Monday, October 18, 2010

Words, words, words

Reading Bob Nicholson's delightful article, "Racy Yankee slang has long invaded our language" which appeared in the Guardian got me thinking about a couple of words which have either been around a lot longer than people suspect or have changed their meanings.  Two words in particular came to mind; "pig" and "gay".
I think we have a tendency to view the first of these as an epithet applied to the police, particularly in America in the 1960s. Images of violence on the one hand and police brutality on the other conjure up visions of protestors screaming "Pigs" usually preceeded with another epithet beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet.

One of the earliest references to this usage is found in the Lexicon Balatronicum: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, Unicversity Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence (1811), where "Pig" is defined as "a police officer.  A China street pig; a Bow-street officer.  Floor the pig and bolt; knock down the officer and run away."  Another example, found under the definition of "Panney" is, "The pigs frisked my panney, and nailed my screws," which translates to "the officers searched my house, and seized my picklock keys."

So, the derogatory usage of the term to refer to a police officer appears to come from England, rather that the United States, and dates from at least the early decades of the nineteenth century rather than the 1960s.

The other interesting term I want to mention is "gay."  One of the definitions found in the Oxford English Dictionary is "Bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy."  It is not a huge leap from this to the use of the term to describe a prostitute.  Indeed, The Slang Dictionary (1869) defines it as meaning, "loose, dissipated; 'Gay Woman' or kept mistress or prostitute." In The New Cheats of London Exposed (1792) we find a description of the ways in which gay ladies (and their protectors) might seduce the gullible, and while this is pre-Victorian, the same methods would have been used even while the dear Queen reigned over Albion.

    Those bullies who live upon whores of fashion, affect the dress and airs of men of rank and fortune, and by strutting occasionally by the side of a gay lady, add a consequence to her and themselves, and induce the ignorant cully to think that miss confers her favours on gentlemen alone, and that he cannot therefore dream of a favour from her without an adequate return, which, in proportion to her splendid appearance, must be considerable.

While most definitions of "gay" focus on female prostitution, there is evidence that it was also applied to males.  In 1889, a male homosexual brothel was discovered by police at 19 Cleveland Street, London. John Saul, one of the prostitutes who had worked there referred to himself as "a professional 'Mary-ann.'"  This term usually referred to an effeminant man or a prostitute; either male or female.  According to Morris B. Kaplan's Sodom on the Thames,

The Criminal Law Amendment Act had targeted female prostitutes - "gay women" - and "gross indecency between men" - the defining activities of those who were to become "gay men."

Generally, of course, the term "gay" referring to prostitution, was used either for women or to describe a life of prostitution as in "gay life."  We can see some of this in a marvelous cartoon by John Leech which first appeared in Punch in 1857 and which specifically uses "gay" in this context.

While Thomas Hardy's poem, "The Ruined Maid," does not specifically use "gay" in this way, it does use the term to describe some elements of her dress, thus effecting the linguistic crossover between the two usages.

"O 'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
  Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
  And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?" —
  "O didn't you know I'd been ruined?" said she.
  — "You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
  Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
  And now you've gay bracelets and bright feathers three!" —
  "Yes: that's how we dress when we're ruined," said she.
  — "At home in the barton you said `thee' and `thou,'
 And `thik oon,' and `theƤs oon,' and `t'other'; but now
 Your talking quite fits 'ee for high compa-ny!" —
 "Some polish is gained with one's ruin," said she.

 — "Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
 But now I'm bewitched by your delicate cheek,
 And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!" —
 "We never do work when we're ruined," said she.

 — "You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
 And you'd sigh, and you'd sock; but at present you seem
 To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!" —
 "True. One's pretty lively when ruined," said she.

 — "I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
 And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!" —
 "My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
 Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined," said she.   

It does, somehow, give a whole new meaning to "having a gay old time!"

To read Bob Nicholson's article in the Guardian, click here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sexual Abuse and Sexual Exploitation of Victorian Children

Child Prostitute; year 1871; inscription at the back: Mary Simpson a common prostitute age 10 or 11 year. She has been known as Mrs. Berry for at least two years. She is four month with child.

In the final years of the 20th and the early years of the 21st centuries, child sexual abuse, which has always existed, came more clearly into the arena of public concern. Although less of a topic of conversation in the 19th century, it was, nonetheless, a problem of some disquiet. Yet, as in so many areas of life during the Victorian Era, concern was clearly bounded by class and class interests.

One of the great difficulties in approaching this topic is defining what actually constituted child sexual abuse in a particular period. The legal definition must, inevitably, revolve around questions of age and coercion.  As well, in a much murkier realm, it must be defined by attitudes towards both the "abused" and the "abuser." In approaching this problem, it is worth considering the concept of childhood.  Childhood, as we now think of it, was an idea which was emerging slowly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it was a concept more common amongst the middle and upper classes.  In the lower and labouring classes children were generally considered as a part of the work force and a source of cheap labour.  Quite aside from this being a form of exploitation and abuse, such young children were "street wise," knowing a great deal more about life and sex than either their counterparts in the higher classes or today's young children.  However, children of any class had no standing.  They were, like a man's wife, his chattel, and within very wide bounds he had the freedom to do with them as he desired.

A letter to The Times in 1849 reported on the attempt of "an old man dressed in the garb of a gentleman" to accost a young girl.  He apparently "asked her to go with him to a house in Oxenden-street", and, as the letter writer comments, "you can easily conjecture the object."  At the insistence of the writer, a Constable warned the girl and suggested she go home "but in a few moments afterwards we observed the hoary old sinner already referred to in hot chase after his prey."  The Police Constable, "behaved with exceeding propriety, and appeared to be quite alive to the grossness of the affair, but he said he had no right to interfere." 

Although the writer's intentions were of the best, and he goes on to ask that the Police be allowed to "address parties" who were engaged in such practices, he goes no further and reflects his own class values and his committment to his view of the family when he tells readers, "I could very accurately describe the personal appearance and dress of this person, so as to lead to his identification, if I did not fear that the superannuated scoundrel might have a wife or child whom the relation of his misconduct might shock."  So, rather than place his emphasis on protecting children from abuse, he puts a higher value on protecting middle-class matrons and their children from exposure to an unpleasant reality.

That hoary old reprobate known to us only as "Walter" who chronicled his sexual exploits for over more than half a century, commented, probably some time in the 1860s, that in his view, and probably in the view of other mid-Victorian gentlemen, "a girl of twelve years is competent to judge of her own fitness for f-----g, and many not a month over that age are plugged daily in London." And, certainly, he was well and truly into child abuse, relating how he had sexual relations with girls under the age of ten!

Unfortunately, laws to protect children from abuse - either sexual or physical - whether through intent or neglect, were weak or non-existant.  On the sexual front, it was not until 1861, with the Offences against the Person Act (24 & 25 Vict. c. 100) that even a minimal degree of protection against sexual predators was placed into law.  There were three relevant paragraphs; all of which dealt with girls.  The idea that a boy could be abused seems to be more than British lawmakers were capable of comprehending.

Procuring the Defilement of Girl under Age.

49. Whosoever shall, by false Pretences, false Representations, or other fraudulent Means, procure any Woman or Girl under the Age of Twenty-one Years to have illicit carnal Connexion with any Man, shall be guilty of a Misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the Discretion of the Court, to be imprisoned for any Term not exceeding Two Years, with or without Hard Labour.

Carnally knowing a Girl under Ten Years of Age.

50. Whosoever shall unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any Girl under the Age of Ten Years shall be guilty of Felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the Discretion of the Court, to be kept in Penal Servitude for Life or for any Term not less than Three Years, or to be imprisoned for any Term not exceeding Two Years, with or without Hard Labour.

Carnally knowing a Girl between the Ages of Ten and Twelve.

51. Whosoever shall unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any Girl being above the Age of Ten Years and under the Age of Twelve Years shall be guilty of a Misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the Discretion of the Court, to be kept in Penal Servitude for the Term of Three Years, or to be imprisoned for any Term not exceeding Two Years, with or without Hard Labour.

Only the act of abuse of a child under the age of ten years was considered worthy of being a felony.  This allowed a maximum penalty of imprisonment for life with hard labour, but it also permitted a sentence as light as two years imprisonment without hard labour!  Procuring carried with it a sentence of only two years with or without hard labour, and abuse of a child between the ages of ten and twelve years might carry with it a maximum sentence of three years with hard labour or one as light as two years without servitude.

When three Wellington schoolboys were expelled in 1872 by headmaster Edward White Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, for ostensibly seducing a fourteen years-old servant during their Christmas holidays, two of the boys were reinstated by order of the Governors after their parents complained about such summary justice.  The third, and oldest of the boys, had contracted venereal disease which obviously made his misdemeanour greater and he was not allowed to return.

The Board of Governors, which included the second Duke of Wellington, the Duke of Richmond, Earl Stanhope and Lord Eversley, was described by an assistant master as having “acted like a pack of cynical, hoary old sinners, who looked upon youthful immorality … as a sort of childish complaint, like measles!”   The immorality complained about was, however, sexual.  There seems to have been little concern, at any level with the immorality involved in the abuse of position and power.  David Newsome, in his History of Willington College, described the Governors’ lack of concern over the matter as “a nice indication that the oppressive moral code of the Victorian middle-class had not penetrated the ranks of the aristocracy.”   It might equally be argued that with the growth of the middle-class and the development of schools modelled on the Great Public Schools, the worst aspects of the attitudes of the aristocracy towards the lower and labouring classes found their way downwards.

In 1875, sections 50 and 51 of the Act of 1861 were repealed and in their place the Offences against the Person Act 0f 1875 (38 & 39 Vict. c.94) substituted paragraphs which made it a felony to "unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any girl under the age of twelve years."  To do so carried a sentence only marginally dissimilar from that of the 1861 Act for abuse of a girl under ten.  If the offense was committed against a girl between the ages of twelve and thirteen, it was merely a misdemeanor carrying with it a maximum sentence of two years with our without hard labour.

It was not until 1885, and then after a mighty struggle in Parliament, that the age of consent was raised to sixteen years.

Among the lowest classes, sexual abuse appears to have been endemic.  The writers who explored the social underworld frequently made mention of the early age at which sexual activity took place.  The over-crowded and unsanitary conditions which defined the life of the lower classes; the complete disregard, if not ignorance, of the niceties of marriage, all conspired to create a 'loose'sexual environment.  It was an environment in which sex among the pre-pubescent and between the mature and the very young was no more uncommon than the prostitution and violence that surrounded the lower class and was an integral part of life.  And while the twenty-five years of progress saw changes in the laws, it was not until these had filtered down into changes of attitudes, especially when viewed in class terms, that real progress could be seen to have been made.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Georgian London

Yesterday I came across what I think has to be, for those of us who enjoy 18th and 19th Century English history, one of the premier blogs on the subject.  I could, of course, rave on and on about it, but suggest that you have a look for yourselves.

The keeper of the blog (blog mistress?) is Lucy Inglis and the blog is all about Georgian London.  It is gossipy, well-written and historically accurate.  Georgian London was voted 'History Website of 2009' by the online readers of History Today Magazine, and also won the 2009 Cliopatria Award for 'Best Individual Blog' and 'Best New Blog'.

I have to say I am in awe both of the website and of Lucy.  You can find this remarkable blog at:

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Ladies on High; Victorian Women Mountaineers

Meta Brevoort, the aunt of W. A. B.Coolidge who himself made over 1,700 ascents and systematically explored the Alps, was a redoubtable climber in her own right and one of a small band of women who blazed a trail for women in the Alps. On the whole, while women were accepted, if not welcomed, by the best climbers, who recognised in them kindred spirits, albeit in skirts, there remained, through the Victorian Age much prejudice against them. One guide book disposed of the whole question in a short acerbic note. “Touching the much vexed question as to whether ladies should climb, we do not hesitate to say, ‘no’.” Yet when this was written, in the 1880s, not only had women been climbing actively for more than two decades, they had made some notable first ascents.

Among the most outstanding of the early Englishwomen in the Alps was Lucy Walker. A natural climber, she was on the nineteenth ascent of the Matterhorn with her father and a friend of the family, Frederick Gardiner, and was the first woman to climb the peak. Yet she made the climb only a month before Meta Brevoort, with her nephew, made the fourth traverse from Zermatt to Breuil, and the first by a woman. In fact, had the great guide, Melchior Anderegg, not told the Walkers of the plans for Miss Brevoort’s attempt, the honour of being the first woman to reach the peak of the Matterhorn might well have been Meta’s.

In a climbing career which included most of the principal Alpine peaks, Lucy Walker failed to reach the summit only three times in ninety-eight ascents. Yet she was, in many respects, a typical mid-Victorian, middle-class woman. Whymper’s engraving of The Club Room at Zermatt in 1864 shows her, bespectacled, arms folded into her long-sleeved dress, standing somewhat apart from the men in the doorway of the Monte Rosa hotel. Since the plate was not done from life, her inclusion is indicative of he high esteem in which she was already held by her fellow Alpinists.

For climbing, Lucy wore an ankle-length dress which could hardly have assisted her in some of the more dangerous ascents. After a climb, she would carefully smooth down the white print dress before returning to the inn. That such clothing could be dangerous is evident in the case of Kathleen Richardson who was nearly killed when her climbing companion’s skirts dislodged a rock which crashed down of Richardson’s head.
When she was not climbing, Lucy took little exercise more strenuous than croquet. She entertained, embroidered, or engaged in socially acceptable and useful work. Yet she, with her brother and father, made the fourth ascent of the Eiger and, with them in 1864, made the ascent of the Balmhorn, becoming he first woman to take part in a major first climb.

Long after she retired from active climbing, she would return to the Alps to visit friends and to take long walks among the peaks with her friend, the great guide, Melchior Anderegg. She was the second President of the Ladies’ Alpine Club, succeeding to that office in 1912 after Elizabeth Le Blond, a remarkable climber in the 1880s and ‘90s. Le Blond scandalised society by climbing in trousers although she wore a skirt over them, removing it only on the higher slopes.

Lucy never lost her interest in climbing and in 1913, although an invalid, she travelled to London from Liverpool for the general meeting and dinner of the Ladies’ Alpine Club where she gave a spirited and racy after dinner speech. She died in 1916, at the age of eighty-one, having seen women take their place on the slopes with men; a victory in no small part due to her efforts.

In the 1870s, several women’s names appear among the Alpinists, but it was not until the 1890s that a climber to equal, and possibly surpass, Lucy Walker was seen in the Alps. Lily Bristow was a close friend of A. F. Mummery and his wife, Mary. Mummery was considered by many to be the greatest climber of the Victorian Age. In 1892, along with Mummery and three other men and a Miss Pasteur, Lily climbed the Charmoz and, in the next several years, participated in a number of major climbs including the first descent of the Zmutt Ridge of the Matterhorn. This was to be her last great climb.

Bristow was a woman of strength and conviction, and it was she who taught Mummery “that in mountaineering, as in all the other varied affairs of life, ‘l’homme propose mais femme dispose’.” When she decided to climb the Zinal Rothorn, considered a difficult climb, Mummery went with her despite the long walk to the mountain. Although a superb climber, he hated walking and tried, all the way to the peak, to get Lily to turn back. Victorian social convention forbade his just saying no, or turning back without her, but he must have enjoyed it when, on their return to the hotel, the guests told Lily she was mistaken, she must have climbed some small hillock, it could not have been the Rothorn.

When she traversed the Grepon--it had only been done once, the previous year, and by Mummery--she managed to carry with her a heavy plate camera to photograph the expedition. Mummery’s description makes it clear that she was courageous, competent and willing to do her share and more. At one point the camera was lowered to a particularly precarious perch. “Miss Bristow promptly followed, scorning the proffered rope.”

On this aerial perch we then proceeded to set up the camera, and the lady of the party, surrounded on three sides by nothing and blocked in front with the camera, made ready to seize the moment when an unfortunate climber should be in his least elegant attitude and transfix him for ever.

Her skill in rock climbing, on that same assault, was sufficient to lead Mummery to remark that she “showed the representatives of the Alpine Club the way in which steep rocks should be climbed,” and when the other members of the party stopped to recover their wind, Lily took photographs. It was hardly “an easy day for a lady,” in fact, Mummery ranked it amongst the hardest climbs he had made.

With the death of Mummery in the Himalayas in August of 1895, Lily Bristow lost all incentive to climb and faded from the list of notable Alpinists.

There are several interesting references to Lily Bristow in Mummery's book, My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus which can be downloaded by clicking here.  Additionally, there are pictures of these women at the photolibrary of the Alpine Club. The article, "A Real Snorker" which is in David Mazel's Mountaineering Women includes copies of letters written by Lily Bristow which give a wonderful insight into this delightful woman.  The pages can be viewed at Google Books by clicking here. The article will be found on pages 78-83.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Isabella Beeton; Domestic Goddess Extraordinaire

Amost anyone who has ever stepped into a kitchen has heard of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management and, everyone who has heard of the book probably has an image of Mrs. Beeton.  So, what does her name conjure up?  For many she is a plump matronly woman of indefinable age, but somewhere between 40 and 65.  She is wearing an apron and has flour both on it and on a few places on her face.  "Jolly", one might think, would be a useful word to describe her.

Well, prepare to be disillusioned.  Isabella Beeton (nee Mayson was born on 12 March 1836, the first of four children.  When her father died her mother remarried a widower with four children of his own.  The pair went on to have an additional thirteen children. Isabella was the oldest girl amongst the twenty-one children.

On a visit to London, Isabella met the publisher, Samuel Beeton, whom she married in July of 1856.  She was twenty and he was five years older.  Four years earlier, Sam had set up as a publisher and in 1852 he published Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.  It was an immediate success and Sam's publishing career was made.

Margaret Beetham has noted that Sam showed a "combination of energy, financial shrewdness, and faith in popular print as a medium for social improvement;" elements which were to "characterize his career."  In 1852, he started publication of the English Woman's Domestic Magazine a monthly journal costing twopence which was to become the progenitor of the middle-class woman's magazine.

In the year following their marriage, the couple lost their first child.  Born in May of 1857, he died at the age of three months.  Just over two years later a second son was born and was christened Samuel Orchart - after his father and with the same name as the first child.  This child was to die on New Years eve, 1861, at the age of two years. The couple were to have two additional sons, Orchart who was born exactly two years after the death of the second child, on New Years Eve 1863 and Mayson two years later in January 1865. Isabella contracted the great scourge of childbirth, puerperal fever and died a week later, aged 28.

How was it, then, that Isabella Beeton was to become the original "Domestic Goddess"?  With a publisher husband responsible for the English Woman's Domestic Magazine, it would have been strange indeed, if an intelligent wife would not have been interested in her husband's business.  Whatever else Isabella may have been, she was not a fool.  For her and for Sam, business was an important part of their life together.  Kathryn Hughes, writing in The Times in 2005, described Mrs Beeton as "no domestic expert but a canny women’s magazine journalist who saw 'domesticity' as a subject ripe for repackaging."

It was not long before Mrs Beeton was writing on domestic matters for Sam's magazines.  Although she made significant contributions to the business, she is best remembered for her Book of Household Management.  The book itself is not merely a cookbook or a book of recipes. It is, as well, a book of exactly what the title claims, "Household Management." Between 1859 and 1861 it was published as a monthly supplement to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and In October 1861, it appeared as a single, illustrated volume of 1,112 pages.

Open the book to the first page of text and you will find, quite clearly, that the book is addressed to the mistress of a house. 

I. AS WITH THE COMMANDER OF AN ARMY, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort, and well-being of a family. In this opinion we are borne out by the author of "The Vicar of Wakefield," who says: "The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens. She who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue, is a much greater character than ladies described in romances, whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes."

The last 150 pages of Isabella's Magnum Opus  are concerned with matters relating to the house, including chapters on "Domestic Servants," "Rearing, Management, and Diseases of Infancy and Childhood," "The Doctor" and "Legal Memoranda."  But despite all of the very good advice, today the Book of Household Management is probably best known as a cookbook.  In its day it was quite innovative.  It set out the ingredients required in recipes and actually gave detailed instructions as to the cooking procedures and times.  Many of the recipes were not original having been taken from other works, but for the first time they were presented in an easy to understand format. And while it will undoubtedly come as something of a dissapointment to those who have been convinced that the phrase "first catch your hare" came from Mrs Beeton's recipe for Jugged Hare, such was not the case.  Here is the recipe of "Jugged Hare."

There are numerous copies and transcriptions of the book on the internet, but if you would like to see what the original looked like, click here. Unfortunately this is an incomplete and badly digitized copy.  A good transcription can be found by clicking here.