21 November 2016


Jan Bondeson. Strange Victoriana: Tales of the Curious, the Weird and the Uncanny from Our Victorian Ancestors. Amberley, 2016.

Neil R. A. Bell, Trevor N. Bond, Kate Clarke and M. W. Oldridge. The A-Z of Victorian Crime. Amberley, 2016.

Today we have an image of the Victorian era as a sort of puritanical, tightly-laced and very restrictive period. These two books show just how wrong that impression is. Jan Bondeson will be well-known to readers of Fortean Time through his column relating stories from the pages of the Illustrated Police News, a sensationalist weekly paper, dubbed the 'worst paper in the world' by the sorts of people who happily make similar judgements about today's tabloids.
However it was hugely popular,with its standard fare of sensational crime, celebrity scandal, bizarre events, and heart-warming stories of cute kids, brave animals and strange people. And if these could be mixed with pictures of scantily-clad (as far as the period allowed) young ladies, so much the better. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

What these books reveal, far from a repressed and dour era, is a vibrant society bursting with vigour, with all kinds of crazy ideas (and people) being given full rein to entertain and amaze. We have celebrity fasting, barbers displaying their speed-shaving skills, competitive butchery, tightrope walkers, daredevil parachutists, and various daredevil acts in a cage of lions, as well as examples of the great Victorian tradition of ghost impersonators, many seeking to emulate their hero, Springheel Jack. 

The Royal Aquarium in London hosted many of these stunts. Sometimes they even performed before crowds of gasping admirers on Sundays – although a female human cannonball was criticised for her skimpy outfit, which was not considered suitable for the Sabbath. The Illustrated Police News was, of course, careful to depict it, so that readers might form their own opinion!

The Victorian age's reputation for sobriety and respectable churchgoing was rather tarnished by the antics of the 'Skeleton Army', groups of mostly young men who went around, often dressed in fanciful costumes disrupting meeting of the Salvation Army, throwing mud and manure at the worthy Salvationists. When one injured band member took his attacker to court, he himself ended up getting fined for assaulting his attacker. The judge dismissed that case sternly: “The Salvation Army was a great nuisance. Why could they not go to their devotion quietly, without making a noise in the street”.

The Illustrated Police News also played the role of a predecessor of Fortean Times, chronicling all kinds of natural and supernatural weirdness, with accounts of conjoined twins paraded in circus sideshows, giants, dwarfs, bearded ladies and dog-faced men. There seemed to be a whole community of somnambulist ladies who would sleepwalk onto roofs or precarious parapets, to be saved from the clutches of death by a brave and vigilant passer-by. Of course, as these ladies would usually be dressed in their nightwear the paper was always anxious to illustrate them in some detail. Children being carried away by eagles was also a staple of its pages,

Ghosts were always popular material, and a good ghost story could be relied upon to case a near riot around the haunted house. To add to the general joi de vivre, if the haunted premises were a hotel or inn (they often were) large amounts of alcohol could be relied upon to enhance the atmosphere. Of course, not all these stories would stand up to later examination, and Bondeson's detailed investigation of the notorious haunted house in London's Berkeley Square is an excellent example of historical paranormal research.

Freaks of behaviour features prominently in the papers pages, with 'animal hoarders' being a particular interest, although Miss Vint and her collection of cats which she claimed were re-incarnated members of her own family, seems to have been a journalistic hoax. This is often a problem when hunting down historical Forteana, as demonstrated by many 'historical' UFO records, which on closer investigation seem to have no factual basis. It's just as well that journalistic standards have improved over the last century, and none of today's popular tabloids would sink to publishing fabricated stories of UFO crashes!

Having mentioned UFOs, I was amused to see a name very familiar to ufologists cropping up in the chapter 'Misdeeds of the Rich and Famous'. Lord Dunlo was involved in a notorious divorce case in 1890 which involved music-hall actresses, disapproving fathers, love-nests in St John's Wood, private detectives and sensational court-room revelations. Lord Dunlo was otherwise known as William Frederick Le Poer Trench, the great-grandfather of our very own Brinsley le Poer Trench, erstwhile editor of Flying Saucer Review and instigator of the famous House of Lords UFO Debate. It's worthy of note that the current Lord Clancarty remains a member of the House of Lords even after the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers, having been elected to fill a vacancy amongst the cross-bench (non-party) peers. His interests seem to be in the arts and literature rather than UFOs.

The Illustrated Police News first hit the streets in 1864, and continued with its recipe of sensationalism and salaciousness well into the twentieth century. Uniquely amongst the popular press it carried on using drawings, rather than photographs, to illustrate its stories into the 1920s. Eventually its coverage of crime and weirdness declined, and it became more dominated by sporting news, horse and dog racing and football pools. Remarkably, passing through a number of changes of title it finally expired, as the Greyhound and Sporting Record, as late as 1980.

What does this have to do with a notorious Victorian murder?

Many of the stories in Bondeson's book, and in the A-Z of Victorian Crime, are records of criminal trials, often for murder, and it is remarkable to see the ways in which public attitudes to criminals have changed - or in some cases remained remarkably similar - over a period of 150 years. The semi-glorification of criminal gangs was certainly as much a feature of the nineteenth century as the twenty-first, and in the days of public hangings, the crowds who turned up to watch contained as many sympathisers with the condemned as those who came to jeer or just to gawk. I was surprised to learn that the average length of a life-sentence in the mid nineteenth-century was just seven years, although it must be said that many who might have served longer sentences would actually have been executed.

The book by Neil Bell, et al., has little of a specifically Fortean nature but contains a great deal of odd and interesting accounts of murder and mayhem, and again shows the general public's remarkably ambivalent attitude to notorious criminals. One of the cases described is that of Franz Muller, who was charged, convicted and executed for the murder of Thomas Briggs in 1864. Briggs had taken a train from Liverpool Street Station to Hackney. He was found some time later, unconscious and covered in blood from a stab would, beside the track, and he died shortly after.

Muller was traced via a watch which he had stolen from his victim and later tried to pawn. It was felt that he was able to attack Briggs with impunity because the railway coaches consisted of a number of separate compartments, with no communication between them. This led to the introduction of communication cords on trains, allowing passengers to call the train to stop in case of emergency. The North London Railway, on whose train the murder took place, also inserted small windows between compartments so that they could be observed from the neighbouring section. These became know as 'Muller Lights'.

Both these books give a fascinating insight into the manners and mores of another era, which at times seems utterly alien to us, but on deeper investigation can be disturbingly close to our own. Christmas is coming, and if you have friends or relatives interested in history, these would make excellent gifts.
  • John Rimmer.

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