Friday, May 25, 2007

Working Men's Clubs and Reading

One of the major sources of education and particularly self-help for working men was to be found in the Working Men’s Clubs. Not surprisingly, attempts had been made all through Victoria's reign to control the working classes and to convince them of the virtues of industrial capitalism. The origins of the Working Men's Club movement was, in large part, an extension of just such attempts at social control.

The early, sponsored, clubs such as the Colonnade Working Men's Club opened by Viscount Ingestre in 1852, were meant to provide "amusement and refreshment as well as newspapers and books." Often they were concerned with improving the working man. At Stormant House Working Men's Association in Notting Hill, for example, neither drinking nor smoking was permitted and the library contained 400 "uplifting" volumes.

The Saint Matthias Working Men's Club at Salford, was not untypical. Opened in 1858, in "two large cottages, well lighted, warmed and ventilated ... thrown into one, and made to present, as far as possible, the features of home," the subscription was one penny per week. Like most early clubs, it attempted to combine social meetings with lectures and exhibitions. The cottages soon proved too small and a club-house was built containing "rooms for conversation, amusements, committee meetings, and school purposes, as well as a library, well stocked with history, travel and popular science." In addition, there was a newspaper room and a lavatory. Some clubs had smoking rooms as well.

Prior to the 1870s and the expansion of popular education, the reading rooms in the clubs often provided the only significant educative service available for working men who sought it. Additionally, for those who wished to read the papers, it was cheaper to be a member of the club and have access to a reasonable selection from the press than to buy one's own. In the Workmen's Halls in Southampton, for example, in the 1860s, one could select from "five daily and nine weekly London and provincial newspapers, and sixteen monthly and weekly periodicals," all of which had been placed out on tables.

By the middle of the 1880s, a typical Working Men's Club might have six hundred members ranging from small masters through skilled artisans earning anywhere between 25 shillings to 4 pounds a week. Subscriptions were about 15 shillings per year and an observer in 1885 noted that the clubs often had, as a chief room, "a spacious hall for debate, with a stage at one end for occasional dramatic entertainments. Immediately adjoining it is a smaller chamber furnished with a refreshment buffet." In addition, the visitor might find a billiard-room, a bagatelle-room, a chess-room and most certainly the ubiquitous reading-room.

At least one analysis was done in the 1860s of the membership of a Working Men's Club; in this instance one of the Workmen's Halls in Southampton. Of the first 700 members, 172 or just under 25 per cent were from employment as labourers, hawkers or porters. The remainder were basically skilled workmen. Just over fifteen per cent were involved in the building trades as bricklayers, masons and carpenters, and another, only slightly smaller group were involved in boiler-making or working as smiths. Among the remainder there were to be found shoemakers, engineers, seamen, painters, mechanics, tailors, shopmen, agents and carriers.

Clearly in the fifty years from mid-century to the death of the old Queen, the Working Men's Club movement was an influential force. Although started to encourage the moral regeneration of the working classes, the development of popular education and the growth of the trades union movement as a focus for class solidarity allowed the clubs to be just what the gentlemen's clubs in Pall Mall or St. James Street were, social organisations where men might escape from the daily grind of work, the wife and children, and yet be remarkably safe from the hazards of the Gin-Palaces and the public-houses.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Crowning of a Queen

Thursday, the 28th of June, 1838, dawned early for the young Queen. She was awakened at 4.00 by the sound of guns in the Park and dozed fitfully until 7.00. Outside the palace and all the way to the Abbey, people crowded up Constitution Hill watching the soldiers and listening to the bands playing.

By 8.00 the streets were thick with people and platforms had been erected on which, for a fee of 2s 6d one could stand to see the procession. Some, like Charles Dickens, rented rooms in houses overlooking the route in order to get a good view of the momentous event. By the time the Queen passed, on her way to the Abbey, there were between 300 and 400 thousand spectators lining the route. The large numbers may have been increased by the fact that for the first time the new railroads contributed to the massive influx of those coming to London for the day's events. According to Charles Greville, "the railroads [were] loaded with arrivng multitudes."

At 10.00 the Royal Procession set out from Buckingham Palace. Even the weather seemed to cooperate to make this a brilliant event. The Queen noted in her journal that "it was a fine day, and the crowds of people exceeded what I have ever seen; ... [they] were assembled in every spot to witness the procession." The crowd was so great that she "was alarmed at times for fear that the people would be crushed and squeezed on account of the tremendous rush and pressure." An hour and a half after setting out, the procession reached the Abbey where Victoria was greeted by deafening cheers.

Harriet Martineau was fortunate enough to have a seat in the back row of the Abbey gallery where she had "a pillar to lean against, and a nice corner for ... [her] shawl and bag of sandwiches." She had also had the foresight to take a book to read while waiting. Like many of the others who attended the ceremony or lined the streets, she was up early, waking at 2.30 in the morning and beginning her preparations an hour later. The Abbey opened at 5.00 in the morning and people were already waiting to enter.

Despite the great solemnity of the occasion there were moments of humour. The Bishop of Durham, Edward Maltby, who stood near the Queen during the ceremony, seemed to have little idea of what was going on and was, the words of Lord Melbourne, "remarkably maladroit." Things were so confused, and the clergy seemed to have such a poor grasp of what was happening, that at one point the Queen turned to John Thynne, the Sub-Deacon at the Abbey, and asked "Pray tell me what I am to do for they don't know." And clearly this was the case when the ruby ring, which had been made for her little finger, was forced, by the Archbishop, onto the wrong finger. "The consequence" of this was that she had "the greatest difficulty to take it off again, which ... at last she did with great pain."

Following the crowning of the Queen the peers paid homage to the Monarch. It was, according to Martineau, "as pretty a sight as any; trains of peers touching her crown, and ... kissing her hand." In the middle of all of this pomp and ceremony, the 82 years old Lord Rolle came forward to pay his homage. Rolle was a large man, but unsteady on his feet, and was supported by peers on each side. As Victoria described it in her journal, "in attempting to ascend the steps [he] fell and rolled quite down, but was not the least hurt." He tried to ascend the steps again, at which Victoria, according to the ever-observant Harriet Martineau, "rose, leaned forward, and held out her hand to the old man, dispensing with his touching the crown." John Martin's 1839 painting of the scene can be found by clicking here.

As the homage ended, drums were beaten and trumpets sounded and the crowd shouted:

God Save Queen Victoria
God Save Queen Victoria
May the Queen live forever

Medals of gold and silver were thrown to the crowd leading to an undignified scramble for the momentos. The Queen, with her Ladies, Train-bearers and the Peers bearing the Regalia repaired to St Edward's Chapel where Lord Melbourne commented that it "was more unlike a Chapel than anything he had ever seen; for what was called an Alter was covered with sandwiches, bottles of wine, etc., etc." While they waited, the Archbishop of Canterbury came in to give Victoria the Orb, which she had already received and he left "confused and puzzled."

On the eve of the Coronation there were fireworks in Hyde and Green Parks, and in the four days following, a great fair with theatres, ballon ascents, food stalls and dance floors up to 500 feet in length was held in Hyde Park. On the second day of the festivities, the Queen visited the park. The Coronation festivities were finally brought to an end on 9 July when the Queen reviewed 5,000 troops in Hyde Park.

The festivities were not limited to London. At Leamington there was a procession, a dinner for the poor, a public dinner and displays of fireworks. At Coventry churches and chapels held services and an ox and sheep were roasted to be distributed to the poor. There was music and fireworks as well. At Stratford-upon-Avon there were entertainments for the poor and a ball at the Town-hall in the evening. Children from the Sunday schools were fed in many places and at Redditch were presented with coronation medals. Balls and dinners were held around the country as well as special meals for the poor. Even in the gaols and the poor-houses there were celebrations. The prisoners in Horsham Gaol were treated to a roast or boiled beef dinner with plum pudding and a pot of ale or porter and the Board of Guardians of the Strand Union ordered that inmates of the two workhouses of the Union should be provided with a meal of baked beef, plum pudding and a pint of porter.

Views of the Coronation were mixed. Most people would seem to have concurred with Harriet Martineau for whom "it was a wonderful day; and one which I am glad to have witnessed." But there were those who felt differently. Charles Greville, the political diarist, was among those who took a dimmer view of the proceedings, noting that "it is very curious, but uncommonly tiresome, and the sooner it is over the better."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Fighting Fairer Sex

While fighting may have been a man’s game, and certainly the vast majority of spectators were male, there was always something new and different to appeal to the potential audience. In 1852, at Kensal-green, a fight took place between two women who according to a writer to The Times “fought for about half-an-hour, some say for 5s., some say for a sovereign, and some say they will do it again. I saw the winner led back in triumph.”

The writer emphasises the fact that “Men took them there, men backed them, men were the bottle-holders and time-keepers” and concludes by expressing his view that “some vices and some crimes are too disgraceful for mere punishment of a clean, well-ordered, and well-fed prison. Let us have the whipping-post again, and at the flogging let the crime of ‘unmanly brutes’ be written over their heads.” [1]

As with so much of women’s history, little is known of their involvement in pugilism although there is evidence of their participation as early as 1722 when Elizabeth Wilkinson entered the ring. Like male boxers, they fought bare-knuckled and fights were bloody and brutal affairs. The women in the ring were probably drawn from the lower and labouring classes where fighting was as much a way of life as Gin. Certainly amongst the costermongers fighting was expected and approved and many a personal disagreement between women would have been settled with their fists. Mayhew notes that “it is important for a lad and even a girl to know how to “work their fists well”--as expert boxing is called among them. If a coster man or woman is struck they are obliged to fight.”[2]

For the men attending the fight the excuse that it was an exercise in the “manly” art of self defence would hardly be applicable. More likely, it was the contrast of these blood covered, sweating, bare-breasted women with the traditional image of the classical Victorian woman that appealed and probably aroused the fight-goers.

[1] The Times (1 September 1852) quoted in (accessed: 21 March 2006).
[2] Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 4 vols. (London: 1851-1862), I, 16.