Dickens at Westminster, a ceremony in tweets

Dickens’ 200th birthday, the ceremony at Westminster Abbey. (Live tweeting taking place under cover of the Order of Service, so as to be as unobtrusive as possible: all spelling/typos sic.)

Dickens' most recent biographer arrives.

Archbishop of Canterbury arrives.

Cleveland Street Workhouse under threat again

Below is a leter from the group that fought to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse, the sole surviving 18th-century workhouse, and a probable model for the workhouse in Oliver Twist. The building was indeed listed, but now it looks like the University College Hospital Trust is hoping that weather and squatters will damage the site so badly that it can then be sold off to developers for ‘luxury’ apartments (is there any other type?).

Please take the time to write and register your concerns (details below), and if you have any access to the press, use that to publicize this backward step. And please tweet and Facebook your support.

Dear Cleveland Street Workhouse supporter,

Thank you for continuing to support our campaign to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse. Your signature, together with nearly 6000 others, was vital in our effort of obtaining listed status for the workhouse. As you will hopefully be aware, the workhouse was granted Grade II listed status by the Secretary of State in March 2011, however it has come to our attention that the building may again be under threat. We are therefore asking for your help once again.

University College London NHS Foundation Trust recently decided to evict the current guardians of the site, leaving the building exposed to possible further decay, speeding up its demise. With the recent spate of squatting in the area, our group is also concerned that squatters may take over the building and damage it, further exacerbating the situation.

The Cleveland Street Workhouse has served as short term accommodation for young professionals for more than 3 years. The inhabitants have been placed within the building through a “Protection by Occupation” scheme, which forbids squatters from occupying the premises and helps prevent decay. Without constant monitoring and heating during the winter months, the elements will take their toll.

In light of these potentially disastrous developments, we would like to call upon UCLH NHS Foundation Trust to reconsider this decision.

If you could take a moment of your time to write to the University College London Hospital Trust expressing your concern about recent developments, you would once again provide invaluable help to preserve the building. Due to the urgent nature of the situation, please address your correspondence direct to UCLH NHS Foundation Trust’s CEO:

Sir Robert Naylor

Chief Executive

UCLH NHS Foundation Trust

235 Euston Road

London NW1 2BU

e-mail: robert.naylor@uclh.nhs.uk

 

For more information, please visit our website:

http://www.clevelandstreetworkhouse.org/ -OR- http://bit.ly/fZCI3V

 

Thank you for your continuing support.

Kind Regards,

Aimery de Malet Roquefort

on behalf of the Cleveland Street Workhouse Group

http://www.clevelandstreetworkhouse.org

Slutwalks? You (haven’t) come a long way, baby!

Three thousand women turned out in London this weekend for a ‘Slutwalk’. This movement to assign responsibility for rape to its perpetrators, not to its victims, was triggered originally by a Canadian policeman, whose primary advice to women on how to avoid being raped was, ‘Don’t dress like sluts’. As one of the signs so pithily pointed out on Saturday, ‘A Dress is Not a Yes.’

But the policeman was only one in a long line who blamed women and how they appeared, how they presented themselves, for the violence and ‘unwanted attentions’, as it used to be called, inflicted on them, simply for being in a public place.

I have been reading 19th-century books on prostitution in London (well, a job’s a job), and one of the sanest (which isn’t saying much) authors says that he and a friend had ‘counted 185 [prostitutes] in the course of a walk home from the Opera to Portland-place’. Short of accosting each one, it is hard to know how he knew the 185 he counted were in fact sex-workers. Some, perhaps many, of the women may have spoken to him, offering their services. It is just as likely, though, that he was making his judgments based on the women’s dress, manner, whether or not they met his eye: in other words, the woman who dressed or behaved in a way he and other men considered inappropriate were by definition whores. The men got to judge.

Even more closely resembling the ‘slutwalk’ campaigners’ complaints was the story that played out in the pages of the Times in the 1860s. ‘Paterfamilias’ wrote to the editor (letters from members of the public were often signed with only a sobriquet, frequently in Latin, such as ‘Pro Bono Publico’) to complain that on a trip to London his daughters had been followed down Oxford Street by ‘scoundrels’ who stared at them and passed comments. ‘Puella’ replied that she frequently walked down the same street and was never accosted; perhaps, she said, the girls’ country dress or outgoing rural manners had encouraged these men? ‘Paterfamilias’, by return, was indignant: his daughters were not in bright clothing, still being in mourning for Prince Albert. He was backed up by ‘M’, a day-governess (one who went from pupil’s house to pupil’s house). She too was frequently accosted by ‘middle-aged and older men’.

Others joined in, on both sides of the question. So much interest was aroused by this correspondence that the following month the Saturday Review carried an article: because prostitutes frequented fashionable shopping-streets, if women dress nicely, they must expect to be looked at, but nonetheless, ‘the remedy is in their own hands…If they will be seen in the well-preserved coverts, it is for them to be careful that they do not look like game…Let them dress thoroughly unbecomingly. Let them procure poke bonnets, stint their skirts to a moderate circumference, and cultivate sad-looking underclothing. Any woman thus armed, and walking on without sauntering or looking about her, is perfectly safe even from amorous glances.’ (Note that even badly dressed women still needed to keep their eyes down and walk briskly.)

So then as now, unwanted attention is all our fault, ladies — we just need to put on our poke bonnets, take up as little space in the world as possible, keep our mouths shut, our eyes on the ground, and if we’re very lucky, we can go about our daily business. Oh brave new world!

Editathon-ing away, the Victorians rule the waves!

Well, that’s a Saturday spent usefully. No, I haven’t joined the Boy Scouts — although it’s a thought. Instead I spent the day at a seminar organized by the British Library in conjunction with Wikipedia. From the BL’s point of view, it was a way of promoting its special collections and areas of interest to a wider audience, and particularly to those who cannot travel to the library itself.

The group seemed to be mostly divided between computer-folk and Eng.Lit. people, with the odd sprinkling of historians (well, one, I think, me) and a classical music person, plus a table-ful of enthusiastic sci-fi-ers.  (Did you know it was a BL speciality? Well, now you do.) Plus Lauren Collins from the New Yorker, taking notes so as to write us all up, we assume as hopelessly comic characters.

We split up into groups to create pages highlighting different areas of the BL collection that we were interested in. The table I was on was Victorian, and we produced Wikipedia pages on Barry Ono, whose train-spotterishly vast collection of penny-dreadfuls is now owned by the BL; on Andrew Forrester, who wrote short-stories with one of the very first female detectives; on Ruth Traill, as far as I have determined, the first fictional female detective; and on a late Victorian novelist whose name I have shamefully forgotten.  I also added a bawdy 1830s song about the fire that destroyed the old Houses of Parliament to the Burning of Parliament page, just to lower the tone.

At lunchtime we broke off to find out what everyone else had been doing, and lo and behold, the Victorians had conquered the world — the sci-fi buffs had been working on Mary Shelley and the Brontë’s juvenilia; the poetry table on Victorian poets; and even those working on the BL table had focused on their 19th-century collections.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from this, although I’m damned if I know what it is. In the meantime, if you need a rude drinking song, check out Wikipedia’s Burning of Parliament page.

Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…

A sad story, with no ending

The case of Harriet Buswell is perhaps too ordinary to merit interest 150 years after the event. But I find it haunting. Of the four dozen or so cases I looked at researching The Invention of Murder, this is the one I can’t get out of my mind. Maybe because it’s unsolved, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because of the lack of mark it made, similar to the lack of mark Harriet Buswell made – the lack of mark women like her continue to make. These sad ghosts of women, who were ghosts long before they died.

Harriet Buswell was ‘connected’ to a theatre – she danced, said her child, ‘at the Alhambra in silk tights’. In actuality, she sometimes appeared in onstage, but more often earned her living by prostitution.

In the last week of her life, Harriet Buswell was living in lodgings in Great Coram Street, Bloomsbury. At ten o’clock on Christmas Eve 1872, she borrowed a shilling from a fellow-lodger, and went out. She was seen walking to the Alhambra in Leicester Square, and then later she was seen at Regent Circus (now Piccadilly Circus) waiting for a bus with a man. A few hours later, between midnight and one o’clock, she returned to her lodgings with the same man, or another. She took him upstairs before coming back down carrying a bag of apples, oranges and nuts, which she showed her landlady as she stopped off to pay her rent with a half-sovereign (10 shillings) coin.

Other residents heard the man’s footsteps the following morning around 6.30, leaving the house. At midday, when Harriet had still not appeared, the landlady went up: the door was locked. Such was the anxiety, however, that the door was forced. Harriet was found lying with her throat cut, ‘the bed exhibiting a dreadful appearance’, covered in blood, and on Harriet’s forehead was a blood-stained thumb-print. Her purse, a few small bits of jewellery (including a pair of earrings she had borrowed to wear the previous night) and a pawn ticket for five pairs of drawers (underpants) were missing. There was no key on the inside of the door: it had been locked from the outside and removed. Read more of this post

Staging death, Victorian style

When Palmerston, Prime Minister from 1855-8, and 1859-65, died, in 1865, White’s, Boodle’s and Brookes’s clubs in St James’s all covered the front of their buildings in black drapery.

The Reform club, however, topped that: it covered its street frontage with ‘a sable curtain, bearing a viscount’s coronet and the letter ‘P’, with yellow wreaths of immortelles tastefully festooned…and the pillars and balustrades dressed in black and white’.

Can we see any London clubs even contemplating, say, lowering a flag or drawing their blinds for Mrs Thatcher, much less Tony Blair — or John Major? Street-theatre is not what it was…

 

When the Telegraph was really a crime-sheet

A shopkeeper named Frederick Gold, who lived near Brighton, travelled up to London once a week to collect his share of the shop’s takings. On 27 June 1881, he took his £38 and returned to Brighton via London Bridge station, with a man named Percy Lefroy buying one of the few other first-class tickets (all of the others were later found to be purchased by women). As the train passed Croydon, a passenger heard ‘four explosions’, and soon after, the residents of cottages fronting the railway saw two people struggling in one of the compartments.

When the train arrived at Brighton station a man named Percy Lefroy, dishevelled, with his collar ripped off, and ‘smothered with gore’, was stopped.

He claimed that as the train entered a tunnel, the two other people in his compartment had jumped him, and he had been knocked unconscious, remaining in that condition almost until the train reached Brighton. When asked why he had a watch-chain in his shoe, he said he had put it there for safekeeping. Nothing was known against him, and he was allowed to go.

That afternoon, however, a railway worker found the body of Mr Gold lying near the line, shot, and with knife wounds; a collar, not his, was found lying nearby, as was a hat and umbrella, which were his, and another hat, in a different size. And his watch was missing.

By the time all of this had been discovered, the only other first-class railway passenger, Lefroy, had vanished from his cousin’s in Croydon. The search for him intensified as it was discovered he had redeemed a pistol from the pawnshop that same day.

The Telegraph published his photograph, and a landladyin Stepney recognized him as her new lodger, who claimed to be an engineer from LIverpool. She notified the police, and Lefroy was arrested.

His trial told a very routine story: he was poor, he was planning to rob someone, and unforunately for him (and for Mr Gold), Gold put up a fight, and was killed. Lefroy was convicted, and in the short-term found fame in cartoons and comic songs. Greyhounds were named for him, as was ‘a black gelding, a good wheeler…a very fine goer’.

In the long run, however, Lefroy has come down to posterity as the first-ever criminal caught through the publication of a ‘wanted’ photograph.

How to Murder your Wife, in 2 easy steps

In his novel Armadale, Wilkie Collins seemed to share the generally low view of professional detectives, as working-class men sticking their noses where they weren’t wanted. And the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act added to the general perception.

Divorce was now possible without getting a special act passed in parliament, but to obtain a divorce, a woman had to prove adultery with either bigamy, incest or cruelty; a man could divorce for adultery alone. In either case, the need to prove adultery greatly increased the number of private detectives. In Armadale the detective James Bashwood operates out of an office on ‘Shadyside Place’, and in case that hint isn’t heavy enough, he is described as a ‘vile creature…a man professionally ready on the merest suspicion (if the merest suspicion paid him) to get under our beds, and to look through gimlet-holes in our doors.’ Allan Armadale, headstrong and naive, initially rejects the idea of hiring a detective, calling it ‘meddling in…private affairs’.

Not meddling in others’ private affairs, it was thought, had much to recommend it.  It took Dr Edward Pritchard to change some minds. Pritchard was the third of four high-profile doctor-murderers in a quarter-century. Perhaps familiarity was breeding contempt, but people were becoming progressively less shocked with the idea that a middle-class, outwardly respectable professional man might commit murder. Pritchard himself aroused only local interest, not national. For that, it took a discussion on the merits or demerits of professional busybodies vs. professional detachment.

Read more of this post

Stealing in motion, 19th-century style

Not that long ago, my neighbour’s car was stolen. Not a very unusual, or even a interesting story. He parked, he went into his house, went to bed, woke up, car was gone. Happens all the time. But until this morning, short of a dramatic, gangland-style car-jacking, I thought you could probably only have your car (or parts thereof) stolen while it was parked.

Wrong.

In 1828, The Traveller’s Oracle; or, Maxims for Locomotion: Containing Precepts for Promoting the Pleasures…of Travellers (which is one of the world’s great titles: I’ve always longed for a ‘Maxim for Locomotion’, I just never knew it) warned those who owned their own carriages that they needed to have them fitted with spikes at the rear if the household did not keep a footman: ‘Do not permit Strangers to place themselves behind your Carriage at any time, or under any pretence whatever’, it sternly warned. They are either climbing up behind to rob you , or they will steal bits off your carriage while you are on the road, taking the ‘Check Braces, and Footmen’s Holders’ (the lead-strings by which passengers notified the driver they wanted to stop, and the leather straps that the footmen who would normally stand on small steps at the rear held onto). These items could be removed by street-thieves while you were in motion  ‘in half the time that your Coachman can put them on’. Therefore, ‘unless you think that two or three outside passengers are ornamental or convenient, or you like to have your Carriage continually surrounded by Crowds of Children, incessantly screaming, “Cut! Cut behind!”’, the ‘Spikes are indispensable’.

It really makes our streets seem astonishingly tame, doesn’t it? No windshield-wipers stolen as you drive down Fleet Street, no children (sorry, Children) shrieking out as you pass them on Madison Avenue, ‘Tear off the chrome strips!’

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