Sunday, 30 November 2014

Victorian Law: Crime and Punishment

Britain's current law system is a  very different image to that of the Victorian era.  The severity of punishment for different offences varies, but the very worst a criminal can be sentenced is life imprisonment. Despite our country having arguably one of the fairest current legal systems, this has not always been the case. The Victorians were notorious for the cruelty of their punishments, and an extraordinarily high crime rate. Statistically, offences rose from approximately 5,000 annually in 1800 to around 20,000 by 1840. This was a cause for concern, as one the main contributors to this surge in crime was the poverty and deprivation endured by the working class. The London Metropolitan Police Force was founded in 1829 to help enforce the law and catch offenders, but could not control the insatiable levels of crime.

If you ask somebody about Victorian crime, murder and prostitution are normally the answers that first spring to mind. It is true that prostitution was a huge problem for the Victorians. Although the exact statistics are difficult to pin point, William Acton revealed in his book 'Prostitution', the police estimates of approximately 8,600 active prostitutes in London during 1857 (Acton 16). These were mostly working class women, who were driven into selling their bodies because they had few alternative options for employment in a patriarchal society. It was a risky lifestyle in many senses, with sexual transmitted diseases and the general danger of walking the streets alone. The infamous brutal murder of five prostitutes that became known as the Jack the Ripper case, dragged prostitution
An example of the media sensationalism surrounding Jack the Ripper
under the public spotlight. All the victims lived and worked in the deeply impoverished Whitechapel area, and Charles Booth's famous poverty map marks many of the streets where the crimes occurred in black, meaning "Vicious, semi criminal". The harsh reality of these conditions shocked the public into action, and in the two decades following the murders many of the buildings that made up these London slums were demolished. However, prostitutes were not the only victims of serial killers. Other prominent cases such as Amelia Dyer (responsible for the murder of hundreds of infants) contributed to a media frenzy. 

'Illustrated Chips' July 17th, 1897
While sensationalist crimes like the Jack the Ripper case drew media attention worldwide, these only made up a tiny part of overall offences. In fact, the most common offences across the Victorian era were petty crimes. Theft was particularly prominent, with young males being the most common offenders. Even children as young as eleven were frequently punished for pick pocketing or stealing minor items, like food to feed their families.  In cities, thieves would often operate in groups of two or three, to provide decoys for the main pickpocket. 

Britain's drinking culture is nothing new, and during the 19th century, drunkenness was a common sight on the streets. Alcohol was easy to obtain, but intoxication was frowned upon in Victorian society because of its association with the working classes. The constant struggle to find employment would have driven many to drink as a means of escapism from the hardships of lower class life. In an attempt to lessen the country's drinking problem, The Temperance Movement (urging for moderation or abstinence from alcohol) was formed from the late 1830s. Charities such as Band of Hope (now Hope UK) were founded to warn young people about the dangers of excessive alcohol use, and the destructive behaviour that follows. This movement appeared to be successful, as by 1870, alcohol consumption rates had dropped.

Ray Winstone as Abel Magwitch in the BBC 2011 adaption
Criminality and the representation of criminals is a significant theme in Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations'. The most interesting example is Pip's eventual benefactor Abel Magwitch, who is initially presented as a vile and contemptible criminal. He is even given the stereotypical image of a vagrant projected by the upper classes, described as resembling a "Prisoner, Felon, Bondsman" (Dickens 598). However, even though he is a hardened thief, his humble generosity in helping Pip makes him one of the most admirable characters in the book. By his death towards the end of the novel, he is a peaceful and contented man. It seems he is more a victim of a society that had no sympathy for obsessed with class divisions.  

Victorians strongly believed that criminals should be punished for their wrongdoings. Punishment would depend on the seriousness of the offence committed, though it was essentially impossible to get off 'scot-free' in any instance. Capital punishment was commonly used for the most serious offences, but had been steadily declining since the start of the 19th century. Before the 1800s, capital punishment was common practice for an array of crimes, from petty to serious. Although the peak year of 1801 saw 219 people executed, this merciless method of punishment became more unpopular in the light  of reform. In the first half of the 19th century, a series of Acts of Parliament reduced the number of crimes punishable by death. By 1861, there were only five offences that qualified for capital punishment - murder, treason, espionage, piracy and arson in royal dockyards. Public executions, once a public spectacle, were eventually abolished with the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868. Michael Barrett, sentenced to hanging in May 1868 for his role in the Clerkenwell bombing, was the last person to be publicly executed in England. Barrett appeared to show no remorse over his actions, as moments before his death he proclaimed - 

"If it is murderous to love Ireland dearer than I love my life, then it is true, I am a murderer ... If I could, by any means, redress the wrongs of that persecuted land by the sacrifice of my life, I would willingly and gladly do so."

After this, all executions took place within prison walls. Hanging was the typical form of execution, as it gave a quick and easy death.

Transportation concerned the sending of criminals to a penal colony (normally Australia) to serve their sentence, and was used as an alternative when capital punishment seemed too extreme. Initially any offender with a sentence of seven years or longer could be transported, and was a favourable form of discipline because  it had far cheaper costs than keeping a criminal in prison. Although the majority criminals  were allowed to return after serving their sentence, most continued to live in their new country, as organising and affording a voyage home would have been incredibly difficult. Many felt it was being used merely as a deterrent by physically removing unfavourable characters from society, rather than attempting to reform them. This lead to an opposition towards penal transportation, and following a decrease in use, it was abolished with the Penal Servitude Act of 1857.

John Greening's record
As the popularity of hanging and transportation decreased, the numbers of offenders sent to prison rose. The government invested millions into the prison system, with 90 built or added to between 1842 and 1877. There was a general belief that prisons should deter criminals from re-offending, and in consequence, the conditions were grim. A system of 'hard labour' forced prisoners to endure monotonous, difficult work from walking a treadmill to picking apart old pieces of rope and rags. This could last from one week, to several months or years for more serious convictions. Even young offenders could be sentenced to this arduous regime, for example, eleven year old John Greening was convicted of "Stealing a quarter of gooseberries" and received one month's hard labour, with five years of reformation. This seems like an unnecessarily harsh punishment for a child, and despite even more urges for reform in the later 19th century, conditions for both adults and children remained bleak.

The Victorian punishment system was not sympathetic with criminals, regardless of their background or motives to break the law. The sheer poverty brought on by the industrial revolution meant however, that the many of these minor offenders had no other choice if they wanted to sustain their livelihood and families.

Works Cited

Acton, William. Prostitution. London: J Churchill. 1867. Print.

Booth, Charles. Poverty Map. 20th November 2014                                                         <,180400,6,large,>      

Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868. 25th November 2014.        <>

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. London: Penguin. 1911. Print

“…Four Killed and Forty Wounded was the Tally, and Indignation Raged….” Or: The Clerkenwell Prison Explosion of 1867:                 <,28804,1916164_1916186_1916177,00.html michael barrett>

National Archives. Victorian children in trouble with the law. 23rd November 2014.                                                           <>

Penal Servitude Act of 1857. 25th November 2014.                           <>

Images Used (Jack the Ripper) Magwitch john greening document

Saturday, 29 November 2014


Health care during the 19th century was generally very primitive. Very few scientists and doctors knew what caused diseases therefore prescribing medicine involved a lot of guesswork. Many patients would die from the treatments given if the symptoms didn't kill them first. There were also types of con artists referred to as 'quacks' who would sell patients ailments, commonly referred to as patent medicine, for their problems knowing that it would not benefit the user in a positive way. Quacks took advantage of people's fears which meant there was profit to be made with products claiming to solve beauty issues. For example, gaining a perfect complexion was marketed as easily achievable and all women had to do was purchase some "absolutely harmless" arsenic wafers. In the late 1800s there was a fashion for using arsenic for cosmetic purposes and quacks were quick to cash in on this trend. The arsenic wafers made the skin pale by destroying red blood cells. Although arsenic is extremely toxic to human health, it was likely that the wafers only contained a very small amount of arsenic in them. However, there were still cases reported of women losing their eyesight and even dying after taking Dr Mackenzie's wafers. This was the price women paid to be laid to rest with blemish free complexions.

 Dr. MACKENZIE’S IMPROVED HARMLESS ARSENIC COMPLEXION WAFERS will produce the most lovely complexion that the imagination could desire, clear, fresh, free from blotch, blemish, coarseness, redness, freckles, or pimples. Post free for 4s. 6d. ; half boxes, 2s. 9d.— S. HARVEY, 5, Denman St., London Bridge, S. E. Use Dr. MacKenzie’s ARSENICAL TOILET SOAP 1s. per Tablet; No. 2, unscented, 6d. per Tablet. Made from Purest Ingredients, and Absolutely Harmless.
BEWARE OF THE MANY IMITATIONS. Have Dr. Mackenzie’s or none.

Quacks also benefited from the latest scientific discoveries such as electricity, magnetism and X-rays. They claimed that the use of these forces would be able to treat all common problems. George Augustus Scott, or 'Dr Scott' as he refers to himself in his advertisements, sold hairbrushes that professed to produce a "permanent electro magneto current" that was able to cure everything from "nervous headaches" to "rheumatism" and "premature greyness". The most successful quacks were those who used cunning tactics in there advertisements. By advertising a wide range of problems and claiming that his brush could solve all of these Scott was able to broaden the audience he could market his product to, in turn, making more money from the public. Probably the most ironic comment stated in the "Dr Scott's Electric Hairbrush" advertisement is that all other electric brushes are "fraudulent imitations... put in the market to impose upon the public". In reality, the brushes only contained iron rods that were slightly magnetised. The general public's confusion between magnetism and electricity worked in Scott's favour and he was able to get away with using the word "electric" in his adverts. Scott also draws attention to the shops address in his advertisement. This is a clever move on his part as his shop is in the Holborn area where the first electricity generator for public use in London was situated, making his product seem as though it was legitimate.

Advertisement for Dr. Scott's Electric Hairbrush in The Illustrated London News.

If caught in possession of this Class A drug in the 21st century, you can almost certainly expect to spend a large amount of time in prison for your crime. However, during the Victorian era Morphine was a popular drug regularly used in remedies for common illnesses before the regulation of medicine and advertising. Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup originated in New York in the 1840s but became popular in Britain shortly afterwards. Mrs. Charlotte Winslow developed the formula whilst working with infants and it was designed to help mothers calm their teething children. Winslow claimed that the syrup helped to soften gums, stop diarrhoea and help children sleep peacefully. What was neglected to say was that the reason this product helped relieve a child's bowel movements was because a common side effect of morphine is constipation.

A public notice for the syrup read:

ADVICE TO MOTHERS!—Are you broken in your rest by a sick child? Go at once to a chemist and get a bottle of MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP. It is perfectly harmless and pleasant to taste, it produces natural quiet sleep so that the little cherub awakes “as bright as a button.” It soothes the child, it softens the gums, allays all pain, regulates the bowels, and is the best known remedy for dysentery and diarrhoea. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup is sold by Medicine dealers everywhere at 1s. 11⁄2d. per bottle. Manufactured in New York and at 498, Oxford- street, London.
Source: The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, Saturday 9th January 1875

Although claiming to be "perfectly harmless", each ounce of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup actually contained 65mg of pure morphine - a toxic amount when given to an adult, let alone an infant. The popularity of this product led to a widespread drug addiction amongst children and in 1911, the American Medical Association branded the syrup as a "baby killer". Surprisingly, it continued to be sold in the UK until 1930.
Front of an advertisement for Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup.

Reverse of advertisement. When held up to the light, two crying children can be seen through the paper to show what happens when you do not purchase the syrup.


             Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Kensington showing the syrup as a cause of death.

Quacks selling 'medicines' similar to those described above were often conveyed in Victorian literature and Thomas Hardy depicts multiple quack doctors in his novels. In Jude The Obscure the protagonist encounters Physician Vilbert who is described as a "itinerant quack-doctor" (Hardy 21). From the onset Vilbert is introduced to the reader as a liar who is always one step ahead of the law as he takes care to "avoid inconvenient investigations" (21). Jude recalls seeing him tell an old woman that the "pot of coloured lard" (21) he was selling as an remedy for her bad leg "could only be obtained from a particular animal which grazed on Mount great risk to life and limb" (21). This claim shows that Vilbert greatly exaggerates in order to make a sale. Although the reader can tell that the intentions of Vilbert are far from genuine, Jude falls for Vilbert's promise to supply him with academic books on the condition that Jude must advertise his "pills that infallibly cure all disorders" (22) at every house in the village for two weeks. It soon becomes apparent that Vilbert has forgotten Jude and their agreement. Much later on in the novel, Vilbert's character appears again, this time selling a "love-philtre" (326) made from "nearly a hundred" (326) pigeon hearts - notice the pattern the 'Physician' uses of embellishing the ingredients in his potions. Hardy uses the character of Vilbert to comment on how easily Victorian Society were fooled into believing the false promises that the quacks offered. Vilbert does not face any consequences from his selling of counterfeit goods and from Hardy's view, Victorian society rewarded those with a cunning disposition and the ones who suffered were the naive, e.g. those who believed and purchased these treatments.

In 1858, Parliament passed the Medical Act which meant records had to be kept that showed who was registered to practise medicine. This helped deter members of the public from buying 'cures' from quacks who often advertised in newspapers or sold their products on the streets. Another factor that aided the regulation in sales of medicine was the publication of Secret Remedies, What They Cost and What They Contain in 1909 by The British Medical Association. The remedies in this book were investigated thoroughly by a chemist and aimed to give the best genuine cures for illnesses backed up by scientific information.

In light of this information about the different types of 'medicines' that were available in the Victorian era and their effects on people, I am sure I am not the only person thankful for the drastic advances in modern medicine!

Works Cited

Image Resources:

Dr.  Mackenzie's Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers -

Advertisement for Dr. Scott's Electric Hairbrush in The Illustrated London News -                           Accredited  to 'Ian Visits'

Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Kensington showing the syrup as a cause of death -


British Medical Association. Secret Remedies, What They Cost and What They Contain. 1909

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. England. Kindle Edition

The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, Saturday 9th January 1875

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A Trip To The Circus: Female Performers and their Impact on Society.

Sanger's Coronation programme, 1953
It was in the Victorian period that circuses rose to the commercial popularity we associate them with now. With more exciting and skilful acts being added each show, crowds would flock with a shared taste for spectacle, in hopes of being entertained. At first, the young Queen Victoria’s open love of the circus calmed people’s reservations in regards to how attendance would reflect on them individually and for a long while the circus existed seemingly loved and revered by all. They would gather with ready eyes and ready pockets to appreciate the likes of trick riders, animal tamers, acrobats, jugglers, sword eaters and of course clowns. It was a travelling hub of entertainment, enchanting audiences with a combination of the magnificent and the bizarre. The sexual glamor, daring stunts, and athleticism of the female performers were particularly fascinating for a Victorian audience. And the rise of rail transport meant that circuses could perform near enough all year round, travelling greater distances and reaching a wider variety of places and people.
However, it was in the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign that certain incidents occurred, prompting people to question the respectability of such an event. In Charles Dickens novel Hard Times (1854), he writes of how Thomas Gradgrind, a respectable man defined by his strict belief in rational thinking, walks past the circus: “pass(ing) on as a practical man ought to pass on.” Gradgrind likens the circus performers to “noisy insects” and thinks of “consigning them to the House of Correction.” Although at this point in the novel Dickens is adopting a mocking, ironic tone towards his character, playing on the idea that the man’s ‘practical’ ways keep him from enjoying his life, and in this instance the “hidden glories” of the circus, the negative opinion of circus folk being assigned to Gradgrind was soon to become a reality for many of the nonfictional company that Dickens kept, and even somewhat the writer himself. Issues were beginning to be raised in the Victorian society concerning both the danger and modesty of the circus acts, with a specific focus on the female acrobats.

Photo of the letter from Her
Royal Highness to the Mayor of
 In July 1863, thousands gathered in Aston Park in Birmingham only to be horrified to watch a female trapeze artist, named Selina Powell who was eight months pregnant at the time, fall to her death. Powell’s death was one of the first events to generate public outrage towards the precarious nature of some of the acts. Dickens mentions the incident in one of his ‘Uncommercial Traveller’ articles posted in the journal All Year Round, in which he says “an appalling accident consequent on a shamefully dangerous exhibition.” In the increasingly commercialised and competitive business of circus, Powell’s condition and safety was overlooked, due to her remarkable talent and rising fame. As a result of Powell’s death, the Queen wrote an open letter to the mayor of Birmingham explaining her horror “that one of her subjects, a female, should have been sacrificed to the gratification of the demoralising taste unfortunately prevalent for exhibitions attended with the greatest danger to the performers.” This letter lead to performance safety becoming the subject of parliamentary debate for the next three decades and eventually resulting in the creation of two laws, one in 1879 and one in 1897, prohibiting young children from take part in the more daring stunts.
Selina Powell being carried by her husband,
mid 19th century
Sketch 'Amusement for the People!' from Tomahawk.
Mocking women who chose to take part in the circus
 in spite of the obvious dangers (July 1868) 

Once Powell’s accident had begun the discussion on whether or not the circus was a respectable place, it was hard to silence the critics. People began to speak out about the costumes of the female acrobats, labeling them vulgar and promiscuous.  These women, with their athletic, muscular bodies draped in spangles and sparkles, often appearing to be wearing nothing more than leotards, were the living embodiment of individualism. Some embraced the idea behind the image, that the women, and all performers for that matter, when performing, were to be treated as spectacles. They were to be gazed on and appreciated as a talent, separated from the crowd and in that moment, from societal conventions. In Browning’s poem Fifine at the Fair (1872), he seems favour this idea as he likens the female trapeze artist to a fairy:

“Next, who is this performs the feat of the Trapeze?
Lo, she is launched, Look – fie, the fairy! –
how she flees
O’er all those heads thrust back, - mouths,
Eyes, one gape and stare, -
No scrap of skirt impedes free passage through
the air,
Till, plumb on the other side, she lights and
laughs again,
That fairy-form, whereof each muscle, nay,
each vein
The curious may inspect”

However, many disagreed and the women’s scantly clad uniforms moved the Lord Chamberlain to release a warning to all places of public amusement stating “there is much reason to complain of the impropriety of costume of the ladies… now… that the question has been taken up by the press and public opinion… (I feel) compelled to call it to the serious attention of the managers.”

The issue of female performers being made to look indecent, came to a head when posters of the famous female acrobat Zaeo were released prior to her performance with the Barnum and Bailey circus at The Royal Aquarium (a building that once stood in Westminster, built to be a place of amusement and entertainment). The poster was seen by some as improper due to the amount of Zaeo’s skin visible in the image, and as the posters laced the streets of London, people that did not support the circus or its apparent exhibition of women were forced to take part in the spectacle in their day-to-day lives.

Poster of Zaeo, from The Life of Zaeo, 1891
However, another argument that surfaced was that the images of this proud, and visibly strong woman, acted as a symbol of female vigour. It introduced the idea of women as not needing to be delicate and girlish, instead muscular and athletic. One journalist, after seeing Zaeo’s performance in 1898 labeled her the “new woman.” Early feminist responses to the poster were plentiful; one woman when comparing Zaeo to the more ‘proper’ profession of a shop assistant who in her words was “cribbed, cabined and confined during the day,” explained that the pictures of the acrobat demonstrated “the grace, stateliness and strength which may all be acquired by bodily exercise.” Zaeo herself defended her profession in an interview claiming that being an athletic woman “is the very best thing in the world.”

Grand International Cirque Programme, 1884-1885

Both Powell and Zaeo had an enormous impact on the world of the circus and its place in society. Though it could be argued that Powell was as careless as Zaeo was enlightened, her death set in motion the safety measures that allowed the circus to continue, with fewer injuries, eventually becoming the much safer likes of what we would enjoy today. Zaeo on the other hand, prompted people into a state of New Age thinking. Though it cannot be said that her influence changed the world, and many never ceased to view her as anything more than an inappropriate figure, to convince even just a few people that women could be more than just delicate flowers, concealed behind layers of petticoats, is undeniably a worthwhile feat. The female acrobats’ were constantly pushing both physical and cultural boundaries. And in spite of the harsh judgments that were cast by many, at a time of industrialised growth and increased urbanisation, thousands of people continued to visit the circus for a much-needed release, and, the uninhibited, free-moving performers, scantly clad in sparkles and spangles, continued to earn the appreciation of the crowds below.


Assael, Brenda. The Circus and Victorian Society. University of Virginia Press. June 2005

Browning, Robert. ‘Fifine at the Fair’ from The Complete Works of Robert Browning. Ohio University Press: 2007

Dickens, Charles. ‘All Year Round’ from Uncommercial traveller (Google eBook), Interactive. Accessed 20/11/14.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Wordsworth Editions. London: 1995.

David, Tracy. ‘The Moral Sense of the Majorities: Indecency and Vigilance in Late-Victorian Music Halls’ from Popular Music. p39-52. Accessed 21/11/14.

Victoria and Albert Museum. Victorian Circus. Webpage. Accessed: 20/11/14.

Zarrilli, Phillip. Theatre Histories: An Introduction. Taylor & Francis: 2010

Treasure Maps and Fool's Gold: Exploring the African Unknown in the 19th Century

"Rough Sketch of Africa indicating the
 progress of recent discoveries" 
by the famous
 cartographer August 
Heinrich Petermann,
1853. The 
middle of the continent
is simply named the "Unexplored Region".
By the mid-nineteenth century, much of the world had been, for the most part, already claimed and discovered. However, as we "journey" through the latter half of the nineteenth-century, we begin to see a flourish of exploration in Africa, more specifically the "dark heart of Africa" - which remained one of the last undiscovered areas in the world during this period (along with the Arctic and Antarctic regions). It was left to explorers such as David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, and Frederick Selous to discover this last region of Africa, which was achieved by the 1870's.  

So the exploration of Africa was occurring during the mid-to-late Victorian period. What then, you might ask, does this have to do with Victorian culture and society? Well reader, you will take immense interest in knowing it has everything to do with Victorian society. The Victorians didn't just take an interest in these vast expeditions to otherworldly, unexplored places. They were obsessed with them (no really, they were.) One of the ways we can see this is through looking at the literature that was produced during this 50-year period. There begins an astounding resurgence of adventure fiction (largely geared towards boys and young men, but more on that later) and the creation of the "lost world" genre, with texts such as Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King and H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, being published. Solomon's Mines, interestingly, is largely considered to be the first novel in the "lost world" canon, and deals with the discovery and exploration of the "heart of Africa". Indeed, the British southeast African explorer Frederick Selous inspired Rider’s protagonist of his novel, Allan Quatermain (who in turn was the inspiration for the eponymous character in the popular Indiana Jones film series).

It is not difficult to understand why King Solomon’s Mines, was so immensely popular with the Victorians. A novel concerning the discovery of the ancient world would have appealed greatly to them due to their large obsession with time and history. Indeed, John Stuart Mill argued that “The idea of comparing one’s age with former ages, or with the notion of those which are yet to come, had occurred to philosophers; but it never before was itself the dominant idea of any age.” (‘The Spirit of Age’, 1831). The Victorian reader is almost instantly hooked at the mention of an ancient settlement laden with beautiful gems and worldly riches. Just like the real-life explorers journeying to discover unclaimed land, there is something enthralling about an unknown space; “‘Solomon’s Mines?’” ejaculated both my hearers at once. ‘Where are they?’ ‘I don’t know’ I said; ‘I know where there are said to be. Once I saw the peaks of the mountains that border them, but there were a hundred and thirty miles of desert between me and them, and I am not aware that any white man ever got across save one.’” (King Solomon's Mines, 10). Perhaps it is the notion of freedom and independence that an unclaimed space can provide. We certainly see this in other Victorian adventure novels - R.L Stevenson’s Treasure Island for example - and there are many similarities between both Stevenson’s novel and Solomon’s Mines. They both are told from a first person narrator, who inhibits a casual, conversational approach in narrating their “journey” to the reader. Another similarity between these texts is their use of maps within the novel. This use of verisimilitude further enhances the idea of real-life exploration, and increases the interest the reader has through reading these lost-world, adventure novels. If young Jim Hawkins and old Allan Quatermain can explore new worlds and discover “money to eat – to roll in – to play duck and drake with ever after” (Treasure Island 34), why couldn’t they?    

Map of Treasure Island, published in the first
 edition of the text and drawn by Stevenson himself.
The Way to Kukunaland as featured in
  King Solomon's Mines. Notice the
similarities between this map
 and the map of Treasure Island.

While it is true that famous explorers such as Stanley and Solous inspired these novels, it is worth considering how they in fact inspired future explorers to be adopt the role of the "hero" in society. (In other words, they became a "celebrity" in Victorian England, equivalent to the countless film stars society obsesses over today). As is often the case, the explorer in literature is the protagonist and the hero, and these brave, tough explorers would have been very aware that Britain viewed them in a similar light. Henry Morton Stanley, for instance (most famous for his extensive exploration of central Africa and finding the then missing David Livingstone in 1869), was incredibly aware of the fame and fortune waiting for him in Britain because of his discovery and exploration. For many Victorians, he represented a real-life version of these literary heroes that were so immensely popular during the Victorian period. One only has to look at through the John Johnson collection to discover all the advertisements and merchandise associated with Stanley and his travels. The image below “Stanley’s Expedition to Relieve Emin Pasha” shows the African natives carrying Huntley & Palmers biscuits on their head, while Stanley looks ahead, merely watching them. Clearly intended to be an advert for the biscuit company, I think it represents much more. Regardless of Stanley’s success in the riches he finds whist exploring, he is aware of the riches he has waiting for him at home, and he merely treats these natives and the new places he discovers as “fool’s gold”, aware that, for him at least, it holds no true value, and that his money lies in merchandise and advertisements in Britain, where he can be treated as a “hero”.

'Stanley's Expedition to Relieve Emin Pasha' - taken from the John Johnson collection. Does this image represent heroism by Stanley or it is simply a money-making advertisement for him?
What do all the explorers (both real and fictional) have in common? That’s right, no women. This was to be expected during the Victorian period; it is interesting to note that both in Treasure Island and King Solomon’s Mines, women are (mostly) conspicuously absent. (Stevenson often stated that Treasure Island was to be “a story for boys…women were excluded”). Several blogs have discussed in detail many of the difficulties women faced during the Victorian period, and unfortunately just like those, the role of the explorer was not for the woman; men dominated the field of exploration. Perhaps this is because of the ceremonialism of exploring new land for Britain, as women were considered unequal during this period. If a woman were to claim land for Britain it would not have held the same worth or value.

The exploration of Africa captivated the Victorian audience, just as the 21st Century has developed an obsession with space exploration. The yearning for discovery and new places seems to be ingrained in society. The question is: where will it take us next?

Works Cited:


"Rough Sketch of Africa indicating the progress of recent discoveries" -


Haggard, Henry Rider and Dennis Butts. King Solomon’s Mines. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Stuart Mill, John. ‘The Spirit of the Age’, 1831.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.