Victorian Sensation: Or, the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain / Edition 1 available in Hardcover
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- Anthem Press
About the Author
Michael Diamond has been an editor, producer and presenter for the BBC, where he worked on 'The World at One' and the 'BBC World Service'. He has a lifelong interest in the Victorian Age. He is also the author of 'Lesser Breeds: Racial Attitudes in Popular British Culture, 1890–1940' (Anthem Press, 2006).
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Or, the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain
By Michael Diamond
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2003 Michael Diamond
All rights reserved.
'There was an immense crowd of people outside the Palace, and which I must say never ceased until we reached Windsor Castle. Our reception was most enthusiastic and gratifying in everyway; the people quite deafening us': Queen Victoria on her wedding day
'When our present Prince Consort came among us, the people bawled out songs in the streets, indicative of the absurdity of Germany in general. The sausage-shops produced enormous sausages which we might suppose were the daily food and delight of German princes': WM Thackeray
Who more likely than the monarch and her heir to cause a sensation — 'a condition of excited feeling produced in a community'? It was natural that births, marriages and deaths in the Royal Family should inspire strong emotion in the Queen's subjects: these were the milestones which marked their own lives. However, it was not until the Queen's Golden and Diamond Jubilees of 1887 and 1897 that royal occasions attained a new magnificence, and produced the propaganda triumphs that became routine for Britain's twentieth-century monarchs. Despite her brief periods of unpopularity, the jubilees inspired enthusiasm and love for the Queen that was infinitely more intense and widespread than could have been imagined at the time of her wedding in 1840. Perhaps the most important factor in this was the rise in imperialist and nationalist feelings, which came to centre on the monarchy. In a sense, the rapturous jubilee crowds were celebrating themselves.
The great royal occasions showed clearly the link between royalty and showbusiness. Most sensations, whether involving crime, scandal, politics or religious conflict, are unwelcome to those involved. The Queen, as the target of would-be assassins, and the Prince of Wales, with his embarrassing appearances in court, certainly suffered from them, but the devisers of royal entertainments came to rival showbusiness impresarios in the deliberate manufacture of sensations from which they and their clients benefited. Of course, they could not entirely control the public response, notably in the commercialization of the events, and the satirists, for whom official sensations were attractive targets.
It is well known that the Queen was revered at the end of her reign for her great age, but often forgotten that when she came to the throne in 1837 her youth was the great attraction. Of her two immediate predecessors, William IV had become king at over sixty and George IV had been nearly as old. There had not been a young monarch since the twenty-two-year-old George III came to the throne in 1760, scarcely within living memory.
In 1838, the government splashed out four times as much on the coronation of the nineteen-year-old Victoria as had been spent on that of William IV A new crown was made, and in London public excitement was evident from the size of the crowds that descended on the jeweller's shop on Ludgate Hill where it was put on show shortly before the big day. According to the diarist Charles Greville,
There never was anything seen like the state of the town. It is as if the population had been on a sudden quintupled; the uproar, the confusion, the crowd, the noise are indescribable. Horsemen, footmen, carriages squeezed, jammed, intermingled, the pavement blocked up with timbers, hammering and knocking, and fallen fragments stunning the ears and threatening the head; not a mob here or there, but the town all mob, thronging, bustling, gaping and gazing at everything, at anything, or at nothing; the Park one vast encampment, with banners floating on the tops of the tents, and still the roads are covered, the railroads loaded with arriving multitudes.
The tents in Hyde Park were being put up by the cream of the nation's showmen, out to make a killing from the visitors to London. The fair was opened, on 28 June 1838, by a gong struck in the park just as the first gun boomed to announce that the Queen was leaving Buckingham Palace for the Abbey. Of the hundreds of booths and stalls many offered food – those selling gingerbread were the most numerous, but the most prominent was the huge stall of Williams, the celebrated boiled-beef seller of the Old Bailey. The crowds were exploited so successfully that penny loaves were sold for sixpence, while a pot of beer fetched the unheard of price of a shilling.
The organisers of the fair were the proprietors of the famous Richardson travelling theatre show, but there were also menageries, waxworks, marionettes, conjurors, acrobats, jugglers and other circus acts, not to mention peep-shows, roundabouts and a display of giants, dwarfs, the woman with two heads, the living skeleton and the pig-faced lady. Viewing 'freaks' was a popular form of entertainment throughout the Victorian era, a cruel caricature of the taste for sensation.
Huge crowds lined the Coronation route, and outside the Abbey they applauded the arrival of those they could identify. The Duke of Wellington, widely regarded as the greatest living Englishman, received the warmest welcome and Marshal Soult, who had fought – and lost – against him in Spain as one of Napoleon's commanders. After the ceremony when the Queen drove back to the Palace she was still wearing the new crown, and holding the orb and sceptre, a bonus for the crowds, which were reported to be even bigger and more vociferous than before.
Two years later, in 1840, the Queen married Prince Albert. The year had begun inauspiciously when three Welsh Chartists were tried for treason against Her Majesty. Perhaps this made the authorities cautious for although paupers in parts of London and other towns were supplied with beef, plum pudding and beer, the ceremony, on 10 February, was conducted in the small Chapel Royal of St James's Palace, rather than at Westminster Abbey or St Paul's. This not only limited the number of spectators, but greatly shortened the drive from the Palace, and thereby restricted the size of the crowd.
Charles Dickens wrote to a friend that 'Society is unhinged here by her majesty's marriage', and added, 'I am sorry to add that I have fallen hopelessly in love with the Queen.' He was joking, of course, and street ballads were even less reverent:
A hundred thousand a year he may get,
For taking the Queen, which is something to whit;
I myself had 'proposed', had I known it, that's flat,
For I'd willingly take her for much less than that.
A satire on Prince Albert's good financial deal was published in the Sunday Times:
Yes, love, I hasten back to thee,
My fervent passion never doubt;
Ah! I am sick of Germany,
Of slender purse and sharp sour krout!
With you, my dear, I'd fain be dining -
Than German fare there can't be worse,
I long to see a sov'reign shining
I'll hold thee in my heart and purse.
Dickens was aware of this strand of public opinion, as his reference to two street performers shows:
Question. Vell, Mr Bull Sir, what is your private opinions vith respectin to German Sassages – fresh as imported Sir from Saxe Humbug and Go-to-her?
Answer. My opinion is Sir as they comes wery dear.
Question. Supposin Mr Bull as these here foreign sassages wos to cost the country a matter o' thirty thousand pounds per annewum, who do you think ought to stand that 'ere wast and enormous expenditer?
Answer. Them as awails themseves o' the sassages aforesaid.
For the rest of Victoria's reign German princes were associated with sausages, and the assertion that they came to Britain to marry money.
Reaction in the country to the wedding varied: In Liverpool it was 'impossible to convey an adequate description of the universal joyous manifestations', but in Leeds, although a holiday had been declared, 'the badness of trade prevented any public festivity from taking place'.
The greatest sensations tend to be unexpected, and the biggest royal sensation of the year was not the wedding but the attempt on the Queen's life. By then, Victoria was not only a young bride but also pregnant. 'ATROCIOUS ATTEMPT TO ASSASSINATE THE QUEEN AND PRINCE ALBERT' trumpeted The Times, which announced that 'the name of the ruffian' was Edward Oxford, and that 'the sensation produced by this diabolical attempt upon the lives of Her Majesty and her illustrious consort among the crowd in the vicinity of the palace may well be imagined'. The Sunday Times reported, 'The excitement continues to absorb all other topics of public interest ... every hour unfolds more horror in the catastrophe.' Oxford had fired twice at the royal couple, from only a few yards away, as they drove up Constitution Hill in a small carriage in the early evening of 10 June. The father of the painter John Everett Millais helped in the arrest, and the young Millais and his brother saw it all. Years later Millais' brother told his story: 'When we were the only people on the footpath, and had just taken off our caps as the Royal procession passed ... a sudden explosion was heard, and then another. My father, who had seen what had caused them, immediately rushed away from us and seized a man who was just inside the railings of the park, and held him till some of the mounted escort came to his assistance.'
Oxford was a seventeen-year-old unemployed pot-boy. Evidence was reportedly found at his home that he belonged to a secret society, but this was never confirmed, and it was argued that public agitation increased because of the secrecy in which he was questioned and 'the refusal to afford the public authentic information on the subject'. Oxford was eventually detained in an asylum. If there had been a plot, it was unclear who was behind it, but the public were shocked to be reminded that the heir to the throne was the autocratic King Ernst of Hanover. Had Oxford been a better shot, 'the oppressor would have been abroad, and close on his track the insurgents whom the oppressor makes and infuriates.' In an age of Chartist agitation these were ominous words.
The Queen and her husband were much admired for their coolness in the face of danger. Their demeanour was 'precisely such as a high-spirited and noble-minded nation would desire to witness, on such an occasion, in the occupant of the throne'. The Observer claimed that Her Majesty's life had been preserved 'by the interposition of Providence, never, perhaps, more strikingly manifested before in the history of princes'. It referred to the 'true heroism' and 'the moral courage, the coolness, the spirit' of 'our young, our lovely, our beloved Sovereign' who was 'in a most delicate state of health'. When the royal couple had concluded their visit to the Queen's mother, they returned in their open carriage along the same route. 'Who else would have ridden bravely back past the same spot?' the Observer asked. The Times reported one moment of weakness, which set the royal courage in even sharper relief: 'On reaching her private apartments she burst into floods of tears.' It would be interesting to know by what journalistic methods the paper came by the information.
For days afterwards, whenever she appeared in public, Queen Victoria was cheered, and when she visited the opera for the first time after her ordeal the audience rose to her and the national anthem was sung. The Sunday Times used the opportunity to denounce her wildest critics and their outrageous language of the previous summer. Then the Queen's unmarried lady-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings, died of liver disease. The Queen had wrongly supposed that her illness was in fact pregnancy. 'When they call to mind the descriptions of the alleged orgies and vices of the Palace, their allusions to the constrained abdication of King James, their incautious application of that accursed woman 'Jezabel', they must feel the rebuke of Providence and take warning.' This was more a court scandal than a national sensation, but it had aversely affected the Queen's popularity.
Before 1840 was out, another royal sensation hit the headlines. At the beginning of December a young intruder was found under a sofa in Buckingham Palace, in the room next to the Queen's bedroom. He became known as 'the boy Jones' although Edmund Jones was seventeen. He was 'very short for his age, and has a most repulsive appearance'. He told the police that he had got in by climbing over the garden wall, then slipping through a window. He had heard so many people moving about that he had soon left by the way he came. However, he returned, and stayed in the Palace on a Tuesday night and for the whole of Wednesday, only discovered early on the Thursday morning. He had entered the building two years before, but, in the words of The Times, 'the sensation appears to be even greater than he produced by his apprehension in the same place in December 1838'. Now the Queen was married and had a baby whom Jones heard 'squall', he said. Apparently 'He wanted to see what was going forward in the Palace, that he might write about it', and he said that, if he was found, 'he should be as well off as Oxford, who fared better in Bedlam than he did out of it'.
Jones's escapade was celebrated in the song 'The Boy Wot Visits the Palace':
How he gets in most puzzles all,
Through window is't? or over wall?
But down the Chimney I should state,
As that's the best way to the Great! (Grate)
Four years later, in G W M Reynolds's immensely popular serial novel The Mysteries of London a boy 'of about sixteen or seventeen, and very short of stature' is helped over the palace wall by two villains who want him to commit a robbery. This he fails to do, but he hides under a sofa on which Victoria and Albert sit to talk – and achieves a sort of scoop: he discovers that the two are in love and intend to marry. Reynolds notes characteristically of Victoria that 'her bust is magnificent'.
The infant whom the boy Jones claimed to have heard 'squall', was a girl, destined to become Empress of Germany. However, a male heir was born on 9 November 1841 to general delight. Crowds collected around the Palace, and Prince Albert was cheered all the way from there to the Privy Council offices in Whitehall. However, the applause for the Duke of Wellington was just as effusive. When the national hero walked with a friend into Green Park the police had to form a circle to keep the crowd at bay and a police cordon was thrown over Constitution Hill. When the Duke reached his home at Apsley House, there was a final enthusiastic cheer.
In this period sensational news was often transmitted to large numbers of people by an announcement in the theatres. At the Adelphi in London, proclamation of the royal birth was greeted by shouts of 'God save the Queen'. However, the 'the vocalists of the establishment' had not arrived, and the audience had to wait until the end of the performance, when the entire company collected on stage, and even sang an extempore extra verse of the National Anthem: 'O Lord, in bounty shed/Joys round the infant's head ... 'The next day, a journalist wrote, 'Nothing could exceed the enthusiastic acclamation with which the last verse was received, and the manifestations of loyalty and joy displayed by the audience in all parts of the house exceeded anything we have ever witnessed.' There were similar reports elsewhere. In Liverpool, 'brilliant audiences received the news with loud hurrahs', and 'God Save The Queen' was played 'amid the shouts and congratulations of loyal hearts'.
Out on the streets, the event meant a big boost to trade for the ballad singers and writers:
There's a pretty fuss and bother both in country and in town, Since we have got a present, and an heir unto the Crown ...
It went on to mention the toys and other essentials the child would need, and the consequence to the nation:
Now to get these little niceties the taxes must be rose,
For the little Prince of Wales wants so many suits of clothes,
So they must tax the frying pan, the windows and the doors,
The bedsteads and the tables, kitchen pokers, and the floors.
There was a darker side to the story. Political unrest was still rife, and at one of the many meetings called to congratulate the Queen, chaired by William Sherrat Ellis, a young potter, an alternative to the original resolution was passed: it offered congratulations, but pointed, too, to the poverty and suffering in the country. Less than eighteen months later Ellis was sentenced to twenty-one years' transportation for arson on perjured evidence. It was claimed that he had been a marked man from the time of the meeting.
It was surely a result of the general excitement that, a few days after the birth, a madman rang the bell at the equerry's entrance at Buckingham Palace announcing that he was the Prince of Wales and that he wanted to see the Queen as he had a box of diamonds for her. At least he was not dangerous: Victoria was attacked seven times during her reign. In 1842, John Francis was acquitted of firing a pistol loaded with a bullet at her, but convicted of using 'gunpowder and other destructive material'. He was sentenced to death for treason. Then, two days after the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, John William Bean fired at her with a pistol loaded with paper, tobacco and just a little gunpowder. The news of Bean's outrageous act 'flew like wildfire through the metropolis' and was 'the all engrossing topic of conversation among all classes'. When the Queen entered the Park the next day, the appearance of the royal carriage 'was the signal for one long, loud and continued shout of hurrahs, accompanied by wavings of handkerchiefs and hats'; not a head was left uncovered. Once again 'the news was communicated to the lessees of the various theatres' and attracted the same loyal response. At Her Majesty's Opera House in the Haymarket the opera had started when the Queen entered her box that same evening. The performance was halted by 'every possible demonstration of the liveliest joy'. In the early years of her reign, the Queen experienced several periods of unpopularity, but each assassination attempt reversed that. She was certainly courageous in persisting with her rides along Constitution Hill and in Green Park. However, those responsible for her security were grossly incompetent by modern standards in allowing these rides to continue.
Excerpted from Victorian Sensation by Michael Diamond. Copyright © 2003 Michael Diamond. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Introduction; Chapter 1: Royalty; Chapter 2: Political Movements; Chapter 3: Religion and Morality; Chapter 4: Sex Scandal; Chapter 5: Murder; Chapter 6: The 'Sensation Novel'; Chapter 7: The 'Sensation Drama'; Chapter 8: Stars of Entertainment; Afterword; Chronology of the Main Events Mentioned; Notes; Index