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.

For a free copy of Diary of a Nobody, click here.
For a free copy of Wind in the Willows, click here.