The Poetics and Politics of Margate Pier

Today’s post follows on from yesterday’s by continuing to concentrate on Margate in the first half of the nineteenth century. In my reading of Barham’s doggerel verse from the Ingoldsby Legends, I argued that readers share something with the ‘Cheapside buccaneers’ the poem notices, passengers that embark happily on their journey but disembark feeling rather queasy, buffeted around as they have been by its clumsy metre and contrived rhymes. Here, I want to zone in on the particular place into which the sea-sick arrive in Margate for the first time: the pier. A piece of transport infrastructure but also a site of spectacle, upon which the town’s visitors would perambulate and gawp at the sea, the steam-boats coming in, and each other, Margate’s stone pier and wooden jetty were in this period the subject of a number of cultural representations, not least of which is Turner’s spectacular late painting:

Margate Jetty

 Turner, Margate Jetty c.1840. Oil on canvas, 47 x 37 cm. National Museum Wales.

In Turner’s depiction of the jetty, his radically indistinct application of paint projects a kind of dream structure that dissolves into the sea. By contrast, a range of textual material from periodicals published in the 1820s and 1830s bring both pier and jetty into sharper focus, drawing out their social significance and commenting on the kinds of people and activity they fostered. For the Romantic painter, the idea of these extensions of the human and built into the sublime and unfathomable seems to have inspired him on a symbolic level, so that the details of the jetty as a lived space become somewhat smudged. Satirical poems and tourist literature that appeared in magazines such as the Mirror of Literature, Monthly Magazine and the Literary Magnet flesh out the human dimensions of these iconic structures, which by mediating the town and the ocean from which the vast majority of its Cockney visitors arrived, were nothing less than the central nodes of Margate life.

One article that appeared in the July 1824 edition of The Literary Magnet, entitled ‘Margate Pier’, for instance, pointed out an unusual feature of Margate’s pier that is difficult to ascertain from a visual representation. Owing to its position facing into the North Sea, anyone walking on Margate Pier could directly experience bracingly pure Polar winds, sometimes tinged as they would be by the smells of ‘homeward bound’ whaling ships:

Literary Magnet 1824 pongy sea

A number of articles from the Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, by contrast, plough a more satirical furrow, finding in the pier and the approach of steamboats towards it scenarios rich with social comedy, deriving in the main from the mixture of classes. Two pieces published one year apart in the same paper riff off the same (bad) pun, in which Margate’s ‘pier’ is mistaken for and intentionally replaced by ‘peer’:

1828 Mirror pier or peer poem cropped

The pun in this 1828 poem, however contrived, reminds us that class distinction suffused these spaces of consumption. Coming to Margate for many was not about escaping but embracing the competitive stresses and strains of metropolitan society. Indeed, this coastal town, and especially its pier – complete with its plethora of promenaders seeing and being seen – played host to a dynamic celebrity culture, in which some ‘perfum’d’ ‘beau’ could always be relied upon to be claiming to know some ‘lordship’ or other. The following year, in 1829, the same phonetic slippage allows for banter of a more political variety:

1829 pier peer

Although this version is, on the one hand, just another bad pun in the manner of improvisatore and novelist Theodore Hook, it also (like that writer’s own puns) has something of a sting in its tail. At a time in which the political consensus was being challenged from various quarters, in these years running up to the Reform Act, such references to the possibility of constitutional alternatives should not be read as entirely casual. In both uses of the pun, in fact, Margate’s pier can be read as representing something emblematic of modernity in this period, particularly in terms of the imagination of class. One common metropolitan classification of Margate was that it was too vulgar and Cockney. If we regard this derogatory opinion as a reaction to the new ascendant modernity Margate exemplified, intrinsically related to Britain’s faltering march towards a fuller parliamentary democracy, these apparently contrived jokes about its pier, which bring class and constitutional reform into the frame, can be recognised as knowing responses to the geographical embodiment of topical historical phenomena.

An article entitled ‘The Margate Hoy’ which appeared in November 1832 in Monthly Magazine invites itself to be read in the shadow of recent the Reform Act, which came into law in June 1832. The author consciously casts his mind back to the days before steam-boats, ‘when people were not bitten with the mania of innovation’:

1832 Margate Hoy back in the day

This nostalgia for the Margate hoy, in preference to the modern steam-boat, partly recalls the 1823 musings of Charles Lamb on the subject, which can be found in ‘The Old Margate Hoy’, one of the Essays of Elia. But in the Monthly Magazine piece seems to channel a conservatism that is very much of its own immediate historical moment, in the aftermath of constitutional change that many commentators thought was dangerously tainted with French revolutionary ideas. I don’t think we should take the author at his word when he claims the essay’s early ‘digression’ into political rant has ‘nothing to do’ with the Margate hoy, as the lamented technological change here analogises and stands in for the broader socio-political one. The enunciation of retrospective longing in relation to the sailing ship as opposed to the coal-fired steamer is, implicitly, also the veiled articulation of a desire for the apparent stability of the pre-Reform past. Towards the end of the essay, when the sea journey has come to an end and the passengers are disembarking onto the pier, class politics re-emerges strongly:

1832 Margate Hoy aristocrats disembark

 The author regards and differentiates the class identities of those leaving the hoy from what seems to be a clear conservative perspective. The passengers might have been all mixed up, in modern ‘Cockney’ fashion, on the ship itself, but in making their way onto dry land via the pier, they each prove their social status and breeding, with reassuring legibility. The aristocrats refrain from ‘indecent’ impatience, while the ‘demy-aristocrats’ do well enough in imitating them; the ‘bagmen’, meanwhile, are brutes, knocking the bottle of stout out of the ‘rosy’ publican’s hand. This microcosm of a nation imagines a chaotic scene desperately needful of the pacifying politeness of its aristocracy: the vessel safely moors to the pier, but is met with another sea of human ‘bustle and confusion’, the only antidote to which appears to be the ‘temperate demeanour’ of the elite. At the same time, the farcical energy of the scene suggests that the author may be less anxious and more amused by the human turbulence he witnesses on Margate Pier…

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