that indefatigable chronicler of the street life of the great city at mid-century, tells us that “strangers coming from the country frequently describe the streets of London as smelling of dung like a stable-yard.” This is hardly surprising when one considers even the most conservative estimates of the amount of horse manure dropped weekly in the streets of the metropolis at more than 2,000 tons.

Clearly, Victoria’s England was a horse-drawn society, and while a number of attempts were made to better the lot of animals, the treatment of horses appears to have been honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Although horses were not, as some have suggested, the automobiles and trucks of their day, they were the motive power for the transport of people and goods. All too often abused, their working lives were short and brutish. The working life of an omnibus horse could be as little as two years; it would have been unusual for one to last for as long as five. Frequently the animals were mistreated in order to squeeze the last bit of working value from them before their bodies, living or dead, went to the knacker’s yard. Anna Sewell, in Black Beauty, has one of the characters, the aptly named Skinner, describe his attitude toward his working horses; “my business, my plan is to work 'em as long as they'll go, and then sell 'em for what they'll fetch, at the knacker's or elsewhere.”

There were, of course, attempts to reduce the cruelty to horses, but it was an on-going and often up-hill battle. The most frequent forms of cruelty seem to have been as a result of badly treated horses being forced to pull heavily overloaded wagons. A typical report from 1854 describes just such a case, noting that there were several such cases.
Several flagrant cases of Cruelty to Horses, by driving with heavy loads, when quite unfit for any kind of work, have been brought before the police magistrates lately. One of the worst cases was that of Mr. Robert Cheal. He is carrier to her Majesty, and it was while drawing a wagon heavily laden with wine for the royal cellar, that one of his horses was perceived in a most deplorable condition. An officer deposed to seeing the carman, Thomas Perren, standing at the horse’s head, and lashing the poor beast most unmercifully. The wagon was on a dead level, but the horse was quite unable to stir. Mr. Beadon the magistrate before whom the charge was made, satisfied himself as to the state of horse, and said it was only fit for the knacker. The wagon was stated to have contained 54 dozen of wine, a heavy load even for a horse in good condition.
Nonetheless, both the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animals’ Friend Society worked to reduce equine cruelty. In one month in 1865, the RSPCA claimed in The Times to have achieved 84 convictions as it continued to bring cases for the ill-treatment of horses. But clearly this was a mere drop in the ocean of cruelty. Once a horse arrived at the knacker’s yard, it was killed, broken down and everything that could possibly be used was squeezed from the animal’s corpse. Estimates of the number of animals sent to the knackers’ yards varied. At mid-century, according to one of Henry Mayhew’s informants, the number was around 720 per week. A quarter of a century later, Sir Arthur A. Helps put the figure at four or five hundred per week in London alone.

Not all those horses whose work life was finished wound up in the knackers’ yards. Some few were able to enjoy their retirement years in comfort. Between the stables at Buckingham Palace and those at Windsor, there was room for about 200 horses. The Queen, in addition to being an accomplished horse-woman herself, was by 1840, patron to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As Helen Rappaport notes, “when they became too old for work, the queen’s horses were never sent to the knacker’s yard but were put out to grass in Windsor’s numerous lush paddocks.” Sadly, it would appear that such treatment was reserved for only a minuscule number of working horses.

In the middle years of the century, there were more than twenty knackers’ yards in London. According to one of Mayhew's informants,
The proprietors of these yards purchase live and dead horses. They contract for them with large firms, such as brewers, coal- merchants, and large cab and 'bus yards, giving so much per head for their old live and dead horses through the year. The price varies from 21. to 50s. the carcass. The knackers also have contractors in the country (harness-makers and others), who bring or send up to town for them the live and dead stock of those parts. The dead horses are brought to the yard—two or three upon one cart, and sometimes five. The live ones are tied to the tail of these carts, and behind the tail of each other. Occasionally a string of fourteen or fifteen are brought up, head to tail, at one time. The live horses are purchased merely for slaughtering. 
The treatment of the horses brought to the knackers’ yards, was described by The Times as “most disgraceful,” and it went on to thunder that they “should not be tolerated in any civilized country.” Referring to the yards as “dens of infamy,” the article went on to quote the evidence of a number of police who visited the yards. They found starving horses and piles of dead and dying animals in filthy, rat-ridden yards. One police-sergeant testified, “it was the first time I had seen such horrors, and it made me quite ill for some time after.”

But in the end, the knacker’s yards provided a significant service. In a period not generally recognized for its recycling, the yards were able to produce something of value from virtually all of the remains of the horses. Amidst the foul stench and dreadful smells of these slaughter yards, horse-hair from the mane and the tail was salvaged for stuffing mattresses, glue was made from the hooves, shoes and nails were re-used, skins were tanned for leather, bones were ground for manure, fat was boiled off and used as grease. What remained of muscle was cut up for meat and sold to the 1000 cat’s and dog’s meat vendors in London who, in turn, sold it to the owners of pets. Like any massive enterprise, there were always stories of misuse. Judith Flanders points out that “in theory, horsemeat was not sold for human consumption, but most people were sure that it was.” Even if the meat and the organs were not sold for “local” consumption, there was always the possibility that the sausages and meat pies that were eaten by many of the workers, might contain the remains of one of those horses that met their end in the knacker’s yard.

To see, and download, a PDF copy of the first edition of Black Beauty, click here.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

“I saw the glitter of polished steel”

The tools of the trade
It is almost impossible for us to imagine the pain that was a part of surgery before the development of anæsthetics in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Yet even when the efficacy of ether and chloroform had been demonstrated, there were those who opposed the use of these agents on moral and biblical grounds.  There were, inevitably, deaths in the early use of anæsthetics, some of which, with greater knowledge of the most appropriate procedures for the use and delivery of these powerful agents might have been avoided. But there were also successes, and with their use surgeons were granted two great gifts, the gift of time and capacity to engage in operations which previously had been too difficult to achieve while the patient was conscious.

Fanny Burney
In order to get some sense of what surgery was like prior to the use of anæsthetics, we have the descriptions of patients who survived major operations while fully awake. On 30 September 1811, the 59-year-old Madame d’Arblay, better known as the writer, Fanny Burney, underwent a Mastectomy while living in France. Over the next several months, following the operation, she composed a letter to her sister, Esther, describing her experience.  It was, she wrote,
… a terror that surpasses all description, & the most torturing pain.  Yet – when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunction not to restrain my cries.  I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision - & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony.  When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards … presently the terrible cutting was renewed … I then felt the Knife ling against the breast bone – scraping it! –
The operation was over, including the dressing of the wound, in twenty minutes.  All those involved were deeply affected and the surgeon, Dominique Jean Larrey, one of founders of modern military surgery, was described by Fanny Burney as “pale nearly as myself, his face streaked with blood, its expression depicting grief, apprehension & almost horror.”

Not only was there the horror of the operation so terrifyingly described, there was the fear, the dread, that the patient inevitably felt leading up to the actual surgery.  Florence Nightingale, summed it up when she said,
Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion.  Remember, he is face to face with his enemy all the time, internally wrestling with him, having long imaginary conversations with him.
In a footnote on the same page, she goes on, “There are many physical operations where … the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and … the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness.”

 In this regard, clearly, battlefield amputations, despite the dread with which they were surely faced, at least did not engender the prolonged sense of panic that would have been the case for those, like Fanny Burney, as they anticipated surgery without anæsthetics. As terrible as her ordeal was, Fanny Burney survived and went on to live another 28 years, dying in Bath at the age of 87.

One would have to think, that with the advent of anæsthetics in the mid-1840s, their use would quickly become commonplace.  But that was not the case.  The use of such agents, it was argued, was against the law of God, pain was required for survival during and after an operation, individuals were somehow robbed of their awareness and this was dangerous during surgery.  Surgery was always the last resort and then, in most cases, it was fast, fierce and incredibly painful. Yet, as Stephanie Snow has pointed out, “from December 1846 until at least the 1860s, anæsthesia was a selective practice.” For many surgeons, pain was seen as an important element of a successful operation.

While pain may have been viewed as necessary, surgeons were not sadist.  They did not enjoy the pain they caused.  John Abernathy, of Barts, on his way to operate, when asked how he felt responded “as if I was going to a hanging,” and one of his students recalled seeing him, following a difficult amputation, “with tears streaming down his face, vomiting.”

By the 1840s, the most outstanding surgeon in Britain would have had to have been Robert Liston. Known for his speed, skill and, when operating, the utter ruthlessness required in the pre-anæsthetic years, he offers a useful insight into how some of the best surgeons were quickly converted to pain relief in operations. Liston straddled the years from before the advent of anæsthesia to the period in which, although not yet fully accepted, it was coming into more common use.  Before his own use of anæsthetics, Liston was known for the speed with which he could perform an amputation.  As he reached for the knife he would address the gallery, “time me gentlemen.” And time him they did.  It was not uncommon for him to remove a limb and tie off the blood vessels in around thirty seconds.
Thirty seconds of remarkable dexterity, flashing blades, rapid movements and brilliant showmanship.  Thirty seconds of such pain that few patients are ever able to put it adequately into words.  The memory of those thirty seconds will haunt them for the rest of their lives. If they live.
According to his biographer, “it was said of Liston that when he amputated the gleam of his knife was followed so instantaneously by the sound of sawing as to make the two actions appear almost simultaneous.”
Robert Liston in the operating theatre
On 21 December 1846 Liston entered the operating theatre and announced, “We are going to try a Yankee dodge today, gentlemen, for making men insensible.”  The Yankee dodge, was using ether to anæsthetize a patient, in this case, before removing his leg above the knee. The notes for the operation indicate that the entire procedure, including the tying off of the blood vessels, took twenty-five seconds. As the patient regained consciousness, he asked “when are you going to begin?” Post-operatively Liston comments, “this Yankee dodge, gentlemen, beats mesmerism hollow!” Liston was well aware of what was going on in the medical world and he soon had John Snow on his team, administering ether to his surgical patients.

Although by mid-century, chloroform was increasingly become a tool for surgery on the battlefield, there were still those who either opposed it or had serious doubts about its use. One of these was the Principal Medical Officer of the British Expeditionary Army in the Crimea, Sir John Hall, M.D., K.C.B., F.R.C.S. In a letter to Lord Raglan, Commander of the British troops in the Crimea, Hall wrote, cautioning against the use of chloroform, “for, however barbarous it may appear, the smart of the knife is a powerful stimulus, and it is much better to hear a man howl lustily, than to see him sink silently into his grave.”
Amputees before anæsthesia recorded amazing examples of sangfroid during surgery, including that of children, often buttressed by strong religious convictions.  Others admitted to real pain and terror. … general anæsthesia not only relived patients but gave surgeons time to operate more accurately and also pursue alternative operations which avoided amputation.
It is hard today to even imagine what it must have been like to undergo surgery in the years before the use of anesthetics. Certainly, though, by the 1860s, pain in surgery was becoming a thing of the past.  The next big step forward was to figure out why so many patients died after what appeared to be successful surgery and to determine what to do to reduce those numbers.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Clerical Errors, a review

As readers of this blog will have gathered, I enjoy a bit of historical gossip and what could possibly be more fun than stories about clerics and their alleged sexual peccadilloes? If you share this rather wayward inquisitiveness, you should really have a look at Tom Hughes new book, Clerical Errors.
Hughes is an expert in just such scandals.  The stories he tells are carefully documented, often using sources that have been either inaccessible or largely untapped.  Among the strengths of his book is his careful analyses of the procedural issues surrounding cases.  He not only lets us in on what was done, but on what he believes was not done.  It presents us with a view of Victorian legal values and practices which were, at times, “slip-shod” if not biased.

In addition, since the cases inevitably involve power relationships, Hughes’ book paints an interesting picture of both the formal and informal structures of both Victorian class and gender.

In this kind of writing, it would be easy to slip into the error of confusing fact and opinion.  While Hughes offers his opinion, he is clear in presenting it as just that. 

This is Hughes' third book dealing with what were cases of alleged misconduct on that part of clergy and is the first in a planned three volume series.

If there is anyone who knows about British clerical scandals, it is Tom Hughes. He has spent more than two decades building a database and writing about clerical errors. All of his books are available through Amazon and the Kindle edition of Clerical Errors is available for the very reasonable price of US$5.49.