Thursday, 31 October 2013

Satire and Seriousness: Chartist ideas explored in Punch! And Gaskell’s Mary Barton

When reading Gaskell’s Mary Barton for the first time I was struck by the characterisation of John Barton. Barton is wholly infatuated by his idea of inequality between the working classes and the factory owners within the Manchester area.  I became interested in the motivation behind his discontent; what would make a man commit the acts Barton does?

As such, my original intention for this blog was to explore Chartist Propaganda. I wanted to uncover any possible triggers for any physical violence that may have ensued due to Chartist beliefs in the Victorian era. In order to do this I visited the British Library; I was looking to obtain a copy of the Northern Star, in which I hoped to find examples of inflammatory statements. However upon my arrival at the British Library I was to be disappointed; they told me that they didn't hold any of their newspapers in the Library itself. I had to change my aim as a result of this; I did some research and uncovered a couple of satirical sources from Punch! I found it interesting that such a serious subject could be satirised and I desired to make a comparison between the satirical tones of the Punch! cartoons and the underlying seriousness of Gaskell’s work. In order to do this I isolated some quotes from Mary Barton which I felt would stand well in comparison with the sources.

“I wish to impress what the workman feels and thinks… there are earnest men among these people, men who have endured wrongs without complaining, but without… forgetting or forgiving those who have caused this woe” (Mary Barton, 24)
"Not So Very Unreasonable!!! Eh?"

The Punch! source to the left depicts a member of the chartists presenting John Russell, the prime minister at the time, with a petition. The figures are presented in a surprising manner; the chartist is considerably larger than the man supposedly in power. The Charter he holds is almost superfluous in size. The words expressed at the bottom of the source, “Not So Very Unreasonable!!! Eh?” suggest that the artist (Leech) is satirising the meeting between the two men. It could be argued that Leech has presented these ideas in such a manner to favour the Chartist movement. The Charter is large due to the amount of signatures that supposedly fill it; the evidence for the need for change is great, yet still it is ignored.

It is in this ignorance that Gaskell’s statement becomes significant. She is giving a voice to men who have no way of voicing their opinions themselves. She is providing a warning to those in power (i.e. John Russell). The idea that the men endure “without… forgetting or forgiving” is quite foreboding; under Leech’s satirical idea lies a very serious notion. Gaskell constantly alludes to the lack of empathy between the factory owners and the factory workers in Manchester. Her statement brings to light an important issue; the treatment of the working classes at this time is driving a gulf between themselves and their employers which, if not closed, could possibly be irreparable.

“[Barton] could bear and endure much without complaining could he also see that his employers were bearing their share” (Mary Barton, 24)
"Now Mind You Know- If I Kill You, It's Nothing
But If You Kill Me, By Jingo It's Murder!"
This is another image from Leech that speaks well about the inequalities between the working and ruling classes in this period. The constable here is attempting to calm a violent chartist; stating that, “If I Kill You, It’s Nothing, But If You Kill Me, By Jingo it’s Murder”. These sentiments echo the inequality that was explored in the previous source. The policeman here knows he is in a position of power; it seems as if he abuses this position with such a statement. There is no value placed on the chartist’s life, he is “nothing”. This seems to agree with the worthlessness that Gaskell’s John Barton is portrayed to be feeling.  It is the lack of empathy once more that is significant in Gaskell’s statement; Barton would be able to go through his hardships if “his employers were bearing their share” as well.

Depiction of the Rich VS the Depiction of the Poor
Gaskell depicts this disparity between the two classes most fervently in her work when describing the seemingly insignificant pursuits of the factory owners in her novel. This is most apparent in her portrayal of Amy; Mr Carson’s sixteen year old daughter. She expresses her desire for a rose in passionate terms, “you know you did go and forget to ask Bigland for that rose… Papa will give it to me… he knows his little daughter can’t live without flowers and scents” (68). While this is happening Gaskell’s main protagonists are embroiled in trials which are literally a matter of life and death. Gaskell’s depiction of Mr Davenport’s death is hugely significant, she describes how “the fearful clay colour of death was over all… they stood round him, still and silent; even the wife checked her sobs, though her heart was likely to break” (71). The description of death as “clay coloured” serves to emphasise the disdain which this event embodies; it is plain and direct. The contrast between the two events is deliberate; Gaskell seems to implore the reader to sympathise with the poorer class in this instance. This idea is most clear when Davenport himself states, “O Lord God” I thank thee that the hard struggle of living is over” (71). This is highly emotive; there is a definitive sense of desperation about the state of the working classes here.
Kennington Common Mass Meeting, 1848

Leech’s Punch! cartoons are indeed satirical but through Gaskell one is made aware of the very reality of the issues which they wish to portray. It is satire with a very real message at its heart.

A Real Demonstration: Kennington Common Mass Meeting
The reality of these issues was arguably shown on April 10th 1848, wherein “it was claimed that over 300,000 assembled at Kennington Common” (Simkin, 1997-2013). The workers then went on to present a petition which allegedly held over” 1,975,496” signatures (Simkin, 1997-2013). The protest was peaceful, but it certainly highlights the working classes desire for change.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Eccentric: Taxidermy


Taxidermy is the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of animals for display. It became a popular part of interior design and décor in the Victorian era and today, it still receives the same amusement as it once did.

Polly Morgan, a taxidermist and sculpture, says that a lot of people “turned against taxidermy” in recent years. She goes on to mention that this is due to a lack of understanding the art and that people are now starting to embrace the skills again.

Below are a few examples of taxidermy which in today's modern world do still exist in certain places including offices and homes, usually a portrayal of wealth and style.

Anthropomorphic Taxidermy

The Great Exhibition:

In the late 19th century, a style known as Anthropomorphic taxidermy became popular; stuffed animals were dressed in a way that resembled the garments of people and were also displayed as if interacting in human activities. An early example of this form of taxidermy was displayed by Herman Ploucquet from Stuttgart, Germany, at the Great Exhibition, otherwise known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition that took place in Hyde Park, London from 1st May to 11th October 1851.

The Great Exhibition was organised by Henry Cole and prince Albert (husband of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria). Many famous people of the time attended this exhibition, including Charles Darwin, Samuel Colt, members of the Orleanist Royal Family and the writers Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Elliot and Alfred Tennyson.

The Great Exhibition, 1851

Walter Potter:

The English taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918) was the best-known practitioner in this genre. He became famous as an icon of Victorian eccentricity with his most famous work being The Death and Burial of Cock Robin. His museum in Bramber, Sussex, included the most peculiar, yet uniquely brilliant taxidermy, ranging from bizarrely deformed animals such as multi-legged kittens to simulations of human situations, for example, a classroom of rabbits and a kitten tea party. His museum was incredibly popular that an extension was built on a platform at Bramber railway station. However, this museum was later closed in the '70s, although in 2010, many of Potter's works were exhibited by the artist Sir Peter Blake at London's 'Museum of Everything'.

The subsequent dispersal of Potter's works has meant the loss of a truly unique Victorian legacy” says Pat Morris, writer of a Walter Potter biography.

Museum of Everything

Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road
Tel: +44 (0)20 7960 4200

I visited the 'Museum of Everything' to expand my knowledge on the topic and also to understand the amusement behind the “art” (as they say) of the eccentric taxidermy.
However, with limited stuffed animals on display, (these being the non-anthropomorphic one's) I was unable to bring any evidence of my trip to the museum home. You may be thinking, 'well why not just snap what's there anyway?'

That's about the only picture I was allowed to take.
So as I did not wish to die anytime soon, I hate to inform you that I did not take the risk of taking any pictures. Sorry guys!

However, lucky for me, with Potter's very own website, I was able to bring his art to me, which is something I can share with you without having a 'death penalty' on my conscience.
And I must put forth, to my surprise, I did enjoy viewing this 'Victorian whimsy' of a village school featuring 48 little rabbits writing on tiny slates, kitty marriages and many more peculiarly interesting human situations.

The rabbits village school, 1888

Dr Pat Morris, an expert in the history of taxidermy, told the Today programme's Evan Davis, “Queen Victoria used to look at this sort of stuff and be amused by it.” (

People usually liked taxidermy because it was a way to keep their dead animals still visible to them.
However, “[...] eighteenth-century naturalists hardly encouraged individuals to choose taxidermy as a way to remember their pets. Before the late eighteenth century, if domestic creatures were stuffed, the motive […] was to preserve their exotic strangeness.” (

what I also found interesting from the museum was a bizarre selection of taxidermy furniture and jewellery among other morbid objects. As mentioned in another blog, “mourning jewellery first became popular with the passing of Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. Victoria was so devastated by his death, she dressed in mourning clothes for the remainder of her life.”

This act of wearing mourning jewellery with the hair or nail clippings of the deceased inside lockets or brooches served for three main functions in the Victorian era:

  • It was an outward manifestation that the person had not been forgotten.
  • It was a memento; a reminder to the living of the inevitability of death
  • It was a status symbol

Locks of hair set neatly inside a brooch to be worn

Now you may be thinking, how does this relate to taxidermy?

Well, after the morbid mourning jewellery was brought into Victorian fashion, it wasn't long until taxidermists decided to make jewellery relative to their art too. Yes I'm talking dead animal parts in jewellery.

Rats were specifically used in this morbid jewellery, ranging from rat head and tail necklaces, rat paw earrings and it gets worse... a rat heart pendant.
If you're thinking, who would wear such horrific jewellery? Well we may have revolutionised our fashion today, though we still do have a similar fashion to that of the Victorians, with the higher class in today's England wearing what is portrayed to be classy and fashionable: a fox scarf with the head and tail still attached.

It seems as if we have become so obsessed with the idea of dead animals around us, what with surrounding ourselves with taxidermy on our walls for decoration and wearing dead animals with the features still there. It's a bit bizarre really that we would find this notion of the dead animal intriguing. Why is it that Emily Bronte constantly refers to dead animals in Wuthering Heights? Why the interest in mentioning something that should be displeasing to hear? Why is it that we are interested in this sort of thing?

Bronte often uses animal imagery as a metaphor in order to stress the death of morals in mankind. Linton is described as a”chicken” (Wuthering Heights, 207), Hareton a “dog” (310), Heathcliff a “mad dog” (162) and a “savage beast” (169).
Dogs pay a significant role in this novel as they are present in many major scenes. One main scene is where Heathcliff uses a handkerchief to hang the dog by his neck on a bridle hook. This ignorance of animal cruelty seems to be common in the Victorian era with many satisfied with their fur fashion regardless of what cruelty the animal they are wearing felt. Also the the kittens that are mistaken for dead rabbits shows ignorance and a lack of care for the poor rabbits.
A blogger states: “Wuthering Heights is so dismal, dark and dead animals. It looks like no one cleans in that place.”

Taxidermy and Fashion:

Taxidermy has been and always will be a representation of the rich folk, with the more extravagant stuffed animals depicting more wealth. Think of Mr Burns, for example, from the The Simpsons who has a ginormous stuffed bear in his office, who we presume to be the richest man in the cartoon.

If garments of real animal fur are associated with wealth, then it is likely that these higher class citizens would also hold real fur accessories: fur bags, purses, jewellery, bottle covers even.

A necklace with a stuffed duck, embellished with grey pearls.

A mouse purse (left) and squirrel bottle covers (right)

Finally, I will end with my opinion on taxidermy. As disturbing as this may sound to some, I do enjoy researching Potter's various works on animal human situations – his rabbit school, a personal favourite of mine, however I must stress, I do not agree with intentionally harming or killing animals for the purpose of making art or clothing.

Potter's works are unique, they are a different form of art all together, a result of intelligent creativity and I will continue to gain more insight on the subject for my own pleasure, though the morbid rat feature/ organ jewellery is where I draw the line. It's one thing to enjoy viewing dead animals, though to be amused by gruesome rat paws and tails situated upon your neck or dangling from your ears, or on your finger is another kind of dreadful.

So is taxidermy an art? I believe it is.

Below is a video on Walter Potter if you'd like to find out more:

And to finish off, here is a final image of a squirrel dressed as Queen Victoria.

Works cited:

Wakeham, P. Taxidermic Signs: Reconstructing Aboriginality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Alberti, S. The Afterlives of Animals: Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.


Thursday, 24 October 2013

War Reporting in the Victorian Era

The following quote is from the National Army Museum Website:
Military activities were nearly always of interest to the local press. Newspapers can often provide details of the activities of regiments stationed in the locality. County Record Offices may hold copies of local newspapers; the British library newspaper collection holds over 52,000 titles; some going back to the eighteenth century.

War reporting during the Victorian era was unique. The 19th Century was the British Century. Never before, and never again would Britain dominate every field of human endeavour. The 20th Century was American, and the Chinese are casting a long shadow over the 21st.

The Crimean War

A recurring theme throughout Russian history is the search for warm weather ports. This impetus also reared its head during the Soviet Union. Not since Napoleon's Invasion of 1812 and not until Hitler's of 1941 would the Russian speaking world be in such danger of being overwhelmed.

The coalition against Russia included the following: the British Empire, the French Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Austo-Hungarian Empire. The victors possessed superiority in manpower, weaponry, ships, and industry. The tactics displayed by the Russian military proved their inferiority to all participants save the Turks. As in both World Wars, the Allied victory was an inevitable conclusion.

The Crimean War was the first in history which was photographed. The Victorians, the most technologically knowledgeable participants in the conflict, took the most pictures. The war was brought home to Britain in a way which it never was before.

As in the Seven Years and Napoleonic Wars, British naval power played an important role in victory. Although the Russian fleet (shown here), was superior to the Ottoman one, it was outnumbered and outclassed by the Anglo-Franco coalition. Great Britain remained the dominant naval power in the world until the 1930s when it was surpassed by the United States and Japan.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death
This picture was taken by James Fenton. He was dispatched by the British Home office to chronicle the events in the Crimea. Cannonballs cover the ground. Apparently, all the bodies have been removed. Mr. Fenton unintentionally became the first modern reporter and historian. His work also proved the importance of photography in reconnaissance.

Roger Fenton, The valley of the shadow of death.

This is a published letter of an officer in the Crimea. Through it, the British public got a personal feel about what it was like to be at the front. Coupled with the Fenton pictures, it was the BBC of the day.
The Sepoy Rebellion
What started the conflict? Indians had multiple grievances against the Raj: economic, religious, and political. There was belief that Britain was enriching itself at the expense of India. Such complaints against the crown were similar to those voiced a century earlier in America. Indian princes were upset that they were supplanted by British officials. On a religious note, the Company was using parts from cows and pigs in the manufacture of products. Hindus and Muslims found this offensive.
 (James 233-235).
The rising occurred mainly in Northern and Central India. The main centers for revolt were Delhi, Cawnpore, Lucknow, and Jhansi. The British had only about 35,000 troops in the whole subcontinent, and they were widely scattered. Reinforcements didn't arrive for months
(National Army Museum).
This war in India was brutally repressed by the British government. In the British press, the Indians were demonised. The East India Company and the British Army repeatedly committed war crimes; however, the edited press glossed over this. The actions taken against India received the full blessing of the Crown and Parliament. The following quote from Sir William Kaye describes the suppression: Native histories, or, history being wanting, in Native legends and traditions, it may be recorded against our people, that mothers and wives and children...fell miserable victims to the first swoop of English vengeance; and these stories may have as deep a pathos as any that rend our own hearts (James 251).

The price of Mutiny: skeletons of rebellious sepoys litter the courtyard of the Lucknow residency in 1858 (James 339). This brutality is reminiscent of the treatment of Native Americans under
President Grant, and the treatment of Jews under the Third Reich. The "Pax Britannia" was indeed a paradox.

Most British newspapers, such as the Victorian Quaterly, acknowledged that anti-British sentiment was present in India; however, they were instructed to show that their government was in charge and would speedily remedy the situation. The Rebelling Indians were also demonised. It is reminiscent of Allied propaganda during both world wars.

The American Civil War

"The rebellion would collapse in a week the workshops of Britain weren't keeping it going."
-Abraham Lincoln, US President

Throughout the conflict, Britain was the chief armourer to the Confederacy. The most common rifle in the Confederate Army was the British Enfield. Nearly all Confederate warships were made in British ports such as Liverpool (Tsouras). Throughout the duration of the conflict, America and Britain nearly came to blows twice. The first instance occurred in 1861, when the British mail packet Trent was intercepted by an American warship. It was carrying diplomatic envoys bound for London and the court of Napoleon III. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmertson, was outraged,
"You may stand for this, but damned if I will." He strengthened military forces in the North American theatre and dispatched 11,000 men to Canada- ready for action. President Lincoln wisely backed down and released the diplomats. "One war at a time," he stated (Burns). The newspaper below depicts American Captain Wilkes and the two diplomats bound for England and France, respectively.

The Boer War

"When was a war not a war? When it was carried on by methods of barbarism."
-Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal politician, 1901
The Boers fought in vain to retain their independence. They could not match what Britain brought to the fight: a fifth of the world's land mass, a quarter of the world's population, the world's largest industries, and the world's largest navy (James).

The Boer War was the last conflict which the British Empire engaged in during the Victorian Era. Britain ended the 19th Century, the era of the "White Man's Burden," ironically combating other whites. In the conflict, future Prime Minister Winston Churchill was captured, but he ultimately escaped. The above newspaper article tells the story in his own words.

The British response to the Boers claims for independence was swift and hard. It is comparable to Hitler's takeover of Yugoslavia and President Bush's invasion of Iraq. The lack of a standing military, industry, and the inability to receive foreign aid made the defeat of the Boers a foregone conclusion.

The British press had learned to harness photography in the Crimea and India. Coupled with stories such as Sir Winston Churchill's, they served very successfully as propaganda.

All Napoleon succeeded in doing was putting Wellington's England in the saddle for a century (James). During the Victorian Era, Britain was undefeated. It was a period unparallelled in it's long history. A standing army of 200, 000 men, the largest navy in the world, heavy industry and advances in medicine ensured that British causalities during the period were relatively light. Britain's decisions to stay neutral during the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian war were debatable ones. They allowed the United States to become they predominant power in the Americas and Germany to become the predominant power in Europe. The unparallelled period of military success and economic stability allowed the British "to view the world as their oyster" (Schama). Following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the British Empire began to unravel. It would take two world wars to shatter the myth of British invincibility and to hand the crown of world domination from one Anglo-Saxon power to another.

Works Cited
Burns, Ken. The Civil War. PBS, 2011. DVD.
James, Lawrence. Crimea, The War With Russia in  Contemporary Photographs. Print.
James, Lawrence. The Iron Duke, A Military Biography of the Duke of Wellington. Print.
James, Lawrence. Raj, The Making and Unmaking of British India. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Print.
James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 1994. Print.
James, Lawrence. Warrior Race- A History of the British at War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007. Print.
National Army Museum, London.
Schama, Simon. A History of Britain. PBS, 2001. DVD.
Tsouras, Peter. Britannia's Fist. Print.