Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Manly Art of Self Defence

 Heenan v. Sayers for the World Championship, April 1860.

Paralleling the efforts to remove executions from the public view were the attempts to make the staging of prize-fights more difficult.  During Victoria’s years on the throne, the ring undoubtedly claimed more lives than public executions, for it was not until the last decade or two of her reign that glove-fighting replaced bare-knuckles pugilism.

Unlike the main participant at a public hanging, for whom death was inevitable, for the pugilist it was only a possibility, an occupational hazard, and the supposed benefits which might be derived from success were often seen as outweighing the risks.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, fighting was a common sport.  Like most village sports, it was rough-and-tumble and could be practiced in a variety of forms.  Jem Mace, who was generally recognized as the World Heavyweight Champion in the early 1870s, in recalling his youth, pointed out that

 neither cricket nor football existed then, in the sense they do now, nor had the gentlefolks taken up with polo or golf.  Consequently all the interest that is now spread over these, and other sports, was concentrated on boxing.
As well, the thin line between amateur and professional was virtually non-existent.

Everybody learned to use his fists in those days. … Every little village possessed its ‘champion,’ and these used to meet one another, usually on Sunday, and fight to the finish with naked fists.
Frequently such village matches consisted of nothing more than two young pugilists hammering away at each other until one was knocked insensible or was either unable or unwilling to continue.
More formal fights took place in a ring erected for the occasion with the full contingent of seconds, referees, umpires and others on hand.  But even such formal arrangements in no way detracted from the brutality of the spectacle.  The very fact that the participants might be better trained and capable of standing up to greater punishment often made professional fights bloodier than those between amateurs.
The skin of professional fighters was toughened with vigorous rough towellings and rubdowns with horsehair gloves.  Their hands were soaked daily with brine or some other concoction to toughen them and the mixtures were often applied to the face, chest and ribs as well.  Jem Mace’s hands were soaked in a brine composed in part of the green vitriol, copperas, mixed with whisky, gunpowder and horseradish, “until by degrees they were made as hard as iron and nearly as black.” His face received the same treatment and when he entered the ring the contrast between his blackened face and hands and the rest of his body was clearly visible.

Despite this toughening process, blood (commonly referred to by the cognoscenti as “claret”) was usually drawn early in the fight and, not infrequently, the match would degenerate into a virtual bloodbath. In the championship fight between John Camel Heenan, the American challenger, and Tom Sayers, in April of 1860, the latter drew blood in the first round and went on to so batter the American’s face that by the time the fight ended, Heenan, unable to see his opponent, hit one of the seconds in the face, knocking him down. Sayers, in the early rounds, had also been injured by a blow to his right arm and although the fight lasted a full thirty-seven rounds before the ring was broken, and an additional five thereafter, he never regained its use during the match.

After the Sayers-Heenan bout, the championship was declared open and the first successful claimant was Sam Hurst, a six foot, two inch, fifteen stone, Lancashire wrestler described by The Times as being of “almost superhuman strength, but perhaps the most unskilful boxer that ever entered the prize ring.” In June of 1861, he met Jem Mace who stood only five foot, eight inches and weighed ten and a half stone but was, in his day, considered “the most scientific pugilist alive.” By the end of the first round, which lasted almost twelve minutes, Hurst was bleeding freely and by the end of the fight, which lasted eight rounds and 50 minutes, both men were covered in Hurst’s blood and Mace’s blows had a “splashing sound like striking raw meat.”

The brutality of the prize ring appealed to that same type of person who attended public hangings. The Cornhill Magazine, in 1864, rather facetiously noted that

Hangings now occur so rarely, and at such irregular intervals, that they can no longer be depended upon as a source of amusement, and perhaps we are to some extent bound to make up for the deficiency by an enlightened policy with regard to prize-fights.
Certainly, many of those who expressed objections to prize fighting did so because it was expected of them and though the number of fights declined as the century wore on and the middle and upper classes began to abandon the sport, certain “distinguished spectators,” according to All the Year Round, “ … gave the Ring the sanction of their presence, but not the sanction of their names.”  But by the last decades of the Queen's reign, pugilism was in a parlous state.
However, as glove boxing increased in popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s, more spectators were again seen from the better social classes and, it was not uncommon at a match to see “rows upon rows of spectators, all arrayed ‘in faultless evening garb.’”

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Certain Grim Pleasure

One of the great events in the early years of Victoria's reign was a public hanging. While figures vary dramatically, there is no reason to doubt that the number of spectators might range anywhere from 20,000 up to 100,000, the number, according to The Times, attending Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool for the mutiple hanging of four men on 11 September 1863.

In amongst the mob one found many of the labouring classes; mill-hands, factory girls and women, bricklayer’s labourers and dock workmen, either hoping for some entertainment on their way to work or enjoying St. Monday. Women and children were frequent spectators and at the last public execution in England, The Times commented on the “blue velvet hats and huge white feathers [which] lined the great beams which kept the mass from crushing each other in their eagerness to see a man put to death.” At any execution one might see ragged children darting to and fro to “play their usual pranks at the foot of the gallows.”

Charles Dickens, who, somewhat against his better judgment, had gone to the double hanging of Frederick George Manning and his wife, Maria, on a Tuesday morning, the 13th of November 1849 outside of Horsemonger Lane Gaol was horrified at midnight, before the execution, by "the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places.” It made, he wrote to The Times, “my blood run cold."

Most, but not all, of those in attendance at hangings were drawn from the lower and labouring classes. Certainly the better class of artisans and their families attended; sometimes making the trip to a public execution an excursion or the opportunity for a picnic. In September of 1853, a train with thirty carriages of sightseers travelled from Bradford to Liverpool for a multiple hanging at Kirkdale Gaol.  “The majority of the ‘excursionists,’” The Times reported, “were respectably dressed persons--decent looking mechanics, women in silk dresses with expanded crinolines, and youths from 12 to 20 years of age.” The huge crowd estimated at over 100,000 spectators was swelled by excursionists from Huddersfield and Blackburn as well.

On Monday, the 5th of January 1846, Nathaniel Bryceson, a 19 year-old wharf clerk in Pimlico recorded two public hangings.

 This morning at 8 o’clock the woman Martha Browning expiated her crime on the scaffold in the Old Bailey, for the murder of Elizabeth Mundell on the 1st of December last.  The culprit showed great presence of mind on the occasion and ascended the gallows with a firm and steady step, and without any assistance.  The body was cut down at 9 o’clock and Calcraft, the executioner, took his departure from Newgate to Horsemonger Lane County Gaol to offer his services for a similar occasion, namely to put in force the sentence of the law against Samuel Quennell for the murder of a shipmate, by shooting him in Kennington Lane.  The execution took place on the top of the Prison over the front gates precisely at 10 o’clock.  The culprit behaved himself becomingly on so solemn an occasion and ascended the scaffold without assistance. ‘Remarks: this is the first execution of a female that I ever recollect in my time, also the first at Horsemonger Lane, and likewise the first time that two executions took place in the one day, to my recollection.

William Calcraft began his career as a hangman in 1828. He had been employed at Newgate Gaol to flog juvenile offenders when, in an emergency, he was sent to Lincoln to execute two men. In 1829, on the death of John Foxton (or Foxen), the City of London executioner, Calcraft was appointed to fill the office. As official hangman he received a guinea per week from the city and another guinea for each execution performed. For acting as hangman for Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark, Surrey, just across the Thames in what is now South London, Calcraft was paid a retaining fee of five guineas annually as well as the usual guinea per execution.

That Calcraft was paid in guineas is, in itself, an interesting point. The value of the guinea is one pound plus one shilling. Generally tradesmen were paid in pounds and gentlemen in guineas. For example, barristers were paid in guineas, but kept only the pound; the extra shillings going to their clerks. Perhaps Calcraft was paid in guineas because his work was considered an element of the legal profession.

Dickens accused Calcraft. At the Mannings' execution, of being guilty at times of “unseemly briskness, ... jokes, … oaths, and … brandy.” At the hanging of Franz Muller, outside Newgate Prison in 1864, when Calcraft went to cut the dead man down, he was greeted with “hisses and sneering inquiries of what he had had to drink that morning.” The choice of language in describing Calcraft also reflects the attitudes toward his role.  In April of 1851, fore example, one newspaper referred to him as “the public strangler.”  This may also have reflected on the fact that many of those who were hanged died in agony as the rope was too short for the fall to effectively snap the neck, leading to death by slow strangulation.

Virtually all accounts suggest that the bulk of those attending public executions formed a volatile mob. When Franz Muller was hanged in 1864, according to the Annual Register for that year,

the most conspicuous element in the mob was the lowest refuse of metropolitan life--the combined force of ruffianism and thieving.  The behaviour of the densely packed mob was in some places not indecent; but in the vicinity of the drop it was the reverse.  Fights and hustlings for the purpose of robbery were incessant as the hour of the execution drew nigh, and were actually in operation when the bell was tolling, and when the cry of “hats off” had commenced.
The fascination with executions extended well beyond those able or willing to attend the actual hanging. Sellers of street literature worked their way up and down the countryside selling papers and pamphlets, usually prepared well in advance, purporting the have been either the written or spoken words of the condemned man (albeit they were likely to be neither). One seller of such literature who had gone down from London to Norwich expressly to sell his wares at an execution described the process:

I worked my way down there with "a sorrowful lamentation" of his own composing which I'd got written by a blind man expressly for the occasion. On the morning of the execution we beat all the regular newspapers out the field; for we had the full, true, and particular account down, you see, by our own express, and that can beat anything that ever they can publish; for we get it printed several days afore it comes off, and goes and stands with it right under the drop.
After the hanging, of course, the pamphlet or broadsheet seller could do a brisk trade by going from county to county. When Francis Benjamin Courvoisier was hanged in 1840, over 1,666,000 broadsheets were sold detailing the execution. Nine years later, when the Mannings were hanged, 2,500,000 were sold.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Penny Post

If the Victorian era is sometimes referred to as "the age of steam," it might equally well be called "the age of mail."  It was during Victoria's long reign that the transportation of correspondence was simplified and costs were reduced to such an extent that almost anyone could afford to send a letter within Great Britain while the cost of a letter to the colonies was within the reach of  many.  William Lewins, writing in 1864, makes the point that

In the Post-Office, towards 1838 and 1839, the influence of railways promised soon to be paramount, and it was now that Acts were passed in Parliament “to provide for the conveyance of mails by railways.”
In August 1838, shortly after Victoria came to the throne, the existing charge for a letter going less than eight miles was 2d., having only recently been halved from 4d.   Other than that, the rates for postage had not changed since 1812 in Great Britain and since 1814 in Ireland.

They advanced from 2d. For 8 miles and 4d. For 15 miles, by steps to 1s. For 300 miles, and 1d. For every additional 100 miles or part of 100 miles.
The cost of correspondence was generally borne by the recipients and this could prove a significant impost.  Tradesmen in the latter years of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century sent out their pamphlets even as they do today, but the difference was that once again it was the addressee who paid for the privilege of receiving the advertisements.  Rowland Hill, the man responsible for the Penny Post tells us that

... every day that brought post-letters brought also a demand for payment, the postman waiting at the door till he had received his money.  … when we were most straitened in means, his rap was not always welcome; the demand being certain and sometimes inconvenient; the recompense, in the way of news, doubtful.  Tradesmen's circulars, in particular, which sometimes came from a considerable distance, and always unpaid, were great causes of disappointment and irritation.
Before the introduction of the Penny Post, a one page letter from London to Birmingham would cost 9d.  An enclosure – even of an additional page – would double the cost and a three page letter would bring the charge to two shillings threepence. Clearly it was to the advantage of many businesses to evade the high price of postage and this was a common practice despite both its illegality and the substantial fines that it might attract.  Avoidance was costly to the Post Office.  According to Lewins, “Penal laws were set at defiance, and the number of contraband letters became enormous.”

Matthew Devonport Hill, the brother of Rowland Hill tells how,

On one occasion the agents of the Post-Office made a seizure, ... of eleven hundred ... letters, which were found in a single bag in the warehouse of certain eminent London carriers.  The head of the firm hastened to seek an interview with the Postmaster-General, and proffered instant payment of 500l. by way of composition for the penalties incurred and if proceedings against the firm might not be instituted.  The money was taken, and the letters were all passed through the Post-Office the same night.
The postal service, like any organism, grew and changed over time.  But the greatest change was undoubtedly the introduction of the Penny Post, which made the mail service cheaper and, as a result of increased volume, more efficient.  While there was always talk of reform, it was Rowland Hill’s pamphlet of 1837, Post Office Reform; Its Importance and Practicability, that provided the impetus for change. In the pamphlet he proposed that letters should be paid for by the sender at a uniform rate and

that the postage might be collected in advance, if reduced to the rate proposed; viz., one penny for each packet not exceeding half an ounce in weight, with an additional penny for each additional half ounce.

Three years after he first proposed changes to a governmental commission Parliament passed an Act which enabled many of the reforms Hill had proposed including the use of stamps as we know them today.  While the first of these was neither preforated or gummed, the Penny Black is unmistakable as a postage stamp. 

 The Penny Black

As a result of the 1840 reforms, not only was the delivery of mail faster, more frequent and more reliable than it had been in earlier times, the care which was exercised could have stood as a sterling example of British thoroughness.  When, for example, Mr David Clarke of Liverpool, complained to the Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, that letters he had sent to his family in Melbourne had not been received, Grey immediately sent a dispatch along with copies of the correspondence from Clarke to Governor Sir Charles Fitzroy in Sydney.  Fitzroy, in turn, requested that the Superintendent of Port Phillip, soon to become the Colony of Victoria,  investigate the matter.  This was done and La Trobe wrote back to Deas Thomson, the Colonial Secretary, that he had

caused enquiry to be made into this complaint, and beg to state that the Chief Postmaster reports that, search having been made, three letters have been found in the Post Office Melbourne addressed to Miss Clarke … directed to be left at the Post Office Melbourne until called for;- that no one having called for them, they were advertised in the usual course as unclaimed letters. - Had Mr. Clark in the first instance directed these letters to the care of Dr. Martin, in whose family he was aware his daughter was residing, there would have been no difficulty in delivering them. … Miss Clarke's address being now known steps will be immediately taken to deliver them to her.
Of course, it is worth noting that the whole process took a year but that was a function of the “tyranny of distance,” rather than any lack of zeal on the part of the authorities.  It would certainly be fair to say that by the middle years of the century, the Royal Mail had come of age!