Posts Tagged London

Arthur Boyd Houghton’s City of Strangers

25 February 2012

Arthur Boyd Houghton Itinerant Singers

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Itinerant Singers, c1860 (detail). Click to Open Full Image in New Window.

Arthur Boyd Houghton was known to paint glowing images of happy families on seaside retreat and beneficent old men at play with their grandchildren, but in 1859-1865 he also produced a series of weirdly unsettling London street scenes. Their composition is chaotic and fragmentary, depicting complex scenes of urban bustle. His figures, though densely intermingled, appear eerily disconnected from one another.

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Mord Em’ly’s Late-Victorian Moxie

12 November 2011

Betty Balfour appeared in the 1922 silent film version of Mord Em'ly

Published in 1901, William Pett Ridge’s Mord Em’ly opens to a pitched battle between rival girl-gangs on the mean streets of south London. Hair is pulled, faces are scratched, and innocent hats are senselessly trampled. If you have ever succumbed beneath the tedium of a Dickens novel, here is something a bit more lively. 

The story follows its charismatic, working-class heroine, Mord Em’ly (“Maud Emily”), as she is arrested for shoplifting at the age of twelve and sent to an industrial school. Later, she escapes and returns to London only to find that her gang has moved on, and that the old neighborhood has lost some of its luster. In the intervening years, she has grown up a bit, and she continues to grow as she is forced to confront a new set of conflicts, including an abusive, heretofore absent father who turns up to demand money. 

Mord Em’ly is no damsel in distress, however, nor is she a hapless victim of social conditions. She has a strong, self-reliant personality, and an eviscerating, razor-wit that permit her to maintain her independence in spite of a cast of characters and institutions who are alternatively out to rescue or enslave her. Her story is colored by ironical descriptions and amusingly sharp, caustic dialog—as in this exchange between Mord Em’ly and an aggressive stranger who bullies her girlfriend, Ronicker, at a boxing match: 

“Make her shut her head, then,” said the lean-faced man aggrievedly. “I don’t want no truck with her. Make the—”

“Less language,” commanded More Em’ly. “Don’t forget you’re in the presence of ladies.” The lean-faced man laughed ironically.

You!” he said vehemently. “You call yourselves ladies! You’re what I call—well, I won’t say what I call you. I’ve got gentlemanly feelings beneath a ‘omley exterior, and I know how to be’ave as well as anyone.”

“You cert’n’y are ‘omley.”

“If I meet with ceevility,” said the lean-faced man, in a dogged way, “I give ceevility back. If I meet with inceevility, I give inceevility back. If I’ve got a single fault—”

“Who’s been telling you that?” 

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The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon

1 July 2011

On July 4th, 1885 Pall Mall Gazette editor W.T. Stead issued a “frank warning” to his readers. Due to public inattention, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill—an item of legislation drafted to suppress child prostitution and raise the age of consent in the United Kingdom from thirteen to sixteen—was once again languishing in the House of Commons. This could not be allowed to stand. The Gazette would be taking swift, decisive action to open the eyes of the public to the enormity of the crisis at hand, but it was not going to be pretty. “We have no desire to inflict upon unwilling eyes the ghastly story of the criminal developments of modern vice,” he wrote, “Therefore we say quite frankly to-day that all those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish, and all those who prefer to live in a fool’s paradise of imaginary innocence and purity, selfishly oblivious to the horrible realities which torment those whose lives are passed in the London Inferno, will do well not to read the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday and the three following days.”

What followed was the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon; a shocking, four-part exposé of child sex trafficking that sent London spiraling into moral panic. In spite of boycotts, harassment and threats of prosecution for obscenity, the Northumberland Street offices of the Gazette were literally besieged by eager newsboys and hungry runners desperate to obtain valuable new copies of the controversial paper. Meanwhile, Stead openly dared the authorities to press charges against him, threatening to subpoena almost half the Legislature to prove his allegations if such a case were brought to trial. The fiery reformer would not be silenced.

The report of a “secret commission,” the Maiden Tribute derived its title from the tribute that conquered Athens is said to have paid to King Minos: seven maidens and seven youths who were made to wander the Labyrinth of Daedalus, where they would inevitably encounter the deadly Minotaur. Truly, it was a terrible price to pay, and yet modern London was willingly offering up multitudes of its own maidens to meet their doom in the maze of brotheldom. “The maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable,” Stead wrote, “and none that go into the secret recesses of his lair return again.”

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The Rats of London

12 March 2011
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The rat who inhabited the sewers and basements of Victorian London was bigger, meaner, and generally better adapted to urban life than his predecessor. The brown rat, or Norway rat, arrived in England during the 18th century and quickly supplanted the native black rat; a smaller, arboreal species that was ill-equipped to stand up for itself. “The large grey rats,” wrote naturalist Charles Fothergill in 1813, “having superior bodily powers…would easily conquer and destroy their black opponents wherever they could be found, and whenever they met to dispute the title of possession or of sovereignty.”

Not only did the brown rat usurp his English counterpart, Fothergill writes, but he was also a bloodthirsty tyrant in his conduct toward his own species, and an all-around bad family man:

The male rat has an insatiable thirst for the blood of his own offspring; the female, being aware of this passion, hides her young in such secret places as she supposes likely to escape notice or discovery, till her progeny are old enough to venture forth and stand upon their own energies; but, notwithstanding this precaution, the male rat frequently discovers them, and destroys as many as he can; nor is the defence of the mother any very effectual protection, since she herself sometimes falls a victim to her temerity and her maternal tenderness.

Besides this propensity to the destruction of their own offspring, when other food fails them, rats hunt down and prey upon each other with the most ferocious and desperate avidity, inasmuch as it not unfrequently happens, in a colony of these destructive animals, that a single male of more than ordinary powers, after having overcome and devoured all competitors with the exception of a few females, reigns the sole bloody and much-dreaded tyrant over a considerable territory, dwelling by himself in some solitary hole, and never appearing abroad without spreading terror and dismay even amongst the females whose embraces he seeks.

Fothergill supposed that it was only an innate propensity for cannibalism and infanticide that prevented the brown rat population from exploding out of control and rendering “the whole surface of the earth…a barren and hideous waste…against which man himself would contend in vain.”

Clearly, this is something of an exaggeration, drawn from accounts of rats living under distressed conditions; as the inhabitants of London, rodent and otherwise, often did. Under ordinary circumstances the brown rat prefers cereals and grains to the viscera of his offspring, though he is also an accomplished predator, known to feed upon frogs and salamanders, spiders and insects, fish, mollusks, and even poultry. Under extraordinary circumstances, however, he is known to go too far: (more…)