Monday, January 06, 2014

Conquering the Channel

A Caricature of Captain Matthew Webb (Vanity Fair, 9 October 1875) shortly after his conquest of the English Channel

With the failure of J B Johnson's attempt on the English Channel, interest in the possibility of a successful crossing grew. By the middle of the '70s, it had reached fever pitch and another attempt was soon to be made. This time the swimmer was Matthew Webb or, as he was more commonly styled, Captain Webb. Webb had read of Johnson's earlier attempt and obviously felt that he could succeed where his predecessor had failed. At the time, Webb was serving as captain of the steamship Emerald.

The young Matthew Webb had come to the sea through childhood stories of adventure under sail and, at the age of twelve, he left home to sign on as a merchant seaman. He spent three years aboard the training ship, Conway where he was already noted for his staying power as a swimmer.  Kathy Watson, in her biography of Webb, The Crossing, quotes one of his colleagues aboard the Conway,
We thought very little of him as a swimmer but admired his staying power.  He could swim about for an hour without putting his foot to the floor, although in a race he was nowhere.
The water apparently held no fear for him and even as a trainee,  as Watson points out, he won a silver pencil for rescuing another boy who had fallen overboard. Rescuing, or at least attempting to rescue, people from drowning was to have a significant impact on Webb's life.  In 1873, as second mate aboard the Cunard Ship, Russia, travelling from New York to Liverpool the 25 year old Webb jumped overboard in an attempt to rescue a seaman who had fallen from the rigging.  Unfortunately, the sailor was not seen again and only his cap was recovered.  After half-an-hour in the water, Webb was brought back on board the steamer.  For his bravery he was awarded both the silver medal of the Royal Humane Society and its newly created Stanhope Medal. Sadly, in 1989, all of Webb's medals, including the Stanhope and the Royal Humane Society Medal were sold at auction to a private collector for  £12,650.
The man with his medals
Webb's first attempt to swim the English Channel  was made on 12 August 1875.  At the time he was, according to the volume, Swimming, in the Badminton Library,
5 ft. 8 in. high, measured 43 in. round the chest, and weighed about fourteen and a half stone. ...During his training he once swam out to the north-east Varne Buoy, which is more than half-way across the Channel, and also from Dover to Ramsgate, about eighteen miles, in 8 hrs. 45 mins., as well as in the Thames from Blackwall to Gravesend in 4 hrs. 52 mins.
The Channel attempt was widely covered in the newspapers of the day with many of them relaying reports from their local correspondents.  At just before five in the evening, Webb was liberally coated in  a yellow fatty oil obtained from porpoises.  Fair weather and calm seas were expected and at just a minute or two before five the swimmer entered the water.  According to the London Daily News, "he commenced his journey amid a round of cheers."  Despite expectations of fine weather, a breeze had sprung up and the water was beginning to roughen.

Webb set off briskly, covering the first quarter mile in ten minutes using a breast stroke, but the weather began to turn and just before midnight, after swimming about thirteen and a half miles in just over 6 hours and 48 minutes and  despite feeling "warm and quite well," he decided not to continue saying that "it was impossible for any mortal man to swim as far again in such a sea."  According to The Times, in the opinion of those accompanying him, "had the weather been fine he would have succeeded in reaching the French coast."

Webb and his team watched the weather carefully and planned another assault on the Channel.  Monday, 23 August looked good for a midnight departure but the weather forced a further delay until the following day. At just before one in the afternoon, Webb dived from the end of Admiralty Pier and headed for France.

Admiralty Pier, Dover
Using his slow breast stroke, he made such progress that the lugger which accompanies him across as before, although it had all sail set, had to put out oars and row to keep up with him.   Two rowing-boats follow him with the referees and a young man who is ready at any moment to plunge into the sea to render Captain Webb any assistance he may require.
Swimming at 23 strokes to the minute, Webb made good progress initially but the length of time in the water, the coldness, the stings of jellyfish and the tide which forced him to swim a much greater distance than he had anticipated all began to tell on the swimmer.   After just over 21 hours and 45 minutes, the exhausted swimmer dragged himself ashore in France. Kathy Watson describes the moment when,
Exhausted, delirious, his face encrusted with salt, one eye blind from the waves, his body rigid and greasy like a lump of cold wax, Webb stood, stumbled and fell, lifeless, into the waiting arms of his friends.
Webb recovered quickly and within days was being lionized.  Early in September he visited the Baltic, the Stock Exchange and attended the Covent Garden Promenade Concerts.  Subscription lists were started for him and he was an honoured guest at the officers' mess of the Royal Artillery.  Although not a good speaker (he was described as speaking in a "brief, genial but not too fluent manner which is usually associated with sailors") he strongly advocated the teaching of swimming, telling one group according to the Manchester Times that
he considered it very important that more people should be able to swim than at present: and if in swimming across the Channel he had caused people to think more of teaching their boys to swim he should be well satisfied with what he had done.
It didn't take long for the enterprising book market to cash in on Webb's fame.  Within days The Channel Feats of Captain Webb and Captain Boynton was on the market.  Only 64 pages in length, it featured  "a dashing picture of Captain Webb bravely breasting his way across the Channel." Reviewed in The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times of 11 September 1875, it was described as a "seasonal little book" and one which "provides the reader with a complete account ... as well as a brief memoir of Webb and Boynton."

Webb's face was soon well known throughout the length and breadth of the land. Here was a real hero, a conqueror of the most elemental forces. His image appeared on mugs and cups, on matchboxes and other innumerable forms of ephemera.


Ephemera

As if that was not enough, advertisements featuring his image appeared on walls and song sheets praising his valour and his accomplishments were available.

"Ghost" sign on a wall

Song Sheet

The chorus to the 1875 song, "Captain Matthew Webb or Swimming from England to France," seemed to capture the public approbation engendered by the feat.
Hurrah! for Captain Matthew Webb, the hero of the age,
His noble name shall always fill a space in History's page ...
For the next few years Webb was in and out of the news.  Various swimming exhibitions and competitions both in England and in the United States either failed to materialize or were less satisfactory than the swimmer might have wished.  finally, in July of 1883, just short of eight years after his magnificent Channel crossing, he made one final attempt to regain the stature he so desired.  For a fee of $10,000 he undertook to swim the rapids and whirlpool at Niagara Falls.  The funds were put up by various railway companies in the hope that such an attraction would draw crowds to the scene requiring them to run special trains.

Despite attempts to discourage him, Webb entered the water from a small boat.  According to Reuter's,
on entering the rapids [he] was almost turned over by the force of the water.  He swam the rapids, however with great determination, being now and again caught sight of by a few of the spectators.  When last seen he was entering the whirlpool, and at first appeared to be doing well, but very shortly afterwards threw up his arms and disappeared.
When Queen Victoria heard the news, she wrote in her Journal on the 27th of July, "the celebrated swimmer, Capt: Webb was drowned while trying to swim across the rapids at Niagara, very shocking."

The very next day, July 28th, His body was recovered from the river.  It was Captain Webb's last swim.

 Despite his latter years, nobody would ever be able to take away from Matthew Webb the glory of having been the first to swim the English Channel.  Over the years many others attempted to duplicate his feat, but it was not until 36 years later that Thomas William Burgess succeeded in swimming from Dover to Gris Nez in 22 hours and 35 minutes.  In the years between the two successful swims, there had been more than eighty attempts; all of which ended in failure. Certainly for the 36 years between Burgess's and Webb's crossings, the Badminton Library's volume on Swimming was not wrong when it said Webb's triumph was "the greatest authenticated long-distance swim in the sea without any artificial aid."

While Captain Webb may have faded from popular memory, only to be known to Channel swimmers and historians, he did manage to reappear from time to time. In 1940, John Betjeman (later to be appointed Poet Laureate by Queen Elizabeth II) wrote "A Shropshire Lad," in which he has Webb's ghost swimming back to his home in Dawley along the canal. In a completely different context, the American cartoonist and creator of the comic strip, "Pogo," Walt Kelly briefly paid tribute to the swimmer in his strip in 1968.


The full "Pogo" comic strip can be seen by clicking here.
To hear "Tom O'Bedlam's reading of John Betjeman's "A Shropshire Lad," click here.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Ashes

The Ashes
Cricket may well be the most English of games, and there is certainly no more fiercely fought series than the clashes between England and Australia. The series is affectionately known, in both countries, as "The Ashes" and is usually fought out every two years.

It was the Northern summer of 1882 and although England had lost in its previous Australian tour, it had never been defeated by the "Colonials" on home soil.  Although sometimes referred to as the first Ashes test, the 1882 match was a single match played over two days and was only later elevated to the status of a Test.

While "The Ashes" was an indirect product of England's defeat, it was not in existence at the time of the match. As to the game itself, from the beginning it looked to be England's for the taking.  In the first innings on a rain soaked pitch Australia was bowled out for an unimpressive 63.  With England in to bat, Australia managed to hold their proponents to just 101. The outstanding bowler for Australia was Fred (The Demon Bowler) Spofforth who took seven wickets for 46 with 147 deliveries. Evidence of the excitement generated by the match could be seen in the attendance which, during the course of the first day's play, rose from 10,000 to around 22,000.

According to the Cricket historian, Bernard Whimpress,
On the sloping embankment close to the chains people were standing 20 deep all round, and further back on the terraces the crowd was equally dense, while in the stands there was not a vacant seat.  The roofs of the dingy brick houses surrounding The Oval also bore eager spectators.
The match at the Oval
The second and final day of play saw Australia, with its meager score of 101, leaving England needing only 85 runs to win.  Tempers had, however, become a bit frayed when W.G. Grace took one of the Australian wickets in what many considered to be a less than honorable manner. According to Wisden's Almanack, that great Bible and guide to all things Cricket,
At 114 Jones was run out in a way which gave great dissatisfaction to Murdoch and other Australians. Murdoch played a ball to leg, for which Lyttelton ran. The ball was returned, and Jones having completed the first run, and thinking wrongly, but very naturally, that the ball was dead, went out of his ground. Grace put his wicket down, and the umpire gave him out. Several of the team spoke angrily of Grace's action, but the compiler was informed that after the excitement had cooled down a prominent member of Australian eleven admitted that he should have done the same thing had he been in Grace's place. There was a good deal of truth in what a gentleman in the pavilion remarked, amidst some laughter, that Jones ought to thank the champion for teaching him something.
"W. G."
While the gentleman in the pavilion may have been amused, the Australians were not. Surely, if Spofforth or, for that matter, any of the Australian players heard those remarks they would have fumed at the condescension which would have been all that it took to inflame the Australians. Needing 85 runs to win, England had reached 51 with only three wickets having fallen.  Famously, Spofforth announced to the Australians, "This thing can be done."  And done it was, in no small measure due to the bowling of "The Demon."  In the end, Australia won by 7 runs with Spofforth having taken 7 wickets in each of the two innings for 44 and 46 runs respectively.  It would be ninety years before another Australian bowler, Bob Massie, matched or surpassed this.  Massie bowled 16 for 137 at Lords  in the second test of the 1972 Ashes series which ended in a draw with each side winning two of the matches.

Fred (The Demon Bowler) Spofforth
Even The Illustrated London News was forced to to admit, although somewhat reluctantly, that while the Australian victory was "not a great triumph," it was still "one of which the Colonial Eleven may well be proud."

Many English sports lovers  must have been aghast not only at the English team's loss, but at the sheer effrontery of the Australians daring to win on English soil.  After Australia's win, an obituary appeared in The Sporting Times.  It read


The story might have ended there had it not been for two events.  First, the English captain of the side playing the 1882-83 series in Australia, Ivo Bligh, later Lord Darnley, announced that he intended to "regain those ashes."  As a result, the series became known in England as the quest to regain the Ashes.

Ivo Bligh
In Australia, England once again showed their prowess, winning 2 of the 3 scheduled tests on the tour. Australia took the first test and when a fourth, unscheduled test, was added the Australians won that as well.  Just when and how the physical ashes and their urn came into the hands of the English captain is still a matter of dispute. The most widely accepted story is that Bligh was given the urn with the ashes of a cricket bail inside after an informal match at Rupertswood Estate outside of Melbourne.

Not only did Bligh acquire the ashes he met Florence Morphy whom he married in 1884. The English captain always considered the small urn a personal gift. It was kept on the mantelpiece of his home until his death in 1927 at which time  his widow gave the urn to the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) where the ashes reside in a small terracotta urn housed in the Cricket Museum at the Lord's Cricket ground.

The Ashes series now stands (2013) England 31, Australia 32, and 5 drawn. As of this writing, Australia has just won three of the five matches being played and has regained the ashes! But one small footnote might be added here.  Despite a cracking victory on English soil in 1882, Australia was unable to win another Ashes series there until 1899 when they won one test and drew four. But that is another story, for another time.

For those readers unfamiliar with the "Laws of Cricket," a PDF copy of the latest compilation can be downloaded by clicking here.

To see a brief video history of "The Ashes" and how they came to be, click here.

NOTE:  Australia won all five of the Tests in 2013-14.  This was only the third time in history that this had been accomplished.  The present Captain of the Australian side, Michael Clarke, is the only player to have participated in more than one of the 5-0 Ashes series (2006-7, 2013-14).

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Challenge of the Channel

With the growth of leisure time in the later years of Victoria's reign, the variety of sports, both for participants and spectators, grew rapidly.  Men and women competed against time, the elements and one-another. The greatest challenges, and those which had the greatest appeal to the public, were almost always against nature. Although mountains and rivers were conquered, the Channel remained. It offered a special challenge. It was, after all, what divided England from the European continent and was, to use William Shakespeare's image, part of "a moat defensive to a house/Against the envy of less happier lands." England was, to Victorians as to Elizabethans,

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, 
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, 
This other Eden, demi-paradise, 
This fortress built by Nature for herself 
Against infection and the hand of war, 
This happy breed of men, this little world, 
This precious stone set in the silver sea, 
Which serves it in the office of a wall 
Or as a moat defensive to a house, 
Against the envy of less happier lands,-- 

                              William Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act 2 scene 1

The English Channel had always been part of the great defensive net around England and while it was regularly crossed by boat, experience had shown that it was a bulwark against invasion. But by the last quarter of the nineteenth century it was becoming easier to cross.  

The first balloon passage had taken place in January of 1785 when  Jean-Pierre Blanchard, with the American, Dr. John  Jeffries, navigated from England to France in about 2½ hours.
The First Channel Flight
In 1815, the √Člise made the first steamship crossing in a harrowing seventeen hour trip.  
The √Člise
But it was not until 1872 that the first recorded attempt to swim the English Channel took place.  The swimmer, J B Johnson, lasted for only three minutes more than an hour before abandoning the effort.  

Johnson was a professional swimmer based in Leeds who came to prominence in 1871 when he won the swimming championship at the Welsh Harp Lake at Hendon in front of a crowd of three or four hindred spectators and in the teeth of a driving hailstorm. The Times described him, at the time, as "undoubtedly the best swimmer [in] England." Johnson had already attracted some interest and attention in the press when, a few days earlier, he had leapt from London Bridge apparently to rescue a gentleman who had fallen from a Thames Steamer. Later, however, it was established that it was a "performance." According to The Badminton Library volume on Swimming, this 
afterwards turned out to be a mere exhibition. Johnson dived to rescue a drowning person, the said 'drowning person' being his brother Peter, who was nearly as good a swimmer as the famous J. B., and a capital stayer under water.
In August of the following year, Johnson attempted to swim the English Channel.  Initially, many thought this was nothing more than another hoax, but it soon became clear that this was to be a serious attempt.  Johnson, of course, clearly realised the value of publicity and a few days before his attempt had posted placards around Dover from where the swim was to originate. The placards announced that the "hero of London-bridge and champion swimmer of the world" would swim from England to France.  It is interesting that even though his London Bridge escapade had been exposed for what it really was, he was still able to play on his "heroic" rescue. Swimming the Channel was a different matter.  Such a feat was generally deemed to be impossible, although there were stories of three escaped French political prisoners attempting to swim to England.  Two were supposed to have completed the swim, one of whom died almost immediately thereafter while the other survived and lived in Dover for a number of years.  But the attempt by Johnson was not to be one of rumour or half-truth; it would be thoroughly documented. 

At the time, Johnson was twenty-four years old and a superb physical specimen as well as being captain of the prestigious Serpentine (swimming) Club in London.

Johnson's attempt came about as the result of a bet placed in Leeds, his home town, at odds of 1000 pounds to 30 pounds, a wager which was quickly doubled. Having already made his mark as a swimmer, he must have realised that a successful crossing of the Channel would raise him even further in the eyes of both the public and the swimming fraternity. Always aware of the power of publicity, in addition to the placards which had been placed around Dover, Johnson hired the brass band of the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens to play at the start of his swim. A steamer, the Palmerston, was engaged to accompany him and the great event was scheduled for Friday, 23 August. Thousands of spectators had gathered at Admiralty Pier in Dover to see the swimmer off, but the tide was such as to necessitate a delay until the following day. However,Johnson and his brother more than mollified the crowd with a performance of "aquatic feats for more than an hour."

The following day started with the band marching from the Harp Hotel and leading Johnson to the pier.  The hero of the hour followed along wearing thirty decorations described by the correspondent for The Times as "mementos of former conquests." Cheered by a crowd of thousands, Johnson dove into the water from the steamer Palmerston's paddlebox at 10:40 am. 
Johnson enters the water
After an hour, however, it became clear he would be unable to go on.  He took some port wine at 11:20 and again at 11:30 while still in the water, but by 11:45 he was out of the water and on the deck of the steamer.

According to The Times, when he was pulled aboard, his legs were numb from the thighs down and he was suffering from hypothermia to such a degree he was even unable to drink some of the beef-tea which was proffered. Nonetheless, always the showman, when the Palmerston arrived at Calais at 3:00 pm, he, and his brother who was accompanying him, 
dived into the water, one from each side of the boat, and delighted the spectators anxiously awaiting his arrival with various specimens of aquatic skill.
While perhaps not achieving the fame he sought, Johnson certainly was the subject of much adulation.  Despite his failed attempt at the Channel, a popular song, I wish that I could swim like J. B. Johnson, was soon being heard.  

The other day he tried to swim,
To Calais right from Dover,
The task seem'd easy unto him.
When seven miles were over,
Right through the sea, he seem'd to fly,
He stop'd, tho' not through failure,
When I can swim, you'll see I'll try,
To go right to Australia.

Two of the verses refer to his feat at London Bridge and his failed attempt on the Channel, neither of which seemed to, in any way, lower his popular appeal.  But it was not until three years later that the English Channel was finally conquered, not by J. B. Johnson, but by Captain Matthew Webb.

To see the songsheet for "I wish that I could swim like J. B. Johnson," click here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

London to Brighton by Coach in Under Eight Hours!

With the opening of the London to Brighton rail line, in 1841, coach travel between the two cities declined dramatically both in importance and frequency.  Why, one might ask, would someone choose the discomfort and danger of coach travel when, by the middle years of the Old Queen's reign, the trip could be completed with relative ease in less than half the time it would take by coach?  Today, just as we may think of the age of the steam locomotive as part of a romantic past, so did Victorians, in the second half of the nineteenth century, tend to romanticize travel by coach. Certainly there was something more "earthy" about it.  One was, perhaps, less close to the realities of life than if one was walking, but one was certainly closer than if enclosed in the carriage of a train pelting along at the frightening speed of 40 or more miles per hour.

Charles G. Harper, writing in 1892,  commented,
Sentiment hung round the expiring age of coaching, and has cast a halo on old-time ways of travelling, so that we often fail to note the disadvantages and discomforts endured in those days.
Some of this sentiment was captured (or possibly re-imagined) by the Illustrated London News in 1888.
[I]n the old times which some of us can personally remember -- well appointed mail-coaches performed the longest journey at the rate, including all stoppages, of more than ten miles an hour, while special post-chaises could do more than eleven miles an hour; and it is very pleasant in fine weather.
Not only were the trains faster and more comfortable, they could carry more holiday maker to the coast. The record number of 480 coach passengers arrived in Brighton on 25 October of 1833 and only a little over three months later the fastest time for that distance was set at 3 hours and 40 minutes. But by 1841 the first "Golden Age" of travel by coach was coming to an end.  

Despite the decline, which had seen the number of coaches daily fall by 1843 from the high of fifty-two coaches daily in 1815 to only one and eventually in 1845 to none, there were still those who saw in the coaches a romantic alternative and at least one coach made regular trips until 1862. In the middle of the '60s, there was a further revival and this was one of sentiment and sport.

The Illustrated London News for 21 July 1888 summed up the sentimental element which attracted so many.
The high art of coachmanship is not yet extinct, nor has the breed of good roadsters degenerated in England, though all serious journeys are now done by railway.
Speed fascinated Victorians.  Images of rockets and high speed vehicles were not uncommon, if imaginary.  While trains were tacitly accepted as the fastest form of transport, there were still those who wanted to squeeze every drop of speed possible out of alternative modes.  The last quarter of the nineteenth century, for example, saw bicycle racing come to the fore, especially after the development of the pneumatic tyre in 1889. 

Obviously, the question was raised, how quickly could a coach make the trip from London to Brighton and return.  One way trips of under four hours had been recorded from the mid-1830s onward, but prior to 1888 no coach had made the return trip in under eight hours.  This, like the four-minute mile in 1954 was a barrier just waiting to be broken.  And Jim Selby was just the man to take up the challenge.
Jim Selby
Selby was born in 1844, when the railways had taken over from the coaches.  But, because his father was proprietor of a hotel which had a large livery stable attached, he was able to spend his time, when not employed in an auctioneer's office, with horses and livery.  By 1870, he was driving regularly and by the end of the decade he had his own coach, the Old Times with which he was driving longer and more arduous trips at higher speeds. Although only 44 years of age at the time of his great drive, he looked older.  White-haired and probably affected by the constant outdoor life and the strain of handling the four horses pulling the coach, he was a recognizable figure on the Brighton road. By the mid-80s, Selby was the preeminent "whip" of the age. According to The Timesin addition to having spent twenty years on the Brighton road, he "taught more men to drive in England than any man in the kingdom."

In June of 1888, Selby was attending the races at Ascot.  At that meeting where William (Jack) Robinson won the Gold Cup on "Timothy,"  Selby's backers accepted a wager of £1,000 to £500 that he would not be able to drive his coach to Brighton and back in eight hours or less. Should he succeed, the winnings were his.

A month later, on Friday the 13th, 1888.  "Jem" Selby set out from London. The temperature was 71 degrees Fahrenheit  a considerable improvement over the previous day when it had only reached 54 degrees but still a dull day with a light wind.  At just before 10:00 in the morning,  outside Hatchett's Hotel, in front of the New White Horse Cellar, the six passengers climbed aboard the coach and Selby and the guard mounted the box. The tall, top-hatted, Selby, with his ever-present  boutonniere waited for the signal to start which was given by Mr. Percy Edwards, watchmaker of Piccadilly.
The Old Times and Selby ready to depart from the New White Horse Cellar
The police made sure the road was clear of the crowd that had turned out to watch the departure and the coach was away.  On the round trip there were sixteen changes of the team.  These took place with amazing speed.  The first stop, at the Horse and Groom in Streatham was reached at an average speed of 12 miles per hour.  Here the change of horses was accomplished in 47 seconds with some of those on the coach getting down to assist.
Selby and the Old Times racing to the record
Leaving Streatham the pace picked up to 13 miles an hour and although by the time the coach had left Redhill the road was getting heavy, Selby was able not only to maintain the pace but on one stretch reached, and maintained, a speed of 20 miles per hour. At Crawley, the coach encountered the only delay of the trip when the level-crossing gates were found closed.  The delay was only for two minutes and the coach raced away completing the remaining section of the drive in an hour and forty five minutes.  The first half of the journey had taken less than four hours and, while this time was certainly less than record breaking, it was only half of the distance to be covered in the wager. At just ten seconds after 1:56 in the afternoon, the coach pulled up at the Old Ship Hotel in Brighton.
The Old Ship is today, as it was in 1888, a striking Georgian property on the seafront, overlooking Brighton beach, but Selby and his passengers probably did not bother to take in the view; the horses were turned round, a few telegrams were handed up and the Old Times was off on its return journey.  One of the telegrams which was received was from the Duke of Beaufort. It was Henry Somerset, Eighth Duke of Beaufort who conceived and planned the Badminton Library series of sporting books and acted as its overseeing editor. The publication of the series began in 1885 with a volume on Hunting, and in 1889, the volume on Driving was published with a fond reminiscence of James Selby.

In his telegram, the Duke wrote "Thank you much; sorry could not go; fine fresh day.  Hope 6 o'clock will find you at the Cellars.  Sharp work." Had Selby arrived at 6:00pm, he would have made the trip in exactly eight hours and might not have won the bet.  He arrived with ten minutes to spare, pulling in to Piccadilly with a flourish at exactly 5:50pm. The return trip had take a few minutes longer, but the difference between the two directions was less than five minutes.

Along the return the roads were clear and at a number of places bouquets were thrown on to the coach as it thundered past. At the finish, Selby was cheered by members of the Coaching Club as well as a number of naval and military officers who were present. Unfortunately, Selby was not able to enjoy his triumph.  Less than a month after his historic ride, his time was reduced by fourteen minutes when four bicyclists cycled over the same distance on an Ormonde Safety bicycle.  The complete irrelevance of one type of transport to the other seems to have escaped the sports-mad newspapers.

Just five months after his epic feat, Jim Selby was dead, and just as his great coaching feat had been so fulsomely written about in the British newspapers, his death was memorialized.  He was buried in Highgate Cemetery and the procession from his home in the Edgeware Road to the burial ground was nearly a mile long,one of the largest ever seen.  
Eighteen stage-coaches, three private drags, and numerous brakes and broughams, driven by well-known whips formed part of the procession.The funeral-car was covered with wreaths and floral emblems.

The Old Times was, of course, one of the coaches driven in the procession.
Selby's grave with whip and horn on base
The affection and respect in which Selby was held could be seen in the West End of London where cab and omnibus drivers tied crape bows to their whips as a tribute. 

With the death of Selby, one of England's greatest whips was gone. And for many, the second golden age of coaching came to a close. 

For further information, click here to download  C. G. Harper, The Brighton Road (1892).  There is a detailed analysis of the ride and further information on Selby beginning on page 73.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Victorian Valentines

Valentine's Day is now one of the best known and most popular celebrations in the world.  Although not a "holiday" in most places where businesses are open as usual, it is widely celebrated with the exchanging of cards and the sending of gifts.

By the middle years of the nineteenth century, Valentine's day had become a popular event in Great Britain.  Two factors, I believe, contributed to its ever increasing popularity.  With the coming of the Penny Post,  From January of 1840, it was possible to send a letter throughout the United Kingdom for one penny.  This meant that there was a safe, speedy and, most significantly, cheap means of sending messages.  Early Valentine's day sentiments were often nothing more than a sheet of paper, possibly decorated, on which a sentiment was written.  Folded over it was inexpensive to make and to mail.  This, when combined with the frequency of deliveries of mail as the century progressed, meant that a card sent in London in the early hours might easily be delivered to another London address the same day.

The second factor which helped to increase the popularity of the day was the growth of commercialism around it. By the middle years of the nineteenth century the Valentine's day tradition of sending cards was becoming well established much to the delight of the purveyors of such cards. One of the best known of the stationers who helped to commercialise the day was Marcus Ward and Company. Specialising in stationery and general publishing, the firm won a medal for their colour lithography in the Great Exhibition of 1851. By the 1860s, the firm had firmly marked its place as a mass producer of calendars and greeting cards employing the likes of Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane to illustrate their cards. Below is an advertisement from the Illustrated London News of 8 February 1879.


Paper lace, developed in the 1830s, along with a variety of books and pamphlets containing appropriate sentiments to be used in creating one's own card, along with those cards purchased from outlets such as Marcus Ward, undoubtedly contributed to the mid-century avalanche of February mail.

A series of drawings which appeared in The Illustrated London News on the 13th of February 1886 seemed to summarise the day.  Here, a young man goes to the stationers to get a card for his beloved who, unfortunately, shares her name with a maiden aunt living at the same address. The outcome is inevitable, confusion reigns, the matter is finally resolved and true love, in the end,conquers all.

In the same year, George Du Maurier commented in one of his Punch cartoons about the New Woman and Valentine's day.  Two Girton ladies are looking at a card (one of them is holding a cigarette).  Clearly the inside contains the quote in Greek. First young lady, "Charming, isn't it? Gussie must have sent it from Oxford?" Second young lady (overlooking). "Yes, it's out of the Antigone - The Love-Chorus, you know. How much jollier than those silly English verses fellows used to send!"


Valentines were exchanged in both serious and humorous modes.  In 1889, for example, thirty year old Miss Maud Berkeley confided to her diary

"Mr Barnes is my Valentine this year.  I presented him with a card, covered in pressed violets with the injunction that he should give me anything I wanted all year. He did not seem to rate this treat as high as he might, and retreated into his library, muttering that he had vestry service to think of."

For many, it was a day for remembering friends with small gifts.  The following year, Maud notes that she "Got the prettiest little brooch -- bog oak with pearls -- from Lilian.  Sweet little Nannie gave me a sovereign ... Mr Barnes very pleased with the card I made him."

On the other hand, beyond the charming, there were what are sometimes referred to as "vinegar Valentines."  These, at their mildest, poke fun at the recipient while at their worst can be quite insulting and very nasty. To see a selection of such cards, click here.