Mrs Brown at Margate (1874)

Of the enormous quantities of popular fiction the Victorians produced, the comic material has faded out of critical consciousness more than other genres, such as sensation and crime fiction. Humour dates fast, as we know, but from a historical perspective, it is precisely this twinned topicality-cum-obsolescence that makes it a valuable resource for understanding what made a culture tick. One very successful run of comic novels that also had a life as Dickensian public readings by the author was George Rose’s Mrs Brown series, published under the pseudonym Arthur Sketchley, between 1866 and 1882. In these books, Rose adopts the voice of an illiterate elderly woman, Martha Brown, (not unlike Sairey Gamp, from Martin Chuzzlewit), setting the character on course to visit various places on the contemporary tourist trail, such as the Paris Exhibition (1867), the Highlands (1869), the Nile (1869), South Kensington (1872), and the Crystal Palace (1875) (but also having her encounter social-political scenarios, such as ‘the new Liquor Law’ (1872), ‘the Alabama Claims’ (1872), Woman’s Rights (1872), and ‘the Shah’s Visit’ (1873)). The conjunction of the crude gender and class satire embodied in the condescending use of ventriloquism, and the topical commentary on subjects readers would know something about via more serious genres, such as newspaper editorials, proved a winner.

One of the novels, written at the height of the series, in the mid 1870s, narrated a trip to Margate. Mrs Brown at Margate (1874) has Martha and some of her pals determine on going to the town they know as ‘Margit’ in order to get a better view of the ‘Comit’ the papers have been predicting will pass over Britain. Mrs Brown has been there many times before, and on arriving, she can’t help casting her mind back to the days before 1856, when the jetty then standing was built by one Eugenius Birch, days when the town was not so swollen with quite so many ‘new ‘ouses’:

Old Jetty and new

Later, Martha gets into the spirit of the place and goes for a donkey ride along the sands. When she sees the slight beast, she has some reservations:

Donkeys are not up to my weight

As it happens, it is not the donkey’s ability to hold her weight that she should have worried about. After ambling around on its back for a while, she finds herself far away from any of the boys that should have been supervising her ride, a position of isolation that suddenly seems rather ominous after the donkey starts hurtling headlong into the sea on what appears to be a suicide mission:

give myself over to a watery grave

All’s well that ends well. Mrs Brown escapes the ‘watery grave’ to which for a moment she felt bound, not that the rest of the trip is plain sailing. Falsely accused of stealing another family’s things, Martha has to go through the indignity of defending herself to a ‘perliceman’, after which she resolves to ‘drop’ Margate for good. In her valedictory address to us readers, she admits she will always have a soft spot for the place, however. Whereas Ramsgate is a bit too ‘genteel’ for her, Margate is the ‘land of liberty’. If she were the Queen, she would build her palace there, ‘as no doubt [Victoria] would, poor dear, if she could do what she liked, and knowed what real enjoyment means’:

Queen Wictorier in Margit

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…

Margate in the Ingoldsby Legends

As anyone that’s been hanging out with me for the past couple of years will attest, I’ve recently become more and more interested in nineteenth-century Margate. It’s not simply that my research affection for urban Bloomsbury has been superseded, as such, by a fascination for all things maritime and beachy. Rather, I’ve started to realise that much that captures my imagination about the West Central district of London between the 1820s and 1840s also applies to the North Kent coastal town, and that the two very different places nevertheless shared much in common, in terms of their role within the cultural politics of the time. Both of these sites were, in my understanding of this period, at the very front line of what we might call early nineteenth-century modernity, embodying what Greg Dart (2012) describes as a ‘Cockney’ class hybridity, at once democratically open and pretentiously vulgar.

The short poem below pays homage to a Margate contemporaneous with its publication in The Ingoldsby Legends – that idiosyncratic collection of poems, stories and other literary tit-bits written (though concealed by the Ingoldsby pseudonym) by the Reverend Richard Harris Barham, which began appearing in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837, but which quickly assumed a book form in the 1840s. The Legends were immensely popular from the beginning, and beloved throughout the Victorian period, though now they’ve faded almost completely out of view, even in scholarly circles. A number of the book’s constituent parts render Margate, a place the author knew very well, but this one I particularly love for the way its form meets the tacky Cockneyism of the town, via its shoddy rhymes and lack of patience: its preference for effect over reflection. In literary historical terms, Barham is worth reading in order to recognise the continuities and discontinuities of earlier forms of satire (such as the mock-epic) with those that surface in this early Victorian period. But the poem’s chief value for me is in its work of constructing a new kind of lower-middle-class consumer hub within a literary genre more conventionally reserved for more sublime or beautiful landscapes. As the ‘Cheapside Buccaneer’ suggests, one can never escape London in this town, a (pleasantly) disconcerting moment for metropolitan readers who may have been conned into thinking the poem would take them away from themselves – to Margate, or Buenos Ayres (intriguingly, a row of houses near the beach possessed this street name). No, like the crews that ’embark so gay’, the poem leaves us to ‘disembark’ feeling rather ‘queer’, having just read a stanza that admits in its last lines how excessively ‘stiffly grand’ the whole experience has been:

I've stood in Margate, on a bridge of size
Inferior far to that described by Byron,
Where 'palaces and pris'ns on each hand rise, '
--That too's a stone one, this is made of iron--
And little donkey-boys your steps environ,
Each proffering for your choice his tiny hack,
Vaunting its excellence; and should you hire one,
For sixpence, will he urge, with frequent thwack,
The much-enduring beast to Buenos Ayres--and back.

And there, on many a raw and gusty day,
I've stood and turn'd my gaze upon the pier,
And seen the crews, that did embark so gay
That self-same morn, now disembark so queer;
Then to myself I've sigh'd and said, 'Oh dear!
Who would believe yon sickly looking man's a
London Jack Tar,--a Cheapside Buccaneer!--'
But hold my Muse!--for this terrific stanza,
Is all too stiffly grand for our Extravaganza.



Dickens and the Railings of the Dead

Dickens had a very idiosyncratic eye for the metropolis in which he lived and was fond of seeking out its neglected corners. In his piece entitled ‘The City of the Absent’ (first published in the 1860s in the periodical the novelist edited, All the Year Round, but later republished posthumously in The Uncommercial Traveller (1875)), he discusses one of the ‘retired spots’ that he particularly ‘loves to haunt’, the old churchyards that can be found in the ancient commercial centre of the British capital, the City of London. In that favourite verb of his, Dickens’s ‘haunting’ plays with and puts an unusual spin on the conventional idea that these spaces might be populated by ghosts, as here it is the author himself that appears as a kind of spectre, within and yet not fully a part of the world he ‘peeps’ in upon. The churchyards, pressed in as they are by the city’s unchecked growth, go to hide, but Dickens finds them out, determined to disturb their silence:

Such strange churchyards hide in the City of London; churchyards sometimes so entirely detached from churches, always so pressed upon by houses; so small, so rank, so silent, so forgotten, except by the few people who ever look down into them from their smoky windows. As I stand peeping in through the iron gates and rails, I can peel the rusty metal off, like bark from an old tree.

Iron railings are the conduit through which this spectre spectates, delivering a sense of distanced obsession – as they do at the end of Bleak House (1852-3), when Lady Deadlock peers through the gate of another urban churchyard in an effort to unite herself with her dead past. But, in their corroded state here, Dickens borrows them to use in another strange metaphor for the provisional yet present, the ephemeral yet palpable, which straddles the organic-inorganic divide, as so much of this writer’s imagery does.

Like Thomas Hardy’s poem, ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ (1882), which I discussed in a previous blog post, Dickens is fascinated by the vicissitudes of time upon the material relics with which we commemorate those who have left us. The paradoxically tangible absence that is inherent to these kinds of space is met with a weird collection of things. As in the saturated landscapes of Tarkofsky’s film Stalker (1979), there is a constant drip, which draws rust from iron. Other metal, such as the old lead, is re-used, like the scraps of waste in Our Mutual Friend (1865), another novel in which the living take rough precedence over the dead. And then there are the tombstones themselves, which unlike those Pip misreads at the beginning of Great Expectations (1860), are completely ‘illegible’, which ‘withers’ the ‘worthies’ of centuries gone by. As the last apostrophe of this stunning set-piece in prose imagines, the departed seem to make their voices heard, despite their de-individuation, through the erosions of time. Like Hardy’s poetry about the dead and their monuments, something remains in the air whether or not anyone cares to listen for it:

The illegible tombstones are all lop-sided, the grave-mounds lost their shape in the rains of a hundred years ago, the Lombardy Poplar or Plane-Tree that was once a drysalter’s daughter and several common-councilmen, has withered like those worthies, and its departed leaves are dust beneath it. Contagion of slow ruin overhangs the place. The discoloured tiled roofs of the environing buildings stand so awry, that they can hardly be proof against any stress of weather. Old crazy stacks of chimneys seem to look down as they overhang, dubiously calculating how far they will have to fall. In an angle of the walls, what was once the tool-house of the grave-digger rots away, encrusted with toadstools. Pipes and spouts for carrying off the rain from the encompassing gables, broken or feloniously cut for old lead long ago, now let the rain drip and splash as it list, upon the weedy earth. Sometimes there is a rusty pump somewhere near, and, as I look in at the rails and meditate, I hear it working under an unknown hand with a creaking protest: as though the departed in the churchyard urged, ‘Let us lie here in peace; don’t suck us up and drink us!’

Smoking Dutchmen

In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), a young Maggie Tulliver is somewhat perplexed to learn that her father’s head miller is not interested in knowing more of his ‘fellow creatures’ such as Dutchmen, a topic she feels she is pretty knowledgeable about, having read the hugely successful children’s travel picture book, Pug’s Tour Through Europe; or the Travell’d Monkey (1824). It is one of the many books embedded in this novel, and serves on the one hand to (further) demonstrate how Maggie’s identity is in some sense constructed out of what she reads, and on the other, subtly to historicize the narrative Eliot is telling, by particularizing the cultural practices of her characters, placed as they are in pre-Victorian provincial Lincolnshire rather than the metropolitan modernity in which the novel was written. Eliot, the implied author, stands with her implied readers to the side of this exchange, approving of Maggie’s attempt at the humanistic education of the parochial Luke, but also laughing, from the perspective of the more complete cosmopolitan, at her failure of imagination to think beyond the stereotypes her children’s book has offered her. (For more on Pug’s Tour see C. C. Barfoot (1997).

Illustration of the Dutch portion of 'Pug's Tour Through Europe: or the Travell'd Monkey' (1824)

Illustration of the Dutch portion of ‘Pug’s Tour Through Europe: or the Travell’d Monkey’ (1824)


“But if I lent you one of my books, Luke? I’ve not got any very pretty books that would be easy for you to read; but there’s ‘Pug’s Tour of Europe,’–that would tell you all about the different sorts of people in the world, and if you didn’t understand the reading, the pictures would help you; they show the looks and ways of the people, and what they do. There are the Dutchmen, very fat, and smoking, you know, and one sitting on a barrel.”

“Nay, Miss, I’n no opinion o’ Dutchmen. There ben’t much good i’ knowin’ about them.”

“But they’re our fellow-creatures, Luke; we ought to know about our fellow-creatures.”

“Not much o’ fellow-creaturs, I think, Miss; all I know–my old master, as war a knowin’ man, used to say, says he, ‘If e’er I sow my wheat wi’out brinin’, I’m a Dutchman,’ says he; an’ that war as much as to say as a Dutchman war a fool, or next door. Nay, nay, I aren’t goin’ to bother mysen about Dutchmen. There’s fools enoo, an’ rogues enoo, wi’out lookin’ i’ books for ’em.”



Board in Bloomsbury?

Recently, I’ve been working on a new chapter for the monograph I’m writing on nineteenth-century Bloomsbury, on boarding and lodging houses, forms of temporary accommodation that were very common throughout the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth centuries. (I realise there are important differences between boarding and lodging, but I am interested primarily in the commonalities of these forms of multiply occupied housing arrangement.) As Sharon Marcus (1999) has shown, these spaces violated the Victorian domestic ideal, bringing within the boundaries of what at least claimed to be ‘the home’ the unpredictability and danger we usually associate with the city’s streets. In addition to allowing for sexual adventure and misdemeanour, the boarding house was a space that generated daily inter-class encounter, even if its vertical form encoded a hyper-legible social hierarchy that gradated rich and poor, the ascending floors denoting class inversely so that the poorest lived up several flights of stairs in the attic. The boarding house thus compressed and verticalized urban difference. It lent itself to the proto-sociological eye, to the close anatomical observation of class in everyday life, and was valuable to the development of realism, naturalism, and modernism.

I’m especially interested in the particular kind of boarding houses Bloomsbury hosted in the nineteenth century, and in how they were represented in fiction. The ‘problem’ with Bloomsbury for middle-class commentators at this point in history was its proximity to the City, and by extension, to commerce. Its proliferation of multi-occupancy housing, in the form of its boarding houses and lodgings, as the century progressed, concretized the general problem by literally blending business with the domestic. Metonymized in the brass-plate outside the front door that advertised for guests, it was impossible for these places to maintain their distance from the idea of work and the material world, more broadly.

The following, from H. G. Wells’s Experiment in Autobiography (1934), remembers the author’s experience of Bloomsbury temporary accommodation in the 1880s. Reading now the author’s railings against the iniquities of poor housing then, one cannot help but wonder what he would have made of the current housing problem in London, in which the transformation of the city into a sink for global capital means that there does appear to be, for the moment,  ‘an infinite supply of prosperous middle-class people to take the houses provided’ (though not to live in them, of course). We in London still live under the negligent dominion of ‘planlessness’, but for many, the problem is precisely that, through vast inequality, some parts of the housing stock are becoming less densely occupied, not more. (The opposite is also happening simultaneously in other parts of the city, of course). One aspect of the complex mass of processes known as ‘gentrification’ is the reversion of subdivided houses of flats back into their original units, which become valuable assets to members of the extremely rich global elite. I wonder if Wells could have envisaged such a shift in London’s fortunes from laissez-faire ‘decline’ to laissez-faire ‘ascendancy’. In any case, I imagine he would have foreseen, correctly, that the ‘thousands and thousands of industrial and technical workers and clerks, students, foreigners upon business missions, musicians, teachers, the professional and artistic rank and file, agents, minor officials, shop employees’ of the present day would be equally badly served as those from his own times.

..181 Euston Road stands out very bleak and distinct in my memories. In the eighties Euston Road was one of those long corridors of tall gaunt houses which made up a large part of London. It was on the northern boundary of Bloomsbury. Its houses were narrow and without the plaster porticos of their hinterland and of Bayswater, Notting Hill, Pimlico, Kilburn and suchlike regions. They had however, narrow strips of blackened garden between them and the street, gardens in which at the utmost grew a dying lilac or a wilted privet. One went up half a dozen steps to the front door and the eyebrows of the basement windows were on a level with the bottom step.

So far as I can puzzle out the real history of a hundred years ago, there was a very considerable economic expansion after the Napoleonic war, years before the onset of the railways. The steam railway was a great stimulus to still further expansion, its political consequences were tremendous, but it was itself a product of a general release of energy and enterprise already in progress. Under a régime of unrestricted private enterprise, this burst of vigour produced the most remarkable and lamentable results. A system of ninety-nine year building leases was devised, which made vast fortunes for the ground landlords and rendered any subsequent reconstruction of the houses put up almost impossible until the ground lease fell in. Under these conditions private enterprise spewed a vast quantity of extremely unsuitable building all over the London area, and for four or five generations made an uncomfortable incurable stress of the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

It is only now, after a century, that the weathered and decaying lava of this mercenary eruption is being slowly replaced—by new feats of private enterprise almost as greedy and unforeseeing. Once they were erected there was no getting rid of these ugly dingy pretentious substitutes for civilized housing. They occupied the ground. There was no choice; people just had to do with them and pay the high rents demanded. From the individualistic point of view it was an admirable state of affairs. To most Londoners of my generation these rows of jerry-built unalterable homes seemed to be as much in the nature of things as rain in September and it is only with the wisdom of retrospect, that I realize the complete irrational scrambling planlessness of which all of us who had to live in London were the victims.

The recklessly unimaginative entrepreneurs who built these great areas of nineteenth century London and no doubt made off to more agreeable surroundings with the income and profits accruing, seem to have thought, if they thought at all, that there was an infinite supply of prosperous middle-class people to take the houses provided. Each had an ill-lit basement with kitchen, coal cellars and so forth, below the ground level. Above this was the dining-room floor capable of division by folding doors into a small dining-room and a bureau; above this again was a drawing-room and above this a floor or so of bedrooms in diminishing scale. No bathroom was provided and at first the plumbing was of a very primitive kind. Servants were expected to be cheap and servile and grateful, and most things, coals, slops, and so forth had to be carried by hand up and down the one staircase. This was the London house, that bed of Procrustes to which the main masses of the accumulating population of the most swiftly growing city in the world, including thousands and thousands of industrial and technical workers and clerks, students, foreigners upon business missions, musicians, teachers, the professional and artistic rank and file, agents, minor officials, shop employees living out and everyone indeed who ranked between the prosperous householder and the slum denizen, had to fit their lives. The multiplying multitude poured into these moulds with no chance of protest or escape. From the first these houses were cut-up by sub-letting and underwent all sorts of cheap and clumsy adaptations to the real needs of the time. It is only because the thing was spread over a hundred years and not concentrated into a few weeks that history fails to realize what sustained disaster, how much massacre, degeneration and disablement of lives, was due to the housing of London in the nineteenth century.

Brewing Trouble

Brewery Workers in St Giles Circus 1875

Brewers outside the Combe and Co’s Brewery, Castle Street, St Giles Circus, London (1875)

 On Monday 17th 1814, the area surrounding St. Giles was subject to what the Morning Post described as ‘one of the most melancholy accidents we ever remember’:

About six o’clock, one of the vats in the extensive premises of Messrs. HENRY MEUX and Co. in Banbury-Street, St. Giles’s burst, and in a moment’s time New-street, George-street, and several others in the vicinity, were deluged with the contents amounting to 3,500 barrels of strong beer. The fluid, in its course, swept every thing before it. Two houses in New-street, adjoining the brew-house were totally demolished. The inhabitants, who were of the poorer class, were all at home. In one of them they were waking a child that died on Sunday morning.[1]

Though there is the temptation in hindsight to riff on the farcicality of what has been called The Great Beer Flood of London, commentators at the time recognised that this was nothing less than a catastrophe. In the end, the body count was eight. The dead were of Irish descent, as we might have anticipated from the flood’s location in a part of London characterised by its Hibernian immigrant population, and all of them were women and children – the men were still at work, and thus were not yet in the crowded basements they knew as home. Those who were unfortunate enough to be indoors when the vats burst clambered onto what furniture they had in an attempt to escape the rising brown waters. As so often in disasters (natural, man-made, or a mixture of the two – as in this case) poverty exacerbated the consequences of the initial calamity. That marginal detail of antediluvian infant mortality reminds us that the accident only supplemented a generally high child death toll, it being for the poor in particular an all too common part of the fabric of everyday life.

As is now the case, disaster makes a fine spectacle for those not intimately acquainted with it: a letter by ‘A FRIEND TO HUMANITY’ to the Morning Post bears witness to the author’s self-consciously benevolent attempt to visit the scene of destruction. After dodging collapsible walls and bristling at the presence of so many other gawping spectators, our philanthropist returns home and writes an angry letter about it all, one peculiar example of the voluminous middle class discourse on the ill effects of alcohol upon the poor:

 I have always held it as my firm opinion, that the many large and extensive breweries and distilleries in this metropolis (though highly necessary in themselves), are most dangerous establishments, and at the same time great public nuisances, and should not be permitted to stand in the heart of the town, but should be detached from it, as our magazines for gun-powder are, being, in my opinion, equally dangerous with them…[2]

[1] The Morning Post Wed 19 Oct 1814.

[2] The Morning Post Sat 29 Oct 1814.

Child meets Burglar

Editha's Burglar

Frances Hodgson Burnett, novelist of several famous children’s fictions, including The Secret Garden (1911), also wrote a novella called Editha’s Burglar that was published in 1877. The illustration above accompanies the somewhat sickly episode when, on hearing some noise on the ground floor, the saint-like child of the title creeps downstairs and disturbs a burglar at work. As the caption records, she kindly warns him not to be frightened – ‘I don’t want to hurt you’ – before requesting that he be quiet so as not to wake her sleeping mother. When, in 1904, Edith Nesbit rewrote this incident in The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), she played it much more for laughs. Her children have obviously read earlier depictions of encounters between children and burglars, such as that related above, and struggle to remember the etiquette.

A product of the lag between suburbia’s energetic expansion and a much slower concomitant expansion of street lighting and police presence, the professionalisation of burglary was a hot topic in the press and culture more broadly towards the end of nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth. Fictions from this period often draw from a conflicted discourse upon the figure of the burglar, tapping into anxieties about the security of the middle-class home as well as worries about the enormous social inequalities of the time that were the material basis for acquisitive crime, then as now. If you’re interested more in this topic, do read the work of historian Dr Eloise Moss (Oxford), who has done some really pioneering research into burglary in this period:

I’ve also published a chapter about G. K. Chesterton and burglary in an essay collection about this author’s city writings, co-edited by Dr. Matthew Beaumont (UCL) and I, which came out in December 2013:



‘Home-Gardening for Ladies’ (1857)

In 1857, an article by Caroline A. White appeared in the periodical The Ladies’ Cabinet entitled ‘Home-Gardening for Ladies’. It offered some helpful tips for residents of the recently built sprawling London suburbs, where ‘green fields [were] daily disappearing before “freehold lots for building leases”’. Evidently, the gardens of these new houses had been plots themselves in the immediate past like those surrounding them. This was a horticultural problem, as the spectre of that workmanlike history always threatened to surface in the flower beds:

I have witnessed the formation and growth, aye, and sometimes the dying out, of many of these suburban fore-courts and gardens, and know full well the difficulties with which the proprietor has to struggle, unless the constant relays of mould and manure, and the attendance of a gardener from the nearest nurseryman’s, and a frequent renewal of plants, keep up an extravagant and meretricious beauty, or till the whole lapses into a wilderness of weeds; or in a fit of hopelessness or economy, is suddenly converted into a gravelled court.[i]

The origins of this initial struggle to secure a garden from a building plot lie beneath, of course, the soil having been corrupted by building debris. When it was a construction site the ground suffered a violation that changed its very composition. The place requires costly attention if it is ever to recover:

With the digging-out of the foundations of the intended dwelling comes the sale of the real mould that bedded the grassy turf it has encroached on; and after having been beaten down for months with scaffolding and trampling feet, the inequalities of the surface are filled up with a compost of brick-layer’s rubbish, over which sundry barrows of yellow clay are thrown…

The language is strikingly physical, ‘encroached’, ‘beaten’, ‘trampling’, ‘filled up’, and ‘thrown’ being suggestive of some kind of violence, a primal scene of abuse that can only ever be partly hidden by the ‘oblong centre bed’ that currently features. The advertising boards that surround building plots describing fully-built houses aim to distract attention away from the sites as they actually appear, suggesting that they are peculiarly future-oriented kinds of space.[ii] Yet construction work has an unintentionally lengthy afterlife in the places where it is has been undertaken, echoes of the builders’ ‘trampling feet’ lingering on in ideally feminised domestic environments long after the workmen have vanished.

White suggests that all is not lost, however, and a viable garden can be won, with a degree of effort. Indeed, there can even be unexpected benefits to the speculative builder’s replacement of industrial ‘yellow clay’ for ‘real mould’:

…this condition is not in itself, inimical to future culture; on the contrary, the sub-stratum of builder’s rubbish creates capital drainage, and the clayey soil is infinitely better than a sandy one, and may be lightened and enriched…with the addition of a few barrowfuls of stable manure, easily procurable in any neighbourhood…

In the new suburban houses, constructed swiftly by speculative builders at the edge of Victorian cities, and in particular, London, it was a challenge for the owners to make the best of it: in their gardens, women of the ascendant swollen middle classes were on the front-line, working hard to secure what social capital they could from the commodity into which they had invested: to transform a plot into a garden, and thus, a house into a home.  


[i] Caroline A. White, ‘Home Gardening for Ladies’, The Ladies’ Cabinet, 1 Jan 1857.

[ii] Ian Sinclair writes compellingly of the weirdly futuristic character of contemporary building plots and the advertising billboards that encircle them when he discusses the site in Hackney currly being prepared for ‘London 2012’ : ‘this termite activity, the neurotic compulsion to enclose and alienate, justifies itself by exploiting temporary fences to use as masking screens, noticeboards for sponsors’ boasts, assertions of a bright, computer-generated future.’  ‘The Olympics Scam’, in London Review of Books, Vol. 30 No. 12, 19 June 2008, p17-23.